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

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

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

Photo by Evelyn Chong on Pexels.com

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

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

Ready Like a Mother

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

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

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

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

The Awesome Power of the Grandmother

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

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

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

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

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

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

My New Avatar and My #CuratedLife

Cartoon versions of all my friends permeated my Facebook feed this week as the social media behemoth dropped its new avatar feature. Not one to miss an opportunity to immortalize myself in pixels, I tried to create mine without much success until I humbled myself, resorting to asking publicly for how-to instructions. I managed to get her created, and figured out how to save just one sticker, see exhibit above. I am finally getting a handle on Twitter and now TikTok is in the mix? Nope. No way. I fell in love with Facebook eleven years ago, here’s my first post, in fact, from March 25, 2008:

I have evolved from silly posts like that one, with some stops along the way for oversharing or airing professional grievances online, in an effort to live a truthful life. Now I am more judicious about where that truthful life really belongs. I have gotten better at using filters and hashtags and presenting my best public self. Mostly.

About five years ago, I found Pinterest, and I could, if I let myself, scroll through pinning pictures of beautiful living rooms and historical costuming all day long. I have boards called General Geekery (for Star Trek and Harry Potter), The Democratic Diva (mostly inspirational quotes about my core values), and Women I Adore (Obama, Streep, and Alcott). I save photos from Gilmore Girls and Supernatural and I have a new board called “It’s a Grand Baby!” That’s where I save a ridiculous number of nursery décor pins and ideas for entertaining one’s grandkids.

And now…Instagram. It’s my most recent foray into social media. It’s so dreamy! Here is where meals are perfectly plated, fashions are always forward, and delightful dogs make me smile. This is also where my favorite authors send what I pretend are personal exhortations and juicy little details about their lives (Did you know Glennon Doyle loses her keys all the time, just like me? We are so sympatico!)

No, really. My BFFS are Liz Gilbert, Brene’ Brown, Martha Beck, Glennon Doyle, Cheryl Strayed, and Oprah. All of them. They talk to me every day on Instagram. And podcasts! How could I not mention podcasts? Magic Lessons, SuperSoul, Robcast, On Being, What Women Want; these podcasts fill me up! I have a whole other genre that I love, spooky podcasts like Lore and Pleasing Terrors.

Here’s the thing about all this social media, all this curation: while I am a little bewildered, my daughters get it. In spades. It’s just how they live.

My son posts interesting memes that reveal his offbeat sense of humor and explore his love of interesting indie music. When my older daughter hits a gorgeous yoga pose, she somehow manages to photograph it and post it on Insta with just the right hashtag. For my senior pictures, I wore a fluffy pale blue boa and sat in front of a swirly brown background with the photographer hired by my school. For my younger daughter’s senior pictures, she scheduled two photographers and an independent studio space, complete with multiple changes of clothes, a variety of backgrounds, and my yellow bicycle with silk flowers wired to its basket.

When I was in my twenties, if Instagram had existed, it would have been full of photos of me dripping milk all over the front of my shirt or char-marked skillets full of cheeseburger macaroni Hamburger Helper (I grew up on the stuff, I raised my kids on it, and I still love it, I don’t care what anyone says). My wedding would have needed about $10,000 more to spend so that I could have all the details that make for perfect pins. My kids’ birthday parties would had to have been bigger and louder so they would stand out on Facebook and they’d get #invited to all the #coolkids parties.

I am so glad I didn’t live my twenties that way.

Though I sure as hell am doing my fifties that way! I have learned about hashtags pretty recently and I am working to figure out which ones grab attention; because now I am actively trying to create a new life- an author’s life- and I feel like I need to learn what resonates. It’s not that I am being disingenuous, nor am I trying to use people; but I am working to be a storyteller, and in the year 2020, that simply doesn’t happen in a vacuum. I have been known to post some sweaty, unflattering photos of myself, but I still keep trying to figure out the perfect angle to get a good selfie (what my mother in law charmingly called “facies” early on). When I walk outside, I am always looking for just the right bit of nature to photograph to add to my online presence, to cultivate the recognition and love of daily magic that I think is my calling. I use my bright yellow bike as a prop for my “brand,” even though I worked an acting gig eight years ago to save up for it, long before I had any knowledge of Instagram, WordPress, or Medium; or any idea that I would make a career change that would lead me to want to write and require “branding.”

Here’s where I have landed on all this social media stuff: it is, for me, a gift. I can stay in touch with childhood and college friends and see baby photos of my cousins’ infants. I can post requests for advice on taking care of plants, and one of my green-thumbed buddies will help. I can see the creative work my friends are up to: wire-wrapped jewelry, nature photography, writing, or acting. I can be inspired by the aforementioned authors/encouragers. I can feel a moment of gratitude and share it unironically, with the hashtag #lovemylife.

When I feel super courageous, I can post that photo that shows the realest me: wrinkles and spots and squish and dark eye circles.

I love the online stuff, it’s like a scrolling scrapbook. I can click on any year in my Facebook timeline, and I am instantly transported. What was I doing? Where were my kids? Who did I go to eat sushi with? Why did I wear that?

Of course, there is danger in the temptation to live and love only that way, so I take care. Take care to set the phone down. Take care to look into my husband’s real eyes, not just the ones saved in countless photos in my online accounts; all while he hugs me tight. Photos of gorgeous dinners aren’t nourishing, only in the eating and sharing do we savor the flavors and reap the nutrients. Snapchat pics of our loved ones, no matter how silly the filters, don’t replace the need for touch, for listening to each other sigh or laugh or cry. Hashtag activism isn’t enough, action is required. And Pinterest images, those perfectly lit tableaux of exquisite home furnishings, can never outshine the comfort of our own homes, even if they’re cluttered or not perfectly staged. That’s life. Life is lived by being present.

Have you ever gotten lost in the world of social media, or made a big gaff there? Tell me about it!

(This piece originally appeared in The Fine Line/Prime Women online magazine:

https://primewomen.com/ )

 

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.

TMEA-All-State-Patch-poster

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?

Unusual-Christmas-Trees uses

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.

 

Pudding. Can’t have any.

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In her book Yes,Please Amy Poehler writes a chapter about nominations. Not presidential nominations, award nominations. Specifically, Emmy nominations. In the chapter titled “Gimme That Pudding,” She uses “pudding” as a code word for those awards- SAGS, Emmys, Oscars, Tonys, Grammys, etc.

In Yes, Please, Amy (I call her Amy because I think she is my long-lost best friend) talks about a year when she was nominated for an Emmy but didn’t win:

“The following year I was breast-feeding a six-week-old Abel. I was too tired to think of bits but my hormones were telling me to just jump onstage and grab the award before they announced the winner. Luckily I had enough oxytocin floating around in my body that I didn’t care or notice who won. (Edie Falco.) Jimmy Fallon hosted and crushed. I sat in the front row and heckled the after-party with what Tina referred to as my impressive ‘temporary rack.’ I broke my toe on the banquette I was dancing on. That’s right. ON. I acted like the blue-collar party machine I had been raised to be.”

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I love her description of the appetite for pudding- you didn’t have a craving, you don’t even know you want pudding. Until suddenly it’s there in front of you, and everyone else seems to be having some. But you’re not allowed. Then suddenly all you want is a big ass bowl of the creamy, yummy, sweet pudding.

In my world, there are a couple of bowls of pudding, and this week one of them released this year’s nominations. I didn’t get one. All of my regular social circle did (If they were eligible).

This particular bowl of pudding is the community theatre flavor. It’s kind of weird, like tapioca pudding. Made up of lots of regular folks who work regular jobs and do theatre as a hobby, it’s meant to be a great refuge for the world-weary artist. Quite a number of us have theatre degrees or experience in the professional regional theatres, but also there are lots of folks who don’t have credentials but bring lots of  talent and/or passion to the proverbial boards.

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I consider myself an artist, a creative type who is, essentially, not competitive. After years in my educational theatre world, in a large Texan metropolitan area, I became disenchanted with the concept of student actors and technicians competing against others for accolades. In the educational theatre arena, kids come from all different walks of life. Some start way ahead of the game because their families have abundant education and resources and can put little Sally or Sam in dance, voice, and actor training when they are small. In my particular school, however, parents were often struggling just to afford a roof and shoes for the kids. Dance lessons and participation in a student musical that cost $300-$500 was not in their universe. Not even close. We participated for several years in my other big bowl of pudding, a competition in which high school musicals were pitted against each other for trophies and bragging rights. Invariably, the acting, production, and overall gold shinies went to the big schools, the mammoth ones with thousands of kids in the student bodies, hundreds of kids in the fine arts departments, huge parent booster organizations, and show budgets of upwards of $20,000. Those schools also had very well connected directors. Insiders, ya know? We did get technical nominations four out of five years, and I was over the moon when I received my one nomination for directing.

But after it was all over, I felt so disappointed for my students. And yes, for myself. I knew how hard we had worked: the many hours of teaching a dance chorus in which no member had ever had a day in a dance class, the late nights sewing costumes myself because there was no one else to do it, the remarkable voice teacher who worked without pay, the kids who could only rehearse on certain days because of the limitations of their family’s gas budget. Nominations and medals don’t account for that stuff.

I withdrew from any further involvement in the competition. I wanted to just focus on growth, on art, on teaching, on joy, without worrying about trophies.

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I believe community theatre should be the same way. We aren’t in it for the money, heaven knows. We are in it for love of the work. For love of our cast and crew mates. For love of our towns. The directors who are going to do their best work are going to do it, whether they get a trophy or not. Same for the actors, or the ones wielding needle and thread or hammer and nail.

In educational or community ensembles, when we creative theatre types pit ourselves against each other, relationships are damaged. The beauty of the work becomes tarnished. Confidence and the courage to take risks is eroded. Yes, ticket sales matter. Absolutely, the director has to do what’s best for the play. No, everyone doesn’t always make the cast list. But after weeks, even months, of work calls and late rehearsals, postshow photos with proud family members in the lobby, banged up knees and tired throats, the gleam of pride in a show well produced shouldn’t have to be validated by a trophy. The people who weren’t invited to the planning table shouldn’t be left outside the nomination circle (the people who are invited to the planning table shouldn’t be eligible for awards, either). Amy says: “You have to care about your work but not about the result. You have to care about how good you are and how good you feel, but not about how good people think you are or how good people think you look.”

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - FEBRUARY 19: Actor Jon Hamm and actress Amy Poehler attends the 15th Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards with presenting sponsor Lacoste at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 19, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for CDG) BEVERLY HILLS, CA – FEBRUARY 19: Actor Jon Hamm and actress Amy Poehler attends the 15th Annual Costume Designers Guild Awards with presenting sponsor Lacoste at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on February 19, 2013 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Stefanie Keenan/Getty Images for CDG)

Amy and Jon Hamm have hosted a “Losers Party,” at which the attendees who have won Emmys have to donate to charity to get in, but the losers get in free. My husband suggests that we do a big “Losers Toast” after our event this year, and the winners have to buy the losers drinks. And I say the nominees who lose can buy those of us who are just there for the ride drinks. Hey! I think I am onto something. I know which gal is getting the most plastered that night.

Cheers!

Note- I highly recommend Amy’s book. It’s a treasure. Rolling Stone thinks so, too, and here’s a link to the book on amazon:

http://www.rollingstone.com/tv/features/9-things-we-learned-from-amy-poehlers-yes-please-20141030?page=2

http://www.amazon.com/Yes-Please-Amy-Poehler/dp/0062268341

Pass On The Salt, Please

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I loved Sunday School when I was a child. Felt boards with figures of Bible characters were how I remember learning the stories of the good book, watching the sweet grandmotherly women manipulate these flat figures as they narrated the tales of Old Testament and New. And the puppets! Big mouth puppets made of felt with fuzzy acrylic or yarn hair that led us in church songs like “Blue Skies and Rainbows” or “Roll the Gospel Chariot.” I loved Sunday School, I really did. There was a story that always puzzled me, though, and that was the story of Lot’s wife.

You may not know this one: God has decided to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of its evil, and one Godly man remains. Lot and his family have been warned to flee the impending disaster and NOT TO LOOK BACK AS THEY LEAVE.

But Lot’s wife does. And God turns her into a pillar of salt. A freaking pillar of salt! As a child, I just didn’t understand why God would choose such a harsh punishment for simply wanting one last glance back at one’s home. The twin cities were corrupt and toxic, yes, but they were also familiar. They were home. I don’t know that I understood this until recently.

Let me explain:

I recently left my twenty year teaching career. I hadn’t really planned to. I finished my Master’s degree in my field (Theatre), I thought I had turned the corner on what had been an extremely difficult transition with a new principal, I had started the preparations for the coming school year’s production schedule. We had even started making the costumes for the planned fall production: a steampunk version of “The Wizard of Oz.”

Boom! On a Friday afternoon, upon arriving home from a week teaching drama camp, I learned that a position that I had been coveting for three years had magically become available: to be the School Days Coordinator for the Texas Renaissance Festival, the largest renaissance faire in the country, a faire I had worked at for fifteen years as an entertainer.

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I struggled with the decision for about ten days, then took a deep breath and resigned my teaching position. And ever since, I find myself looking back over my shoulder, wondering if I made the right choice, fretting that my replacement would not take good care of my program, at moments desperately missing those great core theatre kids, and sometimes wishing for the chance to direct something.

It’s crippling, really.

In moments of clarity, I remember that I felt like I was slowly suffocating from the workload.

I remember that for every wonderful kid who smiled and tried, there were four who spoke rudely or whose apathy was a line drawn in the ground of the battlefield that is the classroom.

I remember that my administration treated me like a child.

I remember that my voice was ragged, and my own creative endeavors outside of school nonexistent.

It was toxic. Maybe not always, and maybe not for everyone, but for me, my school and career had become a poisoned place.

I think the Divine One knows that to look back can hinder you until you carry that misery forward into the new life He has laid out in front of you. She knows it to the tune of salt. It is as though He refuses to allow you to carry that forward. It will keep those with you from travelling forward as they should. I don’t know why God chose such a drastic means of chastening Lot’s wife, but I am trying to remember that I do not want to become my own living salt statue, inert and crumbling, unable to connect with my husband, kids, or friends.

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I need to let go, and look forward to the blessings that await me on this new path:

Golf cart rides with my husband out on the verdant grounds of the renaissance festival, a renewed singing voice, time to write, respect from my boss, and work that is challenging on a large scale.

Walking away does not make me a loser. Setting down a burden that is smothering is not a failure. Life is not only struggle, it is release.

Note: I was searching through my drafts and found this one. This very week marks one year since I started my new job. My replacement took good, if disorganized, care of my students. I still miss teaching, but I am getting better at looking ahead and dreaming of what possibilities might lie ahead. 

Somewhere between Laurie and Aunt Eller

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Anyone out there seen the classic and hilarious film, “Waiting for Guffman?” It is the perfect spoof of the unique world of community theatre. Travel agents, a Dairy Queen cashier, and a dentist all come together to create a piece of performance art for the delight of local citizens. In community theatre, a bunch of oddballs can become minor celebrities, recognized at the Piggly Wiggly like local versions of Patti Lupone or Hugh Jackman.: “Didn’t I see you in…?” “Why, yes! yes, I did play Rosie in Bye, Bye, Birdie! It was so much fun, thank you for coming to support us!”

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Rosie Alvarez, Bye Bye Birdie, Ace Theatre, 2006

I love community theatre. It’s chock-a-block full of regular folks who love theatre, but for whatever reason, don’t make it a profession. For some (like me), marriage and stability were a better option than the gamble of New York, Chicago, or L.A. For others, they discover their creative side later in life and volunteering at their local community theatre is the most accessible route to artistic expression. For others, the community theatre becomes a surrogate family, a place to let your quirky imagination out to play without the judgement of straitlaced cubicle mates.

I have spent most of my adult life in rehearsal at the community theatre house for one musical or another. In my 30’s, I had the chance to play dream roles like Marian the Librarian, Sarah Brown, Julie Jordan, Nellie Forbush, and Annie Oakley. I have sung the great ballads, from “Moonshine Lullaby” (Annie Get Your Gun) to “How Could I Know” (Secret Garden). I’ve performed Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Berlin, and Sondheim.

Moving into my 40’s, the roles began to be harder to come by, though I have had the utter joy of playing The Chaperone (Drowsy Chaperone) and Joanne (Company). Community theatres like to play it safe. They have aging audiences, and they are afraid of alienating them. Chestnuts by Rodgers/Hammerstein or Lerner/Loewe are proven ticket sellers. I get that, I really do. But younger audiences (and by younger, I mean 55 on down- not exactly spring chickens) like to see shows written sometime after 1980. I know- it’s radical to imagine doing a show that’s got thirty years on it, instead of sixty!

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The Drowsy Chaperone, Stage Right Theatre, 2013

Interesting roles for women in their 40’s and 50’s are being written. Roles full of interesting character, gripping dilemmas, heartache and humor, and problems that don’t always find resolution in a wedding march. Dammit, there are great roles in musical theatre for women who are somewhere between Laurie and Aunt Eller: no longer the ingenue, but not ready for the granny wig.

Of course, all musical theatre aficionados recognize Mama Rose, Miss Mona, Adelaide, and Miss Hannigan. Gypsy, Best Little Whorehouse, Guys and Dolls, and Annie are community theatre staples. Wonderful shows. Tried and true. Worn and exhausted, some might say. Cliche, even.

Hollywood has long had a problem with this, constantly forcing women in their 40’s to play the discarded wives, or heaven help us, the mothers to their forty-something male counterparts. But the stage has always been willing to take risks on women in their middle age, when their talent is ripe, their life experience rich, and their voice in its prime.

So as a forty-something actress/singer who longs to play great roles, maybe even alongside actresses in her own age bracket, I present the following list of musicals for the local community theatres to take a look at. They are great shows, they will sell tickets, they will capture new audiences, and they will excite your theatre ensembles. As an added bonus, they feature major roles for women in the middle:

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Light in the Piazza: Margaret Johnson is a mother visiting Italy with her developmentally delayed daughter. Her marriage is dying as her daughter falls in love with a young Italian dreamer. The vocal score is exquisite, the emotional journey heart wrenching.

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Kiss Me, Kate: Lilli Vanessi is an aging star. She gets to sing “I Hate Men” as Kate, and “So In Love” as Lilli. It’s Cole Porter and Shakespeare combined. The 1999 revival ran for two years and received numerous Tony nominations and several awards. It’s a crowd pleaser!

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Mamma Mia has three (!!!) fantastic roles for women in their 40’s. They don’t have to be movie star gorgeous with size 2 figures! They still get to be fun and sexy! With a score built upon the songbook of Abba, it’s got a guaranteed fanbase.

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Ragtime is just the most beautiful musical. And it’s got fantastic roles for all sorts: age, color, body type, vocal range; it’s all there. Including a plum role, Mother, a woman who discovers that her sheltered life is not fulfilling and takes the plunge into uncharted territory.

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Nine to Five is not necessarily a masterpiece of the Broadway cannon, but with the popularity of the movie and name recognition among those over forty, its catchy numbers and physical comedy are sure to be popular.

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Next to Normal’s Diana Goodman is bipolar. Not exactly the feel-good premise that community theatres often go for. But this story is contemporary, relevant, and resonant. The music, a rock score, reverberates long after the notes have faded. For a theatre that takes risks, this one is a powerful choice.

I did a little reading on roles for women over 40, here are a couple of articles/blogs I found that had good stuff to say:

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/theater/24cohe.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

http://thefilmexperience.net/blog/2013/10/21/hollywood-is-mean-to-older-women-lets-help-them-with-a-chart.html

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.

Sing Out, Louise?

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A few weeks ago, I went to a Bette Midler concert. It was everything I hoped it would be. The Divine Miss M is still in full voice, wears fabulous costumes, tells filthy jokes, and even appears as Winifred! Nearly at the end of the concert comes the big one, the one I have been waiting for all night. She warns everyone not to sing along because there is room for only one diva in the arena (though we got to sing along at the chorus). She starts singing, “Some say love…it is a flower…” and I am transported. But in the rapture is an equal measure of grief. Gut wrenching, heart swelling, breath halting grief.

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When I was in the eighth grade, I sang my very first solo in front of an audience: “The Rose.” It was for my school’s talent show. I remember I was terrified: my parents and grandparents were there, the cafetorium lights were dark, the spotlight was blinding, and it felt like I couldn’t breathe. Then I heard the piano intro (you all know it, too: da-da-da-duh, da-da-da-duh) and I opened my mouth and sang. It was magical (well, for me, anyway).

I was in a new school and I was pretty shy, so I hadn’t made a whole lot of friends. But after this, suddenly people wanted to sit by me on the bus, and they would ask me to sing us home. Singing “Hopelessly Devoted to You” as we rounded corners dropping off crazy middle school students, I began to understand who I was meant to be: the singer.

I sang all through high school, competing for slots in choirs, musicals, and talent shows. I had a really beautiful voice, a clear Julie Andrews-styled soprano with a soaring range. I dreamt of being the next Barbra Streisand, or maybe a singer in New York. In college, I started as a voice major. I soon discovered that I was not meant to be a classical music major- I needed to sing show tunes and jazz standards. Musical theatre was really where I belonged.

But then I fell in love and got married, started a family, and kept singing when I could, mostly in community theatre shows, sometimes in churches, occasionally in choirs. I sang in lots of weddings. I sang “The Rose” for my grandfather’s wedding, then again at his funeral.

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I had a repertoire I sang to my kids when I put them to bed: “All the Pretty Little Horses,” “I Love you, fill-in-the-blank” from the musical Bye Bye Birdie, “You Are My Sunshine,” and “Goodnight, My Someone.” I think they liked it.

I don’t really sing much anymore. Though it is mostly healed now, I lost my voice for over a year, due to spinal surgery that paralyzed one of my vocal cords. Now I have a prosthetic one, so I can sing. But still, I don’t. Earlier this week, I wanted to change my profile picture on Facebook to a photo of me singing. I wanted to have a constant reminder to myself and others that that is who I am. I couldn’t find a picture of myself singing. Because I just don’t anymore.

I used to be asked to do singing gigs, but that has not happened in a long time. I don’t have little ones to sing to sleep. I don’t even sing in the car, because I am never alone in the car anymore!

What do you do when you find yourself mid-journey and a little lost? When you either need to go back and rediscover who you are or forge a new identity?

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