Friday, November 5, 2010

Ode to Praise

I thrive on praise; it got me started writing and thinking and studying, then thinking about doing that for a career: teaching. Not surprisingly, there are still a handful of teachers whose words stay with me; I recall them--words and teachers--when I can’t think of anything to write.

Mrs. Garver, my fifth grade teacher, assigned a Poetry Project, in which we had to gather published poems we liked and write some of our own, assembling it all into an illustrated booklet. I still have that booklet, peppered with my awful drawings. And when I look at it, I turn to the page where she wrote, Your poems are just as good as the published ones you’ve chosen.

In high school, Mrs. Myhr found out I wrote poems and pushed me to help edit the school’s literary journal. She thought my poems were the best of the bunch. I also had her for Honor’s English, and she told me my essays were pretty good, too.

In college, I took Professor Lon Otto for Creative Writing; I was fortunate enough to find him again in grad school, where I took a fiction writing class and worked with him on a poetry manuscript I was compiling. Once, when I was a Sophomore in college, he commented about a certain line in a poem, saying in a way that made me blush with pleasure: How did you think of that?

These days, for reasons unrelated to praise, I am not writing much. The reasons are unrelated to criticism, too, except that fiend self-criticism, which lives in a corner of my writing mind. I am not writing much because my mind is occupied with the other great creative endeavor of my life, parenthood.

Two of my grown children have drifted into the cultural pattern we now call “failure to launch.” One of them did so at my painful expense, living a life of irresponsibility at home: menial job, a limited physical and mental presence, drug and alcohol abuse. Forced into a corner, finally, when I attempted to enforce some standards of honesty, he fled. But not before turning on me in a literal rage, just inches away, his forceful breath making my eyelashes waver, threatening me and making his opinion known: he hates me. He doesn’t want to see me or talk to me. I believe he would add the word Ever.  If I had touched him that day, he would have struck me, I'm convinced, his anger so red hot it would have taken us both up in flames.

Friends, people who have more compassion now than I have for myself, who have had children or parents or family members who abused drugs, tell me he didn’t mean any of it. It was the addiction speaking, not him. They tell me to get some help. Some support. There are groups for people whose children struggle with addictions.

I know this to be true. I have even, recently, discovered that such a group meets just a mile or two from my house. But more than I’ve appreciated, thrived on, praise for my writing, I’ve craved it for my parenting. And praise is not the purview of support groups. I want to know—need to know?—that I did all right, overseeing the changing landscape that is our life as a family, now that it seems to be disintegrating. I seek the solace of being sure that for his growing, impressionable years, I offered him enough understanding, enough time, enough praise. That the goods in our relationship were good enough.

The situation is really worse than that. I can’t think of any praise to offer him now. I am still cringing from the intensity of his outburst, his fury. But even without considering that final push over the edge into what I think of as the madness of substance abuse, there is not much that is deserving of praise in his life.

There. I said it. He doesn’t deserve praise. Toward the end of summer, when he was nearing what I didn't realize was his breaking point, he asked, Why don’t you ever support me? Why are you always criticizing everything I do? We were standing in the kitchen and he was all movement—dashing in, grabbing a sandwich and a handful of chips while his cohort of friends waited in the entryway. He was already moving toward the front door as he spoke. He hadn’t been home for several days at that point, and judging from his tone, I expected that pattern to continue.

Still, my initial impulse was to apologize; I know how painful it is to seek approval—love—and not get it. I didn’t say anything that day; I stalled. He was striding away from me. And I didn’t know what to say. It was true. He had caught me. I couldn’t support excessive drinking with the cadre of underage friends who follow him everywhere; I couldn’t support his dating a 16 year old girl when he was 21; I couldn’t support disappearing for days with no word and then charging in with accusations; I couldn’t support his implied threats and gunpowder temper, his hair-trigger response to the smallest of stimuli, including other drivers with the audacity to drive slower than he wanted to.

But perhaps my silence was all the response he needed. Perhaps that was a last straw for him, his foggy perceptions of things clarified for an instant when he could identify me as heartless. Uncaring. Deserving of his scorn.

Alcoholics have a knack for diverting attention from their behavior onto the perceived faults of others. I once got a birthday card from my father that said, Since you haven’t bothered to write, I am sending you this card. Intellectually, I know the irrationality of that. I saw it that day in the kitchen, too. But the mind doesn’t consort with mere facts. I have not been able to shake the feeling of it: underneath my skin, in the slow crawl that is my blood making its way to my heart, I am ashamed. I wake and sleep to the constant rhythm: I. Should. Have. Done. Something.

Defining the truth in words can be slippery. Actions can be misconstrued, too, but I let him walk out the door with no assurance that I loved him, that he was still my son, even if he was hurting himself, damaging our family. I needn’t have lied or defended myself; but I could have touched his arm, hugged him, looked him in the eyes.

I did none of that, so now I seek to drive out the specter of guilt that nestles just below my ribcage. Maybe I couldn’t have praised him that day. But there can be no praise for me, either, missing the cue of his need.

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