Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Rose By Any Other Name...

...is a peony. Starting to paint again is causing memories to surface, of friends I had in art school. Wilson was Chinese, and hated cliches: one could never get away with even one cliche when he was around; he'd finish your sentence with something unexpected.  The resulting laughter would cause a complete loss of one's train of thought.

He went through a period of driving us all bonkers, when, in trying to improve his English, he'd choose one word to use in conversation many times in a day, so as to fix the meaning firmly into his memory.

One might hear everything from, "I think ham and cheese fraternize well in a sandwich, so that's what I'm having." to "I don't think those colors fraternize properly; you need more contrast in that area of the canvas."

I adored Wilson, he had a dry sense of humour I found hysterical. I can't recall how it came about, but his pet name for me was "Grandma." (There must have been all of about 4 years difference in our ages.)

It seemed to irritate one of our instructors that Wilson had no interest in painting in an Oriental style, and he would go on and on about "being open to one's heritage" and "China being a land of mystery." After hearing this implied criticism enough times, Wilson turned from his easel, brush in one hand, palette in the other, and asked the teacher how much mystery was possible when a person had 900 million neighbours?

To give him credit, after a moment of shocked silence, the teacher burst out laughing, and later apologised to Wilson for singling him out that way. (After all, he didn't follow me around blathering about being open to my Scottish heritage, now, did he?)

I will always be grateful to Wilson for two things he said to me over the course of our friendship, both of them pertaining to my adoptive mother.

One comment was made when I was talking to him about a lunch I'd had with her. I'd dressed carefully, picked a restaurant I hoped she'd like, and treated her to lunch, trying so hard to please this woman who had spent the ten years I'd lived in her home, finding ever more inventive ways to beat the daylights out of me - a wierd facet of  of human behavior, that we still want to please our abuser. This was before Al-Anon, and I'd internalised the messages of being "no good" that I'd heard so often from her. Lunch was a disaster: she criticised, attacked, shamed, guilted - nothing new. (From this vantage point, I look back and feel empathy for the young woman I was then - I truly believed that if I just tried hard enough, I could find a way to be accepted and loved by my abuser.)

I had been describing her behavior to Wilson, and trying to make sense of it, because I knew I hadn't done anything to provoke her, except perhaps exist. I was asking him why would she be so mean to me, and he said softly, "Grandma, I don't know why, all I know is, happy people don't behave that way."

I clung to that thought, not because I liked the idea of her being unhappy, but because it made her behavior more about her, and less about me. It made it possible to let go of some of the shame and guilt I carried around. Prior to that, I'd gone along not questioning whether I was the rotten person that she had convinced me I was, because otherwise, she wouldn't need to pound on me the way she did. In such a way do children try to make sense of an adult world.

I went on to talk to him about how painful it had been to try so hard, and get nothing but more of the same nasty crap I'd always received from her. And that's when he asked what would turn out to be a pivotal question. He asked me, "Why are you still trying to get love from someone who can't, or won't, give it to you?"

Before that conversation, I was still so enmeshed in the abusive relationship, it hadn't ever dawned on me that no matter how hard I tried, regardless of the number of hoops through which I flung myself, she was never going to love, or even like, me.
I could sentence myself to a lifetime of trying to attain the unattainable, or I could let it go. Wilson knew from personal experience what it was like, to have a parent who couldn't love or accept their child.

Wilson, bless him, has stood me in good stead with those two observations; I like to think that with those, he opened the doors of possibility to the miracle which Al-Anon has worked in my life. He was offering his own version of experience, strength, and hope, and he was honest and direct with it. I'm grateful.


  1. Wilson asked some of the best questions and ones that each of us has to ask ourselves. Why indeed did I try to get love from someone who was more in love with the bottle than me? Because I thought that little attention or negative attention was better than no attention. That was my sickness.

  2. I needed a smile this morning! This story is precious. I can even see Wilson without even knowing him. I would love to hear how his name was chosen. The lesson learned is a tough one for me. I still want the acceptance and approval of people who are unable to give it. I can love myself..that is what I try to do today.


  3. Your friend sounds very wise, indeed. And a good friend. My heart goes out to the young woman you were. I want to hug her, and you.

  4. What a wonderful post, written with insight and humor. I am angry when I read of abuse that happened to you when you were a child, but I am grateful for the woman that you have become...offering your experience, strength and hope to all of us with your honest sharing.

    Wilson sounds like such an interesting and creative man full of kindness and understanding. Have you been able to keep in touch and thank him?

    It was really freeing for me when I really finally understood...not just in my head, but in my heart as well, that alcoholism isn't personal. It feels so very personal when you are on the recieving end of all that misery and criticism, but that is just what alcoholics, practicing and living in their disease, do.

    Grateful for this excellent post, and for you, Cheryl :)