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 days ago, I loaded into a gondola on a spontaneous one-day ski trip with my 13-year-old son. In order to ride up the mountain forward facing, I sat next to the small boy who had boarded ahead of us, rather than next to my own son.
Now that I am back in the city, returning to regular life, I keep asking myself, how long can a gondola ride last? According to the ski resort’s website, just under 10 minutes, which was long enough for me to see the pain on his face and hear it in his voice.
“Are you guys just getting started?” he asked us casual and friendly. Louis and I giggled and quickly recounted pieces of our morning of misadventure. Among other delays, Louis lost one glove somewhere between the car and our first gondola ride. After a thorough retracing of steps we gave up and bought a new pair. As we were about to board our first chair lift, a man behind us called out “Hey, you dropped these,” and handed us Louis’s goggles. I said, “After many delays, we are finally going skiing, yes.”
I think Louis and I were projecting a pretty heavy, mother-son-on-an-adventure vibe without realizing it. It seemed to strike a cord with this boy and he leaned into the warmth and charm of it. He shared that he was in high school (this was surprising because my 13-year-old was physically much bigger), that he attended an East Coast boarding school, was on a three week school vacation, had been skiing in Tahoe for 10 days and that this was his final day. He was climbing the mountain to meet a boy he’d made friends with earlier in the week.
He was sharp and quick-witted. By asking only a few questions he deduced that we were from, (his words) “San Fran,” and that my son attended an all boy’s middle school.
He bristled at the description, all boys. “I am in a co-ed boarding school now and it’s so much better. When it’s time for you to find a high school, go co-ed for sure.”
I asked if he started high school first at a single sex school and he told me no, he had attended a Jr. Boarding school that was only for boys and it had been a terrible experience. Without shyness or fear of vulnerability he shared some of his experiences and explained the difference between bullying (picking on people for no reason) and hazing (a brotherhood of love continuing abusive traditions that had been done to them.)
I was stunned into silence while he shared stories of being the “little kid” on the hockey team and some of the nightmares he’d endured.
I mentioned that I had looked at various middle schools that might be a good fit for Louis and had come across the idea of boarding school for sixth graders. “It’s more common on the east coast, I understand,” I concluded, and he concurred. I asked why he’d gone to a Jr. boarding school in the first place. He turned to Louis and said, “You are so lucky she didn’t send you away.” My parents just…” He made a repeated motion with his hand as if brushing dirt off his ski pants. “I guess my Dad works all the time and my Mom, well, I think she wanted freedom to travel.” Brushing hand motion again.
“Have you shared with your parents some of the experiences you had?” I asked. “Yes, and they feel terrible, but it still caused some real attachment issues for me.” Clearly this kid had been to therapy, but he had not finished processing his pain.
We sat in silence for a few minutes and then I quietly said, “Middle school can be a really difficult time in a boy’s life.” We looked at each other, goggles to goggles for a long moment and then he said, “Yes, and it’s a time a boy really needs a Mom.”
We sat in silence some more until my son quietly said, “What’s your name?” His name was Patrick and he is now a sophomore in a different, more gentle sounding boarding school. He and his parents continue to work on their relationship. “My parents love me, don’t get me wrong, but they just…” and he did that motion with his hand again.
For the whole ride, his knees were almost touching Louis’s knees, and I know his words were imprinting themselves on Louis’s soul.
He didn’t know that Louis was a kid who has had a rough time in middle school as well. I am not sure how Louis would describe his own experience: bullying, excluding, ostracizing…. He chose not to open up on that gondola ride. Whatever happened to Louis in the past, we lived through it together. I have suffered inside for not being able to rescue him from it and no efforts on my part seemed to stop the behavior of other kids. While listening to Patrick speak, something clicked into place in my heart. All Patrick regretted was that his Mom hadn’t been there for him. He didn’t seem to have any anger or resentment for those boys (he was quick to defend the hazing rituals he had endured) he just wanted his mom to be a part of his life. Patrick wanted a mom who could pick him up each afternoon and absorb all the details. Remind him that his identity was not placed in what the boys said or did. Name the treatment as wrong and unfair. Spend time with him on a Friday night instead of going out. Support his interests and love him just as he was, skinny and short.
Understanding my role as a parent of a teen can be challenging. He is pulling away from me emotionally, and I am resisting the urge to helicopter parent, (s)mother and over-manage. But Patrick-of-the-Gondola reminded me of a powerful, under-valued and still-necessary ingredient of parenting: Just freakin’ show up. Sometimes there isn’t anything specific to do and holding still and being nearby is the hardest thing of all. I need to honor this kid I’ve been blessed to have, step up to the role I asked for, and simply be present. The rest, well, it somehow-someway takes care of itself.
- Louis loves his school and chose to stay there from Kindergarten til 8th grade (next year). I am sure he made the right choice and I am happy I listened to him.
- There are loads of happy kids at boarding schools whose parents “show up” in the right ways in their lives. I know this is true, but Patrick is not one of them.
- I will be praying for Patrick and his broken heart for years to come. I hope he knows or learns how valued and loved he is by God.
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?
Turns out, I talk too much. I simply Can. Not. Keep. My. Mouth. Closed. I should have been in the RUN-DMC video back in the day.
Last week I saw my friend Lilly exiting our church. She had attended the early service and I was heading into the later one. Lilly had just returned from a three month sabbatical and had used her time to travel all over the world. She started in Canada and after a few stops in the States she wandered around all the places in Europe I’ve always intended to visit. I stalked her on facebook like any good girlfriend would do, and when I saw her in all of her beaming glory walking down the front steps of the church I shouted “Liiiiiiiiilllllllllllyyyyyyyyy!” and wrapped her in a big hug. And then I started talking. And I couldn’t stop. I prattled on and on about myself and my kids and all that we’d done all summer and the whole time Lilly was just standing there beaming and smiling and nodding and then I realized I was now late to church and I laughed – ha ha, ha, gotta run! – and I dashed into the service. That’s when it dawned on me that this girl, whom I had missed so much, hadn’t had a chance to say one tiny thing about her amazing, probably-life-changing adventure. Because I talk too much; I nevvah shut up!
Anne Lamott refers to an acronym for mothers-in-law or Grandmothers called W.A.I.T, which stands for “Why Am I Talking?” When I heard her explain it, I immediately embraced it in theory. (Am obviously still trying to shift it to practice.) It at once acknowledges that I have so much to offer and all of it is something almost no one wants to hear. So, Anne Lamott just keeps quiet with all her grandmotherly advice. I am supposed to be asking myself what the purpose of my words are, and whether they want to be heard by anyone in the room. If not, I am practicing thinking those words instead of saying them. You can probably guess how very challenged I am by this idea.
I was out for crepes with my daughter and her friend, Angie.
Me: Angie, how do you get to your new school in the mornings?
Angie: Takes a bite of crepe and motions to me that she’ll answer as soon as she swallows.
Me, not missing a beat: Do you take the bus every day? I wonder which bus goes from your house to the Haight? I bet it’s two buses.
Angie: Still chewing, nods and holds up two fingers.
Me: Oh, so it is two buses. How long does it take you? Do you take the bus every single day? Oh wait, did you mean you take it two days each week?
Angie: Finally, she swallows, and says: I take the bus on Mondays, yes it’s two buses, and my mom drives me two days and I ride with Samantha the other two days. Then she takes another bite.
Me: Why do you take the bus on Mondays? Wait, Samantha doesn’t live near you, how do you car pool with her? Oh… I remember her father lives near you and Samantha must stay with him two days a week.
Angie: Still chewing, just stares at me.
Me: Just nod – is that why you carpool with Samantha? And what is this about Mondays? Why can’t your Mom drive you on that day? Does she take a class that morning or does she work on Mondays?
At this point my own daughter can take no more and rescues her friend. “Mom, you are interrogating her!” And that’s the first moment I realize I’ve been grilling this poor child. Honestly, I thought I was just making polite conversation.
Yesterday I was catching up with my long time girl friend, Sally, whom I probably hadn’t seen in over a year. She’d invited me to come to Marin for a gentle hike, so I laced up my running shoes and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge. After the initial hugs and hellos we set off through her neighborhood and headed west onto a dirt trail. Just as we had begun climbing the steep, apparently all-uphill route that was shockingly difficult, Sally casually asked, “So, how is your business going?” Suffice it to say that things are happening in my business and I am feeling very enthusiastic about the growth it’s experiencing. Booming might be overstating it a bit, but I could still easily talk non-stop for two hours about it. But, at that exact moment I was concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other and was very aware that my heart was slamming itself into the wall of my chest and my lungs were threatening to revolt. Shy of sending myself into full cardiac arrest, all I could squeak out was, “It’s going very well, thanks for asking,” and then I sucked in as much oxygen as possible to make up for the herculean effort of speaking. And that is the only reason I didn’t bore poor Sally with Every. Single. Detail. right there on the trail. Unfortunately, I think I made up for it later at her kitchen table when she was re-hydrating me after sweating all over the Marin headlands.
Last month I got that call. You know the one every Mother of a teenager is supposed to prepare herself to get. “Mom, my friend is in trouble and we need to go pick her up.” On the way there, I got coached. “Don’t ask anything about what happened or why she is coming over. Just make casual conversation like this is normal. “ So I acted like this was exactly what I was expecting at 11pm on my Saturday evening.
Hello, sweetie. So glad you could come over and I’ve been looking forward to meeting you too. Have you had dinner? No? Well, let me heat up some casserole I happen to have in the fridge and here’s some sliced baguette to go with it. Let me go make up the spare bed for you — you girls have fun.” Basically, I was like a super-star mom… until the next morning. Once the morning flurry was over and the house was finally empty, my daughter and I lay down trying to catch our breaths. I oh-so-casually let the question roll off my tongue before I could snatch it back. “So…. did you ever figure out what was happening that made her call us for help?” Off came the sleep mask, and the tone got cold, “Mom, you promised you’d be that Mom, the one anyone could call for any reason, no questions asked. This is not our story; it’s hers. Leave it alone.” Once again, I realized how much trouble I have just keeping a lid on it.
I hope my daughter will trust me again the next time someone needs help. I will try my best not to morph into the interrogator or insert myself too much. I really do want to be that Mom, because I think so many of these kids need a judgment-free, grace-filled zone to enter when they get in over their heads. But, boy, do I have trouble keeping my chatty, opinion-filled, question-driven self in check.
By the way, Lilly is coming over for iced tea next Monday. Because we are not planning on hiking together, I’ve asked her to bring some duct tape to keep me quiet.
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One time, just for a few months, my schedule was a bit too ambitious. Probably other people could have handled with ease what I had signed up to do, but I knew, looking ahead, that I would be working and busy from morning til exhausted night every single day for many months, and somehow I would still need to cook dinner and do things like hug my children. I do this sometimes, this saying yes thing. I love to be involved, work hard, initiate and try new ideas, and sometimes I forget not to do all those things at one time. I have no trouble saying no to something I don’t want to do. The trouble comes because I usually want to do so many different things that I end up saying yes with abandon.
In this story, though, once I realized that I had done it again – said yes to too much – it was too late to undo it. I saw the coming busy season approaching and did what I could to prepare. I shopped, wrapped and mailed all my Christmas presents by August of that year. I hired a part-time cook to help with dinners. I organized every junk drawer and corner of my house so that there wouldn’t be any last minute scramble looking for the stapler or scotch tape as we’re rushing off to school. I wrote Sunday school lessons weeks ahead of time and gathered arts and crafts supplies for each week, stashed them in individual giant-sized Ziplocs and wrote in large sharpie letters on the bags, “loaves and fishes ” and “water into wine posters.” Seriously, I tried to make it easier. But it wasn’t easy.
Halfway through that particular overcommitted time period, my dear friend Shelly checked in with me to see what she could do to help.
(Side note: Don’t you love it when a friend approaches you to offer to help when she sees that you’ve royally screwed up being in charge of your own tiny life? She didn’t come to show me how this was all my fault and avoidable, but instead she came to see how she could alleviate my problem. The world needs fewer I-told-you-so people and more how-can-I-help-you-get-yourself-out-of-this-mess-you-created kind of people.)
I had a mini-breakdown for a few minutes as I told her all the things that were going wrong with my grand plan. I had tried to control and predict every detail, but that wasn’t working. The woman who was supposed to be helping me with dinner actually was making our lives much harder. My kids hated her food and she spent each afternoon in my home criticizing my freezer and pontificating about nutrition. The people I was supervising on a project were all doing things wrong and making each step take so much longer, and there were all sorts of spontaneous needs springing up from another assignment I was trying to finish. No matter what I had done ahead of time or what I did in the moment, each commitment appeared to be failing.
I thought that if the people involved would just do things exactly as I said to do them, all would be fine. “I just didn’t account for the idiot factor,” I told Shelly in disgust. She looked at me with such kindness as she shared her little nugget of wisdom: “Joy, the idiot factor is all that there is.”
Years later, I am still processing that response. If the idiot factor is all there is, then no matter what scenario I get myself in the middle of, there will always be idiots as key players. Maybe the only predictable aspect of any situation is that it will be filled with idiots.
Recently, I drove a long way to take a friend of my 14-year-old to an unfamiliar airport. We traversed two highways to get there and I am sure that at least one of them was planned by an idiot. The drive took longer than Siri told us it would take (Siri was an idiot that day, too!). When we finally parked in the hourly lot, I made the kids run! while dragging suitcases and stuffing iPhones into carry-ons. We approached an airline employee and asked for some assistance working out a kink. His mumbled response was so unhelpful I made him say it three times out loud in hopes that he would hear how inadequate it was. He didn’t get it, and I ran my ragged trio of kids over to the next person. She looked like she was used to being in charge, maybe a supervisor or something. She glared at me while we described our little “situation” and then gave an idiotic response. She even walked us over to another supervisor-sort and reiterated her dim-witted answer. I stormed off and placed the girl I was in charge of in the security line and tried asking one more person for help. You guessed it…. useless.
The child made it safely onto her flight and home to her mother and all is now well. Later that night I was recounting the story to my long-suffering husband and I could see him flinch each time I spewed the word “idiot.” And then I went up to another idiot to ask for help…
When I awoke the following morning I remembered Shelly’s famous line: The idiot factor is all there is.
It took a while, but eventually a bit of regret and humility entered in. All those people I crossed paths with – all the idiots – they were people trying to do their jobs. I don’t know what training they received, what pressures they face, how late they were awake holding a crying baby or working a second job, or what stories brought them this far in life. I never took even a small moment to wonder about them. I didn’t even show them basic politeness or smile while I was asking them for help. I was just a frenzied mom shouting questions at them. They could have easily thought, here is another fool, late for her plane, unaware of the rules of young people traveling alone and now because of her lack of planning, she wants me to make this into an emergency. Lady, I deal with idiots like you all the time.
What it took me a whole night of sleep to realize is that from their perspective, I was probably the idiot. I bet at least one of them went home and told their spouse all about me: And then there was this idiotic woman who was so stressed out that she couldn’t listen to my answer…
It seems perhaps we’re all just a bunch of bumbling idiots, whether we’re in charge of big teams of people or just late for a flight. We’re all susceptible to poor reactions and impulsive moves that are only wrong in hindsight. We need strangers and friends to help us out of our self-made messes, and clearly no one thrives or flourishes on judgment. We all need… grace.
My faith in Jesus sometimes can be hard for me to articulate to others. People have enough religious thumping as it is, and I don’t want to add to that noise. But here goes a big piece of my own understanding: Jesus is the haven for my idiocy. He is where I feel most welcome to let down my guard, express my many failings, and drink in the soothing, restoring grace that redeems me in my worst moments. The hope is that I’ll drink enough to share with those around me
So, the next time I think what an idiot! I hope I am able to stop myself just for a moment and remember: idiots are all we’ve got in this world. And the next time I make a bone-headed move, whether it is across a lane of traffic, a sarcastic retort to my kids, or a colossal mistake with a client, I hope the people I affect will offer grace for the idiot instead of the disgust I recently handed out.
For God so loved all the idiots….
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