Tag: Identity


I Am Not an Abomination, and Neither Are You

When I was a girl, I believed I was fundamentally wrong. The exact term that rings in my memory is “an abomination to God.” An abomination. I didn’t have any context for that word outside of the Bible—in fact, I’m not sure I do even now—but I understood that its five syllables shook with the intensity of God’s disgust.

I gave proud looks.
I was deceitful.
I pushed back against rules.

I’d memorized verses declaring each of those things an abomination, a detestable affront to God, and over time, the word worked its way past my actions and straight into my identity. I didn’t try to be proud, see. I couldn’t help it; my entire theology was based on micromanaging myself toward perfection, and any time that I succeeded, my natural reaction was pride. I didn’t have many grounds to feel good about myself, but if I was managing more holiness than someone else in a certain area, my mind latched onto smugness like a drowning cat to a piece of driftwood. Pride wasn’t my choice; it just was. And that made me an abomination.

The same went for my deceitful and rebellious streaks. Lying and hiding were coping mechanisms for me, my body’s only strategy for self-defense. Rebellion was likewise instinctual; I never flouted rules, but I endlessly wrestled with the ones that suffocated me, trying to find loopholes through which to breathe. I was born with a question mark tattooed on my soul, and I believed the only reason God didn’t smite me for it was because Jesus had him on a choke chain.

There is a fiercely painful dissonance in believing that the one who made you is repulsed by who you are. I don’t think this is a sensation unique to my experience either. Mainstream Christianity teaches that we are born with a “sin nature” that God cannot abide, even though God is the maker and creator of all, and that we must perform series of steps to effectively hide our depravity from him before it is used as grounds to condemn us. I have heard thousands of sermons over the years to that effect.

Believing this way, that God considered who-I-was an abomination, stamped the dark impression of guilt onto my every waking moment. Not even those times of smugness when I was particularly rocking at righteousness could blunt my impression that God was gagging in my direction. I ricocheted endlessly between self-loathing and pride, my psyche working overtime to protect me from my theology. I’m sure I don’t need to spell out that this was a nightmarish way to live.

All the same, I had it easy in one regard: Nobody ganged up with God against me. If anything, I was praised by other Christians for striving so hard after holiness. Not once in my life has a group of people discriminated against me over those parts of myself that the Bible calls abominations. If I have ever defended my identity, it’s because I’ve wanted to, not because I’ve been under attack. I find instant acceptance in most Christian circles despite the ways in which my habits diverge from accepted biblical standards, and fellow believers’ open arms have strengthened the faith that I might have abandoned long ago without their support.

Not everyone is so privileged.

Among all the “abominations” listed in the Bible, from telling lies to eating shrimp to stirring up conflict to shedding innocent blood, the evangelical Christian community has picked out one on which to concentrate its outrage. You already know which one. You can’t help but know it. It’s on Saturday night’s news and on Sunday morning’s PowerPoint and on legislative drawing tables around the world. It’s the mountain on which we are willing to let others die.

This week, evangelicals became so incensed over World Vision, a humanitarian aid organization, expanding its hiring policy to allow married gay Christians that thousands of children lost their sponsorships. Let me put that in other words: People who claim to follow Jesus stopped providing nutrition, education, and health care to impoverished children in order to make a theological point.

Just before getting into bed last night, I saw that World Vision had reversed its decision, caving after two short days of uproar. The news settled on my heart like a boulder, and I lay awake for a long time exploring the contours of that weight. Being a Christian has never made me so sad.

I know what it’s like to feel that God despises my identity but not what it must feel like to have millions of fellow humans joining in. I can’t imagine having even just one person so repulsed by who-I-am that he or she would withdraw help from a child and call it my fault. I can’t imagine trying to reconcile my faith with my orientation only to have a nation of heterosexuals shouting from every available platform that I was choosing deviance. I can’t imagine having my heart and soul and talents rejected outright by the Christian community due to an inflexible interpretation of a few select Bible verses.

Can you imagine it?

I’m positive that the sorrow I feel today is a pale shadow of the pain my LGBT brothers and sisters are experiencing this week… this month… this lifetime during which they will be dragged again and again into a religious culture war in which everyone loses. Other writers have already made the points that bear repeating this week (see Rachel Held Evans, Jamie Wright, Jen Hatmaker, Erika Morrison, Nish Weiseth, and Kristen Howerton), and I know better than to think I can singlehandedly change popular doctrine. I do think it’s important though that I lend my voice to the discussion—if nothing else, so that my own LGBT friends will know that they’re not the brunt of every Christian’s theology.

I am grateful all the way to my bone marrow that my view of God did not stay rooted in that oppressive past. I still read the Bible but with very different eyes. Jesus is real to me now—unconditional love is real to me now—and through the clarity of that love, everything I once thought about religion is up for grabs. Except the view of a single human soul as an abomination. That’s not up for grabs. That’s just straight-up gone.


Becoming My Name

Let me tell you about my friend Erika, the Life Artist. She applies soul to life the way Pollock applied paint to canvas, and the resulting swirls of color and energy keep me glued to my front-row seat. The way this lady loves her husband and her little punks and her city and her God is like nothing I’ve seen before. Her stories are a mix of the gritty and the gorgeous, and each one leaves me looking at life with new intention. (I don’t think you could look at a Jesus-following reality the same way after reading her tale of Plus One.) I am flat-out honored to be posting at her place today—a story of names and close encounters of the spiritual kind—and would love it if you followed me there to soak in a little life art for your Monday.


Out of all the insults leveled at me as a child, my name was the hardest to bear.


In its syllables, all the other taunts—“goody two-shoes,” “cover-up chicken,” “freak”—condensed into a three-pronged weapon that I sharpened with my own arsenal of self-loathing. I didn’t meet another Bethany until my teens, so for years, I imagined myself the sole embodiment of the name. I was told it meant “house of God.” I knew better though.

Bethany meant little girl, over-young, embarrassingly naïve. It meant one deserving of abuse. It meant unworthy, unlovable, the lowest common denominator in all of God’s harsh kingdom. It mocked me with an air of churchy pomp that was neither warranted nor wanted. When I heard my name spoken, no matter the context, I cringed. It felt like a prison sentence, this identity printed as bold bureaucratic fact on my birth certificate.

My middle name was even worse, a Christian buzzword that sounded oversized and ironic coming from my lips. I had been told what it meant too, and the theological implications spoke of a God who saw the worst in me, who obligated me to eternal servitude by deigning to save a wretch like me. I never said my middle name without flushing inmate-orange. I vowed never to tell it to anyone who didn’t absolutely have to know.

Our church nurtured a conviction that names are destined by God and hold powerful meaning, and I knew that going by a nickname would be counted unto me as sin. Nevertheless, as I entered my teens and began to carve a new facet of myself out of each new inch of freedom, I asked friends to call me “Beth” or “B” or “Sugar Pie Honey Bunch” if they had to. Anything other than the name-nooses in which I had been choking. Anything to forget, however temporarily, the shame and condemnation that were my birthright.

{Continue reading over at Erika’s place}


Grown-Up Shmown-Up

This morning, I signed Sophie out of school for a doctor’s appointment. I’d completely forgotten about it (see Instagram), so we were nearly two hours late, but I’m choosing to dwell on the principle of Better Late Than Never and to thank my stars that Italians aren’t particularly hung up on punctuality anyway. While signing the school release statement, I caught myself wondering for the zillionth time if I’m really qualified to be doing this. Being the grown-up, I mean. I’ve had nine years now to get used to the idea of being a parent, but the range of parenting tasks I feel well and truly qualified to do starts with breastfeeding and ends with changing diapers. Infants are and always have been my homies. But what do I know about raising KIDS? About homework help and birthday parties and PTA meetings? About big-kid insecurities and big-kid friendships and—Lord O’Mercy—big-kid hormones? What in the world do I know about ushering these small humans through the mysterious and noisy process of becoming themselves?

Right now, I’m cobbling together these sentences next to the piano bench while Natalie practices, and it seems unfathomable to me that I’m the one here offering corrections and compliments, promising her that one day she’ll appreciate having had a musical education. Who is this person in my head generating parent-y clichés, and what has she done with the real me, the eleven-year-old me who just knows she’s going to be stuck practicing scales and arpeggios forever?

These are the easiest and the hardest days of parenting, all at once. My girls are becoming delightfully independent; my friends with toddlers almost cry when they hear that Natalie and Sophie get themselves ready for school in the mornings down to their breakfasts. On the other hand, I almost cry when it’s time for their showers or their piano practice or their chores because teaching them independence in these things requires exactly fifty million times more effort than just doing them myself. They need me far less of the day than they did as babies, but they need far more of me now. They need more of my focus and my creativity and my present, intentional self. They look to me to troubleshoot emotional tangles and answer complicated questions, and my goodness. Never do I feel less like a grown-up than when I’m being looked up to as one.

Fortunately, the girls haven’t figured this out yet. They think I’m the real deal, even when I forget doctor’s appointments or burn the pizza or quake in my boots at the timbre of their curiosity. They’re perfectly okay accepting me as the grown-up in our relationship, and when it comes down to it, theirs is the only qualification I really need.

Still though… I might want to work on that maturity thing. Word has it, it can be helpful when one is trying to pass for a real live adult.


Pulling a Pheidippides

I’ve never quite been able to forget that the first person to run a marathon, the Greek hero Pheidippides on whom the modern day race was founded, DIED FROM IT. This fact has concerned me on more than one occasion, but never did it seem more relevant to my life than last Sunday afternoon as I lurched over the final bridge of the Venice Marathon and stumble-sprinted toward the finish line. I was more than exhausted, my muscles already pushed a full hour beyond their former limits. All four limbs and the top of my head were tingling as if ice shavings had replaced the blood in my veins. My heart was beating so quickly that it finally achieved liftoff and flew ahead without me, and at a mere two hundred meters from the end, one thought crystalized in my mind: I was about to pull a Pheidippides.

They say that completing a marathon is largely a mental effort, and in retrospect, I think that my finish-line-death-sprint experience had more to do with the sensory overload of the day than it did with physical strain. You can only dig your nails into your mind with excitement and awareness for so long before reality starts to blur around the edges. I’ve already admitted that calm-and-collected isn’t my jam when it comes to running, so I have no additional dignity to lose by confessing that the second our 5:55 wakeup call came on Sunday morning, I jumped into carpe diem hyperdrive. Let me tell you, no one has ever put on athletic socks as fervently as I did that day.

Every minute pre-race was duly seized and catalogued in my mind as wonder. The fog outside our hotel as we walked to the bus station primed my imagination so that even our cramped forty-minute ride to the starting line, during which I was repeatedly stepped on and elbowed in the face, felt like the beginning of some epic adventure. Once we arrived, the sense of camaraderie and shared purpose among all 8,000 runners made even standing in line for the porta-potties an engaging activity (and made the pee-gauntlet of men who didn’t bother with the porta-potties an object of understanding laughter… though later, after I’d spent an hour waiting in the start canal guzzling Gatorade, my laughter had developed urgently jealous undertones). I paid attention to the pearly cast of the sky, the mismatched shoes of the guy stretching behind me, and the exact position of my armband; everything mattered in the larger context of Marathon Day, and I wasn’t about to let any of it slip my notice.

Marathon - D and B

Getting one last marital hug in before the starting gun.

The race began around 9:30, though it took several minutes more for those of us in the nosebleed section to make our way up to the starting line. Once we were there, however, it was as if a tidal wave rolled up underneath our running shoes and lifted us all in a cresting rush of energy and direction onto the road. I’ve never felt anything quite like that communal forward momentum, and I didn’t encounter it again during the race. Almost immediately, the marathon changed for me from a group exercise to an individual challenge. I found my stride within the first kilometer, and my focus narrowed to a small bubble around my own head. I concentrated on breathing evenly, navigating the road (which hugged the plentiful curves of the Brenta River for the first 17 kilometers/10½ miles or so), and maintaining appropriate levels of shock and awe that I WAS RUNNING A MARATHON.

Refreshment tables, many of them accompanied by live bands and cheering spectators, were set up every five kilometers, so the race naturally subdivided itself into half-hour increments for me. Just about the time my strength started to lag, I would round a bend into Partyville—cups upon cups of Gatorade, cookies and bananas given out by the handful, little kids waiting to give high fives, the occasional bystander adventurous enough to try pronouncing my name. The encouragement of strangers made more of a difference than I would ever have thought. Each new chorus of “Brava!” drew me out of the intensity of my own headspace and reminded me that I wasn’t alone on the road. You could almost see the change in atmosphere where crowds gathered to cheer; every single runner on the road picked up speed. Weary athletes who I had seen slump into a walk only seconds earlier caught a second wind. Grimaces turned into smiles… or at least grimaces with a facelift. Even rubberneckers who had clearly shown up to watch out of curiosity with a generous side of WTH?! provided boosts of incentive to do what we had come to do and run.

Marathon - First 5K

Stay tuned for my exciting new e-course on taking cell phone pictures through your armband while running AND looking like an off-balance penguin while doing it!

The race got very real for me around kilometer 32/mile 20. That was the farthest I had ever gone in my training runs, so I had no empirical evidence to suggest that I might be capable of doing more. Until that point in the marathon, my mind had been able to kick up its feet with the assurance that my body could handle its task. Now, however, with each new step marking the farthest I had ever run in my life, the race became as grueling psychologically as it was physically. And this was when the bridges started—17 of them, the second being the 2½-mile-long (read: interminable) Ponte della Libertà taking us over open water to the islands of Venice.

My carpe diem drive went into desperate mode once my feet reached the cobblestones alongside Venetian canals. This was it: the last stretch, the true test of my endurance, the magic of running through a floating Medieval city coupled with the pain of pushing my body beyond its limits. My focus shifted constantly with my mind scrambling behind trying to keep it in line. My mental dialogue during the final 5 kilometers/3 miles went something like this: Ow ow ow can’t do this anymore CANNOT, hey look at that basilica! Wow, I’m in Venice, this is horrible, must remember all the encouraging comments and emails people have sent me; they think I can finish, so I must be able to. Oh God, another bridge. I can do this, I can’t do this, I CAN do this, look at me passing three semi-ripped men in a row, I hate existence, no I don’t, I’m carpe-ing the *expletive* out of this diem right now, I’m going to die. What a pretty canal!

My favorite thing about that last insane stretch was a fat old Venetian woman leaning out of her window and shouting, “Come on, what are you wimps slowing down for? You’re basically at the end by now!” At that point in the race, I was in no mood for live music or high fives any more; the thought of lifting more limbs than absolutely necessary had become unthinkable, and I was pretty sure I hated everyone in the world who wasn’t struggling up those bridges with me. However, that old lady’s crusty pep talk was just the kick in the pants I needed to keep running. Plus, it got me smiling just long enough for the photography team to catch me looking [inaccurately] like a congenial and capable human being as I crossed the Canal Grande into the final kilometer of the race.

Bethany's first marathon

Yay! I hate you all!

It wasn’t until I crested the seventeenth *double-expletive* bridge and saw the finish line straight ahead that I lost whatever psychological control I had been using to hold myself intact. My veins flooded with icy tingles, my heart left my body, my vision began swarming with tiny Disney bluebirds, and my mind shrugged helplessly and said, “I got nothin’.” I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to be thinking about. I definitely couldn’t remember why I had signed up for this. I was about to faint and/or die right there in front of the Doge’s Palace, but I didn’t really mind too much because at least then I could stop running.

Something about this line of reasoning tugged at me though, and I slowly realized that I was so eager to stop running because… [and you might want to brace yourself for the profundity of this statement]… I was currently running. Without any conscious input from my brain, my legs were still moving forward. Some instinct had taken over when energy and intention had crashed and was keeping me in motion. Frivolities like discernible heartbeats and motor control were no longer part of the picture; there was only the pure, inexplicable reality of me, running.

Granted, the victory of crossing the finish line was tempered by the fact that I was basically a decapitated rooster at that point. However, my mental faculties returned once my legs stopped moving, and I realized what I had just accomplished about the time someone hung a medal around my neck. I had done something that, up until that very moment, I had never believed myself capable of doing. I had run 42.195 kilometers without stopping, giving up, or pulling a Pheidippides after all. My final time of 4 hours and 38 minutes wasn’t too shabby either, especially for a new runner. I wasn’t merely a runner anymore though; I was a marathoner. 

Marathon - Finisher

Yay! I love you all!

A friend asked me the following day to rank on a scale of 1 to 10 how inclined I was to run another marathon in the future. I had difficulty nailing down an answer. If you had asked me during the first hour and a half of the race, I would have ranked my willingness at a 10; during the final hour and a half of the race, I would probably have answered something like negative infinity. Even in the thrill and buzz immediately following the finish line, I don’t think I would have given you more than a 2, and when my friend asked me the next day, I finally settled on an uncertain 4. A week later, however, my post-race aches and pains have dissipated, and the memory of accomplishment has far outstripped the memory of effort. For various reasons, I haven’t been able to go running since the marathon, and I find myself antsy to lace up my shoes and hit the track again. I’m not planning any long runs for the immediate future, but there is a part of me that wants to see what I could do with this challenge in the future, knowing as I do now that I am strong enough. I’m not ready to stop surprising myself yet, and given how very much the marathon asked of me in the end, maybe the biggest surprise would be deciding to do it again.

We’ll see. I’m only now at a 6 on the would-I-do-it-again scale, and other challenges have caught my attention for the time being. Still, the value this experience held for me seems only to be increasing with time, and if you asked me to rank from 1 to 10 how glad I am to have done this first marathon, I would have to go with something in the neighborhood of, oh, say, 42.195.


The Biggest Tiny Rebellion Of My Life

It feels like a confession, something to be whispered from behind a screen amid pleas for absolution. In fact, I’ve visibly shrunk each of the three or four times I’ve managed to say the words aloud so far; nervous laughter and a wild urge to hide under the table always follow. This is an admission I never thought I’d be in a position to make, but here we are in the final three weeks of Before, and it’s time I finally owned up to it. Kindly disregard my nervous laughter and crazy eyes while I put this out in the open: I’ve been training… [pause]… for a marathon.

Now, you might think this an unnecessary level of drama for an activity that ordinary people all over the world do on a regular basis FOR FUN, but I am no ordinary person. One might even call me extraordinary… as in, She spends an extraordinary amount of time sitting, or She is extraordinarily bad at [fill in your sport of choice]. It’s okay; I laugh at my drunken-squid volleyball serve too. I came to terms long ago with my lack of athletic prowess, and it’s always presented a good excuse to bow out of team sports and workout regimens. “Sorry but I’m allergic to any physical activity more grueling than mopping the floor. Actually, that too. If you care to discuss this further, you can join me at my wondrously be-pillowed computer chair where I will be spending the foreseeable future.”

However, I had the foresight [or lack thereof?] to marry an optimist, and in my very active and very motivated husband’s opinion, couchpotatoitis is not a valid condition. I beg to differ, of course, but Dan can be eerily persuasive, which is how I found myself panting on the track below our house in $20 running shoes and complete anguish of body and soul three years ago. It was… not fun. Running felt a little like going for a spin in the dryer and a little like stuffing decorative pillows down my trachea, but not quite as pleasant as either. I managed three minutes that first day before melting down, clawing at the smoking goo where my face had been like a good Indiana Jones villain.

It’s hard to say why I went back. Maybe I didn’t want the previous day’s horror scene to be the final impression I’d leave on the world of sports. More probably, I didn’t want my sacrifice of dignity to have been in vain. Almost certainly, Dan’s infectious enthusiasm had altered a sliver of my mind into believing that I could improve my health and energy and self-esteem by making this a habit, and I must have hoped against all personal logic that running would get easier with practice.

So I kept at it little by little, a few hard-won kilometers a week, and finally last year, I was able to run five kilometers all at once. Granted, I ran just slightly faster than might an asthmatic penguin, and I was certain of keeling over dead every one of my last thousand steps, but I did it. I, a woman who feels about exercise the way some people feel about spinal taps, had just done the impossible. I came home and informed my husband of the fact; he suggested in turn that I consider running the Venice Marathon with him.

To understand what happened next, you need to know that I have a tiny but decidedly weird rebellious streak. It springs on me out of thin air and prompts me to do things that are wildly against my nature just to prove to myself that I can. It’s why, when I was seventeen, I speared my fork into that pot of grubs in South Africa and ate a bite, convulsing with horror all the while. (The memory, still! Gah.) It’s why, a few weeks into my freshman year at university, I let a group of guys I barely knew smear electric blue dye onto my hair. And it’s why this past spring, after weeks of wringing my hands and gnashing my teeth, I agreed to let Dan sign me up for a couch potato’s worst nightmare.

Truly, something insane had taken over my brain. There was no evidence at all to suggest that I might be capable of running 42.2 kilometers straight at any point in my life, ever. In fact, there was plenty of evidence to the contrary, not the least of which was my shortness of breath and inclination to faint while Dan filled out the registration forms. The whole idea was absurd. But then, there was that compelling, delicious thrill at the idea of doing something absurd. I wanted to throw logic to the wind and see what would happen. The tang of adventure was unmistakable.

There was more to my decision than pure spontaneity though, and this deeper reason has stayed with me on those long training runs that leave everything impetuous and smug about me trampled in the dirt.

So often as an adult, and especially as a stay-at-home mom, I get lulled into a static sense of identity. Daily routines ripple by until my eyes glaze over and I stop expecting anything more of myself. It becomes an insidious lullaby, this subtle internal chant of This is who I am and always will be. I’ve heard people say that our personalities are fully formed by the time we turn twenty and then stick there for good; implied in that, I think, is that our habits and preferences and modi operandi are likewise preserved in concrete once we hit adulthood.

I don’t believe it though, at least not for myself. I am utterly unwilling to accept that my personal growth was designed to stop when I became a legal adult (or a wife, or a mother, or a desperate housewife of Expatria). I see how it could easily happen, how I could just settle into my skin and shrug away my discomfort with parts that fit poorly. After all, I don’t have the time I once did to spend on identity development. However, I’m not content to accept stagnation as a normal part of aging. I’ve met too many delightful tattooed grannies to believe that we’re stuck in our own stereotypes of ourselves. Change is always possible, forward motion is always possible, and it’s vital to my peace of mind that I be able to surprise myself every now and then.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m hitting the track three or four times and week and surprising the hell out of myself with amount of sweat I can generate, the number of kilometers I can go past my limits, and the sheer force of determination roused like some hidden dormant beast previously unknown to science. Make no mistake, running is still hard hard hard for me. There is nothing easy or graceful or inspirational-footwear-commercial about this experience of mine. I in no way feel like the same breed of human as the lanky runners who pass me on the path, chatting easily with each other as their perfectly defined legs leave mine wobbling in their wake. I haven’t mustered the guts yet to call myself A Runner.

But I should. Because no matter how fraudulent I may feel among long-term athletes, the fact remains that I am there, with splatters of mud tickling my calves and sweat dripping down my sports bra and lungs pulling deeply at the air and muscles taut, active, alive, running. This is my personal rebellion against stasis. I am proving to myself, over and over again, that I am not set in stone, that I am still capable of surprises.

The biggest surprise still remains to be seen. The marathon will be a full ten kilometers farther than my longest training run; that’s an extra hour of pushing myself, and there are no guarantees that I will be able to finish. Now that I’m at the end, my five months of training seem hopelessly short, so unconvincing in their results. If you can believe it, though—and be aware that I can hardly believe it myself—I’m thrumming with excitement over the challenge. Three years to the day after writing my first [uncomplimentary] post about running, I’m going to wake up in Venice, take a train to the starting line, and wage the biggest tiny rebellion of my life so far. And maybe then, with my shadow keeping time on the cobblestones beside me, I’ll summon the courage to stop shrinking and nervous-laughing the worth of this risk away.

Update: How Marathon Day went down.


Choosing Both the Guilt and the Trip

The girls and I were halfway to school this morning when I became aware of a small crescendo of panic next to me. Sophie, whose five-year-old heart is cased in nothing but bright pink tissue paper, was whisper-wailing “oh no oh no oh no” like a runaway mantra, clenching my fingers as might a lobster in peril.

I didn’t break stride. While I certainly feel for my tender-hearted daughter—especially since she inherited this capacity to feel feelings to the power of one zillion from me—I also knew that her panic might have been precipitated by nothing more than serious than a wad of gum on the sidewalk, because what if the person who dropped it didn’t know where to look for it? and what if he wanted it back? and what if we were the ONLY PEOPLE IN THE WORLD who knew its location while that poor gumless soul staggered around the neighborhood bereft? and also, what if people stepped in it? and it was all her fault? and then the neighborhood took up arms against her and life as we knew it ceased to exist? WHAT IF???

This morning’s crisis was not about gum. Sophie confessed through raggedy breaths that she had forgotten to pack a book that her math teacher had asked her to bring to school. “What am I going to dooooooo?” she wailed, scanning the street as if the forgetfulness police would show up any second to cuff and cart her away.

“First of all, DON’T WORRY.” This is how all of my advice to Sophie begins. (Come to think of it, this is also how 95% of Dan’s advice to me begins as well.) “All you have to do is tell your teacher that you’re sorry you forgot the book and that you’ll try to remember it tomorrow. That’s it. No big deal. You’ll still have a great morning at school.”

“Oh.” Her panic ebbed as swiftly as it had rolled in, and I congratulated myself on teaching a valuable life lesson before 8:15 a.m. Before coffee, even. Look at me, parenting like a real live adult. Wisdom, thy name is Mommy.

I really was genuinely proud of myself. As I’ve gotten a clearer perspective of the shame culture in which I grew up and its effects on wholehearted living (hint: nothing good), I’ve resolved to help my daughters develop a firm sense of their self-worth that won’t be shaken by others’ opinions of them or by their own mistakes. When one of the girls does something out of line with her true self—say, forgetting her math book or using her sister as a pre-breakfast punching bag (it was One Of Those Mornings)—there is no need for her to freak out or berate herself or let the incident define who she is. All she needs to do is acknowledge her mistake, try to make it right, and move on. Easy peasy.

Which begs the question, then… WHY have I been sitting at my desk for the last hour staring dismally into space, reviewing all the most recent reasons I should turn in my human credentials and find a nice homey compost pile to rent?

Let’s take this morning’s pre-breakfast sister punching fest as an example. I woke up tired, and with Dan away on business, I had neither the bolstering effect of his presence nor the bolstering effect of his Good Morning Cappuccino. It was so not the right time for the girls to be waging civil war in the next room, as they quickly discovered when I barged in with my best WFT, children?! face and sent one bloodthirsty sibling back to bed because “I just CAN’T deal with you right now!” Said child then whined that I was treating her like a dog, which I argued was absolutely untrue as I wouldn’t have reason to yell at the dog. It was not a proud parenting moment.

I lumbered out of the room, splashed some water on my face, and made up for hurt feelings in a much more professional and motherly manner before taking the girls to school… but as soon as I walked back in the door, the incident was waiting for me to pick up and mull over and absorb like some sort of skin-borne toxin. I am a monster of a mom, I told myself, forgetting all about my shining life lesson moment in the darker reality of shame. My kids would have been better off with Snooki. I suck I suck I suck I suck. Other memories began to gather as if by invitation, moments from the past few days in which I’d failed to be kind or brave or organized or engaged enough. Before long, it was clear that I was just as worthless a wife, friend, housekeeper, and email-keeper-upper as I was a mother.

Of course now, in the writing of it, this thought process shows its true absurdity. The very fact that these memories strike me with such dissonance proves that I am more than the sum of all suckitude. If I were actually a monster, I wouldn’t care; I would just go along my merry way ruining loved one’s lives, violating traffic laws, and removing mattress tags with cheerful abandon.

I feel anything but cheerful abandon right now, but I’m reminded of the point Brené Brown makes in Daring Greatly about the need to differentiate between Shame and its gentler cousins Humiliation, Embarrassment, Guilt. It’s not that I’m particularly fond of guilt, but acknowledging that I’ve done some things over the last few days that are inconsistent with my values is so much healthier than embracing the idea that I am a horrible human being. If I continue aligning myself with Shame, I will sink further into self-loathing and create even more incidents to regret. If I choose Guilt on the other hand, then I’m free to follow my own advice to Sophie this morning: acknowledge my mistakes, try to make them right, and move on.

And when I file through my mental Rolodex of suckitude, I see that I’ve already done a pretty thorough job acknowledging my mistakes and trying to make them right. The only thing still missing is the part in which I move on.

Enough searching real estate listings for compost heaps; I have better things to do with my morning, including—though not limited to—continuing that real live adult trend.

Just as soon as I remedy the cappuccino situation.


Teenage Rebel in an Apron

I march up the hill from the post office, where I have just waited 67 minutes for a stamp to put on an envelope addressed to the IRS. Smoke is wisping from my ears. My sandals would bore all the way through the pavement if they could.

Right now more than ever, it feels like the whole world is calling dibs on our money and time, and I just want to snatch our life back from the Powers That Be, fold it tightly into a suitcase, and run somewhere without cell phone service. But responsibilities are waiting at home—individual meal components roosting in the fridge, drain cleaner standing like an impatient tour guide on a bathroom counter painted in toothpaste, business trip preparation lists lying expectantly where they were written. I don’t know where to start, and as I trudge up the last hundred meters to our stairwell, defeat slinks quietly between my ankles.

Part of this is my own fault for leaving without breakfast this morning. Somewhere in the early bustle of sunscreening little limbs and locating the car keys, my iced coffee went back in the fridge untouched, and my mood is now firing snappy remonstrations on behalf of my stomach. Though I know this can be remedied within thirty seconds of entering the front door, I’m still disillusioned by the trajectory of sunbeams across the hall. More than half the morning is already gone.

The thought comes unbidden to me as it has so many days this month—Whose life is this anyway? I breathe in the slanted air, feel the slick of granite underfoot, and wonder if the Me of ten years ago would be able to pick out the Me of today in a lineup. The minutiae awaiting me inside—recipe cards and utility bills and a thousand small testaments to adulthood—feel like exhibits in a World War II museum, fascinating and wholly foreign. That they’re a part of my storyline at all, much less a defining part, halts my heartbeat in its tracks.

This isn’t me… is it? This girl in a cocoa-dredged apron flitting from stove to broom to ironing board and back again? Only I’m not a girl anymore, and it is me, and fighting against the planetary draw of hearth and home never immunized me to its orbit. I’m here now. Mom. Housekeeper. Errand-runner. Responsible adult.

Maybe this is why I’m so cavalier toward my evenings, choosing to stay up even as my window for rest shrinks to the size of a cat door. That element of choice often feels absent from the daylight hours when calendars converge and phones ring and children’s needs ebb and flow along my shorelines, but nighttime is for sneaking out the back door, for the teenage rebellion I never had. It’s when I feel most able to choose who I am.

Unfortunately, it’s also when my creative center closes up shop, so I’m left to prowl my own living room rug in a cross-eyed fog, stepping on construction paper confetti and the occasional Lego and really only succeeding in sabotaging the next day’s energy. I may be sticking it to the man (the mom?), but I’m not making any progress in reconciling my inner life with my outer one.

This sense of mistaken identity falls heavily on my neck now as I unlock the door and let the wind slam it behind me. If I had a soundtrack, this is when the Talking Heads would queue up… This is not my beautiful house! The fascinating, foreign domestic orbit is reeling me in, but I’m just a delayed teenage rebel, and I don’t know how the care and keeping of a family became my area of expertise or how more than half a morning has slipped through my fingers already or how to start reclaiming it, any of it.

I hesitate for a few staccato heartbeats, letting a last tendril of smoke unfurl from my eardrum, and then I make a choice. It’s all I know to do in the moment, so I choose well: two eggs sizzled tender-crisp in butter, toast dolloped with blueberry jam, yogurt eaten off a tiny spoon, two iced coffees in a row. Lunch is only an hour and a half away, but I don’t care. In fact, I’m glad to be doing something that makes no practical sense whatsoever; this is, after all, about choice.

I push all domestic concerns from my mind and ask myself, the real enduring self who I so often confine to overtired nights, what she would choose to do next if given the power to decide. She answers that she would turn on her computer and open a blank document.

So I do.

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