This month's "The Mirror" column was written by Susan Dalton © 2012, all rights reserved.
My grandmother finished number one in her high school class but lacked resources to achieve her dream of becoming a nurse, so she married a laid-back dirt farmer, moved to a remote community in eastern North Carolina, and pushed her daughters toward academic success. She filled her home with books, deplored her neighbors' grammar, and was the only one in her community, I'm sure, to listen to National Public Radio.
My mother finished number two in her class but had skipped a grade, so my grandmother considered her "smarter than" the girl who finished first. I graduated in the top three percent of my class. When my mother told my grandmother my rank, my grandmother demanded that I name each person ahead of me and tell her why that person had "beaten" me. I stood looking out her kitchen window at the cows in the field, the smell of the pigpen wafting through the open door. My graduating class was huge.Of course, I could have made up names; my grandmother would never have known the difference. But sadly, I did
know the names of the people ahead of me. And their GPAs.
In high school I accumulated a huge string of accomplishments, believing that being Most Outstanding Senior Girl, DAR Good Citizen, Best All-Around, on Homecoming Court—in this club, a member of that organization, blah, blah, blah—would prove I was worthy. Perhaps if people only knew my fabulous SAT score, they would like me. I measured myself against everyone—surface sweet yet inwardly envious of any success not my own. It was sick, really, but at the time I didn't see it.
My boyfriend of three years zoomed along on the fast-track to success —top of our class and headed to law school—but I had this nagging feeling he valued me for my looks and popularity rather than for my self. (In his defense, who knew who my self was? I certainly didn't. It was hidden under all the external trappings I thought identified and defined me.) His family had moved away the summer after our senior year of high school, so his brother brought him back to college after Christmas break our sophomore year. The break was the longest we had been apart since we began dating that night in eleventh grade when my prep-school-dropout, bad boy, date abandoned me in the gym at a high school dance while he and his buddies guzzled Michelob in the parking lot, and I danced with my soon-to-be new boyfriend. What happened to the girl he had brought to the dance? I didn't know. My concern that night was for me.
When I returned to college after break, I ran to his dorm. It must have embarrassed him to have his older brother see me waiting on the dorm steps like a lost puppy. As I tried to hug him, he growled, "Get off me. At least let me get my luggage." I realized at that moment that a life with him would mean financial success,
but it would never provide what I needed. Who knew what that was, but I was learning what it was not.
Acquaintances I knew from high school reacted with horror when they learned I was dating Kemp. One guy fell on the sidewalk near the psych building and rolled off in the grass laughing. When I decided to ditch college and get married only 18 hours short of graduation, few people understood. Although he was graduating, Kemp did not have my reputation as an overachiever. He had been banned from north campus for a prank during a fire drill. At the time he had a broken leg; instead of hobbling down three flights of stairs on crutches, he opened a window and yelled, "Help me! I'm going to jump!" I had heard he was deranged and scary: all the stories about him supported that theory.
One day during exams, incidentally the day Lynyrd Skynard's plane crashed and several people died, I went to find my delinquent buddy Gene to coax him into studying. Gene wasn't in his room, so I looked in the TV room. There stood Kemp, on the back of the couch, with a paper airplane in hand. "Lynyrd Skynard Memorial Flight!" he yelled, as he lit and threw the paper plane.
"That," I said, "Is. Not. Funny." I expected him to sneer or laugh in my face in front of the pack of guys guffawing at his outrageousness, but I felt offended enough not to care how he reacted.
"You're right. I'm sorry." He jumped down off the couch, smiling. "I was showing off."
The next semester I walked into a huge lecture hall for my 8:00 Mythology Class, carrying my sprout and cheese sandwich and organic apple juice toward a seat in the front. I heard, "Hey, come sit with me." Kemp was sprawled across three seats in the back row, eating a bag of sweet sixteen doughnuts and drinking a huge bright red drink from the machine at the convenience store. Thirty four years and two kids later, I'm still glad I sat with him,
although doing so meant a "B+" rather than an "A" in that class.
What my friends didn't understand was that Kemp loved me just the way I was.
Probably because my mother had to be perfect, she could never admit a mistake, so she stayed in an abusive marriage to a mentally ill man. Being perfect was my answer to my family's craziness.
But nobody can be perfect. I'd hold in my anger, pretending nothing was wrong. Somehow I expected Kemp to read my mind. "Look," he told me. "If you tell me what you need and I don't give it to you, then fine; be mad at me. But if you don't tell me, don't expect me to know." I found I could tell him anything.
In my family of origin, when we fought, we chose words that could cripple, maim, or kill. We sharpened the points, applied the poison, and fired. Naturally we only chose those weapons against people we loved; much energy went into impressing people we barely knew. Our first fight after we married, Kemp looked at me and said, "I would never say that to you. I love you."
"I love you, too," I said. "But we're fighting."
"I know we're fighting, but if you don't mean it, don't say it. You can say you're sorry, but it's always there." Of course he was right. He was also right when he said, "You have to be best to the people you love most." I no longer fight that way,
and my children have not been raised in that kind of poisonous atmosphere. (Incidentally, my father once told me he wished he had raised his kids the way Kemp and I raised ours, but he didn't know how.)
I waited tables for two years before I returned to school. When I learned I'd be graduating with honors in English, I called my mother. She said, "Aren't you graduating with a double major in English and geography? Can you get honors in geography too?"
I ran to my geography advisor, who said, "No one has attempted to write a 100+ page honors paper in one semester of summer school. But if you want to, go ahead." At the time I was working 35 hours a week, and taking a full load in summer school. I began researching my honors paper. Finally Kemp said, "This is crazy. You are killing yourself trying to be your mother's perfect little girl."
When he spoke, I saw the perfect logic of his words, saw how caught up I was in the competitiveness in our society and in my family. I decided to pursue a graduate degree in Creative Writing (what I wanted to do) rather than go to law school (what I was being told I should do), and I joined a childcare cooperative to learn better parenting skills. Now that I teach, I encourage my students to be nurturing and supportive of each other. I've come to believe trust and cooperation are more productive than fear and competition.
Aikido is based on cooperation rather than competition. If we can learn to relax, stay centered, see others' points of view, blend, and feel the connection, we can resolve many conflicts without harming our partners. These concepts sound easy; they are difficult to live. My shihan in Japan has been practicing close to 60 years, and he says that inside his head is a mixed up jumble, just like in any human being's head. He practices so he can quiet his mind, go home, and be kind to his family. My friend and teacher put it beautifully when he said, "I'm a better person inside the dojo. I can put aside the ugly parts of my personality and act like I know I'm supposed to act. In time, I hope my better self can follow me out of the dojo into all the parts of my life."
On the mat, as in life, I'm learning to open my heart and stand my ground. I'm lucky to have wonderful teachers. But way before I discovered Aikido, my husband taught me about the transforming power of love.
One beautiful fall morning years ago at my nephew's soccer game, I turned one end of a jump rope for several little girls taking turns jumping. My daughter and one of her friends both did well, but one girl who walked up and asked to play could jump and jump and jump. The other girls would get to 15 or so, but this child could jump 60 or 70 times each turn. Several times when my daughter's friend was turning the other end of the rope, she cut the new little girl off close to the knees so she would miss. My daughter's friend, only seven years old, already thought competition, winning, and being "number one" mattered enough that she'd pull a trick like that. Seeing her do what she did made me sad, but I couldn't figure out if I was sad for her or for the little girl I used to be.
"The Mirror" is a collaborative column written by a group of women who describe themselves as:
We comprise mothers, spouses, scientists, artists, teachers, healers, and yes, of course, writers. We range in age from 30s through 50s, we are kyu ranked and yudansha and from various parts of the United States and styles of aikido. What we have in common is a love for budo that keeps it an integral part of our busy lives, both curiosity about and a commonsense approach to life and aikido, and an inveterate tendency to write about these explorations.