I had an interesting conversation with my business partner this afternoon. We were discussing how to handle a somewhat delicate situation with a person we both love and respect. This person unknowingly violated business protocol, in a way that left us very concerned. We needed to do two things: clean up the mess, and establish professional boundaries with this colleague. And we want to do it without losing the relationship.
At one point in our talk I mentioned “hard lines.” After we ended the call I got to thinking, how does a person learn to develop “hard lines?” You know, life’s guard rails — what we use to keep our principles, values, and relationships on track.
I’m an adult child of alcoholics. Growing up I just knew they drank a lot, and did it every day. I didn’t say ‘alcoholic’ until I was grown and in therapy. I didn’t call them that because I hadn’t really thought about it. Every family has their own brand of “normal,” and drinking parents was part of our family brand.
But what happens when the parents drink, and drink a lot, is that boundaries don’t exist. As a kid, I didn’t know. Anything. My goal was survival. Because at any given moment, what once was the “rule” suddenly became the “violation.” So — other than what I learned through the nuns at school, or through the Church, there were no guard rails, no consistent “hard lines.”
In my early adult life, I had no clue what pieces of me were missing. As a result I did what most of us do: I partnered with a lovable boy whose missing pieces matched my own. Our dysfunctions fit together perfectly. We became enmeshed, our lines blurred, but it all felt normal to both of us; neither one of us had a clue what lay ahead.
As the years passed, we each continued to grow and change; our sharp edges began to cut deep into each other, and started to sever who we were as a couple. Eventually we divorced. By that time I had been in therapy and was learning about developing healthy boundaries. Week after week I sat there in my therapist’s office, holding my broken heart, and seeing clearly, for the first time, what we had been; I shed tears over what we could never be.
Establishing boundaries is not always easy. But it’s always healthy. Boundaries keep relationships clean, and honest. With everything on the table, with no truths left twisted or untold, there is nothing to fear. The coast is clear for real connection.
The best thing a parent can do for their kiddos is model healthy boundaries early on. It has to be a consistent lesson of “Choice, meet consequence.” But parents who have no established boundaries, or “hard lines,” in their own lives, don’t even know it’s a thing to nurture in their children. Consequently, when the children become adults, they’re out in the world, operating without their own fully established guard rails.
This is a recipe for messy relationships. It can leave young adults floundering, trying to figure out how they keep getting it wrong. But often it’s as simple — and as complicated — as knowing they need to find their own boundaries; that it’s important to stick to them, even when it’s tough to do so.
So here’s to the freedom to say “No,” or “Stop,” or “Here’s the whole, ugly truth,” without having to fear that we’re getting it wrong. If we’re staying true to our own principles, and respecting our own “hard lines,” no matter how tough things get, we’ll always come out whole. And we’ll end up in relationships with people whose boundaries we respect, and who respect what drives us.
So I trust my business partner and I will not only keep the relationship with our colleague. I’m thinking the bond will grow even stronger through our being honest, kind, and maintaining our ‘hard lines.’
Life doesn’t get much better than that.
The messages we’re given in childhood are powerful. Until we get out into the world on our own, they define our reality. They define our normal. They tell us what’s expected of us, and what value we have. And behind those front doors, each family has its own brand of ‘normal’.
I was raised in a house where there was one right way to do everything. Often I discovered there was a right way after I’d done something the wrong way. Mattered not if I accomplished my goal. If I didn’t do it the right way, I got it wrong. And that “right” way could change without warning; I learned that early on. So, go ahead, knock yourself out. But don’t count on anything except maybe being blindsided by a new rule, a new way of you failing again.
This is a piece of the legacy inherited by a child of alcoholics. Eventually, once we’ve reached adulthood and if we’re aware enough and brave enough to launch the quest for self discovery, we catch a glimpse of how life is defined outside the hazed cocoon in which we grew up; the only “normal” we’ve ever known. So there’s an overriding sense of betrayal, or having been lied to about ‘what’s going on out there’, ‘how I fit in the world,’ or even ‘who I am’. And, at its center, ‘what love feels like’.
That’s not to say that drinkers are evil. They’re not. I truly believe that very person, in one way or another, is ‘trying to find their way’. But some people get so off track; are so myopic as to what they’re doing and the damage caused by it, that they’re pretty much a walking (or stumbling) wrecking ball.
I’ll admit there are certainly things ingrained in me from my childhood that I treasure. I have a very well calibrated moral compass. I’m not an angel by any stretch, but when I’ve veered off course, I know it.
This comes from a Spiritually driven center that was awakened in me very early on. I clung to it, and was convinced that ‘if I’m good enough’ good things will, ultimately, happen. There’s probably a piece of me that still believes it.
In Seminary we studied addiction. It was pointed out to us that addicts are “headed the wrong way down the right road.” They crave a different feeling, a different perspective. But they’ve employed chemical shortcuts to get there, which always end in failure. Because in order to keep the feelings gained from drugs or alcohol, you have to stay drugged or drunk. The process is deeply and heartbreakingly flawed. Those same good feelings are authentically available. But like all things of true value, we gotta do the deliberate, serious (and personal) work to ‘get there from here’.
And something else I learned in Seminary, is that there are quite possibly as many ways to do something as there are people to do it. Not right or wrong, based on approach. When I heard that it was not like a light went on in my head; it was more like a bomb went off.
For decades I held back on doing so many things, big and small, for fear I would do them wrong. It was earth changing when, after finally trying something, and doing it my way, there was no one there to tell me how wrong I was.
Maybe I was never really wrong, after all.
People always ask me when I started to write. Especially songwriting.
I can think of points along my childhood and teen years, when I wrote to process feelings or moments; heartbreak. Confusion. Boys. But the truth is I’ve always, as long as I can remember, written it down.
I say that, and it strikes me quite odd that a tiny girl, not exposed to literary pursuits, would even think of writing.
I was a post war baby; my mother and daddy were young, beautiful, hard working. My daddy was a Navy man, and knew how to do just about everything. They were musical, and funny, but they were not the type to bury themselves in Tolstoy or Hemmingway. They had better things to do: roll up the rug in the dining room on Saturday afternoon and dance to Benny Goodman and Kay Starr records. Or sit on the front stoop at sunset, leaning into each other, beer in hand, and watch the kids ride their trikes in the driveway.
So how did I end up here, at this keyboard? Or way back there, at that Big Chief tablet with my Dixon Laddie #304?
I remember a moment when I was five. I was sitting on the swing in the back yard at 1563 North Marion. The sky was so blue, and I was so happy, I wanted to write a song about how I felt. I threw my head back, and instead of words coming out, I cried. My happy went heartbroken in that moment; I wept, because I knew I was too little to write a song that sounded like the ones on the radio.
And it’s interesting, isn’t it? How I remember that moment so clearly. How even as I think about it, I am “back there,” under that blue sky. In that back yard on that swing. My stomach even grabs for a second as the feelings I had then are here with me now.
So I guess you could say the writing thing has always been part of what I am. I remember in first grade, Sister Dianna was teaching us a song, and I was saying the words with her. She stopped, looked at me, and said,
“Mary Cecelia, do you know this song already?” No, I didn’t. I’d never heard it before. But somehow, I knew what would come next in the lyrics. Didn’t everybody? No, it turns out. They didn’t.
In third grade, Sister Mary Damien announced that the Highschool newspaper class was asking for poems from the grade school. They were going to publish one poem in the next edition of their paper. We were to turn our poems in the next day. My hear jumped, and my head started spinning with the tomes I would write.
That night at home, I took out my Big Chief tablet and my Laddie pencil, and I wrote. I wrote at least a half dozen one-stanza poems. I gave each stanza a name, and its own sheet of lined paper. I made the pages as neat as my third grade southpaw printing could get.
The next morning, I shuffled into the classroom with my classmates, laid my stack of poems on the corner of Sister’s desk, and took my seat. I watched her eagerly, hoping she would be proud of me.
Finally, Sister Damien walked over to her desk and picked up my pages. She leafed through them, then ripped them in half and threw them in the waste basket. As she did so she looked up at me briefly and stated,
“You were not to copy out of a book.”
My stomach lurched. My face turned hot. My eyes welled up. I was horrified, for several reasons:
First, it would never have crossed my mind to turn in someone else’s work; the fact that she thought I would do such a thing made me want to cry.
Second, even at seven years of age, I was in a panic: those were the only copies I had. I learned an important lesson that day: always make duplicates.
Third, though my classmates were laughing at me, I was more concerned with people thinking I had such a flawed moral compass. They clearly didn’t know me at all.
On another level, buried deep beneath my chaotic feelings, was a little voice that whispered,
“Hmmm. They must have been good. REALLY good. She thought you copied them out of a book.”
A backhanded compliment from a nun, saying my work was so good I could not have done it. I’ve lived a lifetime of twisted victories like that.
In fourth grade, we had music class two mornings a week. One morning the music teacher announced that there would be a music program, and that we would be in it. She then said to the class,
“We will need someone to sing the solo. Are there any solo singers in here?”
The entire class turned, without a sound, and pointed at me. All I’d ever done was sing with everyone else. I was completely unaware of my own voice. With all those fingers and eyes directed at me, I buried my face in my arms and cried.
Eventually I did sing the solo in the program that year. And I kept writing. There were times, big stretches in fact, when I was writing for my life. And music is the silver thread that’s always kept me tethered here.
In fact, writing and music have laced the pieces of my life together, helped me make sense of myself, this world, and the path I’m on. They still do.
I used to think maybe these things were pieces of generations past, pulling me back. But I’m starting to believe maybe they’re pieces of the future, pulling me forward.
Either way, I’ll take it. And I’ll write and sing the pieces of my life together, for as long as I’m here.
I was a child of the sixties, and grew up in a household centered around the Holy Catholic Church and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. My parents were children of the Great Depression; they learned that life means do without, stretch a dollar, work hard, drink harder, and show up at Mass every Sunday. I was their first child, born to them when they were young, tragically beautiful, and very much in love.
When I was a little girl I would study my mother’s face … her hazel eyes, long eyelashes, full red lips. She was clearly a movie star. I wondered what she was doing in that two bedroom house on North Marion Street, with its linoleum kitchen floor and parched sapling in the front yard. Even at four-and-a-half, I knew she’d been miscast. Through the years, five more babies, and alcoholic chaos, it became an undeniable fact: my mother belonged in a different movie.
As the oldest daughter, my job was laugh inducing peacemaker. Lots of oldest daughters have that role. My brother, two years younger, was mother’s tenderhearted caretaker. We spent our childhood together in the family foxhole. Nothing will bond siblings like friendly fire. It’s a sort of hellish, heartbreaking love that no one else knows. But at the time, it was our family’s brand of ‘normal;’ imagine my surprise when, years later, I learned that some families had no foxhole at all.
I grew up and, with what I’d learned of how life works, and my place in it, I went out into the world. Within short order, I said “I do” to the boy in the band.
The boy and I were a textbook example of symbiotic dysfunction. Our fractured parts fit together perfectly. Through twenty five years and two children, we cut ourselves and each other on those jagged edges. Part of his brokenness included repeated indiscretions. Part of my brokenness included denying they were happening, while blaming myself that they were.
It was his final, spectacular betrayal with my sister that made me sit up and say, “No. There is no amount of glue that can put us back together this time.” I gathered up the pieces of my heart; I left the boy in the band.
The next eighteen months were like a slow motion train wreck. All I could do was hang on, and wait for it to stop.
I remember the date. May 10, 1991. That morning the phone woke me up. My attorney, calling to tell me the divorce was final. She’d used the word, “Congratulations.” I think I said, “Thank you,” but I wasn’t grateful for any of it. I hung up, and laid in bed, waiting. I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought I would surely feel … relief? Excitement, maybe? No. Just silence.
I threw off the covers, walked into the bathroom, and stared at the face in the mirror. Who will I be now? I whispered at her. A sincere question. I’d lurched through the decades, constantly reinventing myself, determined to be whoever those claiming to love me told me I was. Now I had no one to tell me. I was at a loss.
The next months and years were like being born, over and over again. I was the mother giving birth; I was the baby shooting out of the canal into what I prayed would be a gymnast landing. I wanted a 10 from the judges.
But it wasn’t working anymore, as if it ever really had. I finally raised the white flag of surrender. I’d run out of things to try, people to be. I was exhausted. All I had left was me. When I finally gave into myself, it felt like declaring bankruptcy.
For months, going out in public unvarnished was really frightening; but there was also an undercurrent of excitement. And eventually, slowly, what I’d feared most became easier, partly because it was natural. And I’d have to say the surprise for me was that while life is always full of challenges, showing up in it doesn’t have to be hard. Sometimes there are still glitches, but every day I’m moving closer to the center of someone I’ve always known; the person God put here and breathed life into. There’s a peace in connecting with what’s true in me; authentic perspective gives a clarity like nothing else.
During those years, I was living in Toluca Lake. On my walk one morning I glanced at a flower growing up through a crack in the asphalt. I went past it, then stopped, backed up, and studied it. That little flower was blooming and reaching for the sun, in spite of the considerable efforts made to stop it. “Wow,” I thought. “That’s me.”
Ever since I was a tiny girl, I’ve felt a check in my spirit … like a tiny thread of light, deep inside. Piled over with years of Catholic school, alcoholic parents, sweet babies, abusive marriage, broken dreams … you’d think that thread would have snapped, or caught fire, or disintegrated. It never did. And that’s what I’m back in touch with now.
These days, I know where home is. I’ve discovered that I was right here all the time.
And I have to smile because the truth is, I’ll always love the boy in the band.