The most beautiful creatures are rarely found in their land of origin. Ask Nabokov.
In a period of momentary crisis toward the end of last semester I found myself in tears outside the library pouring out my desperation to my mother over the phone. This is something, considering that the year previous we experienced a falling out that resulted in a number of months without speaking at my request. Yes, it was that bad, and that necessary, and the months of silence gave her considerable time for reflection needed to not only apologize for years of poor parenting choices but for treating me with little respect as an adult, if not a human.
I will never lie to you that I am saintly, nor that it has ever been my nature. On the contrary, I learned at a tender age that my role was to err and to be reprimanded and told I was not meeting expectation. I have long dealt with rejection issues that have perhaps lead to feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness and relationship choices that were short of what I truly deserved because of this assumed role.
When my mother and I began speaking again in October last year, it was tentative and cautious. I know it was terribly uncomfortable for her to accept her mistakes. That experience is not foreign to me. As she overcame that discomfort, the relationship of support that remained beneath carried me through the tenuous months of my separation, reunion, and ultimate filing for divorce.
But her greatest moment, perhaps the greatest moment in our relationship, came during that phone call last month. The whole three months previous pressed in on me, or rather, the pressure was lifted, and I was left clamoring, grasping for direction and whatever was next. I'd come to Happy Valley with the intention of marrying and being married for the rest of my life. I'd done everything I thought a "perfect" wife would do, everything I was told by my husband that she would do, and it hadn't been enough for either maintaining love or for finding companionship or happiness or any of the expectations in which I'd falsely placed faith. And who was I anyway? I asked. What am I meant to be?
"Why don't you focus on doing what makes you happy?" my mother asked.
My mother had never said these words to me before. She had wished happiness for me, but in the context of what she intended and what her expectations were. Her question tripped me up for a moment. But instantly, I saw the world differently, through the eyes of someone capable and empowered. She didn't give me recommendations, just left the option wide open. I was left disoriented in a new way.
"The things that make me happy are art, and thought, and music, and literature."
"You've always been drawn to those things," she said.
"Yes!" I blurted. "But doing what I love, being immersed in it, I get wrapped up, impassioned. I am drunken on the texture of language, sound, color and ideas. I frighten people because of how saturated I am with my exuberance for life. I become loud, bold. I love people, but they don't know what to do with me unless they're the same type of human. And even then sometimes I'm a bit much. Without saying I am my illness, I AM bipolar. I AM sensate. I want to be myself, to be happy, but I have spent my whole life repressing these inclinations."
"But you need art and intellect," she affirmed. "And you need the same kind of people to be happy."
I wasn't sure how to take what she's saying. I'd never been encouraged by her in artistic areas. For years she disapproved because they weren't "marketable" skills, not abilities that made me employable. And artistic people? She'd always dissuaded me from fraternizing with them as if they were leprous, especially those who might be homosexual. I remember in my first year in college, when she sneered, What do you need with THOSE people? At the time my best friends were part of the Gay and Lesbian Association at the university where I studied. They were everything to me; my source of belonging and support. For my mother to acknowledge without disdain the fact that I DO NEED artistic souls in my life left me befuddled.
"Yes, I do," I said.
It is something to be given permission to be who and what you are, and to have your needs acknowledged. I think most people get this permission, or at least a sense of self with clinging nails of guilt removed much earlier than I have.
I think these people become. They spread wings, migrate where heart drives them. Their fortunes are born and reborn, and their nature chrysalises and transforms season after season in no less than a miraculous life-long process of reinvention. They wear a thousand masks during flight, but the most miraculous is the wingless disguise; the period of rearrangement and self-discovery. I have long envied them.
Nabokov theorized that butterflies originated in Asia, that their migration patterns over millions of years took them to North America and finally to the jungles of South America in five great waves.
We'll call this my life's first wave. Or have I already seen a dozen?
Either way, this second set of wings is a quick study.
You won't wait long; she'll catch up.