How Will They Remember You?

Sometimes, when you’re writing about your trauma, you discover that you’re not as alone as you might have thought. You are blessed to find others who have walked in pain and found ways out of it into the sun. Nancy is one of those women. A mental health professional with her own history of struggle, she shared this story of discovering how her relationship with her daughter and granddaughter could be healed by asking a simple, painful question.

I just turned 50 a few days ago. As I spent my last day being 49, I had thought to myself, “ I want to just enjoy my last day of officially being young.”  Each morning as I look into the mirror, I see more grey hairs lining my forehead, longer lines outlining the corners of my eyes, and dark circles underneath my once bright green irises. I notice more frequent trips to the hairdresser to brighten me up with sassy, energetic, red hues that polish up the emeralds underneath my eyelids. While I attempt to justify the more frequent visits, I also look at my hair, face, and skin, and see the tiredness. I feel my body ache and they are all reminders that I am no longer young. I have raised my daughter, have peaked in my career, and much rather enjoy a slow and quiet life.

I woke up on August 1, 2020, my fiftieth birthday,  imagining myself as a tall person, walking away from my life, with my head turned away as if something really great had just happened. And I really wanted to know, how will they remember me? 

I have spent a half a century trying to rush life, and thinking how nothing I have done seems to  ever be good enough. Things have never been good enough for me, and I think I often pushed my need for perfection on to my daughter Briana, and also on my little grandmonster, Trinity. 

I remember sitting at the dining room table one day when Briana was about 11, struggling with her math homework. I will never forget the sting of the only words I remember from that conversation. As I towered over her, she looked up at me with tears drowning her eyes  and said, “Mom, I don’t have to be perfect! Why do I always have to be perfect?” I am not sure if those were her exact words, but those are the only words I heard. 

I felt a heaviness in my chest that I had never felt before. I realized in that moment I was passing my inadequacies about myself on to my daughter. My need for perfection was being poured into her heart. And when I looked into her eyes, I knew I was hurting her. 

I still see her face looking at me today every time I ride her hard, or when she says to me, “Mom, nothing I say or do is ever good enough for you.” 

I don’t want to leave this world with her last thought of me being that she didn’t think I believed she was good enough. 

The truth is, she is beyond good enough. She has become who I never was. She is the opposite of me. I am emotional and sensitive. She is able to brush things off. She is patient and I am not. She cares little about what people think of her, yet I harshly struggle coping with rejection. 

One evening in 2018, I was meditating and reading my Bible and came across a scripture I had read a million times. But it never spoke to me the way it did that evening. 

I had prayed before opening my Bible, as I usually do, and asked God to show me whatever He wanted me to learn. 

“And you, fathers, do not provoke your children to wrath, but bring them up in the training and admonition of the Lord.” Ephesians 6:4, NKJV

As I laid sprawled across my bed, staring at those words on the page, I heard this voice ask me, “What makes her angry?” I stopped for a moment. It was one of those moments where the air was thick yet light. It covered my body almost as if someone was breathing on me. 

I answered the voice back and said, “but, God, I don’t know.” As I answered God, burning tears began pouring down my face. My stomach ached. My feet ached. 

My entire body went  numb.

My daughter was in the living room and she and I had just had a conversation about Trinity. At the time, Trinny was in Ohio with her other grandmother. Briana was contemplating allowing Trinity to stay in Ohio for the school year. For some, this would be wonderful. But, at the age of 6, Trinny had already had such a hard life because her father had left, and she had watched her mom be abused for her entire life. 

I didn’t think it was a good idea for her to stay so far away. It was too far from Trinny’s familiar life. But, Briana is Trinny’s mom. And no matter what fight we were fighting, Briana is her mom and I had to accept that. 

She is so grown up now, struggling, but she is still the opposite of me. And Trinny. My sweet little Trinny is even more different than both of us. Such a sweet, special, unique personality. Trinny has a tender, sensitive heart, is smart, and is a bit too aware of things around her. 

The memories of the phone call I received one late evening when Trinny was about 3 will never leave me. Calvin, my ex husband called and told me I had to get over to Briana’s right away. Since this was not a regularly occurring phone call, especially from him, I grabbed my purse, hobbled to my car, and sped over to Briana’s house. Since I have osteoarthritis, pain in my right knee prevents me from walking up the stairs much. 

However, that evening, somehow some type of super powers flooded my body and when I arrived, I flew out of my car an ran upstairs to her apartment. 

In the middle of the living room, there was Trinny pedaling on her little stationary bike, oblivious to the shouting and arguing going on around her. In my experience as a mental health counselor, I knew immediately she was used to this. She had witnessed this a million times. 

Against Briana’s begging and pleading, I scooped up Trinny, and flew downstairs with her in my arms, terrified her father was going to follow me. My heart was racing so fast I could barely breathe. Hands shaking, my fingers fumbled finding the locks for the doors. I peeled away in my car and rushed home. 

Trinny didn’t saw a word. 

When we got to my house, we snuggled and went to sleep. However, my mind was racing a million miles an hour. It was difficult falling asleep, and I didn’t want Trinny to know how afraid I was, or how anxious I felt inside. 

When I closed my eyes,my thoughts turned to God. I hadn’t been to church in a million years. But I remembered Him at that moment. 

The last thought in my mind before I fell asleep was, “I cannot keep her safe. But I know someone who can.”

It was then that Trinny and I developed a very special bond. We began attending church faithfully every Sunday. Not only did we attend church, but we worshiped in the car together. She began staying at home with me in the evenings, and for the next 8 months while her father was incarcerated, I was her care taker. One Sunday at church, I’m not sure where it was coming from, but that voice spoke to me and asked for her to have her eyes and ears prayed for – that her eyes and ears be protected from the rest of the world. 

And they were. Still, she seems lost sometimes. Because I eventually left our church, I feel guilty and responsible, thinking that it is my fault she no longer has God in her life. Sometimes I feel I robbed her of that and that it was my responsibility to ensure that the seeds of beauty and love continued to be planted and watered inside of her. She no longer wants to snuggle with me and ask me in her sweet soft voice, “Nana, can I lay on you?” as she would lay next to me, with her thumb in her mouth, her Bottie (blanket) next to her, with her head on my shoulders, so peaceful. 

Those days are gone. 

As I enter a new era of my life, I cannot help but ask, “How will they remember me?”

Will they remember me by the light I carry inside of me? Or will they remember me because I never took the time to let them just … be? 

Will God remember me and the nights I prayed out and cried for them in private? Will He show them how much I loved them or share with them the conversations He and I had? 

They will remember me as always being there when they needed something. But I don’t think they will remember that I stopped what I was doing because work was more important. And I don’t think they will remember me asking, “Can you share with me why you are angry?” Or telling them, “I want to understand so that I can love you the way you need to be loved.” 

Yet they carried on in their lives being happy and being the mommy and daughter that I had only dreamed of. 

I don’t want to be remembered with regret. When I woke up on my 50th birthday, I realized that life is like writing a series of storybooks. When one is story is finished, another one begins. 

And while I have been seeking the answer to the question, “What is my purpose?” God put the answer in front of me 30 years ago when Briana was born. He already wrote that story. I just never took that book off of the shelf to read it to her.

Sometimes we focus so much on things we want that we don’t take the time to realize that everything we need is right in front of us. We don’t always take the time to ask our children, “What makes you angry?” They have bad days just like we do. And they have hurtful life experiences that are no less painful than our own. 

We don’t need to wait until we are 50 to ask ourselves, “How will they remember me?” And, if we are still alive to answer that question, then we have the opportunity to not only write that story, but to live it. 

When I see Trinny today being so patient, waiting for me to tear myself away from my work to spend time playing a game with her, it tears my heart up with guilt. She is 8 years old now. The things that are important in her life are the things that have always been important. “Don’t provoke her to be angry. Sit down and spend time with her. Read her the Bible, or play some worship music and sing together the way you used to.” 

And when I see my daughter being so thoughtful of me, I can’t stop wondering, “How will she remember me?” Will her memories be of me being the mom she always wanted for her life? 

They say that the last thing we say or do is what people remember most. Did I fuss because Trinny didn’t fold the blankets right, or did I take the time away from my computer to play a game with her when she asked? Did I tell Briana, “I am proud of you for who you are,” or did I take the time to ask either one of them, What makes you angry?” and do everything I could to make sure I didn’t? Did I take the time to teach them about God’s love and the importance of faith? 

Photo by Juan Pablo Serrano Arenas on Pexels.com

The thought of leaving behind any memory or legacy other than, “She loved God and her light shined upon every life that crossed her path,” pains me. 

Life gets busy. Priorities get rearranged. Ultimately we take life for granted. Before we know it, we are reflecting upon the old cliche that “life goes too fast.”  

I am grateful God allowed me to see another day. I am even more grateful that He speaks to me. That I’ve told Briana and Trinny how I love them and am proud of them. 

And, I suppose, when I look in the mirror and see the gray and the lines of my aging life, I can embrace them rather than reflect on all of the things I should have done and didn’t.

Today, I got a phone call from Briana saying, “Trinny wants to know if she can come over,” and I wondered to myself, “What does she REALLY want?” I smiled. She just wanted me to do what I said I was going to do. She just wanted to know that something that was important to her was also important to someone else. 

I stopped what I was doing, We ordered her school supplies. And just like we did when she was 3, and 4, and 5, and  6, we got into the car, and I played a new worship song for her. She laid her head down, put her thumb in her mouth, and peacefully fell asleep. 

And if anything happened to me today, that is exactly how they would remember me. 

***

Nancy Richardson has her Master’s degree in Adult Education with Human Services Counseling from the University of Wisconsin- Platteville, and a BS in Psychology from Upper Iowa University.

She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Clinical Substance Abuse Counselor. She currently does intensive in-home therapy for children and their families.

She has been an addictions counselor since 2005, and a dual diagnosis therapist since 2015. During her career, she worked very closely with the opioid population.

Her work includes writing grants, increasing access to medication-assisted treatment, improving treatment protocols, and improving quality of care.

While working on these projects and while working with her clients, Nancy discovered her purpose in her life. She is often called “The Hope Dealer” and has made it her personal mission to never let anyone walk away from therapy without hope.

You can find her work at https://trinityshopellc.com/

The End of the Great Pause: Establishing Rituals to Renew and Reset

I sense in my bones that the long pause of spring and summer is over. The pace of our lives is quickening. Months of binge-watching Tiger King (a show which ultimately hurt my heart, I wish I had never seen it) and rereading the Harry Potter books are coming to an end. Maybe it’s because school is starting, the election is ramping up, tickets went on sale for the festival where I work, a festival that plans (perhaps foolishly, but no one asked my opinion) to open October 3, as is tradition. The light is changing, and with it, my own inner metronome is recalibrating to a steadier, quicker tempo.

I have never really been a morning person. I don’t hit the ground running. I sort of slog into my day, shuffling around in a haze of clouded, fuzzy thoughts. Coronavirus quarantine has exacerbated this tendency, for months I slept in until mid-morning, waking up just early enough to make a phone conference meeting at 10:00 twice a week. I didn’t start working until afternoon, I have been fortunate enough to be allowed to work from home, and working on my own schedule has meant later hours, albeit always in yoga pants, rarely in anything with snaps, buttons, or a zipper.

But a couple of weeks ago, I began to desire an earlier start to my day.

The fog is lifting.

The cobwebs are blowing away.

The dust is shaking off.

I’m taking real, measurable steps to reset my days, for while I no longer want to be driven by compulsive productivity, I do want to create and make work that is valuable and moves the needle toward positive change and the realization of my deeply held, lofty dreams.

I am getting out of bed earlier and then making it.

I am riding my bicycle in the early morning hour, before 9:00, when the south Texas heat is still just a glimmer.

I am journaling in the form of my morning pages, according to the method of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, a practice that helps me set my intention and connect with my innermost motivations early in the day.

Of course, it’s yellow…

I am reciting my “litany of blessings and thanks.” I keep a recipe card file, a vintage one from the early 1970s I found on Etsy, within it are index cards where I have written the names of people who I know are struggling or have a need. I read their names, and then simply say, “Be Blessed.” I speak it at my window, where I can see all the treetops and I send their names into the sky and the trees. Praying this way has become such a balm to my spirit, it has lifted the burden of the wordy prayer where I struggle to articulate my thoughts, thinking I need to somehow find the right, perfect, mellifluous words that will translate my thoughts in a pretty enough way to get the Divine One’s attention. Also, I don’t fall asleep. And, to be rigorously honest, this way of praying is efficient. My home is not a place where lengthy prayer sessions are even possible. Spending just a few minutes in a prescribed ritual has given my spirit structure, as sense of safety and well-being. I understand the Catholic rosary tradition in a whole new way, it’s the contact with God that matters. She can hear the communication of our souls in the simple, repetitive phrases, “Be Blessed,” or “Thank you.” It is enough, for what is prayerful communication but the opportunity to commune?

And then, a small protein-rich breakfast. Now, I am ready to face my day. To tap into my dreams for my career, to write, to create, and yes, to do the mundane tasks that accompany any job: emails, deliverables, meetings, schedules, and timetables.

These routine actions are signaling to my spirit that the challenges of the life I am meant to live on this day are ready to be met.

Dear reader, do you have routines, whether early or late, that help you stay on track? I’d love to know them, I believe we can all learn from each other! And if you’d like your name on one of my prayer cards, say the word. Have a blessed day!

Scaling the Rock of Disappointment: Tales of Coronavirus Setbacks

“What do you do when disappointment comes? When it weighs on you like a rock, you can either let it press you down until you become discouraged, even devastated, or you can use it as a stepping-stone to better things.”– Joyce Meyer

Yesterday, while on my walk, the word “Disappointment” was dropped into my head and heart as if by some Divine force. Sometimes, that’s how my life works, God lays a bread crumb trail to where I’m needed. I followed the crumbs to Facebook, where I asked people to share their experiences of disappointment. Nearly twenty hours later, I am still getting pings on Messenger, and the stories have brought me to tears.

I’ll start with mine.

I have, for two consecutive years, been interviewing to work with the Disney Corporation in a department so perfectly suited to my talents, training, and experience that it might have been created specifically for me: to host in the student field trip program at Disneyland in Anaheim. Last year, I got so close to a job offer that I put myself on a waiting list for a spot at a long-term camping resort just a couple of miles from the park, and, in an attempt to put manifestation to work for a dream, I wrote a blog post that I never got to publish to announce my new position:

“And so here I am. I am about to leave for Anaheim, where I will spend my days with student groups, taking everything I have learned about teaching and classroom management as well as all the skills I honed running the School Days program at Texas Renaissance  Festival to walk alongside them in the most magical place I know. I will get to share my love of theatre and my love of Mickey Mouse. I don’t know if this will be a forever career or a seasonal one, but I have spent enough time among seasonal festival business people to have no fear of the unknown.”

It is only slightly comforting to know that the coronavirus would have halted the dream. Had I gotten the job and toodled my tiny camper to Cali only to be sent home like all the frontline Disney employees were in April, the knowledge that I had gotten the offer, that I had done the work for a couple of months, that I would have a place waiting for me when the virus had run its course, does not dampen the tremendous sense of disappointment.

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It is likely that this year I would have gotten an offer in September. No more. The parks are barely functioning, schools are unlikely to open as normal this fall. Budgets on both ends of this equation are stripped to their bare minimums. I may be able to postpone this dream for one more year, perhaps September of 2021 will bring me an offer.  But damn, it has been excruciating to examine that dream, then stash it in the box on my highest closet shelf, a  clear plastic bin full of Mickey ears, souvenir pins, and my name tag from the Disney leadership summit I attended in 2018.

Disappointment.

A dear friend of our family, a young woman I held when she was just three days old, graduated from high school this June. We had watched all her posts of spinning flags in her school’s corps, her photos of banquets in pretty gowns, her braces on, then her gleaming, perfect smile when the braces came off. She didn’t get her prom, her graduation was weird. I had a hoodie custom made for her to wear at her university this fall, but her family is not even sure what university life will look like- will she get to move into the dorm, attend Fish Camp, pledge a club? Disappointment.

A friend miscarried at 7. 5 weeks, but because of Covid didn’t have access to in-person medical care until her 13th week, when an ultrasound revealed a gestational sac that had stopped growing. With only virtual visits and a revolving door of doctors, her diagnosis was missed, and what was meant to be a Father’s Day announcement of a new baby became instead a D-and-C. Profound, heart-wrenching disappointment.

My friends have lost dream careers, canceled long-awaited family reunions, foregone first-baby showers, and summer camps. They’re scared they’ll lose their aging parents during this awful time when they cannot say goodbye except through a video app on the phone or computer. One is, in fact, watching her mother die and she can’t say goodbye in person. A couple have lost close family members and could not seek the comfort of ritual and family to sustain them in their grief.

One of the strongest women I know wrote:

“This pandemic has caused great grief and managed to unbottle all previous grief. Nowhere to go, no outlet to channel it, it just keeps crashing over and over again.
The riptide has taken me and all I can do is keep calm, hold my breath, get my bearings, and try to swim even with the shore or the wave will win.”

Disappointment.

It starts early in our lives and comes in big packages and small. A birthday party rained out, a cancer surgery unsuccessful. A cake is dry, a parent abuses. Disappointment may be mild, it can be devastating. And we all know that the very worst critique we can receive from a parent, teacher, or boss is, “I’m disappointed in you.”

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Photo by Ylanite Koppens on Pexels.com

Disappointment is something we humans must wrestle with, though thankfully, not constantly. Even in a challenging, dark life, there are glorious moments when we get the part we auditioned for, when healthy babies are born, when the movies we’ve anticipated are as good as we’d hoped. Medical tests come back with favorable results, apologies are offered and accepted, the sun shines on the wedding day; simple kindnesses like bread shared or a letter received bring just a glimmer of joy.

I have learned that the best way to overcome disappointment is first, acknowledge that it’s there. We can’t deal with what we’re too afraid or ashamed to name. Share the burden of it with a friend. Let them share with you as well.

Next, we look inward, which requires a commitment to gentle but honest self-examination. I used to believe in rigorous, unflinching self-examination, but that only led to being hypercritical of myself, unforgiving and unwilling to grant grace for my own failures. To grow in grace, to be honest about my own disappointments, to acknowledge when I have disappointed others, I listen. I seek wisdom from those who are living lives that shine, sometimes in the form of conversations with trusted mentors, frequently in podcasts, constantly in books.

Spend time in fresh air. For me, this is to walk or ride my bicycle or, when rheumatoid arthritis is wracking, to sit. To settle among birds, dragonflies, and breeze is healing. I do not know that there is a way to live in spiritual or mental health unless one gets outside. When I am among the trees and grass, I have my best ideas, I lay plans and untangle the knots in my thinking. And I am, thank all that is good and wholesome, not mindlessly scrolling the swamp that Facebook can become.

Express the disappointment, if it lives in the shadows and crevices of your heart, it will fester. I write. Every day, every morning. I write by hand, two to three pages. It is a practice that has become as necessary as air. I used to think it was my daily orange juice that got me going in the morning; I know for many folks, it’s their first cup of coffee. But for me, spending thirty minutes writing before I dive into my day has been life-changing. The words are uncensored and inelegant, a nearly-illegible scrawl. I ponder and process feminine spirituality, I list things I am grateful for, I articulate dreams, I unpack the worries that are plaguing me. I have been sleeping better since I began this writing practice, I think it’s vital.

To look outward, though, that is the final stepping stone to lay on our path to healing and mental health. We can’t look outward in a way that compares our own suffering or disappointments to others’, on that path exists only bitterness or pride; there will always be someone who has it better and someone who has it worse. Our disappointment is ours, and it is valid. No, what I mean by “looking outward” is simply this: look for ways to serve, to heal. Write letters. Call a lonely friend or elder person who lives alone. Sew masks and distribute them to the less fortunate. Listen to the stories of the unheard. Deliver meals. Discover your gift then ply it to plug joy back into the connected race that is all of us. Set your sights on the restoration of the soul of humanity.

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Photo by Nacho Juárez on Pexels.com

These actions serve to nourish and defend against the sharpest nettles of disappointment. They are stones that can be stacked, one beside and above the other, to forge a path that leads us out of today’s disappointment and ahead to tomorrow’s blessing. It’s hard to see sometimes. But stillness followed by service can be a gorgeous way forward. The inimitable Marilyn Monroe once said, “Sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together.” I love that. Our world is falling apart. Perhaps we will build something better, both in a global sense and a deeply personal one.

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Depleted, I Pause: A Devotional for the Weary

It’s month three of a global pandemic, and I am depleted. Rusty, dark, creaky of soul and bone as a recently diagnosed (but not only recently experienced) autoimmune disorder slows my body while my heart and brain try to process fear of disease, fury at racial injustice not only for black people but for the brown people held in cages at my state’s border, and a tendency toward fatalistic distrust in my government’s leadership in the face of so much turmoil, injustice, and ache.

With my head lying on my arms, sobbing at my desk, I realize I will only survive with spirit intact if I stop relying on my own wisdom to replenish and sustain. That tactic, in isolation, is so much spraying bright paint on a rusty bike, hoping to just coat the battered frame underneath with a sparkle of glossy color.

And so I have been reading, listening, and observing while tucked into my tiny camper in the woods or sitting on my screened-in sunporch (ah, what privilege to even have such places). This week, I am not sharing my own deep thoughts, I am sharing from those whose work is enabling me to stay on the path of a beautiful, rich, magical life, though for the moment I am just plopped down in the dirt of it, not going anywhere. I don’t expect the wisdom of others to shine me up, in fact, I am no longer sure that’s even the goal. No, I hope rather for lubrication of my spiritual frame, a juicy-ness added to my soul. Perhaps part of growing older is accepting that the vehicle is showing signs of wear, but choosing to move forward anyway.

“In God, we live and move and have our being.” Acts 17:28, the New Testament

“We all get shit wrong…The question is: have you built the capacity to care more about others than you care about your own ego?” Austin Channing Brown, author of I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, to Brene Brown on her podcast “Unlocking Us.”

“Despair is the fear that tomorrow will be just like today.” Rob Bell, author of Love Wins

“I tried to imagine a church that did not support its country’s wars as a matter of patriotic course and instead stood against the devastation and suffering they caused in people’s lives.” Sue Monk Kidd, The Dance of the Dissident Daughter

“For the universe is full of radiant suggestion…Over and over in the butterfly we see the idea of transcendence. In the forest we see not the inert but the aspiring. In water that departs forever and forever returns, we experience eternity.” Mary Oliver, Upstream

“I’ve got a dream!” Rapunzel, Tangled

“I’ve got these conditions—anxiety, depression, addiction—and they almost killed me. But they are also my superpowers. The sensitivity that led me to addiction is the same sensitivity that makes me a really good artist. The anxiety that makes it difficult to exist in my own skin also makes it difficult to exist in a world where so many people are in so much pain—and that makes me a relentless activist. The fire that burned me up for the first half of my life is the exact same fire I’m using now to light up the world.” Glennon Doyle, Untamed

“Da! Wow-wow! Thhhhhhh? Woooo!” Hazel Fernandez, 18-month Queen of our Household

And with those words that I am certain are full of the toddler wisdom that so thoroughly lives in the present moment, I say blessings and peace to all who read. May your day, filled with both light and shadow, be lavish in love. Namaste’.

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Using My Voice: to Sing, Whisper, or Roar?

I’m standing on a stage in a converted Vaudeville theatre. The house is empty. It’s the final week of dress rehearsal for The Drowsy Chaperone and I am belting out one of my favorite songs I ever got to sing on a stage, “As We Stumble Along.” In my teal flapper dress, black bobbed wig, and feather boa I glide with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I plant my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I take a deep breath, open my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. The director’s face freezes in horror as I cough and gasp, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager runs toward me with a bottle of water and I drink, but I still cannot squeeze a sound out of my throat. I end the song with tears streaming down my face. There’s no voice singing ridiculously hilarious lyrics, just a pitiful actress with drooping shoulders shuffling off the stage. The vocal cord damage I had labored so hard to overcome, had undergone prosthesis surgery to replace, was my undoing, just two days before opening night.

I’m standing on a stage in a church auditorium. I am flanked on both sides by middle-aged men, and I clasp my husband’s hand tightly as he bares his soul to the congregation, laying down his ministry, our mission, and our livelihood for a crowd of over 1,000 church members. Their eyes are wide and my spirit is shattered; the only sound in the room is my husband’s broken and trembling voice as he confesses his sex addiction for the whole world to see. I have nothing to say, and wouldn’t be permitted to speak anyhow. My church preaches and practices the silencing of women.

I’m standing on a stage in another sanctuary, an earlier one, clad in white satin. It’s a different brand of church that allows my voice to speak not only my wedding vows but also to sing all the love I feel for my new husband that day. We sing “One Hand, One Heart” from West Side Story. We mean it. My voice rings clear and true that afternoon, it is quite beautiful. As I sing, I trust that my uncle and grandfather will keep my mentally ill and drug-addicted mother calm. She has hinted at a scene in my dressing room and again as I hand her a rose during the processional. For a few minutes, I stop worrying about her to bask in my husband’s blue-eyed adoration.

I’m standing on a stage in my senior year of high school, performing the song “Memory” from Cats for the Senior Farewell Talent Show. My accompanist is absent, having not found the sheet music in her bag. I sing a cappella after the speech teacher gives me a pep talk just before the lights turn on my frightened face. I haven’t yet learned that my voice is resonant and strong enough to make a melody without the help of a piano, without the crutch of another person on stage with me. I stand in the spotlight all alone and sing of moonlight and beauty, skipping the final verse when my nerve abandons me. After the talent show, my mother slaps me in front of what feels like the whole school, and I sense the heat of all those curious, sympathetic eyes as I flee to the shared dressing rooms, where my friends form a barricade to protect me from my own mother as she rages.

I’m standing on a different sort of stage, not a stage really, but oh-so-exposed anyway. In my own backyard, between the side of the house and the neighbor’s fence, my six-year-old self pulls down my pants and allows a little boy to put his tiny erect penis in between my legs. He sticks his tongue in my mouth, his friends watch, and I can utter no sound. I am silent. When it’s over, I hide in my room and cry. He does it again, then again, and I never speak a word. I stay silent and I suffer shame.

But my first time on a stage is joyous, though still quiet. My beloved Uncle Steve, who performs at Six Flags Over Texas in the early ’70s, invites me to sing with him at the final rehearsal of the amusement park’s Crazy Horse Saloon. Only six years old, I never utter even a peep. Yet it is so profound a moment that I will always know that I was wearing my white tennis dress that had red and blue edging and looked just like something Billie Jean King would wear. I will always recall the encouraging expressions of the invited audience as I gape and stare. No trauma, just stage fright and an introverted little girl.

So quiet. In so many key moments of my life, I have locked my heart, soul, and voice up tight. Lips compressed. Spirit screaming, though. Screaming, wailing, thrashing, and hurting. No more. No, no more. I am learning to speak my truth, from the small honesty of what I do or don’t want to eat when with my family to calling congressmen to press for justice; from expressing, rather than clutching, hurt feelings to setting a boundary to protect myself from a tyrannical boss. And when the spoken word is not sufficient unto the task, I write my soul’s truth, pouring heart and mind into words that I sometimes share.

I am discovering that being quiet is okay. Quiescence is beautiful, it implies a hush that is grounded in rest. But healthy tranquility is not the same as resentful placidity. Living quietly, in a place of hope, requires muscular work. Diligent mindfulness. Rigorous self-examination. The Divine Creator, She who holds our hearts and minds in such compassion, is present in our quiet; is heard best when we are still. And it is Her voice that can either sing, whisper, or roar through me if I will but avail myself of Her power and courage.

My voice returned in time for opening night, by the way. I belted about bluebirds and “dawn’s blinding sunbeams” as though I’d never known a day of vocal cord paralysis in my life. But underneath my voice was a support network not just of muscle and lung, but of love from family and friends, and the breath of the Creator.

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A Life Gone Spectacularly Awry

Have you ever watched the Netflix show “Nailed It!”? It is a burst of silly joy! If you don’t know the show, average folks attempt to recreate beautiful desserts, the sort of unicorn cakes and emoji cupcakes seen on Pinterest; you want to take them to your office holiday party or serve them at your child’s birthday to impress the other moms. These poor intrepid souls are not successful, except in the sense of simply having fun. Their decorations go spectacularly awry, their frosting discolored and fondant misshapen, but it’s convivial fun. The stakes are not, after all, life-and-death.

But right about now, our very existence feels like the stakes couldn’t be higher. It truly is life-and-death.

My fingernails, which are certainly not life-and-death (bear with me), look like garbage: the polish, a pastel pink, is uneven and ridged, bright turquoise peeks through; the shellac I couldn’t soak off, so I tried to just polish over it. The cuticles are either torn or calloused, their edges jagged.

It’s metaphorical. On day 33 of quarantine, my nails are indicative of my life right now. Serrated. Spread too thin. Easily broken. Mottled and ugly.

Our lives have gone spectacularly awry, like recipes ruined by too much salt, budgets blown by loss of income, book drafts lost in an unexpected power outage. If we’re lucky, we are healthy, our loved ones are safe, and we are only contending with isolation and collective worry. If we’re not, we’re burying loved ones from afar or waiting for financial ramifications that may change the very course of our lives. Perhaps enforced enclosure has revealed fault lines in marriages; now it is known that divorce is imminent. Schoolwork that was always a struggle becomes a seemingly, or truly, insurmountable task. Hell, even the daily mundane is beginning to feel impossible. The relentless pile of dirty dishes and laundry to be folded has morphed from annoying to cataclysmic.

On day 25, I had a complete mental and emotional breakdown. I stopped talking, curled in my bed whimpering, sleeping, or pretending to read Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. I considered ways to end my life. My husband was, of course, worried. He’s seen this a couple of times before, Generalized Anxiety Disorder is a real bitch. I felt guilty for struggling but compelled to stick it out: the crowded, noisy house and the nagging worry that’s resting deep in my soul like, well, like a virus that’s just waiting to be fully awakened.

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I believed I needed permission to leave because I know deep in my bones that my quarantine experience is a walk in the park compared to so many others. My husband gave me that permission I felt I needed to run away into isolation for a couple of days; I am fortunate to have a place where I can escape, a tiny Vintage Cruiser camper, it’s my nest; decorated completely in Mary Poppins themed art and bedding, parked in the woods at one of the festivals where I work, it’s as close as this middle-aged lady with blown knees is ever going to get to treehouse living.

When I left my house, I had only sparkling water. I had stopped eating the day before; A 2:00 sandwich had been my last sustenance before the meltdown. And when I lost it, I had decided I would simply stop eating. It was the only way I thought I could exert control over what was beginning to feel like an existence of lethargic chaos. My husband had fetched TexMex from a local restaurant and it smelled so, so good. But I stubbornly resisted, snug in my blankets, crying in the dark. The next morning I threw clean underwear, a toothbrush, and both laptops in a bag, grabbed all the LaCroix Pina Fraise from the pantry, and lit out.

After a two hour drive and a journaling session, I felt ready to eat, no longer compelled to starve myself as a method of control. But of course, I had packed no food;  a trek into the nearest town was required. I took my place in the line to enter the grocery store, observing that every single person around me, in line, in the store, everyone was wearing a mask. I screwed up the courage to ask if I had crossed into a county that required them, as my home county did not. A very kind lady walked me to her car and let me grab a mask out of a box she had from her job. I meticulously pinched my fingers together so that I wouldn’t touch anything but the mask I would wear, as careful as a game of Operation when I was a kid. The grocery store experience was hushed and surreal, my first time in a grocery store since lockdowns and quarantines and masks became de rigueur.

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Back in camp, I walked and picked wildflowers. I studied. I slept and ate Pepperidge Farm Verona cookies. And most importantly, the thing I needed: I settled down. I  returned home in better shape; hugged husband, daughters, grandbabies. Realigned my expectations.

I will not presume to make light of Covid isolation. I gratefully acknowledge that my situation is safe. The boat I find myself in amid this storm is sufficient to weather it, at least for now. Others are not so lucky. But I do believe that for each one of us, we must look inward to discover what is awry in our current situation, breathe deeply, speak our truth to those we’re sharing space with, and let them help us. Then we must, in turn, help each other. Those in our homes, our neighborhoods, our extended families and strangers alike.

It is our collective spiritual practice, really. Beyond the hymns, rituals, pews, and flurry of activity so prevalent in our churches, separate from twelve-step fellowships and large-scale charity galas, it will be quiet service and relentless attention to the needs of our own spirits and the souls of those around us that will sustain us. If you find yourself lonely today, find the courage to reach out. Send a text. Facetime a beloved friend. Call a trusted family member. If you find yourself at peace, content and hopeful, look for someone who needs you. I have faith that our lives can transform from spectacularly awry to profoundly beautiful, if only we seek connection. Blessings, fellow humans.

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Live Small. Love Big: A Meditation

After an entire adulthood spent being told to dream big, to live loud, I am done. I simply am. We are not all of us meant to “live loud.”

I am, rather, inclined now to live small: smaller house, smaller wardrobe, smaller carbon footprint. Fewer possessions. Less noise. Limited spending. Streamlined living. Lean…

Not mean, though. The only place I want to live large these days is in all the multitudinous ways that we humans can share love. I yearn for more time spent in nature, more hugs. More forgiveness. More conversations that move beyond the surface.

I want to ask, “How are you?” and be answered with authenticity, though it requires I invest more time to attend the replies, to hear the stories that the people I meet are aching to tell.

I desire engagement.

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And I crave that the Divine One, the wonderful Spirit who created me, will wiggle Her way into each tiny crevice of who I am. I don’t need Her to make me big. I want Her to take the smallness of me and connect it to the stars, to the seas, to the trees. To my grandchildren. To my children. To my husband. My family.

 

And to the unknown strangers at the border. In the Middle East. In the political party which is opposite mine. With relationship to all these, I become vast, my soul expanding beyond what is conceivable should I remain alone. My quiet spirit can then hear all the voices of the universe, my presence is both honored and honorable among Creation.

To live small does not mean timidity, nor a sense of inferiority. It is not self-castigation or minimalization. No, it is, instead, to walk in healthy humility. It is to comprehend that I am a wee part of a greater whole, she who lives among billions: billions of folk, stars, trees, animals. No more important, no. But nor less.

A path both wide and narrow. May it be so.

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Age: Angst, Ambiguity, Acceptance

I am fifty-two years old. God. Yes, I am fifty-two years old.

I have never said that to anyone except my immediate family. It’s not that anyone couldn’t have done just a little math to figure it out, it’s not a secret. I just haven’t wanted to admit it.

Fifty-two.

And still so completely … unfinished.

Not incomplete– that’s a different thing, implying a belief that I am a living error, a woman missing a vital piece, like a jigsaw puzzle that can’t be glued and mounted in a frame because a corner fell on the floor and was devoured by the family dachshund (I speak from experience on this); a book in which vital chapters of pages have fallen from the binding, like every volume of Harry Potter that our family has owned over the years.

There are no missing pages in my story, all fifty-two years are in there, the book a little frayed at the edges, its pages stained with droplets of Diet Dr. Pepper and dribbles of salty tears.

But my story is definitely unfinished; there is a sense of ambiguity imbuing nearly every aspect of my life right now.

Ambiguity. Apathy. Anxiety. Angst.

The angst has become a crutch for me, a companion in my waking and in my rest; it forces me to repeat over and over every single day a litany of financial debts I wish were paid off, it compels me to scrutinize my body for fat, it necessitates constant and unrelenting worry over my job and whether I want to be in it. When we’re teens, we’re expected to be riddled with this angst. The journals of my adolescence are filled with my looping scrawl, passages of woe and worry, wondering what I was meant to do, who I was meant to be, hearts used to dot my letter “i”s as though a charm to lure love. Then I got married and made babies. I raised them. I raised them well. I stayed in a marriage that grew healthy and strong. Deeply rooted. So why the angst? Why the anxiety? Why the ambivalence? Why, in middle age, do I find myself so crippled by the looming question: what am I supposed to do now?

I fear I have become addicted to the inner drama of that one weighty question. What’s next?

img_0186.jpgOr worse– what if this is it? What if, at fifty-two, I have already accomplished any great thing I might have done? What if it’s too late to write that book or land that dream job? What if all that’s left is spreadsheets about ops and procedures and fees and days of hellacious knee pain and buying jeans a size bigger? What if I don’t have another day? And that, my friends, is why I had to face the truth that is at the core of every truth that matters: There is no guaranteed next. There is only right now. This very moment. This very breath.

Oh, sure, it’s good to make plans. Last evening Libby and I were having fun talking about the wood-forest-creature decorating theme for her baby shower next month, and I definitely need to check my bank balance and see that a couple of bills get paid today. I have already ordered a couple of Christmas gifts and started saving for retirement (way too late, I am sure, but better late than never). I just bought the prettiest yellow mitten/beanie/scarf set at Target just in case it ever gets cold in Houston again.

But really, it’s just the right now that is mine.

When I was a first-year teacher, preparing for my first lessons and decorating my first classroom, I spent hours cutting out little laminated shapes for our classroom calendar. Our university had drilled into its teacher prep students that buying ready-made bulletin boards was a cop-out, so I was diligently doing what I believed demonstrated my commitment to my students’ education. My one-year-old would stand, wobbly on her feet in front of me, arms outstretched, and I’d brush her off and keep working. My mother in law, sitting nearby, wisely said, “Kim, you’re only going to have these hugs from her for a little while. Think about putting down the laminated shapes and hold your child.” Good advice. I was missing the now of my toddler for the tomorrow of my classroom. I think it’s easier for us to grasp that lesson when it’s the lives of our children at stake. But I would like to walk this a step farther: our own lives are worth that consideration, too. The beauty of our own journeys as human women and men is as worth intentional presence as are the moments with our babies.

It’s what I have been learning very, very recently. This week, even. We’re raised, from infancy, to look forward. To know what we want to do for a job when we’re five years old. To choose a college track when we’re thirteen. To always strive forward, look ahead. And while that can be good, can propel us to invention and innovation, it can also be demoralizing. To always and ever push forward is out of balance. That skewed way of living can rob us of the joy that is found in being fully present in each moment as it is lived. Spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle says:

“Most humans are never fully present in the now, because unconsciously they believe that the next moment must be more important than this one. But then you miss your whole life, which is never not now.”

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Photo by Kim Bryant, NYC Metropolitan Museum of Art

I recently spent ten hours listening to Tolle teach about this principle, and it was tough to grasp at first. How do I lead an organized life and do excellent work if I am only in the now, just contemplating the present moment? But that’s not what I think he means. I need to set goals and move toward them, but always stay rooted in the beauty or pain that is now. I must notice the smiles of my loved ones, acknowledge the needs of my physical body, savor the sip of white wine, take a moment to feel sun on my face, and listen to the sound of my breath as it fills, then leaves, my lungs; all ways to remain present. But it’s okay to dream about the future, too.

To dream without anxiety is the key. Worry and angst rob me of joy in the now, and they are as addictive and habitual as any chemical. But learning to stay present, connected to my own spirit and to the greater universal Divine is so much better. Already this morning, I have walked the baby while taking in the beautiful sunlight and cooler autumn air (Houston’s temperature finally dropped below 90 degrees yesterday), enjoyed some sparkling water, and answered some work emails. All without angst. All without worry. Without anxiety.

To live this way will take practice. It will call for thought and accountability. It will require surrender to what is balanced with a willingness to look for what can be. 

This, my friends, is where freedom lies. In each moment lived, one by one by one.

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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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Staying Grateful in a Careless World

I just had the most lovely afternoon.

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The margherita and a glass of wine at Fielding’s

It began with a sunny drive during which I listened to a podcast I love, Astonishing Legends. Scott and Forrest were doing a deep dive into the exorcism case of Anneliese Michel, a gripping story that kept me alert as I drove to one of my favorite restaurants, where I ordered a really yummy Pinot Grigio and Margherita pizza.

Next, I strolled to the spa, where the chipper and absolutely beautiful, trendy young women who checked me in loved my coral shoes and saffron lace kimono. I was wearing my Gaimo espadrilles. Made in Spain, they are not shoes I could typically afford, but I found them on sale at Marshall’s for about $26. The young ladies gushed about my footwear while I drank the chilled coconut water that they brought to me.

 

Then I enjoyed a facial with some sort of “skin brightening” treatment that is meant to begin the herculean task of minimizing the sun damage from all those teenage years of slathering baby oil on my skin, setting a lounge chair in a kiddie pool filled with reflective water, and sizzling while listening to Madonna and Wham! on my Sony walkman. The room smelled like every perfect flower and herb, music was soft and soothing. I am new to the facial thing, I was given one as a gift in December, then decided to keep them up. At fifty-two years old, my skin is now paying the price of my misspent youth. I’d like to save it if possible.

 

I explained to the aesthetician that I was new to the facial thing because, well, you know how moms always put themselves last, aw-shucks.

The aw-shucks attitude was a facade, though. My hesitation to treat myself has deep, old roots, like a gnarled, ancient oak.

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I was a poor kid. I shouldn’t have been, my dad was a CPA, which is a job with a good salary. But my mom was a drug addict and my dad wasn’t great at managing a household income in which the spending was spinning out of control. We kids did without a lot. I don’t just mean we didn’t get Disneyland trips, though those were as impossible to contemplate as a trip to the moon. No, I mean we did without enough clothes and dependable electric service. Daddy worked two jobs, laboring twelve or more hours a day, so our lawn was always overgrown; when I walked home from school with friends, I stopped at the corner of my street and waited for them to get far enough down the block that they wouldn’t see which house I entered. I was deeply ashamed of its unkempt appearance. Sometimes our house was filthy and had bugs crawling all over.

When I was in fifth grade and was chosen to dance in the “June is Bustin’ Out All Over” number for our spring concert, we were asked to wear a solid color pastel tee shirt. I didn’t own one. We couldn’t buy one. A simple top that would have cost no more than $5, quite possibly less at the local TG&Y was out of our reach. The morning of the concert, our music teacher, Mrs. Bell, asked us to show the shirts we were wearing with our skirts made of green paper leaves, and I had to confess, “Mrs. Bell, I don’t have one. My dad doesn’t have the money to buy it.” Do you know how humiliating that is for a child? She was as gentle as a teacher can be when she is thrown a curveball on the day of the big show and arranged for me to borrow from a classmate. Daddy drove me to their house when he got home from work and I had a lilac tee shirt to wear for the concert.

So my espadrilles from Spain mean something to me.

Now I live in an affluent master-planned community. It’s one of the first that was developed in the country, actually. My aunt and uncle moved into this community when it first opened in the late 1970s, and when I visited them for an Independence Day family gathering, I fell in love with the neighborhood’s trees, bike paths, and park fireworks. To be honest, I fell in love with what upper-middle-class cleanliness and architecture looked like; I wanted to move here when I grew up. I finally got my wish when we bought a house in 2017.

I don’t reside in the most affluent part of the neighborhood, our community has homes that range in the millions, owned by oil executives and professional basketball players. I live in a modest (by community standards) 2500 square foot home. It’s fifteen years old and we haven’t updated any appliances or floors. I don’t care. It’s bright and clean, my tiny well-manicured yard is lush and green, and there are flower beds and a screened-in sun porch. We’ll get around to changing out the carpet at some point, but it’s not a priority. I don’t drive a Jaguar, I drive a late model Ford Escape.

But here’s the thing: when I walk into a restaurant in this utterly white-bread upper-middle-class town, I look like I belong.

You know what that makes me? Grateful. Grateful beyond what can be described.

After years and years of deprivation, then joining forces with my husband to do the work to get financially stable, I am, quite simply, grateful.

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A bench at the park by the entrance to my neighborhood, there are 130 parks in our development.

Recently, I encountered a man on our neighborhood’s Facebook group, he was going on about how people who live where we do should not have to deal with rude salespeople in the mall. I questioned him: “The right to common courtesy isn’t limited to people living in ——–. Maybe I am misreading your intent.” No, it turns out I wasn’t. He doubled down, speaking of entitlement and property values and expecting a certain level of service because we all pay a premium to live here. This attitude of superiority and exclusivity rears its ugly head pretty often where I live, to be honest. Sometimes I just want to say, “Neighbors! Friends! Notice our parks and the crews who work so diligently to keep our little hamlet looking pretty! Look beyond your tax rate and resale values to see the people who do the work! And know that it’s all, every bit of it, temporal.”

I was deeply bothered. Perhaps it’s because I came from little, perhaps it’s just my nature, but I can’t respond to the gift of living in this place with anything other than gratitude and joy. Accumulating possessions and running a race to beat others doesn’t resonate with my soul.

Gratitude is, I believe, a spiritual practice. To notice one’s surroundings and be thankful is to nurture one’s own soul; it enables us to walk in a way that opens us to the gifts the Divine One bestows. When we are grateful for shelter, food, transportation, and even amenities, we are ready to receive all the abundance the Universe has to give. More importantly, though, we are able to hold loosely and share graciously. Our priorities shift and we become equipped for seasons of less.

Sometimes I think the residents of my town don’t really know what it is like to be that poor kid who just wants to have a lilac-colored tee shirt to take for the school concert. That’s going to have to be their journey, though. Mine is to just walk an authentically grateful path, to recognize the gifts I have been given, and to share what I can along the way.

What are you grateful for?

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