You know, unexpected conversations are my favorite kind of dialogue. Especially with people who are younger in age, or those elders who seem to remain youthful in spirit, though life’s clock has denied them the luxury of a slow pace in the race toward our shared inevitable fates. It is in these conversations I find myself most aware of my own hang ups about the “what if’s”, while allowing myself the space to grow from the wisdom gained from varying perspectives. Where we all tend to meet in the middle, and what I find most interesting there, is that life is never as bad as we perceive it to be. Our memories are usually fragmented from our traumas which then lead us down a spiraling path to search for ourselves somewhere along this journey we call adulthood. I, in no way, set the intention of discrediting a traumatic upbringing to make my case in this letter. Our experiences are valid and no one should understand the emotional toll taken on one’s life, unless the other party has indeed, walked a mile or more in the other’s shoes. I only bring the subject of childhood trauma to the forefront of my argument to highlight the enlightenment attained through the recollection of my own childhood with a young man, a brilliant mind younger than myself, my little brother. So here’s what happened…
Like clockwork, I receive a rhythmic rap at my bedroom door every morning to which my younger brother will pop his head in, huge smile on his face,”Hey sis! What you got going on today?”, his usual greeting. This day was no different yet the discussion that ensued afterward happened to be, in the most profound way, different. Our chat began lightly around our age difference, myself being ten years his senior, but then it transitioned into a slow walk down memory lane. A walk I am not fond of revisiting too often. You see, my memories of childhood have been deeply shaped around my experience of growing up with four siblings in a military, Southern Baptist household. On a good day, it seemed that our parents were oblivious to their children and the growing pains of kids being forced to uproot their lives every other year. Though the difficulty of moving frequently came with us being tasked to start fresh and overcome the obstacles of always being the new kids or making friends, we at least always looked out for one another. In contrast, when it seemed our parents were actively present, they were just shy of being raging lunatics. In the off hours that my siblings and I weren’t left alone to look after each other or attending school, we were being ordered to wash baseboards and walls, or find our way out of a swamp at two in the morning on a school night. That did happen, by the way. It’s quite the dramatic take on what I felt was a traumatizing childhood, and in a way what I felt was holding me back in multiple areas of my adult life. It also didn’t help my self esteem being bullied in school from 5th through 8th grade, so a rough home life made my childhood feel just fucking peachy. Regardless of a good or bad childhood, isn’t it so that there is always some narrative we spin to ourselves out of self preservation that stands in the way of our healing?
My brother, on the other hand, didn’t experience the iron rule of our parents that our other three siblings and myself grew to normalize. Our parents were very hands-on in his upbringing, perhaps because as he grew older we grew into our adult lives and in some fashion asserted our independence from them. They worked and made time to watch him run and destroy the competition at his track meets on the weekends. The sinking feeling of switching schools and having to make new friends yet again was never an accustomed routine. Nor did he ever have to develop a tolerance for waking up to Johnny Taylor blasting throughout the house on a Saturday morning, cleaning supplies lined up ceremoniously down the hallway, in preparation for an intimate dance with “elbow grease” against whatever surface they deemed was in need of a deep cleaning. In other words, my younger brother had the childhood of my dreams, or so I thought.
What I didn’t register until our chat was that he had longed for, and missed out on the experiences shared between our siblings and myself. His age difference, ranging between eight and twelve years apart from the rest of us, was attributed to his lack of memories that growing up with siblings close in age would have. As our conversation continued, he shared that he didn’t have many recollections of our grandparents, spending summer vacations with cousins, or the burden of being free labor to our parents which bonded the rest of us. In fact, it dawned on me that during his adolescent years, we were all in the process of leaving home or had already moved out. This time in our lives, though liberating, was also a period that would prove he needed us most. Our parents were on the cusp of splitting up, and through his revelation I realized that in his childhood narrative, he had a bit of scarring there too.
We continued exchanging stories about sneaking out of the house, traveling with friends for extra curricular activities, and our High School partying days which brought a lightness to our prolonged emotional unpacking. Our banter see-sawed a few more times between us about whose childhood damaged who more until we landed on the resolution that maybe our lives weren’t all that bad. Maybe we just narrowed in a little too much on the notion that our negative experiences were the only experiences worth remembering. Thanks to nostalgia, when we tend to look back at our pasts through a narrow lens, we compartmentalize the dots that connect the good with the bad, and overvalue or undervalue certain memories more than others. Here I was believing that my parents rarely showing up for my dance competitions in High School meant that they didn’t believe in me, when in reality they worked a lot! Looking back, they were tired all of the time, and probably trusted that I was responsible enough to have a certain level of independence and management over my own schedule. Would having them more involved been nice? Sure, but the level of autonomy that I’ve gained now as a creative surely would have been influenced to some degree. I could very well have given up on my chosen profession or interests as soon as I realized that it wasn’t happening overnight, or that self management is a necessary skill set to see consistent results. Learning this lesson early on in life through my own upbringing certainly has put me ahead...not that far ahead...but it has been an asset to my trajectory as an artist.
My point here is that our parents do the best with what they know. Often, their parenting styles have a lot to do with the trauma of their childhoods that they’ve yet to transcend, and unfortunately end up perpetuating a cycle within their own family. Your job is to name it, feel it and break the cycle. I am most grateful for this conversation because not only did I realize that I had not moved beyond this pain in my adult life, but I had used the reliving of it as an excuse as to why I was limited...or limiting myself for that matter. My eyes are now open to a concept I had briefly learned about a few years ago, but had yet to apply. Radical love. In order for me to move beyond my own limiting beliefs and shift paradigms, an application of radical love and compassion for my parents is necessary. Only then am I able to forgive and let go of this narrative that my childhood broke my spirit. It didn’t. It molded my spirit and has allowed me to inner-stand a layer of myself that has been begging for my return for a lifetime. This must be what “finding yourself” feels like. We need love and the lessons we are taught through the act of loving others and ourselves unconditionally to truly transform. So I say to you my good folk...my kinfolk...take a moment to reflect on your past. Where does it hurt? Who hurt you? Name it and feel it. And if in this particular moment you are finding it difficult to forgive the past, at least forgive yourself. Show yourself some love, and the rest will follow.
* “Say kinfolk” is a commonly used greeting in Texas Black and Brown communities, as well as other southern based communities.