Present Light, Third in a Series

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

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

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

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

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Women, Rooted in Kindness

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

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

Ellen-Ketchum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What I Know for Sure

Sometimes life is funny
You think you’re in your darkest hour
When the lights are coming on in the house of love- Amy Grant*

Each morning as I drive to work, I try to get my brain and heart into a healthy setting, one that enables me to walk through my day in a way that’s uplifting. I am not the greatest at living with a happy face, my sunshine-spreader is faulty, I think. It needs a little nudge every day. So I listen to Oprah. I love Oprah deeply, though I have never met her. No matter, I love her. Sometimes I play a little movie in my mind in which my doorbell rings and when I open it, she’s standing there in all her Oprah-ness and I essentially collapse to the hardwood floor inside my entry, sobbing in joyous abandon. She picks me up, wraps me in her arms, fixes me tea, and we curl up on my sofa for an afternoon of chat.

Funny, right? Her podcast is as close as I may ever get (I refuse to phrase that as a definitive “will ever get” because I have listened to enough Oprah Super Soul to know about manifesting what I speak. But still.) to meeting her and basking in her sunny aura. So I listen every morning. I need fortification before entering my workplace.

Susan's Special Needs: Oprah Talks to Cheryl Strayed About ...

Today, she asked Cheryl Strayed (another hero) a question that I have heard her ask so many times: “What do you know for sure?” I don’t always have a response, usually, my brain is a little too foggy at 7:45 in the morning to snap to attention for the question. But not today. Today, my brain, no, my heart, had a ready answer. What do I know for sure?

I am loved.

Not by everyone I meet, no. I think one of the blessings of getting older is coming to the realization that it’s not necessary to be loved by everyone. It’s not necessary, nor is it possible. An authentic life is a little messy and an authentic person is too. The rougher, unpolished edges of authenticity will scrape upon some in my path. The vibration that I walk with won’t resonate with everyone I meet. In fact, it will create dissonance with people whose vibrations aren’t compatible.

That’s okay.

I am loved anyway, and by enough people that life is good.

Here’s my shortlist of people who love me. It’s not a definitive list, I will probably think of people to add and add and add.

My cousins Rebecca and Jen.

My friends Whitney, Angela, Eide, Jen, Becky, Sherry, and Rosella.

My colleagues Sylvia, Teresa, Darla, and Melody.

College pals Kayla, Cheryl, and Heidi.

The children I have heart-adopted: Jorge, Rileigh, Mandy, and Trevor. As well as other former students gathered in 22 years in the public school classroom.

My in-laws: Jackie, Tom, Trent, Holly, Mason, and Abi.

The mother of my heart, Dorothy.

My angel-in-heaven mentor, Ellen.

My children, Hilary, Travis Austin.

My husband, Travis.

Back of Family

My heart is full as I type the list. There have been dark days in the 52 years I have walked this planet. Days when I was sure that if I disappeared, no one would notice or care. Do you remember planning to run away when you were a child? Throwing your essentials in a backpack while muttering to yourself, “I’ll show them. They won’t even know that I left. Mom and Dad can just sit around and watch TV and I will go do what I want!” Of course, that’s not likely what would happen, but I know I had a couple of days much like that when a kid. But also when an adult. Once, driving home from a session with my therapist, I contemplated committing suicide. I thought maybe I’d just drive my car at high speed into the cement barriers that separated the lanes of traffic on the busy Houston freeways. As I drove, I tried to imagine whether people would even bother to come to my funeral. I mean, I knew Travis and the kids would. But would anyone else? My brain began to populate the pews of a church sanctuary and before I’d passed too many more exits off the highway, and I realized that there were more people who’d miss me than I had thought. So instead of ramming my Ford Escort into the barriers, I drove on home and gave each of my family hugs. They didn’t know, though I did, how close I’d come that day to checking out.

I think it’s important to know for sure that we are loved. It’s the most important thing there is to know. It’s what enables resilience. Love gets under us and lifts us up when we’re low.

Look around today, let the Divine One remind you of the people who love you. Open your heart to that love. Let it flow through you, break you open, patch you up, strengthen your steps. Accept it. You are loved.

I know it. For sure.

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*”House of Love” written by Greg W. Barnhill, Kenny Greenberg, Wally Wilson

 

 

Sometimes, I Am Sad. And Pissed.

I need to be honest, dear reader.

Sometimes, I am sad.

It doesn’t always make sense- what have I to be sad about?

My husband loves me. My children do, too.

My body is healthy, though aging is hard. Joints hurt. Menopause undoes.

I love my home, with its sunlight and hardwood floors and fairy garden.

My bills are paid. Just.

Food is plentiful and I usually eat like I am supposed to- foods rich in protein and low in processed carb and starch. Vegetables. Fruit. I have set aside the old habits of self-medicating with high fructose corn syrup and sugar.

I feed my soul by listening to Super Soul, Rob Bell, and Liz Gilbert, I read a meditation each morning, I peruse stories of empowerment and encouragement over my breakfast of Grapenuts and low sodium V8 juice, hoping to plant seeds in my heart, kernels of courage and contentment.

I exercise, though on sad days, not with much felicity. There is a heaviness to my legs, it’s work to take the steps, not joy. The breath of yoga would make me cry today if I attempted it. Maybe I should do it anyway. Probably should. Definitely should.

I have anxiety medication. I take it.

I have a first world life, with only first world problems.

And yet…I live and breathe with diagnosed and medicated anxiety. Perhaps that’s a first world problem, too? Do women in countries where they must haul clean water in baskets even have time to be anxious? Do they have time for needless worry over credit card balances and cable TV bills? Are they compelled to track calories in a fitness app? Do they fret over every plastic water bottle they see in the hand of a passerby, knowing it might very well end up floating in the ocean?

Relevant and True: Knowing that women in Africa are struggling with weightier issues does not make my anxiety less. It simply does not. We harm others and ourselves when we say: “Look at that person. Her suffering is worse. Buck up.” What we should say is: “I see you. I hear you. I hold you.”

My anxiety is my legacy from my mother, a desperately addicted and acutely mentally ill woman who hurt her own body and the bodies and spirits of her children.

In the days leading up to this melancholy, hands shook. Heart trembled. Breath accelerated. Sleep evaded. Body ached. Soul hurt.

And, dear reader, I will go one step deeper into authenticity. Into the place where good women, sweet women, gentle women, are not supposed to go.

Sometimes, I am angry. Angry as hell.

But this? This, unlike the random bouts of sadness, makes sense to me. I am angry at my past. I am angry at family members who seem to have abandoned me. I am angry at a world in which people can be unkind, dishonest, and abusive and not be held accountable; but are venerated instead. I am angry at a world that believes that Viagra is a legitimate prescription for insurance to cover, but hearing aids for small children are not. I am angry at a country in which walls, not bridges, are solutions, and where millionaire politicians would rather spend money putting guns into schools instead of books and hot lunches.

I am angry because sometimes I feel trapped and confused, and I yearn to walk away; or to find the courage to really say all the things I want to say to those who, from the landscape where I stand, set me aside years and years ago.

I am, on a minute-by-minute basis, endeavoring to live authentically. To be transparent, even amid anxiety and anger and hormones and menopause. To be rigorously truthful in the gratefulness I feel daily for the family I have created, a clan that includes the dear friends who have stood in the gap so often in place of blood.

All of these feelings are as veritably me as those that more usually govern my days- those of joy and hope and creativity.

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Last night, I dreamt I was having a baby. My father, who is deceased, was there to calm my worry over the late-in-life pregnancy, as I fretted over my own dangerous, impossible pregnancy and my daughter’s healthy, vibrant one. My subconscious seemed to be bidding goodbye to my fertility, through the precious echo of my father’s voice and calming presence, both of which I miss terribly.

I understand why anger happens. But why does depression happen? I have to be honest- I don’t know. What changed from two weeks ago, when I was I excited about my new camper, career possibilities, and my granddaughter-to-come, who is, right now, about ten inches long inside my daughter’s womb?

Why, in the midst of lovely things, do I isolate myself from friends and withhold myself from family? True, I am an introvert by nature, and so it is way too easy to hole up inside my house. Most of my family of origin is dead, and the one remaining person has little interest in a relationship. He has his own life and loves, and he is very happy in it. Many, though not all, of my most trusted friends are hours away. My stubborn, aching spirit will not call for help. Another legacy of my mother’s, who spent years holed up in her living room, angry, bitter, and heartsick.

Anxiety feels like a rushing river in my veins, something I cannot impede, though I erect dam after dam. It feels like muchness; too much muchness, all quivering inside my fragile shell. It feels like my clenched abdomen and jaw. It feels like darkness and piercing light, all simultaneous.

It feels like fear.

I have spent an entire life with it. I’ve done the self-harm, the mental hospital, the therapy, the religion and its renunciation. I turned a corner. I recovered most of my life, my agency, my courage. I learned to start speaking up sometimes, even when it costs me.

A year ago, I decided to be intentional about what I thought my life’s mission would be, and I started writing about it:

” I believe, down deep in my bones, that life is magical, and that making the attempt to approach each moment with a sense of wonder enables us to live beautifully, no matter our circumstances. I believe that my mission, my personal legend, my work is to help others see, create, and accept the magic of their own lives. I listen. I write. I hope. I pray. I dream…”

Today doesn’t feel very magical, unless it’s a darker magic. A Maleficent kind of magic. Moon magic. Winter in the midst of summer. As I have dug deeply inward, trying to discover whether my moments of rage or sadness make the rest of my life’s message fraudulent, I say no. I am a complex being, with the inescapable right to conflicting emotions and not entirely consistent behavior. I just have to keep coming back to what I know is the core of me: life is beautiful.

Perhaps, it is these intervals of shade that enable me to enjoy the days of sun that I know will come. Today, I will lean into the feelings of sadness. Instead of masking them or eating them away, I will just let them be. I will take a nap, I will move my body. I will talk to a precious friend. I will spend a few moments communing with the Goddess.

And I will trust in fifty-one years of living, when the gray days always gave way to the sunny ones.

 

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