2:32 PM Monday, December 20, 1999

My thoughts wandered over my mother while I laid in bed this morning. It's what I do every morning. They mixed with thoughts of India. The two are remarkably similar. Mother India. I was thinking how it could be possible for me to be witness to so much sadness and not go crazy. I think I came up with an answer.

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I was laying in the very bed where my sister Sheila sat a year ago and cried over my mothers compulsive need to save 5 old women's magazines that she wanted to throw out. Cried in frustration because it was a symbol of something bigger. Because it was not symbolic for my mother. My mother couldn't see a symbol even if it filled up her house and buried her alive.

It was Christmas of last year. Dani, Sheila and I were here to help clean mom's condo and put up some drapes. Right beside the bed was a bunch of magazines and papers in a plastic bag that Sheila had started to pick up and my mother came in and said, "No, I want to save those. I haven't even looked at them yet." Sheila said, "Mother, these magazines are over a year old and you have newer issues that you haven't read either. We've got to get rid of them." My mother said, "Well just let me see..." and she squatted down on the floor, already covered in plastic bags and newspapers that she'd probably collected from somebody's house she visited, and started to look over the cover of each magazine. She browsed them like she was waiting in line at the supermarket. She found a recipe in one that she thought was interesting so she put it down on the floor. She tapped it with her hand and mumbled under her breath, I'm guessing to inform Sheila and I, that this one was a keeper. She liked the woman on the cover of the next magazine. Some soap star. That one went in the "keep" pile and she moved on to the ripped envelope. She was sorting.

It was a business envelope ripped in half and emptied of its contents. Anyone could suss that out in about 2 seconds. Not my mother. Why was it in the stack of papers? What was its significance? Why had she kept it in the first place? Who was it from? Is there anything written on the back? An empty business envelope, ripped in half could signify that she's late to pay some bill, or that she was going to stop by her friend's house and turn on the lights. You name it. Put that on a "purgatory stack" where she'd decide later if she should keep it or not. Next was a clipping from a newspaper. My mother read the first part of it and tried to figure out its importance. It was very likely that she never clipped the clipping, that she collected it from somebody else's newspaper recycling stack bag-lady-style, but she put it on the "keep" pile because it was obviously meant to be kept. It was a clipping after all. Not that she knew why she had it. She believed that the objects would stand up like toy soldiers and present their meaning and reason for existence to her at some later date.

Sheila and I watched my mother start on a stack of papers and magazines about 4 inches high and we continued to watch her for another 5 minutes while she managed to make a 2 and a half inch high "keep" pile, a 1 inch "purgatory" pile and a half inch "recycle" pile. We would come to find out after my mother's death when we were cleaning that there were approximately 150 inches of papers and magazines left in this condo after this 4 inch stack for my mother to sort through. One of the reasons Sheila got so upset was that this wasn't supposed to happen with this place. This condo was the "fresh start" that she had purchased for my mother on the promise that my mother would not to clutter it up. We'd decided a couple of years ago that we needed to get her out of her house, declare it a disaster area, and get her a smaller place close to her sisters where she could manage her hoarding compulsion a little easier.

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I watched her this time with a benign distance. I was almost relishing it as a pure example of my mother's disease. I'd watched it so many times over the years and gotten really upset but I'd been away for 10 years now and for some reason I could just sit there and watch. My trip to India had done something to me. I'd always been a hard-ass about it and, except for my father, had nagged her more fiercely than anyone in the family. My mother's fuse was shortest when it came to me. Now I was a visitor. An interested and informed visitor, but a visitor all the same. I don't consider it such a bad thing to be a visitor. There is a reason why, in India, the visitor is revered above all others.

Sheila tried to sit and watch for a while also but she couldn't take it. The gravity of the moment overtook her and she got down on the floor and in a loud voice, (so my hearing-unaided mother could hear) said, "Mother, look what you're doing. You've got to throw this stuff away. You agreed when you moved in here that you wouldn't do this and now you're doing it. We're trying to help you but you won't let us." She picked up a Woman's Day magazine from the mid 80's off the "keep" pile and shook it at mother, "This is garbage mother." And my mother, as if she was a 4-year-old kid who'd just had her doll taken by another child, angrily snatched the magazine out of my sister's hand. "This is NOT garbage. I have a reason for keeping all this and I don't need your help to sort though it. If you don't like it, you can just go to hell." That last sentence meant she was pissed off. My mother was really pissed 'cause she knew she was being tested. She was being forced to sort through her stuff in front of her kids instead of in private. This made a big difference. When she was privately sorting, she could actually get some work done (or so she said). But with people watching, people who (according to her) were just watching so they could ridicule her, she couldn't concentrate. She hated being tested.

Sheila started to break. Her voice got high and choked up. "Mother, you can't keep doing this." For my mother, a 4 inch pile of papers was as good a place as any to make a stand. It didn't matter if the thing had sentimental value. It didn't even have to have market value. It was her shame and her need to be with it in private. My mother was 74 years old, goddamn it, and every single one of those years was wrenching down on her brain like a vise. And something in my sister snapped like a real loud broomstick snap and she started crying. I don't think I said a word the whole time. I wasn't stepping in because I suddenly saw how things had been working themselves out in my absence. It's a Scrooge-like Christmas gift to be able to see not just your influence on things but how all things are connected. Compassion is what's left over when you see that.

The standard use of the word compassion in English is a shriveled piece of fruit compared to the words they use for it in India and most parts of Asia. Our stupid Anglicized dictionaries depict it as something like sympathy plus pity but what I'm talking about is more like what the Greeks called empathy. It is an action.

Just so you know, my sister is a successful Microsoft manager and multimillionaire mother of two. And just so you know, my mother was a 4'10" white-haired part-time housecleaner (ironically enough). I'm pointing this out just so you know that none of that shit really matters. My sister was devastated by the single-minded old woman. Years of pain washed over Sheila. My mother's pain. I'd never seen my sister go this far and I was truly awed. I was proud of her courage but the feeling of pride was immediately overcome with sadness at the scene. My mother didn't even seem to notice that Sheila was crying. It was one of the saddest things I've ever seen. I walked out of the bedroom and looked at Dani in the kitchen and told her that I'd just seen a really sad thing.

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Dani's nickname for Sheila when we were kids was "Stuff". I don't think anyone has an explanation for it but it's incredibly insightful. Sheila was the most precious thing in the world to my mother. I don't want to sound like I was complaining but I have to tell it like it was. I was there and didn't get any of that attention. Later in life when I asked my mother about the favoritism she would recognize it but never apologize for it. She claimed that I didn't want the attention and I wouldn't accept the things she wanted to do for me. Sheila jumped at the opportunities, at the dance classes and Girl Scouts, and Little Miss La Petite beauty pageants. Sheila was being called "Stuff" when our house was still clean. Only the basement was filled up with boxes and crap. The upstairs looked like a regular, healthy person's house. It was amazingly prophetic and poetic of Dani to call the supreme object of my mother's attention "Stuff".

So what I was thinking about in bed this morning was the sadness that I'd felt watching that scene. Not about the scene really, but about my reaction to it. I was thinking about it because it was similar to the feeling of sadness I've had the last 2 weeks. When someone dies, you witness not only your own pain but the pain of others. There is a secret thing that simultaneously witnesses all the pain. We all have a piece of that witness in us. This is god to me. Notice I'm not talking about some kind, old, gray-bearded man up in the sky. I'm talking about our ability to be compassionate.

I was thinking about being in India and all its fucked-up-idness and feeling calmed in the midst of it. When other people go screaming from the place I seem to be able to take it in stride just like most Indians do. It's almost as if the benediction is on me. Or maybe it's that I can give the benediction that calms me.

(It might seem like I'm irritated and I'm complaining when I write it down but that's mostly just a function of writing. I've said before that simple contentedness, although it exists in abundance in my life, rarely makes it into writing about my life. There has to be a little speck of dirt to wrap a pearl around.)

Horrors upon horrors I doth witness. Am I numb? Is it compassion? I wonder about that because I'm supposed to be compassionate. That is the goal of my life as I've understood it. I could quote the scriptures that have given me that belief but I won't. I will say that it is the most important thing in the world to me. I was trying to be compassionate when I was standing there watching my sister and my mother go at it. My father did a good chunk of the most evil things you can do to another person to me and I couldn't bury him and get on with my life until I'd felt compassion for him. Compassion makes me good at my job, it makes me a good artist, and it's only really made me a good son after my each of my parents have died.