5Mar

Comeback

Over the weekend, a great galactic second hand shifted. The earth and sun paused to wink at each other just like they did one morning seven years ago,  and a not-so-little girl woke up to a sea of balloons.

I am tired, core tired. Between the grocery runs and party prep and Hello Kitty cake pops (making fondant is the culinary equivalent of a triathlon, I’ve discovered), keeping up with the old birthday traditions and latching onto new ones, ongoing dramas of who to invite and the tears of partied out guests and a parade of sugar-strewn days, this birthday business is a lot for one introvert mama to handle.

It’s such a good kind of tired though, this depletion from wholehearted love. I haven’t often had time for Natalie over the last year, so this weekend was a comeback of sorts—extravagant, unhurried hours poured entirely into celebrating her—and the gift of it was for us both.

7th birthday girl

Happy 7th, my girl.
Goodness, do I love you. 

28Feb

The Bramble Squad

Joining Seth and Amber again for Marriage Letters: I Knew You Loved Me When. It’s a tender topic for me this week, so please read gently.

~~~

Dear husband,

You’re probably not expecting another marriage post this week given our stalemate conversations over the past few days, and honestly, I wasn’t planning to write this either. Our decade together has been one long series of transitions, yes, but this, learning how to share an office as two dream-chasing freelancers, is a big one. It remaps our individual orbits, and the gravity of being so near each other so much of the time pulls issues out from under the tide-pools. We knew it would be like this, but we’re still taken by surprise when conversations take a nosedive into territory neither of us particularly wants to visit. When we’re down there, neck-deep in brambles, it’s hard to see what we’re doing as progress.

But do you remember all those hours we used to talk perched on the dryers at our university laundromat, and how one evening, you looked at me across the low rumble and I knew? You caught it in my eyes too, weeks later across a tiny restaurant booth, and I didn’t need to say anything. We loved each other, and we knew it.

Yesterday, when you walked in with bits of sky still reflected in your eyes, and I was head to toe in flour rolling gnocchi as a peace offering, we knew it again. Everything shifts when love is the perspective, doesn’t it? With one look, we remember that we’re teammates on the bramble-clearing squad and that this hard work is all part of landscaping our future. We love each other still, and knowing it helps us sweep the stalemate off the board and plop down on it to continue our conversation.

The dryers might have been comfier, but I’d rather be here, now.

Bethany

~~~

Previous letters here and here.

27Feb

How I Talk to Little Girls (And Why)

It popped up on my Facebook feed last summer once, twice, fifteen times before I started seeing it discussed on prominent blogs. Entire circles of social media lit up at once in a universal Aha! moment at the idea that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we compliment their beauty. Lisa Bloom’s article is fascinating and powerful (if you haven’t read it yet, it’s well worth three minutes of your time!), and I am grateful that voices like hers are being heard over the endless glittery din of beauty propaganda. I appreciate her point that commenting on a girl’s beauty disrespects her mind and sets her up for a lifetime of body image issues. However, I also disagree.

I grew up within an extreme religious subculture that required parents to squelch their parental instincts in favor of specific protocol. Our lifestyle encouraged education and Colonial-era homemaking skills while discouraging physical beauty, so most of the compliments I heard growing up fell under the category of accomplishments. My parents freely celebrated my brains and talents, but what I heard even more acutely was the silence when I’d model a new dress.

We didn’t have a television and I wasn’t allowed to look at magazine covers at the grocery store, but some innate girlish part of me had an idea of what beautiful looked like, and I knew it wasn’t me. Few things throughout my childhood hurt as badly as looking in the mirror each morning and feeling sure that if I were even the tiniest bit pretty, someone would have mentioned it to me. I despised my fair skin, my strawberry-blonde hair, and my gangly legs with their perpetually skinned knees, and I absolutely loathed the freckles splattered across my cheeks. In fact, I carried such a low view of my appearance with me to university that I had no response the first time a classmate told me I was beautiful. Clearly, the man was a few fries short of a Happy Meal. (Love you, dear!)

Self-esteem is an ongoing issue for me, but I determined early on not to pass my history of mirror-hate on to my two daughters. The first half of my strategy is by far the hardest: appreciating myself. Every disparaging comment I make about my figure, every gesture of disgust or embarrassment, every dismissal of compliments is soaked up immediately by my girls’ big blue eyes, and it’s scary as hell to remember that I am their introduction course to womanhood. My words about myself will affect what they see in the mirror for their entire lives, and you know what? That day when they survey their own stretch-marked mama bodies and feel like someone rearranged them without their consent and consider the merits of muu-muus and wonder where to even begin with the concealer, even then they will be radiantly beautiful. Which means I have to accept the possibility that I am too.

The other part of my strategy is less about reversing thought patterns and more about giving my instincts permission to love unabashedly. My girls are both artistic, imaginative, curious, and kind; they do brave things and learn from mistakes, and I let them know how much I admire them for it. They are also beautiful. It’s the truth, and my defense against mother-bias is that I’ve never met a little girl who wasn’t beautiful. Their innocence and mischief, their uninhibited smiles, the darling gaps of missing teeth, the residual glow from heaven’s handprint… pure beauty, yes?

I can’t keep such precious, transformative truth a secret, so I tell them. I talk with my daughters about books and brains, but I also let them know how their loveliness fills my eyes to overflowing. It’s just a comment here or there, nothing pre-meditated, but when their daddy smiles proud and tells them they’re beautiful, both six-year-old Natalie and four-year-old Sophie respond in delight: “I know!” There is no trace either of self-deprecation or of conceit (though I’m working with them on a more socially acceptable response) and not even a whisper of wishing they were different. They are beautiful, just as themselves, and they know it.

I follow the same philosophy when talking to the girls’ friends. Their appearances are never the focus of conversation, but I also don’t ignore their new haircuts or sparkling smiles or the outfits they cheerfully cobbled together themselves. I am all too aware of the images and ads that will dog them their whole lives about not being skinny or tan or fashionable enough, and I hope that my voice carries more than its share of weight when it tells them that they are enough. Even in first grade, they are inside-and-out beautiful, and I want them to know this to their core before marketing campaigns try to convince them otherwise.

I believe that we are doing a grave disservice to little girls when we ignore any part of who they are in an effort to control their priorities. I believe that our instinct to celebrate their loveliness in addition to their intelligence and courage and talent exists because we are meant to be holistic beings—soul, spirit, mind, and body. I believe that beauty and brains are in no way mutually exclusive and that we need to stop perpetuating the myth of Either-Or. I believe that our children need to hear every bit of the good we see in them and need to hear it often enough to start answering from a place too far within them for media onslaughts to touch…“I know!”

24Feb

A Personal Kind of Grace

[Photo of Vesuvius snapped on Easter morning 2010]

Everywhere, it seems, I’m reading about Lent, and I’m trying to let the words sink in, but they float just above my level of comprehension. Ashes, fasting, sin, mortality, dust to dust… Maybe it’s because I’ve never attended a church that practiced Lent (though I know that’s not a prerequisite to participation). Maybe it’s because I’m on such tenuous terms with organized Christianity. Maybe it’s because words like “sin” and “fasting” shut me down trigger-quick with oppressive memories.

My being with you this year doesn’t just refer to posting more often. The internet offers a shiny, gilt-framed backdrop for whatever image of ourselves we want to project, but it’s a hollow allure, this self-sponsored PR. If I’m only offering a mirage of who I want you to think I am, any attempts at connection will vaporize with the illusion, and I believe that connection is the reason we are on this planet together. Thus, with = authenticity.

Are you ready?

As far back as I can remember, the Easter season has symbolized a very personal kind of brutality to me. The story of Jesus’s crucifixion is horrific, no matter the religious paradigm. A man who devoted his adult life to teaching kindness, spreading hope, standing up for the marginalized, and living out compassion is tortured to death by religious leaders who feel their legalistic system threatened. The injustice is instantly recognizable, the tragedy deeply felt. And it is all my fault.

That’s what I was taught from the beginning, that the shards of glass ripping his back to shreds, the iron spikes hammered into his wrists, the agonizing hours on the cross as his lungs collapsed were all my fault.  It sent me into hysterics as a young child. Hearing the unthinkable details of Jesus’s suffering and then being told I was responsible was too much for my heart to handle intact. Jagged, uncontrollable laughter spilled through the wound, and my guilt doubled. No punishment was enough.

“Jesus died for your sins.” I swallow hard every time I hear this line at church, wondering what concept it is shaping in my daughters’ minds. I know that many people take it as a message of hope and love, but I have trouble seeing the barbarism behind the statement. Death by torture is somehow the sacrificial equivalent of my imperfection? Is it not enough to acknowledge my need for redemption without also accepting the blame for Jesus’s death? More often than not, these questions have led me down a spiral staircase of doubts from which I couldn’t see hope, not even a glint, through my anger at God for orchestrating such horror.

I can’t turn off my mind or cauterize the raw edges of my heart against pain, but I have learned to look through new eyes. A few years ago, my friend Rachelle Mee-Chapman’s article Your Kindergartner Did Not Kill Jesus, and Neither Did You helped me see the Easter story as a powerful continuation of Jesus’s life rather than a violent tit-for-tat. Gerry Beauchemin’s book Hope Beyond Hell showed me a God of love instead of torture. Other resources, music, and open-minded conversations have helped me find a third path beyond blind acceptance of religious dogma and angry rejection of the whole Christian construct. I can now love Jesus honestly, without having to shoulder or celebrate his death.

I admire those of you who make sacrifices during these forty days in order to draw closer to God, and I want you to know that I respect your ashes. They aren’t for me, though, at least not in this stage of my life. I’ve spent so long pinned in the dust by Jesus’s suffering that meditating on it now would be like returning to a prison. Perhaps I will be able to do it one day when my new perspective is strong enough to cocoon old wounds. But for now, I’m focusing on words and life instead of sin and death, meditating on the kindness Jesus taught rather than the evil he suffered. My soul was designed not for guilt but for grace—bright, sweeping, extravagant grace that becomes especially personal to me when I meet with God here on this third path and (s)he loves my split heart a little closer to wholeness.

22Feb

With

As of yesterday, I still hadn’t picked a word for the year. As much as I wanted that to mean I was too cool and self-actualized to need one, the fact is that wordless and directionless are two sides of the same coin, and anyway, I’m only slightly cooler than a mealworm. Lately, I’ve been ungluing myself from bed at the last possible minute before getting the girls ready for school, and then hygiene and breakfast and allergy meds follow (not necessarily in that order), and by the time I sit down to take soul-inventory for the day, it’s already 9:00 without a single stray epiphany to show for it.

I know that life is a dynamic, untamable tempestress and that if I ever try claiming to have her figured out, I can expect a bitch slap upside the head.  But really. “Huh” does not count as a mantra.

Here is what I’m talking about:
The delightfully dreadlocked Mandy Steward chose “vulnerable” for the year.
Sarah Bessey, whose writing is fire and water all at once, went with “fearless.”
My precious warrioress Rain honed in on “unafraid.”
Erika Morrison, who is cooler than a whole stage of mealworms with their own backup dancers, picked “celebrate.”
Alise chose “do,” and Jeff chose “start,” and all around me, I see bravery, the determination to live life to its fullest. I see how starting the year with a focus puts each day into hopeful perspective, how it catapults daily routines into another stratosphere of worth.

To be honest, I feel like I’ve gypped myself by not staking the same kind of claim on 2012 from the beginning. However, my main goal when the calendar turned was riding out a dust storm that threatened to keep me an ocean away from my husband and girls. January was turmoil and surprise and blinding uncertainty, and the only thing I found myself whispering on repeat was “God with us, God with us.” The concept of Emmanuel, carried over from the Christmas crèche, carried me back home.

Since returning, I’ve taken the gift of joblessness as a wide-flung opportunity to be present for the people in my life—saying yes to invitations, penciling in long afternoons for relationships, participating in this online community, being with instead of just around. And I finally saw it this morning, the thread strung like a lifeline between January’s upheaval and February’s calendar blocks:

With

God with me, the warmth of divine-to-earth whispers in my ear even when religion leaves me cold.

I with you, here, fully engaged in connecting through my words, offering my authentic heart.

I with you, our conversations growing well worn and becoming ever more Real as I care them threadbare.

Partnering with the causes that rip compassion-wounds in my defenses.

Communicating with the people I’m inclined to write off.

Walking with my loved ones, old and new (even if this means [thinking really hard about] answering emails in a timely fashion…).

Making eye contact with my own life instead of ducking away to hide when it gets overwhelming.

Waking up with us—all of us, you and me and Emmanuel whispers—on my mind and my path for the day stretching double-wide.

I might be late to the party, but man, it’s good to be here.

21Feb

MRS

I couldn’t help joining up with Seth and Amber Haines another week for Marriage Letters: My Job–Your Job. It’s a beautiful way to prioritize my marriage, even if I did growl at Dan when I thought he was trying to read the letter over my shoulder. At least I growled with renewed admiration and lovingkindness, right dear?

~~~

Dear husband,

Eight years after tossing my graduation cap in the air, and I still want to protest that I did not attend university to earn an MRS degree. I was already weaving my plans for world travel when we met my junior year, but I’m not sure anyone was buying that. Possibly because I couldn’t wait a full eight months before marrying you, and possibly because… well, nobody studies English for the lucrative career opportunities.

All the same, I loved the interplay of words enough to hang my résumé on it, and this year, I’ve traded in a paycheck for one-time contracts with page counts. It’s slow work, but it stirs up sparks, warms me from the inside out.

Your work warms you too. I roam our bedroom-office throughout the day, tracking inspiration from my desk to the rocking chair to our bed, while you remain solid and engaged at your own workspace. It’s hard to drag you to meals sometimes, but I know you remember plenty of nights when I’ve foregone dinner for dialogues. We understand each other in this. You research the latest in biomechanical technology and set up training sessions with clients, and I stare out the window looking for sentences among the olive leaves, and our smiles meet halfway across the room.

Pay scales haven’t changed too much though, and unless I dream up the next Harry Potter, it’s unlikely that my writing will ever pull the same financial weight as your engineering. I confess, I often let the thought that your job is more important than my job (which it is, in a putting food on the table sense) morph into dissatisfaction with myself. How many times now have I wailed to you that I am going to stop writing forevermore and devote the rest of my life to scrubbing the ground you walk on with a toothbrush because at least then I’d be accomplishing something useful? (Yes, our girls come by their dramatic streaks honestly.)

Every one of those times in which I despair at the inferiority of my work, I expect you to sigh in relief that finally I’m going to stop wasting all of our time and then request that I just go ahead and tie your shoes while I’m down there. Every time, though, you exceed my expectations by pulling me up, prying the toothbrush out of my fingers, and offering some way you can help me more than you already do. It kills, in a gorgeous, humbling way.

I guess what I have to say about it all is thank you—for giving equal importance to our jobs despite the income disparity, for making my fulfillment in life your own priority, and especially for letting me display my MRS diploma proudly above my B.A.

It was the best career choice I could have made.

Bethany

~~~

You can read last week’s letter here.

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