Facing Finalities

I am going to Maine with two friends next week. While there, I am going to put to rest what remains of the guilt and sorrow and regret regarding my relationship with my mother.

The other day I went and spent some time with a good friend, and who is also a healer of souls carrying burdens of regret and guilt. Ed Tick began as my therapist and over these 30 years, that relationship blossomed into a friendship. I still reach out to him when I am troubled, and I visited him earlier this week in his new home not far from where I now live.

The result is that, next week, in Maine, as part of solidifying this new phase of my life on which I have embarked, I will do a ritual to let go of stuff that needs to be freed. I will build a fire, read this last missive to my mom, and then burn the paper. And then burn the triptych with her images — sending her history as a woman to soar with the gulls.

In preparation, I have set up a little altar to honor the good parts of my relationship with my mother, who died five years ago. I have her wedding ring that I put on a chain, and beads from the old red coral necklace (that has been a part of my matriarchal lineage for several generations) that I made into another necklace. I will wear these during the ritual, but, for now, they are a part of the altar. One of the few things I have left of hers is her old statue of Saint Anthony, the heretic converter. I’m sure that she prayed to him all of the time to convert this heretic. It didn’t work, but this icon,one of her favorites, has become mine. Maybe I like him because he holds a lily. And a child. And an open book. In my poetic heresy, I can interpret that any way I like.


So, here is what I will read. And what I will burn. In place of prayer, I write. Here and wherever. Because I can.

If we become the mother
we wanted, our children
grow the roots and wings
of our lost early yearnings,
Our daughters become
the women we wish we were,
our sons the men we dreamed.
But too often we succumb
to the echo of her voice,
caught in the tangle
of a cord never cut.
There is no burying our mothers,
though we lay them deep.
They live in us one way or other,
whether we heed or not.

I am sorry, Mom, that I was not the daughter you wanted. I’m sorry that you were not the mother I wanted. I know that you tried your best to be the best kind of mother that you knew how to be – the kind your mother was. And I did my best to break away from that kind of suffocating tradition.

Yet, despite how I disappointed you over and over, you were always there for me when I needed you. Because that is what the mothers in our family do, And that is how the best parts of you still live on in me – in the kind of mother I have finally become.

I’m sorry that your last years were filled with such turmoil. I wish I had made better choices about how to give you the care you needed. I guess it was my turn to try my best. That was all either of us could ever do.

I’m sorry that your last days were not what you had always hoped they would be – to die at home, in your own bed, with family around you. I did the best I could, Mom. I tried to make sure that you didn’t suffer. Instead, I suffered for you, and that was OK because it meant that in those last days I kept you safe from enduring some unnecessary familial narcissistic tyranny.

There were good times and bad times during the last of the years that we lived together. I like remembering the time we had then to talk and laugh, to dance the polka, to sing all of the old songs, to share our memories of times that were good for us both. I liked that I was finally able to do things for you that you really appreciated, that made you feel good. Because I know there were many other times before that when I made you feel bad.

All of those years as I struggled to grow up, I never really saw you the way that others did. You would have been glad to hear what cousin Cristine wrote to me about you after you died. She said:

I remember the enigmatic smile she always wore, like the one in The Portrait. I never remember her upset or angry. She was always dressed impeccably and I remember her love for Ferragamo shoes. Odd what we remember from our past — the strange minute things that become permanent strong memories and the important things that fade away. I always remember the bathroom at your house on Nepperhan — the l-o-n-g narrow pink bathroom with a door at each end (how cool!) and how it always smelled of green Palmolive soap. I remember your mom cooking and running back and forth to the kitchen and not sitting down and enjoying her own meal.

Someday, I will write a poem about that “enigmatic smile,” which I now think was a biting back of your disappointment and frustration for the parts of your life that you were never allowed to make your own — but I was too wrapped up in my own selfish agendas to realize that.

I don’t know if you were aware of much during your last days, but there was a sea gull who spent most of each day screeching from and pacing on the roof outside the window of your hospital room. This is what I found out about sea gulls:
Sea Gulls are messengers from the gods, especially ancient Celtic deities. They bridge the gap between the living world and the spirit world. Opening yourself to their energy enables you to communicate with the other side. Sea Gull can also give you the ability to soar above your problems and see things from above. Seeing all the different viewpoints.

So tonight I am here at the ocean, communing with the messenger seagulls, sending this message into the wind, into the endless sky: I miss you, mom, I’m glad we had some good last days together, and I wish we had been able to be closer, sooner. I release what is not worth carrying, and I cherish what is left: the comfort that, at the end, we knew how much we loved each other.

Low Empathy: the root of all evil


I am obsessed with the conviction that our human race is devolving because we are losing our capacity for empathy. And I am not alone in believing that is the root of all of the evil in this world.

On the other hand, there is increasing research that is proving how other mammalian species are actually evolving in their capacity to feel and demonstrate empathy. All you have to do is do an online search for “animal empathy,” and you can spend the rest of the day being amazed and gratified at the increasingly widespread “humane” behaviors of our non-human brothers and sisters. (Do an online search for any of the areas of human violence in the world today – shootings, rapes, war zones…. — and you will spend the rest of the day, perhaps, starting to believe as I do.)

The tendency for humans seems to be violent. An online search for “human violence” will provide support for that assertion.

But it’s really more complicated – and overwhelming – than most folks are willing to admit.

Individual research projects are showing that there are complex connections among the healthy functioning of the brain’s “empathy spot,” the levels of the aggression hormone testosterone, the harmful psychological (and, perhaps neural) effects of violent sports/games/language, and this crisis of morality that is plaguing our species.

After spending the past few days searching online for perspectives on this issue, the best piece I have been able to find (although there are others) is “Why a Lack of Empathy is the Root of All Evil,” by psychologist Simon Baron Cohen, who offers this general definition:

Empathy is our ability to identify what someone else is thinking or feeling, and to respond to their thoughts and feelings with an appropriate emotion,” writes Baron-Cohen. People who lack empathy see others as mere objects.

And so we have rampant misogyny, bigotry, border disputes, extreme nationalism, racism,war, violence of all kinds.

What is fascinating to me is that the home of “empathy” seems to be in the brain itself. Scientific research has identified an area of the brain associated with empathy – the anterior insular cortex.

In other words, patients with anterior insular lesions had a hard time evaluating the emotional state of people in pain and feeling empathy for them, compared to the controls and the patients with anterior cingulate cortex lesions,” said the researchers.

This area of the brain that has been proven to be affected by a variety of variables, including testosterone levels and exposure to violent media.

One of Baron-Cohen’s longitudinal studies – which began 10 years ago – found that the more testosterone a foetus generates in the womb, the less empathy the child will have post- natally. In other words, there is a negative correlation between testosterone and empathy. It would appear the sex hormone is somehow involved in shaping the “empathy circuits” of the developing brain.
Given that testosterone is found in higher quantities in men than women, it may come as no surprise that men score lower on empathy than women. So there is a clear hormonal link to empathy. Another biological factor is genetics. Recent research by Baron-Cohen and colleagues found four genes associated with empathy – one sex steroid gene, one gene related to social-emotional behaviour and two associated with neural growth.

Contrary to what gamer developers would like us to believe, ongoing research is tending to prove that areas of the brain associated with empathy are being affected by constant exposure to violent video and other games.

New preliminary findings suggest that brain activation is altered in normal youths with significant past violent media exposure while viewing violent video games.

The reasons for our devolution are obviously complicated and involve some combination of nature and nurture and the opposite of nurture. As a culture and society, we seem to be intent on denying how we actually are encouraging a diminishment of empathy in favor of greed, selfish amorality, and vested interests — whether they be political, religious, economic, or national.

Of course, it’s easier to deny – from climate change to chemical food contamination, to promoting and glorifying violence – than it is to tackle the daunting job of trying to undo what we have done. But if we don’t, we will be a dead species before long. We will destroy ourselves from the simple lack of empathy.

I am hoping that some less corporate-manipulated and more holistic researchers will be able to bring together all of the factors that are pushing our species over the precipice of widespread violence and come up with a convincing argument for the necessity to put the brakes on across the board. Coming up with a plan after that is maybe more than government is capable of now. But if we don’t….

Having been a fan of speculative fiction my whole life and witnessing the manifestations of many of those “fictional” speculations, I don’t hold much hope.