Oprah and Scars and Trust Issues

If you know me in person, you know that Oprah is my spirit animal. Since I was a teenager, growing up in a home where nothing was really talked about, Oprah came on television everyday and talked about everything.  All the things I so desperately wanted to have conversations about, there she was, talking. That dialogue with life changed me. It continues to change me.

I was madly in love with a man my sophomore year in college. I was 20, he was 23.  He was goofy and inordinately tall, 6’8″ next to my 5’5″. I used to climb the furniture to kiss him. He had already graduated from college and was a 5th grade elementary teacher. He took me, a little broken, a little dirty, he dusted me off, and he showed me some things. We were together for an impossibly short 9 months. The one Christmas we spent together he bought me red, plaid pajamas and an unauthorized biography of Oprah. It was 1999.

This man saw me. For a little while anyway, he really saw me. He inspired me to pursue a second major in communications, he convinced me to stand up and have confidence in what I knew to be true about myself. He showed me how deeply flawed even the really good people can be. He taught me that, and then he was gone. I knew he cared for me back then, and in a strange way, I know he still does although we don’t speak. And what all these years have taken away in memory, I remember something about him quite vividly. He had this long worm-like scar that ran down the center of his left knee. It was from surgery to fix what basketball had broken. It was smooth and wrinkled and felt like a silky soft, well, worm. As I ran my finger down it from time to time he’d tell me to stop. It felt weird because the tissue surrounding the scar was numb. He knew I was touching him, but could not necessarily feel me. I loved him so much it took me over a decade, and well into my marriage, before I could bear to part with those thread-bare pajamas.

Right this minute I am crushed by losing someone else I love. He too, has a huge scar. It’s on his right shoulder. While going through the law enforcement academy he was injured in a take-down drill. He had to have surgery to fix what it had broken. After surgery he contracted a major staph infection which ate away at the incision site and left a deep indentation of missing bone and tissue and a pretty big scar. He almost died. This painful tragedy manifested in scar-form was one of my favorite parts of his body. Laying in bed, always, my fingers would work their way toward that scar, sometimes unconsciously. He’d ask me why I did that. “I guess I just like scars.” I’d say. “It means you’ve lived.” He said that was funny – but what I think he meant was ironic – because he said he was self-conscious about that scar. But now it was one of his lover’s most favorite things. Our only Christmas together he bought me a collector’s book which was actually signed by Oprah. But that wasn’t all he gave me. He taught me something, too. In losing him I finally knew how to trust myself.

Because when we met I was very broken, filthy, battered from head to toe. I was in the midst of nasty divorce, and on my way to trial. Snaking your way out of a toxic relationship there are always landmines just in the periphery of where you know you need to go. A lot of my landmines looked like trust-issues. I didn’t just not trust him, I didn’t trust me. How could I ever be sure of any decision I ever made when I’d made so many MAJORLY horrible ones thus far? I played this dance with him for 6 months where I’d push him away, skeptical and crazed with fear, and he’d pull me back just before I jumped. This happened so many times, the pushing, pulling. After 6 months the fulcrum on our relationship tipped. I was the one pulling, and he was the one wanting to jump. Then he did. It all took 9 impossibly short months.

But I saw him. I did. And I think I still do, although, as he fades away his outline gets fuzzier. It’s hard to tell where he ends, and where I have reshaped him in the hazy hindsight of lost love. And now, my only wish is that I taught him something, too. Because I do not want to take more from this life than was so generously given to me in the way of incredible, loving people. I have met so many. I have loved so many even if I didn’t know how to show it, or name it, or trust it.

But I do now. Or at least I’m much closer than before. And even if I never see him again, I know that I am capable of trusting. Because he taught me that, and I will forever be grateful. I’m sure it will take me many years before I bring myself to put that collector’s book away, where it’s not always on my shelf, in my periphery, continuing to remind me to listen to that still, small voice, the one that urges me to keep talking about everything even when I’m afraid. To keep loving the scars more than the memory of the hurt that caused them.

 

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.

Wild Impulses

Right now I am on vacation with my two children, husband, my parents and in-laws. The eight of us rented a house for seven days near Mt. Rainier National Park which is roughly two hours from my house, door-to-door. Mt. Rainier is the tallest mountain in the contiguous United States rising 14,409 feet above sea level. On clear days, it stands like a sentinel ghost in the distant Seattle skyline. It is massive and magnificent.

When we got here we quickly found that our sleeping quarters weren’t as advertised. The room my children, husband and I are staying in looked more substantial in the pictures. As an added benefit to our cramped cozy bedroom, the baby isn’t sleeping well. He is crying in the night waking up our toddler who then also cries. Last night we had a rousing, hour-long, cry-fest, party of two! in our sardine can of a  small-ish bedroom. So far, we are all tired, but still trying to enjoy ourselves.

I’m not going to lie, it feels more like work than vacation.  I’d much rather sit on the deck and take in the view while enjoying a quiet, reflective glass of wine, but instead I am feeding, bathing, playing with, or soothing someone to sleep just like every other day accept I’m even more tired. I am the mommy; this is my choice, my life, and I love it, but there is never a shortage of sacrifices being made.

My consolation prize is waking up to see something breathtaking out my window. The natural beauty here is stunning, ethereal, ENERGIZING! (Thank goodness). Every detail from the worn, rock-laden trails to the violet Lupine in bloom is reminding me of the book I just finished, Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail.

If you’ve read my blog, you know I have a bit of a crush on Ms. Strayed. You will also know that I have a bit of a life-long love for Oprah Winfrey. Several weeks ago Oprah picked Cheryl Strayed’s book to revive her book club and it felt like a natural, cosmic, menage et trois that I willed into existence. Naturally, I was on board.

Wild is about a 26 year-old Ms. Strayed and her three-month, 1100 mile hike along the Pacific Crest Trail starting in the Mohave Desert in California, to the top of Oregon State. Strayed’s decision to embark on this journey came because her life was heading in a dark direction. Three years prior, her mother died suddenly from cancer. This shattered her small family sending the people of her life spinning in different directions, away from, and without her. She ended her marriage to a man she still loved partly because she became a prolific, impulsive philanderer, and partly because she no longer knew what she wanted. She also became a heroin user and got pregnant by a heroin addict. She had no money, no plan, no prospects so walking for miles, alone, in the wilderness, seemed like a grande idea.

The book follows her journey switching back and forth between the struggles of the trail and the struggles in her life. It is filled with deep insights and profound realizations about the correlations between wilderness and life; their harsh realities, relentlessness, and inherent beauties. While there are a myriad of lessons to glean from these pages, there is one that resonates with me deeply. It is a truth we all must face in the name of maturity; the value of learning impulse control.

Every day (my life, really) is a teeter totter of choices. At its fulcrum lies the question at the heart of every choice; is this what I want? Or is this what I need? Each side of the teeter totter holds the consequences of that choice. According to many philosophers and schools of psychology it is the ultimate division of the brain’s functionality, left vs. right, feeling vs. reason, want vs. need.

When I was younger, my wanting won the teeter totter battle most of the time. I wanted that boyfriend. I wanted to eat that bad thing. I wanted to smoke, get drunk, stay up all night and do whatever the hell I pleased. Over the years I became a master at masquerading my wants around as needs. Even now I say, “I need to write! I need time to myself! I need a new outfit for this occasion!”

But there comes a point in everyone’s life when you are given no choices. The only option, is the one that needs to be done. The decision is made for you and it stands like a boulder on the need side of the teeter totter; unmoved and unmovable. Everything is tipped, sometimes irreparably, in a direction you would never choose if you had a choice. These are the moments that offer our greatest lessons.  They teach us how to hold on, persevere, have courage and strength of character. They make us grow up.

This is what Strayed discovered while out in the wilderness, alone, hungry, in pain; her only option, to move forward.

“…the thing that was so profound to me that summer–yet also, like most things, so very simple–was how few choices I had and how often I had to do the thing I least wanted to do. How there was no escape or denial. No numbing it down with a martini or covering it up with a roll in the hay.”

The most profound, harsh and enduring moments of being forced to do things I have no desire to do, have come into my life as a result of being a wife and a mother. When both of these things happened, my teeter totter tipped wildly, unexpectedly, radically into a position that I chose and simultaneously didn’t want. I was 27 when I married and 30 when I became a mother and admittedly, holding on to many selfish, impulsive, childish ways before entering both arrangements.

I want sleep. I want to dedicate a good portion of my time to physical maintenance. I want it my way, always, and I want my children and husband to just leave me alone for a little while. I want to travel unencumbered. Like right now.

And yet none of these things are part of my reality. They sit like the mountain out my window in patient defiance, irreverent of my wants. As much as I may want, there is no escape, no denial, no numbing down my children and spouse and their needs with bad food or wine or any number of unhealthy options that call from the other side of the teeter totter.

And yet…

In the reality that has become my life, in spite of, because of, in both fear and love of this mountain, I developed a determination, a perseverance, an internal knowing, a solid bedrock of confidence born of realizing that I am capable of doing what I need to do, when it needs to get done. They call me mommy with love and devotion because I have done this. I do this everyday–the things I least want to do.

This is the message that resonated with me most in Cheryl Strayed’s memoir. That life isn’t always about what you want or feel. It’s about building an internal strength, proving to yourself that you can do what you need to do, when it needs to be done.

When you keep putting one foot in front of the other, like Cheryl did–in spite of your impulse to numb yourself, to bend to your emotions, no matter how sad and miserable and tired and self-pitying you may feel–when you summit that mountain, which you will, you will find a greater, deeper, more grounded part of yourself that you didn’t know existed; a part that you truly need, a part born of needs, in spite of wants. And it is that part that will carry you the rest of way, over every mountain, through your entire life.

So instead of enjoying my reflective glass of wine, I will be playing Lincoln Logs with my toddler and trying to get my son to sleep until the wee hours of this night when I, too, will I fall into bed. Because there are more mountains to climb tomorrow and I need my strength.

I participated in a Twitter chat with Cheryl Strayed on July 17th and I asked if impulse control was a major lesson she learned while hiking the PCT. I told her that becoming a mother has taught me that. She said:

Isn’t it though?

I Am the Fattest Bridesmaid

Yes, it’s true. I am.

While in the company of my besties (whom I’ve been friends with half my life) nothing sends shivers of anxiety up my spine faster than hearing the two words… “group picture!” Oh and they LOVE taking pictures of themselves. Who can blame them really? If I were that good-looking all the time, I’d probably upload every lovin’ minute of my day too. Here’s me blowing my nose…here’s me doing laundry… oh, and here’s me typing, “here’s me!”

I give you, Exhibit A: This is one of 3243256426 pictures taken on my friend’s wedding day last year wherein each of my best friends was either the bride, or a bridesmaid.

If you think I’m standing in the back row by sheer coincidence, you are sadly mistaken my friend. If you saw all 3243256426 pictures, you would see that unless explicitly instructed by a photographer, I am trying HARD to hide every square-inch of my body that isn’t my head. Pretty much the only thing I was thinking all day was that dressed like twinsies next to these girls, I might as well be holding a sign above my head that says, “hey look at me, I’m the obligatory fat friend!” Us big girls are hyper-sensitive of shit like that. Just like alcoholics know exactly where the booze is at a party, we know where all the cameras are located and at which moment one is about to be used on us. It’s an extra-sensory skill developed after one too many pictures sent you into the depths of a dark depression. Other skills are impromptu camouflage and running to the back row faster than a fat kid to an ice cream truck. I do those pretty well. Exhibit B:

That is because I have spent the better part of my life feeling shame over my shape. I am 33 years old and it has taken me this long to be able to talk about it without feeling embarrassed. In fact, just a year ago I couldn’t have even written this. So why the sudden change of heart and mind?

My change of heart is because of these two:

Over the last 10 years my husband has never ONCE said a disparaging word about my body even at its postpartum worst. Although I may never understand his enthusiasm, he loves my body and takes every opportunity to tell me so. Sadly, it has only taken me 10 years to believe him.

And my daughter. Oh my daughter. Every night when she’s done with her bath she runs around the house in oblivious, naked freedom. She’s downright giddy at her nudity and even dances in front of open windows smashing her cute, toddler tushy up against the glass. How I envy her… more importantly, how I love her. If I can spare her the meaningless years of self-loathing I have put myself through over the bulge in my butt, the curve of my hips and the girth of my thighs, it would bring me endless amounts of joy. I want her to grow up not just believing, but KNOWING that her inner beauty is far more valuable than a single digit number on the tag of her jeans. She deserves that and I know that I can’t give it to her unless I have it myself.

In my formative years I didn’t have the physique to garner much attention from the boys; especially when my core group of friends are as beautiful as they are AND could shop in the pre-teen section. I’ve been wearing double digits since the day after I started my period in the eighth grade. I have fluctuated in my life due to pregnancies, obsessive dieting and/or working out, but basically, my body sits comfortably and reliably into a size 12. Some of my friends are wearing a size zero… did you hear me? I said ZERO… at 33 years old… ZER-O. The biggest of them MIGHT (on a bloated day) wear a size 10.

My calling card, the thing that set me apart, was being “the smart one.” As you can imagine I had to wait several, painful, formative years before that characteristic moved its way up the desirability scale. Back then, I would have traded 30 college credits for one night as the prettiest, thinnest girl in the room. I spent years feeling like that and I don’t want my daughter to spend one second feeling that her worth is tied to something as superficial and fleeting, which ultimately, has nothing to do with who she really is. THAT is why I’ve had a change of heart, because she IS my heart.

As for my change of mind? Well, it is just that. I. Changed. My. Mind. I’ve made a conscious and concerted effort (because it takes a lot of BOTH) to stop looking in the mirror and subconsciously rattling off 15 different insults. I’ve stopped mentally holding myself up to an impossible standard and beating myself up every time I fell short of meeting it (which was always). I have stopped denying, degrading, disrespecting and devaluing my worth in my own fool head based off a meaningless number that has ZERO, ZER-O relation to my true value as a human being. So as for my change of mind, it was just that, a change of mind.

Recently, I have come across encouraging articles and images promoting a healthy body image for women. Major companies have launched extensive and well-funded campaigns to help change the public discourse and I want to be a part of that effort. I want to use my discourse to help change the world my daughter grows up in. I sense that the tides are turning for us women and I’m thrilled at that prospect. I feel that society is starting to understand that fat doesn’t equal worthless which is an equation I have believed my whole life. It’s a faulty math problem that ends with me.

Yes, I am the Melissa McCarthy of my friends and I am FINALLY learning to be okay with that. Because she is one funny-ass woman and I would TOTALLY be her best friend if she’d let me.

Come, help me change hearts and minds too.

“Be the change you want to see in the world.” ~Gandhi