Friday, December 30, 2011

And How do You Feel About That?

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

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

I suck at this. What DO I feel?

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

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

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

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Rich With Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, December 18, 2011

End of Term

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

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

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

I want a do-over.

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

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

Saturday, December 17, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

What you want of my morning looks more like this:

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

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

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

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Tables Turned

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, December 12, 2011

Ribbons and Bows

My holiday gift to each of you……….

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Dream THIS!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 8, 2011

To Read Me is to Know Me

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Reason for the Season

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

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

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

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

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

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