Many who know me believe my life is magical, that the shadows of my childhood have been banished. And in some ways, they’re right. My adult life has been enchanted: a long marriage to my best companion, glasses of wine, beloved friends, grandbaby toes and giggles under my roof, puppy kisses, wonderful books, all that stuff. My life seems pretty charmed.
It’s got some darkness, too. There’s some Maleficent energy to counteract the Aurora sparkle. All authentically lived lives are that way; anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t living in truth. Sometimes, we’re floating above the trees, but other times we’re mired in the muck of life’s sorrow.
Maybe the most fantastically and imaginatively magical part of my span here on this beautiful orb called Earth has been the fairy element; yes, I have been a fairy, the professional kind who gets paid to don wings and glitter and charm the public. Bruises have been suffered from the weight of wings. Tears of “smile fatigue” have been shed. Knees have suffered from kneeling to the level of a four-year-old’s bright face to hear a sweet whisper.
In the early years of my fae life, I embodied the nymph Nimue in a silver dress that was a replica of Drew Barrymore’s in Ever After and a crown so tall it caught on the tree limbs from which I attempted to enter a fog-laced stage. The actor playing Merlin cackled under his breath as he surreptitiously disentangled me as I sang.
I walked the gravel paths of the Renaissance festival where I worked as two queens of literature and myth: Mab of Celtic lore, and Titania of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Every day, I donned wings and glitter, accessorized with a pouch full of glass stones to give as favors to the small children who timidly approached all day for a little dollop of fairy enchantment. Each morning, I danced with abandon, spinning and skipping to the most delicate and playful music played by flute, cello, and harp; as I twirled, the sun glinted off my shimmery wings, the iridescent cobalt blue silk I wore shifting and changing colors. Those moments of abandon reminded me of being a little girl twirling in my front yard until I was so dizzy I lay down to watch the azure sky spinning above me. You only get those kinds of moments in your adulthood when you decide to stop worrying about being respectable and start allowing joy to inhabit you.
In the Quiet Time, that period when my throat was silenced by a vocal cord injury, I created a fairy persona, Hush, a playful sprite who collected found sparkly things, magpie-like, and spoke only with my hands and face or the musical toots from my little pottery ocarina. Being a fairy, as an adult, gave me a voice and the chance to revisit the little girl who had struggled and been so lonely. Hush, Mab, Titania, and Nimue blessed me with an opportunity, undergirded by the security of knowing I was surrounded by family and friends, to play. It’s like that scene in Stephen Spielberg’s movie Hook when the Lost Boys try to get the adult Peter Pan to cut loose with them: they play, and he just takes a ball to the gut. Once he has been in Neverland long enough, though, and remembers the love of his children back home, he can play. And fly.
Dragons and Time Clocks
About five years ago, I stopped playing. Packed away the costumes that represented characters I had inhabited, stopped auditioning for plays and musicals, just settled down. Settled into the organizational tasks of my job without the relieving balance of fun, whether at work or on my off time. Though these days, I play tag and peekaboo with my grandkids, those games, while special because of the giggles and memories of their baby laughter, don’t stimulate brain and activate my body in a challenging, restorative way.
I went looking for information about adult play, not expecting to find much there. Who, after all, believes that playing is an important part of adult life? It turns out: a lot of people, including mental health professionals.
Not so very long ago, our office (which has undergone major turnover that has rendered the following scenario obsolete) staff kept Nerf guns and tiny catapults at our desks. It was not unusual for spontaneous battles to break out, and wild laughter would fill the empty spaces between desks and meetings as we bonded and decompressed. Our staff felt more like a team back then. Playing in our offices as well as in our personal time helps us to feel better. It keeps us sane and healthy and happy. It helps us to connect in an authentic way with others. Imagination and play defeat the dragons of boredom and isolation, at work and at home.
Once Upon A Time…
I was my own Tinkerbell. Nothing more magical than that. I learned to play, and to fly, and to trust my own inner voice; the restored voice that can sing or speak truth, even when intertwined with the snares and branches of the expectations or foibles of others. I developed the strength and power to face down dragons, the real ones: family trauma, addiction, loss. I’ve lost touch with that power, though.
So here’s my magic spell, distilled from all the little tokens ever given to me by children who believed: don the tulle. Swing the wooden sword. Wear the wings. Write the poem. Find friends who will play and make the magic happen with you. Speak the truth. It’s all love, and that’s what we need most to vanquish the sinister shadows.
Sometimes, when you’re writing about your trauma, you discover that you’re not as alone as you might have thought. You are blessed to find others who have walked in pain and found ways out of it into the sun. Nancy is one of those women. A mental health professional with her own history of struggle, she shared this story of discovering how her relationship with her daughter and granddaughter could be healed by asking a simple, painful question.
I just turned 50 a few days ago. As I spent my last day being 49, I had thought to myself, “ I want to just enjoy my last day of officially being young.” Each morning as I look into the mirror, I see more grey hairs lining my forehead, longer lines outlining the corners of my eyes, and dark circles underneath my once bright green irises. I notice more frequent trips to the hairdresser to brighten me up with sassy, energetic, red hues that polish up the emeralds underneath my eyelids. While I attempt to justify the more frequent visits, I also look at my hair, face, and skin, and see the tiredness. I feel my body ache and they are all reminders that I am no longer young. I have raised my daughter, have peaked in my career, and much rather enjoy a slow and quiet life.
I woke up on August 1, 2020, my fiftieth birthday, imagining myself as a tall person, walking away from my life, with my head turned away as if something really great had just happened. And I really wanted to know, how will they remember me?
I have spent a half a century trying to rush life, and thinking how nothing I have done seems to ever be good enough. Things have never been good enough for me, and I think I often pushed my need for perfection on to my daughter Briana, and also on my little grandmonster, Trinity.
I remember sitting at the dining room table one day when Briana was about 11, struggling with her math homework. I will never forget the sting of the only words I remember from that conversation. As I towered over her, she looked up at me with tears drowning her eyes and said, “Mom, I don’t have to be perfect! Why do I always have to be perfect?” I am not sure if those were her exact words, but those are the only words I heard.
I felt a heaviness in my chest that I had never felt before. I realized in that moment I was passing my inadequacies about myself on to my daughter. My need for perfection was being poured into her heart. And when I looked into her eyes, I knew I was hurting her.
I still see her face looking at me today every time I ride her hard, or when she says to me, “Mom, nothing I say or do is ever good enough for you.”
I don’t want to leave this world with her last thought of me being that she didn’t think I believed she was good enough.
The truth is, she is beyond good enough. She has become who I never was. She is the opposite of me. I am emotional and sensitive. She is able to brush things off. She is patient and I am not. She cares little about what people think of her, yet I harshly struggle coping with rejection.
One evening in 2018, I was meditating and reading my Bible and came across a scripture I had read a million times. But it never spoke to me the way it did that evening.
I had prayed before opening my Bible, as I usually do, and asked God to show me whatever He wanted me to learn.
“And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” Ephesians 6:4, NKJV
As I laid sprawled across my bed, staring at those words on the page, I heard this voice ask me, “What makes her angry?” I stopped for a moment. It was one of those moments where the air was thick yet light. It covered my body almost as if someone was breathing on me.
I answered the voice back and said, “but, God, I don’t know.” As I answered God, burning tears began pouring down my face. My stomach ached. My feet ached.
My entire body went numb.
My daughter was in the living room and she and I had just had a conversation about Trinity. At the time, Trinny was in Ohio with her other grandmother. Briana was contemplating allowing Trinity to stay in Ohio for the school year. For some, this would be wonderful. But, at the age of 6, Trinny had already had such a hard life because her father had left, and she had watched her mom be abused for her entire life.
I didn’t think it was a good idea for her to stay so far away. It was too far from Trinny’s familiar life. But, Briana is Trinny’s mom. And no matter what fight we were fighting, Briana is her mom and I had to accept that.
She is so grown up now, struggling, but she is still the opposite of me. And Trinny. My sweet little Trinny is even more different than both of us. Such a sweet, special, unique personality. Trinny has a tender, sensitive heart, is smart, and is a bit too aware of things around her.
The memories of the phone call I received one late evening when Trinny was about 3 will never leave me. Calvin, my ex husband called and told me I had to get over to Briana’s right away. Since this was not a regularly occurring phone call, especially from him, I grabbed my purse, hobbled to my car, and sped over to Briana’s house. Since I have osteoarthritis, pain in my right knee prevents me from walking up the stairs much.
However, that evening, somehow some type of super powers flooded my body and when I arrived, I flew out of my car an ran upstairs to her apartment.
In the middle of the living room, there was Trinny pedaling on her little stationary bike, oblivious to the shouting and arguing going on around her. In my experience as a mental health counselor, I knew immediately she was used to this. She had witnessed this a million times.
Against Briana’s begging and pleading, I scooped up Trinny, and flew downstairs with her in my arms, terrified her father was going to follow me. My heart was racing so fast I could barely breathe. Hands shaking, my fingers fumbled finding the locks for the doors. I peeled away in my car and rushed home.
Trinny didn’t saw a word.
When we got to my house, we snuggled and went to sleep. However, my mind was racing a million miles an hour. It was difficult falling asleep, and I didn’t want Trinny to know how afraid I was, or how anxious I felt inside.
When I closed my eyes,my thoughts turned to God. I hadn’t been to church in a million years. But I remembered Him at that moment.
The last thought in my mind before I fell asleep was, “I cannot keep her safe. But I know someone who can.”
It was then that Trinny and I developed a very special bond. We began attending church faithfully every Sunday. Not only did we attend church, but we worshiped in the car together. She began staying at home with me in the evenings, and for the next 8 months while her father was incarcerated, I was her care taker. One Sunday at church, I’m not sure where it was coming from, but that voice spoke to me and asked for her to have her eyes and ears prayed for – that her eyes and ears be protected from the rest of the world.
And they were. Still, she seems lost sometimes. Because I eventually left our church, I feel guilty and responsible, thinking that it is my fault she no longer has God in her life. Sometimes I feel I robbed her of that and that it was my responsibility to ensure that the seeds of beauty and love continued to be planted and watered inside of her. She no longer wants to snuggle with me and ask me in her sweet soft voice, “Nana, can I lay on you?” as she would lay next to me, with her thumb in her mouth, her Bottie (blanket) next to her, with her head on my shoulders, so peaceful.
Those days are gone.
As I enter a new era of my life, I cannot help but ask, “How will they remember me?”
Will they remember me by the light I carry inside of me? Or will they remember me because I never took the time to let them just … be?
Will God remember me and the nights I prayed out and cried for them in private? Will He show them how much I loved them or share with them the conversations He and I had?
They will remember me as always being there when they needed something. But I don’t think they will remember that I stopped what I was doing because work was more important. And I don’t think they will remember me asking, “Can you share with me why you are angry?” Or telling them, “I want to understand so that I can love you the way you need to be loved.”
Yet they carried on in their lives being happy and being the mommy and daughter that I had only dreamed of.
I don’t want to be remembered with regret. When I woke up on my 50th birthday, I realized that life is like writing a series of storybooks. When one is story is finished, another one begins.
And while I have been seeking the answer to the question, “What is my purpose?” God put the answer in front of me 30 years ago when Briana was born. He already wrote that story. I just never took that book off of the shelf to read it to her.
Sometimes we focus so much on things we want that we don’t take the time to realize that everything we need is right in front of us. We don’t always take the time to ask our children, “What makes you angry?” They have bad days just like we do. And they have hurtful life experiences that are no less painful than our own.
We don’t need to wait until we are 50 to ask ourselves, “How will they remember me?” And, if we are still alive to answer that question, then we have the opportunity to not only write that story, but to live it.
When I see Trinny today being so patient, waiting for me to tear myself away from my work to spend time playing a game with her, it tears my heart up with guilt. She is 8 years old now. The things that are important in her life are the things that have always been important. “Don’t provoke her to be angry. Sit down and spend time with her. Read her the Bible, or play some worship music and sing together the way you used to.”
And when I see my daughter being so thoughtful of me, I can’t stop wondering, “How will she remember me?” Will her memories be of me being the mom she always wanted for her life?
They say that the last thing we say or do is what people remember most. Did I fuss because Trinny didn’t fold the blankets right, or did I take the time away from my computer to play a game with her when she asked? Did I tell Briana, “I am proud of you for who you are,” or did I take the time to ask either one of them, What makes you angry?” and do everything I could to make sure I didn’t? Did I take the time to teach them about God’s love and the importance of faith?
The thought of leaving behind any memory or legacy other than, “She loved God and her light shined upon every life that crossed her path,” pains me.
Life gets busy. Priorities get rearranged. Ultimately we take life for granted. Before we know it, we are reflecting upon the old cliche that “life goes too fast.”
I am grateful God allowed me to see another day. I am even more grateful that He speaks to me. That I’ve told Briana and Trinny how I love them and am proud of them.
And, I suppose, when I look in the mirror and see the gray and the lines of my aging life, I can embrace them rather than reflect on all of the things I should have done and didn’t.
Today, I got a phone call from Briana saying, “Trinny wants to know if she can come over,” and I wondered to myself, “What does she REALLY want?” I smiled. She just wanted me to do what I said I was going to do. She just wanted to know that something that was important to her was also important to someone else.
I stopped what I was doing, We ordered her school supplies. And just like we did when she was 3, and 4, and 5, and 6, we got into the car, and I played a new worship song for her. She laid her head down, put her thumb in her mouth, and peacefully fell asleep.
And if anything happened to me today, that is exactly how they would remember me.
Nancy Richardson has her Master’s degree in Adult Education with Human Services Counseling from the University of Wisconsin- Platteville, and a BS in Psychology from Upper Iowa University.
She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Clinical Substance Abuse Counselor. She currently does intensive in-home therapy for children and their families.
She has been an addictions counselor since 2005, and a dual diagnosis therapist since 2015. During her career, she worked very closely with the opioid population.
Her work includes writing grants, increasing access to medication-assisted treatment, improving treatment protocols, and improving quality of care.
While working on these projects and while working with her clients, Nancy discovered her purpose in her life. She is often called “The Hope Dealer” and has made it her personal mission to never let anyone walk away from therapy without hope.
School started this week; with students split between virtual and in-person teaching, economic disparity and the limitation of resources for students in the lower socio-economic strata has been thrust into sharp relief. Kids without high speed internet, quick pay Amazon options, or college-educated parents are in a pickle.
I was one of those kids, back in the 1970s, before high speed internet. But the plight was the same. Disparity is a constant, after all.
We didn’t keep books in my house. My parents didn’t read much themselves, and they definitely didn’t read to me. My literacy was fostered by the captions on coloring book pages, Sesame Street, and The Electric Company. Then I discovered the library at school. Ramona Quimby became my best friend in the years when my unbathed, scraggly self didn’t have pals. Beezus was my big sister, Mr. and Mrs. Quimby my parents. Though I never would have dreamed to indulge the sass that lay buried under my compliant surface, it was there. Every time Ramona mouthed off or struggled with her woolen stockings, I loved her. The days at school when we received our Scholastic book order forms were highlights that thrilled me; on newsprint paper was a four-page brochure of paperback books we could order. I saved up, or sometimes my dad had a little spare change, and I proudly turned in my order, anticipating the day a box of books would be delivered to the teacher and I’d have something new and wonderful: with a slick, untouched book cover that would open upon magical words and worlds, I could inhabit every wish I had ever made. Even in the seven years I taught elementary school, I kept up these book orders, bookworm-y teachers love getting new books just as much as bookworm-y kids.
I learned that our town had a portable Book Mobile, a converted bright blue school bus, it was an extension of the town’s public library and traveled to all the elementary schools in the afternoons so that kids who didn’t have transportation to the library could access its wonder. A Wrinkle in Time never had a more devoted follower. I made Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit my own fairy godmothers, Charles Wallace my brother. I imagined visiting other dimensions by tesseract. I wondered what a Bunsen burner was and how a mom could be a scientist.
I saved my pennies for the book fair and bought a graphic novel of Dracula. My maternal grandmother took me to the library when I visited her in New Mexico or, later, at their lake house in Brownwood, Texas, and I checked out Lois Lenski’s Strawberry Girl over and over. It was a summer touchstone, I only read it when visiting my grandma. My paternal grandmother had Encyclopedia Brown books in the den, and I tucked in on the bright orange mid-century linen couch and read when it got too hot to play in the west Texas sun. I wept every time that Old Dan and Little Ann perished at the end of Where the Red Fern Grows.
Once my teachers noticed my voracious appetite for books and looked at my grades in spelling, they realized I could be a contender in the Scripps spelling bee, it’s the one that you still see on television. Now I had a booklet of words to study and learn! I cloistered myself in my pretty yellow room, copying the words over and over with a pencil or recording them in the cassette player my dad had bought as an Amway tool. I carried my booklet with me everywhere, and begged people to quiz me over words.
At the bee, as each word was called, I repeated it, closed my eyes, breathed deeply, and visualized the page. Here was the miracle of my spelling strategy: I could see each page, find the word’s location on it, and, using my finger to trace the letters as my right hand hung by my side, spell it perfectly. I spelled with confidence, emphasizing each final letter with a declarative tone that left no room for doubt. I wasn’t smug, I just knew. I trusted my own voice and my own gift. The youngest girl in the competition, I watched competitor after competitor leave the stage and take a seat at cafeteria tables. Then, a snag. A problem. A hitch. The pronouncer called out the word “forte,” pronouncing it “fort-ay.” This was not a word that had ever been called to us in our after school practices with Mrs. Goodwin. My brain searched for such a thing on the F page that existed in my memory, but came up with nothing. I asked for both definition and sentence, neither helped. I relied on my phonics comprehension, took a deep breath, and spelled the word phonetically: f-o-r-t-a-y? Ending my spelling on an upward inflection alerted everyone in the room that I was unsure. I waited anxiously, but not for long. They rang that stupid little silver bell. Ding! Neither my homeroom teacher, who had been the coach at school, nor the pronouncers at the table caught on to the fact that the word has multiple pronunciations and meanings, and so one was giving me “a person’s strong suit” and the other was giving me “the musical term meaning to get louder” along with both pronunciations. I was thoroughly lost. When I sat down, I spelled every word to myself, furiously and correctly, for the rest of the contest.
You never forget your first spelling bee loss.
As I continued up grade levels, I kept spelling, and I kept winning. When I won the eighth grade bee, and thus the right to move on to the district level competition, the Jackson Middle School newspaper sent a boy to interview me, which he did before the tardy bell rang in English class. We were surrounded by other students, who were listening attentively:
“Why do you think you’re so good?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess I just have a knack for it.”
He didn’t recognize the word. He did not have the vocabulary.
“A knack? What’s that? Are you trying to show us how smart you are? How much smarter than all of us?” He laughed. Others laughed. I was both embarrassed and indignant. Why should I have to pretend I didn’t know these words? Why should I have to dumb down my vocabulary, which was extensive, to meet the lower denominator? I learned to be more discreet about my intelligence that day. I didn’t stifle it, my hunger for words was too powerful to ever be curbed, they were the flame that fueled every step, every decision I would ever make. Words, books, stories, they were a candle in the dim shadows.
I kept competing, and winning, in spelling all the way through high school. I even have two adult spelling bee trophies that I treasure. I admit that I mentally correct spelling on social media, and the office has me proof everything.
Studies indicate a direct correlation between literacy and mental health. Being equipped to succeed in reading or given the opportunity to develop empathy through identification with a character helps kids to move through the world in emotionally healthy ways. Books and words saved me when I was a struggling kid. They still do, and all of us who are fortunate enough to have easy access to knowledge and its delivery systems owe it to our fellow humans to find ways to share the light.
So, what’s your favorite book?
If you’re interested in supporting literacy, here’s a link to the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation.
I am really glad to share the words and work of mental health professional and fellow blogger, Hannah Siller. She and I share some common life experiences: traumatic childhoods, addicted parents, fractured sibling relationships. Coming from trauma doesn’t sentence us to sitting in pain, though. There is, in everyone’s story, an opportunity for redemption, for repair, for reclaiming who we are in our very deepest souls. I hope you’ll be encouraged by Hannah’s story:
To start at the beginning is too complex. This isn’t a bedtime story that can begin with a “Once upon a time” and end with an “And they lived happily ever after”. Trauma is messy, living in an abusive and toxic environment is messy. Those who have been allowed to glimpse these less pretty parts of my life often say it would make a great movie or book. I guess in some ways they would be right, but it’s not that simple. To know the past I endured doesn’t get anyone any closer in knowing the me that I am now. For a person that has experienced prolonged types of trauma such as childhood abuse, there is this permanent change that happens. We are our past, but at the same time, we are also our journey to heal. This is a process that is continuous and is lifelong. But if that is the case then where would one consider to be the end of their story? Where would I set the last chapter of a book or the final scene of a movie? Searching for this answer kept me from really telling my story. But then it found me. So instead I’m going to start at the end, or at least what I consider to be the end of my trauma story.
The summer of 2018 was kind of a big-time in my life. I had just graduated with my master’s degree in counseling with an emphasis in trauma and crisis and was figuring out what my next steps would be. A lot of defining moments would come from this summer, but for this entry, we will focus on just one, Jess. Jess had been the daughter of my dad’s girlfriend for a good part of my younger years. The four of us lived together, Jess and I were raised as sisters. Our parents’ relationship was problematic, as they were both drug dealers and users. With a relationship like that comes many issues of violence and potential legal problems. It ended in epic fashion with her mother in jail and my father not. Emotions in both families were high, for obvious reasons, and Jess and I were separated and kept apart, forcibly at times.
Given that this was far before the internet was commonplace and social media was yet to exist, there was little I could do to connect. Once I reached adulthood, even with these means, so much time had passed it was near impossible to even know where to look. But it was Jess, and I had to try. Every few months I would spend a late-night scrolling through Facebook for a lead, occasionally messaging someone who looked similar to her mother or who had her name. For years I did this with no luck. Then on August 19th, 2018, I tried one last time. The next morning, I received a response. After almost 30 years I had found Jess and she was once again in my life.
Our relationship wouldn’t be the forever I had wanted, but that is a story for another time. At the moment I had found a missing piece of my life. It’s impossible to completely explain all of the emotions I experienced during this reunion, but what I can say with certainty is that the experience changed me. Suddenly I found a connection between my past and my present that I never had before. Growing up in an abusive environment like I had, there is this question you tend to ask yourself, who would I be if I had never had to endure such pain? Being around Jess answered that for me. There were these times she would comment “oh that’s my Hannah” as if she almost expected me to do or say exactly what I just did. It would take me by surprise that this person who had been so long removed from my life still knew me so well. Somehow through all of the bad stuff I still at my core retained who I really was. Maybe in a different environment, I would have had more opportunities or chosen a different career path, but as far as the root of my being I was always this person.
I gained closure from this relationship. Jess set straight things about myself and my life that no one else could. She had experienced so much of the same things I did in those early years. She could confirm the memories of events I had and allow me to discuss the pain of these events with complete understanding. But most importantly I found that the love I had carried for her was the same she had carried for me. Through everything, I went through there was one person out there that loved me and thought of me and to whom I was important. By finding Jess I was finally able to find an ending of my trauma story. My past will always have a degree of influence over me but the story and the pain from that part of my life is officially over.
*Names are modified to protect the identity of the individuals discussed. Please respect the privacy of these individuals and refrain from posting additional information.
* I have worked hard to heal from my past through professional therapy and personal growth. Over the years I have become comfortable enough to start using this story in public speaking events and as a major part of my writing. Writing about personal trauma can be very triggering and is not recommended for those still working through trauma unless instructed to do so by a mental health professional.
About the Author
After pursuing a career as a clinical counselor for at-risk youth, I made the important decision to go back to school. I am currently working towards my Doctorate in psychology, which I hope to find better trauma preventions and PTSD treatments. My spare time is devoted to my business Serene Life Consulting, which provides life coaching, public speaking survives, and is home to home to my blog. Like in all areas of my life, the purpose of my writing is to bring mental health education and an inspirational message to others. My dream is to continue this message throughout my life in everything I do. From teaching to publishing a book to research, I just want to make everything I lived through count.
To check out more of Hannah’s work including Life Coaching Services and her current blogging project “Diary of a Trauma Survivor” see her website:
“What do you do when disappointment comes? When it weighs on you like a rock, you can either let it press you down until you become discouraged, even devastated, or you can use it as a stepping-stone to better things.”– Joyce Meyer
Yesterday, while on my walk, the word “Disappointment” was dropped into my head and heart as if by some Divine force. Sometimes, that’s how my life works, God lays a bread crumb trail to where I’m needed. I followed the crumbs to Facebook, where I asked people to share their experiences of disappointment. Nearly twenty hours later, I am still getting pings on Messenger, and the stories have brought me to tears.
I’ll start with mine.
I have, for two consecutive years, been interviewing to work with the Disney Corporation in a department so perfectly suited to my talents, training, and experience that it might have been created specifically for me: to host in the student field trip program at Disneyland in Anaheim. Last year, I got so close to a job offer that I put myself on a waiting list for a spot at a long-term camping resort just a couple of miles from the park, and, in an attempt to put manifestation to work for a dream, I wrote a blog post that I never got to publish to announce my new position:
“And so here I am. I am about to leave for Anaheim, where I will spend my days with student groups, taking everything I have learned about teaching and classroom management as well as all the skills I honed running the School Days program at Texas Renaissance Festival to walk alongside them in the most magical place I know. I will get to share my love of theatre and my love of Mickey Mouse. I don’t know if this will be a forever career or a seasonal one, but I have spent enough time among seasonal festival business people to have no fear of the unknown.”
It is only slightly comforting to know that the coronavirus would have halted the dream. Had I gotten the job and toodled my tiny camper to Cali only to be sent home like all the frontline Disney employees were in April, the knowledge that I had gotten the offer, that I had done the work for a couple of months, that I would have a place waiting for me when the virus had run its course, does not dampen the tremendous sense of disappointment.
It is likely that this year I would have gotten an offer in September. No more. The parks are barely functioning, schools are unlikely to open as normal this fall. Budgets on both ends of this equation are stripped to their bare minimums. I may be able to postpone this dream for one more year, perhaps September of 2021 will bring me an offer. But damn, it has been excruciating to examine that dream, then stash it in the box on my highest closet shelf, a clear plastic bin full of Mickey ears, souvenir pins, and my name tag from the Disney leadership summit I attended in 2018.
A dear friend of our family, a young woman I held when she was just three days old, graduated from high school this June. We had watched all her posts of spinning flags in her school’s corps, her photos of banquets in pretty gowns, her braces on, then her gleaming, perfect smile when the braces came off. She didn’t get her prom, her graduation was weird. I had a hoodie custom made for her to wear at her university this fall, but her family is not even sure what university life will look like- will she get to move into the dorm, attend Fish Camp, pledge a club? Disappointment.
A friend miscarried at 7. 5 weeks, but because of Covid didn’t have access to in-person medical care until her 13th week, when an ultrasound revealed a gestational sac that had stopped growing. With only virtual visits and a revolving door of doctors, her diagnosis was missed, and what was meant to be a Father’s Day announcement of a new baby became instead a D-and-C. Profound, heart-wrenching disappointment.
My friends have lost dream careers, canceled long-awaited family reunions, foregone first-baby showers, and summer camps. They’re scared they’ll lose their aging parents during this awful time when they cannot say goodbye except through a video app on the phone or computer. One is, in fact, watching her mother die and she can’t say goodbye in person. A couple have lost close family members and could not seek the comfort of ritual and family to sustain them in their grief.
One of the strongest women I know wrote:
“This pandemic has caused great grief and managed to unbottle all previous grief. Nowhere to go, no outlet to channel it, it just keeps crashing over and over again.
The riptide has taken me and all I can do is keep calm, hold my breath, get my bearings, and try to swim even with the shore or the wave will win.”
It starts early in our lives and comes in big packages and small. A birthday party rained out, a cancer surgery unsuccessful. A cake is dry, a parent abuses. Disappointment may be mild, it can be devastating. And we all know that the very worst critique we can receive from a parent, teacher, or boss is, “I’m disappointed in you.”
Disappointment is something we humans must wrestle with, though thankfully, not constantly. Even in a challenging, dark life, there are glorious moments when we get the part we auditioned for, when healthy babies are born, when the movies we’ve anticipated are as good as we’d hoped. Medical tests come back with favorable results, apologies are offered and accepted, the sun shines on the wedding day; simple kindnesses like bread shared or a letter received bring just a glimmer of joy.
I have learned that the best way to overcome disappointment is first, acknowledge that it’s there. We can’t deal with what we’re too afraid or ashamed to name. Share the burden of it with a friend. Let them share with you as well.
Next, we look inward, which requires a commitment to gentle but honest self-examination. I used to believe in rigorous, unflinching self-examination, but that only led to being hypercritical of myself, unforgiving and unwilling to grant grace for my own failures. To grow in grace, to be honest about my own disappointments, to acknowledge when I have disappointed others, I listen. I seek wisdom from those who are living lives that shine, sometimes in the form of conversations with trusted mentors, frequently in podcasts, constantly in books.
Spend time in fresh air. For me, this is to walk or ride my bicycle or, when rheumatoid arthritis is wracking, to sit. To settle among birds, dragonflies, and breeze is healing. I do not know that there is a way to live in spiritual or mental health unless one gets outside. When I am among the trees and grass, I have my best ideas, I lay plans and untangle the knots in my thinking. And I am, thank all that is good and wholesome, not mindlessly scrolling the swamp that Facebook can become.
Express the disappointment, if it lives in the shadows and crevices of your heart, it will fester. I write. Every day, every morning. I write by hand, two to three pages. It is a practice that has become as necessary as air. I used to think it was my daily orange juice that got me going in the morning; I know for many folks, it’s their first cup of coffee. But for me, spending thirty minutes writing before I dive into my day has been life-changing. The words are uncensored and inelegant, a nearly-illegible scrawl. I ponder and process feminine spirituality, I list things I am grateful for, I articulate dreams, I unpack the worries that are plaguing me. I have been sleeping better since I began this writing practice, I think it’s vital.
To look outward, though, that is the final stepping stone to lay on our path to healing and mental health. We can’t look outward in a way that compares our own suffering or disappointments to others’, on that path exists only bitterness or pride; there will always be someone who has it better and someone who has it worse. Our disappointment is ours, and it is valid. No, what I mean by “looking outward” is simply this: look for ways to serve, to heal. Write letters. Call a lonely friend or elder person who lives alone. Sew masks and distribute them to the less fortunate. Listen to the stories of the unheard. Deliver meals. Discover your gift then ply it to plug joy back into the connected race that is all of us. Set your sights on the restoration of the soul of humanity.
These actions serve to nourish and defend against the sharpest nettles of disappointment. They are stones that can be stacked, one beside and above the other, to forge a path that leads us out of today’s disappointment and ahead to tomorrow’s blessing. It’s hard to see sometimes. But stillness followed by service can be a gorgeous way forward. The inimitable Marilyn Monroe once said, “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” I love that. Our world is falling apart. Perhaps we will build something better, both in a global sense and a deeply personal one.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*”House of Love” written by Greg W. Barnhill, Kenny Greenberg, Wally Wilson