The Princess

Welp, I had to write another mentor text personal narrative about a small moment from my childhood for my 7th grade class. Since I put the effort in to write it, I thought I’d share it 🙂


What nerdy little girl doesn’t want to be a magical fairy princess?  As I sat at the kitchen table expectantly watching my mom sew the sparkly silver trim on the shiny blue fabric of my princess costume and clutching my handmade foil wand and fake gem studded tiara, I knew I’d be the most gorgeous princess in my neighborhood.   

My mind wandered from my mom hard at work, and I envisioned walking the streets of my neighborhood, holding the plastic pumpkin basket that I collected Halloween candy in every year.  In my daydream, every other kid, from Spiderman to the creepy clown, from the evil witch to the other lesser fairy princesses, would stop on the sidewalks and stare at me in admiration as I regally trick or treated the next night, Halloween.  Although I was usually seen as studious, skinny, and uncool by most other 10 year olds, I was convinced that this costume would be magical and make me seem like the gorgeous fairy princess I knew was hidden somewhere underneath all this nerdiness. 

Lost in this daydream, I didn’t see the few snowflakes that had started to fly on the crisp autumn evening in Ohio.  By the next morning, there was at least 4 inches of snow blanketing the streets of my imaginary kingdom that I was supposed to reign over that very Halloween night. 

I started getting ready for trick or treating as the sun set and the snow had finally stopped.  However, there was still a cold wind blowing the few leaves that remained on the trees.  Gently, I placed the tiara on my head and felt that maybe, just maybe, my vision would still come true.  After all, couldn’t fairy princesses do magic?  Maybe all the snow would melt away as I walked house to house and in the melting snow, I really would be that amazing princess?  

My hopes were dashed when my mom said, “Diane, I don’t want you to get sick from tonight.  You NEED to wear long pants, a winter coat, gloves, and a hat.”  What???  First of all, princesses don’t get told what to do.  Secondly, and more importantly, no prince charmings or any loyal subjects ever stopped in awe of the beauty of a princess in a handmade knit hat with a lopsided poofy ball on top, her wand held in hands covered by ugly, clunky gloves.  No, this was NOT the way it was going to be!

My mother and I were very close; I almost never disagreed with her or disobeyed what she said.  But, the princess in me knew that I would rule this night and I turned defiantly towards my mom.

“No.  NO.  I will be fine and I will not wear a coat over my costume. I want to wear my crown, not an ugly hat.  And I. WON’T. WEAR. GLOVES!”  This last sentence came out as more of a bratty scream than a royal decree.  

My mom stood silently looking at me, shocked that I was yelling at her.  My mind buzzed as I quickly tried to figure out if she was going to give in or yell at me…or worse.  The silence was deafening as the clock ticked closer to trick-or-treating time.  I tried once again, this time trying a different approach, hoping to erase my brattiness and replace it with some flattery.

“But mom, you worked so hard on this costume.  It’s so pretty.  I want everyone to see what you made and I promise I won’t stay out too long and I think it’s so pretty and I don’t wanna wear a coat over it. Pleeeeeeease?” 

I realized my attempt at flattery had quickly become whining.  My parents hated whining and I  knew this would not work in my favor.  My last feeble attempt was just to stand and look at her with pleading eyes, my mouth downturned in a devastated look, grasping my wand and tiara, hoping I didn’t have to cover up that beautiful blue dress with a long coat to keep out the biting wind.  

Tick, tick, tick.  Silence.  After what seemed like an eternity, my mom replied, “Ok, Diane, you don’t have to wear a coat over your dress.  You’re right–no one will be able to see your costume”  YES!!  I had won. The  gorgeous fairy princess would reign afterall.  But then she continued, “Go get changed.  You’ll just have to wear the coat under your dress instead.”

Oh no.  Like all winter coats in the Midwest, mine was big and bulky.  My princess costume would not flow smoothly around me as I walked. Instead, I’d look like a princess sausage stuffed into a royal casing.  Knowing it was pointless to argue with her, I reluctantly accepted this compromise and went to get changed.  I emerged from my room, the bulky coat under my blue dress filling out every extra inch of the costume and making me look like an overweight princess who needed a diet.  The tiara was shoved atop the knit cap at a strange angle.  At least my mom agreed that I could carry the gloves and only put them on if my hands got chilled.  So much for my dream of people standing in awe of my fairy princess beauty.  Instead, I felt more like the obese Michelin Man Princess as I left the house, empty plastic pumpkin in one hand, princess wand in the other.   

An hour later, I returned home and dumped all my candy on the living room carpet to examine my royal collection with my mom sitting next to me. I had been stubborn and never put on my gloves, so my almost frozen hands could barely sort through the candy, but mom helped me pull out the dreaded Tootsie Rolls and set them to the side.  My nose was red and runny from bitter chill over the last hour, but my ears and body had been toasty warm as I had walked throughout the neighborhood.  Hurrying from house to house, I had ended up with more candy than normal because so few others braved the cold that night. In fact, I hardly saw any of the kids from my school.  It was like I was a princess without a kingdom.  

As my mom kissed me goodnight that evening, I couldn’t help but have mixed emotions about the success of the night mingling with with the disappointment that the dream in my head didn’t quite turn out the way I thought.  Looking back on that night, I realize that wearing a princess costume, regardless of how beautiful it was, wouldn’t really have changed my life and attempts to be superficially noticed while freezing or getting sick just weren’t worth it.  I guess mom really does know best.

Why are you still single?

The loaded question is usually triggered in one of two ways. Either I reconnect with a lifelong friend who I haven’t talked to in years. Or, I meet a new person who finds out that I’ve been divorced for over 7 years. Then there’s the predictable quizzical look, the slight tilt of the head, and the well meaning question, “Why are you still single?” If it’s a really well developed thought, he adds in supporting evidence. “I mean, you look great for your age. I can’t believe you’re still single.”

Sigh. I know these are well meaning comments and intended as a compliment. And I reacted ok for the first year. Two. Maaaaaaybe three. As the years go by, I am less passive about this question. I’ve talked to other single female friends who have the same experience. Maybe guys get the same question and react differently? I don’t know. I’ve gotten this line of questioning twice in the last five days and finally decided I needed to get musings out.

First musing: Heck, I think I’m pretty unique and a quality person, married or not. Not to say that someday, I wouldn’t like to meet that person who I could spend my life with. However, and this is a BIG HOWEVER, if I don’t ever get married again (because to me personally, that’s the ultimate end game of a relationship), I think I still can have a complete and fulfilling life. Being single in my 50’s is different, but not necessarily bad. In fact, there’s a lot about it that’s really excellent. Maybe I’m overly sensitive, but what I see implied in “Why are you still single?” is “What’s wrong with you? What’s lacking in you that you’re not married?”

Now, let me tell you, there was a good chunk of time where I thought this way too. And to be entirely honest, on my occasional bad days, I sometimes still let this negative thought into my head. “What’s wrong with me? Why doesn’t anyone want me as I am?” And the truth is, for a period of years, I’m not sure I would have wanted the person I was either. Oh, there were a ton of good things about me, but I also spent a lot of time letting unhealthy thoughts into my head and chasing outward fulfillment rather than focusing on being a solid person inside. About 2 years ago, I said ENOUGH. I stopped trying to date and started praying that God would continue to shape me into the person He intended me to be.

Prior to my decision to actively not date, I dated a lot. A LOT. Some casually and a few more seriously. In retrospect, I know without a doubt that if I had gotten married during that time, it would have been disastrous. There are so many reasons for that, but primarily, I was pairing myself with people who were unhealthy themselves or unhealthy for me, just to feel like I wasn’t alone. I have spent a lot of time focusing on me in the last few years. Time getting closer to God. Time learning about what I need from myself and others. Time learning what I have to give. Time learning to communicate. Time exploring. Time to be uniquely me. So if and when that person comes into my life, I know I won’t be someone I myself wouldn’t want to be with.

Second musing: There’s one other part to the dreaded question that bothers me on a broader, less personal level. It’s the backhanded compliment—you’re attractive, so why are you single? Today, I saw a new member post her beautiful selfie in an Orthodox singles Facebook group and several men commented along the lines of “I can’t believe someone as pretty as you isn’t married.” Um, does that mean it’s more understandable for average looking people to be single? Or if you are “pretty,” you are more deserving of a relationship? Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ll admit I’m way more likely to notice a man who is attractive to me than one who isn’t. However, noticing isn’t the same thing as having a successful relationship. I’ve dated several very good looking men—and for various reasons not related to looks, none of the relationships lasted. Attraction, while important, only goes so far to sustain a relationship. I try to maintain my appearance, but I’d like to think that my quirky personality, intelligence, faith, commitment, and about 100 other things would ultimately contribute more to forging and holding a relationship together.

So, last week, when I was asked the “Why the hell are you still single?” question, I finally had a reply I felt somewhat comfortable with. “Because it’s where I’m at right now. Maybe someday I’ll have that spiritual partnership that enhances both of our lives. Until then or if not, I know I’ll be ok.” Which, by the way, was met with another quizzical look and tilted head. That’s ok too.

Step 1: Bubbles and Razors

Recently, I attended a writer’s workshop, focused on how to better teach middle schoolers to write in greater volume, with more enjoyment, and with greater skill. It gave me a chance to write a very short personal narrative on the topic of my choice to share with my adult aged workshop on the final day. So, I thought I’d share this 2012 memory here on my page, with my daughter’s permission. Both of us have changed and healed so much; we aren’t these people anymore. But the power of the moment was something I’ve been needing to write about for awhile.

I hope to do some more personal narratives in the upcoming weeks. Subsequent entries may be a bit lighter as I need to write mentor texts for my 7th grade classroom. Anyway, here’s my first effort:

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“Mom, can I have a razor to shave my legs?” my fifteen year old daughter asked, averting her eyes toward the floor.

“Um, do you think you’re ready for this sweetie?”  I asked, my thin smile a feeble attempt to mask the concern in my voice.

“Yeah, Mom, I promise I’ll be safe,” Sofia replied with more confidence.

I handed my delicate daughter the sharp, new, bright pink razor.  My mood was dull and grey as she entered the bathroom.  Despite the upbeat music and the floral scent of bubble bath coming from behind the closed door, my worry seeped toward the steamy bathroom as I reflected on Sofia’s recent hospital stay for depression and self harm.

The dusty plastic plants in the off-white hospital visiting room always seemed to mirror my plastic emotions as I forced false cheer into the conversations with Sofia, who sat sandwiched between my estranged husband and me.  Each day’s optimistic discussions about plans for her return home were clouded by the unsaid knowledge that her dad was planning to start a new life on his own.  The healing cuts on her arms as she sat between us were evidence of how each of our wounded lives were being torn apart.

The inevitable happened after Sofia was released from the hospital and soon, my girl and I were the sole occupants of our now too big house.  The man who read her “Goodnight, Moon”, prayed with her each night, and took her to her first emo-rock concert was now strangely absent.  She expectantly checked her email and phone each day for morsels of communication from her dad.  Unbeknownst to me, she had received a long awaited but brief, impersonal email from her dad shortly before going into the bathroom. 

My thoughts were interrupted by the door opening to reveal my petite daughter engulfed in an oversized, fluffy, red robe.  Seeing her, my mind filled with the memories of all the baths I had given her when she was little, gleeful splashing and evaporating bubbles filling my head.  Now, she hugged herself closely as the tub drained behind her, arms wrapped around her torso.  So grown up, yet so small and vulnerable. 

“Mom,” she said, her eyes lifting to meet mine.  My thoughts of bubbles popped as did my expectant hope when she said, “Mom, I…I wasn’t safe.”  She unfolded her arms to reveal deep cuts, the red blood mingling with the red softness of her robe.  Like the drops on her arms, tears flowed down both of our faces.  That deceptively bright pink razor had cut her.  It had cut me.  It had cut to the depths of our family.  I hated that razor and all the pain it revealed.  

Grabbing bandages, I made sure to keep my fragile child in sight.  As I wrapped her pale arms in the white gauze, we cried tears of pain.  Tears of loss.  Tears of grief.  

“Mom, I’m so sorry I hurt you too…I didn’t mean to,” she sobbed as I finished bandaging her arms.  Strangely, at that moment, everything became clear to me.  Just as I couldn’t stop the bubbles in a 3 year old girl’s bath from dissolving, so much of life was beyond my control.  I couldn’t instantly recreate a happy family.  I couldn’t stem the grief.  I couldn’t hide every razor in the world.  But I clearly knew what I could do; I could love and support this girl-woman who shared my heart, my hurt, and my fragile hope.  With my tear stained face nestled in Sofia’s freshly washed hair, I whispered with resolve, “Cuts heal.  So will we.”

Organizing the Funky Jumble

The last year has been funky.  Not bad; in fact, on the surface, quite good in many ways.  But funky none-the-less.  I’ve been in this weird, unsettled funk and have been trying to figure out why.  A few weeks ago, I decided that I felt like Houston wasn’t “home” and that made everything else wrong about my life here.  So, I set out to write about “what is home?” to try to alleviate this unsettled feeling.   I wrote about it and wrote about it and wrote about it and wrote about it until I realized I’d better stop the stream of consciousness James Joyce stuff and ruminate a bit more on the jumble of my feelings.  I have realized it isn’t about a specific place, but this funk is just a weird, unsettled stage of my life.   

I remember holding my little babies 20 something years ago, looking at their tiny bodies and heads full of dark hair.  I imagined them someday, all grown up,  flying away from the safe nest of home and launching into their young adult lives.  And now, 20 something years later, that’s what’s happening.  It’s beautiful, inspiring and amazing to watch and participate in.  I just didn’t expect to be a single, middle-aged Texan when this happened.  Unsettled funk identified.

I’m an almost 52 year old single woman in Houston, Texas and about to live alone for the first time in…ever.  What??  How did that happen?  This wasn’t the plan, or even the 237th back up plan.   Don’t get me wrong–I raised my kids to be independent and am happy that they are successful young adults. I just didn’t figure I’d be divorced, 5 years into starting life over, and living 1500 miles from any family when it happened.

So many things about this new normal are good.  I have a house that is comfy and I feel “at home” in.  I actually enjoy being alone a lot more than I enjoy being around a lot of people.  I love the diverse, colorful neighborhood I live in.   I have a career that I mostly enjoy and have been fairly successful at.  My church has become like family.  Despite the oppressive heat and humidity in Houston, I realized this summer that I am a heat person and am not sure I could go back to the frozen tundra up north.

Still, there’s just as many things that make me unsettled in this new normal.  Sometimes I want to talk through things when I wake up with anxiety at 2am and the German Shepherd, while a sympathetic listener, isn’t very good with feedback.  The cat is waaaaaaay worse (she doesn’t even listen sometimes!)  Sometimes my neighborhood is too colorful (read “drama filled”).  Work has had more changes and challenges after a particularly challenging previous year (don’t ever say, “Things can’t be worse!”  Fate is laughing when you say that.)  Like any family member, I’m going through some growing pains with my parish family and figuring out what to do with that.  And the weather…well, I just like hot weather, so that’s the least of my unsettled feeling.   Thank goodness–there had to be something I wasn’t complaining about!

I supposed my funk is this:  Life just doesn’t stay static and change isn’t easy, even if it’s expected and not altogether bad.  When I was feeling unsettled in my own skin, it was so much easier for me to think Houston wasn’t home and I felt adrift here than to admit the truth that my life doesn’t exactly feel like home lately.  Yikes, that’s a hard thing to face up to.  As soon as I realized this, a quote from Maya Angelou resonated in my soul.    “You only are free when you realize you belong no place — you belong every place — no place at all.”  Maybe that why I feel like I have a lot of places I am comfortable, but not one place I really feel like I belong.  Maybe someday that totally settled feeling will come.  Maybe it won’t.  Maybe I’m not supposed to feel totally at home in a place, but feel totally at home with where God has me in my life.  I think that’s probably it.  Funky jumble organized.

Emerging from the Closet

I pushed one hanger after another aside, mentally discarding one non-descript , borderline frumpy, outfit after another.  No, no, definitely not.  Oh hell no, not the elastic waist, ankle length peasant skirt!  I stood in my closet, looking for even a semi-acceptable outfit for my first date in over 25 years and found that my mom/clergy wife attire did not fit the bill at all.  How was this 46 year old mom and soon to be ex-wife of an ex-priest supposed to make this transition?  Emerging from my closet, I also began to emerge to the new reality that who I thought I was wasn’t who I really was anymore–and possible never was.

This emerging realization was only reinforced over Italian food and wine when First Date Guy innocuously inquired about what I liked to do.  I will never forget the feeling immediately after that question; it was a numb, uncomprehending sensation followed by an honest “I don’t know.”  I looked at FDG, most likely with a blank look,  and said, “Do you believe that?  I don’t know.”  It was like the second step out of my closet in realizing that I truly didn’t know who I was.  Thus began a very challenging, adventurous, disillusioning, and often frustrating process of stripping away the layers that had been built up by myself and others to get to the core of who I was.

Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t a fake person, a lying human, or even a facade.  I truly was a committed stay-at-home mom, a devoted clergy wife and generally living in a well defined box.  And I may have continued being that person if the circumstances hadn’t upended my well-defined life and helped me to realize that I wasn’t who I thought I was.  When I truly embraced that I could dig deep and discover what I liked, felt, wanted and needed in this next chapter of my life, my soul quaked with equal parts of exhilaration and trepidation.  For, in stripping away layers to discover the real me, I knew there would be sores, gaping holes and uncertainty about the healing process.  But, what if I ended up being some kick-ass version of Diane that I never even imagined?  The possibilities were frighteningly and wonderfully endless.

So, here it is a little over 5 years later and I am still emerging from that closet.   I have had more than a few first dates, and not only do I have more appropriate clothing for a young-at-heart, middle-aged single woman, I also can mostly answer the question of what I like and who I am.  I cherish independence, but pray to find interdependence with someone someday.  I crave deep connection and shun superficial chit-chat.  My spirit is calmed by hiking and being outdoors.  I teach low-income middle schoolers because that’s what I was made to do at this time in my life.  I don’t always like to go to church, but I know I need it to complete me and my relationship with God.  I may possibly be an online Scrabble addict.  I wake up most nights for at least a few minutes to a few hours to obsessively think about things ranging from how people perceive me when I babble on endlessly to what the future holds for me, my kids and others that I love.  I spend too much time on my phone.  I budget better than most people I know.  I have a deep, yet possibly unrealistic desire to live in a tiny house someday.  I don’t cry often, but when I do, it’s soul wrenching and cathartic. My siblings mean more to me than they will ever know. I am very conservative about some things, but surprisingly liberal about others.  I love to write because it heals me, but I often avoid it for a variety of reasons.  I cuss sparingly but effectively. I am often Super Woman with enough Hot Mess thrown in to keep me real. I am trying to be the person I was created to be at this moment in my life.

This blog post (When I realized that I was not who I thought I was…) was another suggestion from my friend, Mike, and I’ve been sitting on it for at least a month.  It is because although I’ve made so much progress in delving into the core of me, I see it about to morph once again and I didn’t know how to write about this topic if it was going to change again.  However, I’ve come to believe that is the way it’s supposed to always be, actually. I’ve come off the most challenging year of teaching and the upcoming year may not be much better.  I’ll be empty-nesting in about a month which means the first time truly on my own in 51 years.  It also looks like there may be some  significant church changes on the horizon. So, pretty much the Big 3 for me-family, faith and job-all have some significant anticipated changes.  While these may all be very positive, I also know that change means examination and discovery for me. Who will emerge from the closet of change?  Not sure, but honestly, I’m kind of excited (and admittedly nervous too) to see how God’s journey of Discovering Diane continues.

(Oh, and in case anyone was wondering:  Five years ago, I emerged from my closet, went across the hall and borrowed an outfit from my daughter’s closet without her knowledge.  Just another time that family and friends have unknowingly aided me in discovering who I am!)

 

How Recovery Creates Loneliness

I’ve been challenged once again by Mike to write on a chosen topic and today, it is “How Recovery Creates Loneliness”. I’m very interested to see what his take on this topic is. As usual, I think we will have some similarities, but definitely unique takes on this topic.

I think most people from the outside would think that participating in an active recovery lifestyle (by that, we mean working a 12 step program for any of a variety of purposes from codependency to substance addictions and lots in between) would lead to anything BUT a feeling of loneliness. I rarely go without at least a meeting or two each week and often, I go to 4 or 5 of them for my own healing and growth. I talk to friends in recovery through Facebook, phone, text, and in person on a daily basis. I attend retreats. I generally have a wonderful time at all of these events and am surrounded by people that I love.

There are several definitions for loneliness in the dictionary and all the above activities definitely mean a recovery lifestyle does not create a certain type of loneliness, at least for me. Loneliness: 1. destitute of sympathetic or friendly companionship, intercourse, support, etc.: 2. lone; solitary; without company; companionless. By either of these definitions, I’m definitely not lonely. In fact, as an outgoing introvert, I usually enjoy my interactions, but often have to create my alone time so I’m not overwhelmed by my active recovery lifestyle.

That being said, I do truly identify with Mike’s chosen topic. Another definition of loneliness (the one I often identify with) is “standing apart; isolated”.

The program I work is for codependency, of which I became a true master over the course of 46 years. I won’t go into a long dissertation on codependency (more information here) other than to say that for me, it was initially good intentions to help others run amok due to my personality, family of origin and life circumstances.  This eventually resulted in controlling behavior, an overwhelming feeling of being responsible for others, inability to identify my own needs and emotions, poor communication and ultimately, a very unhealthy inability to set boundaries and keep them (both for my own benefit and those around me).  Pretty much, I was a mess in a nice package.

If one actually takes the time to think about how unhealthy it is to live like this, the only way for me to work a program of recovery from this is to create and enforce some “loneliness” in my life. I can’t learn to identify my own emotions by consistently relying on others to identify them for me. I can’t learn to set and respect boundaries by being unhealthily enmeshed with others. I have learned I need to make myself “stand apart and be isolated” in order to reorient my brain to healthy thinking. I try to rely on honest communication with God during these times rather than unhealthy communication with others, which I still have the habit of falling into more often than I’d like.

Now, let me be entirely honest…sometimes doing this makes me “feel” lonely…that is, a feeling of sadness caused by lack of companionship. And sometimes that happens even in the midst of a huge group of people. I know that I’m not totally identifying with their thoughts and feelings, so that makes me “feel” lonely. In fact, sometimes I feel downright weird in the midst of many people and feel the need to extricate and enforce some solitude. But that’s ok. It’s part of my healing process. I don’t always have to agree or identify with people like I used to feel like I had to. This is huge growth for me. The only way that’s happened is by being ok with being lonely sometimes in order to learn who God created me to be.  I don’t always like it, but I always need it.

If you give a writer a pruning….

I’ve been very irritated lately by one of my hibiscus plants. Actually, it’s like a monstrous hibiscus tree, or it used to be. It grows on the side of my house and since I moved in last March, it grew from a few feet tall to reaching the second story of my house. I was so proud of its growth and fullness, but it rarely bore any of its beautiful red orange tropical flowers. Yesterday I looked at it and realized not only was it not bearing flowers, but it was getting very scraggly on the bottom and was basically a bunch of sticks with tons of gorgeous deep green leaves at the top. Time to prune (although as a transitioning Yankee I’m not entirely sure it was technically the season to prune it).

So, this morning, I set out to cut that monster back in hopes of getting more fullness and flowers; in essence I wanted it to be full, beautiful and accomplishing its given mission as flora in my yard. When I was done, I looked at the stubby, non flowering remnants and thought, “Oh, what have I done to this poor thing?”

As I was chopping up the 12 foot long branches of my hibiscus, I was considering how like my own life this endeavor was. A few years ago, I was in my mid 40’s, seemingly flourishing (those deep green leaves at the top that people saw and felt reflected a good life). However, I soon learned through a series of crises that deep down, I had become a bunch of sticks that didn’t bear much fruit. Forget the beautiful flowers…maybe others felt they were there, but I knew they weren’t. I needed some pruning.

In recovery, there is a promise that “God will do for us what we can’t do for ourselves.” I never would have chosen to prune myself, just like my hibiscus would have happily kept on growing past the roof of my house and growing some bushy leaves at the very tips while looking worse and worse at its base. I really didn’t like having the metaphorical ugly branches of my life cut to the core. Often, I felt like the raw, light green chopped nubs of the hibiscus; I was raw, exposed and not looking at all beautiful and growing.  But the God I know can take what happened in my life (I’m not one who thinks God “caused” the crises to teach me a lesson) and use it to make me stronger, more beautiful and flourishing.

What I know as an aspiring gardener, is that pruning is essential to health, both in plants and in life. Without my life being chopped to the basics, I would not be the person I am today. I have way more substance at my core and far more fruit in my life, my flowers, if you will. I still have those ugly sticks that come out every so often, but they are now covered with soft leaves that cushion and shield some of what used to be exposed, unbending branches.

I have realized I tend to think in metaphors way more often than I used to and I hope it’s not irritating to those who choose to read my writing. As my friend, Mike, has told me, sometimes the most mundane things get him thinking and suddenly the need to write emerges. Same here. I know that thinking/writing is a new branch that emerged from my life pruning–I pray it continues to grow and flourish with beautiful flowers.  And I hope my hibiscus is ignorant of my non Texas gardening skills and decides to follow suit with lush greenery and gorgeous flowers.

 

Before and after of the thought provoking hibiscus (and yes, I know that it needs more sun.  The tree pruning will come after it cools off a bit!)

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Of Serenity, Lobotomies and Hijacked Apophatic Theology

Here I sit in trepidation, looking at my computer screen (I suppose this is the modern version of writer’s block or in my case, writer’s avoidance).  While driving home from my South Dakota journey, my good friend and blog muse Mike messaged me that it was writing time again and I should pick the topic.  I knew what to pick, but I avoided picking by saying I needed to “think”.  As fellows in recovery, Mike and my sponsor both said, “Don’t think too much.”  So, the topic is What Does Serenity Look Like?  That was chosen two weeks ago and the reason I’ve avoided writing is that I NEED to write about this topic because I don’t have much serenity these last two weeks.

In theology, there is a way to “define” God by saying what God is NOT–apophatic theology.  It is used because God is so large and incomprehensible that sometimes the only way to explain is by saying what God is not, such as “God is not confined by time or space.”  While I know serenity is certainly not the same as God, in some way, I want to hijack apophatic theology for saying what serenity  (a large and incomprehensible thing in itself) does NOT look like:

  • Serenity is not a constant happy state
  • Serenity is not a void of problems or chaos
  • Serenity is not numbness to the inevitable challenges that arise in our lives
  • Serenity is not something to be achieved once and it will always be there like some trophy or badge we have earned
  • Serenity is not static
  • Serenity is not easy

I had to start there because in some ways, I don’t know what serenity looks like-I think it is different for each person and looks different at various times in our lives.

Before starting in recovery three and a half years ago, I had this idea that serenity was a mild disassociation from the problems that surround me to the point where I was like an observer looking in and thinking, “Hmm….this lobotomy is very helpful in watching this chaos occur before my eyes…”  While I occasionally joke (or maybe more than occasionally) that a lobotomy would make life easier, I know it’s not realistic or for that matter very desirable as a coping tool to find serenity.  For I’ve come to the conclusion that serenity has to be found and while I’m still working on how to do that in an every changing life, I think I know what it looks like for me today.

Serenity is knowing that I’m doing the right thing for me in my spiritual and personal growth.  Serenity is letting other people walk their journey, even if I disagree with what they choose.  Serenity is having boundaries for myself so that both of the conditions above can be met.  I know when I let any of those conditions slide, my soul will inevitably slide into turmoil as well.   To return to apophatic theology, lack of serenity is when my soul (my term in this case for the mystical melding of mind and heart) is in turmoil and NOT at peace.  What I’ve discovered is that things can be seemingly rosy around me, but if I am not spiritual right or not right with others around me, I am in turmoil.  Conversely, I can have every part of my life in seeming chaos, but still be serene.  My serenity comes from how I choose to think and act towards myself and others.  It comes from honesty, especially with myself.  Without self honesty, serenity is impossible for me because I’m trying to heal that which I won’t admit.  That is the piece I was lacking for so long.

The conundrum of this realization is that when I peel away the layers of denial and self deception in my life in order to find some serenity, I temporarily lose some serenity.  It is not easy to look at the dark corners of self deception I’ve held onto for so long and not lose some serenity.  However, in doing so, I have faith that the new creature that God is helping to create will find a deeper level of peace of soul, despite “life getting lifey” around me.

Ultimately, this is why I’ve been avoiding writing about this topic; by the grace of God, I’m in that stage of intense self honesty and it’s not fun, although it is necessary.  Lately, I’m kind of thinking that lobotomy would be nice (hey, I’ve met my insurance deductible for the year!).  Then I return to the knowledge that numbness is not serenity and serenity is somehow found between God, me, the help of close, honest, listening friends and lots of hard work.   My consistent prayer is that I allow God to guide me to true honesty rooted in His love so that I (and hopefully those around me) can continue to find what serenity looks like.

 

 

Aside

I recently had a friend say he was stagnant in his writing and I encouraged him to write. Silly me…his response was that I should write too and challenged me to a topic. I accepted on the condition that he wrote as well and somehow linked our writing through the magic of technology (which is waaaaay beyond my understanding). I let him choose the topic and he chose “The Illusion of Family”.

Having accepted this challenge (because I love reading Mike’s writing and want him to write!), I looked up both the definition of ILLUSION and FAMILY.
Illusion: A deceptive impression or a false idea/belief
Family: 1. a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household or the children of a person or couple.
2. all the descendants of a common ancestor.

This got me to thinking about definition 1, a group consisting of parents and children living together in a household. I was raised in a loving two parent household; the much younger sibling of 4 children. My oldest brother left for college a thousand miles away when I was about 4 and all my siblings were out of the house by the time I was 10. My grandparents and cousins lived in other towns and honestly, I was not that close to any of them. My family was in a variety of places, but I happily lived with my parents and saw my siblings when able. After graduation from college, I got married and lived 2500 miles away from any “family”.

This is when I really started to re-examine the notion of family. If going with the strictest definition of family, I no longer had any family because I didn’t have children under my roof yet and lived away from parents and siblings. In the broadest sense of definition 1, I did correctly have family because the children of my parents, while scattered across the US, still remained my family. I must add here that I know I can always count on my fantastic siblings for love and support, regardless of how far away we live (which for most of my adult life has been hundreds to thousands of miles away). I am ever thankful for the ongoing relationship with both my brothers and my sister (and their spouses) which has actually grown closer as life has progressed.

With all my travels and relocations, I have to say that definition 2 has come to be my broadest and most applicable definition of family. If I look at my family as “all the descendants of a common ancestor”, I look at all of humanity (descended from my Creator) as my family. I know many people speak of ‘the human family’. I can understand and appreciate that we are all connected in our human experience, but for me, it goes much deeper.

I have almost always lived away from my Definition 1 family, but have made Definition 2 (which includes and embraces my siblings and parents) my truest definition of family. My family includes these and many others:
-My good friend from church who sat with me for 3 hours when I was alone for the first time after being separated
-The selfless friend who offered his United miles to bring my daughter home from Colorado when she got sick on her wilderness trip because he knows how he would feel if it was his daughter (if Sofia only had an ID!)
-The three (and more) dear single women friends who listened and counseled me through way too many relationship issues and laugh with me throughout it all
-My kids who have put up with countless meltdowns from me
-My parents who actually do support me even though they have dementia and don’t always remember me or what’s going on
-A guy who I dated who was brutally honest with me when I needed to hear it, even when I didn’t want to hear it.  I learned and grew from that
-My former in laws who were so generous with the love and support.  One of my favorite memories is how they spent their time and money redoing my porch area in my California home so I could have a place to relax with my baby
-My siblings who emotionally and financially supported me when I most needed it
-My sister in law’s Houston family who invites me to most of their family functions as though I was blood related
-My recovery friends who I turn to before any others when there is a crisis or a celebration…or anything in between
-My close church family who sat on either side of me and held me and the kids when the parish found out my family was crumbling,  They still with me through the daily struggles
-My dear friend who asked me to sing today at the 2 year memorial for his daughter who was tragically lost in a drunk driving crash
-My friends in Colorado who I haven’t spoken to in a few years who willingly asked what they could do to help Sofia when she was sick on her wilderness trip
-My dear friends who open their home in Galveston and treat me like a sister
-Friends who tell me I can stop by/stay at their home hundreds of miles away if I’m in the area and I know they mean it. More importantly, I wouldn’t feel strange doing it!

Upon reflection, I’ve decided I have no illusions.  I have a small, wonderful definition 1 family and a huge and amazing definition 2 family.Family 7 family1 Family2 Family 3 Family 4 Family 6 Family 8

The lesson taught at my classroom door

Each day before each class, I stand at my door and shake the hand of each student as they come in the room. Or I try to. Some of them strategically sneak in behind others to avoid teacher cooties, while some wait until I rush into the classroom to deal with Crisis of the Moment, but I do catch most of them with a handshake and a hello.

One day this week, one of my students walked in, shook my hand and said, “You look beautiful today, miss!” I told her I had just thrown my hair up in a clip and barely put on makeup. She responded, “But you DID put on makeup. And jewelry. And you did your hair. That’s effort and you are beautiful!” I thanked her and basked for a moment in her praise, then remembered SHE’S that weird student that everyone tries to avoid sitting near, who wears unfashionably mismatched socks (not to be confused with fashionably mismatched socks and yes, that IS a thing), blurts out strange things in class and is just, well, pretty awkward. With her comment put in mental perspective, I taught my class.

Not four hours later, I was standing at the same door and a student shook my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “Your hair looks really weird, Miss!” Momentarily taken aback, I looked in the shaded window of my door to make sure my reflection wasn’t enhanced by a carefully tossed piece of paper or other student projectile sticking out of my hair. Satisfied that I actually looked much as I did when I was declared the Miss America of Dueitt Middle School earlier that day, I shrugged off his comment as just another sarcastic comment from THAT KID who always has a smart aleck remark or a carefully muffled rude retort to most things I say. With his comment put in mental perspective, I taught my class.

Yet, this question has been nagging me since that day: Why can I do this with 6th graders, but opinions from others can still swing my mental pendulum off kilter for hours, days or stupidly enough, even come back years later? Admittedly, I come by this somewhat naturally as my mother was raised in a home where what everyone else thought of you mattered way more than what you thought or knew of yourself. It didn’t matter if it was what you wore, how you spoke or how you breathed…how others judged you mattered. While she didn’t bring the full force of this to my upbringing (it was tempered by my father who didn’t care if people thought his was an opinionated jerk as long as they thought he was a principled opinionated jerk with integrity), it still pervaded my upbringing far more than I realized until the last few years.

To this day, I remember bathing suit shopping with my mom in my mid 30’s and trying on a suit that she felt did not cover my 35 year old cellulite enough. “Have you tried a suit with a skirt to cover ‘that’ up?” still rings in my ears almost 15 years later each time I try on something that shows an imperfection. I know my mom, a very loving woman with a fully loaded steamer trunk of her own childhood issues, was trying to help me in the best way she knew how…I really and truly believe that. I know she wasn’t trying to be malicious or hurtful, but I still mentally cling to that comment like it is real and true, while it is, in fact, just an opinion expressed, probably without thought, in a moment of time long ago

I can’t count the number of times in my adult life that I’ve been caught in the paralysis of analysis as I weighed the opinions of others, whether real or perceived, when making a decision. I remember when I was newly separated, I’d talk to so many people with so many opinions that my head would spin. It was almost as though if I could get enough of one opinion, it would tip the invisible scale in my mind and make things ok. Actually, it just left me dazed, emotionally exhausted and frustrated. If only I could burn calories with the mental gymnastics I performed as I turned the comments of others over and over in my head!

I will say that this character defect became very obvious to me when I was getting divorced (yes, the opinion factory worked overtime then too) and I’ve been diligently addressing it since then. Never do I want to get to the point where the opinions of those I love aren’t important to me, but I also don’t want them to be a deciding factor in all that I do. I knew I had made progress when I was looking at houses about 18 months ago. It was a huge goal for me to choose my own house when I bought it without being swayed too much by others’ opinions, including my own young adult children. While they were going to be living with me and I wanted them to be comfortable, I also knew they would eventually have their own homes and I needed to be the person who was happiest with my new home. So, neither of my dear kids walked into the house until after I closed on it.

I do value the thoughts of those around me and I think I’ve learned pretty well how to keep those in the proper perspective. The opinions I’m really trying to root out of my soul are the opinions of those who really don’t care more about me than the next person, or worse, don’t care about me at all. Unfortunately, over the years, I have let those type of opinions eat away at my mental well being and take up residence in the small holes they created. Unfortunately, my most numerous mental residents are often negative opinions rather than the positive ones.

Thankfully, I’ve evicted many of these residents and am slowly learning to keep the mental real estate open for my own thoughts and those that God puts in my head. Now, that’s an opinion that matters! And I know His thoughts, while not always “Atta girl!” are leading me in a positive direction of growth, not negative self criticism and mental gymnastics. Plus, He doesn’t care if my swimsuit has a skirt! Now, if I can only relegate most other opinions to the status of a 6th grader giving me a handshake, I’ll be in good shape!