Sunday, September 27, 2015

My mullet and me and other childhood traumas

Lily comes out of her bedroom at 7 the other morning. All dressed for the day.

A gypsy-style brown skirt with multicolored embroidery and a brown T-shirt with a hula girl on it. On her feet are a pair of glittery purple sneakers featuring a couple of princesses – maybe you've heard of them – Elsa and Anna, and fluorescent orange jack-o-lantern socks.

I don't know what it was – maybe that she's all skinny legs and knobby knees these days, maybe the complete look of pride she had on her face about the ensemble (she's been wanting to wear those socks for months) – but it made me smile. Made me happy. 

She's 5 and so lovely. So joyful. So self-assured. So fully herself.

And I found myself feeling a little envious. I don't remember a time in my life where I've had that confidence. 

Mom recently emailed a black and white photo of me circa first or second grade. I'm staring into the camera sucking on my lower lip like a turtle. My hands are crossed under my belly. 

My hair ... my hair is thick, coarse and unwieldy. An uneven line of bangs hangs over my somber eyes and it pokes out on the sides and in the back. 

I have a mullet. I'm a 6-year-old girl with a mullet.

My cheeks are round and pillowy and my arms are full and fluffy. It was the period of my life when my older brother called me Refrigerator Perry (or just Fridge). Sometimes I was Piggy Sue. 

That I loved food was something I don't think I was ever ashamed of. I'd tell my brother I wasn't fat, just soft. And I was.

I'm wearing this dress my mother made me. It was my favorite dress. Kelly green with a fine floral print, those puffy sleeves and the giant, white collar featuring a pair of bunnies my mother had embroidered. What I loved about this dress were the ruffles on the skirt. They made me feel beautiful. Like a princess. Those ruffles were magic. I wore that dress almost every day. Until the fabric was so thin, it was near tearing. 

My mom told me this is one of her favorite pictures. But when I stare at it now, at 33, it is not one of mine. I groaned when it showed up in my inbox. 

For me, it feels like a reminder that I've always been this kind of awkward, odd-looking little person. With out-of-proportion features and out-of-control hair. And though I've long outgrown that green, bunny dress and its glorious ruffles and I don't have a mullet or that baby fat – this is the person I will always see in the mirror. It's who I've always been and always will be. The truest picture of me. 

Gabby, Jovie and Jovie's mini mullet.
But maybe this is Mom's version of Lily in her pumpkin socks and purple sneakers. A reminder of this split-second moment in time when life was uncomplicated and sweet. The softness of Jovie's skin after a bath. The contagiousness of Lily's giggle. The moment when two small hands reach for each other. For her, the unruly hair and the ample tummy and the big cheeks are what makes it wonderful.

We spend our entire adult lives searching for this perspective. This happiness that we were born with as children. Sometimes we're looking so hard for it, that even when it shows up in our inbox, we miss it.

Last week, I got this text from Brad, who had taken Lily to her third dance class:

It wasn't especially shocking that she had an accident. The conditions were ripe for such an occurrence – the fact that the class is at night when she'd usually be taking one last pre-bedtime potty break, the fact that she didn't know where the bathrooms were at the dance studio and is probably still to shy around the teacher to ask; the fact that the leotard and tights are not designed for emergency potty situations.  

My heart broke for her. I thought she'd come home in tears. Embarrassed and crushed and reluctant to dance ever again. I was ready to console her with a hug and tell her it was OK and that these things happen. 

But I didn't need to.

Lily rushed into the house, anxious to show me how she learned to walk with her shoulders back and head held high. She was excited about the black leotard with the skinny straps her teacher had loaned her. She did mention that she had an accident, but there was no undertone of shame or sadness, really. Maybe she was a little embarrassed – as embarrassed as a 5-year-old can get anyway. 

What Brad and I thought would be this monumental event in her young life, was just a footnote to the day. The opportunity to wear a fancy new leotard.

As she sauntered out of the room, she paused to look in the mirror. Smiling at her reflection. 

Because, when she looks in a mirror it's not to search for flaws but to admire herself. Smart girl. 

Every day, my children teach me far more than I will ever teach them. Despite unforeseen circumstances and challenging situations, Lily decided to stay on the dance floor, so I will, too.

That's me on the left. Normally, I hate pictures of myself. But I really like this one.
I always have loved a great dress. Maybe this is a truer picture of me.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Big D

Photo courtesy of Carlos Martinez/Flickr

Tonight as I was tucking her in Lily gave me some advice.

"Mom, you know what I think you should do? You should take a nap. Maybe if you took a nap you wouldn't be so angry."

"I'm not angry," I sighed. Embarrassed and defensive. "I'm just cranky."

"Well, maybe if you took a nap, you wouldn't be so cranky."

And what I wanted to say was that maybe I wouldn't be so cranky if every stage of bedtime preparation didn't involve a negotiation. 

I wouldn't be so cranky if they just cleaned up the various glittery plastic playthings littering their bedroom floor instead of flopping around the floor and whining that "it would take forever" before telling me that it was my job to clean up their room. 

I wouldn't be so cranky if, when I asked them to put on their pajamas, they didn't stand naked in front of their open bedroom window and flash the neighbors. 

I wouldn't be so cranky if they didn't fight over who would get to hold "Little People: Let's Go to the Zoo!" (over 40 fun flaps to lift!) and then be subjected to an extended pre-bedtime session of fun flap lifting. 

I wouldn't be so cranky if there wasn't an argument over who got the first piggyback ride to the bathroom. 

I wouldn't be so cranky if they didn't act as if I was attacking their mouth with barbed wire and spinach-flavored toothpaste every time (every time!!) I needed to brush their teeth and if they made even the smallest effort to spit into the sink.

I wouldn't be so cranky if two minutes after I tucked her in and five minutes after going to the potty, Jovie creeps out of her room and tells me that she needs to go potty again. 

I didn't tell Lily any of this. Instead I thanked her for the tip. Kissed her goodnight.

And here I am. 

Lily's right, I could use a nap. An early bedtime anyway.

But yesterday I went to the York Fair and ran into one of my old coworkers. And his wife told me she loved this blog. And that I should update it every day. 

So I'm taking Heather's request. Well. OK. Not quite. I mean, I probably won't be doing daily updates or anything. (I think the internet just sighed with relief) But I decided to show up tonight anyway.

Lately, it's been hard to show up here. I feel as if I've run out of things to say. I said as much in my last post, I guess. The past few years had been so fertile with ideas and self-expression that this particular drought feels somehow significant and unsettling. I feel as if my creative mind has gone from being a full orchestra to a single violinist playing with broken strings in a subway tunnel at a distant station.

I don't want to write about this feeling though. The futility. The hopelessness. The selfishness. The ingratitude. The stillness of this place. 

I don't want to write about depression. 

I don't want to write about depression, because I don't feel as if I've earned the right to be depressed. The foundation of my life is sound. These beautiful children and my thoughtful husband. A delightfully obnoxious dog. A delightfully shiesty cat. A cozy house. Food in the pantry. Good friends. Sisters (how anyone survives without sisters, I don't know). My needs are met. There are millions of people in the world who have earned the right to feel melancholy. I'm not one of them.

And yet here I am. I feel indulgent and lame and cliche.

If anyone expressed these sentiments to me about their own mental health I would tell them that they feel how they feel. That it's their life. Their experience. That judging themselves for being sad doesn't help them get better. In fact, it only compounds the problem and muddies the process of healing. That they need to be kind to themselves. 

Do as I say, not as I do. 

See, I told you. Cliche.

I don't want to write about depression, because it's too damn depressing. And I don't want the world to be weird around me*. I feel awkward enough as it is. I want to go back to posting pictures of squirrels and sharing stories about how I creep on my quirky neighbors and am kind of obsessed with Louis CK

Remember those days? I was more fun back then, right? Or maybe I was just more delusional? 

But then I end up circling back to this decision I made a while back that when it comes to writing I want to be vulnerable. That's where the real meat of life is. That's where we come together in a meaningful way. 

Usually, I save those narratives for after I have some type of resolution. The problem has been solved. The lessons have been learned. I've moved on, richer for the experience. 

Like any good optimist, I wait for the happy ending.

But the reality is, when you're in this place sometimes you can't wait for the happy ending. Sometimes you don't actually think there will be one.That this is just how you'll feel for the remainder of your existence. That you'll float through this life until it's over and that the whole exercise was pointless. That your time here was meaningless and your impact minimal. 

When you're in this place, sometimes you find yourself staring at your dog and thinking, you know what, humanity isn't all it's cracked up to be. Next time around, I'd like to be an over-coddled beagle whose biggest concerns are breakfast, dinner and that strange dog walking by the house right now. 

See what I mean? Nobody wants to read about that.

So I'll wrap up with this: 

Yesterday, I finally went to a yoga class after a months-long hiatus (why was I on hiatus you ask? Have you not seen a Pristiq commercial? Clearly, I've lost interest in everyday activities I once enjoyed.)

Anyway, I went to this class at Ignite studio while the girls were at preschool. The space was warm and cozy, incense was burning, a fake Eddie Vedder was chanting from an appropriately zen playlist. 

I figured the class would be rough because it'd been a while. But all the rhythms and poses were rote. Just like they were before.

Toward the end of practice as we're settling into half-pigeon, Jason the instructor tells us to observe the discomfort of the pose. Like maybe there was purpose in the awkwardness of that moment. I wasn't totally paying attention, because my hips were fussing at me. Then he says something that grabbed me. 

"A shitty day does not make a shitty life."

And in that moment, in that place, in that position, this was profound to me. I might feel shitty for now, but that won't necessarily translate into a permanent state of shitty. 

At the end of class he pointed out that we are different people than when we entered. That our cells are constantly dying and forming and changing. And he was right. I'd transformed into a hot, sweaty mess. But a happy hot, sweaty mess. 

Then I listened to this TED Talk by psychologist Dan Gilbert (I've been hitting the TED Kool-Aid pretty hard lately. Call it self medicating), in which he shares research about "the end of history illusion."

"Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they're finished," he says. 

While most people don't believe they change much as they get older, in reality, time transforms our preferences, values and personalities. Nothing is constant.

"The person you are right now is as transient, as fleeting and as temporary as all the people you've ever been."

This is reassuring. Tomorrow I will be different. Even if just slightly different. For Lily's sake, hopefully I'll be less cranky. Just to be safe, I should probably hide that lift-the-flap book. And go to bed.

* Seriously. Don't be weird around me. Weirdness makes me cranky. And Lily will tell you, you don't want see me cranky. So, you know, just pretend like I'm a normal, well-balanced human. Unless, of course, you are an abnormal, unbalanced human, in which case we should talk.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

What if I forgot how to write?

Photo courtesy of MJ Boswell/Flickr

I have this reoccurring dream that I can't run anymore.

I'm not paralyzed. Not physically tired. I've simply forgotten how to run.

I'll be in situations where I need to run – usually to escape some faceless, ominous presence, but it's as if my legs are underwater. Encased in molasses. They can't or won't move quickly.

In the most recent incarnation of this dream, I'm either trying out for "American Idol" or an "American Idol" finalist in a concert tour (this part is a little murky) at some giant amphitheater somewhere. 

I'm minutes from my performance and I haven't picked a song yet. I'd decided that the Disney song I had planned to perform (likely something in the vein of "A Whole New World" or "Under the Sea") was too Broadway and that I should pick something that showcased my range and had some more edge to it. (Remember, it's MY dream. And in MY dream I get to have an impressive vocal range.) If subconscious memory serves, I was leaning toward doing "Me and Bobby McGee" (something those who attended my recent reading will laugh about) but I couldn't remember all the lyrics. 

In the midst of my conundrum nature called. Only at this particular venue, the bathrooms were back behind the lawn seats. So I'm on my cell phone searching for the lyrics to "Bobby McGee" on the way to the bathroom (the signal is spotty, of course), seemingly miles away from the stage, when my name is announced. It's my turn to perform. I need to get to the stage 10 minutes ago. 

I try to run.

I can't. 

My name is called again. I can feel the urgency – the adrenaline coursing through my body – but it doesn't translate to my legs. They can't remember how to shove off the asphalt in front of me. To lift up and pump forward and hit the ground again. 

I can walk. And I do walk. But it doesn't matter. My name is called a third time. Shouting that I'm on my way is useless. Nobody would hear. They're going to move on to the next singer. I keep walking. 

I wake up.

Nobody gets to hear my astounding vocal gymnastics. I probably just pee my pants.

As I lay there in that post-dream fog, I start to think that maybe I really can't run. That if I got up at that moment it would be impossible.

This is how I feel about writing these days. Particularly fiction writing. But all writing, really. 

A blanket has been thrown over the right hemisphere of my brain. 

Day-to-day, I'm living in the left hemisphere. Seeking out more small shoes to put away, more dried bits of Play-Doh to pluck out of the living room carpet, more dishes to do, more online "content" to consume (Hello video about 13 onscreen besties who actually hate each other in real life and 7 adorable animals that are surprisingly violent ... I'm the reason these things keep getting created. I'm like a big mouth bass when it comes to this type of click bait. I shudder to think about how much of my life gets lost in this vortex of bullshit. Oooo what's that? 36 stunning book tattoos that are surprisingly badass. I think I need to see those.) 

It's not as simple of procrastination or avoidance – though it's well documented how I often I deploy both of those tactics when it comes to writing. It feels like something more. 

It's as if the right side of my brain where all the voices live, where all the art happens, where all the colors are, is dark. Dark and silent. Like a volcano that's become dormant. 

Or a bear that's hibernating. Permanently.

Like those dreams where I can't run, only in this case, I can't write. Can't create. Can't even lift up that blanket.  

It's actually kind of a nightmare. 

I hope I wake up soon.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The part-time farmhand

A couple weeks ago, the girls and I were up visiting Blue Hound. Lily, Jovie and one of their friends were playing with the goats and scrambling after a hen and her peeps – tiny balls of uncatchable fluff. 

"If you know anybody who could work up here a couple mornings a week, I could sure use the help," Kristi told me. 

I've been underemployed for a couple of months now – something I'd assumed would correct itself as part of the feast-or-famine cycle of life as a freelancer. To be honest, I was grateful for the break at first. Most of my nights had been spent on my laptop doing work that wasn't particularly inspiring or all that interesting, but that could be completed at the end of a long day wrangling kids without a lot of headaches. I kind of got used to the new routine. My evenings all the sudden unspoken for. 

I probably should've used that extra time to write all those things that I'd always meant to write but claimed I didn't have the time to. But I didn't do that. I also didn't spend a lot of time looking for new gigs. I kind of dread the prospect of more marketing blogging. 

What have I been doing? I'm not really sure.

Anyway. When another slow month went by, I started getting antsy. To be honest, I was antsy the whole time. But the antsy-ness level had gone up. Markedly.

So when Kristi's told me she needs help – feeding animals, picking stalls, tidying up and other miscellaneous tasks – well, it felt like a good time to raise my hand. 

My office is this 72-acre paradise of pastures and pond and massive trees and ethereal flowers and dirt. 

The work is straight forward. Fresh water. Replenish the feed. Pick up the poop. Scratch the goats, give the pigs a belly rub, pat the horses. Make sure all the gates are latched.

If there's a wedding at the farm that day, additional duties might include turkey wrangling (they're very social and would almost certainly crash the party), barn scrubbing and flower picking.

I'm a rookie. I haul water farther than it needs to go. Get stepped on by horses. Bitten by hens. My skills with a pitch fork are minimal; the amount of time I spend chasing evasive manure around stalls is comical. 

Last weekend when I came home – sweaty and tired – even Jovie commented on how filthy I was. 

It's good to be dirty though. To smell the earth, the sweet hay, the milky tang of cows, the ammonia of animal waste. To hear the murmur of chickens and the boasting of roosters and the snuffling of pigs and the satisfied munching of horses. 

Everywhere I look is a painting. Still life and real life.

There's no multi-tasking here. No texting while Facebooking while making dinner while mediating an argument over the purple cup. I do the job in front of me. And then do the next one.

I feel guilty getting paid to work here. I know for every wheelbarrow and bucket I fill, my heart and spirit are filled ten fold. I think about this as cut Queen Anne's lace under a cotton cloud-filled blue sky. 

There are no blinking cursors. No blank pages to be filled. 

Life there is beautiful, even when it's messy.

It's a good job.