Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Vaguely Styled People

At the same time it is not well to run counter to public opinion as a general thing, because there are laws which govern it which cannot be set aside without an injury to ourselves. So although we should not heed the mere conjecture of the future opinion of humanity, vaguely styled people, yet we should so conduct ourselves that we shall not overstep any of the boundaries of propriety and the barriers of society. From a Manual of Etiquette by Daisy Eyebright, 1884.

Basically, I think the above passage might mean, we don’t need to live perfect lives in fear of what others think or say, but we may want to carefully define our own boundaries of propriety and how they might be applied, or tweaked and retrofitted for those barriers of society and our own individual needs, desires, propensity toward or away from the spotlight or the hot seat. It might even be important to determine the members of society we might be concerning ourselves with or freeing ourselves from. 

My interest in this social caveat is deep and personal.  I have been struggling and combatting and attempting to forgive and make sense of my journey. Overthinking, checking, reviewing and determining the when, why and how of it all.  In the end it doesn’t matter so much, as long as I can recognize and move forward without repeating some of the patterns and habits that are not helpful, healthy or otherwise harmonious with my overall need for happiness.  Many of my traits seem cellular, genetic and above all culturally sanctioned.  So I attempt to recognize:

I have been wrestling with the unpleasant reality that I have been governed by some big, hairy threat of unruliness and non-compliance, and my propensity toward joy and a wee bit of free-spiritedness.  I have feared and begrudged the judgment of others akin to the wrath of an unforgiving God.  In my research around cultural identity I stumbled upon this little gem from Monica McGoldrick, the Director of the Multicultural Family Institute in Highland Park, New Jersey; Children in Irish American families are generally raised to be polite, respectable, obedient, and well behaved. Typical familial injunctions would be, "What will the neighbors think?", "Don't make a scene", "That's a sin", or "You'll go to hell".  (McGoldrick, 2009)

Having been raised in a small working class Long Island community within rigid Irish and Catholic cultural norms, it was well-known that the “neighbors” were watching.  It was also widely accepted that the neighbors could never be trusted to treat any falls from grace or slight missteps with compassion or confidentiality.  In this climate, trust was not something that was nurtured or expected, ever.  In fact, the neighbors should not bare witness to any scenes that might call attention.  This belief was possibly the first bit of paradoxical conflict introduced to me.  As you may be aware, many Irish Catholic working class folk can’t move from point A to point B without making a scene, inciting a rumble, or bellowing to one or another within whisper range. We are a loud people.  We are a fighting people. My rightful need to be a rabble-rouser of sorts in one event or another, would create all varieties of deep self-reflection and vows of sanctity and all manners of guilt based on what the neighbors might now hold against me, or “think” of me.  Until the next time that I needed to move from Point A to Point B. 

As a mother, I have harped about those neighbors.  I wasn’t quite as direct as those that came before me.  Yet, my worst moments as a parent revolve around some unpleasant neighbor sharing information with me about my children and me in turn letting the children that fell from grace know the deep shame they had brought on the family and some such gibberish about me not being able to hold my head up in public.   I wish I had looked some of those neighbors squarely in the eyes and winked and smiled and said, “Well isn’t that a hoot, then.  A chip off the shoulder, aye?”  Thrown in my carefully constructed brogue in honor of my matriarchal grandmother and slapped them on the ass as I turned and walked away.  The worst part of this, my children’s run in with neighbors were so minimal and all three of them in their worst moments paled in comparison to one summer of my youth.  Any one summer, each having it’s own wild escapades. Which still in fact did not involve any murders, vandalism, grand theft, bestiality, or police involvement of any type.  My children’s run-ins with neighbors was typically about homework, talking back to a substitute or some minor infringement that was developmentally appropriate and hardly worth mentioning.  My neighbor neurons were highly sensitive and awaiting reports to pounce upon.

In retrospect,  and in comparison to others, my escapades were fairly mild and so long ago.  I settled down and married at such a young age and gave up a great many aspects of myself in an effort to conform and comply and no longer be viewed as trouble.  And then there is this little gem; The Irish tend to view people moralistically as good or bad, strong or weak. The family often designates a good child and a bad one, and they may ignore aspects of a child's behavior that do not fit their designated roles. In one Irish American family, for example, the mother always spoke about her three children as "My Denny, Poor Betty, and That Kathleen." (McGoldrick, 2009)

I wasn’t that thrilling it turns out, in spite of my belief or my role in the family as the rebellious one. And my family was not privy to my pursuits, I respected the boundaries of privacy and upheld them.  No wild orgies.  There was some inhaling early on and long ago. There was drinking and laughing, much laughter.  There was interest in gaining knowledge and experience intimately and/or sexually due in part to the direct contrast of the repressed and forbidden aspect of this topic in my home.  This was an area I was seeking to assimilate in and shed my cultural tie with but it was carried out discreetly for the most part or awkwardly and sloppily as is developmentally in keeping within a normal range of functioning. Of course this is also a rite of passage and an expected part of the adolescent experience in spite of my Irishness.  I believed myself “bad”, rebellious, trouble.  I was, it turns out closer to the dull side of safe and nearly mediocre, well maybe not, who can tell really?  I don't know what all the neighbors children were doing, I can only speak for myself.  Although I have a couple of good times to look back on they are so few and from so long ago they may be exaggerated in my memory, but allow me that much. 

The next daunting contradiction of my cultural experience involves the use of alcohol, y’know how the Irish are, so to speak, and my being Irish and all that… Of course the paradox and tension caused by drinking and loud behavior in direct conflict with being pious and private was an overarching theme in my growth and development.  Drinking accompanied my growth. It enhanced some of my growth and it also impeded it at times.   It may also have been partially to blame for stunting my growth as an adult.  I began fearing it and cursing it.  I made serious vows at a young age to do so many things different than my own parents.  A few I have been successful at.  A great many of these few I wish I had not been quite sooooo successful at.  Drinking was a big ticket item to alter, in terms of consumption and the freedom it might create or enhance, the unpredictability of it’s effects on others, as well as the shame it could potentially befall upon a family.   I did not want to raise my children in a home darkened by it.  This was not an area I was so successful in. 

More so than any of my own conflicting cultural crack-potness, it was the viewpoints of another vaguely styled person that I gave myself up to.  In Monica McGoldrick’s article she states, “Irish women have generally had little expectation of, or interest in, being taken care of by a man. Their hopes have been articulated much less in romantic terms than in aspirations for self-sufficiency (Diner, 1983).…..An Irish woman is likely to try to do it all herself and never ask for help. She may not expect to rely on a partner for either intimacy or contributing his share of the burdens of family life. This reflects, of course, a common gender assumption, but also a specifically Irish tendency not to articulate needs and feelings and to assume that if you are really loved, the other will know your feelings without having to be told.   (McGoldrick, 2009) It was easy to contain and control and isolate me. I wasn’t expecting a great deal in return, I was groomed not to expect anything, and to be thankful for that much.   Looking back, it was not without my consent, indirect or otherwise. 

I lived in fear of drinking too much, laughing too heartily, singing too loudly.  I lived in fear of being “found out” only there was very little to find.  I wish I had been at least enjoying some wild exploits and thrilling pleasures to endure the amount of anxiety and isolation I lived in and under. I did drink occasionally and rarely I drank heartily, but just the same, the shame and quilt and fear of it all made me a hot mess of tension and tightly wound madness. I spent a great deal of effort protecting the privacy of another in exchange for my own well-being. Clearly this cultural belief system has contributed a great deal to my becoming one big pile of exciting and contained, feisty and deeply private, resentful and hopeful.  I spent a great deal of time waiting to be understood.  Self-sufficiency has this way of communicating I don’t need help, but wanting help to be provided was supposed to be a secret puzzle to be solved.  And then there was the added loophole that the puzzle of me could not get solved or even attended to and I should be content in that wisdom.  Can’t say if I won or lost that round.

And so in the spirit of absolution and for the freedom from further guilt, I have a confession to make.   We Irish Catholics, understand confession.  We aren't generally expecting it to be life-changing, or free us from suffering, but we are ever hopeful and tend to follow rules in spite of all the kicking and screaming about them.  So here it goes. Bless me anyone that gives a hoot, it's been a really long time since my last confession....  In 1999, I danced on a table at a neighbor’s house party.  It is true.  It happened.  I had recently moved to a new town with a husband and three children.  I had not been out or around other adults socially, in quite some time.  I had a few drinks and I really like to dance.  What can I say?  I was fully clothed and I thought I looked fairly good, but most of all I let myself get lost in the moment and I had fun.  It was short lived. I spent the following eleven years feeling the shame I might have brought on the family had the children seen me, had I stripped naked, had I thrown up on the neighbor’s sofa, I had not. I had fun. I have a tendency toward fun that appeared to be potentially problematic and threatening.   It was clearly communicated that it was surely going to be an issue if I didn’t keep it in check.  This message has been directed my way for so long, I stopped having much fun.  I became very successful at repression.  I suppose keeping it in check became a much larger issue, but in the end it set me free. 

The darkness of alcohol came to my home, and stayed far too long hidden in every nook and cranny.  I could not stop it.  Instead I attempted to keep the neighbors from it.  I locked my doors and closed my windows.  In this way nothing was able to get in, and nothing was able to get out. Or so I thought.  The darkness grew in these conditions and could no longer hide.  Finally the darkness came crashing down from every direction. It was not until then that I left to shine my light elsewhere. I wanted my children to see my light and recognize their own abilities to shine, and have joy, and even to fall.  I will be there to lift them and we may enjoy a beer or two as we celebrate our triumphs and our fresh starts.  Occasionally we might even cry in our beers in plain sight.   There’s no telling what’s next.  I might just sing loudly on my porch, or slap a few people on the ass.  I will be avoiding vaguely, styled people or at least not concerning myself with them.  I will be dancing until I can’t anymore. I will remain a hot mess of wild Irish spiritedness and I may try to add a bit more American cockiness, but not too much….that’s just wrong, and bad, and what will the neighbor’s think?

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