Speak Up: Part Two

September is a great month, isn’t it? The light is just starting to shift from high-octane sun to a softer diffused version of itself, breezes begin to tickle cheeks and make leaves dance. Rain falls and the scorched earth of August relents. The grass is verdant again and shadows lengthen on the pavement ever so slightly. School is back in, students are, for the most part, still excited to be back in the classroom, and teachers have renewed purpose and fresh, unmarked lesson plan books. In our family, we have two birthdays to celebrate, the Astros are still playing, and we are usually preparing to open the Renaissance festival that we’ve worked for twenty years now.

I love September. I have been a teacher/professor for twenty four years now, and I always look forward to the opening of school (which technically happens in late August here, I am taking a wee bit of poetic license- the relevant stuff happens in September, I promise). It was no different in 2011, when I opened a new year with a black eye because I dropped my first gen iPad on my face while checking Facebook before getting out of bed. Those early model tablets are no joke in the weight category! Each class began with excited chatter that quickly silenced when I took to my podium after the tardy bell. My poor new high school students were afraid to ask what had happened, so I began each of six class periods with an introduction and an explanation.

IMG_9669I spent the first week of school swallowing Gabapentin pills (as prescribed) to numb the nerve pain that tingled from the base of my spine to the tips of my fingers and back again, all while learning students’ names, playing warm up games, and preparing young actors and student directors for the fall play auditions. We were putting up the Don Zolidis farce The Greek Mythology Olympiaganza, and some seniors were going to assistant direct the various scenes, to give them a bit of practice applying what they’d learned in three years in my program, but also to give me much-needed assistance since I’d be recovering from spinal surgery.

My assistant principal had endured the same procedure just a couple of years before, she assured me that she was back on her feet and working within a week. I requested the day of my surgery (a Tuesday) and the Wednesday and Thursday off from work to recover, with a plan to return to my classroom on Friday.

On a warm, sunny September first, I walked into the nearby hospital, all prepped for spinal surgery, which went well. My spine was fused, and the extreme, debilitating pain I had been suffering for months was gone.

On an equally sunny day, just two weeks later, my world was rocked by a new doctor’s diagnosis: paralyzed vocal cord.

When I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, I included just one mention of what I had been since childhood. Just one word. One measly word to tell you, dear reader, who I had always, ever been: a singer.

Not just a sing-in-the-shower singer. A state-level soloist and all district, area, and region choir qualifier in one of the most vocally competitive states in the country. A voice major in the early years of college who switched to elementary music so she could get married and have babies instead of pursuing a grueling performance career. A singer that brought some listeners to tears, others to laughter, and a few to envy.

I sang on stages and in sanctuaries and by cradles.

In recording studios.

On the radio.

I sang. It was the only thing I thought I did well. My only gift.

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I had warned my neurosurgeon that my voice had to be protected when my throat was pushed aside so he could get spinal access, I asked if he could access my cervical vertebrae from the back of my neck instead of the front of my throat. His answer: “No. but in the twenty years I have been doing this surgery, no one’s voice has ever been damaged. Of course, I can’t make you a promise, but the likelihood of your voice being affected in any way is negligible.”

I went for my follow up appointment with my surgeon three weeks after my surgery, when I had already had my throat scoped by an ear, nose, throat specialist. When Doc entered the examining room and cheerily asked how I was feeling, I beckoned him to lean near and whispered, “My voice is gone. The cord is paralyzed.” He went pale, his eyes widened, he was clearly and authentically horrified. All he could say was, “You’re a singer. Oh, no…this has never, ever happened to one of my patients, and it had to be a singer.” He couldn’t say he was sorry, that’s something doctors really can’t do. Apologizing is like admitting guilt, or a mistake, which can become a legal liability. No, he couldn’t apologize with his mouth and his perfectly working voice. But it was in his eyes.

The ENT who had made the initial diagnosis referred me to a specialist in Houston, a physician who has dedicated her practice to saving voices. I made an appointment, my husband drove me as I worried what she would say. I doubted my own ability to remain calm enough to navigate Houston’s infamous high-traffic freeways. It was good he was there, because the news was not good.

Dr. B. sprayed my throat with vile banana-flavored numbing medicine, and ran the camera through my nasal passages, down my throat. I attempted all sorts of vocalizations: vowels, consonants, sung tones; nothing came out. The cord didn’t vibrate even a tiny bit. It was dead. Kaput.

The physician wanted to wait a few months, see if the nerve endings would wake up on their own.

I left the office, bereft, silent tears ran down my cheeks and dripped off my jawline for the hour of the drive out to our suburban home. I climbed into bed, and I despaired. My throat was silent, but my spirit screamed; I was, as Shakespeare described, an empty vessel. Though I made no sound that was audible to the world, my inner world was a cacophony of noise as I railed against fate and wept out all my world-shattering grief.

I wouldn’t speak again for a year.

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Dandelion Wishes

I love to go on walks, especially long rambling ones out amid nature. Walking on a track or treadmill is no fun, it sparks no magic. It’s great for exercise, but not so nourishing for the soul. So I walk on the 55 acre festival site where I work, or on the trails that connect the various neighborhoods in my master planned community. I used to walk at Lake Brownwood, when my Pop lived there, when I am particularly blessed I find myself walking on a beach or sea wall. During today’s walk, I passed so many yellow dandelions! And I remembered…

When I was a child, we kids still roamed freely in our neighborhoods, without parental supervision. There were no tracking apps to keep us on the radar. We played at neighbors’ houses until the sun started to go down, then listened for our parents to call us home. We walked to school- no moms or dads- just kids that met each other along the way and joined up to make the trek to school in laughing clumps. Since I am, and always have been, a quiet girl, my clumps of friends might only be three or four girls, but we laughed as much as any larger group. At least, they did. I just breathed little huffs of laughter- nothing to bring attention to myself.

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On the corner of our street in a Dallas suburb, there was an empty lot. In early spring, a season of soft blue Texas skies and crisp mornings, this lot was bright with abundant dandelions. You may be cringing at the very word, especially if you’re a gardener or if you grow a perfectly manicured lawn of St. Augustine grass, but I happen to believe dandelions are magic.

When the dandelions were bright yellow flowers, they were inhabited by “tickle bees.” I don’t know what they are really called, but that’s what we called them. We left our houses a few minutes early so that we could spend a few minutes hunting for tickle bees in the empty lot, and if we found them, we gingerly caught them in our fists. They couldn’t sting, so they buzzed around in our hands until we put them in our pencil boxes and let them out at lunch recess, by which time our pencil boxes were covered in yellow pollen.

As the days lengthened and the temperatures climbed, the dandelions became fluffs of white, upon which I made secret wishes. When I blew on the puff, the wishes scattered into the air, magic would awaken, and my wishes just might come true.

My wishes were for a mother who was well, books to read, friends, blue eye shadow, Sean Cassidy records (and to marry Sean in my boldest wishes), spelling bee victories, and dance lessons. For my grown-up self, I wished for a handsome prince to be my husband, sweet babies to play with, and a pretty house that was always clean.

I got most of my wishes. Some I left behind in childhood, like marrying Sean Cassidy. Some I regret, like the shimmery blue Maybelline eye shadow. Some I never saw come true. But most, I did.

Dandelion wishes were seeds of a life. A messy, magical, life.

I used to love watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show with my parents. I didn’t really understand all of it, but the opening credits were so exciting: beautiful brunette with confident stride and wide smile throws a beanie into the air and gets a perfect freeze frame set to a musical button. I am not the girl who “turned the world on with her smile,” I am too quiet to make that much of an impact. But I have learned to make a “nothing day…seem worthwhile.” That’s what most days are, right? Nothing special days filled with jobs and meal preps, laundry and carpools.  My friends, that is where magic lies. In those nothing days.

Sure, I have taught some kids, earned a master’s degree, and shared a few blog posts, but nothing big. Nothing impressive.

I have just walked a quiet, normal life of maintaining a marriage, raising three kids, teaching school, walking dogs, dieting, and making new throw pillows.

I am just the average middle age lady, with a little extra on the hips, a few crepe-y wrinkles on my chest, an inordinate fondness for the color yellow, and a deep love for my sweet husband and kids.

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Empty lots and front lawns not only contained magic dandelions, they also hid vicious stickers: little burrs surrounded by sharp points that embedded in skin, socks, and even bike tires. They were awful. They drew blood. They sometimes buried themselves so deeply that it took a deep breath and fierce courage to pull them out of my foot. Is life full of magic wishes? Yes. But is it also full of stinging hurt? Oh, hell yes.

I feel like maybe my story is like a lot of people’s. Lots of little bits and pieces that make up a life. Touchstones that lie alongside each other on the path that makes the road that makes a journey. That make up a person. That make up a soul. Dandelion seeds that, once blown, float in the wind, sometimes landing in fertile soil. Sometimes landing upon rocks or thorns. Sometimes coming true but turning bitter. Like the Biblical parable of the sower, sometimes we have a say in what seeds take root, and sometimes we are at the mercy of the wind, the rain, the sun, and the birds.

And thorns that leave scars.

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…

But I don’t dream of big stuff like fame or a million dollars. My dreams are made up of tiny glittery thoughts, like dandelion pollen, a fine yellow dust that softens what’s hard and enables new growth. I dream of my children’s affection, the comfort of my home, reading and telling tales, belonging to a group of friends, and great big glasses of pinot grigio.

I dream of feeling secure.

I dream of feeling content in my own skin.

But mostly, I dream of joyous, magical grace and forgiveness.

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A Magic Kingdom

I recently returned from five days in Orlando, exploring Disney World for the first time in my 52 years. I cried a lot. I cried on the first afternoon, when I watched the show in front of Cinderella’s castle as Minnie, Daisy, Elsa, Anna, Tiana, Rapunzel, and a chorus of dancers sang about imagination and courage.

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I cried that evening as the fireworks exploded and projections lit up the castle while Tom Hulce’s Hunchback sang “Out There.”

I cried when I rode the Pooh ride and when I saw stuffed Dumbos. I cried when the Peter Pan float passed during the 3:00 parade. I cried when Lebo M’s voice chanted:

“Nants ingonyama bagithi Baba Sithi uhm ingonyama”

while I stood in line to enter Animal Kingdom.

I cried one last time, sitting on a grassy knoll at the Polynesian Resort, watching the fireworks show from a distance, making a memory with my niece and nephew.

Heck, I am crying right now, just typing this.

Why? Why do I cry so much?

Well, there’s the obvious answer: Disney is my children’s childhood. I didn’t grow up with much Disney. Some of that is simply because of when I grew up. During the 1970s, Disney animation was in a slump, resulting in limited access to the stories. We didn’t have a Disney channel, we just had Sunday night’s Wonderful World of Disney, which featured Disney shorts, sometimes Disney features, all hosted by Walt himself. My mom didn’t want to watch it. My parents did take us to an anniversary release of Bambi in 1975, I was just eight years old; and the only other Disney film I saw in theaters until I took my three-year-old daughter to see Beauty and the Beast was Herbie Rides Again. 

Mary Poppins is the one exception to the paucity of Disney in my life. It blessedly ran on television frequently enough that I came to know it by heart. Julie Andrews as Mary was my hero. She, with her magical carpet bag, lilting soprano, and penchant for order, was the epitome of womanhood. I loved that she showed up unexpectedly, floating through the sky with an umbrella, feet turned out, impeccably dressed.

Spit Spot!

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What I loved about Mary was that she could come into a house with miserable, neglected children and heal it. She could sing to the toys and they would put themselves away, birds were fed, and the parents eventually learned to see their lonely kids by the magic of flying kites. When I met Mary Poppins and Bert beside the swan topiary near the Sleeping Beauty castle in Anaheim, or in the English pavilion in Orlando, I was overwhelmed with joy. I understood completely that I was meeting gorgeous actresses. Truly, I did. But here’s the thing that happens, if one can set aside cynicism and just embrace the whole scenario: I met Mary Poppins, who spoke to me with flawless diction and loved my Jolly Holiday skirt and ears. I would say I was a child again, and maybe that’s a little true. But I was 51 years old, too. Fifty-one, and just really starting to recognize in a visceral way how short life really is and how essential it is to look for love and drop little seeds of it wherever one finds oneself.

I did not encounter the Mary Poppins of the books until adulthood. The literary, non-singing Mary is a little more acerbic. In the movie, there’s an underlayer of sweetness just under Mary’s efficiency, less evident in the books. In Travers’ hands though, whimsy is abundant and imagination is the cure for boredom, sadness, and grouchiness. In the very first book of the series, the grumpy author writes this simple yet profound sentence, when Jane and Michael ask Mary where she’s been all day and her answer doesn’t match their own expectations: “Mary Poppins gave a superior sniff. ‘Don’t you know,’ she said pityingly, ‘that everybody’s got a Fairyland of their own?'”

My mom wasn’t much for fairylands, nor for stories, nor for books. I do not remember a single instance of being read to, and the only book I owned was a copy of Bible stories that my grandparents gave me. I didn’t have books with Disney stories, or records like my husband remembers having, ones with “Bare Necessities” and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” to listen to in my room.

My family was too poor to pay the light bill, never mind a trip to Disneyland; so when my first child was born in the same year that Ariel made her debut, I hopped right on board the Disney steam locomotive train (figuratively speaking, anyway. I wouldn’t get to ride the real thing until I reached middle age). We watched Little Mermaid over and over, I have the most precious photo of my dad on the floor playing with Hilary and her Ariel doll. When my son was just three, he went through a Dumbo phase: every morning, between 3:30 and 4:00, he sleepily stumbled into our bedroom, shook us awake, and asked for Dumbo. He was having bad dreams nightly, and the sweet blue-eyed baby elephant chased away the scary things happening in his brain. We began to leave the VHS cued up and ready before retiring to sleep each night, so that we could get him tucked in with as little fuss as possible. My youngest daughter chose Finding Nemo for her sixteenth birthday theme- unlike the other high school girls who were making duck lips and wearing too much make up, my girl dressed as a Pixar character. We read the stories, we sang the songs, we raised our kids with Disney magic all around us.

I cry when I think of it because Disney resonates: Disney is fueled by love.

I know that millenial ennui dictates we poo-poo that. But bear with me.

Disney, as a brand, is driven by story*; and the stories all center around one common theme: love.

Walt’s love for his granddaughters inspired him to create Disneyland so that they would have a place to play and imagine.

Disney is:

Love of story itself, whether revealed in orchestral pieces as in Fantasia, or in written words, as in the Milne Winnie the Pooh stories.

Love of planet. What is Moana but a great big hug for Mother Earth? The 1950s were a decade of documentary shorts like Nature’s Half Acre, all opportunities for Walt to share the wonders of eco-science with the country.

Love of parent/child. The Mama Bear character in Brave stands in for protective moms everywhere, and when Dumbo’s mom sings him a lullaby while rocking him in her trunk, I weep with melancholy. Gepetto’s wish for a son, made real by the Blue Fairy? Perfection.

Love of friendship. Are there two more sympatico friends than Woody and Buzz? Who doesn’t hope for a group of friends to stand and protect in times of vulnerability, like the dwarves did as Snow White slept?

Love of romance. I have my own Prince Charming, and so I love the romantic stories when shoes are left behind on staircases and hairy beasts are redeemed by the tears of a true love.

Love is magic.

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We know it, deep down, but we forget. Walt knew that sharing these stories and building these worlds would give us glimpses and doses. It was his mission. They still take that mission very seriously in every facet of the company, as I learned when I attended the Disney Institute last year. Their people love what they do.

 

And so, when I immerse myself in the environment, it is a hug for my soul.

When I watch a movie, it’s an infusion of affection and strength.

When I don a Daisy tee or drink steaming hot tea out of a  Tinkerbell mug, it’s an inoculation against despair and bitterness.

When I hit “play” on my Disney playlist, I feel joy. For the woman whose childhood was so devoid of play, of imagination and joy and connection, Disney gives me a place to act like a kid again.

I know I am not alone in this. The parks, cruise ships, and resorts are overflowing with other humans who love the stories. I daresay even the dad I saw in the Magic Kingdom, wearing a shirt that proclaimed in Disney font: “Most financially irresponsible day ever” encountered magic that day with his small children. Disney parks are brimming with all ethnicities, all physical types, all ages. Big, burly urbanites pose with Goofy, silver haired grannies get kisses from Minnie, and tiny boys hug Woody’s legs. We love it.

It’s that simple. Once upon a time, I was a lonely, bedraggled, neglected child. I found my prince, I made a family, and I created a life that is full of love, my very own magical kingdom; and the wonderful world of Disney helps me celebrate it.

 

*Yes, I know Disney is also profit driven- it’s a business. A big one. I don’t hold that against them. They craft story and they create a place where even grown ups can pretend their lives are perfect, even if it’s just a respite. I work in the world of theme park myself, and Disney does it better than anyone.

 

Why I Try Not To Look Backward. Mostly.

img_1868“For those of us with an inward turn of mind, which is another name for melancholy introspection, the beginning of a new year inevitably leads to thoughts about both the future and the past.” Michael Dirda

Sitting in a quiet living room, I’m finally settling down from the busiest Christmas we may have ever had. Why busy? Grandchildren. Specifically, a two week old, plus our bonus grands. There was a Paw Patrol fire truck, an Our Generation doll, lots of Legos, infant toys, candy, and noise. I usually take lots of photos, but to be honest, once the kids and grandkids arrived, the chaos was a little overwhelming, so I just rode the wave and tried to be present (I also managed to finagle rocking the baby during dinner. At seventeen days old, her coos made for excellent dinner conversation).

Amid all this, my father-in-law had brought a bag of old family VHS tapes. It was his intention that we all sit and watch. He even brought a VCR player since we no longer have one in the house. Now, you’d think I’d be all about sitting and watching my kids, who are now in their twenties, open the Thomas the Tank Engine train sets and American Girl dolls they got for Christmas when they were little. But I wasn’t. Not only was I not all about it, I was quietly but adamantly opposed to this activity. Why?

Because I just cannot allow myself to look back. I can’t. Hell, I already had all of our VHS tapes converted to DVD, but I haven’t watched a single one. As soon as they arrive in the mail, I organize and store them. Seems I can do the work of putting them in chronological order, that’s brain stuff. But pop them in the DVD player that we keep in the house so I can watch Harry Potter and Broadway musical DVDs? That’s a pass.

For what reason, I wonder?

There is a price to be paid when you choose to love. In this case, it’s my parental love, but I think that the same thing happens to loves that are romantic, or platonic, or familial. When you love someone with your very soul, and you walk alongside them for a lifetime (or what may only feel like a lifetime), to look backwards just reminds you of time spent. Of the grains of sand that have already fallen to the bottom of the hourglass. Of the years that are gone.

When I look back, I cry. It’s just that simple.

I don’t need a video to remind me what my children looked like when they were five- I can see my son, running alongside his border collie Trixie as she herded him in our back yard, his blond hair flying in the breeze. I hear my older daughter’s sweet little voice singing along to a Mickey Mouse cassette tape we kept in our bright red Ford Escort. I recall with utter clarity what the younger daughter looked like in the wedding dress I made for her sixth Christmas, complete with veil and silk flower bouquet. I remember their giggles when I tickled their piggies, and their cries when I pulled glass or sticker burrs out of the soles of those little plump feet; or when knees were skinned, requiring a mommy’s kiss and a Peanuts bandaid.

Their hurts are more significant now. The stakes are higher. The wounds deeper.

 

Sometimes, there’s mascara on their pillows after a visit. If you’re the parent of a child in his/her twenties, you may have experienced this. She comes for a Christmas visit, all the way from Los Angeles, where her life looks wonderful, complete with lots of Instagram photos of cocktails with friends, acting and producing projects, her sweet dog, hikes. Lots of smiles. She insists she’s happy, and you know it’s true- but you also know that she got her final divorce papers in the mail just days before the holiday. You understand that a seven year relationship with a drug addict is finally, blessedly over. And you know that she’s grieving. That she knows what’s best, but that she also has to hurt a bit. And so…you find mascara on the pillowcases in the guest room when you go to strip the bed.

I don’t need any help in grieving for my children. No old VHS tapes are necessary to get the tears flowing, you know?

 

Then there’s the other end of the spectrum: watching your youngest give birth to a beautiful baby girl in the very same week that the other was opening the packet of papers from the county of Los Angeles. This is the child who had struggled to find her place in the world, who second guessed every decision she ever made, whose anxiety over making the wrong decision about career has held her hostage since high school. I got to be with her for all of her labor, with her dear partner at her shoulder and me at her knees, helping to hold her legs up as she pushed out an exquisite little peanut with black hair. That daughter knows who she is, now.

I shed some tears then, too.

We regained a relationship with my son after a period of estrangement. He was back with us for Christmas. Alone and finally looking healthy and happy. There hasn’t been a day since our reconciliation that I have not looked to Heaven and sent up a thank you.

 

And so…with all that emotion swirling around in my spirit, with gratitude and grief and trepidation and joy, did I really need to look back? Did I want to? NO. I did not. I knew that sitting in a sentimental place from 25 years ago would tip the scales, that I would become an incapacitated blubbering mess.

Forward. Ever forward.

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The problematic VHS tapes.

And yet for days now, my dreams have been…backwards. Having left the classroom four years ago, I find my dream self back in the classroom, helping first graders sound out words or directing high schoolers in a competition play. I look down to see a nursing baby at my breast. I see and hear myself singing, something I have rarely done since my vocal injury in 2011. My grandmother, June, keeps visiting. She died from breast cancer in 1982, but she’s been coming to me in all different forms: chemo-ridden, in her forties and wise, in her twenties and vibrant…all dreams from ago. My slumbering, defenseless brain and heart are taking me backwards when my wakeful, cautious self says no to looking behind.

I think my dreams are trying to tell me to embrace the past, while being open to the future. Maybe my heart is telling me to risk a peek back. I don’t quite feel ready- so for now the past will stay safely ensconced in the VHS tapes that now sit in our garage, awaiting digital transfer. And safely, forever and ever, ensconced in this mother’s heart. No rewinding necessary.

Mom of a Different Time

On a Sunday in early May, what I thought was an early birthday brunch ended up being the day I found out I am to be a grandmother.

This is not a title that sits comfortably on me. In fact, I have been dreading it for years, relieved that my older two kids planned to have kids much later if at all, and assuming the youngest would at least wait until she was married and settled.

The Universe has a sense of humor, though. What I have been planning is five years of travel and adventure and completely obligation-free Saturdays, weekends for sleeping in and drinking mimosas. Maybe with my daughter.

Now I am looking at a complete shift in identity. I am now “Grandma.” I utterly and unequivocally refuse that title. Perhaps I will be “Nonny” or “Lolly” or some such thing. But not “Grandma.” I couldn’t bear it.

I have several friends who are already grandmothers. They post sweet photos of squishy little faces, all cuddled up in Grandma’s arms. They have, you know, shirts that say grandma stuff. They swear it’s awesome. The best thing ever. Pure Magic. Which, of course, what I try to live, a purely magical life.

I had grandmothers. I had two completely beautiful grandmothers. You know what they were, though? Old. They were old. To a little girl, they looked ancient. I don’t want to be seen as ancient.

When my daughter and her beloved left our house that spring day, I told my husband as he held me, “I am not ready to be a grandmother.” His reply? “Are you ready to help your daughter be a good mother, though?” Yes. Yes, I am.

And so, after a few days of mulling, I got excited, really excited about the sweet little peanut who will come into our lives soon. I am in love with this baby. I talk to my daughter’s tummy; I stare longingly at other infants, so anxious to hold this one am I; I window shop in baby departments, and I have a countdown to due date app loaded on my iPhone. I felt her flutter, and that was an enchanted moment like nothing I’d ever felt.

Grandmother…and yet, still mother.

Spring, 1995(2)

Motherhood of young adults who are in their twenties is a whole different level of parenting. Skinned knees give way to broken hearts. Allowance shortfalls are now being unable to quite make rent. Not getting along with an algebra teacher has morphed into coaching an adult child how to deal with an abusive work relationship. Romances have moved beyond the land of “check yes or no if you like me” into the complex realm of co-dependence and infidelity.

Of course, the first step of this change is the college experience. With each child, I worried when we dropped them off at their dorm rooms. With the eldest, our consternation was much about her roommate, a reclusive and unfriendly gamer chick who stayed up late into the night, keeping Hilary awake and groggy. We worried whether she was making friends (she was), partying too much (she wasn’t), and studying enough (she most definitely was). I fretted about bugs in her dorm room and the quality of the food offered on her meal plan. I worried whether she would have the stamina to sustain her choice of major as she worked her way through the grueling audition process that is collegiate theatre. Eventually, she bought a car, changed boyfriends, and started being cast in phenomenal roles that challenged her as both artist and woman.

And yet…she fell deeply in love with a young man who played her romantic love in a play, and we watched as fantasy became reality. Red flags were showing everywhere, and her father saw them almost immediately. It took me a bit longer, though. Our daughter was in love with a drug addict. As a parent, you’re almost helpless. I would say it just  feels like you’re helpless, but it’s actually true. You’re helpless. We pointed out the dangers: disappearing money, stolen debit cards and checks, evictions and creditors, a totaled car, even jail time for theft. Our daughter was so convinced her love would be enough to conquer all. Until the day it wasn’t, and reality hit her like a tsunami.

All you can do, then, is to hold your daughter close when she needs to cry, give her space for quiet when she needs to think, and the sure knowledge that her family is standing by to help her put herself back together.

Christmas 1995

The next child falls into a depressed isolation in his dingy dorm room at the east Texas college that no one told you was in financial crisis and would soon be shuttered, and you begin to question where you went wrong as a parent. You’re sure that your childhood role models of family perfection, Greg and Marcia Brady, never struggled like this at college, that they made it to every class with their shiny hair intact and their books perfectly organized. He’s just far enough away that you can’t get to him easily, and when he comes home, he’s hurt and angry, feeling abandoned, when what you were really trying to do, as a parent, was show him your faith in his independence and courage.

That one also dives deep into a couple of troubled relationships, also sure that his love would be enough to conquer all. Again, Tsunami.

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And there’s the baby, who, by luck of the draw, ends up in upper classman apartments instead of a freshman dorm, has a near brush with dorm room forced sex, is panicked by the pressure to choose a major, and so flees to Australia to be an au pair in what turns out to be a house run by an unkind mother who refuses to provide her nourishing food, all the while eating her own Hello Fresh food service meals. If you thought your son was too far to reach, your daughter is even farther. She falls in love with a 38 year old man and stays Down Under for two years, then comes home heartsick, a bit bruised in spirit by what turned out to be a pretty controlling bloke.

Then, thank all the heavens and gods and goddesses, she returns to school and meets a good young man, falls in love, gets pregnant, and makes you a Lolly.

It is so, so hard to bite my tongue when I see my young adult children making decisions that might come back to bite them: car purchases, job changes, lovers, debt…

When my kids were little, my husband and I managed their income, their spending, their friendships, their schooling, their hobbies. I don’t mean we dictated, but we drew boundaries: only two after school activities (to prevent exhaustion), sleepovers only where we knew the parents (to prevent abuse), supervised spending (to stave off wastefulness). We worked to lay a foundation of love and confidence.

Now we watch as they test that foundation. They crack it, but it seems to hold. They move forward, sometimes with grace and sometimes with grief, but always forward. Their love is more precious to me now because it’s been tried and tested in the fires of anger and forgiveness, tug and release, and lessons learned. Not just their lessons, but mine, too.

I have learned to have faith in my children.

Now, I too move forward. Can’t wait to meet my sweet granddaughter, Hazel Elizabeth.

Back of Family

Turning Back

Did you ever pick at scabs when you were a kid? Those big, juicy ones that crusted on your knees and elbows from all the falls you took when on the monkey bars or on your bike? I did. It hurt, it made my scrape open up and bleed some more, but I just couldn’t help reopening the wounds. It didn’t matter if the grown-ups explained that I was going to have scars if I didn’t leave the scabs alone. Potential infection didn’t deter me, I just picked away!

bandaid-heart-As I got older, the wounds became less literal. Not skin and bone- heart and soul. When I was seventeen, I broke up with a boyfriend that I had been dating for over a year. He was a good guy, but timing just was not right: he was in college, I was a senior, yada yada yada. Weird thing, though, I kept driving by his house. I would sit outside, not crying, really, but grieving. Pretty dramatically, I suppose. It felt good to wallow.

In college, I auditioned over and over to be a hostess for our annual Follies. I never did get to do it. That was tough, because I had to sit in the auditorium for chapel every day, and look at the stage where I felt so defeated.

1988_2Until I decided to stop auditioning for the thing I was never going to get and direct my club’s show, a sentimental journey through the tunes of the Andrews Sisters, which won first place. Then that space, that stage, became a symbol of power (as long as I governed my thoughts). Wounds don’t just come from romance or falls. Sometimes they come from being shut out.

When my husband changed jobs and we moved from Texas to Oklahoma, I used to sit at my picture window, gazing out while wistfully wishing to move back to a town that, if I am honest, I was miserable in. I even envisioned my own woe, creating a mental picture of the melancholy pose I struck as I sighed. I looked, in my own mind, as gorgeous as any Gothic heroine. I should have been dressed in a while linen empire-waisted gown, though in truth, I was probably covered with graham cracker goo and baby spit-up, hair going every which way.

When we left Oklahoma to go back to Texas, after two weeks I called a church deacon and begged, “Please let us come back. Please.” They said no. They said, “Look forward. Not back.” It would be a while before I understood how to do that. And did it. I had to figure it out myself, because I hadn’t really seen it before.

Ten years after her divorce, my mom still sat with her wedding album, flipping through plastic-encased portraits of her happy day, remembering a time when she was joyful, healthy, and surrounded by bridesmaids. Really, her entire adult life was spent, I believe, looking back: wishing to undo mistakes, wishing to be young and happy, wishing to have close friends.

Revisiting sites of injury was a family trait. Sometimes those sites were physical, like boyfriend’s houses, scabs, or stages. Sometimes not, though.  I could not possibly account for the hours I have spent, in my own mind, replaying scenes in which I hurt someone or someone hurt me.

But now I don’t. I just don’t go to places that hurt. I have made the conscious choice to avoid hurting myself. When I reflect on it, I think I made the decision to stop visiting hurtful places around the time I also made the decision to stop cutting myself with scissors.

I was a late comer to the cutting thing. When I was a teen, I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do to alleviate sorrow and anxiety, so I tried the pursuit of perfection and the allowance of boys defining my identity, with a bit of disordered eating thrown in for good measure. In my thirties, though, I found it. Cutting, I mean. Sometimes I escaped to the little office in my theatre classroom to grab scissors from the apple crock in which I still keep pens and pencils, and I would dig deeply into my arm. At home, I might grab a kitchen knife and lock myself into the bathroom, cutting my thighs. It burned. It hurt. And it gave me more scabs to pick at.

I don’t cut myself anymore. I am not ashamed of that chapter, I will talk about it if I am asked. But it’s not my favorite thing to revisit.

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There are also places I don’t visit. I have only been to my mother’s grave once, and to my father’s never (beyond the days of their funerals). It is too hard. It opens floodgates of sorrow, sorrow that is close enough to the surface of my heart that tears and heartache don’t need gravestone markers to incite them. For some, visiting those graves is a comfort, and I say, “Go. Please, and tell them I love them while you’re there.”

Churches are a no-go. Way too much hurt inflicted when my husband was in, and then out, of youth ministry. Way too many Sunday mornings when no one said hello. Way too many judgements and proclamations and “encouraging words” masking an assumption about who I am and what I need.

I tried going into the auditorium of the high school where I spent eight years building the theatre program from the ground up, and which I left because of a combative administration. The day I went there, I was laid low, emotionally tender and teary-eyed for days. So I don’t go back in there any more. I know my former students wondered why I didn’t come see their shows, they were so sweet to invite me, but I just couldn’t.

998293_10151606483607711_2070554230_nWe sold the home we spent the bulk of our child-rearing years in, I can’t drive by it, I just can’t. And the house I just sold last year, the one we built from the ground up? No way. When mail was delivered there for a month or so after our move, my husband had to go pick it up.

I don’t visit the local community theatres, not even to see shows. Those are places that have become like great big, giant triggers. Sitting in them feels like little bits of broken glass all over my skin while I am reminded of so many times of being overlooked.

Some places, some people, some memories, just hurt a little too much. Is there beauty in pain? There can be. Is there growth in pain? Often. Is there a benefit, though, in reopening old wounds, wounds that aren’t festering or infected, but are still vulnerable? Not for me. I have had to learn to stop standing at the picture window, sighing and mooning. No more drive-bys to old scenes of hurt.

Like the Fleetwood Mac song says,

“Why not think about times to come?
And not about the things that you’ve done?
If your life was bad to you
Just think what tomorrow will do.”

Everyone’s life has been bad at one point or another. I suppose we all have different ways to heal and protect.

Shielding my quiet soul means choosing where I go. For me, self care doesn’t look like spa facials and chocolate truffles. It looks like a picket fence, covered in flowering vines, protecting me from turning back. It looks like my yoga/meditation room. It looks like my yellow bicycle. It looks like screen shots of texts from my close tribe of trusted friends. It looks like writing a book instead of directing or acting a play script. It looks like my husband and children. It looks like…my life.

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