Here we are, at the holidays. Generally a time of forced-celebration-meets-regression-into-childhood-dramas.
This year does not feel like holidays-as-usual. We’re being confronted with a psychosis-inducing election; a pandemic terrifyingly similar to the Spanish Flu; racial injustice so acute that even the most woke are doubting themselves. Some of us will not be with family, which is either a relief from getting triggered by Uncle Bob’s political rantings or a deep sorrow as time sails by without being in the same physical space as those who helped make us who we are today. For those who have been quarantining together, it may feel like a little too much togetherness.
That sounds like a lot of negatives. But what if something else is happening here, or potentially happening. What if the space that the pandemic is requiring affords us an opportunity—to understand the people closest to us in a more intimate and profound way? What if the new ways of connecting—video chats, perhaps more frequent check-ins to see if all is well—are a chance to strengthen our bonds?
That happened to me, in the most unlikely way.
Let me back up to March. At Unlikely Collaborators we’d been gearing up to test a suite of in-person workshops when the pandemic hit. We quickly regrouped, creating weekly zoom gatherings to check in with our small but developing community. It was meant to be a temporary fix… come together, meditate, and explore what the world-wide insanity was triggering inside us … we thought we’d return to “normal” in a few months.
The months went by. We discovered a lot in those months.
The first thing that amazed us was how eager people were to connect. Total strangers from a wild array of backgrounds and time zones were almost immediately sharing as if they’d been friends in the trenches together since childhood. Working through their greatest fears and anxieties, together.
And then this one very unique collaborator started showing up. And she hasn’t stopped showing up.
To be clear, my role on these calls is to help people self-investigate, discover hidden blocks and connect to their power. My mom was not there for any of those reasons. She would show up basically as an auditor so she could explain to her friends what I do for a living. She’d sit through hour-long workshops where other participants were “discovering the gold in their pain” and just stare at the screen.
“Mom,” I’d say while the group was busy writing. “Why aren’t you doing the work?”
“Because I’m looking at you.”
Toward the end of one workshop, she unmuted herself and said, “You know what? I’m too old for self-introspection. I happen to like my perception box.”
Everyone laughed, because they were all there to dismantle theirs.
And then, out of nowhere, she starts participating. And SHARING. At first it was just meta commentary on how messed up the world is and how she’d been there, done that. But then she starts asking people questions. Personal questions, which her own conditioning had disallowed in the past, lest such “intrusiveness” make anyone uncomfortable.
At the end of one call she said, “I don’t know how it happened, but I feel like I know all 40 of you personally. You’re artists and cops and lawyers and retired people and some look too young to have a job, but you’re all absolutely fascinating. You’ve got me thinking about things I haven’t thought about in decades. Half the time it makes my skin crawl. But I keep coming back.”
Off-line, she asks me things she’s never asked before. Things about me.
“Your 20s, E-Beth. You had so many of those distortions …what do you call them?”
“You weren’t good enough at this, weren’t good enough at that. I mean, here you are, a smart, beautiful young woman who literally turned heads and you dressed like a vagabond.”
“You’d lock yourself in your apartment slaving over God knows what—I’m not sure even God knew. What should have been the prime of your life and I saw absolutely no joy. No fun. What was going on with you?”
“I was confused. I thought you had to earn things like joy and fun.”
“I don’t know where you got that idea. Look around—plenty of stupid people having fun!”
I felt her asking, Is it my fault? Did I parent in a way that led you to believe that?
“I don’t know either, Mom. At a really young age I just sensed the imbalance in the world. I saw how much we had that others didn’t, and more, I felt how angry it made people. So I just made a decision, Okay, I’ll make it fair. I don’t get joy until I’ve earned it.”
“I hope you’re over that one.”
“I have my days.”
“Because for a parent, to have the thing they love most in the world be that miserable, and for no reason whatsoever that I could understand…” She paused. “I don’t think I’ve ever felt so helpless. It’s still with me, that horrible feeling.”
My heart ached to console her. Instead, we sat together in silence, because as much as she didn’t like it, I knew it was time for her to feel her feelings too.
“You’ve come to nearly every Thursday Unlikely experience since April,” I said on a recent call. “Has anything been revealed to you?”
“I like that guy Thor.”
“I wonder why…” she started slowly. “Why is it necessary for me to constantly make fun of myself?”
“What do you think?”
“Because people expect me to be a stuffy, tight-ass rich bitch. And when I’m not, it disarms them. And I like that.”
[really long pause]
“Because I feel like I haven’t lived up to my potential if I can’t make the saddest person in the room smile.”
This surprised me. I’ve known my mom my whole life, obviously. And never once did I think that this might be what drove her—making the saddest person in the room smile.
“Your sessions have taught me a lot,” she continued. “Covid has taught me a lot. It’s really clarified what I care about.”
“In what sense?”
“You know I love my baubles and things. I have a hundred pair of shoes. I love tennis and running around with my hair on fire, what’s left of it. But all that stuff—it’s just how I kill time. How I make the darkness go away. What I really care about is one thing and one thing only: Family.”
“The message to me is so obvious now: Don’t waste time. Don’t take each other for granted. It could all be over in a single fucked up instant.”
She’s right. Intimacy is not something that happens accidentally. It has to be actively cultivated. Like with my mom and me, her simple curiosity to understand what I’m doing with my life led her to be curious about others in the workshop, which led her to be curious about herself. To ask herself hard questions, like, “Why do I refuse to take myself seriously?” and feel the cost of that. Where our conversations before Covid were mainly about imparting information, they now begin with us saying the things that previously might have gone unsaid—asking questions around points of confusion or hurt, and no matter what the answer is, being willing to hear and value the response.
In other words, we are now recognizing one another outside the walls of our Perception Boxes.
This is something we all can do. And for all of us, it’s a practice. Most of us aren’t in a habit of sharing with loved ones what we’ve learned from one another, what might have been difficult in the past, and what we wouldn’t change for anything. But by attending to our primary relationships in this way, we are attending to ALL of our relationships. We are building a habit of listening for where the other person is coming from, rather than trying to push across where we are coming from.
Let’s use this unlikely time to return our attention to what holidays are supposed to be about: strengthening the bond of our relationships.
In truth, relationships aren’t just what holidays are about. They’re what life is about.
This is something I still struggle with, putting relationships first. But that’s another post.