Retreat Recreate and Renew 2002
What am I doing here? Cassandra was given to talking to herself lately. The new therapist said it didn’t mean she was crazy. In fact, much to Cassandra’s surprise, she encouraged the “self talk.” The therapist lady said it helped to gain awareness.
Thick forest lined the narrow road. The mountains rose up out of the horizon as she made her way through the last mile of her long trip to the RRR retreat. The late afternoon light produced unbelievable variations of green and blue trees, and the breeze coming through the sunroof of her new Acura made her feel so alive. In the past she had not gone to the woods for any reason other than to visit her grandma in Alabama, and she had never gone to the mountains of West Virginia to spend time with people she didn’t know. This would not be happening if she hadn’t asked a friend for the number of a therapist. A couple of women she knew had gone to therapy, but she always thought she could manage her own “problems.” The last year had been a hard one, filled with an emptiness that had been hanging around for years. The emptiness was joined by a scared feeling. Cassandra had always thought of herself as courageous. The emptiness she had learned to live with, but the scared part was getting to be really troublesome.
The first question her therapist asked at that first session was, “What brings you here?” She told the therapist “I’ve done everything I was supposed to do. I attended an Ivy League undergraduate school and without taking a break went on to an Ivy League graduate school. I made great grades and now I make great money. I’m doing really well in my career.”
After that little speech she felt a bit tight and breathless. Cassandra was a vice president of a major cultural institution, and she was in the midst of being recruited for a similar, but much more prestigious, position at a well-known university. “I’m a member of several boards and assistant chair of one. A lot of mornings I wake up empty and scared that everything I’ve done seems meaningless and without purpose. The therapist asked about her life dreams. “What do you mean dreams?” The scared feeling got worse in that moment. It felt like chills starting at her feet and moving like a wave throughout her entire body. She didn’t remember what she said right then – it seemed like it was some babble about writing and teaching. She remembered thinking that she wouldn’t come back after that session. What is that lady trying to do to me? In the week that followed, the scared feeling changed to an incredible anxiety, and then it seemed to crawl under her skin morphing into a kind of anger she had never felt before. She was really mad and confused, but somehow she decided to return.
The next session started with Cassandra giving a report on the week’s activities, including the usual call from her mother and father. “My parents and I talk every week, sometimes twice. I listen to them. They ask me about work and then tell me about my brother and sister. I hear the family drama of the week and about church and who died. I secretly ache for them to sincerely ask about me. It rarely happens.”
“Tell me about your family.”
Cassandra immediately began to tell the story the one she had told so many times without thinking. “My family is great.” My father was career military. He was a mechanic. Daddy had the reputation of being able to fix anything that had wheels. We were lucky we didn’t have to move around. My mother is an elementary school teacher. She has been honored many times. I have an older brother and a younger sister. My parents always tell the story of how they met in Sunday school. “Love at first sight.” They became each other’s family. My mother’s mother died when she was twelve years old. Mostly aunts raised her. My father grew up in a family of ten. He started to work when he was twelve. ‘I bagged groceries every day,’ he would say with a fierce pride. Nobody believed they could do it at age eighteen and nineteen, but they worked hard to make a home for themselves and their kids. They took turns going to school. We had all we needed: food, clothing and a good solid house. We all took some kind of lesson. I took piano. I’d get straight A’s most of the time.”
“What was it like growing up in the Deep South?”
“It was fine. There were certain ways you had to do things.”
“Tell me more.” This felt like a genuine invitation from the therapist lady.
“Well you had to look a certain way, ‘neat as a pin,’ my grandmother would say. We could never be seen as dirty or unkempt. Most of the time we had to keep our opinions to ourselves. Children didn’t have opinions.”
“What did you guys do for fun?”
“You mean us kids?”
“Well, I mean the whole family.” It was a simple question, but somehow I didn’t want to answer.
“We worked. I remember working.”
“Well, yeah, we worked at school, did chores, worked at church, worked at Bible School. There was lots to do. Every once in a while we would go on the church picnic or fishing. We would sit on the front porch on summer evenings, and the neighbors would come by. The adults would talk and the kids would run around and play games.” Words began to spill out from nowhere. “Work was important!” I felt defensive. “We had to do good. I had to achieve. I had to make them proud.” I was responsible.”
“It sounds like you had to carry a lot.” I was silent, but I felt that wave again. This time I began to sob and sob. When I was calmer, I told another story. One I didn’t say out loud ever. The story of my father’s yelling. Yelling when things did not go well, when we were not perfect. Yelling when we were wasteful, when money was tight. The story of my terrified mother wringing her hands like you would wring a dishtowel. Daddy never physically hurt anybody. He just screamed. All I know is that I felt like I had to make it better. Every decision I made, every aspiration I had, was to “make it better.”
The therapist lady looked at me, her face soft, not surprised. The look I probably have when I find something I have misplaced but was sure I’d see again.
“Make what better?” The therapist lady had this habit of repeating what I said. I knew her trick. It made me talk more. Before I could stop myself I said, “Make everything better.” We sat in silence for what seemed like forever, but it really was only a few minutes.
“Is that how you live your life, to make everything better, to make it all work?” The anxiety started in my chest and upper arms and my stomach began to bubble like boiling water. She waited. “It’s a big job for one little girl.” She said this with piercing clarity. More tears, but I could talk.
“Who else would do it if I didn’t? I know they expect me to do it.”
“What makes you the special one?”
“I don’t know!”
We sat in quiet until there was no more time.
At the end of our next session, the therapist lady gave me a brochure for Retreat Recreate Renew with its theme: Daughters: Carriers of The Promise. My first thought was “that’s not going to happen.”
Here I am a couple of months later driving the last mile through the woods in West Virginia to be with women I don’t know. What am I doing here?
I learned on Friday evening that the therapist lady and her friend, another therapist, would be called facilitators. I felt so awkward even though I could see that the therapist ladies had worked hard to make dinner and the evening introduction fun and welcoming. Some of these women knew each other, and many of them had been here before. I had to fight feelings of being different. If women were continuing to come back, maybe this “process” might not be so bad. At least they probably don’t do ritual sacrifices.
I didn’t fully realize just how terrified I was until lunchtime on Saturday. Everything that happened before I saw one of the therapist ladies standing in front of this huge sheet of paper on the wall, which they called a scroll, is a blur.
My stomach churned when I realized the scroll started with a slave ship. Then there was a little collection of shacks, the slave quarters. Women stood in the yard holding babies, and a little girl stood apart all alone. All of the men were standing in the background. A little further back were a house that looked like my grandmother’s place and then a tenement house in a big city. There were stick figures in different places. The familiar anxiety struck when I saw the last image of a stick figure woman/girl with a shadow standing behind her. Everything in me wanted to run out of the room, but my curiosity won out as it had all of my life. I stayed, listened, felt and learned why I, like many of the women in the room with me, were “Carriers of the Promise.”
Spellbound, I heard the message. The promise is the commitment that family members make to each other to survive, to achieve materially and elevate the family in social standing over time. This is the challenge for most striving families. Uniquely, in many African-American families a daughter is given the responsibility to bring the promise to fruition even if the rest of the family does not follow. The expectation is for her to do this on behalf of the entire family and to use her successes to soothe the pain, challenges and failures of the rest of the family. This daughter owes care to everybody at all costs, even if it requires her to sacrifice important parts of herself. This is not an up-front agreement. Most often it is unsaid, very often unconscious. The chosen girl lives her life for her family.
This way of doing life has its origins in the history of our people. Powerful African men who were brought to this country were very threatening to the white landowners. Women were less threatening and could bear children and nurture everybody. The slave community developed a mechanism of women subtly assuming responsibility for navigating, maneuvering and manipulating the environment to give everybody the best chance at survival. Women held the joy and pain of legacy, the hope and disappointment of dreams.
I looked again at the stick figure at the end – the girl with the shadow – and I knew why I was here. I knew for sure that I had been trying in every way I could, for as long as I could remember, to carry the promise. I looked at that shadow, and my anger and fear did not seem so strange. I understood why my good job and good money didn’t make a damn bit of difference to me sometimes. Why sometimes I didn’t feel purposeful and I felt no passion for my “good life.” I would have screamed at the top of my lungs right then and there if the talk had not begun to happen. Women saying what they thought and felt, ideas and emotions flowing freely, a rich dialogue that let me know I was not alone. I began to see another side of my father’s screaming, my mother’s wringing of her hands and me feeling so ashamed when I couldn’t fix it. This is not just some distant uncomfortable memory, but a life experience that is important to my here and now. Slavery is important to my here and now.
During the morning, we did a number of exercises. I got clearer and clearer about the shape of my life. The convenience of a man who couldn’t commit a real commitment would mean I couldn’t carry the promise as easily. Why I always did what I was “supposed to do,” even when it didn’t make sense for me. Why I couldn’t bear the thought of my parents not having everything they wanted, even though they could save money just like me. Why it was my job to make them “happy,” whatever that meant.
I listened to the women talk at lunch. I took a walk. I breathed. I couldn’t imagine what I would do with all of this knowledge. After lunch we did more work to give words to the promise we had made to our families. We put it on paper; we read it to a partner. The unsaid was said.
On Sunday morning the time of ritual came, and the women who had come before knew what this meant. Usually ritual time came on Saturday evening, but this year there was so much to say and so much work to do that we had to hold off this important practice until Sunday. The women who had attended before anticipated this time because they understood how important ritual was to making our work real. We had the opportunity to rewrite our promises. We actually had a chance to define our lives for ourselves and honor our legacy in words. And then we had a chance to say it to the whole community and ask for women to stand with us in our new commitment. This process was heartbreaking and heart healing all at the same time. Women cried and wailed; some rocked and sobbed. Others held themselves so tightly that they could not exhale. There was so much sorrow and grief in the room as we said, “No, I will not do that or be that or fill you anymore. I will love you, but I will not be who you need me to be or to make all your dreams come true. I will be me. I will see me. I will make my own dreams come true. I will love you and honor my legacy.”
Now it is five years later. I still work hard every day to stand for myself. But I have made many changes. I actually think about the act of giving gifts to my parents. I know the difference between giving a gift, sharing of myself and fulfilling an obligation. I’m only on one board, I spend some of my free time at the gym or riding my bike and I have made a beautiful garden my very own gift of nature. I read and write voraciously in the early morning. I don’t have a man in my life right now. I think I may want to share my life with someone one day. Really share my life, not just hang out.
I still see the therapist lady from time to time to check in.
I wake up in the morning and the one thing I know for sure is that I belong to me. I know this even if on occasion I lose my way.