Sunday, June 8, 2008
I have neither plans nor desire to spend time on a pretty celebrity who is more famous for her divorce than anything else, but I did stop when I read the title of Denise Richards' new "reality" show. "It's Complicated."
I know that phrase. I've used it. It's the easy way out when the playgroup mom kindly asks another innocuous question about my family just as Eleanor calls me urgently from the swingset. It's shorthand for "thanks for asking, really, thank you. But you don't wanna know." Shorthand for "let me save you from empathy exhaustion."
I'm taking my daughters to Kansas City next week to visit Grandma Ruth and Grandpa Phil. We do this about once a year. That's the easiest version of the story. I'd love to leave it at that.
My Kansas City family has lived life something like a soap opera, something like a particularly harsh book of the bible. The premature deaths would have been enough, but the drama didn't stop there. Addictions. Divorces. Health problems, both physical and mental. Homelessness. Jail. Sorry to go there... Can I just say it's complicated?
My friends can't even keep up with the ongoing story anymore; acquaintances get glazed eyes within minutes of my beginning to explain. I feel for them, I really do. Therefore my trying-to-be-graceful out: "It's complicated. And how are you doing?"
But here's the problem with "It's complicated." It's a retreat. It keeps others at arms length. Ignores that we have all felt loss, we have all had disappointment and pain in our lives.
Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina begins with one of the greatest first lines of all time, "All happy families are the same, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." Perhaps the dismissive retreat into "it's complicated" is what can keep us in that unhappy category - because it allows us to believe we are going about this on our own, alone. Allows us to believe we are a family like none other. Allows us to falsely believe our pain is, as the great and blunt Dan Savage has described in a different context, "a pain that no one else has ever experienced or can possibly comprehend." And almost allows me to put on the back burner the wonderful happinesses that belong at the center of my thoughts - my cousin's granddaughter getting a kiss from David Cook when he returned to his Blue Springs grade school! My niece taking her MCATs on Friday!
Reading mom-blogs gives me so much comfort and perspective. Grief and joy on the pages. "Autism whipped my ass today," says one mom. "There really is no such thing as small talk in my life," says another. Women's experiences that are nothing like mine and so much like mine. Motherhood is as varied an experience as each and every woman who goes through it and yet we are united by it.
Here is what's simple, not complicated: I want to go to Kansas City and hug Uncle Phil and give him the Father's Day present my girls picked out. I want to hear my daughter say like she did last year, "Grandma! I want you!" I want to see those beloved faces again. I want to tell my brother I love him. I want to laugh with my cousins over our war wounds. I want to go home again, for a little while.