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!

How a Green Dress and Kindness from a Teacher Saved Me After Sex Abuse

“As I matured, I began to understand that God could look down on that back yard and feel compassion for the terrified little girl surrounded by boys who were transfixed by her.”

Trigger warning: there is a description of a child’s sexual encounter.

Hiding behind the house, between the brick wall and the wooden privacy fence…summer air… evening fresh…crickets chirping…and these words: “If you don’t let me, I won’t be your friend, and no one else will, either.” At the age of seven, my neighbor, Donny, who was my same age and size, convinced me to let him put his penis in me and stick his tongue in my mouth. With his little brother and all his friends watching. In fact, he liked it so much the first time that he came back for a couple of repeats; and I, who was so desperately lonely, was too afraid to lose one of my only friends to say no.

After the negotiations were concluded, Donny and his friends led me behind my house, and he made me pull my pants down. I couldn’t look up, I just stared at the feet of the boys. I had seen boy penises before, I had two little brothers after all, but theirs had never been erect, and they’d never been near my own skin. I let him put his penis into the space between my naked legs as he stuck his tongue in my mouth and enacted adult sex. He didn’t really understand where the penis went, so he slid it between the lips of my genitals, and it felt wrong somehow. Even with absolutely no knowledge of what sex is, no prior instruction or indoctrination, I believe human children instinctively sense a problem. I believe their spirits rebel against the aberration of sexual exposure. Mine did, and it felt shame.

If I close my eyes, I still see his face, with its button nose, freckles, and missing teeth. His hair was light brown. I can sense shadows of the boys who were encircling us, serving as witnesses and guards.

I can only assume he’d witnessed his own parents having sex. Or worse, saw porn in his house.

I remember when I found out that all the neighbors knew. Donny’s neighbor Karen was my age, and I knocked on her door, which her mom answered. “Can Karen play?” I asked. Karen’s mom simply glared and answered, “Karen is not allowed to play with girls like you.” She called me “nasty,” then she slammed the door in my face. Of course, I knew what she meant because I carried the shame in body, mind, and spirit.

Donny’s brother had tattled, so he told his parents that I was the one who forced him, not the other way around. As a result, I spent the next year in nearly complete isolation. I rode my purple bicycle with the banana seat around the block or down to the elementary school playground, but I never got off and dropped my bike in a friend’s driveway so we could play. I never rode bikes in a cluster of loud, boisterous, giggling girls.

I had always been quiet and preferred playing with just one or two friends, but this isolation was different. It was forced, it was ongoing, and it was complete. It’s when I started really knowing true loneliness and hushed days.

There was just one house where I was welcome. Our next-door neighbors were older folks, probably in their seventies. I remember white hair and a white mustache, and a kind spirit. His wife rarely came outside, but she did send out snacks. All the neighbors called the gentleman “Grandpa,” though he was none of our biological grandparent, for he filled the role for the neighborhood kids. He kept a pool table in his garage, which was a safe haven for me; I was never kicked out of that room. Occasionally, I asked Grandpa how to hold the cue stick, and he helped me hit the ball. I remember the click-click of the billiard balls striking each other. It’s a sound that, to this day, puts me right back in that garage, next door to my lonely house and my tainted back yard.

Grandpa had a tree in his front yard, a locust, which grew long brown bean pods. I used to climb into the tree and eat the hard little beans, observing the other kids as they played. I spent a lot of time in that tree. It was safe. The garage was safe. Grandpa was safe.

I began drawing with my pencil, little naked figures of anatomically correct boys and girls, with pointed penises and sharp clefts. I kicked the dog. I hid the drawings. These were the first inklings of my rage– not a cute, prissy, toddler-style anger expressed with pursed lips, but a violent and potent fury which was almost always turned back on my own self.

Incurlers: A Vintage Hair Rollers Buying Guide

I felt compelled to punish myself. I can’t explain it, really, it didn’t come out of clear and methodical planning, but out of gut-level, molecular shame: I began to insert hair curlers into my vagina. These were not smooth plastic ones, they were made of wire and had some sort of sharp plastic prickles around them. Wincing, with eyes teary, I would push them up inside me, which was not easy. My skin and muscles rejected the intrusion, and I forced myself to hold them there for about thirty minutes. When I drug them out of me, they were always covered with blood and mucus.

There was another place where I sensed love: from my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Hoover. She set up a classroom store where students used good behavior reward coupons to shop for treats, it opened for business once a week. Early in the year, my eyes fell upon a beautiful dress. It was a soft minty green with a fitted bodice and full tulle and organza skirt (I didn’t know any of that vocabulary as a seven-year-old, but I surely recognized beauty). The bodice had satin piping in three rows around the rib cage. It had been donated by someone’s mom, but as far as I was concerned it was delivered by an angel, sent as a gift from the Almighty God, just for me.

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I started saving my behavior coupons like they were the very link to life itself. I was always a well-behaved child, so it was no struggle at all to mind my manners, take out my Mysterious Wisteria reader when told, and tidy my messes. I was quiet, though, and my extra special efforts could easily have been overlooked. When you’re good and always quiet anyway, sometimes teachers forget to notice you when they are busy corralling the noisy troublemakers who shoot rubber bands across the room, make fart noises during phonics instruction, or don’t clean up after themselves at the art table. But Mrs. Hoover saw me and quietly set coupons on my desk for my goodness.

Each Friday when the class store opened, my classmates cashed in their coupons for pencils, Hot Wheels, or stickers. I held my breath and watched the green dress. My teacher watched me watch the green dress. After months of waiting and saving, I had enough coupons for it. 43 years later, I remember the moment it became mine. Mrs. Hoover beamed when I gave her my tickets, and I carried it home on a cloudy, gray winter day, holding it gingerly for all six blocks until I got to our little home.

This dress became the inspiration for years of imaginary play: princess, queen, debutante, wife, singing star, all enacted alone in my room wearing my heavenly mint green dress. It remains the most enchanted single item I remember from childhood, that gown scattered little bits of fairy dust over my wounded, solitary spirit until it eventually fell into tattered pieces.

I wish I was not so hurt by this story– I know there are so many women and girls who have endured violent rape. By comparison, my story seems tame, it was a kid my own size, for God’s sake. Indeed, in my telling of my experience with Donny as a middle-aged woman, there have been some who didn’t understand the trauma, who compared it to adult sexual molestation and thought that because the perpetrator was a child, rather than a trusted relative or adult, that it really should not count. They have said, “You were too young to even know what sex was, how could it have affected you so? It couldn’t possibly have.” Dismissed.change 2

Except that I suffered. I really did: isolation, fear, and an awareness of sexuality long before I was old enough. Blood and mucus. Shame. Sexual shame, yes, but just as debilitating and maybe more insidious is the shame of letting him. Many, many people who have been molested talk about this particular shame, and they were likely molested by a full-sized adult who had the physical strength to force them. I said yes to a boy my own size, not because he had strength on his side, but because I feared loneliness. Oh, and underpinning it all was the understanding that boys get to dictate what girls do with their bodies. I learned that if I said no, I would lose my few friends. I said yes, and I lost them anyway.

Though I didn’t realize the lessons I’d internalized, they informed most of the rest of my life, up until about my fortieth birthday. I didn’t ever think of myself as a virgin. I did think of myself as a slut. That’s a sad thing; I understood quite well about men and power; and I lived and worshiped in a church culture that placed such a high value on sexual purity that I was terrified I would be banished to hellfire should I perish in a car wreck. As I matured, I began to understand that God could look down on that back yard and feel compassion for the terrified little girl surrounded by boys who were transfixed by her nakedness. Even more, now I understand that the Divine One was with me, surrounding me, and in me: feeling the strange, hard little shape between my legs, trembling with fear and pain as I withdrew bloody curlers from inside myself, adoring a gentle and perceptive teacher, donning a discarded prom dress to escape my lonely world, and gently rocking my shameful spirit on its long, long journey to freedom.

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If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, there is help. Here’s a crisis text line, it’s discreet and could be the thing to save someone who’s hurting. https://www.crisistextline.org/topics/sexual-abuse/#understanding-sexual-abuse-1

 

Tell Them a Story. Like Big Bird!

“Sunny day
Sweeping the clouds away
On my way to where the air is sweet
Can you tell me how to get
How to get to Sesame Street?”

This morning, my daughter suggested we turn Sesame Street on for her one-year-old. We did, and oh, the feelings that swept through me.

It’s the first week of a new decade. My holiday decorations are stored, the garage is impossible to use while we try to clear the house of clutter, I used New Year’s Eve to paint a bedroom. There’s a new baby, just twenty days old, living in my house and distracting me from my chores (I am joyous to oblige him). Lots of fresh starting going on.

There’s also a lot of nostalgic wishing and sighing. A little angst- I still haven’t had a book published or lost the ten pounds I need to, but those are little angsts. The big angst is over people I miss. When you’re very, very young, like my two grandchildren, time has no meaning. Days? Months? Years? Decades? Pfft. When you’re a teen or perhaps a young adult, every new year may feel like the beginning, like a fresh start full of promise. Onward!

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When you’re in the middle, like I am, you look forward and backward in equal measure. And this morning, with Big Bird on the screen, I didn’t just glance backward. My very soul seemed pulled right out of the now. The episode began with Elmo singing with friends on the stoop of the brownstone, the green doors opening to reveal Gordon, his father, and his son, Miles. They told a surprised Elmo and Miles, who couldn’t imagine that the two old guys might have been musicians, stories of their younger days as a singer and a guitarist. Gordon’s flashback included Luis and Bob, and my five-year-old spirit danced in recognition.

I have always loved Sesame Street. Its literacy lessons gave me reading, but its inclusive kindness gave me hope. I was a pretty lonely kid, and Big Bird’s gentle love for the invisible Snuffy was a source of great joy for me. When my own eldest was a toddler, I shared SS with her on the Lubbock PBS station; Ernie was her favorite. For her second Christmas, we got her an Ernie ornament for our tree. My father was with us that Christmas, and when we hung that Ernie, he told me that he remembered how I had loved the show as a small girl. I had never realized he’d noticed that. But I did, I really did love it. And my dad. He loved me, too.

Caroll Spinney, the operator and voice of both Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, passed on my granddaughter’s first birthday, and as she stood at the TV screen this morning, I realized anew just how important it is that we pass along, to our children and grandchildren, all the things that Sesame Street holds dear: kindness, literacy, and story.

Story is power, it is magic, it is blessing and curse. Humans love stories. We draw them, film them, record them, write them, and tell them around campfires. My Grandma June used to tell the same family yarns over and over at gatherings, so often repeating herself that her kids and kids-in-law developed a hand signal: when Grandma started a story they’d all heard before, they would start flashing their fingers above their heads to indicate how many times they’d heard the tale. Then they’d all laugh, including Grandma, and she’d tell the story anyhow. Story is how the thread of a family can be woven in and around generations, creating a tapestry that is indestructible. It may become threadbare at times, perhaps worn or frayed, but the through-line will preserve a household. How can we share story?

Story can be long. My Grandmother Juanita was a seamstress; when I’d visit and she needed to sew for a client, she’d set me up near her machine with my own doll, fabric scraps, needle, and thread. I’d cut and stitch as she made beautiful dresses, while stories fell from between her pin-filled lips. Stories of raising children while picking cotton, stories of church. Stories about the women who came to her home for dress fittings. She shared an oral history with me that could not have been heard if we’d been in front of a screen. Those stories took hours of communication: her talking, me listening and asking questions.

But that’s not the only way to share story. There are ways to incorporate it into a daily life lived in such a way that our tales flow out of us, long and short, deeply profound or joyfully silly, memorable or not. Each story shared, no matter length or gravitas, builds a connection with each other: parent to child, roomie to roomie, teacher to student.

Though I usually shy away from creating a list, today I am giving it a try. Here are some ways to share story with your loved ones, whether family of blood or family of choice, friends treasured, or students respected.

  • The most obvious is to share meals around a table. Screens off. Though my hubby and I share our meals in front of a TV now, when we were raising kids, we gathered them around the table, television off, for dinner every night. Those thirty minutes allowed everyone to hear and be heard. It did get harder as they got older and began playing sports and taking dance lessons. But the foundation we laid in their younger years remains firm.
  • Leave the photo albums and scrapbooks out where everyone has quick and easy access. I used to spend hours poring over my parents’ wedding album and the albums of all the photos taken when they were young and my brother and I were small. Sometimes I asked my parents what was happening in a particular picture, but at other times I allowed these photos to be a jumping-off place for histories of my own creation. I personally have around twelve albums now of my own family.  And if some of the cute decorations in the albums that moms of my generation were creating so lovingly during the 90s and 00s get torn, so what?
  • Tiny moments call for short stories. Washing dishes, tucking in, not making the team…all opportunities for stories that are just a couple of sentences. When I was tightening the key on the expander in my kids’ mouths (they all inherited my narrow jaw, unfortunately), I’d tell them tales of my own orthodontic nightmares, including the time when my inner upper lip cut open then sealed shut over the arch of wire running along my upper gums. These old stories gave them hope that they’d survive the ordeal, it let them know that I really did understand their pain, and it helped them to understand that I am a person who lived and loved before they came along.
  • Write things down. It doesn’t have to be pretty or even grammatically flawless. One of my most treasured possessions is the file of letters that my grandfather wrote to my grandmother during their courtship. Sometimes, I sit and read a couple of those letters that are in his scrawled, slanting handwriting, and I feel him and remember him so closely. Keep a book in which you grab a pen and write short notes. Your loved ones will be glad to have it someday. And it’s just not quite the same if it’s all done exclusively digitally.
  • However, sometime technology really can be helpful! Call and leave voice texts-not voice mails, but actual voice texts. They can be longer, can be saved, and can be listened to at convenience and on repeat. Since we’re all carrying smart phones now, you can simply pop in your AirPods and listen to a saved message from the one you miss.
  • When I was a kid, there was a rack of record albums sitting by my parents’ stereo console, I could pull a record out of its sleeve, set it on the turntable, and have a sense of my family through the music they loved. When I was a young adult, we were making mix tapes and CDs, assembling the songs we loved to tell others about us. Now, we can make a playlist and share it. And if we listen to it together, we can share the stories that go along with the songs. At our house, anytime Amy Grant’s “Baby, Baby” comes on, I have to tell the story of my daughter pronouncing it “Maven, Maven” as I drove our used sedan to work, dropping her and her baby brother off at daycare at Ms. Sharina’s first.
  • Traditions and rituals make wonderful opportunities for sharing stories. It might be a cooking tradition, a travel tradition, a holiday tradition. At our house, the kids (now 30, 28, and 25) get a new ornament on the tree every year. They have to hunt for it on Christmas Eve after our traditional dinner of tortilla soup and tamales. Of course there is Ernie, but also a baseball player or two, caps and gowns, and a sparkly frog. And when I hang them, everyone there has to listen if I want to tell the story of any ornament. img_1449.jpgThere is one ornament we don’t hang now, it is the matched set of my daughter and her husband from the year they married, 2016. Custom made by an artist friend, they are perfect little replicas of my daughter and son-in-law on their wedding day. Their marriage crumbled after just one year, the weight of his opioid addiction simply too much to bear.

The stories will not be, should not be, exclusively happy. There are sad stories to tell: pets lost, marriages dissolved, arguments and deaths. But we should share them nonetheless. Our lives are the stories we live and leave behind. We have the power to create and share resonant truths. And from these stories of grief and struggle, we learn that resilience is possible.

More importantly, we have the privilege of authoring our own stories, living them daily in front and alongside the ones we love. May your story be heard and your life seen.

As the wonderful Jim Henson, creator of the Muppets and my sweet Sesame Street said, “Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing, keep pretending.”

Interested in learning more about telling story in your family? I love this blog!

 

 

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Hold the Mayo: A Reflection on Triggers

Years ago, I found myself in a crumpled heap on the floor in the hallway of my house, weeping as though all the wretchedness of the world lay at my feet in the form of a puddle of white latex paint. I scrubbed frantically and ineffectually as the paint soaked into the beige carpet, the nylon fibers greedily absorbing the goo. My kids waited nearby, helpless to console me, anxious to leave for school yet unable to coax me to my feet. Eventually, I gave up and left the ruined paint-soaked towel in a pink floral heap, taking my kids and myself to school; knowing that by the time I got home the paint would be a hardened shell about which I could do nothing. For years, I lived with that white paint stain on the floor in our hallway; our finances didn’t allow for replacing the carpet and it became mostly invisible. But never totally out of my mind.

The paint stain reminded me of a greasy mayonnaise stain in front of the refrigerator in my childhood home. Our kitchen was floored in hideous 1970s nylon kitchen carpet, a design trend that I find inexplicable. Who in their right mind conceived that raising a family would be better with carpet in the kitchen? At the tender age of nine, I dropped a full jar of mayonnaise while preparing a sandwich. It fell in slow motion to the floor, glass shattering into millions of shards while globs of the eggy, greasy condiment seeped into the gold and brown synthetic loops, the pungent smell filling the air in the tiny kitchen.

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My father was not happy with me, this day became one of the rare ones when his temper found a ready target in me. Of course, I know now that there was much, much more going on in his world than a food stain. And he knew it was an honest accident. But he was, nonetheless, angry. That stain never did go away. Even when we had the house listed for sale, prospective buyers noted the giant dark circle standing sentinel before the refrigerator. The stain reminded me of my own careless klutziness, it reminded me of disappointing my dad, and it reminded me that our family was too poor to have the stain cleaned or the carpet replaced.

On the day the white paint ruined my hall carpet, I was that little girl again.

My trauma had once again chased me into adulthood, sniffing and snapping at my heels like a rabid dog who just refused to let go. My childhood trauma did that a lot (so did my husband’s), and it had made my marriage an uphill climb. In a period of particular strife and struggle in our relationship, my husband and I each attended, separately, retreats with counselors whose mission it was to find sources of dysfunction and shine light on them, enabling their clients to return to their homes equipped with a clearer understanding of their own trauma and the tools with which embark on the perilous journey to wellness.

The foundational exercise that was the crux of the weekend, the one that every bit of healing was meant to be drawn from, was the creation of a “trauma egg,” a visual metaphor for the birth of our brokenness. The preparation for the work began the night before when we were required to enter into silence. We awakened in rooms devoid of the usual chatter heard in a house full of women, our breakfast was eaten in a hush as we began to turn inward.

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And then backward. In the hours-long exercise, the staff coaxed memories and snippets of conversations long forgotten as we sketched our lives in Crayola markers, discovering the seeds, roots, and nuclei of all the hurt we carried with us. Dust motes floated in the autumn sunshine that spilled through the windows, glowing like fairy dust settling on the trembling shoulders of the women who cried in turns. Sniffles, gasps, sobs, and sighs filled my ears as the souls around me bared their anguish in shared privacy. Our therapists’ philosophy was that by acknowledging all of the pains of the past, by drawing them forth out of shadow and into light, our understanding of ourselves would increase and our forgiveness for our own shortcomings would be enabled. This work is where resilience begins.

The mayonnaise incident belonged in that egg. It was the real source of my heartbreak when a can of paint ruined the carpet in the house I had tried so hard to make beautiful for my family after the ratty, dirty, poverty of my own childhood. The filth and chaos of my childhood home are why my spirit now requires order and cleanliness. My family, who loves me, now understands that and they try to honor my need.

There are those who like to berate people for being “triggered,” who deride when someone responds to a current situation with all the hurt of a past one. What I know is that we must acknowledge those old hurts. I don’t mean we clutch them tightly and wear them on our sleeves, touching them like tender bruises over and over, inflicting our own pain and setting traps for others to hurt us, whether intentionally or not. But those hurts are part of who we are. All of us have them. Some of us have hurts where the trauma is genuinely significant.

For us to be truly resilient, we must bring those wounds out of the shadows, expose them to the light of truth, and cleanse them with love from our own selves and from those we trust to love us. Just as importantly, we must honor those wounds in others. Compassion for ourselves can only flourish in soil that is abundant with compassion for the hurts of others, even if they are wounds we don’t understand. I believe that healing is not a me-first-then-you proposition; it is a simultaneous process where my love and grace for others only serves to increase my love and grace for myself. Blessings upon us all.

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If you’re interested in learning more about the trauma egg and its role in healing from trauma, here’s an organization that does this work. If you’re suffering from childhood trauma, I urge you to reach out. You don’t have to walk alone.

The Murray Method, Trauma Eggs, and The 30 Task Model

 

 

 

Short and Sweet: A Dragonfly Day

This morning, I found myself walking with my granddaughter, feeling a bit blue. Disappointed that plans that didn’t pan out. Stuck. Ordinary. Small. With such a sweet companion, it seems impossible that I might have felt so, but there it is.

 

 

But then, as I pushed the stroller into a sunny patch on our walking path, a dragonfly hovered mere inches from my face just as Nancy Wilson sang, “The Best is Yet to Come.” It seemed that maybe the Universe was sending me a message, telling me that I am okay where I am. That good things are coming. That pleasure and purpose can be found in the insignificant and mundane moments.

Sometimes I wish I was living a big life, the kind in which I have influence and connections, a substantial platform from which to speak, tangible evidence that I am leaving a legacy; a life without limits. My spirit’s wings are itching explore the skies far beyond the one I have been living under for so long. But that doesn’t seem to be where the Divine One is sending me. Instead, She sets me at home, keeping me humble and grounded as I endeavor to make small ripples in a tiny pond.

A beautiful life is not made by enduring the ordinary moments, but by being fully present in them. By imbuing them with love and joy and gratitude. And that, dear friends and readers, is a choice.

Diapers. Music. Hugs. Dirty dishes. Walks. Invoices. Glasses of cool, clean water. The changing of seasons. It’s all magic. Ordinary magic. And that may be the most powerful magic of all.

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If you have never heard this delicious song by Nancy Wilson, give it a listen!

Present Light, Second in a Series

“Past and future, ever blending,
Are the twin sides of same page:
New start will begin with ending
When you know to learn from age;
All that was or be tomorrow
We have in the present, too;
But what’s vain and futile sorrow
You must think and ask of you”- Mihai Eminescu

There’s been some angst lately. Getting older is a mixed bag; I love the increased confidence and reduced worry over the opinions of others, I hate the knee and shoulder pain that accompany my disintegrating bones and cartilage. I love having the freedom to make career choices that are risky. I fear the consequences.

I cherish the memories of the people I love.

I ache that some of them are gone.

In my mind and spirit, it all blends. Past and future: victories and setbacks, loves and losses, scars and comforts. Secrets kept. Betrayals felt. Forward. Backward.

I loved this lantern in Seattle, it’s in front of a beautiful old building that stands beside a modern skyscraper. The contrast of recent and ancient was beautiful. That’s life, right? full of contrast and contradiction. But when we can see the inconsistencies and accept them, when we can look both forward and back while living in the present, we build beautiful, resilient, rich lives.

Lives of light. Shadow, too, yes. But mostly: light.

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“Are You Okay?” Ask the Question.

Last Monday, I found myself walking in the LAX airport, searching for a soda and trying to get to my 10,000th step before boarding a plane to head home to Houston. It’s a busy airport. Really, really busy.

You know how there are some people who are blissfully unaware of the existence of others as they move through the world? They stop in the middle of paths, their grocery carts block access, they bump into people and don’t say “Excuse me” because they are so clueless?

I am not one of those people.

I am the person who’s constantly ducking out of the way of oblivious elbows and shopping carts and jaywalkers.

lemonade12016-11-22-06-47-03So as I walked, I observed the people I shared the vast, echoing space with. There was a young man, clad in orange safety vest, uniform, and work boots, sitting on a low tile wall just near the Lemonade restaurant, head down in his hands. His shoulders were slumped, he seemed so very despondent. I wondered, is he okay?

And I kept walking. Gotta get the steps in.

When I returned, he was still there. Head still down. Shoulders still slumped. I kept walking. Did another full round of the terminal. He’s still sitting. And I start to wonder if maybe he needs something, maybe he’s gotten bad news, maybe he’s lonely. I resolve to stop and ask if he’s still sitting when I finish the lap of the terminal.

When I finish, he is, in fact, still there, and I find myself facing a test. No one but me knew of my resolution. I processed a whole lot of  excuses as I stood to the side of the tide of people rushing to their gate:

He’s a stranger.

I’m an introvert.

He might be dangerous.

He might think I am weird.

Or nosy.

He might not speak English.

It’s not my business.

I am in a hurry. What if they call my plane to start boarding?

I might be rejected.

That’s the big one, isn’t it? Rejection.

I took a deep breath, I crossed to him,  touched his shoulder, and asked, “Are you okay?”

He looked at me with eyes rimmed red, fatigue carved into lines beside his mouth, surprise evident in his expression, and replied, “I’m just so tired.” And he started talking, almost without prompting, as though he really just needed to. Seems he’d worked six straight 16-hour days, and had four more to go before a break. He fills jets with fuel, and it’s hot on the tarmac, he’d come in to just cool off for an hour on his lunch break. We chatted. I held my hand up for a high five that turned into a tight clasp as we looked into each other’s eyes, strangers, and told each other to hang on.

It was just a small moment of connection, nothing earth-shattering, just a couple of moments in which one human talked to another. No screens, no agenda, no products to sell or meetings to schedule, just connection without cost.

I believe connection is the thing each of us needs most. Real, authentic, meaningful connection with another person. Attentive listening accompanied by unguarded eye contact. Stillness that says, “I am here, I am hearing you, I am not rushing away to my next thing. I will plant myself here and wholly attend to what you’re saying.”

And you know what? I asked that man if he was okay, and I was the one who walked away healed. I cried tears for a moment, somehow flooded with feelings in that moment that needed to leak out my eyes. A week later and I am still weeping over that moment. That tiny little conversation followed by a hand clasp.

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Why, I wonder? I think it’s because I let my protective shell crack open a little. Like poet Leonard Cohen says, a crack is “how the light gets in.” I cracked open, and light has been doing the work of washing away some hurts old and new. Washing them away in tears. Not sad tears, but cleansing ones.

I don’t know the name of the man I spoke to at LAX last Monday, I hope he had a good week. I hope he got some rest Friday. I hope he spent some time loving and being loved on his first day off after a busy holiday filled with harried travelers.

I meant to be the one doing the healing, instead I was healed myself. That’s how connection works. How risk pays off. How resilience grows.

Friend, are you okay today?

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Resilience: Body and Spirit

Today, I went for a walk. I do this all the time, my Fitbit data reveals that I make my 10,000 step goal nearly every day. When I don’t, it’s usually because I spent an hour doing yoga instead.

I haven’t been hitting those goals this last week though. I’ve injured a knee, a knee that has been in steady decline for years. I’ve visited the doctor off and on about this knee since 1998, it may have finally reached its tipping point. It’s swollen, it’s limited, and it hurts.

Laid up on the couch with ice packs around the poor, beleaguered joint, I didn’t feel especially resilient, nor strong. What changed this morning? What enabled me to head out on the trails and manage a full hour of brisk walking? Tools. I equipped myself for the task. In physical therapy yesterday, I let the therapist assess my Nikes and she vetoed them immediately: not enough support, not enough cushion, sole worn down. She recommended shoes and a brace, described what I needed, then sent me on my way to do my work: I had to follow through. I had to buy the shoes. I had to purchase the brace. And then this morning, I had to actually put them on. My tools couldn’t help me if they sat in their boxes.

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I had to admit to my doctor, to my physical therapist, to the woman who helped fit me for new Asics, and above all, to myself, that I needed help. That I am in pain. Our bodies can’t recover, they can’t be resilient, if we don’t recognize their need for rest, support, boundaries, and equipment.

Like the worn soles of my old Nikes, our spiritual souls can become threadbare, too. It’s important to learn what is needed for resilience: Boundaries. Meditation. Creative expression. Meaningful relationships. Sleep. Faith. Time with nature.

I’ve bounced back over and over and over: abused as a child, codependent with an addict, lost jobs, damaged voice… every setback made me stronger. How? I drew on the love that surrounded me and nourished my spirit with the joyful memories and experiences I had created and stored in my heart.

Brene Brown says that “Joy, collected over time, fuels resilience- ensuring we’ll have reservoirs of emotional strength when hard things do happen.” And they do: injuries and illnesses, divorces and deaths, betrayals and bruises. I am about collecting joy. I hope you can be, too. Let’s help each other to do that. Blessings, friends.

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What I Know for Sure

Sometimes life is funny
You think you’re in your darkest hour
When the lights are coming on in the house of love- Amy Grant*

Each morning as I drive to work, I try to get my brain and heart into a healthy setting, one that enables me to walk through my day in a way that’s uplifting. I am not the greatest at living with a happy face, my sunshine-spreader is faulty, I think. It needs a little nudge every day. So I listen to Oprah. I love Oprah deeply, though I have never met her. No matter, I love her. Sometimes I play a little movie in my mind in which my doorbell rings and when I open it, she’s standing there in all her Oprah-ness and I essentially collapse to the hardwood floor inside my entry, sobbing in joyous abandon. She picks me up, wraps me in her arms, fixes me tea, and we curl up on my sofa for an afternoon of chat.

Funny, right? Her podcast is as close as I may ever get (I refuse to phrase that as a definitive “will ever get” because I have listened to enough Oprah Super Soul to know about manifesting what I speak. But still.) to meeting her and basking in her sunny aura. So I listen every morning. I need fortification before entering my workplace.

Susan's Special Needs: Oprah Talks to Cheryl Strayed About ...

Today, she asked Cheryl Strayed (another hero) a question that I have heard her ask so many times: “What do you know for sure?” I don’t always have a response, usually, my brain is a little too foggy at 7:45 in the morning to snap to attention for the question. But not today. Today, my brain, no, my heart, had a ready answer. What do I know for sure?

I am loved.

Not by everyone I meet, no. I think one of the blessings of getting older is coming to the realization that it’s not necessary to be loved by everyone. It’s not necessary, nor is it possible. An authentic life is a little messy and an authentic person is too. The rougher, unpolished edges of authenticity will scrape upon some in my path. The vibration that I walk with won’t resonate with everyone I meet. In fact, it will create dissonance with people whose vibrations aren’t compatible.

That’s okay.

I am loved anyway, and by enough people that life is good.

Here’s my shortlist of people who love me. It’s not a definitive list, I will probably think of people to add and add and add.

My cousins Rebecca and Jen.

My friends Whitney, Angela, Eide, Jen, Becky, Sherry, and Rosella.

My colleagues Sylvia, Teresa, Darla, and Melody.

College pals Kayla, Cheryl, and Heidi.

The children I have heart-adopted: Jorge, Rileigh, Mandy, and Trevor. As well as other former students gathered in 22 years in the public school classroom.

My in-laws: Jackie, Tom, Trent, Holly, Mason, and Abi.

The mother of my heart, Dorothy.

My angel-in-heaven mentor, Ellen.

My children, Hilary, Travis Austin.

My husband, Travis.

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My heart is full as I type the list. There have been dark days in the 52 years I have walked this planet. Days when I was sure that if I disappeared, no one would notice or care. Do you remember planning to run away when you were a child? Throwing your essentials in a backpack while muttering to yourself, “I’ll show them. They won’t even know that I left. Mom and Dad can just sit around and watch TV and I will go do what I want!” Of course, that’s not likely what would happen, but I know I had a couple of days much like that when a kid. But also when an adult. Once, driving home from a session with my therapist, I contemplated committing suicide. I thought maybe I’d just drive my car at high speed into the cement barriers that separated the lanes of traffic on the busy Houston freeways. As I drove, I tried to imagine whether people would even bother to come to my funeral. I mean, I knew Travis and the kids would. But would anyone else? My brain began to populate the pews of a church sanctuary and before I’d passed too many more exits off the highway, and I realized that there were more people who’d miss me than I had thought. So instead of ramming my Ford Escort into the barriers, I drove on home and gave each of my family hugs. They didn’t know, though I did, how close I’d come that day to checking out.

I think it’s important to know for sure that we are loved. It’s the most important thing there is to know. It’s what enables resilience. Love gets under us and lifts us up when we’re low.

Look around today, let the Divine One remind you of the people who love you. Open your heart to that love. Let it flow through you, break you open, patch you up, strengthen your steps. Accept it. You are loved.

I know it. For sure.

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*”House of Love” written by Greg W. Barnhill, Kenny Greenberg, Wally Wilson

 

 

Present Light, First in a Series

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

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

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

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