Still Face

I don’t know if I read it into my memory.

She would sit at the table, sorting receipts or reading, or clearing out the accumulated contents of her purse. I would be outside or in the living room, playing or drawing or coming home from school, dropping my backpack  on the floor with the front door slamming shut behind me.

She would be there in front of me, focusing through her glasses on whatever she was seeing. I would interrupt her to show her a drawing or to tell her, unprompted, about the fascinating events of my earlier grades. About playground drama, the scandals or how I was mad at a friend, or confused.

“Mom,” I’d say.

“Mom,” I’d say. I know at least once when I tried to show her a drawing she said, ‘that’s nice dear,’ without looking up.

But some or most times, she wouldn’t answer me. I was so curious then about whatever she was doing, and a little incensed that there might be something more important to my mother than me. Maybe she explained, but I don’t remember what she did that resulted in her strained and exclusive attention.

In those moments when she didn’t respond to me, I would look at how her hair fell after she ran her fingers through it, or out the back window into the yard. Or I would look down at the pages before her and try to make sense of the shapes. They seemed like long moments. That’s what concerns me.

I learned in linguistics about this phenomenon called the ‘still face’ effect. Children whose mothers do not engage with them for a period of roughly three minutes become ‘sober,’ or anxious, and then try to stimulate in their mothers the same standard pattern of interaction. The phenomenon showed how social infants are in their attempts to re-engage their mothers, and has been widely demonstrated and used to investigate the limits of an infant’s perspective.

My mother was depressed. And I know that now. Because the phenomenon occurs with depressed parents, I wonder whether those moments I remembered are remembered because of her unresponsive, still face. Because the frequency of still face reactions children experience is thought to be predictive of later attachment styles, I wonder if those were the moments when I inherited her depression.

I can’t know whether she was in pain in those specific moments, or if she was simply ignoring an annoying and overactive toddler. So when I sort through those moments, built of sparse memories and contradictions, I realize I don’t know what’s true.

I start to fear unconscious replication, but find that I can’t acknowledge everything. Maybe the solution is to practice intentional silence.

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Off edges

She did not pause – ever. She kept going to the brink, even after I left. And when he left her, she no longer paused before agreeing to fall.

Celine became my roommate when I decided to leave my life and my job in New York. It was an incautious decision of mine, to throw away my life and restart it. But this urge ate away at me, burrowing in with each subway trip, each uninspired grind. And so I called her (Celine) and asked her to take over my job, my apartment. She became my roommate.

When she moved in, her presence interrogated my life. The city made me reclusive, and I saw it when she went out. And when she came back crying around three am, I knew I was calm. I made her tea. And then I moved out, and she took over my lease because she’d taken my job, and then a bigger job, in the city.

I left and started graduate school. I became competitive and voracious. And it ate into my relationships again, but ambition allowed it.

I knew Celine was in love. She would invite me to parties while I was a thousand miles away. I saw her smiling with her partner and I smiled for the both of them. We agreed we felt fond of one another, and of our oppositeness. And then I saw her relationship fall apart through her sudden silence. Through the photos of her alone, of her at home instead of New York.

She told me that she had bottomed out. And my heart broke for her, my dear friend. But I don’t know how to calm her down from a thousand miles away. She knows the dimensions of my life, the dirt in the corners. But I can’t see through the smallness of my life.

I am, alternately, in a rage at her, for being irresponsible. I am like a parent, yelling at a child who wandered into the road. Raging at my lack of control.

Or, I convince myself that I am not necessary. While I celebrate her ability to heal herself, I conspire with the hard world by failing to respond.

What can I say to an experience I don’t know?