It’s one of my favorite lines in a movie, maybe ever. It’s a statement made by a donkey, voiced by Eddie Murphy, in the animated 2001 fairy tale, Shrek. For those of you who may have been living under a rock for the last 17 years, it’s about an ogre, with a Mike Myers brogue, who is contented, it seems, to be an outcast. He is isolated. irritating and scary to those he comes in contact with in order to protect his solitude. Alone, and blissfully so, until he is forced into community with other outcast fairy tale characters and a relationship with Donkey, who out of fear for his life seeks shelter with the fear-inducing ogre.. Whether out of benign ignorance or blind optimism, Donkey makes himself comfortable for the night in a place where he should be scared, announcing, “And in the morning, I’m makin waffles…”.
I am thinking of this, because at the moment, I’m making a waffle. I thought of it yesterday morning… and the morning before that… because, yes, I was making waffles, then, too. You see, I am traveling with my daughter and our hotel has two of those waffle irons that are now requisite in chain hotels to serve the masses a messy, syrupy sweet breakfast before they get on with their day. Automatic pilot kicks in as I walk straight to the stand, fill the little cup with batter to the “fill line” and pour it over the hot surface, close the lid and give it a flip. I then step away to gather a plate and utensils and the butter, syrup, napkins, some juice, a yogurt and a banana — and I arrive back in front of “my” waffle iron just in time to grab the tongs and give it a spin as it beeps.
These steps, synchronized to smooth the service of breakfast on the road, have been practiced, summer after summer, in hotels, such as this, in so many different cities I have lost count. With a benign ignorance as to its impact on my family, I was a pack mule for my children’s activities, icing the cooler from the hotel machine, loading the car and carrying the toys and sunscreen and snacks, all with a blind optimism that in following the schedule I was doing right by them. But I wasn’t. Because the only thing more consistent than the do-it-yourself waffles made in a hotel lobby was the sense of defeat and disconnect from the fairy tale we were chasing. The one that says that if we show up and play on the right team and keep doing all of these things that we did the summer before that it will end up, somehow, different. That we will be able to change the trajectory of our lives, even thought we haven’t changed anything else and eventually be “seen” as the right player or person and thus, our purpose for being “here” will be set.
As a mother of young athletes, I spent the better part of those years “since Shrek” shoveling food into my children as we went out the door to practices and camps and meets and games and while there were good memories made during that time, the beep of this timer incites a pavlovian response that turns my stomach in turn with the waffle iron. I adore and identify with Shrek in his need for solitude and as the miles on my SUV took me further from home I kept wondering why I did it and that discomfort drove me to a new decision. I was so uncomfortable that I have refused to do it for, or to, my youngest child until now. Because in all of those trips driving to all of those places I didn’t actually SEE anything that looked different than the city or summer before and so I had to wait until I could see the reason.
This morning, it hit me. What I could not honor in those travels and with these waffles was that I had become a slave to the fairy tale. Being a mother is not being a servant to your children (sorry, son) — it is being in service to the love and responsibility you have to help them be who they will be. In following a prescribed path based solely on expectation and athletic potential, I was actually stunting the potential for EVERYTHING else not just for them, but for myself. In all of those stops in all of those different time zones for travel team baseball there is nothing that really stands out as a “travel” experience — one that expanded horizons and hope. Signing up year after year, hoping for a new version of an old experience simply expanded the discomfort. What I yearned for was expanding my vision of myself and my comfort zone and since my children didn’t see me honor it in myself they could not imagine tapping into that in themselves and that was a disservice to their childhoods.
But this morning, it’s different. I am taking the wealth of waffles and breakfast items back up to the room to treat my 11-year old daughter to breakfast in bed. She’s been a busy girl this week, trying something new. She is attending her first camp, ever, and it is geared toward leadership development in STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Yes, she’s athletic. She’s also artistic. And prone to spending too much time on her iPad. And yes, she was nervous trying something new in a large city 4 hours from our small college town home. She was extra tired, this morning, because last night we attended the broadway show “Hamilton” and it was as expansive as I had hoped it would be. I am willing to serve her this moment because she, unknowingly, is in service to her purpose as a child which is simply learning and growing, even if it’s painful and awkward. Today, she is going to “get” to dissect a cows heart (her words). I know there is potential she will get grossed out but that is what has to happen in order for her to learn that discomfort over something new and potentially life expanding is exactly the zone we need to be comfortable traveling in.
As I am making the waffle this morning, another mother steps toward the waffle irons, unsure as to how to proceed. I explain the process and realize that my waffle-iron-wisdom is a gift that was hard to appreciate in the midst of it. A privilege that was born from the ability to travel and do the things I did “get” to do for my older children, even if it wasn’t always right. Over the last several years, the process of deconstructing a life that didn’t serve me, or my family’s, best interests has strengthened me and allowed me to choose the paths that now feel right, even if they feel uncomfortable.
Here’s the ironic part… In those moments of discomfort I should have waffled. I should have pulled back and become indecisive about the circumstances of my discomfort because that would have led to a re-evaluation that could have led to a better choice. Fear of the unknown causes a resistance to change that creates a comfort zone out of a familiar discomfort and history shows us that resistance isn’t revolutionary until there is action that is equal and opposite to the status quo.
Last week, I went with one of my older daughters and my youngest to see Incredibles 2. A sequel 14 years in the making — so we would’ve seen the first one while still on the Shrek path described above. I loved Incredibles because the mother was not only “not dead” she, as Elastigirl, was powerful because she was resilient — a popular topic, still, in parenting circles. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from adversity or crisis and is a focus, these days, because of the expansion of the ways, it seems, our children can be hurt. I agree that it is vital that we teach our children to overcome. But, and I know I am waffling here, I don’t believe it is the “bounce back” that is the thing we need to expound upon. What is equally important, in my opinion, is the ability to stretch, to reach, to be not be blinded by ignorance but pulled by a contagious optimism toward something new.
Cultivating the concepts of what it will take for my daughter to lead in her life and career has to start with a willingness to waffle, for both of us. An ability to expand our list of choices. The curiosity to question why we are doing THIS and couldn’t we try THAT? As a participant in Envision’s National Youth Leadership Forum: Pathways to STEM she may, or may not, meet others who will become friends and she may, or may not, have an experience that expands into a career. What she will have is a familiarity with the unfamiliar. The feeling that in overcoming her own resistance to change she can, potentially, change the world. This mindset is appropriately hashtagged as #CarpeFuturum. Seize the Future. With both hands and her whole heart I want her to want to reach for anything and everything for herself and she will not be able to do that if she sees me fear doing that, too.
Potential expands exponentially when the willingness to experience something new is the thing we serve up to our children every morning along with their breakfast. This willingness to step out of the line that we have been placed in is revolutionary and it is what our country was founded on. It lives on in the exciting rap version of a boring history lesson in the show I took her to last night and it lives on in her.
Who’s to say the turn of a waffle iron can’t be the beginning of a revolution? It has been, for me. Choosing not to bounce back but leap forward has been personally revolutionary — being willing to crawl out from under my rock to see even one new place or one new face means that I am still willing to learn and live looking forward to something sweet, even if it’s just a waffle.
At the end of the day… or week… or decade… the reality of a rich, full life results, sometimes, in feeling a little poorer. Grief over losing someone dear calls into question everything we allow into our lives — like a balance sheet of pros and cons or a record of wins and losses. Sadness, as I explain away my tears to my young daughter, is simply the price of loving. What is harder to explain is how unless we merge the love we have for someone else with our own self worth, we cannot begin to justify this expense.
Just like a bank account, there is a limit to how much you can draw down before you are overdrawn, overwrought and and simply over it all. But sometimes, it is the emptiness, itself, that we must listen to in order for our own hearts to be heard. For me, happiness is not a well, that if I drill deep enough it will be a self-sourcing spring that I can simply dip into when necessary. It is also not, what I have been led to believe, something that if I simply breathe, meditate, center myself or focus outside myself I can magically tap into. If it is for you, then go for it. Because for me, happiness has always been a choice. Sometimes it’s a planned choice, like designing my own home or a career that I love. And then sometimes it’s a spontaneous one like simply deciding to treat myself to a donut after an early morning CASA hearing.
Yes, a donut. Donuts have a legendary status in our family after I realized the effect they had on my son’s demeanor as a young teenager. He could be down or disgusted or filthy dirty after a day of crouching behind home plate and if you pulled out a donut or pulled up to a Krispy Kreme, he would instantly transform. And so for the last 10 years, or so, those oh-so-bad-for-your-health circles of dough coated in a sugary glaze have been placed above the all-encompassing category of comfort food with the singular distinction of the “good-mood-donut”.
I know, I know. Every parent out there is cringing at my labeling a donut as a source of happiness but every person out there also knows that sometimes a small bite of a simple confection can lift our chin enough to lift our eyes and heart. It doesn’t have to be a donut — choose what you like… because that is the point… making a choice for what you like is the first step in choosing to be happy. And yesterday, in choosing to give myself even a temporary sugar-hit lift, I was choosing me. Because when I bought the donut, I also bought the hole… and in doing so, I chose to honor my whole self. I accepted the part of me that sometimes makes bad food choices within an overall good attempt at a healthy life. I embraced the empty space as a purposeful and profound place to simply remain open to what comes.
At that moment yesterday morning, I was an empty bucket. I had spent the day, prior, supporting people I love through a time that is, undoubtedly, the hardest thing we go through as loving, connected humans. I do this willingly and openly, by choice, as that is the only way I know how to love. What flows in, flows back out in a rhythm that I choose not to control. This shared grief, as an extension of shared love, is one of the most starkly beautiful experiences I have ever witnessed. It’s like an ocean that responds to its own changing tides while reacting to a storm rolling across it with rain and thunder and clouds breaking for a moment to let in the sun. It never stops churning — the day to day rhythm still continues as trash day and school days are still happening underneath the heaviest of hearts. I am not a member of this family that is navigating this death — I am connected by circumstance and choice, both mine and theirs. So, on this sea and in this case, I am a bucket. There to help carry something forward, help build someone up, help, somehow, be a container for something that may help shore up the ever shifting waves of grief. And just like a bucket caught on a wave, I ride the grief only because I am empty.
I have felt this before. Feeling that the cloud of daytime darkness can be broken up with moments of brilliance that feel divine and divinely sourced and I know that when I choose to capture it, somehow, I can remember it. It’s why I write. It’s why I take pleasure in taking pictures. It’s why I tell stories. I document it in a way that these moments become a day in which the good seems to, finally, outweigh the bad. I do this not only because of what I have been through, but because of who I am. I am a storyteller, at heart, that needs to wrap experiences with words and pictures in order to learn from them. I have learned that if I don’t momentarily pause and define the elements of my personal history they will be the very definition of my future. There is no pause more defining than the redesign process that comes from divorce.
Besides the donut picture, the photos accompanying this post were taken at a time when I was evaluating what it takes to be happy. I was at the beginning of the divorce decision process which centers around unhappiness… why we are divorcing, how we are divorcing and the only thing that was certain, I thought, was who I was divorcing. I had been married for 26 years and what I came to realize was that I had already divorced my own true nature in order to stay married. I didn’t relish her or cherish her as I hoped choosing my marriage was also a choice to be happy. I sat on the beach on that day and focused my camera lens on my young daughter playing with an empty bucket that was a joy because it is designed with a hole in the center of it. It’s purpose is to show up empty and open to possibility. It will contain what you place in it without constraining its potential. It’s function is to allow for flow and it’s form never changes whether it is full or not. It is waiting to be filled. It is willing to be empty. And if left to it’s own devices it will ride the waves and follow the current until it rests upon the shore.
Whether it’s a bucket or a dozen donuts, the hole is an element that is integral to the whole of it.
Exactly a year ago I sat near this very same spot with my oldest daughter. It was probably midnight and she was leaving the next day to go back to “real life” after our Memorial Day vacation that had brought all of my children back to this beach for the first time in many years. I wrote, at the time, about how it had not been a holiday as much as a memorial to all of her childhood memories of having grown up regularly visiting that island. We were there to push a reset button, of sorts, on those moments as we were sorting out the good ones from the hard ones because we were choosing to categorize this as a happy place. I told her that the only part of being married that I still grieved was that I no longer had a witness to a life well lived, as a human well loved. She looked at me like “Hello? What about us? Your children” … well, I imagined this look because it was dark… but I responded from an empty place that I didn’t know existed until that moment. I told her that what was documented and witnessed by children was different — because it was from the narrower lens of their experience that was focused out of them being my choice, not me being theirs. A life long relationship — a partner or a friend or a spouse — is one where we are chosen. I showed up, every moment of every day by choice. The balance of good and bad was weighed and measured and whether or not I was found wanting or wanting more, I stayed. I mourned not having someone to reflect those years, willingly weathered the storms with me and choosing to stay, choosing me.
So, I chose me. I relish no longer feeling captive and capsized by a nature vastly different from my own. Over the course of this last year I have drawn upon the magnetic pull of this empty space within to redefine myself and my life. In designing and building my own house, I reconnected with my well of creativity within that does spring, continually, from a deep, unknown source. I have found joy in reestablishing relationships that are a pool of resource and reflection for who I have always been and choose to be. And I have redefined the whole of me to include the hole within me as simply waiting for me to choose how to fill it.
Yesterday morning at the donut shop, I found myself waiting in a line that seemed long for 9 am-ish on a random Tuesday morning. The woman working behind the counter was caught off guard by the line of people to the door but she was not shaken by it. She calmly handled each request by each customer, one after another, sprinkling the interactions with just the right amount of sweetness and substance. When it was my turn, I asked for “Jack’s Dozen” as I was taking them home to my children, who would just be getting up as it was their first day out of school. Jack’s Dozen was a dozen donuts and a dozen donut holes — in effect, a dozen whole donuts. “We are out of holes”, she replied. So, instead, I chose a dozen of everyone’s favorites and as I was paying, she looked at me and said “I know this sounds strange, but you are really beautiful”. I was taken aback. It was a small comment — and any other day it would have felt petty or prideful and I would’ve waved it off as someone simply being kind to an obviously frazzled 56 year old who, at the very least, had made an effort to pull it together for her court appearance. But, instead, I looked at her and sincerely thanked her, tears coming too quickly to my eyes. I told her she had no idea how much I needed to hear it, today. Because today I had chosen to wear my glasses as my still-swollen cried-out eyes couldn’t handle contacts. I had not been able to sleep and so chose to get up really early and do my hair and makeup and put on a new sweater — even though the amount of time in court was shorter than the amount of time it was taking to get ready. It wasn’t about my outward appearance as much as I wanted my appearance in court to reflect the respect and beauty of choosing to do this for these children who are not mine because the ugliness of their lives is, most definitely, not their choice.
These simple morning routine choices, and the kind words of this donut-dispensing sweet woman dispensed with my emptiness with a wave of compassion. That small gesture on her part was a drop in my bucket — a drop that dropped straight to the bottom where it resounded like a thunder clap as it galvanized my strength. It resonated because while my passion is loving people in a way that walks them through the stories of their lives, I had just chosen to not demand that, anymore, from those around me. My happiness is my responsibility, not a request for a friend or partner or child. Evaluating and justifying choices is what I do for my clients, so if someone or something is not meeting my needs, then I need to make different choice. Whether that involves professional design selections for my home or business or defining the personal choices and relationships upon which I will build my life, I can not choose to walk with others without first choosing me.
Remembering my morning, I had chosen to walk into a courtroom as a witness for a child who cannot yet tell his story for himself. And as the courtroom proceedings were directed by the judge and documented by a court reporter I realized that I already had all that I had longed for. I had become my own witness. There would be, after all, a collection of connections that would become my story of strung together moments of brilliance… not because I had been chosen to be loved by one person, but because I was one person choosing to love. This child may never really know me as I am a temporary lift, for him, but I am choosing to galvanize him so that he can one day make these choices for himself.
I am my own witness… in this blog, in the photos that I take great pleasure in taking of my children, our surroundings, my projects and my people, I am documenting the deliberate designing and redefining of the patterns, textures and context of my everyday life. Since the camera is always in my hand, I have begun adding my face with my children’s or my projects in fun selfies and that, like the random “beautiful” comment feels a little selfish but asking that of someone else feels worse. In the moment when I took responsibility for picturing myself in my own life came another moment of sweetness that filled the whole of me… as I was helping this beloved family by taking pictures to support the life story of the man they had lost, his daughter asked if she could take my photo, with my camera in hand, next to mementos of his life, so she… could remember… me.
In seeking to fulfill the whole of me, I have become evidence that if we remain open to the emptiness that is possibility, we are freed to ride the waves, committed to the experience, expecting to be tossed about. Like the yellow bucket, I will focus on remaining upright, just enough, because the moment that the sun breaks through the clouds, it will brilliantly dance across the surface of the water while filling the emptiness, within, with light. Soundless and boundless, it will resonate.
That good-mood donut became a good-life moment of brilliance as this morning I am dunking one of the leftover donuts it in my coffee… relishing every single bite, cherishing the thought that as soon as I take a bite, the hole is gone as it simply becomes part of the space around it. All that is left is the sweetness to fill up on. Grief can consume you unless you choose to open up to the sweetness that surrounds it, consuming it as just a part in the balance act of love and happiness. I cannot control whether the storms will break or not, but they won’t break me. Because I will make my choices like I eat my donuts, one at a time, and maybe, sometimes because I can so choose, one after another, after another.
For some reason, I always excelled at parallel parking. Why, I am not sure. I grew up on a farm where we pulled our cars across the barnyard to get in or out of the driveway. I lived in a small town where the number of spots around the town square probably equaled the number of cars needing to be there. But when I got to college I had no problem finagling my car into the tightest spaces. Once, in the mid-eighties, I maneuvered my car into the smallest of spots in front of an “establishment” I was headed into for the evening. As I was walking away, a patron of that establishment, who had already enjoyed several hours there, apparently, bet me that I couldn’t get my car out of that spot and back into it. No problem — within a few minutes I was out of the parking space, back into it and headed inside with his 20 dollar bill parked in my back pocket.
The mid-eighties was a long time and a lot of bad hair-do’s ago. But I am still living in this college town where this story took place. I have parallel parked around here many, many times everything from a new, real-life-first-job Nissan, a young-mother-of-3 mini-van, the proverbial-pack-mule-sports-mom Yukon XL and the “freedom-feels-so-good” Mustang convertible but there is not one vehicle that has brought me as much joy as this red truck… a 1996 Chevy Silverado that I bought on a whim last August.
I wrote about it at that time. About how I had to break the news to my mother. I told her that I had fallen in love with a 22 year old (I am 56) but that the age difference wasn’t what was shocking — it was because it was a Chevy and I was raised in a Ford family. I wrote about the joy of being able to haul stuff in the midst of a life overhaul but it was not as much ground-breaking for me as it was grounding. Yes, for those around me it was a little odd, but I am used to that because I have always felt at odds — like I was perpendicular in a parallel world. Yet, for me to suddenly be driving this big red truck felt right, like it was a turn signal toward an unpaved path that just keeps unfolding in the headlights.
I also wrote about how we all need a “vehicle of transformation” to get us through to the next stage of our lives… something to lift us up, just enough and carry us forward, just a little, to make it another day. I wrote about how this vehicle had done just that for its previous owner, as he had purchased it, brand new, just before being let go from his career as a college football coach. The job he was taking on about the same time I was taking bets on my parallel parking. At that time there was no way to know how our lives would intersect and what he would come to mean to me. At this time, though, that’s what I have to write about. Because I have to lift up those closest to him, if I can, so that they can carry forward, for one day, all too soon, they will have to make through a day without him.
Bill Mallory, and his wife Ellie, hired me in the fall of 2011 to redecorate their house. No… let me rephrase that… Ellie asked me to help her pick out some paint colors and before long, we were painting everything, including the closets. Ellie’s ability to turn a small task into a project is just an outward manifestation of how her small gestures of kindness kindle lifelong connection and and as I pulled things out of their closets, I felt pulled into their lives. As I hung family mementos and sports memorabilia on the walls, I felt the energy and integrity that had flowed from each generation and followed them from town to town as Bill followed his ambition. Each picture or award or trophy I touched carried pride and achievement and accolades. But, at that time they carried more than that for me, they carried faith.
Faith, because I had to earn Bill’s trust before he let me in his office. He watched as I worked around his house on the family pictures and furniture arrangements and when his office was the only room left untouched, he let me in after sharing his game plan with me. I could rearrange the memorabilia but it all had to stay. The chair had to stay. The exercise bike had to stay. He would like a small table to put the video player where he could watched game tape. And, most importantly, he would like to hang more of what was most important to him… his growing collection of photos and art work and notes from his grandchildren. OK, coach. Nothing can leave and I need to make room for more. Got it. I looked around his office and there were hundreds of photos and plaques and awards from every school but then it was my turn… he had to hand it off to me. By that time I had been working in his midst for several months and he was the only thing standing between me and the goal line, which was simply finishing the job. So he was going to have to trust Ellie’s recruiting skills.
I set to work removing all of the items and organizing them so that when I put them back up they told his story. As you moved around the room you could mark the milestones of his career with the largest wall dedicated to his years at IU. I didn’t bother measuring as I went… I lay up a collage like this like a stone mason lays a stone wall and it comes together intuitively — having faith in my skills and eye. I can’t tell you the details from those photos… there were bowl wins and championships and conference honors that have been well documented in newspapers and ESPN reports and school trophy cases. What I saw, in those photographs, were the faces of sons that had been entrusted to this coach. I felt the hope of the mothers and fathers and communities that had trusted their young men to this man. And when I hung the family photos that I had made room for on the most visible wall in his office, I knew that the placement of them behind his back was more than symbolic, it was what made him, him. And when I glanced back around the room at the drawings from his grandchildren among the hundreds and hundreds of players in those photos, I understood that the thing that united all of them, and me, was faith… both in him and from him.
In 2017, he and Ellie decided that it was time to downsize and this time, apparently, this time it was him doing the recruiting, because he told her she had to call me. But in the interim, I had stopped decorating. My life had taken some twists and turns but as luck would have it, I had a pocket of time that I could help them move in. I was only doing it because I had come to care for them so much… and because Ellie has that way of asking me to come hang pictures that turned into several months of helping them fit their big lives into this smaller space. Even though I had been out of the business for awhile I had faith I could do for them — but, even then, I had no idea what Bill’s faith in me would do for me.
Because in the years between my first job with them and this last, I had taken myself out of the game. Not just professionally, but the forces of what had been relentlessly coming at me had knocked me down so many times that I didn’t want to get back up. Except for my children, I had closed myself off from relationships and connections and numbed myself to joy because it was always beaten by the pain. I was playing small, just hoping to not lose anything more.
This feeling began to subside as I connected their VCR and TV and reconnected with them. I reworked the custom drapes that I had hung in their old house and remembered what it was like to work. I was hooked, again, by the stories of their family and friends and then hooked up Ellie’s computer so that she could listen to music while we worked. Side by side, almost daily, I helped them empty the boxes that contained their old lives and made it new for them as they renewed my sense of myself. I felt seen and appreciated and loved. And as I was fitting most of what had been in Bill’s old office into his new office, I overheard him say that what didn’t fit was his old truck into his new garage. Before I knew it, I had bought it. And as he handed me the keys, I had Ellie snap a picture. It’s the only picture I have of Bill and me and it was taken after a long day of working there… I am without makeup and my hair is pulled back but I love this picture — one, because it has Ellie’s finger in it at the top as a wonderful reminder of her as the witness of this event — but mostly because of the joy I was feeling because of that moment.
You see, I lost my dad nearly 30 years ago and we had never shared a moment like this. I had wonderful men like my grandfather and step-father to fill that role but there was this void left in me that had really only carried pain. And after these years of Bill’s influence, I realized that in the moment that I was most at odds with faith and love and hope, he had pulled up parallel to me to guide me through. He wasn’t my coach but he had coaxed me back into gear. In showing me the quirks of the tailgate and how to use the key fob and then reaching in to make sure I was buckled in he had quietly pulled up next to me and aligned this huge loving force with my huge fear of loving. Like an offense and defense within the game of life I realized that the give and take of both had to be out there to make it work.
Joy and pain are not replacements for each other, they perform at their best because of each other, like the opponents in a championship football game. This hit home to me yesterday as, because Bill and Ellie pulled me back into my career and working and relationships and life, I am so happy. Because they loved me, I am willing to love again, work again, feel everything again. Even the deepest pain, because today we are losing Bill due to a tragic fall that he will not recover from. But this pain feels right and good because it is simply the price for loving someone. I had walled myself off from ups and downs and as I filled their walls of their home, I found mine again.
Several months ago I parallel parked Bill, the truck and I was so pleased with the accomplishment that I took a picture of it, posting it on Instagram. “He” is my constant companion as I trek to salvage yards and pick up furniture and deliver artwork and haul construction debris for disposal. More importantly, he, Bill Mallory, will forever be parked in my heart — a reminder that for every win there is a loss and for every joy there will be pain. He helped me move and he helped me move forward. Because the truck was only the vehicle… what was transformative was his love. He will be sorely missed. Nothing has to leave as we make room for this grief because love doesn’t take room, it makes room for more.
I like to talk, Have you noticed? Out loud. On paper. In person. Online. If you ask me what time it is I will tell you where I got my watch. And to be honest, I’m tired of it. Because that watch is now telling me it is time to just start doing all the things I’ve been talking about. So, I am going to be taking a break from writing for awhile. To reframe the structure of how I go forward.
This structure for my life has been a long time in the making, just like the current interior design project that I am working on. It is the culmination of years of effort to renovate an old limestone mill into an event venue. The site is ancient and weathered and while it is structurally sound it’s beauty has been reserved for those with big imaginations and a willingness to look past its decay. But for some of us, that rugged, stubborn, steadfast structure is the very thing that gives its future so much hope. Because it’s been reimagined and reframed, just like in this photo.
I had been on the job site several times in the morning and the sunlight streaming through even the dirtiest of windows was stunning. And then one Sunday evening I wanted to see what it looked like at sunset. Because for those hosting an event there, that would be the setting. It was breathtaking watching the play of light across the structure. The harsh geometry was softened by the color and light. And then I saw that the windows of the now enclosed and shiny new part of the structure reflected a crossroads, of sorts, between the old and the new. It reframed the bulk of the iron and steel that had carried the massive tons of boulders for the construction industry into a projection that only existed on glass. It was ethereal and not real. An illusion. A projection. A hope. A glimmer of the present cast into a future.
This interplay of reflection is something I am always drawn to capturing. One of my favorite reflection photos was taken several years ago in a pool near Newport Beach, California. We had walked up at sunset and before my kids could dive in I noticed that the hand rail by the stairs reflected a nearly perfect heart shape. I snapped a few pictures and then my kids dove in and churned the water making the heart shape disappear. I was thankful for the moment — albeit fleeting — as I got to see a whole heart. But I knew the love that it represented was better reflected in the deep dive and the joy of being in the water with those I loved.
In both instances, I was standing at a decision point in my life that allowed me to learn from what was real and documented and factual and project it forward as a basis for choice. The depth of the first reflection has led to the strength of the current one and so I am choosing to move forward having learned from the boulders and burdens of my past without carrying them forward. These structures — the skeletons of my past have been fleshed out with words that have healed my wounds but it has become so time consuming that I cannot put into action what I am compelled to do because of them. When I started this blog I was willing to cast my words out into the world hoping they were heard and now all I can hear is the ticking of that clock telling me my time is better spent elsewhere.
Like I said. I love words. And so this decision to quiet my voice is a choice that I don’t take lightly but its because I am now choosing to express myself differently. I have spent my life trying to talk people into doing the right thing, buying the right products, caring about causes or commitments and in some cases, me. And so its time for me to simply act. I have some things to learn in this capacity but given what I have been able to learn in the past, I believe I am able.
These posts have contained the stones and the bones of my stories. They are both the burden and the framework of the strength that will carry me forward into that still fragile future that looks beautiful from where I stand.
Don’t worry. I’ll be back. To report,periodically and, hopefully, succinctly, on what I am doing and how you will be able to join in my efforts with action of your own. Until then I will be visible in what I build and I will be heard in the stories of those I impact. Everything I have learned that I have written about has laid the groundwork for an amazing increase in my work and relationships and all the good things that I get now that I know what I want to give. So, it’s all good because I have been able to reflect on my past in a way that allows me to carry that strength forward without the weight and for that, I can wait no longer.
Until then, carry on… and keep me posted:)
“Cleaning your house while your kids are still growing is like shoveling the walk before it stops snowing.” Phyllis Diller
The truth is, being a mother is a lot of work. At the height of my mothering of 4 children at home I cleaned. Every day. I did 4 loads of laundry. Every day. I cooked the meals and loaded the dishwasher and and found missing shoes while not missing school or practice schedules and unloaded the dishwasher in order to do it all again. Every day. Those who wondered what I did with my time only had to look at a day I didn’t do it to understand how the work piled up. Because blips in the routine and vacations out of town didn’t provide a break in the work — it just shoved it to another day. Kind of like the snow I am battling today. The snow that I am about to put a shovel to for the 3rd time in 24 hours.
This particular snowstorm is not epic for one who was a midwestern teenager during the blizzard of ’78 and it is even somewhat welcome given the relatively mild winters of late. But, just like the laundry and cleaning of raising my children, every time I think it’s done I look around and it’s been undone. As a single mother with one school-age child still at home and household and work commitments to take care of, I have no choice but to tackle it, as it comes, in order to stay on top of it, whether I want to or not.
As I was working on my driveway this morning, the above quote came to mind from comedienne Phyllis Diller, whose self-deprecating stand up routines of the 60’s and 70’s are woven into my same-era childhood memories. Recalling her eccentric persona and raucous laugh I couldn’t help but link her observations about culture and current events to the The Post movie that I saw over the weekend. Like Diller, Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Katherine Graham, the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, The Washington Post, seemed awkward at first, and almost bumbling, but as the story unfolded, it became obvious to me that that was part of the point. Because the truth, itself, is very often awkward and even if told with humor and grace, is as welcome a female in the misogynistic Washington Post board room.
Directed by Steven Spielberg and headlined by Streep and Tom Hanks, The Post is a story that is as much about women’s struggles in the workplace as it is about the Pentagon Papers. Its relevance to these times is obvious and is worth the retelling because if we don’t keep up with the process of sorting the information, it will overtake us. We will be covered by piles upon piles of the dirty laundry and polluted slush that those who wish to bury the truth continue to churn out. It is not news that those in power wish to cover up the truth. This is especially true when the truth teller is a woman who gets talked over and looked past and put down.
But here’s the thing — no matter who is saying it or how it is told, time is the one thing that always tells the truth. This movie is historical. And fact based. The facts are the facts and they now speak for themselves and they will continue to do so if we let them. If we continue bring them to light. Just like the facts underlying the struggles that both women and media still face. We work every day cleaning things up and clearing the path only to wake up and do it all again. But we are undaunted. And just like Streep’s characterization of Graham, as she steps into the power of the truth she becomes steadier, straighter, taller and firmer.
Telling the truth, like being a mother and being a feminist, is hard work but it gets easier with practice. As Streep-as-Graham states to Hanks-as-editor Ben Bradlee near the end of the movie, “We don’t always get it right. We’re not always perfect, but I think if we can just keep on it, you know? That’s the job, isn’t it?” That is the job. Keeping on it. Because if you let the snow sit, it gets heavier. If you let the laundry pile up, it gets stinkier. Just like the lies. So we must continue to be willing to dig to find the path even when it is awkward and bumbling and hard to hear amidst the other voices.
There are days when I want to just stay inside and let it all pile up — this every day work — knowing that come springtime, the snow will melt and the kids will move on to another part of their closet where the clothes are clean and neatly put away, already. But the truth, like a good snow-shoveling — gets my heart pumping. It has become a blunt-force objective for me to stand in my truth and receive it from others, even when it hurts. Especially if the lies hurt others. Because even when the half-truths that people believed I wanted to hear were as beautiful as a new blanket of snow, they left me just as cold.
There is a path under there — cleared by women like Phyllis Diller, who understood the power of being a court jester, of sorts, to challenge audiences with truths on gender and sexuality and Katherine Graham, a town crier who held court in a public forum. Truth — our right to know it and her right to tell it was upheld by the 1971 Supreme Court ruling that “the press was to serve the governed, not the governors”. Supremely relevant, still today, as the governed have become part and parcel to the media with devices for our truth telling in our hands. It should be our aim, as parents, to make sure that our children’s growth includes an accurate portrayal of larger societal truths more than our personal social media-based fictions.
Just as the snow and the laundry and the penchant for power mongers to manipulate the truth are relentless, so are those of us who are governed and galvanized and willing to pick up a shovel and dig. And its a good thing I am willing because it is snowing again, much to the delight of my dogs and my 10-year old daughter, who just learned of another day off of school. So they will play and undo all I have just done… but the truth is, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Not today, anyway. For she will see me working every day to dig us out and hold us up. Her history will include my relentless quest to live and love the truth of who I am — with a little grace, some humor, and a whole lot of awkward. Because if, as Diller once said, “comedy is tragedy revisited”, the more we can tell our truths and retell our tragedies, maybe, just maybe, we will be able to undo some of what has been done.
I can’t even…. I hear these words often from fellow mothers when looking at pictures of their children that pop up on Facebook’s time hop. Like, “I can’t even deal with how cute she was” or “I can’t even believe how much he has grown”. So when unpacking a box of Christmas things from years ago I came across my Christmas card from 2010 and it is, undoubtedly my favorite. And, rightly so, I can’t even describe the beauty and joy captured by my children in this card.
On the front was the above photo of my then 3-year-old daughter. It was taken in our home and she had grabbed my vintage copy of “Roberts Rules of Order” that I kept on a nearby table and the image is priceless. The unruly hair and vibrant eyes and tiny painted fingernails epitomized the glorious chaos she had added in our lives. The caption on the card read “Put Joy on your Agenda” because that made so much sense at the time.
The inside of the card carried that joy further with this photo of her being swung through the air by her brother and sisters with the accompanying holiday charge “to make every day a celebration”.
Indeed, I look at these cards and I just can’t even…. believe how adorable, yes, but its more like I can’t even bring myself to send Christmas cards anymore.
It’s not that I don’t wish the best for all of my friends during this festive time of year. I do, I really do. And its not that I don’t love receiving cards from them. I love it so much that I still have a box among those saved Christmas items of the cards they sent to me containing their photos of their cherished children. It’s just that I look at things differently now that our lives got turned upside down. In large part because of that unruly, chaotic, swing-from-her-brother’s-branches beauty. Because from very early on she would hang upside down from every structure and tell us in complete sentences “that makes no sense” and “let’s look at it this way”.
So, let’s look at it this way. Since I can’t even, I am going to cant. Because as a verb, cant – the one without an apostrophe, means cause (something) to be in a slanting or oblique position, tilt and as a noun it is a slope or a tilt. Apparently, within photography, it simply means to get a different angle on the subject. Taking photos from a variety angles was a necessity at Christmas with my kids because I could never get them to sit still. To just smile. To PLEASE let me get that one perfect shot so that I could get on with getting these cards printed and in the mail because there was still so much of Christmas yet to do. And so I had to tilt and slant and position and bribe and plead and threaten. And then I would just sigh take what I had and make it work with the right words. That’s what that most perfect Christmas card came from — the imperfect chaotic joy that got captured on camera. Yes, I had perfect shots from that professional photo session but I chose these. Because, even then, I recognized that this is what was real and true in my life.
At the time we had these photos taken in 2013 to recreate a version of the 2010 card I knew my world was going to be turned upside down. I felt the universe had me by the ankles and was shaking me down but… it never let me fall. And what fell out of those dark pockets of my heart was change. The ground around me was littered with change that had been accumulating like a lifetime of coins collected in a jar on my dresser. Now when I see a penny from heaven on the ground I know that life can turn on a dime. When I look at it that way, I can’t view it any other way as positive, even if it was dizzying and disorienting. I, like my youngest daughter, actually like turning things upside down — whether its a cartwheel (yes, I still can) or an impulse buy of a new set of wheels (yes, I can’t miss an opportunity to work in a reference to my truck) or getting the wheels turning in my mind to figure it out.
Three days ago my oldest called — she had just broken her finger thanks to a gust of wind and car door. I immediately thought “Oh no, here we go again” and called her sister and brother, warning them to be careful. Because in early 2014 as I was holding together the pieces of our broken lives I was walking around thinking “can’t I ever get a break?” Within a few weeks, my oldest broke her wrist at work. The next day, as I am at the hospital with her, my second oldest tripped and fractured her foot. The next day I take the oldest for outpatient surgery, bring her home, take the other one to the SAME ORTHOPEDIST to be fitted with a boot. Later in the week, my son broke his finger playing baseball. Not wanting to add to my burden, he had the trainer tape it so that he could play on and did not tell me until later.
I went from wanting a break to heal my broken heart to caring for my college age and capable children again. Cutting their meat into bites and helping them wash their hair and carrying their stuff and driving them to class. They, literally, couldn’t and so all of my “can’ts” no longer mattered because it was very clear that even though they were adult-sized they were still children affected by the divorce and were still breakable. I can’t even imagine how today would be if I hadn’t gotten out of my own head to heal them first.
Nearly 4 years later, I know the only thing I can’t do is live in that mindset — because even then, our hearts that felt so broken had held together enough to hold on to each other. The daughter with the currently-broken finger lives 4 hours away and when she called I told her that I can’t get there in time to help her and she would need to get herself to a hospital. She did. And while she was waiting all of her can’ts became cants. She was texting and sending her brother, sister and me photos of the finger, while focusing on the humor of it. We are all proud of how she “handled” herself, pun intended. But, we always had that gift of humor, even if others didn’t get it. This photo of my girls was taken within days of those breaks and I included it in my Christmas “card” that year that was really just for them because it showed that humor and resilience in the midst of our breaking-apart lives.
That year was my first year without a Christmas card. My bank account and holiday spirit were both depleted due to the divorce process and so it forced a focus on what I truly wanted to give my children as it could no longer be the pile of presents they were used to. So, I gave them each a pair of hiking boots with a promise of adventures to come… and I made them a video slideshow of the photos taken during that last year. The hardest year of our lives. I wanted to give them evidence of our perseverance and our love and our unbroken faith in each other. I give it to you now, at the end of this post, as a rerun, of sorts, to demonstrate the biggest cant of all — the angle that is only given to us by time. With a nod of thanks to One Republics song “I Lived”, I did it all. And while can’t imagine doing it all again, I would if I had to. Because I can. And because I cant. Because we lived, we can now live. The desperate grasp on what we had that was depicted in this slide show has become an embrace of what we can now picture for ourselves.
“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right” is wrong. The emotional fallout for those navigating divorce, abuse, learning disabilities, suicide attempts, sexual harassment, bullying and addiction is not a mindset that we can think our way out of. Especially at Christmas. There are very real consequences to life events that leave us broken in unfathomable ways and we must live through them to work through them. My ability to look at things from other angles has taught me that even when we can’t heal all the broken parts of us we can cant, without apology or apostrophe, and choose to live broken open to possibility. I look back at my picture perfect Christmas cards and can no longer feel that I was perpetuating an illusion. I cant and look at the surrounding photos, instead, that I left on my computer as they captured what was real in that moment. The annoyingly stubborn, perpetually-in-motion joys of my life.
There are so many moments ahead of me that I can’t waste a minute addressing Christmas cards. Instead of holiday greeting cards, I will greet you when I see you with warmth and joy, no matter what time of year it is. I will keep up with you on Facebook, and know that distance doesn’t mean disconnected. Because within the unruly chaos of our lives there is an order that cannot be lost when it is founded in love and presence.
Yes, people, put joy on your agenda this holiday season. But, whether you think you can or think you can’t even, you have the right to cant — and that will help you find something to celebrate every day.
***This blog post pertains to a Christmas “reality”… if you are old enough to be reading this online, well, you’re old enough to read this — unsupervised — by your children***
The day after Thanksgiving starts it. The relentless questioning and badgering and bartering of chores done and childish good behavior all gearing toward the day that she will arrive. She? Who is she? Santa arrives on the indisputable 25th along with the reason for the season, the baby Jesus — both of which are, historically, “he’s”. So who is this SHE?
She is Daisy. Our Elf on the Shelf. Whose miraculous appearance is timed perfectly every year with the arrival of our Christmas Tree. We spend a day putting up a tree and voila — the next morning, there she is, perkily perched on the perfectly lit branches. A grand entrance only if you enjoy an explosion of expectation and expletives-yet-to-be. Yes, expletives. Because I have cursed the invention of this daily task amidst the month long endless list of tasks. Because I had regretted allowing one of my older daughters to introduce this new “tradition” into our already jam packed routine of holiday ritual. Because I didn’t need one more way to fail in the midst of my faltering life. At least I didn’t at the time.
At the time, our household was falling apart and it seemed like introducing something new and trendy was just the thing to carry us through a difficult time. What started out as a delightful distraction for a 6 year-old became an annually recurring nightmare. Because that first year, there were no expectations that Daisy had to live up to. Every day in a brand new pose in a brand new spot meant a joyful morning scavenger hunt that was easy because the older kids picked up the slack when I couldn’t come up with the ideas or simply forgot in the rush of everything else. Unfazed by unmoving eyes, legs that wouldn’t bend and hands, eternally bound together with a tiny stitch of thread, the “olders” quickly learned how to use this as a device to bend the youngest to their will. “Daisy is watching” as a behavior barometer for her quickly became “Daisy is waiting for you to mess up, too”, to me, in my mind.
Every year, Daisy arrived at the beginning of December and departed on Christmas Eve. Approximately 24 days. As our memories of Daisy’s antics grew, so did the capacity for my daughter’s memory of each and every pose. The level of expectation grew, as well, because my daughter’s awareness was also growing. Access to Pinterest and excited conversations among her friends revealed a pressure to outperform the standards that I had to admit we had set for ourselves. By the end 2016, the Elf on the Shelf routine meant nearly 100 poses and positions were already in the books and could not be repeated. As with many of my projects, desperation and deadlines boost creativity, but at what cost to my sanity in 2017?
Daisy’s first Christmas with us was our family’s last as a “unit”. By the next Christmas, entrenched in the divorce process, I had little money and zero joy to invest in the holiday. There were many mornings that my eyes would fly open in the pre-dawn dark
remembering that I hadn’t moved Daisy and I would quietly slip out the bed that the youngest shared with me to quickly find a new, albeit sometimes lame, spot. There was one morning that we awoke together and I launched myself out of the room in time to slip the elf in the back of my pajama pants. She walked in and while she was looking high I went low and let it fall, and it landed, face down on the floor, losing a boot in the process. I blamed the pose on the dog. My daughter thought it was just another yoga pose and thoughtfully recreated it for a picture and “posterity’s” sake.
This overall pattern for me was a common one — exhausting myself due to expectation — and it was always magnified during the holidays. Creating holiday magic while creating the illusion that all was merry and bright. Melting chocolate for treats to sweeten the now annual family meltdown. My worry that I was not enough became too much. Even before the divorce I had lost my enjoyment of decorating the house and baking and shopping and wrapping but that was simply a seasonal extension of my loss of joy about nearly everything. I was hurting in places I had never before experienced pain. I was failing in ways I had always expected to succeed. I was hanging on by the thread that had bound both Daisy’s and my hands. I was hanging on only because of my own expectation that I had to.
That first year, I, like Daisy, was wide-eyed-deer-in-the-headlights frightened and frozen, looking at what was happening to my family. I moved stiffly and awkwardly, bound by how I had failed every expectation I had had of how my life would go. I had fallen, face down, and I could not allow my children to follow suit, even if it did look funny. Ironically, those mornings that I bolted out of bed to salvage my little one’s belief meant that was a day I would’t stay in bed. Enforced creativity began forcing out fear. Daisy began to reflect healing and humor and hope and I began, day by day, to change my pose to meet other’s expectations into a stance of strength from my own experience.
These changes are purposeful and pointed and while a long time coming, may be a surprise to people who have known me, some my entire life. In a recent conversation with a friend, I expressed my concern about no longer fitting other’s expectations of me, knowing that some I cared about would be disappointed. He said that it was less about their expectations of me than about their past experiences with me. It was simply a matter of taking the time, going forward, to allow them to accumulate the experiences that would form new expectations. In other words, I, in my hard fought independence was coming in like a well intentioned elf on an ornamental wrecking ball.
Experience and expectation are as entwined as the elf and the shelf. Experience pre-seeds expectations because it precedes them. New experiences are surprises and learning opportunities and whether they are good or bad will determine our mindset for any circumstance that is similar in any way. It’s why a child bitten by a dog will grow into an adult who steers clear of them. It’s why a teenager trying out for a high school baseball team will feel more confident having played Little League. It’s why veterans deployed oversees will hear gunfire during 4th of July celebrations. And it’s why anyone who has grown through a traumatic experience will feel apprehensive about returning to the environment that created those expectations. Being new in a new place is easy. Holding on to new in an old place takes courage and stamina and strength.
This strength has grown not from seasonal magic but from a constant and transformative inner truth — one that has grown and evolved with my daughter, as well as within me. No more poses. No more playing along. Now 10 years old, her oldest sister informed me that she was aware that I was the elf behind holiday happenings because she had recognized that Daisy’s handwriting looked an awful lot like mine. This past Sunday, as we discussed our plans for getting a Christmas tree and how we might decorate this new space, I told her that I knew she knew. And that I hoped she had seen how I had tried hard to make her happy, not that I had tried to fool her. We laughed remembering some of “Daisy’s” antics and she felt bad that she had made me continue with the game on the days she was staying at her dad’s — requiring me to send her pictures of where the elf had turned up every day. And then she did the most miraculous, unexpected thing… she asked if, instead of relegating Daisy to a shelf as christmas decor, she took over and did it for me. She wanted to give back the joy of waking every morning to a new experience. A new joy. A new play on an old ploy for goodness as a guide for behavior.
I did not know how to behave in that moment. I have been told that not all expectations end in disappointment but that has been hard to believe. Until now. This youngest child of mine was, herself, a surprise. She arrived just shy of my 45th birthday, 11 years after I thought I was “done” and in defiance of every expectation of how I thought this part of my life would go. Because of her, every day was brand new and the mornings were a joyful discovery of how she was changing and the older kids picked up the slack when I didn’t have enough energy or enough hands to meet the expectations of this now bigger family. Just like Daisy, we had no expectations of her — so we just loved her, as she was.
And as she is, now, not only does she not carry my unrealistic fear of expectation, she has brought forth an unreasonable joy from within these experiences. Through the chaos and changes and chances that we have had to take she found consistency in that unchanging expression on that elfish face. A consistency that showed up like clockwork grounded her in a truth that gives flight not to fantasy, but to a fantastic transformative comprehension of not only what to expect from love, but how to experience it. To just let it show up. Let it be a little messy. Let it show off, a little. Let it fall and let it be found where it lands. Be thrilled when you find it and continue to seek it every day, without fail. And then just be it. When we expect love to show up for us in a certain way or a certain place, we fail it, not the other way around. I can’t say whether I will ever stop expecting the other shoe to drop. But maybe, just maybe, it will be Daisy’s missing boot.
A couple of months ago, I was headed to Denver to participate in my third women’s empowerment conference, called Emerging Women Live, and this year I needed a photo of myself. While I had flexed my event management muscles as a part of the volunteer staff the prior two years, this year was going to be different. I was going to be offering myself in a new way, in a new role, with a new mission. I did not hesitate to turn in my application to be a coach and then I felt affirmed to be accepted and then I realized I needed a head shot to accompany my bio.
I had begun transitioning from coordinating patterns in interior design work into the inner workings of behavior patterns and this event gave me a deadline, around which to organize my new to do lists. They had also asked that I help manage this area of the event, the Coaches Corner and so those organizational, event-related tasks took priority over the personal participation requirements until the irony of my being among the last of the coaches to turn in their bio and pics, to me, hit home. I am a “word” person and so the write up was easy to pull together from existing sources, but the picture… that was the true irony. In no longer being willing to accept the world around me at face value, I had discovered my worth… and there was not a picture in my phone, on my computer, in an album or in my head that I thought captured that. Because at 55 years old, my life shines with a reflected richness because of how I look at it, not because of how I look. I mean, isn’t that the very basis of the women’s empowerment I was promoting through this event?
Based in Boulder, Colorado, Emerging Women exists to support the integration of business and feminine power to make a positive impact on the world. Recently praised by Forbes Magazine as a forum for the creation of a new, collaborative business paradigm, it reveals itself in its framework that is not just about supporting women, it IS a woman, of sorts. In attempting to create a platform for women’s voices and experiences, the founder, Chantal Pierrat, created a living, growing, nurturing embodiment of a woman. A woman that is a collaborative feminine effort and a deliberate ensemble of the the innate skills and intuition women need to navigate the business world while not negotiating her spirit in the world, at large. While a corporate entity is symbolic and, technically, faceless, this Emerging Women “woman” is the incorporation of a value and belief system that is an amalgam of women’s faces across the globe. These women show up at this conference — as participants and speakers, authors and teachers, mothers and leaders and sisters and seekers, all facing a stage and facing their fears. It is a place where even the oldest women are willing to try something new and so an old picture wasn’t going to do.
But to do’s mean to do lists. I have heard that it’s an organizing principle for some but as an adult-diagnosed, life-long dancer in an ADD tap number, I pretty successfully manage my life like a giant connect-the-dots puzzle. Some of those “dots” are actually sprays of post-it notes and stacks of journals and calendars and, yes, written lists and so the best way to get something done, for me, is simply to do it. And so I messaged an old friend who is an accomplished photographer and simply asked if he did head shots and if he did, would he be willing to do mine. He listened to what I was looking for and he bravely agreed and we set a time. While my procrastination meant I wouldn’t have it in time for this event, it allowed me to think through what I wanted and how I wanted to portray my “self” in this portrait.
I thought it over and I overthought it. Portraying my self in photos is a topic I have already covered and not something I had been doing in the recent past until I realized, as a single woman and the mamarazzi on my children’s lives, I had no witness on my own life other than my words. That is why I must journal for myself and write this blog to help you — because I am more at ease capturing my perspective in words than seeing someone else’s perspective of me. The pictures of my past are overlaid with a narrative that was not mine and since that story of me was given to me by people I trusted and loved, I believed them. So when I was told I was pretty, I believed them. And
then when the messages were about what I had to do or be or say or play along with, I believed those, too. Until I didn’t anymore. A life spent writing became a collection of facts that became a connection of dots for an undeniable picture of truth. It reframed everything I knew about everyone else but, most especially, what I knew of myself. And now that I was so thoroughly clear on who I was on the inside how could I NOT look different on the outside?
Once I dropped the illusion of how I should look, I began to believe in how I see, even if I don’t want to see it. Aging, like learning, is an ongoing process in which there will be joy of experimentation and because its about learning, there will be no failure. So, there was no way the photographer could fail at this task. Even if I cried at the result it would not have been because of a lack of his expertise . I had asked him to not airbrush or touch up or remove one line or wrinkle because I needed to see what everyone else sees when they look at me because no longer carrying false narratives within means doing away with illusion from without. And in doing me no favors, he gave me a great gift. He allowed me to see my truth.The truth is, I was nervous about what I was going to see and whether I would still be willing to show up for people looking like “that”. I am happy to say that there was nothing that surprised me about what was there except… it was not a “new” me, at all. All that internal work and there was nothing tangible to show for it. It was the me whose eyes I have looked through my whole life and when I looked back, I found photos that had the exact same small smile and head tilt. Whether sitting on my grandfather’s knee at 5 or holding up the cliche’ senior-picture-tree at 17, hanging on by an air-brushed thread at 48 or holding down the fort as a mother at 50, she was always me.
And then I understood. I had been consistent, even when my life was not. The old me knew me — She just didn’t know it yet. The lines on this face are deep enough to hold love for children that are not even mine. They are angled, just so, to carry the tears and fears away instead of further into my heart. There is a paradoxical beauty in a truth that unfolds — richer and clearer as it settles into the nooks and crannies of our lives.
What is new , and noticeable to me, is the sparkle caught in my eyes. I hadn’t expected that what I feel these days could be captured in a way that not only met my standards for reality but raised my hopes. It’s a realistic picture of a face that has chosen to face the world with an unrealistic joy from within. The lines on my face will continue to appear — just like the lines I write on a page. But it’s in between all of those lines that you’ll find the story. An epic, ongoing journey without, yet, an end, because, today, I am happy even after.
I was sitting at my coffee table working on a kitchen design for a client because, well, my new home office is not yet organized enough to actually work in after my move a month ago. The TV was on to provide a little background noise and my dog was languishing in the chair adjacent to me. I had my pencils and my scale ruler and several hours before I had to pick up my daughter from school so the runway was clear to cross this off of my to-do list. And then there they were… little spits of blue flashing in my periphery. A dying slice of tree at the back of my yard was a playground for bluebirds.
I grabbed my camera and hoped that my movement at the window had not distracted them from their “work” and started clicking away. What a moment. A moment that I would have missed if I had been in my office focusing on the task at hand. A memory that I would have missed capturing if I had dismissed it as ordinary. A mistake, only, if I had failed to take the minute of distraction to follow my delight so that I was recharged and ready when I returned to the details of my design. A design that I am able to do, well, for the very same reason that I am distractible. Because I am considered “Attention Deficit”.
Attention Deficit Disorder and its Tasmanian Devil cousin, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a genetic, brain-based syndrome that has to do with the regulation of brain function and behavior. There are various contributing factors that include chemical and structural differences within the brain that are impacted by environmental and cultural influences. To net it out… my brain works differently and I respond uniquely to everyday challenges that require attention, concentration, motivation, learning, organization and social skills. And all I can say is “isn’t that amazing?”
Isn’t it amazing that while I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my 40’s that I was able to navigate school systems and job interviews and career paths and children? Isn’t it amazing that while I tried to squeeze my thought processes into the socially acceptable boxes that they were so stubborn that they developed into a strength? And isn’t it amazing that after feeling like I didn’t fit and didn’t matter I learned to channel that “alien-ness” into individuality and a unique expression of ability. Because the problem is not the capacities or capabilities of a person with ADD — it is the attention that is given to the word deficit.
My brain is not deficient. In fact, it is jam packed with so much stuff that it must crank 24/7 to process it all. Those momentary distractions are vital to my well-being as they are like a branch on tree where a bird can light, momentarily to catch it’s breath and find some sustenance before taking flight again. And I have found that if I follow those distractions like bread crumbs on a path, I am led to discoveries that fill my life with joy. Because as I look back over my life, those distractions were compass points leading me to my passions, people and purpose.
It wasn’t always easy or clear. I was a daydreamer who preferred to spend time in her room rearranging the furniture or reading and writing. As a 5th grader, the teacher checked the box on my report card that indicated a “lack of self control” and I remember quite specifically why. You see, I had been given a pass out of class to use the restroom. As I rounded the corner in the wide terrazzo-floored corridor in my old-school elementary school the hall echoed with quiet as the recently waxed floor winked with promise. I looked left and right and then focused intently on tap dancing all the way down the hall. The 8 foot solid wood doors that flanked the passage muffled the sounds of the class inside but it apparently did not stifle my joy of the dance as the noise from my leather-soled school shoes sounded like applause as it bounced back to me. Not so much to the teachers and students inside the rooms. As I reached the restroom doors that were at least 40′ from where I started I turned and saw my teacher standing, arms crossed, impatiently tapping her foot. Busted. I did my business and returned to class and waited for my fate.
But my fate wasn’t fatal. My mother questioned the assessment saying that I had been potty trained since I was 2. She kind of just laughed in an “Oh, that’s just Diana”, way. It didn’t release me from feeling different but it did help me reframe it as something that was uniquely mine which eventually evolved into the knowledge that since I wasn’t doing it ON purpose, I could use it FOR purpose. And most importantly, while I felt different from everyone else, I felt normal for me.
It was normal that I didn’t learn the same way as everyone else. I was encouraged to figure things out that allowed me to adapt, compensate and sometimes cover for what were considered deficiencies. It didn’t feel abnormal until 2 of my children were also diagnosed and in that therapists office in 2002, when I joked, “I think they get it from me” and the doctor looked me in the eye, shrugged and said, “Yes, I think you are right”. Psshhh. Like someone stuck a pin in my balloon. Deflated. Diagnosed. It wasn’t just “Diana”, it was ADD.
That meant the cacophony in my head that juggled my to do list and children’s activities and the stack of books on my table and pile of laundry on the floor wasn’t a product of my busy schedule, but of my brain? I multi-tasked like a circus plate spinner, successfully keeping track of everything with a color-coded calendar and a cabinet door of post-it notes and while it wasn’t fool proof, it wasn’t failure, either. And it was failure that had us in the therapists office because my children were struggling in school. School was making them feel like failures and now this therapist was telling me that I and my overthinking, underutilized brain had led them to this.
But, it was my normal. I had found a therapist that was willing to work with me as well as them because I didn’t see them as students that needed to be fixed to fit the system. They weren’t broken. I came to her because I needed to learn how to parent them through this time when the system would remind them, every day, that they were not right. The attention they got for this disorder was what felt deficient, not my children. because they were normalizing away the very systemic benefits that my out of the box thinking had added to my life. Without a diagnosis of my own, I had somehow navigated the world and survived so, surely, I could figure this out with them.
It was hard. Because every IEP and teacher conference was laced with words like lazy and lacking that I knew not only was being applied to my children but implied of me. I began to tell my children that even superman was considered deficient while he was hiding his differences until they could be revealed as special powers. That path nearly killed us as we were reminded constantly that we were not normal and outside of the box was not celebrated inside school buildings.
School has changed since I was a child. Back then, even in a small town, they taught to the student instead of the test. My diet consisted of real, farm grown foods that didn’t have the toxic-to-the-brain chemicals that todays standard diets do. And there wasn’t a standardized, social-media streamed message of normal and acceptable that was more relentless than my brain that I could not turn off. If you ask me, it’s that message that is the real distraction as the belief that we are broken is for the birds.
I often think about that moment as a fifth grader when the joy of dance overcame my fear of punishment. I can see Mrs. Hooven standing there, head tilted just a little, lit from behind by the sun streaming in from the front doors of the school. Her face was in shadow but in my imagination, there is a small smile because in her head she hears my music and her tapping foot was simply keeping time with mine. There is not a box to check on a report card for thinking outside the box.
I am attention different, not deficient and I wish I had followed those moments of delightful distraction as dots to connect instead of ways to disconnect. And so in the coming weeks I will write more on the methods and the madness that were a part of this journey in the hopes of helping someone else who may be struggling. I am not an expert… I am simply experienced as both a parent and a patient. I hope that in passing along any knowledge and understanding I have gained will help you grow and gain ground on your own path. A path where our distractions, perhaps, should become the focus. Thanks for your attention… now back to work:)