The Happy

This has been a rough few months for our family. My father-in-law has been struggling with some heart issues. It frustrated him, it frightened us, and it led to about three to five different hospitalizations since August. He has suffered the most and yet been in the best spirits; I’ve been akin to a sulky teenager, angry at the world because life isn’t easy; my husband’s been understandably worried; the kids have been . . . kids. Thank God.

Last night we got Dad home from his latest hospital stay, which we all hope is the last one for a long time. He’s doing great, and we all had dinner together. After dinner he got up to help us with the dishes–he’s always done that–but we told him that he should go home and rest. My husband took him home to settle him in and help manage his pills.

Boo and Critter had finished their homework, and without even asking when my husband and father-in-law left they started helping me clean up. Our dishwasher has been broken for about a month now, so we had to hand wash the dishes which, honestly, isn’t so bad. It’s kind of meditative.

Critter really wanted to wash the dishes, so I totally let her–it freed up time for me to clean the counters and do some laundry and just generally straighten up around the place. Boo chipped in, as well. All this without being asked. But before we started Boo said, “Do we want some music to work by?” so of course we said yes, and she blasted some of the newer pop songs like “Cheap Thrills” and “Can’t Stop the Feeling” as we danced around the house together putting away groceries and picking socks up off the floor and Critter blew bubbles at us from sink soap.

And I had one of those moments. You know the ones? When you realize you are IN IT, when you are living the dream? So silly to feel that cleaning the kitchen with the kids is a dream of mine, but it was. It felt like something out of a movie I had wanted to star in my whole life. I had kids so I could have THIS, my mind said. So I could have this time, this silly, run-of-the-mill, cleaning the kitchen with my daughters time. This dancing and blowing bubbles time. This time of silly togetherness. The moments that make a happy life.

It’s so different from my time with them as babies, where I worried that Boo would cut herself with a knife if she tried to load the dishwasher (she did, by the way. We put a band-aid on it); or Critter would burn herself with hot water (instead she got burned with a glue gun at some point; she lived). I didn’t worry about them yesterday. I wasn’t afraid or hovering. We were just working together, cooperating, and having fun taking care of our home. Basic domesticity, and family. THE MOMENT. No yelling or screaming or nagging or anger or disappointment or frustration or resentment or aggravation. They knew I’d been having a rough time. They had been having a rough time. And maybe the rough time was over and we could just have that moment of peace. Utter, and complete joyful serenity.

And, like Brene Brown once said, as I was in that moment, living in it, thinking “This. This is family. This is the dream. This is the joy,” immediately my mind went to, “And it can’t last. This is that moment in the movie before something horrible happens.” And I felt that fist grip my heart. Ooh I hate that fist. I hate it. But it took hold of my heart to squeeze the joy right out of it, and tears blurred my vision and instead of singing I just got gaspy and Boo came right up to me and took my arm and said, “Mom. What?”

So I looked into those brown eyes and instead of hiding what I was thinking I told her. I said, “This moment. It’s perfect. This is why I wanted to have kids. For times like this. These simple, silly, working-together-in-the-kitchen times. But it feels like that part of the movie where everything is peaceful and great right before something horrible happens, and I’m so terrified all of a sudden.”

Boo’s response was, “Mom. Grandpa’s been in and out of the hospital for two months. This isn’t the part of the movie where something horrible happens. The past two months WERE the horrible. This, mom, this is the happy. We’ve earned the happy.”

We’ve. Earned. The. Happy.

And with those words, the joy all came flooding back, and the hand released my heart, and the tears just disappeared, and the singing resumed and the bubbles floated and some song about a chandelier came up next and I just let myself enjoy the happy without thinking about anything else. And I realized, THIS, TOO. This is the moment. This is the reason I persevered through every smelly diaper change; every 2 am feeding; every “abandon the plan because of a meltdown;” every failed potty training attempt; every postpartum anxiety attack when faced with taking the children to Wal-Mart; every deep breath to keep from screaming during their tantrums; every counting to ten to keep from losing my cool; every mind-numbing hour of watching  Wa Wa Wubbsy; every disciplinary time-out-and-no-don’t-even-think-of-leaving-that-corner; every ridiculous version of “Skinnamarink;” every “read it again, please;” every “mom’s morality minute in the morning” on the way to school. To have THIS moment, RIGHT here, RIGHT now, with these girls, who would have been worth every sacrifice even if they didn’t have the ability to talk me off a ledge, but who get me down better and more effectively each and every day simply by being present in my life.

So yeah. That’s where we are right now. The storms have passed, and now we get to enjoy the rainbow. The glass isn’t half empty, it’s half full. The best isn’t over; it lies ahead. We’re not waiting for the next bad thing to happen; we’re celebrating the end of the bad things that we’ve overcome. We’ve earned the happy.

And yet still my mind whispers, “For now.”

 

 

 

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This entry was posted on October 19, 2016. 2 Comments

On Books and Babies

This month, thirteen years ago, was a season of terror. No, not Halloween. Pregnancy. I was in the final month of my first full-term pregnancy and I was waiting for disaster. There was no way, I thought, this was going to be okay. A long string of English literature classes in college and graduate school with a focus on Victorian novels had me well prepared to die in childbirth. The miscarriage I’d had a year and a half earlier had me convinced that this baby would be snatched away from me at any moment, without warning. And even if those things didn’t happen–even if all my doom-and-gloom fear of loss came to nothing, even if everything went beautifully and magically–at the end of that month I was still facing the daunting fact that I would be in charge of the life of a human being who would be utterly and completely dependent on me for everything it needed to live. I was a mess.

This month, this year, is a new season of terror. Again, not Halloween. Oh, and not pregnancy either because, my friends, that ship has not only sailed it has disappeared over the horizon, been commandeered by pirates, and has been sunk in a battle at sea. No, this year I’m agonizing over the fact that I have managed to complete the draft of a young adult novel. Do you want to know what’s going through my head, right now, as I write this? “I am never going to post this ever because I can’t tell anyone I’ve done this because what if it comes to nothing and it’s awful and it’s bad and no one wants to read it and it’s an utter and total failure?”

I find the line of panic in my brain very similar to my inner voice during my pregnancy, only it was, “I am never going to actually have a baby because I’m going to die or the baby is going to die or something is going to go wrong and someone will take the baby away from me because how can I be responsible for another human life when I can barely remember to feed the cats?” This is, in so many ways, soothing though, because I can tell you right now that line of panic in my brain during my pregnancy was so full of shit it should have been labeled “manure pile.” I did not die in childbirth, the baby was born healthy (if jaundiced), I was fully able to care for her from the moment she was born until this day, and she has grown into the most amazing almost-thirteen-year-old girl . . . or is it young woman now? It’s certainly almost-teenager . . . and that way madness lies, so back to the book.

Having pretty clear proof that my panic-brain litany about childbirth and parenthood was a crap shack of nonsense, I can extrapolate that my panic-brain litany about this book may also be less-than-trustworthy. On top of which, so what if the book comes to nothing and it’s awful and it’s bad and no one wants to read it and it’s an utter and total failure? I will still have written a book. A book that I happen to like. And a book I hope you will want to read.

Because those of you who follow this sporadic blog are my best and most wonderful readers, I thought I’d tell you all about this first. Yet please understand that I am as reluctant, if not more so, to reveal this news than I was to reveal my pregnancies. It’s funny. Everyone in the know about pregnancy tells moms and dads to hold off on telling anyone about it until after the three month mark, because then the chances of miscarriage are less. That advice never worked for me. I tried it for my first pregnancy and spent two and a half months freaking out my students and friends by just being sick all the time. Then I miscarried, and had to miss a few days of work. Might I say that telling people, “I was pregnant, but now I’m not,” is probably the most awkward conversation I’d ever had?My students were incredibly sympathetic, and told me that they were glad I told them because they all thought I had mono–the illness a bunch of college students would assume when they saw someone who was exhausted all the time, vaguely ill, and kind of out of it. My colleagues had no idea what to say. They just kind of gave me a wide berth. So I thought, “Next time this happens to me, if it does, I’m telling everyone right away to avoid this nonsense.”

I think I’m trying to take the same advice with the book. I don’t want to be sitting on this for months and years, having everyone wonder why I’m withdrawing from many of my volunteer activities and hermiting up in my house. For all intents and purposes I’ve spent the past two years at home being a stay-at-home-mom, which most folks translate into professional volunteer. And don’t get me wrong, I love my volunteer activities–Girl Scout Leader, Vacation Bible School Coordinator, School Auction volunteer, Homeroom Mom. They get me out of the house, give me opportunities to socialize, make me feel like I’m doing something concrete that has a set start time and end time. Plus, I get to be closer to my kids which is never a bad thing.

Writing, on the other hand, is right now incredibly amorphous. Granted, I’ve finished one book, but now it’s going to my close-knit family–my husband, my daughter, my writing partner C., and hopefully a few others who will give me feedback to let me know how I can make it better. Then I’ll have to do edits. All the while I’ll be working on a second book in the series, and short stories to send out to a variety of publications, and maybe essays. Also, this blog. Then I’ll have to get into the business end of publishing–seeing if anyone wants the books I’ve written. I might have to go to conferences. I might have to network. I might have to travel. Who knows what lies ahead?

One thing I do know is that I am not going to hide this or lie about it. When my friends want to know what I’m doing with my time now that I’m not teaching any more, or doing the nine-to-five thing, or volunteering every spare hour of my day, I want you to know that I’m writing. I’m following the dream I’ve had since I was seven years old and started scribbling story ideas in journals. I’m battling the internal censor that tells me I’m not smart enough, or good enough, or talented enough to succeed at this new endeavor. And I’m doing that by just sitting at my computer, a few hours every day, and working on my craft without any thought to where it will lead or what it will bring me. Because the simple act of writing has already brought me so much joy, that’s pretty much all I’ll need.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that books really are like babies. They’re terrifying when they’re new, leading us to worry about whether we can actually handle this new and beautiful thing God has given us. We are afraid to tell people about them, because what if something happens and it all comes to nothing? But then, after awhile, people start to notice that we’re changing a bit–we’ve withdrawn a little from the world. We don’t do the things we used to do. We get a bit distracted. Then, the day comes and gestation is finished. This creation is here. And it’s full of promise, and potential, and beauty, and grace–and we really, really don’t want to screw that up. So we fuss and we dither and we worry some more.

And then, after a bit of time, we come to realize that what happens, happens. It’s completely out of our hands. This beautiful work of art that we love soul-deep begins its own life. We guide it, and we shape it, and we take and make suggestions to try to guide it down paths where it will be successful and noticed and loved by folks other than us. Sometimes we’ll feel it’s being overlooked, that people just don’t see its worth. Sometimes we’ll be amazed by how much people like it, how much promise and potential it is realizing. Sometimes we’ll be devastated when it’s critiqued and lambasted and its future seems uncertain. Sometimes it makes it where we want it to go. Sometimes it doesn’t.

But in the end all that matters–or all that should matter–is that we got to spend time living with this amazing creation we have had a hand in bringing to the world. And whether it succeeds or fails, or when it succeeds then fails (or fails then succeeds), we’ll love it just as much because, from beginning to end, it’s ours. And as long as we just begin every day with gratitude for its presence in our lives, with no expectations or demands or commands other than that it just be what it is, well, that’s a recipe for a happy life. Whether it’s with a novel or an almost-teenager.

 

This entry was posted on October 7, 2016. 4 Comments

A Long Overdue Letter

As 2015 draws to a close, there’s a letter I’ve been meaning to write for a long time about something that has been very near to my heart my whole life. I am incredibly proud of myself that I can write it now, because I’ve never been able to before. I could have just written it in my journal, but then it would have felt kind of like I was hiding it, and I don’t want to do that. I want this out here, clear as day, and I can think of no better audience to share it with than you.

Dear Anxiety,

We’ve been together for a very long time–probably as long as I can remember. You’ve occupied the pit of my stomach, you’ve clenched my heart, you’ve pierced my lungs and, to be honest, you’ve taken up way too much space in my head.

I know you may have meant well at first. You existed out of some primordial need to protect me from the dark and nasty things out there, the things you think I’m too dumb to fully comprehend. But here’s the thing: You don’t protect me. You possess me. You don’t help me. You limit me. You don’t keep me safe. You isolate and confine me. You try to tell me it’s for my own good, but it’s not. You’re not.

Because the truth is I’m very smart. I know better than to jump off a cliff, or walk into a tornado, or go for a run in a hurricane. I know when to be scared of the dark. All those things that threaten my life–I know they’re out there without you to remind me. I’ve got a plan for every eventuality–sometimes three plans, even. I’m aware. I’m awake. I’m capable. I’ve got this.

Anxiety, you make me tired. You make me weak. You and your horrid friends–fear, worry, doubt, and panic–wreak havoc on my life. So when you go, please take them with you and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.

Yeah. I cursed at you. You know why? Because I’m angry. I’m angry that you put up this pretense that you’re here to, in some way, preserve my life–that without you I’ll be hurt, or humiliated, or injured. Guess what? I am going to be hurt, and humiliated, and injured anyway. That’s part of life. I am old enough and wise enough now to accept that. And I’ve also been through enough to know that I’ll get through those hurts, and humiliations, and injuries the way I’ve gotten through all the rest–with the help of God, my family, my friends, my faith and . . . my self.

Besides, how many of the things you’ve occupied my mind worrying about have ever really happened? Did you ever once predict the most devastating things? Did you sit there and make me worry about my grandfather dying on the day of my high school graduation? Of watching my mother-in-law die of cancer? Of miscarrying my first child? Did you predict the day or the time that my grandmother would peacefully pass away in her sleep? No. No you didn’t. You didn’t ever even suggest one of those things. You made me worry about failing every test I ever took–all of which I did great on. You made me worry about losing my friends–all of whom are still here in my life. You made me worry every time my kids fell ill with so much as a sniffle, and they’re (thank God) healthy as can be. Every time you entered my brain and filled it with fear you lied. You misled. You panicked me for no reason. You never got one prediction correct. Yet I have allowed you to keep talking. Until today.

Because now, on this last day of 2015, I’m writing you this letter to let you know I have no use for you. I do not want to listen to another thing you say. And I want you out of my life, forever. You are not welcome here. You will never again be welcome here. I will not allow you any more access to my stomach, lungs, heart, or mind.

Oh, I know you’ll try to get back in. I know you’ll try to whisper to me in the night, or intrude during my quiet time. Guess what: I’m going to block you right out. When you try to whisper in my ear, I’m going to sing you away. When you grab a hold of my stomach and fill it with weights heavier than stone, I’m going to walk or dance you away. When you squeeze my lungs or batter my heart I’m going to pray you away. If you’re really persistent, I’m going to call any one of my countless friends who have more of a right to a place in my heart and mind than you do. Friends who believe in me rather than make me doubt myself. Friends who lift me up instead of bringing me down. Friends who fill me with confidence not fear. Friends who stand by me and stand with me. Friends who show me all the ways I will succeed rather than warning me of all the ways that I can fail.

Ah, anxiety. You’ve had a good run. I’ve let you occupy my body and harass my soul for forty-three and a half years. In all that time, you have never brought me even one good thing. All you have done is cast a shadow over the good, and made me fight for the strength to handle the bad. You are the enemy, not an ally.

So today, anxiety, I say no more. And I’m sharing this with all my friends in the hopes that they, too, will find the strength to shut you down, to shut you out, and to send you away for good.

When I was a little girl, one of my favorite movies was this silly little fantasy film called Labyrinth. It was about a girl named Sarah, who has quite a lot to be thankful for, but who instead decides to focus on the one negative in her life–that her father has remarried and has a new baby, Toby. She rails against the unfairness of life and asks that the Goblin King come and take her brother away. Being fantasy, this is exactly what happens and she has to navigate a labyrinth of riddles and tricks to find Toby again all the while being tempted by the Goblin King with promises that if he can just keep the baby he will make all her dreams come true. But of course, being a good heroine, she cannot let him keep her baby brother and when she finally reaches the center of the labyrinth she reclaims her brother with a speech in which she realizes that things only control us with our permission.

And so, anxiety, I send you away in much the same way Sarah sent away the Goblin King, with a few minor alterations:

Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the depths of my soul to take back the Diane that you have stolen. I am the heroine of my own story now, and the writer of the book that is my life. My will is easily as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great. YOU. HAVE. NO. POWER. OVER. ME.

Anxiety, you have no power over me.

Fear, you have no power over me.

Worry, you have no power over me.

Doubt, you have no power over me.

Panic, you have no power over me.

So get out. And never again darken my door.

 

 

This entry was posted on December 31, 2015. 6 Comments

Fear, Itself

This morning as I was walking into the mall I saw the upper windows over the entrance covered, billboard style, with an enormous ad for Busch Gardens’ Howl-o-Scream, a Halloween staple in Tampa. I reflexly reached down next to me to steer Boo away from the view, but as she is now 11 and in middle school, my hands did not meet her soft head but simply swished through air. So ingrained is it for me to try to steer my child away from these images, I’d actually forgotten she wasn’t with me. I guess that’s because from the time she was about a year old (she was born in November) she’s been horrified by Halloween to the point where I couldn’t take her anywhere except the grocery store from early September through the first week in November without shielding her eyes because the minute she caught a glimpse of something she found scary she would freeze and begin to tremble.

For years, the biggest places to avoid were Party City and Wal-Mart, as they always seemed to have the most ghoulish decorations front and center. Planning Boo’s November 10th birthday parties was always a nice challenge, since those were the best places in town for invitations and party favors. So in the beginning I hid her eyes a LOT, walking her stroller into the store with her inside, a blanket over her head. Then, as Critter got older she would tell Boo to close her eyes and she would lead her older sister, as if blindfolded, through the worst parts of the store. Yet as the years wore on the props went from being merely visual to also having sound components, so even with her eyes closed Boo would hear the cackling, the groaning, the moaning, and the screaming. She flat out refused to enter stores after that.

Then, of course, there were the tv ads for that same Howl-O-Scream, which we could fortunately always skip over since my kids watched nothing live (thank you, Tivo!) The few times that I did watch them, they quite honestly scared even me. Howl-O-Scream does fear incredibly well, at least from the outside (I’ve never attended and honestly never will). They seem to be aware that the scariest things are the things you can’t see. One of my friends, after skydiving, told me the scariest part of the whole experience was waiting to jump because the biggest fear is that of the unknown. Critics have written that’s why the film Jaws is so terrifying–because for the majority of the movie the terror is just glimpsed. A fin. A tooth. A flash of gray skin. The same with the movie based on Stephen King’s It. Pennywise the Clown is probably the most terrifying figure to haunt any movie screen. As an avatar for a deeper, more dangerous monster in the sewer, Pennywise is an unknown on top of an unknown.

Clowns have always terrified me–I might be coulrophobic–because at a young age I realized that their expressions are painted on. As a child I was terrified of things that looked one way but could easily, underneath, be something entirely different. A clown could be happy but have a sad face painted on. He could be truly sad but have a happy face painted on. She could be murderously evil but look innocent and pure. Like with those horrid plastic masks everyone wore in the 80’s, you never REALLY knew what was going on under that mask, what it was hiding. All you could see of the person were their eyes, framed by unnatural rigid plastic. I still shudder just thinking about it.

For me, the most terrifying scene in the movie The Shining was when the heroine looks down the hallway and sees the butler of the hotel talking to a man dressed in a dog suit, and they both look down the long hallway at her. That dog mask, to me, is more horrifying than Jack Nicholson chopping the door down with the axe saying “Here’s Johnny!” (I actually find that kind of funny), or the little boy quoting “Redrum” over and over again until they finally realize it’s “Murder” spelled backwards. My mother didn’t understand why it was THAT scene that made me run out of the room crying. “It was just a guy in a dog suit!” she shouted, having paused the film to come after me. But to me, it wasn’t a guy in a dog suit. It was a person, completely masked, in the suit of a dog. It could have been anyone in there, dressed as a fuzzy friendly dog. And when I looked down that hallway, at the person in that mask, the only thing that looked human were their eyes. Human eyes in a dog face. The incongruity, the falseness, the sense that what lay beneath that mask was not what it seemed . .  struck me with bone-deep, core-chilling, breath-quickening fear. When I explained that to my mom I remember her just looking at me for a long time. She didn’t know what to say to that. Her final reply was a shake of her head, a sigh, and the words I heard most as a child: “You really do think too much.”

In much the same way as my mother wondered at my fear of a man in a dog suit and was struck by my much overthought explanation, I once asked Boo what it was about these costumes and props that were so scary. After all, they were just plastic. There weren’t even any real people in them. They weren’t real. I was worried that she couldn’t distinguish fiction from reality, and I wanted to see if she was giving into rather than facing her fear of what simply amounted to plastic and paint. Her answer, at seven years old, floored me in much the same way as mine effected my mom. “It feels evil,” she said. “I don’t like evil. I think there’s enough real evil in the world that we don’t need to invite in any more by putting representations of it out in public.” She was seven when she said this. SEVEN. Seven years old, speaking to me not of fictional ghouls and goblins and monsters with plastic skin and painted eyes, but of the real presence of evil in our world that she did not want to see fictionally augmented.

Boo has always been sensitive to such things, perhaps overly so, but perhaps not. She is attuned to reality in ways I’m not. She sees through things, and people, to their core. She is an incredibly astute judge of people–even me. She can see through my excuses and rationalizations and call me on them like no one I have ever met. So when she sees something, or senses something, I listen. And if she sees evil, and wants to be as far away from it as possible, I’m okay with that. I have never asked her to go into the stores around Halloween time again, even with her sister guiding her or a blanket over her head.

Now, of course, in what I have realized is the way of things, she has started to try to protect me from the representations of evil she sees. Yesterday, in Publix, there was–surprise, surprise–a cardboard ad for Howl-O-Scream selling gift cards for Busch Gardens. I was looking at the buy one /get one free Captain Crunch cereal convincing myself we did not need the sugar in the house, and she and her sister spied the display before I did and attempted to steer me down the aisle before I could see the evil clown prominently displayed at the top. As I resisted I looked to the side and saw what they were trying to protect me from. I looked away quickly, and saw their faces looking up at me with worry. “It’s okay,” I said. “I know. The clown. Thanks for trying to keep me from seeing it.”

“You did the same for us,” Boo said. “A lot.”

“But you’re still my kids, and I’m your mom. You don’t have to protect me,” I answered. “I can handle it.”

“The thing is mom, you shouldn’t have to,” Boo said. “Why do they have to put that out there in the middle of everything like that? If they didn’t have the big, evil, ugly, terrifying clown up there would people not know what they were advertising? Sheesh. It’s like they’re going out of their way to put the most gruesome images everywhere they can.”

“Well, sweetie, it’s advertising. They want to get your attention,” I tried to explain. She was having none of it, and I honestly didn’t know why I was even explaining or justifying it.

She just continued, “I just don’t get this in-your-face promotion of evil. I don’t mind the Day of the Dead stuff, the respect for those who’ve died. I like Halloween for the dressing up, being someone different for a day, maybe living your fantasy of being something you just can’t be every day. But to be constantly faced with all this undead evil stuff . . . I just don’t think we need to be exposed to it at the GROCERY store.”

Eleven. Almost twelve. She’s her own person. She has her own ideas–ideas that have been developing since she was seven. And you know what? In many ways, I agree with her. Why do we inundate our spaces with images of fear, of unnatural, undead, monstrous evil this time of year? Is it because we like convincing ourselves that kind of death is a fiction? Is it yet another way to avoid facing our own, absolutely real mortality? Is it just that being scared is kind of fun sometimes? And if so, why is it fun?

My daughter’s (and, honestly, pretty much my whole family’s) aversion to the more gruesome aspects of Halloween raises more questions than it answers, I think, but they are questions we need to ask ourselves as we move into that holiday season. What are we inviting into our lives, our homes, our spaces, our consciousness? Do we really want it there? And if so, why? What about it appeals to us so much that we want to give it not only space in our minds but in our homes and places of business? And what does that tell us about ourselves (as individuals or groups)–what we desire, what we fear, what be believe, what we despise, what we glorify?

My answer is that this year the girls and I are “glorifying” Dr. Who. We desire to travel through time, we fear immortality as much as we fear mortality, and we truly believe, with the Doctor, that nothing is more important than every individual human life. So, it’s entirely possible that the next time you see us, at this year’s Trunk or Treats or running around on Halloween or Facebook, you’ll see the Eleventh Doctor (Boo) complete with red fez and (green! it has to be green!) sonic screwdriver and the cuddliest Dalek you’ve ever seen (Critter) chaperoned by, of course, The Tardis (me). I have carried them through space and time, after all, in one way or another for over 11 years. Why stop now?

This entry was posted on September 16, 2015. 1 Comment

The Difference

Today my soon-to-be-nine-year-old daughter, Critter, asked me in the car if I thought she was a good artist. I replied yes, because I honestly think she has far more artistic talent in her hands than I have in my whole body. Her immediate reaction was, “You’re just saying that because you’re my mom.”

I immediately shot back, “That’s not fair. You don’t get to ask me my opinion and discount it because I’m your mom. Why ask me a question then? Because I’m not going to win no matter what I say. If I say no, I don’t think you are talented artistically, you’ll get offended. But if I say that I believe you are, you don’t believe me. That’s not fair.”

“Well, it’s just that,” she explained, “we’re always taught that we have to put others first and put ourselves last. So I can’t say or believe I’m good at something because that would be putting myself first.”

I didn’t even give it much thought before this just came to me: “There is a difference between putting yourself last and putting yourself down. There is a difference between acknowledging you have a talent and bragging about it. God wants us to acknowledge that we have talents because they’re His gifts to us. And then He wants us to use them to help other people, not just for ourselves. He doesn’t want us to hide our talents under a rock but put them to work in the world. So if you can’t acknowledge that you have gifts, how can you put them to use?”

And then, well, then came the shot. From the other one. The one that reads my heart and sears my soul. “You put yourself down all the time, mom. You don’t believe in your writing talent. You don’t think you have a gift. You’re just like her. You think it’s humility, but it’s just being kind of scared, isn’t it? Because if you admit you have a talent then you have to use it. It’s safer just to think you aren’t talented.”

So. I’m writing this here. To remind myself to use the gifts I’m given. Because putting myself down is not an act of humility. It’s an act of fear. It’s hiding from what I’m called to do, and I can’t do that any more. Too many important eyes are watching.

I Want to See You be Brave . . .

My eldest daughter, Boo, just started voice lessons with Mrs. A., who ten years ago (though it seems like only yesterday) led our mommy and me sing-and-play Kindermusik classes. My memories of those days are hazy, lost in a postpartum fog evolutionarily designed to make me forget the sleep deprivation, delivery recovery, and breastfeeding discomfort. I do clearly remember, though, the lifeline of sanity those classes supplied.

I’m still not sure if those classes were more for me or my daughter. While the other moms and I were ostensibly singing, playing, rolling, exercising, and rocking our babies, I think we adults were also developing in new ways. I learned that babies respond more to high voices than low, and that music could be used in household routines to clue babies in to when to wake up, when to play, when to wind down, and when to sleep. I learned more about my daughter’s laid-back personality as I watched her interact with other children.

I also there are learned more ways to rock a baby than I ever thought possible. There’s the traditional rock-a-bye baby-hold, with the baby horizontal on her back in your arms, just swaying. Yet I also learned to hold my daughter sitting upright and to rock her swaying left and right, or forward and back. I reluctantly tried holding her face down with two arms, swinging her back and forth as if she was an airplane. I enjoyed another version of baby airplane where I reclined on the floor and bent my knees, put my daughter face down on my bent legs and rocked her back and forth—provoking excited squeals from her and getting myself a good abdominal workout.

These parts of music class were essentially about developing kinesthetic awareness in both babies and moms. It helped the child’s vestibular system for balance and orientation. It helped the baby’s neurons make connections between the right and left hemispheres of their brains every time we moved their left hand to their right foot and vice versa. It helped develop both mom’s and baby’s emotional intelligence through bonding. And, as Boo grew older, it helped both of us develop intra-personal intelligence when my daughter started to really hear the music, listen to the words, and talk to me about what feelings those songs evoked.

I remember one time so vividly. Boo was three. She sighed as the chords of Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” started to play in the car.

“Mommy, do we have to listen to the sad songs right now?” she asked.

“What do you mean, sad songs?”

“Well, after this one is the one about the birds over the rainbow.”

She was referring to Israel Kamakawiwo’ole’s version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which did indeed come next on the CD my friend had compiled for me.

“Why do you think they’re sad?” I asked.

“Because the men sound like they want to cry.”

I thought about her answer and listened to the mens’ voices. Armstrong’s rasp did sound like it was holding back a sob. And though Kamakawiwo’ole’s voice was higher, it quavered. Yet the instruments and the lyrics made me disagree.

“You know, honey, I don’t know if those songs are sad. I think they’re more . . . hopeful.”

“Why?”

“Because of the words. The first man is singing about all the things he loves about the world—the trees, the flowers, babies, friends—and it makes him think that we live in a wonderful place. And the second man is singing about a lovely land where all our dreams come true.”

“But the men are sad, mommy, because they don’t have those things,” she said. “Just like I know that my grandpa is in Pennyslvania, but he’s not here right now, and I miss him very much, and it makes me sad when I want to be with him but he’s not here.”

My father-in-law had left us two weeks before, but this was the first time my daughter mentioned missing him. I’m sure her sadness had been there all along, but music gave her the inspiration and the opening to express those emotions.

“We’ll get to see him again soon when we make our visit in June,” I told her.

“But that’s a long time away, and I miss him now,” she replied.

“I know, honey. And what you’re hearing and feeling from these songs is a special kind of sadness. It’s called ‘longing.’ That means feeling sad because you want something that you know is out there but you can’t have right away.”

“I know ice cream is out there and you almost never let me have it, but I don’t feel sad like this,” she said.

“Well, that’s because you don’t love ice cream like you love your grandpa.”

“I guess so. I’ll have to call grandpa and tell him that I love him more than ice cream!” When we got home, we did just that.

This conversation with my child was the first of many that showed me music’s unwavering power to allow us to access and express our deepest feelings in the most profound ways. When Boo was three, it was a way to begin to emotionally process the concept of love and longing. Yet as I sat outside listening to her voice lesson, I realized music was now helping her process entirely different, and perhaps more complicated, pre-teen, intra-personal emotional realities that had less to do with family and more to do with her peers.

Boo walked in to her first lesson having decided to sing “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. Mrs. A. decided right off that song was too simple for her, and wanted something a little more challenging. She asked if she’d ever heard the song “Brave” by Sara Bareills. Then they started singing it together, and Boo agreed that she would like to work on that song.

So the next week of voice lessons I sat on the couch and heard my normally quiet, shy, soft-spoken little girl belt out: “Say what you wanna say/ And let the words fall out/ Honestly, I wanna see you be brave/ With what you want to say/ And let the words fall out/ Honestly I wanna see you be brave . . .”

Granted, she didn’t hit all the high notes, but there wasn’t an ounce of tremble in her voice. And when she came out of that music room she was beaming.

“I’m developing my head voice, mom! That’s the voice that’s going to let me sing that song the way I need to sing it.”

“And what way is that?”

I thought she was going to say “loudly.” But she didn’t.

She said, “Powerfully.”

“Why powerfully?” I asked.

“Because the song is about learning how to let your words be powerful. How not to let what other people say get you down. You know when she sings, ‘Nothing’s gonna hurt you the way that words do/When they settle ‘neath your skin/ Kept on the inside and no sunlight/ Sometimes a shadow wins?’

“Well, yes . . .” I started to say before I was cut off.

“Yeah. Well I think that means that sometimes people say really mean things to you, and you let them become part of who you are, but because they’re negative they make you negative toward yourself and the darkness starts creeping into your heart. And that happens with people at school sometimes, mom. Kids will say nasty things and they may not even mean them. They may just be in a bad mood and it comes out. But when we hear that stuff it’s like it goes straight to our hearts and it hurts.”

“It’s always easier to believe bad things people say to or about us.”

“And the song says that, right? When she sings, ‘Everybody’s been there/ Everybody’s been stared down by the enemy/ Fallen for the fear and/ Done some disappearing,/ Bow down to the mighty/Don’t run, just stop holding your tongue.” It means we all feel like this sometimes, but we can’t disappear or run away or let these feelings silence our true voices.

“You’re really internalizing this song,” I said, but I was beaming on the inside.

“Well, it’s more like the song is helping me say what I already have inside. I have always been the quiet kid, and the song says, ‘And since your history of silence/ Won’t do you any good,/ Did you think it would?/ Let your words be anything but empty/ Why don’t you tell them the truth?’ It’s like, well, why be quiet about it and take it and make the bad feelings a part of you when you can just speak up and really say something that might help everyone get through difficult times.”

“So this isn’t just about standing up to people who are mean to you?” I asked, remembering my own experience with bullies when I was about her age. Emotional and physical self-defense should have been a required course in New York City public schools starting in Kindergarten. But my daughter wasn’t growing up where, or the way, I did.

“No. It’s not. It’s about being yourself and just telling it like it is, not letting other people’s ideas or opinions get inside your heart, but speaking out so your words and opinions might get inside theirs and change them. Didn’t your writer’s group friend say, sometimes, that people have to learn to “speak their truth?” That if it’s yours, no one can take it away from you, so you have to be strong enough to say it?”

“Is that what bravery is?” I asked. “Speaking your truth?”

“Absolutely.” Boo said. “It’s hard to overcome the fear of what others think of you or what they might say. But bravery starts by believing that you have something to contribute that’s worth hearing, that will help other people be kinder to each other and happier about themselves.”

At that point her sister chimed in something about cats, because that’s all Critter really wants to talk about nowadays, anyway. But I emerged from that car-time yet again stunned at how this music, with this particular teacher, was not just helping develop my daughter’s vocal chords but also helping her process thoughts and emotions that almost seem far too advanced for a pre-teen to grasp.

I remember when I was her age and I thought that every mean thing said, every dark glare, every snippy response, was meant to hurt me. I was so incredibly solipsistic and selfish, so it amazes me how my daughter already understands her peers are going through things that are sometimes influencing them to behave in ways that have nothing to do with her. Sometimes a classmate’s glare is just an unguarded moment when a frustrated child is staring off into space. Sometimes a mean-seeming phrase is just a misunderstanding. Sometimes a snippy response comes from a bad mood that has nothing to do with anyone in class. Bariells’ song, which to me is about standing up to bullies, is to her a song about being yourself in the face of negative comments and hoping that will influence others to do the same.

There is so much bullying going on in the world that we are, rightly so, making our children hyperaware of it. We are encouraging them to stand up for themselves and others. We are telling them not to tolerate another person being treated badly. We are making sure they know they do not have to cower in the face of physical or emotional abuse. Yet we also need to teach them compassion and empathy for each other—to recognize the difference between an abusive peer and one who is just having a bad day. Sometimes bravery means standing up for someone who is hurting. Sometimes it means standing up for yourself. Sometimes it means telling the truth even when the truth is scary. But sometimes it means not taking everything to heart; not letting every little thing penetrate your skin; fearlessly and unashamedly being who you are and letting that essence of self-respect carry you joyfully through your day no matter what others say or do–and in the process modeling the way for others to do the same.

My wish, then, is just like Bareills’. I want to see all of us be brave.

This entry was posted on October 28, 2014. 7 Comments

I’m not sorry?

It’s been a long time since I posted, and since I have more followers than I ever thought I’d have I felt that I should start this newest blog entry with an apology. The problem is that I’m not supposed to do that anymore. Or something.

According to a new Pantene ShineStrong video which can be found here

women need to stop apologizing so much, because apologies are a sign of weakness and subservience. Evidently, women say “I’m sorry” far more often than men do. “I’m sorry,” according to the scenes in the video, seems to have become women’s go-to expression when we are asking a question in a meeting, need to shuffle over to make room for someone, walk into someone’s office, hand a child over to our spouse, or steal the covers in bed. And it’s getting annoying, making us seem weak, and undermining our confidence.

Instead, Pantene proposes, when women interrupt someone in a meeting to ask a question, we should say, “I have a question.” When we walk into someone’s office we should say, “Good morning, do you have a moment?” We should not move over to make space for others but instead hold our ground and keep the arm of the chair for ourselves. And . . . . my personal favorite, because, really Pantene, you couldn’t come up with anything better? . . .  when we hand the toddler over to our spouses and/or steal the covers at night, we should say “Sorry. Not sorry.” Perhaps we could also deliver that last one with a poke in the eye for good measure.

I have been rebuked many times in my life for saying “I’m sorry” too much. When I was working on my Ph.D. one of the professors I was researching with told me to stop apologizing. I’ve been told by colleagues in meetings that I don’t need to apologize for asking a sincere question. Indeed, every time I say “I’m sorry,” to my husband when he tells me he had a bad day, he responds with, “You don’t have to apologize. It’s not your fault.”

Interestingly, the only people who have ever told me that I say “I’m sorry” too much . . . are men. Not one woman–friend, colleague, or antagonist–has ever told me I apologize too much, often because they are apologizing as much as I am. My husband actually makes fun of conversations between one of my best friends and me, saying that if we just cut out the, “I’m sorry”s, “Don’t take this the wrong way”s, “I don’t mean to”s, and “I mean no offense”s we’d cut our conversation time down by at least 20 minutes. Trust me when I tell you that I do NOT apologize for the length of my conversations. Or for handing over the kids. Or for stealing the covers.

As a matter of fact, I would say as a whole that I live my life confidently and unapologetically. I make mistakes, of course. I make poor decisions, I lash out in anger, I respond without fully understanding a situation, I take my kids to task for things they did not do–and in all of those situations, I offer heartfelt and sincere apologies. As a New Yorker transplant in Florida, I’m sure that I’ve offended so many people at my kids’ school at this point that I should just offer a blanket apology for my presence in the parking lot at drop off. Yet most of the time I say what I mean, I mean what I say, I stand behind my decisions, I will absolutely own up to it if I am wrong and, if someone has the courage to confront me about a way that I have (albeit inadvertently) offended them, I will listen and respond and clarify the situation and, of course, apologize if warranted.

Yet, when it comes to the conversational “I’m sorry”s, I do not use that phrase to take blame upon myself for an offense. When I say “I’m sorry” about my husband’s bad day, I’m expressing sympathy–as in “I’m sorry that happened to you,” meant the same way as at a funeral I would say, “I’m sorry for your loss.” I’m not taking responsibility for the death of the loved one–if everyone who said they were sorry at a funeral were taking responsibility for someone’s death, we’d all be in jail. I am offering condolences. I am saying, “If I could change this for you, I would, but I am powerless in this situation so all I can give you is my heartfelt sadness that I cannot do more.” I don’t think that shows weakness. Acknowledging powerlessness, as many people will tell you, is often the source of incredible strength.

When I say “I’m sorry” in preface to a question I’m often saying, “I apologize beforehand if this in any way offends you,” or “I apologize if you believe I am interrupting you.” My use of “I’m sorry” is genuine–not reflex, not mindless, and most of all not weak. In that case my use of “I’m sorry,” is, if anything, an exercise in humility–one of the seven blessed virtues that combats the corresponding deadly sin of pride. And yes, that is my Catholic showing. I’m not at all sorry for that! My faith teaches there is strength in humility. There is strength in showing an awareness that you are not the most important person in the room, that you do not always deserve all the attention, that sometimes you ARE interrupting and your question IS offensive because it is based on arrogant ignorance. I teach at a university and I can tell you without apology that I wish a few more people–and I don’t mean students–would say “I’m sorry” before they speak.

Actually, I would like to make an ad teaching men to say “I’m sorry” as much as women do, rather than one telling women to say “I’m sorry” less. Better yet I’d like an ad showing that men and women today are equally guilty of self-centeredness, and how to combat it. So yeah–if your spouse (male or female) is standing at the stove holding the baby while cooking, say “I’m sorry” in the sense of “Hey, I apologize for sticking you with all the household work there, let me help!” and grab the baby before the child is thrust at you. If you (male or female) sit down and your elbows hit BOTH armrests and knock into the arm of the person next to you, look at him or her and say, “I’m sorry” as in “I apologize for intruding on your personal space.” If you’ve taken all the covers and your spouse is cold and he or she grabs the covers back from you, say “I’m sorry” as in “I feel bad that you are cold and I didn’t mean to unconsciously hog the covers.” There are things people SHOULD apologize for: inconsiderateness (conscious or unconscious), lack of situational awareness that causes us to trespass on someone else’s personal space, mistakes, not doing our share of the work. Recognizing when we are doing these things and expressing honest remorse is a good thing. The world needs more self-awareness, humility, and selflessness. Maybe if more of us start apologizing we can start a trend in which humility will transfer to others–God knows our world desperately needs a good dose of it.

In the book Divergent by Veronica Roth the heroine, Beatrice, lives in a world divided into factions. At sixteen each person must choose a faction based the results of an aptitude test that tells them where they are best suited. There are five factions: Dauntless, Abnegation, Erudite, Amity, and Candor. The Dauntless are the warriors. The Erudite are the scholars. The Candor are the honest, frank speakers. The Amity are the peaceful ones. The Abnegation are those who focus on selflessness.

In Roth’s world, the Abnegation run the government because it’s believed that only selfless people will make decisions for the greater good. Beatrice starts out in Abnegation. She feels confined and bound, however, by their humility. It’s not that she looks down on them for it–sometimes she does, because it frustrates her to see those she loves acting as if they don’t matter. But most of the time she just doesn’t think she can do it. In her mind, being selfless is too hard. She joins Dauntless because throwing herself from trains and jumping off of buildings seems much easier than suppressing her needs and always thinking of others first.

The Abnegation in Roth’s book are humble. I imagine before they speak they might say, “I’m sorry.” They would never interrupt. They might not even question. They would give the covers before they’d steal them–they’d give the clothes off of their backs if someone was in need. And yet the strongest character in the series believes that she is not strong enough to put herself last. She is not strong enough to be humble.

So. Before we start condemning apologies as weakness, let’s give it some thought. People saying, “I’m sorry,” might be the strongest people in the room. Here’s the best test. It’s called “The Litany of Humility,” sent to me by a good friend a month or so ago. Who out there is strong enough to pray for this, or wish this on themselves? I find this prayer so terrifying I work very hard each night to be strong enough to pray it, and I am often far too proud to get through even half:

O Jesus! meek and humble of heart, Hear me.

From the desire of being esteemed; Deliver me, Jesus. (repeat after each line)
From the desire of being loved,
From the desire of being extolled,
From the desire of being honored,
From the desire of being praised,
From the desire of being preferred to others,
From the desire of being consulted,
From the desire of being approved,
From the fear of being humiliated, Deliver me, Jesus. (repeat after each line)
From the fear of being despised,
From the fear of suffering rebukes,
From the fear of being calumniated,
From the fear of being forgotten,
From the fear of being ridiculed,
From the fear of being wronged,
From the fear of being suspected,
That others may be loved more than I; Jesus, grant me the grace to desire it. (repeat after each line)
That others may be esteemed more than I,
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease,
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
That others may be praised and I unnoticed,
That others may be preferred to me in everything,
That others may become holier than I, provided that I may become as holy as I should,

As I try to pray this, I can’t get past “consulted” without starting to balk. I want to be consulted! I want to be praised! And loved! And esteemed! I am terrified of being forgotten! And wronged! And suspected! I don’t want to invite that on myself! I’m not that humble. I’m not that selfless. I’m not THAT STRONG.

But I am strong enough to say “I’m sorry.” So I will. Dear readers, I am sorry that I haven’t posted in so very long. If I had more hours in the day I would post daily, but even now, though I started writing this at 5pm, I’ve had so many interruptions that it’s 11:43pm and my kids are still giggling in their beds in desperate need of a shushing. If this wasn’t summer I’d still probably have papers to read; lunches to pack; uniforms to wash, dry, or fold; lessons to plan; research to do; Girl Scout patches to sew; and miles to go before I sleep. However, it’s July, one of the most wonderful months of the year. My house is organized and clean, there is precious little laundry to do, I am getting at least a two mile run in every day, and my mind is clear enough to write. So, here is the first fruits of my summer vacation. Next will be my long-promised piece on Disney’s Frozen, and why I have no freakin’ problem with Elsa’s awesome dress.

As always, feel free to comment below. Argue with me. Call me out. Disagree with me. I guarantee I’m humble enough to listen to arguments. Many times they even change my thinking!

 

 

This entry was posted on July 9, 2014. 4 Comments