Making My Own Magic: The Healing Power of Imaginative Play

Many who know me believe my life is magical, that the shadows of my childhood have been banished. And in some ways, they’re right. My adult life has been enchanted: a long marriage to my best companion, glasses of wine, beloved friends, grandbaby toes and giggles under my roof, puppy kisses, wonderful books, all that stuff. My life seems pretty charmed.

It’s got some darkness, too. There’s some Maleficent energy to counteract the Aurora sparkle. All authentically lived lives are that way; anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t living in truth. Sometimes, we’re floating above the trees, but other times we’re mired in the muck of life’s sorrow.

Maybe the most fantastically and imaginatively magical part of my span here on this beautiful orb called Earth has been the fairy element; yes, I have been a fairy, the professional kind who gets paid to don wings and glitter and charm the public. Bruises have been suffered from the weight of wings. Tears of “smile fatigue” have been shed. Knees have suffered from kneeling to the level of a four-year-old’s bright face to hear a sweet whisper.

In the early years of my fae life, I embodied the nymph Nimue in a silver dress that was a replica of Drew Barrymore’s in Ever After and a crown so tall it caught on the tree limbs from which I attempted to enter a fog-laced stage. The actor playing Merlin cackled under his breath as he surreptitiously disentangled me as I sang.

I walked the gravel paths of the Renaissance festival where I worked as two queens of literature and myth: Mab of Celtic lore, and Titania of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Every day, I donned wings and glitter, accessorized with a pouch full of glass stones to give as favors to the small children who timidly approached all day for a little dollop of fairy enchantment. Each morning, I danced with abandon, spinning and skipping to the most delicate and playful music played by flute, cello, and harp; as I twirled, the sun glinted off my shimmery wings, the iridescent cobalt blue silk I wore shifting and changing colors.  Those moments of abandon reminded me of being a little girl twirling in my front yard until I was so dizzy I lay down to watch the azure sky spinning above me. You only get those kinds of moments in your adulthood when you decide to stop worrying about being respectable and start allowing joy to inhabit you.

In the Quiet Time, that period when my throat was silenced by a vocal cord injury, I created a fairy persona, Hush, a playful sprite who collected found sparkly things, magpie-like, and spoke only with my hands and face or the musical toots from my little pottery ocarina. Being a fairy, as an adult, gave me a voice and the chance to revisit the little girl who had struggled and been so lonely. Hush, Mab, Titania, and Nimue blessed me with an opportunity, undergirded by the security of knowing I was surrounded by family and friends, to play. It’s like that scene in Stephen Spielberg’s movie Hook when the Lost Boys try to get the adult Peter Pan to cut loose with them: they play, and he just takes a ball to the gut. Once he has been in Neverland long enough, though, and remembers the love of his children back home, he can play. And fly.

Dragons and Time Clocks

About five years ago, I stopped playing. Packed away the costumes that represented characters I had inhabited, stopped auditioning for plays and musicals, just settled down. Settled into the organizational tasks of my job without the relieving balance of fun, whether at work or on my off time. Though these days, I play tag and peekaboo with my grandkids, those games, while special because of the giggles and memories of their baby laughter, don’t stimulate brain and activate my body in a challenging, restorative way.

I went looking for information about adult play, not expecting to find much there. Who, after all, believes that playing is an important part of adult life? It turns out: a lot of people, including mental health professionals.

“Play is being joyfully immersed in the moment, and as adults, we rarely do that.In a way, it is an active form of mindfulness, which is widely recommended and advocates being present and in the moment. Mindfulness has been proven to alleviate anxiety and depression. Studies also suggest that it can help you manage stress better and maintain a healthy weight,” says Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, Professor of Developmental Psychology at New York University.

Not so very long ago, our office (which has undergone major turnover that has rendered the following scenario obsolete) staff kept Nerf guns and tiny catapults at our desks. It was not unusual for spontaneous battles to break out, and wild laughter would fill the empty spaces between desks and meetings as we bonded and decompressed. Our staff felt more like a team back then. Playing in our offices as well as in our personal time helps us to feel better. It keeps us sane and healthy and happy. It helps us to connect in an authentic way with others. Imagination and play defeat the dragons of boredom and isolation, at work and at home.

Once Upon A Time…

I was my own Tinkerbell. Nothing more magical than that. I learned to play, and to fly, and to trust my own inner voice; the restored voice that can sing or speak truth, even when intertwined with the snares and branches of the expectations or foibles of others. I developed the strength and power to face down dragons, the real ones: family trauma, addiction, loss. I’ve lost touch with that power, though.

So here’s my magic spell, distilled from all the little tokens ever given to me by children who believed: don the tulle. Swing the wooden sword. Wear the wings. Write the poem. Find friends who will play and make the magic happen with you. Speak the truth. It’s all love, and that’s what we need most to vanquish the sinister shadows.

What do you do to play?

https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/adults-need-recess-too-here-s-why-you-should-make-ncna887396

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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Speak Up…If You Can. Part Three.

Recently, I auditioned for a musical. Mamma Mia. It’s one of those show’s I’d really love to do. It wasn’t always, but as I moved into the casting category of MOM instead of ingenue, it became a show that really appealed to me.

It was the first singing audition I had braved in almost five years.

I have been telling a story over the last couple of weeks, a tale in which I, the lifelong vocalist, lost my voice due to a surgical mishap; in my last post, I described the agony of having two specialists confirm damage. There is a moderately happy ending to the whole thing, and I will get to that. Clearly, I couldn’t have auditioned for Mamma Mia if some sort of healing had not occurred. I did manage to do a couple of musicals after my throat was finally repaired, getting to that point was only possible, really and truly, because my husband was the director of the shows and he was willing to risk casting me.

Drowsy 65

That first post-repair show, The Drowsy Chaperone,  wasn’t smooth sailing. I had rehearsed for the audition secretly, singing in private to build up strength and flexibility in the cord and in the muscles of the throat. I didn’t want to let on what I was doing, just in case I failed spectacularly. My voice had always been the source of my self esteem. It was my identity. Having lost it, I was bereft, heart broken, my confidence completely gone. So when I went to auditions and announced I was singing the big belt song instead of a simpler, easier one, I saw my husband’s hands clench under the table. He’d had no idea I might be up to this. I did it, I did it well, and that precious man cast me.

The show wasn’t easy, though. In the final week of dress rehearsal I was 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 glided with ridiculously exaggerated fluidity, then I planted my feet to get ready for the next phrase. I took a deep breath, opened my mouth, and …nothing. Just a choked wheeze. Director/husband’s face froze in horror as I coughed and gasped, follow spot illuminating my panic in all its weird glory. The stage manager ran toward me with a bottle of water, and I drank, but I still could not squeeze a sound out of my throat. I ended the song with tears streaming down my face. There was 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 was my undoing, just two days before opening night, and I felt just as I had on the day I left the doctor’s office in September of 2011.

On that particular day, I cried all the way home because my throat was damaged; it got really quiet at my house, in my classroom, and in my spirit. As soon as the doc gave me the diagnosis, I cancelled an acting gig I had booked for the months of October and November. It put a burden on the show, I know it did. Blessedly, there’s always another actress waiting in the wings, and the show went on.

More difficult, though, was my classroom. I remember standing in front of groups of 30 or so students each day, trying to quiet them when the tardy bell rang. After a week or so of me standing at my podium, tears in my eyes and jaw clenched in frustration, waiting for rambunctious teens to quiet down, there was a change in the climate of my room. There were kids who realized how I struggled, and they began to get the room quiet for me. I lectured in a whisper, it was utterly exhausting. But then something happened: the students began to hush themselves, without a classmate doing it for me. Even the most stubborn, rowdy kids showed compassion and self-restraint, facing me with mouths closed when they heard the tardy bell. I wish I could say that behavior hung in all year, of course it didn’t. Freshmen and sophomores were particularly difficult to manage. In an effort to save expensive audio equipment in our auditorium, I screamed (an attempt for volume, not anger) at a couple of boys who were horse-playing on stage with our microphones. The pain of that attempt to push air and sound through my throat hurt as badly as anything I have ever, ever experienced. There was a day when, surrounded by misbehaving freshman boys, I couldn’t make myself heard, and I called the HR Department of our school district sobbing, they struggled to hear me as I begged for help on the phone.

Image result for prosthetic vocal cords

For twelve months, I couldn’t breathe without gasping, I couldn’t speak, and my soul simply went into hiding. I had ever been an introvert, but at least I had the power to speak when I wanted to. I could talk to friends. I could advise or comfort my kids. I could teach and act and express myself. I began to hear rumors of gossip, that there were “friends” who believed I was faking my silence as a way to garner attention or get out of obligations. I turned even more inward.

So I began to write. I look back now, at my first attempts at writing, and they amuse me. I had to develop the writing muscle with as much rehearsal as had ever been needed when I sang. While I was mute, I found my authentic voice. In that twelve months of early writing, it was the only way I had to communicate with the world. I started speaking my truth, because words were so precious and painful to articulate that I didn’t dare waste them on false flattery or needless babble. I learned even more powerfully that listening was the key to connection and leaning in to speak so that I could be heard enabled me to draw closer to the people with whom I shared space.

I learned who my true tribe was.

One year, to the day, after the spinal surgery that cost me my voice, Dr. B. implanted a silicone cord, it’s attached to the paralyzed right one. I could, once again, speak and sing, though with not as much power or range. I began to rebuild my confidence brick by brick, I shed relationships with those who had proven during my silent time that they could not be bothered to listen well. I performed in two musicals, then stepped away from the theatre world because it felt unhealthy. I didn’t sing for a long, long time.

Then came a show that tempted me enough to hazard an attempt. Mamma Mia.

That audition? I learned something. As I prepared a recording to send to the director, I kept breaking. My voice cracked, my eyes filled, my throat clenched. My daughter, who was coaching and recording me, observed, “Mom, it’s like you have all those years of silence straining to pour out. It’s all been so tightly held. Your creative spirit just needs the space to let go.” It took us an hour to get a take that I could send, one in which I managed to sing calmly through the one minute clip of “Take a Chance on Me.” That song choice was no accident. But it wasn’t the director I was begging to take a chance, it was my own wounded heart. I didn’t get the part, the director chose to take a chance with a different actress. That’s okay. It’s way more important that I take my own chance on me. It was, ultimately, an exercise in resilience. Gotta keep singing, speaking, and writing my story. You should, too.

 

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Speak Up: Part Two

September is a great month, isn’t it? The light is just starting to shift from high-octane sun to a softer diffused version of itself, breezes begin to tickle cheeks and make leaves dance. Rain falls and the scorched earth of August relents. The grass is verdant again and shadows lengthen on the pavement ever so slightly. School is back in, students are, for the most part, still excited to be back in the classroom, and teachers have renewed purpose and fresh, unmarked lesson plan books. In our family, we have two birthdays to celebrate, the Astros are still playing, and we are usually preparing to open the Renaissance festival that we’ve worked for twenty years now.

I love September. I have been a teacher/professor for twenty four years now, and I always look forward to the opening of school (which technically happens in late August here, I am taking a wee bit of poetic license- the relevant stuff happens in September, I promise). It was no different in 2011, when I opened a new year with a black eye because I dropped my first gen iPad on my face while checking Facebook before getting out of bed. Those early model tablets are no joke in the weight category! Each class began with excited chatter that quickly silenced when I took to my podium after the tardy bell. My poor new high school students were afraid to ask what had happened, so I began each of six class periods with an introduction and an explanation.

IMG_9669I spent the first week of school swallowing Gabapentin pills (as prescribed) to numb the nerve pain that tingled from the base of my spine to the tips of my fingers and back again, all while learning students’ names, playing warm up games, and preparing young actors and student directors for the fall play auditions. We were putting up the Don Zolidis farce The Greek Mythology Olympiaganza, and some seniors were going to assistant direct the various scenes, to give them a bit of practice applying what they’d learned in three years in my program, but also to give me much-needed assistance since I’d be recovering from spinal surgery.

My assistant principal had endured the same procedure just a couple of years before, she assured me that she was back on her feet and working within a week. I requested the day of my surgery (a Tuesday) and the Wednesday and Thursday off from work to recover, with a plan to return to my classroom on Friday.

On a warm, sunny September first, I walked into the nearby hospital, all prepped for spinal surgery, which went well. My spine was fused, and the extreme, debilitating pain I had been suffering for months was gone.

On an equally sunny day, just two weeks later, my world was rocked by a new doctor’s diagnosis: paralyzed vocal cord.

When I wrote about this a couple of weeks ago, I included just one mention of what I had been since childhood. Just one word. One measly word to tell you, dear reader, who I had always, ever been: a singer.

Not just a sing-in-the-shower singer. A state-level soloist and all district, area, and region choir qualifier in one of the most vocally competitive states in the country. A voice major in the early years of college who switched to elementary music so she could get married and have babies instead of pursuing a grueling performance career. A singer that brought some listeners to tears, others to laughter, and a few to envy.

I sang on stages and in sanctuaries and by cradles.

In recording studios.

On the radio.

I sang. It was the only thing I thought I did well. My only gift.

Chorus 1985-1986

I had warned my neurosurgeon that my voice had to be protected when my throat was pushed aside so he could get spinal access, I asked if he could access my cervical vertebrae from the back of my neck instead of the front of my throat. His answer: “No. but in the twenty years I have been doing this surgery, no one’s voice has ever been damaged. Of course, I can’t make you a promise, but the likelihood of your voice being affected in any way is negligible.”

I went for my follow up appointment with my surgeon three weeks after my surgery, when I had already had my throat scoped by an ear, nose, throat specialist. When Doc entered the examining room and cheerily asked how I was feeling, I beckoned him to lean near and whispered, “My voice is gone. The cord is paralyzed.” He went pale, his eyes widened, he was clearly and authentically horrified. All he could say was, “You’re a singer. Oh, no…this has never, ever happened to one of my patients, and it had to be a singer.” He couldn’t say he was sorry, that’s something doctors really can’t do. Apologizing is like admitting guilt, or a mistake, which can become a legal liability. No, he couldn’t apologize with his mouth and his perfectly working voice. But it was in his eyes.

The ENT who had made the initial diagnosis referred me to a specialist in Houston, a physician who has dedicated her practice to saving voices. I made an appointment, my husband drove me as I worried what she would say. I doubted my own ability to remain calm enough to navigate Houston’s infamous high-traffic freeways. It was good he was there, because the news was not good.

Dr. B. sprayed my throat with vile banana-flavored numbing medicine, and ran the camera through my nasal passages, down my throat. I attempted all sorts of vocalizations: vowels, consonants, sung tones; nothing came out. The cord didn’t vibrate even a tiny bit. It was dead. Kaput.

The physician wanted to wait a few months, see if the nerve endings would wake up on their own.

I left the office, bereft, silent tears ran down my cheeks and dripped off my jawline for the hour of the drive out to our suburban home. I climbed into bed, and I despaired. My throat was silent, but my spirit screamed; I was, as Shakespeare described, an empty vessel. Though I made no sound that was audible to the world, my inner world was a cacophony of noise as I railed against fate and wept out all my world-shattering grief.

I wouldn’t speak again for a year.

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Turning Back

Did you ever pick at scabs when you were a kid? Those big, juicy ones that crusted on your knees and elbows from all the falls you took when on the monkey bars or on your bike? I did. It hurt, it made my scrape open up and bleed some more, but I just couldn’t help reopening the wounds. It didn’t matter if the grown-ups explained that I was going to have scars if I didn’t leave the scabs alone. Potential infection didn’t deter me, I just picked away!

bandaid-heart-As I got older, the wounds became less literal. Not skin and bone- heart and soul. When I was seventeen, I broke up with a boyfriend that I had been dating for over a year. He was a good guy, but timing just was not right: he was in college, I was a senior, yada yada yada. Weird thing, though, I kept driving by his house. I would sit outside, not crying, really, but grieving. Pretty dramatically, I suppose. It felt good to wallow.

In college, I auditioned over and over to be a hostess for our annual Follies. I never did get to do it. That was tough, because I had to sit in the auditorium for chapel every day, and look at the stage where I felt so defeated.

1988_2Until I decided to stop auditioning for the thing I was never going to get and direct my club’s show, a sentimental journey through the tunes of the Andrews Sisters, which won first place. Then that space, that stage, became a symbol of power (as long as I governed my thoughts). Wounds don’t just come from romance or falls. Sometimes they come from being shut out.

When my husband changed jobs and we moved from Texas to Oklahoma, I used to sit at my picture window, gazing out while wistfully wishing to move back to a town that, if I am honest, I was miserable in. I even envisioned my own woe, creating a mental picture of the melancholy pose I struck as I sighed. I looked, in my own mind, as gorgeous as any Gothic heroine. I should have been dressed in a while linen empire-waisted gown, though in truth, I was probably covered with graham cracker goo and baby spit-up, hair going every which way.

When we left Oklahoma to go back to Texas, after two weeks I called a church deacon and begged, “Please let us come back. Please.” They said no. They said, “Look forward. Not back.” It would be a while before I understood how to do that. And did it. I had to figure it out myself, because I hadn’t really seen it before.

Ten years after her divorce, my mom still sat with her wedding album, flipping through plastic-encased portraits of her happy day, remembering a time when she was joyful, healthy, and surrounded by bridesmaids. Really, her entire adult life was spent, I believe, looking back: wishing to undo mistakes, wishing to be young and happy, wishing to have close friends.

Revisiting sites of injury was a family trait. Sometimes those sites were physical, like boyfriend’s houses, scabs, or stages. Sometimes not, though.  I could not possibly account for the hours I have spent, in my own mind, replaying scenes in which I hurt someone or someone hurt me.

But now I don’t. I just don’t go to places that hurt. I have made the conscious choice to avoid hurting myself. When I reflect on it, I think I made the decision to stop visiting hurtful places around the time I also made the decision to stop cutting myself with scissors.

I was a late comer to the cutting thing. When I was a teen, I didn’t even know that was a thing you could do to alleviate sorrow and anxiety, so I tried the pursuit of perfection and the allowance of boys defining my identity, with a bit of disordered eating thrown in for good measure. In my thirties, though, I found it. Cutting, I mean. Sometimes I escaped to the little office in my theatre classroom to grab scissors from the apple crock in which I still keep pens and pencils, and I would dig deeply into my arm. At home, I might grab a kitchen knife and lock myself into the bathroom, cutting my thighs. It burned. It hurt. And it gave me more scabs to pick at.

I don’t cut myself anymore. I am not ashamed of that chapter, I will talk about it if I am asked. But it’s not my favorite thing to revisit.

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There are also places I don’t visit. I have only been to my mother’s grave once, and to my father’s never (beyond the days of their funerals). It is too hard. It opens floodgates of sorrow, sorrow that is close enough to the surface of my heart that tears and heartache don’t need gravestone markers to incite them. For some, visiting those graves is a comfort, and I say, “Go. Please, and tell them I love them while you’re there.”

Churches are a no-go. Way too much hurt inflicted when my husband was in, and then out, of youth ministry. Way too many Sunday mornings when no one said hello. Way too many judgements and proclamations and “encouraging words” masking an assumption about who I am and what I need.

I tried going into the auditorium of the high school where I spent eight years building the theatre program from the ground up, and which I left because of a combative administration. The day I went there, I was laid low, emotionally tender and teary-eyed for days. So I don’t go back in there any more. I know my former students wondered why I didn’t come see their shows, they were so sweet to invite me, but I just couldn’t.

998293_10151606483607711_2070554230_nWe sold the home we spent the bulk of our child-rearing years in, I can’t drive by it, I just can’t. And the house I just sold last year, the one we built from the ground up? No way. When mail was delivered there for a month or so after our move, my husband had to go pick it up.

I don’t visit the local community theatres, not even to see shows. Those are places that have become like great big, giant triggers. Sitting in them feels like little bits of broken glass all over my skin while I am reminded of so many times of being overlooked.

Some places, some people, some memories, just hurt a little too much. Is there beauty in pain? There can be. Is there growth in pain? Often. Is there a benefit, though, in reopening old wounds, wounds that aren’t festering or infected, but are still vulnerable? Not for me. I have had to learn to stop standing at the picture window, sighing and mooning. No more drive-bys to old scenes of hurt.

Like the Fleetwood Mac song says,

“Why not think about times to come?
And not about the things that you’ve done?
If your life was bad to you
Just think what tomorrow will do.”

Everyone’s life has been bad at one point or another. I suppose we all have different ways to heal and protect.

Shielding my quiet soul means choosing where I go. For me, self care doesn’t look like spa facials and chocolate truffles. It looks like a picket fence, covered in flowering vines, protecting me from turning back. It looks like my yoga/meditation room. It looks like my yellow bicycle. It looks like screen shots of texts from my close tribe of trusted friends. It looks like writing a book instead of directing or acting a play script. It looks like my husband and children. It looks like…my life.

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And the winner is…

Astros ring

It’s baseball season! And since I live in Houston, the home of the current World Champ Astros, for whom I just bought a new team shirt and am anxiously awaiting the chance to go to a game at Minutemaid Park,  I find myself contemplating the concept of sport. Of Competition. I wonder how much we Americans are conditioned to Competitiveness and how much is innate. Clearly, some element of Competition has existed in humanity before there was even organized society. Cain Competed with Abel for Adam’s esteem, spilling blood to be the favorite. The Greeks held magnificent athletic and artistic Competitions in the original Olympic games. Who was Alexander but the most Competitive general to lead an army?

So I don’t really have a problem with Competition. It is a necessary force that pushes humanity to make new discoveries, chart new frontiers, and achieve excellence.

But sometimes I wonder why we have seemingly made everything here in America about being the best. We give trophies and tiaras to four year olds who prance and priss better than the other little girls. We pit students against each other in spelling bees in first grade so that the adept learners can lord it over the ones who are a little (or a lot) behind. We award trophies to kids for being on a sports team, making the trophy the desired end, rather than emphasizing the lessons learned about sportsmanship and personal physical fitness.

It is a mentality that permeates every single aspect of American life. We rate our movies according to top box office gross every Monday morning. We look at the cars next to us at the red lights and either pat ourselves mentally or grit our teeth in envy. We slave endlessly (or pay yard workers to) so that we might put that “Yard of the Month” sign in our front yards. Most women eyeball each other in the mall, comparing rear ends, wrinkles, and wardrobes. We brag about our kids’ grades on bumper stickers. It’s in our schools, our churches, our businesses, our neighborhoods.

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Even when the cause is worthwhile we compete. Weight loss competitions abound in businesses. Companies use competition as a marketing tool, cloaking it in contests for charity. For goodness’ sake our kids even compete for medals to see who can read the Bible best (how in the world we American Evangelicals could have imagined that children showing each other up is a Jesus thing is just incomprehensible to me)!

So no wonder we Americans believe we live in THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD! Most of us have never visited any other country, but our Competitive conditioning tell us it must be so. That ideology was a deciding factor in our most recent presidential election. Competition, not competence. Supremacy over alliance.

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I don’t think I really am very Competitive by nature, though I think growing up in American culture can impart a pretty fierce dog-eat-dog mentality in all but the the most passive . I could never enjoy the fierce push to win at team sports, it seemed a silly waste of mental energy to me. When we had to shake hands and say “Good Game” I just wanted to make friends with everybody. I didn’t enjoy the All State Choir audition process in high school. I enjoyed the singing, but not watching some girls cry whose names were not called out. When our class elected its top ten most popular senior girls, I was #12. I watched as girls strategized and agonized about getting on that list, and I could not have cared less about that vote. I was surprised I got as close as I did. One of the top ten boys, Kevin R., told me in my yearbook that I could have been so popular if I had just tried a little harder. As a young adult I couldn’t have cared less about having better stuff than my peers. Still don’t.

As a theatre teacher, I found myself immersed in the arts, and Competition was probably one of my least favorite aspects of the job. Year after year I watched my students create beautiful work onstage and backstage. They were full of pride in their accomplishment. They gloried in the story they had told and they knew they had learned and grown in their craft as well as in their humanity. Then the trophies and medals got handed out and the kids without gold sparkly things suddenly doubted everything they thought about the art they had created. As a director, I had begun to start thinking cunningly, plotting for a win rather than for learning. Principals like it when you can set a trophy on their desks.

Irony of ironies, now that I am no longer a full time theatre educator, I serve as a judge at those very competitions. I go into those days with the goal of teaching and edifying the kids. Most of my judicial colleagues do, too.

I did discover that once the competitive element of trophies was introduced into my local community theatre stomping ground, much of my joy in that hobby was lost. I don’t get involved any more. I guess I have had one too many conversations with people who introduce themselves with their number or trophies, or who find ways to work their victories into conversation.

I am all for excellence. Anyone who knows me well knows I do not tolerate laziness or mediocrity. I used to lay that burden on others. I held everyone to my standards. Then I let go, and just held myself to a constant and unrelenting expectation of quality. That exhausted me. Through my practice of yoga, I have learned that winning has its place, but so does failure; that excellence is a worthy goal, but sometimes relenting and just being is just as worthwhile.

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I envision a world where kids play on rotating sports teams, drawn by lotto. Everyone works out and plays together and switches teams to make new friends and team parties at the end of the season include the whole league in one great big bouncy castle. The top spellers help the ones who are having a hard time. The beautiful popular girls hang out with the regular girls doing stuff completely unrelated to fashion, makeup, and boys. Neighbors come together to help each other with their yards. Plays are not pitted against each other in UIL, so that students and directors can come together and share their work and inspire each other without worrying about medal count, and Americans take the time to learn about all the beautiful countries and societies that populate our planet, appreciating cultural and religious diversity without feeling somehow disloyal to the States.

I may not be the thinnest or most beautiful woman, most talented performer, best mom, winning cook, or most decorated high school director. Fortunately, I now know (at least 80% of the time) that it just doesn’t matter. What I am is a human being discovering her own path, knowing that her path is not a race track. There is no medal for winning at the end. There is only the love we leave behind as our legacy, and there’s no blue ribbon for that.