My “artistic temperament” and my parents

I spent the weekend in San Jose with my family, and it was an unexpectedly tumultuous emotional experience. Yesterday morning we went out for dim sum, as we nearly always do on Sundays. During the meal, my parents wanted to order more food than we kids thought was necessary, and we resisted; this is normal. When we left the restaurant, my dad spoke to me about this in words that were, if not exactly usual, still quite characteristic. But I responded in a totally uncharacteristic way. I started crying, in spite of multiple efforts to stem the tears, and ended up holed up in the car while everyone else visited Gong-Gong. There, cloistered in the Mini Cooper with the rain running down the windows, I ranted to Erik, blew my nose with very rough paper towels, and refused to explain myself to the parents when they came to talk. My behavior must have appeared crazy: on a perfectly ordinary day, Lisa lost it and had a breakdown in the Cupertino Village parking lot. When I told my best friend about it the next day (today), she commiserated and then added, “As your friend, I’m a little concerned that you responded in this way!” I know. I was concerned too — and also extremely angry, frustrated, and hurt, but nobody except Erik knew why.

It’s my experience that whenever a sane person responds to a seemingly normal occurrence in a way that seems utterly crazy, it means there’s something going on that hasn’t been addressed. Blowing up at my parents, watching them tiptoe around me for the rest of the afternoon, talking to Erik about it, talking to Jackie, and writing about it for two hours in this morning’s pages has reinforced that yes, there’s more to this situation than meets the eye. I won’t get into what I was apparently mad about, because it’s nothing very extraordinary, just the usual generational disagreement over the usual hot buttons. But I was furious and upset in a way that can’t be dismissed as resulting from the same ol’ friction. My reaction wasn’t the way one reacts to a new outrage, it was the reaction of someone who’s been suffering something for a long time and has finally had enough. My anger didn’t come out of left field, as it must have seemed to everyone else; there’s frustration and stress here that has been building up for years, and which I haven’t really acknowledged because I didn’t know it was there.

My emotions in this situation, as is always true when it comes to family, are very complicated and multi-layered. I’m never mad at my parents because they did x, I’m mad at them because of all the times they’ve done it, and all the times they’ve done similar things, and that time when I was this-years-old and they wouldn’t let me do such-and-such, and so forth, and the way they do the same things to my sisters. Any beef with a parent is never just about that one thing, and I’m sure it’s the same for parents’ gripes about their kids too. So we all know that there’s a whole history of stuff here that isn’t going to get excavated right this second… and maybe we’ll talk about that another time, and maybe we won’t.

After thinking it through this afternoon, I’ve decided the heart of my frustration is a feeling that I am not being supported by my family. And though the reasons for that involve our shared history, the lack of support itself is all my doing. I’ve walled myself into that space, because I do not talk to my parents about my life — at least not the parts of my life that are most all-consuming in my day-to-day existence. I’ll talk to them about food, about exercise, about our cats (just Lyapa now), about what Erik is doing, about my friends — but I will not talk to them about my work or my goals. In fact, although I’m very open about these things on my blog, I rarely mention them in person, except among other artists. And as far as my parents are concerned, my work is not on the conversational table. Period.

There are several reasons for this. First, and most superficial, my work is just complicated to talk about. As I’ve said before on this blog, the questions “what do you do?” and “how’s work?” are not questions I can answer easily, and sometimes I just don’t want to get into it — it’s as simple as that. I’m a writer and artist; I spend a lot of my time looking for the perfect words or gestures to express complex situations, emotions, and concepts, and figuring out just the right way to frame ideas and images. So when I’m “off work,” sometimes I don’t feel like groping for words or explanations — I’ve been doing it all day! It’s natural if I choose to stay silent in my “off” time.

Second, my work is nonlinear and sometimes doesn’t make sense even to me. So, very often, I actually do not have an answer to “how is your work going?” Unless you do this kind of work yourself, and are familiar with creative cycles, downtime, artist dates, and the constant presence of an unceasing and brutal inner critic, it is very hard for me to explain to you what my daily life is like — without also explaining all these “companions,” and the damage they do to my confidence and productivity. Most people are accustomed to think of productivity as linear, and it makes them (reasonably enough) wonder about my habits. So I don’t talk about them: there is enough self-doubt in my life without my needing to hear your reservations too.

Which leads me to the third point. The last and most vital reason that I don’t talk about my work is that talking about it so often requires teaching. Many people (like you regular readers of this blog!) are very lovely and understanding about how creative work works, and it’s a pleasure to discuss my process with you. Other people are ignorant about it and will strenuously express their doubts about the whole thing, making remarks like, “But isn’t it unrealistic to think you’ll ever make money from this?” or “Creative cycles and artist dates all sound like a lot of self-indulgence to me. You just don’t want to get a real job.” And I think a lot of people fall in between, where they’re not necessarily critical, but they just don’t really know how it all works. Either way — critical or neutral — I don’t have enough energy to school you about it, every time you ask. Sometimes, if I’m feeling extroverted and patient and you seem genuinely interested, I will explain it a little. But it’s exhausting to do this all the time, and since people forget things (naturally), it’s even more tiring to do it again and again for the same person. It sounds cold that my best answer to “how’s work going?” is “read my blog,” but truly — I only have so much time and energy in the day, and sometimes it is just TOO HARD to explain it all. So I don’t. I’m very sure this is normal for artists (hence the whole “artistic temperament” thing), and in other professions too. In fact, I remember being in grad school and feeling an extraordinary sense of relief at being able to discuss my life with fellow grad students, because it was impossible for me to talk about it to anyone else.

These three reasons are why I don’t talk about my work with regular people, but when it comes to my parents, there’s an additional point: they are my parents. As such, their opinions have more influence over me than everybody else’s — which isn’t something I can help, though I wish I could. My parents probably don’t know this, but if they tell me something negative, like “you’re fat” or “you’re lazy,” it can devastate me for days. Their disapproval still holds a lot of weight with me. As an adult, I fight this. I want to be my own person, and so I hate myself for caring what they think — and I try to protect myself. And partly I do this by not giving them information (ammo) about my life, by not telling them about my work, so that these parts of my life that are so vulnerable and so important to me (my aspirations, my projects) do not come under assault by the people most likely to hurt me with well-meaning criticisms.

People think I have a good relationship with my parents, and this is true. But a lot of the smoothness and ease of that relationship comes from my forceful (and largely unseen) efforts to hide those parts of my life that I don’t wish to discuss with them. If I were more upfront with them, there’d be a lot more tension, I’m sure — but as it is, the tension is all on me. (Is this what it’s like to be in the closet with loving parents?) Erik always tells me I should share my work with my parents, and I do a little bit, but it must not be enough because my mom still thinks I’m “not doing anything” (so I should get pregnant!) and my dad recently said “Lisa doesn’t know what she wants to do with herself.” I always tell Erik, “Why should I have to explain? I resent that I have to tell them everything.” I think if my mom had her way I’d still be living in her house! But I’m walking a constant tightrope between sharing (getting together with them, talking) and concealing (brushing off questions about my day-to-day activities), and it looks like the tension has finally caught up with me. Like I said earlier, there’s a lot going on here besides just this, but when I find myself wanting to scream at my dad outside Joy Luck Place, well, we’ve got a problem.

Perhaps I could sit my parents down and have “the talk” with them about what I do; we could even set up guidelines for how they can ask me about it in ways that come across supportive, not aggressive. But there’d still be an elephant going unnoticed in the corner: control. My parents feel like they are being loving and caring when they do or say certain things, but to me it feels like they’re controlling. I’ve been told that when I have kids I’ll understand why parents never stop worrying, but I am trying to build a life for myself, I am trying to find a voice, and it is difficult when every time I do anything, my mom’s voice pops up in my head to express her opinions. As I told Erik when he suggested I be more open with my parents: “My mom is already in my head. She knows all my friends, she can find me on flickr and Etsy and my site and my blog. I don’t want her in every other part of my life too.” It is not easy to listen for that small quiet voice inside that tells me what’s 100% me. My parents’ influence can feel like a threat, because I’m afraid that if I listen to their voices, mine will disappear.

Maybe what it comes down to is that historically, in my relationship with my parents, I have felt neither completely emotionally supported nor — more important? — heard, during challenging times. I was always told what to do, and I did it. I was never allowed to believe that I could find a living in a creative profession. When my body changed and grew, I was made to feel fat. My mom read parenting books, but when I told her she should just ask me what I thought, she refused. When I expressed doubts about grad school, my parents panicked and tried to change my mind. When I announced my engagement to Erik, my mom took me to task for not following protocol I had never realized she prized. My parents aren’t bad people, mind — this is nothing out of the ordinary when it comes to parents and kids. My parents have done their best to protect me from harm and suffering. They have supported me in the best ways they know how. But their view has always been, “we know best,” and even, “we know you better than you know yourself.” (My mom used to say this to me when I was growing up.) That’s why for several years now, I’ve shut them off from knowing what I’m doing with my life and what’s most important to me. I’d like them to support me and hear what I’m saying, and acknowledge that I’m old enough now to know what’s best for me, but our history together indicates that this might not happen. My dreams are important enough that I don’t want to take chances with them. So, when I’m with my parents, I pretend that part of my life doesn’t exist. That’s why I got so mad yesterday. I’ve funneled our relationship into a form where I can support my family emotionally, but they can’t give me the support I want from them. Now that I see how this strains me, I wonder how much longer I can keep it up.