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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Last week, my fourteen-year-old graduated from the eighth grade with a moving and beautiful ceremony that allowed us to reflect on the previous nine years and a crazy-fun dance party where we celebrated and whooped it up. Lodged right in the middle was a short speech given by one of my dear friends, Gordon Sharafinski. The closing comments he offered at her graduation may have been his last public remarks because he retired a few days later. The internet has been flooded with graduation speeches over the last few weeks, each one more inspiring than the one that pinged my in-box moments before, but the few words my buddy, Gordy, charged my daughter and her friends with are the ones that felt sticky and have been swirling in my mind ever since. By sharing bits of his own story, he encouraged the girls to “expect the unexpected.” He grew up a 10th child in an eleven-kid family in a tiny town in Wisconsin and became a parochial High School English teacher. Due only to many unexpected and surprising twists in his career, he is retiring as the Director of four prestigious independent schools in a city that many people would give their eye teeth to live in, and he gets to enjoy it for all of his days. He wanted the girls to know deep in their souls that his life had not turned out exactly as planned, and it was much better because he had been open to unexpected opportunities along the way.
I glanced at my daughter sitting on stage, hoping she was soaking up his words. She reminds me of myself, full of planning, strategizing, and analyzing. I know she won’t bob numbly through life floating on the waves of trends or friends, but I do wonder if she’ll notice open doors beckoning her if they are not listed on her grand plan. Gordy’s words made me think about how I landed in this gorgeous city and I feel the same way he does: only through strokes of wonder and grace, here I am.
My women’s group was studying “grace” a few years ago and had a loose working definition in our minds: Grace is an unexpected and unearned act of generous love. For homework one week we were looking for examples of grace in everyday life and reporting back what we found. I saw a grace-filled moment while at work. I show racks of gorgeous clothes to women and help them select the pieces that are right for their budget and body. I love my job and enjoy meeting new women through it, but most of the time it’s fairly straightforward and predictable. On this particular night, a woman came very late with her 12-year-old daughter in tow. She quietly shopped and didn’t need much help from me, but she conversed and took pointers from her daughter. When she was finished shopping and ready to pay for her selections she quietly said to her daughter, “Would you like to pick out something for yourself?” The daughter’s face beamed with surprise and gratitude as she rushed over and lifted the multi-colored cardigan she had been subtly stroking the whole evening. Watching this love-filled mother and daughter team, I realized I had fulfilled my homework assignment in noticing a moment of grace.
Gordy was telling my daughter that these kinds of grace-filled moments, the ones we are least expecting to see, actually point us toward the way.
On the last day of eighth grade, my daughter and a gang of friends left school and celebrated their final dismissal at a local burger joint. At the same restaurant sat a long ago friend of mine in a corner booth. My daughter was a little girl the last time she’d seen her and she had one of those moments of shock we all have when time rears up and slaps us across the face. You know what I mean, it happens when the niece we held in our arms becomes a bride, the neighbor we watched toddle across a lawn skates by on a long board and we notice he now has a beard. Our own kids grow so close to our face that it’s like watching water boil, but other children appear to be eating miracle-gro in their cereal. After receiving a message from my old friend, “OMG, I just saw Emma and she is so grown up and tall!” my cell phone rang. My breathless fourteen-year-old was shouting into my ear, “Mom, the weirdest thing just happened! I saw Mrs. Wishner and said hello when we first sat down, and then when we went to pay for our lunch, the manager told us that she had already paid for us. Mom, there are at least ten kids here and she paid for everybody. We need to call her right now. Can you text us her telephone number?” At bedtime that night she told me the story again and we tried to guess reasons why my friend had been so generous, but we came up empty. The only explanation is that she showered my girl and her pals with an unexpected and unearned act of generous love. That’s grace! That’s what my friend Gordy was trying to tell Emma to be on the lookout for. Expect to find grace. Don’t plot your life and assume you can control it all. If you do that, you’ll miss these moments of grace that come storming in.
Last Tuesday, I drove to beautiful Marin, a county just a few miles north of San Francisco, but a completely different climate and, some would say, culture as well, and attended a “Let’s celebrate that school is over Mom’s night out.” Our gracious hostess opened her home, hired valet parkers and delicious caterers and showered heaps of pampering on her girlfriends. I showed up that night thinking that the only gal in the room I would know would be my friend, the hostess. All of the other women there were in the same school community and were celebrating the end of a year spent together. I knew that I could only occupy the hostess for a few minutes and then I’d need to mingle and meet other women. My friend, Stephanie, introduced me to a few gals. “This is my friend, Joy, from the city,” and then I excused myself to free her up. I was standing in line for a drink when a woman started chatting with me. She looked like all the other Marin moms out on the gorgeous deck, perfectly highlighted hair just brushing her sun-kissed shoulders. I was feeling a little city-pasty-pale next to all the gorgeous warm weather gals and honestly wondering why I had come. I’d rather catch up with Stephanie at a lunch for the two of us, and this party just seemed full of people who were already connected to each other. I was beginning to wonder if the rest of the evening would be spent awkwardly trying to enter into conversations between close friends and if I was really up for the job of casual socializing that night. The woman who was talking to me in the drinks line figured out that I was a lone ranger and instead of just ending our chat with the requisite, “Well, nice to meet you,” she said this instead: “Listen, it was great chatting with you and if later in the night you find yourself on your own, please don’t feel awkward just coming and standing next to me. I’ll include you in any group I am standing in.” Seriously, that is exactly what she said to me – totally unexpectedly and full of generosity. I never saw her again that night because it turned out that I knew a whole gang of gals who were over-the-moon to see me and we giggled and caught up and celebrated another year of parenting under our belts. Even though I never had to call in my chit of grace with the beautiful Nicole, I am still thinking about her six days later and soaking up that feeling I get when grace is bestowed. I’m grateful, a little bewildered, and wondering how I got so lucky.
And that is exactly the path those eighth graders were being told to look for, and it’s the path I want to stay on. I want to hunt down grace, and go after those unexpected moments like a momma hunting food for her young. I want to expect that generous love will find me, and I want to bask in the glow of having been chosen for surprising gifts from above. Meeting Nicole, seeing my shopper, Ruth, bless her daughter (named Grace if you can even believe that!) and listening to Emma recount Mrs. Wishner’s generosity were tiny bits dropped into my lap. If I had been going too fast or planning for life down the road, I may have missed them altogether.
When I look back I can see that signs of grace have directed my path the entire time:
Unexpected Mercy, Next Right,
Surprising Love, Up Ahead,
Awe-inspiring Changes, ½ Mile,
T’was grace that brought me safe thus far… and grace will lead me home.
Where has grace shown up in your life?
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If I write one more blog post about marriage or love I think even I will throw up in my own mouth a little bit. Seriously, enough already! It gets to be nauseating listening to someone pontificate about love. But, tomorrow is Valentine’s day, so I think I have one more gushy post in me and then I promise I will stop.
Am planning to spend VD with a bestie girlfriend and my favorite son. We’re going to cook, chat and have a great time. I’ll miss my husband a teensy bit, but no more than I would on any given Tuesday night. He’s not the grand gesture kind of guy, he’s more the I-love-you-today-and-I’ll-love-you-again-the-same-amount-and-with-the-same-devotion-and-stability-tomorrow type. He’s definitely the kind you marry.
This week I came across an essay I wrote a while ago about love. At the time, I was working on a book idea that explored each month of the year through the eyes of a spiritual seeker-mother-wife-modern woman. Some day I may gather up all those months and do something with them, but for today, in honor of Valentine’s Day and as a tribute to my dear stable man, I offer you “February.”
February is the month that always shines bright red in my mind. Surely this must be because I’ve had years of Hallmark marketing overloading me with images of cupids, shiny doily hearts, red roses and chocolate boxes tied with a red bow. But in my mind, each month brings a new color and February is definitely all painted in red.
The subject of February might seem obvious, it’s Love. Right now I am humming that popular Michael Bolton song Love is a wonderful thing. This song was released when I was eighteen years old and in the throes of discovering what love can be. The song says, well, obviously that it’s a wonderful thing, but also that it will make ya smile through the pouring rain, Turn your world into one sweet dream, and finally it promises that it will take your heart and make it sing.
It’s raining as I type and I can hear the drops pounding above me on the skylight and at least for this morning, I am very sick of the rain this season. It seems like it has appeared too often, stayed too long, and given us all cabin fever. I am still smiling, however. Is it love that is making me smile through the pouring rain?
In February falls a holiday that has caused way more grief for men and women than it has ever helped: The dreaded Valentine’s Day. I remember some doozies from my dating days, particularly from teenage years.
One boy bought me a white fluffy teddy bear, which I pretended to find thrilling and then I heard his father whisper to him, “See I told you she’d like it; they all love teddy bears.” But inside I wanted to scream But I am not five years old! Another boyfriend and I had a very intellectual discussion about Valentine’s Day and I shared my thoughts that couples should find ways to make each other feel loved and special regardless of the date. I told him that I found Valentine’s Day to be a pitiful excuse to lavish material things onto a relationship and call it cared for. I told him about an older couple I knew who had been married for thirty years who ignored Valentine’s Day altogether and instead had a little basket in their bedroom where they would each place gifts for the other. They upheld this ritual just here and there throughout the year. She baked shortbread cookies for him and put them in there; he purchased her new sewing scissors and she was excited. My boyfriend agreed with the philosophy and therefore did nothing on the big day, and of course…. I was crushed.
Finally, one of my favorite boyfriends, a real sweetie… [to keep reading about love, click here…
Last week I posted a little rant about trust within a very traditional, almost old-fashioned model of marriage: Husband works; wife stays home and raises children. Woman trusts man not to desert her and leave her penniless. Very 1950s housewife stuff, ya know?
But I’m not naïve or simplistic and I get that there are a zillion different ways to run a marriage. Long gone are the days when women have few choices and must follow strictly prescribed paths. We’ve all had to figure out for ourselves what feels right at the end of each day and how to hold conflicting desires within the same heart. But the traditional path is how it’s gone for me.
I look around at all the women I see each week. They appear assured and so very much put together. They wife, mother and work with confidence and seem to be aware of the gifts they bring to the world. I assume they’ve made peace with their choices and sleep soundly each night. So it was quite a surprise last week to discover that the trust post had touched a few raw nerves when it exposed the vulnerability I live with.
Under cover of private email or whispers during chance encounters at kids’ sports games and volunteering events, here is what I heard:
I can’t relate to that kind of trust. I’ve kept separate money from him for all twenty years we’ve been together.
Marriages fall apart at either the seven or twenty year mark. At least that’s what happened to me.
I’m re-thinking my philanthropic obligations. I think I should be working instead of spending my time volunteering.
My husband slept with a secretary at work. Now she is suing him for sexual harassment, putting us in financial ruin as we contemplate what to do with our failed marriage.
I opened a savings account so this wouldn’t happen to me.
I work even though I want to be home with my children. We don’t need my income right now, but I am afraid to give up my stake.
I wish I were employable. Every day I wake up and feel anxious that I couldn’t get a good job if I need to.
I haven’t stopped crying since I read about trust. I haven’t trusted him in years.
I spoke with one friend whose husband is sick and is probably going to go to his eternal home before either of them is ready. She talked about how he trusts her to love him even though neither of them ever wanted this. Their trust is focusing on the in sickness and in health moment we all want to avoid. Although their marriage hasn’t always been bursts of sunshine, the connection they are experiencing now is restoring some of what they missed with each other in healthy times.
Then I received a note from a stranger. Brett turned the tables on the discussion a bit. Click here to scroll down and read Brett’s entire message to me. He got my attention really quickly when he wrote “as the main breadwinner in our household, I implore you to note that I (we husbands) put the same trust in our wives.”
Brett described what the last few years of economic downturn has meant for his family. If he’s like many men I know, his identity was likely rooted firmly in his role of provider and his wife enjoyed the benefits of his focus and drive. When the world turned upside down and he could not offer that same level of financial support, she had a choice to make. He wanted us to know that our men depend on us to love them and stick by them even when they cannot provide for us. You know, the for richer or poorer part of what we said.
Trust makes its way into every relationship, no matter who works, who stays home, whether you have children or brought a trust fund into the marriage. None of us have any guarantees of how it will all turn out and all we can work with is the information we have on hand right now.
I’ve thought about Brett over the last few days and about my own amazing man. Even though I enjoy the life his income provides me, he is the one I love. It drives home for me what I already knew: At the end of each day, I don’t want his job or his paycheck in bed with me, I want him. When each of us is able to avoid placing our value in what we offer each other, we are able to be more real and connected. And when health or wealth leaves us, we aren’t left with nothing; we are left with our love for each other.
Today, through tears a friend asked, Isn’t it enough just to give him my heart? Really, at the end of the day, is there anything else we can give?