Present Light, First in a Series

“I am going to notice the lights of the earth, the sun and the moon and the stars, the lights of our candles as we march, the lights with which spring teases us, the light that is already present.”
Anne Lamott

I have ever been a person who is drawn to light, to sun, to brightness and joy. Not for me the shadows and darkened nights. And yet, I know that darkness is essential, that a life spent in an eternal and endless glow is not chromatically rich. Variegated hues of gray and the negative spaces of art are what allow for rich texture and depth. In photography, in music, in painting, in life.

But still … I prefer light. It is my prerogative to do so. I choose to shine on! For it is in choosing to turn toward the light that I find resilience, and it is in resilience that I find life itself.

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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.

 

TMEA….sigh. (AKA the soprano loser)

 

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It’s a beautiful sunny morning in San Antonio, Texas. The weather is unseasonably warm (highs of 80 degrees in February- paradise!) and I decided to walk along the River Walk to reach the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center. As I neared the massive building, I found myself walking  with many members of the All State Choir. Clad in black dresses and tuxes, chattering like magpies, clutching black folders, I could sense their nervous excitement. One young lady who walked up the stairs in front of me had two enormous patches on the back of her high school letter jacket, one proclaiming her a member of the 2014 All State Choir, another the 2015, and she had left one big hole on the bottom right side for this year’s patch, which she’ll get to pick up while she is here (that’s confidence in one’s own ability, that is).

I get so melancholy when I am here. It’s my third time at this remarkable convention, a gathering of music teachers of all stripes: elementary through collegiate, vocal and instrumental. An estimated 25,000 people are here. Rumor is that the city doesn’t charge TMEA for the convention center because with every downtown hotel bed booked, they make enough in hotel taxes to offset the convention center rental. We do things big in Texas, y’all.

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I get melancholy because I didn’t get to attend as an All State second soprano, which was my number one goal from the day I set foot in my high school choir room, a dark room in the basement of the performing arts center in my suburban high school near Dallas. My choir director didn’t let freshmen audition, I got laryngitis on the day of round one auditions my sophomore year. My junior year, I made it through every round, then when I got to the finals, my nerves got me. I can deal with all of those circumstances.

The one I have never quite recovered from was my senior year. I made it to the final round again. I did. But I blew it. And every year now at this time, at this conference, I beat myself up privately.

But this year, I am going to try a different tack: forgiveness.

I had a really fantastic voice. With a beautiful clear tone and a sharp ear for tuning, and the acting ability to help me do more than just hit the right notes, I had a lot of promise.

 

hr-1114-233-578--1114233578005 (2)But my senior year, I was a mess. I lived in a mess. My mom was tormenting us, violent and dangerous, she would spy on us or break into our house and steal things. She would come see me at school and scream at me or hit me in front of my friends. Once, she visited me at work and my boss locked me in the stock room to protect me while he called security. I was in a relationship with a guy who turned out to be abusive, sexually and emotionally, who also spied on me and demanded all of my time, didn’t allow me to have friends, and threatened to commit suicide if I broke up with him.I had to work because my dad was strapped, so if I wanted clothes or voice lessons, I had to pay for them.My house was not a safe haven. Rehearsal in my bedroom was impossible with younger brothers who didn’t exactly enjoy listening to me sing.

There were a lot of strikes against me.

Now, I know there are so many inspiring stories of young people who overcome overwhelming odds to become genius academics, superb athletes, or stellar performers. But I wasn’t one. I just couldn’t get my mind clear and my shit together enough, and when my less-than-adequately-prepared-self got to the identical room where my nerves had betrayed me in the final round of auditions my junior year, I just could not pull it off. My heart was not in it.

Soon after, I tried to be in the chorus of my high school musical, but missed the second night of the show because of the demented boyfriend’s prom (there was no way I could explain to my directors why I had to go to his prom, they just had to assume I was choosing a boy over my art. Which I was, but not for the reasons one would think).

I managed to struggle along until May, when I finally told my dad what was happening with my boyfriend and he gave me the courage and protection I needed to end that relationship. Things with my mom never did improve, but when I left for college and met and married my beloved husband, I had the security and distance to cope with her.

 

So when I am here, and I see all these tremendously talented student musicians, whom I know have worked so hard to be here, I feel guilty and sad. But I think this year, I have to put that aside.

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So, here is what I will say to that 17 year old girl:

  • You did the best you could, without enough life experience to help you make better choices. And pretty much, that’s all we can hope for on any given day.
  • All state patches are great, but they don’t make you a whole person. You won’t have a giant chenille Texas shaped hole in your soul just because you didn’t make the choir.
  • Your own failures will help you be a better mom and teacher. When your own sophomore daughter gets sick the week of the district round, or when the soprano who stakes it all on making All State her senior year doesn’t, you’ll understand.
  • You can still sing for joy. Not for a chair.

And to my grown self, I will say keep singing in the car, Babs is still the best singing partner for the car (her cover of “Make Your Own Kind of Music” is the best anthem), and really, not one of your friends or family love you less because you didn’t make the All State Choir in 1985. A magical life does not require certificates and accolades.

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It’s easy to wish we had taken different paths, usually the ones that would have brought greater glory or less struggle (two completely opposite ideas). But I wouldn’t trade who I am now for anything. I love my husband, my kids, my extended family, and my job. I have a house that I am comfy in, and health that allows me to do lots of stuff I love (as long as I don’t do deep lunges- those are hell on my knees). I’ve gotten to study theatre, do theatre, and take a break from theatre. I have the introvert’s ideal- just enough friends that I treasure. Life is good. Maybe I should just start singing here at my booth. It can be my own TMEA debut. Tra-la!

 

 

 

 

 

Losing My Religion

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It’s the day after Christmas. I am sitting in my quiet house, my sweet husband is napping, my eldest daughter and her fiancee have left for a movie, my son is at work, and my youngest is across the world. It has been a wonderful Christmas- everyone is healthy (I didn’t fall and injure myself severely- just one small second degree burn from a candy-making fumble) and happy, and very much in love with their significant other. I don’t feel any post Christmas blues, but the holiday’s passing has left me feeling reflective about one very specific thing: my vanished faith.

I do understand the actual origins of Christmas- Yule and Saturnalia, Pope Julius I’s decision to create a celebration of Jesus’ birth and using the conveniently placed Solstice celebrations to do so, the Puritans’ refusal to acknowledge the holiday (it was against the law to celebrate Christmas in Boston from 1659-1681), its absence in America throughout the 18th century, then its resurgence in the 19th with the publication of Washington Irving and Charles Dickens’ novels.

Historically, Jesus is really not “The Reason for the Season.” But in contemporary America, in Texas, Christmas is very much about celebrating the birth of Jesus.

But not for me.

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Recently, I had the pleasure of attending Amy Grant and Michael W. Smith’s Christmas concert at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion here in the Houston area. I was so excited! It was a chilly night (a rare occurrence in a Houston December), and poor Amy had come onto the outdoor stage in an emerald sleeveless gown. She spent most of act one wrapped in a blanket, and changed into jeans, boots, and a quilted parka at intermission. Smitty was in a suit, and playing pretty vigorously at the grand piano, so he seemed to fare better in the chilled air. I loved it. They sang back to back renditions of “Jingle Bells” (Smitty sang the Perry Como arrangement, Amy the Streisand), “The Christmas Waltz,” and “Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree.” I have been listening to these two sing Christmas songs since I was 18 years old, and it was like being home.

But the mood changed in the second half. It became more tender, more reflective, more…worshipful. In this half, Amy sang “Heirlooms” and “Breath of Heaven.” Smitty led a sing along. But this was not a sing along like happens at your child’s elementary school PTO program, with “Rudolph” and “Santa Claus Is Coming To Town.” This was “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “The First Noel.” The mood became holy. And I couldn’t sing. Clearly, the audience was worshiping, and I knew that to lend my voice would be inauthentic. Counterfeit. It was beautiful, and I felt alien. Throughout the remainder of the concert, I teared up several times; and when the first notes of “Friends” played in the encore, I began to really cry…when the lights went up, I found I couldn’t talk, I could barely hold it together and my sweet husband held me while I wept, truly wept.

Christmas is often a time for heavy-heartedness- that’s not news to most adults (and a few kids). We grieve for lost loved ones. We mourn passing time. I am a little melancholy this year. But it’s not really nostalgia for my childhood Christmases (which were spotty, to say the least). It’s not even nostalgia for the holidays for when my kids were little.

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My grief is for my lost faith.

I no longer believe in the Christian faith. Not because of “hypocrites” or the times when God hasn’t answered prayers. Not because of the insanity of millionaire ministers or the rampant suffering and injustice in the world.

I can’t believe a virgin birth. I just can’t. Nor can I believe that a dead man rose and walked after three days entombed. And I can’t force myself to sit in a sanctuary and recite the Nicene Creed or sing hymns (or praise and worship songs) that strike me as so very, very false. It would be, for me, fraudulent, and an insult to the sincerity of the Christians who find such joy in their faith.

I believe in the teachings of Jesus, wisdom of the Proverbs, the passion and pathos of the Psalms. But I cannot accept that many of the writings of the apostle Paul were meant to be followed verbatim, by all humans, no matter gender, culture, and time, for ever and ever amen. I know enough to know that what we have as the Holy Bible was passed around, rewritten, interpreted, and adapted for 300 years before finally being codified. How can it possibly be infallible?

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But secular Christmas seems so empty.

How does one recover from lost faith?

When I posted on Facebook that my thoughts, not prayers, were with the victims of the French terrorist attacks, a long time friend (who is not a person of faith) sought me out two days later to tell me, in person, that that made him sad. That he sensed that the loss of my faith was a grief to me. How profound is it that it was an agnostic to express sorrow over this loss?

That he has expressed more kindness over my loss than nearly any Christian in my acquaintance is also profound. I think I am a pretty big disappointment to a lot of people.

Most days, I don’t really give it much thought. I don’t miss church, not even a little bit. I think years as a minister’s wife, privy to the inner workings of church politics, cured me of ever wanting to belong to a church again. American Christianity has become a frightening place, full of fear and politics.

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In her book Quiet, Susan Cain describes the dilemma of introverts (of which I am most definitely one) trying to participate in American Evangelicanism: ” Contemporary Evangelicanism…emphasizes building community among confirmed believers, with many churches encouraging (or even requiring) their members to join extracurricular groups organized around every conceivable subject- cooking, real-estate investing, skateboarding.” She meets with a man who struggles with his introverted nature, and can’t find the place where he can worship, commune, and serve. I get that. In my last attempts at finding a church home, all I wanted was a place where I could have a few real, genuine friends and contemplative, thoughtful worship, preferably far, far away from LED smart lights and Jumbotron screens.

Oh, and by the way, I still believe in God.

So I try to use walking or yoga time to reconnect with the Divine. In my solo worship time, I have learned that God is also Goddess. That trees and animals carry a bit of the Divine spark. That literature and music do as well. I have learned that kindness can be found and is often practiced by the most unexpected people: the tattooed, gypsy “heathen” is often more benevolent than the most polished Evangelical.

Years ago, when I confided to two of my aunts (on my mom’s side) that I had found myself in a desert place, they assured me that if I was just patient, that God would lead me out of the desert. I don’t feel arid anymore, and that’s a blessing. But I don’t feel Churched, either. I feel like I am in a quiet forest, with a beautiful lake. Pretty alone, but with something Divine whispering to me. Maybe that’s enough.

Merry Christmas, friends.

 

Changing the Tapes: Oct. 6, 2015*

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I had been doing really well on feeling more peaceful with my body. But today, I had a turn. We went to a party Saturday night, and I saw the photos today. I look big to myself, soft around the top of my halter dress.

What’s so frustrating is that I had felt pretty that night. Not Jennifer Aniston pretty, but me pretty. Hair up in curls, my usual understated makeup, pretty coral shoes. Bam- photos arrive in  my inbox and on Facebook.

So I have spent the afternoon trying to change my talk.

Here are my reminders for today:

No woman in either side of my family is willowy. None. We are all, both maternal and paternal lineage, athletic in build. Some are more fit than others, but none of us has that tall, thin, size 4 figure with long slender legs. I have got to understand my gene pool.

I exercise. I do. I don’t try to run anymore, the doctor told me I could stop that nonsense because it truly hurts my damaged knees. But I walk, I do cardio and yoga, I just laid almost an entire pallet of grass by myself. I do bicep curls with rocks and tricep dips on benches. I am as active as my poor joints will allow. I will always try to do more and do it better, but for this moment, with a show just behind me and a faire season three days away, I am doing my best.

I eat fairly well. Could I cut a few carbs? Yes. Could I reduce my wine intake? Probably. But if I am honest with myself, I don’t want to. I don’t have wine every night, but some nights (like last Saturday) I have too much. I know exactly how many donuts I have had this year (for the record, it’s four and a half, so I still get another one and a half in 2015). I rarely have big dessert, but I do allow myself a few shortbread cookies or vanilla wafers every once in a while. I eat salads, but yesterday I had a kids sized mushroom Swiss burger. Because here’s the thing: I honestly believe good food and drink are one of life’s pleasures. Like a beautiful cloud formation lit with a setting sun, or puppy breath, or baby toes, or hugs, or trees (or hugging trees for that matter, which I have in fact, done), food is good. It is part of what makes it wonderful to be human.

Not for me the diet shakes and rice cakes. Life is too precious. Does that mean I eat all of it, every time I want it, in unlimited portions? No. But I eat some. Occasionally.

See, I am going to do a thing that is very brave for me. I am going to publicly say what pants size I wear: a 10. Mostly- today, my pants were size 8. Eight years ago, I was wearing sizes 6-8 in everything, but when I injured my neck, that went to a size 8-10, and there I have stayed. It’s the largest I have been, ever, except when pregnant.

For some people, a size 10 would be their dream size. For others, they will never own pants this big. For me, this seems to be where my middle aged self has landed.

When I see myself in the mirror, I see a healthy looking mom, until I look at photos.

BUT, DAMMIT, I DON”T WANT TO NOT LOVE PHOTOS OF MY LIFE JUST BECAUSE I THINK I LOOK PLUMP! MY LIFE IS ACTUALLY PRETTY WONDERFUL.

The trauma inducing photo from Saturday night!
The trauma inducing photo from Saturday night!

So here is what I propose: All photos of myself will be looked at through a filter of love. I will be grateful for the experiences being photographed. I was having a blast with my darling husband and awesome friends Saturday night. I was laughing and dancing my fool head off. That must be my photo filter. Not Toaster or 1977 or Earlybird- just me being grateful for a body that is pretty healthy, that can climb around and lift stuff, that can hug my loved ones, that houses me in all my weird, neurotic glory.

Not one more minute of today will be wasted on worrying about my body shape. Only joy. And maybe a shortbread cookie for good measure.

*This is part of an ongoing series in my journey, today is the first time I am posting publicly. We’ll see how it goes!

Wee Magics and the Most Potent Magic

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Living a fairy life is a little tricky. Unless you work in a forest or art studio, wearing wings and glitter is probably not feasible, and answering your boss in chirps, bubbles, or ocarina melodies isn’t particularly conducive to an efficient workplace (even if your full time job is at a ren faire). So you have to find magic in smaller, less obtrusive places.

I like to find magic in nature. Walking on the Texas Renaissance Festival grounds, particularly in the Magic Garden, yields moments of magic every time, if I’m open to it.

This morning, an enormous dragonfly crossed my path, a fat bumblebee was pollinating trumpet vines, and sunlight dappled on little purple blossoms and stone benches. A little garter snake fled from me in the tall grass.

When I walked this morning, I didn’t put my ear buds in, so that I could listen to the birds. When I passed New Market Arbor, I inhaled a sweet smell of flowering vines.

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Really, little doses of magic can be found anywhere, if I’m looking: a tiny, tiny feather on the ground, a broken but beautiful dragon fly wing in my drought devastated back yard, wind chimes outside my bedroom window, my dachsund’s tummy. All of those things bring me joy and remind me of the magic that’s in the world.

I think I can also find magic in other, unexpected places: books, music, laughter with people I love, delicious food, wine, and shortbread cookies.

Honestly, though, I think the best place for me to find magic is also the place I tend most to overlook. It’s in my sweet husband’s love for me. After thirty years together, twenty eight of them married, we are pretty comfortable with each other. It’s easy to glance past each other, to listen with half an ear to one another’s opinions, predictions, worries, and dreams. We think we have heard it before. And often we have. But there is nothing more magical than being completely and wholly loved by another, and taking the time to hold hands and really look into that love’s eyes.

Yesterday, I watched a video that is circulating on Facebook. A man in his nineties sings “You’ll Never Know” to his wife, who lay dying in a hospital bed. Their love language transcended deafness, feeble vocals, and poor eyesight. The room was rich and redolent with love as magical as any fairy dust, as any rainbow.

Photo by Tanya Tarvin
Photo by Tanya Tarvin

Love is magic. It’s the best magic. Whether romantic, familial, or platonic, love scatters bits of enchantment wherever it is present.

Many call this “God.” I do believe love is Divine. It is a gift from the One who loves us and hopes that we will share that love.

Look for magic today. Love someone who needs it. Care for the earth. Rescue an animal. Hug a child or elderly person. Watch a sunset. Be thankful. Namaste.

Skeletor or Staypuft?

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I find myself in a corner. A prison of my own construction. This morning, I stood at the mirror, examining myself from several angles, bending to and fro to see how my body squidged as I contorted. I ate a very, very tiny breakfast when I got downstairs, let me tell you.

I want to take a moment to talk about weight. I know this is not an original topic, nor will my message be a great revelation. But I am okay with that, because I think we just have to keep talking about this. We have to own what we have done to women in this country, and that takes constant, repetitive chipping away at the wall.

Not too long ago, I went to the preview of a show my husband has been working on, a 1920’s murder mystery at the Prohibition Club in downtown Houston. Prohibition is the home of the Moonlight Dolls, a premiere burlesque troupe. Their photo is below. Look at them. They are all beautiful. And after weeks of rehearsing with them, my husband says they have body image issues, too. What the hell is wrong with us?

Dolls

I knew it was going to be a rough afternoon for me. About ten minutes into dinner, after watching a tiny twenty-something girl in a cute, wee outfit spin on a trapeze, then having four tiny twenty-somethings do the Charleston in g-strings and bandeau tops, I fled to the bathroom, where I sobbed on a toilet for pretty much the remainder of the show.

When I emerged from the stall, I found a large woman bent over the sink, eyes squeezed shut, breathing deeply. She, too, looked traumatized. She finally stood up, squared her shoulders, and went back to her table. I didn’t. I stood in the lobby and read a novel on my Kindle.

There’s a tape that plays in my head, almost constantly. It goes something like this:

“You shouldn’t eat that…suck in your stomach…look how thin that lady is…I bet she has more self control…I bet she is more lovable…how many minutes have I exercised this week so far?” You get the picture. I count calories on an app and worry if I forget to enter something.

When I was a kid, I remember two media moments that embedded themselves profoundly in my psyche. The first was the Special K ad campaign “Can You Pinch an Inch?” The commercials showed people playfully pinching their tummies,and if they had more than an inch of pudge, they needed to go on a diet. For a twelve year old girl approaching puberty, that dangerous message sank its claws deeply. I understood that my body must stay thin to be acceptable. The second media moment came when Cosmopolitan magazine declared that thighs must not touch, and featured an article in which perfectly lovely women who were at healthy weights were shown at a ten pound weight loss, and trumpeted for how much more beautiful they were after that weight loss.

Cosmo

I was not getting affirmation from my family when it came to weight or looks. When I tried to get my mother to tell me if I was pretty, I was told I was shallow and vain for wondering about my looks, when maybe a simple compliment for an insecure girl would have done a world of good. When I was about thirteen, I remember I hugged my maternal grandma and when I told her how much I loved hugging her, her reply was something like, “I’m fat.” I protested, but she told me that my grandfather would love her more if she could just lose twenty pounds. How’s that for a message about weight’s affect on your worth? I believed her, because I had seen that same grandfather stand at the picture window in their lakeside cabin and make fun of his neighbor’s body in her bikini.

One time, though she didn’t think I could hear, my other grandmother, while looking at pictures I had just had made and was so proud of, commented that I looked like I had put on about ten pounds (I was fifteen and wore a size eight, which would now be a 4. See photo below).

In drill team, we weighed in once weekly, and the officers were allowed to know our weights. I was always on the cusp of being sidelined, at 5’6″ and 128 pounds. In my freshman year of college, the coed p.e. instructor, a man, did a caliper test on all of us, in front of everyone, and declared me “obese” on my form. I weighed 135 pounds and wore a size 8.

A photo from the shoot when I had gained a few pounds!
A photo from the shoot when I had gained a few pounds!

You see, I was coming of age in the 1980’s, when Jane Fonda was everywhere and Karen Carpenter was the first celebrity to die of anorexia. Now there are scholarly articles on the prevalence of weight loss articles and images in the media in the ’80’s and what effect it was having on women’s body image. Health was out, thin was in.

(Fittingly, while proofing this post, I heard a commercial for Medifast “Be the best version of you!” on Pandora. It’s everywhere and all the time, I tell you.)

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I have never, ever been able to shake the worry about my weight. I worked as a fitness instructor through my twenties, and spent most of my thirties teaching beginning dance to eighth graders. Now, after one knee surgery, a severely sprained ankle, a bicep tendon injury, and a spinal surgery that removed two cervical discs and replaced them with a steel plate, I still work out as hard as my body will let me. I hurt, but I keep trying, because I want to be thin. I have ten pounds that I keep gaining and losing; it used to be the same ten pounds. I would lose it, it would come back. Something’s changed since menopause, though: I lose ten then gain back twelve. I had been wearing the same size for years, an 8 or ten, depending on fit. Now I am in tens to twelves. Some days I have equanimity about this, but sometimes I lay in bed, squeezing my pudge and mumbling my new dress size over and over, a litany of shame.

I tried my hardest to instill healthy messages to my two daughters about their own bodies. I knew how much I craved doses of reassurance when I was young. I fear my own insecurities rendered me a hypocrite, but I did try. Kate Winslet, an exquisitely beautiful and gifted actress, was recently cited on Huffington Post: “I was chubby, always had big feet, the wrong shoes, bad hair,” Winslet told Bear Grylls during an episode of his NBC show ‘Running Wild With Bear Grylls’ that aired Tuesday. “When I grew up, I never heard positive reinforcement about body image from any female in my life. I only heard negatives. That’s very damaging because then you’re programmed as a young woman to immediately scrutinize yourself and how you look…I stand in front of the mirror and say to Mia [her 14 year old daughter], ‘We are so lucky we have a shape. We’re so lucky we’re curvy. We’re so lucky that we’ve got good bums.’ And she’ll say, ‘Mummy, I know, thank God.’ It’s paying off.”

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There has to be a place between Skeletor and Stay-Puft for this woman in her 50’s (child of the 80’s pop culture reference!) If I get too thin, my face looks drawn and skeletal, if I am too heavy, I look puffy and unhealthy. I must find the balance. More importantly, I need to change the tapes that play in my brain. I need to stop looking at myself in the mirror and castigating myself. And though I haven’t carved the word “FAT” into my own thigh with a pair of scissors since 2009, I still recite it to myself in a million ways every day.  It’s time to move forward, to come out of hiding in the bathroom stall, to see myself for what is deeper than cellulite, and to be grateful for my healthy, strong body. Hell yeah, I can pinch an inch. What of it?

Kjerstin Gruys spent a year without mirrors. She researches how body image affects women, and wrote about it. What a gift to the world.

Kjerstin Gruys: A Year Without Mirrors

 

Five Things Tinker Bell Taught Me

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Tinker Bell is sort of the Paris Hilton of fairies. She’s blonde, pretty much everyone has heard of her, and she can act a bit bratty sometimes.

According to her creator, J.M. Barrie, Tinker Bell is “exquisitely gowned in a skeleton leaf, cut low and square, through which her figure could be seen to the best advantage. She was slightly inclined to EMBONPOINT [a plump hourglass figure].”

Though her voice is the tinkling of bells, she speaks with salty language, calling Peter a “silly ass” when he suggests she be Wendy’s fairy, since he is a boy and can’t have a fairy, and tries to have Wendy assassinated upon entrance to Neverland, telling the Lost Boys to shoot the “Wendy Bird” on Pan’s instructions. When it counts, though, she drinks poison to save Peter from death. She is complex and common, a mender of pots and pans in Neverland.

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I adore her. I adore her in her spoiled diva-ness, her single-minded purpose to be the center of Peter’s world, no matter the tactics required to get there. I adore her little puffy Disney shoes and her leaf green short dress.

Tink may arguably be the most popular of all Disney females. I know she hasn’t infiltrated the airwaves with a song like Elsa’s “Let It Go,” but she is now the central character of the entire Disney Fairies franchise, she flies over Aurora’s and Cinderella’s castles every night during the Disney fireworks, she even has a 5 1/2 inch replica at Madame Tussaud’s. She flies over the opening credits in Disney films, sprinkling magic over the logo, and her star was the celebratory star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame 50th anniversary. Tink is legit. I mean, Reese Witherspoon is going to be playing her in a live action film- an Oscar winning actress as Tinker Bell! You can’t get more legit than that!

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My daughters and I recently met Tink at her home in Pixie Hollow in Disneyland. There were several cute fairies to be found in Pixie Hollow, along with some very cute scenery. But when we got to Tink, we were like little girls! She was petite and perfect, right down to the puffs on her slippers. Our favorite Tink, however, is angry Tink. We like her saucy and belligerent. This Tinker Bell was so sweet, dainty, and smiling. We asked her if she would mind doing a photo (of course she wouldn’t, that’s what she’s there for), but we asked if she would please do the angry Tink face. She told us she really wasn’t supposed to, that she was to be kind and polite at all times or she’d get in trouble with Peter. But after a quick glance to make sure there were no little ones waiting behind us, she crossed her arms and made a perfect pout.

Tinker Bell, common or not, is a fairy who knows what she wants: Peter’s affection and to be the baddest fairy on the block (or Hollow or island).

As I have stated before in my blog, I didn’t come into my love for all things fairy until I was an adult. I didn’t see Disney’s film of Peter Pan until I was in my late twenties, so my love for Tinker Bell comes from a grown up place. Here are a few things I have learned from Tinker Bell:

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1. Have a marketable skill, but look wonderful while doing it! In the Victorian England of Tinks’ creation, a girl might need a job, a way to pay the rent on one’s tiny treehouse. Tinker Bell is a tinker- she mends pots and pans! But she looks beautiful while doing it, she is, after all, wearing a “skeleton leaf.” I have not quite mastered the art of looking fabulous while I work, I am usually in some dowdy pair of capris and flats, with my hair dangling without style. If I could wear wings to work, that would change instantly.

2. Puffs on shoes are always appropros. When I was in junior high and roller skating rinks were all the rage, I saved my pennies for a set of yellow puffs to tie on my skates, they pretty much looked just like Tinker Bell’s shoes in the painting at right. Though they didn’t glow, they made me feel quite invincible on the wood floor, enough that I would teach myself to skate backwards. But not, however, enough that I would work up the courage to ask Rob P. for a couples skate.

3. Being clapped for always makes you feel better. After she has drunk Peter’s poisoned medicine to prevent him from swallowing it and dying, Peter calls on all the children who believe, if they can hear him from Neverland, to clap to resurrect her. The applause enlivens Tinker Bell so that she can be resurrected and go with Peter to fight Captain Hook. I like applause, too. I love coming our for a curtain call and being lauded. And clapping doesn’t have to be literal- a friend or coworker can notice something you did well, a spouse can remind you why he chose you, a child can wrap her arms around your knees, telling you “you’re the best mommy in the world.” Applause comes in many forms, and it makes us feel better.

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4. Sometimes inappropriate language gets the point across best. When I was a little girl, my mother would not allow the use of the words “fart,” “butt,” or “crap.” Or, for that matter, “darn.” Hard to imagine, right? I clearly remember the first time I said “butt.” I was on the playground in fifth grade, we were seated on the blacktop, lined up in classes to walk back into Sally B. Elliott Elementary School. I looked around to make sure no one was paying attention to me (I don’t know why I bothered, I was ever the Invisible Girl), then whispered behind my cupped hand: “Butt!” When lightning didn’t strike, I said it twice more. As I moved through junior high and high school, I occasionally dusted my sentences with a choice naughty word. After my husband left ministry, I decided that one of my new-found freedoms would be the occasional cussword, in appropriate social settings. Now, I know some will disagree with me, but I think strong language can be empowering. I am tired of women being expected to talk pretty and sweet all the time, damn it.

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5. Fight and sacrifice for the one you love. I don’t condone the pulling of hair, like Tinker Bell did to Wendy, nor the attempted assassination. But props to Tink for doing what she felt she had to to protect Pan. The heart knows what it wants. Tink loved Peter, and no other girl was interfering with that. When Hook poisoned Peter’s medicine, Tink drank it herself to keep Pan from dying. There are people in my life whom I love completely without reservation or hesitation. Not only my husband and children, but other family members or dear, dear friends. I think that to love and be loved so completely is magical, no fairy dust required.

It takes faith to fly. Faith in one’s own self, in one’s dreams and aspirations, in the universe that holds us. J.M. Barrie, Tinker Bell’s creator, had this to say about belief: “For to have faith is to have wings.” It has taken me long years, but I hope that my wings are finally sprouting.

Clap Your Hands If You Believe!

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At various times in my adult life, I have played a fairy in my tenure as an entertainer at the Texas Renaissance Festival. I have played two queens- Titania (the good queen) and Mab (the bad queen). Titania is a Shakespearean fairy, the queen of the fae in his popular play A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mab, sometimes called Maeve, can be found in Celtic mythology and is also featured in a Shakespearean play- Romeo and Juliet. She is the warrior side of feminine fae royalty. When I played her, I was the wicked queen, thwarting true love between my fairy born daughter and her mortal lover, but I couldn’t help injecting her with humor, donning magical “flight goggles” and swooping through Sherwood Forest like a demented dragonfly.

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I’ve also played a silly sprite named Hush who could not speak, but only blew bubbles and tooted notes in the little ocarina she wore around her neck. Hush would weave ivy garlands and create sculptures of twigs, string, and baubles she had picked up on the faire grounds. These sculptures were always placed in the mouths of a clay planter shaped like three upright fish, which was across the creek from the patron path in the Magic Garden. After sculpting or weaving, Hush would lay down for a nap, and I could hear parents pointing me out to their kids: “Look, there’s a fairy taking a nap! Blow her a kiss!” This fairy is especially dear to me. She was born in a year when, due to a medical mishap, my vocal cords were paralyzed and I couldn’t speak. Her bubbles and music became the language of the silenced actress.

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I spent one faire weekend as Puck, a mischievous creature who tumbled about and ate Twinkies from the Twinkie henge my fellow fairies and I created. Yes, there were a few ants and bits of dirt on those Twinkies. We suffer for our art!

I love being a fairy. I love the color, the sparkle, the playfulness, and the look of wonder in a child’s eyes when she blows a bubble with me or  hears my ocarina. I love that little ones gifted me with dragon tears or flowers. I love spending time amongst the leaves, water, and dappled sunshine that grace our faire’s Magic Garden.

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When you spend so much time sprinkling fairy dust on little ones, some of the dust is bound to land on you, too.

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I didn’t really know about fairies when I was a little girl. I did not have a mom that fostered a belief in the magical, I did not own any fairy tale books. I did not know about Tinkerbell, nor own a wand or set of nylon wings. So I live that magic now. I live it with my own daughters, who not only grew up with their own sets of wings, they watched their mom don wings and makeup and carry a pouch of dust and stones to share.

We are told that once we reach a certain age, usually around ten, that play is for babies, that it’s time to get to the serious stuff and stop daydreaming. That’s ridiculous. What is this beautiful planet, if not a work of breathtaking magic? What is true love, if not incandescent magic? What is a loving family, if not the most precious, magical miracle of all?

Living life playfully saves us. It heals us. It gives us hope when life buffets us with illness, debt, and loss. I believe that keeping one’s sense of wonder at little things (like the shimmering dragonfly I saw in the wildflowers this morning) gives us the power to stand up each day. Spending time stargazing or cloud watching opens our hearts to the loving energy that is so very needed in our world.

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I refuse to buy into the idea that because I am in my forties, I have to sit around in a curmudgeonly snit, or spend my time doing only practical things, thinking only practical thoughts.

I refuse to give in to cynicism.

I live magic and imagination at my faire, and now I want to bring it home. So, I am starting a fairy garden in my back yard. I will be sharing bits of that journey as it goes, from plantings to furnishings. And who knows, I might just don my wings while I work.

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