From Silenced by Church to Outspoken Advocate: A Feminine Journey

My eldest child, a woman of 31 years, is a rocking Social Justice Warrior, and I couldn’t be prouder. She is one aspect of the woman I wanted to be, a woman who had the courage to strike out on her own path early. Bravely. And with enough humility to learn what she didn’t know. She is learning daily to listen; she’s teaching me to listen, too. Her causes are civil rights. For People of Color. For the LGBTQ+ community. For women.

I was a kid during the Women’s Movement that championed the Equal Rights Amendment. To my young mind, the idea of a woman being paid less simply for being a woman was incomprehensible. I didn’t get it then. I don’t get it now. Because ours was not a political household, I didn’t get these radical ideas from my parents, so the only things I know to credit are Helen Reddy singing about roaring, and television. It never occurred to me that Mary Tyler Moore’s single reporter was revolutionary. She was just a young woman who was funny while doing a job she was good at. Neither Lieutenant Uhura’s color nor her gender made me question her placement on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise. Laverne and Shirley worked in a beer factory and had their own apartment. I guess I was too young to be aware of the radical new ideas that were being depicted. These were women who did not stay at home wearing petticoats and cooking, anxiously waiting for their men to get home so they could bring them a cocktail.

Then there was church. At church, women only got to talk in front of boys thirteen and younger, or a segregated group of just girls and women. Women could work in the nursery, teach Sunday School, wash the baptistery robes, or cook and clean up for potluck dinners.

Women could not pray aloud in a mixed-gender setting, they had to let the men be their conduits to God.

What does that do to a young girl who has deep thoughts and a gift for leadership but not so much for cooking?

“Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.” (I Corinthians 14:34)

This is the scripture that has, more than any other, served to keep the women of Christianity silent. Now, I don’t have any desire to get into a deep theological debate about the inerrancy of scripture, because my own journey is probably not going to be enough to open the mind of a die-hard believer who is sure that the Christian Bible is the “holy, perfect, inspired word of God,” as though the writers were simply taking divine dictation while God spoke directly to them through a Dictaphone. Thus arguments of first-century cultural patriarchy and the historical passing around and editing of the gospel and epistolic writings before the scripture was codified in the third century C.E. may not matter to others. But those things matter to me.

Because, for all intents and purposes, my church put a gag in my mouth; my mouth, and the mouths of every wife, sister, mother, and daughter. And you know what? Most of us capitulated because we believed what we’d been taught. By the men. The men in our churches and the men in the Bible.

I attended a church college where I sang in a chorus that traveled all over the country to sing hymn arrangements. As young women, we were allowed to step forward and sing in solos or small ensembles, but only sing. We could not use our speaking voices. In daily chapel, women were allowed to talk if it was during a secular assembly, but the moment a church song was sung, it became worship and the women had to hush up.

My husband entered ministry after we graduated. To be a youth minister’s wife in this world was definitely a challenge for me. I chafed against the muzzle, I had things to say, experiences to share, a gift for words and presentation and I had to wait for a man’s permission to say them; in a literal sense, not a figurative one. My husband would have granted me every permission in the world, but his hands were tied by the conservative elderships who signed his salary checks.

Some of the churches we worked in were more progressive in their thinking- they were willing to talk about grace and even sing contemporary worship songs, perhaps even with a praise team! Even so, the women were mute. In one of the most puzzling examples of this subjugation, our tradition was to have a weekly communion service.

Usually, after the congregational singing but before the sermon, a group of six to eight men marched soberly to the front of the church and lined up behind the communion table, hands folded in front of them in that classic man-coach stance. One of them read a scripture, most likely from one of the gospel accounts, a prayer was recited, then they solemnly passed the little silver trays down the pews. There was a system: one man on each side, alternating rows, front to back. If the church was large, the B string of servers would come in the back and the same process would continue from rear to front until the men all met in the middle. You heard the “snap! snap!” of tiny little bites of matzo cracker being broken off as each church member took a portion. Then the whole process was repeated with grape juice.

TLS

Women were utterly excluded from passing the crackers and juice because even though the only words spoken were by the scripture reader, it was still seen as an honor. A designation of leadership. Once, in the second church where my husband was a youth minister, I challenged an elder: Why were women prohibited from even this silent ritual? He mocked my question: “Sure, you’re willing to pass the communion, but are you willing to actually make the trays behind the scenes?” For the record- I was willing to do either. The subtext of this comment, made by one of the town’s wealthiest citizens, was made clear: Don’t ask questions if you want your family to make the mortgage. Woman, know thy place.

In a break between churches, we spent a semester in graduate studies at Abilene Christian University, and in this setting, I flourished. I was accepted as a student, right alongside my husband, and I reveled in ancient Greek declensions and Dr. S’s class in Church Leadership. Ensconced in an academic religious setting, my intelligence was encouraged, my ideas and observations given credence. We all understood that I was studying to work in a ministry for women, I was equipping myself for a task I would love to do. My professors created an environment where my reticence could be shed and my voice could be heard.

We eventually made our way to what would be our final church ministry, at a church that had been, on some issues, more forward-thinking and open than any congregation we had been in since we had left college. There was a co-ed worship team that sang on the stage, there was a children’s musical with instrumental accompaniment tracks, produced at every summer’s Vacation Bible School, there was even a female Children’s Minister. But…

I have to tell you about Bible contest, an event where thousands of Christian kids get together at a huge city convention center and try to win medals by showing each other up in events like memorization, preaching, and puppetry. I guess Jesus’ admonition to the mother of James and John about competition and prestige didn’t apply when gold Jesus medals were on the line.

My daughter decided to enter the traditionally male preaching competition. It threw the organizers for a loop, but there was not a rule specifically against it, so they let her compete. I guess they figured she could grow up and lead ladies’ Bible class. Now, my daughter is a gifted writer. No lie. She’s good. She’s also a skilled performer, she grew up to earn a theatre degree. Those kernels of talent were there in 1999 when she was ten years old. She won a gold medal.

At the following Sunday night worship service, all the students who had competed, not just those who won medals, but simply competed, got to read the sermons they had written and presented at competition. Well, not all of them. Not my daughter. She was relegated to reading in the gym after service. She stood at a podium with about ten listeners, and we strained to hear her over the several hundred people who were loading up their plates for the hot dog supper. Because she was a girl.

When I look back on it now, I know something in my faith, in my love for church, was irrevocably broken that night. If our very livelihood had not depended upon my compliance, I would have marched to that podium after H’s speech, and I would have told that group of oblivious, hot-dog-loving people to hush. I would have told them that they had, in that moment, the spirit of a young woman who was Divinely created and loved by God in their hands, and they discarded it. I didn’t say it then. I am saying it now.

In her book, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter, Sue Monk Kidd describes a collective feminine wound, one that all women share, and its origins go all the way back. All the way:

“If she sees few women in places of real power, hears few female voices of strength, and witnesses little female creativity, then despite what is said to her about women’s equality, she experiences women (and herself) as absent and silent.”

there-is-no-place-so-awake-and-alive-as-the-e-187297

I vividly remember the day I read that the ancient Hebrews had a word for the feminine aspects of the Divine Creator, Shekhinah. I was sitting at my kitchen table, stunned, barely breathing, for about five minutes. Even better, do you know how Shekhinah is made manifest? Joy.

Joy.

The religion which lay the foundation for the faith I would grow up in acknowledged that when it comes to gender, the Divine One is neither and both. A lifetime of prayers to the Father were incomplete. All the years of being told “God is like your daddy,” only told half the story. All the questions about being less than were suddenly invalid. The Divine One’s own Chosen People understood that joy, sisterhood, Shekhinah, were all equally holy. If I were to find a church that prayed to the Goddess/Mother as often as to the God/Father, I might be able to feel safer. More valued. In tune.

“The feminine wound is created as we internalize all these experiences-the voices we hear at church, school, home, work, and within the culture at large suggesting (in ways both bold and subtle) that women and feminine experience are ‘less than.'” (Dance of the Dissident Daughter)

We carry the wounds of mothers and grandmothers. I carry my own wounds, too: being allowed only to listen, never to speak; all those times when I was banished to the four-year-old classroom, where my teaching voice was not a threat to the men of the congregation; repeatedly being shuffled to the back in praise team so that the worship leaders could sing or let their wives sing, and when I questioned it, being told by a man who barely knew me that I was ruining the group with my ego; and seven years of being expected to bake cookies when my real gifts of leadership and speaking were lying fallow and rusty.

I also carry the wounds of my daughter who, on that bright spring day, was shown how little she mattered to her church and to the God they proclaimed.

I am so grateful that her journey to the Divine Creator did not end in that gym packed with people who completely ignored her. I am glad that her heart was open. She made a few more trips to church camp, then set out on her own quest to meet God. She spends time with the Goddess daily, she marches and produces work that is inclusive and awakened. She leads. And she is not silent.

0*8xZ3ZaeviM1P5w0G

Ouchy Truth From Millennial Daughters

There I stand, weeping in the dressing room at a higher-end lingerie store. The very accommodating young women there have cheerfully measured my chest without a hint of judgement and helped me to gather various styles; I’ve got some with lace and others with satin, but none quite work. I try a very pretty teal bra that gaps in the front, but more devastating to me in that moment, there are squishy blobs sticking out of the sides of the bra. Now, I had chanted to myself, before I took off my top, “No shame. No shame. No shame.” Literally, I did this out loud. I knew what my mind was capable of.

Bra shopping is just the worst, isn’t it?

I have, all my adult life, had issues with feeling displeased with my body’s appearance. Haven’t so many of us? But that’s not really the rabbit hole I want to plunge down at this moment (I know the mantras: “we are powerful women, no matter our size,” “beauty is as beauty does,” “exercise for health, not for looks.” All true. Every last one).

But you know the phrases that are getting to me these days? That are clanging around in my head like the clappers on the bells of a cathedral? They’re coming from my daughters. And they pinch a little (kind of like one of those ill-fitting bras I was trying on).

working out

While on a visit to my eldest child’s home in Los Angeles last fall, I pressed play on the inner tape that I have been reciting since I was a teen: too fat, too fat, too fat. And my oldest daughter looked at me and said, “I have grown bored with your self doubt.” Ouch. Oh, wow. It struck me so that I even typed the exact quote into my phone within a few minutes of her utterance; I wanted to remember that moment. It was Sept. 2, and my 30-year-old had just abruptly, firmly, but lovingly drawn a boundary. My younger daughter, a fitness trainer by profession, tells me at least once a week to stop worrying about my appearance and exercise for strength and flexibility. The last time I went down a self-critical path for her ears, she actually became angry at me. She told me, “I won’t listen to the negative talk.” She’s raising a daughter of her own now, and she doesn’t want little Hazel to hear the messages that I transmitted, without meaning to, all those years to her.

This post isn’t about body love, though. Here is the learning I want to really contemplate: our Millennial kids, who happen to now be young adults, have wisdom to share with us. They have seen the shortcomings of their elders and they love us anyway. But they don’t want to be burdened with our angst, the self-flagellation and doubt that we have clung to since we watched an insecure-but-gorgeous Molly Ringwald apply lipstick from between her cleavage.

Our children don’t want to lug the baggage of our youth any more than they are willing to cart home the boxes of our discarded belongings. They’re “bored” with our blues. And we, their parents and grandparents, need to listen. My children’s generation has their own hurdles to face: climate change, an unfriendly economy, a sense of destabilization in world governments. Kids to feed. Dogs to care for. Jobs to find. But I have found that they manage to maintain a stubborn optimism in the face of all of it. They are growing into their own youthy wisdom. They have things to say. Good things. Challenging things.

Youth has always had the temerity to speak wisdom to its elders.

When Jesus visited the temple at the age of thirteen, the rabbis were amazed at his teaching. Yes, Jesus is Special, a unique case. And yet, I believe many of the young do have things to teach us. Kids say more than the darndest, cutest things; there can be a clarity to their words and a richness in their observations. When that richness evolves to be seasoned with life experience, it can create young adults capable of amazing perceptiveness and kindness.

There are many young people who have wisdom; granted, it is a different wisdom from that which comes of life experience. If you’ve ever done the laundry of a seven-year-old, you know it’s essential to empty the pockets, for there, treasure is gathered: feathers and pebbles and dice. Marbles and sticks of chewing gum. Silly Putty. Once, our own pockets were full of treasure, too. There is a thought, a whimsical wish, maybe, that when an infant is born, she still knows all the wisdom and beauty of Heaven, from whence she came. Little by little, it is forgotten amid the complexity of living on Earth. Perhaps, our ten-year-olds, twenty-year-olds, and thirty-year-olds are still just close enough to Heaven that they hear whispers of truth from there. By the time we’re fifty, I imagine our heads are too clouded to hear that particular strain of the purely Divine voice. Our ears are attuned to a different aspect of the Divine One: the weighty matters of self and world, nation and clan ring in our ears. I expect that will shift again in another twenty years, when we start to shed all the weighty matters and return to the glittering pocket fortunes of the soul: time appreciated, loved ones kissed, kindnesses both given and received.

Who are these wise youth? Where are they? There are obvious ones. Malala Yousefzai comes to mind. She speaks with a wisdom that is so anchored in truth born of suffering it is hard to imagine her faltering.  Samantha Smith wrote a letter to Yuri Andropov that got her invited to the Soviet Union to share her message of peace. But not all of the wisdom coming from youth is of a scale that leads to book deals and international renown. Sometimes, it is revealed in the wisdom of advice given at the right time.

When I left the mall, I posted something on Facebook about my bra-induced tears, and within minutes, my California-dreaming daughter called me. We talked for an hour, she shared her own struggles and fears and listened to mine with compassion, especially when I explained that my dissatisfaction is not so much about appearance these days as it is age and the near-constant literal physical pain of it. She reminded me of my own goals, challenging me on my excuse making; she referred me to a website where workouts are body-positive and inclusive, a far cry from the exercise videos my generation grew into adulthood with.

636217551151170463-2129754158_millennial-cover-644x467

If you’re blessed to have children, teens, or Millennials in your life, go grab an ice cream or an iced latte with them. Open your ears, your heart, your mind. Let them share some of what they’ve learned from watching us Gen-Xers and Boomers flail around a bit. There’s no shame in a little arm fat dangling over a bra cup. And there’s no shame in listening to whippersnappers in their young adulthood. No shame, no shame, no shame.

Wondering what littles carry in their pockets? Take a look at this joyful photo series!

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sweet-photo-series-reveals-whats-in-a-preschoolers-pockets_n_56fbdde3e4b0a06d58041b04

dandelion 2

 

 

Short and Sweet: A Good Mom

I used to think of myself as having “given up” my young adulthood to be a mother. It was a sacrifice. Almost like 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.

I have had to make a major shift here lately. I had to because if I didn’t, I was going to move into this next phase with a lot of angst and resentment, kicking and screaming. Empty Nest is a big change. I had to shift or suffer, wasting the next 25 (hopefully) years unable to enjoy and appreciate what life was giving me.

So 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 healthy. I even have a nose stud.

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.

Spring, 1995(2)

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. I looked to relatives and friends’ moms to help me figure it out. Carol Brady, Samantha Stephens, and June Cleaver were role models. I didn’t have many peers to emulate; my best friend and I were the first in my 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.

I am now the grandmother of a six month-old. I was not ready for this. 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?

img_2915

When my daughter and her boyfriend left our house after they told us they were expecting a 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. To do that, though, means that I must acknowledge that I was a good mom. It 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.

 

What’s a time when you really rocked your parenting? Maybe you created a memory, taught a life lesson, or protected your child. I’d love to hear it.

If you’re a mom looking for a tribe, try Hello Minder. It’s moms with a lot of love and a desire to help each other more-than-muddle through the mom journey:

Homepage

 

Short and Sweet: Vinyl LPs

My generation, the oft-forgotten Xers, grew up with vinyl albums. I had a small collection when I was a little girl: the soundtrack to The Sound of Music, Barbra Joan Streisand, Barbra Live in Concert at the Forum, and the original concept album of Jesus Christ Superstar. Unusual for a six year old, I admit.

While visiting NYC in 2008, I saw this revival of Gypsy with my son on a day when Ms. LuPone had to perform in her house slippers due to a foot injury. Even in her fuzzies, she brought the house down as beleaguered Mama Rose. My son bought me this record, I love to sit and listen on the leather recliner when my husband isn’t home.

Music is an enchantment. Story is great magic. Solitude is a gift. And the love of my son is priceless.

What’s your favorite song?

dandelion 2

A Thirtieth Birthday

Today is my oldest child’s thirtieth birthday.

Huge, heavy sigh. How can so much time possibly passed since the day I first held her?

I remember my thirtieth- I had three kids, aged 8,6, and 3. I was teaching third grade at a local Christian school with an extremely low salary, so money was…tight. But friends from church gave us tickets to see the Broadway touring company of “Kiss Me Kate,” and I think we saved up money for a dinner at Outback Steakhouse. I was utterly domesticated.

Not my girl, though.

This woman is out in Los Angeles, being brave and daring and falling and getting back up and risking and laughing and crying and learning and writing and acting and ailing and earning and…

living.

It’s not that I didn’t live at 30, but I chose the known path. The safe path of traditional marriage, child-bearing, and school teaching. For me, the great unknown was simply making a healthy, vibrant family. I didn’t have one growing up. I wanted to forge a new path that looked so simple, so traditional, so wholesome, that it was for me, a frontier.

Hilary was the first child, the one who had to bear with all my learning and figuring it out. I may have taught her how to put on her shoes, brush her teeth, and know the front from the back of her clothing, but she’s the one who taught me how to be patient, how to cuddle, and how to listen to one’s own deepest heart.

When she was about twelve, and in a rather awkward phase, she loved to sing. But she wouldn’t necessarily do it with anyone watching. I was upstairs, putting away laundry or some such thing, and heard a sweet soprano voice cutting through any sounds of cartoons downstairs or traffic on the street. Upon realizing the sound came from my own back yard, I opened a window and hid behind the curtain, peeking out to see Hilary, feet planted in the grass, mouth wide open, singing a Charlotte Church tune with all her sweet heart and soul. She thought she had no audience, but she had a host of listeners: leaves, birds, blades of grass, the Divine One, and me. Her mom.

She still sings; her spirit and soul sing a melody of independence, grace, and creativity. Now, though, she doesn’t hide in the back yard to do it. She puts herself out there. Comedy clubs, spontaneous musical theatre tunes on the interwebs, producing a web series, acting studio; these are the professional modes. And in her personal life? She left an unhealthy marriage and started a new chapter, surrounding herself with friends and venturing into the murky world of Los Angeles dating.

My daughter is fierce yet tender, intelligent yet humble, gorgeous yet unaffected. She is the first of my three greatest gifts. I am so grateful she’s mine.

Happy birthday, Dink.

French Fries and Legos

In 2016, my husband and I bought a new car. It’s  Ford Escape (we aren’t big spenders, no BMWs or Caddys for us, at least not in this current life), but I splurged and opted for leather seats and a sun roof. This was our first post-child-rearing car, it was the one I wanted to drive for a long time, and I kept its interior clean. No jelly smudges on the upholstery, no milk stains on the carpet.

Oh my stars- milk in the carpet! Once, when my kids were little, I smelled something truly vile in my car, a little red Ford Escort. Or maybe it was the white Ford Tempo. It’s all a blur (though it’s clear we’re loyal Ford folks). I searched and searched, until I found a bottle under the driver’s seat. The milk in it had curdled, was leaking gas and fluid, and smelled to high heaven. It was rank like a boys’ locker room laundry hamper; like rotten, sulfuric eggs or fresh skunk spray on a humid morning. The smell lingered for months, no matter how much scrubbing or Resolve I used.

This new cinnamon-red, tan-leather-upholstered, luxurious clean crossover was my reward for all the years of driving three kids around, pulling through McDonalds to grab them sustenance before a game, piano lesson, or orthodontic appointment. Since we were new empty nesters, we anticipated a good five years of clean, quiet road trips to little wineries and out-of-the-way art galleries. I even got my nose pierced to celebrate the Empty Nest! I was ready to rock!

Just last week, while cleaning out the SUV, my husband found a french fry wedged between the seats. A french fry.

You see, our life took a major shift lately. A good one, a happy one, but still: a shift. We became grandparents. And not just grandparents of one little newborn. Our daughter’s partner has two children, and so we are insta-grandparents (just add white wine and stir).

Thrown in the deep end, so to speak. In it up to our eyeballs. Trial by fire. Zero learning curve.

So now, we have added trips to the children’s museum and Chik Fil A back into rotation.

My husband just glommed right onto this grandpa thing. Maybe it’s his silver beard. Quite possibly it’s his jolly, extroverted personality. More likely, it’s his big heart. I took a little time to adjust to the idea. I am an introvert who likes neatness and order and quiet. I willingly relinquished those things while raising a family, and I was pretty excited about having them back for a bit. Also, being a grandparent means you’re in phase three- the last phase- and that’s sobering. Then I met the kids who would be joining our family, and fell in love. The girl is seven, a second grader who reads well and instinctively mothers her little brother, a four-year-old with a glimmer of impishness in his eyes. Now I couldn’t care any less about a french fry in my car.

There’s a single Lego sitting on my fireplace mantel. I found it under the TV stand while looking for the remote, just sitting innocently on the hardwood floor, thankfully out of stepping-upon range, waiting for its owner to get back down to floor level and play his games of imaginary build and destroy.

A friend teased yesterday, learning about my newborn grandchild, “I bet you have your own car seat in your car.” I do. I bought a car seat, a pack-and-play, and a swing. There’s baby shampoo, formula, diapers, and wipes in what has been my yoga room and is now a shared space. My asanas are now kept company with Pampers and that wonderful smell of baby shampoo. And atop my refrigerator I have current family photos with four new and welcome faces.

grandpa magic

There’s no instruction book for being a grandparent, though I did stumble across an amazing book called Grandpa Magic: 116 Easy Tricks, Amazing Brainteasers, and Simple Stunts to Wow the Grandkids while at Barnes and Noble(see below for link). It was one of my husband’s favorite Christmas presents. I found him studying the tricks Sunday afternoon in his home office. He has big plans brewing, I think.

The kids? They’re the easy part. Spending time in the back yard playing school, coloring pages, bubble baths? I know how to do that stuff, though it’s exhausting. One afternoon of helping them ride their new bikes in our neighborhood wiped me out. Now I understand why my in-laws looked so frazzled after my kids visited.

I fear that the hard part is going to be knowing when to help my daughter and her partner and when to back off; when to offer advice and when to hush. When to let them stumble while they figure out the best way to parent. Parenting hurts. When your child is sick, when someone hurts their feelings, when they fail, your heart aches. I don’t think that’s going to get any easier.

I just want to be the safe place. The lap that offers the best cuddles for the little ones and the ear that provides unerring support and love for their parents.

Maybe I’ll even practice a magic trick or two. Everyone needs a fairy grandmother with a little magic in her wand.

 

 

 

 

Why I Try Not To Look Backward. Mostly.

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

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

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

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

For what reason, I wonder?

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

I shed some tears then, too.

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

 

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

Forward. Ever forward.

img_1964
The problematic VHS tapes.

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

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

Peanuts, Cracker Jack, and Memories

102417_AstrosFan-600x0-c-default

It’s late October, and for many folks, it means pumpkins, golden and red tree leaves, sweaters, and hayrides. In south Texas, it just means it’s a high of 88 degrees instead of 98, but not a whole lot changes down here. We keep wearing our flip flops and shorts while envying our neighbors up north who crow about snuggly sweaters and hot chocolate. It’s not even cool enough to enjoy a full-bodied red wine yet, I am still sipping crisp sauvignon blanc. I did hang a wreath on my door this afternoon, it’s of red, yellow, and orange preserved fall leaves from some clime obviously far from here.

For this south Texan, autumn’s arrival means baseball playoffs. And even better this year, the World Series for my beloved Astros.

I love baseball. I know I am not alone in this, it’s America’s pastime, and many of my fellow citizens feel the same- over 70 million fans attended games last year. It’s right up there with hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet as the most American things ever. Even another great American institution, the Broadway musical, has gotten in on the act with Damn Yankees and a fantastic song called “What a Game” in the masterpiece Ragtime. 

I think loving the game is in my genes: my dad played when he was a kid. So did my mom, though of course, she played softball; in the 1950s that was the only option. Schools didn’t have teams yet so she played in an outside league. When our family moved to the Dallas area back in 1972, we started going to Texas Rangers games. Jim Sundberg was the team’s star back then, but I had a crush on a player whose name I no longer remember,  he had curly hair and bright eyes and reminded me of singer Mac Davis. I kept a photo of him on my wall and sometimes I kissed it with my virginal little six-year-old lips. The only player I have ever since come close to loving like that is Jose Altuve, the current Houston Astros second base player; he’s just my type- short, stocky, and impishly cute. I don’t keep his photo on my wall for kissing, but I do have his card pinned to the corkboard on my desk at work. When the mammoth Texas grocery chain HEB runs ads featuring George Springer, Carlos Correa, and cutie Altuve, I stop whatever I am doing and giggle like a thirteen-year-old ridden with acne and bashfulness. Fortunately, I have a tolerant husband. Altuve is everything great about the sport that so embodies America: an immigrant from Venezuela, he played ball with his dad every evening, honing his love for the game on a shaggy lot in his hometown of Maracay. For Altuve, baseball is rooted deep in his faith, his family, and especially in his love for his dad.

It’s the same for me. Baseball was ever-present in my broken, damaged family. When my poor, drug-addicted and mentally ill mom felt good, we played catch; she gave me one of her old ball gloves, and its leather was soft from years and years of play. The thud of a ball hitting the pocket against my palm is embedded in my sense memory, as is the smell of the leather. I played in my town’s girls softball league, and I tried, just once, to play with my index finger stuck out of the hole just above the logo patch because I’d seen a pro player do it, but it didn’t work for me– I felt awkward and unstable. No, my index finger wanted to be snug inside its finger sleeve.

Daddy coached Little League for both his sons’ teams, and when they outgrew the League, he kept signing on to coach anyway. He lit up at evening games played by the huge halide lamps at Cottonwood Park’s baseball fields, baseball diamonds gave him abundant joy. He and Mom had not had a good marriage, nor a good life, really; and I would go watch his games. When my brothers weren’t on the field or at-bat, it was my dad I watched. It was a joy to see his face brighten, and a gift to observe as his shoulders relaxed amid the chatter of the outfielders.

Baseball 1997

I grew up, got married, and had three kids, and baseball was the first sport my son Travis signed up for. At the tender age of just five years old, he donned a navy blue shirt with “Minnesota” across the belly in block letters and the Twins’ logo on his cap. We sat in bleachers and watched the boys pick flowers and sit in the dirt of a wee little field, dads standing at each base to teach the kids how to run the circle (hopefully  in the right direction) and catch a rolling grounder. That was the start of ten years of spring practices in cool Texas spring evenings, stiff legs and sore butt from sitting in bleachers too long at All Star tournaments, rejoicing at home runs and celebrating with ice cream, and picking up the pieces to rebuild my boy’s confidence when he missed a ball or his team lost.

hr-1179-616-887--1179616887005

When seven-year-old Libby told us she wanted to play baseball, we were sure we misunderstood, and corrected her, “Don’t you mean girls’ softball, Sweetpea?” She most certainly did not. The Little League rules allowed for it, so we signed her up. She was “drafted” into a team whose coach refused to take her, but a hero came to the rescue and traded one of his boys for her. Libby excelled, she loved the game, and her team made it to the playoffs. My husband and I loved going to games, we stood in the space between son’s and daughter’s two fields and watched both kids play simultaneously while eldest child Hilary did her homework in the bleachers. Because sometimes the Universe loves to bestow karma, Libby’s team faced the team whose coach refused her in the championship game. Libby’s team won, and the coach presented her the game ball. I have a photo of the exact moment, and my daughter’s face is sweet and proud.

I am lucky enough to have a father-in-law who loves baseball, too. I don’t know that I have ever seen a football game on his television, but I have, many times, seen baseball. I think he loves the strategy of the game– he’s an analytical guy. Me? I love the stillness. There’s a moment at a home game, just before the pitcher winds up, when the crowd holds its breath, collectively waiting to see if the ball will go low or high, outside or in; and will the batter swing? If a fly ball goes to the high infield, we wait again to see if it will be caught or whether it’s safe for the batter to run.

Baseball is Community, for me. I guess all sports are, but for an introverted and quiet soul, the boisterous socializing of a football tailgate is too much. The violence of the sport makes me flinch, to be honest. No, I love a game that has order and moments of hush, when I can feel the love of the game in the fans around me. I join with strangers to sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,” and we count our three strikes in the air, we yell “Charge!” at the organ’s cue, we do the wave around the seats of Minute Maid Park. The train conductor, Bobby Dynamite, who sits in the locomotive above center field exhorts us to yell for our team, and the best mascot in the league, Orbit, twerks his giant bum to make the kids laugh.

Recently, my 27-year-old son and I went to a game, just the two of us. The giveaway that night was a replica of the 2017 World Series ring; we had the pleasure of being on the field for batting practice, visited the press box and control room, then bought adult beverages to sit and chat as the stadium slowly filled up. It was a good game, though the Mariners killed us when their pinch hitter slammed a ball over the center-field fence, with bases loaded. Didn’t matter too much, though, because I was too busy being grateful for one-on-one time with my bearded, articulate, generous son. For a middle-aged woman who’s trying to infuse each and every day with little bits of enchantment, that game, with its diving catches, synthesized organ riffs, and mother/son time was absolutely magical. Red infield dirt subbed in for fairy dust.

Baseball just might be the greatest thing about America (well, except the Constitution). I love it. Play ball!

 

 

Mom of a Different Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grandmother…and yet, still mother.

Spring, 1995(2)

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

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

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

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

Christmas 1995

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

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

Texas 2

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

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

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

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

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

I have learned to have faith in my children.

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

Back of Family

Modesty, Shame, and a Korean Spa

For Mother’s Day, my daughters took me to a Korean spa. This was a wholly new experience for me- I was excited about soaking in pools of warm water and sitting in steam with my two girls. Then I learned something: you have to be naked. Fully unclothed. As a jaybird. Buck. Naked.

I did not handle this well. I had brought my swimsuit- but I was not allowed to wear it. I put on the short green cotton robe that was provided in my locker and just quivered.

I was raised to be modest, and since I was naturally shy, it went hand-in-hand. I am not sure I ever saw my mom naked, maybe once or twice. By accident. I never saw grandmothers in dishabille, even once my grandparents moved to live at a lake, my Grandma June did not wear a swimsuit.

Once, on my first sleepover with a friend, my third-grade self started getting dressed by putting my shoes and socks on with my nightgown. My little friend was puzzled, “Why are you getting dressed like that?” “This is how I always do it,” I replied. The truth was that as she started getting dressed, I was too embarrassed to do the same, so I started with the safest thing: shoes and socks. Of course, once it was time to take off my full length flannel nightgown and put on pants, I had to take off my shoes anyway.

Cover ups were worn to and from the pool, and when I was in drill team we were required to wear cover ups to and from rehearsals. We did not leave a dance rehearsal in our leotards and tights- we covered up.

Shorts were not allowed at school. They were not allowed at church camp- we sweltered in jeans in 100+ degree heat. When I went to college at a conservative Evangelical school in 1985, the same policy held: no shorts except in the gymnasium (no co-ed pe classes), intramural fields, or in the non-public areas of the dorms.

This was the norm in the 1980’s- especially in Dallas, Texas, where the Bible Belt influence is tenacious.

And to be completely honest- I dig a little modesty. I might be a mite old-fashioned, but I feel a jolt when confronted with booty shorts and crop tops. I don’t think I am judging the ladies who dress that way, but I feel uncomfortable, nonetheless. I once saw a really great political cartoon, in which the dichotomy of modesty and freedom in Muslim and Western culture is obvious:

I might fall closer to the figurative hijab or burqa, personally, and the cartoon above really brought it home to me. It’s about perspective, really.

But shame? That’s a whole different ball game.

Confronted with so much female nudity in the Los Angeles Korean spa- a clean, well-lit, secure environment- I could barely lift my eyes, which at moments filled with frustrated tears. I glanced surreptitiously- there were women both fatter and thinner than me, older and younger, darker and lighter, shorter and taller. There were abundant cellulite, lithe limbs, bellies stretched from childbirth, taut tummies, surgical scars, small breasts, large breasts, and in-between breasts. My body would have just blended in. No one would have given me a second glance, yet I just perched on the edge of the hot tub, feet sitting down in the hot bubbling water, robe wrapped tightly and clutched fiercely to make sure it didn’t gap. After a few scorching minutes in the steam room, I curled up on a sleep mat and let the heated floor send me into a sweet snoozy cat nap.

My daughters suffered no such self-shame, by the way.

I have given so much thought to the shame thing- where does it come from? It’s cultural, of course. Ad campaigns, tv shows, blah-blah-blah, on and on. But even more insidious is the way it creeps into the real conversations of the real people who impact our lives.

Like that drill team director who instructed us to cover up as we went to and from the gym or practice field and who also required regular weigh-ins at which all the officers were allowed to sit and comment on our weights as we stepped off the scales.

Once, without realizing I could hear her, a grandmother looked at my photo and commented to my father that I had gained weight. At fifteen, I had been so proud of that photo shoot and had felt very pretty. Until.

On another occasion, while hugging another grandmother tight, she disparaged her own body, saying there was too much too hug, how could my arms reach? I told her I loved her just as she was. Her reply? “Your grandfather would love me more if I could lose some weight.” I was thirteen…

and I believed her because that very grandfather would look out the window at their lake cabin and mercilessly critique the neighbor who, in her 50’s and then 60’s, liked to do yard work in her two piece swimsuit. Her body was fair game, both for its size (which was quite healthy) and its age.

Don’t mistake me- I loved (and still do) all of these grandparents. But somewhere along the way, their comments mixed with church and media messages to create a powerful and addictive cocktail of body and age shame in me.

 

As the mother of two girls, I tried to be very careful of what I said to them about their own bodies- I wanted them to feel comfortable in their own skins, and for the most part, they do. They didn’t have any problem stripping down to hop in the pools. But what I didn’t realize was that what I said about my own body was affecting them, too. That they were watching. They were listening. They were copying.

 

When I was visiting in LA just a couple of weeks ago, and I started the litany of body criticism, my older daughter looked at me with exasperation and said, “Mom, please don’t ruin this week with that. Please don’t go there. Please.” It stopped me dead in my tracks- I don’t just hurt myself when I clothe myself in shame. I hurt my girls, who have learned to love themselves, and who love me just like I am. It’s the craziest thing- they admire me. They respect me. And their adult selves have very little tolerance for my self-shame.

I guess body shame and body ownership are two sides of the same coin. I feel empowered when I am a little more modest. Some women are empowered by the burqa. Others are empowered by bikinis. We accept shame when we listen to the voices of the world, and when we let those voices supplant our own.

So, in my own voice, I spent time in my morning gratitude practice saying thank you to and for my body. Part by part: legs, knees, lungs, heart, eyes, mouth, womb, hands, belly…I acknowledged what my body does for me. With me. Sometimes in spite of me.

And just maybe, next time I will get in the naked pool. Maybe.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑