Friday, December 30, 2011

And How do You Feel About That?

The thing about traveling is that it gives one a lot of time to think. Sure, there’s scenery to look at and new foods to try and experiences to experience. Mostly, though, there are these huge chunks of time when no one needs a single thing from me, when my days are just my own, when I don’t have to answer the doorbell or feed the dogs or prep for class or sign a permission slip or pick up dinner or do the laundry or clear snow from the drive or take out the trash or help with homework or all the other million things that I might need to do in a typical twenty-four hour period. For two entire weeks, I have no real responsibilities and plenty of time to send my brain on a little cognitive romp. I like getting into my head like this. I like throwing around ideas and dreams and possibilities and questions of one sort or another. I go everywhere with these thoughts. At times, I stay light and fun and absolute fluff. I’m all boas and pearls and glittery heels. I’m pretty pink lipstick and a sparkly tiara, figuratively speaking, but who knows. I do enjoy the occasional getting into character. When I tire of the shallow end, I totally shift gears and head for the deep. I ponder death and birth and the living that happens somewhere in between. I mull over passion and purpose and ponder how to find both. I think on my thinking, on how I think so much that sometimes I don’t even really know what it is that I feel.

Imagine the stereotypical musty smelling therapist in the cardigan sweater with the black-framed glasses, sitting at his desk and tapping his fingers together in thoughtful reflection. I am lying on the nearby sofa fretting over my childhood, or at least pretending to fret because that is what I think I am supposed to do. Dr. Musty-Smelling Therapist asks, “And how do you feel about that?” Oh! This is fun!! Just like the movies! I have LOTS of ideas on how I feel about that. I feel that some of my personal history was unfair, unjust, unfortunate. Some of it was just grand, just fun, just plain darned interesting. I think that no child should ever be that sick and not able to go to the doctor until it is almost too late, not able to go because there is no insurance and no money. I think that no child should ever be hungry, should ever be hungry when there is no food. I think that no child should know cold like that, cold like that because there is no heat because there is no money, no money to pay the bills that are needed for the heat. I think those things, but I also think good things, too. I think that every child should know stomping around deep in the woods barefoot on a steamy Southern afternoon, stumbling on an abandoned old moonshine still deep in cotton country. I think that every child should know the adventure and the challenge of making something out of nothing, making food or fun or future plans when it looks as if there is absolutely zero there. I think every child should know the freedom of having no expectations placed on them as far as what they should become, what they should make of their lives. I think all these things. Then I realize that these are things I think and that thinking is loaded with ideas and that ideas aren’t really feelings. Ideas are ideas. Ideas are thoughts. And thoughts aren’t feelings, aren't feelings at all.

I suck at this. What DO I feel?

Apparently I am really great at thinking, but not so great at feeling. Feeling is hard. Feeling hurts. Sure, sometimes when I think on my childhood I feel sunshine and smiles and warm giant hugs. I feel bare feet in wild strawberries and the taste of honeysuckle straight from the bush. I feel the dizzy that comes from rolling over and over down green grassy hills, heading in late with scrawny legs red with mosquito bites. I feel all bright and glittery and sparkly, a jar full of lightning bugs caught with sisters and cousins while parents swat flies, smoke Winstons, and shoot the breeze. I feel free and fun and full of heart.

Other times, though, I feel darkness and despair and a fear like no other. I feel birth into a world of drinking and joblessness and hustling pool. I feel a statistic, a child born of a pregnant teen. I feel the race begin, but my gate stays closed. I bust through, behind, but determined to finish. I feel pain, humiliation, the looks of the normal kids. I feel wanting to be the same, but always being different. I feel that pit in the stomach that makes it hard to sleep, that pit that comes when one is hungry and there is no food. I feel a come to Jesus moment involving red marks left on the backs of legs, red marks that sting and bite and make me cry in my sleep, red marks that make me understand that being good and quiet and obedient, is, for now, better than being me. I feel alone in my world, alone with no one to tell and no one who knows.

Feeling makes me cry and hurts my heart. I don’t like it. But I’ve come to this, that what happened in my life was a gift, that what happened was an opportunity, a window of possibility. I know. I know you will disagree, but it was MY life, and it WAS a gift, and you have no right to tell me otherwise. It is like this. I believe that what happened was a gift. I believe that it was a gift because I truly do not think that I would have the depth of compassion, the understanding of life circumstance, the love for my fellow beings that I do now had I not early on experienced hardship, adversity, disdain. Maybe I would KNOW of hunger, would KNOW of poverty, would KNOW of lives filled with unfortunate circumstance, maybe I would KNOW of these things, but had I not experienced them, I doubt that I could truly FEEL hunger, FEEL poverty, FEEL a life of wanting so very much to fit in and be like others and yet never even once being given that opportunity, never once having the choice or having the chance.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Rich With Words

Why do people measure blessings by how many boxes are under the Christmas tree, by how many cars are in the driveway, by the square footage of the house? I know what you’re thinking. “Why, no. I don’t do that. I am blessed because of my children, my marriage, my parents and siblings. I have friends.” Well, sure. And maybe you even add your church family and neighbors onto that, but what else? Seriously. If you lost everything you own physically tonight, what would you have left in the morning? “Oh, but that would never happen!” Well. Let’s pretend it would. Answer the question. If you lost everything you own tonight, what would you have left in the morning?

It is easy for me to wax philosophical here, to speak of kindness and compassion and respect for all humanity. I could easily spout off on love and peace and goodwill toward all. I could suggest a sunny spirit lightens our journey like nothing else possibly can, and lightens, more importantly, the journey of those around us. I could shine a light on the importance of growing the mind and growing the heart and then using all that growth to, in turn, grow the minds and hearts of those around us. I could argue that true blessings are felt, not seen, are for others, not for us, are earned, not purchased. But what would any of this mean in the concrete? How would I, personally, answer the question? If I lost everything I own tonight, what would I have left in the morning?

Yes, I would have my family. I would have my neighbors and my friends and my students and my readers, but what else?

I would have my mind. I would have the ability to think for myself, to formulate opinions and ideas and dreams of all sort. I would have all the knowledge I have gained to this point in my life, knowledge I have gained through formal means such as school and college and church, but also knowledge gained on my own, through reading and talking and experiencing and observing. I have kept my eyes open and my ears alert. I have been present in my life. I have actively participated, choosing to jump in and create, to roll up my sleeves and get messy. I would have that if I lost everything. I would have all of that.

I read as much as I breathe. If I lost everything I own tonight, I would still have left in the morning every story I have ever read, every how-to, every self help, every quote or poem or essay or passage. I would have the arduous journey of the families in The Grapes of Wrath. I would have the colorful characters in Tortilla Flats. I would have the romantic tales of Wuthering Heights and Little Women and Jane Eyre. I would have Lennie and Oliver and Scout and Gene. I would have Poe and Dickenson and Rumi and Frost. I would have Alice Walker and Anne Lamott. But I would never have Anna Karenina, as much as I would like. Tolstoy bores me, as does the Bible. I would never have either in their entirety, but I would have the first good chunk of each really, really well. I would also have a number of authors of no particular fame. Authors who have penned some of the best trashy romance you will ever read, who can spin a hot and steamy scene that leaves one blushing to no end, but desiring very, very much to be IN that hot and steamy scene. I would have authors who delve into the metaphysical, who speak of past lives and manifesting and regression therapy and twin souls. I would have still others who have created insanely clever haiku on breastfeeding, spit up, car seats, and baby poo. I would have all of these. And I would have more.

I would have every essay I have ever written, every thought ever put to page. I would have Mother’s Day letters, anniversary notes, and snippets from baby books and diaries and journals and cards. I would have grocery lists pages long, reminders of days when sleep was rare, smiles were plentiful and love was deep. I would have calendars black with ink, calendars filled with baseball and track and cross-country and lacrosse, piano and orchestra and class parties and band. I would have secret thoughts not put to page, but told instead to a friend who pinky swore to never tell. I would have words I spoke and am glad I did and others I would like so very much to take back. I would have all of these, and I would have more.

I would have every word ever uttered to me. I would have love notes scrawled with tiny hands, notes loaded with rainbows and flowers and smiles and such, packed with backward e’s and s’s and b’s and folded until such a note could not possibly be folded any further. I would have words of encouragement and promise and hope. I would have vows, vows of commitment and love and faith and respect, vows made in front of God, in front of God and Father John. I would have the student standing in front of me in tears, thanking me profusely for making a difference in her life, for showing her who she is and what she can be, for showing her that she is not a loser as her family has said, that she is beautiful and kind and capable and brave, that she has much to give and the opportunity to share. And I would have the tears I cried as she left me that day, tears of sadness and joy and of love for one who has been hurt in a way that no one ever should. I would have all of this, every word that ever came my way.

In the morning, should I lose all that I own tonight, I would be rich, rich with hugs and smiles and expressions of warmth. I would be rich, rich from a life lived hard and a life lived well, a life filled with family and friends and fabulous times. Yes, I would be rich with all of this, but mostly I would be rich with words, rich with words and the woman those words have built.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

End of Term

A former student has a year to live. He knows this. His doctor, in no uncertain terms, laid out the facts for him. This student has one year, one year to complete his bucket list, to say goodbye to the wife and kids, to shop for those last minute gifts. He’s a young guy, younger than I am, maybe a good ten years younger. He’s going back to school because it’s something he’s always wanted to do. He’s going back, at least, for one year.

I share this not to be crass or flippant, but to make real a very uncomfortable topic. Dare I use the word? Yes. We all die. And, unless we’re talking suicide here (which, let’s not) not one of us has much of a choice in when that death happens. Sure, we can eat our sprouts and take spinning classes like they’re candy, but we don’t get to choose the day we die. And normally, this is where I hit home with my lectures. I teach development, human growth and decline from conception to death. Death is not a difficult topic for me to approach. It’s part of the class. I am very comfortable discussing it, very comfortable, that is, from an analytical point of view. I like to impress upon my students that development happens. Development happens, whether we do anything about it or not, from the moment we’re conceived until the day that we die. The goal is positive development. It’s not just how LONG we live, but how WELL we live. I could go on, but when this student shared his news with me, I suddenly fell from my status as instructor and assumed that of student.

I should share that he made me aware of his news when we were going over his end of term project, an assignment which now seemed embarrassingly insignificant. I am very proud of this project and have had great feedback from students. I have them take a few psychological assessments, which will reveal to them their strengths, what they are great at, what they do best. I have guest lecturers come in and discuss the history and purpose of the assessments and give a good explanation of what specifically all of it means to the students themselves. We have great fun with this. It is always an eye opener to see that Hey, I actually don’t totally suck as much as I thought I did. As it turns out, I am pretty good at more than a few things. And, if I choose, I can do something with that to benefit both myself and others. I have them focus on how they might fit these strengths into their future career, family, volunteer experience and life in general. I have them discuss with me how these findings might help them fine-tune their efforts. THEN, and this is where the embarrassingly insignificant part comes in, THEN I have them discuss what impact focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses has on health and well-being. I want to hear from them that focusing on strengths increases our levels of happiness, that happiness has been shown to reduce the risk of stress and depression. I want to hear that people who are happier are healthier, get sick less often, are more creative and productive at work and, well, they live longer. Except now this student is standing before me with cancer in his body, and no matter what grade he receives or how well he knows the material, none of it really applies.

I want a do-over.

I have a different project for this young man. Forget the assessments. Forget the guest lecturers. Forget the career plans or the focus on health and well-being. Forget all of that. What I want to know is this. What does it feel like to know that you’re dying? We all know, of course, that we will die. But while we know it, we never really believe it. What does it feel like to have a deadline for that? What lessons do you have for me on living my life? Am I doing it right? Should I be more serious? Have more fun? Am I nice enough? What about the whole family versus work thing? How do I know if I have that down as I should? Would you have done anything differently? Is there anything you wouldn’t have done? How does it feel to know that your children will grow up without you? That they, depending on their ages, may not remember you at all? No. Wait. Don’t answer that one. What life lessons would you most want to impress upon them and how would you make sure they got those lessons? If you could do it all again, it being life as you lived it, would you do it the same?

Most importantly, as this student of mine stands before me, what I most want to ask is this. Grade me. How am I doing as a person? I am trying really hard to make a difference in the lives of others. I am trying really hard to give and love and encourage. Am I doing that? Have I impacted your world at all? Do you see that I am impacting others? Where am I great? Where do I need more work? If you could change me, what would you change? What do you like about who I am? What do you not like? Be honest with me. Be honest because I trust that you know, that you are suddenly wise like that and that you are not afraid to say because you have nothing to risk. Be honest because I am watching and learning. I am learning about this business of dying, and I am thinking that I was wrong, that it starts not with a diagnosis but with the first breath of life itself. I want to tell this student of mine that he is my model, my example, and that his word matters to me. I want to tell him that he is MY teacher. HE is MINE.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Let Me Entertain You........

I have an acquaintance who dances. For money. With a pole. When I first learned of her career of choice my reaction was not what I would have expected. My response took me, actually, quite by surprise, caught me a good bit off guard. I would have expected feelings of disdain or disgust or possibly even a tiny bit of feminist rage. In a best-case scenario, I could have imagined a warm woman-to-woman acceptance, an acknowledgement that life is hard and we do that which we feel we must do. I could have pictured, even, my inner Buddha embracing this spiritual sister of mine, surrounding her with love and positive energy and wishing her well on her journey. I did and felt none of these. Instead, the visual of her exposed and performing nightly on stage for a group of expectant gawkers resonated deeply with me. I was not angry. I was understanding. I was understanding because I could relate.

And, no. I have never been a pole dancer.

But, through writing, I do understand the experience of standing before a crowd exposed and vulnerable, exposed and vulnerable and yet unable to stop the performance, drawn, in fact, to the performance. I reveal to you everything, or almost, and you sit there fully dressed and gawking with absolutely no intent of sharing. I try to be all Gypsy Rose Lee with my words and show you just enough to leave you wanting more. Sometimes that works, but mostly that is not what you are here to see. As a reader myself I know that I don’t plunk down the big bucks for something I could see on the street. I want the scoop. I want the story the author hasn’t even shared with her husband or best friend.

I would, for example, lose a good number of you should I write about my morning in a way that looks like any other. I could share with you my frozen burrito breakfast, the fact that I slept until nine. I could fill you in on my Facebook status and the funny website my daughter shared with me. I promised her guitar lessons if she does her chore this time without complaining. The dogs are in a mood, one hyper, the other skulking. I assume the second has something to hide, something of which he is in no way proud. I graded a couple of projects my students sent me. Felt I had actually accomplished something with that. Good job and a pat on the back. Finally, I followed the urge of my heart, that unspoken prodding to pack my book bag and head out to the coffee shop to pen an essay of some sort.

You don’t want to read that. You can see that with your eyes. You get that at home.

What you want of my morning looks more like this:

I am thinking that at almost fifty I am not certain I have lived my life. I have existed, sure, but have I lived? I reflect on my good girl status through high school. When others are “remembering when” I have nothing to contribute because, no, I don’t remember because, no, I never did. I never did drugs or drank or went to all the parties. I never hung out. I did homework on Friday nights. And I liked it. Sure, I sowed some oats in college. Actually, I sowed some pretty good fields of those oats in college, but that was about it. I have been serious and practical and business-like for most of my life. I have been the responsible one. I have been a rule follower. Sort of. So, yes, on the outside it looks to all around me as if I am just finishing off a plate of frozen burritos, but inside I am thinking that I need to have a little fun for once in my life, that I need to not be afraid to be a bit outrageous, to not be afraid of what others think, to not be afraid of what others say. I need to be me, ALL of me.

And if I write about my morning like this, I feel good that I have given you a glimpse inside my head. I feel good because maybe I am not the only one who questions whether she has lived her life or whether she has just existed. I feel good because maybe I am not the only one who would like to step outside her comfort zone a bit, but is uncertain how to do that and still cannot shake the idea of what others would think. I love, for example, to bare a little breast and get hot and steamy with my words, but for God’s sake, I’m a mother and an educator and I know people who wear those holiday sweaters with jingle bells and Christmas trees on them. What would THEY think? Still, I can’t resist giving a little peek just for the kick of it.

So, when this acquaintance of mine shared that she exposes herself for a crowd, and that she feels vulnerable, yes, but rather enjoys her job, I got it. I so got it.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Tables Turned

If you look back through my essays, you will find a common theme. I write a lot on love and peace and respect for others. I write a good deal on tolerance and patience, accepting people where they are, accepting others as not like you. I want you, too, to love yourself enough to love those others. I want you to open your arms and welcome them as different, but the same. I want you to acknowledge the space between you while doing your best to close the gap. I want you to smile and give and accept and embrace. What you need to know is this. While I encourage YOU to do all of this, and expect that you will, I am not so good at listening myself. I am not so good at practicing tolerance and patience and love and peace.

I am good at all of that, yes, as long as you like me, say nice things about me, talk me up to your friends, and think my ideas are just as the world should be. That unconditional love thing? Sure, I can love you unconditionally, as long as you nod your head, give me a hearty yes ma’am, and go along with whatever my idea of the moment happens to be. I am well aware of the phrase “My way or the highway.” In MY world, however, it’s “My way.” There IS no highway. You either agree with me, or you will EVENTUALLY agree with me. That is just how I am.

I recently deleted a friend because he disagreed with me, because he did not throw flowers at my feet and acknowledge me as the Buddha walking on earth. And to think it was I who thought I was practicing tolerance.

I fling my sarcastic wit on the incredibly personal habits of random strangers without remorse. I will crack jokes on clothes, crass acts, and, yes, ass cracks without so much as a look back. That hot guy flicking tooth gunk as he flosses with that giant flosser thingie in the car beside me? I’ve got a comment on that. I’ve got a REALLY good comment on that. The hunky construction worker trying to hide the fact that he just can’t get that booger? I’m penning words as he picks. The lady in the plus-size slacks putting her very personal parts in my face as she bends from the hip to pick up that pencil she dropped? There’s an essay in that. There’s one hilarious essay in that. I can only hope that none of these individuals are writers themselves as I, in turn, reveal to them a little bra strap straightening, wedgie picking, or my signature move, tripping on absolutely nothing.

This is the thing. If I surround myself with only those like me, I have no one from whom to learn, no one from whom to stretch my own views, no one to cause me to question, to look deeper, to reconsider or confirm. I have no one to convert. The best lessons in my life have come from the most unlikely places. It was, in fact, an arrogant, self-righteous narcissist who taught me the true power of kindness and wholehearted compassion. I learned the value education from a high school dropout who shared my life for thirty years. And the best exercise ever in confirming my faith came through the words of a self-proclaimed atheist wannabe. How dull I would be if these others had not crossed my path, if I had not allowed them a special place inside my soul.

At some point in the writing process, the writer takes a step back. She places pen on table and looks at her work from the perspective of reader. I am guessing now would be a good time to do this. Sometimes, I think, I am too close to the words to hear my own voice. Sometimes I am too comfortable up here on my soapbox. There is such a nice view and such a feeling of power. It is intoxicating to no end. I feel, though, I need to kick it aside, humble myself, and sit my glasses on top of my head so that I might see my own work, get my reading eyes ready. I need to hear the message, not just the words. I need to grab onto that theme of love and peace and tolerance and respect that I so often preach. I need to grab onto that, and I need to practice that which I write.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ribbons and Bows

My holiday gift to each of you……….

YOU are my present this holiday season. Sure, you don’t come with gold foil or those cute little sticky bows, but I honestly believe that you are in my life for a reason, that you are here to bring me something I would find myself lacking without. Whether you are here to help me learn to laugh, to love, to lighten up or whether you are here to help me learn, you each come to me with your own unique contribution. I am the puzzle, and you are the pieces that complete that puzzle.

Even those of you I may only meet once in passing, and who will never truly know me, contribute much that you cannot imagine. I am thinking now of that day when I was a young mother of four. It was one of THOSE days. If you’re a parent here, you know what I mean. It was one of those days where everyone was in a crabby mood at the very same time. We were in a public place and, with too little sleep, too much stress, and never the right amount of support, I had been pushed to my absolute limit. I looked at my four bawling beauties and shouted in my absolute most controlled shout, “I am just angry at everybody right now, angry at everybody!” An elderly man we were passing looked at me solemnly and said simply, “That is so unfortunate. That’s really just so sad.” My anger dissipated immediately. I have never since been able to feel such anger or frustration without thinking what a colossal waste of living, what a waste of relationship.

Some of you know me well and, still, contribute in ways you cannot imagine. I am thinking now of a brainstorming session when this at-home mom of twenty years decided to re-enter the world of work. “You like books. Maybe you will work in a bookstore.” Simple enough and well intentioned, but it brought me to this. My education was not for nothing. I went to school not because I was supposed to, but because I wanted to. I pursued my goal because I loved the material. I loved learning about people, about why we do what we do, why we are who we are, how we can be better at being a better us. I want to use that, to pass it on. I want to use, actually ALL of my education, not just the academic.

I want to use, especially, the sales training tip that one of you shared with me, the notion that we treat each person we meet as if she has an invisible sign pinned to her shirt that says, “Make me feel important.” Do you know how many of you, whether you realize it or not, treat ME as if I have that sign pinned to MY shirt? I thank you for that. I am thinking now, especially, of an off the cuff comment by one of you that made an aging mother of four feel absolutely gorgeous, both inside and out. I am thinking of one of you who shared what our friendship had meant earlier in life, shared that I made a difference, shared that you are encouraged by my words. I am thinking of a lovely lavender and paisley writing journal, an end of term gift, and the words inscribed therein. I am thinking of a time when I questioned whether and why I should even bother continuing with this writing business at all and one of you offered up a definitive yes and added, “Because you’re damn good at it!” Strong words for a weak reserve. You, indeed, made me feel important.

I may not know what your contribution is until after you leave my life, either literally or figuratively. That’s okay. I am enjoying the journey. I am enjoying the process of putting that puzzle together, even when those pieces may not seem to fit, even when they may seem to belong to a different puzzle altogether. I am wondering, for example, about one who confuses my head, who reddens my face and quickens my pulse. I am wondering about one who hurts my heart, who hurts it in ways I cannot write. I am wondering about one who is me at another point in my life. I am wondering about one, well, I am just wondering about that one.

So, while the aisles are packed with last-minute shoppers and the rest of creation eagerly awaits ribbon-tearing time, I am snuggled up in front of the fire with a glass of wine and a really good book. I thank you for allowing me to open my gift early. It’s beautiful, absolutely beautiful and so, so perfect. How did you know?

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dream THIS!

Sometimes I reach for goals not because I want the end result, but because I want others to know that I am capable of ACHIEVING the end result. I want the praise, the recognition, the admiration. I want these others in my life to look at me and say, “Wow! She is some go-getter. What a smart cookie.” I want to impress, to awe, to inspire, to leave my mark on the life of another. I have always enjoyed being the focus, being the center. When the spotlight comes on, whenever that might be, in my mind it will shine on me. I know this sounds a bit, uh, well, let’s just say self-centered and stop at that. But it’s where I am most comfortable and I feel I do my best work there. Don’t we all have that spot? For me, part of being in the limelight means reaching for certain goals simply because I want others to notice me, to know that I am CAPABLE of achieving those goals.

I have always felt, for example, that I was not finished with school, that at some point I would resume charging ahead to that much-awaited PhD. But, I have to ask, do I want that doctorate for me or do I want it for the others I may feel the need to please? After some good amount of thinking, I have come to this. I want it for me, yes, but for the attention it will draw me, not for the degree itself.

Insightful. And not nearly a good enough reason to pursue a goal.

So, now I have to ask myself what in my life do I want simply because I want it? What do I want not because I think it will impress or please another, but because it will bring me joy, bring me satisfaction? What in my life do I want because it will bring praise and recognition and admiration from ME?

I’m not exactly sure I can answer this question. How would YOU answer it? I’m having difficulty with the concept of what I believe I SHOULD want and what I actually truly want.

Little girl dreams are grand. They are fun and creative and exciting. Anything is possible. Anything is encouraged. Little girl dream-building is brainstorming at its best. When I was five I wanted to become a great toe dancer. I would perform each night for huge crowds that would nod and clap and show much appreciation for my mad toe dancing skill. When not performing fantastic leaps and twirls, I would grace the stage in my white go-go boots and shake a little booty with a bit of flippant sass and a good degree of attitude. And, of course, I would sing. Always, I would sing. I often sat my parents, and any other random family, down in an effort to prepare and practice for this future of stardust and fame.

At some point, though, these little girl dreams are put into their proper place. At some point, I understand that, of course, I will not become a great toe dancer or a booty-shaking go-go boot dancer. Of course I won’t because real people don’t do these things. At some point, I am told what I should dream, what I should want, what I should desire. At some point, I learn that I should want children and marriage, a college education, a good job with benefits and insurance. I learn that I should pursue a practical path like teaching or nursing or answering phones, not a path such as flitting about a stage in odd get-ups. At some point I forget what are my dreams and what are the dreams of those around me. At some point I forget my little girl dreams and take on these lifeless big girl dreams.

The big girl dreams are not fun and creative and exciting. They are boring, and they are not always truly mine. I have a friend who wants to be a Fancy Cat. There is a commercial where a beautiful Persian is just living the life, enjoying dinner from a glorious goblet, lounging on plush cushions and purring like no other. This friend has created a Fancy Cat life for herself, doing things that please her, things that make her happy, things that make her smile. She is treating herself when she feels like being treated. She is dining from a glorious goblet. She IS a Fancy Cat. I love this. Nowhere in the boring big girl dream list did I see the goal “become a Fancy Cat.” She totally broke the big girl dream rules and wrote it in at the end. How cool is that?!

I’ve decided to take the whole darn list of big girl rules, crumple it up, and start all over. I’ve decided to listen to that go-go boot dancing five-year-old, the one shaking her hips and belting out a little Harper Valley PTA. That girl had chutzpah. That girl knew what life was all about. She didn’t care what others thought about her. She knew what she was capable of achieving. SHE knew and that’s all that mattered.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

To Read Me is to Know Me

Looking back on my essays, I see that I have shared a good amount of incredibly personal, intimate material. I have given you my perspective on poverty through stories of my childhood, through stories of lack, of decrepit homes, of being hungry when there was no food. I have shared my take on education and my views on friendship and faith and love. You know that while I believe, I dislike much of what the current concept of religion entails. We are mean and evil and nasty to each other at the same time we are teaching tolerance and love and peace. Through my writing, I have opened myself up and exposed to you my leanings toward the mystical, not something I am sure an academic should ever do. I have written on soul mates and signs and synchronicity. You know that I believe the whole spiel about the one true soul mate is totally off, that we actually have three types of soul mates--karmic, companion, and twin. I have bared a good number of my frustrations and insecurities on the aging process and on death itself. You know that I live my life to my liking because I have come too close to death to live it to the liking of others.

I wonder why, though, I write on such topics because, honestly, it is easier as I so often like to do, to discuss the fun and fluff, to give you a peek at my frilly underthings, to expose a bit eyelet, a hint of lace. It is easier to let the pen linger on the lingerie than to show you even a glimpse of what’s inside my head and my heart. At least when I am standing there in my skivvies I am still somewhat dressed.

And, truthfully, I have found that if I reveal a bit of breast or let you in on my reactions to a scene in a steamy romance, you are more likely to read the piece than if I discuss, oh, let’s say, world hunger or environmental issues or interconnectedness. So why do I continue to put my deepest thoughts in front of your face in the hopes that you will actually see them? Why do I tell you things that normal people tell only their closest friends? Why do I let you play voyeur as I do?

I don’t see much difference, really, between writing and reality. Reality, after all, is not that which is in front of me, but that which is in my head. Two people experience the same situation. Those same two people have two very different realities. Sure, their realities aren’t exactly what happened, but rather their take on what happened. Still. I have always been one to process my world through my head. I often know what I think before I know what I feel. What I think is my reality. My reality is my writing. Sometimes I don’t really even know what I feel until I take pen to page and see those feelings in print.

I love the movie scenes where the patient is lying on the couch pouring out his troubles to the therapist while the therapist, in turn, is tapping his fingers together and asking, “And how do you feel about that?” If I were the patient, I would have to say, “Hang on just a second and let me write that down for you.”

So, sure, I write to inspire you, to entertain or educate or inform, but mostly I write for myself. I write to process my world. I write to think out loud, to reflect and consider. If I stop writing, I am afraid, I will stop feeling. Or perhaps I will just stop knowing what I’m feeling. Sometimes I think my feelings are just too big for my heart and that is why they have to spill out onto paper. Sometimes. Still, why do I let you look?

Why not? I am who I am. I am not afraid to show you who I am. I am not afraid of what you think of me. I am not afraid of your reaction to my opinion. I know that you have your own stories, but just haven’t put them to print. I know that you have your own opinions and thoughts and beliefs. More than anything I want you to know who I am, to be clear on that, to hear my opinion. More than anything I want you to know that I know who I am, and that I am clear on that, and that I know my own opinion. More than anything I want to share and to be validated and to be encouraged. More than anything I just want to be read.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Reason for the Season

I grew up a Southern Baptist girl, when I went to church. Mostly I didn’t go. My parents weren’t big church-go-ers. Sometimes I would sneak off with my Aunt Bee, sneak off and go to church. I loved that! And let me tell you there is no better speaker than a Southern Baptist preacher, hellfire and brimstone and all that. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!! Once during lecture I caught a couple of my students raising their hands in response to something I said, raising their hands toward the heavens and nodding a bit, muttering a slightly stifled Amen. It’s exciting, the power to move people like that. I imagine myself in a stiff gray suit with aging hair, standing behind the pulpit, inFLECTing and proJECTing and LIFTing the brothers and sisters in the NAME of the LORD JEEsus! I could do that. But, no.

There comes a point in every child’s life when she packs her spiritual bags and sets out to find her way. This point, for me, was during college. I knew the Southern Baptist way was not for me. While I appreciated the foundation that had been laid, I questioned the basic ideology. So, with a friend in tow for both support and encouragement, I stepped into a Methodist church to have a little look-see. It was okay. Boring, but okay. I found the Methodist faith a nice reprieve from the in-your-face approach of the Baptists. Methodists required nothing much of me, and nothing much was given. I could sit down on Sunday, soak in a little religion, get up and leave. I liked that. I didn’t much understand the point of the church, but it didn’t matter at this stage. I was looking for nothing more than some space to think and figure out who I was as a child of God. I got that.

But then came marriage and baby number one. My husband was raised in the Episcopal faith, but had not been to church in forever. I knew that I wanted church to be a family thing and an all the time thing, not just a sometimes, when we feel like it thing. I wanted our children to have the basics, the foundation from which to make their own decisions later in life. If that were ever going to happen, I knew, I would need to cross over to the Episcopal church.

And so I went, by myself in the beginning. Imagine a Southern Baptist girl entering quietly, reverently through those big oaken doors, kneeling, genuflecting, kneeling, standing, kneeling, standing. What the hell is a prayer book anyway?! And I have to do communion EVERY time? Good Gawd!! This is going to be some work. But I did it. And I grew to love it. This foreign spiritual language became my home, became OUR home.

A friend recently asked me with what church I associate myself. This was difficult because while my label is Episcopalian, I don’t feel the need to BE Episcopalian, to be anything for that matter. More than anything I strive to live a kind and gentle life. That’s it. I believe in Love. That’s my faith, Love, with or without the body of Christ, the bread of Heaven. I could easily be a Buddhist. I identify with much of Eastern philosophy. I am attracted to the underlying theme of compassion. I cannot tell you how excited I got when my son had to do a research paper on Shintoism. The ultimate goal of Shinto followers is to live a peaceful coexistence with all living things, including nature. Peace, harmony, and a sense of interconnectedness are the key tenets of the faith. There is no church, no building, no sitting down and “getting your religion” so you are good to go until the next Sunday. You ARE the religion. You LIVE the religion. How cool is THAT?!

At this time of year, when so many are celebrating the birth of Christ by purchasing electric shavers and handheld electronic devices, by stocking up on ribbons and bows and Grinch and Santa wrapping papers, and by bringing once-living trees into their family rooms, much is made of the whole keeping Christ in Christmas concept, much is made of keeping the holidays holy. This is the thing. People get irate over this. They get nasty. They’re not very nice, not very accepting of others’ beliefs or tolerant at all, even. I’m talking both sides here. How about we do this. How about we forget church and Jesus for a second. I know. It’s Christmas. Still. Let’s forget church and Jesus for just a second and pretend that our religion is love. Let’s BE the religion. Let’s LIVE the religion. Instead of focusing on keeping the Christ in Christmas or keeping the holidays holy or ridding the world of all the religious zealots, let’s just keep the LOVE in Love.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

'Fessing Up

I recently cropped myself out of a photo. On purpose. Because I was fat. I know I put unconditional love for my body on my Christmas list, but it’s not true. I don’t want it. I don’t love my body when I’m heavy, and I don’t want to, ever. My body, I’ve learned, is my life satisfaction barometer. Extra weight around the middle means there are things in my life that aren’t quite right, things I would like to change, things that are not helping me move forward in any productive way. Extra weight on the body means extra weight on the heart. I’m speaking metaphorically here.

I am not unhappy because I am fat. I am fat because I am unhappy. Logic for the soul.

I am reading a book right now. I know. Quelle surprise! The author talks a lot about how most things in life are optional. I know what you’re thinking. Blasphemy!! But it’s true. We tend to get into our comfortable routines and hang out there because, well, because it’s comfortable. We know it. It’s easy. It’s predictable. We get to the point where we believe that this is the way we HAVE to live. Or we go about our lives doing what we do because it’s what we have always done. We play out the role of daughter, of brother, of friend or parent or whatever in the way we believe we are expected to play that role. Let’s just ignore what’s really in our hearts and play the part the way we believe we are expected to play the part because we don’t want to make any waves. Well. I like waves.

There’s a lot of joy in a wave. Waves are huge and fun and exciting. They’re messy and refreshing. And just when you think your heart can’t take any more, that it has experienced all the happy it possibly can and the wave is slowly dying down, here comes the next big splash right in the face. More happy.

Not playing in the waves is boring. I eat when I’m bored. I eat when I’m stressed, when I’m unhappy, when I feel hurt or alone or generally discontent. Eating makes life look better. For a bit. Until that next wave fails to show. Then I just eat again. I create fake happy through food. It’s sick, but true. Hello, my name is Tammie, and I have a problem. My veins are great, but my ass is huge.

This is why I don’t want to love my body unconditionally, because I know that when I tip the scales something is not quite right in my life. I am not playing in the waves. I have forgotten how to jump and splash and laugh and just generally have a great time. I have forgotten that most things in life are optional. I have accepted what once made me happy as what currently makes me happy. Maybe life is good. Maybe life is ok. But I am not here to lead a good life, an ok life. I am here to lead an amazing life and to do amazing things.

When we are little, we have huge dreams. We tell everyone about them in such excitement that we feel our hearts may just burst into bits. Our entire little beings smile and are lifted to such great extent. Then we grow up and realize that no one actually gets paid to be a go-go boot-wearing toe dancer or a great Pickle Family novelist. In our hearts, though, we know that people do get paid to perform and to write, the adult version of our little girl dream. But these things seem out of reach, difficult beyond measure. It is easy to imagine living in a California beach house, strolling the sandy shore while mentally penning the next essay. It is easy to picture standing on stage making people laugh and smile and feel great about their lives. It is easy to envision a world of giving to the hearts of others on a grand scale, grander even than can be known. It is easy to draw this picture in my head. What is difficult is getting my head to follow my heart. My head is a bully like that.

My head pulls out its fine,but. It says these dreams are fine,but you are stuck in corn country and are afraid of huge stages and glittering spotlights. It says who are you to think that you may ever have a following or fans or a stroll down the red carpet? It says that no regular people become great authors with great books. Only great authors become great authors with great books. My head says that you are not a star or a performer or a personality even. It says to get real and get back to baking the muffins and letting the dogs out and getting the kids off to school. You’re pushing fifty, for Pete’s sake. My head says that you are a small town girl with small town possibilities. My head says that. My heart says that’s a load of crap.

The problem is that my head is strong. My head always has to be in charge. Unfortunately, the more I listen to my head and the less I listen to my heart, the more I eat. This is why I don’t want to love my body unconditionally. I know that in a weird, very extrapolated sort of way, the heavier my body is physically, the heavier my heart is figuratively. I’ve been inching up on the scale lately. I don’t like it. I am thinking to myself that maybe I am moving away from my little girl dreams, that I am like those t-ballers, those little guys running the bases the opposite direction from what should be, never quite making it home because the crowd keeps yelling no, turn around, go back, no, no. Well. I am ready again to play in the waves. I am ready to jump and splash and laugh and just generally have a great time. I am ready, and so I am putting my heart on a diet. I think I’ll start right now.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Excuse Me Miss, Your Breast is Showing

Let’s talk breasts. And don’t make me do this again. This is getting SO old.

A local woman was recently reprimanded for breastfeeding her baby in the courtroom. I may have expressed disgust, to a group of friends, at the idea that breastfeeding ever be considered inappropriate. Ok, so I did express disgust. That disgust, in turn, was thrown right back at me. What was I thinking? Did I not know that the courtroom is no place to feed a baby? Did I not understand that there may have been special spots for the mother to hide out while she nourished her infant? Did I not take into consideration the fact that adults in the area may have been offended at the sight of a woman nursing her baby in a public place? Would I, personally, open up my Ziploc baggies and start munching on my peanut butter sandwich right on the bench in front of the judge?

Of course I wouldn’t do that. But, then, I’m a forty-eight-year-old woman, and my hunger needs are not as immediate as those of an infant. Very possibly, and I don’t have this information, the mother tried to avoid the entire situation by doing her best to stay out of the courtroom altogether. Very possibly she nursed right before she went in and was planning to nurse as soon as she left. Breastfed babies, babies in general for that matter, do not play to grown-up schedules. Neither do courtrooms. As for the suggestion of a babysitter, very possibly the mother was choosing to nurse her baby without the use of bottles. Shocking, I know, but some people actually do this. In this case, and being uncertain of the timing as far as the court schedule, she would want the baby with her in order to avoid, uh, let’s see, baby going without food. So, I expressed my opinion on all of this and was met with many raised eyebrows and much disbelief. I may even find myself a few friends short in the morning.

Before you all get your panties in a bunch, you should know that I am sort of on the same page here. Sort of. Personally, I would be uncomfortable nursing in the courtroom and would do everything possible to avoid it. Mostly, though, I would be uncomfortable with the idea due to the negative press it would draw, as is evidenced by this discussion. I would not be uncomfortable, however, because I felt it wrong to nurse in public. I’m just saying if it has to be, it has to be, and it should be no big issue at all. At all. Sometimes a nursing mom really can’t avoid nursing in (I’m going to use this term while totally disagreeing with it, hence the quotation marks.) “inappropriate” places.

I nursed one of my babies, for example, at a funeral. Multiple times. No, a babysitter was not an option. This was my father’s funeral. I kind of wanted to be there, and it was sort of an all day thing. And, yes, I chose to feed this baby without the use of bottles, ever, at all. Sure, through the showings and the funeral and the burial and the luncheon or whatever happened after this parent of mine was dead in the ground, it was a nice reprieve to step out of the crowd for a second, find a quiet spot to nurse, and hear the little slurping, sucking sounds of this tiny life my body was nourishing, being reminded in a gentle way that breathing and dying is a cycle, one that continues whether we like it or not, that death is just a side effect of birth, and that life after loss does go on. It was a nice reprieve. It was soul feeding and comforting. Sometimes, though, oh, I don’t know, say, when the casket was being lowered into the ground or when I had lost all sense of “appropriateness” and everything else for that matter associated with right and wrong and real and not once the dirt had been thrown over and my dad was gone forever, never to come back, sometimes it just was not convenient or even desired to go off and hide in order to feed my baby. And, no, the baby had no concept of appropriate, no concept of timing, and no concept of death. He only had hunger. I chose to honor that.

This is the thing. We, as a culture, have some serious issues with women’s breasts.

Say a woman is sitting in a coffee shop working on her wannabe novel, sipping her Carmel Macchiato and displaying an ample amount of cleavage, and I do mean ample. We might real quick think in our heads, Oh, geez, that’s a bit much. She really should cover up a little more, be a tad more appropriate. We might take all of two seconds to think that. Then we’re gonna look. And we’re gonna like it. We’re gonna like it a lot. And, yes, I mean we. Women look. And women like it, gay or not.

Now, Photoshop a baby into that picture. Attach it directly to the woman’s chest. Same coffee shop. Same woman. Same ample cleavage. Nothing extra exposed. AT all. Suddenly it’s OhmyGod!! WHAT is she thinking?! Why IS this? Are we jealous? Grossed out? Have we never imagined that we may, at one point, have BEEN that baby? Babies needs are immediate. Hunger is real. And, yes, breast is best. Human babies are not like animal babies. They can’t just walk off and get their own food shortly after birth. They totally rely on the big people in their lives to be, well, to be adults and to provide for their survival. Should nursing moms just stay home until baby decides to wean? Should they forgo a social life in order to avoid disgusting the random passerby? Or should they be allowed to enjoy a latte and a laugh with a good friend, a few minutes to de-stress and unwind? Should they be treated with respect and courtesy for doing the selfless deed that they truly are doing? Women don’t generally nurse for themselves. It’s sort of a I’m-doing-this-for-the-baby-and-humanity kind of thing.

So, yes, in MY perfect world, babies breastfeed when babies are hungry, babies nurse when babies need comforted, and anybody who has a problem with that can drape a bunch of blankets over their shoulders and go take a seat in some wretched public restroom somewhere or maybe just hang out at home for a year or two because, honestly, you’re disgusting me a smidge, and I think you could be a tad more appropriate.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

What I REALLY Want for Christmas:

I would have been a good hippie. Picture me standing in front of you, head appropriately adorned with flowers. I’m holding up two fingers on each hand in a symbol of peace and love to those around me. Let’s just all sit around and be happy, I’m thinking, and hug on each other and stuff like that. I could wholeheartedly promote compassion and kindness to all of God’s creatures except, of course, for those troublemaker warmongers among us. Even then, I would do my best to help you see the error of your ways and to bring an even greater sense of goodwill toward all. And, just as a bonus, I could go around in flip-flops and bell-bottoms all day, barefoot even.

What I REALLY want for Christmas is to hold my fingers up in peace signs and magically have us all be friends, love each other, pass out more compliments, more smiles, more Starbucks gift cards. I want the name-calling, the back-biting, the hatred to stop. I want us to each see ourselves in the other, to see the good, the right, the possibilities. I want us to lift each other up. I want us to see the PERSON, not the color or the income or the sexual preference. I want us to march forward in love for our fellow man or woman or child or creature, whatever. I have a dream, and all that.

But, technically, I can’t ask for things for others. That’s sort of cheating. If I could, my husband would be a genius, billionaire gorgeous hunk of a guy who looks hot in his black and red superpowers suit. He’d be wicked funny and bring me flowers and perfume and chocolates and would write me love poems and satisfy my every need. He would never ever wince when I ask if these jeans make my butt look fat or when I model a new hairstyle for him. He’d serenade me on his guitar or piano or just with his deep melodic manly voice. He’d like all my friends…..and my mother. He’d take my breath away even after twenty-five years together. I would just thank the heavens and know that I was one lucky girl. I’d always be right. Ok, so maybe that's MY list. But wishing for others to change gets one nowhere.

So, in an effort to keep with Christmas code, I have compiled a list of what I would REALLY like for the holidays, for me, not for anyone else, because I know that if I want to change the world I need to start with myself and BE the change. Ghandi and all that. If you’re one of my children, and you’re reading this, I would so appreciate that pair of snowshoes I asked for LAST Christmas. If you’re anybody else, well, I’ll give you a few options:

What I want for Christmas………..

1. Unconditional love for my body

I have parts that are too big and parts that are too small and neither are the parts that I wish were big or small. I’d like to be good with that. I’d like to look in the mirror and love and accept my body as I love and accept others’ bodies. I never look at others and think why do your arms flap like that? I never ridicule them for having belly bulge over their appendix scars or stretch marks down their thighs. I never say in my head Oh. My. GAWD! Your eyeballs look SO weird when you do that!! That would just be ridiculous. And rude.

No, with my body I am like the parent who tells her child I love you as long as you sit down, be quiet and do what I say. Only like the child my body never listens. It has a mind of its own. I’d like to be able to love it nonetheless.

2. Unconditional love for my brain

I have two sisters. We were pegged by our mother as the athlete, the social butterfly, and the smart one. I occasionally tried to cross the line to no avail. I went out for tennis in high school. My sister made the team. I once got written up in the paper for hitting a home run. My sister’s name appeared instead of mine. I had a small group of nerdy friends. What was I thinking? I was supposed to be the smart one. It was my job to get good grades and to make all the teachers smile. How hard was that? Just accept it and move on.

I liked school. School was fun. It still is. But I’ve always felt a certain pressure to be at the head of the class. And, just confessing, I never feel quite smart enough. I feel, sometimes, like a total poser. I sneak around teaching college, for God’s sake, just waiting for someone to find me out. I am intimidated by those who are smarter than I am. Secretly, though, while I am intimidated, I am uber, uber impressed. If you know the movie, School of Rock, my head plays out a version of one of the scenes. In it, the teacher asks one of his students why he is not doing something, something that my brain fails to recall right now. The student, a nerdy looking Asian kid, responds simply “because I am not cool enough.” You have to read that one as if the words are run together like this: I am not coolenough. My head is like that Asian kid. It just stands there looking all pathetic, telling me that I am not smartenough. Sometimes I think the only reason I still want to go for that PhD is to prove to others that I can, that I’m capable. You know, because I’m the smart one.

3. Fingernails

I don’t bite my nails anymore. I used to. I was a nervous child. Biting nails always seemed a more acceptable form of stress relief to me than, say, getting wild ass drunk at orgy-like parties or sneaking off into the high school bathroom to do things my parents would get called about later. I was not a fan of trouble. My nails took a beating for it.

I have since taken to other, more adult, forms of stress relief. I have not, however, learned to give my nails the attention they so deserve. I absolutely love French manicures and just ache for one, but I am resigning myself to the fact that I may die without ever having known those pretty white tips. Still. I’m adding it to the list.

4. Future vision

Sometimes I read the end of the book first. For real. Would be nice to do the same with life. Occasionally.

5. An agent

I'm thinking I should have made this number one.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Once a Cheater.......

It’s a journey to the thing that so fulfills you that, if someone told you, “It’s right outside—but watch out—it could kill you!” you’d run straight toward it, through the screen door without even opening it. ......on Finding Your Way in a Wild New World by Martha Beck

I’m supposed to be working, revising lecture notes. I can’t do it. PowerPoints are about as sexy to me as a rousing root canal on a Saturday afternoon. So I’m cheating a bit with my blog post and taking full absolute unadulterated pleasure in every living second of it. I’m also thinking a lot about that quote up there. Actually, it’s not a quote quote, but more a description of a quote. Still. It makes me think. So much of my life lately is routine. I’m at a comfy spot, a good spot. I like my life. It’s ok, but nothing is new enough or exciting enough anymore to make my heart race. I miss that, my heart racing. There are things in my life that used to make my heart race. But nothing now is exactly worth running through the screen door for. Sort of like the PowerPoints. They’re not bad, but it’s not like Oooh, baby! Let me at ‘em!!

I came across another quote that suggests that the work you do while you procrastinate is probably the work you should be doing for the rest of your life. Well. Somebody pinch me. I need to know if this is indeed the Promised Land, me at a laptop with tortilla chip crumbs down my front, crafting words and grooving to a little Bob Marley. I’d definitely bust down the front door for that.

I think that’s going to be my new standard. Before I settle for anything just to settle, I’ll ask first if this is busting-down-the-door-worthy. I never understood the guys of the previous generation, the guys who did the same job for their entire lives, who put on their short-sleeved pressed white shirts each day and headed out to serve the company, to serve the man, the very company or man which rewarded them with nothing more than a way-to-go plaque and maybe a little vanilla cake with white icing upon retirement. Wake up. Go to work. Take lunch break. Work some more. Head home. Hug the wife. Eat the meatloaf the wife prepared. Read the paper. Say hello to the kids. Go to bed. Wake up. Rinse and repeat. I’d rather endure a back alley lobotomy. I need to know that I matter. I need to know that I’m using what I’ve been given. I feel an incredible compulsion to throw myself at the world in a big way, a very big way. But what exactly is big?

Big leaves me breathless. Big leaves my heart racing, my face flushed, my head confused in a really good way. Big makes my soul and my face smile that secret smile that leaves me wondering, Did that just happen? Oh, dear Lord, please let it happen again. Big feels a bit scandalous. I need that. I need that now.

Some would call this Living On the Edge. I call it Doing What I Was Put Here to Do. One more quote and then I promise to stop……A boat in the harbor is safe, but that’s not what boats are for. I was not put here to say oh, well, I think that’s good enough for today or I could do that, sure, but it looks pretty darned difficult, so yeah, I think not. I was put here to find those who need my kind of help. I was put here to uplift, move, motivate, encourage, inspire. I was put here to shine a light on the so-so and set souls on fire to do what they were put here to do. At least I think that’s why I was put here. This is my dilemma. First I need to find that thing that I am here to do. First I need to find that thing that I love, that I am passionate about, that thing that moves me like nothing else. And yes, you naysayers, it matters that I love it. Anything less and I’m dead on earth. I’m pretty sure that’s not why I’m here.

And how will I know when I find that thing that I am here to do? I will just know. I know this. My insides will talk to me. They’ve done that before. I once sold lipstick and blush and such. I was good at it. I was so good at it that I got to teach other women how to also sell lipstick and blush and such. I showed them how to build a successful business even when they didn’t think they could. I won prizes. I won totes and clocks and luggage and pretty bowls. I almost got to try to win a car. A car! Other lipstick ladies smiled their Mocha Freeze or Dusty Mauve smiles and applauded my efforts. I got ribbons. But then my insides started whispering in my ear. You’re doing a wonderful job, honey, but you are going the wrong direction. You are doing what you are here to do, yes, but not where you are here to do it. I didn’t understand, but I listened. I became an instructor. It felt right at the time. It still feels ok, but just ok now. My students don’t give me totes or pretty bowls, but they sometimes clap for me. I like that. Still. I’m hearing that voice again.

So pardon me if I seem not myself lately. I’ve been busy running into doors. Be patient with me. I’m hoping to bust through any minute now.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Beauty in the Small

When I was little, candles came in two forms. Once a year, I would have chocolate cake topped with tiny little stick-thin pastel birthday candles. These were fun and festive and forever blowing out more than staying lit. During holiday dinners, my mom often adorned the table with two rather large scentless red tapers. I believe she used the same two tapers at various meals over the eighteen years I lived at home. Growing up, I saw candles as functional, fun, but with a brief lifespan and not of much use to the soul. Oh, the joy a candle brings me now. I love the mood set by a gentle flame, a slight whiff of vanilla or sage or orange clove. I love the way my heart smiles and my troubles disappear as I dim the lights and set the mood.

So many times I feel such an indescribable gratitude for the large that I neglect the small. I love my family. We are silly and sarcastic and just a good time. My daughter’s friends once compared us to a television sitcom. My neighbor said watching us get ready to go anywhere was like watching a Chinese fire drill. And I love my friends. I have a couple I could tell anything. Any. Thing. I have many more who serve my various moods. I have writer friends and neighbor friends and lunch friends and Facebook friends. I have peripheral friends who are more acquaintances than anything, but who contribute to my life in a way I would sorely miss if they should disappear from it. I am thankful for the opportunities I have had in my life, the opportunity for an education and the opportunity to teach and to write. I am thankful for my home and for the fact that I never have to worry about feeding my children or keeping them warm. I am thankful for those in my life who have encouraged me in the direction that I have gone.

But if I stop and breathe and look around, there is so much beauty in the small.

I am thankful for the things that surround me as I sit writing this. I am thankful, mostly, that I am capable of writing this, that I can read and can spell and can put down word after word in an engaging sort of manner. I am enjoying a bit of chocolate and a nice glass of wine. I am also enjoying in a different way the fluffiness of my little white dog as he sits breathing contentedly beside me. Soothing tunes play in the background and I catch an occasional whiff of my favorite scent. I wear it always. It brings me a quiet kind of joy. I absolutely love the funky earrings I have in right now. They’re not by any local artist as are some of my others, but they are interesting and fun nonetheless. I’d like to thank Lancome for its Amande Sucree, my favorite shade of lipstick. It makes me happy. I notice the wedding ring on my left hand, the sign of twenty-five years with a man who has more patience than that of Job. I’m not sure I’d be able to stay married to myself that long. The lights are low, the candles burning. My yin and my yang are in a wonderful balance right now.

If I look a little further out from where I sit, I can see the stacks of paperbacks, the pictures of my kids, the earthy red richness of the wood floors. There’s the wooden rocker, the first piece of furniture I bought when I found out I was pregnant. Whatever path my husband and I chose in our parenting, I was certain that this baby would be held and rocked and nurtured and sung soothing lullabies in hushed tones. I am thankful for the red brick fireplace on a Michigan winter evening. There’s something about a fire, fuzzy slippers, and a mug of hot cocoa that warms the soul. I know it sounds weird, but there’s a Mylar dinosaur balloon hovering near the ceiling over in the corner. Ortlieb child number three just celebrated birthday number eighteen. My oldest had a friend who died in a tragic car accident in high school. This slowly deflating T-rex is a reminder of how very fortunate I am to have my “babies” with me each and every day. Have I mentioned the rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow that’s playing on my laptop right now?

Yes, I am thankful for the large in my life. But I am so loving the beauty in the small.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Letter to My Younger Self

On guys……….

Learn to love earlier. Learn to laugh and live and let go. Don’t worry so much what others think. Dance. You will have a critical life decision to make in the seventh grade gym. You are sitting on the bleachers talking with friends. It is your first dance. It is everyone’s first dance. You are awkward and shy and unsure. You want to move to the music. You want to, but you won’t. Mostly you will sit there while everyone else has fun. You will worry that guys will see if you dance. You will worry that guys will look and that you won’t do it well. Mostly you will overthink. You will overthink fun. This will not be the last time. You will never dance from this point on, at least when anyone is looking. You will never dance and you will always think of this seventh grade gym with regret. Let go now. Have fun with yourself. Have fun with others. Get out of your head and into your body.

Know when to go and when to don’t. In high school at that party with that one guy, go. In college at that party with that other guy, don’t. Don’t ask me why. Trust me on this one.

Know this, who you are is not determined by any man’s opinion of you. Who you are is who you are. Who they think you are is who THEY are. Unless, of course, they think you’re wonderful, then just go with it.

On weight………..

Food is not love. Food is not comfort. Food is not validation or a therapist or a friend. Food is food. There will be times when you are sad beyond sad and times when you are pushed to every limit you could possibly have. Talk to someone. You have many people in your life who care. You have many people who will listen. Just talk to them. Do not be so uptight about seeming weak. No one cares if you are less than perfect, no one but you.

You will gain, and you will lose. Gaining will make you feel like crap. You will be miserable. You will have trouble breathing. You will have trouble sleeping. You will have neck fat. Neck fat. Your feet will ache from carrying so much weight. Men you don’t even know will tell you to move your fat ass. You will go home and cry. You will eat more to feel better. Mostly, you will feel invisible, not better. Food is your addiction. You will feel as if you are not important, not present, not worth looking at. You will believe that life is all about others, you will tell yourself that your needs are not important, and you will push yourself aside. Do not do this. You will use yourself up. You will lose you. You will lose the one person who should love you most in all the world.

Then you will lose weight. You will feel great. You will have both energy and enthusiasm to spare, a renewed joie de vivre. You will love others like you didn’t love them before, in a better way, a richer way. And you will love yourself. You will remember what it is like to get a look from a guy and you will like it. You will think to yourself that maybe you are not as old and used up as you thought. You will take this love for living and throw it out at the world in a good way. Get to this part sooner. You will like it.

On being you……….

You will spend the first half of your life hiding. In school you will hide behind the other students. You are self-conscious about your clothes, about your looks, about your lack of social life. You are always the new kid. You will move more than you even care to know right now. You will make friends easily, but then you will move again. You will feel always as if you are the odd man out, the square peg in the round hole. But you will try. Keep trying.

Don’t be intimidated by others who seem to have more, seem to be more. More is a moot point. Everyone has his shortcomings, his weaknesses. Everyone has his family secrets to overcome. Those who have more in some areas, have less in others. This is where you will come in. Move, motivate, encourage, inspire. You’re good at this. It’s why you’re here.

Do not hide your gifts. Do not hide you. A present packaged with a fat red ribbon is gorgeous yes, but, oh, to think what’s inside that box--the beauty, the craziness, the comfort, the joy, the fun. You benefit no one by playing small. Have fun! Have fun and encourage others to have fun!

Put your full self out there every day. You are more special than you know, and you have so very much to offer.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Body Language

Day: 12

What’s on your mind?

Forgive me. It has been three days since my last essay. It will be many more until my next. I have stuff in my head, but until I learn to type and read with my eyes closed I will need to deprive you of my thoughts. If you care to hear what you’re missing, join me for coffee. I would love to share.

I do not believe in failure. I know that may hit some of you like nails down a chalkboard, but hear me out. Yes, I believe that failure happens, but I feel it’s not the end, as many believe, but rather a beginning, a jumping off point to a better you, a sign, a message, an angel sent from Heaven. That last one is a bit of a stretch, I know, but at least you get the message. This November project of mine is a great example. The challenge was to complete fifty thousand words in thirty days. I’ve got a good fifteen thousand. Not too far off target from where I should be at this point and not too bad for a getting-focused sort of effort. I could work hard to catch up. I could, but I won’t. I won’t because my eyeballs have drawn up picket signs and gone on strike. They refuse to do their work until they get their requested vacation and sick time. My will is strong, but theirs is stronger. Some would see this as giving in or quitting or, uh, failing. I see it as listening, as tuning in to a higher power, as an opportunity to learn a bit about myself.

I have not always been a good listener. My body has spent many years yelling at me, pleading, begging, doing everything but knocking me down and dragging me away from whatever it was I was doing in an effort to guide me toward a better place. Actually, it did that a couple of times, too, but I failed to get the message. I am stubborn like that. My body is smart. It knows what I need. It knows what brings me true joy, what is good for me. But my head is not a very good listener.

My head is bossy and bullies and thinks it knows everything. It tries to play leader and take charge even though it is greatly lacking in leader-type skills. My head is too worried about what others think. It is too concerned about the easy way, the appropriate way, the expected way. A good leader is strong and confident and not afraid to step out and take a risk. A good leader knows when to back off and when to strike. A good leader is many times a very good listener. What are the needs of the group? How can I help the group move forward? Am I going the direction that is in the best interest of the group? My head is not the person for this job.

My head is interested in only what my head wants.

My body, on the other hand, is strong and confident and listens to the needs of the group. My body will say in a very gentle way you are doing a wonderful job, honey, but you are going in the wrong direction. Let’s try this, instead. My body has a very soft and nurturing style of communicating, but sometimes when I am not good at listening my body talks like this: I am overworked, stressed, tend to four kids of my own and a house full of neighbor children. My husband works long hours, long, and travels more than I can say. I am like single parent to fifteen children. I love the activity, the busy environment. I love the laughter, the noise, the play, but I am pushing it. I have lost myself and have forgotten where to look. I clean and cook and tend to pets. I bathe and teach and carpool and do my best to live up to Mother of the Year. I have no time for fun or frilly girly things. I have no time for pedicures or lattes or entire afternoons spent shopping with a friend. I have no time for a walk in the woods or a movie or getting lost in a bit of soothing music. I have no time. Or, rather, I take no time. I am exhausted. I am used up. I am just about to send my emotional self packing. In fact this is exactly what I do. Enter panic attack number one.

But do I listen? No. Hello, panic attack number two.

My family and I are vacationing in Disney World. I have organized the entire trip. This particular vacation comes just after the holidays. During the past two months, I have orchestrated three children’s birthday parties, planned, prepared and packed for one Thanksgiving out of town trip for six, played Santa to four small children, including planning, shopping, wrapping, and setting up the festivities, and organized, booked, and packed for a two week vacation for a twelve-year-old, nine-year-old, six-year-old, two-year-old, one husband and me.

We are standing outside the Great Movie Ride. As is every other Disney attraction it is dark and loud and packed with people. I am beginning to feel hot and dizzy, as if I might freak out should I go inside. My heart is racing. I am sweating. I never sweat. My breath is coming faster. I cannot get enough air. I feel, for lack of a better word, strange. I know that I cannot go inside the ride or I will not be able to get out. I love Disney. I love crowds. I am absolutely fine with noise and activity and the like, but I really must get out of here. I must get out now. My husband stays with the kids. I head back to the room. Our room is tropical and floral and happy and fun. The staff walks around with luau type shirts and leis. Olaha, cousin, they greet me as I pass. I am here, but not here. Once in my room I open the patio door. I must have air. My walls are coming down, coming in, seemingly shifting, though in reality not. I am suffocating. I should loosen my collar, but I have none. Why does it feel so tight? The families pass outside my door with their Goofy hats and giant Mickey suckers. They are smiles and fun and strollers and shorts and laughing and such. I am struggling for breath and watching my walls close in around me. I do not do this. My only rational thought is that I am flipping out at the Happiest Place On Earth.

My head was trying to live up to an image, an image that was not me. My body would have none of it.

My body isn’t always so loud in its objection. My body sometimes offers subtle hints in the hopes that it will not have to resort to stronger measures. My head has been suggesting, for example, that perhaps I am on this earth to be a writer, to entertain or educate on paper with my words. The thing is this. I tried once before to write full-time. I wasn’t very good at it. I was tired and crabby and restless. I was lonely. I would go out just to be around people. I went to the store, to the coffee shop, to the mall. I went anywhere I might see others, but that wasn’t enough. I was still restless and bored and crabby. I had a strong urge to talk to those others. I wanted to round them up and engage them in a bit of conversation, explain something to them, entertain them, make them laugh, encourage them to make some sort of positive change in their lives. My head is not always on top of things, but it was pretty smart in refraining from lecturing the Barnes and Noble crowd. Still, I was lonely and bored.

So, this month I tried again. I have been writing every day for a couple hours each day. My head is happy to get my thoughts out, but my eyes are rebelling. I should be able to do this. I am, after all, a writer. My body says no, there is more. Writing is not everything, says my body. Writing is only a part of what you are here to do. Spread your message, but do it in front of people. Do it on a stage and with a crowd, enunciate and project. When I think of such my heart sings and my body smiles and I know that I am one step closer to goal, whatever that goal might be. I am almost looking forward to failing again.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Be the Change

Day 9 again: Bonus Essay

What’s on your mind?

I am in yet another coffee shop. I think I need a ten-step. Twelve-step? Doesn’t matter. I’d only make it through three.

Speaking of compliments. Whenever someone compliments me on my mad skills, be they speaking skills or writing skills or teaching skills or some other performance-related skills, I always say thank you. Then, in my head, but maybe out loud depending on how familiar I am with the compliment-giver, I curl my lip and roll out my best Elvis, Thank ya very much! The one always has to follow the other. That’s just how it happens in my brain. Just like the national anthem. Every time I hear it, no matter where I am or who I’m with, as soon as that last note ends, I belt out a hearty Plllaaaayyy Baalllll! This can sometimes be a slight embarrassment. To my children. My sister-in-law lives in a teeny town in Southern Indiana. We don’t get to see her often, maybe a couple times a year. I always enjoy the visit. When we part ways, she gives me a huge hug then grabs my cheeks in both hands for a traditional European kiss-this-side-then-that goodbye. Occasionally she will follow this with a, The Lord be with you. I can’t help it. I always, always have to reply, And also with you. I sort of expect her to shoot back a quick, Let us pray, but she never does. I say it in my head instead, slightly disappointed.

Certain things just naturally follow the other.

Other things are more of a mental stretch. Like what, for example, would follow a Thirty Day Compassion Challenge? What comes next? When I wake up on day thirty-one, what exactly do I do? Do I use the challenge as a springboard for something else? Yes? For what, then? I’m just not that creative. Do I just stop being kind altogether? That would be incredibly tempting because, just confessing, doing kind deeds every day for thirty days totally sucks. It’s so much work. It’s a heck of a lot easier to just go about my business and forget about all the people around me. But here’s the deal. I know I’m only on day nine of this challenge and that saying I have obtained any bit of wisdom at all at this point is sort of like a kindergartner claiming to grasp quantum physics, but I have learned something and what I’ve learned is that we’re all interconnected. I know. I knew this. But now I KNOW this. When I’m kind to another I do feel good. I spread that good feeling out to others not even remotely connected with the incident. I also occasionally get to witness the recipient of my good turn shine that radiance out to others. Who knows, maybe that older gentleman in the coffee shop earlier today, the one who told me how great I smell, was the recipient of a kind deed of someone for whom I had earlier performed a kind deed myself. Too deep? Too far-fetched? It could happen.

Do this. Think of a time when someone was mean to you. Go ahead. Just make a mental note. I worked retail for a bit in college. I sold tighty-whities and Gold Toe fluffies forty hours a week to make tuition payments. I worked full-time, went to school full-time, and ate and did homework in my off-hour. I was exhausted. I had no money for a social life, no time for a social life, and was trying my very best to stick with the plan when any person with half a brain, or less even, would have totally given up. I was stressed and frazzled and in desperate need of some loving. Instead, I got a pencil to the face. It was the Christmas season and the customer, obviously not taking full responsibility for his lack of holiday planning and frustrated as a result of his Christmas Eve last-ditch efforts to find the absolute perfect present, in his frustration, hurled a yellow No. 2 at my face. He threw a pencil at me. I had never in my life had anyone throw anything at me, at least not since that incident with my sister involving the bike and the Barbie doll, but that’s another story. How little do you have to think of a person before you throw an object at her face? How little do you have to think of yourself?

Now, try to remember something that someone did for you or said to you that was especially kind. I was leaving class one afternoon, this time as instructor, not student. As I made my way for the stairs a woman going the opposite direction backed up and headed my way. Mmmm, she said, you smell NICE. (I am not exactly certain what others think of my looks, but I’m pretty sure that I don’t have a problem with the way I smell.) She backed up, she stopped, she took a second just to smell me. And she let me know that she liked it. She was headed to class. She didn’t have to do this. It felt great. I held my head up and walked to my car confident that I was spreading a wonderful heady scent in others’ directions.

Now, compare the two. How did you feel in each example? How did you carry yourself afterward? How did you interact with others? How did they, in turn, interact with those around them? This is what I know, the more kindness I spread, the more kindness potentially comes back my direction. If I am interested in a kinder world, I need to begin with myself. I need to, as Ghandi would say, be the change I want to see. I may think I have no control over the choices others make, but through my own acts of kindness, I can move those others in the direction I would like to see. Tricky. And deep. I know…….. Thank you. Thank ya very much.

What IS That Smell?!

Day 9: Hand out five compliments

What’s on your mind?

Dropped some stuff off at Goodwill. Saw the cutest little purple sparkly scooter with the fringe-y things hanging from the handlebars. Looked down at the base.....Tinkerbell, with the words "Quest for Pixie Dust".....thought about jumping on!!

What is it with compliments? Such power for such small effort and yet we just don’t pass them out often enough. Sure, we think them, albeit in a twisted sort of way. God I wish I had her hair. I’ll never have those legs. Look at how guys just drool like that when she walks by. Jealous, so jealous. But we never actually go up to her and say I so love your hair, it’s wild and wonderful and just insanely fun. It’s such a great look on you. And, yet, those few words have the power to totally change her day, to change her outlook for at least the next few hours, to change the thoughts she has about herself, about her life, about those around her. Maybe she was having a crappy morning. Maybe her boyfriend just ditched her. Maybe you just lifted her out of a major funk. You’ll never know because you didn’t actually say anything. You just fantasized about having her hair on your head. Then you walked on by.

One huge lesson in compliments before we continue: always compliment the person rather than the item or article of clothing. I might be wearing a really cool shirt with lots of funky artsy stuff going on, and you might suggest to me that it’s a very cool shirt indeed. But I can take that shirt off and throw it on the floor. It’s still a cool shirt, but what about ME?

I never really met anybody who doesn’t like to receive a compliment. Maybe that person exists, but I don’t her. Compliments uplift, empower, move, motivate, encourage, inspire. They leave you with a secret inner smile, first because somebody actually noticed you and, second, because you are not as fat, ugly, inept, fill in the blank, as you have led yourself to believe you are. I’m normally pretty good on the giving end, but only for very obvious actions or looks. My goal today is to reward the ordinary, the everyday effort that often goes unnoticed, the friendly greeting, the quick and courteous service. Should someone always have to go above and beyond before they are shown some form of appreciation? Isn’t it enough just to be one’s usual great self?

And why bother?

Compliments encourage more of the behavior we’d like to see. They are operant conditioning at its best. Customer to clerk: You have such a beautiful smile. Clerk to self: Wow. I have a great smile? I have a great smile. The clerk goes about the rest of her day uplifted and empowered, greeting customers with her absolutely gorgeous smile. Not to be fake about it. No use praising something that isn’t there. What’s the point? You’re rewarding nothing. Nothing rewarded gets more of that nothing. But if something is definitely there that that others might benefit from seeing more of, then by all means praise away. I do believe we each have some special something inside of us. Sometimes we just forget to look for it. Sometimes we are just too focused on what is wrong with the world, what is going on in our own days, or what is happening two hours from now to see the unique beauty of the person in front of us.

Compliments are like superheroes.

They have the power to transform dull, gray, rainy days into blue skies and sunshine, sort of the opposite of that Charlie Brown character who went around with the nasty rain cloud over his head. The recipient of kind words continues on with a rainbow and rays of sunshine hovering above while the rest of the world is darkness. I am in my local coffee shop yet again and am fumbling to pull out my chair. My arms are stuffed with computer and latte and lunch and purse and sweater and such. I am glad to be here among other like-minded souls on this dreary November day. My kitchen table was just not the inspiration I was hoping. Sure, it was calm and quiet and warm and wonderful, but a little too much yin, not enough yang. I needed bustling and busy and active and vibrant. I needed people and noise and a bit of caffeine. So here I am settling into my favorite spot by the window while I think in my head about all the wonderful words I will write or about all the wonderful words I would like to write but about all the hair-pulling and brain-racking that will likely occur instead. The older gentleman with the Forbes and the frappuccino at the next table looks up suddenly in a disoriented sort of way as if he is uncertain where he is and trying to catch his breath all at the same time. Whoa, he says, You smell GOOD! Four words with a smile. Well. Anyone interested in asking me any incredibly personal information or anyone in need of approaching me with huge, unreasonable requests feel free to step forward. Today only, all wishes will be considered, all questions answered. Consequences be damned. I don’t care. I smell good.