A Little Daily Thanksgiving For Real

I am grateful for nature’s choice to turn off the lights with panache

I’ve stopped watching the television news. I’ve also turned off the news notifications on my phone. It came down to what I saw in a tweet the other day regarding the constant struggle between “I should probably be more informed about current events” and “I would like to be a functional human being with at least a vague will to live.” I decided I would like to be a somewhat functioning person without a casual drug habit. So, I’ve tried as much as possible to check out in a positive way. And for good reason, apparently. Because today I checked in on the news for like two minutes and discovered concern over a new variant, the real potential to lose abortion rights for women in this country as the now conservative majority Supreme Court hears a case from Mississippi, and yet another high school shooting with multiple fatalities. Are you kidding me? I wanted to throw my phone across the room. It reminded me of a scene from the 1987 film Roxanne starring Steve Martin, where the main character buys a newspaper from a machine (those were a thing once), reads the headline, and then puts another coin into the machine to open it so he can put the paper back. I don’t want to know all this.

I went to my meditation group meeting tonight where the theme was gratitude. We talked about how we can practice gratitude to improve our lives. There is actual science regarding how being grateful changes us in a positive way. This is what I need more of in my life. I need to pay attention to all the things that make me feel loved, supported, safe, sane, and secure, all the things I am deeply grateful for. Focusing on a pandemic that has taken over 5 million lives and doesn’t show any signs of abating is not helpful. Watching footage of terrorized teenagers after another school shooting is not helpful. Ruminating on the potential rollback of women’s rights after 50 years is not helpful. I’m not sure there’s a news story out there right now that could make me feel better. So, I am going to give gratitude a try and focus on all the good in my small universe of concern. This is the place where the most important people to me are. This is the realm that matters right now. Yes. I understand that people need to be engaged in society for positive change to come about, but society is a mess right now, and I shouldn’t be around them anyway since they could be contagious.

The next time I get overwhelmed by something, I am going to try to see instead an opportunity in that stressor for gratitude. If someone is vexing me, I am going to be grateful for the space they are giving me to grow in patience and love. Okay. Okay. Maybe I won’t succeed in that last one consistently, but you have to start somewhere.

Gratitude may not be the answer, but it has to be more positive than focusing on our shared reality, which feels not unlike watching the aftermath of a 100-car train wreck. So is anyone with me? Is it time to start a revolution of appreciation for the good we know is there but are choosing not to focus on? I’m going to need some strong positivity warriors in my camp. I’m not known for being Sally Sunshine. Glennon Doyle likes to say, “We can do hard things.” Finding gratitude these days seems like it might be a hard thing, but if Glennon says we can do it, then we can.

The Power of Storytelling Without Fear

“Trauma creates change you don’t choose. Healing is about creating change you DO choose.” ~Michelle Rosenthall

Everything changes when you finally decide to divest yourself from a toxic relationship.

Some people judge you for your choice, especially if the relationship you leave behind is one involving a parent, spouse, or sibling. Those people tell you to reconsider because “life is short and you might be sorry when they are gone.” Those people used to get to me. They would reacquaint me with the gaslighting I have experienced my entire life. I would feel guilty and small and cruel for choosing myself. With time and practice, though, I’ve learned to listen to those voices less because those people don’t and can’t understand the emotional damage I have worked so hard to grieve, dismantle, reassess, and then release. They don’t know that every day is a battle to trust others, to feel safe in my skin and like myself, and to move forward carrying less baggage. They can’t understand how much it hurts a child to have a parent tell you multiple times, “You have a face only a mother could love,” only to realize she doesn’t love you or she would never say things like that. Birthdays, holidays, and family events are not joyful, but instead produce physical symptoms of anxiety. Walking away is not what you want. It’s not what you ever wanted, which is why it is so difficult. But, in the face of acknowledging there is not now nor will there ever be true acceptance and appreciation from the people who made you question everything about yourself, the best thing to do is move on and do better for yourself.

I still feel guilty sometimes about putting myself first, about choosing to skip out on that toxic person’s birthday party or holiday gathering. I never want to feel I am acting intentionally to hurt another because I was constantly told that I was selfish and thoughtless. Looking out for myself only proves that hypothesis. But what if I test that hypothesis against the reality of what happened rather than the illusion of what I was told happened? Then, magical things begin to occur. I have learned to have empathy for my abusers, to feel sorry they were incapable of doing better, to be grateful they taught me what not to do with my own children, to feel sad they will never know the truth about love, and at the same time to understand I do not owe them a relationship at the expense of my own mental and emotional well being.

For decades, my brain protected me by blocking awareness of the abuse. It had me believe that I was treated the same way everyone else was by their parents. It wasn’t until I started talking about my youth and seeing the shock and horror on other’s faces when I told them stories about my childhood that I understood what I knew as “normal” was actually neither normal nor healthy. It was a shocking revelation. My brain had for so long worked to legitimize the abuse to protect me that I was unable to comprehend that what I experienced was abuse. When I finally could not unsee the reality any longer, I began to grow. I have fought since then to tell my story more often, to give voice to what I was conditioned to believe was only my imagination, my “over-sensitive” nature.

“You own everything that ever happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” ~Anne Lamott

Six years ago, I composed a blog post around the above quote, asking other writers for permission to tell my stories even if doing so would potentially hurt someone else and cause rifts in long-standing relationships. Six years ago, I wasn’t yet brave enough to speak my truth. But, six years of weekly therapy and hard work have at last brought me to the place where I am able to choose myself and let others deal with their emotions about that their own way. I’ve learned that if telling my truth is problem for them, maybe they should address that in their own heart, that I don’t owe them protection when they didn’t protect me, that I don’t have to put them first when they didn’t put me first. It’s a powerful place to live when you finally decide that you are not responsible, despite what you have been told, for other people’s reactions to your choices. It’s not vindictive to tell your story. It’s life changing to give yourself permission to protect yourself from the people who have hurt you and to tell your stories because if they wanted to be remembered warmly, they should have behaved better.

I am not afraid of my past anymore. I’m not afraid of people being angry with me for telling my stories about it. I’m only afraid of living another day bound by tales about myself that were passed down to me by others that don’t define me and never did. Tell your stories, especially when they are controversial and difficult. Eventually, they will set you free.

I had been deceived. The only thing that was ever wrong with me was my belief that there was something wrong with me.” ~Glennon Doyle

Uncaged And On The Loose

“I was wild until I was tamed by shame. Until I started hiding and numbing my feelings for fear of being too much. Until I started deferring to others’ advice instead of trusting my own intuition. Until I became convinced that my imagination was ridiculous and my desires were selfish. Until I surrendered myself to the cages of others’ expectations, cultural mandates, and institutional allegiances. Until I buried who I was in order to become what I should be. I lost myself when I learned how to please.” ~Glennon Doyle, Untamed

Opening myself up to the world (or in this case stunning Positano)

You often hear that people, around the age of 50, come to a place where they run out of fucks to give. (I’d apologize for using that turn of phrase, but that would be giving a fuck and I am working on not doing that.) People who have run out of fucks have stopped worrying as much about what they look like or what the neighbor’s think of their yard or how their opinions and choices and goals and dreams might upset others. They put down the baggage others have handed them, and they pursue their interests because their life tank is dipping below half full and they don’t know when they will hit empty. For most of my life, I’ve known that getting to the end of my life only to realize I have lived someone else’s life would not be an acceptable outcome for me. Still, I was conditioned from early childhood not to be a bother, not to stand out, not to choose myself, not to believe I mattered at all. So these two ideas, to take up as little space as possible and to live my life my way, have stood in opposition. The former has been my default setting since I was 3 because my parents taught me that if I wanted to be acceptable to others, I had to capitulate and do what they wanted. I learned that to be loved, I had to leave myself behind and be the me others could tolerate.

My parents chose themselves before they hit midlife. They chose themselves by ensuring that their progeny didn’t get in the way, that we fell into line, that we behaved and developed in ways that suited their wishes and caused them as little discomfort and annoyance as possible or else suffer the consequences of their displeasure. I learned I was meant to be a good girl and a blessing to them. When I spoke out, when I tried to assert myself, I was told I was foolish and labeled a selfish, self-centered, spoiled brat. This is how I became caged. I’m estranged from my parents now so I can heal and find the inner strength to live my life out loud, as the badass, indomitable woman I am and have always been deep inside. There are days when I fall back into old patterns and feel guilty and cruel for putting space between my parents and I because I know they are confused by it and because I am reminded by others that I am breaking a societal norm by turning my back on them as they near 80. But I am learning how to be my own person and prioritize my mental well being, even if other people don’t understand or approve. It’s absolutely okay to carve out a life for myself on my own terms. No one else has to sign off on it or agree. And, oddly enough, for the first time I am feeling the rush of confidence that comes with moving along my own path. There is power in relinquishing control of the state of others’ feelings. There’s strength in allowing others to weather their disappointment because it means I am finished disappointing myself.

I am working every day to step out of my comfort zone. I’m practicing asking for what I want rather than being told what that is. I’m practicing hearing my own voice say aloud what is in my heart. I’m practicing calming my mind and letting it know it doesn’t have to protect me anymore because I am safe now; I am brave, strong, and awesome exactly as I am and no one can prove otherwise to me. I’m practicing having a choice, or many choices, about how to proceed. And, yes, I am practicing too how to be at peace knowing others are unhappy with my choices. After a lifetime of trying not to make waves, I am learning how to break them, to rise above the surface and revel in my own agency. I’m practicing not giving a fuck in situations where others would tell me how to live my best life. As Glennon has advised, I’m done asking others for directions to places they’ve never been. They don’t know what they are talking about.

Yeah. This probably sounds selfish, and I’m am okay with that too. It’s about time I began advocating for my self and acknowledging my right to do just that. I will see those who truly love and accept me in the future. As for those who would prefer I stay caged in your expectations? Hasta la vista, baby.

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.