Natalie windmills through the water, her arms smooth as oars. She flutters her feet like mermaid fins and relaxes on the cushion of the water with an ease so unfamiliar to me. I didn’t take well to swimming as a child, and I still tense up in the water, trapping wisps of air in lungs squeezed too small, beating back the deep with panicky chops. Not my impossibly long eight-year-old though. She trusts the four feet of chlorinated blue beneath her and the tenor of her swim instructor’s voice. She breathes easily, my calm girl.
On the other side of the pool, Sophie laps up distance like a puppy, her hands pawing the water enthusiastically, a big grin visible just above the surface. Four months ago, she was afraid of getting water in her eyes; now, her confident splashes lead a pack of five-year-olds up the lane. I remember whispering to her about bravery last summer at the pond. We had stood barefoot on the grass staring down its rippling green, both of us trying to ignore the silvered flashes of fish through storm clouds of silt at the bottom, and I had whispered in her ear about how being scared is the first half of bravery; the other half is jumping in anyway. She jumps easily now, my brave girl.
I perch on a clear plastic stool and watch them through the glass like a mother hawk. I feel such tenderness toward those little bodies in motion below me and such fierceness toward potential threats, including that of the water surrounding them. My mind slips briefly toward Oklahoma and those children huddling around their teachers while the sky bludgeoned their school around them, but I can’t dwell there right now. I just can’t. Maybe tomorrow. Maybe when I’m not watching a poolful of little ones in the earnest upswing of learning.
For now, just this—calmness and bravery, and a childlike trust that we’ll be held in all that deep beyond our control.
My girls have a good dad, no doubt about it. He teaches them how to throw the Aerobie and ask good questions. He sits cross-legged on the rug to build LEGO police-station-chemistry-lab-recording-studio-princess-schools according to request. He turns up the Dropkick Murphys loud when Sophie’s in the car and gives Natalie special computer programming assignments (pretty much everything about our girls’ personalities can be summed up in this sentence). He knows what makes them tick, and he encourages streaks of independence that I’d never even noticed. He fosters their creativity, respects their privacy, and displays their construction pencil holders in his office. All girls should be so lucky.
My girls have a good mom too. The Law of Self-Deprecation says I probably shouldn’t be saying this, but it’s the truth, and I know it. I tie three sets of aprons and show the girls how to measure and whisk and roll cookie dough in cinnamon sugar. I instigate Jamiroquai dance parties in the living room, tickle-chase escaping fugitives, and read Roald Dahl aloud before bed. I teach Natalie about story arcs and Sophie about “c-a-t,” and I tell them they’re beautiful every single day. Daniel and I aren’t perfect parents by any stretch of the imagination, but our girls know we love them and like them and want them around. We’re doing a few somethings right.
But there is one aspect of parenting girls in particular that moves me to contemplate tequila as a valid breakfast option. For all the positive things Daniel and I are teaching our girls about themselves through our attention and encouragement, I am also teaching the girls about themselves by how I treat myself, and I can tell you, the message coming across from me to me is rarely of the positive variety.
While it’s easy for me to focus on the features that make my girls inside-and-out beautiful—Natalie’s midnight blue eyes, Sophie’s whole-body smile, the glimmers of kindness and joy that light each of their demeanors like a personal aurora borealis—my filters tune to the negative when I look at myself. I only notice the stray eyebrow hairs, the unflattering curves, the tired slump of my shoulders, the frustration that flares up like lava bursts. I don’t see anything worth celebrating or encouraging in myself, and this would feel pious and admirably ascetic if not for the fact that my girls are absorbing my brand of womanhood like sponges.
Their eyes go round as they watch me sweep on my mascara, and I remember that same combination of curiosity and awe from my own girlhood while I watched my mother dab on moisturizer and replace it in the mystical realm of grown-up toiletries under the sink. The secrets to my future self lived under that sink. Tucked among the perfume bottles and tampons, womanhood whispered to me about beauty and strength and sensuality and fragility, and it had my mother’s voice.
Now it has mine.
In the contours of my figure, my daughters glimpse the trajectory of their own bodies. In my speech, they catch inflections and sayings that will one day trip off their own mama-tongues. Each of my habits is a clue to their own approaching adulthood, each of my mannerisms a point on the map, and like it or not, I’m their first lesson about how to be a woman. Good God in heaven.
I never anticipated mothering grown women before my oldest finished second grade, but here we are on this express route to the future, and when I seethe with impatience over my own limitations, I’m teaching my adult daughters that they don’t deserve grace, and when I mutter into the mirror about my physical imperfections, I’m telling these one-day women that they are not beautiful just as they are, and when I ignore my own needs to the point of burnout, I’m showing them that self-care is not a priority. My soliloquies are their screenplays, and the implications knock the breath right out of me.
I feel like this shouldn’t be such a big deal. The solution is as simple as treating myself the way I want my girls to be treated—with gentleness, compassion, joy, and the occasional spoonful of Nutella. Everybody wins, right? Except that I’m me, so nothing is ever that simple, and the reality is that I’m far more comfortable with self-deprecation than I am with self-care. I’m good at listing my faults, grimacing at my reflection, and jabbing unkind sentiments into the soft belly of my mind. They produce a kind of half-vindictive, half-vanquished satisfaction. Tenderness though… it has always felt like a guilty pleasure, emphasis on the guilt.
Somewhere along the years, I picked up the notion that any scrap of kindness—even within the privacy of my own thoughts—must be earned through perfection. Patience and rest must each be purchased with intense stretches of achievement, and if I want that spoonful of Nutella, I’d better be sporting rock-hard abs. It’s my own personal works-based religion. I follow it like a spiritual devotee too. I’m so familiar with the liturgy of criticism that its sting almost feels like comfort by now, and the idea of psychological freedom is not enough of a motivator for me to revamp my self-image.
However, the idea of my daughters’ psychological freedom is. I’m almost angry that this is the answer, that I have to be comfortable in my own skin in order to raise daughters comfortable in theirs. I’d much rather refer them to a stack of self-help books or start a therapy fund, anything other than having to lead by example. I don’t want to have to spelunk the messy dark of my own emotional history to find the reasons why I can’t smile when I look in the mirror. I don’t want to march into shame’s territory and fight to win myself back.
And it’s not like my girls will be doomed to a future of bitterness and self-loathing if I don’t figure this out. They’re already thoughtful and resilient individuals, and part of their growing up experience was always going to be figuring out who they are apart from their parents. I would be either very arrogant or very naïve to assume that they are my carbon copies, destined to play out my own life choices.
Using their individuality as an excuse to avoid doing the hard work on myself is a cop-out though. Even the most curmudgeonly gatekeepers in my mind know deep down that learning to love myself is worth the struggle. It’s worth working through profound discomfort in order to make my daughters’ first perspective on womanhood one of kindness and joy and wholeheartedness. It’s worth charging back into that formidable battle against shame in order to give them the gift of a mom who’s happy to exist as herself.
I’m writing this from the entrance of the emotional messy cave—no answers at all, just a few half-baked ideas and a significant amount of trepidation. I’m perplexed as to why it should be this hard to start seeing myself a little more as a unique and valuable human worthy of love and a little less as Jabba the Hutt, but the Real Beauty Sketches video going around (have you seen it yet?) proves that I am not alone in holding a distorted and negative view of myself. We women are masterful at finding fault in ourselves. Glossy cover models and online mommy wars prey on our insecurities while religious pundits promote our inferiority. We react by judging each other in a misguided attempt to boost our own statuses, and it’s no wonder that so few of us can fathom the idea that we might be worthy of celebration or admiration or love.
What I can fathom, however, is that my precious little girls are worthy. They don’t have to do a single blessed thing to earn their lovability; they are themselves, and that’s enough. I cherish the ways their minds work, their bodies are taking shape, and their hearts expanding, and I dearly hope that they can grow up seeing themselves through the same lens of happy awe that I do. It bears repeating that they are themselves, and that’s enough—enough to warrant compassion and respect and appreciation and understanding and spoonfuls of Nutella and a personal cheerleading squad and full-out, unconditional, never-changing, no-holds-barred love—
and if my girls are worthy just because they are who they are, then it’s time I accept as truth that I am too.
I have a desk and a lamp and a chair that cradles my temperamental back like a luxury, but more often than not, I find myself set up here at the kitchen table. On one side of me, a coffee mug empty but for a smudge of foam, two pen-scribbled notebooks, the Bible I always tote in just in case my soul feels strong enough to open it. On the other side, glass doors closed against a granite-gray day. In front of me, my computer and dusky blue nails typing a haphazard melody. Behind me, pots and pans, possibly every pot and pan in the world, piled in sculptured odes to spaghetti sauce and barbecue chicken and priorities that always seem to fall just short of dishwashing.
I have letters to write and lessons to plan and approximately 30,000 hours of IRS instructions to decipher before Tax Day, and some might argue that our empty fridge and overflowing sink necessitate some motherly attention, but instead I’ve been watching iridescent points of rain pattern our balcony. It takes nothing more than this, nothing more than a leak in the sky to remind me just how weary I am.
A few years ago for my birthday hope-list, I resolved to invite guests over once a week for the following year… and I did. Some weeks, we had company for dinner three nights in a row, and the whole experience fit our family’s values and hopes like a signature style. We couldn’t keep it up though. Our job situations changed after that year, and as the worries of keeping our family afloat have compounded, our ability to reach beyond ourselves has plummeted. As we approach each new weekend, my plans alternate between trying to catch up on the bazillion errands and projects we never have time for during the week and grasping at the chance to rest. I can’t imagine summoning the energy to make our home an open invitation again.
Hospitality is one of the core values that Daniel and I have always shared, and I know that he would have friends over tonight if I were willing. But to be really, painfully, embarrassingly honest, I’m not willing. I’m not willing to invite friends to view the laundry draped over every available drying surface in our house or the toothpaste splattered across our bathroom sinks or the congregation of gym bags in the hall or the giveaway pile that’s swallowing our guest room whole. I’m not okay with touching up my makeup and switching my conversational filters to Italian and acting bright and welcoming at the time of day I’m really only up for changing into yoga pants and losing myself in the sofa cushions. I don’t have it in me to pretend I’m on top of our family life enough these days to include other people in it.
So our doors stay closed, and we try to make our life fit without its signature style, and I watch the rain give our balcony the only cleaning it’s had in eight months while this weariness seeps right into my blood stream.
And I know I’m not the only one. I’ve seen the same haggard tightness clutch around the expressions of friends all over town, and I’ve caught glimpses of it in the social media feeds of friends all over the world, and this weariness, it’s a universal cloud cover, a granite-gray weight in the air. We don’t typically admit to it though. While busy is an acceptable, maybe even admirable condition, weary comes across as pitiful, and how can we add one more social failure to the list? How can we open up such a vulnerable reality to criticism?
A large part of me wants to delete this post right now, not even finish. I’d much rather continue saying “I’m just busy” and collecting understanding nods. But if I don’t admit that this busyness has grown into something other, something as unwieldy as the sky and draining as a disease, then I’m perpetuating the idea that it’s not okay to show what’s really going on behind the scenes. I’m holding up a façade between us and perhaps even making you think you have to hold one up too.
You don’t have to though, at least not here. This place is for practicing authenticity and chasing down grace and remembering that we’re all in this human experience together. More than anyone, I need the reminder, but perhaps you need it too—a squeeze to your shoulder assuring you that you’re not the only one plumb out of energy, that you’re not defective or pitiful or alone. I might not be to the place yet of showing you my literal behind-the-scenes (I don’t even want to look at my kitchen sink!), but cracking open the door on my weariness and letting you in feels like a step closer to the community I’ve been missing, and wouldn’t you know it, the clouds are finally cracking open too.
The flu is unconcerned with timing, with the fact that you are in an all-out race against a translating deadline or that your husband’s schedule is triple-booked or that your daughter has been looking forward to celebrating her eighth birthday since the day she turned seven. The flu cares not that you are desperate to write again, so desperate that innocuous phrases snag on barbed wire somewhere in your throat and you lash out at loved ones for inching too close to your restlessness. The flu doesn’t mind that you will worry to the point of dizziness over your husband’s blanked-out face and your children’s griddle-hot skin or that you will lose yourself entirely in the tides of disinfectant and chicken soup and acetaminophen rising through the house.
At some point around the two-week mark, you will feel your own head start to close in heavy around you, and you will say Enough. You win. You will stare sickness right in the face, unblinking, as you cancel your classes for the day; though the flu doesn’t care any more than it did before, you do. You will put on your favorite flare-leg jeans with the tattered hems and the superglue splotches and sit down on your daughters’ floor to build a LEGO village with them. You will take their temperature 537 times over the course of the morning and administer Gatorade with a straw and read aloud about dragons and forget to do your makeup. You will not succumb, even though you said you would.
Later, as your children sweat through fevered naptime dreams, you will fling open windows to the afternoon light. You will leave clean socks to await rescue on the laundry line and bread crumbs to be fruitful and multiply on the kitchen floor. You will sit down to reclaim yourself, though at first, the restlessness will act as saboteur. The tea is too hot, the deadline too pressing, that Alicia Keys’ video still making you cry with the satin and the toddlers and the late night bills. The flu doesn’t care about artist-souls on fire, only about blazing skin and resignation. After two weeks of ‘round-the-clock work, it’s hard to imagine anything more.
But you are more. You are more than your actions—the swish of a toilet bowl brush, the clack of foreign keys—and more than your worries. You are more than your body, its molecules spread too thin over a swath of too many days. You are more than this stage of mama-life or its million smaller stages, the illnesses and growing pains that keep you on your toes in every sense of the phrase. You are more than what you do to pay the bills.
So you put on your reading glasses and follow the tremulous glow in your veins that indicates that somewhere, somehow, some part of you is still on fire. You won’t find the flame instantly; your children are due to wake up soon, and you may have to sniff the trail back out by moonlight. Or perhaps the flu will finally catch up with you, and the only heat you’ll comprehend is the viral surge in your belly. There is sure to be something, some inconsiderate upset of life that will leave you doubting again if you are anything more than the on-duty vomit scooper.
But at least until the afternoon light dwindles and responsibility calls, you will focus on the truth that you are more, that losing yourself implies having a self to re-find… and it will be grace enough for the night shift.
I’m sitting in the gym café while the girls hip and hop their funky little hearts out upstairs. Behind me, espresso cups clatter their way to the dishwasher, which swishes steadily behind the occasional train-blast of the milk steamer. All around me, voices upon voices—soccer buddies jostling for sandwiches to fill the bottomless void of their teenage stomachs, trainers discussing workout plans with seat-shifting clients, children playing Rabid Banshee Tag while their mothers chat and pretend not to notice the other patrons huffing in their direction, P!nk expressing her punchy brand of heartache over the speakers. One hour ago, I was teaching English to a room full of first- and second-graders whose speaking voices, as any elementary teacher knows, are approximately the same volume and pitch as rioting cats, and before that, there was the unsuccessful attempt to nap to the groove of our friendly neighborhood jackhammer.
Folks, I’m all noised out.
I think that this, more than anything, explains why I was so supportive of Daniel’s plan to give up television shows for the month. Here’s the truth of things—we’re work-from-homers and small-child-wranglers, and there is nothing as mind-numbingly delicious at the end of a day as sinking into the sofa cushions and zoning out to a good murder mystery, or two… or three… But that was where the problem was, because no number of charmingly predictable plot-lines was sufficient to empty our minds of the day’s noise. The television just piled on top of it, muffling rather than quieting, and reasonable bedtimes would come and go without us ever quite managing to zone our way into tranquility.
So we gave up the numbing agent that never actually numbed, and that first evening, after corralling the kids into bed, Daniel and I stood looking at each other like strangers on Mars. What was he doing there? What was I doing there? What is proper etiquette on Mars anyway? Does this other life-form even speak English? In the end, the only thing we knew to do with our tired selves was to put them to bed.
Let me tell you, it doesn’t take many evenings of awkward alien stare-downs with one’s own spouse to realize how desperately your habits need a facelift. There has been so much noise in our life, so much self-inflicted distraction, that we haven’t noticed the other’s voice was missing. And now, with the silence stretching between us like a foreign sandscape, we have to relearn what to do with it. How to shape our brainwaves and heartbeats into words. How to hear, really hear, the other’s meaning. How to be companionably silent together again.
In fact, I’m having to relearn how to be companionably silent with myself as well. My mind has been startling into retreat, doe-like, from the auditory clutter around me, and there has been no space for the gentle osmosis of grace. God and I have been communicating like we’re on opposite sides of a train yard. My heart’s ears are ringing as if this clattering, steaming, banshee-ing café were my whole wide world, and as much as I’d like to drown out the ringing, to muffle it with noise of my own choosing and numb every tired molecule of my being into oblivion, I know I need something different.
I need deliberate quiet, at least for now, at least until the ringing stops. I need to arrest my finger on its way to the play button and let running dishwater be the only soundtrack to my thoughts. I need to stand under the sky at least once a day and breathe it in, like I did as a child, until I’m spinning from my own smallness. I need to resurrect the art of question-asking and practice listening to hear. I need to combat tiredness with sleep (novel concept, I know) and loneliness with intention and all the many, many inescapable noises of everyday life with moments held sacred to silence.
Honestly, I don’t know that a month without television shows is going to be enough.
The sky shifts and stretches, and sunlight spills through the elongated gaps. It’s still too hazy to see the mountains, but light is reflecting off a hundred smoking chimneys and dancing on a million silvered olive leaves, and I think I might take my coffee—a regrettable but necessary second cup—out into the joy of it. I make it nearly two steps onto the balcony before my Texas bones start shaking in protest. Sunny or not, this is still the crux of winter, and I in my morning zombie trance am no match for the cold.* I retreat to the kitchen table, backhand a swath of crumbs out of my way, and sigh long and deep.
* Disclaimer: I realize that my calling a sunny Mediterranean winter “cold” is causing some of you to smash your heads repeatedly into your desks right now. I apologize for any resulting trauma and invite you to come sunbathe on our balcony at your convenience.
I’m in so many mental ruts right now, ruts within ruts, that it’s hard to distinguish which one is suddenly closing the walls of our kitchen around me. My eyes wince across the trail of soup pots and mixing bowls waiting to be washed. In the next room, laundry is draped over radiators to dry; another load sloshes in the washer, and my lungs feel like they’re wrapped in damp socks. Chores multiply like rabbits around here in the winter, and beating them off with a broom could be my full-time job. I wonder if it is. Last week while reading a picture dictionary to Sophie, I asked her if she knew any janitors, and she answered brightly, “Yes, you!” And yet our floors still feel like syrup and sand and one has to use parkour to navigate the guest room and mealtimes feel like punishment.
This is a doozy of a rut, this resentment of my domestic life and its endless repetitions of damage control. Home should feel like sanctuary, so I try to distract myself from the messes spawning like video game villains across my universe. However, distraction turns out to be its own form of rut; my mind wanders and flits until I realize with a jolt that I haven’t felt my own soul’s pulse in weeks.
I should have picked up on it earlier, the very minute that the dust congregating on our windowsills became a universe to me. Even as I say that though, I recognize that I have no easy answers for how to push back at the shinkwrap, how to keep filling my lungs with the air of a wide wide world while the four walls of our house clamor so loudly and the cold seals them shut.
Yesterday, I read a bit from two women whose words light fires inside of me, and for those ten minutes, my heart remembered how to move again. It pumped away my zombie fog and stretched out, out, beyond our sleepy Italian valley and the mountains standing guard, out across oceans, out past the stars. My universe expanded to make room for eternity, and the only thing I could ask beyond that is the strength to hold onto it more than ten minutes at a time.
I’m writing now from the bittersweet place of awareness without answers, trapped in a rut with eyes full of stars. I know who I am—the true me, the eyes-wide-open me who isn’t afraid her life’s work will boil down to laundry—but I’ve never worked out just how to keep those fires lit. One of Shame’s favorite adjectives for me is “selfish,” and I hear it now in the clacking of the keys while the soup pots go unwashed. I hear it in the turning pages of a book and in the stillness of attempted meditation, in any pursuit of my own personal peace. The clock becomes a rushing sound in my ears, and I scramble to get back to the duties that pile around my vision like blinders.
Or… I write, because Shame is not going to stop advancing any sooner than the laundry pile is, and if I’m willing to hinge my worth on damage control, why not start with the soul-damage? Why not battle to climb out of the rut instead of battling to keep it mess-free?
This isn’t just a rhetorical question; I know the answer, and the answer is Shame itself. Shame is the bully pinning us down while taunting, “Why don’t you just get up?” Shame is the dictator citing himself as the source of truth. Shame is the fear profiteer. Shame is what makes us feel unworthy to fight the burden of unworthiness, and how do you pull yourself up from that if not by looking the bully square in the eye, saying his name out loud—S C R E A M I N G it if necessary!—and informing him that he no longer calls the shots?
Here is what I know to be true:
- No one will die if the dishes go unwashed until tomorrow (although I reserve the right to boycott the kitchen in the meantime). Repeat: No one will die.
- My soul will die, slow and purpling like frostbite, if I don’t allow her the unhurried time she needs to connect with God, refresh her focus, and do what her heart is nudging her to do.
- Sometimes that will mean half an hour; sometimes it will mean the entire day.
- That is not selfish.
- It’s not selfish because a whole and peaceful me brings direct good to the world around me, even the little one within our walls, while a resentful and distracted me spreads negativity.
- It is much easier to keep eternity in my perspective when I’m prioritizing the eternal things—soul-ties, relationships, art, justice, kindness—and letting Mount Laundry take whatever energy I have left over. Not the other way around.
- Shame has no redeeming characteristics. Not a one. I will gain nothing by listening to it, ever. That voice sneering at me that I’m selfish and worthless and a big fat failure? deserves no acknowledgement other than a big fat ass-kicking.
- Shame might masquerade as a bully or a dictator, but I can always recognize Truth; it’s the one shifting and stretching my mind, spilling light through the elongated cracks, lighting fires, imparting courage.
What do you know to be true despite Shame telling you otherwise?
I’m startled by my own weight when the alarm rings and dragging myself up through gravity feels like dueling a rip tide. This isn’t the kind of heaviness that spins the needle on our bathroom scale, though I’m surprised it doesn’t; it feels so tangible, a lead apron clinging to my bones.
I don’t need a scale to tell me I’m off the chart in soul-kilos though. I recognize the heft of each and every piece in this baggage set—
fear of who might be lurking on the other side of a shadow
anxiety over a future that refuses to be planned
disoriented terror that flits from potential disaster to potential catastrophe
every opinion formed about me that I’ve accepted as my identity
every opinion I’ve formed of others that reflects more on myself
dependence on a houseful of breakable, stealable things
my list of wants and the moving target at the end
this worry I carry around like a custom-fitted brick around my heart
stress, stress, stress
and my arch-frenemy, the compulsion to Fit In
They’ve traveled with me into the new year, and here I am, startled by my own weight when I try to lift myself out of bed, up from the table, off the sofa. It’s too much, it’s all too much, and the truth I’m trying to lift my head enough to see is that not a piece in the set is mine to lug around.
I’ve been wrestling with my “one wild and precious life” more than usual lately, and some Big Thoughts are coming to the surface, some surprising twists of perspective that I need to spelunk properly before I share. If I’m a little quieter than usual, that is why; spelunking is a mysterious and silent art, after all. I do know this though—each step back to take in a new angle is a step closer to returning a lighter woman than before.
Busy. Quiet. Mournful. Excited. Pulled into the glitter and joy and inevitable bustle of Christmas. Drawn back into the shadow and heartsickness of death. Dizzy from to-dos and not-dones (mostly the latter). Apprehensive about all the possible wrong turns a holiday can take. Tip-toeingly thrilled regardless. Heavy. Springy. Awhirl.
Today’s my day off from writing—a day allocated for errands and ironing and all manner of riffraff that didn’t get seen to during the week. Yet I can’t not write today. I have a desperate desire to make sense of yesterday’s massacre, though I realize there is no sense to be made, nothing that could possibly make the murder of twenty young children into something as succinct and graspable as sense. Still, writing down the whirlwind in my head makes it easier to keep my footing. A little.
I have a kindergartener, and I don’t say this to claim dibs on grief or to cheapen a single facet of people’s heartache or even to play the I’m-so-glad-it-wasn’t-my-child card that has to twist dagger sharp in the ears of bereaved parents. I say it because my kindergartener trotted off to class yesterday morning hand-in-hand with a friend, their little heads bobbing in enthusiasm, and that that could have been a death march… that we live in a world where a room of bright and busy and trusting five-year-olds can be sprayed with .223-caliber slugs… it’s unendurable.
This heartbreak feels so literal, the actual sinews in my chest threatening to rip loose, and I know you’re feeling it too. We’re all breaking apart and trying to hold ourselves together in different ways, whether by anger or action or silence or advice or prayer or time with loved ones or time alone. My social media feeds are full of opposing viewpoints, but they all come from a similar ferocity of grief, and I’m comforted, like Mr. Rogers, by seeing “so many caring people in this world.”
Every one of us is shouldering a tiny portion of the pain that the Newtown parents are going through right now. Every one of us is united in grief, though we might process it very differently (and that’s ok). Evil was done yesterday, and we care. It doesn’t make sense of the violence and pain we experience to different degrees in this broken world, but it does lighten the load.
I’m grateful to care alongside you.
My mind weighs more than it should today. I have to concentrate to hold it upright and centered above my shoulders instead of sinking a slow depression between them. The #adventwindow words have gotten me again. This time, it’s “choose”—a dare, a remonstrance, a permission ripe for the picking. I’ve been staring at it for three days now, this weighty word pasted to an otherwise empty page, and the only response I’ve conjured up is a question: How?
This year, more than just about any other in my memory, has been strung up like a commercial trawling line with others’ expectations for me. I would say I’ve lost count of how many people I’ve let down this year, but this isn’t the kind of thing easily forgotten. I can recall every email, every phone conversation, and every hard-staring face that has let me know I am not entitled to my own decisions.
As much as I value honest writing, this blog isn’t the right place for sharing these particular details, for rehashing every he-said-she-said and amassing indignation. Part of me would love to vent, get a flurry of “You’re clearly in the right!” sympathy comments, and then return to the mess of life in a protective aura of superiority. However, the other, wiser part of me knows that venting is a demolition tactic, not a restorative measure, and that it simply isn’t who I am.
Who-I-am is a relentless seeker of purpose and perspective, and that means digging past crumbled emotions to locate the foundation beneath. I have to confess though—I’m stumped when it comes to “choose.” So many decisions in my life right now seem armed to the teeth. In work, relationships, and even service opportunities, my path has already been chosen by others who are ill-prepared to hear me say “no.” These aren’t usually people I can just ignore or write out of my life, and their disappointment with me registers in the same sharp key as regret. The more firmly I try to plant my feet in the best decision for myself and my little family, the more I feel like a traitor… and the more I realize that the other party wants me to feel that way.
This scenario never fails to send my thoughts into a tailspin. Am I letting myself get bullied into a powerless version of my own life? Am I letting my soul get trampled in my quest not to disappoint anyone else? Or… is this just a normal part of living in community and loving others well? Is the regret I feel a healthy reaction to my own selfishness? Is it that I’m divvying up my “one wild and precious life” to the most insistent bidder, or is it that I’m clinging to my own minor wishes above the wellbeing of others? Is my people-pleasing guilt instructive or destructive?
I really don’t know. I rewind situations even as recent as this week and play back my words in slow, critical motion. How could I have held my ground instead of caving into pressure and agreeing to the other party’s terms? How could I have asserted my decision without sparking resentment? How could I have separated the codependent mesh of friendship and favors so that my “no” would only touch the latter?
As much as I might wish for obvious, quick-fix answers, I realize that isn’t how any relationship works, especially not the one between my mind and my heart. This is the stuff of life and breath and plot-twist and resolution, all of us learning what it means to occupy planet earth together while growing ever more into ourselves. There are no perfect comebacks. I’m never ever ever going to know the right thing to say at the right time, and it’s probably best for my sanity not to figure it out later either.
But still… I really wouldn’t mind having all the hidden motivations and truths of each tense situation laid out in alphabetical order and paired with solutions. I want to have the power to choose how I allocate my time, energy, and resources no matter how anyone tells me I should. I would love the freedom to follow what I call heart-nudges (some people call it divine prompting) without the clamor of differing opinions pulling me off-track. I’d pay big bucks biscotti (hey, it’s what I’ve got) for the assurance that “no” is as valid a word as “yes” and is in fact part of a healthy decision diet.
However, the whole point of “choose” is choice—individual, intentional choice—and it becomes a different beast altogether when I read it as an invitation. Go ahead—choose! Choose choosiness. Choose the power to choose for yourself even when there are no assurances and choice sounds like a trick question and you won’t be able to make everyone or maybe even anyone elsehappy and no one has read you your rights and you know the other party will be grading your decision with a red marker. Choose anyway. You are cordially invited by your value as a human being to pick your own actions differently than other human beings might do on your behalf. No R.S.V.P. required.
I just have to hope that the “how” will come with time.
Do you ever feel like you have little power to decide certain aspects of your life for yourself? How do you navigate the line between selfishness and self-care when your decisions might disappoint others?