Break the pattern… that was the directive from my heart as I was working on an advocacy approach to ending bullying in October of 2013. I had spent a lifetime overcoming those patterns in my own life and felt pretty successful in helping my kids navigate it for themselves.
I called it successful because they were still alive. They had not succumbed to the powerful forces of trauma and depression that continued to haunt me because of my father’s suicide in 1989.
He was found in the early morning hours of October 25, but the day prior is always the one that is hardest for me because this was the day that he walked through his last day, disconnected and adrift. I don’t know if he was looking for more reasons to die or a single reason to live, but no matter what he found, I lost him.
For 30 years he has been frozen in time at the age of 53. I was 27, pregnant with my first child and so this was a last day, for me, too. October 24, 1989 was the last day where I felt full of expectancy and hope for the future in that way where my personal and professional choices had molded together to create a life that I loved. Don’t get me wrong… I have had immense joys and successes through 4 children and a career and community of friends… but there has always been a part of me that has felt preserved in that time warp where this day seemed fine until the next day wasn’t and I was forever different.
I could not have known the impact of that one day. And so, for my annual PSA on removing the stigma surrounding suicide, I am going to discuss not what he did or I have done to overcome… but what I am doing in an ongoing effort to heal. Today, it was perfectly encapsulated in the moment I removed this giant ice cube shaped like a brain from my freezer because trauma of the magnitude of my father’s suicide, becomes a memory frozen in time that is triggered by dates or memories into PTSD meltdowns.
Trauma is a time bomb that our psyches begin to grow around to allow us to move through the moment and simply survive. But, it’s been 30 years and I have been actively excavating those insulating layers to actually finally grieve and feel the feelings and it has NOT BEEN FUN. But it has been freeing. So freeing, in fact, that I have been proactively pursuing the things that used to shut me down and make life fun again.
Halloween was epic when I was growing up and celebrating it with my children was great…except… this day, one week prior, always came first. This year, I agreed to co-host a Halloween party for my daughter and her middle school friends. Because keeping busy and focused on the joy that I felt as a child would get me through today. The maniacal preparation for this party has literally thawed my thinking that became flawed around my father’s death and so the period of time that used to set me back on my heels has brought me all the feels… will it bring healing? God, I hope so… because I have decided that the grief will no longer be my priority and that choice, alone, brought relief.
Dad, alone, made his choice to die today and I do not deserve to serve a life sentence for that. So, today I, literally, took my frozen brain out of its mold and put it in a plastic bag to prepare another to float eerily in a punch bowl. I will delight in watching it melt away as I snack on spooky snacks and dance to Monster Mash with middle schoolers.
And then I will write about that… about what we need to do to survive the moment and navigate toward something different in regards to suicide, bullying and, sometimes, simply being human. I will write about it then rather than now because I don’t want to cast my expectations into an expectancy of grief. I am trying something different in the hopes that I will be able to help someone out there move through their pain differently, too.
Right now, I have a new brain chilling next to the ice cream, costume to finish and a new story to tell. It will be hauntingly beautiful, I hope… because I feel hope again.
To tell the truth, I should have known better. I mean, doing a post about parenting a pre-teen through the perilous waters of social media is just asking for trouble, right? I knew opening the conversation would open the door for me to be judged for my choices and place my daughter’s newsfeed under additional scrutiny, but I did it anyway. Why? To tell the truth, of course.
My post, …on the deep dive into social media, was about making sure I was on solid ground in my own use, before challenging my daughter on hers. I used words like “integrity” and “character” not to paint myself as perfect, but to make public my commitment to align what I put “out there” with what she sees in here… in my home and in me.
The backlash, while expected, has been a little brutal. But, it’s ok. It’s ok because my willingness to view my own life under a microscope has allowed me to widen the lens that I look at hers through, and take in the bigger picture.
First, someone took a swipe at me to knock me off my pedestal.
Then, someone swiped my daughters phone.
But here’s the thing..,. Social media isn’t a pedestal… it’s a platform for voices to speak that many don’t want to listen to and so my task wasn’t to micromanage what was on her phone but to ask what was going on in her.
Yes, we had access to her social media accounts through other devices but the circumstances created a bubble of time that turned out to be such a luxury. Since I did not really know the details of what was in another’s hands, we were able to clear away the rubble of the drama and focus on what was at hand. In that, it became remarkably simple.
Discussion about whether or not her content was questionable became the framework for the questions she wanted to ask about the facts of our lives, as well as the facts of life.
“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better”
— Maya Angelou
I don’t know it all. And, no, I don’t know better than you. What I do know is that if it really were that easy, we would all be doing better than we are and so what we each needed to know, separately, placed us, together, at this crossroads. Then, rather than being at odds with each other, this moment became an intersection of what we both needed to know and when we both needed to “no”.
Throughout my life, I had found that the gap between the knowing heart and doing part could be filled by sorting my mistakes and missteps into two columns…. “When I didn’t KNOW better” and “When I didn’t NO better”.
Ask any mother… what word do you hear most from your child when they are learning to talk? “No”. What word do you tune out, dumb down, prune away and overcome by picking them up bodily and carrying them out while they are carrying on? Yep… “no”. Ignored “No’s” become noodle-body toddler tantrums but they become ignorance based shaming episodes over time. We know from childhood that a “NO”, whether said or heard, means nothing.
I did then what I knew how to do…
So, now that I know better, what do I do? My previous blog post committed to starting with what I knew OF her before jumping to conclusions ABOUT her. So I told her what I thought she needed to know.
She needed to know that I believed IN her, which removed her question of whether I believed her, or not. She then needed to know that she had a right to question. A right to privacy. A right to control who touches her and who teaches what she needs to know.
In turn, her belief in me allowed me to learn what I needed to know. Was there anything there that signaled imminent danger… was she considering hurting herself or someone else? Was there anything on it that could come back to hurt her? Were the choices she made within the illusion of privacy ones that would damage her reputation or her relationships? Had she made agreements to meet anyone or act in any way that placed her in harms way? No. Thank God.
Normally, these typical triage questions are asked by medical and mental health practitioners and can feel like an interrogation, but that was the gift. We shared a space where not knowing allowed me to do better at communicating that the biggest part of unconditional love comes not from trusting the other person but from trusting the process that we go through together to get us where we need to be.
She is in middle school. That time in her life when her body is growing and changing at a pace that is only outdone by advances in technology. Those technological platforms carry a language that are a mirror for the network of connections between kids and within kids. Their world is one of mixed messages because they look grown up on the outside and their brains have not kept up. If we fail at connecting the dots with them we will be unable to bridge the gap without damaging them.
As it turned out, the actual texts and messages my daughter was sending were the carriers of a message she could not find the words for… that she needed truthful information in order to make better choices for herself and she feared asking those closest to her for help.
Yes. I missed a string of her messages. But in doing so, I was able to see the entire thread of truth. That in the daily struggle of building a home and a business and stabilizing the structure of our lives I forgot to go back and check for structural damage in her foundation.
If the content of her messages was hard to see, then shame on me. Not because I am embarrassed by them… but because they point to what needs to be shored up in her, not shut down. Parents used to tape mouths shut or wash kids mouths out with soap when I was a kid but all that gave rise to was this…. what closed our mouths did not close off our thoughts or feelings… it made them come out in other ways. Rebels with resources became innovators that created a cloud based system that will move mountains. What I turned my back on as a mother and a woman knocked me down when I ignored it and so my job, right now, is to teach my daughter what I could not know until I could “NO”. To value herself and trust her instincts because this is not the first time her actions will be called into question and what will get her through is strength that comes not from self control but self esteem.
She was asking for information… not asking for “it”. Whether or not her media use and messages were evidence of concerning behavior, this was an opportunity to reinforce not only when it was right to say “No” to others but that it was right to also say “No” to herself, from a place of worth. That’s a tough one… because every day she sees people all around her that benefit from overriding the “no’s” of others. Politicians and educators and cultural influencers hold hearings that captivate a nation and still do not listen to the “NO”! Parents benefit from not listening to a child’s no’s because it’s easier to control them with a “because I said so”.
No matter where you are in your life — start not with what you know, but with the “no’s”
No more destruction of our planet. No more hate. No more school shootings. No more victim shaming, other blaming, judgment-filled directives. Know more, first, about yourself. Then seek to know more about them and the world they are inheriting and own that, all too often, we did not do better, even when we knew better.
Saying “no”, at any age, is hard because we want things and we want people to like us and we want to have it “all” but learning to say it AND learning to respect when others say it to you sets up healthy boundaries for what you allow into your life and into your head. In honoring your own “no”, you will be able to offer an honorable “yes” to your children and your partners and your clients and the world.
So, to whoever has her phone… yes, it created some drama but, no, I am not mad about it. I thank you. What I have learned is priceless and what has been affirmed is her worth. What we now know is that the loss of a small piece of hardware allowed us to be soft where it counts.
Now that I know better, I “no” better and yes, that means I’ll do better, too.
There is nothing like middle school to fire up the angst engine… for parents. Sure, sure… my daughter was nervous the first week worrying about what she would wear and doing her hair and trying out for volleyball but, 10 days into the school year it has already eased up for her. The anxiety I am talking about belongs to the mothers. The topic discussed during time outs in the bleachers and in phone conversations out of earshot is not the contents of our pre-teens’ backpacks, but the content on their social media sites.
Eager to fit in, they dive, head first, into conversations and connections that they label as friends without an understanding of where it might be leading. We want them to be leaders in the classroom and community by expanding their sense of the world and in this era, that will include growing their list of followers.
It’s a lot to take in. Every new way for her to reach out could become a new reason for me to freak out, so I thought it was a good time to have a conversation about social media. I follow my daughter’s accounts and monitor her activity, but I have found that revisiting the topic on a regular basis keeps the channel of communication open, helping to prevent a blow up when her phone is blowing up. And, as I always do on things like this, I needed to make sure my experiences were in line with my expectations of her, online. So, before I made another post – or boast – I took a scroll through memory lane.
It’s so easy to get caught up in it… the draw of creating content for social media to fill my feed while handling the mundane tasks of feeding my family and myself. Privacy settings and private moments are a perception-as-reality talk that had to start young with her because as the youngest of 4 children, she watched as I learned right along with her older brother and sisters, the ins and outs of apps that can bring online attacks, as well as online attachments.
As an interior designer, I use social media to grow my business by crafting a story around photos of the results. As an advocate, I use the platform to inspire curiosity and conversations about change. That is all information that I send out into the world and delight in the feedback I get. But as a mother, I have to remain aware that the paths I send my children out on lead back home, even the virtual ones.
Facebook and Instagram are great for sharing my daughter’s everyday moments with her siblings and family members that aren’t a part of our every day. And it is so much fun to keep in touch with friends and former classmates. It is so useful to stay up on traffic conditions and school activities schedules with so much information available at a touch.
On the surface, it seems ideal. But there is nothing superficial about raising children so what it comes down to are our ideals. I first wrote about this in 2016 in a blog post entitled “…on selfies and self ease” on my website MamaBearings.com and I revisit it, now, to make sure I am following my own lead. At the time, my daughter was 9 and while she was not yet on social media, I knew it was coming. I wrote:
“In this world, in which, literally, we hold ourselves at arms length to fill a phone with selfies, shouldn’t we focus, instead on holding close what we hold dear to fill our hearts with self ease?”
Self ease comes from self acceptance. Acceptance that only comes from introspection and awareness and understanding of who we are, as humans. Self knowledge, as adults, that can only come when we are willing to bring the shadowy parts of ourselves into the light. That won’t get many likes on Facebook so who cares if I edit and filter and smooth the lines above my brow to mask the worry behind my eyes? Well, I do. Because self assurance, for a child, is built on unconditional love and how I talk about myself is the first message my daughter ever got. Now that she can read the world around her as well as my page, whether it’s for my profession or personal life, what I show to people online must line up with how I show up, in person, to her, at home.
In that 2016 post I said, “This form, for me, has been about finding balance between what I allow in to my life, as fuel, and what I put out — knowing that it might be fuel for others — especially for my children.” My kids range in age from 29 to 12 and bringing a child up in this world and getting them to adulthood is a constant stream of un-photogenic life events that does not translate well to a live-streamed event.
So, more important than the number of follows on Instagram is how I follow my intuition. A better gauge of what I am teaching in real life is my middle-schooler’s social skills and whether she is able to make friends at school. Regardless of what is on my news feed, my adult children feed themselves. Like, literally. Because they have learned, by watching me, that a self-centric focus on what lights us up — and gets lots of likes — doesn’t pay the light bill.
It is the ongoing paradox of parenting… to teach my daughter to not worry about how she looks, I have to think through how I look to her. I have to remind her that she will be judged at face value by others while being a reminder that people are more than what they post. Our imaginations want to jump to conclusions and animate a one dimensional picture into a full story that may or may not deserve a leap of faith. Classmates with large followings become celebrities, of sorts, whose reputations can be compromised with a click. There is a depth and breadth to relationships that virtual reality cannot come close to and the only way to lay it out for her is to model how to lay down the phone and make friends… real ones.
As a 7th grader, she has a phone and a school issued iPad and so it is safe to say she is more at ease with technology than I am. Her history is already beyond what I could ever have imagined as my future at that age. So, how do I teach her not to be too quick to judge AND not to be too quick to trust what she sees “out there”? Well, by being trustworthy, in here. In the heart she can feel in my hug rather than the heart she double taps on a screen. In our home rather than on her home page. By not making a snap decision about her based upon her snapchat. To see her strength in our face-to-face connection that is never affected by whether we have enough signal for FaceTime.
The other day one of those mothers in the bleachers told me that my daughter had opened a discussion with a new school friend about how her social media posts didn’t really sync with how cool she was in person. And that with coaches and teachers and anybody being able to view her photos, it could hurt her reputation and even disrupt her participation on the team. Her new friend listened… and as I listened to this report, I was content, at least for the moment, that what was solid had sunk in.
Her actions say more than her device based activity report and are a reminder that when I am confronted with a story of her, I should look first, to what I know of her. Then, and only then, we can explore how best to project – and protect – her best self.
Clients and careers, vacation spots and backyards, big family dinners or quiet evenings out — the circumstances surrounding our lives WILL change. How we respond to them — as well as how we portray them to others — is the only thing we can control. She and I will both make mistakes… but as I turn the pages of my old photo albums or scroll through online ones, what I hope comes through is not the content on my site but whether or not the content of my character is anywhere in sight. Because my children have read it their whole lives, my history is also theirs. Where they go with it is up to them. I hope it always leads them home to me… even if it’s just for a chat, for real.
On the second day of January, this year, I found myself wandering around a cemetery in Salem, Massachusetts… at sunset. Given the historical context of the area, it wasn’t out of the ordinary to stop there. Given the timing of this stop on my journey and the things that I have witnessed along the way, standing in the Old Burying Point Cemetery on that day seemed fitting.
Fitting, because this past year, as I became very focused on working again, moving forward for myself, and even dating, people would ask me where I had been and I would reply “under a rock”. In truth, hiding under that rock was akin to what had landed some of the occupants of this cemetery under these stones. I had been driven underground by fear — of judgement, of misunderstandings, of the trials of life that had become mine, seemingly out of the blue. For years, I felt buried alive by a mountain of trauma and drama and I went out only when I had to to get my children where they needed to be and to navigate the transactions like selling my home and moving and then moving again…
From that point to this has taken 5 years and the stepping stones that led me out from under that rock had brought me, slowly, to here. I had come so far, but there was still something that I couldn’t quite grasp. My therapist had called it PTSD and while that made it sound plausible, it also made it sound hopeless. I had been relentless in excavating and discarding the ideas of me that had been given to me by others and now, weary from that process it would have been so easy to simply bury my hope.
There, surrounded by the markers of souls long dead, I decided to say goodbye to whatever it was that still haunted me. I saw the ghosts for what they were… reminders of all the wrongs that had been done. But like the names and dates on the stones in front of me, they had become worn with the passing of time, so faint that reading them was an effort that did not summon any more desire for attachment. Earlier that day it had occurred to me that walking through life with me was sometimes like an afternoon stroll through a forgotten minefield. Minefield. As that word swirled through my head I realized I needed to dig somewhere else. Because what now had to be let go of was mine.
I was not there to mourn. I have cried enough. I needed my vision to be sharpened, not clouded by tears, so that I could focus on it to free it. So, I pulled a marble from my pocket… a marvelous find during a shopping excursion in Boston a couple of days prior… and through it, I snapped a picture of the setting sun. When I bought it, I laughed, saying that I had found my marbles. This small thing, though, represented everything that was in front of me because it looked remarkably like the new logo that had been developed, just for me. In my purse was a stack of new business cards, already bearing that design. In development was a website and mission for going forward. In the moment that I lifted that symbol of what was to come and looked through it, I laid to rest the only thing still holding me back. I laid to rest not what I focused on in the past, but how I focused through it.
Be it a new project, a new pair of shoes or a new relationship, focusing through the pain of my past colored and cropped my hope for the future as quickly and easily as an Instagram filter and I, alone, held the capacity to change it. Because it was mine.
In the process of healing, I began reframing my memories in a more truthful light and rather than freeing me, I got stuck. I mean, if the only difference between a rut and a grave is the size of the hole, then the only difference between the rock I had been under and the gravestones around me should be a choice, right? A choice just to get over it. To go on living. But in revisiting my past whether in the ornaments on my Christmas tree or a box of family photos, I realized that the knowledge I now had was discounting the happiness I had felt in that moment. And that, in turn, was discounting the happiness I was allowing myself to feel in this moment.
My perspective was reshaping my history while it was shaping my future because I used it in every present moment. It was as if the ghost of Christmas past and the ghost of Christmas future were no longer taking turns, they sat on my shoulders, whispering in my ear like a right turn by wrong turn navigation system that had me riding the brakes.
As I was packing for this New Year’s trip, I had come across a piece of hotel notepad paper in a drawer, and the words I had written on it brought me into the present.
“The essence of betrayal is that the narrative of our life has been destroyed. It is expected that the future is uncertain, but your history should be dependable and it should also be defendable”.
I had written them down while attending a conference in October of 2017 where I heard Esther Perel, iconic relationship therapist and author, speak on modern day relationships and the effect of age-old betrayals and now I see what I had been doing to myself. In learning that nearly 25 years of a 26 year marriage were built upon a lie, the story of my life became fiction. There was no place I could look that looked the same. I was ready and willing to embrace an uncertain future but somehow it became dependent upon on the uncertainty of my memories. There were now ghosts in every old photo and attached to every ticket stub. Every recollection was tainted with a collection of facts that I did not know. I could not depend upon the events in my own history book so how could I defend how happy I looked in its photos and so, by extension, what did it say about today?
Today… the day in that historical graveyard…. I held my phone’s camera in one hand and the marble in the other, it dawned on me that the beauty of living this moment was in the eye of the beholder. I understood that even though the facts beneath my memories had changed, the fact that I had felt happy in those moments hadn’t. I alone, hold that unique perspective in my heart and the only way I could keep it true was to not betray its memory. In accepting the truth, I had allowed it to vandalize something sacred and so I became the guardian of my memories. No longer would I allow someone else’s view find a way to darken mine
I want to take chances and believe in others and trust that even if things don’t work out I will be able to figure it out because that belief is what my happiness, all along, was built on. I was always willing to be wrong in the hopes of getting it right. I was and am willing to get hurt, if that’s what loving means. Because heartbreak isn’t a symptom of something wrong… it is a byproduct of living. Every day people I love become ill, grow old, move away, mess up… and I love them anyway. They say things that hurt and do things I don’t understand. As they move through the rubble of their own broken parts I know that widening my lens to allow for the pain means it now takes in more joy and laughter and light. I can look at them through this wide open heart and know that what I take away is mine, no matter what they are willing to give.
I have been given the chance to rewrite my history in a way that empowers my future and that reframes everything. To that end, this is the last post from MamaBearings as I begin, again… My posts there were about standing up, finding direction and fighting for what’s right and they helped me strengthen my voice. But like my view, I needed to shift direction in order to look forward. Find me in the future at rockyourbluedot.com where I will use my experiences as a mother, my work as an interior designer, and my adventures as an “old” girl in a new life to pass along not how I did it but how I am doing it. Because every time I go to work or grow as a person and parent, I create a space that is supposed to hold a new story. So I will share my story with you… in the hopes of lifting you up, lightening your load, inspiring you to rearrange your furniture or change your conversations.
At the end of the day… the truth of that day, need not be written as done. At the end of the day… the battle today, need not be fought to be won.
At the end of the day… the turtle of time, has moved from the shore to the sea. Ancient and endless, the end of the day is bridging has been and will be.
For at the end of the day, is a start of a day, where what’s done is tomorrow’s to tell. And at the end of that day, the beauty you’ll see, need not be shown to be held.
My 11-year old daughter just left the house to go meet her new baby sister. The changes that have unfolded in her life, that have led to this moment, have been touched on in these posts, but they don’t have to be known to be evident. Changes are a normal part of growing up, and untangling the ones that have been forced upon her by her parent’s divorce are both personal and predictable as they appear, like seasonal lights, in some form in every home that has been broken in some way.
I have known this day was coming but, like Christmas, I am never really prepared until it is upon me. I have no qualms about whether the divorce was the right choice. I have no regrets about my choices in how to navigate it. But this evidence of her father’s new life in the form of a child was magnified in its birth during Christmas.
I spent the afternoon, yesterday, decorating my Christmas tree… feeling the time warp of the ornaments that had been made by my own children. I took my time. Setting the intention of remembering the joy and if I couldn’t find it, I set the ornament aside.
As I was finishing my duties, I was fielding texts from my mother about my own family’s Christmas and reflecting on how my feelings about the holidays have changed. At that moment, I received a text from my ex-husband. She was here… a baby girl. I paused. My heart skipped. And then it felt as if I was the one taking my first breath because… without a blip in my emotions or a drop in my gut, I was ok.
This morning, I woke up, let the dogs out, made coffee and then plugged in the Christmas tree lights. There, second strand up from the bottom, one string of lights was flashing on. Then off. Then on, again. Cycling through the annoying, rhythmic pattern that had never, ever been my choice in Christmas decor. I like my lights to be steady and brilliant and these on’s and off’s always seemed a distraction. But, finding the lamp that I would need to adjust just seemed like too much effort. So, I let it be.
A little later, when my daughter came down for her Saturday morning pancakes, I pointed them out and without blinking, she said “I kinda like it. Like morse code… maybe from your dad!” I stared at it and I realized… the flash, like the flash that I saw for the first time on an ultrasound screen with my first baby girl, was like the ongoing presence of a heartbeat.
My dad, who in his absence is ever more present, especially at Christmas, once remarked that after his open heart surgery he could not sleep because he could feel his heart beating in his chest. How many times had I laid awake at night, my heart in the grip of my own anxiety only to feel my heart beat against the walls of my chest like it was knocking on the door to get out.
On’s and off’s. A binary language not of 1’s and 0’s, like a computer, but of life in its living.
A heartbeat that at the time when I was born could only be heard. A heartbeat that I could see on a screen when I carried my children. A heart beat that I now feel and share with those close to me. It is not the beat of the electrified language of thought that became the artificial intelligence of survival. It is the magnetic pulse that drew me in to listen, to see, to feel my way through, from the time I was the baby girl. And I knew…
I did not need to change. I needed to heal.
I had been surgically attacking all of those parts of my life that were merely survival skills because my intent was to live a whole-hearted authentic life. Every time I was confronted with a decision, I re-opened the incision to check on it. Looking for assurance that the stitches from the last time had held. Looking for new obstacles to bypass or stent. In doing that, I was stunting my growth. It did not matter what the original affliction was because I was cutting myself off from healing every time I re-opened the wound.
I don’t need to hook myself to a device to will track my progress. I needed to see the flashes of brilliance that have arrived in the process of my living. They can’t be charted as highs and lows because it cannot be cut and filled where there are no gaps. There are only natural pauses between beats when life stands still in breath catching moments like this.
In the midst of the dizzying pace of Christmas, as my daughter hugged me goodbye, I could only feel the new life that was stirring within me.
Life choices come down to this way or that way. New way or old way. Easy way or hard way. When my heart was beaten down and numb, my brain stepped in and navigated me through the process. It was like an emergency back up generator that kicked on and those flickering lights that lit my path forward were a lifesaver but it was my heart that beat down the door to get out.
I sit now, with a cup of coffee in my favorite mug. Listening to the rain while I plan my afternoon of shopping and baking for tomorrow. There, second strand up from the bottom, one string of lights is still flashing on. Then off. Then on, again. Cycling through the rhythmic pattern that does not have to be a choice because it just how they work. I like my life to be steady and brilliant and these on’s and off’s, once a distraction, are now evidence of moments, strung end to end, lighting my way to me.
“Pretty’s not a pie that there’s only so much of…”
That’s how I began a book I wrote for my daughter when she was 5. She was beginning to experience the subtle peer messaging that is aimed at how we look and as she was my 4th child and 3rd daughter, this wasn’t my first go ‘round with this.
The book was inspired by a preschool field trip I chaperoned to a local art museum. In front of beautiful, ageless works of art, I saw the wonder in her eyes cloud over. Her face fell as she spoke with a classmate. After the tour, she asked me for a hair brush because a little girl, with a perfect blonde bob, had remarked that she, herself, was pretty because she had brushed her hair.
There, among the rich array of artwork hung side by side, not for comparison, but for admiration, my priceless little creation felt worth less. From infancy, our emotional health does not depend upon beauty that is in the eye of a beholder but in the answer of our cries to be held. I knew that a quick hug and an attempt to minimize the message would lift her mood but I knew from handling it (incorrectly, for the most part) with her older siblings that I had the opportunity to build her immune system. Unfortunately, It doesn’t take long for the constancy of unconditional love to falter in the face of the constant social media definition of “acceptable” once she is exposed. I wanted to her know that she got to define, for herself, what beauty was and how she would present that to the world.
“You get a piece of pretty every time that you give love”
Words that I hoped a 5 year old could make sense of. That was 6 years ago and the story I documented for her then is still valid, but, just like there is always room for pie, there is always room for improvement… this time, though, it was for me.
At 56, in the midst of launching a website and business strategy that includes “being seen”, I have been working on building my confidence and formulating my message which is based in acceptance and unconditional love. After spending years deconstructing the layers of messages, I realized that the introspective manner in which I processed them with was the problem. How can beauty exist in the eye of the beholder when I am the one being held hostage by standards that had been defined by me?
To answer that, I asked someone I love dearly and trust completely to help me redefine my “presentation” of self because I was struggling. I knew he would be patient with me. I knew he would listen and look past the inevitable tears that would come as I worked through this vulnerable moment when the resistance to change was so great. As an accomplished photographer, he is a master at crafting a visual story and his ideas for how to tell mine tapped into something that was both liberating and debilitating.
It felt frivolous to ask him to invest time on this and petty to still be focusing on how I look “at my age”. But, I am human and not immune to the not-so-subtle peer messaging that we subject ourselves to, voluntarily, every day on social media. I am no longer young and as I work on shedding the constructs of my past, my external style choices and appearance had to go through the same process. Cleaning out the closets forced me to dispose of the wardrobe items that didn’t, literally, fit but when I hadn’t yet defined who I wanted to be, how could I decide what fit “me”?
I mean, I have purses that are older than my oldest daughter. For those of you trying to do the math in your head, I’ll save you the trouble — she’s 28. For the record, the purses are Coach… a timeless style and quality that holds up, still today. My closets were full, not just with purses and shoes, but with memories and hopes for who I would be when I used them and who I was had always been defined in relation to another. I was a middle child dressed to match my siblings and I chose to dress like a gypsy when allowed to choose. I was a mother who was complimented once, for looking “age appropriate” in relation to my teenage daughters. I was woman who was aware that what she wore to fundraisers or parties or family gatherings would be judged for whether she was overdressed or over made up. I am now a woman who wants to dress to please herself and no longer feel that my acceptance, anywhere, is in question.
The anxiety that came from seeking approval used send me in search of personal transformation via the magic of Zappos. After all, the messaging from childhood tales was that just the right shoes would give me confidence to walk in “that” room. That room, in any building, any where, that still makes me feel as if I am standing at the corner of the high school cafeteria, hoping that someone will ask me to sit with them before choosing, instead, to sit alone.
“I’m glad about your weirdness, it makes you just like me. I know that’s kind of crazy if different is all you see”.
I stopped looking for shoes when I began repaving the path I was on and that journey was now stalled due to the disconnect between what I was telling my daughter and what I was telling myself. I wrote her a book that celebrated her beauty because of the way she related to others, not in relation to others. Its aim was to foster compassion, not comparison. I knew better than to compare myself to the models next to me on Instagram. What I could not know was that I was really still comparing myself to me. The me I used to be. I don’t long to recapture the years I spent learning all of these lessons but I do find myself wishing those lesson plans hadn’t written themselves, so evidently, across my brow.
I am old enough to be my youngest daughter’s grandmother and the parents of her peers could be my children. I am traveling and trying new things and meeting new people and while it’s not something I try to hide, I know I am usually the oldest one there. Energetically, I don’t feel any different from the inside out. I am strong and fit and feel great. So, it shouldn’t matter. But, it does… and in accepting that it mattered, I had to sort my thought process with the same filter that I sorted my closet, discarding not only what doesn’t fit, but what will not support the life I want to lead. The vintage coach purses get to stay. The baggage has to go.
Every self help book I have read along with every life coach, teacher or therapist that I have spoken with, either on a personal or professional basis, uses the same words. Self Acceptance. Self Forgiveness. Self Care. Unconditional love. I have willingly placed my faults and mistakes under a magnifying glass so that I could break the patterns of bullying and abuse and bad choices and it has been a worthwhile, empowering process. But doing that same thing to my appearance in anticipation of building “my brand” was as horrifying as looking into a lighted, magnifying mirror for the first time. The display of enlarged pores and crows feet is something I long to unsee.
“So, if pretty was a pie, everyone would have a slice. To write our lives with happy words really would be nice”
Just as I went to experts to help rebuild my self esteem and my business, I went to an expert to reframe my self image. His creative process was exhilarating. On the fly, he took the props I brought with me and wove them into the setups in his studio. The significance of the individual pieces became a puzzle that became a picture of who I am still becoming. As we progressed through the shoot, he used everyday items lying around his studio to purposefully carve light and shadow around me. I marveled at the process and his personal focus. And I stopped worrying about what the results would be. In the acceptance of what this experience was, I began to appreciate who I was. The beauty of this moment was that it was just a slice of my life that was possible because of the whole of it.
I realize, today, that it’s the story I told myself that was at odds with the picture I had of my future. In building up my daughter, I did not use words like “acceptance” and “unconditional” because the words, themselves, imply that confidence comes in spite of curly hair instead of because of it. It was in that same spirit that I let a stripe of gray grow into my reddish brown hair — a design choice that made that silver streak even brighter, in relation. It wasn’t my appearance that needed to change… it was my description of it.
Just like my daughter’s hair-brush-defying, humidity-fueled curls represented her boundless spirit, my silver streak is representative of my white-hot flashes of inspiration that have become experience that defies expectation. I don’t HAVE to set new goals. I GET to.
As she readies herself for middle school next year, she will see me model an appreciation for not only the breathtaking diversity of beauty we see in the people around us, but also the breadth and depth of beauty and strength within us. Not only to accept the inevitable changes that are inherent in the process, but to appreciate them.
“Hold beauty, joy and kindness most important, above all. How you are can change the world… Dream big while starting small”
She is still growing. I guess I am, too.
Dance routine… That pairing of words has never, ever, made sense to me. Because, as a noun, routine is simply a sequence of actions or a fixed program and when used as a descriptor it’s something performed as part of a regular procedure rather than for a special reason. Fixed. Regular. No special reason. Those are words that as a young girl I would never, ever have attached to the word “dance”.
Saturday mornings at Dixon’s Dance, in my hometown, was routine beginning at the age of 4. I took a variety of classes but the ones I adored were tap and over the course of the next decade I wore the shine and color off of the linoleum in our front hallway. It was there that I could open the closet door and practice in front of a full length mirror. I tapped there even though the flooring dulled the sound. I also tapped on the front porch even though the concrete made it sound too sharp. Hardwood — like in the dance studio or on a stage — sounded the best as it was crisp and resonant. I was forbidden, however, from tapping on the beautiful hardwood that graced the upstairs hallways and bedrooms of our house, and so I was content to tap where I could and begged forgiveness when I tapped where I couldn’t.
I found places and reasons to tap dance into my 20’s, even though I stopped taking lessons after about 10 years. I was a Mitzi Gaynor wannabe in a Madonna era and so over time I simply stopped. Add to that a marriage to a definite non-dancer and the routines that revolved around packing diaper bags and lunches meant my tap shoes got packed away. I still danced with my youngest daughter to the catchy “Go Diego Go” theme music or alongside the pool deck at the country club to embarrass the older kids into getting out of the pool, quickly. Other than that, I was done, until a timely conversation about hardwood floors had me thinking about the time step again.
As an interior designer, my days, these days, revolve around helping clients make routine choices regarding design elements and a discussion about the merits of solid hardwood flooring versus an engineered product got me thinking… Aside from the aesthetics and budget, did I have personal experience with either or both? My answer surprised them, I think, as it wasn’t given to them by the 56-year old design expert they expected… it was expressed by the inner 8-year old in me that hoped whether or not they were planning to dance on it was a part of their decision making.
You see, several years ago, as a part of the divorce process, I sold and moved from a house that had thousands of square feet of solid hardwood flooring. 4 children, a dog, and several cats, over 15 years, had done the expected number on the traffic areas but it was the living areas that got my attention, at that time. As the moving trucks rolled in, I rolled up the rugs to discover pristine patches of hardwood, that at any other time in my life. would have begged to be danced upon. The only thing heavier than my feet, though, was my heart. In the process of the divorce procedure, I had packed up hope along with my dance shoes and could not envision a day that I would want to move just for the joy of it. My routine of simply putting one foot in front of the other on behalf of my children was all I could manage and so hoping for more than that took energy I simply could not tap into.
That forward movement, did, indeed, move me on… into a new home, back into my work as an interior designer and even into a new relationship. As good as all of those things felt, I still fought against hope. After years of fighting for my children’s mental and emotional health and my own financial and personal independence, hope was a luxury that I could not afford.
The word “practice” comes back to mind but in a way that also doesn’t make sense to me. I hear people talk about a “spiritual practice” or their “yoga practice” and I think… aren’t those things you just do? If you wake up and pray or meditate, it’s your routine. If you do yoga, you are doing it. But… then I thought of hope and I was so out of practice that I couldn’t just do it. The thought of it felt gawky and awkward and ugly. It was noisy at times and at times it was just the sound of my breath, in and out, as I paused to catch it, head down, hands on my knees feeling as if I would break under the weight of it. Because hope becomes grief when a life you have loved is gone, so it hurts as much to have it as not have it.
I regret those pristine patches of un-danced on hardwood perfection in my old house. They represented a part of me that I gave up in the hopes of being happy there. So, under the guise of testing my newly installed engineered hardwood flooring, I dug out the brand new tap shoes I had gifted myself a few years ago for Christmas, rolled back the rug, and I danced. I stood there a moment, letting my body remember, feeling my feet get lighter as the music in my head led them around my floor. I looked down at the scuffs on the once-perfect boards and with a “WTF-it’s-MY-floor” smile I went at it harder. The 8-year old in me was as thrilled as the experienced interior designer when the evidence of my experiment was easily wiped away.
Within weeks, my work took me into the home of friends who were updating their family room in anticipation of a gathering, where I saw a painted wooden sign that said “I hope you dance”. I have known this couple for many years — we have shared space in carpool lines during elementary school and bleachers during travel and high school baseball, as their youngest son and my only son are the same age. I remember this family, too, for the tragic loss of their daughter, a long time ago, when she was in 1st grade. While I did not know them at that time, word about their sudden loss spread quickly in our small community and my heart ached for them as I imagined their pain.
This little girl’s presence in their home was still very much alive, as I rearranged and added to the collage of family photos, making her an important part of their decor. I added a comfortable chair, reading lamp and small chest in the corner where I had just hung new drapes. I finished the area with an art print of a butterfly, which they chose to honor her, and I topped it with that sign, moved from the other wall. “I hope you dance”. This sentiment, from a song released in 2000 by Lee Ann Womack, was written on their wall where they could easily find it, especially on the hardest of days. It fills my heart to know that this chair, this light, this love… represents the hope of this family, as this gathering was to celebrate their first granddaughter.
“…Promise me that you’ll give faith a fighting chance
And when you get the choice to sit it out or dance…
I hope you dance.”
I stood there a moment, in their family room, picturing the life that is before them, and I let my heart remember hope.
Routinize dance. Practice hope. For me, those will look and sound the same. Whether you have to write it on the wall or scuff it on to the floor you have to remember that hope doesn’t have to look graceful to be grace-filled. My hope is a dance that is gawky and awkward and ugly. It is noisy, at times, and then it becomes just the sound of my breath, in and out, as I pause to catch it, head up, looking for a spot on the wall so that I don’t get dizzy, feeling as if I will burst from the joy of it. I dance. I hope. Both, simply because I can.
It’s a simple photo. A single microphone on a stage brought to life by the spotlight. There are no humans in the shot but the image, taken at a music festival this past weekend, brought me to tears. It is quite dramatic… and I am not a musician, but I felt moved by the power of one voice, amplified, that this evoked.
What resonated from this shot was that I was going to be that one voice this morning… in a courtroom, for a child, as a CASA.
I could already feel the nerves tightening and I knew my voice might falter, but thinking it through while looking at this photo became a rehearsal, of sorts, for the emotions that accompany this role. As a Court Appointed Special Advocate, I have become adept at navigating the emotions that are part of the position. As a mother and human being, though, I will never become immune to them. Putting myself “out there”, especially for someone else, while withstanding the hit to my own heart, has come rather easy. What hasn’t been easy is standing up for myself. Why? Because, even as a child, I judged myself more harshly than anyone and so, even today, as an educated, experienced, grown woman, I still cannot enter the courtroom without feeling nervous.
“Acknowledge the judge” — and I am not talking about the juvenile court judge. You would think those words echo in my head because of my CASA training. Nope. Or maybe from my divorce process — which is the only other time I have been in a courtroom outside of being a CASA. Wrong, again. Those go way back to 1980. I was 18 and had been crowned “Miss Union County” in our local 4-H Fair Pageant. I had travelled to our capitol to participate in the state fair contest and that was the instruction from the pageant director.
“Acknowledge the judge” — I am not talking about you, either. I know, I know. Pageants… cue the huge sigh and eye roll of disrespect… and I would agree that the pageant process is one that deserves scrutiny. However, when I signed up for it, I understood, fully, that I would be judged, superficially. What I did not expect was the judgement from those around me, whom I had hoped would be supportive. Several of my friends put me down for it, scoffing for being willing to be judged on beauty or appearance. Understandable, given that his was on the heels of the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment. But the contest was a part of the culture I had grown up in, more so than the expectation of going to college. For this moment, though, hold this historical context front and center and withhold your comments on the worthiness of pageants, until you read this in its entirety.
I can remember the state contest in great detail. I made it into the 10 finalists and it was being broadcast on live TV — a big deal in those days. We had 2 minute commercial breaks to change out of our evening dresses, then into our swimsuits, then back into our evening dresses for the crowning. It had been drilled into our heads during rehearsals to walk toward center stage, stop, acknowledge the judges, seated down and to the right, walk the length of the runway, stop, turn, walk back, stop, turn, acknowledge the judges, then exit from the same side where we entered the stage. All was going smoothly, until, as I changed from my swimsuit back into my dress, I caught my thumbnail in my pantyhose (yes, girls, we wore pantyhose) and ripped it off. I wrapped my bleeding thumb in a tissue and stumbled quickly toward the stage. In my haste, I did not stop and acknowledge the judges. I blasted right on by and quickly did my stop and turns and then took my place among the other finalists.
I will never know if my thumbnail failure to stop and acknowledge the judges made me lose. I’ll never know if winning would’ve given me the confidence to be different in the face of the challenges that college and career brought with it. But all of this came roaring back to me when I was forced to acknowledge the judge in my divorce. And the judge always stands at the periphery of my appearance as a CASA, especially today.
I had accepted a sash bearing a label that didn’t fit and it wasn’t about how I looked or how I behaved. It was about how I felt. I felt wrong. Because when people told me I was wrong or had done something wrong, I believed them, even when I knew, intellectually, that what they were telling me was a lie. So, as a child, I began holding myself to standards that I never dreamt of imposing on others. It blinded me to the things others did to me because I could only look inward, because it MUST be my fault. I told myself that if the people around me were happy, I was happy — even if they seemed happiest when they were putting me down.
Judgement from so-called dignitaries were not the ones who had the authority to give me confidence. The judge in divorce court did not contain the capacity to undermine my future. The only judge who could affect my life, in those moments, was the one who has judged me, unfairly and unceasingly, throughout my life. The one who rooted me in that spot on that stage was the one who kept stuck in a life that led to a contentious divorce and it was only me. And I still had the audacity to criticize myself in public.
It wasn’t perfectionism. It was persecution. And that’s the thing about the CASA work that I love. I am clear on my role, as well as the role of the judge and it is NOT about punishment. It is about doing what is best for the child. It is about putting the potential for a child’s pain, centerstage, and acting from the list of facts and events that have been documented about the parents’ actions. The child’s future is simply framed in light of the parent’s past. Like the microphone on this stage, the child stands alone… except for me. Willingly. Voluntarily. Beholden to no one except that child and the oath that I took when the court appointed me. That day was weighty. But today was weightier.
Today was weighty because I take my role very seriously. I knew I was making the right recommendation for this child. I knew that it would hurt his parents. But, I have never judged them for their choices — my job is to simply document them, letting their efforts speak for themselves. The judge just listened and that, I have found has been the key to freeing myself from the life sentence I had inflicted upon myself. I began to listen to my own internal judge.
I listened to the words it said. I listened to the rhythm of its voice. And the more I listened, the more I realized it was not mine. They were words that had been said about me, to me, so often that I believed they were my own. And since they were wrong, I felt I was wrong. The moment I knew it was not my voice I became healthier. Happier. Healing. Every time my thoughts turned to “should’s” and “ought to’s” in “that” tone, I tune it out, stop, turn, and acknowledge who the judge really is.
Because here’s the thing… judging myself harsher than I judged others was a gift. Being understanding of the struggles of others, even when it hurt me, cultivated compassion. Refusing to “smile and wave” to cover the fear uncovered my truth which holds up pretty well under a harsh spotlight, after all. Listening to the “judge” culminated in an integrity that was integral in my divorce process as I would not do anything that I could not explain to my children. Listening to an internal critic causes me, still, to evaluate my creative work as an interior designer objectively and confidently. And, when I make a mistake, I document it as a choice that I will strive to do differently next time. Over the course of “due process”, I began to judge my body less and let my body of work speak for itself . Then, not only did I listen to that, I began speaking more kindly about and to myself.
I remember one other thing about that queen contest. The first one. The county one. The one I won. The finalists had to do an impromptu speech on a question given by the judges. Their question began “The 4-H motto is…” and I thought, “Oh, crap! What is the 4-H motto? I don’t remember! What am I going to do?!” and over the spiraling-out-of-control mind chatter I heard them continue “to make the best, better. What does that mean to you?”. Aah. Exhale. I got this. I live this. This… this is the internal judges, job, right? Best… made better. Because if I never feel best, I am always striving to be better, right?
Right. For all intents and purposes, I had the best life. To anyone on the outside, looking in, I couldn’t have it any better. Unless you’ve been thoroughly ingrained with the value that the best can always be made better. That was my answer then, and that is my answer today. That there is always room for improvement if you judge yourself accordingly. I can remember beaming at that moment. I fill up thinking about it now, but not with tears. Because it has led to this moment.
I am not a singer. But today I am reminded of something my mother used to say, as the leader of the junior choir at church. She used to say she would rather hear a loud wrong note than a soft right one because it meant someone was willing to sing. I thought of that this morning as I settled in behind the slender, black microphone that amplified my oath to speak the truth for the judge and the court reporter. I pictured this beautiful, stark, sparkly microphone captured by someone dear to me. And I spoke on behalf of a radiant young child that may never even know my name. And I will always, forever, know that this… This is my crowning achievement.
“Who stole the cookies from the coo-cookie jar…
We begin learning, really early, the power of assigning blame. Through a process of trial and error, we decide who, besides ourselves, can bear the blame, freeing ourselves from its discomfort. Like the childish accusations within this simple song about swiping cookies, we learn to pass the buck and bypass personal accountability with a singsong of self-righteous indignation disguised as innocence.
Mama stole the cookies from the coo-cookie jar… Who me?… Yes, You!… Couldn’t Be!… Then Who?”
I have always viewed blame as the flip side of a coin with the other side being credit — and if I am willing to take the credit for something that is right, then I damn well better be willing to take the blame for it going wrong. Quite simply, it is responsibility… and that’s where it gets a little tricky, because, sometimes, taking responsibility stinks.
It stinks because we have to own up to something that maybe exposes us in an unflattering way. It stinks because we have to own our faults and flaws and that scares us because we believe that we will be judged as unacceptable. It stinks like another childhood game that we used to play — especially while traveling in a car — called “The Smeller’s the Feller”. It involves, well, you can imagine, an odious offense in a carload of people following, perhaps, a late night stop for Mexican food on a long trip home from, say, Virginia (I know, a little specific…) Someone suddenly inspires everyone to roll down the windows, even in the middle of winter and while everyone is gagging and giggling, no one is claiming it. And so in our family, the first one to ask “Who” or cracks the window, takes the blame by taking responsibility. It, literally stinks, but it’s funny and so it’s not a big deal. Because among children (and some adult sons) there is a bizarre badge of honor in taking credit for the strength of the stench thereby flipping blame on it’s tail.
“Shiner stole the cookies from the coo-cookie jar… Who me?… Yes, me. And I will do it again if they are left on the counter when you leave… And then they will make me gassy and I will own that, too.
Responsibility, as “the opportunity or ability to act”, is a neutral ideal. My dog, Shiner, demonstrates this neutrality, perfectly, as she does not attempt to pass the buck in the passing of gas. She nonchalantly lifts her head as if the noise has broken her reverie, turns toward her nether regions, sniffs the air and almost shrugs as if to say, “Yep! That’s mine” and then returns, nonplussed, to her snooze. She has no investment in whether or not someone would be aghast at being gassed and so takes the blame quite willingly.
Willingness to take blame was the topic of an interesting conversation last weekend with author and Chicago radio personality, Bill Turck. A recent social media promotion on his radio program, invites listeners to call in and blame him for anything. He felt that #blamebill would not only provide humorous content for his show but it would also serve as a mechanism to diffuse anger or frustration that could, potentially, escalate into something worse. It’s a crazy notion. And rather genius.
Genius because it succinctly points out how ridiculous it is to blame someone else, even if it is temporary. It is human to want to place our anger and frustration elsewhere but continuing to heap blame where it is not warranted is damaging — especially if you blame someone you are in a relationship with. Temporarily providing a container for the blame that is outside the relationship would, in theory, act as a valve through which the pressure could pass.
“Bill stole the cookie from the coo-cookie jar… Who me?… Yes, You!… Couldn’t Be!… Then, Who?
Bill deserves the cookie, not the blame, for the dogged determination it takes to accept blame, especially when unwarranted, as a service to human kindness. To his credit, he understands the bigger purpose, which is the payoff when both sides of the coin work together.
This coin flip of blame and credit may best be demonstrated using another game… baseball. While I have been a lifelong baseball fan, last weekend I attended my first Chicago White Sox game. No matter where your team falls in division standings, umpires, errors, weather and rivalries give even the most even-tempered fan a gamut of game-changing blame opportunities. But, here’s the thing… for every team that blames a pitch or a play for the loss is a team that is crediting that same pitch or play for the win. As far as this particular Saturday night… it’s all because I bought a hat.
I know, I know. It sounds ridiculous. But, when my boyfriend and I got up from our seats after 3 innings in search of food and souvenirs, the White Sox were down 4-0. The moment I stepped out of the store, hat in hand, to check on the game from behind home plate, Chicago hit a home run. When we returned to our seats with the hat now on my head and our hands full of hot dogs, they began to mount a comeback. There were some opportune base hits, another home run, and an awesome triple down the 3rd base line and by the time all was said and done, the White Sox had been credited with 9 runs… All while I was wearing my new hat.
My hat does not deserve the credit for the White Sox win any more than the Blue Jays can #blamebill for the loss. Where, for every pitch that was just hanging, just right, in mid-air for the batter may be a pitcher hanging his head in regret. Each player, on both sides, took responsibility for the outcome because inherent in every win, is a loss.
You see, it’s baseball and unlike blame, it’s a game where wins and losses are two sides of the same coin. Opponents square off knowing someone will win and someone will lose. Losing stinks, but that’s life and it’s how you respond when you lose that will set you apart. Treating blame as a game within a relationships squares people against people and it means that someone you care about will lose and, in the end, that is what really stinks.
So, be like my dog, Shiner, and own what stinks, but… if you must blame someone, #blamebill. I tip my hat to him for being willing to make change.
Somewhere between early September and late October, last year, something in my life shifted. Imperceptibly, at first, but I must have made a wish, or something, that changed the degree of an internal guidance system, just enough, to land me, in a basket on a dirt track next to a paintball course, a long, long way from my home. There was no plan or predetermined outcome to get me to this place. There was, however, the knowledge that something had to change… or more importantly, someone… and that someone was me.
I had spent years fighting to feel safe at home and then feel secure in venturing forward and in September of last year I was on the brink of stability, after years of chaos that major life upheavals bring. I had fought for this moment — to be strong enough and wise enough and forgiving enough to use the “hard stuff” as a firm foundation upon which to build my future. Inspired by my attendance at a hot air balloon festival, I wrote a blog post about my desire to rise and launch myself, more fully, into life (…read it here). The new life in front of me would be navigated based upon a plan that started with a career shift. An exploration that had me, first, on staff for the Boulder-based Emerging Women conference in October, then has landed me for a weekend getaway, 8 months later, back in Denver, getting ready to take off in a hot air balloon.
For now, how I arrived at this moment is not as important as how I am in this moment. I am a little sleepy, as I had to be here at 5:45 am to take part in the flight preparations. I am calm, mainly because the weather is calm. And, other than that, I am simply willing to see where the wind takes me, literally, because I never expected that I would be there as part of a “we”, traveling with someone special who had come into my life, at that same time, out of the blue. Today was not about expectation, though, it was about experiencing something new and the only experience that carried high expectations were the ones I had of the pilot.
Booked through FairWinds Balloon Flights, also out of Boulder, Colorado, we were in a group of 6 passengers that were to be taken up in “Crystal Blue” – a beautiful aircraft commanded by a guy named Toby who had 30 years experience. Also a corporate leadership trainer, he stepped us through the hands-on process of helping his crew inflate and launch the balloon that had all the “bells and whistles”. These enhancements included turning vents that allowed him a degree of control over our direction and a “quick deflate” mechanism that would allow for a quicker turnaround time once we were back on the ground. The on-the-job training, that was rapid fire and perfectly choreographed, gave way, instantly, to an intermittent burn and gentle turn the moment we left the ground.
At the start of our flight, Toby said that to enjoy ballooning you had to be “tolerant of ambiguity” as he could not determine the direction we would go, nor the speed at which we got there. The sensation of being carried was both remarkable and reverent. I could see roads that we did not have to follow. I could see cars and houses and industry that did not add to the noise. I could see the process of everyone having to go somewhere, fast, while feeling content in what felt a lack of progress going nowhere, but up.
This tolerance of ambiguity was in sharp contrast to the certainty of the mountain range that embraced us. No matter where we were, or how high, I could feel the presence of the structure that had always been there and they were a stunning backdrop for the entire experience. It did not matter whether we were on the ground or in the air, our view of them did not change. They were that big. And that commanding. They towered before us, unmoved. Their view of us, filtered on this day through numerous fires in the area, is certainly not as beautiful as ours is, of them.
I looked down at the homes drifting by below me and they all looked the same from above. Stark and dark, they were obviously not created to be admired from this angle. They were surrounded by man-made mountainous landfills and business and recreational areas that fuel competition and drive our economy. From the street, these homes are beautiful additions to the landscape and many of them are held up as a symbol of success. As an interior designer, I spend my days helping people create unique interiors that support and tell the story of their lives in beautiful and practical ways but that type of work is, ironically, invisible from here.
It would be easy to crash land in self pity and wonder if what I do matters. But I know it does because as wonderful as this moment-to-moment drift is, our lives take place on the ground. Even for the pilot, he can only stay aloft for about 2 hours before running out of fuel and then, only when the weather permits. He has a “real” job so that he can do this in his spare time. As a single mother, interior designer, volunteer advocate and aspiring author I often feel I have no spare time and so these slices of time to simply honor “me” are a breath of fresh air — they are the fuel that lifts me up and allows me to take in what I need to give out.
I am a mother. Of all those I listed above, I can’t think of a role that carries more responsibility or expectation, all day, every day. I have had to be a mountain of strength for my children as we have had to go with the flow of unscheduled life changes and I always knew, somehow, that no matter where we were, if I was good, they were good. I was their home when our addresses were temporary. I was the hands-on consistency and the day-to-day grind that would ground them and give them long term stability. And in holding up for my 4 children, I held myself to a standard that lifted us all. Yet, in all of the driving and striving on their behalf, I personally felt adrift.
As I began writing all of this, the thought struck me that I have been a mother for half of my life and of course, like always, I became curious about it, exactly. I am nearly 2 months past my 56th birthday and in a quick google for “how many days old”, it was calculated that on July 2, 2018, the date of my balloon flight, I was 20,512 days old. (I know… yikes). The next calculation for my 28 year old daughter indicated that on that same date she was 10,256 days old. My apologies to those who didn’t know there would be math involved, but do the math. The day that I had a panoramic perspective on the whole world around me is the exact day that I had perfect symmetry on my life.
For my first 10,256 days I made decisions that just affected me. For the next 10,256 days I had to make them in relation to another person. A little one. One that relied on me. Learned from me. Leaned on me. Somewhere in those first 10,000 days I lost a sense of myself and, yet, in the last 250 or so, since my last trip to Denver, I have seen “me” rise out of nowhere, reaching up to not just be in background but also a horizon and I no longer can define myself from one singular viewpoint.
I have had to stand and “mama bear” to fight for my children in a way that has become a passion for advocacy — but that is not what MamaBearings is about. It’s about how I found direction in what I learned from my children. It’s about how I continue to strive to course correct with a long-term view of my own integrity and my own strength, while putting out fires and navigating through daily turns of life. I have never found purpose in reaching toward pinnacles of success and achievement because it meant nothing if my “home” with them was in a painful and polluted metaphorical valley.
From this vantage point, I could see the 10,256 days that led toward the day my life shifted, forever. I could also see the 10,256 days that came after that. And I know, for certain, that today signals another shift, even if I don’t know the direction.
As a woman, the day I became a mother I handed over navigation of my life not to my children but to loving. The authority in my life was a boundless love and solid moral compass that others made me question. Without a doubt, though, I was able to hang on to something that was both grounded and uplifting. Mothering didn’t change who I was… it changed what I did. And now, with 1 daughter still at home, I feel lighter and free-er to navigate a little differently. To carry “home” somewhat differently, even if there is nowhere different to go, because home is who we are, wherever we are.
I am a creative person, but I could not have designed the beauty and brilliance of my children… I just had to get out of their way. I can look, with certainty, at my 20,512 days and know that there is nowhere I need to be but here, at home in my heart, to embrace every day in front of me, wherever the wind takes me, getting out of my own way. I will brace for the landings with a handle on the basket and soft knees and know that I can, with a quick burn and slow turn, lift above it all to see the patterns of what is both behind me and before me and wherever I touch down, I will be alright.
These trips to Denver had been about redefining myself as more than “just” a mother. Because I have been a mother for just half of my life. And all the while I was still a girl and a woman and a dancer and writer. I was, for over 20,000 days, an explorer both brave and fearful and willing and stubborn, all at the same time. I did not lose the freedom to be myself just because I added children and so I do not have to give up one thing to have anyone or anything else there, too.
I have learned that no matter who it is with, relationships are like a balloon and its crew in that they are in an ongoing, energetic exchange of freedom and responsibility. The crew cultivates the potential for flight in its everyday tasks and in releasing control of the outcome is rewarded with a flight that carries possibility for an experience that they dare not design for they, surely, would imagine it too small. It is this duty that allows the beauty to unfold.
This day… the balloon flight on July 2… was symbolic of the beauty that was already around me and within me, steadfast, no matter where I have stood or how I have been tossed about. There is nowhere I would rather be than in this moment, in this relationship, with this family, doing this work, for this life, as this “me”.
Progress can be ugly sometimes but a wide angle view of the whole of it helps. Set against the seasonal geometry of a farmer’s field, the view of a balloon as we passed over was a reminder that my life has become a beautiful balance of this duty and beauty. I will use the fire of my passion and the mechanisms of wisdom to simply enhance where I find myself going. I will embrace the work that it takes to rise, knowing that the landing is simply preparation for the next trip. In between I will drift along on the glorious, uncharted, full-of-hot-air, road that is not even there. Because … for at least another 10,000 days, or so, I have nowhere to go but up…
I can pretty much deal with anything I know about. So, I don't want to be surprised to see one of my photos, stories, or children pop up where they aren't supposed to be. If you want to use or share these original works, simply share the credit along with it.
Just keep me posted.