The One Thing You Forgot

An open letter to my mother

Because I have heard it so many times, all times come to me at once when I remember. Because you have said it before, each moment is composited onto the last until you are a kaleidoscopic image. You are years of everything and nothing; you are wearing something and nothing; I cannot tell if you are here; I cannot tell if your face is real. You are aged and young, high and sober, pious and agnostic, violent and subdued, loving and distant. I am a boy and I hear the words clearly from your many, and nil, lips.

“Just be yourself.”

There is a pause from your mouths. They shift, and the corners of fragmented brown phase in and out of my memory’s focus. No more words follow. I am transported to the world. I want things. I want friends. I want a community to acknowledge me and look for where I am. I want romance, a job. I remember, “be yourself.” The direction floats in my mind. The direction.

I had no reason to doubt you. Like many parents possessing humble means and few options to elevate above them, there is a particular pride in providing the modern upkeep of their children. Despite an incomplete education you worked more than one job – extra hours, late nights – to make ends meet. And for that, the presents I wanted most were always under the tree, hunger was non-existent on my table and a place to stay was never in doubt. While I could never quite make it to the “cool crowd” with my fashion options, because of your diligence I managed to avoid the harshest scrutiny at lunch tables full of the haves, whose parents had given them more; as I was later to learn or see first-hand for myself when I went to their homes, this was at the expense of the essentials that I had in abundance. My clothing was further supplemented by the hand-me-downs of my elder sisters, whose tomboy phase was a welcome boon. This demonstration of investment earned from me a trust in those words

“Be Yourself.”

The way was uphill. Rejection, ridicule, enemies, heartache. Too much of not enough. Too tall, teeth stick out too much, too clumsy, or too awkward; too slow to distance from childhood and much, much too slow to enter the elite world of the false prophet – the youth with the explicit experiences of an adult.

Be Yourself

became sailing in a ship with a hull made of paper on an ocean full of icebergs in the dead of night, no stars, no compass.

Be Yourself

became Adjustment. Stoop when you walk. Make jokes instead of speak up. Pretend to know when you don’t. Disappear when the eyes, those eyes of judgment rest on you. Adjustment quickly became the replacement to that direction you gave to me. However, I learned, to my increasing pain that the Standard of society, ever in flux and shaped to fit the needs of our ideals which are built on a monetized sinkhole, has bills to pay, and “Myself” does not keep the lights on and so you either adjust or be swept out to sea in its riptide. Your direction became rhetoric that brought me nothing but suffering while Adjustment prepared me for the real world, for the jobs I got, the friends I acquired, the position where Standard’s roving eye passed over me in search of those lacking its acceptable criteria.

Myself, in a state of arrested development, shuffled off stage left and was replaced with Adjustment’s proxies; paralyzing discernment, quiet intellectual arrogance, a practiced, passive-aggressive sex appeal. The rewards grew; lovers, jobs, friends. Incrementally, the disquiet and resentment from Myself, its spindly arms just out of focus in pictures, a little boy hiding behind the table legs of the kitchen or with his nose in books – the only time when he really had the freedom to stretch his legs – began to multiply. I put Adjustment to the side whenever I was alone and sought out Myself like a parvenu seeks the old friends left behind, but he wouldn’t listen. He was just too angry, because he knew something that I did not know at the time. He had been pushed aside for hollow gold and could do nothing about it.

The reasons to justify an identity that tipped whichever way societal standards bade began to recede; none of my jobs were fulfilling; my displaced self-image could not sustain the friendships I made; all my love affairs and relationships were one-sided because eventually someone quit playing the game of negotiated commitment and saw possibility in something real. It was never me. I was too busy carrying the weight, the weight Myself left me to bear alone while it languished in the dark. It wasn’t until my last falling out with a true friend that my knees buckled and the weight squashed me.

I did not die a full death. I went to purgatory, the place in the mind where one goes when he has reached his nadir and contemplates taking the last, lowest step into oblivion. And there, I listened to my suffering for the first time; I did not have the strength to adjust any more. Behind me was a young boy, impossibly thin and disheveled with round, aged eyes and shabby clothing. I recognized Myself. He looked into my eyes in silence, reading me and my failures plainly.  “I could have helped,” Myself said after a while. I did not answer. I did not have to. “It would have taken longer, but you would have arrived on time. Being yourself is no skeleton key. It does not ensure that you get what you want. Being yourself is, was, never about that. Being yourself does not unlock every door put before you. It does not get you everything you want…no, boy, being yourself is a karmic lodestone that ensures you attract everything that is meant for you as the person you are then, and nothing that is not. Doors will close and paths will hide themselves from you. Suns may give you no warmth, moons will not light your way at night. But there will always be the way that you choose when you choose it. Because you choose it, it will be there.”

I reflected on your kaleidoscope face, your moving lips, and strained to remember if you had said something more than

“Be yourself.”

The final component that completes a child’s separation from the world of a child – in their own eyes – is when their parents disappoint them. Disappointment in you flowered. Direction with no instructions? Why? Did you not know what that meant? Was this a communal rite of passage that you were instructed to pass down? Is this how your mother educated you on the subject that, clearly from my mistakes, you did not study well? Did you not know what you were doing? Is that why there was such a narrow focus on the body and nothing for the mind? Was that all you knew to do? The Christmas tree, the Thanksgivings, the Easter outfits, the roof over my head turned to pale, meaningless gestures against the backdrop of my suffering. My ascent from purgatory did not bode good tidings for you.

There is no passage of time in that place; the real world did not stop. I still went to work. I still maintained my friendships. I still went on dates, made love, visited family and did all the other things that were important to me, or I told myself through habit was important to me. When I reached the entrance and stepped into the light, years had passed. I was a man. The sunlight was harsh in my eyes and my disappointment was still there.

“Be yourself.”

I used the echoes of that incomplete wisdom as your bookmark and I returned to that place time and again. Each time you opened your mouth, I knew better than you did.

Our relationship suffered as I did, and the chasm between us grew.   Later conversations with Myself – when I listened – informed me that you, my mother, didn’t tell me not because you didn’t know, but because you weren’t supposed to. That was a job for Myself. You guarded my body as best you could with what you had as the person you were, and that in of itself is a full quota. I am alive.

Adjustment is now my enemy. It has served too long in the capacity as captain of my self-image and has now been dishonorably discharged. That emaciated boy in the shadows, now an adolescent has gained weight in the sunlight. The sharp edges of his cheeks are rounder now. The dull abandoned pools that were once his eyes have now the twinkle of promise there, in time. The scars of neglect are slowly being replaced with the wear of experience. Regret is a display of pious arrogance, a pseudo talent of the well-meaning who collapse this with action in order to moderate the pain of those they, including themselves, hurt. And still, I wish I could go back in time and tell Myself, in a hidden letter for him to find at his lowest point, before he descended to Purgatory, or perhaps whisper to that seven year-old child as he slept, that to be Myself would mean a longer journey, but guarantee a timely arrival. I would never forget it, and strive for the advancement of personal achievement, in of itself a motivator, to increase the power of attraction. I would shun the concept of the ephemeral hall pass to approach the stalls of inclusion, where each visit demands higher tithes of conformity. I would be free to

be Myself

because I chose. You, my kaleidoscope mother, are frozen in time and I know you cannot hear me when I say I love you and smile. Something in you, a fragment of the edges that make up your lovely, aged/ageless face falls into my hand. I will never forget your wisdom. Never again.

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