Years ago, I read One Thousand Gifts, by Ann Voskamp. The premise, that everything that happens to us is a gift, the good stuff and the tough stuff, is hard to swallow. I have an easier time understanding the truth of it when I look backwards. The challenge rests in being thankful for the difficulties as they happen, rather than miserably enduring them. I’ve spent a lot of the last year with my dad and, try as I might, I cannot muster up the faith to be grateful that he has Alzheimer’s. Watching him disappear into the disease is painful. It’s been a long two years since he was diagnosed, but I am finally ready to write about it.
I was sitting in my car when my brother called with the definitive results. “He definitely has Alzheimer’s, Joy. We just left the appointment and it’s confirmed.” We’d noticed stray symptoms for months, but this disease is tricky. It hid behind personal quirks, like the fact that he has always been a bit scattered, regularly losing his keys, wallet and phone. It also hid behind his funny personality. My dad has always been able to put everyone at ease with a well-timed, self-deprecating joke. When he couldn’t remember where the restroom was in a familiar restaurant, he turned to me and said in a crazy radio voice, “Now if one of you kind folks can remind me where the restroom is, I’ll be on my way.” His coping mechanisms kept the truth hidden as well. For instance, rather than admit he couldn’t read a menu, he’d ask, “What are you having? That sounds good, I’ll have that, too.” Alzheimer’s can lurk for years before denial and blaming other causes finally stops carrying enough weight. In my dad’s case, another disease, myasthenia gravis, caused one of his eyelids to droop and his speech to slur. A general confusion and lack of facial control associated with that disease allowed all of us to ignore his vision and depth perception problems as they began to change his capability. But at some point, we just knew in our guts something was off.
My mom went wading into the complicated world of health care to try to get help. My dad took an assessment and the doctor discounted the results. “This shows you can barely string words together; something must have gone wrong.” My mom explained that the facilitator of the test was rude, and it took place in a loud setting so my father couldn’t really hear her. The doctor ordered a new test. However, the insurance company was refusing to pay for the first test because the rude facilitator had also miscoded it. [Insert here months of waiting for this to be corrected!] Finally, my dad was reassessed, but the results were similar. More uncertainty. The next test was a brain scan, which showed where his brain was lighting up with activity. Unfortunately, the scan showed many dark spots. The part of his brain that translates his vision was dark. His vision is fine, his brain just mixes up the messages. He looks at his plate of food and his brain shows him there is no silverware next to it. He can feel the silverware. He knows it’s there. But for him there are not even shadows or blurry patches; he sees a smooth wooden table on both sides of his plate where, in fact, a napkin, knife and fork sit. He has learned to stop asking us where his silverware is and just feel around for it.
Shortly after the diagnosis, it was really clear he needed to stop driving, immediately. For all dementia patients, this is an early, but massive blow. It’s represents a loss of freedom and autonomy; it’s a public admission of what’s happening, a surrender of personal agency. The doctor strongly suggested my father let driving go but said she’d like it to be a family decision made together with my dad. I decided this was in my column, so I started by visiting for an extended time and asking my dad if he’d help me save money on a rental car by sharing his car with me. I promised I’d drive him wherever he needed to go if I could just use his car when I needed it. He agreed because he’d give me the world if I asked it of him. I felt a pang the first day I drove him to work. I knew he’d never drive again, but he didn’t. I dropped hints, opened conversations and he acted as if I were not speaking. One morning, a few weeks into the arrangement, he announced he’d like to use his car himself that day. When he got in the shower my mom and I looked at each other. Was this the showdown we’d been dreading? Who was going to be the bad guy? Neither of us has much experience standing up to him – he’s a dominant fellow and led our family with a clear, Father-in-Charge approach. In the end, we split the duty. I jumped in the car and fled the house leaving her to say, “Joy has taken your car. I’ll drive you to work today.” He realized then what we were up to and was not happy.
My dad has always been attracted to flash and these days he’s obsessed with the color purple. As a mental fog settles and his vision blurs, perhaps my dad’s senses are reached only with extremes. He listens to his radio at volume one thousand, he can eat ice cream all day, at any time, the sweeter the better, and he wants to wear purple clothes. My sweet mother acquiesces, and I noticed recently she even bought purple bedsheets for him. He’s talked her into buying him two sports coats this year – both purple.
I find it both exhausting and easy to spend time with my dad. It’s exhausting because his needs are relentless, and he requires way more care than he’d like to admit. Part of the challenge is giving him the care he needs while keeping his dignity and self-respect in place. It feels easy to me because I’ve parented kids – a similarly complicated process. At 5pm, as we head toward dinner, my Dad asks if we can please stop for ice cream on the way. “No, Dad, we haven’t had dinner yet”…. “Who cares about that? Who made the rule you can’t have ice cream before dinner, huh?” I watch him struggle to zip up his coat and then give up, leave it open and put his hands in his pocket. “Can I help you zip your coat?” I ask. “Nope, I don’t want it zipped right now.” At the end of each day he’s exhausted as he climbs into bed. “Did you take your medicine and brush your teeth?” I ask. He lets out a big sigh and gives an eye roll that competes with any middle schooler today. “Sheesh. Can’t a man get some rest around here without being pestered all the time,” he mutters as he gets back out of bed to do me the favor of taking his pills. I was walking with him in an airport and we were both pushing the cart of luggage. He likes to be helpful, but he can’t see where he’s going, so we have to do it together while I actually direct it. I noticed his shoe was untied. Without thinking, I stopped our cart, bent down to re-tie it and then we walked on. It was a simple act, hardly worth remembering or mentioning, but it stuck with me long after. It was muscle memory. That little act of love and care was something I’d done thousands of times for my kids and it flowed like water from me. I didn’t resent it, blame him or get frustrated by one more delay. I just dealt with it like the best moms do. Except, I’m the daughter.
In the beginning, I was desperate to get our family connected with emotional support, and I spent a lot of time that first summer understanding local resources. By chance, I caught the head of the Elder Care and Dementia Support Services from Sibley Hospital on the phone. At the first sound of her empathy, I burst into tears and she sat quietly with me. I asked a million questions about what to expect and timelines, and here’s the best line she shared with me: “When you’ve seen one case of Alzheimer’s, what you’ve seen is one case. Every person progresses differently, every family copes differently, every personality exhibits the disease differently.” She told me to watch my dad, know my dad and love my dad.
I know I’ve sat with friends as they’ve struggled through life challenges and I’ve said the exact wrong thing in those moments. I’ve been forgiven because they see my heart and they are grateful for my presence, but until I’ve been down a particular road, it’s not easy to know the best way to walk it with someone. Though my family and I have a way to go on this path, we are far enough along for me to share a few ways that are decidedly unhelpful and a few that have been life-giving.
In the unhelpful category is feeling inundated by all the stories of unknown people that are shared with me all of the time, especially if the point of the story is to show how annoying and frustrating these people with dementia can be with their repeated questions and their embarrassing antics. My whole family gets it, but we don’t benefit from hearing about it from people who are not in the trenches. Add to that all the well-intended medical or general advice. We’re with doctors, he’s in trials, rest assured he takes his medicine morning and night with my mom in charge and there’s sadly not much to be done for Alzheimer’s today. We are doing all we can.
In the helpful category are the people who have engaged him. The hardest part for him is losing the skills needed to occupy himself. When people call him, set up times to meet with him, invite him to lunch or dinner, he’s a different person (and so is my Mom.) Relief floods in. He’s not forgotten or overlooked (one of his fears); he realizes people remember him and miss him enough to call. Especially when preachers he’s known his entire career make an effort to call and encourage him, listen to him, treat him like he’s the minister he’s always been, he is buoyed.
When I am in town, I often read and respond to his emails and texts with him. There’s one particular minister who makes me weep from his loving emails. He shows my father So. Much. Respect. He has taken over a ministry my dad created, and he maintains such a delicate balance of honoring where the ministry began while taking it to a new realm. My father pesters him with emails and suggestions and can’t quite let it go, but this man responds without a hint of frustration. That’s helpful, showing my Dad grace.
Several women in my parents’ church community are the angels. Each Sunday they hand my mom covered dishes of curries, meats, vegetables, rice dishes and salads. My mom works full-time still (and we want her to as long as she wants to) and this helps her so much. Her evenings are full as it is and being able to quickly heat up healthy food for my dad and herself is a really huge help.
In the Alzheimer’s world there is a big emphasis on “caring for the caregiver.” My mom can win any endurance test set for her. She rarely gets frustrated or overwhelmed and has so much love for my dad that she doesn’t even see it as caregiving; it’s just life. Married Life. But I know she’s weary. The breaks she has when other people give my dad attention is all she really needs.
Along with the frustrations of living with this disease, there is also levity. If my dad is really comfortable and relaxed, he can laugh at some of his mistakes, like word mispronunciations, or forgetting which direction to turn at the top of the stairs in his home. Last year, before I moved back to the States, my parents visited me in Singapore for a trip of a lifetime. Together, the three of us visited Cambodia and Thailand and even made it to Indonesia for a day. We were a three-person team and commandeered help wherever we went. I had no trouble announcing, “this man has memory trouble and we need extra help” whenever we boarded a plane, checked into a hotel or even went to restaurant. My parents might cringe as I’d give the speech, but no one turned down the extra attention!
My dad had such a great time. Each day he’d smile at me and say, ”This is so amazing.” Amazing became the word of the day, every day. He had one bad day where he just couldn’t stay awake. We’d been running at full speed and had one more day to see and do the things on our list. Because he couldn’t stay alone in the hotel, we took him with us and he slept in the taxi all day as my mom and I got dropped off to see temples and do shopping. Our taxi driver, Chati, smiled and patted my dad’s sleeping tummy, “Papa stay with me today.” He’d drop us, meet us, drop us, and meet us all day until we went home to go to bed.
In Bangkok, we had a beautiful hotel suite in a fancy, but perhaps not-so-well-suited-for-us, hotel. There were no light switches, everything was run by an iPad. There were mirrors and glass everywhere. It felt like a fun house to my dad. We convinced the manager to provide a small reading lamp in the bathroom so at least my dad could find the bathroom in the middle of the night. Imagine this: We are all asleep and only the little light in the bathroom is on. My parents were in the big bed and I was around a partial wall in a twin rollaway. We didn’t have tons of privacy, but enough for us; we all settled down to sleep. I awoke from my typical insomnia, so I opened my iPad, put in ear buds and started to watch a random police drama. I didn’t realize it, but my dad had gotten up to use the bathroom and then he couldn’t find his way back to bed. In confusion, he wandered around the wall into the living area where I was hidden under the covers watching the moment the killer approaches the victim from behind. Just at that instant, I felt something sweep across my feet on top of the covers. It was my dad’s hand feeling for his bed. As the killer raised his knife behind the innocently unaware woman in my show, my brain thought, “a cat just ran across my bed, but what is a cat doing in this hotel?” The killer stabbed her just as my Dad sat down right on my feet! I threw the covers back screaming, he jumped up screaming, my mom leapt out of bed in the other room screaming, grabbed the iPad and lit up the whole suite like it was daytime and the three of us stood there screaming at each other in confusion. Eventually, we calmed down and figured out what had happened, and we laughed and laughed. As my mom took him by the arm back to bed, I heard my father say, “I still don’t know why Joy was watching a show in my bed!”
My father is a retired minister and, occasionally, still gives sermons. He has a lot of them in his head and his heart, but not all of them will get to be preached, we know. As long as he can give them, though, it appears people want to hear them. For right now, my mom has pieced together a great care arrangement. We understand my father’s needs will shift but, for today, it works. His assistant helps him for a few hours each day and they mostly respond to emails and texts and work on sermons. The assistant types up his spoken thoughts, reads Scripture to him and repeats this process day after day, slowly adding content and depth to the sermon for weeks at a time. When it’s ready, they announce that my dad will hold a seminar and the congregation signs up to attend on a Saturday morning.
On that day, someone will act as the reader, following along the outline of my dad’s thoughts, reading what my dad spent weeks saying and writing. My dad will listen to the words as the reader reads and will ad lib and expound when he wants. The reader will make sure they (mostly) stay on point to help my father deliver his heart. It’s a brilliant system.
Last fall, I was visiting before one of those sermons and we rehearsed the day before for about three hours. I played the part of the reader and my dad played himself, trying to remember what he wanted to say and what he wanted to emphasize. As soon as we had gotten through the whole thing, we started over from the beginning again. But, he’d already forgotten some of what he’d said the first time. I watched him experience frustration and anger and I could feel so clearly – maybe for the first time – what it feels like to be him. To be caught in this world of confusion and frustration but wanting so desperately to contribute and feel relevant. Relevancy has one definition to my Dad: to encourage people through the only vehicle he’s ever known – his voice in a pulpit. At some point, I suggested we take a break and he sat outside with “his birds.” My mom helps him fill two bird feeders every week and sits with him on the deck while he whistles and calls the birds. I went into my room and lay across the bed and wept for 15 minutes. The sorrow I felt was so deep. All that he’s lost and how hard he strives to remain, to stay with us as we know him, felt too heavy to carry that day. We reconvened at the table and hit it again, and he did a brilliant job the next day. No, he wasn’t the preacher he was in his 40s, but he doesn’t need to be. He was himself, as open and vulnerable as he could be, doing his very best up there to leave someone with some encouragement.
As you’d expect, he was exhausted afterward. The adrenaline was gone, people were surrounding him with gratitude and kind words, someone dimmed the lights to signal that it was time to leave the building. My father was just humming along, enjoying the post-sermon release as my family and I were huddled nearby waiting for him. We waved him over when he was free. He reached me first and I said, “Well, what a great job you did,” and he stuck out his hand to shake mine and said, “Thank you so much for joining us today.” He was gracious, but a little distant. I kept staring at him, shaking his hand a little longer than necessary and he politely pulled it away. I’d known that this would happen. I knew it was coming, this first time he wouldn’t know me, but I wasn’t prepared for it. I took his hand with both of mine and pulled him close and said, “Daddy, it’s Joy. You were awesome.” His shoulders sagged, he hugged me close and he knew it was me.
I’d trade a daddy who recognizes me for this one who is showing all of us how to hold onto hope, to desperately keep giving to others and living his testimony any day of every week. And twice on Sundays.
I still struggle to see his disease as a gift, to see it as something for his good, or my good. It’s ruthless and robbing and it reaches deep into a family. But I can’t deny there have been gifts along the journey of his disease, the most significant being that I find myself so close to him again. And P.S. we haven’t had another moment where he hasn’t recognized me. It will come again, I am sure. But he’s my Daddy and I’ll be his girl even when it happens the next time.
Happy Father’s Day to you.
If you have five minutes to watch part of his sermon about tenacity, I offer it to you, here:
Tony Bennett got it right when he sang, I left my heart in San Francisco. This city, with its sweeping views, outlandish political and social antics and inspiring friends-who-are-more-like-family has become home to this East-Coaster. Walking away feels more like tearing the fabric of my soul in half.
I remember my very first whiff of what would become my life here. Between semesters of my junior year in college, I drove from Washington, DC to San Francisco. I turned 21 years old mid-trip while in St. Louis, Missouri and crossed into California a few days later. Cresting Highway 580 somewhere near Livermore, I saw the hulking, Cyclops-like, bright-white wind turbines covering green-like-I’d-never-seen-green rolling hills, and I burst into tears.
I pulled over and leaned across my steering wheel and let the sobs come. I could sense the change that was coming. I was entering adulthood, about to experience the grown-up me and life was pregnant with opportunity. My boyfriend (soon-to-be-husband), new friends, new food, new landscape, new classes and new jobs lay just on the other side of those hills. What I couldn’t have know in that emotive moment, was that from my very first glimpse of this city my heart would break into a million little pieces of love for it and its inhabitants.
Brad and I married the following summer (yes, I married him before I even graduated from college – gasp!), and other than very short stints in Washington DC, New York and London, we’ve managed to plant ourselves here in the city where love is everywhere.
Company transfers, better job opportunities and the recent financial crisis have all provided us chances to leave. Heck, just paying private school tuition for so many years has led to many conversations about the golden, sun-drenched county just north of us. But our hearts were inexplicably tethered to this place and what we wanted for our kids was to know and love this city like we did. And they do. This is home for all of us. Though we have no close relatives anywhere near us, we have managed to fill our dining room on Thanksgiving, year after year, with thirty or so people we call family. And that’s what makes this next chapter so heart-wrenching.
In case you haven’t heard, I’m moving to Singapore this summer. My husband is already there working and building the beginning of our new lives. The time difference makes it somewhat difficult to connect, but as he is waking up and I am picking up the kids from school, we video chat. It’s hectic and chaotic on our end, but we’re happy to see his face and hear bits about his day. He always mentions the heat in Singapore, and I talk about the fog in San Francisco. We’re moving from a city that is too cold to one that will feel too hot for us. We’ll deal with it, like we’ll deal with the new food (last night I asked him if he’d spotted any sort of taqueria – even something like a Chevy’s. No. Ugh. Knife to the heart.), new friends (I’ve already have phone dates with friends of friends and a few people from Singapore will be in the states this summer and I’m going on blind dates with them) and a new environment full of tall buildings, crowded sidewalks and a blending of languages and cultures. We’ll deal, and slowly our hearts will open up to that gateway into Asia. We’ll meet interesting people, travel to places I never thought I’d see, expose ourselves and kids to cultures, needs, lives, sights, smells and sounds and we will fall in love with what’s next for us.
But be clear: pieces of our hearts will be planted here forever. In Shelly and Craig’s backyard, on the fourth row and in the balcony of City Church, around the Pause circle, on the walk from downtown to the Marina, in the living rooms of women all over, at Gordos and Panchos, at the Bruce Mahoney, at AT&T Park, in a classroom at Herbst House, one across the street teaching Latin and another in the basement where math is made exciting, wherever flan is homemade or Diet Coke from a fountain is on offer, on the stoops of 7th Avenue, in the arms of hug-giving teenage girls, in pods-for-life and cabinet, in the heart of one Salvadorena wherever she goes, where the meatballs, roasted chickens and lemon bars are made, where the hearts beat huff, where children remember that nothin’, nothin’, absolutely nothing can separate, in a hot tub in Mill Valley and another in Sea Cliff, and especially, especially at one house on Broadway. A million little pieces is the only way to describe the heartbreak we feel right now. Like maybe, this thing here (however to describe it? Life? Love? Investment? Work? Time?), it’s just not finished. Some relationships feel as if we’ve only just begun! We’re spread too far and too deep here in this city to know how to begin to pull out.
Like with a band-aid, we just need to rip it and know we will sting and maybe even bleed, but time is on our side, as it always is. What seems hard today will feel possible tomorrow.
So …we’re leaving. Many of you have asked questions I will try to answer here. I will keep the heartache and emotion out of the answers as best I can and just try to stick to the facts, ma’am.
When? Brad is there already. Kids and I fly August 1st.
Why? The short answer is that Brad took a new (great!) job and the kids and I are so thrilled for him that we jumped up and down congratulating him and beaming with pride. The longer answer involves his leaving a job not worthy – or welcoming – of his character and moral compass. To say that he had been managing a stress level in code red would be an understatement. So, yes, a new job in Singapore is a wild, big change, but one we are all embracing for him.
Why now? Our kids are breaths away from being launched, so why inject all this change and transition into their lives, right? Well, I guess because opportunity knocked in such a way that suggests there is work for us to do there. As much as I wanted to give my kids a full childhood here in beautiful San Francisco (I’ve clung to this dream so hard, fingers clenched, knuckles white, holding on for dear life), I am choosing to believe that offering them this chance to see a different part of the world, to know a different life and to see their parents in action with new people, places and things is just what The Good Doctor is ordering. So, we’ll board that flight full of hope and expectancy, searching for the stones signaling our path.
School? Kids will be going to Singapore American School with loads of expats from around the world and some local kids. Close friends of close friends run a Christian youth group organization there and have invited my kids to join a group at a camp in June. Yes, literally thirty kids from the new school in Singapore are coming to Oregon for summer camp and we happen to know the adults chaperoning them and they extended an invitation to my kids. Fer realz. I can’t make this stuff up. One of the stones laid for our path …
Housing? We are not at all sure. Brad is hotel living for now, and we’ll move into temporary housing when we arrive, then the housing search will begin. Choices include high-rise modern, possibly smaller, apartments, a multiple-level “cluster house” (growing up on the East Coast we called these townhouses, but here in San Francisco this is just the way most houses look!) where we’d share walls with neighbors and common grounds, or a “landed house” which is free-standing, has a yard, etc. I could be wrong about all of this. I’m getting it from the interwebs. I’ll figure it out when I get there.
How long will I be gone? Lots of families moving to Singapore have a definitive amount of time they’ll be “stationed” overseas. We don’t. His new job is there. Like, right there. His region is vast and includes all of Asia, including India, and Australia. He doesn’t have a contract to return to the States, but if there is one thing any of us can depend on, it’s that everything always changes. We’ve agreed he’ll be in this role for 3- 5 years and I am hoping for five because that would get both kids through high school and launched (likely) back in the States. (My heart just oozed a little with that reality. In five years, both of my kids will be gone)
Language barrier? Singaporeans speak English, often referred to as “Singlish” because of its unique lilt and vocabulary. Most of them also speak Mandarin, Malay, or various Indian dialects. We’ll stick to English and probably come back with a little Singlish as well.
Our Stuff? This is by far the most frequently asked question. After some massive purging efforts, we will bring everything we own. The way we figure it, if we store it for five years and that becomes ten years, we probably won’t want it and don’t need it. And seriously, why own something I can’t use? So the furniture, the bedding, the china, the silver and the crystal are going to float at sea and make their way to us in a container.
Me? How do I feel? I’ve already covered that I am heartbroken, right? Like torn in two, hung from the rafters, gnashing of teeth, devastated to leave my people. Two hours after telling my 15-year-old that her life will radically change, she turned to me with sudden beyond-her-years insight and said. “Mom, Papi will have a new job, Louis and I will have a new school and friends, but I am worried about you. You will have to give up Pause and CAbi and you will have nothing.” Uh-huh, way to name it, sister.
Pause is my third child. Literally my actual heartbeat can be traced to Wednesday mornings and the brave group of women who show up on my doorstep and work through all their questions, confusion, hurts and hopes. Sometimes we sit in a circle and pray out loud to a God some aren’t even sure exists … it’s a slice of heaven right here in the Marina District. The last Pause gathering was beYOND emotional. Shelly called all the ladies who have gathered in my living room for the last eight years – some for a short time, some while they job-searched, some only when they could and some every single Wednesday – and together we had a two-hour sobfest. I am still recovering because, Oh! the words that were spoken. It was the closest I will ever come to witnessing my own eulogy and hearing, feeling and knowing what I mean to people. It was wrenching and inspiring and none of us had any mascara left and our faces were swollen and red and I’ve never seen a room of women so stunningly beautiful, whole and connected in all my life. I’ll miss them desperately and I will think of them each Wednesday, all off on their own paths, continuing the work we used to do together.
CAbi is encouraging me to keep my business thriving. (If you are a client or hostess, you’ll get a note from me soon with all sorts of details.) Because I won’t be able to sell CAbi in Singapore (yet), I’ll be making regular trips back to the US to hold shows in jam-packed days and nights. (I get a thrill just thinking about those return trips!) I met a client at a show last weekend and I explained my plan and she raised an eyebrow in confusion, Whaaattt? You’re going to fly for 20 hours around the world to sell clothes to women who could just order them online? Later in the evening, after hours of laughter and connection unique to CAbi shows, she sidled up to me and whispered, “Now I get it. If I had this job, I’d fly back from Singapore to do it too.“ I’m doing it for myself and for all the women I get to love on at each show.
Finally, you know how I say I like to write, but it seems like what I really do is think about writing all the time while actually doing a whole bunch of other things. After the initial hubbub of moving and settling in, and in between my CAbi trips, I really won’t have much to do. Like a peeled onion, the obligations I carry now will be stripped away and I will be left with a big choice: To write or not. And I hope I choose to honor this passion and write the essays, book or manifesto that’s waiting to come from me. It will take some courage to face down the fear, so Plan A is to be brave and show up for the stories that want to be written.
I’ve heard the kindest, most generous fare-thee-wells since we announced our imminent departure. I hold each one in my heart and keep replaying them like a soundtrack stuck on repeat. At one of the many goodbye gatherings we’ve been privileged to enjoy, my dear friend, Dan, gave a toast and offered up a challenge. “You are leaving a crater sized hole in San Francisco. Go make a crater in Singapore.” We’re going to try, Dan, we can promise you that.
Dear God, please hold all of these loved ones here in San Francisco in your tender embrace. And show us who needs love in Singapore.
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Recently, I told my closest friend, “I don’t know why women have a reputation for back stabbing and competing with each other. I couldn’t survive without all the women in my life who love and support me. I know nothing about this female combat everyone refers to.” She thought my outlook indicated that I had been pretty blessed in life and that I probably send out a vibe letting women know that I won’t be participating in that kind of play.
But a few days later, I was listening to school-age girl friendship stories, and I was like, “Oh yeah, that. That, I do remember. And it hurts. ”
I’ve been tossing around ways to support my daughter (and her friends who have trusted me with their stories) through the crooked path and rough terrain of friendship. Should they grow a tough exterior and keep their guard up never trusting each other? Should they keep their heads down and focus on their work? You probably remember versions of these stories…
Anne: We were sixteen, best friends and at sleep away camp. She borrowed a dress, but when she tried to zip it up, it wouldn’t budge. It was too small. She got red in the face and sneered, “Well, I guess this settles the debate; I am bigger than you.” I froze. I had not been aware of our unspoken competition. She was cold to me for a few days. I heaped my plate full for her to see. I complimented her endlessly. I tried to make myself less pretty, less desirable. Eventually, we grew apart.
Kirsten: We were in college; I was a sophomore and she was a junior. We both were recommended for a leadership role and she hated that I was on the advisory committee with her. Before I came along, she’d been the star of department. She stared straight ahead when I took a seat next to her. When I spoke in front of the group, she rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling. She refused to laugh when I made jokes during meetings. Later in the school year, overwhelmed by my full load, I missed a few meetings. She cornered me in the cafeteria to confront me in front of other committee members. “You think you’re entitled to do this any way you please?” she hissed. “Now it’s clear you are not who everyone thinks you are.“ I can still feel the sting of those words as I type them. Humiliated, I tried to explain that I wasn’t slacking; I was just a little under water. I mumbled apologies; I shuffled my feet. I promised to try harder. I still remember her smug smile as she saw me become smaller, less confident and dynamic.
Kathleen: I was working my first post-college job. She’d been at the company a year longer than me. She was sparkly, funny and the most likeable gal on the floor. I spied her on my first day, noticed our similar dispositions and thought we’d be great friends. She created distance between us. She belittled me in front of superiors, brushed me off in front of clients and was dismissive when we were alone. I was miserable around her. At some point we reorganized the department and I answered directly to her. I learned that if I acted dumb and confused she was kind to me. If I had a great idea or suggestion, she was mean to me.
Victoria: For my 35th birthday I had five celebrations. I had a widespread friend base, and several of them, unbeknownst to each other, hosted little somethings special for my big day. Everyone who threw me a party invited her. After the third one – two lunches and a dinner – she sniffed and loudly said to me, “We sure are doing a lot of celebrating of Joy these days, aren’t we?” I apologized for the attention. I joked about it and acted as if it were all such a bother, all of these parties, all of these moments about me…. A month later we had a small misunderstanding and she hasn’t spoken to me since.
Once I began to think about it, I came up with many stories of my own that show how tough we women are on each other and how tricky our relationships can be. No wonder a friend of mine recently wanted to keep her professional success quiet. “I just don’t want to give anyone a reason to hate me,” she said. Even Sheryl Sandberg once asked her friends to stop mentioning it when her name showed up on the Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women.
As I’ve grown, I’ve been lucky (or intentional enough) to find ways to navigate around these women and make room for the ones who love me – all of me. Now I can hardly remember the me who willingly made herself less-than so that others felt more secure. But I did, Lord knows even though it never really worked, I tried. When I think about those gals now, I still feel a little sting, but I also can muster up some compassion. Common threads in the stories of all those women are childhood pain and fearful outlooks. Deep down they just didn’t feel pretty enough, smart enough, or liked enough unless they put me down. Seeds of insecurity grow into large roots or even tree trunks of poor behavior. I happened upon them before they figured out the universal truth that brings peace to all women: I am enough. There are enough slices of pie in every area of life to go around.
How about those girls of all ages who are getting the first taste of the underbelly of female friendships? They are experiencing the this-is-a-two-person-game during recess, the gossip, the put-downs, the you-are-my-best-friend-today-but-tomorrow-i-will-inexplicably-shun-you, the friend-until-a-boy-is-around behavior. I dunno…. It’s so clear from a distance that those girls are sad, lonely and scared, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to be around them.
If I could speak to the girls on the confusing, receiving end of this treatment, I guess I would say that if you have a friend who needs you to be less than yourself in order for her to feel good about herself, tread lightly. Love her from whatever distance you need to create so that you can still feel comfortable being fully you. Know that somewhere deep within she feels wrecked and from her wounding comes all the dark, ugly stuff you see. With enough love and support, someday she’ll heal. For now, you can be a beacon of hope in the love you show her, but go forward knowing it’s probably not a two way street. Someday she’ll look back and recognize that you were true blue and maybe that will serve as a guide for her. But for now, pick your head up and look around, my darlings. There are so many other girls and women out there for you. Most all of us are broken in big and tiny ways – you are too – but that’s why we need each other especially more. There are girls who will inspire you and who will feel inspired by you; there are girls who will feel lifted up as you soar and who will drag you even higher. Run as fast as you can in their direction, wrap your arms around them and spread your wings together. I love how Paul F. Davis instructs us with such clarity, “If you don’t feel it, flee it. Go where you are celebrated, not merely tolerated.”
But look with compassion on the mean ones. Someday you will realize that in a particular relationship you are the mean one. Shocker, I know, but it’s likely to happen. Insecurity does not discriminate; it seeks us all out over time. If you see mean girls now through the eyes of grace, you will have an easier time showing it to yourself and changing your course later.
We girls are complicated and hold the capacity for a full spectrum of emotions and behaviors – love, hate, greed, passion, loyalty, honor and betrayal just to name a few. But we are all also yearning for the same things – grace, mercy and sanctuary. Sweetie Pies, do your part to offer these gifts to the world around you… even to the mean girls.
PS – What’s your friendship story? Tell me tell me tell me!
A few weeks ago I launched a spring clothing line to a rowdy crowd of women who love fashion, love each other and love any excuse to join in a party. We had a loud, fun time, and later that night I fell face-first into bed, exhausted and happy. In the wee hours of the following morning, I relived some of the funnier moments of the evening and began to count how many teachers – from different schools and various grades and specialty subjects – were in the room. When I examined the guest list, most were teachers I count as friends. Only some had taught my own children over the years. There was a clutch of preschool teachers who get in the trenches of the sandbox and have a bottomless well of creativity and there were brave middle school teachers who face hormones and high-stakes social scenes while trying to teach algebra. I love all of them but wouldn’t want to be any of them. I am not made of tough enough stuff to face their days.
As I understand it, teaching is more of a calling than a vocation. Exceptional teachers, who realize this and lean into the insanity of the job, show up each day ready to minister. Here’s the understatement of the year – teachers make an actual, measurable difference in our world.
My child saw an enrichment teacher once a week for five years of elementary school. When we realized her program wouldn’t be offered the following year, we both cried. “Your class has been the only place I could be myself other than home,” said the final thank you note. In a string of great homeroom teachers, one was a particular stand out. All I needed to do was type “mayday, mayday” in the subject line of an email sent at midnight and she’d find my kid first thing in the morning and offer a hug, a chat…love. This cycle went on for years, well after my child was no longer in that teacher’s class.
Of course I’ve been disappointed in teachers as well. I was upset by the second-grade teacher who literally screamed in the ear of a crying boy on the very first morning of school as they were lining up to go into class, “You are in second grade now, dry up the tears!” as well as the clueless teacher who tsk-tsked, “I am disappointed in you,” to the perfectionist child who had mustered the courage to challenge a perceived unfair grade. Then there was the tough teacher who spoke the word “hefty” into a sensitive (and beautifully curvy) girl’s soul. Yes, teachers make a difference, and it’s not always for the good.
But in quiet conversations with my teaching pals, most of whom teach at private schools and see their work as inspiring and impactful, I hear one main obstacle that always floats to the surface. This consistent problem keeps them from job satisfaction, from joyfully bettering students’ lives, and from creative educational experiments. This hindrance makes them want to keep their heads down, their voices quiet and simply get through their days. Drum roll, please: it’s the parents!
Sadly, it appears that two really huge and helpful groups of people – parents and teachers – are both loving our next generation and resenting each other in the process. Although I am technically only in the parent camp, I think my friendship with particular teachers has allowed me to comprehend both sides. The truth is that everyone wants the same thing: to support children as they grow and learn. I offer here a few thoughts to chew on for both groups.
What teachers wish parents knew
Teachers are real people with real lives – they buy alcohol and sometimes they get cancer. When the bell rings, teachers have other things going on. At BevMo, I ran into a first-grade teacher with a cart filled to the brim with bottles. She acted like a kid with her hand caught in the cookie jar and was red with embarrassment. “I’m throwing an engagement party for my roommate,” she finally stammered. I tried to put her at ease by saying I had assumed all the alcohol was for a purpose, and not for her to drink during the school day. She laughed and told me how she always fears running into parents around town because they seem surprised that she has other parts to her life and make comments that make her feel ashamed of things like throwing a party!
One year, while a teacher friend faced diagnosis, chemotherapy, hair loss, nausea, tender skin, and reconstructive surgery, her biggest challenge by far was how the parents of her fourth-grade class treated her. They made her feel that her illness showed a lack of consideration for her students, and was an inconvenience to the parents. “Not on my tuition dime,” was the sentiment from a father who was mad the school hadn’t fired her for missing so many days. (What a self-centered piece of shizzle, huh?) She was essentially asked to apologize for having cancer. I asked a friend “If your single-mother, sole income-provider best friend or sister had cancer, can you imagine feeling anything but compassion for her?”
Teachers understand that parents comprehend on an intellectual level that they are real humans, but our treatment of them implies that we see them as one-dimensional and always at our disposal.
The pressure and tension you create when you call the dean instead of speaking directly to a teacher makes it much harder to partner with you. It feels as if a quiet war is being waged between parents and teachers – a battle for power. Parents are wearing down teachers, draining them of their confidence, grasping for the upper hand, creating burnout, and slowly sucking the joy out of their jobs. Unfortunately, as parents win this battle, their children lose. Imagine going to work every day in an environment where every move you make and comment you utter is scrutinized, filtered through the ears of children first and then reported to your supervisor. How much personal fulfillment and joy can you imagine feeling at the end of six months? Teachers wish parents would stop talking to each other about their disappointments or questions about what’s happening in a classroom and stop firing off emails to the head of school or the dean. How about just speaking directly to the teacher in question? This simple change would replace a critical, nervous, fear-based atmosphere with one of openness and trust. Parents can still have gripes and even disagree with a teacher’s course of action, but they’d stop treating the teacher as if he needs to be tattled on and involve him in the discussion.
Side Note: One brilliant dean told a group of parents at back-to-school night, “This year we promise that we won’t believe everything your kids tell us about you, if you promise not to believe everything they tell you about us.” Seriously, parents need to sift through the stories and realize a child is talking. A possibility exists that even though your child truly believes what she is saying, she may have misinterpreted what actually happened.
Another Side Note: This is nearly impossible for parents to do. I am neck-deep into a scenario with a teacher right now and I believe in my truest heart that everything my child is telling me is 100% accurate. I am desperately trying to conjure up another side to the story, but it’s not happening. I wasn’t there to witness what went wrong, but I believe my kid over the teacher. So there we are.
Parents, we wish you’d stop complaining to each other in front of your children. Last year I met a woman who was in the process of transferring her son to the same school that my son attends, and I asked to which teacher he had been assigned. She told me the name and then said, “I hear she has her favorites and only treats those kids with respect, so I sure hope my son can be one of them.” This mother’s child had not even started classes, yet she already believed and passed on an unfounded rumor. A few weeks later, I ran into a different mother from that same class. She had her son in tow so I asked how his year was going and what he liked the best. Sure enough, the 10-year-old repeated the same rumor with all the confidence of one who believes it to be true. Perhaps an individual experience caused one parent to embrace and share this idea, but how many experiences of other parents and kids were colored by it? I’ve watched children recount the deficiencies of their teachers while looking at their nodding parents for approval and affirmation.
I know every teacher can’t be a favorite, but unless the teacher is actively and purposefully hurting a child emotionally or physically, I just can’t see the upside of criticizing him in front of children. Imagine you signed up for a class at your local community college and in your enthusiasm you told your friends about it. If they only respond with negativity, it would be pretty hard for you to hang onto your enthusiasm for very long, and certainly hard for you to learn – especially if you were there to learn geometry or Latin conjugations, or anything really difficult. If all a child can think of when her teacher speaks is how much all the other important people in her life hate that teacher, I am quite sure that you, dear parent, are a barrier to learning.
Parents, we wish you’d focus on what your kid really needs. Teachers see the kid who routinely shows up tardy, without a jacket, forgetting to turn in the permission slip on time, tired from staying up too late, forgetting books left at the other parent’s house and with shoes that need new laces. Teachers notice the kid who is excluded and needs to eat lunch with them in the classroom, who needs extra help in English or extra time for an assignment, who really needs an evening tutor, who has anxiety and who has stopped eating. Teachers wish parents were open to hearing about these things. Instead, parents tend to focus on the final letter grade given (and how it compares to the grades received by others), who was picked for the play or the first-string volleyball team, whether there is enough enrichment in Math, or if there is too much or too little homework. Parents often focus on the 30,000-foot issues better left to the school, but miss the on-the-ground, day-to-day real-life problems of their children. Teachers are nervous about bringing these sorts of topics up because parents have sent a clear message. They’re happy to chaperone a field trip or send in cookies for a bake sale, heck they’ll even join a search committee for a new administrator, but don’t criticize their children or their parenting. So the teachers quake and a teacher-parent partnership remains impossible.
What parents wish teachers knew
We are parenting in a fear-based culture. Parents can’t choose to raise kids at a different time in history; now is what we’ve got. Current culture constantly sends parents messages of worry and fear about their children, and indicates that every single moment, incident or encounter might break them permanently. Parents have responded to this fear by hovering, owning, over-helping, and sometimes by accusing teachers of not doing enough for their kids. They are scared that their children will not succeed in life, because success has been re-defined as Ivy League-only followed by million-dollar-a-year-salaries. No longer are parents happy to let an eight-year-old enjoy second grade; they feel pressure to shape her into the next Steve Jobs. Parents really need teachers to help counter these messages. I know teachers yearn for the old days when parents handed their kids over and never questioned what happened at school – trusted the teachers to do their jobs – but those days are gone. Instead of scoffing at or mocking current parenting trends, teachers can help by simply offering parents the assurance that they care deeply about kids, that they understand how much parents love them and that they’ll let us know when to worry. It’s extremely hard to be the only parents not getting into a tizzy about the ERB scores, wondering why he didn’t place into the enrichment group, or verbalizing that our kid doesn’t have to be the best at everything. Teachers should cut parents some slack by acknowledging the pressure they feel from society and then gently explain how parents can trust the system and know their child will be fine in the end.
Most parents are afraid to say anything to you in case you take it out on our kid. Eek! I know this will sound ludicrous to most teachers, but parents really do worry that teachers will seek retribution with children for mistakes parents make. Guess what? Kids are afraid of the same thing! Some kids won’t vent or confide their challenges in the classroom, lest parents shoot off an email that will make their next day hard. A teacher once told my child, “Every time you tell your parents that someone is mean to you they send a mean email to me. So maybe you can stop telling them so much about it.” Something is very broken in this system. Because parents see their children as fragile and about to fail at every second, they will do anything to keep harm from coming their way. Sometimes that means not speaking up when they really should, but instead they stew, the resentment builds when they hear comments like the one previously mentioned, and they find it harder to trust that teachers are in their jobs because they enjoy and care about kids. Imaginations go wild and parents build massive cases against teachers, all without uttering a word. When the parent finally can’t keep it all bottled up, it’s like a match has been dropped into a gas can and teachers and administrators are left wondering where all the explosive anger came from. It comes from stewing and thinking kids will be treated unfairly if parents challenge anything, even in the most polite way.
You have the power to affect my kid’s life – forever. In our worst and most critical moments, parents can be convinced that teachers have lost sight of this and they are just getting through each day. Parents see them caught up in small little details – whether the kids line up quickly or talk too loudly. They fear teachers are distracted and not clued into the social scene. Parents want to be sure that teachers remember that their opinion means a lot to children, that one word of encouragement from them means more than a million from home, that when they do something exceptional their teachers notice. Listening to a bunch of kids at a party in June recount the highlights and lowlights of a school year, I was amazed by what they remembered. They talked about the day their teacher wore two different shoes by mistake, the week she had the flu and the substitute was awful and messed up the lesson plans and the day she brought in ice cream sandwiches for first period. (I still remember the English teacher who taught me to write from my heart and the physics teacher who came to my wedding and whose most important advice was, “Patience is a virtue to be cultivated.” He said it in every class – even tested us on it occasionally – and I never forgot it.) Students are watching, listening and noticing. They are impressionable. When a teacher shuts a kid down because she is exhausted and tired of listening to the same recess scenario, or when she offers some extra guidance even though she is beat, she is leaving a legacy, for good or for not so good. Teachers are powerful.
Also, a new weird dynamic in education is creeping in that feels very corporate. Especially in the private school arena, parents view the education of their child as a product to purchase and teachers as the service providers. Whenever I’ve been unhappy about a school-related scenario or problem (and disobeying my own advice about not engaging in chatter around the parent community), someone will say, “You are paying too much to have to deal with this.” And on the other side, when teachers vent their stories to me, my instinct is to tell them, “You don’t get paid enough to have to deal with this.” Money – with its sinister way of pied-pipering all of us – is there in the room with both camps at all times.
There is so much more to say, but I’ll end with this: When life has thrown curve balls at my kids, teachers have played the most significant roles in their recoveries. With this in mind, I try to start each school year with an open mind about new teachers, figure out what communication style works best, say thank you for even the smallest things, and (it never hurts!) occasionally send in my husband’s amazing banana bread. When I know a teacher has my kid’s back, feels comfortable telling me things I don’t really want to hear but need to know, I sleep better. And if you are as lucky as me, you might find that your kid’s teacher not only strips to her panties to try on clothes in your living room, but also becomes a lifelong friend.
If you are a teacher or a parent (or both!), leave a comment in the comments section and tell us anything else you wish the other side would know. Keeping it anonymous is OK!
- I know this post mostly reflects a private school experience. If you are a public school parent or teacher, please share a different perspective.
- I am guilty of all of the above behavior plus more.
- Thank you to the special teachers who helped me with this post and confided in me.
- Photo Creds go to ME! I found this card in a cute paper shop on Fillmore Street. It’s true: I really do ♥ teachers!
Recently I tried to strike up an awkward, dating advice-laden conversation with a 15-year-old girl who was not at all interested in hearing it. Go figure! Having been that age at one long-ago point myself, I get it. It’s uncomfortable at best, preachy at worst and regardless of its truth, advice is usually unwelcome. I still have to grit my teeth if someone begins to tell me how I should be acting, thinking or feeling. I’d rather learn it all on my own, thank you.
But I also get how age begets pseudo-wisdom and I share with other old fogeys the desire to use my hard-earned knowledge to save someone from a particular pain or heartache I endured.
Though this specific 15-year-old girl needed no advice, I thought I might share with my readers what I may have said had I been given the chance. If you have a teenage girl in your life, feel free to cut and paste your favorite tip and pass it along to her as if it’s coming directly from you. If she’ll hear you, of course. If she won’t listen, just post it on her facebook wall.
- Only date guys your own age. (At least until you graduate from college.) I know that your male peers look and act horribly immature right now, and the older guys are so attractive, but stick with the same-agers. Much about dating and relationships can accidentally turn into a power struggle and a battle for control. Maintaining as equal a playing field as possible will only help you. (Yes, I know that I mostly dated older guys, but my favorite ex-boyfriends are all very close to my age!)
- A truly platonic friendship is rare and special. Treasure it if you come across it. It’s rare because it’s likely that the relationship is platonic because one of you doesn’t want to make it romantic and the other does. And I bet that you’ve each wanted it to be more at different times. If you are lucky enough to be friends first, tread carefully before allowing it to become something else. I always found it much harder to undo the damage of a break-up and get back to the business of being friends than to just experience a little unrequited crushing.
- When dressing for a date, ask yourself this one question: Could anybody accidentally mistake this dress, this skirt or these shoes for a stripper costume? If the answer is no, carry on and enjoy your night.
- Okay, this one is where the awkward part may have begun if I had been allowed to share my tips that night. During my own teenage dating years, we used the timeworn “four bases” shorthand to describe any form of sexual relations. (Yeah, I know that now it’s called “hooking up.”) First base was kissing, second base was a hand up, third base a hand down and by the time you crossed home plate for a homerun you were engaging in full intercourse. (It sounds much swifter than it was, btw.) We spoke about it so casually – “did you get to second base?” “How far did you go with him?” “Just to third base and then I stopped him.” My tips on bases: If you decide to kiss a boy, kiss him again the following week, again in the movie theater and one more time at the bus stop, this does not mean that by the fifth time you must go to second base. If you decide to kiss him when you are both alone and have loads of time on your hands and nothing else to do, this does not mean you have agreed to go to the next base, though he may try to convince you differently. If you agree to go to a base one day, this does not mean that you have automatically agreed to go to that base the following day. If you break up with a boy that you went to a base with, you do not need to feel obligated to go to that base again with your next boyfriend.
- I hope you only go to any base because of love and not for any other reason than to express that love. Someday you will know a friend who will go to bases in hopes of gaining love, acceptance or popularity, to get attention, to numb a sadness inside her or because she feels obligated. Please tell her she doesn’t need to, and bases won’t get her what she is looking for anyway. (PS. Just to be clear: notwithstanding that it’s 2013 and this will sound old-fashioned and out-of-touch, I hope you save most of those bases, and especially home plate, for the man you marry.)
- In my day we understood that emotions and feelings were attached to going to bases. Today it looks like kids pretend differently and act cavalier and nonchalant about hooking up. Take it from a sage, right now your heart is capable of profound affection and deep hurt. Don’t stuff those feelings, listen to them.
- Know that he may kiss (bases!) and tell. You should keep it quiet.
- Be kind to each boy you date. He may act tough, be hard to read or hold himself aloof, but I bet that you turn him into a nervous wreck and he can’t figure out how to impress you. Give him a break if he stutters, says the wrong thing or trips while opening a door for you. He’s learning too. (Yes, I know older guys have already mastered this stuff, but go back to tip #1!)
- If you are finished dating him, try to be as honest as possible without being cruel.
- Don’t be that girl who puts her friends down in that sarcastic jokey way when boys are around. You are beautiful. The kindness you show to your friends will make you more attractive to boys as you get older. Catty = turn off.
- If you ever feel like you are trying to make yourself smaller, less smart, less funny, or less the center of attention to help your boyfriend or date feel better, bigger or smarter, move on from that boy right away.
- Your gut instinct is your friend. If you get creeped-out at the thought of being alone with him, listen to that. (It doesn’t matter if he is the captain of the lacrosse team and the boy all the girls are swooning about and he is choosing you. You don’t have to swoon unless you want to.)
- No matter how broke you are, always carry enough money to pay for your own meal and get yourself safely home. Yes, he should pay for your meal, provide transportation and hold the door for you. If he doesn’t, that doesn’t mean he is a jerk, but it might mean the evening is not as special to him as you had imagined it to be. Or it might mean he isn’t well trained. Listen to your gut.
- I know you’ll disregard tip #1 at some point. If you do date older boys or men, please make sure they are not your teacher or coach, your friend’s father, or anyone who is closer to my age than yours. It will be obvious why they want to be near you, but seriously… yuck.
- My final tip (for now – I reserve the right to add to this list!) comes from my dear friend who has successfully parented loads of boys and girls. Here’s what she whispered to her daughters as they were heading out the door for their first prom: “When you are dancing, be careful not to rub up against his body because it will make his wee-wee hard.” ‘Nuff said.
Go forth and have a blast in your non-stripper-costume-looking outfit. I trust your judgment and I hope you will too.
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Ten years ago, my friend Judith leaned out of her car window and shouted, “Hey, I heard you turn thirty today! You will love your thirties. You finally get to enjoy who you are!” I was standing on the curb at preschool pick-up with one child in a stroller awaiting another to come bounding from the building. I was overweight and worn out. I resented my work-all-the-time husband and I awoke many mornings planning the bedtime routine for that night. The idea that something was going to change that would allow me to enjoy myself in this life of responsibly and exhaustion was hard to believe. But, Judith was right! Although the last ten years have had hiccups, a little thyroid medicine corrected the constant tiredness, some therapy and a lot of work sorted out the resentment, and the kids turned out to be my greatest pleasure. Go figure! Here are a few other random things I know about myself now that I didn’t know ten years ago.
Bitterness looks ugly on me.
My husband has a few pet names for me, and one that hits close to home describes the ugly seeds of resentment I sometimes let take root in my soul. He calls me Total Recall. Trust me, if you wronged me twelve years ago I can describe what we were wearing when you said what you said that changed everything. I can quote you verbatim, and I add emphasis when I repeat the story to show how wrong you were. I wake up in the mornings and remember things that happened that I still have not made peace with and I feel the anger and hatred all over again before I even throw back the comforter. But no more.
Now I welcome the amnesia that getting older brings. When I see you, I want to see a fresh start. This change from bitterness to grace was not (and still isn’t) easy for me, but one major habit change has made it possible: I’ve learned to forgive myself. In the way that math of the soul never really makes sense, when I added A, let myself off the hook, to B, recount all the wrongs ever done to me, they equaled C, forgive everybody. Sometimes when I realize I am still licking a wound and enough time has passed that I should have moved on, I have to force myself to examine my heart and find something to accept forgiveness for. And then boom, it doesn’t seem so hard to forgive that thing I’ve been carrying around against another person. In Christian lingo I hear, He forgave me, so how can I not forgive her? Another helpful tool is to realize that I have no idea what events or experiences led a person to that point when we had our misunderstanding. Context is everything, and often it’s missing during confusing, hurtful situations. Now I am trying to resist my knee-jerk go-bitter reaction, and choose forgiveness and grace instead. And whaddaya know? I look younger and more well rested for it!
Get myself to church.
Here’s a video that best expresses my churchy advice. (You’re welcome! I knew you’d like it!) I finally accepted that this side of death, I am unlikely to have all my faith-related issues sorted. I will dance and spin through and around tough questions with regularity. I will bang my head on the wall, throw my hands up and shout “I dunno!” and sometimes throw the Bible or concordance across the room in frustration. But, now I see that gathering with other believers and seekers is the best thing I can do to sort through those things. All the other good-for-Sundays kinds of things – brunch with friends, sports games for the kiddoes, sleeping in, biking with the family, cleaning out the garage, surfing the internet – will not challenge me to keep thinking, growing or engaging with the questions. On a given Sunday in my forties, you can find my unsure-of-much-but-going-with-my-hunch-self warming a pew. Is it a perfect church with the exact theology I can sign on to? Nope, not even close.
But each week I stand and let the words wash over me, I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.
I walk forward and take the manna of communion into my mouth, This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
I stand and sing Here is love, vast as the ocean, and for a moment I can feel myself buoyed by all that is good, filled with hope and full of love to offer to those around me.
Strangers turn to me and say Peace be with you. And peace enters in.
I have to love my body no matter its shape or size.
Here’s the dealio: It’s a must, and no one is going to do it for me. In my profession I see all types of bodies in their underwear and after helping a thousand or so women find clothes, I can attest to an epidemic of self-loathing in our ranks. The size sixteen wishes she were just a twelve and the size zero wishes she were better proportioned. The small-chested woman goes on and on about how her friends can fill out a top better, and the endowed has hated her boobs since puberty. The woman with “perfect” measurements looks in the mirror and obsesses about her hair and won’t try on anything else until she adds lipstick. I’ve heard with my own ears, “I hate myself so much,” said quietly while gazing in the mirror. It’s called “fat talk,” this female bonding ritual we do to connect. No stranger to this angst, I too can pick apart my body piece-by-piece and name what I wish were different. After a fashion show a few years ago, five women were discussing the new clothing line we’d just seen. Turned out those of us with big thighs had only stared at the models’ thighs the entire time, and the women who struggle with their waist lines had been obsessing over the flat tummies on the runway. None of us had actually seen the clothes for what they were because we were too busy comparing ourselves and coming up short. But no more.
Girlfriends try to help, but I am a master at deflecting compliments. “You look fabulous, Joy!” “Ugh, I hate the way this shows my middle,” I’ll respond. Fat Talk. But no more.
The husband makes attempts to be supportive and loving, but I am so suspicious that I discount anything he says. (Do I think he is lying? That he just wants action? That he, too, wishes I were a leggy blonde? What keeps me from believing that he finds me beautiful?) When he compliments me I’ll roll my eyes with a you’ve got to be kidding signal. But no more.
Our culture is really lousy at helping me feel good. Seems no matter where I look – at magazines, movies or even in the school drop-off line – I encounter desperation to look younger and thinner. A friend in her fifties told me recently, “It’s a scientific fact that a woman looks her best at thirty.” What a defeating idea to believe!
So, it appears the job’s on me. In addition to offering this body some nutritious meals and physical activity, I need to hear it being loved as well.
I look at my size nine feet and say thank you for holding me up all these years. I know you hate high heels and I don’t blame you. They hurt! You’ve walked me wherever I’ve wanted to go and whether in ballet flats or doc martins you always keep me going. Thank you.
I look at these thighs and calves and say it’s ok that you aren’t the best fit for skinny jeans or that the zippers of tall leather boots usually won’t go all the way up– you’ve moved and carried me around the world and I am grateful.
It’s gets harder, but now I can touch my soft torso and say thank you for carrying two babies and helping me bend and lift all of these years. You’ve done a great job of keeping all the limbs connected and my whole body centered. You let me know when you are full and when you are hungry. I apologize that I don’t do sit-ups often enough for you, but somehow you still maintain enough strength to keep me upright.
And these arms of mine are so useful at hugging my friends and pulling the husband close and also carrying groceries for my family, so I say thank you for all the lugging and hugging you do.
Finally I reach my head and I toss my graying hair out of my eyes and peer close into the mirror and whisper, You are beautiful.
That’s the job of loving myself. Lather, rinse – and do it often.
I need to loosen my grip.
Yup, I’m a control freak and operate as if the more invested and engaged I get with something, the more I can turn it into what I want it to be. These last ten years have taught me to take a step back and let the thing be what it is supposed to be and stop trying to dictate or invest in particular outcomes.
Health – I’ve seen yearned-for infants, twenty-year-olds on the brink of launching, active and involved fifty-year-old fathers, and ancient beloved grandparents all pass away. None of those deaths came easily, and no amount of my wishing them away made any difference. I will have my health and life for some amount of time and am determined to cherish and honor it. I have no promises about tomorrow.
Money – I’ve lived in abundance and in worry. No longer will either define my worth or my outlook on life. I agree that money can make life easier, but it brings the possibility of a crapload of dysfunction along with it. Beyond providing the basic necessities (for us this means housing, food and education) it doesn’t do much for self-confidence, family love, or identity building. I say, Easy come, easy go, Miss Money. I’ll enjoy you while you are with me, but I won’t grieve very long when you take a vacation from my bank account.
Friendship – I am wired to need girlfriends and I thrive on female energy flowing through me, helping me self-examine and guiding me toward my future-me. I stand by the advice I heard many years ago: “Look for the best in a friend rather than a best friend.” Though some women come close, I don’t need any single friend to be my perfect soul mate. If I start measuring her by a standard in my head, she’ll certainly fail. When women come into my life – and new ones appear all the time – I try to figure out what part of her is the best fit for what part of me. Should we connect about mothering, wife-ing, walking, faith, books, travel, or will she challenge me to grow in a new direction? While I am trying to discover what is a piece in her to fit with a piece in me, I am also trying to offer my best. This approach guarantees that an amorphous cloud of friendship holds me at all times. I still struggle with rejection, though. Even I can feel like a left-out middleschooler while scrolling through face book and looking at party shots that do not include me, or watching two women giggle in a way that neither does with me. Those pangs of exclusion serve as a reminder to peel my fingers back again and recognize that for whatever reason – insecurity, mis-reading cues, rough patches of neediness – I’ve begun to cling too hard to that particular friendship.
My Children – Well, I wish I could add them to this list, but I am still learning to hold their sweet souls in an open palm. I know they are on loan from God to me, I know their lives do not reflect my identity, and I know that if I do my job well, they will find their own path and it will be headed away from me. I am still processing this one.
I can’t wait to see how life treats me now that I will be a lady in her forties. I hear that all sorts of fun things will happen to my body. I’ve already had the pleasure of experiencing a few personal summers, and I can see that the rumor about eyebrows disappearing and showing up on chins might have some truth to it. Over the next ten years I’ll be saying goodbye to two kids as they fly the coop and I hope I am able to do it with equipoise. (Current trends indicate I might have a rough time with this, but I am betting on grace to reign when needed.)
Whatever heads my way, you can be sure I’ll be writing about it, because that’s another thing I discovered during the last decade. I love to write! Stick around; it’s going to be a fun ride.
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No matter if we grew up in a secular home or a home where faith of a religion other than Christianity was taught, we are likely familiar with the basic elements of the story of the birth of Christ. The Crèche Scene: animals, angels, shepherds and wise men. There are swaddling clothes, and a great big star, and sometimes in the re-telling of the story a little drummer boy is in the picture as well.
I could write for pages about the back story of that scene, starting with the prophecies that appear in the book of Isaiah about the Messiah who would save the people of God, or we could walk through Jesus’ lineage and hear the stories of all the colorful people listed who would be included in the house of David from which Jesus would emerge. We could even spend a few hours just detailing how the conception, birth and ultimate death of John the Baptist was so intriguingly linked to Jesus every step of the way.
We might examine Jesus’ mother and discuss the courage and bravery she had to exhibit to bring him to life. If you are experiencing the unique tensions of a blended family you might enjoy focusing on Joseph, the stepfather. We could step back further and see what was happening in the world around the stable on that night: oppression of entire swaths of classes and races and greedy, power-hungry world leaders looking out only for themselves.
The broader story of Jesus’ birth offers as many Christmas Eve homily ideas as there are priests to deliver them. I hope each of us – no matter our faith – has time to find a place to listen to any clergy give a Christmas-related sermon. It’s always interesting to hear which perspective and entry point to the story is used.
I am stuck on one such entry point, recorded in the book of Luke. Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem to be counted in the census, and then –
She brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
I used to be in charge of a Christmas Pageant and the youngest kids would dress as stable animals, and would say things like Moo and Baa on cue, and the next-to-the-youngest would often get the roles of Inn Keepers. The seven and eight-year-old Mary and Joseph would approach several Inn Keepers who would hold up signs reading, No Vacancy and if the kids had the courage they would shout out “NO VACANCY!” And the audience always laughed.
I don’t know how many accommodations Joseph tried to find that night, only to be re-buffed. Even the place that ultimately let them in could only offer them the animals’ stable. The town was overcrowded with the hustle and bustle of people coming home to register. Probably families were reuniting, and I bet there was a lot of cooking and housecleaning going on to prepare for all the guests that would descend on the town. I imagine the shop keepers were lining the shelves with extra goods to sell and maybe even increasing their prices a bit thinking, this would be the opportunity to cash in. The streets would have been crowded – even parking the donkey may have been difficult.
The scene sounds like it could be 2012 here in my neighborhood just before any holiday. And the message Joseph and Mary were hearing was, There is no room for you here. We are all too busy preparing for and taking advantage of the census, reuniting with our families, dreading our families’ visit, preparing our homes, or dashing back out to the store. You are an unexpected visitor and we simply have no bandwidth to deal with you.
If you are friends with me on Facebook, you already know that my tree fell down last Sunday night. One minute it was standing tall and stable in its stand and the next minute we heard a crash and ran in to find water flooding the floorboards, broken ornaments covering the carpet and the tree prone on the ground. If my husband hadn’t been home I would have carefully picked off the unbroken ornaments, packed them away and dragged that tree to the curb. But by Brad’s grace we managed to right the tree, dry the water, and re-hang what wasn’t broken – and the Christmas spirit lived on in the house on Baker Street.
Earlier in the weekend we had tooooootally overdone it. Brad landed late on Friday night and was flying out again first thing on Monday morning. We were cramming in things like birthday party planning, Christmas photo shots, Christmas card ordering and gift buying and, of course, buying the tree from Home Depot at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning. Our children were exhausted, behind on homework and one of them was not being particularly nice to the other one.
To say that we had no room in our inn for the tree to fall down was evident in the way we handled it. We yelled at each other. As I dashed up the stairs to get towels he yelled from downstairs, “Would somebody puh-leeeaze get me a towel?” I scrambled to put shoes on my bare feet and screamed down to him, “What do you think I am dooooooing?” I dried the floor around the base and demanded that he lift up the tree – base and all – so I could dry under it. “Just try harder,” I screamed into the bottom branches. “There is no way I can do it,” He yelled into the middle branches his face was buried in. Once we got the floor dry, we decided we needed some string to tie the tree to something – what, we still hadn’t figured out, but the kids and I went on a hunt for string. And I tell you, it’s like we entered the twilight zone.
Brad stood waiting in the living room holding the tree upright. We were in the garage numbly looking around in random areas for string. Perhaps we’d lost some brain cells on the way down the steps. I fought the urge to suddenly straighten up and maybe even catalogue all the board games. I saw one of my kids reach out for a ball and then catch himself. We looked in all the dark corners, and on all the shelves and I even gave the ceiling a quick glance to see if by some sort of magic there might be a ball of string hanging from it. But no… not a single length of string to be found. Meanwhile he was upstairs bellowing, “I am waiting on some striiiiiinnnggg.” Eventually – even in my stupor – I found the staircase up to the living room again, and switched places with him. He reappeared in thirty seconds with a large bundle of twine and tied the tree to the window shade and then we began vacuuming up needles and glass. We couldn’t leave it alone, though. Even while cleaning up, we were at each other, the stress of this ‘most wonderful time of the year,’ nearly causing us to come to verbal blows.
Eventually we restored peace, the children finished enough homework to go to bed and he caught a few hours of sleep before he left for the airport. Honestly, some weekends we just need to congratulate ourselves that they’re over. The trophy goes to anyone who makes it to Monday morning.
A few days later I was planning to spend the morning poring over seasonal poems, Scriptures and inspirational readings in preparation for a little talk I was facilitating about the meaning of Christmas. I had put off planning for an entire week. (Those Law and Order episodes weren’t going to watch themselves, you know.) And after the crazy weekend I needed to use Monday to get my nails done with a girlfriend, and so Tuesday was the day.
All I needed to do first was drop off a box at the post office, and then I could come home and plan, research and write and just relax into the spirit of Christmas. But as I checked one and then another post office and found each not yet open and with lines forming outside ten people deep, I decided to drive into the Presidio and see if that post office was any better. And that’s when my car broke down. I got to sit in my car with the hazard lights blinking and cars honking at me for eighty minutes while waiting on a tow truck.
I couldn’t find pen or paper in the car to at least jot down my thoughts, but decided to use the time wisely in other ways. I went through my phone and deleted or answered 262 unattended emails. I called my Mom who jokingly said “Oh, now I see where I fit into your priorities. When you have nothing else to do but sit on the side of the road in a broken down car, then you call me.” I returned the calls of three friends and heard all about what they are going through right now. One is dealing with financial stress like you wouldn’t believe, another is frustrated and down about her job, and the other is worried about both of her kids for different reasons. None of them has any room in their inns for one more thing to go wrong.
I’ve heard all about the grand idea of Margin. To me, “margin” means leaving some room around the edges of our lives – in our calendars, in our sleep schedules, or in the time we allot to get places. We hear a lot about how we need to protect margin and how easily it can slip away from us. Even though I need to embrace it, sometimes I just get so sick of hearing any sort of modern-day wisdom. I feel impatient and claustrophobic with mumbo-jumbo like just let go or remain open. As much as I want to say Margin Smargin, I do realize that margin is what makes it ok when the tree falls and the power steering fails. When the kid sends you that text that makes your heart break or your spine chill, or when you count the pennies and realize there is no way you will make it to the next month without missing some of the due dates on those utility bills. Margin, space, room – extra – is what we need.
Even though we only have a limited amount of room, there is no end to all the things we can use to fill us. Right now, there are amazing events to attend (I went to two fabulous holiday parties before the tree fell), sparkly clothes to wear and decorations to hang. There is food to enjoy and as many obsessive thoughts as you’ll welcome about eating or not. There are songs, music and concerts, and shopping, buying and spending and worrying about reactions to what we bought and worrying about how to pay the credit card bills we just ran up. But what we don’t seem to have a lot of is extra room.
We’re not too different from the people in that crowded Bethlehem all those years ago, with all the busyness and distraction that envelops us. We have to learn to say no and establish boundaries or we’ll get overrun with good things.
But I wonder, especially at this time of the year, what we might be missing by not leaving just a little room in the inn of our hearts? Those people way back in Bethlehem, they’d been told from the time they were in the cradle that a savior would be born to their people. They had been raised with hope in their hearts and expectation on their breath, yet there was no room for Him when He finally showed up. They were too preoccupied.
When I have no room in my inn for things to go wrong, I let criticism, anger, blame and defensiveness take over. Those are my knee-jerk reactions when I am stretched and tired. I miss what could be a memory-making funny moment, or a moment to help a child or spouse and be a support.
When I am around extended family tension, something that is common and perhaps predictable around the holidays, there is no room in me for grace and forgiveness. I allow judgment and superiority to reign instead of opening the door to humility and compassion.
Here is a kicker: Around this time of year we might come face-to-face with spiritual and faith-related crossroads. Perhaps we will be on the tipping point of diving in, rejecting or cautiously dipping the tip of our big toe nail into the pool of faith. If the opportunity presents itself, will there be room in the inn of our hearts? Will there be too much suspicion, disappointment or general numbness to allow a quickening or movement in our souls?
What steps can we take when we are faced with so much pressure and work right now?
I wish I could give us a plan to follow. I would entitle it How to create Holy Margin during Christmastime. But, because we are unique and on our own paths, each of us probably needs to take an inventory and feel the answer specific to our own lives. Where I might need to turn off the Law and Order and instead turn to my husband and ask about his day, you might need to stop cleaning the kitchen and come watch a football game with yours. While I might need to invite my kids to take a walk and get away from their screens, you might need to allow yours some more screen time and stop being such a taskmaster. Where I need to make and hold eye contact with family members and actually listen to their hearts, you might need to protect yourself from certain members of your extended family who do not have your best interests at heart. Where I might need to reiterate my spiritual values to myself – actually note where I am and where I am headed, you might simply need to throw your hands up and shout out, I have no idea what I believe.
You may be alone this Christmas and your heart might be filled with sadness and loneliness. Perhaps you need to leave room for hope and joy to return as well.
Thinking back to Bethlehem, I want to sneak in at night before Mary and Joseph trudge into town and knock on the doors to give a heads up.
I would whisper through the closed doors, He’s coming tomorrow. Be ready. He’ll be here and He is not what you are expecting. Be on the lookout for a total shocker. Try not to plan how it will be and how you will react. Guess what? The world will be changed forever tomorrow and I don’t want you to be too busy, too angry, too numb, too disappointed, too worried, too suspicious, or too distracted to notice. Keep your door ajar and leave some room in your inn in case He comes here. Tomorrow there will definitely be a Holy moment and I hope you don’t miss it.
I need to take time to sit quietly, breathe deeply, and imagine my margin growing bigger. As thoughts creep in and worries return, I’ll no doubt notice them, but I won’t let them stay long enough to take root. Instead, with however much margin I have built up in my heart, I ask, What Holy Moment is waiting for me?