Cigarettes, Padlocks, Motherhood and Me

cigarettes, padlocks, motherhood, meYou know how “small talk” is supposed to be easy? Asking and answering surface questions like, “how ’bout this weather?” and “so what do you do?” and “where’d you go to school?” is supposed to be a safe and simple exchange.

Well, I hate it.

I get twitchy when I have to small talk. My eyes glaze over and suddenly I’m unable to focus because I’m too busy looking for an exit strategy. The more someone insists on small talk, the harder I look for some visible signal to something more interesting- an ominous tattoo, a symbolic necklace, double-fisting jack and cokes. Something to start a more engaging exchange than… “how old are your kids?”

Do you know my favorite place at a social gathering? Outside the door, around the corner and into the shadows with the smokers. I love it there.

I smoked in college. I quit smoking regularly 12 years ago, but after a couple of glasses of wine amidst a crowd and good spirits, I find myself responding to some Pavlovian need and I become a woman on a solitary mission to find a smoke. It’s not just because that first drag is sorta, kinda, blissful… but because I know there is no small talk amongst the smokers.

When you find the smokers you are already in the inner sanctum. Guards are deactivated, pretenses on the low, low, low setting. Even if they’re only “social smokers”, everyone feels like outcasts hiding in the shadows to avoid judgment. In this instant bond of sharing a taboo moment you find all the Big Talk; the secrets and knock-your-socks-off Truths.

I have had some of the best conversations while shivering in the shadows of a building smoking a cigarette with a stranger. Four years ago, in Portland, outside a swanky hotel after a long work meeting, I met a young 20-something guy who claimed to be Mel Gibson’s nephew.  I didn’t know if that was true, and I didn’t care, but I could sense he had a story to tell. Within 20 minutes he was holding back tears in a wild confession about his paralyzing fear because he is hopelessly addicted to drugs and gay and his wealthy family didn’t approve of anything about his life. Another twenty minutes and two cigarettes later we were laughing so hard my sides hurt while he poured me a glass of Crystal in his hotel room that was inhabited by a large group of 20-something other “friends.”

Ten years ago, in New York, I met a man outside a bar who bawled his eyes out as he told me his deepest regret is letting his daughter live with his ex-wife up state. Several minutes later, he hugged me, thanked me for listening, said he never talks about that but felt like he could with me, then walked away.

And it just happened with a nice man standing at a bar in Vegas last March. His wife left him a few months prior, he was devastated. He cried, we exchanged a few words of hope, took a shot, laughed and then we moved on. It took 15 minutes but he told me he felt better – somehow lighter for having talked about it.

My friends make fun of me for instantly diving into the deep end with strangers. They accuse me of prying. They say I’m intrusive into people’s personal lives and I should just back off.

But I don’t dive into the deep end and toward BIG TALK because I’m a  sadistic voyeur hell bent on depressing reflection. I do it because I believe everyone carries a burden; a kind of pain that acts like a padlock on their joy. I believe that the antidote to releasing internal pain is outward expression and human connection. Doesn’t a good cry on a friendly shoulder make it ALL better somedays? It does for me.

I believe that when pain is spoken out loud, unlocked from the heart, released from the depths in which it hides trapped under shame, or fear, or judgement… joy comes rushing to the surface like an air bubble.The joy of releasing the pain is euphoric. I feel it and hear it in their hugs, laughter and the thank you for listenings.

I do love picking locks and releasing these air bubbles but first you have to get WAY past the small talk.

Some of these same friends think I don’t like motherhood because I talk about how hard it is all the time. Of course that couldn’t be farther from the truth. When I write and talk about the pain, I’m just picking my own locks because I know what comes rushing to the surface when I do. The joy of release. This is how I view mothers who lament about the difficult task of mothering more than they exclaim its virtue.

If we didn’t love motherhood so much, if we didn’t believe it was the most difficult, painful, important, joyous job we have… we wouldn’t talk about it all. It is in the lamenting that love is hiding just below the surface. Often times, the louder the lament, the deeper the love.

Truth is, motherhood is hard for me. But I don’t think it’s hard because I’m doing it wrong. I think it’s hard because I’m doing it right. It’s just much of my joy is locked behind my own fear of fucking it up and so I talk about the fear of fucking it up so that I can release the unsurpressable joy that is waiting under the surface.

But I refuse to deny that I have a padlock, and I refuse to allow it remain locked, and the only key I know is speaking the Truth. My Truth. With my whole heart.

Because it’s true what they say, the Truth does set you free.

So if you have some pain you’re keeping under wraps – if you need to talk about something BIGGER than the weather or need an ear to bend about how damn hard being a mother/father/spouse/person can be – come sit by me. I’m an excellent locksmith and we don’t even have to smoke.

Teaching My Child Intuition and Compassion

Yesterday my daughter and I had an exchange that brought me to instant tears. Big, sudden, happy, relieved, awe-inspired tears.

A couple of weeks ago we were in Hawaii. Much of it was a wonderful experience, but there was one particularly poignant and memorable moment with my 4-year-old daughter.

We were standing on a hill just above a short, black, lava rock cliff. The rhythmic crashing and receding of the ocean was soothing and invigorating all at the same time. The sky was filled with cottony clouds and there was a soft breeze lightly swishing my daughters still-wet, short, brown hair in and out of her eyes. She was wearing a hot pink towel dress having just come from the pool. She was skipping along the hillside picking hibiscus flowers and watching the ocean. I reached for my camera, but I forgot it. Instead of snapping pictures, I just stood there, sunglassed, arms folded.

I remember a rush of gratitude washing over me and a sudden, compulsive urge to encapsulate the moment.  I got anxious for my camera because it’s the one thing that helps me remember how to feel. I got anxious, wanting to take a picture. Even though I started out wanting to savor the moment, in my head, I was already regretting something.

Suddenly I noticed there were several Monarch butterflies fluttering about. I’d seen one or two float past our balcony, but now, on this grassy hill next to the shore there were many. They were circling a nearby tree and dancing together on the breeze. Why had I forgot my camera!

“Look Mama! Butterflies. Oh my gosh they are sooo beautiful!” Brooke said pointing up into the air and following their path with her finger.

We watched them. We talked about which ones might be friends, where they lived, and if they were having fun. After the short conversation she began to sing. There were no words, just humming a tune that resembled the flit and flutter of a butterfly’s dance. She was lost in her song and watching the Monarchs. She sang her tune over and over as she danced and followed the paths of the butterflies around the tree.

My eyes filled with tears behind my sunglasses watching her joy. She was so free. So sweet. Filled to the tips of her wet hair with that moment and nothing else. I wanted to be her — little and innocent — lost for minutes at a time in pure joy not caring about memorializing it in digital form.

More than I wanted to be her, I wanted her to STAY that way. I didn’t want to telescope forward in my head and watch her standing there like me, arms crossed, eyes watering, trying to hold on to a moment, already submersed far into regret. I wanted her to always to be dancing and singing an impromptu tune inspired by the beauty of a few butterflies.

My 2-year-old son was running up and down oblivious to the moment. He’s a wild little thing right now; brimming with energy and bursting with love and fury all at the same time. He’s going through a hitting phase. He’s also quite fond of hurling Hotwheels at your head. I have tried all matter of punishment, but he thinks everything I say and do is hilarious. He’s not ready for logic, but my 4-year-old listens to my attempts to curb his violent behavior, and I found myself struggling with the concept of when it’s okay to hit… because sometimes fighting back is necessary.

Sometimes fighting back is the only choice you have to survive. I know that sounds drastic, but I believe anger can be a good thing when channelled properly; particularly when someone is out to hurt you.

Ever since we started watching Disney movies I’ve described the antagonist as “the meanie.” Jafar, Ursula, Gaston, the scary bear in Brave… those are all “the meanies.” We were having a conversation about how we’re never supposed to hit people unless they are “a meanie.”

“But how do we know that someone is a meanie?” Asks the ever inquisitive 4-year-old.

At this point I was stumped because that was a really great question. In real life meanies don’t come with black robes, eight arms and cartoonishly scary eyebrows. Many times, they look like you and me.

Then I remembered something I am trying hard to learn at the age of 35. Something I’d wish I’d known when I was a little girl.

“You listen to your heart, honey.”

“But how do I know what my heart is saying?”

Again, another really great question.

“Well, remember how you felt that day we saw the butterflies? Remember singing and dancing and watching them fly? How did your heart feel?”

“Good! My heart felt good!” She answered immediately.

“Okay, now how does your heart feel when you hear people arguing?”

She turned her head to the side; furrowed her ever inquistive brow. Waited a moment.

“Like something is wrong.” She said.

“Yes. Yes honey. That’s right. To know someone is a meanie, you have to learn to listen to what your heart tells you.”

Fast forward an hour or so and my daughter spies a picture of my husband and I before she was born. Whenever she sees one of these pictures, the ever self-absorbed toddler asks, “Where was I?” My reply is always, “You were with God.”

“Are all babies with God before they are born?”

“Yes.”

“But how can God take care of babies?”

“God can do anything. All things are possible with God.”

“Can God drive a car?”

“Yes, God can probably drive a car.”

“Can I see a picture of a baby with God?”

Okie dokie… Google Search: “Babies in heaven” Viola!

babies in heaven

She studies it closely.

“Can I see a baby in Africa?”

What the…?

Alrighty. Google search: “African babies.”

This one turned up a long stream of pictures of dark-skinned infants. Some looked sick, barely alive. I scrolled quickly clicking on pictures that showed happy babies. Still, I was unable to focus on anything but the images of the malnourished children with swollen bellies and hallow eyes.

“Okay, that’s enough.” I said clicking out of the browser.

“Wait Mama! I want to see more!”

“Well honey, there are some pictures of sick babies I don’t think you should see.”

“But Mama, I want to see them.”

At this point I debated. Should I preserve her idea that all babies are happy little cherubs sitting in the hand of God surrounded by fluffy white clouds? Or should I shatter her innocence?

Just then, something pushed its way to the front of my brain; or perhaps it leaped into my heart. It was a Super Soul Sunday episode with Karen Armstrong, a renowned spiritual teacher and author of the book, “Twelve Steps to Compassion.” She said that compassion is learned not by turning away from another person’s pain while making excuses not to care; but by standing in the pain with them. This lets a person know that you see them, you hear them, they are not forgotten and that they most certainly matter.

“Are you sure you want to see them?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

malnourished african baby compassion

She laughed at first. She thought it was a monkey.

I got real quiet and said, “No honey. That’s a baby. He’s sick and he’s probably hurting.”

“But why Mama?”

“Because he doesn’t have enough food. He’s hungry and this makes him very sick.”

She was real quiet for what felt like an eternity. She stared at the picture. Closely scrutinizing.

“Honey, how does that make your heart feel?” I said nervously.

<quiet> Then she lifts her hand to to her chest and says,  “Sad. That makes my heart feel sad.”

Big, fat, uncontrollable tears fell from my eyes. Yes. I thought. She’s got it. She can hear her heart.

“Mommy, can we go get them and bring them back to our house? Because we have a lot of food.”

After I explained the logistics of plane travel and refrigeration I asked if it was okay if we could send them some money so they could buy some food. She said yes.

Meet Catherine M. from Zambia.

Catherine M. of Zambia

Catherine is the 5-year-old girl my daughter and I will be sponsoring all year through SaveTheChildren.org.

Tomorrow, Brooke and I will send Catherine her first email. We will tell her how beautiful she is; hopefully she will know that we see her, that we want to hear from her, and that she certainly, certainly… matters.