Short and Sweet: To Be Heard at Christmas

I have spent much of my life feeling invisible. Earlier this week, I felt profoundly unseen and unheard. It’s not a new dynamic for me, those of us who are introverts can find ourselves caught in a quandary: we wish to be quietly alone, but we also yearn to know that we are known to exist. A dilemma, to be sure. And at the holidays, with all the hubbub, the parties and karaoke and Yankee gift exchanges, we are even more troubled.

Unless….we have someone who loves us without requiring we clang bells and whistles to earn it. I have that someone.

Christmas 1987 in SAT

When I met my husband almost 35 years ago, he saw me. More importantly, he heard me; not only when I, a vocal major, was singing, but when I was speaking. When we met, we were able, for the first time in our entire lives, to be completely vulnerable with another person, knowing that our hearts were being held in trust.

Our first Christmas, he gave me a teddy bear that still sits on a shelf in my bedroom, we attended three Christmas parties for my social club in college: 1986: engaged. 1987: married. 1988: expecting our first child. Since those early days we have struggled and prospered in turn. But one truth remains: we are each other’s most treasured Christmas gift.

I am reminded of a treasured Christmas carol:

“Said the night wind to the little lamb
Do you see what I see
Way up in the sky little lamb
Do you see what I see
A star, a star
Dancing in the night”

To be seen, to be heard, is a gift. I think I am the star that dances in my husband’s night.

My wish for each person who finds themselves lonely this holiday is for you to find love. Romantic, familial, platonic. Any love. Friends, I pray that you and I become soft of heart and open of spirit to recognize those who need cherishing.

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Conflicted Holiday Recollections

The holiday commercials and Hallmark movies have started. You know the ones: loving couples presenting each other expensive cars in snowy driveways, smiling families in matching jammies caroling around exquisitely trimmed spruce trees, tykes in designer ensembles waxing adorably poetic on Santa’s lap, true love finding its way to the nearest perfect size two blonde with blindingly white teeth. You can practically smell the peppermint infused cocoa wafting out of your flat screen.

You know what, though? For a lot of us, Christmas doesn’t look anything like a made-for-TV movie or an Instagram post. For a lot of us, Christmas is just one more traumatic day of disappointment or painful memories. My holidays now are awesome and full of love. But it was not always so.

From the outside my early childhood must have seemed picture-perfect—cute suburban house, late-model car, accountant dad and homemaker mom. All of us handsome, all of us dressed in pretty clothes, living in the cute, newly furnished abode of the young married.

My early years were punctuated by childish giggles and my father’s big belly laugh. I know this not because I remember it, but because I have seen photos of myself with my parents and the first of my two younger brothers:

sitting atop my young father’s shoulders wearing only a diaper as he reclined on our couch;

diving into my first birthday cake, hands first, head topped with pointy cardboard hat;

playing in the surf on Charleston, South Carolina beaches;

cuddling with my brother, Lance, on the couch;

tossing a ball with my mom;

riding our shared Big Wheel;

playing with a puppy in our little apartment on Christmas morning.

These are the little moments that make up our stories, aren’t they?

Their sounds still live in my memory: splashes and giggles, the crunch of big plastic wheels on grey pavement, puppy yelps…

Chad and puppy 1975I was fortunate that in my earliest, toddler and pre-school days, I lived in a healthy and loving family. My mother and father fell in love while attending college in Lubbock, Texas. Having grown up in families that were well-loved and respected in the windy, dusty, conservative town, they had met at the Church of Christ Bible Chair, an inexplicable name for a building near Texas Tech University, where students met to eat snacks, play games, study the scripture, and find spouses.

When I was young, I spent hours laying on my tummy on our den’s gold shag carpet, poring over each and every page in my parents’ wedding photo album. I especially loved the picture in which my mom looked contemplative as she held her prayer-posed hands under her chin, a slit cut in her white kid gloves, made so that the ring could be put on her finger, clearly visible. My dad looked so handsome in his black tux, and I loved a particular photo of him with all his groomsmen, walking with arms linked and big laughing smiles on their faces. My mom had never stored her dress, so I could go into the closet and pull it from the rod and hold it up to my little body, caressing the appliqued roses and rustle-y organza.

She was beautiful; with big blue eyes, golden olive skin, blonde hair coiffed to perfection, and impeccable style in clothing, she was a knock out who grew even more beautiful in the first years of marriage and motherhood. She had that glow that happy women have.

The only boy among four sisters, my father had served in the United States Navy, which was a matter of immeasurable pride to those very sisters, and rightly so. Dad marched in the band at Texas Tech and graduated with an accounting degree just three months before wedding my mother.

So much joy, so much promise.

Recently, while sorting through boxes of keepsakes in my attic, I found two letters that must have been kept in my grandfather’s belongings, letters that I don’t recall ever having seen. In the first of these letters, written by my mom to her family just two weeks after her nuptials, she tells of all the small joys and travails of a newlywed couple: an apartment without air conditioning, burning her fingers while learning to cook, her fear of ironing my dad’s white work shirts, so sure she would scorch them. In the second letter, the one that cracked through every defensive wall I ever erected, she writes home to tell her family what young motherhood was like. There was such joy in her description of my eating preferences (apparently, I loved green beans) and my irritation with a particular orange bird that swung above my head on my crib mobile. She told of my sleeping habits and my quiet nature. The letter was full of hope, she was brimming with love for her husband, for me, and for the life she was starting.

I know very little about their courtship. By the time I was old enough to hear stories of drive-in movies and malt shop jukeboxes playing Elvis songs, our little family had started to unravel. Laughter was becoming less and less present, replaced by yelling and stony silence. Something changed for my mom. In her mid-twenties, depression and mental illness intervened. Opioid addiction got its hooks into her as she attempted to cope with her demons.

Mom diligently built a network of doctors and dentists from the various suburbs all over DFW. I spent many hours with my little brothers in the back seat of the Pontiac as we visited doctor after doctor, left to mind ourselves in waiting rooms while my mom wove stories of pain both real and imagined so that she could get a hookup with meds. When a doctor cut her off, she found a new one. Back in the 1970s, doctors didn’t seem to be as aware of the substance abuse problem, and it took them a lot longer to realize what was happening, so for years she swallowed these pills, with no one the wiser.

My mom on hydrocodone was not a pleasant woman. She had three basic modes: slurred sloth, benign narcissist, and raging monster. Most of the time she was in that middle place. She could not help us to get ready for school, she could not fix breakfast, she could not do laundry, she could not wash dishes, she could not she could not she could not. I learned to live with this mom, she neglected but she didn’t hurt. I figured out how to make delicacies like Frito pie and tuna casserole, I could open and warm a can of green beans. I made Kool-Aid by the bucket in a blue plastic pitcher, I got my dad to show me how to work the washing machine. I checked in on my brothers at school. I was no mother, but I did my best. And I brought my imperfect best to the raising of my own children and the creation of our own precious and joyous festivities.

Kim and Daddy 2-70

It’s hard, at holiday time, for me to wax nostalgic about my childhood. The earliest Christmases were all they should have been, I know, but they simply deteriorated as Mom did. So I didn’t bring beloved traditions with me as I raised my own family, I don’t have treasured family keepsakes to decorate my mantel or hang on my tree. Just yesterday, while unpacking all my decorations, I broke a bell saved from my eighth-grade year, a little caroler that had come in a box my choir teacher checked out for me to sell as a school fundraiser. I had two bells left that I couldn’t sell. This was one of them, the only remnants of my own childhood Christmas decorations. My husband held me as I processed, unable even to cry as I said goodbye to a tschotke that held such conflicted significance for me.

With a lot of love and grace, I healed. Now, I look forward to the holidays. But I know it’s sad sometimes, for me. And for others. Take a moment to slow down, see those around you. Notice melancholy. Clasp a hand. Say a blessing. Lend an ear. Withhold judgement. Share a meal. That’s how we can make it truly the “most wonderful time of the year.” Love to all.

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Failure is, in Fact, an Option

I love seeing my former students on social media. Kids from whom I might never have heard again are a regular feature in my daily scroll on Facebook and Instagram- weddings, babies, careers, I am thrilled to see their trials and travails.

I have a former student, though, who posts a lot of motivational pep-speak. You know what I’m talking about. It’s all the trite catchphrases that we’ve all seen on posters with mountains. I know I heard all of them many, many times in my doomed stint as an Amway salesperson back in the ’80s:

“If you can dream it, you can do it.”

“One way to keep momentum going is to have constantly greater goals.”

“Nobody ever wrote down a plan to be broke, fat, lazy, or stupid. Those things are what happen when you don’t have a plan.”

“Failure is not an option.”

Ouch. That’s the one I really just cannot bear, for it is without grace. Seth Godin gets it. If we can’t fail, we fear to try. We quit before we ever even start.

No, I prefer the tune from the TV series for toddlers, Little Baby Bums (don’t ask me to explain the title, I can’t. It’s British. My one-year-old granddaughter adores it. It’s where most of my life philosophy lessons are found these days).

 

We try. We try our best when we know there’s a risk of failure, but we’re safe to flounder. I have ever been a perfectionist, so hard on myself. When failure happened to me, I punished myself. Sometimes physically, in the form of withholding food or cutting myself. More often, emotionally: isolation, castigation, criticism. It’s been difficult to learn how to grant myself grace.

I manage and execute and event for my job. It’s just two days, but over 40,000 people attend; I plan all year. When I took the job, I inherited a chaotic, sloppy mess with little credibility; in five years, I have held myself to exacting standards, taking an occasion suffering from mismanagement and on the brink of failure to one with credibility and popularity in the educational community. I have worked really, really hard, and I am proud of it.

This year, though, was more of a struggle than it has been in a long time. My boss held a figurative ax over the event and my job, I found myself trying to work for three separate employers while taking care of my infant granddaughter. I had less support staff than I have ever had. I was living in a state of stress and anxiety that I had not experienced in ten years; and that time I was admitted to a mental hospital for a nervous breakdown. I faced a choice between my mental and physical health and a perfect event. And so… I gave myself permission to ease up. A couple of details were missed.

And wouldn’t you know it, this was the year that the criticism had to come. I’m still stinging from it, to be honest. This is when the mantra “Failure is not an option” is, to be blunt, a load of BS. The criticism may very well have been valid, though it can be tough to take when the critic is not privy to all the elements of the situation. Author and researcher Dr. Brene’ Brown describes living with a strong back, but soft front. It’s how we can live with strength in pliancy. My back was not quite strong enough to execute a perfect event this year. My front has to be soft enough to hear the criticism without taking it to heart.

Brene

When we can’t fail, we can’t try new things. That’s the bane of innovation. But just as important, if we fail but can’t get back up, dust ourselves off, and keep going, we live in pain. We become depressed. Ill. Anxious. Resilience is not born out of dwelling on our failures. Nor is it found in sitting in stasis. No, resilience is created when we have the courage to try coupled with the grace of self-forgiveness, no matter the critics who will inevitably come forth.

Failure must, in fact, be an option.

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“You Take It.”

Up until just recently, my life has been one governed by a pervasive, persistent anxiety. When one’s formative years are unstable and occasionally frightening, one can spend many years worrying. It’s just a default setting.

It’s been a crazy year on the employment front, lots of folks getting fired amid scandals. With all that swirling around me, I found myself digging deep, endeavoring to identify my own priorities and heart’s desires. Oh, did I fret.

And then, miracle of miracles, Rob Bell, in his podcast, spoke magical words that set me free. His mantra, his prayer has been: “You take it.”

Fearful about money? “You take it.”

Concerned about kids? “You take it.”

Doubting employment options? “You take it.”

Alarmed about knee surgery? “You take it.”

Panicked about the state of our nation’s politics? “You take it.”

It’s not an abdication. I am not dumping my responsibilities so that I may frolic in flowers while drinking sauvignon blanc. But what I have been doing is allowing the Divine One to order my life and make clear my steps, and She has done so generously and with abundant love. The job is dreamed of with all my heart was denied me, but the jobs I needed to allow me the freedom to pursue my passions while helping my daughter with her babies opened as though by magic. I am reminded of the saint, Joan of Arc, who, when faced with terror, prayed and then surrendered with magnificent courage and compelling humility.

A new decade begins in just a few days. Rather than being governed by fear, I plan to keep saying, as often as required, “You take it.” I trust God to do what is needed.

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Hold the Mayo: A Reflection on Triggers

Years ago, I found myself in a crumpled heap on the floor in the hallway of my house, weeping as though all the wretchedness of the world lay at my feet in the form of a puddle of white latex paint. I scrubbed frantically and ineffectually as the paint soaked into the beige carpet, the nylon fibers greedily absorbing the goo. My kids waited nearby, helpless to console me, anxious to leave for school yet unable to coax me to my feet. Eventually, I gave up and left the ruined paint-soaked towel in a pink floral heap, taking my kids and myself to school; knowing that by the time I got home the paint would be a hardened shell about which I could do nothing. For years, I lived with that white paint stain on the floor in our hallway; our finances didn’t allow for replacing the carpet and it became mostly invisible. But never totally out of my mind.

The paint stain reminded me of a greasy mayonnaise stain in front of the refrigerator in my childhood home. Our kitchen was floored in hideous 1970s nylon kitchen carpet, a design trend that I find inexplicable. Who in their right mind conceived that raising a family would be better with carpet in the kitchen? At the tender age of nine, I dropped a full jar of mayonnaise while preparing a sandwich. It fell in slow motion to the floor, glass shattering into millions of shards while globs of the eggy, greasy condiment seeped into the gold and brown synthetic loops, the pungent smell filling the air in the tiny kitchen.

Photo-of-Printed-Kitchen-Carpet

My father was not happy with me, this day became one of the rare ones when his temper found a ready target in me. Of course, I know now that there was much, much more going on in his world than a food stain. And he knew it was an honest accident. But he was, nonetheless, angry. That stain never did go away. Even when we had the house listed for sale, prospective buyers noted the giant dark circle standing sentinel before the refrigerator. The stain reminded me of my own careless klutziness, it reminded me of disappointing my dad, and it reminded me that our family was too poor to have the stain cleaned or the carpet replaced.

On the day the white paint ruined my hall carpet, I was that little girl again.

My trauma had once again chased me into adulthood, sniffing and snapping at my heels like a rabid dog who just refused to let go. My childhood trauma did that a lot (so did my husband’s), and it had made my marriage an uphill climb. In a period of particular strife and struggle in our relationship, my husband and I each attended, separately, retreats with counselors whose mission it was to find sources of dysfunction and shine light on them, enabling their clients to return to their homes equipped with a clearer understanding of their own trauma and the tools with which embark on the perilous journey to wellness.

The foundational exercise that was the crux of the weekend, the one that every bit of healing was meant to be drawn from, was the creation of a “trauma egg,” a visual metaphor for the birth of our brokenness. The preparation for the work began the night before when we were required to enter into silence. We awakened in rooms devoid of the usual chatter heard in a house full of women, our breakfast was eaten in a hush as we began to turn inward.

Trauma-Egg-Dahlen-et-al-2008

And then backward. In the hours-long exercise, the staff coaxed memories and snippets of conversations long forgotten as we sketched our lives in Crayola markers, discovering the seeds, roots, and nuclei of all the hurt we carried with us. Dust motes floated in the autumn sunshine that spilled through the windows, glowing like fairy dust settling on the trembling shoulders of the women who cried in turns. Sniffles, gasps, sobs, and sighs filled my ears as the souls around me bared their anguish in shared privacy. Our therapists’ philosophy was that by acknowledging all of the pains of the past, by drawing them forth out of shadow and into light, our understanding of ourselves would increase and our forgiveness for our own shortcomings would be enabled. This work is where resilience begins.

The mayonnaise incident belonged in that egg. It was the real source of my heartbreak when a can of paint ruined the carpet in the house I had tried so hard to make beautiful for my family after the ratty, dirty, poverty of my own childhood. The filth and chaos of my childhood home are why my spirit now requires order and cleanliness. My family, who loves me, now understands that and they try to honor my need.

There are those who like to berate people for being “triggered,” who deride when someone responds to a current situation with all the hurt of a past one. What I know is that we must acknowledge those old hurts. I don’t mean we clutch them tightly and wear them on our sleeves, touching them like tender bruises over and over, inflicting our own pain and setting traps for others to hurt us, whether intentionally or not. But those hurts are part of who we are. All of us have them. Some of us have hurts where the trauma is genuinely significant.

For us to be truly resilient, we must bring those wounds out of the shadows, expose them to the light of truth, and cleanse them with love from our own selves and from those we trust to love us. Just as importantly, we must honor those wounds in others. Compassion for ourselves can only flourish in soil that is abundant with compassion for the hurts of others, even if they are wounds we don’t understand. I believe that healing is not a me-first-then-you proposition; it is a simultaneous process where my love and grace for others only serves to increase my love and grace for myself. Blessings upon us all.

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If you’re interested in learning more about the trauma egg and its role in healing from trauma, here’s an organization that does this work. If you’re suffering from childhood trauma, I urge you to reach out. You don’t have to walk alone.

The Murray Method, Trauma Eggs, and The 30 Task Model

 

 

 

Present Light, Third in a Series

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to think with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” – Nobel Peace Prize recipient, philosopher, physician Albert Schweitzer

Lately I have been making a conscious effort to step out of isolation. In my introversion and my insecurity, I tend to keep myself to myself, to hide my light under a bushel, so to speak. To be honest, I have doubted whether my light was of any value. But i realize it is. It truly is.

So I reached out to my neighbors on Facebook, asking who might be interested in a monthly gathering for the purpose of cultivating authentic friendships, the sort where we can ring on each other’s doorbells if our kids are sick, relationships that extend beyond friendly waves as we pass each other walking our dogs. Not a group for gossip and wine, no, but a company of genuine friends. A handful of neighbors want to embark on this project with me! We’ll see how our experiment goes.

I photographed these street lamps outside Westminster Abbey in London. I was struck by the two lamps standing side-by-side, in such close proximity to each other, as if to lend light not only to the street and its inhabitants, but to each other as well. Like people do. Like my neighbors do. We are light.

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Women, Rooted in Kindness

It’s World Kindness Day, a day for wearing cardigan sweaters a la Mr. Rogers and for random acts of kindness like paying for the latte of the lady behind you in the line at Starbucks. I am stuck on my sofa, snuggled up under a crocheted mossy green blanket, post-surgical bandaged knee propped up and crutches nearby for my occasional forays to the kitchen for cookies. I am not out and about in the world to share my own sprinkling of kindness, so I will do the next best thing: tell you of two of the kindest women I have ever known; women whose unexpected impact on my life and the lives of others cannot be measured.

I move pretty quietly through the world. I do not change the social temperature of a room by walking in. I listen and observe more than I speak. It’s not that I am afraid of speaking, in fact my voice has, at times, caused friction in relationships, especially in relationships with those who have certain ideas about how I am meant to interact with the world, or with women who, though friends, are competitive. My innate quietness has served to isolate me through much of my life. Even if it looked like I was surrounded by friends, I was likely lonely. But when the time was right, when my spirit, heart, and intellect were ready for new lessons, when I could hear what the Goddess had to tell me, She delivered two amazing women into my adult life. In my youth, there were women who filled that need, but when I became an adult, there weren’t as many. These two women fully attended to what I had to say. They heard me. We don’t often talk about the power of female mentoring. These mentors are not family members, they are just women who befriended me; and beyond friendship, they gave wisdom and advice and profound examples of something I wanted to emulate.

Ellen-Ketchum

Ellen was brassy and clever, with the mouth of a sailor and the heart of a warrior artist. She was a former administrator with a Tony Award winning regional theatre, and I met her when I auditioned for the role of Julie Jordan in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical, Carousel. I walked into the theatre not really knowing much of anybody, but knowing that I loved Julie Jordan. I had a good audition, I got the part; and from that moment on, I had a new mentor.

Ellen made my family her own. She harmlessly flirted with my husband so he’d feel a little sexy, she grabbed on to my theatrical daughters and coached them, particularly the older daughter, who was beginning her college studies in theatre. For me? First, she reignited my confidence. I had struggled to find a home in the theatre community of our area; but she nurtured my talent and endorsed it. Publicly. Once, I walked into her theatre, where she was holding an acting class, and she introduced me to her students as “one of the best actresses in the Houston area.” Now, there are many amazing actresses in Houston, so the validity of that proclamation might be in question. But no matter, because there is, quite literally, no measure for what that compliment, coming from a former South Coast Rep staffer, did for me after years of being shuffled to the side in the town where I have struggled to do theatre.

Ellen had me choreograph, assistant direct, act, and sit. We would sit and talk shop after rehearsals. We would sit in her living room and drink glass after glass of white wine and pet her dogs, laugh with her roomie and swap stories about kids and other actors and husbands. In her bedroom, she displayed a gorgeous black and white photo of herself: in her forties, laughing a huge laugh. Ellen was the first ballsy woman I had ever truly known and deeply loved. She challenged and cultivated my bravura and my art.

Even as she languished in chemo for ovarian cancer, Ellen kept her toes bright red with professional manicures. She wore sandals, even though her ankles weren’t narrow and her feet were wrinkled. She brazenly lifted her shirt to “shoot up” with insulin, she didn’t care who saw her stomach. She didn’t wear makeup but she wore a smile as wide as her face and as big as her voice.

I miss Ellen every day. I miss her spirit, she radiated joy and tenacity and authenticity, no matter the cancer or the gray hair or the bastards that tried to hold her down. 

There has been another mentor, too. One who nurtured my spirit and mothered my soul. Dorothy.

F25F738A-B860-42FE-981C-928B254B13BF

In our final youth ministry position, Dorothy was a church elder’s wife. She is a well of deep wisdom. Her walk with the Divine One is potent and real; it is her life’s work to act as an intermediary between God and Her beloved people, especially women. When my husband had to face the church and confess his addiction, it was Dorothy who sat in my living room and listened to my heartbreak, fury, and worry, without judgement. The next Easter, when I was barely able to walk with my chin up, it was Dorothy who took me shopping for my very own Easter outfit and shoes so that I could stride into the church building with a little spark of confidence. When I struggled with the temptation of attraction to another man, it was Dorothy I entrusted with that burden. She has been present through all the physical relocations, hers and mine. We have been involved in each other’s family weddings; my youngest was a flower girl in her daughter’s wedding, and they all came for my daughter’s wedding. We got to live with Dorothy and her husband one autumn for a month. Just at the time when my relationship with my son was undergoing a sea change and a prolonged silence, Dorothy was there to prop me up and keep me going. Here’s the thing about Dorothy: she is sweet, for sure. Gentle and kind and nurturing, yes, but she is sharp and wise and discerning, too, and when she perceives a threat to a loved one, she is resolute in her protection. For me, whose own mother was such a disappointment and void, Dorothy became Mother.

Both of these women listened with their full attention, they weren’t waiting for me to stop talking so that they could start. They didn’t interrupt. They didn’t have an agenda. There was never a sense that they wanted to change who I was. They just loved. They heard me. They saw me. They spent years cultivating these deep and precious friendships.

For learning how to love in the healthiest of ways, I had Dorothy to nurture me.

For learning how to live in the most courageous of ways, I had Ellen to show me.

For learning what authenticity really looks like, what finding my life’s mission and then embracing it wholly, I had both. Their kindnesses came not in syrupy-sweet, cutesy packages but in brave and truthful love and the living of it.

Beginning way back in childhood, I was the tag-along friend, the one who was, quite often, passive in the relationship. I have owned that- too often I waited to be included, standing to the side for silly photos instead of jumping in, keeping my ideas of what might be fun pastimes to myself, holding the secrets of my family safe. So many times, I have, in the presence of, shall we call them “strong personality” friends, just acquiesced and enabled my own hushed invisibility. To be honest, I was lonely in my own friendships.

What I have begun to understand as I write my life, is that authentic friendship is multi-directional. When a friendship is one-sided, when all conversations are from one point of view, when a friend no longer asks about you and interrupts your story to redirect the conversation back to herself, it’s time to rethink the friendship. Time to walk away and search for healthier relationships. I have learned that there are women who, when they are friends with someone like me, a quieter presence, will take care to include and invite, who don’t compete, who seek meaningful conversation, and who are trustworthy in the very best ways. Women who are actively kind, like I hope to be.

The Divine One has been kind enough to place people in my life now who, with nurturing and time, will be life-long friends. Friends with whom cynicism is not the regular language and score-keeping is not the modus operandi. Friends who, knowing I have been lonely, have stopped by the office to say hi, or sent encouraging messages, or sent precious gifts. People who are proving how powerful and nourishing it is to be seen and heard. Some of these women are from college, some from grad school, some from teaching, some from theatre, some from old churches. I love their diversity.

  Women can, and should, hold each other up. When we are together, our collective voice resonates and proclaims victory and strength. Vulnerable, authentic friendship with women I trust has become a non-negotiable aspect of my life. Kindness of the sort that is sacrificial, ongoing, and world changing is a constant, conscious effort. But it’s worth it. Ever so much.

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I loved this story of two English women using their gifts for crochet to spread a little kindness!

https://www.kenilworthweeklynews.co.uk/news/people/kenilworth-women-pass-out-crochet-hearts-with-messages-of-hope-for-world-kindness-day-1-9141537

 

Age: Angst, Ambiguity, Acceptance

I am fifty-two years old. God. Yes, I am fifty-two years old.

I have never said that to anyone except my immediate family. It’s not that anyone couldn’t have done just a little math to figure it out, it’s not a secret. I just haven’t wanted to admit it.

Fifty-two.

And still so completely … unfinished.

Not incomplete– that’s a different thing, implying a belief that I am a living error, a woman missing a vital piece, like a jigsaw puzzle that can’t be glued and mounted in a frame because a corner fell on the floor and was devoured by the family dachshund (I speak from experience on this); a book in which vital chapters of pages have fallen from the binding, like every volume of Harry Potter that our family has owned over the years.

There are no missing pages in my story, all fifty-two years are in there, the book a little frayed at the edges, its pages stained with droplets of Diet Dr. Pepper and dribbles of salty tears.

But my story is definitely unfinished; there is a sense of ambiguity imbuing nearly every aspect of my life right now.

Ambiguity. Apathy. Anxiety. Angst.

The angst has become a crutch for me, a companion in my waking and in my rest; it forces me to repeat over and over every single day a litany of financial debts I wish were paid off, it compels me to scrutinize my body for fat, it necessitates constant and unrelenting worry over my job and whether I want to be in it. When we’re teens, we’re expected to be riddled with this angst. The journals of my adolescence are filled with my looping scrawl, passages of woe and worry, wondering what I was meant to do, who I was meant to be, hearts used to dot my letter “i”s as though a charm to lure love. Then I got married and made babies. I raised them. I raised them well. I stayed in a marriage that grew healthy and strong. Deeply rooted. So why the angst? Why the anxiety? Why the ambivalence? Why, in middle age, do I find myself so crippled by the looming question: what am I supposed to do now?

I fear I have become addicted to the inner drama of that one weighty question. What’s next?

img_0186.jpgOr worse– what if this is it? What if, at fifty-two, I have already accomplished any great thing I might have done? What if it’s too late to write that book or land that dream job? What if all that’s left is spreadsheets about ops and procedures and fees and days of hellacious knee pain and buying jeans a size bigger? What if I don’t have another day? And that, my friends, is why I had to face the truth that is at the core of every truth that matters: There is no guaranteed next. There is only right now. This very moment. This very breath.

Oh, sure, it’s good to make plans. Last evening Libby and I were having fun talking about the wood-forest-creature decorating theme for her baby shower next month, and I definitely need to check my bank balance and see that a couple of bills get paid today. I have already ordered a couple of Christmas gifts and started saving for retirement (way too late, I am sure, but better late than never). I just bought the prettiest yellow mitten/beanie/scarf set at Target just in case it ever gets cold in Houston again.

But really, it’s just the right now that is mine.

When I was a first-year teacher, preparing for my first lessons and decorating my first classroom, I spent hours cutting out little laminated shapes for our classroom calendar. Our university had drilled into its teacher prep students that buying ready-made bulletin boards was a cop-out, so I was diligently doing what I believed demonstrated my commitment to my students’ education. My one-year-old would stand, wobbly on her feet in front of me, arms outstretched, and I’d brush her off and keep working. My mother in law, sitting nearby, wisely said, “Kim, you’re only going to have these hugs from her for a little while. Think about putting down the laminated shapes and hold your child.” Good advice. I was missing the now of my toddler for the tomorrow of my classroom. I think it’s easier for us to grasp that lesson when it’s the lives of our children at stake. But I would like to walk this a step farther: our own lives are worth that consideration, too. The beauty of our own journeys as human women and men is as worth intentional presence as are the moments with our babies.

It’s what I have been learning very, very recently. This week, even. We’re raised, from infancy, to look forward. To know what we want to do for a job when we’re five years old. To choose a college track when we’re thirteen. To always strive forward, look ahead. And while that can be good, can propel us to invention and innovation, it can also be demoralizing. To always and ever push forward is out of balance. That skewed way of living can rob us of the joy that is found in being fully present in each moment as it is lived. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says:

“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.”

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Photo by Kim Bryant, NYC Metropolitan Museum of Art

I recently spent ten hours listening to Tolle teach about this principle, and it was tough to grasp at first. How do I lead an organized life and do excellent work if I am only in the now, just contemplating the present moment? But that’s not what I think he means. I need to set goals and move toward them, but always stay rooted in the beauty or pain that is now. I must notice the smiles of my loved ones, acknowledge the needs of my physical body, savor the sip of white wine, take a moment to feel sun on my face, and listen to the sound of my breath as it fills, then leaves, my lungs; all ways to remain present. But it’s okay to dream about the future, too.

To dream without anxiety is the key. Worry and angst rob me of joy in the now, and they are as addictive and habitual as any chemical. But learning to stay present, connected to my own spirit and to the greater universal Divine is so much better. Already this morning, I have walked the baby while taking in the beautiful sunlight and cooler autumn air (Houston’s temperature finally dropped below 90 degrees yesterday), enjoyed some sparkling water, and answered some work emails. All without angst. All without worry. Without anxiety.

To live this way will take practice. It will call for thought and accountability. It will require surrender to what is balanced with a willingness to look for what can be. 

This, my friends, is where freedom lies. In each moment lived, one by one by one.

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“Everything Becomes Magical.”

That’s what life coach extraordinaire Martha Beck says. She says when you find your purpose, when you listen to your heart, everything becomes magical.

What I am learning this minute, this second is that finding your purpose is a winding road; purpose can evolve; at least it has for me. I am surrounded by theatre teachers today, sitting in the exhibit hall of a hotel while gregarious, committed women and men equip themselves for a new school year of inspiring kids to create, perform, and design. These educators are full of joy and intention.

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That’s me on the left, directing my high school vampires to attack Harker in “Dracula,” 2007

I was once like them. This is my umpteenth conference, but I used to attend as a teacher. Attending my first convention in 2001,  I was starry-eyed, thrilled to be teaching in a field that so closely mirrored my own passion for storytelling. I attended workshops without stopping for food, from the first class in the early morning until the last one after dinner. I took everything I learned about improv and projection and creating special effect makeup back to my junior high and then high school classrooms and stages, and there were days I’d say to my students as we started rehearsal, “I can’t believe I get paid to do this.” I knew my purpose. It was clear: to teach theatre and equip students for creativity, yes, but more it was to be someone who loved kids. But I couldn’t sustain. I couldn’t go the distance. The grind of the schedule, the needs of the adolescent students, and the antagonism of a new administrator wore me down until I was a shadow of myself. So I fled to the world of the Renaissance Festival, where I’d been a seasonal entertainer for a long time. In that office, my purpose became to provide support for teachers who were creating learning opportunities and to advocate for the artists who show their wares at the festival. For five years I have navigated the unexpectedly turbulent waters and now the job where I first found respite seems no longer to be the right place to be. My spirit began to nudge me to look afield for a new place to work. I am a person whose spirit needs to feel called to what she does to earn her keep. I know not everyone is wired that way, but I am.

I recently finished an unexpected series of interviews with the Disney Corporation for the second September in a row; though it ultimately did not pan out, it did get me thinking: to work in a magical place, a Magic Kingdom that embraces and sets the standard for best practices, seemed the perfect place for my spirit. Creativity, stability, excellence, and magic call me.

When I was young, I sensed it sometimes. Even in the household where I struggled to feel safe and nurtured, my introverted little dreaming heart searched for magic and longed for purpose.

I donned it in the form of a green tulle prom dress that I bought with good behavior coupons in Mrs. Hoover’s second-grade classroom. When I wore that gown, nothing ugly or lonely could touch me. I was beautiful, I sang and danced. I was fully myself.

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I felt it in my grandmother’s June’s attic in New Mexico, my own wishing place, just like Louisa May Alcott’s March girls. I played dress-up and danced, wrote stories and read books while the sun streamed in the dormer window.

I stitched it when sitting on the daybed in my grandmother Juanita’s bedroom, I cut and sewed scraps of fabric to make clothing for dolls while she hummed hymns and made garments for the women of west Texas. More, I carried it in every stitch of clothing she ever made me.

I earned it with every report card A and spelling bee trophy, and there were many, evidence of my commitment to be better, to excel.

I became it when I walked down the aisle with my father, the Sound of Music wedding march ringing all around me as I married my husband.

I birthed it each time I pushed a child out of my body then held him or her close.

I created it when I realized that solitude is a gift, that being alone can be healing.

And yet … and yet. Amid all those moments of magic tucked away in my heart, I still feel lost. Without a clear purpose. Recently, I had thought it might be to return to the theatre classroom, but multiple applications around the area didn’t provide a teaching contract. So that’s not it. Nor was Disney, to my great disappointment. I love to write, but there is an infinite number of moments when I find myself debating whether my writing merits a broader reach beyond sweet family and supportive friends. What is the why of my writing? Who is it for?  Who even bothers to read? And here’s a secret revealed: I want to find a purpose that is beyond caring for my grandkids or being the wife of an admittedly great guy. I yearn for an identity and a purpose that is solely my own. I  love my husband, my kids, my grandbaby. But I want work that is my own. In that, I am a true woman of my generation. Our mothers didn’t question that family was all and enough. Our daughters don’t doubt that they can do both or neither.

Waiting is hard. Stillness is excruciating. Hitting the pause button on the deep inner heart while still going through all the busy motions of earning a living, doing dishes, and nurturing relationships feels nigh impossible, even and especially when you deeply and truly love the ones you are surrounded by. To love family well is its own purpose, its own commitment. It’s just that for me, it’s not enough.

Waiting is what I must do. I don’t believe I am the only one living this quandary. Many people in my little sphere seem to be fully confident of where they are and where they’re headed. And for some of them, it’s true. They do know. But I bet others are faking it, just like I am. In the musical Little Women, Jo March, she of shared attic magic, sings of her need to find her purpose, her way:

“There’s a life
That I am meant to lead
A life like nothing I have known
I can feel it
And it’s far from here
I’ve got to find it on my own
Even now I feel its heat upon my skin.
A life of passion that pulls me from within,
A life that I am aching to begin.
There must be somewhere I can be
Astonishing.”

Though I am unclear whether the life I need will take me any farther than the literal road between Houston and Austin, I am certain that something will call to me soon. Some purpose is going to make itself known; so I am going stay soft and spiritually open, to keep listening to the breezes that just might bring a little whispering hint of what I need to do and where I need to go. I think the Divine One has things to tell me. I just hope I recognize when She does.

Do you know your purpose? I would love to know what yours is!

I found this wonderfully helpful article about tools and strategies for finding one’s own unique purpose:

How to Find Your Purpose

 

 

 

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