The Big Answers

My mom at 15 with my oldest sister.

My mom at 15 with my oldest sister.

I’ve always been plagued with having a horrible memory. I know people who can recall every detail from elementary school, every friend they sat with at lunch and every birthday gift they ever received. If it wasn’t for one of my best friends who has that kind of memory, my high school years would be a blur. If it wasn’t for my journals, my past would be mostly lost. My childhood memories are even more splotchy and since I didn’t grow up with people who like to talk about things, I’ve been left to fill in the gaps with snippets of memory and innuendo. My dad can give you an entire history of our family on both sides of the ocean but he shies away from the kind of questions I’ve always wanted to ask.

Why did you marry my mother? What did your 20 year old self see in a 25 year old woman with 4 kids? Why did you get divorced?

Since I didn’t feel comfortable pressing my dad for answers, I asked people on the periphery, who weren’t even there when it all happened. They shed some light but I always felt like my story was incomplete. When I’d ask similar questions of my mom, the timing was always off. I’d ask her when she was drinking, or when I was drinking and I never felt like I had the puzzle pieces I was looking for. Eventually I stopped asking.

I have a big family and 6 half-siblings. I have cousins I’ve never met and nieces and nephews I barely know. I remember being at a family gathering a little over a year ago and watching one of my nieces sit awkwardly and uncomfortably in her chair. I always thought I was the resident outsider but as I looked around, I saw that in one way or another, we were all awkward and uncomfortable with each other.

Not too long ago, that same niece sent me an email asking me if I was willing to answer some questions about our family. I could feel her trepidation through her written words and they felt so familiar; that need to find answers, the hope that those answers will make her feel whole and complete. I know those feelings well. I was so proud of her for having the courage to seek the answers and I wanted to help.

I did my best to provide information but realized that I didn’t know all of the answers myself. I had stopped asking long ago or had been afraid to ask in the first place for fear of bringing up sensitive subjects that would upset everyone. As we corresponded, it occurred to me that there was nothing holding me back from asking those questions now.

I’m 44 years old and it’s time I get some answers. I’m considerate and caring and I can approach this in a loving, healthy way. I’m going to do it. I’m going to ask every question I’ve ever wanted to ask. 

I decided to start with my mom because we’ve grown very close over the years. She stopped drinking nearly 18 years ago, me nearly 3 and I knew this conversation would be different from the kind we used to have. I didn’t want to jump right out of the gate and ask, “Why did you divorce my dad? Why did you drink?” I started slowly, asking about my grandparents.

We talked about her parents and how Granddad placed an ad for a wife and Mamo responded, about how they moved from Indiana to Arizona to ease Mamo’s arthritis. She reminisced about the family road trips back to Indiana that they used to take each summer and the friends she played with. We talked about what it was like for my mom to be pregnant at 15, living in a 2 room shack behind her in laws’ 4 room shack, about how much she loved her in laws despite the fact that they didn’t speak the same language and about how she had to cut her new husband down after he tried to hang himself for the first time. I found myself asking questions about her life that I had never thought to ask before, questions that had nothing to do with me or my upbringing yet the answers revealed everything about where I came from and told me more about myself than I ever knew was possible.

The questions that I originally came to have answered didn’t seem relevant anymore. They didn’t weigh as much as they did when I first walked in the door and seemed to float away into insignificance. Unwittingly, I had allowed those old questions to define me and let the lack of answers tell me that I was incomplete. Now, a whole new set of questions and answers set me free from the idea that there would ever be conclusive evidence for why my life was the way it was when I was a kid or why it had turned out the way it had. My life began to look more like a tapestry where each individual thread had little significance on its own and where the beauty could only be seen by stepping back from it. Interestingly, it was the back side, with all its bumpy nubs and poking threads that was the most revealing of all.

I left my mom’s not knowing if I would ever ask either of my parents the questions I thought I wanted to ask. After all, I lived those experiences and even if I didn’t remember the details, they were inside of me and somehow still accessible. I left knowing that I knew enough and that I am enough.

107 Comments on “The Big Answers

  1. I have had a very close experience to this. Different, but one that allowed me to stop looking so hard for answers that really aren’t important. Great piece.

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  2. I so know what you mean about wanting the answers to figure out ourselves. I was adopted and wanted answers. I found many of them a few years ago when I met my bio mom but also found some lies. I was really hurt and angry for a while but then one day, I realized that it doesn’t matter. She’s built her life the way she needs to live it. I’ve built mine the way I need to live mine. I’m so glad you left with peace in your heart that day – this was beautiful and wonderful.

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    • I like how you say we build our lives the way we need to live them. What’s so profound about that is that we can rebuild or build upon as our needs change, which I’ve done several times. One thing I’ve noticed as I’ve gotten older is how the people around me have seemed to change as I’ve become less dependent on their approval. What’s really changed is my perspective and that sense of peace in my heart that you mention. Thank you so much for your lovely comment and for stopping by!

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  3. Pingback: On Trees and Writing | iamthemilk

  4. So hard not knowing the answers to your questions about yourself. It seems like you should have some right to find out. It makes me want to tell my kids more about their stories! Thank you so much for posting this. It was very honest.

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    • My kids love to hear about when they were babies, which is the easy part! It’s the stuff that happened before they were born that can be tricky. I grew up feeling like people had secrets to keep and I don’t want my kids to feel that way. I guess it’s just a matter of finding an age appropriate way to explain things. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  5. You remind me a lot about myself, I don’t remember about my childhood either… there are certain scattered horrific images; but just that, nothing else… perhaps my unconscious doesn’t want me to relive those horrors again. I’ve always heard people saying that they’d like to go back to their childhood and grow up again, feel the comfort in the arms of their dad and in the lap of their mother. I just listen silently… because I never ever wish to grow up again, I do not want to live my childhood once again.

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    • I wouldn’t want to relive my childhood either and I know there are a lot of us out there who feel that way. It took me a long time to see that I wasn’t alone in that. It’s also taken most of my life to appreciate the way my life has unfolded, despite its rough start. I wish you peace! Thank you for sharing your experience.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your story. Family is always a sensitive topic, even for me. Like you, I’ve tried asking however I never got a reply to any of my questions so I stopped. But I feel like I’ve been living in a bubble ready to burst. I don’t know anything about my family, and everyone else seems to know better. I hope one day I would be able to move on too.

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    • The key for me was realizing that the answers I need are inside me and that no one can give them to me. It’s wonderful to have facts and details, but there’s a deeper truth to seek as well. I hope you find peace one day, whether you get your details or not.

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  7. We have a really great recovery group at our church. I think I may pass this along to some of my friends who attend there. Really good post!

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  8. You write well of something universal, so much so, it is always a sound plot in stories. Yet unlike many stories, and like some of them, asking the right questions leads to new frontiers holding more questions. Whether the new questions are portrayed by the authors as joyful and courageous new stepping stones, or slippery, dangerous booby traps has much to do with the author’s state of inner resolve.

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  9. Good for you to realize you could ask the questions and that you still had your parents to be able to ask once you were ready. Lovely story. Many may decide to ask their questions once they read your blog.

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  10. Excellent post. Makes me think how difficult it is to know both what to tell our children and when to tell them anything. Also reminded me how many of us struggle with seeing our parents as people. Glad it went well.

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    • That’s a great point. I read something once that said to not mistake intelligence in children for maturity. That’s important to remember in trying to decide what to tell our kids or we risk giving them more information than they can process. Thanks for your input!

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  11. I’m glad that you got insights into your family history. Last year a month before my 42nd birthday, my mother informed me that my father thinks I could be his brothers child. This had me spinning. Is the man I thought of as my biological father really my uncle? I’ve been asking for a DNA test since November. The man I think is my father is in a no-win situation, either I’m his daughter that he neglected her whole life, or I’m his niece, that he was financially responsible for. The good part is that his sis, my favorite aunt, will be my aunt forever. My brother still loves me as his sis,…but damn it I want to know…who blames me for that?

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  12. Reblogged this on Danny's Blog and commented:
    The Big Answers
    Posted on May 19, 2014 by Karen @ Mended Musings

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  13. I have this memory from when I was 2 years and my mum left home with another man. I remember because I was so young my mum decided to take me with her and they put me in the back of what I recognized as I got older and noticed the symbol, was a Honda car. Once I asked my mother did this happen as I could remember being in the amongst multiple bin bags full of stuff and she was so shocked at this story which I thought was a dream but turned out to be a memory from when I was so little. Amazing?

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  14. I love this. I can definitely relate. Beautiful post!

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    • I really enjoyed reading this post about self (and family) acceptance. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry while recalling my own experience of showing up on the doorstep one day and saying, “Hey, mom, I was wondering……” or how I felt when she said all of the things I thought were wrong, she would have done them all over again given the chance. When it comes down to it, sometimes you can only look forward. Thank you for sharing 😀

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      • I suspect that no matter how hard I try, I will still have my kids come to me at some point and ask me to explain why I did something. I’m so glad that we can’t go back and rewrite the past because I wouldn’t have had my kids if I didn’t make all the mistakes I did! Thank you for reading and sharing your thoughts. 🙂

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  15. Wow this is powerful! Thank you for sharing!

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  16. I admire you for not only writing about this delicate situation but actually going forth and trying to make sense of what decisions your family has made. Maybe it doesn’t even make sense but now you have the answers you needed to move on and that had to take a lot of guts! Thanks for sharing.

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  17. This is beautiful. I think we all want to believe, from childhood into adulthood, that our parents have reasonable answers for their behavior, like they had some kind of master plan that they executed, right or wrong. As we grow older, we understand that life is all trial and error and as humans we are masters of making mistakes (often with no good excuses for doing so) and our parents are just as human as we are. I look back at my own single-parenthood and see my mistakes. I have apologized to my sons, although they never asked for apologies. Though I can’t erase my inadequacies I can learn from them, and help them learn from them as well. I think they now see me as human, as a girl and a woman and a wife and a daughter, capable of emotions and error, and not just a mother who was supposed to be an infallible figure. Good luck on your journey.

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    • I totally agree! I’m much more understanding of my parents since becoming a parent myself. I always thought that they were holding back some big secret or explanation that could help me makes sense of things but they’re just as perplexed as I am about some things. I hope I show my kids that I can be trusted and relied upon but that I’m also human. Thank you!

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  18. I really enjoyed reading that – your words glide across the page and are so easy to read. It also left me wanting to know more about your family!

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  19. I have a good memory in some aspects. There are things I remember from when I was really little, I still remember songs we sang in choir in high school in 1989, etc. then there are the things I’d rather NOT remember, but not much I can do there. But there are also the gaps. A lot of my childhood and teens is like Swiss cheese. I still haven’t managed to get answers from my mom about my bio dad. One day I’d like to find him just to hear his side of things. Mom is really closed mouthed about the whole thing, but she also has a tendency to be hard and unforgiving about even small things. Enjoyed reading this!

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    • I think it’s normal for those of us who have suffered trauma to have those gaps. It’s how we protect ourselves. I used to look at those gaps as evidence of how broken I was but now I see my life less like swiss cheese and more like a landscape with hills and valleys. Thank you for sharing your thoughts! You’ve written some beautiful and honest poetry.

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      • I’m kinda in between the Swiss cheese and landscape outlook. It varies with the day. Thank you for your compliment on my poetry.

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  20. This was truly amazing. Kind of sad how memories are lost in translation and lost in the mind… Just takes a little talking to someone like you did to bring them back. I’m glad you finally got your answers and I bet that was a great experience and probably a big relief. Thank you for sharing all this, truly inspiring.

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    • It’s easy to forget that our memories are linked to the memories of other people, which changes the story completely. Thank you for your kind words!

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  21. Wow very touching…to present the delicate issues of one’s life experience which we all can relate to in one way or other…you did it appropriately…congrats…I am following you as want to stay connected with your blogs.

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  22. Wonderful. If only we knew what answers we really needed.
    My mother has told so many stories throughout my life but I worry I’ve never listened quite well enough to understand how it all came to pass. We are all such different people than we were during those childhoods we barely survived. And we are all (even, and maybe especially, our parents) exactly the same people we were during those childhoods we barely survived.
    So glad to find this on FP. Well deserved!

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    • Thank you! That’s a really good way to put it – that we’re different yet exactly the same. Taking my parents off a pedestal has helped me see that they’re probably more vulnerable than I’ve always felt. Thank you for your thoughts!

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  23. My mind tends to store up the traumatic events like living video in my head, the feel, sound, taste and smells are there on replay like movie reels in my mind. I don’t remember names and dates so well but I do remember the events.

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    • I’ve experienced that too but it’s subsided since I’ve been in recovery. Those events will always be a part of me but they don’t control me any longer. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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  24. Great piece. I can relate on the awkward feeling of wanting to ask questions to parents but shying away from them.
    I’m left wondering what your email and/or advice was to your niece consisted of with this “new-found” perspective…might be a cool part two.

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    • I suggested to her that she start a conversation with her mom but to let go of expectations. I don’t think she’s had the chance yet but I hope she does!

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  25. There are secrets on both sides of the family. At first I wanted to know and now not so much. Some things need to be left buried like the people who have passed on.

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  26. Im one of those remember every detail ppl.feels dorky

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  27. Me again! Can you hear me milling in your blog rooms and cupboards today? Something brought me here for a reason and I just found it:

    “My life began to look more like a tapestry where each individual thread had little significance on its own and where the beauty could only be seen by stepping back from it. Interestingly, it was the back side, with all its bumpy nubs and poking threads that was the most revealing of all.”

    This paragraph reminded me of the times I sat next to my grandma while she crocheted and I tried to keep up. She flipped her piece over after every row and would say, “You want to the front to look as good as the back. Hide your mistakes if you have to.” My 8-year old clumsy fingers struggled with that, but the message stuck.

    I’ve been trying (for three weeks) to write the next post in the Life is a Highway series–topic: my hometown. You have so gracefully shared with authenticity and vulnerability pieces of your childhood and I’m struggling to do the same. How do I authentically share what my real childhood/hometown influence was without hurting my German proud parents who still live there?

    Thanks to you, I know…”I’m considerate and caring and I can approach this in a loving, healthy way.”
    Wish me luck, dear Karen and thank you for the nudge you lovingly gave me across the desert and mountains 🙂

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    • Oh, I know you can do it with love and respect! It’s hard to tell our story without telling someone else’s and it’s a fine line that I walk often. I can’t wait to read it (all your posts, actually). You have such a wonderful way of finding the heart of the matter. Much love to you!

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  28. Wow, Karen. I’m struggling to come up with a comment. This post made me feel some much and I can’t even define all those feelings. What a great, great, great post. I know the feeling of seeking answers in venues that seem blocked. I was just thinking about this yesterday. I often have a strong sense of regret over leaving my family behind when I immigrated and now that my grandma’s dementia is getting worse there’s an added later or regretting not having asked more about our family history. This post just stirred all of this in me. I’m going to tweet this to Freshly Pressed.

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    • Wow, Katia, thank you. For me, I found that I have an internal knowing where all the answers are stored, even if the details are completely lost. That has to be enough because most of us will never get the details we crave. I’m so glad this resonates with you!

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      • Wish you could see the huge grin on my face. It’s hardly a miracle, this is a wonderful piece. And yay. 😀

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  29. Fantastic post. I did some research into the family – we are a small family not that many of us about but still I know very little sadly. Some things are difficult – my Grandfather on my Dad’s side was illegitimate – however he lied about that constantly so that doesn’t help! Even on his marriage certificate he lied about his father! Also in a press piece we have about my Dad when he was a teenager – he lies again about his father (My Dad’s Grandfather) and that lie isn’t even consistent with the lie on the wedding certificate… oh what a web we weave… but then I wasn’t an illegitimate man in the Victorian/Edwardian WWI era no doubt it was very very different then.

    We have a collection of photos in the pile called… “Spot the relative” They were in my Mum’s and my Aunts collections so must have been important but none of us now know who the heck these people were! Like you say if only they’d have written something on the back.

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    • You can tell a lot about a person by what they try to conceal! Family secrets are fascinating and it’s interesting how tangled they become. I used to love looking at my Mamo’s old photos when I was a kid and when she could tell me who the people were but I didn’t retain any of the information. I remember when I found out that my family is Italian on my dad’s side and I asked my mom where her side of the family was from. She could only guess. Thanks for your thoughts!

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  30. What a powerful piece. I read it earlier today and it has stayed with me. I’m not even sure yet how this is affecting me – it feels multi-layered. Really deep and wonderful. Thanks for sharing it.

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  31. Sounds very familiar. My younger brother remembers far more than I do. Mine is random with lots of blanks. When I had the chance to ask the questions I didn’t know the ones I sort of have now. Dad would have answered, he did some without me asking and I’m not sure I wanted to know. Mama, not one for that conversation and now with her dementia she doesn’t even know me. Yes, I’ve often felt the missing pieces but pushed it aside. Never quite sure why I can’t seem to let God fill that space completely. Lovely post Karen. Seems you struck a chord with many.

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    • When I was younger, all the questions I wanted to ask were confrontational and now I just want to have a conversation. I’m sure that makes a difference in what they’re willing to talk about. I like to think the missing pieces will be placed when we see God, at least I hope so. Thanks Debby!

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  32. Beautiful post, and the weds that struck me the most were the same as Jen (and I assume many):
    “My life began to look more like a tapestry where each individual thread had little significance on its own and where the beauty could only be seen by stepping back from it. Interestingly, it was the back side, with all its bumpy nubs and poking threads that was the most revealing of all.”
    I too remember little from my childhood, and had parents that would not respond to questions. they are both dead now, so I guess i will never know. My sister searches the genealogy and tries, still, to figure things out…..but I don’t so much anymore. I dwell in their nom-answers, allowing that to be ok now, knowing I will never know the whole truth and that, like you said..the tapestry is what is significant, what all of that brought to me here and today is all that really matters.
    I would still love to ask the questions, but I no longer need the answers. I think that’s a good place to be. Here, now, with a tapestry of snippets to look back on and glean what i can from.

    (my sister is the oral historian of my family, particularly me…remembering every sleight, every mean thing I ever did to her…YIKES! I’m glad i don’t remember that stuff!)

    Love this post

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    • Thank you! That is a good place to be. I like being in a place to be curious about the history without needing the know the “whys”. I’m not looking for validation anymore. It’s funny how some people have a fantastic ability to remember everything and some of us have only snippets. I’d just like to remember my to-do list without having to look at it 10 times. 😉

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  33. Ah, this is just great. Love family histories and the disjointed, colorful stories we tell over the years. Also, the beautiful/wacky/poignant/depressing photos that back up some of those stories up or are far more mysterious. Family. When I think how I would explain my life to my kids up to to present day, I’m not sure I could in a way that would sound cohesive or convincing. But standing back, sure, it might make up part of a tapestry. Really loved this analogy and the piece as a whole. Beautiful writing and sentiment, as always.

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    • Thank you Kristen! I keep telling myself that I’m going to go through my old box of photos and write details on the back. My husband and I had an entire lifetime before they were born and they won’t know who any of those people are. Those old photos tell a much more interesting story than the kind we take now, which are so edited and censored.

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  34. This was a lovely, thought-provoking post.

    I have often regretted not asking more questions of my parents. Or, perhaps the questions were discussed again and again and I have no recollection. I, too, have a terrible memory. I’ve begun writing what I remember and it’s been very depressing.

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    • My grandpa was notorious for telling the same stories over and over again but now that he’s gone, I appreciate that about him because I’m more likely to remember them! When I was younger, I thought I’d write a book about my family but then I realized that I didn’t know enough details and there are too many things no one wants to talk about. I’m lucky that both of my parents are still alive and I can ask them questions. It’s just the nature of those questions that have changed for me. 🙂

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  35. it’s interesting how our perspective changes on what we ‘think’ we need to know once we start having conversations and really listening to what’s being said – like you notice, it starts a whole new line of interest that might be very far from what we came to the table thinking we needed to know,. We kind of all exist within our circle and we overlap with others and that stuff in common in the middle helps us clue into our connections. Life is kind of like a Vinn diagram –

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    • Hee hee – I don’t remember EVERYTHING ~ (I’m making a huge assumption that I am friend that remembers from high school…)… my most vivid memory is of your 15th birthday where you were convinced you were going to die – and a huge light in the gym broke over your head…aaaahhhh

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      • Yes, you are that friend and I totally forgot about that incident until right now! See? What would I do without you? I love what you say about listening. When we let go of our agenda we learn so much more. You’re a great conversationalist!

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        • I have been blessed with many people that are great to have conversations with. I’m trying to learn to talk less and listen more – it’s hard for me 🙂

          Ironically, I can never remember your day of birth b/c you would vacillate btwn May 6,7,8 … naughty child. If my father had not thrown out ALL OUR NOTES – I’d have had a great history of our years at school.

          I think people are inclined towards viewing their information/knowledge needs from their own POV. If we are always at the center of our circle, that is natural – but we forget everyone is at the center of their own circle too. I think we forget that we are essentially like the other people – we forget to step out of our circle to view their circle – but not always.

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          • I still have a bunch of those old notes so we’ll need to get together and laugh at how ridiculous and charming we were. 🙂 You’re right about the circles. Instead of walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, we should step into their circle.

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  36. “My life began to look more like a tapestry where each individual thread had little significance on its own and where the beauty could only be seen by stepping back from it. Interestingly, it was the back side, with all its bumpy nubs and poking threads that was the most revealing of all.”

    I absolutely adore those last lines. It summed up an entire post so beautifully! I don’t have a good memory either. I really wish I did sometimes.

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    • I’ve always wanted to have a better memory and I felt like I was missing some big revelation because I couldn’t remember every detail from my childhood. Now I’m not so bothered by it. Thank you for your kind words Jen!

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  37. Beautiful stuff, Karen. I can relate – for years I didn’t understand why my late uncle and my folks had a falling out (I thought it was a falling out). I used to get drunk and call my mother, in tears, asking about him. I was fuzzy and hence my recollection of those conversations were fuzzy. I was mourning him and yet I didn’t know why. When I got sober, I found, like you, that those questions weren’t as important. Or, that is, I too found that they defined me in some small way. In the end, I found that what I needed wasn’t the answers from my mother about her strained relationship with her brother, but that they loved each other dearly. That we’re all broken in some ways, and yet love carries the day.

    Thank you for shining the light on this 🙂

    Paul

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    • So much of what I think I know comes from fuzzy recollections as a kid and when grownups are resistant to explaining, those recollections can take on a life of their own. It feels good to let go of the need to know every detail and to embrace the bigger picture. Thanks Paul! I always enjoy hearing your insight. 🙂

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