Posted by: Mark Nielsen | July 10, 2011

The Italian Rock Tumbler

It feels alternately strange and comfortable to find myself living with my mom for the first time since I was in college.

We’re still figuring out all the rules, both spoken and implicit. As you’d expect, it’s those implicit assumptions that tend to trip us up. 

For example, how accountable should I be to make a “courtesy call” when changing my own private plans? Last Wednesday, when Graham and I chose to spend the night at my sister’s after joining them at Six Flags, that non-phonecall became an issue.

I thought we’d be home before 10am the next morning, but submitting to my sister’s more lax timetable meant that didn’t happen. Meanwhile, Grandma didn’t need to know this, technically, but she wanted to know.  And she was ticked when we rolled home at about 2pm.

So we slugged it out verbally for awhile. And now I don’t know exactly what to do next time it comes up, but I’ll probably err on the side of including her in at least some of my business, because for her, having that information reduces anxiety.

Mom can’t figure out her role in the lives of her adult children sometimes, and I don’t blame her. This issue is tricky for most families. I know it’s normal, in other words… Even if by comparison Mom tends to forget or take these things personally sometimes, like it’s her or our huge failure –at which point the shame/guilt cycle can kick in, and feelings get even more hurt than they already were after the inciting event of the conflict.

Not a problem, though. Because I know by now that selfless, spiritually aware, interdependent living is hard work, and we sometimes learn by failing each other miserably. Then we forgive (hopefully), move on, and like rocks in a tumbler, our rough edges are smoothed out.

Yet our American culture’s training in conflict resolution (not to mention forgiveness) is pretty poor, as a rule. And for volatile Italian and Mediterranean families, it goes totally against the grain. Our natural instinct is to instead express emotion immediately and colorfully, instead of bottling it up, and then to hold a grudge (Vendetta!!!) for another decade or so. Netizens like to talk about “flaming” people on a blog or forum. Heck, my Sicilian forefathers INVENTED FLAMING! WE JUST RAISED OUR VOICES INSTEAD OF USING CAPITAL LETTERS, BECAUSE HALF OF US COULDN’T READ TOO GOOD ANYWAYS. YOU GOT A PROBLEM WIT DAT, BUDDY?

So yeah. It’s hard for adults to live together in unity. It’s why many adults with perfectly reasonable parents still keep their distance, or move out of state. That way it won’t come up, except in the traditional high stakes/high reward annual holiday visit.

“Would you like some unsolicited advice as an appetizer? Or how about a little argument or an unintended “dig” with your turkey, dear? Maybe some guilt pie? Yes, it’s gluten free. I remembered. Aren’t you grateful?”

[Sarcasm Alert] I’m being a wise-ass here, friends. My mother is not that bad. She’s exceedingly nice, hospitable, and fairly healthy emotionally. So we’ll be fine.

Nevertheless, the phonecall thing above is just one example, among many to come, of figuring out that tricky little family minefield that therapists call “boundaries”. When is Carole’s tendency to worry, and some action she might take or suggest, actually inappropriate and intrusive? When is Mark’s spontaneity and tendency to avoid accountability (“easier to get forgiveness than permission”) actually immature and disrespectful? What is perceived as temporary clutter and what is a permanent eyesore?

These questions and many others will probably NOT be answered in the next installment of The Italian Rock Tumbler. Nevertheless, it’s important to ask them. Then doubly important not to shout our exaggerated, injured answers at each other, in front of the kids, like we did the other day.  Like a couple of dummies who don’t know better. Ugh… Lord, help me grow up before I grow old.


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