Monday, May 2, 2011

Of Boundaries and Brown Shirts

Growing up in Fort Erie, I and my little coterie of friends would walk the 1 ½ miles to high school (uphill both ways, generally into the teeth of a blinding snowstorm!). Our preferred route took us over a lengthy, vehicular bridge, spanning the several sets of rail tracks which found their Canadian terminus in our small border town. A walkway on one margin of the bridge was ‘protected’ from motorized traffic by a low barrier better suited to buffering pedestrians from the water splashed up by cars as they zipped past – than providing any real safety. Any weekday morning would see long ribbons of students streaming along over the Central Avenue Bridge at one speed: trudge. A common distraction for us was observing the progress of Sammy, the adolescent son of a local restaurateur, as he bobbed and wove past the other students in his attempts to escape his mother, quite possibly at that hour the only person on the bridge older than eighteen, and fixedly intent on ‘walking her son to school’. Loyalties being what were, misplaced and otherwise, we would part to allow Sammy free passage, then reform to block mother’s desperate and frustrated attempts to keep pace with son. The source of mother’s angst was two-fold (my own mother would later inform me): she had lost her elder son to a childhood illness; and two years earlier a student had been struck by a car on this bridge in his own attempts to jump the queue of students by hopping over the inside barrier onto the travelled portion of the bridge. She was going to keep Sammy safe – even if her efforts put him at greatly increased risk, as he struggled to distance himself from the embarrassment of mother’s ‘protection’.

Jungian analyst Robert Johnson, in his pithy little book He, provides a framework for understanding this anxious mother’s plight and purpose, explored through the story of Parsifal, in the Arthurian legend, as the young knight-to-be sets off from his humble beginnings to challenge the world – clad in mother’s homespun singlet concealed beneath his armour. Mother’s caution: ‘take off that sweater at your own peril; as it will magically protect you from harm’. And so the seeds of the prototypic and paradoxical struggle are sewn: as the child, to grow and develop our own identity requires that we defy our parent and shed the very source of our protection; as the mother (why do mom’s always get the rap?), concern and duty require that that ‘brown shirt’ be kept in place – or risk losing our child. And so it would seem young Sammy and his mother were merely acting out another version of the tale.

My memory for both of the above was twigged this week first by a Globe and Mail article, evidently anticipating Mother’s Day in a rather sinister way. Entitled Happy S’Mother’s Day, it reviewed a new memoir by Adam Chester (The Story of a Man, His Mom, and the Thousands of Altogether Insane Letters She Mailed to Him). Illustrated cartoonishly with a young man glancing over his shoulder only to see mom, portrayed as helicopter, fast approaching, the column describes the seminal event for Mr. Chester of mother bursting into his junior high school gym change room, full of other adolescent boys, with the pronouncement that Adam had forgotten his sweater (echoes of Johnson!) and that it was going to rain.

Perhaps a bit more substantial was an episode of a BBC favourite of ours, Larkrise to Candleford, examining a similar theme and detailing the unhappy albeit completely unintentional sequence that unfolds as we attempt to ‘protect’ those we care for and about from the slings and arrows of becoming fully individuated adults. (The ‘hat tip’ to Hamlet – and another very interesting mother-son relationship – flows from a viewing over the weekend of the Kenneth Branagh’s amazing and amazingly long film version of same.) The 19th Century drama explores the well-intentioned ‘keeping of secrets’, all in the name of ‘protecting’ a daughter, a sister, a Bishop, and a community from various ‘truths’ that, in the view of the respective protectors, the individual(s) would be better served being kept insulated from – in the dark, as it were. This laudable (albeit questionable) motive of course contains the protector’s own dark side of being overly attached to a particular outcome: be it a visiting Bishop’s not discovering the ‘pagan rituals’ that still continue in his parish, a spinster sister/business partner’s secret relationship or failing retail enterprise, an adult daughter’s attachment to a self-serving journalist, or proof of Darwinian theory in fossilized remains locked inside the partially carved stone of a baptismal font.

The theme is constant: in the making of decisions for and ‘in the best interests of’ others, predicated on our own attachments and fears of dire outcome, we first cross the individual’s boundaries and breech our own; and secondly, ‘protect’ them from experiences that form an essential part of individual growth and learning – at whatever age that may be occurring. A cornerstone of mindfulness practice is the cultivation of awareness of just where those ‘invisible fences’ reside; where my ‘property’ (my entitlement, in a very literal sense) ends and where your turf begins. Only with that awareness fully developed are we able to make intentional choices around our (well-intentioned) interventions. What’s that expression: ‘the road to some place or other (I can’t quite remember the name of the community) is paved with good intentions’.

Perhaps one of the most abiding gifts from my own mother was her relentless effort to stay out of my way and allow me to experience – despite her worst fears of the consequences of same. What she also told me (but not before I was well into adulthood and far removed from our little town – which was also bordered by the Niagara River) was that she herself had very nearly drowned in that river as a young woman; and to watch me disappear down the street with my friends, towels in hand, nearly every summer’s day to swim in that river was, at times almost more than she could bear. My other mindfulness mentor!

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