RenFest, Empathy, and Mindfulness

God, my feet hurt, like millions of shards of glass inside when I step, their skin is red and angry. Just touching them, even to rub, hurts. The ache is not only in my feet, though. Ankles, knees, arches, heels, basically my legs, hurt. I would rather wear my New Balance sneakers, the ones with patented foam cushions, today. But I can’t. Because I am on the management staff at a Renaissance Festival.

Yes, a Renaissance Festival. Huzzah!

To be completely precise, it’s a Medieval Faire, and we staffers wear all sorts of fun costumes. Sometimes I’m a pirate, sometimes I’m a fairy, sometimes I’m just in a pretty velvet gown. Whatever the costume, I am never in sneakers. I wear boots. The ground is rocky and hilly, and I have recently had knee surgery. I ache as I work and walk, it’s as simple as that.

In the world of the Ren Faire, fashion choices are as closely and critically scrutinized as those at any runway at New York Fashion Week. The “insiders,” those who have been attending for years, whose closets are stocked with thousand-dollar hand-crafted leather breastplates or jewel-encrusted Elizabethan gowns, love to see and be seen. We may be guilty of preening a bit, like peacocks proud of their beautiful feathery tails. We may also be guilty of sneering at those whose costumes are less correct, less complete, and no single faux pas gathers more derision than the improperly clad foot. “Why bother to wear a costume at all,” we whisper to each other, “if you don’t get the right boots to go with it?”

I am discovering, friends, that it might be that the wearer quite simply doesn’t have the physical stamina or health to do it. And here is where I finally get to the thrust of it, the point, the moral: We cannot always know the burdens that are carried and endured, unseen and unspoken.

 

My grandmother was a survivor of polio, contracted when she was a girl. Her legs were withered, her feet gnarled, with toes literally curled underneath the balls of her feet. When she walked, she walked on nubs, her weight carried by lower legs as thin as the shinbones themselves. As a child, I did not know why she walked as she did, slightly wobbly and frequently touching bits of furniture or wall to steady herself, nor did I give it a thought. She walked how she walked and I loved her dearly, no matter. In retrospect, I marvel that she had the courage to bear and raise five babies. What determination and possessed, to lift children from cribs and carry them with her.

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When her children celebrated the 50th wedding anniversary of their parents, they threw a wedding. My grandmother, who had a JP wedding in her youth, made her own wedding dress, it was a beautiful ivory lace top and a moire taffeta skirt with a flounced knee-length hem. Ivory stockings. And she wore matching orthopedic SAS shoes. Her hand was firmly tucked in at my dad’s elbow as he walked her down the aisle until Daddy handed her to my grandfather, where her hand tucked lovingly into the elbow of the man who had been her firm foundation for half a century. Her shoes were not elegant, but her heart was.

Sometimes, we look at the outside appearance and make a judgment of worth, of intelligence, of taste. But we don’t know the battles the target of our judgment is facing: health, fear, pain, want.

The same is true for things less obvious, less visible than shoes. The student who is chronically tardy because she’s living with an alcoholic parent, the CEO whose money can’t save the mother disappearing in plain sight due to Alzheimer’s, the single father working three jobs to pay the light bill.

As I mulled over my grandmother’s cheerful tenacity and stretched in an attempt to minimize my own discomfort, I realized that the simple act of putting on my sneakers, of slipping on my grey no-show socks and tying that double knot, had become a spontaneous meditation. It had enabled presence. I was, for better and worse, fully present in the moment I set my sore feet on the floor. Mindfulness may be more than just walking amongst the bird and the trees. In fact, it must be; for how often do we actually find ourselves in a picture-perfect setting, like modern-day fairy-tale characters surrounded by chattering woodland creatures and babbling brooks? No, daily, modern mindfulness requires gentle rigor, a commitment to listening to both body and spirit. Presence needs an allowance of space and a measure of quiet for the mind to think thoughts and explore intentions. Dressing in solitude, without noise or conversation, this morning allowed me to be aware of my body and provided my mind a chance to make the sorts of connections that will allow me to do my work in the world, moving into and amid humanity from a place of compassion.

I am going to endeavor to seek mindfulness in this time of extreme stress and anxiety, to practice quietude, to intentionally turn off media and allow my spirit to rest. To breathe.

And then I will walk out of my home, sore feet and all, and chat with my neighbors. Conscious connection and gentle presence may be the way through this worldwide, yet crazily intimate, crisis. Peace, my friends. may you stay well.

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Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!

Yesterday, as I arrived home and walked in the door to my house, I heard a squeal as my 14-month-old granddaughter walked away from me in that precious, stiff, wobbly way unique to toddlers, hoping I would chase her. Of course, I dropped my bag, slipped off my Skechers, and crept after her, sweeping her sweet little self into a giant hug. Giggling children remind us of all that is joyful, don’t they?

Take a moment to close your eyes and remember the games you played as a child: tag, red-light-green-light, heads-up-seven-up. Do you remember the warm sunshine, the chirp of crickets camouflaged in the verdant grass, the breathless anticipation of waiting for your thumb to be pressed down to your fist by your best friend? I was a hide-and-seek master as a child. I was small enough to hide in very creative places and patient enough to hold my breath if required to remain hidden. Safety was paramount in my game;  I was afraid to try for home base because I didn’t want to give away my prime spot, nor did I relish being tagged in a way that felt physically aggressive.  I’d climb trees or tuck into the laundry hamper to evade my brothers and the neighborhood kids.

When I was a teen attending a church youth group retreat, I remember playing a version of hide-and-seek called Capture The Flag. I don’t recall the rules; what I do remember is that I hid so well and for so long, listening to new friends run around in the inky night of a countryside retreat center, getting caught and laughing while I remained silent and solitary, that no one ever found me; to my knowledge, no one even tried. I finally gave up and went back to the cabin, where the entire group including the chaperones had moved on to a new activity. No one had noticed my absence, and certainly, they had not sent anyone to find me.

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Hiding didn’t always mean literally tucking myself away in a wee spot. Sometimes I hid in plain view. One day in my senior year of high school, my friends and I were goofing around in the choir room with some inflatable frisbees I had in my car trunk from the water park where I worked. All five of my friends struck silly poses and someone snapped a picture. That pic ended up in the yearbook, and my friend Celeste wrote “Kim, where are you?” beside the photo in the book. Where, indeed? I was standing beside the photographer, waiting and hoping that one of my friends would notice I was not in the picture and invite me in. Same thing happened in college at a club Christmas party- my entire group was getting a picture made by the Christmas tree and I was standing off to the side, waiting for someone to notice me.

I tend to hide as an adult, too. I tuck away in my office or my home, surrounded by comforting items that make it too easy to cocoon. My bedroom has always been my refuge, I would happily spend days tucked into my bed surrounded by books and sunshine spattered yellow walls. Travis is always telling me to call someone to set up a date. I can’t. I just can’t. But the presence of my daughter’s family, with those sweet little baby faces, has given me a reason to leave my nest.

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I am a dyed-in-the-wool introvert and a survivor of childhood trauma; I am not unique in that. How many of us find safe, cozy places and huddle in there, waiting for our friends, lovers, children, parents, co-workers to seek us out and pull us from our isolation?

Leaving the hidey-hole means risking vulnerability. There is a journey to be made between the safety of darkness and the safety of home base. You may get tagged, knocked down, or made “it.” You may risk love and not be loved in return. Even when you are loved in return, there is even more at stake, because nothing hurts worse than the pain inflicted by a loved one. You may express yourself artistically and not be understood. You may try a new career and fail. You may initiate a new friendship and be ignored.

As a middle-aged adult, I have owned that I have often been complicit in my own isolation. If I had jumped into the photos, I’d have been welcomed. If I’d run out into the darkness of Capture the Flag, I’d have been tagged, sure, then invited in with the rest of the group for snacks.

Yet I don’t know if I will ever be comfortable enough to jump into the photo or invite the friend over. If Travis is ever gone from me, you will probably find me tucked away like a hermit, reading books and eating saltines in bed. I won’t send out an S.O.S. But if you come to find me, let me know you’re around by hollering that old standby: “Olly-Olly-Oxen-Free!”

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Let’s engage!

If you’re an introvert or simply a survivor who tends to hide away or blend in, what are your go-to strategies for taking a risk and engaging? What are your defense mechanisms that might not be healthy?

I tend to hide behind organizational matters and busy-ness.

Ouchy Truth From Millennial Daughters

There I stand, weeping in the dressing room at a higher-end lingerie store. The very accommodating young women there have cheerfully measured my chest without a hint of judgement and helped me to gather various styles; I’ve got some with lace and others with satin, but none quite work. I try a very pretty teal bra that gaps in the front, but more devastating to me in that moment, there are squishy blobs sticking out of the sides of the bra. Now, I had chanted to myself, before I took off my top, “No shame. No shame. No shame.” Literally, I did this out loud. I knew what my mind was capable of.

Bra shopping is just the worst, isn’t it?

I have, all my adult life, had issues with feeling displeased with my body’s appearance. Haven’t so many of us? But that’s not really the rabbit hole I want to plunge down at this moment (I know the mantras: “we are powerful women, no matter our size,” “beauty is as beauty does,” “exercise for health, not for looks.” All true. Every last one).

But you know the phrases that are getting to me these days? That are clanging around in my head like the clappers on the bells of a cathedral? They’re coming from my daughters. And they pinch a little (kind of like one of those ill-fitting bras I was trying on).

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While on a visit to my eldest child’s home in Los Angeles last fall, I pressed play on the inner tape that I have been reciting since I was a teen: too fat, too fat, too fat. And my oldest daughter looked at me and said, “I have grown bored with your self doubt.” Ouch. Oh, wow. It struck me so that I even typed the exact quote into my phone within a few minutes of her utterance; I wanted to remember that moment. It was Sept. 2, and my 30-year-old had just abruptly, firmly, but lovingly drawn a boundary. My younger daughter, a fitness trainer by profession, tells me at least once a week to stop worrying about my appearance and exercise for strength and flexibility. The last time I went down a self-critical path for her ears, she actually became angry at me. She told me, “I won’t listen to the negative talk.” She’s raising a daughter of her own now, and she doesn’t want little Hazel to hear the messages that I transmitted, without meaning to, all those years to her.

This post isn’t about body love, though. Here is the learning I want to really contemplate: our Millennial kids, who happen to now be young adults, have wisdom to share with us. They have seen the shortcomings of their elders and they love us anyway. But they don’t want to be burdened with our angst, the self-flagellation and doubt that we have clung to since we watched an insecure-but-gorgeous Molly Ringwald apply lipstick from between her cleavage.

Our children don’t want to lug the baggage of our youth any more than they are willing to cart home the boxes of our discarded belongings. They’re “bored” with our blues. And we, their parents and grandparents, need to listen. My children’s generation has their own hurdles to face: climate change, an unfriendly economy, a sense of destabilization in world governments. Kids to feed. Dogs to care for. Jobs to find. But I have found that they manage to maintain a stubborn optimism in the face of all of it. They are growing into their own youthy wisdom. They have things to say. Good things. Challenging things.

Youth has always had the temerity to speak wisdom to its elders.

When Jesus visited the temple at the age of thirteen, the rabbis were amazed at his teaching. Yes, Jesus is Special, a unique case. And yet, I believe many of the young do have things to teach us. Kids say more than the darndest, cutest things; there can be a clarity to their words and a richness in their observations. When that richness evolves to be seasoned with life experience, it can create young adults capable of amazing perceptiveness and kindness.

There are many young people who have wisdom; granted, it is a different wisdom from that which comes of life experience. If you’ve ever done the laundry of a seven-year-old, you know it’s essential to empty the pockets, for there, treasure is gathered: feathers and pebbles and dice. Marbles and sticks of chewing gum. Silly Putty. Once, our own pockets were full of treasure, too. There is a thought, a whimsical wish, maybe, that when an infant is born, she still knows all the wisdom and beauty of Heaven, from whence she came. Little by little, it is forgotten amid the complexity of living on Earth. Perhaps, our ten-year-olds, twenty-year-olds, and thirty-year-olds are still just close enough to Heaven that they hear whispers of truth from there. By the time we’re fifty, I imagine our heads are too clouded to hear that particular strain of the purely Divine voice. Our ears are attuned to a different aspect of the Divine One: the weighty matters of self and world, nation and clan ring in our ears. I expect that will shift again in another twenty years, when we start to shed all the weighty matters and return to the glittering pocket fortunes of the soul: time appreciated, loved ones kissed, kindnesses both given and received.

Who are these wise youth? Where are they? There are obvious ones. Malala Yousefzai comes to mind. She speaks with a wisdom that is so anchored in truth born of suffering it is hard to imagine her faltering.  Samantha Smith wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov that got her invited to the Soviet Union to share her message of peace. But not all of the wisdom coming from youth is of a scale that leads to book deals and international renown. Sometimes, it is revealed in the wisdom of advice given at the right time.

When I left the mall, I posted something on Facebook about my bra-induced tears, and within minutes, my California-dreaming daughter called me. We talked for an hour, she shared her own struggles and fears and listened to mine with compassion, especially when I explained that my dissatisfaction is not so much about appearance these days as it is age and the near-constant literal physical pain of it. She reminded me of my own goals, challenging me on my excuse making; she referred me to a website where workouts are body-positive and inclusive, a far cry from the exercise videos my generation grew into adulthood with.

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If you’re blessed to have children, teens, or Millennials in your life, go grab an ice cream or an iced latte with them. Open your ears, your heart, your mind. Let them share some of what they’ve learned from watching us Gen-Xers and Boomers flail around a bit. There’s no shame in a little arm fat dangling over a bra cup. And there’s no shame in listening to whippersnappers in their young adulthood. No shame, no shame, no shame.

Wondering what littles carry in their pockets? Take a look at this joyful photo series!

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sweet-photo-series-reveals-whats-in-a-preschoolers-pockets_n_56fbdde3e4b0a06d58041b04

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Loving a Quiet, Ordinary Life

How did you answer the question, the one single question that every adult asks every kid when they need to start a conversation, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s a tough one, kids only really know the careers they see on TV or in their own small circle of people. They share those big ones, the ones that their families have encouraged: astronaut, football player, doctor, the President.  I usually said I wanted to be a famous singer like Marie Osmond or the beautiful ladies called Dawn who sang with Tony Orlando. I loved their pretty clothes, I loved that people clapped for them, and I knew I loved to sing. In my secret heart, I wanted to be a singer all the way through my growing up years. And I could sing, I really could. I don’t mean in the way that we’ve all heard some poor, deluded American Idol candidates, who show up to audition so sure their voices are awesome because their moms always thought so. No, I had a voice that could have played pretty much any Rodgers and Hammerstein lead; if I had chosen to do the work, to study and rehearse and push. I had the instrument. 

But I chose a different path. I met a guy my first day at college. I fell in love and got married at nineteen years old. I changed my major from vocal performance to elementary education. I made the conscious, deliberate decision to follow an ordinary life, to settle down and raise a family and have a little house and a conventional, safe career.

I had my first child at twenty-one years old, my second at twenty-four, and my third at twenty-seven. I probably changed thousands of cloth diapers, washed lots of them in an old avocado green washing machine that I bought from my grandpa, made baby food in a food processor, read Watch Your Step, Mr. Rabbit and Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? so often I still feel their rhythms in my bones, graded countless first grade math papers, matched socks, drove to baseball practice and dance lessons, sewed dresses and Halloween costumes, baked birthday cakes, emptied Friday folders, buckled church shoes, made love with my husband, made beds, made lunch, made…a life. An ordinary life.

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Art by Charlie Mackesy

In the quest to instill a spirit of courage and daring in our kids, we encourage them to dream big; and dreaming big seems to mean fame. Perhaps prestige. Most likely hefty cash flow. We tell our kids (both families and teachers do this) that they can be anything they want to, that if they just want it enough and never give up, they will reach their goals. That’s good stuff. We definitely want kids to know that they are smart, that they have talents, that they can do good in this world. They should shoot for the stars!

But that’s not invariably true. Have you ever seen the scene, the incredible moment, in Little Miss Sunshine when Dwayne, the brother character, realizes he cannot be a pilot because he is color blind? To see the realization dawn in his eyes, then inhabit his entire body until his limbs cannot be contained, to see an entire childhood aspiration lost, and so an entire identity erased, is excruciating.

I think a lot of people go through a version of that internally every day. I know I did; not every day, but sometimes. I got lost in the piles of unrelenting dirty dishes, the long rehearsals when I taught my theatre students how to perform instead of working on my own art, or the constantly replenishing pile of bills.

Yet there were so many moments of enchantment- some troubling thorns, but more glittering magical seeds:

Kissing tiny boo-boos and bandaging little knees.

Seeing students hit milestones.

Swimming in a central Texas lake.

Preparing my Aunt Molly’s Thanksgiving dressing recipe.

Loving and losing pets.

Being baptized at age ten, then helping to baptize my own children later.

Giving a daughter away in marriage.

Holding that daughter close when it was time for her to file for divorce.

Being estranged from my adult son for a period.

Seeing the first ultrasound image of my grandchild.

Choosing over and over again to love my husband and to let him love me.

Somewhere along the way I realized that my life was pretty ordinary, and also pretty great.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the beloved Little House book series, has said, “As the years pass, I am coming more and more to understand that it is the common, everyday blessings of our common everyday lives for which we should be particularly grateful. They are the things that fill our lives with comfort and our hearts with gladness — just the pure air to breathe and the strength to breath it; just warmth and shelter and home folks; just plain food that gives us strength; the bright sunshine on a cold day; and a cool breeze when the day is warm.”

What would happen if we taught our kids that an ordinary life is beautiful? That having a vocation, whether it’s accounting or bagging groceries is an honor; listening to music is transcendental; noticing the sunlight in the tree leaves is holy; sometimes sandwiches for dinner are perfectly okay? That life does not have to look like a Pinterest board? That children’s birthday parties don’t have to compete with each other or be Instagram worthy? That wedding proposals can be intimate instead of viral?

As I really dig into my sixth decade on this planet, I am choosing to love my ordinary life, to share my ongoing journey to heal from trauma and betrayal (both in childhood and adulthood), and to be okay in alone-ness. I am learning to be as grateful for playtime with my grandchildren as I might ever have been for grand adventures. Restlessness gives way, inch by excruciating inch, to contentment.

May you know that your own ordinary life is also precious. I hope so. Though we’ve all got to walk our own path.

What are the joys you find in your ordinary life? I’d love to know!

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If you’re in a quandary how to start conversations with kiddos, this article is great. I wish I had had this information when I was raising kids and teaching school.

https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/stop-asking-your-kids-what-do-you-want-to-be-when-you-grow-up-ask-this-instead.html

 

Grandma’s Post-Postpartum Depression.

A couple of days ago, I found myself picking up, by hand, all the little crumbs and leafy bits scattered on the light beige carpet on our stairs. One by one. This, after stacking toys and reversing the hangers of each piece of clothing in our bedroom closet.

My husband is worried about me.

My daughters are worried about me.

I am a little worried about me.

Plagued by insomnia, heart rate excelling, breath accelerated; for three consecutive weeks I have found myself unable to sit still in my own home, my eyes constantly darting to and fro, seeking messes to straighten or clutter to eliminate. I do not exaggerate, my family pleads with me to stop, to sit down and enjoy a movie or a book or a chat. I fail. Tonight, my spouse stalled me by encircling me with his arms, saying, “Honey, stop. Sit down.” I lay my head on his shoulder for the briefest of moments, then replied, “I can’t,” then trudged upstairs to put dirty laundry in the wash. The garage has been cleaned, the cabinets cleared, the linens assessed and mended. I painted a bedroom on New Year’s Day. Even the slimy produce has been disposed of and the drawers of the fridge washed with hot, soapy water. That’s the worst job, isn’t it? I hate it.

Oh, and just two months after knee surgery I am pushing myself to walk 10,000 steps a day and/or ride my bike. Movement is, at this point, compulsive, though apparently and unfotunately not yet burning enough calories to erase the stocking-stuffer imported English wine-flavored gummy candy from my hips.

Amidst this frenzy of activity, there have been only two things that could stop me in my tracks:

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Binge-watching the second season of Fleabag with my older daughter on the day before she returned to Los Angeles; we holed up in my bedroom with wine and chocolate to cram all six episodes of the divine Phoebe Waller-Bridge and her Hot Priest, and I took that break because my girl insisted. It was her one request before going home…

And my two grandchildren. One, a girl, is thirteen months old. She is playful and headstrong. The other, a boy, is only three weeks old. He is angelic and hungry. They and their parents live with my husband and me. It’s a blessing. I love having them. I do. Really, I do.

But I think I may be experiencing a bit of post-postpartum depression. Is that a thing for grandmothers? It should be. I bet it is, and we just don’t talk about it.

Recently, my husband and I met a new couple, lovely folks. As we chatted, we described our living situation: youngest daughter and her domestic partner living with us with their kids while my daughter finishes school and they try to get ahead financially. Incredulous, they said something like, “We told our kids once they finished school (and they paid for their kids’ degrees, a feat we had been unable to accomplish on our pastor/educator salaries) they were on their own, and we meant it. We enjoy our kids and grandkids, sure, but no way would we let them live with us.” Emphatic shakes of their heads emphasized their resolve. Maybe that grandmother doesn’t have any post-postpartum depression. She seems to have it pretty together. But this one? Me? Hell yes. I think I do.

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I went looking to see what humorist Erma Bombeck might have to say about being a grandmother, certain that if she could find something funny to say, it would shake me out of the funk of anxiety, and she had nothing but niceness to say, she the pinnacle of rapier wit:

“Grandmas defy description. They really do. They occupy such a unique place in the life of a child. They can shed the yoke of responsibility, relax, and enjoy their grandchildren in a way that was not possible when they were raising their own children. And they can glow in the realization that here is their seed of life that will harvest generations to come.”

Why can I not “shed the yoke… [and] relax?” What’s wrong with me?

It’s a lifetime of perfectionist habits, partnered with a legitimately diagnosed anxiety disorder and a compulsion to be the best, most generous and helpful mom/grandmother/employee/teacher/etc…

Magnified by menopause. That, to quote Fleabag, “horrendous…magnificent” process that shakes us women up, down, and sideways.

Enough about how I have been struggling. We’re all struggling one way or another. What you may wonder, dear reader, is what is she doing about it? 

Here’s what:

After a couple of months letting my anxiety prescription gather dust, I got it refilled and I started taking it again. Faithfully, every morning, with my daily 4 ounces of orange juice. At first, I did it because of the look of dismay on my husband’s face when he realized I had not been taking it. But then, I decided to take it for myself. So often, when those of us with a mental illness feel better, we think it’s time to take ourselves off our meds (and of course, we do not consult our physicians because we know what they say. I actually did ask my doctor and she said No and I did it anyway). It’s been a couple of weeks and I am feeling incrementally calmer.

I started letting my family help more. Right now, as a matter of fact, my husband is loading the dishwasher (so…many…baby…bottles…) while I write up here in my cozy bedroom writing space. When I got home from work today, there were dirty dishes in the sink and I left them there! No one in my household expects a constantly clean house. Just me. That’s my hangup, it comes from growing up in sometime squalor. Gotta let that stuff go.

I stuck to my guns with my new boss to get a private workspace. Is it in an old closet? Yes. But it’s my closet. It’s quiet. I can avoid the chaos of an open concept office (which is fun when you’re in an office with Jim, Pam, Dwight, Michael, and the rest of the Dunder Mifflin crew, but not so great in real life). The important part of this situation is that I stuck to my guns and spoke up for something I knew I needed.

I did yoga yesterday.

And I canceled a commitment I’d made to my extended family this week. I’d made it with the best of intentions. And I had tried to honor it. But I simply did not have enough time. They accepted it with silence, then someone else stepped up to do the job. The rest of the family is rallying to help her accomplish it, which is great. I think I disappointed or angered them, but I know that after all these weeks of crying, shaking, and lying awake, my health mattered more. Listening to my inner voice tell me where I had overextended, then doing the humbling work of canceling, was the best self-care I could do at this time.

What I am emphatically not going to do is send my daughter and her family away. They need help, and I remember what it was like to feel bereft and overwhelmed when a young mother. Maybe I am a sucker, but I want to provide a nurturing foundation for my daughter and her family. The best part of “grandma’s post-postpartum depression” is the exquisite beauty of being a grandmother, anyway.

Medication. Boundaries. Saying no. Self-care. Accepting help. Leaving the dishes. Hugs from my husband. Cuddles with two grandbabies. And plenty of the genius of Fleabag. These are tools for coping with the rarely discussed and maybe only case ever of post-postpartum depression.

Okay, Erma, I am ready to glow.

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Live Small. Love Big: A Meditation

After an entire adulthood spent being told to dream big, to live loud, I am done. I simply am. We are not all of us meant to “live loud.”

I am, rather, inclined now to live small: smaller house, smaller wardrobe, smaller carbon footprint. Fewer possessions. Less noise. Limited spending. Streamlined living. Lean…

Not mean, though. The only place I want to live large these days is in all the multitudinous ways that we humans can share love. I yearn for more time spent in nature, more hugs. More forgiveness. More conversations that move beyond the surface.

I want to ask, “How are you?” and be answered with authenticity, though it requires I invest more time to attend the replies, to hear the stories that the people I meet are aching to tell.

I desire engagement.

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And I crave that the Divine One, the wonderful Spirit who created me, will wiggle Her way into each tiny crevice of who I am. I don’t need Her to make me big. I want Her to take the smallness of me and connect it to the stars, to the seas, to the trees. To my grandchildren. To my children. To my husband. My family.

 

And to the unknown strangers at the border. In the Middle East. In the political party which is opposite mine. With relationship to all these, I become vast, my soul expanding beyond what is conceivable should I remain alone. My quiet spirit can then hear all the voices of the universe, my presence is both honored and honorable among Creation.

To live small does not mean timidity, nor a sense of inferiority. It is not self-castigation or minimalization. No, it is, instead, to walk in healthy humility. It is to comprehend that I am a wee part of a greater whole, she who lives among billions: billions of folk, stars, trees, animals. No more important, no. But nor less.

A path both wide and narrow. May it be so.

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Tell Them a Story. Like Big Bird!

“Sunny day
Sweeping the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street?”

This morning, my daughter suggested we turn Sesame Street on for her one-year-old. We did, and oh, the feelings that swept through me.

It’s the first week of a new decade. My holiday decorations are stored, the garage is impossible to use while we try to clear the house of clutter, I used New Year’s Eve to paint a bedroom. There’s a new baby, just twenty days old, living in my house and distracting me from my chores (I am joyous to oblige him). Lots of fresh starting going on.

There’s also a lot of nostalgic wishing and sighing. A little angst- I still haven’t had a book published or lost the ten pounds I need to, but those are little angsts. The big angst is over people I miss. When you’re very, very young, like my two grandchildren, time has no meaning. Days? Months? Years? Decades? Pfft. When you’re a teen or perhaps a young adult, every new year may feel like the beginning, like a fresh start full of promise. Onward!

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When you’re in the middle, like I am, you look forward and backward in equal measure. And this morning, with Big Bird on the screen, I didn’t just glance backward. My very soul seemed pulled right out of the now. The episode began with Elmo singing with friends on the stoop of the brownstone, the green doors opening to reveal Gordon, his father, and his son, Miles. They told a surprised Elmo and Miles, who couldn’t imagine that the two old guys might have been musicians, stories of their younger days as a singer and a guitarist. Gordon’s flashback included Luis and Bob, and my five-year-old spirit danced in recognition.

I have always loved Sesame Street. Its literacy lessons gave me reading, but its inclusive kindness gave me hope. I was a pretty lonely kid, and Big Bird’s gentle love for the invisible Snuffy was a source of great joy for me. When my own eldest was a toddler, I shared SS with her on the Lubbock PBS station; Ernie was her favorite. For her second Christmas, we got her an Ernie ornament for our tree. My father was with us that Christmas, and when we hung that Ernie, he told me that he remembered how I had loved the show as a small girl. I had never realized he’d noticed that. But I did, I really did love it. And my dad. He loved me, too.

Caroll Spinney, the operator and voice of both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, passed on my granddaughter’s first birthday, and as she stood at the TV screen this morning, I realized anew just how important it is that we pass along, to our children and grandchildren, all the things that Sesame Street holds dear: kindness, literacy, and story.

Story is power, it is magic, it is blessing and curse. Humans love stories. We draw them, film them, record them, write them, and tell them around campfires. My Grandma June used to tell the same family yarns over and over at gatherings, so often repeating herself that her kids and kids-in-law developed a hand signal: when Grandma started a story they’d all heard before, they would start flashing their fingers above their heads to indicate how many times they’d heard the tale. Then they’d all laugh, including Grandma, and she’d tell the story anyhow. Story is how the thread of a family can be woven in and around generations, creating a tapestry that is indestructible. It may become threadbare at times, perhaps worn or frayed, but the through-line will preserve a household. How can we share story?

Story can be long. My Grandmother Juanita was a seamstress; when I’d visit and she needed to sew for a client, she’d set me up near her machine with my own doll, fabric scraps, needle, and thread. I’d cut and stitch as she made beautiful dresses, while stories fell from between her pin-filled lips. Stories of raising children while picking cotton, stories of church. Stories about the women who came to her home for dress fittings. She shared an oral history with me that could not have been heard if we’d been in front of a screen. Those stories took hours of communication: her talking, me listening and asking questions.

But that’s not the only way to share story. There are ways to incorporate it into a daily life lived in such a way that our tales flow out of us, long and short, deeply profound or joyfully silly, memorable or not. Each story shared, no matter length or gravitas, builds a connection with each other: parent to child, roomie to roomie, teacher to student.

Though I usually shy away from creating a list, today I am giving it a try. Here are some ways to share story with your loved ones, whether family of blood or family of choice, friends treasured, or students respected.

  • The most obvious is to share meals around a table. Screens off. Though my hubby and I share our meals in front of a TV now, when we were raising kids, we gathered them around the table, television off, for dinner every night. Those thirty minutes allowed everyone to hear and be heard. It did get harder as they got older and began playing sports and taking dance lessons. But the foundation we laid in their younger years remains firm.
  • Leave the photo albums and scrapbooks out where everyone has quick and easy access. I used to spend hours poring over my parents’ wedding album and the albums of all the photos taken when they were young and my brother and I were small. Sometimes I asked my parents what was happening in a particular picture, but at other times I allowed these photos to be a jumping-off place for histories of my own creation. I personally have around twelve albums now of my own family.  And if some of the cute decorations in the albums that moms of my generation were creating so lovingly during the 90s and 00s get torn, so what?
  • Tiny moments call for short stories. Washing dishes, tucking in, not making the team…all opportunities for stories that are just a couple of sentences. When I was tightening the key on the expander in my kids’ mouths (they all inherited my narrow jaw, unfortunately), I’d tell them tales of my own orthodontic nightmares, including the time when my inner upper lip cut open then sealed shut over the arch of wire running along my upper gums. These old stories gave them hope that they’d survive the ordeal, it let them know that I really did understand their pain, and it helped them to understand that I am a person who lived and loved before they came along.
  • Write things down. It doesn’t have to be pretty or even grammatically flawless. One of my most treasured possessions is the file of letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during their courtship. Sometimes, I sit and read a couple of those letters that are in his scrawled, slanting handwriting, and I feel him and remember him so closely. Keep a book in which you grab a pen and write short notes. Your loved ones will be glad to have it someday. And it’s just not quite the same if it’s all done exclusively digitally.
  • However, sometime technology really can be helpful! Call and leave voice texts-not voice mails, but actual voice texts. They can be longer, can be saved, and can be listened to at convenience and on repeat. Since we’re all carrying smart phones now, you can simply pop in your AirPods and listen to a saved message from the one you miss.
  • When I was a kid, there was a rack of record albums sitting by my parents’ stereo console, I could pull a record out of its sleeve, set it on the turntable, and have a sense of my family through the music they loved. When I was a young adult, we were making mix tapes and CDs, assembling the songs we loved to tell others about us. Now, we can make a playlist and share it. And if we listen to it together, we can share the stories that go along with the songs. At our house, anytime Amy Grant’s “Baby, Baby” comes on, I have to tell the story of my daughter pronouncing it “Maven, Maven” as I drove our used sedan to work, dropping her and her baby brother off at daycare at Ms. Sharina’s first.
  • Traditions and rituals make wonderful opportunities for sharing stories. It might be a cooking tradition, a travel tradition, a holiday tradition. At our house, the kids (now 30, 28, and 25) get a new ornament on the tree every year. They have to hunt for it on Christmas Eve after our traditional dinner of tortilla soup and tamales. Of course there is Ernie, but also a baseball player or two, caps and gowns, and a sparkly frog. And when I hang them, everyone there has to listen if I want to tell the story of any ornament. img_1449.jpgThere is one ornament we don’t hang now, it is the matched set of my daughter and her husband from the year they married, 2016. Custom made by an artist friend, they are perfect little replicas of my daughter and son-in-law on their wedding day. Their marriage crumbled after just one year, the weight of his opioid addiction simply too much to bear.

The stories will not be, should not be, exclusively happy. There are sad stories to tell: pets lost, marriages dissolved, arguments and deaths. But we should share them nonetheless. Our lives are the stories we live and leave behind. We have the power to create and share resonant truths. And from these stories of grief and struggle, we learn that resilience is possible.

More importantly, we have the privilege of authoring our own stories, living them daily in front and alongside the ones we love. May your story be heard and your life seen.

As the wonderful Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets and my sweet Sesame Street said, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending.”

Interested in learning more about telling story in your family? I love this blog!

 

 

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Have a Merry Nervous Breakdown.

Today, December 23, is the tenth anniversary of the day I cracked up. Ho, Ho, Ho!

I bet you weren’t expecting that, were you?

We don’t like to talk about depression, anxiety, or the many ways it can manifest. We prefer to laugh it off as “menopausal hormone fluctuation” or being “hangry”. And at the holidays, when cheerfulness is practically beaten into our collective psyche, to admit one is struggling can be interpreted as particularly “Grinchy.” Yet, there it is.

I once heard a wise woman say about her own journey of healing: “I had to go back for the pieces of myself.” That’s what I have doing since I endured those three most difficult days of my life.

The three days I spent locked up in a mental hospital. 

During the Christmas season of 2009, I was having a complete mental and emotional breakdown:

My father had died the year before after a week of particularly virulent reactions to Type II Diabetes complications, which I had not even know he had. I was still reeling.

My brother died of a drug overdose a year later and was found only because of the smell emanating from his run-down motel room. Our youngest brother, a cop, bore witness to the body. Again, still reeling.

I was losing a vital friendship that had sustained me and going through the heartrending separation from a group I had performed with for years over that hackneyed but accurate reason: creative differences. The band wanted to go one way, and I wanted to go another.

Travis and I were working on getting our marriage healthy.

I was in my first year of graduate school, while continuing to teach full time and attempting to be a model wife and mother.

It felt like I was drowning at work, running a large high school theatre program, where my colleague and I were absolutely unable to work peacefully together.

We had filed bankruptcy and were trying to climb out of that pit of deprivation and shame. We were barely paying bills.

And I just couldn’t let go of the grief and resentment left over from my own mom’s mental illness which led to profound neglect and abuse.

I thought I had outdone, or maybe undone, my mother. I thought because I had finished my degree, stayed married, managed to raise my kids and have a career, that I was better, but I wasn’t. Not really. Cutting myself open with scissors, either in my office at school or in my bedroom, became a coping technique. I sliced to bring focus, carving words like “fat” into my thighs. I was punishing myself with each cut: for breaking faith, for not being beautiful, for getting older, for missing my dad’s final week of life, for not saving my drug ridden brother, for an unresolved and bitter relationship with my mom, for not providing enough for my family, for leaving church and being glad about it, for not being able to mend my work relationship, for not having a perfect 4.0 gpa. Oh, and there was a bold and hungry squirrel lodged in my dining room wall, eating a big hole through it. It would poke its little nose out from the destroyed drywall and I was convinced it was blowing raspberries at us. We were scheduled to host a holiday party that had been an annual tradition among our friends, and I had no idea how we could get that squirrel out in time. Or how we could afford to host a party.

I was hiding all this agony from my husband. Well, not so much– I hid my scars and scabs, and there was no disguising the chattering and chewing of the squirrel– but I couldn’t mask the turmoil, the waking up from nightmares regularly, the shaking and trembling, the inability to make eye contact. Then one morning, he saw the scars and forced me to meet his gaze. Later, when I looked at the photo taken at my admission, I realized how truly sick I looked, haggard from lack of sleep, deep shadows under my eyes, cheeks sunken. He saw and he cried, imploring me to go to the doctor. I refused, he begged. I continued to refuse and so, growing desperate, he picked me up and threw me over his shoulder. I screamed and kicked, grasping at the bedroom doorjamb to keep from being carried out, and my poor teen-aged kids watched as their dad forced their mom into a car to go to the doctor, where I was compelled to show my scabbed cuts, tell him what my days and nights had been like, and answer questions about suicidal ideation. Suicide had not been my intention, at least not overtly, but fantasies of it had certainly floated through my brain. Mostly, I just wanted to relieve and chastise my soul. The physician wanted me admitted to a psychiatric hospital, saying that if I didn’t capitulate and admit myself voluntarily, he would force the issue.

Trav was instructed to get a chaperone to sit with me in the back of the car so that I wouldn’t jump out while it was moving. By this time, I was so gone that I don’t remember who that was, though I remember with crystal clarity the moment when I was locked into an examining room. I banged on the door, howling and sobbing for freedom. It was not coming.

In Texas you are kept for three days if you’re on suicide watch. Once you’re in the mental hospital, you’re in. For three days. If you shower, you’re supervised, a nurse stands there watching you. You’re not allowed anything to write with or silverware or shoelaces. You attend mandatory group meetings. You can have approved visitors at appointed times. You queue up at a half door to get your meds in a little cup, just like on TV.

I shared a room with a stranger, and we didn’t speak to each other at all, and why would we? I didn’t talk much under normal circumstances to people I loved and trusted; I hushed. Most of the women on this ward moved and acted like ghosts, shuffling around from bed to chair to television with exhausted, haunted eyes. The walls were nondescript, the ward was locked. We lined up to go to meals. On my final full day, December 25th, I was permitted to walk to the gymnasium, where I walked laps and did sit ups, partly because I was restless, partly because I couldn’t bear to show weakness, and partly because I still thought I was fat, even though I was the smallest I had been since I had worn my size two wedding gown and had endured two plastic surgeries to perfect my body.

Phone use was freely permitted, and I called home in tears, pleading to be released. My husband, who hadn’t really known what we were in for but also had not known what else to do, fought like hell for three days to get me out. He called a family friend who was a lawyer, he got money from his parents. It was impossible.

That week, my first grad school portfolio was due, the university had deadlines for grade submissions and there was no way I was asking for an extension. To tell the director of the program, whom I admired and hoped to get job references from later, that I was in the nut house? Nope. I was given special dispensation to have a pencil and paper, as well as my textbooks. Travis brought them to me and I finished my first semester projects and papers in the waiting room of the ward, adjusting to the side effects my first doses of anti-depressants, sitting up the whole night through so that I could work on theatrical analysis, vocal technique, and acting methods in peace. The nurses and other patients looked at me like I was an alien; perhaps it’s unusual to keep being a driven perfectionist in the middle of a nervous breakdown? Anyway, I sent everything home to be submitted into the computer system for the deadline. Travis typed it all for me and I earned straight As.

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Christmas Day came and went while I was locked up, but my family faithfully waited until I was released on the 26th to celebrate. There aren’t many photos of that particular Christmas, but the one I remember most shows our family behind the dinner table, silly hats on (it’s a thing we do), arms around each others’ waists, and my eyes swollen and half shut from fatigue. I was never so grateful and relieved. We didn’t talk about it, though, and I have sometimes wondered what my children thought about their crazy mom. Back then, I was too scared and ashamed to ask. Still am.

Maybe there are people who manage to escape that kind of despair, whose lives are charmed. Their kids are compliant, their bosses appreciate them, their siblings love to hang out at barbecues, their faiths are intact. Their hair is always shiny.

Not me. And not my family. And not most of my friends.

What were all the broken pieces and bits and where were they? How could I even begin to find them?

The groundwork for my collapse had been laid piece by tiny piece over 42 years: a mentally ill, abusive and drug-addicted mom; faith and sexual trauma; isolation from extended family; marriage and motherhood at an ill-equipped young age; an exhausting job paired with a perfectionist drive … my own quiet and introverted nature had enabled a habit of keeping all my struggles to myself.  To move forward, I had to finally face all of it, unflinchingly, make peace with my own mistakes, forgive the mistakes of others, and lay it all to rest.

Therapy was not, surprisingly, part of my healing, mostly because I couldn’t afford it. So I relied on my new anti-depressant meds and did my own therapy.  I had done plenty of therapy while in my twenties, I understood where my pain came from and I figured out how to fix it. It was all inner work, and it was done imperfectly, but I began to take small steps– cracking open the chambers where I had stashed sorrows, letting the feelings fill me and then leave me, offering apologies where I knew I needed to, and setting boundaries around myself that would serve to protect me from those who hurt me.

That “letting feelings fill me” was the hardest part. A lifetime of closing myself off, of biting my tongue, of muffling my own truth so that I could keep walking had numbed me. What I discovered, though, was that the feelings didn’t kill me. Tears, anger, whatever, it all ebbed and flowed, leaking out my tear ducts and clenching my muscles. But then breath would come, my body would relax, and I’d still be here. Here and okay, with my beloveds standing near, whether in body or spirit, to lend strength.

Yoga helped a lot, too; so did writing. In the sharing of my story by way of my blog, I began to hear from people who loved me as well as strangers who identified with my journey. There were folk who connected, and it was as if my testimony was redeemed from my lurching, stumbling, imperfect faith.

Friends and strangers alike are bearing witness to my messy life, opening their eyes and hearts to witness what trying to be an authentic human really looks like. It is my deep hope that in sharing my own foibles and graces that others might recognize the beauty of their own lives; and that they might find hope and tools for healing. You are not alone. I was not either in that disastrous December, though my own pain made it impossible to believe otherwise.

We sometimes allow ourselves to believe profound lies, don’t we?

I have spent the last decade learning to be the authentic me. It has meant walking away from a career, speaking the truth of my faith journey, setting boundaries, loving the child I was, and accepting the love of those whom I trust.

If you’re struggling this Christmas, please don’t isolate or mask. Find one person you trust and let them see your genuine hurt. And if you know someone on the brink, find them. Look at them. Hear them. And take the necessary steps, even if they seem impossible.

Merry Christmas, my friends.

If you re struggling this Christmas but believe you have nowhere to turn, please use this resource. It will get better, take it from someone who’s been there:

https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/

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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.

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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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