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Circle Dance

Many years ago, my good friend Barb said something I never forgot. “People shouldn’t say they did the best they could. Nobody ever does the best they can,” she remarked with the wise authority of a person in her early twenties. Struck by the comment’s harshness, I was also impressed with Barb’s bracing insight. I decided she was right. Ever since then, whenever someone said, “Oh, well. I did my best,” I’d think to myself, “Oh, yeah? I bet you could have done better.” I didn’t excuse myself either. When I messed up, I’d internally count the ways I cut corners and failed to live up to my own expectations.

Barb’s judgment always came to mind in respect to my mother as well. Over the years, after telling a story about my mom’s impatience or pessimism, I’ve heard, over and over again, that she probably did the best she could. Usually I’d keep silent to avoid sounding petty and unforgiving. But inside, I’d be saying, “I think she could have done better. I think she wasn’t really trying.”

And it may actually be true that few people do their very best most of the time. Barb and I are probably right. Everyone who gossips knows it’s wrong to gossip. Everyone binging on chocolate chip cookies knows it’s not healthful. It’s within most people’s control not to hit their kids, or drive drunk, or cheat on a test, but they do it anyway. As I was writing the end of my book about my mother, however, I realized that this attitude wasn’t doing me any favors.

I realized it didn’t matter whether a harsh judgment was true, because its result was resentment and criticism. In contrast, a best-they-could attitude makes for a kinder, gentler life. If we assume this about others and ourselves, we allow for another chance, when we might actually get closer to being our best selves. It’s better, at least after a respectable period of fuming and/or self-flagellation, to just let it go. “How futile to hold a grudge,” I say near the end of Missing, “against someone so sad.”

bonnie-raitt-profileI came upon these reflections after listening to the song “Circle Dance” by Bonnie Raitt, which she reportedly wrote about her dad, the singer John Raitt. I should point out that, unlike the parent in Raitt’s song, my mother never left. She put dinner on the table seven nights a week, washed and ironed our clothes, and drove us to school when we missed the bus, which was, for me, quite often. Getting up in the morning was an area where I didn’t always do my best.

I give my mom credit for what she did and assume now that she just wasn’t able to do the rest. Whether it’s true or not, I’m saying she did the best she could. Here are the lyrics to Bonnie Raitt’s song, but you’d do much better to listen to it here.

Circle Dance

I don’t know why it should be so hard giving up this circle dance.

Worn out steps from long ago don’t give love a chance.

It’s a bitter heirloom handed down, these twisted parts we play.

I’m not her, and you’re not him; it just comes out that way.

Can’t go back to make things right, though I wish I’d understood.

Time has made things clearer now; we did the best we could.

“I’ll be home soon.” That’s what you’d say, and a little kid believes.

After a while I learned that love must be a thing that leaves.

I tried so hard just to hold you near, was as good as I could be.

Even when I had you here, you stayed so far from me.

Can’t go back to make things right, though I wish I’d understood.

Time has made things clearer now: You did the best you could.

Now that this has occurred to me, I just wanted you to know.

I’ve been too faithful all my life. It’s time to let you go.

It’s time to let you go.



  1. Mary wrote:

    “Missing has been accepted for publication by Red Giant Books and will appear in the spring of 2016.” Kathy, congratulations on the upcoming publication of your book. I just learned of your book deal after reading the “Circle Dance” blog piece. Just yesterday I was poking around (again) Christine Lawson’s book and pondering the “Can she help it?” question. Thanks for a thoughtful piece. By the way, another book I have looked at advises against confiding in other people about BPD mother issues b/c they just won’t ‘get it’ and will judge you negatively.

    Monday, February 15, 2016 at 9:23 am | Permalink
  2. Flora wrote:

    There’s some interesting new research that challenges commonly held assumptions about how well people are able to control their behavior. It seems to be a lot more complicated than just “you can” vs. “you can’t.” This pdf from the American Psychological Assn is a pretty good overview:

    Monday, February 15, 2016 at 1:39 pm | Permalink
  3. Michael Whitely wrote:

    Interesting article, Flora. You make a good point. The old book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance talked about gumption traps, where you have to control things or they’ll get you, take the wind out of your sails so that you give up. That other Zen-type book on the KonMari method of tidying up says the same sort of thing. The first step is to declutter your house so that the things you own can’t put you in a mess again and take away your joy.

    Wednesday, February 17, 2016 at 3:54 pm | Permalink
  4. Kathy wrote:

    What is that last book you mention, Mary? And thanks for the congratulations. I appreciate all your input and support.

    Wednesday, February 17, 2016 at 4:28 pm | Permalink
  5. Kathy wrote:

    I think I muddied the waters with my eating chocolate-chip cookies example, etc., as I vaguely knew when I was writing, but I lacked the will power to stop and think of a better one! In my mom’s case, will power (in the context of the article) would imply that she had tried and tried to be different and gotten worn out. But I think it has more to do with a lack of self-awareness and of empathy. If you can’t step outside yourself and observe your own behavior, and, moreover, you can’t imagine the effects of your behavior on others, there’s no reason to change. You can’t recognize that need. And if you did acknowledge a need to change, you’d feel–in the typically borderline, black-and-white model–that you must be a totally worthless human being. One of the reasons people with the disorder have so much trouble in therapy…Admitting you have a problem, saying you’re imperfect, can be equivalent to a 100% condemnation of yourself.

    Anyway, it’s interesting research. I enjoyed reading it so well summarized in one place. Thank you!

    Wednesday, February 17, 2016 at 4:45 pm | Permalink
  6. Jewel Moulthrop wrote:

    Like this blog post very much. If you muddied the waters with the chocolate-chip cookies, you surely clarified them with your comment about the lack of self-awareness and empathy, which was certainly true for my BPD mom.

    Wednesday, February 17, 2016 at 5:22 pm | Permalink
  7. Mary wrote:

    I highly recommend this book:

    “Understanding the Borderline Mother: Helping Her Children Transcend the Intense, Unpredictable, and Volatile Relationship”

    Christine Ann Lawson

    Thursday, February 18, 2016 at 6:46 am | Permalink
  8. Kathy wrote:

    This is a very good resource, Mary. I was wondering what the other book you referred to was.

    Thursday, February 18, 2016 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  9. Mary wrote:

    sorry, misunderstood, the other book is “Surviving a Borderline Parent” by Kimberlee Roth and Freda B. Friedman. The section I think I had in mind was about “invalidation.”

    Thursday, February 18, 2016 at 10:57 am | Permalink
  10. Kathy wrote:

    Yes. I loved that book and relied on it a lot.

    Thursday, February 18, 2016 at 3:40 pm | Permalink
  11. Kathy wrote:

    I just got a lovely comment to use for my book from Kimberlee Roth. I’m surprised and very happy.

    Wednesday, April 6, 2016 at 8:01 pm | Permalink
  12. Kathy wrote:

    Not quite spring, but it is still 2016! You should be able to order the book from any bookstore, Mary, and it’s available on Amazon. Thanks so much for being there through these years! of waiting.

    Friday, June 24, 2016 at 10:14 pm | Permalink

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  1. […] to grasp fully that my mother couldn’t help the way she was has nudged me along. I wrote in my blog recently that it’s more healthy to assume she did the best she could than to stoke my resentment […]

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