To Love Being a Mother: Part One of a Short Series

I used to think of myself as having “given up” my young adulthood to be a mother. It was a sacrifice, almost a burden. I didn’t get the time that so many of my friends did to work for a while, get some money in the bank, maybe get a down payment for a house saved up.

I looked at it as my lost youth. Not now.

Photo by Evelyn Chong on Pexels.com

I have had to make a major shift lately because if I didn’t, I was going to move into this next phase with a lot of angst and resentment, kicking and screaming. The Empty Nest is a monumental transition. I had to shift or suffer, wasting the next 25 (hopefully) years unable to enjoy and appreciate what life was giving me. I enjoyed a Facetime call with three of my best college friends earlier this week; we suffered the travails of sorority rush when we were just eighteen years old, and now we bemoaned the travails of wherever we are in our motherhood journeys: two empty-nesters (though my house is not actually empty), a mom who has just one senior-in-high-school daughter left at home and can see her freedom beckoning like a fluttering will-o’-the-wisp, and a mom who has seen her eldest through a grueling triple organ transplantation and is now fiercely protecting her younger children from a negligent, violent husband whom she is divorcing. We are all happy about our motherhood and struggling with it in equal measure.

I am changing the way I think: I am glad I started motherhood so young! It means I get to enjoy this new phase while I am hip and (relatively) healthy. And, more significantly, I am owning this thing that people keep telling me, but that I have had a hard time believing: I was a pretty good mother.

Ready Like a Mother

When I became a mom, I had to figure it out. I hadn’t had healthy mothering in my childhood, so my tool box was pretty empty. My mom was debilitated by mental illness and addiction, was damaged by faith and desperately lonely in a house with four other equally lonely humans. I looked to relatives and friends’ moms to help me figure it out. My friend Chellie’s mother, Bea, stood across her kitchen counter and offered sage advice while feeding me scratch-made chocolate cake. Carol Brady, Samantha Stephens, and June Cleaver were role models. When I became a mother, I didn’t have peers to emulate; my best friend and I were the first in our college class to get pregnant. She and I had been roommates and pledge sisters, and we had our first babies just six weeks apart. She was just barely ahead of me on the question train: how to get the baby to latch on, when to add cereal, how to manage tummy aches, and such.

A theme of my motherhood was to protect them by being around just enough: not a helicopter, instead maybe a stealth missile. I wanted to keep them safe while instilling courage, so I instructed them, at ages 4 and 6 to “hold onto my pockets” so that I could carry their baby sister into stores. They never did let go, not once. As they grew older, I didn’t spy, I never did read a journal, though I did go through some drawers. On the night of my eldest’s eighth grade dance, I dropped her off and pretended to drive away, then sneaked back into the cafetorium and hid behind a pillar to watch her have fun with her friends in the dress I’d put the finishing touches on just a few minutes before. In my mind, the dress was my back pocket and I was at that dance with her, still protecting from afar.

Now, I am a grandmother, with a nine-month-old grandson and a twenty-one-month-old granddaughter; they, along with their parents, live with us. I was not ready for this new role, this new identity. Because I started my family so young, I was looking forward to the span during which my own kids were grown and independent, so I could be a little selfish with my time and resources. I thought I could pretend to be ten years younger and travel the world, just being indulgent and drinking pomegranate mimosas. Of course, that’s not how it worked. Honestly, when do our plans ever really go like we thought they would?

On the day my daughter and her partner told us about grandbaby number one, we were sitting at brunch at a local restaurant. I knew something was up and asked my daughter to accompany me to the restroom, where she told me she was pregnant and I slid down the wall and plopped gracelessly on the cold tiled floor (it was a nice restaurant, the floor was clean. Thank goodness we weren’t at a truck stop). After the meal, we continued the conversation at our home, and when they left after a long talk about the impending baby, I just leaned over into my husband’s arms and bawled, “I am not ready to be a grandmother.” “I know,” he sighed, “but are you ready to help your daughter be a good mom?” Of course I am.

The Awesome Power of the Grandmother

I remember the awesome influence of my own grandmothers, especially my grandmother June, whose life was a testament to the beauty of resilience and generosity. She never had a mother of her own, and her father was murdered when she was a young woman, and like me, she had to look around her for women to be role models into motherhood. She taught me about the importance of skin care, and that sitting on the porch watching birds was, in fact, a valuable way to spend time.

Her house was imbued with the magic of hospitality, space to be myself, and a place to imagine: an attic room. The stairs were behind a beautiful oak door, and once climbed, revealed a sublime room with an old iron bed, shelves upon shelves of books, boxes of toys and dress up clothes, and a window seat. This room was where I felt more at peace, more myself, than any place I had encountered. In this room, perched on the window seat, I drew pictures and wrote stories, dressed as a lady, danced, and read books. When I read Little Women for the first time, I recognized Jo’s love for her attic. I had my own attic to love. Almost always, when I was there, my mother was in a completely different town, so the pall of her depression was lifted. My introverted little soul could fly free, all under the gentle and generous eye of my beloved Grandma June.

To become a comparable source of joy and a well of confidence for my grand-kids and, more importantly, their mother, to continue to nurture my relationships with my adult kids who remain single, requires that I look backward into my own child-rearing years. I want to remember, from their births to their graduations and beyond, how I explored the idea of being a good parent as well as how I messed up royally but stayed in the game. I want to acknowledge that I was a good mom, which means I need to figure out how I did it. How I still do it. Because I am definitely not finished being a mom. Nowhere near it.

Lessons from transitioning to being a mother, then to grandmother:

  1. If you’re young, look around for role models and don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  2. If you’re older, look around for younger adults who need mentors. We can be a pretty isolated society. You might have a church single or a teen neighbor who could use a friend who’s got a lot of life experience.
  3. Protect, but don’t rescue. Don’t hover. It’s not good for anyone.
  4. Apologize to your kids when you make a mistake. They’ll remember that as they grow. It teaches them that it’s safe to be imperfect.
  5. Write down or otherwise record the moments when you stumbled to goodness. Too often, we focus on the extremes: the picture-perfect happy, glossy moments, or the times when tragedy happens or fierce disagreements cause heartache. I think that lasting joy is found in the middle, those moments when life is just rolling along and you stumble sometimes but you keep going and growing.
  6. Save some toys for your grandkids.

What wisdom do you have about mothering, or empty-nest transitioning? Share, I’d love to learn from you!

Making My Own Magic: The Healing Power of Imaginative Play

Many who know me believe my life is magical, that the shadows of my childhood have been banished. And in some ways, they’re right. My adult life has been enchanted: a long marriage to my best companion, glasses of wine, beloved friends, grandbaby toes and giggles under my roof, puppy kisses, wonderful books, all that stuff. My life seems pretty charmed.

It’s got some darkness, too. There’s some Maleficent energy to counteract the Aurora sparkle. All authentically lived lives are that way; anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t living in truth. Sometimes, we’re floating above the trees, but other times we’re mired in the muck of life’s sorrow.

Maybe the most fantastically and imaginatively magical part of my span here on this beautiful orb called Earth has been the fairy element; yes, I have been a fairy, the professional kind who gets paid to don wings and glitter and charm the public. Bruises have been suffered from the weight of wings. Tears of “smile fatigue” have been shed. Knees have suffered from kneeling to the level of a four-year-old’s bright face to hear a sweet whisper.

In the early years of my fae life, I embodied the nymph Nimue in a silver dress that was a replica of Drew Barrymore’s in Ever After and a crown so tall it caught on the tree limbs from which I attempted to enter a fog-laced stage. The actor playing Merlin cackled under his breath as he surreptitiously disentangled me as I sang.

I walked the gravel paths of the Renaissance festival where I worked as two queens of literature and myth: Mab of Celtic lore, and Titania of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Every day, I donned wings and glitter, accessorized with a pouch full of glass stones to give as favors to the small children who timidly approached all day for a little dollop of fairy enchantment. Each morning, I danced with abandon, spinning and skipping to the most delicate and playful music played by flute, cello, and harp; as I twirled, the sun glinted off my shimmery wings, the iridescent cobalt blue silk I wore shifting and changing colors.  Those moments of abandon reminded me of being a little girl twirling in my front yard until I was so dizzy I lay down to watch the azure sky spinning above me. You only get those kinds of moments in your adulthood when you decide to stop worrying about being respectable and start allowing joy to inhabit you.

In the Quiet Time, that period when my throat was silenced by a vocal cord injury, I created a fairy persona, Hush, a playful sprite who collected found sparkly things, magpie-like, and spoke only with my hands and face or the musical toots from my little pottery ocarina. Being a fairy, as an adult, gave me a voice and the chance to revisit the little girl who had struggled and been so lonely. Hush, Mab, Titania, and Nimue blessed me with an opportunity, undergirded by the security of knowing I was surrounded by family and friends, to play. It’s like that scene in Stephen Spielberg’s movie Hook when the Lost Boys try to get the adult Peter Pan to cut loose with them: they play, and he just takes a ball to the gut. Once he has been in Neverland long enough, though, and remembers the love of his children back home, he can play. And fly.

Dragons and Time Clocks

About five years ago, I stopped playing. Packed away the costumes that represented characters I had inhabited, stopped auditioning for plays and musicals, just settled down. Settled into the organizational tasks of my job without the relieving balance of fun, whether at work or on my off time. Though these days, I play tag and peekaboo with my grandkids, those games, while special because of the giggles and memories of their baby laughter, don’t stimulate brain and activate my body in a challenging, restorative way.

I went looking for information about adult play, not expecting to find much there. Who, after all, believes that playing is an important part of adult life? It turns out: a lot of people, including mental health professionals.

“Play is being joyfully immersed in the moment, and as adults, we rarely do that.In a way, it is an active form of mindfulness, which is widely recommended and advocates being present and in the moment. Mindfulness has been proven to alleviate anxiety and depression. Studies also suggest that it can help you manage stress better and maintain a healthy weight,” says Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, Professor of Developmental Psychology at New York University.

Not so very long ago, our office (which has undergone major turnover that has rendered the following scenario obsolete) staff kept Nerf guns and tiny catapults at our desks. It was not unusual for spontaneous battles to break out, and wild laughter would fill the empty spaces between desks and meetings as we bonded and decompressed. Our staff felt more like a team back then. Playing in our offices as well as in our personal time helps us to feel better. It keeps us sane and healthy and happy. It helps us to connect in an authentic way with others. Imagination and play defeat the dragons of boredom and isolation, at work and at home.

Once Upon A Time…

I was my own Tinkerbell. Nothing more magical than that. I learned to play, and to fly, and to trust my own inner voice; the restored voice that can sing or speak truth, even when intertwined with the snares and branches of the expectations or foibles of others. I developed the strength and power to face down dragons, the real ones: family trauma, addiction, loss. I’ve lost touch with that power, though.

So here’s my magic spell, distilled from all the little tokens ever given to me by children who believed: don the tulle. Swing the wooden sword. Wear the wings. Write the poem. Find friends who will play and make the magic happen with you. Speak the truth. It’s all love, and that’s what we need most to vanquish the sinister shadows.

What do you do to play?

https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/adults-need-recess-too-here-s-why-you-should-make-ncna887396

How Will They Remember You?

Sometimes, when you’re writing about your trauma, you discover that you’re not as alone as you might have thought. You are blessed to find others who have walked in pain and found ways out of it into the sun. Nancy is one of those women. A mental health professional with her own history of struggle, she shared this story of discovering how her relationship with her daughter and granddaughter could be healed by asking a simple, painful question.

I just turned 50 a few days ago. As I spent my last day being 49, I had thought to myself, “ I want to just enjoy my last day of officially being young.”  Each morning as I look into the mirror, I see more grey hairs lining my forehead, longer lines outlining the corners of my eyes, and dark circles underneath my once bright green irises. I notice more frequent trips to the hairdresser to brighten me up with sassy, energetic, red hues that polish up the emeralds underneath my eyelids. While I attempt to justify the more frequent visits, I also look at my hair, face, and skin, and see the tiredness. I feel my body ache and they are all reminders that I am no longer young. I have raised my daughter, have peaked in my career, and much rather enjoy a slow and quiet life.

I woke up on August 1, 2020, my fiftieth birthday,  imagining myself as a tall person, walking away from my life, with my head turned away as if something really great had just happened. And I really wanted to know, how will they remember me? 

I have spent a half a century trying to rush life, and thinking how nothing I have done seems to  ever be good enough. Things have never been good enough for me, and I think I often pushed my need for perfection on to my daughter Briana, and also on my little grandmonster, Trinity. 

I remember sitting at the dining room table one day when Briana was about 11, struggling with her math homework. I will never forget the sting of the only words I remember from that conversation. As I towered over her, she looked up at me with tears drowning her eyes  and said, “Mom, I don’t have to be perfect! Why do I always have to be perfect?” I am not sure if those were her exact words, but those are the only words I heard. 

I felt a heaviness in my chest that I had never felt before. I realized in that moment I was passing my inadequacies about myself on to my daughter. My need for perfection was being poured into her heart. And when I looked into her eyes, I knew I was hurting her. 

I still see her face looking at me today every time I ride her hard, or when she says to me, “Mom, nothing I say or do is ever good enough for you.” 

I don’t want to leave this world with her last thought of me being that she didn’t think I believed she was good enough. 

The truth is, she is beyond good enough. She has become who I never was. She is the opposite of me. I am emotional and sensitive. She is able to brush things off. She is patient and I am not. She cares little about what people think of her, yet I harshly struggle coping with rejection. 

One evening in 2018, I was meditating and reading my Bible and came across a scripture I had read a million times. But it never spoke to me the way it did that evening. 

I had prayed before opening my Bible, as I usually do, and asked God to show me whatever He wanted me to learn. 

“And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” Ephesians 6:4, NKJV

As I laid sprawled across my bed, staring at those words on the page, I heard this voice ask me, “What makes her angry?” I stopped for a moment. It was one of those moments where the air was thick yet light. It covered my body almost as if someone was breathing on me. 

I answered the voice back and said, “but, God, I don’t know.” As I answered God, burning tears began pouring down my face. My stomach ached. My feet ached. 

My entire body went  numb.

My daughter was in the living room and she and I had just had a conversation about Trinity. At the time, Trinny was in Ohio with her other grandmother. Briana was contemplating allowing Trinity to stay in Ohio for the school year. For some, this would be wonderful. But, at the age of 6, Trinny had already had such a hard life because her father had left, and she had watched her mom be abused for her entire life. 

I didn’t think it was a good idea for her to stay so far away. It was too far from Trinny’s familiar life. But, Briana is Trinny’s mom. And no matter what fight we were fighting, Briana is her mom and I had to accept that. 

She is so grown up now, struggling, but she is still the opposite of me. And Trinny. My sweet little Trinny is even more different than both of us. Such a sweet, special, unique personality. Trinny has a tender, sensitive heart, is smart, and is a bit too aware of things around her. 

The memories of the phone call I received one late evening when Trinny was about 3 will never leave me. Calvin, my ex husband called and told me I had to get over to Briana’s right away. Since this was not a regularly occurring phone call, especially from him, I grabbed my purse, hobbled to my car, and sped over to Briana’s house. Since I have osteoarthritis, pain in my right knee prevents me from walking up the stairs much. 

However, that evening, somehow some type of super powers flooded my body and when I arrived, I flew out of my car an ran upstairs to her apartment. 

In the middle of the living room, there was Trinny pedaling on her little stationary bike, oblivious to the shouting and arguing going on around her. In my experience as a mental health counselor, I knew immediately she was used to this. She had witnessed this a million times. 

Against Briana’s begging and pleading, I scooped up Trinny, and flew downstairs with her in my arms, terrified her father was going to follow me. My heart was racing so fast I could barely breathe. Hands shaking, my fingers fumbled finding the locks for the doors. I peeled away in my car and rushed home. 

Trinny didn’t saw a word. 

When we got to my house, we snuggled and went to sleep. However, my mind was racing a million miles an hour. It was difficult falling asleep, and I didn’t want Trinny to know how afraid I was, or how anxious I felt inside. 

When I closed my eyes,my thoughts turned to God. I hadn’t been to church in a million years. But I remembered Him at that moment. 

The last thought in my mind before I fell asleep was, “I cannot keep her safe. But I know someone who can.”

It was then that Trinny and I developed a very special bond. We began attending church faithfully every Sunday. Not only did we attend church, but we worshiped in the car together. She began staying at home with me in the evenings, and for the next 8 months while her father was incarcerated, I was her care taker. One Sunday at church, I’m not sure where it was coming from, but that voice spoke to me and asked for her to have her eyes and ears prayed for – that her eyes and ears be protected from the rest of the world. 

And they were. Still, she seems lost sometimes. Because I eventually left our church, I feel guilty and responsible, thinking that it is my fault she no longer has God in her life. Sometimes I feel I robbed her of that and that it was my responsibility to ensure that the seeds of beauty and love continued to be planted and watered inside of her. She no longer wants to snuggle with me and ask me in her sweet soft voice, “Nana, can I lay on you?” as she would lay next to me, with her thumb in her mouth, her Bottie (blanket) next to her, with her head on my shoulders, so peaceful. 

Those days are gone. 

As I enter a new era of my life, I cannot help but ask, “How will they remember me?”

Will they remember me by the light I carry inside of me? Or will they remember me because I never took the time to let them just … be? 

Will God remember me and the nights I prayed out and cried for them in private? Will He show them how much I loved them or share with them the conversations He and I had? 

They will remember me as always being there when they needed something. But I don’t think they will remember that I stopped what I was doing because work was more important. And I don’t think they will remember me asking, “Can you share with me why you are angry?” Or telling them, “I want to understand so that I can love you the way you need to be loved.” 

Yet they carried on in their lives being happy and being the mommy and daughter that I had only dreamed of. 

I don’t want to be remembered with regret. When I woke up on my 50th birthday, I realized that life is like writing a series of storybooks. When one is story is finished, another one begins. 

And while I have been seeking the answer to the question, “What is my purpose?” God put the answer in front of me 30 years ago when Briana was born. He already wrote that story. I just never took that book off of the shelf to read it to her.

Sometimes we focus so much on things we want that we don’t take the time to realize that everything we need is right in front of us. We don’t always take the time to ask our children, “What makes you angry?” They have bad days just like we do. And they have hurtful life experiences that are no less painful than our own. 

We don’t need to wait until we are 50 to ask ourselves, “How will they remember me?” And, if we are still alive to answer that question, then we have the opportunity to not only write that story, but to live it. 

When I see Trinny today being so patient, waiting for me to tear myself away from my work to spend time playing a game with her, it tears my heart up with guilt. She is 8 years old now. The things that are important in her life are the things that have always been important. “Don’t provoke her to be angry. Sit down and spend time with her. Read her the Bible, or play some worship music and sing together the way you used to.” 

And when I see my daughter being so thoughtful of me, I can’t stop wondering, “How will she remember me?” Will her memories be of me being the mom she always wanted for her life? 

They say that the last thing we say or do is what people remember most. Did I fuss because Trinny didn’t fold the blankets right, or did I take the time away from my computer to play a game with her when she asked? Did I tell Briana, “I am proud of you for who you are,” or did I take the time to ask either one of them, What makes you angry?” and do everything I could to make sure I didn’t? Did I take the time to teach them about God’s love and the importance of faith? 

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas on Pexels.com

The thought of leaving behind any memory or legacy other than, “She loved God and her light shined upon every life that crossed her path,” pains me. 

Life gets busy. Priorities get rearranged. Ultimately we take life for granted. Before we know it, we are reflecting upon the old cliche that “life goes too fast.”  

I am grateful God allowed me to see another day. I am even more grateful that He speaks to me. That I’ve told Briana and Trinny how I love them and am proud of them. 

And, I suppose, when I look in the mirror and see the gray and the lines of my aging life, I can embrace them rather than reflect on all of the things I should have done and didn’t.

Today, I got a phone call from Briana saying, “Trinny wants to know if she can come over,” and I wondered to myself, “What does she REALLY want?” I smiled. She just wanted me to do what I said I was going to do. She just wanted to know that something that was important to her was also important to someone else. 

I stopped what I was doing, We ordered her school supplies. And just like we did when she was 3, and 4, and 5, and  6, we got into the car, and I played a new worship song for her. She laid her head down, put her thumb in her mouth, and peacefully fell asleep. 

And if anything happened to me today, that is exactly how they would remember me. 

***

Nancy Richardson has her Master’s degree in Adult Education with Human Services Counseling from the University of Wisconsin- Platteville, and a BS in Psychology from Upper Iowa University.

She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Clinical Substance Abuse Counselor. She currently does intensive in-home therapy for children and their families.

She has been an addictions counselor since 2005, and a dual diagnosis therapist since 2015. During her career, she worked very closely with the opioid population.

Her work includes writing grants, increasing access to medication-assisted treatment, improving treatment protocols, and improving quality of care.

While working on these projects and while working with her clients, Nancy discovered her purpose in her life. She is often called “The Hope Dealer” and has made it her personal mission to never let anyone walk away from therapy without hope.

You can find her work at https://trinityshopellc.com/

Bell, Book, and Candle: How Books Saved This Lonely Child

School started this week; with students split between virtual and in-person teaching, economic disparity and the limitation of resources for students in the lower socio-economic strata has been thrust into sharp relief. Kids without high speed internet, quick pay Amazon options, or college-educated parents are in a pickle.

I was one of those kids, back in the 1970s, before high speed internet. But the plight was the same. Disparity is a constant, after all.

Ramona celebrates a new book.

We didn’t keep books in my house. My parents didn’t read much themselves, and they definitely didn’t read to me. My literacy was fostered by the captions on coloring book pages, Sesame Street, and The Electric Company. Then I discovered the library at school. Ramona Quimby became my best friend in the years when my unbathed, scraggly self didn’t have pals. Beezus was my big sister, Mr. and Mrs. Quimby my parents. Though I never would have dreamed to indulge the sass that lay buried under my compliant surface, it was there. Every time Ramona mouthed off or struggled with her woolen stockings, I loved her. The days at school when we received our Scholastic book order forms were highlights that thrilled me; on newsprint paper was a four-page brochure of paperback books we could order. I saved up, or sometimes my dad had a little spare change, and I proudly turned in my order, anticipating the day a box of books would be delivered to the teacher and I’d have something new and wonderful: with a slick, untouched book cover that would open upon magical words and worlds, I could inhabit every wish I had ever made. Even in the seven years I taught elementary school, I kept up these book orders, bookworm-y teachers love getting new books just as much as bookworm-y kids.

Our bookmobile looked a lot like this one!

I learned that our town had a portable Book Mobile, a converted bright blue school bus, it was an extension of the town’s public library and traveled to all the elementary schools in the afternoons so that kids who didn’t have transportation to the library could access its wonder. A Wrinkle in Time never had a more devoted follower. I made Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit my own fairy godmothers, Charles Wallace my brother. I imagined visiting other dimensions by tesseract. I wondered what a Bunsen burner was and how a mom could be a scientist.

I saved my pennies for the book fair and bought a graphic novel of Dracula. My maternal grandmother took me to the library when I visited her in New Mexico or, later, at their lake house in Brownwood, Texas, and I checked out Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl over and over. It was a summer touchstone, I only read it when visiting my grandma. My paternal grandmother had Encyclopedia Brown books in the den, and I tucked in on the bright orange mid-century linen couch and read when it got too hot to play in the west Texas sun. I wept every time that Old Dan and Little Ann perished at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows.

Once my teachers noticed my voracious appetite for books and looked at my grades in spelling, they realized I could be a contender in the Scripps spelling bee, it’s the one that you still see on television. Now I had a booklet of words to study and learn! I cloistered myself in my pretty yellow room, copying the words over and over with a pencil or recording them in the cassette player my dad had bought as an Amway tool. I carried my booklet with me everywhere, and begged people to quiz me over words.

At the bee, as each word was called, I repeated it, closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and visualized the page. Here was the miracle of my spelling strategy: I could see each page, find the word’s location on it, and, using my finger to trace the letters as my right hand hung by my side, spell it perfectly. I spelled with confidence, emphasizing each final letter with a declarative tone that left no room for doubt. I wasn’t smug, I just knew. I trusted my own voice and my own gift. The youngest girl in the competition, I watched competitor after competitor leave the stage and take a seat at cafeteria tables. Then, a snag.  A problem. A hitch. The pronouncer called out the word “forte,” pronouncing it “fort-ay.” This was not a word that had ever been called to us in our after school practices with Mrs. Goodwin. My brain searched for such a thing on the F page that existed in my memory, but came up with nothing. I asked for both definition and sentence, neither helped. I relied on my phonics comprehension, took a deep breath, and spelled the word phonetically: f-o-r-t-a-y? Ending my spelling on an upward inflection alerted everyone in the room that I was unsure. I waited anxiously, but not for long. They rang that stupid little silver bell. Ding! Neither my homeroom teacher, who had been the coach at school, nor the pronouncers at the table caught on to the fact that the word has multiple pronunciations and meanings, and so one was giving me “a person’s strong suit” and the other was giving me “the musical term meaning to get louder” along with both pronunciations. I was thoroughly lost. When I sat down, I spelled every word to myself, furiously and correctly, for the rest of the contest.

You never forget your first spelling bee loss.

As I continued up grade levels, I kept spelling, and I kept winning. When I won the eighth grade bee, and thus the right to move on to the district level competition, the Jackson Middle School newspaper sent a boy to interview me, which he did before the tardy bell rang in English class. We were surrounded by other students, who were listening attentively:

“Why do you think you’re so good?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess I just have a knack for it.”

He didn’t recognize the word. He did not have the vocabulary.

“A knack? What’s that? Are you trying to show us how smart you are? How much smarter than all of us?” He laughed. Others laughed. I was both embarrassed and indignant. Why should I have to pretend I didn’t know these words? Why should I have to dumb down my vocabulary, which was extensive, to meet the lower denominator? I learned to be more discreet about my intelligence that day. I didn’t stifle it, my hunger for words was too powerful to ever be curbed, they were the flame that fueled every step, every decision I would ever make. Words, books, stories, they were a candle in the dim shadows.

I kept competing, and winning, in spelling all the way through high school. I even have two adult spelling bee trophies that I treasure. I admit that I mentally correct spelling on social media, and the office has me proof everything.

Studies indicate a direct correlation between literacy and mental health. Being equipped to succeed in reading or given the opportunity to develop empathy through identification with a character helps kids to move through the world in emotionally healthy ways. Books and words saved me when I was a struggling kid. They still do, and all of us who are fortunate enough to have easy access to knowledge and its delivery systems owe it to our fellow humans to find ways to share the light.

So, what’s your favorite book?

***

If you’re interested in supporting literacy, here’s a link to the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation.

https://www.bushhoustonliteracy.org/

The End of the Great Pause: Establishing Rituals to Renew and Reset

I sense in my bones that the long pause of spring and summer is over. The pace of our lives is quickening. Months of binge-watching Tiger King (a show which ultimately hurt my heart, I wish I had never seen it) and rereading the Harry Potter books are coming to an end. Maybe it’s because school is starting, the election is ramping up, tickets went on sale for the festival where I work, a festival that plans (perhaps foolishly, but no one asked my opinion) to open October 3, as is tradition. The light is changing, and with it, my own inner metronome is recalibrating to a steadier, quicker tempo.

I have never really been a morning person. I don’t hit the ground running. I sort of slog into my day, shuffling around in a haze of clouded, fuzzy thoughts. Coronavirus quarantine has exacerbated this tendency, for months I slept in until mid-morning, waking up just early enough to make a phone conference meeting at 10:00 twice a week. I didn’t start working until afternoon, I have been fortunate enough to be allowed to work from home, and working on my own schedule has meant later hours, albeit always in yoga pants, rarely in anything with snaps, buttons, or a zipper.

But a couple of weeks ago, I began to desire an earlier start to my day.

The fog is lifting.

The cobwebs are blowing away.

The dust is shaking off.

I’m taking real, measurable steps to reset my days, for while I no longer want to be driven by compulsive productivity, I do want to create and make work that is valuable and moves the needle toward positive change and the realization of my deeply held, lofty dreams.

I am getting out of bed earlier and then making it.

I am riding my bicycle in the early morning hour, before 9:00, when the south Texas heat is still just a glimmer.

I am journaling in the form of my morning pages, according to the method of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a practice that helps me set my intention and connect with my innermost motivations early in the day.

Of course, it’s yellow…

I am reciting my “litany of blessings and thanks.” I keep a recipe card file, a vintage one from the early 1970s I found on Etsy, within it are index cards where I have written the names of people who I know are struggling or have a need. I read their names, and then simply say, “Be Blessed.” I speak it at my window, where I can see all the treetops and I send their names into the sky and the trees. Praying this way has become such a balm to my spirit, it has lifted the burden of the wordy prayer where I struggle to articulate my thoughts, thinking I need to somehow find the right, perfect, mellifluous words that will translate my thoughts in a pretty enough way to get the Divine One’s attention. Also, I don’t fall asleep. And, to be rigorously honest, this way of praying is efficient. My home is not a place where lengthy prayer sessions are even possible. Spending just a few minutes in a prescribed ritual has given my spirit structure, as sense of safety and well-being. I understand the Catholic rosary tradition in a whole new way, it’s the contact with God that matters. She can hear the communication of our souls in the simple, repetitive phrases, “Be Blessed,” or “Thank you.” It is enough, for what is prayerful communication but the opportunity to commune?

And then, a small protein-rich breakfast. Now, I am ready to face my day. To tap into my dreams for my career, to write, to create, and yes, to do the mundane tasks that accompany any job: emails, deliverables, meetings, schedules, and timetables.

These routine actions are signaling to my spirit that the challenges of the life I am meant to live on this day are ready to be met.

Dear reader, do you have routines, whether early or late, that help you stay on track? I’d love to know them, I believe we can all learn from each other! And if you’d like your name on one of my prayer cards, say the word. Have a blessed day!

Starting at the End: Owning the Remnant of Our Trauma

I am really glad to share the words and work of mental health professional and fellow blogger, Hannah Siller. She and I share some common life experiences: traumatic childhoods, addicted parents, fractured sibling relationships. Coming from trauma doesn’t sentence us to sitting in pain, though. There is, in everyone’s story, an opportunity for redemption, for repair, for reclaiming who we are in our very deepest souls. I hope you’ll be encouraged by Hannah’s story:

To start at the beginning is too complex. This isn’t a bedtime story that can begin with a “Once upon a time” and end with an “And they lived happily ever after”. Trauma is messy, living in an abusive and toxic environment is messy. Those who have been allowed to glimpse these less pretty parts of my life often say it would make a great movie or book. I guess in some ways they would be right, but it’s not that simple. To know the past I endured doesn’t get anyone any closer in knowing the me that I am now. For a person that has experienced prolonged types of trauma such as childhood abuse, there is this permanent change that happens. We are our past, but at the same time, we are also our journey to heal. This is a process that is continuous and is lifelong. But if that is the case then where would one consider to be the end of their story? Where would I set the last chapter of a book or the final scene of a movie? Searching for this answer kept me from really telling my story. But then it found me. So instead I’m going to start at the end, or at least what I consider to be the end of my trauma story. 

The summer of 2018 was kind of a big-time in my life. I had just graduated with my master’s degree in counseling with an emphasis in trauma and crisis and was figuring out what my next steps would be. A lot of defining moments would come from this summer, but for this entry, we will focus on just one, Jess. Jess had been the daughter of my dad’s girlfriend for a good part of my younger years. The four of us lived together, Jess and I were raised as sisters. Our parents’ relationship was problematic, as they were both drug dealers and users. With a relationship like that comes many issues of violence and potential legal problems. It ended in epic fashion with her mother in jail and my father not. Emotions in both families were high, for obvious reasons, and Jess and I were separated and kept apart, forcibly at times.

Given that this was far before the internet was commonplace and social media was yet to exist, there was little I could do to connect. Once I reached adulthood, even with these means, so much time had passed it was near impossible to even know where to look. But it was Jess, and I had to try. Every few months I would spend a late-night scrolling through Facebook for a lead, occasionally messaging someone who looked similar to her mother or who had her name. For years I did this with no luck. Then on August 19th, 2018, I tried one last time. The next morning, I received a response. After almost 30 years I had found Jess and she was once again in my life.

Our relationship wouldn’t be the forever I had wanted, but that is a story for another time. At the moment I had found a missing piece of my life. It’s impossible to completely explain all of the emotions I experienced during this reunion, but what I can say with certainty is that the experience changed me. Suddenly I found a connection between my past and my present that I never had before. Growing up in an abusive environment like I had, there is this question you tend to ask yourself, who would I be if I had never had to endure such pain? Being around Jess answered that for me. There were these times she would comment “oh that’s my Hannah” as if she almost expected me to do or say exactly what I just did. It would take me by surprise that this person who had been so long removed from my life still knew me so well. Somehow through all of the bad stuff I still at my core retained who I really was. Maybe in a different environment, I would have had more opportunities or chosen a different career path, but as far as the root of my being I was always this person.

I gained closure from this relationship. Jess set straight things about myself and my life that no one else could. She had experienced so much of the same things I did in those early years. She could confirm the memories of events I had and allow me to discuss the pain of these events with complete understanding. But most importantly I found that the love I had carried for her was the same she had carried for me. Through everything, I went through there was one person out there that loved me and thought of me and to whom I was important. By finding Jess I was finally able to find an ending of my trauma story. My past will always have a degree of influence over me but the story and the pain from that part of my life is officially over.  

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*Names are modified to protect the identity of the individuals discussed. Please respect the privacy of these individuals and refrain from posting additional information.

* I have worked hard to heal from my past through professional therapy and personal growth. Over the years I have become comfortable enough to start using this story in public speaking events and as a major part of my writing. Writing about personal trauma can be very triggering and is not recommended for those still working through trauma unless instructed to do so by a mental health professional.

About the Author

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After pursuing a career as a clinical counselor for at-risk youth, I made the important decision to go back to school. I am currently working towards my Doctorate in psychology, which I hope to find better trauma preventions and PTSD treatments. My spare time is devoted to my business Serene Life Consulting, which provides life coaching, public speaking survives, and is home to home to my blog. Like in all areas of my life, the purpose of my writing is to bring mental health education and an inspirational message to others. My dream is to continue this message throughout my life in everything I do. From teaching to publishing a book to research, I just want to make everything I lived through count. 

To check out more of Hannah’s work including Life Coaching Services and her current blogging project “Diary of a Trauma Survivor” see her website:

https://sillercounseling.com/

serenelifeconsulting.com  

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She Was A Voice: A Review of “The Book of Longings”

“Lord our God, hear my prayer, the prayer of my heart. Bless the largeness inside me, no matter how I fear it. Bless my reed pens and my inks. Bless the words I write. May they be beautiful in your sight. May they be visible to eyes not yet born. When I am dust, sing these words over my bones: she was a voice.”
― Sue Monk Kidd, The Book of Longings

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The reclamation and rediscovery of my voice have been the driving throughline of my life since 2011 when my vocal cords were damaged resulting in a year of silence. I already felt pretty invisible in my daily life, as though I was seen and heard only by my husband and kids. Though I regained my voice through the miracle of a silicone implant, the trauma of the muteness has never fully left the deep recesses of my heart and soul. Those who have known me in an up-close way, or who read my work know this truth about me.

In her latest and most audacious work, inspirational author Sue Monk Kidd imagines another invisible and unheard woman, telling a life of her creation, a wife of Jesus during the period of unknowing: the years between his temple conversations with the rabbis and the day he stepped into the river Jordan to be immersed by John the doomed prophet. Only an undiluted curiosity undergirded with a fertile and open mind will be able to read this beautiful fiction unthreatened.

We meet Anna as a teen, full of restless joy and enormous dreams of writing, a voracious reader who had begged her father unrelentingly to be taught how to read and write. Anna is a young woman of expansive ideas trapped in an ancient patriarchal culture. I recognized her heart-cry immediately, I too was once a young bookworm with a passion for justice and a tendency toward the favoring the underdog.

The Hebraic culture of the New Testament era comes vividly alive in the author’s adept hands. Ms. Kidd revealed in an interview with researcher Brene’ Brown that she spent 14 months of eight-hour days immersed in history and religious study, joking that she was smitten by Roman aqueducts in Galilee; her daughter finally intervening with an exhortation to get on with the writing. Her dynamic descriptions of the terrain, the architecture, the food, the daily life are so real I expected to see dust on my sandals and to smell olives on the breeze upon lifting my eyes from the page.

Anna is to be married to an old man in a play for power by her father, a wealthy, landless scribe in the court of Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who would eventually see Jesus in his court. Events twist and turn, and Anna is instead married to young Jesus, a man so full of compassion and the spark of joy that he is utterly captivating. I have wondered since I was young enough to watch Sunday School stories be told by puppets and felt board cutouts what the young man Jesus might have been like, and this imagining feels completely credible.

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Ms. Kidd is careful to craft a plot that is fully supportive of the sparse details of Jesus’s life that are written in the Biblical gospels, she doesn’t rewrite or recreate Jesus and his ministry, she simply attempts to create a fictional idea of what might have been, and in doing so, she provides a feminine window into the early Christian world that has not often been seen. Anna is, in truth, a proxy for all the women who have ever felt absent in the Jesus story, who have been unheard in the power plays and overlooked in the histories executed by men. “The deeper we go into our own experience, our own journey, the more likely we are to hit the universal,” says Ms. Kidd.

As a companion read to The Book of Longings, Ms. Kidd’s spiritual memoir, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, is a remarkable deep dive into the fracturing and rebuilding of feminine faith; it too is universal. I have been working through it for some time. I say “working,” because the truth of what Brene’ Brown calls her “mid-life unraveling” is unfolding in my own life, and has been for a period of long years. It was only in the last three that I began to tiptoe from the desert created by church trauma to embark upon newer vistas of grace on my way back to verdant faith. Reading the final chapters of Dissident Daughter simultaneously with Longings scored the truths of both deeply into my heart in the same way that Anna inscribed her prayers into a bowl: women are deeply, tenderly, radically loved by God.

If a reader can access her imagination and be unafraid to ask “What if?” there is abundant grace, wit, and courage in this gorgeous novel. What a bold, yet humble gift is Sue Monk Kidd. I encourage all to read, and to listen to her episode on Unlocking Us. Its radical, gentle message is both balm and benediction.

Brené with Sue Monk Kidd and Jen Hatmaker on Longing, Belonging and Faith

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Into The Storm: A Hurricane Hanna Tale

“Phooey,” I replied as I stood in the torrent. And then I laughed. I laughed out loud and I snapped photos and I dug my bare toes into the wet sand. It was no coincidence that the storm had a feminine name this time and I met Hanna head on and ready to be filled with feminine strength. What I didn’t expect was the joy, the sheer joy that her wind-and-water-dance would engender in me.”

Sometimes the big life lessons, the ones that alter your perception, the ones that are like the tiniest shift in the tube of a kaleidoscope leading to the unfolding of a fresh worldview, happen in unexpected places. Maybe it’s a change of scenery that can knock us out of the stupor of automatic living. That happened to me this week, on the south Texas Gulf Coast. In a hurricane.

My husband and I had this trip planned for about a month. By planned, I mean I had simply booked a bungalow for a week and let a friend who lives in the area know we would be in town. There was no agenda, which is unusual for us. When we travel, we typically have each day scheduled with trips to museums, cathedrals, and theatres; our vacations are never restful. But Covid has forced a new kind of getaway for us, that of little plan, lots of naps. We had been looking forward to the trip, we really needed some quiet time, what with two babies (and their parents) living with us, with bonus grandkids visiting as well. There’s been a lot of joyful noise at our house.

A few days before our scheduled departure, a tropical depression popped up in the Gulf; within a day it had been upgraded to a tropical storm. I contacted our hostess to see if we could delay our trip by a couple of days to give the storm time to play itself out. Unfortunately, the bungalow was booked for check in just a few hours after our check-out. So we loaded up the SUV with a beach umbrella, ice chest, a DVD player and our new boxed set of “The Office,” and headed south. Just a few minutes before we crossed the tall bridge over the bay, my phone buzzed with a weather alert: the storm was now expected to hit landfall as a hurricane. We contemplated turning around and going home, but the bungalow was paid for. On the advice of my local friend, we continued to our destination to assess if it felt safe, with an invitation to hunker down at her heavily fortified hurricane-proof place if needed until the storm passed.

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When we arrived, we found a cabin that has stood since the 1940s, its deep pink stucco walls surrounded by live oak trees of such girth that the house is ensconced in a sort of protective shell. We unloaded our belongings and settled in, getting a feel for the history of the place as our hostess, Juli, chatted at length about her own life as caretaker of the home. The smooth, timeworn floors are the original pine, tinted in a seafoam green wash that lets the natural patina of the wood peek through, and I slipped off my flip flops to walk on warm wooden floors that simply can’t be replicated by modern materials.

Then I headed outside, where I immediately wrapped my arms around the enormous bent limb of the largest of the great lady trees; I told her hello and asked her to protect us in the storm ahead. I descended the grassy lawn to the water’s edge to snap photos and sit on the wooden picnic tables that are mounted on stilts just where the tide can ruffle one’s dangling toes as it repeats its perpetual dance, advance and retreat, advance again, retreat again. When I went to bed that night, it was a challenge to sleep deeply, I rose several times to look outside and see if the storm was arriving.

Hurricanes travel in large circling bands of wind and rain, there is always a precedent as the outer bands of the system make landfall, and overnight, the waves at the shore splashed higher, the strengthening wind was made evident in the movement of the trees. When morning came, we made a quick trip to the store for rain ponchos, then I put the phone in a waterproof sleeve and headed outside.

I was drawn to the storm, compelled to stand in it. Throughout the day, as the storm made landfall, I continued to run outside, staggering a little in the buffeting wind, getting soaked with rain, sprayed with salty seawater, and feeling utterly alive and completely defiant.

“Stay inside where it’s safe!” I could hear the voices speak to me. “You can’t take a risk- too many people need you (which is patently untrue these days, I have never felt less relevant in my own life, but we’re sort of programmed that way as women- to assume we’re needed to do the laundry or some such chore). What if a tree limb blows and hits you in the head? What if a sheet of rusty tin slices into your gut? What if the water swallows you up?”

“Phooey,” I replied as I stood in the torrent. And then I laughed. I laughed out loud and I snapped photos and I dug my bare toes into the wet sand. As the storm progressed, I stopped taking photos and moved about 15 feet back from the shoreline, far enough from the waves to avoid being blown into the surf (hurricane winds have that power) but close enough to feel, really feel, the force of Hanna. It was no coincidence that the storm had a feminine name this time. Hurricanes alternate between male and female names, and I met this one, a lady, head on and ready to be filled with feminine strength. What I didn’t expect was the joy, the sheer joy that her wind-and-water-dance would engender in me.

I’ve lived an adult life of safety. My family of origin was turbulent. My mother was an abuser. I married very young, intent on creating a new home, a new life that was reliably secure. Its certainty has been challenged a few times, that’s for sure. And under all that, under the suburban idyll, the sweet hubby, the three kids with cute snaggle-toothed smiles and the dogs and the baseball bats and ballet shoes, my spirit ran restless. I made the mistake of confiding it to my mother-in-law once, this desire I had to move our family to a new place, simply for the experience of being somewhere new. “You can’t go somewhere new just for the sake of it, Kim,” she said. “You’re a mom. You owe your children stability. Safety. No, put that dream away,” she said.

Hers was the voice I heard behind me as I turned my face to the rain. I don’t fault her, not at all. She was right in the sense that it was not the right time to go adventuring. We didn’t have a financial safety net that would protect our kids while we gadded about; I had grown up with the spectre of poverty and wouldn’t inflict that on my kids. So I did it. The safety.

But now, I am hungry for something new. Something dangerous. A thunder of the spirit, a wind-shaking of the foundations. I sense it in my friends, too. In so many of the women of my generation whose moms may have marched in the women’s rights movement of the 1960s or who sat at home folding diapers and watching the bra burnings on tiny televisions but ultimately settled for the safer path and encouraged that for their daughters as well.

I think women have too long been denied this restless hunger. We’ve been told to play it safe, to care for our families, our communities, our churches. We’ve ignored the calls of the Feminine Divine to practice radical, risky love in favor of feathering safe little nests. There is a place for those nests, to be sure. But they are not our only calling. We are called to challenge injustice, to heal old wounds, to speak Universal Truth, to form circles of protection and friendship with other women, with bands unfurling and extending into the world to love men and nurture kids. Think of the good that can happen when women stand in the surf and shout their moxie!

If we will but avail ourselves of the wild love of Goddess and each other, if we will learn to listen to the inner voice who teases us into dancing, if we will look around us for the adventures waiting to be had, our lives will grow as powerful as the storm, and as gorgeous as the calm which follows it.

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Short and Sweet: So Late, So Soon

“How did it get so late so soon?”
― Dr. Seuss

Not too long ago, I found myself sitting on the sofa, my hand going numb from the weight of my toddler granddaughter who was sleeping in my lap, settling down from the pain of an ear infection.

I was frustrated; I had plans for tasks I had intended to accomplish that morning, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they were. But I knew the clock was ticking, and I felt it like pressing on my spirit like a leaden weight; I wasn’t getting anything done.

But then… I stopped. I listened to Hazel’s sweet inhalation and exhalation, then expanded my awareness beyond just the two of us to hear the birdsong outside my window. I had a sudden realization:

I am simply going to stop counting the years.

It’s not worth it. The angst of aging, the fret of schedules, the tyranny of the clock. I’m weary of agonizing over it. It’s a waste of, well, time, which is too big, too expansive, and too weighty to be carried like a stone shackled to the ankle.

Marcus Aurelius said that time is like a river, it’s become a cliche’ that works: Time is a river everflowing. I choose to stand in that river, letting the cool water lap my calves and its burble tickle my ears. But it’s more.

It’s laughter gurgling. It’s a helium balloon floating. It’s a baseball game played without a  clock counting down the seconds of a quarter. It’s the bent clocks of Dali and the poetry of the Psalm where a day is, to the Divine, like a thousand years.

A life without fear of time? Oh, yes.

Certainly, I will keep appointments at their intended times, that’s courtesy and professionalism. It indicates I respect others, and I am all for that. And I’ll be sure to note movie times when we finally get to go back to the theaters.

But quarantine has taught me that time as we have constructed and conformed to it is a cage. Who hasn’t looked at the person sitting next to them on the couch and asked, “What day is it?” at some point since the world paused? We’ve seen what life looks like when not lived with a metaphorical clock hovering overhead like Big Ben in London, clanging to move people along, heads down and destination-bent. I am learning to prefer to meander. To look up. To revel in the time which The Divine One has given me.

Rob Bell, on a recent episode of his podcast, says, “Previously [to Covid], it was, ‘How much can I fit in?’ It was about productivity. But in the future, time will start to mean other things. Like, what can we experience together? The experiences we love most in life are those when we lose track of time. I think in the future we’re going to see people move toward fewer activities, but fuller days.” Days that are less busy, but are richer.

That speaks a truth that resonates with me. It sounds amazing. May your days be blessed with time with those you love, doing what you love, making memories and living a rich tapestry of experiences.

https://robbell.podbean.com/e/a-bit-about-time/

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My Single Daughter Is An Equal Citizen: Confronting Bias at the Polls

Cathy stands there, slack-jawed, stunned in her American flag tee shirt and jean capris, salt-and-pepper bob riffling in the breeze that makes door monitor duty bearable on a Texas day with temps around 100 degrees. Taking my measure, as I take hers, only our eyes with lifted brows visible to each other over masks.

I have just revealed that I vote Progressive, and it lands upon her like a wrecking ball. She is knocked off balance by my conviction, a conviction that was informed, not ignorant. Not accidental. My purpose, my work and writing, have always been about grace. Resilience. Healing relationships. For me, faith and political ideology are intertwined in my purpose. But that’s not so for everyone. We should all have a deep appreciation of the beautiful mosaic of our diverse worldviews.

Cathy didn’t.

So then came the arguments: Muslims are in charge of our schools and Christians are being sidelined, the Founding Fathers had no intention of keeping religion out of government, that was only meant to be a one-way street that protected churches from government interference.

This lanky, opinionated, perhaps lovely person and I crossed paths this week when I worked as an election clerk in my local primary runoff election. She’d arrived a little late in the pre-dawn morning, Old Glory mylar balloon affixed to her purse strap, ready to help set up tables or clean. I had already hung all the various postings about ballots, voter rights, social distancing, and concealed carry. At 6:55, I headed to the exterior door at the school entrance so that I could redirect voters to the gymnasium at the rear of the campus. Though I was initially meant to sit in that spot for only a couple of hours, I enjoyed my post. I could easily maintain a safe distance (I am at high risk for Covid, as I have an autoimmune thing) while being friendly and helpful. So I stayed put. It was hot, but I am pretty tolerant of heat if I am adequately hydrated. My husband had brought me an ice chest filled with Diet Dr. Pepper, sparkling water, and snacks. I had a Sue Monk Kidd book to read.

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Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Around lunchtime, Cathy escaped the heavily air-conditioned gym to sit outside and warm up. She perched on a corner of a wooden bench and commenced to chat. Now, we weren’t wearing party affiliations on our name tags, and she had arrived after the election judge checked me off the list as being the Democrat clerk, but living in a county that skews heavily Red, I imagine she assumed I was one of her kind. That happens a lot around here.

There’s this interesting thing that happens to folks like me, folks who are highly empathic. People talk to us. And I don’t mean they chat about the weather. They share. Before I knew it, I was hearing about her alcoholic father and how Al-Anon and Adult Children of Alcoholics had made her life so much healthier and happier. That’s fine, I am always glad to listen. She wasn’t unburdening, her spirits were high, she was simply being frank about things. I’m frank, too. I talked about my kids a bit, my grandkids live with us and I told stories about their personalities. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned my daughter and her “partner.” Cathy’s eyes widened. She couldn’t let it pass.

“Your daughter’s partner? What does that mean? Is she…?” She couldn’t say it. She just couldn’t. But I could hear the unspoken words floating in the air: a lesbian…? I confess I let it hang for just a second longer than was strictly necessary, her squirm was delightful. “Oh, she and her boyfriend are planning to get married. Their relationship just hasn’t followed the traditional timeline, they’ve done a few things in a different order! Hahaha!” Relieved, Cathy showed no interest in my grandchildren. She showed a lot of interest in my daughter’s relationship choices. Marriage was to be achieved, posthaste. She conceded that our country’s tax codes are not supportive of marriage (score one for the covert liberal sharing space with her).

I moved the conversation along, told her a little about my older daughter, the one who divorced after seven years in a relationship that resulted in just one year of marriage to a man who was tormented by an addiction to opioids and lying. Cathy had sympathy for that situation, she understood about addiction after all, and she applauded my daughter for giving it a go. Yet she was firm, “the traditional family unit is the foundation of this country. We cannot survive without it.”

Uh-oh.

My daughter has a vibrant family of origin. But as a single woman living in LA, she also has a family of her own creation, friends and companions who uphold each other in times of strife. Family comes in many forms. It is not only and always mom, dad, and 2.5 kids. I thought, too, of my single son, who may or may not ever marry. I decided not to even bring him up. I clenched my lips tight and let my eyes glaze over. It was time to disconnect. My empathy had run out.

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She was sufficiently warm, so she went back inside and I was relieved. I continued to read and highlight my book about feminist divinity between offering instructions to the assortment of voters, “You can reach the gym at the rear of the building by driving to the next left turn, or you can walk on this sidewalk, just follow the red signs posted on the fence. Thank you for voting!”

When it was Cathy’s turn to vote, she came out to get her ID out of her car, and she paused at the curb, clearly wrestling with some thought. She turned back to me, compelled to ask if I had actually read the platforms of both parties. I suppose my tolerance of unmarried daughters had prodded her concern.

I didn’t know it, but on the day in 2016 when I slogged through pages and pages of dry political jargon at my computer in anticipation of the conventions, I was being prepared for this day. This very exact moment in time.

“Yes. As a matter of fact, I have. And what I found, as I read them both, was that the Democratic platform aligns with my core values. The Republican one doesn’t. At all.” And there was that stunned look. I could almost see the wheels turning, the assumptions crumbling. I am white. I am middle class. I have nice clothes. I am educated. I am not the sort of person she assumes votes Democrat. “But, the Democratic Party isn’t pro-Christian!”

“I am not a Christian,” I reply, straight-faced. Calm.

She stammered. She argued. She tried to make a case and I was having none of it.

I am not a Christian. Certainly not an American Evangelical. I have a deep, abiding relationship with the Divine One that has absolutely nothing to do with contemporary  American churches. I endeavor for that relationship with my Creator to imbue my treatment of the people I meet; it informs how I vote and donate money so that the people I don’t ever get to meet are treated compassionately. I am not perfect at it, but I try.

This woman had, in just two short conversations, canceled the lives of my daughters, my son. She’d negated my own value and worth as an American citizen because I don’t share her faith.

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So right here, for the world to see, I am making a statement of political, civic faith:

My grandchildren, who are eligible for the Daughters of the American Revolution while also being first-generation Americans of Mexican descent, are equal participants in the American pursuit of happiness.

Single Americans are equal participants in the American pursuit of happiness.

Couples who live in partnership, whether married or not, are equal participants in the American pursuit of happiness.

People of different, or even no, faiths are equal participants in the American pursuit of happiness.

BIPOC are equal participants, as are LGBTQ+, First Nation, convicted prisoners, and even people who love cats. Perfume-scented drivers of Mercedes and smelly pushers of shopping carts containing all their earthy possessions, all equal participants. Those who watch MSNBC get a seat at the table. So do those who watch Fox.

I contend that traditional families as traditionally defined, are not the foundation of this country. Relationships, connections, caring for our fellow humans are. This country’s foundations are built on the rock of diversity, service, and activism. Freedom is our foundation, grace is the scaffold, and the whole structure ascends upon “ladders of opportunity:” authentic equal opportunity. The house of this country has rooms for all of those who yearn to create their own life stories. And I will, to the best of my ability, wield my gifts and my voice in honor of those stories.

In the words of national treasure, Dolly Parton, who has herself wielded her inimitable voice for good:

“Oh, sweet freedom, may you stay
In our land and lives always
And may peace and beauty fill our hearts anew
And may we all stand up for you
May our thoughts and deeds be true
And be worthy of your stripes…red, white and blue.”

May the Divine One bless America and its citizens. All of them.

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