Wednesday, April 23, 2014

over the river and through the woods

So I was watching the Oprah Winfrey Network on Easter morning. Super Soul Sunday. I tuned in because one of my favorite spiritual teachers, Adyashanti, was going to be on. Oprah's a guilty pleasure for me somehow, but in a virtuous way, like a bag of baked chips. She's so uncool but I'll be damned if I miss an issue of her magazine, and while I never watched her show religiously, I always popped in for things like Tom Cruise jumping on the couch. Event Oprah. And Adyashanti is a huge box office star in my own little firmament, so the boys got sent outside to ride their scooters so Mama could concentrate on the goods. 

Oprah and Adyashanti sat outside under some trees in what looked to be some morning sunshine. I sat inside with my cup of coffee, with the sun streaming around the curtains. We had a nice vibe going, the three of us.

Adyashanti talked about how families carry a kind of signature energy down through the generations. Like there's a spice, a flavor there, a family brand. And he said that usually there's some kind of negative charge that's the most binding thing in that family recipe. I mean, no, he didn't say that, not in those words. He said something else. But that's the gist. And he described an exercise you can do where you set up two chairs across from each other, sit in one of them, and let some kind of bummer feeling arise, something associated with your family. Once you have a hold of it, you flash on the face of the family member that feels associated with the bad feeling. Whoever comes up, you just go with it. And then when you've got the feeling and the person, you get up and sit in the other chair with the intention of leaving that particular bad feeling from your family behind. You leave it in the first chair and then from the other chair, you bless it and set it free. That's apparently the key step. If you don't bless it, you're stuck with it, so you'd better bless that shit if you want it to fly away and leave you in peace. 

"Takes five minutes," said Adyashanti. 

"And it's really powerful," breathed Oprah.

Well, hell, I thought. I have five minutes. I have a family feeling or two I wouldn't mind setting free. So I jotted down the steps and planned to do it sometime. Then I sat down yesterday afternoon to start writing this post, and before I even got started I was like, fuck it. Let's set up those chairs. And I pulled the two white wing-backs in our bedroom across from each other and went for it. 

I'll tell you what happened, but first I have to tell you about Granny. Get comfy because she was a piece of work. It's going to take a minute to conjure her.

Before my family moved to Seattle in 1978, we lived in Port Chester, New York. And right next door to us lived my grandmother, Dora. Granny. My grandfather lived there, too, but he died before I turned three, and that left Granny as sole operating grandparent. I had a grandmother in Finland whom I never saw, foggily holding up the other end, but Granny was the only flesh-and-blood grandpresence.

It could have been great, living next door to my grandmother. And considering who she was, it should have been straight-up magical. Granny was a famous clairvoyant and healer, packed with stories like a supernatural piñata. She wrote a book when she was nineteen called The Real World of Fairies (which is still in print) and another book about the chakras and another book about the aura, and a couple more as well. She could see and communicate with ghosts, angels, tree spirits, you name it. I'm not going to give you her whole history here, but it was juicy. She grew up on a sugar plantation in Indonesia and then left her family and moved to Australia when she was eleven to train her clairvoyance with a man named C.W. Leadbeater. (They're in the picture up top. Dora's on the right.) At fifteen she was relaying messages from soldiers who had died at Gallipoli to their families. At nineteen she was thrown from a horse, broke her back and moved to Hollywood (not for showbiz reasons—Hollywood was still a sleepy little community back in the early '20s, and that wasn't her thing), and there she lived next door to Dr. Seuss and down the street from Gloria Swanson. Later, with my grandfather, she bounced around with people like Henry Miller and Beatrice Wood and Salvador Dali (watch your feet: so many falling names....I think you're safe now), and traveled all over, lecturing and teaching for the Theosophical Society. Eventually she was the president of the Theosophical Society in the U.S., which in our crowd made her some kind of great Dowager Empress. 

To get to her house, you could either walk around the front and head down their long driveway, or you could go in the back yard, hop over the brook and walk through the woods. On paper, this is an amazing setup. You prance through the trees into the arms of your adoring grandmother who is also this sort of powerful sorceress, and she scoops you on to her lap and feeds you cookies and describes all the fairies sprinkled around the garden, and the tree spirits in the woods, and tells you stories about all the artists and movie stars she met, and how sad the ghosts were in Australia, and what they wanted to tell their families.

Nope. That was not the scene at all. That is not how it went down.

Granny didn't like me, right from the beginning. And I didn't like her, either. Apparently she held me for a second after I was born and passed me back with disinterest to my mom, saying, "She's going to be mama's girl." And that was probably our second-best interaction from my childhood. Once when I was five we were playing on this big flat rock between our houses which we christened The Monkey Rock. Granny and David and I were pretending to be monkeys. We were peeling sticks like they were bananas and waving them around and hooting. She was including me in the game, smiling at me and everything. I could barely believe it. Normally she didn't register my presence unless she had to. But that day she was giving it up for me. I gaped at her and waved my stick-banana, incredulous, soaking up the good vibes while they hovered in front of me. That was our best one. But our usual configuration was in opposition to each other. When my friends talked about their squishy, loving Grandmas and Nanas who snuggled them and spoiled them and made them cocoa, I seethed with envy.

She was mean, is the thing. She wasn't soft. She was scratchy and harsh and disdainful, except with my brother, whom she doted on. I didn't know why she was like she was, I never really knew why, I still don't know why. She was super-developed in some exciting ways, and completely raw and inedible in others. She's the biggest mystery I have. 

I don't know how I'm going to wrestle her to the page here for you. This is a blog post, not a book. I'm going to have to do a fly-by to get you on board a little bit, so you'll know who was with me in that chair yesterday.

Fuck it. I'm going to try and cram her into a meme. 

25 Things About Dora

1.   Granny had a laugh like a crow, harsh and barking, and though she laughed all the time, it wasn't generally because something was funny. Her laugh was a weapon, a tool to reestablish her high status, which always had to be the highest in the room.

2.   Granny could see auras, and they weren't just meaningless blobs of pretty colors. Your whole résumé was coded in there for her to check out. If you thought of somebody enough, that person's face could be hanging in there for her to see. She could see things about your character, your abilities, your fears, your health. It was unnerving. 

3.   This is a conversation I just had with my mom ten minutes ago. 

Me: I'm going to write about Granny today.
My mom: May God help you.

4.    Granny looked down on fat people, particularly fat women. 

5.    Granny loved men, and she loved doctors. If you were a male doctor: jackpot! She showered you with attention. I don't know if I'd call it flirting, because that implies a vibe that wasn't exactly in her wheelhouse, but it was as close as she came.

6.    If you were not an impressive person of education and position, she was not into you. Unless you were a sick person. Then you were relevant. 

7.    Granny was a looker in her day, and had great legs she was vain about until she died at 95.

8.    Granny devoted years of her life to doing energy healing work, and she treated thousands of patients for free, trying to ease their suffering. Cancer patients, AIDS patients, dying children. She had them over to her apartment and they'd sit on a chair and she'd stand behind them with her hands on their shoulders, cracking jokes and gazing occasionally into the distance, checking something out clairvoyantly. Her bedside manner was brisk and cheerful and fun. Soft, no, but the act itself was the softness. 

9.   Granny loved to argue. She'd call out to my brother, laughing, "Daaaaaaavid! I want to argue with you!" And they would giggle and argue and kick each other, for fun, for sport. 

10.  There's an apocryphal story about Dora wherein she was walking down the street one day in New York City when her slip fell around her ankles. The story goes that she just stepped out of it and kept walking, which sounds pretty legit to me. For years I thought that it was her underpants that fell off, and I was disappointed when I found out it was just a slip. Underpants would have been both more embarrassing and more badass.

11.   Granny walked two miles a day until the last few months of her life.

12.  Granny hated bananas but she'd eat one every day for the potassium, grumbling, "It is my duty."

13.   My mom once asked my grandmother why she was so cruel to my father—because she was—and her response was, "Well, his father loved him." Like, hey. At least he had one of us. 

14.   Once when I was nine I saw Granny without her dentures in, and it was a revelation, like seeing a tiger that stalks you all day transformed into a rag doll. She looked weak and mushy. I wanted her to stay like that.

15.   Granny learned to meditate when she was four. If you didn't meditate, you weren't a serious person.

16.   She never had a female friend to confide in. 

17.   But people contacted her day and night to talk to her about their problems. Living people, dead people. Needy beings hounded her constantly. She was a guru to many but a regular frail person with her own problems to basically nobody. People leaned on her, and once my grandfather died, she didn't have anywhere to lean herself.

18.   Before she married my grandfather, she was in love with a handsome young man named Oskar, but it didn't pan out, and that was a big loss. She got her heart broken at the same time as her back.

19.   She ate a lot of tahini. A lot. So much fucking tahini. Tahini all the damn time. 

20.   Her full name was Theodora Sophia, which means "divine gift of wisdom".

21.   She spoke in a thick Dutch accent with heavily rolling Rs, and Ws that sounded like Vs, e.g. "I am a verrrrrry old lady" and "I am a prrrrractical girl" and "Vhere da hell is da mail?" 

22.   Her mother was clairvoyant, and so was her grandmother, and her great-grandmother, and so on.

23.   Her guilty pleasure was reading romance novels.

24.   She was a mother, but she wasn't cut out for the job. My dad was something she just had to figure out how to deal with somehow.

25.   When she was a little girl in Indonesia, she used to bury her dolls outside. They didn't have auras, so they were obviously dead.

Okay, back to those chairs. Back to Adyashanti's exercise. 

I sat down with the plan to do a Granny feeling. I thought about it, and the feeling that came up was the one where I was afraid to speak when she came into the room. It was a kind of flinchiness, an expectation of being laughed at, or snapped at, or put down if I said the wrong thing. Flinchy self-censorship. So I was ready. I had the feeling and the person. 

I got up from the chair with the intention to leave that behind me. Granny could keep it, or however it was supposed to work. I think I wasn't totally clear on the procedure. But I sat down in the second chair, facing the chair where I'd left Granny and the feeling. I went to bless the feeling, and bless her, and send them on their way. 

I couldn't do it. I just couldn't. I didn't want to. It felt jive, somehow. I had a contracted feeling in my stomach, and I imagined Granny in that other chair rolling her eyes, and I could hear that laugh and her voice saying something like "Keep your stupid blessing, sveetie, I don't need it." And I got testy, like, Well, I don't want to fucking give it to you anyway. You can't have it. 

And I got up. It was a wash. I guess I'm stuck with her for a while. 

P.S. We had some good moments, Granny and I. I want to say that for the record. We had a real winner, even, at the very end of her life. No big professions of love, but there was a show of mutual regard, even respect. Story for another day. But I don't know what it all adds up to. I don't know what I ended up with. I roll with an afterlife story, thanks to her, and I don't know what I've got out there now: friend, or foe, or neither, or what. Ambivalence, it turns out, is hard to kill.


Exactically said...

This is the best thing I've read for some time. You paint quite a picture and if you turned this into a book I would buy it immediately. Thanks.

BDGarp said...

Love this!

Teresa D. Lee said...

This is delightful, horrifying, and delightfully horrifying. I see some things to admire in your grandmother and many many more to be wary of. Thank you for the Sophia of Wisdom story. Now I know what to watch out for!

Unknown said...

Wonderful as always. Keep 'em coming!

Cheryl in Wisconsin said...

Captivating. Thank you for the gift of this story.

(I just expanded my cable package in January and now get OWN - so I've discovered the Super Soul Sundays recently. I wish there were more television programs as relevant as that.)

Sunni said...

I hope you do write a book. Your grandmother is fascinating. I wonder if you couldn't release the feeling and do the blessing because you would need to know what you got out of that feeling. That sounds opportunistic maybe but I've done an exercise like this before and the key was to become clear about what the gift of that feeling was to me. Did her treatment of you lead to a particular strength that you have now or allow you to avoid learning a particular lesson at a later point in your life? (for ex. My dad doing lots of drugs when I was a child allowed me to see that I didn't need to try any of them.) I also think that to release it and bless it you would absolutely have to be in your adult self and not in that child self that was afraid of being laughed at by your grandmother. Anyway, great stuff! Thanks for writing it.

Tina Rowley said...

Thank you so much, all. (And Sunni, that sounds very likely to me. It's well worth thinking about.)

Cindy Marlow said...

Found this post from a link on the Bloggess. Best thing I've done all day.

Samantha Agar said...

I love this. You should totally turn this into a short story. What a good way to get a little revenge...and if she's so clairvoyant, she will read it and not be able to do anything about it! Ha.

Unknown said...

What a firecracker! Amazing the power people have over us -- even when they're gone! Loved this post!

Anonymous said...

There's a similar therapeutic technique that gestalt therapists use called "Empty Chair." It's pretty powerful and might be more useful if you want to confront rather than bless someone. You can either play both parts (grandmother and self) switching chairs as you switch identities, or put the person in the other chair and just say what you need to say to them.

Anonymous said...

Number 24. Yup, my mother. Loved this!!!

Pam Up North said...

Did the clairvoyant gene get passed on? I loved this story because the only grandmother I had was also not warm and fuzzy. At 4'10", she was basically hell on wheels...and she doted only on my oldest brother. When she entered a room, we scattered.

Melissa said...

I came to this blog on a whim, from the Bloggess. I have to comment on your point #10, regarding your grandmother (may she rest in peace).
My grandmother just passed away this January, at 83. I loved her, but she was similarly tough as nails. While my sisters and I grew up in California, she was a New Jersey native, and lived very close to NYC. When we asked about New York City, one story was her favorite:
She was a child, the first time she went to New York City. She was amazed by how grand it was, and alive, and bustling. She had only seen the suburbs of New Jersey at the time, and she was practically star struck with the city. But the one thing she saw that made the deepest impression was a lovely New York woman, who was crossing the street. As she crossed, something happened with her clothes - my grandmother later guessed that the elastic in her underwear snapped - and this stylish woman's undergarments fell around her ankles. "Without even looking down," my grandmother remarked, "she just stepped right out of them and kept walking. I was just amazed. That's how I knew New York City wasn't a place you messed around in."
Was it your grandmother? Who knows. But I would love to imagine it was.

eveapple said...

Brilliant, just brilliant! I found you through the Bloggess and am so, so glad I did.

Tina Rowley said...

What a surprise treat, finding this post linked from The Bloggess. God love you, Jenny Lawson! And thanks so much, folks, and welcome.

Pam, I'm going to talk about that a little in tomorrow's post (5/28), but the answer is yes, to some degree, sort of. And oh, those intimidating grandmothers!

Melissa, ha! That's delightful. I'm going to decide that was my grandmother and your grandmother that day, because hurray.

So glad you've all stopped by, and your comments are much appreciated.

Julie said...

Wow. This... wow. I am pretty sure my grandmother was much older than yours and I believe she was pretty tough too. I have come to think that she had to be. I don't really know when my grandfather died, but it was before I was born, and I don't really know if my grandmother raised her 4 children alone, I think according to her she did. I guess if she did, she had to be tough, I imagine it wasn't easy in the 20's/30's to do so. Not to mention the times they went through. Anyway, I came over via the bloggess as well. I think I shall be poking around a bit if you don't mind!

Tina Rowley said...

Raising four kids alone, hell's bells. I'm raising two with my husband and that feels like plenty, so your grandmother will have been a tough nut for certain. Hats off. And by all means! Poke around everywhere you like. :)

mossum said...

In the movie of your life, she will need to be played by Cloris Leavhman. (Reference her character in Malcolm in The Middle.)

Anonymous said...

And I agree with mossum - Cloris Leavhman - as Malcom's grandmother and as Frau Blucher in Young Frankenstein.

And I had a mean grandmother too. She was Basque. And I understand she was a softie compared to her parents (yikes).

RebelAngel said...

I wonder if she didn't care as much for your father because she had been wanting a daughter. You mentioned the "gift" running through her maternal line.

Also, I find it interesting that she held you and said you'd be a mama's girl, then always treated you in a way that would ensure just that. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

Sorry to dabble in armchair psychology on people I don't know. I find the story fascinating. And appreciate all the more the loving grandmas I had.

Anonymous said...

Sounds a lot like my fathers' mother, except without the mystical coolness. Just a selfish, bitter, harsh woman who never approved of me or my mother.