Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Building for the future

Built in 1962, Seattle's Space Needle was intended to symbolize the future, and is apparently one of the most instantly recognizable structures in the world.

Most of the time I see the Needle from a distance -- usually from the ferry -- and it definitely sparks up the landscape, makes the Seattle skyline distinct much as the World Trade Towers once characterized New York City.

But I was driving to a rehearsal not long ago, drove up over a rise and stopped at a stoplight, looked up, and there it was, just looming over me. It was, as you can see, a lovely clear day, and if you look closely you can see the observation deck is lined with sight-seers looking out over the sound to the islands.

Shortly after we moved out to Seattle from Vermont -- some 20 years ago now -- my mother came up from Texas for an Alaska cruise, and part of her tour of Seattle before the cruise took her to the Space Needle. She was enchanted, and took many photos; she even blew one up, framed it, and gave it to us (talk about bringing coals to Newcastle!)

But that was my mom: most every gift I ever got from her was more about her than it was about me. It took years for me to learn to ask for what I wanted, because, as a child, I was told that was incredibly selfish of me.

I still remember the year my parents came to visit, and my mom gave me a birthday present. I opened the package to find a sleeveless mustard-colored silk shirt with fringe hanging from the collar. She admitted she had bought it for herself (she never tried things on in a store; she was too embarrassed as she was quite overweight) and brought it home to discover it was too small.

How she ever thought she would fit into a size 12 was beyond me, and I was a size 10 at the time, so not only was it a color and style I would never wear, but it was too large. I was in my early 40's by then, so I got up all my nerve and said I would prefer not to accept the gift, as it was not my style, size or color.

She didn't speak to me for three days after that, and I remember my younger daughter taking me aside at the time (she was probably about 4 years old) and saying, "Mommy, couldn't you just tell her you like it, even if you don't?"

"Honey, I've been doing that all my life and I'm tired of lying," I replied. The future of the relationship looked pretty grim at that point: as a therapist once explained, pleasing your parents is a matter of life and death for a very young child, and thus becomes a habit that's very hard to break. Years of tiptoeing around my mother had left both of us pretty damaged, with lots of old patterns that were hard to resist.

As Jack Kornfield says, sometimes "No!" is the most compassionate response, but it can take a lot of courage. The good news is that somehow we managed to reconcile before she returned to Texas, and future visits became progressively easier so that, by the time she died, I was able to be true to myself in her presence and she was able to love and respect me for that.

That's one of the challenging things about life: the structures and patterns we built long ago have a way of staying with us. And while most of the time they are just part of the scenery, occasionally they have a way of popping up, looming over us, and reminding us that we still have "stuff" we need to work on.

At times like that it takes a lot of courage and resolution to break out of the pattern, to be honest -- both with yourself and with others -- and to risk the pain that can come as a result. But we do survive, and ultimately the long term gain will be worth it.

Think of it as building for the future.

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