Tag: Identity

7Dec

The Gift of Inclusion

My word was “read.” I’d dipped my hand into a whole bag of self-care verbs, and this was the one drawn by chance or metaphysical mischief to kick off my personal Advent experience. Read. I almost scrapped the whole concept right then and there.

Not that I’d been sure what to expect in the first place.

Advent has never meant much more to me than a religious term for the countdown to Christmas. I tried to absorb its significance even as a child, pressing my little-girl fingerprints into purple wax and burying my nose into poinsettias on the church altar, attempting to infiltrate myself with the sacred significance of these long December days. I never felt it though, the holy hush of expectation that draws so many people to the heart of the Nativity. My skeptic-mind never made that mystic-connection, and I’ve spent many holiday seasons standing outside this brightly lit soul-window wondering why I can’t just escort myself in.

With my daughters, I’ve held onto the countdown aspect of Advent without trying to force it to mean more. They open calendar windows to find chocolates or Legos, and it’s a fun component of our family tradition. Still, there’s the wistfulness of finding myself a stranger to my own religion and the longing to feel more, to explore the mysterious nuances of Christmas spirit and rediscover wonder.

That’s why I joined Mandy Steward’s #adventwindows experience this December, albeit one week late and more wishful than hopeful that it would be my missing link between Advent-as-a-countdown and Advent-as-a-spiritual-journey. Mandy created this series of self-care prompts as a way to be “intentional about discovering wonder,” which, yes please. If anything could draw me into deeper appreciation for the season, it would be this guided dance between the practical and the intuitive. And then, as if years of seasonal loneliness weren’t hinging on its significance, the first word I drew was “read.”

Let me just tell you what “read” means to me:
It means guilt for how I lose myself in the pages of a good book and crackle with resentment if responsibilities pull me away before I can finish.
It means overwhelm when I look at my want-to-read list, the many, many, many inspiring books that hold pow-wow in my friends’ hearts while I slip further behind.
It means jealousy for those with access to well-stocked libraries and unhurried hours.
It means the heartsickness of looking back on an old love.

I didn’t realize any of that until I drew the word though, and I was caught off balance by my reaction—the sudden punch of tears, the impulse to throw away my little Advent experiment and forget I’d ever tried. That reaction more than anything is what told me Wait. This is important. One innocent verb meant to nudge me in the direction of wonder and self-care had triggered a sister strain of loneliness, and my goodness. When “read” affects you like a weapon? You stop, you take off your shoes, and you pay attention.

And here is the truth hiding under all my defensive reactions: I fail miserably at self-care. I don’t treat myself to books—even those old favorites growing dust-beards on our shelves—because I don’t feel like I deserve to. I don’t feel like I’ve done whatever arbitrary and impossible feat would earn me the pleasure of curling up for an hour and immersing myself in story. I haven’t once checked out the English shelf of our local library to see if they have anything of interest because there are so many other books to which my interest already feels indebted… and even if I did check something out, I would run straight up against the problem of merit again.

This isn’t limited to books, of course. You may be familiar with this quote by Anne Lamott: “Every day you need half an hour of quiet time for yourself, or your Self, unless you’re incredibly busy and stressed, in which case you need an hour.” This quote has always given me truth-hives. On the one hand, doesn’t St. Anne know that my Self needs to earn a reprieve from busyness by acting extra busy?  But on the other, don’t I know that’s rubbish? Self-care is not something to be earned or quantified or stolen or withheld. It can only be received, and only once we recognize our own deep worth. 

This is part of the intentional discovery of wonder, isn’t it? Facing hidden loneliness head-on and extending the gift of inclusion to ourselves? For me, today, that is going to mean pouring myself a hot tea, wrapping myself up in a far-too-large blanket, and getting lost in the pages of a good book. Tomorrow, it might mean ignoring the dishes and sitting down to build Lego cities with Dan and the girls. It will mean going to bed when weariness first tugs at the corners of my thoughts and then tiptoeing to the kitchen before dawn with my Gorey journal on the contrail of dreams. It will mean painting my toenails even though they rarely leave the refuge of fuzzy socks these days. It will mean cooking one-serving gourmet when my husband’s away on business. It will mean standing a long moment outside at night to drink in the ice-studded sky. It will mean making room in my day-to-day life for amazement and joy… room for the true heart of Advent to invite mine in.

~~~

What does self-care look like for you? What do you wish it involved?

5Dec

Grace as: Role Call

“If you are lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.” ~ John Irving

It all started crumbling at the mention of a playdate. One of our girls is going through some social disconnect at school, and Dan very reasonably suggested that we invite one of her classmates over to spend an afternoon. “You don’t have to do anything,” he added more reasonably still. “In fact, why don’t you take your laptop and go out somewhere to write while I watch the kids?”

At which point I, very unreasonably, began to cry.

~~~

More than a decade has passed since I asked fundamentalism to move out, but I’m still finding his records scattered through my collection. One of them is called Roles, and I don’t mean to play it, not exactly, but its strains are so familiar that my hands move to the needle like a sacrament. One moment of scratchy white noise, then the old refrains start up, pricking at nostalgia as they go.

You are a woman, the record croons in gentle condescension. You were designed to be your husband’s helper, the keeper of his home, and the caretaker of his children. This is your place, the place you were tailor-made for. The music begins to waltz through the corners of the room, brushing across smudged windowpanes and stirring up dust bunnies. The notes touch down heavily on the notebook where I scribble my goals, and I cringe as the song turns sinister.

Shame on you, shame on you, so much shame. Your ambitions are unforgivably selfish. Not only are you neglecting your duties as homemaker, but you ask your husband to give up his valuable time and help you. You ask the family you should be serving to accommodate your dreams. You put your energy and attention into writing instead of hosting play dates, and it is your fault your daughter is struggling in friendship. It is your fault your husband has so little leisure time. It is your fault you have to fight your own mind for confidence. It’s time to give up this charade of individual purpose and passion. You are, after all, a woman.

By the time the melody fades away, my sense of self has faded too. I wonder wearily why I ever asked fundamentalism to leave when he’s the one with the ready answers. I wonder how long I’ll have to channel June Cleaver before my soul stops trying to escape. I wonder what, if any, is the point of me.

~~~

Who I am now is a gift, pure and simple. When fundamentalism moved out, freedom and choice and the unique beauty of personhood moved in, and the one-size-fits-all role of woman was replaced with my very own skin. I can’t express just what it means to learn that I, as myself and no one else, am valuable… though truthfully, it’s such a fantastical notion that it doesn’t always stick. Some days, I dismiss it as too good to be true, and other days, old records dismiss it for me. Even the mention of a responsibility-free playdate can trigger a mental landslide, adding support to my fear that this identity is only a façade.

When Dan mentioned inviting a friend over, he had no idea that my mind would snap first to the disaster zone that is our girls’ room, then to reluctance over cleaning it, then to guilt that it isn’t already clean, then to capital-g Guilt that my housekeeping failure is damaging their friendships, then to capital-everything GUILT that I’ve been following my call to write rather than my role as ‘50s sitcom housewife—compounded by the fact that my vastly superior and male husband was offering to watch the kids for me—and finally to utter despair. (Surprisingly, it did not make me feel any less like a worm when he apologized for the misunderstanding. Does the man have to be so kind?)

This is grace though—that I can listen to the Roles record play like an earthquake in my heart and feel my life discredited from the inside out, that I can spiral down into a trapped, hopeless, and shamed shell of myself, that I can reabsorb the bone-deep lie of inferiority… and then, even with tears still blurring my vision, that I can recognize the prison of old mindsets as the real façade, square my uniquely beautiful shoulders, and march out.

I am, after all, a woman.

~~~

{I’ve always had trouble comprehending the word “grace” as it’s used by religion or defined by Webster, but something in me knows it’s integral to who I am and who I’m becoming. In this Grace as: series, I’m attempting to track it into the wild and record my peripheral glances of it, my brushes with the divine. Come along with me? You can follow along via TwitterRSS, or my piping hot new Facebook page… and as always, I love hearing your thoughts in the comment section!}

Previously:

Grace as: Glitter in the Floorboards

Grace as: Three-Week Smiles

Grace as: Permission to Celebrate

4Dec

Flurried

The words don’t come easily this afternoon. I’m used to first sentences landing feather-light on my shoulder and tickling my ear with inspiration, or else hiding away as mute and unmovable as a hibernating bear. This is neither. This is more like a blizzard, the air so full of feathers and fur that it succumbs to a wild gravity of its own, a soundless frenzied dance. It makes me feel hopeful and lost at the same time.

Actually, I think that last sentence could sum up just about every aspect of my life right now. Finances, relationships, future prospects, identity… each one ruffles up hope and bewilderment together into a flurry of… well, whatever this is. Bewilderhope? Lostpiration? An epic sneeze waiting to happen?

This might not make a lot of sense given how much my personality resembles that of an aging turtle, but impending change thrills me more than just about anything else. I fear ruts and stagnation and listlessness more than I fear upheaval, so that first electric crackle of change in the air is enough to zap my spine straight. That’s how it is right now—a white-hot disruption in the atmosphere, a spicy hint of goodness, a swirling mass of anything can happen that I take as a promise.

~~~

Do you ever feel on the cusp of a different version of yourself? Do you love change or dread it (or float somewhere in between)?

29Nov

Honestly

I set up a Facebook page yesterday. Honestly, I’m not sure why it took me a year of “Huh, I should get on that”s and noncommittal throat noises to actually click the button… though honestlyhonestly, it might have something to do with this fun personal fact: I’m afraid of attention.

We’re talking woodland creature skittishness here, jumping beans in my stomach, thoughts sprouting gray hairs. I don’t think even Dan knows this yet (hi, honey!), but I had to fight back stage fright at our wedding. I still agonize trying to guess which day of the year Italian women will switch from ballet flats to boots because yes, the world will in fact end if I leave the house in unseasonable footwear. From the time I was a girl attracting double-takes with my homeschool uniform (picture an eleven-year-old Michelle Duggar), I’ve always had a wild desire to go unnoticed in public, and that self-protective instinct gets twitchier than ever when it focuses on my writing.

The simple truth is that this is my heart, strung out in black typeface and compulsive backspaces. When you read my blog, you read my heart, and my posting here is something like the CIA declaring Open House Day. My insecurities are here, my doubts, my hopes, the issues I struggle with and mull over, the insights that bring me peace… and by drawing attention to them, I am well aware I’m opening them up to criticism. It feels like standing on a busy intersection in my puffy denim jumper and even puffier bangs, waving.

There are the other fears too—the vulnerability of starting something new, the fragile alliance of “like” buttons, the safety net of personal privacy settings sidestepped. Always, always, statistics and purpose compete for precedence in my mind, and perspective can be as difficult to nail down as a live squid. I’ve moaned to Dan on an occasion or two [slight understatement] about how unfair it is that I was wired to write. As long as I’m following these heart-nudges, my goals and my personality will be at odds, and I wish I could be fulfilled in life by something simpler, less emotionally risky. Deep sea welding, for instance.

However, I can’t turn off the light in my core that says this, here is what I’m meant to be doing. It’s as clear a sense of vocation as I’ve ever experienced, and as much as I might like to dismiss this blog as a mere hobby (a monthly ritual of despair, which I’m sure has no correlation whatsoever to other monthly occurrences) or hide it under a bushel or amputate every stubborn neuron compelling me to write, a force stronger than fear keeps me here… and not just here, but honestly delighted to be here.

I know that sharing this with you is not exactly the act of withdrawal my inner stage-fright was hoping for. It’s the opposite in fact—a declaration of purpose and vulnerability waved from a busy intersection, eyes staring deliberately into the headlights. However, I wanted you to understand how much it means to me to be here with you, in typeface and photos, insecurities and Tweets, and a heart that wants to connect with yours far more than it wants to hide.

~~~

Is there anything your sanity compels you to do that simultaneously terrifies you? I’d love to hear about it; after all, commiseration and encouragement are two of the very best things about this great internet of ours.

Oh, and don’t forget to head over and “like” my Facebook page (why yes, I am making ironic quote marks with my fingers right now) if you’d like to connect, get blog updates, or otherwise make my day.

14Nov

The Long Exhale

It’s here, in the collective slump after the girls have been tucked into bed and the dishes washed (or ignored, as was almost certainly the case tonight), when the clock picks up a stray echo from the shadows and my thoughts begin to puddle, it’s here in the long exhale of evening that I most often wonder if I’m any closer to becoming myself than I was one year ago, or two, or five.

I can’t remember a time when this question of identity wasn’t waiting under cover of tiredness to command my attention. It carries a pocket reel of my day and winds through it in reverse. There I am, tripping my way through a chapter of Pippi Longstocking in Italian as the girls color snowflakes and pajama cuffs purple. There I am paying bills, scanning documents, and rearranging euros among spreadsheet boxes as if their military gray borders will hold our finances in place. There I am pushing a grocery cart between produce bins of green, all the while pining for the green of the park and that elusive half hour just for running. There I am, pen in hand at the tip of dawn, trying to make out if my words will fly in formation or startle into a flurry of nothingness today.

Intentional living has never been the problem. I was raised on it, taught to imprison every minute with my mind and reform it into something of eternal significance, and that pressure to force every moment into a holy mold still bullies the way I think. It is exasperatingly difficult for me to simply appreciate life in all its organic, beauty-steeped mystery. Cultivating wonder can be as challenging for me as cramming for a final, and cultivating self is even further from the comforts of routine and right answers.

I’m on my own trail, though; I can tell. My feet are finding familiarity in new landscapes, a heady déjà vu, and I have enough clarity left over to look my question of identity in the eyes when he finishes the reel, thank him for his concern, and wish him goodnight without ever needing to mold our moment into an answer.

23Jul

The Gift of Permission

When I told Dan that I only got a cumulative ten minutes of sleep last Wednesday night, he ran it through his Bethany Hyperbole Filter and concluded that I meant seven and a half hours instead of my usual nine. (I need more sleep than any creature I know, newborn sloths included.) The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but the point is that I spent Thursday tired, and even a luxury nap after breakfast didn’t jump-start the kind of energy or inspiration one would hope for on her birthday.

My perceptions of cold, hunger, tiredness, and sadness have always confused themselves with each other, and so I never was quite sure throughout the day if I needed a snack or a blanket or maybe some stand-up comedy. In reality, I probably needed some double espressos with an extra spoonful of grace, but clear thinking is not my forte when I’m running on a sneeze-worth of sleep. Instead, my instinctive drive to do more! accomplish more! amps up in direct proportion to my rising exhaustion—all the more so on “special” days—and I basically turn into my own personal Dementor.

Sucking out my own soul is a habit I’d love to kick in this coming year, so my first instinct was to put that at the top of an extra special birthday edition to-do list:

  1. Stop sucking out own soul.
  2. (But really, accomplish more please.)

Self help clearly isn’t my forte either.

It’s just that I want to feel in every synapse and pore of my being that I’m doing life well—living it deeply, thoughtfully, openly, and significantly. I crave purpose the way our palm trees crave water; that’s my internal design, and it could be a force for good if I could simply ditch the accompanying stress. Search for purpose – guilt-ridden paranoia + a chill pill. (Optional: more wine and/or Rumi.) Sounds pretty perfect, right? To that end, I’m writing a different kind of list for myself this birthday. Instead of lining up the things I hope to do this year (see 2008, 2009, 2010, and a dizzy buzzing noise from 2011), I’m giving myself permission this year to not do. (Feel free to adopt this list for yourself or anyone else in your life who could use a break from self-flagellation.)

  • You have permission not to catch up with friends’ online worlds before getting in touch. It’s okay to call or write a loved one without knowing exactly what she’s been up to the last few weeks (or, ahem, months). If anything, it will give you more to talk about one-on-one, so ditch the guilt, mark all as read, and spend your valuable time enjoying the relational part of your relationships.
  • You have permission not to take other people’s success as indication of your failure. Personal amazingness is not the last piece of pie; there is more than enough to go around in this wide, ever-possible world of ours, and it has no expiration date. You can’t be late to a game that doesn’t exist, so stop worrying that your friend’s book deal was meant to be yours (it wasn’t) or that the scholarship accidentally fell out of destiny’s hands into the wrong person’s (it didn’t) or that each new name worked into a Ben & Jerry’s flavor pun knocks you even further out of the running (Fruit Bassett for 2015, anyone? anyone?).
  • You have permission not to wait until ideas are fully formed and Beowulf-epic before acting on them. Your husband is right in warning you that incubating a project until it’s reached theoretical perfection means never starting that project at all. Wrinkles are best smoothed out with forward motion anyway, so put more energy into your doing than into your thinking, start small, and at least try to befriend imperfection along the way. (He’s so much more interesting to hang out with than perfection; just think of the stories you’ll accrue!)
  • You have permission not to wear all your hats at once. Just one at a time is enough, I think, but not the everything hat. It’s not really a hat at all—just a piece of tinfoil hot-glued with delusions of grandeur—and the only thing you manage to do while wearing it is bump into walls; please, for the love of all that is holy, throw the everything hat away. Also, you know the housecleaning hat is too tight, so limit your time with that one; the mama and friend and writer and teacher hats fit you much better. As long as you don’t wear them all at once.
  • You have permission not to protect the worry. I know you think that someone has to be responsible for worrying, and not just for worrying but for keeping the worry comfortable, well-fed, and safe from harm, and if you don’t do it, who will? I also know that sometimes worry feels like the only constant you can grasp when life is surging around you. But oh honey—the worry doesn’t need a protector. It’s an animal of prey, and you know all too well how it bites the hand that feeds it. You already have plenty to do without this job on top of all; you have my express and hearty permission to resign.

The gift of permission

Bonus: You have permission to slip away to the park for an hour or two and fill yourself to capacity with fresh air. Recommended especially for those with a Dementor habit to break.

 

2Jul

Heavyweight

Hello there, July. For the record, I do not condone summer’s refusal to wait for my go-ahead. I’m still wandering wobbly-kneed through the second week of June, and I really would have appreciated all the school closings and triple digit temperatures holding off until I could collect myself. About that last one—Did you know that we don’t have air conditioning? The Italian strategy for surviving summer involves 1) nudity, 2) napping, and 3) nude napping at the beach, and while each is worthy in its own right, circumstances occasionally dictate that I be dressed and/or conscious. Maybe the heat’s just getting to me more this summer because my head’s still back in strawberry season.

I’ve barely touched my computer over the last three weeks except for busy work, and I’ve felt this kind of sad, longing, tired push-pull every time I’ve walked by its closed lid. Between a string of emotional anvil drops and a rejection notice at the tail end of a heartwound publication process, my ability to string words together seemed to drain right out of me. One of the ways I traditionally deal with word-bereavement is rock solid stoicism. I decide our relationship was never meant to be and that it’s about time I embraced my true calling as a housecleaner. And then I cry into the mop water. And the dishwater. And the tonic water. I’m a real heavyweight.

But even in all the crumminess and confusion of the last few weeks, I never felt truly disconnected, and I want to thank you from the dregs of my heart for that. Your notes and prayers after our friend’s death sat with me at his funeral and shared the dinner table with his grieving family, and I’m a kind of grateful that can’t be articulated.  I’m also deeply thankful for your encouragement to be here, to value my own writerly heart enough to ditch the mop water (our seasonal infestation of ants thanks you too, btw) and rescue my blog from solitary confinement. Thankthankthank you.

It’s better to start summer late than never, right? Here’s to more connecting, less mopping, and nude napping on the beach.

~~~ 

How are you welcoming the summer?

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