Compassion for the Shame-Baby

Yesterday, at a child’s 4th birthday party with red, blue and yellow balloons floating on the ceiling, big slices of chocolate cake on plates, piles of presents and 14 rambunctious children chasing each other around the kitchen, the mother of the birthday boy asked me to hold her 8-month old baby girl. We played pat-a-cake and peekaboo, and I revelled in the innocence of this small gopher-cheeked human being.

In the midst of the noise and chaos, she struggled to stay awake. I rocked back and forth, hummed a tuneless melody in the comforting way that I used when my own children were small. She eventually succumbed to sleep as a puppy does, simply closing her heavy eyelids and drifting off into dreamland.

While I felt grateful for this opportunity to revisit the world of little kids, I couldn’t help but compare it to the self-compassion work I’m engaged in myself at the mature age of 66 years. Just a few days ago, I talked with a supportive friend, and I told her about one of my Shadow Selves, “Critical Carla” who yammers at me when I make mistakes. “You don’t measure up!” “You’re a failure!” When Carla speaks to me like that, I become anxious and stressed and I see only my flaws.

Intellectually, I understand the purpose of Carla’s tirades. She’s trying to motivate me by correcting me so I’m safe from the rejection and disconnection that I fear will come with disappointing others and myself. I don’t necessarily feel her protection. Instead, I feel hurt and defensive instead of determined to be my best self. Worst of all, I feel alone.

When I make big mistakes, Critical Carla’s reactions can wreck havoc in my life. When she compares me to others whose lives seem idyllic and perfect, when she castigates me for my disorganized housekeeping skills, my frustration with my husband, my inability to balance my cheque book, or any other behaviour in which I feel “not good enough,” I feel powerless to stop her until I listen carefully and acknowledge her reason for protecting me.

Until I become mindful, the innocent child inside me continues to feel ashamed. She is, as self-compassion researcher Kirsten Neff says, a “shame-baby.” This baby needs my compassion and comfort whether it is warmth and reassurance, rocking, or whispers that say, “You’re okay just the way you are.” She needs to feel safe with me, that she is not alone, and that all human beings have moments when they feel flawed and imperfect. I can put my hand over her heart or cup her face so she feels rest easy in my arms.

Thou Shalt Not…

Picture by Allan Lloyd, near Saanichton, Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Published with Permission.

 

One Thanksgiving about 20 years ago, after our little family devoured turkey with all the trimmings and then slices of pumpkin pie with whipped cream, my kids disappeared to watch TV or talk on the phone, my mother-in-law snoozed on the couch, and my husband and I took our dog, Annie, for a long walk.

As we marched along the street, I commented on the number of cars parked at the house next door and people coming and going with boxes and bags. I suddenly felt lonely and nostalgic for my mom and siblings. The word nostalgia still conjures up my yearnings for home. It’s not surprising that this word, which comes from the Greek, means homesick.

I’d spent many years away from the noise and busyness of my first family back on Vancouver Island, and every holiday for years, I felt sad rather than joyful. Even advertisements for long distance phone calling cards, especially the ones with grandparents and parents, children and teens laughing together under winking lights and festive candles, made me ache for the family gatherings of my childhood. I envied those who were connected and belonged. I felt that I did not.

Each time I rewrote and edited these Thou Shalt Nots, I wondered what lesson I was supposed to learn. Over time, I realized that the thoughts in these vignettes were what made me nostalgic. By writing about the loss of people and communities I had left behind so many times in my childhood, I was forgetting about the gifts of my transient childhood. I was choosing to be sad about things that were long past, things I couldn’t change.

The following Thou Shalt Nots came to me after our walk that day.

Thou shalt not covet holiday gatherings. Evening shadows cast by the setting sun creep across the yard and the prairie sky looks like a slice of peach pie topped by purple whipped cream. The spruce trees to the west are etched black against the fading light. Straggly vees of late-leaving geese warble overhead. The light from living room windows stitches a patchwork of yellow light on brown lawns. I peer into the living rooms of other people’s lives where families gather at festive tables or huddle in the flickering blue of TV football. I am like a little lost girl with her face pressed against the candy store window, the one who wishes for a taste of childhood Thanksgiving long since passed away.

Thou shalt not covet a place in the tribe. Leaves rattle across the pavement and autumn dust crunches under foot.  A crust of ice covers the puddles and the grass is coated with frost. I shiver. Some days, my heart seems frozen too, I feel restless and tossed about, rootless and ungrounded. I feel like an outsider in our community, even though I have lived here for more than 20 years. I envy the tribal roots others have.

Cinnamon coloured poplar hearts with jagged edges make a carpet under the trees as they have for hundreds of years. This leaf rot create food for next year’s growth and insulates roots from the winter cold. I love the wild woods close to our neighbourhood where aspen groves provide shelter for the young saplings, and as each one grows old, it feeds the life of the ones that come after. Deer, coyotes, porcupines and birds make their homes here. I wish I too could be a tree because they represent wisdom, growth and acceptance.

Along with yellowing pictures of my grandparents and little black and white photos of my parents on their wedding day, one of my favourites is of an old green cottage on Lake Mississippi in Ontario. I remember the few times we stayed at “The Elms” and what a delightful summer place it was. In particular, I remember my 8 year old self fishing for sunfish off the dock, wet footprints on gray weathered wood, the sound of loons and the reedy smell of lake shore. Inside, at night I felt comfortable and at peace under the handmade quilts my aunt made. My grandmother’s ashes are planted there among the elms. Those trees whisper to me now, telling me I do have a tribal place, a natural place where I do belong.

Thou shalt not covet history of place. On weekends, our daughter plays ringette. The local arena is filled with the sound of catcalls punctuated by whistle shrieks, voices floating in icy puffs, the swish of skate blades on artificial ice, and the slap of a rubber ring on the boards. I’m aware of the teenage boys at the snack bar, the ones in baggy pants, bleached hair spiked; tittering girls with glossed mouths and glittered hair; clutches of moms with coiffed grey hair, wearing leather jackets, carrying designer handbags, their wide buttocks in tight B.U.M. jeans. Ringette players like my daughter among them are groomed to curl and swoop, snowplow, deke, dart, wind up and let fly. I’m watching her easy manner with her team mates.

I wonder what it would be like to hang out with junior high school friends, see your grade 7 crush grow up and marry your best girlfriend from Brownies. What is it like to graduate from a local high school, get married at the church you were christened in, by the pastor who remembers you as the littlest angel from one Christmas long ago? What would you give to attend your own 25 year high school reunion and really understand the woven network of relationships in a small community?

My name was once scratched on a desk in a school. This was an act of disobedience and disrespect for property but it was also a lonely testament to classmates and community that I was there once, that I existed, evidence of my being aside from faded yearbook photos.

Thou shalt not covet a resting place. Along the bike path through the park are benches dedicated to community leaders. Across the river, I can see an old white church, its spire poking upward to the sky. I’ve been there, and marveled at the variety of people who are buried in the cemetery next to it. Memorial gravestones remember little children who died in an influenza outbreak in 1917, young men who give their lives in World War II and old couples married for 65 years, still together even in death.

I don’t remember cemeteries at the Army posts where I grew up. I don’t remember gravestones and resting places for weary foot soldiers heading to a final home. I once told my children to fling my ashes to the wind. This seems fitting for a woman who compares her soul to drifting mountain snow and seabirds floating on foamy whitecap waves. But now, I think my ashes could be planted beneath a tree so I can nurture it and feel the wind in my branches as it grows.

Thou shalt not covet writing by local authors. Writing is a time machine that allows me to accept and honour my past and see its relevance in my life now. The story of my family history, traditions, beliefs about community, and the emotions they stimulate, needs to be acknowledged and released. My story, both past and present, is unique to me and I will honour it.

I used to be afraid that Little Kathie would be lost without this childhood story of loss. I wanted to protect her so I continued to believe the myth of the separate Military Brat. It seemed so real at the time but after I wrote my Thou Shalt Nots, I felt less isolated, less alone, less crippled by my backward view.

Now I see that Little Kathie is intact and whole in the here and now. Her memories are in my writing and they are safe inside my adult heart.

 

Playing with Perspective

My first memory is of a tiny speckled bird shell. I remember wind blowing and dark earth. I cannot say where it was except that when I was three, we lived near Penhold, Alberta. I wrote a short story based on this momentary glimpse of innocence and wonder, and it brought back feelings about my parents, siblings, and summer picnics. Somewhere inside me, that curious child still lives.

I loved the outdoors back then. I was fascinated by caterpillars and feathers, dandelion seeds and ants. I loved to touch, smell, taste and observe the world around me. I noticed that round rocks roll and leaves fall down not up. In those days, at the playground, I tested my ability to climb, jump, swing and twirl. I developed physical strength, coordination and balance, as well as social skills, creative game playing, problem solving, confidence building, and a connection to people and place. At the time, I didn’t realize I was learning. It was all play to me.

What is your first memory?  Is it a small snippet without context? Writing about this memory in the present tense may bring up feelings about the experience. Feelings do not know the date and are just as powerful to your Child as they were when the feelings first arose.The gift of this approach to stories from childhood is described by Alice Miller in her book The Drama of the Gifted Child…”the experience of one’s own truth make it possible to return to one’s own world of feeling at an adult level – without paradise but with the ability to mourn. And this ability does give us back our vitality… awareness of old feelings is not deadly but liberating.”

Your story is unique because it is your perspective on events, a viewpoint that may be far from the factual truth but very accurate in terms of emotional and intellectual insight. Memory is unreliable because it comes to you as a reaction to a present event and manifests as a fleeting glimpse of a scene from childhood, an emotion such as fear or fun, an impression of a person, even a reaction to a smell. I recall tears welling up in my eyes once when I smelled pipe smoke. I turned toward the smell expecting to see my father smoking his corncob pipe even though he had passed away 30 years before. This is the power of memory.

Now, as I near “senior status” I’ve been visiting a new playground – the one in my imagination – where I can grow by playing with perspective. I’ve learned a great deal about my inner world by writing from my senses, feelings and especially, from my imagination. I can creatively capture a moment in a poem, a sentence, a story or vignette. I do not want to miss the miracles that occur every moment of every day, the way a Child perceives the world, free to explore and experience with the joyfulness of an open heart and mind.

I experienced this today when I stepped outside into cold winter air. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky. Chickadees hopped about in the spruce tree beside the deck. Snow glittered. As I write this now several hours later, I remember the feeling of cool air on my skin and the aliveness of the moment. I set aside my complaints about icy highways and wind chill factors and instead, choose to see the world with new eyes. This is the gift of your Inner Child.