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.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Peace and Love

Day 8: You’re allowed one day to forget to do a kindness or to decide if you’re finished with the challenge altogether

What’s on your mind?

Given that I’m writing at home tonight, no juicy gossip. What I DO have is a snoring Golden Retriever and a Maltipoo on one side of me and wine and chocolate on the other. I’d say that’s a good trade for last night’s bearded Russian guy and venti soy chai.

I had coffee with a friend today. Well. Actually I had a Diet Coke in a coffee shop. I’m a little latte’d out at this point in the challenge. This particular friend is also a writer. We meet once a week to exchange ideas, brainstorm, encourage, inspire, and to scope out the scene for potential material. She shares her daily calorie count. I share my NaNo word count. She talks characters and plot. I talk flagging self-esteem and personal epiphanies. We curse husbands, blast budgets, and pinky swear that we are starting the diet right this second. In the end we usually each leave with some gem we can use toward our craft.

This is what I got today:

Just because I CAN do something, that I am GOOD at that something, does not mean that I HAVE to do it if it brings me no joy. I should focus, instead, on that thing that I CAN do, that thing that I am GOOD at, that brings me absolute pleasure, that energizes me, that leaves me saying fun, let’s do that again! As a writer and as a person I have a dark, heavy side. I also have a shallow, flippant side. I can do both. But mostly I enjoy being silly, being light. I get a kick out of fun and fluff.

The dark heavy side stems from my past. It’s part of my growing up years, part of my lived experience, has the potential to educate, to make people think, but it never really was who I am. Sure it’s there, but it’s not me. I’m more Beetlejuice--laughing, loving, and living my life, getting silly and crazy when I take the notion and encouraging others to do the same. I am definitely not, have never been, Winona Ryder’s Lydia, draped in black and packed with teenage angst.

The way I look at it is I can move, motivate, encourage, inspire a lot easier in girdle and push-up than I can in ball and chains.

I’ve written on my past. I’ve written on poverty and hunger and complete destruction of the soul. I have had strangers walk up to me, strangers send me thank you notes complimenting me on my writing and thanking me for sharing my thoughts. Your words are powerful, they say. I am glad to have that impact on them. But these words are draining. These words are emotionally exhausting. When I sit to pen an essay on my past, I cry and I sob and I hate anybody who passes through my mind at that time. I finish the piece feeling as though I have submitted myself to an incredibly intense therapy session, feeling as though I have travelled through time back to that place and am reliving it as I speak. I close my computer, and I go sit with my chocolate and tissues.

I’ve also written entire essays on underwear. At least the reader believes the essay is on underwear. Really it is on that particular reader’s inner beauty or unique specialness or some life lesson or another. I stay shallow and light and fun and free. The words flow and bounce and are a bit risqué for this middle-aged married mom of four. I love it! I crack some jokes. I fake left, but go right. I imagine myself lifting the reader out of a humdrum day, out of a slump, out of a feed-the-dog-unload-the-dishwasher-switch-the-laundry kind of routine. I thrive on making words fly in a flippant sort of way. I get a kick out of faking the reader out thinking the essay is about bras with a bit of blingage when really it is about self-esteem and self-worth and the ability to believe in yourself when you may have already given up hope.

I leave these essays with a smile and a laugh and breathing deeper than when I began. I feel as if I have just ended my favorite yoga routine complete with Navasana boat pose and full side plank. Namaste.

Maybe it’s wrong to show people my skivvies. I’ve struggled a bit with this. After all, I’m supposed to be an academic, supposed to focus on the heavy, the staid, the researched, the stick-up-my-ass dry and dull. I’m much more a fan of flitting about the stage in feathers and boa, smiling on all and tossing out a bit of pixie dust for good measure. I would love nothing more than to sit everyone down together in a giant happy circle, passing out daisies, suggesting that we all just be nice and be friends and love each other and love ourselves and take every single good thing that is inside of us and throw it out at the world in order that that world might be a more wonderful place in which to live. Oh. Yes. I would like this.

Is a Dickenson or Poe any more worthy than the latest Harlequin release? If a work can lift me out of my ordinary, can make me think or feel or smile or escape my rut of a routine isn’t that worthy? Isn’t that piece serving others in some way? Isn’t it helping others to feel better about themselves and might they not then take that good feeling out to family and friends? Might they not have a better outlook on their lives and appreciate more the people with whom they share those lives? It’s like a Shakespearean tragedy versus a bit of stereotypical Ellen comedy. Sometimes, yes, I’m in the mood for heavy. Throw me a little Kate and help me to see exactly why she was one shrew in particular need of taming. Other times, I just want to feel lighter. I just want to be lifted into a place of joy and fun and, in the words of that famous warthog, meerkat duo, hakuna matata. Sometimes I don’t want to think. I just want to be entertained. Well. In the words of Gypsy Rose Lee, let me entertain you. Only not like that.

Not that I’ll never go dark. I am a Gemini, after all. I’m the queen of change. But whatever I do in my life, I must be happy. I must enjoy it. And as much as I love you, I don’t have time to please only you. I would love to give you words that make you smile, that make you want to dance, that make your heart sing, but mostly I need to give you words that make me smile, that make me want to dance, that make my heart sing.

Hakuna matata, my friend. Namaste.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Play Ball!

Day 7: Send someone flowers

What’s on your mind?

The guy at the table beside me answers his cell phone. Russian. He’s speaking Russian. I swear. He’s speaking Russian in Kalamazoo. I feel like I’m in a spy movie. How exciting!! Only I’m in Barnes and Noble café in the middle of the Midwest and to prove it, the lady at the table on the other side of me is knitting something purple. I’m not much into knitting despite being from the Midwest myself, so “something purple” is as technical as it gets, but she is definitely knitting something purple while the big bearded guy is speaking Russian. Maybe small towns ARE where it’s at.

Let’s not talk flowers. Let’s talk schedules. My writing this month has taken a turn. I feel like I’m back in undergrad, cranking out a ten to twenty page term paper every day for some Nazi professor who will barely even read it, but will take great joy in marking it all to Hell before throwing it on my desk with a look of such disdain I will question even why I show up to this thing called college. I will question, in fact, my complete ability to accomplish any task at which I think I might be even slightly qualified. My writing this month has turned have-to-do instead of want-to-do.

Have-to-do is boring and dry and all suit and tie and medium gray cubicle. Want-to-do is fun and free and fat hoop earrings and funky gold flip-flops, or better yet, stepping barefoot through fresh cut grass. I seem to be much more a fan of want-to-do than have-to-do. Who knew?!

I guess I like my life as I like it. I like to be the decider, the leader, the main man, only, you know, the main girl. I like to do things just until the point where they start to feel required, until they begin to take on the feel of I must do them or else. This is actually quite a little epiphany, although I realize that all epiphanies are by definition huge. I do not, as I had formerly believed, lack follow-through. I simply don’t care for rules. I don’t care for someone, imaginary or real, standing over my shoulder ready to take ruler to knuckles. You must write sixteen hundred words at this sitting. You must complete your daily challenge. You must post to blog and update NaNoWriMo word count and blah and blah and blah. I just don’t care for that, even if that someone with ruler to knuckles is me.

I know serious writers are not supposed to be muse followers. A serious writer takes a gigantic imaginary glue stick to her writing chair each morning once she sees her children off to school. Then she plants her backend in that very chair and stays there until, oh, I don’t know, the lunch hour or some arbitrary word count or until the hunky UPS guy shows up at the door. I’m beginning to believe I am not a serious writer. But I do like to write. So, I’m thinking I need to reintroduce myself to my muse. Maybe he would come see me more often if I asked very nicely.

Actually, I don’t even know my muse. We’ve never formally met, but I do know he’s a dude. How crazy is that? I always thought one’s muse would be female with a mess of long wild blond hair and draped in white flowing gowns of something sheer and beautiful and all gauze-like. I imagined in my dreams that one’s muse would enter through the window on a gentle breeze, tapping the writer on the shoulder every-so-slightly and whispering something mystical and creatively profound such as write, write the words that are within, unleash the spirit of the soul. My guy hangs out over my right shoulder checking his text messages. Boring, I know. He’s there all the time, actually. I can feel him, always. When he gets the notion, and who knows why that is, he starts hurling all these words at me so fast I can hardly keep up. It’s like being in one of those batting cages where you accidentally set the wrong speed and the balls just keep flying out one after another with you basically just defending yourself from being pelted rather than showing off your mad skills for the other big league wannabes, read ten-year-old boys practicing their stance and doing their best to impress Dad who stands behind the bars barking “encouragement.” Yeah. My muse is like that, the balls and the dad.

But I like when he shows up for business. He’s a tough taskmaster, but he fills my head with words that are fun and free and all fat hoop earrings and funky, gold flip-flops. He fills my head with words that make it feel as if it is taking a barefoot stroll through a fresh cut lawn on a beautiful summer day. He may not be pretty, but he sure knows how to paint a picture with a pen.

Breathe. And. Breathe.

Day 6: Re-charge your batteries

What’s on your mind?

Writing is like telling your secrets……to everybody you know.

I’m taking a day off from being nice. Five days and I’ve had it. All this smiling, giving, encouraging, other-focusing is making me insane. It’s torment, it’s taxing. The odd thing is that I normally consider myself a generally kind person, so I honestly thought this challenge would be no big deal. If you could see me now, though, you would see me floor-pacing and hair-pulling and foot-stomping and fit-throwing. You would hear me whining I don’t want to be nice, I don’t want to be nice. I’m a two-year-old with gray hair and wrinkles.

So, instead of doing a kind deed for another today, I’ve decided to do a kind deed for myself. I’m feeling needy, and I’m going to honor that feeling. I do that sometimes-- honor my needs. That’s not an easy thing for women. We tend to feel that we are bad moms, wives, friends, co-workers, carpool captains, PTA presidents if we honor our own needs. I wasn’t always very good at listening to my vibes. I couldn’t even hear them. I had put them in the time-out chair and forgotten they were even there. With dinner and babies and nursing and Scouts and piano and Little League and the neighbor kids and teacher conferences and a husband who was on the road more than not, my own vibes had to just sit down and be quiet and wait their turn. The problem was, their turn never came.

My vibes are sort of needy. They’re not very patient. They didn’t like being stuck in that time-out chair. They rebelled. I gained weight. I gained a lot of weight. I would post a picture and show you how much weight, but I just can’t bring myself to do that. I was sick. If I saw you in the grocery store and you were sick, I would go home and be sick with the same thing. I couldn’t sleep. I totally sucked at sleeping. I yelled. I threw tantrums. I honestly don’t think I was a happy person. Don’t get me wrong. I loved my family. I loved my life. I was exactly where I wanted to be, doing what I wanted to be doing. But I had put some things to the side, and I was not very good at fueling the fire. I was giving to everyone but myself. And it showed.

So think me selfish if you must for taking a challenge break. I really don’t give a rip. I’ve learned that if I just take a brief second to breathe and re-energize, to feed my vibes, I am in a better spot to give to others. It’s sort of like on the planes when the flight attendants warn parents to put on their own oxygen masks first and then those of their children. A parent’s immediate response in time of danger is to save the child, but there’s not much saving going to happen if you’re dead yourself. And that’s how I feel when I ignore my own needs, emotionally dead. I’ve exhausted my oxygen source and have nothing left to give. So. To breathe.

You should know that I am not much a fan of the term mind, body, and spirit. It’s become, in my opinion, a marketing catchphrase, one of those God-awful terms that’s just flung around twenty-four-seven three-sixty-five and is more an annoyance than anything. As if. Whatever. But today I totally fed my mind, body, and spirit all in the same day. It was absolutely wonderful. It was the equivalent of chocolate nirvana, a new favorite shade of lipstick, a great sale on shoes, a really good, well, other things that are fun and soul-feeding but not terribly appropriate to include in this list. I fed them—mind, body, and spirit--all on the very same day. And it felt great.

I started my day with an extra long walk in the woods. Walking has been one of my absolute favorite ways to reduce stress since I was in college, and nature is my preferred path. My walk today was a good hour and spent mostly in prayer—except, of course, for that brief aside spent arguing myself on a point but, again, that was brief and came to not much consequence. I’m stubborn, but I do know when to let go. It was good, for a bit, to be off in my head. My head is one of my many happy places. I’m a thinker. Or at least I like to think I think. Mostly I might just be zoned out. This is why I try to avoid walking on bike paths. Those bikers scare the bejeezus out of me when they come up behind with a good loud LEFT! Let’s just say I’ve hit a few ditches.

I bought a book today. Next to my thoughts, books are number two on my happy place list. Even better, this book is about getting back to my true self, finding my own North Star. I get sidetracked sometimes. I let others decide what is good for me, what I want from my life, what I’m here to do. I forget that this information already exists inside of me and that I just need to listen and that my soul knows the answers to all of these questions better than any friend or sibling or coworker or Facebook quiz. Again, I have pumped-up on steroids vibes. They’re great at what they do. Sometimes I just get in a mood and bench them even if it means the game. So, I’m on my back deck enjoying an unusually warm and beautiful early November day with tea in hand and feet up, searching for my North Star, searching for my way. It was wonderful.

I just got off the phone with my sister. We have spent the past hour or so-ish talking about nutrition and all that is wrong with the American diet and how our food is making us sick and how we have an entire culture built around illness what with the insurance companies and hospitals and pharmaceuticals and medical supply companies and those annoying motorized grocery carts and how we should take all that money and energy and focus it instead on prevention, on nutrition education and fitness incentives and the like so that maybe we could actually participate in our own lives as we grow older. We talked about stuff like that while she did her best to talk me down from having a nice fat wedge of vegan double chocolate cake. Ironic. But so me. Nutrition is a huge passion of mine (as is eating). I will talk on the issue to anybody who stands in front of me for as long as they will stand there, then I will chase them down as they try to make their escape. I got off the phone exhilarated and motivated and inspired and minus that slice of double chocolate cake.

I think I’m good now. I’m rejuvenated, restored, rested, and ready to go. I’ve made enough deposits in the bank of my soul that I now have something to share. My two-year-old self has had its nap and afternoon snack and is ready, again, to play.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

I Love You This Much

Day 5: Write letters to your family telling them how much they mean to you

What’s on your mind?

Apparently people with the juiciest gossip don’t hang out in bookstores on a Saturday night.

You should know that my family is very private. My husband and four children are not much for airing any sort of laundry, dirty or not, in public. They are guarded with their stories, selective with what they share. I am not. They tend to keep their feelings close to their chests. I don’t. They are self-conscious on being exposed, sheepish on being discovered. I could give a flip if anyone sees my innards. Go ahead. Take a look. And let ME be the one to show you. My family is not like me. My family is private, very private. I try to respect that, not an easy task for a writer.

Not an easy task because there is a rich source of material behind these doors. There is humor and sorrow and anger and love. And that’s as specific as I can get. In meeting my challenge of the day, I am not here to tell you their story, but to tell you mine. I am here to tell you how these five people have so strongly impacted my life. In turn, I am here to tell them how much they mean to me, how much I love them, and how much I am only who I am because of them.

But I must do this in a very careful, very generic, very nondescript sort of way, so be patient.

I’ll begin with my children, and I’ll begin at the beginning.


During my pregnancy, I was certain I would be a working mom. I was driven, determined, full of focus and purpose and, well, full of myself. I wanted nothing to do with diapers and dishrags and the whole at-home mom scene. Then you were born.

You were work.

But you were so… were so you. And I loved it. I loved you. I could not imagine leaving you to anyone. I could not imagine leaving you. I was so absolutely, so totally in love. I could just not fathom dropping you off for hours at a time. I didn’t want to miss even a minute. I didn’t want someone else to have all the joy and all the fun.

My pregnancy plans soon changed. I became what I was determined never to become. I became an at-home mom.

As you were growing up, you were such a little character. You reminded me of my own curiosity, determination, my love of learning, love of reading, love of talking and never-ending energy, drive, and sense of purpose. You reminded me to take time to lie on the floor and color. You reminded me to ask why. You reminded me to look and wonder and question and never take no for an answer. You reminded me of my own love of language. You reminded me of me.

You taught me that I could make mistakes and that I could not know the answers, that I could fumble and fuss and figure it out as I go. You taught me that I could think myself a total failure and that it would be okay, that I would be okay, that it was all about living and loving and learning as you go.

You’ve grown into a kind and compassionate human being with one wicked sense of humor. I think that is a truly terrific combination. You make me smile. You make me laugh. You make me proud. I love you so much.


You are such an absolute joy. I know that sounds like such a stereotypical mother thing to say, but you know that I don’t just throw out stereotypical mother things unless I mean them. You were such a delight right from the beginning. I still remember that you slept five hours straight the very first night you were on this earth. Content, peaceful, amazingly at ease straight from the start.

I could take you anywhere. You would watch in wonder, observe, sit on my lap and take in your surroundings. I have learned so much from your way of looking at the world. You taught me to be quiet, to be still, to look and to listen and to wonder at what I see. You taught me that some of the best things in life are discovered, not by jumping in and causing a ruckus, but simply by watching.

You have always been so kind and so gentle and so considerate to others. You were great with your brothers and sister and all the million neighbor kids who lived at our house for most of the day. You created carnivals and games and contests for them, complete with prizes and medals. You kept them entertained and corralled at a time when my own resources were near depleted, when I was exhausted and tired and wishing for naptime. You were my helper. You were my shadow.

You are so fun to watch as you grow. You are amazingly beautiful both inside and out. You have a warm and compassionate soul, one that yearns to reach out to others around the world. You are beginning to do this through your art. I love to watch that. Children are drawn to you, sensing your gentle and kind nature. They gather around you to learn and to smile and to feel special in the way that only you can make them feel.

I love you so much. Thank you for being the very special you you are.


Oh my goodness. From the day you were born you were such a lover of life. You always had a smile plastered on that face. Life was good. Life was fun. And if it wasn’t, well, then you just moved right on to something that was.

At a time when I was worn out from diapers and dinners and deadlines and due dates, you made me smile. You made me happy. You made me laugh and reminded me to lighten up and enjoy my days. You were a delight.

You had energy like no other. You got me up off my feet to throw the ball, shoot some hoops and chase you around the yard. I remembered what it was like to be silly in the pool, joke around at the park, to run, to climb, and go to bed every night completely and utterly exhausted. You were a tanned little towhead, an absolute cutie with smile to spare.

As you grew I watched you develop that dry sarcastic wit I am so fond of. I watched as you began to hold emotions a bit closer to your chest. I learned a lot from you about those not like me. I learned that just because another does not express emotion does not mean that that emotion is not there. I learned that some of the most sensitive sorts are the last to show what they are thinking. I learned self-control and the importance of harmony and an inner calm.

You are such an inspiration to me, such an example in self-restraint and strength. I love you so much.


If ever there were two souls so completely opposite, it would be you and me. I am so afraid of getting in trouble. I am so afraid of what others think. I am so afraid of doing the right thing. You are free like that. You are comfortable with who you are. You are self-assured and confident and don’t feel the need to answer to anyone.

You challenged my parenting skills to no end. But you made me laugh and lighten up and enjoy my days in a way I never had before. You freed me. You freed me from those eyes of that invisible audience. I learned to kick back a bit, to try risky things, to do other things just because I wanted and not because I had to. You taught me to not be afraid.

I lost you a few times. That was scary. I still remember the intensely painful feeling of thinking I would never see a child of mine ever again, the feeling that others would have that child and do mean, evil things to that child and that I would be helpless to protect and to defend. You taught me that my children are not my own, but that they are on loan, that, in the end, they belong to the Lord and that I have no say in when they are returned to Him. I would rather not have learned that lesson, but thank you for bringing it to me. Without it I would not have the appreciation I think I have now for the time I enjoy with you and your brothers and sister.

Watching you grow is an amazing thing. You are not afraid. You are not afraid to explore, to learn, to try, to do. You are not afraid to be who you are. You are not intimidated, not ruffled or dispirited. You can never be strong-armed into fitting into the system. You fit into you. I like that. I like it a lot.

I love you so much and am so very proud of who you are becoming.


I was nineteen. I had no intent of finding a man and settling down. I had things to do--school and work and life--things that had nothing to do with setting up a permanent relationship, with playing house. I needed to move forward, to establish a new way of being for myself, to find out who I was and what I was about apart from my family, apart from the way that I grew up. There was no room in that plan for anyone else. Yes, I was interested in guys, but for fun, for friendship, for passing the time, not for marriage.

Darn that party. I wasn’t even going to go, but I had promised a friend. You were there. You were nice. You were smart. You were funny. You called me back. I was hooked.

My entire life plans changed, and I have never been sorry.

You are my balance. You save me from myself. You have taught me to chill, to laugh, to lighten up. You have taught me that if children do not brush their teeth one night the world does not end, and in the end Mom is much more relaxed. You have taught me that grown-ups can be silly and that rules are not always right or necessary. You have been my strength in times of loss and my light in times of joy. You are a wonderful father. I love that about you. You are a great provider. I love that, too. You never questioned my desire to stay home with the kids. You totally supported that and, again, I loved you for it. You tolerate my quirkiness, my flightiness, my incessant change of mind and chatter. Such stamina! You let me be me.

We have built a wonderful life together. We have had some wonderful times. If I had the choice, I would absolutely do it all again. As much as I am not looking forward to growing old, at least I will be growing old with you. I’m glad you were so persistent at that party. I’m glad that I was there. It’s been great fun these past twenty-nine years. I’m glad that you interrupted my plans. I’m glad, and I love you so much.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Yer Priddy

Day 4: Smile to everyone you meet today

What’s on your mind?

Coffee shop gossip for the night: I may be able to skip church. Huge group with tables pulled together. Without turning my head I can tell that one of the guys seems to be the leader. All I can pick out is “frat house Christianity.” An oxymoron maybe? I’m not sure I should skip church or show up to confess.

Can I just tell you how difficult it is to be nice in some way every single day? This is not a normal state of being. And I generally consider myself a kind person, but kind and constantly other-focused is not always necessarily the same thing. Sometimes I feel I can be kind just by not being an ass. Right? If I’m not in your face causing you problems or complaining in some way, and I generally have a non-aggressive look on my face, I must be an ok person.

Actual kindness, I’m finding, takes a bit more effort than that. OH! Say it ain’t so!! I have to work? I’m getting sort of used to the giving part—picking up a coffee, passing out feel-good messages, sending a letter of thanks. That’s just throwing out money, throwing out words. That’s easy. My challenge today is to actually change the way I interact with people, to change—oh, the pain!—to change ME. Please. Not that I don’t smile and make eye contact already, but geez, it’s not like I do it all the time. Sometimes I’m just walking down the street or through the halls caught up in my own stuff, minding my own business, off in my own head someplace, writing in my mind maybe, or appreciating all the beauty around me. I’m not thinking oh, I should look at people and notice them and make a difference in their day. Mostly I’m just not thinking.

I make myself a note so that I remember to do this, but not a post-it for the kitchen counter or I won’t think to smile beyond the front door. Hmm. I take a Sharpie to my hand. That’s it. In permanent marker I draw a smiley face on the back of my hand so that my reminder goes along with me through the day. Now. To remember to look at my hand and to remember why it has a smiley on it in the first place.

I know the research here. I know that smiling at others and expressing more joy will contribute both to my own well-being and to that of those who are lucky enough to be recipient of such. Emotions are contagious. I got that. We see someone smile, and we can’t help but to smile back. Smiling more leads to feelings of happiness. Right. People who are happier are healthier and live longer than those who post a dark ugly Facebook status each Monday morning. Yep. Got it. They’re more productive at work, more creative and generally have more positive relationships. Understood. Happiness, while just a piece of the well-being puzzle, contributes hugely to the bigger picture in a very good way. So I’m fine with this. I just have to remember to do it.

Which turns out to be not quite as easy as what I had imagined. First, permanent marker is not as permanent as one would think. I carry the Sharpie with me but forget to use it. I think to myself, smile, and then feel fake and awkward. I catch myself getting caught up in myself and forgetting to shine my light outward. I decide that mostly I am a positive person, but that I am not always the initiator of the interaction. But I work hard today at giving it the best shot I can.

I start with the young woman working the money booth in the parking ramp. I have noticed that she is always pleasant, with a smile and a greeting each day for both customers and co-workers. I have never seen her frustrated or angry or, believe it or not, indifferent. I greet her first this morning. I wave. I smile. She returns the greeting. Easy. A good start to my day.

I forget only minutes later as I make my way to class on the sidewalks of downtown. I watch the cars, watch my feet, watch something undefined far off in the distance. I go about my business in a very self-focused kind of way. I wrap my coat around me to protect against the sharp wind, keep my step quick, and maintain a very neutral expression on my face. It is the mentally challenged guy in the wheelchair who snaps me out of it and brings me back to my task at hand. With a huge toothless grin spreading across his whiskered face he looks me directly in the eye and shoots me the sweetest ever, “Yer priddy.” For a second, I am lost in total feelings of joy. Children and the mentally challenged, they say it like they think it. I love that, and I love the compliment. I smile a warm and sincere smile and offer up a gushy thank you. This guy has made my day. A smile, two words, and he’s made my day. I feel great. I feel pretty. Wow. So that’s how it works.

In class, it’s easy. Class is generally one of my many happy places. I heard once that instructors who are more upbeat have students who learn better, do better on exams, and are just generally more engaged. Is there research on this? I have no idea, but I like being here, so being chipper and friendly and laid back fun is easy. Sometimes I have to remember that this is CAWL-EGE (read that in a Thurston Howell from Gilligan’s Island blue blood sort of way). I have to remember that I am here to share serious business and theory and research and studies and such. I always feel the need to be so academic, academic meaning in my head dry and dull and boring and stick up my ass, but in reality I usually feel more like a kindergarten teacher. I just work hard on class days to be an especially good girl and pray at night that I never meet the professors that come after me, that I never have to answer to what I failed to hammer into these young heads that sit expecting some sort of transfer of grand knowledge from my brain to theirs.

So my day goes mostly like this. Smile. Forget. Smile. Forget. Smile. Don’t. But what I find most disturbing as I go through my day is that the place I mostly forget to smile is the place I always assumed I was giving the most, my own home. With strangers on the street I am often friendlier and more upbeat than with my own family. Not that I’m negative with my family. I’m just nothing. I walk in the door after class, let the dogs out, put the dishes away, pick up the towel on the floor, put somebody’s shoes in the closet, re-pack my bag for tomorrow’s class, kick off my boots, and wipe the sandwich crumbs off the counter. “HEEEYYYY!! I’m HOOOMMMEE!” I wonder where they are. They yell back. One child is upstairs in his room strumming on the guitar and talking to the dog. The other is in the basement Skyping a friend while watching some back seasons of Ellen. I put dinner on, light a couple candles, and start up my Pandora Train station. I like Train, and I always get a kick out of the idea that I have a Train station. Music humor. I will finally connect with these mystery children of mine after about an hour of being home.

When they come to greet me, and share about their days, I remember the guy in the wheelchair. I remember the scruffy grin and the beaming face and how two simple words made my day. I give these teenagers of mine a giant hug. I look them in the eyes and smile, ask them if they had a great day. I tell them I love them and that I am proud of them. I tell them how great they are and how I’m glad they’re here. My heart is happy. I do this sometimes, but not nearly enough. Mostly I badger them about homework and chores and picking up after themselves. Mostly I am all about taking care of business, all about discussing the email I got from the teacher and the upcoming sports banquet and what we’re supposed to bring and birthday plans for the weekend, what kind of cake do you want and where do you want to have dinner? I decide that I should forget business sometimes. I should forget business and just give them a hug and look them in the eyes and smile and tell them they’re smart and special and that I think they’re priddy, both outside and in.

Thank you so much wheel chair guy for the compliment and the perspective.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Dear Ms. Chapman

Day 3: Write a thank you note to someone who made a difference in your life

What’s on your mind?

Got a card in the mail the other day from someone who attended a poverty simulation at which I read one of my essays, the essay blasting that very simulation. I just laid reality on the line with my words. Poverty is something that builds in the body over time, ravishes it physically and emotionally, slowly and with deliberate intent. And, apparently, as I found when I read, never leaves that body. That’s just not a concept one could pick up at a three-hour lunch-and-learn, and I said as much. The kind woman who sent the card thanked me profusely for sharing, telling me how courageous I was and how she was sorry I had to grow up like that and how proud she is of what I’ve made of my life. Her words were truly moving, but I wasn’t courageous at all. I was scared shitless. I was only able to step onto that stage because I knew my words weren’t for me. They were for those who are living now what I lived then. Sometimes we do things not because they’re comfortable but because they are necessary.

Sometimes I’m thinking of somebody and they just show up, right in front of me. We just happen to be in the same place at the same time. I wish it worked that way for everybody. I miss my dad sometimes. It would be nice if he could just pop up once in awhile to chat, but no. He’s dead. He has been for eighteen years. He can never show up again. And, sometimes, there’s that high school biology teacher who absolutely believed in you at a time when you really needed believing in. You wish she would just pop in so you could say thank you so much for the difference she made in your life. But you have no idea where she is or what her name is now or if, even, she is still alive. And, so, you post an essay thanking her profusely for her contribution to the person you see each morning when you look in the mirror. You post the essay, and you send the thank you vibes out to the Universe hoping that she might somehow soak them in.

For today’s challenge, I thought of penning a note on a card and sticking it in the mailbox, hunting down said biology teacher through friends and former classmates. But a thank you comes in many disguises. I choose a letter. I choose a letter in the form of an essay in the form of a blog post. I choose that because that is what I do. I write. When I have thoughts in my head or feelings in my heart, I put them to paper for all to see. And, so now you will all know about the woman who believed in a precocious, lippy, big-dreams teenage girl at a time when that girl’s life could have gone either this way or that, “this way” being a wonderful, rich, exciting, place of learning and light and giving and plenty, “that” being something we won’t discuss right now because it is sad and dark and depressing and not at all pretty.

Dear Ms. Chapman:

Sometimes we get up each day and go to work as if it is any other day. We have no idea the impact we might make on another’s life when we are just going about our ordinary business. The words we use, the expressions we share, the actions we take, which to us seem all too commonplace and unremarkable imprint that soul in a way we can never know.

School was my happy place.

My home was filled with fighting and yelling and tension and stress. If I needed money for lunch or a field trip or clothes, I would get that knotted feeling in my stomach, knowing that first I would have to ask, and then I would have to stand for as much as an hour and endure a verbal attack laced with accusations and put downs and swear words of all sort. A fifteen-year-old standing with red and crying face, begging for tampons, tampons for God’s sake, while her father yells at her, I don’t have the goddamned money. What do you want me to do? Pull it out of my ass? Eventually I would get the money, or not, but first the yelling. Always the yelling.

Like this (an excerpt from one of my essays):

Now my father is yelling at her to get up off her goddamned lazy ass and clean this filthy shithole of a house. What does she do all day, anyway? Watch the television while he’s out busting his goddamned ass trying to make a dollar? Doesn’t she know how hard he works? And for what? To come home to this? And so far she says nothing. I know that soon, though, someone will throw something or take a fist to something. I know that soon she will stop taking it and stand up and start yelling back. She will accuse him of spending more time with his damn racecar than he spends with her. She will tell him that if he were a real man he would get a real job instead of sitting on a corner all day selling those fucking tomatoes. She will tell him that she is tired of this bullshit and wants him to start bringing home some money so that she can pay some bills. She tells him she has kids to feed. She tells him the electric has been shut off again and the landlord won’t stop calling about the rent. He tells her that he is doing the best he can, that he can’t get ahead for trying, and that she can very well by God get rid of that piss poor attitude.

This was my every day.

School was the place I could go to get away from the stress and the knotted stomach and the tears on my pillow as I cried myself to sleep. School was quiet and peaceful and happy and hopeful. School was a place of possibilities and potential. School was friends and fun and teachers like you.

I had big dreams. And I was a smart girl. But being smart and having big dreams does not always mean much when one grows up in impoverished circumstances. It does not always mean much when one is very strongly destined to repeat the cycle in which she grew up, a cycle of joblessness and hunger and teen pregnancy and abuse of one sort or another. Having big dreams and being smart means nothing in that world. Nothing without opportunity.

Other teachers might look past that child, might think What’s the point? There’s no hope anyway, might keep a distance so as not to be offended by the clothing reeking of cigarette smoke. Other teachers would see the family situation as it was and think that no matter how great the grades, how strong the intent, how willful the soul, this child will never move past senior year, so why encourage.

Other teachers.

You never doubted. At least out loud. You smiled. You were interested. You made yourself approachable. I could talk to you about anything, anything at all. I probably did. You were like a friend, a mentor, only in an authority position. You encouraged my dreams. You called me Doctor, knowing that I would make it happen, or at least leading me to believe that you knew I would make it happen. You never assumed that I wouldn’t be. You always expected my best and showed me, then, how to get that best. You made certain I had access to college seminars for high school students. I so loved the genetics workshops at DePauw, the life sciences summer session at Indiana State. When the learning resources in my own home consisted of tabloid magazines and a twenty-year-old set of Encyclopedia Britannica, these seminars fed my brain in a way that made it smile and made it grow as it was meant to do.

You should know that I did not become a doctor, of any sort, but I am teaching, possibly no coincidence. I use your same approach with my college students. I focus on what is right. I see the potential, and I believe in that potential. I see all that they have to contribute to the world, and I let them know that I absolutely believe they can make that happen. I make a difference. Every day. Students share with me at the end of term their appreciation for how I’ve impacted their lives, how I’ve led them down a path that feels more right to them, or how they better understand themselves, or how they actually enjoyed the learning process.

One student gave me a copy of the memorial brochure from his father’s funeral. I had noticed the young twenty-something’s drop in attendance earlier in the class. He shared that his father was ending his battle with cancer, that the doctors had said it would be weeks now. This student of mine was saying goodbye to the man who had raised him when his mother had walked out, had deserted him as a little boy. With no other family, the young man was spending the majority of his time at the hospice center, sharing his final thoughts, helping his father to let go, letting him know that it was ok, and that his son would be fine, that he had been a great role model and had taught that son how to be a good man. This student shared with me that he needed to complete the class for his program, that he couldn’t drop, and that he needed a decent grade at that. But he had no idea how he would make this happen. He was studying bedside of his dying father, worried every second he was actually in class that he would miss the passing. It broke my heart, but I got creative and I helped him to make it happen. Yes, he did finish the class. With the grade he needed. And, yes, his father did pass before term had ended. I have never felt such emotion-filled hugs, hugs of such a complete sense of powerlessness, of loss, of sorrow, of aloneness as I felt from those of this young man when he shared with me the news.

I only could make that happen for him because you made it happen for me.

Thank you so much for believing when I needed believing in. Thank you so much for helping to put me in a position where I am able to believe in others.