The Ritual of Care: Maureen Owen talks about caregiving

Published September 1, 2022

Maureen Owen talks with Jiwon Choi about the challenges of caring for her mother and her forthcoming book, let the heart hold down the breakage.

Jiwon Choi: I am fascinated by the ritual of care that you describe in your book, the blanket struggles, the oxygen, the Tums, Kleenex, etc.  Can you talk more about this aspect of caring for your mother?

Maureen Owen: Caring for my mom was, as it is for all of those needing care, a twenty-four seven commitment.  Mornings and twilights and midnights and dawn, all blended into one fabric, one long, flowing skein of water that swirled and swept ever forward.  There was no controlling the hours of the day.  One could only try for an order, a direction of calm, a quiet conversation to unfold.  Gradually the demand takes its toll, it’s all consuming to just do everything needed. There is a repetition of needs to keep up with,  repetitions of Tums, Kleenex, blankets, oxygen.  Fatigue sets in.  One is saved by the ritual of it all.  The ritual becomes the matrix.

JC: I also spent a lot of time figuring out care for my mom and aunt when they were diagnosed with dementia, so I really appreciated your steady tone, but were there parts of your life that you had to change to become your mother’s main caregiver?  

MO: During the time of caring for my mom so much well meaning affirmation came from friends and strangers.  How fortunate I was to have my mom at age 96, how lucky I was to be the one caring for her, what a privilege, and so on.  All absolutely true.  I wanted to take care of her and at home with me.  I loved her and was eternally indebted to her.  I was with her 100%.  Yet I couldn’t help but wonder why the difficulties and hardships were never acknowledged, never mentioned.  Our real hours seemed in contradiction to a reality I was being told we had. 

JC: You acknowledge that you wanted to take care of your mom, and this idea that you were “lucky” or that it was a privilege to do so seemed to negate its challenges and hardships.  But you really get into the reality of care in your book, what you call the “real hours.” Can you talk about what happened to you during these real hours? 

MO: Too tired to journal or record, I managed a few wild sentences some nights, scribbled down in haste in a rumpled notebook I pulled off a kitchen shelf.  I never intended them to become a work.  Rather it seemed a way to hold unto some clarity, some sanity, and to hold unto my mother in those fleeting, heartrending times.   

It was sometime after her passing that I felt able to pull the notebook down one morning and open it over a cup of hot chocolate.  It was a jumble of scrawls, but reality in its barest truth.  The realness of caring for someone you hold so close, love so much, and yet here was the darkness of that closure in all its honesty. 

As I sat staring at it a little underground trickle of poetry rose to the surface then disappeared then resurfaced.  

JC: The journey of interpreting experience into book form is hardly a cut and dry/straight forward process, plus add on the added challenge of having to take care of a loved one. What was going on for you in this process?

MO: As I began to shape pieces into poems from the notebook, I felt the culture of optimism making me question my own reality of what had really happened. Self-doubt and “can I say this?”  thoughts began to plague me as well as a fear of negative reaction to the work.

JC: Sometimes people mistake truth for negativity, but perhaps it’s because the truth can be tough to hear.

MO: Then a most propitious happenstance occurred. I was perusing an issue of Poets and Writers magazine and I came across an excerpt from Cathy Park Hong’s title, Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning, published by One World.  In the excerpt Park Hong explains:

“Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, thereby creating a static of cognitive dissonance.”

and later:

“Minor feelings are also the emotions we are accused of having when we decide to be difficult—in other words, when we decide to be honest. They are interpreted as hostile, ungrateful, …depressing,….”

Tho Park Hong’s title is a remarkable, brilliant treatise on minor feelings in the reality of being Asian (or low income black and brown) in America’s structural inequity, reading it I felt a wave of recognition in terms of telling my caregiver’s log truthfully. I thought, yes!, that is exactly it.  That is just the negative aspect of minor feelings I’m experiencing.

I’m hoping I have brought truth in all it’s mixed emotions to this work.

JC: Yes, I just finished it. A very powerful read.

MO: In the excerpt Cathy Park Hong mentions her indebtedness to the theorist Sianne Ngai, who in her title ugly feelings, presents a series of studies on the affective qualities of negative emotions in late modernity. Further inspired by Park Hong’s recommendation I procured a copy of Ngai’s book.  A selection from the back cover reads:

“Ngai shows how art turns to ugly feelings as a site for interrogating its own suspended agency in the affirmative culture of a market society, where art is tolerated as essentially unthreatening.”

Ngai’s work has brought me even closer to the exegesis of my own text.  One where I can realize that my art has carried me out beyond the bounds of my own hesitations. 

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