I’ve Gotta Be Me

Meme borrowed from someone better capable than I at creating memes

My journey towards personal growth is, I imagine, similar to the one many other people have undertaken. It’s one step forward, two steps back on perpetual repeat. There have been times when I have felt that I was getting there, wherever “there” is. But there have been many more moments when I have realized with considerable chagrin that I am not as far along as I had hoped. The secret is now and has always been just to keep moving and not give up. I may never make it to that mythical place where true mental peace and emotional well being reside, but I can keep heading there, even if I occasionally feel like Sisyphus pushing that damn boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down for me to move upwards again in perpetuity.

As disappointing as it has been for me to accept, I am human. I spent my first forty years simply coping with the life choices I made based on a model of my life that others crafted. And I was living my life disconnected from why I was heading in the direction I was going. I was merely going. Then, I woke up. And when that happened, I got sad. Sad that I had gone along unaware for so long, sad that I had stopped believing in my dreams, sad that I had decided to take a path others chose for me, and sad that I had perpetuated the self-restrictive mindset I developed as a young child to endure mental and emotional abuses. I wallowed in the sad place for a long time, flailing around, unsure of how to save myself, sometimes unsure if I was even worth saving. Just when I’d make a breakthrough in one area and walk from the darkness towards the light, my eyes would adjust and I’d realize I’d escaped one small hole just to land in a different, slightly roomier one. C’est la vie.

Last night while having dinner with my family and discussing my struggle to find peace, my sister-in-law pointed out that the decision on which way to proceed ultimately comes down to one notion. You need to look at your options and decide which one you can live with and which one will only lead to regret. As time for me on this troubled, beautiful planet wanes via the non-stop aging process, I need to choose: do I continue worrying about making others comfortable and happy with me or do I carve out a place where I am the protagonist and not simply supporting cast in someone else’s story? We all have life choices, and they usually come down to how much work we are willing to do and how much pain we are willing to endure. Some people aren’t cognizant enough to realize they have choices or that they have already unconsciously made one they are following. Some people decide that choosing between options is too difficult and requires too much work and decide to remain on their current trajectory. I am once again at a fork, and I know I need to step off the old, well-worn path and onto the new one. I’ve made my decision. I’ve been slowly gathering fortitude and momentum. Right now, I am the little, toy car that has been wound up and is being held above the ground, poised for release. I just need to set my wheels onto the path I know is right for me, let go of fear, and see what happens. I need to choose myself and leave others to fight their own windmills. I cannot help them, just as they cannot help me.

I have been working to make peace with myself and my decisions for a long time, but I kept getting caught up in other’s expectations and feedback. You can’t move to the next phase of growth until you let go of the comments and obligations put in your way by those who would keep you tethered to your old paradigm because that is what benefits them. All of this is to say that I’ve been working for a long time to run out of shits to give about what others would tell me is the “right” way to live. One of the best books I’ve read recently is Untamed by Glennon Doyle. So much of what she describes as her journey feels like my journey too; she’s simply farther along on her path than I am on mine, which means her words can serve as a beacon for me to follow when I am uncertain and thrashing about. One of the quotes from that book that speaks to me the loudest is this one:

“This life is mine alone. So I have stopped asking people for directions to places they’ve never been.”

While others can offer input, they don’t know me, my heart, or my potential. I alone control those things if I am brave enough to own my power. I’m choosing to recognize that my path is mine. No one else knows what directions to give me because this is not their path and, ultimately, it is not their choice. Allowing others to lead me along in my life, like an ass on a rope, has gotten me too far down the wrong road. But I’ve had time now to stop, to look back, and to contemplate where I’ve gotten to by allowing others to hold the reins. I know for certain now that the path that will lead me to regrets is the one I’ve been traveling. I know I can do better for myself, and those people who really love me and appreciate me will cheer me along even if the direction I’m heading isn’t one they understand. The rest? Well, the rest aren’t my problem anymore. I gotta choose me or I’m lost forever.

Spotted And Clocked At 58 MPH

 

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And thus it begins

Tonight, at 5 pm, Denver instituted a citywide stay-at-home order. This had to happen because, despite dire warnings from the Word Health Organization and the CDC, we weren’t fully grasping what it means to stay away from others. We were packing into parks, standing too close in take-out lines, and crowding into liquor stores like we’d never see another bottle of (insert favorite spirit here). We were being the child told to sit in the chair in the corner of the room who couldn’t handle sitting in the chair in the corner of the room and so slid onto the floor and inched closer and closer to her friends, assuming she could get away with it. She couldn’t. Now we’re in the principal’s office until we’ve learned our lesson, a lesson we will not soon forget.

Today is my friend Lisa’s birthday. I had a gift for her sitting on my desk, a gift I had hoped to share with her in person over a coffee date, but that was not going to happen any time soon so I put the gift in my car and drove out to leave it on her porch. While I was out enjoying my last taste of true vehicular freedom for a while, I noticed how many people were driving like Mad Max, trying to tie up loose ends before 5 pm. Restrictions are scary. People tend to react to a crisis like this in one of three ways. They either over secure to feel safe (hello, toilet paper hoarders), they rebel (hello, spring break beach goers), or they fall in line dutifully and without question.

A recovering ex-Catholic, I still fall solidly into the third category. Big surprise, right? Do as you’re told? Yes, ma’am. Sit still? Okay. Follow directions? Of course. Color within the lines? I didn’t win a major award (leg lamp not included) for coloring at age 8 by being sloppy. Obey authority? Absolutely. Stay on the right side of the Keep Out sign? Done and done. In my youth, I learned to do as I was told without wondering if I should. So, this whole lockdown fits like a puzzle piece in my DNA. If the medical experts implore isolation is necessary, I wave my Good Girl banner and march to my room. It’s go time.

I was listening to Untamed, the new book by Glennon Doyle, today as I drove to Lisa’s. In one chapter, she discusses a zoo cheetah that has seemingly been tamed yet still paces the enclosure, looking for an escape, longing to run freely at the righteous, breakneck full speed she was built for. I started thinking about my own cage. About how I learned unquestioningly to do as I’m told. Like the zoo cheetah, I buried the wild me to live within the boundaries I’ve been told are mine to inhabit. And, in situations like this one, where I am required to confine at home for the greater good, being well acquainted with enclosures is helpful. But, I’ve been growing lately. I’ve been taking small steps, leaning casually against the fenced boundaries I adopted as my own, testing for a weak link, wondering if I’d be brave enough to venture out if I could just find a way to push through. So I am going to use this time in confinement to take a good, long look at what might be waiting for me on the other side of this enclosure. When this virus is at last contained and we are once again free to move, I will be standing by the door ready.

When it opens, I may linger at the threshold and stretch lazily for a spell, summoning my nerve. Then I am going to step out, slowly and with great intention at first and then later with fewer f***s to give, to do what represents my best self, discarding the mantle of appropriate “womanly” behavior on the ground where I stood. Life is shorter than me, people. We’ll be seeing that soon as community members, both young and old, fall victim to this virus and we watch families mourn unexpected losses of those to whom they were unable to say a last goodbye. Maybe even our own. If I am one of the lucky majority who escapes, I vow to live differently on the other side. I will still follow rules when I need to. I’m just going to push my boundaries more often.

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Cheetah weighing her options

Wrong

“There’s something wrong with me chemically, something wrong with me inherently,
the wrong mix in the wrong genes, I reached the wrong ends by the wrong means.” 
~Depeche Mode

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Little me before I understood I was wrong

For as long as I’ve been alive, I’ve operated under one irrefutable certainty: there is something wrong with me. That belief germinated in my early childhood when I was regularly told how imperfect I was. I couldn’t be still in church. I couldn’t behave in a store. I couldn’t act like a young lady. I didn’t use the brain the good Lord gave me. I was too talkative. I was inconsiderate, selfish, and not achieving to my fullest potential. Even things that were beyond my control, like my genetically thick and unruly hair, were wrong. While I knew intellectually that my parents did their best to love me, I accepted that I was off. The messages imprinted, the proof was iron clad, and I accepted it and wore it like a full-length down parka that both protected and obscured what lied beneath.

In my teenage years, I donned headphones and disappeared into music. Song lyrics were the first place where I found belonging. Morrissey’s morose vocals provided a soundtrack for my life. I know I’m unlovable. You don’t have to tell me. Message received – loud and clear. He was proof that there were others like me out there, although I didn’t seem to know any of them personally. As an adult, friends gave me grief over my depressing music, but I didn’t care. The National’s gloomy tunes told my life’s tale. When I walk into a room, I do not light it up. The awkward, the invisible, the alienated, the isolated, these were my people.

It wasn’t until I had my sons that I began to sense that, in terms of who I was, I might have been sold a bridge in Arizona. I started my parenthood career with the same high expectations of my sons that had been applied to me. When I approached them harshly and saw the crushed look on their little faces, however, I was reduced to a weepy mess. I couldn’t do it. Hurting them hurt me, not unlike sticking a pin in a voodoo doll only to realize I was piercing myself.

When my boys, both at age eight, were diagnosed with brain differences, an unexpected and beautiful idea drifted into my purview. These people who had been entrusted to me were meant to show me that wrong was subjective. Yeah, Joe couldn’t tie his shoes or ride a bike, but his intellectual curiosity and ability to retain and regurgitate information was impressive. And Luke, while struggling to comprehend phonics and read, created vast, complicated worlds and endless diagrams and drawings to explain them. I found my boys amazing. Flawed in some ways, sure, but still basically perfect. 

I have been in and out of therapy for five years now as I struggle to remove the coat of self-worthlessness I donned unquestioningly as a child. Yesterday, Glennon Doyle shared with the world a snippet from her upcoming book Untamed: “The only thing that was ever wrong with me was my belief that there was something wrong with me.” Whoa. Hold it right there, Glennon. Are you saying that maybe there is nothing “wrong” with me after all? Maybe I’ve been wearing this cumbersome layer of shame and self-loathing out of habit? Maybe I could take it off or trade it for a windbreaker for a while and see how that feels? Hmmmm……

Spring and daylight savings are right around the corner. It might be a good time to lighten up. I can start by unloading the notion that there was ever anything wrong with me. I may not have been a perfect child or teenager or friend and I may not be a perfect wife or mother either, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with me. At least not inherently.

 

F.I.P.

“I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, ‘For the same reason I laugh so often–because I’m paying attention.’ I tell them that we can choose to be perfect and admired or to be real and loved. We must decide.”     ~Glennon Doyle

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Splashy, aka Foggy Foo

On Tuesday night, minutes before we were scheduled to leave for our son’s high school Cross-Country Awards Banquet, I discovered our African dwarf frog belly up on the rocks at the bottom of his aquarium home. Although he (I decided years ago he was a he without any biological proof) hadn’t been acting himself for weeks and I had suspected this was coming, the knowledge he was gone left me with a frog-shaped hole in my heart where he had escaped like a cartoon character busting through a wall and leaving only his outline.

Nine years ago, as a heart bandaid after a life-scarring debacle in which my son and I unsuccessfully attempted to raise a tadpole into frogdom, I purchased from Brookstone (don’t ask) four fully grown aquatic frogs in small habitats. Each of my young sons would have two critters to care for. That was the plan, anyway. Although the boys named them, Padme and Anakin and Swimmy and Splashy, we all know how the story goes. I fed them. I cleaned their watery homes, bought their food, and looked for new plants for their decor. They were mine in all their froggy glory from the beginning because I had killed their tadpole and these were my mea culpa. Still, I told the boys that these frogs were temporary, short-lived pets and they needed to prepare themselves for that.

Padme, like her Star Wars character, was the first to perish that first year she moved in. About a year later, Swimmy and Anakin died within a few weeks of each other. I figured the last holdout wouldn’t last much longer on his own and I would be free of the stigma of the tadpole catastrophe and the work of the frog experiment. Splashy, who was now referred to by the unfortunate sobriquet Foggy Foo, however, continued to thrive. Research told me most most aquatic dwarf frogs lived less than five years in captivity. After six years, I began to suspect Foggy Foo was an anomaly.

Foggy and I worked out a marvelous relationship over the years. He recognized my voice and would emerge from his house when I called him. He did not do this for anyone else. He would swim to the top to eat when I fed him and had on occasion eaten from my hand. I would often pause during my day to check on him. I enjoyed watching him and listened for his muffled songs. We had a bond. He was my little guy. I loved him as much as any human can love an amphibian, although definitely not in the same way Sally Hawkins loves her amphibian in The Shape of Water.

My heart broke a little the night he left us. Although I compartmentalized the loss until after the awards banquet, when we got home I carefully lifted him via fish net from the bottom of the tank and brought him upstairs to the main floor commode. I gathered my men, gently deposited Foggy’s lifeless form into the bowl, and we said a few words about our deceased friend. Float in peace, we told him as I depressed the high-flow option on the toilet and flushed him with great flourish to his final resting place.

I won’t lie. I shed a few tears Tuesday night. And, since then, I’ve shed a few more. I am verklempt thinking about him now. The space on the counter he occupied for years is desolate, and I suspect the frog-shaped hole in my heart is there to stay. Perhaps it seems silly to mourn a tiny frog who existed on the periphery of our lives, but the smallest things can hold within them the deepest of life’s lessons. That frog was a link to the days when my boys were young, noisy whirlwinds who made our house reverberate with life. With Foggy’s passing, I can see that my little guys are also gone, replaced by hirsute young men with booming voices and earbuds that render me silent. Letting go of Foggy is an acknowledgment that soon my sons will leave Joe- and Luke-shaped holes in my heart as they also escape my world. It sucks and it’s worth a few tears.

I am working on the Buddhist notion of patient acceptance, knowing that the most important thing I can do for myself in this life is to welcome what is without wanting to change it. This is much easier said than done. Joe and I will begin touring colleges next week, and I have no idea how we got here. But life is messy and emotional and difficult, full of reasons to laugh and cry. So, I will float on and be in what is and cry when I need to and laugh when I can because I am paying attention. I will practice my patient acceptance so I too can float in peace someday.