Worrisome Worms

Back in the fifties, shops often sold bait to fishermen in metal cans with lids, holes and handles.  Once on a hook, the wriggly little Scooby snacks attracted their unsuspecting piscine target by their movements.  But- opening a can of worms left you with a few things to manage, like remembering to put the lid back on so that the rest of them didn’t escape,  Complicating any process needlessly and creating more difficulties than are otherwise expected is opening a can of worms. 

I don’t remember much about the tools and traditions of fishing, except through the things I’ve handled.  There’s something evocative, almost sacred about old hats, hooks, lures and assorted trappings of days gone by.  These items were in the garage of my maternal grandparents, in thrift stores across the coastal areas of southeast Texas and in sundry forgotten closets and corners I’ve cleaned out over the years.  What IS it about old things?  Books, bling, bits and bobs of fishing gear are haunted by hands and hearts that used them.

We experience the past in a visceral way through handling these artifacts, even if they belonged to people unknown to us. I remember the smell of old books in the library in the small Texas town of Point Comfort. In the seventies, I can recall the sense that the books had been there for some time. It was in the smell of the old bindings, the off white and yellow of faded papers and in the walls themselves, something of an existential patina whereby each new summer brought those seeking relief from the everyday sameness of small town life on hiatus from the rhythms of the school year.

It was a window onto the worrisome world of my mother’s young adulthood, a mirror into the past through which I vicariously experienced her adolescent angst, composed at once of her passionate nature, competitive drive and idealism tempered by the realities of an inhospitable environment. These traits were, as a matter of course, somewhat ill fitting social garments for young women in the southern small Texas towns of the fifties.

These were things that I intuited, as every generation has done, by piecing together the echoes of her experiences. The meanings that she had made of them included unwanted compromise, unresolved places of pain and courageous attempts to embody the life that she sought to live on her own terms. She passed these experiences to me, with and without volition, through the way that they shaped her parenting.

Fishing in the waters of small town life, as a metaphor, certainly came with its share of social, familial and psychic cans of worms. Those denizens sometimes tangled themselves up in clumps or tumped themselves out in embarrassing disarray to be tutted over in the slightly mocking, moralizing tone so particular to 1950’s small town living, Anywhere, South USA.

The wisdom of my mother’s parenting was formed, in large measure, by the impact of her cumulative experience. She had faced a number of consequences for her choices to speak up, compete vigorously and be an affectionate and loyal friend. She was also a bit of an adventurer and addicted to the idea of using her creative, intellectual and relational faculties to compensate for lack of opportunity, resources and setbacks.

As a person, she was a vivacious, compelling whirlwind who never met a stranger. She was a gregarious bon vivant who was always up for adventure. Mom was in on the fun, in on the joke and in the know in her small communities overseas. She also had a sensitive emotional nature and a strategic bent. She could brood over a cutting remark from an acquaintance and what it might portend for her place in the pecking order. She intuitively understood the value and relevance of social capital.

Lessons learned from small town life: show to advantage, be a confidante and find a base of operations both socially and professionally. Also, work your network for connections, information and resources that can be helpful in your overall progress. She succeeded in carving out a career for herself as an educational administrator in Madagascar in the late sixties. In Saudi Arabia during the seventies, she found a role in accounting and remained the favorite of her supervisor for years. Comparable opportunities were few and far between in both locations.

I remember her attempts to help me navigate the first decades of my life as intermittently anxious and judgmental. In retrospect, her advice was often ineffective. As accomplished as she was, she failed to grasp that her frame of reference was not suitable to my lived experience. Talk about mutual frustration! Her wisdom was hard-won, acquired under the dual difficulties of the realities of small town life and the intransigent limitations of years lived as a “following spouse” in Antananarivo and Ras Tanura.

But- my lived experience had different demands. Sure, she’d survived and even thrived in her roles by using her rules. She’d educated teens and prepared them for boarding school. She’d helped friends get jobs as women living abroad. She’d seen economic prosperity and ease as well as seasons of severely curtailed resources with our family. Plainly, she had her credentials as a subject matter expert on life.

Every parent has some desire to smooth the way for their children. From reminders to “wash your hands!” to avoid disease to the importance of keeping tidy and sitting nicely with the adults at the table, my mom had her rules. She had a tolerably ordered world and wanted the same for us. She was also an Authority on Life. Trouble with friends? Trouble in school? Trouble on the job? Mom had an answer for you. Her optimism, energy and certainty inspired hope!

Sometimes her creativity came in handy. As a devoted florist with a few thousand dollars worth of ribbon rolls being snipped to bits by her granddaughter, she suddenly found time to bargain hunt for ninety-nine cent ribbon rolls for Ms. Scissor-hands. Flowers being drowned by the same little elf and a watering can? No problem. Silk flowers it is! “Grandma, they do not smell. They are not growing…” “Keep watering, sweetie!”. A solution born of equal parts of creativity, determination and necessity can resolve many challenges.

For parents and caring professionals, however, navigating the intricacies of family, community and care networks can challenge all of our faculties. Your special needs child or client also has a different felt experience than you imagine. Differences in perception, processing and physical or psychological factors make ordinary tasks extraordinarily difficult.

The gaps between imagined and real life are also troubling: practically, fatigue and frustration can set in on all sides. The temptation to substitute what it MIGHT feel like to navigate the day with one or more special needs, a wholly imagined construct, for actual experience of what it DOES feel like, a lived experience, is that can of worms we’ve alluded to.

Fixing anything without first understanding the issue on all sides is risky. The impact of ineffective efforts to manage well, relate well and provide appropriate supports are trauma, waste and a whole host of new issues to contend with. I cannot really step into the shoes of another person’s lived experience. But this happens all the time with people managing to Autism. Visual impairment. IDD. ADHD. Dyslexia. Dysgraphia. Each challenge or combination of challenges creates a uniquely inflected felt experience of daily life.

What happens caring professionals, community members and parents act without first gaining a real sense of the felt needs, wants and wishes of the client? Simply put, the client becomes an object. The intervention becomes dysfunctional. Damage is the result. Sometimes, it’s not about the Rules of the Road as we understand them. It’s about the person in front of us and our mutual need to connect and to collaborate in order to build out the Road ahead.

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