Friday, February 26, 2016

Home Is Where...

Home Is Where the Heart Is I Get Called a Bastard

A few weeks ago, both big boys came home from school with Kindness and Caring awards. Each month or two, their elementary school highlights a character trait (respect, responsibility, perseverance, honesty, etc.), and at the end of the month, two children who best exhibit that trait are selected from each class. The boys have been honored with character awards before, but never in the same month and never kindness. And since there may be nothing in this world I desire more than to raise kind and brave children, I shed many grateful tears over those awards.

The irony is, however, that a few days later I received an email from someone who told me what an awful mother I am, specifically pointing out the hateful way my boys sometimes talk to me, although, the emailer conceded, they had never done the same to him/her. Not surprisingly, there is a bigger story surrounding this message delivered under the guise of constructive criticism, but this part of the email, at least on the surface, was actually all truth. I can count on one hand the number of times my boys have spoken rudely to anyone else, but they have said some truly horrifying things to Mister and me. (Where is the baby book that includes in its list of milestones items like The First Time Your Child Called You a Bastard?)

It may surprise my emailer, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

When my boys are home, they have to be reminded constantly to pick up their dirty clothes and clear the table and hang up their backpacks and jackets. They forget to say “please” and “thank you” and eat like they were, honest to goodness, being raised in a barn. They balk when I ask them to empty the dishwasher. They gripe that it’s their responsibility to take out the trash and recycling. They sass me when they’re tired or hungry or if they think something is unfair or if the wind is blowing in from the south. They call me names and throw their binders when I try to help with homework. They behave so horribly sometimes that I worry about sending them into the world like this – so obviously works in progress – but send them I must – to school, to their grandparents’ homes, to their coaches, to friends’ houses.

And over and over, I am told they are respectful, courteous, exceptionally well-mannered, helpful, kind, brave, coachable, teachable, and generally just a delight to be around. My boys. The very same ones I worry about sending into the world. (The first few times their teachers offered descriptions of their behavior in class, behavior I hardly recognized as belonging to my children, I responded with puzzled looks. But I reminded the teachers of the boys’ names and provided a general description of their physical appearances, and the teachers insisted, each and every time, they had the right child. So I stopped asking.)

Despite all my worries that I have been raising boys who aren’t fit for public consumption, they are. Despite their providing numerous, daily indications to the contrary, they have been learning what I’ve been trying to teach them. Despite my certainty that most days we’re barely muddling through, they’re thriving. Somehow, we’re doing it.

And yet at home? At home, they can’t seem to pull their stuff together for more than a few minutes at a stretch. Why, for the love, can’t they act at home how they act out in the world?

Well, first, they can. It’s easy to see the misbehaving and miss the good stuff. How the “bigs” will bathe the littlest. Or how the littlest will accompany the “middlest” to find something in another room when the worry bullies are especially feisty. Or when the oldest finally – finally – put into practice the time management and study skills I’ve been working on for months. Or when they say thank you for dinner, even one that included peas. Or when they put aside competitiveness and congratulate another on a job well done. It’s there. It’s all there. I just have to remember to notice.

But the answer to why they let all the crazy hang loose at home?

Because they feel safe.

Don’t misunderstand, calling me “bastard” or yelling “I hate you!” or any of the myriad other horrifying things my boys have said to me (most of which I won’t risk embarrassing them with) isn’t without consequence. But that consequence isn’t to shut them down so forcefully and completely that they actually fear doing it again.

Because when my boys act up, they’re trying, if inartfully, to communicate something to me. Sometimes, it’s as simple as “I’m hungry” or “I’m tired.” But other times, it’s bigger stuff.

My brilliant therapist once told me that anger is always a secondary emotion. Anger may be a way we react to embarrassment, guilt, grief, unfairness, remorse, fear, frustration, or other emotions. But there’s always something deeper. The trick is figuring out what the something is.

I don’t think it’s fair I have to take out the trash and recycling when he gets to play.

I miss Daddy.

I made a mistake, and I feel deeply remorseful.

I try so hard, day in and day out, and I feel like all the recognition goes to my brother.

He’s been pushing my buttons all day long.

I got caught.

I don’t want you to leave.

I’ve been adulting all day and just can’t even hold it together for one more second.

Oh, wait. That last one was about me.

We all do it, right? Whose kiddos and spouses and others nearest and dearest too often get their leftovers? Mine do. I’m not proud of it, but it’s true. And I do it because I know that I can screw up over and over and over (and over) again, and they’ll still love me. My mother forgives me for being less than patient with her and welcomes me back eagerly for visit after visit. Mister will give me the space I need or tell me to cut out my nonsense, whichever is appropriate, and want to sneak upstairs with me and lock the door five minutes later. When I snap at the boys and forget to apologize, they still snuggle in for bedtime reading and assure me I’m the best mommy in the world. I don’t feel the same confidence the rest of the world will react with such graciousness. And neither do my children. They have some of the best teachers and coaches and friends a mother could hope for, and I am deeply grateful. But home is just different. Home is the ultimate safe place. The place where they never have to wonder if love is unconditional.

At home, the boys know if they speak rudely or scream something hateful or sass me, I will take the time to figure out what’s at the root of it all. Sometimes right then if they can turn it around or sometimes after a snack or sometimes after a cooling off period in their rooms. They learn that speaking to me disrespectfully is wrong not because I punish them swiftly and harshly for the disrespect but because I treat them with respect – because I take the time to figure out what’s REALLY wrong, address the underlying issue, and then remind them how they could handle the situation better next time. That doesn’t mean that they don’t sometimes hear some sharply spoken words about how to and how not to address me (especially when the root cause is something superficial). That’s just not the whole of it.

So although my emailer intended the comments as scathing criticism, I refuse to see it as such. I’m far from a perfect parent (for starters, I’m too quick to anger and wash sheets far too infrequently), but the observation is a compliment. Yes, my children say things to me that are wildly inappropriate. But they almost never do the same to anyone outside our home. Because they know two things: Speaking disrespectfully to others is not okay, and home is safe.

And that isn’t a sign I’m doing something wrong in my parenting. It’s a sign I’m doing something right.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Send Me a Sign

The other night, Bubba asked Mister to teach him a new card game. Apparently, the only card game that came to mind was a game of solitaire I used to play with some regularity and that Mister remembered only half way. I’m not sure that’s exactly what Bubba had in mind, but that kiddo will do just about anything his daddy suggests.

This version of solitaire is easy to learn and almost impossible to win. There is zero skill involved, no strategy, just utterly mindless play. I’ve played scores of times, maybe even hundreds (perhaps, I shouldn’t admit that), and have won precisely once. One time.

I was fifteen, and it was the summer before my junior year of high school. I was at my grandma and grandpa’s home several states away, where we always spent two weeks in July. I was playing solitaire when the phone rang. It was my best friend Shelby. Now, Shelby and I talked every day when we were home, but she had never called at my grandparents’ house. In fact, I didn’t know anyone knew the number there, most certainly not her. But there she was on the other end of the line, telling me that our dear friend Tori had been in a terrible car accident and was in critical condition. She was going to require brain surgery, and no one had any idea if she would pull through.

I wanted to rush home – to do what, I don’t know – but I couldn’t, of course.  So in an effort to settle my shaking hands and swirling mind, I picked up the cards again. I needed something mindless to do. As I shuffled, I prayed. I don’t remember most of it, but it was probably a jumble of Help and Please and No Not This.  I do remember how the prayer ended. I asked God to show me through the cards if Tori would be okay. Let me win if she’s going to live.

I won that very game. And Tori lived.

I struggle with prayer. I haven’t always, but as my faith has grown and evolved and, I hope, matured, prayer has become harder and harder. I feel perfectly comfortable going to God in prayer. I believe He is there and listening. I even believe in the power of prayer. I just… don’t know what to say. Some of it, I’ve got. I pray the Lord’s Prayer. I ask for forgiveness. I pray for comfort and guidance. I say thank you. All good. But what about other requests? Is it okay to pray for healing? Safe travels? What if, as it was suggested to me years ago, you tack on “if it’s Your will”?

I don’t know. But I’m becoming more comfortable with the idea that it’s okay not to know. Of all the miracles and mysteries of my faith, prayer is the one I have the hardest time wrapping my mind around. To me, prayer is the ultimate mystery.

But I do know that in many of my most desperate moments, the one prayer that forces itself to the front of my mind, the one fully-formed, if brief, prayer is Send Me a Sign. And that He has.

The day I prayed for God to show me if Tori would live was the first time I remember praying for a sign. But it wasn’t the last.

My grandma died this past summer. She had been in failing health for years, with her health more rapidly declining in recent months, so it wasn’t unexpected. Still, one can never be fully prepared for news like that.

I was on vacation with Mister and the boys. The news came at the beginning of our final week away. We started making mental preparations while we awaited news of the dates for the visitation and funeral. Ultimately, the visitation was planned for the evening before we were to leave (packing night), and the funeral was planned for the morning we were to begin the seven hundred-mile drive home. The logistics of my getting to the funeral (a three-leg flight) and of Mister packing up and driving out with potentially minimal help from me were overwhelming. Yet, somehow, we got it done. Travel plans for me easily fell into place. Mister decided he and the boys would leave a day early and drop me by the airport on their way home. There were a lot of moving parts, but they all lined up beautifully.

Now, I need to pause here, back up a bit, and mention that our family hiked a mountain the day I learned about the funeral arrangements. I was actively grieving at this point and overwhelmed by the travel logistics. I told Mister that I needed some space on that hike, and at one point I found myself with enough distance from the family that I paused and lifted my face to the sun. I was flooded with the unmistakable feeling that I was not supposed to go to the funeral and was to stay with my husband and boys. But that just seemed wrong. I mean, you’re SUPPOSED to go to funerals when people die. Especially when it’s your grandmother. So I made plans to go, and when the logistics worked themselves out so easily, I assumed I had heard wrong.

Which means I was honestly surprised when I woke up at 4:00 a.m. to take a quick shower before leaving for my flight and found that my flight was delayed four hours.

Four hours. That meant, at a minimum, I would miss that night’s visitation and family prayer service. At that point, I was just hoping to arrive in time for the funeral and some time with my extended family. Because Mister had already planned to leave that morning and drive me to the airport, I was able to reschedule my flight from a larger airport (with more options) five hours away that was on the way home.

When we left, it was immediately apparent why my flight was delayed and why it was hard to get re-booked. Fog. For the next five hours, the only time it wasn’t foggy was when it was raining. And this was the case from the mid-Atlantic through all of New England. We had no confidence that I could even make it out on my rescheduled flight. As we drove, Mister, who travels extensively for work, taught me all his tricks about how to figure out what specific plane had been assigned to my flight and to determine what other legs it was flying that day. We went round and round about my options until we arrived at the final decision point. If I was going to try to fly out, we would head straight to the airport. If not, we would exit right to bypass the city.

I had no clarity about what I should do. I desperately wanted to make it to the funeral, to say goodbye to my grandmother, to mourn with my family; but the weather was bad and not improving. I was already going to miss fully half of the events. I feared I’d be stuck at an airport hundreds of miles from home, husband and boys hours down the road, when I learned my flight was cancelled and that I’d miss the funeral, too, and would have to use my ticket just to fly home. How, for the love, was I supposed to make this decision?

And that’s how I found myself asking God for a sign, while sitting in the car at a gas station hundreds of miles from home.

I asked Mister for a few more minutes to think, and he exited the highway so we could take a break we needed anyway. We filled up the car with gas and used the bathroom and got water, and I was absolutely no closer to having made a decision. So I asked for a few MORE minutes and dropped my head and closed my eyes, and this is what I prayed:

God, I have no idea how I’m supposed to make this decision. I want to go and I feel like that’s what I’m supposed to do, but there are SO MANY obstacles and so it feels like maybe I’m not REALLY supposed to go. But how could that be? How could it be that I’m not supposed to go to my grandmother’s funeral? What will people think of me if I say, “Enough!”? Shouldn’t I do every last thing possible to get there? God, can I ask for a sign? Is that a ridiculous, childish way to pray? I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW. But if you were ever to send me a sign, this is it. I need to hear from you in no uncertain terms what I’m supposed to do.

I sat there for another moment, thinking, “This is absurd. This is the stupidest prayer I have ever prayed. I know what’s in front of me. There is a propane tank display on the sidewalk and a giant poster in the window advertising soft drinks. This is ridiculous. WHAT AM I THINKING?!”

I forced myself to open my eyes because, well, eventually I had to, I reasoned. And the first thing I laid my eyes on were the words


Chills. Well, for one split second anyway. Because my next thought was, “Nope. Can’t be. I’m SUPPOSED to go to the funeral.”

God whispered to me on the mountainside, and when that wasn’t enough, I woke to half of the East Coast socked in fog and a delayed flight, and when I still didn’t listen, when I asked for a sign, He sent me an ACTUAL, PHYSICAL SIGN, and STILL I DOUBTED. (There may be no one who tries God’s patience like I do, y’all.) But finally, I turned to my husband and said, “You’re not going to believe what just happened, “ and we drove home.

I’ve told almost no one this story because I feared people wouldn’t understand. But if I’m serious about my faith, it doesn’t matter if my family judges (and truthfully, that concern is born solely of my own insecurity and not of anything they have done), if friends think I made the wrong choice, or if I fail to comply with societal norms. I, also, feared people would look askance when told I asked for a sign and got one. But the truth is that sometimes God gives me signs (even actual, physical ones), and sometimes He talks to me (which, lest you be concerned, sounds a lot less booming-voice-from-the-clouds and a lot more unmistakable-voice-from-within).

From this experience, I’ve learned that it’s possible to both desperately want something – something good and worthy – and understand it wasn’t meant to be. It is possible to simultaneously ache to be elsewhere and know you’re right where you’re supposed to be. And I know this because I asked, and He answered.  I prayed, and He responded with a sign even I, though I tried mightily, couldn’t ignore. Despite my muddled, if sincere, mess of a prayer, despite my complete bewilderment about how prayer works, it did.

And I learned it’s hard for even the biggest skeptics in your life (I’m looking squarely at you, Mister and Bubba) to ignore the mystery and power of a sign.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Loving their Quirks

During winter, when the sun passes low across the sky, light pours through the windows at the back of our home, directly into our bedroom and bathroom. The light is so warm, it’s easy to forget how cold it is outside. And at no time is the light more breathtaking than when there are a couple of inches (or a couple dozen, as the case may be) of snow blanketing the backyard. “The light is GORGEOUS,” I’ll declare, as I grab my camera and pull a willing(ish) boy into the light and start snapping away.

Yesterday, it was Bubba who obliged me. I told him to climb in the tub (where the light is always the very best) and opened and closed blinds until I got the light just right. And I captured this.

The eyelashes, the smile, the heavy brow, the perfect earlobe, the hair colored like none I’ve ever seen… and the cleft.

“Bubba has a butt chin!” Froggy gleefully pointed out. (Where in the world do they get these things?)

Bubba looked at me. “It’s called a cleft,” I reminded him, “but you should TOTALLY call it a butt chin. Just own it. It’s one of my favorite things about your precious face.”

He relaxed and smiled.

There are a lot of affirmations spoken in our home. A lot. Mostly, it’s a never ending stream of “I love you (no matter what)” and “I’m so glad you’re my boy” and “You’re so precious to me” and the like. I, also, often point out the things I love most about them: Bubba’s curiosity and soulful eyes, Froggy’s old soul and strong body, Monkey’s quick “I love you”s and gorgeous lips. But more and more often, I realize I take care to tell them how much I love their quirks.

One of the first times I remember doing this was at someone else’s home. Bubba walked past me, and I couldn’t help but notice and comment on his cute, round tush. Oh, how I wanted to reach out and squeeze his “apples,” but at ten, this seemed inappropriate, if wildly unfair. (The struggle is real, y’all.) My friend was surprised I’d draw attention to Bubba’s bottom, especially, in part, for being a bit on the larger side. But it’s so uniquely his, and I adore it, so of course, I want to tell him so.

I love Bubba’s round tush and his big toes that look like they might telescope but that no one has successfully pulled out to their full length. I love his overbite, the one that makes him look so much like me at his age. I love his huge head and skinny body, the build that earned him the nickname “lollipop” when was he was a toddler. I love how deeply he feels, even if it’s so very hard some days. I love that he is an unabashed geek who laments that his friends don’t understand his desire to send a rocket to space. I love that he bounces when he gets excited.

I love Froggy’s freckles, especially Fred and George. I love his double hair whorl. I love his unflinching love of the color pink. I love that what he’s feeling is never, ever, EVER a secret. I love that when he burps, he just keeps talking right through it and out the other side. I even love his anxiety because I know it’s why he has such a tender heart.

I love Monkey’s missing tooth and imperfect smile. I love that he yells “I love you, Mommy!” across the house every time he’s pooping. And when I remember that his orneriness will serve him well as a teenager and adult, yes, I even love that.

It wasn’t intentional at first, but I’ve been teaching my boys that you don’t just love your shiny bits, you love all of you, even the edges and quirks – especially the edges and quirks – because those are what make you uniquely, beautifully, perfectly-imperfectly you.

There’s a school of thought that says parents (or anyone, for that matter) shouldn’t ever compliment children’s physical appearances because we want to focus on what really matters, like kindness and bravery. I get that – I really do – and I do that, but the reality is that people are going to notice how my boys look.

And one day, when someone calls my boys “freckle face” or “butt chin” or “buck teeth” or says that pink is a girl color or wonders what happened to his tooth, my boys will be ready. Because I have already claimed their edges and quirks as beautiful. I have told them in many ways, directly and indirectly, that I adore every last bit of them.

After Froggy’s “butt chin” comment, Bubba said his teeth looked huge in one of the pictures I took. Froggy said, “I like how your teeth cover your bottom lip.” Froggy wasn’t teasing him; he was being sincerely complimentary. Still, I turned to Bubba and asked if his teeth bothered him. He cocked his head and screwed up his face, and quickly answered, “no,” before turning back to enjoy the other pictures I’d taken. He wants braces because his friends have them and because he knows eating will be much easier. But not because an overbite is something to hide and be ashamed of. No. Because he is learning to treasure every piece of himself.

Just like I do.

Thursday, May 14, 2015


Then [the women who had come with Jesus from Galilee]
went home and prepared spices and perfumes.
But they rested on the Sabbath in obedience to the commandment.
 Luke 23:56

This is all the Bible tells us about what any of Jesus’ followers did on the day between his death and resurrection. On Saturday.

But we can imagine, can’t we?

It is a dark day. Emotions are raw. We hear the weeping of the women. We imagine the prayers, the pleading that his promise of resurrection would be fulfilled. We imagine their conversations, grief mingled with hope, wondering how Friday happened and what Sunday will bring. We bear witness to their vigil. It is a period of anxious waiting.

We can imagine this scene so clearly because many of us have experienced this passage from death to resurrection, from old to new. This transitional space when everything has been upended. Saturday.

It is Saturday in my life.

I have recently experienced a fracture in a relationship that is so deep and so agonizing that it feels like a death. Friday. The relationship hasn’t been severed, but the old relationship is gone and what the new relationship will look like is painfully unclear. It is a period of intense mourning and unwanted, if necessary, growth. It is a time of upheaval. Of waiting and awaiting. Saturday. But I know that at the end of this transition lies the promise of resurrection. Sunday.

Every Easter, my former pastor would leave the pulpit during his sermon, walk the center aisle, and declare, “Resurrection is not the same thing as resuscitation; it is a radical transformation into an utterly new state of being.”

I’m not sure I heard a single thing my pastor said after hearing this for the first time. I had never stopped to wonder why the women and the twelve mistook Jesus for the gardener or insisted on touching his wounds. He didn’t look the same; he had been transformed into something entirely different from his previous earthly form.

This makes perfect sense though, doesn’t it? The concept of resurrection is meaningless if it’s a process that returns us to precisely the state in which we began, if it’s merely resuscitation. There must be change.

I won’t return to my previous state of being on Sunday. Nor will my relationship. Friday can’t be undone, and Saturday can’t be avoided. I’m being transformed from my hurt and broken and utterly exhausted self. I don’t know what I will look like on Sunday, but I know that day is coming and that I will be a new creation. Wiser, maybe. Stronger. Softer. I don’t know. But definitely different. New.

But for now, my home is Saturday.

Every day, I’m inching toward the day of resurrection. Some days I’m being dragged. Others I’m being carried. Occasionally, I stubbornly refuse to move. Many days, I’m crawling and clawing toward the glorious promise.

Toward Sunday.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Splurge on the Large Prints

At the end of this month, I will be entering a local, amateur photography competition. When I learned about the annual event at about this time last year, I promised myself I would enter this year. This year. Barely a year after I switched my camera from automatic to manual and started trying to learn what all those buttons and dials do. (Still learning. Forever learning, I suspect.) I read a little and asked questions of friends who know far more about photography than I do, but mostly, I spent the year taking approximately eleventy-million pictures and figuring out what I did and didn’t like, what did and didn’t work. Some of the pictures were awful. Many were ordinary. Some I loved. And a handful absolutely took my breath away.

The last few weeks have been exciting, as I’ve sought input from photographer friends on what caught their eyes and how to tweak my edits, as well as finalizing my (four) choices. But I’m nervous, too. This is a whole new level of vulnerability in which I’m actually asking people to critique my work. Good things will come, I know (and I’m not talking about blue ribbons – that’s not my goal and doesn’t feel at all attainable), but it’s still hard to open myself up like this.

Part of the process of preparing for the competition is, of course, ordering prints. Large prints. To be matted and framed and hung for display. When the box of prints arrived, I placed it on the dining room table and anxiously tore into the box.

And I was stopped in my tracks.

Most of my images I have never seen outside my computer screen. The images I have printed, I have never seen larger than what a standard tabletop frame would hold. But enlarged, details emerged: the rich green of mid-summer, the beautiful texture of wood grain, the pebbled appearance of galvanized metal, water droplets catching the afternoon light, perfect rosy lips. The simple act of printing these images in a larger size transformed them from mere photographs into art. Art.

I’ve only recently started becoming comfortable with the idea of calling myself a photographer. And when I do use the p-word, I’m always sure to firmly plant in front a descriptor that clearly indicates where I place myself in the hierarchy of photographers: “fledgling,” “beginner,” “new,” “amateur.” Barely worthy of calling myself a photographer.

But when I saw those large prints, something inside me shifted, and I realized that what makes one a photographer isn’t composition, lighting, exposure, and depth of field. Knowing how to do those things well is part of what makes a good photographer, but it isn’t what makes one a photographer. I’m a photographer because I strive to capture how I see the world – the beauty, the emotions, the shapes, the colors, the light (oh, the light) – in a still, digital image. Other people show us their worlds with their voices or fabric, clay or the movement of their bodies, a piano or a typewriter, acrylics or wood. Artists all.

Which means that not only do I have to come to terms with calling myself a photographer but, also, with calling myself an artist. This realization is maybe a little more than I’m capable of wrapping my head around right now. I’ve spent a long time waiting until I was “good enough” for such a label, waiting until I had achieved sufficient technical skill. But there are many other labels I have adopted, fully recognizing my (many) limitations (like “mother” and “Christian”). I could wait forever and still never feel worthy of being called an artist or photographer.

If I hadn’t decided to enter the photography competition and hadn’t needed to order those large prints, I wonder when, or even if, I would have decided I am a photographer. An artist. And I wonder how many others there are like me, attaching qualifiers to the label “artist,” questioning their value, downplaying the beautiful way they see and interact with the world.

Friends, trust me: Splurge on the large prints. And a mat and frame while you’re at it. You’re worthy.

Buy the domain name for the blog you’ve been contemplating, the leather-bound journal, the beautiful pad of sketch paper, or the nicest brushes. Hang your painting above the sofa. Audition for a talent show. Give your pottery as Christmas gifts. Sign up for the photography conference coming to your town. (Apply for the scholarship if you need to.) Reach out to someone you’d like to mentor you. Enroll in a dance class. Start an acting class in your neighborhood. Set aside time in your day to nurture your art. Sign your painting.

Do whatever little (or big!) thing you’ve been holding back on because you think you’re not good enough, because you don’t see yourself as the artist you are.

You may not feel ready. You may never feel ready. But you’re an artist. And you’re worthy. And that’s all that matters.

Monday, March 9, 2015

This Little Light of Mine

The summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school, I had jaw surgery. As was standard of care in my oral surgeon’s office, he referred me to a therapist for a pre-op visit. I sat in the therapist’s office for an hour as she asked routine questions about my family and friends and school. When she was done, she called my mother into the office and began telling her not only that I was cleared for surgery but that (and there’s no delicate way of sharing this) I was an all-around amazing teenager. As she was saying this, the therapist turned to me smiling and innocently, even jokingly, asked, “Do you ever feel pressure to be so perfect?”

At which point, I began to cry.

The therapist hurried my mother back out of the room. We chatted for a few more minutes, until she decided I really was okay and not under any excessive pressure, and sent me on my way.

I don’t know if anyone has ever spoken such truth to me, about me than that therapist (inadvertently) did that summer day. And I reacted in the most honest way I knew how:

I cried as I recognized myself in her words.

This story came to mind as I was preparing for publication My Story about my parents’ divorce. I sent the piece to my sister, requesting her thoughts. She wrote back and told me it was beautiful but asked if I really wanted to share something so personal. Was I sure?

Well, yes. Yes, of course, I was sure.

I worried about my parents’ reactions, but everyone else? I just knew good things would result from sharing my experience so openly.

However, the truth is there was a time that I wouldn’t have made the choice to share My Story. Lay my soul bare like that? Willingly risk criticism?

No, thank you.

The journey from the time when I presented to the world a carefully constructed image of a conscientious student and all-around good girl to the time when I was ready to share the joyful and shadowy and quirky and very real parts of my life was a long and meandering one, but I remember the precise moment I set upon that path…

I was a senior in high school when I decided to audition for my school’s annual talent show. I had been singing essentially my whole life, and, except for the first several years of my life when my mother (also a singer) anxiously wondered if I’d ever be able to carry a tune in a bucket, I was a pretty good singer. But very few people actually knew what my voice sounded like. Until I sang in the talent show.

After the show, many of my classmates congratulated me on a job well done, but looking back, I realize there was a warmth to their comments that conveyed more than just praise and encouragement. It was a warmth that comes from being let in.

For five minutes, standing on the corner of that stage, spotlight on me, I opened a deep, sacred part of myself to them. For the briefest moment, I let them see me. They received that offering with warmth, and I felt a connection to my classmates that I had never before felt, that I had been unknowingly longing for. A connection that comes only when you expose those well-guarded parts of yourself, when you allow yourself to be known. When you become vulnerable.

When I was a freshman in college, I had another similar moment. Not long after I first told friends that my parents were separated, I learned that the parents of a hallmate had just announced to her their separation. I knew just how devastated and alone she felt and wanted to reach out. I wasn’t ready to talk in person, so I wrote her a letter, walked down the hall to hand deliver it, and returned to my room where I waited anxiously. Minutes later, she appeared at my door, tears running down her face.

She was seen. I was seen. We were not alone.

Over the years, these experiences of intense vulnerability leading to deep connectedness piled up, but it wasn’t until recently I recognized the great joy that results from this connectedness, from allowing myself to be known and truly knowing others. I spent decades of my life trying to present what I thought was the most perfect me. The shiny parts. The good parts. It was exhausting. And it meant that people were rarely interacting with the real me. They didn’t love the real me or hate the real me. They weren’t reaching out to the real me or avoiding the real me. But at the time, it seemed good enough. I would have described myself as happy. I even might have been perfectly content to go through all of life like that. Until I finally recognized the joy of being vulnerable.

Now, I strive to live a life fully seen. This can be an unnerving way to live at times. Each time I publish an intensely personal piece, I sit on pins and needles, waiting for the comments. But I’ve always been rewarded many times over when people say, “I saw some of my own experiences in here,” “Was very similar for me,” “My story is different but feelings still very real,” Me, too.

I know at some point there will be a comment that stings, a criticism that brings tears. Not everyone will like me. But at least they’ll be reacting to the real me, rather than a prettied-up façade. Inviting people to truly see and know me means opening myself up to pain. But the alternative is closing myself off and missing the connectedness and joy. I don’t want to miss the good stuff. I’ll take the pain if it means I get to experience the joy.

When I remember to drop my armor and stay vulnerable, life is so very good. Because then I am seen and known and loved just as I am. As me.

Me, who loves Jesus and leans so far left I might just tip over one day. Me, who twitches and shrieks when I have bits of Styrofoam stuck to my hands that I just can’t shake off and who organizes my house when I get overwhelmed by life. Me, who has a peculiar love of The People’s Court (and would probably, also, still watch Hee Haw if were on the air… because Granddaddy) and who has a passion for serving others. Me, who has heard often what a good mother I am but who knows those people haven’t heard me yell at my boys. Me.

So, yes, I’m sure this is how I want to live. Not hidden. Not pretending to be perfect. (Whatever that is.) Laying my soul bare.

This is me. Here I am. I’m going to let my light shine.

Froggy, who teaches us all how to let our lights shine.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

My Story

One ordinary day, the summer I was sixteen and a rising high school senior, my parents told my younger sister and me they were separating.

I don’t talk much about my parents’ divorce. For one thing, it’s been almost twenty-five years since my parents separated. My parents have been divorced longer than they were married. This is my normal. And divorce is so common that it, also, hardly seems worth discussing. But maybe that’s precisely why I should talk about how it affected me – how it still affects me – because being a child of divorce is an experience so many of us share.

Recently, my friend Julie posted a beautiful piece about divorce that left me in tears, as fresh pain from an old wound resurfaced. I knew I needed to share my experiences to help me – and, I hope, others – continue to work through this hurt. I do this with much trepidation, as I don’t want to hurt my parents, whom I love and who were, undoubtedly, doing the best they could.

These insights are born solely of my journey, so some may resonate with you, friends, others may not, and you may feel like I’ve missed big ones that are important to you. That’s okay. Divorce may unite many of us, but everyone’s experience is unique. This is my story…

1. Being eased into the separation was brutal. After the big announcement, my father moved out of the bedroom to the couch in the den and slept there for a few nights while he looked for an apartment. It was excruciating to have my father in the house, knowing it was no longer his home, aching both to rewind to the blissful ignorance of a few days prior and to fast forward to my new normal. There is no perfect, easy, painless way to make the transition out of one’s home, but being in limbo was agonizing for me. I wish my parents had taken a firm hold of the Band-Aid and ripped it off in one swift motion.

2. I didn’t want to be asked to do anything that made me feel complicit in the separation. During those painful days while the Band-Aid was ever so slowly being peeled back, my father asked my sister and me to go furniture shopping with him. I have a vivid memory of sitting on an ugly, blue sofa in the furniture section of a department store while my father chatted casually with us about the pros and cons of various pieces of living room furniture. I imagine my father felt free in a way that he hadn’t in a long time, but I felt physically ill. I wanted nothing to do with furniture shopping, packing boxes, apartment hunting, or anything at all that might have been construed as my aiding a parent in leaving the home and family. Please, no.

3. Things weren’t better post-separation, no matter what anyone said. Parents, like children, may be feeling crushed and may be trying to convince themselves, as much as their children, that things will be okay, or parents may be feeling the newfound freedom of being unencumbered by a dying marriage. Family friends may mean well with comments like, “It’s for the best.” But witnessing my parents’ separation was devastating, and there was no way to put a positive spin on that. Trying to just made me angry. I wanted people to respect me and honor my feelings by fully allowing me to feel heartbroken. However, comments like, “It will get better,” would have been welcome, especially from those who knew, firsthand, the pain of divorce.

Similarly, nothing my father could have said would have made his new apartment anything different from/better than what it was: the embodiment of the demise of my parents’ marriage. He could have moved into the actual Taj Mahal, and his home wouldn’t have been any less ugly or inadequate. I’m grateful my father didn’t try to sell me on the merits of his new home.

4. I desperately needed acknowledgement of how crappy the situation was (and is). I have one parent who excels at this and another who I felt never fully acknowledged the enormity of my loss. Maybe the latter is a coping mechanism; maybe the pain one’s child is experiencing feels too close; or maybe the parent feels blamed and doesn’t want to throw fuel on that fire. But it just added to my pain to feel unseen by a parent and, in fact, made healing even harder. A long, fancy speech was never required. Something as simple as, “I know this is hard. Thanks for muddling through with me,” would have sufficed. Early in my grieving process, I needed the crappiness of the situation acknowledged often. Now, I don’t. But it still helps when someone – anyone – recognizes my loss. Twenty-five years after my parents’ separation, I still feel an ache when I think about the family I lost, the childhood I deserved and should have had. I even still occasionally cry.

Like right now.

5. Sometimes I needed my parents to back off, and other times, I needed a gentle push. The day after my parents announced their separation, I stayed in bed for much of the day. I called in sick to my summer job at the pool. I didn’t eat much. I know now that I was depressed. But the next morning, my mother walked into my bedroom, opened the shades, and told me I was going to work. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do less, but she was right. There is comfort in routine. My routine, my foundation, had been ripped from me, so I had to find tiny fragments of it wherever I could. Going to work was hard, but good and necessary. There are times to be sad and angry and times to pick oneself up and carry on. I’m grateful my mother knew me well enough to help me navigate this tricky balance in those earliest days.

6. Shame is an insidious enemy. The first time I told anyone my parents were separated was in a tearful confession to two friends fourteen months later. Fourteen months. In the interim, when I talked about my family, I carefully chose words that didn’t reveal my secret. Yes, my secret, revealed in a confession. I wasn’t being private. I wasn’t merely embarrassed. I was filled with shame. I could have told you it wasn’t my fault, that I had nothing to do with my parents’ separation, that the end of their marriage wasn’t a reflection of my worth; but I didn’t live like I understood that.

The day after my parents announced their separation, my mother offered to call the mother of my best friend and break the news. I was so grateful for that gesture, so relieved that I didn’t have to speak the unspeakable, that I agreed. In hindsight, I suspect it would have been better for my grief and healing to do this myself. Because my mother (unwittingly, of course) had given me tacit approval to say nothing, to remain hidden.

But shame lurks and grows in the shadows, in the secrecy. Even after that tearful confession to my friends, for many years, I still choked out the words when revealing that my parents are divorced. It never should have been like that. I never should have felt shame, and I wish my parents had known how to help me talk openly about their separation. Because shame can’t survive being out in the open. It can’t survive the light.

7. I had mixed feelings about my parents’ second marriages. My father remarried less than a year after the divorce was final, and I was not in a particularly celebratory mood.  Yes, I wanted my father to be happy. Yes, I dearly love my stepmother. But I was still actively grieving the loss of my parents’ marriage. My life still felt like it was in turmoil. So what, surely, felt like a new beginning to my father felt like an ending to me. Witnessing my father marry someone else felt final in a way that his moving out or my learning that the divorce was final did not. I’m not suggesting that anyone needed to do anything different to accommodate me, but I wish someone had simply acknowledged how crappy this time, in particular, was for me.

My mother, on the other hand, got married eight years after the divorce. I was in an entirely different place in my grieving process and in my life in general (I had gotten married earlier the same year), and I could whole-heartedly celebrate with her and my wonderful stepfather.

Similarly, watching my parents begin to date again was difficult, at its worst, and awkward, at its best. I’m grateful that my parents waited to introduce me to their significant others only after it was clear relationships were serious.

8. At sixteen, I was just a child. My parents’ separation and divorce would have been hard at any age, but being a teenager brought with it special difficulties. I was sixteen when my parents separated, eighteen when they divorced, and nineteen when my father remarried.  I looked liked an adult. I felt like an adult. I was definitely NOT an adult. And as such, I should never have been expected to handle all that was thrown at me as if I had been one.

As far as teenagers go, I was incredibly responsible and levelheaded. That actually may have made it even harder to understand why I sometimes reacted more like a child than an adult to circumstances surrounding the divorce. I’m not suggesting that my parents should have excused any blatantly rude behavior, but there were times when I suspected my parents thought I was acting in an intentionally cold and callous manner when my actions were born of something else entirely.

The most painful example of this came when I missed my father and stepmother’s rehearsal dinner. I was at college an hour away from home. I had to leave choir rehearsal early to drive home and catch the bus that was driving all the dinner guests to an out-of-town restaurant. My beloved choir was a haven from the storms that swirled around me during my sophomore year (and there were many, not just related to the divorce). I waited until the last possible moment to duck out of rehearsal, lost a few minutes in some unexpected traffic, and arrived to a deserted home. I felt sick. I didn’t know the name of the restaurant, no one had left me directions, and this was long before everyone had cell phones. I gladly would have driven to dinner, but I had no idea where to go. I learned later that the bus left thirty minutes earlier than I thought it was supposed to, but I hadn’t left myself a sufficient buffer to compensate for that miscommunication. No number of apologies or explanations (not justifications) seemed to ease the hurt I had caused, which compounded the pain of an already crappy weekend. I so desperately needed to feel that I was being met with some measure of grace and compassion – if not possible in the moment, then later when feelings settled.

That said, I still needed to be approached in conversation as an adult. Lecturing me was a strategy that always backfired; it always made me angry.

9. I love you. Sometimes – often – “I love you” was the very last thing I wanted to say to my parents when I felt like they’d forever destroyed my world.  But I did love them. I do love them. I know this if for no other reason than because, if I didn’t, their divorce would have been painless.

And when I couldn’t tell them, I desperately needed them to tell me. Better yet, to show me. All the while remembering that I have always loved them.

I loved you during that first painful, post-separation holiday when everyone felt shortchanged. I loved you when you remembered to say, “I’m sorry,” and when you forgot. I loved you when you left. I loved you when you attempted that first awkward vacation as a single parent. I loved you when I just wanted to be left alone. I loved you when you were too spent to make dinner. I loved you when I remembered you were doing the best you could and when I was certain you were doing it all wrong. I loved you when you dragged me to counseling. I loved you when you gave me exactly what I needed and when you didn’t. I loved you even when I was thinking, “I hate you!”

Even then.


I’d love to know what you think of My Story. What resonated? What didn’t? What did I miss that is part of Your Story?