Conversations with My Mother

Simplified Chinese version / 中文翻译(简化字)

Traditional Chinese version / 中文翻譯(正體字)


Written by / 作者:Abi Li 小凝


Our mothers, our mothers. I told my friend once that no one breaks our hearts like our mothers. I’m sure my mother would say no one breaks her heart like me. Is there any other relationship so full of expectations and dreams and disappointments? If there is, I do not think I want to know. I write this article thinking of my mother, trying to respect her in my own way. I give her first look and veto powers for this essay, and I hope that is enough for her to not look at me with that frown of disapproval. Why reveal so much of yourself, I can already hear her saying. Why reveal so much of Us? Why do I want to expose my pain and hurt and anger to the world?


Much of my life is incomprehensible to my mother. My choices are odd, my opinions odder still. My career path is wobbly and crooked, I feel like money is my enemy, and I shun the idea of common sense. I don’t want to protect myself, and I believe in abolition; or rather, I need to believe in abolition.


Abolition is about making a world in which prisons do not exist, a world where prisons do not need to exist because they are made redundant by the more effective methods we would use to address harm and injustice.


Abolition is often called an impossible dream, and I know my mother would agree. However, I don’t believe in abolition because I am optimistic. I am a pessimist at heart; I don’t believe in the good of humanity, the potential of technology, or the capacity of our institutions. I often asked myself and others, how do people keep going in this world knowing of the violence, abuse, and trauma that plagues every corner in every country?


Life isn’t that bad, others told me, it is bearable, and it will get better. These answers have always felt like lies. Covid19 continues to rage around the world for its third year and still there does not appear to be a way to stop the rampant spread and death (Roe 2021; Yang et al., 2022). Climate change is steps away from irreversible and catastrophic damage (DeConto, 2021), and when I imagine the future, it is a destroyed, death-plagued wasteland.


Moreover, I know that there are lives understood as too terrible to imagine, lives coping with disabilities and trauma, lives that are not considered ‘bearable’ (Beaudry, 2020). I know that my life is all too easily understood as unbearable. Sometimes I wonder, would the good moments in my life be enough to justify living? Or would I be sorted in Ontario’s new Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) Track Two program, grouped with others encouraged to commit suicide because their lives are imagined as too painful to survive, even as they search for ways to keep living (Favaro, 2022)?

I turn to unconventional ways of understanding the world because I am too disillusioned to believe in anything that currently exists. I am too jaded to want anything less than a miracle. bell hooks, a professor and author well known for her writings examining class, race, and gender, wrote in “Theory as Liberatory Practice” that "I came to theory because I was hurting - the pain within me was so intense that I could not go on living. I came to theory desperate, wanting to comprehend - to grasp what was happening around and within me. Most importantly, I wanted to make the hurt go away” (1994).


I turned to writings on love and brighter possibilities—like abolition—that did not shy away from the dark realities of my life in order to find a form of hope I could believe. These stories offered me hope and a “perhaps,” though not without struggle, and that is much more plausible to me than any other potential.


Yet the very theory that I reach for causes my mother’s head to spin and her brow to furl. She has asked me to walk away from theory, from what she sees as causing me more pain. She has asked me to shield my eyes from triggering content and despairing stories. But even if I shielded my eyes, I still cannot forget, and all I would be able to see is that future wasteland without hope.


I do not know how to make her understand why I can’t look away, why looking away from pain is also looking away from hope; I can only ask her to help me keep looking. This request is not something I imagined being able to make when I was younger. It is only in the past few years that we have reached a place of openness and trust. It is partly for this reason that I want to write about our conversations, to document these years, to recognize how far we have come.


So I will start, and hope that you will read.


There was a period a few years ago when the memories of my life became too much for me. To be frank, it still is too much for me, and it is not my intention with this essay to dig into that pain. This essay is about my mother and me, our conversations, our disagreements, and our love.


So I want to talk about how for a long time, I ignored my memories and pain and hid them from my mother, even as I longed for her to come and tell me she’d figured it out. I kept busy, kept tired, kept myself from thinking. I worked, I climbed, I danced, I went out 7 nights a week. I wore myself out so I could sleep without dreaming, I ran on fumes and coffee, and still I could not stop thinking anymore.


Interacting with my mother, and really with the world itself, became too painful. I cut myself off in desperation, hoping that if I could find a place to hide, I could hold off the inevitable and get through the days. It didn’t really go too well, as the isolation only caused me to spiral out further, drowning in self-pity, despair, and loneliness. I suppose I was grieving, or that’s what my therapist suggests.


My mother was confused, she didn’t understand what was going on, and I know she struggled not to ignore all my wishes and come barreling through the door of the apartment at the address I refused to tell her. In her restraint I could see her trying, in ways she had never before, and eventually, I told her things I never thought I would, things that I had hidden from her for decades.


I had heard too many stories of parents not accepting their kids, too many stories that end in accusations of lying and rejection. I know how lucky I am that she sat, and waited, and promised she would keep trying to listen, to understand. It is here that our conversations really started, when I could see how much she tried to connect with me in the ways that mattered to me. If this was a movie, that is where it would have ended.


We did not suddenly become different people. We were still people with the same ideas and faults and misconceptions. Moreover, I am not the kind of person who would be the protagonist of any such movie. My life does not fit in that genre of movies. So instead of hope and happiness, I felt apprehension, fear, and doubt. Many of our conversations ended up in screaming matches and to be honest, they sometimes still do.


She wants to understand me but our memories are different, our experiences are different, and there is nothing easy here. Most of our conversations revolve around how to live our lives, our needs and our wants and our choices. Or rather, most of our conversations go something like this:


Mother: No one else I know has chosen such a difficult way of living. You see problems everywhere and refuse to be a part of so many things that will help you get ahead. There are so many jobs you won’t do, so many careers you find distasteful, and you keep reading these negative articles. You are hardly surviving. What if I am gone? What will you do then?


Me: I will be fine because I am not just hardly surviving. Your idea of surviving and my idea of surviving are not the same. Your idea of surviving is effortless, peaceful, safe. I don’t even know what to do with a life like that. I know how to solve a crisis, how to make sacrifices and make do. I know how to get myself out of a bad situation and figure out where to go next. I know how to have bad days and I know how to have better days. I know this isn’t the life you imagined for me, I know I have chosen a difficult life, and I have accepted that.


Mother: How can I let you suffer? How can I help you not suffer? I feel like I need to work harder so I can help you live the life you want without suffering, but I’m tired.


Me: Those are not things you can help me with. Please do not ask me to live the life you see as happy. I will not be happy. The person who will be happy in that life is not me. Please listen. I need you to just listen.




***



Mother: Why do you prioritize others over our family? Can you focus on happiness for us, just us? This despair at the world, this search for a purpose, wouldn’t it go away if your purpose was us?


Me: I cannot live that way. I do not know how to say it without it hurting but that is not enough for me. I need more from life, I need to dream for a better tomorrow, not just for us, or I will not know how to go on. I need to theorize better possibilities, imagine potential futures where we have paths and choices that are not so bleak. How else will I make the hurt go away? What helps me get up in the morning, justifies all the pain I’ve already lived? I am greedy, ambitious, egotistical.


I need my life to have meaning beyond just us and our family, beyond my personal comfort and success, I need to be right and good in the world. Can I become someone who is satisfied with personal comfort? Can I force my brain to stop thinking, to stop agonizing, to stop theorizing? I do not know, please don’t ask me to try.


My choices make her worry, but I do not know how to make other ones. She wants me to stop hurting myself by reading books and articles that send me into waves of despair. In this case, she and my therapist mostly agree. I know the words of self-care, of taking care of yourself first, walking away when things get too heavy. But I am that thing, I am too heavy. How do I walk away from myself? How do I forget my life?


Memories intrude, emotions boil over, and I am not in control. Similarly, she disagrees with me on abolition. I understand her objections; she wants me to be safe. She wants the people who might harm me to be far away from me and she wants to believe that bad things will never happen to me again. Nevertheless, I know the safety that she imagines does not exist.


The monsters she imagines are not the dangers I fear. I know it is all too easy to hide violence and malice behind a veneer of respectability, and I know that if we put hidden violence on trial against my ugly pain, I will be the one condemned instead. The only thing I can do is turn to theory. How do we prevent harm before it begins? How do we make sure acts of harm are not just well hidden, they are less common?


Are there other people looking for answers? What do they say? Do they see a way out? To me, abolition is not about sympathy or forgiveness. I don’t care to forgive, nor do I care if anyone else forgives. Rather, it is about how the current system does not protect, does not heal, does not offer anyone anything but cold vengeance.


I don’t want vengeance, I can’t eat vengeance, vengeance does not give me hope. And so I keep looking in search of solutions that might protect, might heal, might offer something more than just vengeance. I keep walking beside my mother’s fears, and she keeps worrying.

I know what choices my mother wants me to make, but when I think about following them, I can only imagine the pain that will well up again with nothing to soothe it, telling it to go to sleep, whispering that I’ll find the answers soon. I’m so sorry mother, but I can’t make myself believe in that life I don’t know how to live, that future I cannot imagine, and I won’t be able to let you stop worrying.


I know others pity my mother for having such a strange daughter. I try to shove down the small voice that whispers that maybe she feels the same. I want to yell at the world, I’ve thought about this, I agonized about this, for what reason do you tell me I’m wrong? Many times I have given people my carefully stacked worldview, and right after they say they’ve never thought about these things before, they try to knock it over because their gut tells them that I’m wrong.


Sometimes the despair reaches deep, leaves me questioning if I should accept the inevitability of that future wasteland. In moments of self-pity I see my life as full of disappointment, a bleak place. But those moments are getting fewer and farther in between and I hope they become farther still.


In moments of joy I feel as if my life is richer than all the rest, with commitment and assurance and purpose. I feel a confidence in myself, in my choices, that what I’m doing is right and good in the world. I feel that the most when my mother and I have moments of understanding and acceptance. When she can look at my life and see something to be proud of instead of something to grieve. When she looks at the bell hooks quote I send her and say that she doesn’t understand, but she reads it again and again until it starts to make sense.


In those moments I feel like as bad as things can get, at least my mother is trying, at least she’s already come so far. Those moments make the world make sense for just a second, and in that second I understand that this is why we keep going. Those moments are not possible without these conversations—these often painful and frustrating conversations where we both make missteps and mistakes. I want my mother to be proud of me, of my choices and my life. Sometimes, I think she is. Sometimes, I think that’s enough.




Beaudry, J.-S. (2020, December 14). Bill C-7, assisted dying and “lives not worth living.” Policy Options. https://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/december-2020/bill-c-7-assisted-dying-and-lives-not-worth-living/


DeConto, R. M., Pollard, D., Alley, R. B., Velicogna, I., Gasson, E., Gomez, N., Sadai, S., Condron, A., Gilford, D. M., Ashe, E. L., Kopp, R. E., Li, D., & Dutton, A. (2021). The Paris Climate Agreement and future sea-level rise from Antarctica. Nature, 593(7857), 83–89. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03427-0


Favaro, A. (2022, April 14). Medical assistance in dying: Woman with chemical sensitivities chose death. CTV News. https://www.ctvnews.ca/health/woman-with-chemical-sensitivities-chose-medically-assisted-death-after-failed-bid-to-get-better-housing-1.5860579


Roe K. (2021). A role for T-cell exhaustion in Long COVID-19 and severe outcomes for several categories of COVID-19 patients. Journal of neuroscience research, 99(10), 2367–2376. https://doi.org/10.1002/jnr.24917


Yang, J., Gong, Y., Zhang, C., Sun, J., Wong, G., Shi, W., Liu, W., Gao, G. F., & Bi, Y. (2022). Co-existence and co-infection of influenza A viruses and coronaviruses: public health challenges. Innovation (Cambridge (Mass.)), 100306. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.xinn.2022.100306


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