Tag: Happying


Zumba vs. Shame

(My five-year-old, author and perfecter of the gratuitous shimmy.)

It happened the moment I saw her—somebody’s petite grandmamà, her hair precision-curled into ringlets and her tank top neatly pressed, shaking her booty without inhibition or anything close to synchronization with the sweaty salsa tune thumping over the speakers. I watched her through the studio window for no more than two seconds before the joy of her giddy soul-groove accomplished what months of considering and researching and YouTube tutorial browsing had been unable to give me: a transfusion of fearlessness.

At the start of the very next Zumba class, I was there, on the other side of the glass this time, shaking in my Reeboks and wondering how many seconds I had left with my dignity before it fled the premises in shame.

See, this white girl can’t dance. I took classical ballet for seven years, during which I heard constant variations on “You’re too uptight!” That’s right. Too uptight for ballet, which is pretty much like being too smart for Mensa or too brave for Red Bull space-jumping. My brief encounter with a hip-hop choreographer made her cry. I have rhythm, sure, but it’s the kind that leads to careers in metronome programming and dictatorship, not to truth-telling Shakira hips.

It goes deeper than that too. My shocking inability to get a groove on has every last one of its roots coiled around a philosophy of body image that I would like to call The Shamemonger.

You’re not going to hear the word “shame” directly from The Shamemonger’s lips unless she’s reading from the King James Bible. No, you’re much more likely to hear the terms “modesty” and “purity” and “stumbling block” and “inciting lust,” each one spoken with a pulpit-wagging finger. You will never hear her directly instruct you to hate your body, but she will urge you with every persuasive tool in her arsenal to hide it and repress it and blame it. The Shamemonger markets to females alone, teaching us from as early an age as possible that our bodies are corruptors. If our shapes or our movements or the very skin on our bones attract notice, we have instigated sexual sin, and the responsibility for that sin rests on our souls.

The result is that young girls under The Shamemonger’s tutelage grow up, as I did, with all of that weight pushing back against our natural development. We hunch over to smudge our silhouettes. We mechanize our walking patterns and restrict the confident flair out of our movements. We view all men as weak-minded and predatory and sexuality as a dangerous, shameful thing to possess. We hate our bodies like we hate nothing else on God’s green earth and then wonder why marital intimacy is such a struggle.

God have mercy. Like Brené Brown pointed out in her TED Talk last year, guilt is understanding that you have made a mistake while shame is believing that you are a mistake, and the philosophy I grew up with falls squarely into the latter category. The idea that my body is inherently bad leaves no room for resolution or redemption; the only possible outcome is self-loathing… Unless, of course, I decide that The Shamemonger has it all wrong—that her lens of fear and insecurity have warped the truth of our bodies’ precious value into something unrecognizable and grotesque and wrong as wrong can be—and decide to start pushing back.

Enter Zumba.

The music starts, and it’s like thunder. It’s like sassy, syncopated thunder, and gravity jumps out of its way as it rolls through the room. The instructor is already Merengue-marching, and my feet join in even though I don’t know the first thing about Merengue, even though I won’t know it’s called Merengue until I look up the moves at home. It can’t be helped; the rhythm has me now.

The dance studio is packed to the gills, its walls expanding with each collective breath just to contain our energy. At least a hundred pairs of hips are scooping figure-eights out of the air, and we’re so far beyond personal space restraints, so thoroughly inside each other’s orbits that I’m able to catch the stocky middle-aged mom next to me singing under her breath, “I’m sexy an’ I know it.” This makes me happy in a way that can only be expressed through a gratuitous shimmy.

Every single shape, size, color, and age group is represented in the room, from the 70-year-old gentleman wobbling to the beat to the group of third-graders in karate uniforms bouncing along on the other side of the glass, and everyone is grinning and sweating and cheering and grooving, and it’s a little bit of heaven right here in the gym. Propriety? Well, it went packing when gravity did, but dignity is in its element here.

And that’s the thing—there is no shame in this room, no time for self-consciousness, no room for criticism. We are dancing in unabashed celebration of these strong and strange and uniquely wonderful bodies we were born with, and is dignity anything less than this very recognition of our worth?

I know what The Shamemonger would say about Zumba—if she were able to articulate much of anything through compulsive gasps of horror, that is—but I don’t care to challenge her on it. She’s held my focus for too many years as it is. True, her lens of fear and insecurity isn’t going to dissolve from my vision overnight any more than I’m going to become the newest salsa superstar, but these twice-weekly forays into sweat and joy and fearlessness are pushing back more powerfully than any other argument I could make.


Adieu, 2012

The year is puttering to a stop. I see it in the drip-dried sky, its color and energy already spent on younger days, in the slow topple of routines as we roll into this final holiday stretch, in this gingerbread haze clinging to the silhouette of bare branches. We’re saying our final goodbyes to 2012, and I’m eager for whatever’s next, for the wide empty margins of an untouched year.

But first, there are snickerdoodles to be eaten, fuzzy Christmas Eve pajamas to be unwrapped, and stories to be read in a family heap on the couch… snowy trails to conquer and resolutions to dream up, husbands to kiss and little ones to snuggle under a rain of fireworks.

Wherever you are and however you’re spending this last week of 2012, I wish you warmth and peace and a treasure trove of golden moments lighting your way forward.


P.S. – Because, how could I not?



I was beyond tired last night, what with the three-hours-of-sleep and the solo-drive-home-from-Rome and the teaching-English-to-a-houseful-of-first-and-second-graders and the keeping-my-own-children-alive… so what did I proceed to do? Stay up until midnight watching YouTube videos whilst forcing my eyelids open. It’s possible that exhaustion impacts my judgment.

Today is not much better (see: one night’s worth of sleep over the last two), so I’m going to give in to the procrastinatory pull of the internet and simply share some of my favorites this month:

  • The Kid History series on YouTube. The girls and I watched all the episodes together, and I watched them alone while sleep-deprived, and both scenarios produced actual liquid tears of laughter. (Start with Babysitting or Christmas.)
  • The My Drunk Kitchen series on YouTube, not to be watched with young’uns. My current favorite is Cookies, but it will take me another month of irresponsibly late nights to watch all her videos, so that could change.
  • Speaking of cookies, have you experienced World Peace Cookies yet? If not, get thee to a kitchen. (Bonus: They make perfect holiday gifts, though that does imply not eating them all yourself straight from the oven. Good luck with that.)
  • The When In Comment Sections Tumblr, hilarious responses to the kinds of comments that show up on every Christian blog ever. (My favorites here and here. Aaaaaand here.)
  • Pinterest, You Are Drunk. The name says it all. Holiday sweater fingernails or cable-knit body suits, anyone?
  • Along the same lines, Catalog Living, a black hole of perfectly decorated hilarity. It’s impossible to pick favorites, but yesterday’s post is a solid ten.
  • Sufjan Steven’s new Christmas collection, Silver & Gold. Not every one of the fifty-eight tracks is my style, but 1) there are fifty-eight tracks, and 2) his corresponding infomercial packed with fake song titles is uncontestably awesome.

Any other online entertainment (wishing that sounded a little less lascivious) that you would add to the list?


O[ur] Tannenbaum

Last weekend, the fog drew around our house like a heavy silver curtain. Sophie was sick and Natalie’s school was on strike*, so we had the deep-settling thrill of burrowing into our own little world for a day or two. The girls had been reverberating for weeks with pent-up holiday cheer, and even my no-carols-before-Thanksgiving resolve had crumbled in the home stretch, so it was clear to everyone how our hibernation weekend should be spent.

* Clarification point #1: Kids here typically go to school six mornings a week and get out at lunchtime; it’s inconvenient and awesome all at once. Clarification point #2: Schools go on strike in our district about twice a month, each one formally announced ahead of time. Again, inconvenient + awesome.

Our Tannenbaum - 1

We bought this tree seven years ago for Natalie’s first Christmas. At the time, the three of us were living on a single graduate school stipend, and fresh-cut pines were up there with cable TV and new shoes on the Hierarchy of Unnecessary Expenses. However, the Martha Stewart Holiday Collection went on sale at our local K-Mart, and our baby’s squeals of joy right there on Aisle 5 decided for us. It was nothing fancy; we knew our tree would never evoke nostalgia for either Appalachia or Anthropologie, but the point was that it was ours.

And is it ever ours. Though our collection of ornaments has grown steadily over the years, only two of them—a set of crystal love birds from Dan’s grandparents—actually match. Ours is a tree of keepsakes and fingerprints, cross-stitching and salt dough. We have a wooden bell that Dan colored with markers when he was in preschool and I blotched with melted candy canes a few years back. We hang it anyway. There are the two cartoonish and slightly disproportionate Loch Ness monsters I coaxed out of modeling clay for the girls to remember our summer in Scotland. Natalie hangs hers next to a pony she once made out of pegboard beads and strung up via a hair ribbon with an artist’s pride. Meanwhile, Sophie chooses a single branch for a series of paper hearts displaying a four-year-old’s scissor skills and enthusiastic joy.

These now-dusty limbs sport chocolate lips and jingle bells, felt daubed with formerly-hot glue, a couple of miniature storybooks shellacked into submission, and a rocking horse that may or may not have been through a war… and each year that goes by gives me greater satisfaction in declaring that what our tree lacks in fashion sense, it more than makes up for in memories.

Admittedly, I still pause every time I wander into the Christmas section of the party store. I can’t help scanning the shelves of baubles and lights and blown-glass snack foods—seriously, why are those a thing? and why do I want them so badly?—and imagining our living room transformed into a magazine spread. It’s easy, far too easy, to envision how a cartful of decorations would change our lives. Don’t we want our holiday pictures to reflect perfection? Wouldn’t our daughters’ experience be improved with icicle lights or topiaries or at least an identifiable color scheme?

Last weekend, as the fog wrapped us tightly into the warmth and music of our living room, I remembered as I do every year why I always leave the Christmas aisle with an empty cart. This tree of ours, with its missing PVC needles and mismatched lights and homemade ornament parade, holds a magic all of its own—a magic all of our own. It glows with our family stories and preserves evidence of our personalities, our creativity, our thumbprints. The girls reminisced about each ornament as they chose the imperfectly perfect spot to hang it, and when we were done, it was like someone had hung a sun in the room; all we wanted to do was bask. 

Our Tannenbaum - 2


Do you ever struggle with holiday-decoration-envy?



Grateful today for change, for opportunity, for the delicious tang of adventure.

For laughter ringing like a tuning fork through the dissonance of busy days.

For hearts gift-wrapped in kind words, for all of you brave givers.

For rich flavors and colors and relationships, wealth that outshines money.

For small pleasures, for bewildering beauty, for the goodness cupped in the hands of here, now.

For any reason whatsoever to eat pie.

For all-things-new and the tenacity of hope.


What is making your heart warm today?



The rain is a vertical river, thunderous and steady against our gabled roof. It’s my favorite kind of storm; its intensity and intention speak to the part of me that is always craving more movement in my life, and I love the way the water envelopes our house, the lamplight by my bed its epicenter.

The girls crawled under the comforter with me a while ago, and now they’re curled together like kittens, the older one reading softly, the younger one listening more softly still. Without really intending to, my mind wanders back to the night before Natalie’s second birthday. Some secret blossoming instinct had compelled me to take a pregnancy test, but I’d been too nervous to look at it, because what if it was negative? And what if it was positive? I simply couldn’t get the edges of my imagination to meet on the other side of that possibility—my tulle-haired toddler becoming an older anything, the cells of my own mama-heart dividing and multiplying into a new species of love. It was like glimpsing my face in a sci-fi film and having to work out if I was dreaming or if the laws of the universe really had just staged a coup.

I had Dan look at the test for me while I stood tiptoe on the line between before and after. When his eyes turned into carnival lights, I knew, and my mind spun tilt-a-whirl into this new now. Two children, two—double the territory of motherhood I was still exploring with the caution of a foreigner. I thought of my own childhood relationships with my siblings and imagined rivalry and manipulation sown like minefields across our family’s future. At the same time, the slender, precious hope of sibling rapport was already gestating in my conscious. I hoped and feared in equal measure and didn’t sleep well again until the day we brought Sophie home from the hospital and our family of four clicked into place.

This evening, the circle of lamplight by my bed glows off of the unimaginable—two colors of hair, two brilliantly diverse personalities, two hearts galloping headlong in their own directions but always, somehow, linked to the other. The longer I watch my girls, drinking in the curve of their cheeks, the earnest trajectory of their eyes, the tender nonchalance in the way their legs pile on each other under the covers, the less I am stirred to restlessness by the storm outside, and the more I am pulled into this epicenter of light and sweet familiarity. Sci-fi no longer—we are home.


How has the concept of family stretched your horizons, sent you whirling, or redefined your sense of place?


Cinnamon Steam

Right now:

Open windows

Pumpkin spice latte

Diamond-cut air

Fall daisies


Every window in the house wide open to the diamond-cut morning air.

Pumpkin spice latte with cinnamon steam.

Tendrils of wood smoke and the rustle of olive nets, hallmarks of November in Umbria.

The new Mumford & Sons—soul-shiveringly good.

Daisies, orange and fuchsia.

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What is your “right now?”

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