Teaching the World to Sing

On the basis of exactly no scientific evidence, I’ve concocted a theory for how to destroy the human spirit. The genesis of this theory was a session with a very good therapist, oh, ’bout thirty years ago. I was not happy with my mother–what therapy client is?–and had been maundering on at some length about being invisible to Mom, ignored, emotionally neglected, oh woe was little me.

Mind you, I had a childhood many would envy, but I was eight-and-twenty, no use to talk to me. Then too, I had become pregnant by virtue of a series of unfortunate events, and figuring out what the ideal mom should provide had become a pressing matter.

Eventually my therapist asked me: “If you could get even with your mother–no judgement, no responsibility, just blue-sky, for argument’s sake–what would you do to her?”

I didn’t even have to think. “I’d pop her into a phone booth way, way out behind Pluto, in the coldest, darkest corner of space. I’d give her one quarter, and I’d make sure the phone was out of order.”

You’d think, with an imagination like that, I’d have an easier time writing villains. Of course, I was describing what parts of my upbringing had felt like. The overwhelming impression is one meaninglessness and isolation that will never end. There is no point to stuffing that quarter in the slot, over and over, hoping, hoping, hoping for a different result on the 217,349th try.

And from that interesting (to me) discussion with a gifted therapist, I began to grasp that to be alone with troubles that make no sense and have no end in sight is really, really grueling, and beyond a certain point, impossible for most sane people to bear.

The flip side of this recipe was slower to penetrate my awareness: Staying positively connected with others, pursuing that which has meaning, and always keeping some breathing room and respite in sight are very likely to result in resilience and stamina when life hands out challenges.

Which life reliably does.

I thus keep a wary eye on anything that can isolate me for too long, or overburden me to the point that life feels like a pile of demands and deadlines. I try to figure out my own priorities, rather than let other people’s “shoulds” determine my to-dos. On a broader spectrum, I avoid adversary situations, because anything that sets up an “us versus them” dynamic has an isolating quality. Even in the courtroom, I’m trying to solve a problem, not attack an opponent.

So that’s my theory for world peace: meaningful work and connections, and lots of self-care.

Among the results of my meaningful work this week was a box of advanced reader copies for Too Scot to Handle, which doesn’t come out until July. To two commenters, I’ll send signed copies.

When you think of somebody who has egregiously wronged you, or wronged somebody or an organization you love, what does revenge look like? If that’s too dicey a question, what would restitution look like?






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46 comments on “Teaching the World to Sing

  1. How odd – I have never thought of revenge or restitution. Maybe if you had asked my younger self I could have come up with something as creative as yours. There have been times that I was so white-hot angry at someone that if I had had a gun handy, I would have settled things right then and there. That’s just one of the reasons I’m a strong proponent for gun control.

    I also had a contentious relationship with my mother. I never felt that she loved me as she should. I think I was in my late thirties when I finally came to accept her as she was. I realized the although she didn’t show it the way that I wanted her to, she did love me. And I loved her. After that we had a much better relationship, although we never did become really close. And even though she has been gone for twenty-five years, I still feel sad about that.

    • What I came to realize, after five years of weekly talk therapy with a very good therapist, and several years of motherhood, was that my mom did the best she could. She did love me–ferociously–but not always the way I needed to be loved.
      One of my older sisters casually remarked one day, “Mom was a better parent for boys, and for infants than for girls or older kids.” That was like the bluebird of resolved family issues touching me on the shoulder. YES, plain and simple. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, and Mom’s intentions surpassed her skills when it came to school-age and above girl children. What a relief. And then along came my own daughter with significant adolescent issues, and I was very glad I’d come to terms with Mom’s parenting.

  2. My relationship with my Mother is acrimonious. As the oldest, I had a lot of responsibilities; watching my younger siblings, laundry, housework and meal prep while my parents worked.
    It was tough always saying no when my friends were going to the beach or the mall because I had to watch my brother or get him to practice. My mother wasn’t there for me emotionally or physically. She favored my sister. She couldn’t take me to get my learners permit, drivers license or dresses in high school. And she was too busy to shop for wedding dresses with me.

    When I was pregnant with my daughter, I thought about what kind of mother I needed- as a teenager and young adult. I chose to be a better person. I try..every day. I listen and I don’t judge. I mean what I say..and have worked toward building a relationship with my daughter.
    I volunteered at school events, led brownie and Girl Scout troops, taught my daughter to drive and picked her up at college (without asking 5o questions) when she needed to come home.

    Being a mother is a positive as you influence your child’s behavior and provide emotional support and friendship.

    PS I like your villains. For the most part, they are people who have made poor choices–they are human. Like the relationships with the stories protagonists– you weave the villains story into the main characters story. The Duke’s Disaster is an example of this– and you surprised me!

    • My dad often said that his parents were an example of what he never, ever wanted to bring to the family equation. He learned from their bad example, and his seven children benefited. It’s interesting how experience, free will, the big world, and time all collude to give us a chance to think over who and how we want to be.

      From everything you’ve posted about that daughter of yours, she has TERRIFIC parents!

  3. After years of therapy and medical issues somehow imbuing me with a dose of empathy & compassion instead of bitterness, I look for the hole in the soul that’s fueling someone’s lashing out. It doesn’t necessarily fix anything, but also doesn’t exacerbate the issue.
    Restitution for an emotional hurt to me is stop doing it, simply stop. A sincere apology would be nice but unexpected.

    • Interesting observations. I’m re-reading Lord of Scoundrels, and at several points in the book, Dain has no idea what he’s doing wrong, but he grasps that it’s vexing Jessica sorely. Even he, in his wounded emotional blundering, knows he doesn’t want Jess to leave him. All he can do is STOP doing what vexes her, and watch her closely to see if that was the right direction. What he lacks in insight, he makes up for in determination and focus.

      But yes, stop. And then maybe look and listen.

  4. Thank you for sharing in this post. I had an ex whose actions and words caused me to feel every emotion from love to pure hate. Even after the split I found myself stressing horribly when thinking of him. Butter one day I could actually feel the ugliness inside me from that hatred. I finally had enough of him still being there with me by that hatred. I had my divorce and that was that. Time to move on
    Carol L
    Lucky4750 (at) aol (dot) com

    • When is butter ever a bad idea?

      Until my therapist asked me that question: What would justice look like to me (from about a seven-year-old’s perspective, I’m guessing), I couldn’t grasp what my own interior landscape felt like. I couldn’t articulate that I’d spent much of my childhood in the phone booth drifting past Pluto. The question was helpful for getting my own wiring sorted out.

      And then I could move on, as you say, to leaning how to pilot my spaceship into friendlier and healthier orbits. I needed the a-ha, and it sounds like you had a similar moment.

      Glad you evicted him.

  5. My initial reaction upon being wronged is to want the person to feel the same pain that I felt. I’ve matured enough now to let go of most things, except for one. A close family member did some serious damage to me that still haunts me. All I wanted was an acknowledgement that they were wrong. What I got was, “I know I shouldn’t have done it, BUT….” I think that the words that came after that “but” are what still keep me from letting this go today, decades later.

    • The therapists and mediators make a big distinction between a true I-statement “I feel THIS when you do THAT,” and the bogus version, which usually translates to: It’s YOUR FAULT I feel this, because YOU do that, and I have no responsibility in this whole equation, being utterly the victim of your stupidity and selfishness.”

      One is empowering–naming a feeling and identifying it for others. The other is just petty blame, that tries to wiggle away for the consequences of having hurt somebody.

      I’d still be mad too. Those bogus apologies are worse than no apology at all.

  6. There is a reason for everyone’s behavior, good or bad. I’ve mentioned before I write a *Dear Abby/Miss Manners* type column for my professional society’s website. People write me (email) with their problems. I try to merge similar problems together with solutions in my columns. It takes me several weeks to come up with solutions because I try to look at not only the problems, but what motivates those causing the problem.

    This is a technique I learned because of my autistic son. When he was young, we used behavior management techniques with him to not only correct his less desirable behavior but to get him to focus to be taught. Once we understood WHY he was doing something, it made it easier to correct or distract him long enough to teach him. It was a long struggle but we LOVE him, so of course, we made the effort.

    I understand how to back off long enough to understand why people do bad stuff to others. I don’t necessarily love the bad-doers but most times I understand why they do stuff. My revenge is to understand why those who do me wrong, do me wrong, and then be successful in my own life and work. You know what they say….success is the best revenge!

    • Amazing, what we can learn from our children.

      I too, derive comfort from being able to figure out why somebody is behaving in a way that troubles me. My light sword in this life has been my brains, and when my analytical processes deliver me an answer to a puzzle, I tend to trust that answer. Then I know what I’m dealing with, and can manage my path accordingly.

      Your son is very lucky have you for a mom, because the ASD folks I know who were raised with less astute parenting and supervision suffered awfully with the straight behavior mod agenda.

  7. I’m too busy living my own life to deal with hateful people. Moving on, now that I’m an adult and have choices keeps my energy from getting sucked, is my strategy of choice. If I do have to deal, setting the best example my patience and energy will permit seems the educational choice.

    My moment of insight came when sitting at Mayo Clinic clutching my beloved but exasperating mother’s hand as the neurologist showed the scan of voids and fissures where parts of her brain should’ve been. Watching her struggle to complete the simplest of tasks (to me) such as copying a stick figure drawing. It hammered home to me that some people really can’t help whatever they’re doing that drives the rest of us barmy.

    It also brought home to me the power of love. My dad spent his life loving a woman who quite literally wasn’t “all there” More importantly, my mom raised me, loved me fiercely even if she couldn’t understand me, and lived an incredible life relying on physical beauty and the kindness of strangers to compensate for an accident of genetics that would leave many people helpless or floundering. She even worked outside the home for most of her life.

    Now I don’t metaphorically bang my head against the wall with people. If I can’t communicate or educate to where I get my needs met after a period of time, I think of that shocking void in my mom’s skull, assume they’re functioning the only way they can, and move on. I think Dr. Phil explains it as they can’t give what they don’t have.

    • There’s wisdom floating around about how to deal with people who are fact-proof when you’re trying to reason with them from facts. Best advice: Hush up and show them a picture. Show them a graph, a chart, a photo. Go around the words and show them a picture of reality… like that scan of your mom’s brain.
      I don’t advocate revenge for any reason, but it sure was helpful for me to explore the topic hypothetically as a means of figuring out where my own missing pieces were.
      What compensatory skills your mom developed, and how lucky she was to have you for a daughter.

  8. I think that when we are consequenced either as a result of our one behavior or , unfairly, as a result of being affected by someone else’s behavior, we look for someone to blame. If we are adolescents we are quick to blame our problems on Mom and Dad. As adults we tend to blame our bad situations in spouses or sibling.
    I think that maturity usually helps us learn, rather quickly, that revenge or retribution do not solve anything!

    • You are right that we generally look for somebody to blame–anybody–when life goes sour. This is one of the reasons why long prison terms have absolutely NO deterrent value. Unless that sentence is imposed on everybody who does the crime, no matter what, and never imposed on people who are innocent, no matter what, AND it’s imposed immediately, our “blamer” gets to wedge its foot in the process, and we feel victimized rather than chastised when we’re locked up for years. You wonder what evolutionary purpose is served by that mechanism.
      (And yes, I realize, for the safe of public safety, a few–a very few– people need to be kept away from the general community–that’s another blog post!).

  9. In any touchy situation I find myself in, if I can access my “am I just needing to be right here?” rationale faster than my emotional outburst, I get a bit of grace for footing and the whole thing blows over much easier. Not that I can access that every time… sometimes flipping another driver off (far from graceful!) is so automatic, I worry about myself. Does it solve anything? No. Does it feel good? Sometimes.

    I guess the whole structure of LAW is to navigate between right and wrong without feelings getting in the way. But what happens if the Law itself is the thing that one finds egregious? Can there be any revenge?

    • You raise interesting questions. I’ve heard more than one judge admonish a party, “We do not have courts of revenge, we have courts of justice.” But as the meme says, the Holocaust was legal, enslavement was legal, wife beating was legal, child labor was legal… How do you change unjust laws?

      Sometimes, you do it through a book: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1984, The Jungle, Things Fall Apart, The New Jim Crow…

  10. Your comments hit a nerve with me and I totally relate to your feelings about your mother. When I was about eleven I spoke to my mother about a male family member that had molested me on more than one occasion. I was disappointed but not surprised that she ignored my plea and literally turned her face away. This was just the last of a series of incidents that confirmed to me that I was invisible or unloved by my mother. Needless to say our relationship further deteriorated after this.

    Fast forward thirty years and my mother was staying with me while battling cancer when she asked for my forgiveness for the mistakes she made and how she treated me. I could at that point honestly tell her that I had forgiven her many many years before (as well as my molester). I think that somewhere along the way I accepted that each person reacts to circumstances and other people in their own way and many of it’s colored by their past experiences. Holding on to the grief, sadness and anger only hinders you and your own personal growth. Nothing I could have done or said would have given me satisfaction so I console myself in trying to live my life on my own terms and try to accept people as they come.

    • I’m sorry this happened to you (it’s usually a friend or relative molesting a child), and glad you and Mom got closure on it. Your experience is part of what makes sexual abuse of a child so traumatic: First, your mistreated, and second, the reaction you get for disclosing the maltreatment to the people who’ve failed to protect you compounds the wrong. In some cases, THAT wrong-the inability of a care provider to acknowledge the harm, and their failure to safeguard you from the harm–is much harder to deal with than the underlying maltreatment.

  11. …meaninglessness and isolation that will never end. There is no point to stuffing that quarter in the slot, over and over, hoping, hoping, hoping for a different result on the 217,349th try.

    Sounds like an average work day! You obviously got better and I am so very glad. I try to do the best job I can, and go home at the end of the day. Where I count my blessings – there are always so many of them.

    Revenge always hurts the person who seeks it more. It’s better to let it go and move on – be happy.

    • Sounds like a tough job… but I guess every job has an element of pitching starfish about it. Mine lawyer job certainly does, and no matter how many I can’t save, I still need to keep pitching the ones I can reach back into the surf.

  12. These days thoughts of revenge and restitution focus on those who abuse animals. We do a lot of work with rescue organizations and shelters and unfortunately see and hear way too many stories of animal abuse and neglect. The simplest restitution thought is that there is a special circle of hell reserved for those people only shared by the ones who abuse children. We have invented some original punishments such as being striped down covered in stinky fish guts and tied to the floor of a room filled with hungry kittens and puppies (who have extra sharp teeth). Or being strapped down in a big nest of angry fire ants.

    • The people who work with victims of trauma tell us that “revenge fantasies” are a healthy step along the way toward re-empowering ourselves, provided they remain fantasies and a step along the way–not obsessions that get us stuck.
      Child abuse is awful, but in the case of most children, there’s a safety net–family, neighbors, teachers, even stranger, will speak out and intervene.
      Animals have no way to speak up, they are property, and they are often confined where nobody else will see them. In some ways, they are worse off than children, and that haunts me.

  13. Living well is the best revenge.

    And I love the southern “Bless her heart.”

    And I would enjoy condemning someone who had wronged me to endless staff meetings in airless conference rooms with someone smoking cherry rum tobacco.

    And, another from someone who is very creative…

    ‘Excerpt From: Burrowes, Grace. “Jack.” iBooks.
    This material may be protected by copyright.

    “Those who disrespect their mothers can look forward to emptying chamber pots during cholera epidemics in many subsequent lives. My own sainted father assured me of this, and he would not lie to his beloved son.”

    • He was a fun character to write!

      Yes… meetings, which have been proven to be about the least productive use of professional time ever invented, though they make managers feel good, just like open plan offices and everybody working on site. GRRRRR.

  14. I was 27 years old and was in Paris. I thought my French was good enough, it was not. I was told off in perfect English. I wanted to send that person into space and die. On the subject of self-care I bought season tickets. I saw “The Bodyguard” on Saturday starring Deborah Cox and Judson Mills, it was so good. I am so glad I went.

    • I got the same routine in German–corrected, put down, sneered at. My Spanish has often been laughed at, but always kindly.

      You are reminding me that when I visit my daughter, we will see both Beauty and the Beast, and Hidden Figures. Wheee!

  15. My personal religious beliefs say that what goes around comes around. I don’t need to get revenge… Karma will do that eventually, if not this lifetime, then the next… Which is why I’m sure that certain politicians will be born, in their next life, to poor peasants in war torn insect infested countries with no way to escape, or as the children of junkies prostitutes or as street people in Beijing. And they will look at America, with its streets paved with gold, and **want** and will not be able to get here because of their own policies from this lifetime.

    Unfortunately my personal religious beliefs also include forgiveness… So they probably will be able to get here… And will prosper.

    That forgiveness thing is *hard*

    • Our memories are programmed to hold onto the bad stuff. Those bad memories are there to remind us: Don’t do that again, please. I get the neurology, but it does seem like negativity has an unfair hold on the mood and the mind sometimes.

  16. Revenge. I have found it to be in some instances cold comfort. If revenge is no forgiveness it bites the person deeply and takes an awful lot of negative energy which could be better used elsewhere. That doesn’t mean I don’t WANT revenge. It’s just that after plottings I generally find that the only one getting hurt is …..me. Best to let God deal with them (with a few suggestions from me, of course !!)

    • I can’t think of a time when I’ve actually sought revenge. Don’t know if it’s fear of the Lord, or fear of the memory of Sister James in and her yardstick, or as Beth said above–who has time for that?

  17. What a wonderful question! Like you I have a long list of wrongs my now dear-departed Mom did to me. BTW, I did not grow up deprived. Now that I am a Mom, I think she did the best she knew how given her own insecurities. But restitution would be sweet. How about, “I like you just the way you are.” None of this why are you not like the other girls who dress so much prettier and who are not always reading. It does a world of good to be treasured for who you are rather than berated for who you are not. I am trying to treasure my daughters but am not sure if I am having more luck than my Mom. LOL. I hope that when I am long gone my girls too say, She did the best she knew how.

    • I worry that my daughter has let me off too easily, and that I will get a trip to the maternal woodshed one of these years.
      My mom had some classic mixed messages: Don’t worry about how much you weight because no matter how big you get, you always seem to have a good figure…
      She meant well. She really, truly did mean well.

  18. I’ve been there but I haven’t done what I need to do. I need to sit down and write every last word of the deceit, hate, and the person lost in death by a neglectful and greed-ridden member of the family who helped with the death of my loved one. Wallow in the words for a few days, hours, or minutes enjoying the reading and re-reading. Then burn it . . . watching the smoke and ashes disintegrate along with the feelings I have for the perpetrator, hopefully realizing that all of these feelings of hate for this person are disrupting the peace in my thoughts, heart and life. Let it go and live with the words: “Holding on to anger is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die”. (Don’t know whose actual quote this is; it is widely disputed as to the originator; however, truer words were never spoken.)

    • What a sad situation, and I am so sorry this befell you. Grief and anger are very hard to untangle, but I really like your idea for a ritual that sends the whole business up in smoke. Might take a few rituals, repeated at regular intervals, but it’s a good direction to think on.

  19. MY parents were very domineering, manipulative and controlling. My revenge has been to be totally and completely independent of them, giving them no insight into my life and nothing to use to manipulate me. As a young adult, this meant I forced myself to not want things I couldn’t purchase. Not just to learn to not have these thing, but to not desire them at all. It was a great ability to have as I got older. And has helped me realize that things don’t matter so much as experiences.

    • You wonder where you got that degree of insight at such a young age, because cutting the drama loose is usually so hard. You did it though, and saw clearly despite all the upheaval. Good on ya, and yes… stuff is just stuff, beyond a few necessities and mementos. Memories are for keeps!

  20. What does revenge look like? Huh, I’ve never let myself dream like that, lol. I’m always too afraid of what will be done back to me! The one time I let myself attempt revenge, I hurt my sissie, a woman who is going through cancer (for the third time) with a smile in her heart and a care for her girls (both adults). So I’m gonna go with restitution. I would want the guilty party to admit, well, guilt. Admit what was done and for whatever reason it was done for, apologize and then we can just move on. My sense fairness would be satisfied and I wouldn’t feel guilty for trying to gain revenge. My husband says that’s kinda Pollyanna-ish, but I know me, and I’d be the one to feel guilt. After reading through my answer, I think guilt may play a big part in my life. ☺️

    • I read in your comment not so much guilt, as an abiding rationality: If somebody is wrong, they should SAY SO. When they don’t say so, it’s very hard not to doubt ourselves, doubt our recollections, our emotions, our senses… which is why these weasels don’t say so.
      We stew in our doubt, and they can pretend innocence.

  21. The experience in your life as a mother, attorney, author,& child of a mother,even the insight I just read in “Her Grace Notes Blog” has created the person whose books should inspire readers & other authors!
    Discovered my love for reading as a junior in High School,this helped develop the attitude:”laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone”. Also, helping me over the bad times, the first two lines in a book:The Roadless Traveled, by M. Scott Peck. It reads “life is difficult” after then he explains that once you accept that premise everything becomes easier. From an old preacher, similar philosophies to help us over the rough times “If you’ve never been in the valley, how can you enjoy the mountain top” Grace with your books you are on the mountain top. Always searching to find a book you’ve written I’ve missed. How many years until you retire & write full time? (Wish I could put words together-you make them come alive!) Send the book to your daughter or I can, thanks for Scotland!

    the same from an old preacher

    • I did not enjoy “The Road Less Traveled,” too preachy and pedantic. Life is about love, not suffering, but old Scott had to make it about suffering and other Puritan myths. Didn’t work for me.
      By contrast, I thought People of the Lie was brilliant, insightful, courageous… and The Different Drum should be required reading for every high school sophomore.
      Glad you are enjoying the books, and you are right: Whatever water has gone over the dam, it’s all part of arriving to this lovely time in life where I get to do an awful lot of what pleases me, and hang out with some of the nicest, most interesting people. THIS is the fun part!

  22. Something you mention here resonates deeply with me as well, the part about how isolation feels. As a person who grew up with a mother with whom I had a complicated relationship and a step-father who was one of the most calculating villains a girl could dream up, I emerged as an adult with heaps of ambivalence and a distorted view of family. When I was living through the emotional upheaval of those days, I often wondered what I had done to deserve my fate. Then, when I turned 17 and moved into student housing and completely cut the family ties, I vacillated between feelings of good riddance and total isolation. Another year passed before I met someone, as it turns out “the one”, who gave me hope for a future less bleak. While every day since then has not been rainbows and shooting stars, the balance of them finds me musing to myself in a much different register than years ago, what did I do to deserve this. Still, because of the experience I had growing up and despite my spouse’s unwavering love and support, there are times when isolation creeps up. There can be nothing at all amiss, but a hollow feeling assails me. It’s taken lots of years to figure out what I need to mitigate these feelings. Turns out that in addition to the mental work I’ve done to heal, I also need more physical contact than those who had different upbringings than I did to reassure myself that everything is okay, that I am worthy, that no one is going to change their mind about their love for me.

    I bring all of this up not as a substitute for therapy (thanks for listening, though), but to point out that reading your books is another way I have found to sooth those feelings. So many of your characters grapple with feeling alone and isolated and you always provide them with just the balm they need, in the form of friends, love interests, siblings who persist in connecting with the lonely character. Often, your characters reinforce warm feelings for one another through a multitude of casual, physical touches. Those moments when errant hair is tucked, when a neck is rubbed, when foreheads lean against each other, are so, so soothing to me. I don’t think I really understood this about myself until I started reading your books. All of a sudden, I found an entire fictional world of kindred spirits. So, thank you for that. Truly.