I just about growled when I walked into Emily’s college dorm room. Mother Bear. Mother Bobcat. Mother Wolf. Mother Pit Viper. I am not sure who I was, but I was MAD.
Emily has a triple in her new college dorm. The technology of the times meant that, before her arrival yesterday, she had facebooked, instant messaged, emailed, phoned, and even met one of her new roommates in person before arriving at school. This had been a lovely way to begin life away from home with new people.
But when we walked into Emily’s room, I found myself reacting in a rather primal way.
Because the three roommates were arriving on different days, Emily had suggested that they wait until they were all there to decide how to set up the room. The trio had agreed in a conference call to wait.
One reason Emily suggested waiting is because she had heard me tell, too many times perhaps, the story of my arrival at college. When I opened the door to my freshman room, I found my roommate had completely moved in ahead of me taking the best closet, the best side of the room, and the best window. Her mother and aunt had hung hideous curtains in our two windows and put matching hideous bedspreads on our beds and shag rugs on our floor. Everything was a rusty orange.
I don’t think my roommate had any control over her relatives behavior but I didn’t understand that at the time and held her responsible for what had happened. A further problem was that I had no notion of my right to negotiate anything in our life together or any sense of my right to reconfigure our relationship or our room at any point during our long year together. Though I did remove the bedspread from my bed, I thought a nice person would just accept the situation. I thought a nice person would not feel as upset as I did about what had happened. I actually felt ashamed that I cared so much about things being done before I had any chance to weigh in with my opinion.
It wasn’t so much my roommate that dug the grave in our relationship, but me. My childhood had trained me well to roll over and take whatever was tossed my way. Nothing much had been negotiable in my childhood household and for some reason I had long been cast in the role of the family black sheep who got second best, if anything at all. As I embarked on this relationship with my freshman year roommate, I didn’t understand I was entering new territory, a situation in which I was an equal partner with a fellow human. I didn’t grasp the essential idea that I had volition to shape the relationship. Sadly, neither did she, so we muddled along through a year of misunderstandings.
I was raised to be passive. During my childhood, it had worked to my mother’s personality’s advantage to have me this way. I internalized all my angry feelings about my powerlessness and second class citizenship in my family. I escaped into a world of books, though my body constantly called me back to BE in my life and address what was going on. Besides endless bronchitis, a disease I link to my feelings of grief and despair, my rage about my situation surfaced in the form of endless injuries and broken bones. On the surface of things, there was never a ripple of dissension breaking the enforced “harmony” of our childhood home. Yet within my own body, battles were a constant.
So I counted myself out completely as I entered my freshman year room. I stood alone in the room with this strange new roommate, her older sister who went to our college, her twin sister who also was a freshman at our college, and her mother and her aunt both of whom had gone to this college. I didn’t even have the mixed blessing of my parents at my side to bump my numbers and potentially my power in the situation. This was because my parents had hardly turned off the car when they dropped me at my dorm.
Their daily life revolved around their drink schedule. It was nearly lunchtime when they unloaded my two bags. They needed to get a move on to speed off to their midday martinis. Had they been there, it wouldn’t have been a help anyways. They would not have validated my feelings of unfairness because the glue that held our family together in some kind of horrible unit was this pervasive notion that everyone was either better than or worse than everyone else. Based on a criteria known only to them, they would have met my roommate and decided immediately that I deserved the worst side of the room or the best side based on a snap judgment that she was the better or worse person. There would have been no suggestion that perhaps we were equals who needed to divide things fairly.
Fast forward thirty odd years to find me entering Emily’s room. As I looked around the room, I nearly hit the ceiling with an explosion of feeling. You can guess the scene, can’t you?
The roommate who had arrived first had taken the bed by the window, entirely filled the only bookcase with her stuff, taken and completely filled to the brim one of the two closets (when three people needed to share the two closets) and taken the best desk, positioned with the greatest light. The degree to which she had settled in made it appear she had been there six months, not overnight. She had even left towels on the best towel rack by the door. A note from her said she had taken a full closet because she didn’t want one of the bureaus. I think this was when I snarled in Emily’s direction, “As if how she feels about bureaus means you don’t deserve closet space.” A book called, “The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run into at College” was prominently displayed on “her” bookcase. I was tempted to take off my clothes and see what she would do with a naked parent!
Having me MAD was perhaps easier for Emily than having me weeping. Emily was great about the situation, She didn’t get sucked into the better than worse than dynamic AT ALL. She was so much more balanced than I was when I was her age. Heck, so much more balanced than I am now! She put her stuff in a neutral position in the room and calmly talked me down, “Mom, don’t worry. I can take care of myself. I am not going to let her do this. When we are all here in a couple of days, I will make sure we figure out the room arrangement fairly.”
With that, I dragged myself back from the unfinished business of thirty years ago, figuring I could ruminate later about why I had gone code orange when I entered her room.
Clearly, Emily was all set to take care of herself in a million ways I had been unable to when I was her age. Clearly she had both a skill set and a sense of her own value that I lacked during my own freshman year.
She knew herself an equal member of her new tribe. She didn’t need my angry reaction to go forward or feel empowered. I could let it go. I knew she would prevail in her desire to create a democracy in the room. There would be no default autocracy like my wounded roommate and I created.
The time to leave Emily to her new life came. The weeping could be postponed no more and so we had our group cry. Then, as our car headed away from Emily’s dorm, I glanced back to see her strolling across a shaded lawn towards her first pre-season soccer practice. She was walking with a fellow freshman soccer player. They were talking with great intensity, swept up into their new world already.
I was glad for a couple of differences between the two occasions thirty odd years apart.
1) I was glad martinis were not involved in this occasion.
2) I was glad that unlike my poor beleaguered freshman self, Emily counted herself an equal among peers, no more and no less.
3) I was glad that Emily had an internalized sense of her own value that would carry the day even as her Mother Bear Mother Bobcat Mother Wolf Mother Pit Viper drove away.
And 4) I was glad that sometime shortly after I settled into my freshman year orange abode, I began a disorganized but determined search for a different way to live with people than the way of my tribe of origin, a search that would involve a zillion books, and tens of thousands heart to hearts with spiritual teachers, therapists, beloved friends, cats, dogs, Angels, Elementals and God.
As I saw Emily in action in her new life, I saw that my search had been of value not just as a means to ease the inner battles that raged within me, but as a support to people with whom I shared my search, people including precious Emily. I could see that my search had helped her experience, even in a time of stress, her great equality with everyone else, her Godness in a sea of God. That alone made all the searching worthwhile.