I remember my childhood. Bright red tulips, a black well cap in the back lawn I sat on and cried. I remember being spanked because I picked that tulip one day. I carried it to the neighbor and tried to sell it to buy my mother a gift to make her happy. Red tulips became a symbol for anger. How dare I pick that precious flower! Accusations of doing it to destroy her pretty flower. I was too young to know irony when it fell around me in tears.
Desolation deeper and darker than the well. My mother screaming at no one in the house while I held my only friend, a small struggling confused barn cat seeking solace and love from that little fluffy kitten who really wanted to run off and practice hunting mice. Shuffling between three of my great grandmothers, who did their utmost to buffer me from life at home.
I remember fear. I never knew what would set my mother off. I remember trying so hard to be worth loving. I remember my great grandmother Alice telling me that she loved me and that what was happening at home wasn't my fault.
For many years I struggled with emotional wounds and scars. Sometimes hurting others to try to get approval or out of frustration as I watched my mother lavish love I could not earn on my brother. I remember the one time she was loving and gentle. I had been playing at a neighbor's house. I was about four years old. I made a slide out of a large cardboard box my neighbor and I wrestled onto a chair. I fell off and got hurt. I was bleeding profusely. The neighbor almost took me to the hospital. My mother took me home instead fearing that it would trigger a neglect or abuse investigation, because that's the priority. She held me, rocking me in a chair until the bleeding stopped. I remember the two times my Father held me I was three and then six. Both times were to remove stitches from my face, cheaper than going back to the hospital. Priorities.
My best friends in childhood were books and barn cats. I spent most of my time alone in my head wandering the brighter worlds created by authors, wishing the characters were real. Wishing for friends as my intelligence and slight autistic characteristics isolated me from cruel teasing classmates.
I started working the summer before seventh grade. I worked at a kennel and babysat. I spent hours working a hose to spray dog turds off the outdoor runs, grooming poodles and teaching them to walk on leads. I earned the money to pay for what I wanted rather than get hassled over wanting clothes that weren't always hand me downs or ugly clearance rack leftovers, books, toys, candy.
As I got older I grew into treating others the way I wished I had been treated. A neighbor girl and I were playing. She accidentally dropped and broke a toy I loved. She cried. She tightened up waiting for the storm and fury. I closed my eyes and thought of Alice. Alice with her soft hands, sweet heart and garden full of flowers you could tend and pick and share with smiles. I looked at the younger girl and took her hand. "It was an accident. It isn't worth as much as your friendship is to me." We both cried. It was how I realized she also came from a world with dark places in it. We picked up the pieces and as we did, we colored each other's worlds brighter.
In college, my friend Nathan was always there. Listening. Caring. Fearing he could end up breaking down with schizophrenia like his mother. He could only be a friend in my heart because I was afraid my dark places could hurt him. My past comes out in bursts like little rainstorms. Gentler as years pass, body trembling from emotions I can't always express. Nathan, Francine, and Mary brought their bright hearts full of colors. Their humor, their resiliency, their humanity were the paintbrushes they used on my heart. We did silly things. We walked St. Bonaventure every friday night around midnight as I worked on climbing every tree I could on campus. They and others joined me on this eccentric quest. They begged me not to prank campus security by swinging in the trees by the roads toward the vehicles going by so I did it more. Thankfully, none of the guards had heart attacks when they saw someone apparently flying out of a tree toward their vans only to vanish as I swung back out of the roads and dropped into the woods to melt away into the night. I was a ghost story.
Each year my life expands. The connections with other people grow. The stark colors get tempered with shades and blending. I communicate more, letting others help me see and let go of dangerous fragments still stuck in places my scarred heart cannot always see. I think of Nathan finding me sitting catatonic outside the Science building after my first real love after several intense secret dates told me he could never love me because I was an Atheist. I don't remember walking to my room. Nathan quietly looked out for me, always on alert and always there when the darkness rose. He would just sit with me. The lone soldier without a gun, manning the wall alone. Eventually my words would come back. He would reassure me that everyone wrestles with something. He would nudge my humor until it rose up and became the tool we both used to fight the darkness.
He taught me that I had strength, that the years of fighting myself alone had given me tremendous power. I realized I could use it to help him, and my other friends. My inner demons were relentless and harsh; I could step into other people's heart and face theirs without breaking a sweat or shedding a tear. I could step between the boogeymen and the people who were teaching me what healthy was. I could keep them safe at cost.
It cost because it pressed on wounds, emotions flowing without healing.
It took years to learn to let go of the armor. To let go of the weapons. To be the gardener nurturing my heart and the hearts around me, discarding dangerous creatures lurking in the garden rather than wrestling with them or trying to bring out the best in them. Put a bow on a copperhead and you still have a dangerous snake.
Regardless of how much you love, you cannot heal everyone. Each of us has choices. We decide what is or isn't in your world. We color them with perspective and emotion. We determine our focus and attitude. Reaching out to healthy friends for perspective is the first step. As the holiday approaches, on the darkest day of the year, my thoughts are of you. I appreciate each of you and how you change the colors in my world bringing vibrance and light with your presence.
Wherever you are today in your world, I offer you my paintbrush. It's a little tattered and beat up. It has been used as a sword more than once. The colors on it are bright. Your world should be full of laughter, appreciation and beauty. So, let's get painting!