I’ve mastered the art of standing still as chaos swirls around me. Sometimes standing still is beneficial. Stillness helps you take in large quantities of information to be assessed in the moment or at a later time and date. But at other times, stillness can be paralyzing. It can convince you that you’re sinking in cement without the possibility of escape.
I’ve teetered between these two aspects of stillness in the face of adversity for decades. When I’m convinced that I’ll be swallowed up by cement, those periods of my life are often misconstrued as laziness or lack of ambition. When I absorb information while in the presence of others, they usually call me slow. They say things like, “Oh, are you confused?”
Knowing that my response will evoke shock, awe, or confusion on their part, I keep still. I remain silent, often offering them a blank stare. Because playing along with what’s expected is another component of standing still – or at least in my life it has been.
But there’s a legitimate reason for my annoying slothful, confused state.
I believe that my very first memory has the most lasting impact on the way that I frequently respond to chaotic situations.
On one night in particular, I didn’t know what was happening in the adjacent room. I think I was about three or four years old, and I heard thumps, yelling, and objects falling. I stood still, as if I were the eye of a storm. You know how you could be watching a movie and they raise the volume on a person’s breathing while decreasing the volume of all the other noises in the room? That’s how it felt for me as I stood there, still as a rock, trying to assess what was happening. My breathing became the loudest noise in the house. I remember scanning all aspects of the house that could be seen from my vantage point.
About six feet ahead the bathroom door was open, which I disliked because weird shadows always appeared on the window and that scared me. I could see the kitchen. Pale yellow ochre stove sat there as still as me. Our wooden chairs and table were perfectly aligned with the floral-geometric carpet that cushioned them. To my right was a blank wall in which my father and his friend would one day make an archway connecting the front room with the den. Our front door was closed to my left, and shards of shiny glass were strewn around my feet, enticing me to touch them. My mother must have told me to stay in one place. I knew my parents were in the next room; I’d seen them run in there, but I wondered where my sister had gone.
And then in an instant, just like in the movies, the volume increased. My mother ran toward me and scooped me up in her arms. My sister, five years older than me, seemingly appeared out of nowhere. I looked over my mother’s shoulders and saw that my sister was carrying bags. We ran out the back door, through the back yard, and into the garage. We piled into the car, and my mother sped to her friend’s house.
Her friend, one of my namesakes, lived in the basement of a multi-level home with her young son. I guess my mother, sister, and my mom’s friend were getting us settled into one of the rooms. I remember playing in the front room. There were about four steps that led from the front door down into the living room. That area became my domain. I joyfully marched and scooted up and down those stairs countless times.
I don’t know how much time passed before all the lights were turned off, and I was told once again to be still. We weren’t in complete darkness because there was a streetlight right in front of the house. The night was wet, cold, and windy. Bare tree limbs bopped up and down on the living room wall. Their reflection looked ghostly. My eyes were fixated on them until I heard someone banging on the back door.
My sister appeared from one of the back rooms and stood in the hallway. Her eyes widened, and her mouth gaped open. Everyone stood frozen in time, as though we were playing a game of “Red light, green light” and someone shouted, “Red!”
When I heard his voice, I dashed toward the back door and called for my dad. Either my mother or her friend grabbed me from behind as I was in flight. She placed one arm through my legs and the other across my chest, and then my mouth to keep me quiet. I remember wiggling and struggling to get down, but her grip was too tight. I didn’t understand why we couldn’t go home with my father.
Memories like this can still debilitate me at times. They sneak up on me when my past is the furthest thing from my mind. Sadness and confusion can overtake me in an instant – as quickly as switching off a light. And then I find myself stuck, standing still, not knowing what to do next.
I’m not interested in pointing fingers at my parents. There was some good mixed in with all the bad. Yet it is an absolute truth that my life was built on a rocky foundation. It’s taken decades for me to speak my truth. At times I’m ashamed to admit that that process is ongoing. I don’t enjoy being over 30 while groping in the dark for direction.
While I do not wake up in the morning cursing my parents, there are many key issues in my life that wouldn’t be issues had I been parented differently. And while my life reflects my choices, it also reflects the way in which I was taught to choose.
My life has often felt like those broken glass objects that were scattered around me that night: fragmented, purposelessly tossed about, and sinking into what struggled to hold them up. Cold, wet nights still put me on edge. They extract motion as if it’s a serum and steal hopefulness of living a more cohesive life.
But stillness also offers me a new start. It’s in those quiet moments that I can sift through the bad and discover authentic aspects of myself that I can use to form a newer, stronger foundation.
If you’re a parent with a complex history, please know that your choices impact the manner in which your children choose. I don’t say this to toss about guilt. I say this because it benefits your children for you to address the problem sooner rather than later. Please don’t cover up your decisions or say to yourself, “They’re too young to remember, so I won’t even talk about it.” Please don’t falsify information or get upset if they have questions. They have a right to know what’s going on. It’s their life, too. We shouldn’t have to spend our adult lives being still.
Read Nia’s last article.