Baring skin, baring souls

Someone* said, “If you are not making mistakes, you are not trying hard enough.”

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Evidently, I am trying hard enough.

Around the time I wrote my last post, I was at a weekly coffee meeting with a close friend; I confided in her that nothing – just nothing – was going my way. After last year, the year of magical wonderful things, this year felt like the great reversal. Momentum yanked the pendulum as far from me as its path would allow.  My hope clung to the belief that the pendulum’s inertia would hurtle toward me again, with slightly less force, but enough to shower me with more magical good fortune and success.

I wanted middle ground again. Comfort. Security. Thinness.**

“It’s life. It’s up; it’s down. Why make such a thing of it?” said my friend, always the pragmatic. Although I love her dearly I felt anger rising inside me. I wanted her life. Comfort. Security. Thinness. Challenges galore, but the kind you pay for and travel to exotic locations, not the kind that arrive in official envelopes and send you to the wine rack.

And yet I know that even swaddled in all the financial security blankets in the world, even with the perfect reflection in the mirror staring back, there is unhappiness. It cannot be found even in those things.

My friend went on to say that it seemed like I was building skyscrapers with toothpick foundations, that I was engineering failure at every turn.

Was I, gasp, tilting at windmills?

Tilting at windmills in the throes of a mid-life crisis. My husband jokes that I am having one big enough for the two of us.

Mid-life crisis indeed. My attitudes, much like that pendulum of fate, shift like the wind. One minute I am Eeyore bemoaning the aging process, that I have an adult child out in the world, that child-bearing years are in the rear-view mirror. The next minute, I’m the honey badger channeling Lena Dunham. I don’t care if my thighs are too big, my bank account too small, that my child watches too much TV, if I never get another second of male attention. I’m just glad to be alive. I am making a lot of mistakes.

A few days ago I marked on my personal calendar: bathing suit. A summer goal postponed no longer. I would face the beast. I fasted a bit to avoid the bloat and headed to the first of what I figured were many, many stops.

The first shop was a torture. I endured a bra fitting and a barrage of assessments. I contorted myself into the offerings of what might look good on my figure. Ugh. Blerg. Blah. I stood there in my middle-aged glory and stared down those cone-shaped battlefield cups staring at me from the dressing room hooks. They promised to defy gravity but I could put an eye out with those things. And those straps? They were so wide they totally covered my ink. I want an age-appropriate fun bathing suit. I want to bare what I can. I had the sick feeling that this was another failure in the making. Three stores later I headed to the mall to face the fluorescents and sneering teenage stick figures.

newsuit

Strapless bathing suit
of victory

 

Guess what? I found a dream of a bathing suit. I let one of the stick figures*** pick it out. I tried it on and it is fabulous.

At long last. A win.

So, what does this have to do with blogging? See, blogging is another house of toothpicks in my world. Honestly, I don’t like what’s happening with blogging anymore. I don’t want to sell stuff, or inundate you with 25 pictures of what I’m wearing or eating or smearing all over my face. That’s for Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram.

I am writing. Not here so much. Elsewhere, privately. I am reading. Devouring the words of  others.  Because those two things are like breathing and a heartbeat to me.

You may not know it, but I am reading you. The world of commenting has become so complicated I have given up. I am sorry. I hope you see me in your stats. If you are baring a little of your soul, I am there.  Flash me. I’m watching and waiting in my strapless bathing suit of victory.

I don’t care about what you’re selling either, unless it’s your soul. If so, I want to know how that worked for you.

 

* Who said this? The Internet is a bit confused on the wording and the source.

** This is the biggest setup for failure, ever, and I am working on body acceptance. You know about this movement, right?

*** I realize it is hostile to describe the youthful physique of the sales associate this way, but it is payback for the face she made when I told her my size.

Close to home

vanitysearch

 

True confession: I vanity search myself. All the time.

What this says about my nature, I’ll leave to my next therapy session. Among other reasons, I Google myself periodically to make sure there’s nothing untoward attached to my good name. Most of the time it is harmless narcissism.

Then, last fall, someone hacked into my professional website. I had to rebuild it from the bottom up.

What was the first clue of this violation? A vanity search, which revealed my site and all its links were going to a free payday loan operation. So, while I’m aware that excessive self-searching is on par with repetitive mirror checking and compulsive stove knob checking (to make sure the burners are off, for the uninitiated), I’m defending the practice.

In all this Googling, I realize I am very findable. If someone were to stalk me, it would be an easy assignment. I wouldn’t think much of this except some of the people I’ve tried to find have no known online presence. Are they technophobes or savvy? It’s always possible their alter-egos rule the online world.

My uncontrollable Googling took a dark turn when I began searching for particular people, including the bad doctor. I hadn’t thought of him in a while. The last time was during my latest ill-fated attempt at therapy. 

And here’s the thing: I Googled him and right away I learned he lived within walking distance of my house.

How do I feel about this?

Like someone tackled me from behind, knocking all the air from my lungs, and when I get up to look in the mirror to check for damage, I see the ignorant, vulnerable and gullible 12-year-old me in the reflection. For a moment. Here’s another thing: I allowed myself to travel through the range of emotions and then I let it pass.

He is an old man now. How harmful could he be?

I am a grown woman now. How vulnerable could I be against an old man?

I did a little more digging. It looks as if he has turned around his life. But, who knows? His outward life appeared fine then, too. Family man. Accomplished in his field. The comforts of the upper middle class. This kind of thing is kept hidden, especially among the well-heeled. But it’s what I want — need — to believe.  That he is reformed.

What I still wonder are these things:

  • Is he aware that what he did to me and others was wrong?
  • Was he drunk/high when he did those things?
  • Did he do those things to his children?
  • Did someone do those things to him?
  • Was this a compulsion that he could not control then and continues to fight daily?

I don’t suppose he wonders how I am. I’m guessing he wipes his brow in relief from time to time that I kept my mouth shut.

Further research on the old boy showed that he has lived in my shadow for all my life. We’ve basically migrated along the same path around this metropolitan area. Coincidence? It has to be. He has made no contact with me since the ’80s.

Maybe he Googles me? and others? It’s something to consider: How much of what is precious to me is accessible to bad people?

While I no longer fear him, I fear his kind. I am a middle-aged woman who still harbors a serious doctor phobia. I delay physicals and ignore health symptoms as long as possible to avoid the clinical environments and naked probings of such places. When I can control the gender choice of doctor, I do. When I am ill enough, I give in.

The important thing here is my children, one still an innocent, the other with one foothold in adulthood but still sheltered from such things. How findable are they on the Internet should some twisted freak conduct a search? How much do they know about what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to other trusted adults in their lives? It is my job to make sure it is clear to them the course to take not only if they suspect something but also to speak up right away.

Even more important: Parents need to act on the courage of their children. Doubt later. Punish a lie later. Act now.

– April is Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention month 

The hardest button

buttons, buttons

As I reach blindly under my bed for a missing sock, my hand brushes against cold metal.

Aha!

I grab the forgotten box, next to the runaway woolen sock, and pull it out from under the dusty recess.

It’s my grandmother’s button box. I’ve had it for more than a year. I found it buried under bags and boxes at my mother’s house. She’d had it for many years, back when we were emptying my grandparents’ house after they moved to assisted living.

This box has a history. Primarily, it was utilitarian: providing a place to store lost buttons as well as offering replacements for gaping garments. I recall it appearing on the table as a diversionary tactic, one of the many employed by my grandma. She had others: the felt board and shapes, the finger-sized puppets, the coloring books and crayons. But, oh, those buttons, they had so many possibilities. We’d sort them into shapes and colors, engineer roads and patterns, glue them to other things as craft projects. Once we made absolutely hideous bracelets using lengths of elastic. While others in the family inherited my late grandma’s rocking chair, her mantel clock, and her jewelry, I got the button box.

Yeah, I’m simple like that sometimes.

I’m not sure what I’ll do with the buttons. It’s comforting to know they are with me. I look at them as a great puzzle. All the pieces are in front of me, I just don’t know yet what to do with them.

And speaking of the hardest button to button, I’ve worked hard to meet my 1,000 words a day writing challenge. No, I’m nowhere near the goal (if I’d done this every day since Jan. 1, it would be 41,000 words. I have a mere 24,531 words logged, but some of those are carried over from last year. So, yeah, a lot less than the goal, but the idea is to write as often as I can, especially when the story is kicking to get out.  Yesterday I wrote all 1,000 words in cursive, with a pencil, into a small notebook in my purse before transcribing it to the computer. The rule is, if I start writing, I need to keep going until I reach 1,000 words.

Let me clarify that almost none of what I have written is worthy of reading. It’s a jumbled mess, much like the box of buttons. I have a few chapters I’ve polished and revised. My central story idea keeps shifting, like a restless fetus. I’m just doing this thing anyway.  Even if nothing comes of it, I keep sifting though my thoughts, much like I bury my hands in that metal box of plastic buttons, feeling each individual’s weight and texture, savoring the soft click-clack as they slip through my fingers.

Here’s to getting outside the box once in a while.

 

 

Let’s try this again

It’s the second day of a new year.

I’ve had this book in my hands for three days. Already it’s marked up, pages dog-eared, margins filled with notes and ideas. I am inspired.

My head is ready to explode.

The year that’s gone was one of amazement. I surprised myself. I let go and allowed the river of life to carry me on its current. I still feel as if I am on the edge of something I cannot identify.

Again.

A marathon runner told me to hang on to my running goals, even if it seems I’m nowhere closer to them than when I started. He told me it can take up to seven years  to achieve a goal. And that’s OK. What? It’s not OK. Make it OK.

Apply those words to anything: running, writing, cooking, whatever. I am aspiring to 1,000 words most days. That’s double the typical blog post.

I’ll leave you with this quote from the book I’m reading. It’s my starting point. What’s yours?

“So okay – there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want. ”
― Stephen KingOn Writing

 

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Crossroads

Today’s post is inspired by San Diego Momma’s PROMPTuesday No. 207: Who was your crossroads person?

My biggest worry lately is that my college-aged daughter will hold back when something great comes her way. She’ll mistakenly think she has reams of time, that offers pop out of the underbrush at every curve in the road, that maybe if she’s in a relationship that it should come first. For most of us, if that one great thing comes along, we find ourselves at a crossroads. Do we take the risk or hang back in the safe zone?

Back in my 20s, the publisher of one of our downtown daily papers took an interest in me. He’d read an essay I’d written and wrote me a personal message in response.  He also invited me to visit his office some day. He was a dynamic man, highly regarded, a great people person and a mender of fences.

After a first meeting, he invited me to come back shortly before graduation. He thought I had what it took to work in the business. He would help me land that crucial first job. Could a few-credits-shy-of-graduating college student with writerly aspirations ask for a better connection? Not only did I have a respected publisher in my corner, but also I had out-of-state relatives offering me a place to stay should I land in their area. I was standing at the intersection and lucky and fortunate.

Unfortunately, that’s not how I saw it. There were terms and conditions. One of those was I had to end my relationship; the guy I was with said I had to choose between him and my career. He would not follow. The other was I had to go where I was sent. I would not get to choose. I felt I was clinging on the windowsill of a burning building with masked characters holding nets below.  Were the nets strong enough? Would I have a chance to ask a few questions before they whisked me away to points unknown?

As I stood on that threshold, uncertain, I chose the familiar. I didn’t trust the unknown at that point. I’d jumped from one burning building to the next in the past few years, each time thinking the guy with the best offer was the safe one. As it was, I already had one foot tangled in another net, one in which the purported rescuer was working quickly to cut and run. As it was, I was estranged from my family and had no other support system. I felt lost and confused.

This drama prevented me from taking the risk — and possible great reward — that came with the offer. Without the publisher’s boost, I’d likely never rise above the community journalism ranks I dwelled in for 20 years. I know now I held myself back; back then I blamed my relationships. Fear of change, fear of a loneliness beyond what I’d already experienced, kept me tangled in my net.

“I’m in love,” I told the publisher on what would be our last meeting.  My boyfriend and I were now engaged; he successfully convinced me my life was here, not somewhere arid and cactusy, where I was bound to fail. Besides, my family was in crisis. How could I leave them?

“You’re an idiot,” he said, shaking his head.

In shock, I studied the pattern on the carpet of his top-floor office overlooking the Detroit skyline. Did he just call me an idiot?

“Love is important, but you shouldn’t put it above opportunity at this point in your life,” he said. “True love will wait for you to make your journey. Opportunity will not wait.”

I didn’t believe him on that rainy afternoon as we sat at opposite ends of his expansive walnut desk. I had a job, I reasoned, and they promised me a full-time position when I graduated. After I married, I’d check in again.

But it didn’t work like that. Months after I turned down the publisher’s offer I was pink-slipped from my job. Three months of unemployment gave me plenty of time to think about that offer and the prospect of marriage.

A year later, I returned to that newspaper office to apply for work, to make another appointment with the publisher. He never granted me another office visit. It occurred to me then that I had been tested and failed.

Even so, I had 20 years in the business, working at smaller, local publications. It turns out I really enjoyed connecting with community on a street level. I was never comfortable hobnobbing with mover and shakers. I was compensated well and made many lifelong connections. I eventually married and divorced the boyfriend. I reconciled with my family. Ten years later, I received in the mail a letter from that publisher, written in the wobbly penmanship of the elderly. He’d found some of my work and had nice things to say.

It came back to me then on that day, as I beamed in the praise of this man who’d once called me an idiot, that he was a stand-in for my father, to whom I was estranged during that difficult time. He believed in me when no one else did, not even myself. He was willing to pull strings to send me away from the entrapment of my life. He was willing to call me out on my cowardice. I simply didn’t have the mileage at the time to understand it.

Entrée

You can know people and not know them.

At any given moment, things can turn a corner.

I know this is true.

Last week I had a birthday. Most birthdays are ho-hum affairs. A little extra attention from the family and a close friend but otherwise, meh.

This birthday came at me like a sudden summer cloudburst, raining down shock and awe in the form of a surprise birthday party.

On a weeknight. At a friend’s house. It was festive and fancy.

There was a Pinterest page devoted to the planning and execution of it.

Seriously, this is not the status quo for me. This, along with a few other surprise developments, are the exhibits to make the case that my life has changed dramatically in the last year. I’ve engaged with the real world one hundred fold in the last year. I’ve opened myself up to any possibility. I’ve allowed vulnerability into my life and acquiesed to offers outside my comfort zone. I’ve tried to put others before myself to be part of the “village” that we all like to talk about so much.

The results stun me at times. I’m still a fawn on wobbly legs most days, making the mistake of expecting from others what they cannot give. Some days I expect too much from the universe. On those days I see how my ego is still running the show.

The other side of this is that 100 percent engagement in real life means a major drawback in the online world. And it’s not just me. I scrolled through my blogroll (I know, that’s so 2005.) and many of my favorite, longtime blogging friends have vanished. They’ve moved on, vaporized, left behind polite but vague messages, given up, or reinvented their online persona.

While I doubt I’ll close this site, I’ve certainly scaled back. That’s fine with me. I never had the big numbers. I’ve made some amazing connections and that’s just bonus material. I need a place to write and this is it. If someone, or two, comes around and likes what they see, thank you. If not, I’m OK with that, too. I’ve learned that online engagement is an enhancement, a side dish, to the entrée of life.

And last week that entrée was a bizarre tribute to me and the community that holds me up. As bizarre as it is to even write that sentence, I accept it as the new normal.

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A summer in twenty sentences

Today, after almost a year of running, I finally clocked a 10:15 mile.

My goal is to run a nine-minute mile.

When I began, it took me almost 15 minutes to run one mile.

In July I ran my first 5K obstacle race and jumped over fire.

I trained for this by running at noon on 90-degree days and logging endless hours on the treadmill.

I rode my bike for many miles under the hot sun, through raging thunderstorms, at night, drunk (once; not so proud of that) and with group of spandex-clad, clip-shoed folks, who when you know them ahead of time are nice but sometimes are a bit snooty with those of us wearing cotton and lace-ups.

My husband says, based on the number of pictures I take of it, I should just admit I’m in love with my bike.

One thing I learned this summer is that the moment you let go of something it works out just fine either way.

Another thing I learned is letting go is not easy.

I edited a 75,000-word manuscript in June and July, which killed my interest in working on the memoir this year.

Doing the right thing rarely feels good, such as when I cancelled my trip to Colorado this summer.

I’ve decided the best way to write for future use is to document every joyful, painful, frustrating, interesting thing happening now.

The plot and hook will come later, right?

I am blessed with a great community of friends and supporters.

After three-year hiatus, we finally had a serious primitive camping weekend.

I met a very big owl deep in the woods as I was gathering firewood. We had a stare down, which still gives me chills when I think about it.

I had another standoff with a porcupine, which was nowhere near as spiritual.

I did not cry at my oldest daughter’s high school commencement ceremony in June.

In August, I found my first legitimate full-length, corkscrew-crazy, gray hair poking out of my head.

Then, I cried.

 

 

 

Up and down

I watched as a sizable limb cracked free from an elm and plummeted to the earth with a shuddering thud. It was a busy day in a fast part of the city. I think I was the only one to see it.  Who looks up?

Days later, standing on the sidelines of a bustling outdoor market, I watched a bouquet of  mylar balloons bob on the current until they entangled themselves on power lines. The resulting blast vibrated my ribcage and sent the overhead wires bouncing like jump ropes. Again, no one else saw it. I had to point up to several worried folks clutching their chests and looking around in confusion. Someone even called the police.

I don’t know what makes me notice these things. Perhaps some small movement, or a shift of air pressure, but at just the right moment, my eyes shift skyward. I’m a daydreamer, a thinker, and I’m prone to studying even the smallest of details. Sometimes I see things no one else does and miss the obvious.

The severed limb jarred me the most. Something about its limp form splayed in the parking lot, long green fingers enveloping the car next to it, seemed apologetic. I looked up at the tree again, to what seemed a healthy and whole entity. How freakish, I thought, and yet totally the way of nature. Unpredictable, deadly, awesome.

Then, the what ifs began.

What if someone had been in that car? What if a small child had run up to the parked car? What if we had picked that parking space? I’m always asking what if?

Sometimes I don’t see what’s right there. One of our cats has an inoperable tumor.  Just a few weeks ago it wasn’t there at all. One of my girls discovered it as a small lump and called me tearfully when I was in a meeting.  I dismissed her worries. What did she know that I did not? Today that smallish mass that felt like a gummy bear it is now a heavy rock crowding the cat’s pelvis. It grows and grows and there is nothing to be done, the veterinarian says.

Our finances are, as they have been for a while now, like a slowly filling balloon. Letting the air out of the balloon is a careful, discriminating process. Who or what will make the cut? Years before, when we had lines of credit, we maxed out a card trying to save this cat’s brother. All the IVs and shots we could afford, all the tests we could manage did nothing to save him.

Make him comfortable, the vet says. You’ll know when it’s time.

There are a few things on life support around here. Things that even a few years ago I thought were rock solid, like a tall, seemingly healthy tree with strong branches and full leaf cover. But inside, like a tumor, a slow rot devours the core. One day, which seems like all the others, something crashes within inches of your skull.

I’m wide awake, but I’ve numbed a part of myself to imminent loss, to the threat of loss, to upheavals. When pressed for answers I can’t give any. At the same time, I’m making flip-flopped choices.

I spent a month saying yes to every invitation I received at the expense of my yard and gardens and personal affairs. Why not? There’s always a reason to say no to living life.

I spent a month seeking my happiness. I loved it. I felt closer to myself than I had in years. Now, I pick up the rake and shovel, I prepare for another good-bye, rub the healing balm between my palms and massage what is fixable.

I’m easily bored. I’m also a bit of a thrill junkie. When things get boring — or scary — I need something to divert my attention. I had an old tattoo modified, made it about four times the original size.

I welcomed the cutting, stinging sensation. I can deal with this, I thought. This pain has a beginning and an end. I can breathe through it, manage it. The tattoo artist was young and good-looking and he bought me cookies from the bakery next door (because I admitted I hadn’t had much to eat that day.) It was not lost on me that although it was part of his job, he was leaning into me for more than an hour. Pleasure for the price of pain?

All week, the sting at the site, the healing throb and itch, kept my thoughts away from the inevitable. It’s the free-floating emotional pain, at sea without land in sight, that is unbearable. I’m not so good with that. Is anyone? Is that why so many of us don’t look up?

Who carries the seeds of a fast-growing tumor? What heavy limbs dangle over our dreams?

What can we do to make the most of every day?

Edenland's Fresh Horses Brigade
Edenland has resurrected her Fresh Horses Brigade meme. In it she asks: Who are you? I wrote this a few days ago while trying to make sense of recent happenings. It says as much about who I am as anything else on this blog.

 

Paying my dues to the club

If there is a heaven, this is what it would look like for my father.

The day my father died suddenly was the day fate handed me a lifetime membership in The Dead Dads Club. Everything shifted in my world, which had already turned on its axis 18 months earlier with the birth of my first child.

I like to think I grew up that year, that I became a better person as a result of these events.  I like to think once I change for the better, it is a permanent change. Just as all of life is fleeting, so is any state of being. One day I woke up to realize I am riding the same trajectory as my father.

Today, my post is on Mama Mary’s newly launched site, The Dead Dads Club. It is through this longtime endeavor of Mary’s that we met online four years ago. The site is a companion piece to her book, a compilation of essays from other members of the club. It’s  a club we all wish didn’t exist, to which diminishing membership would be a plus. But life is not like that. People come into our lives and they leave. Ours is not to know the when, where, and why, only to know that it is inevitable and we must stumble along the dark path from grief to healing.

Click on over and read for yourself. Thank you.

The one thing

April is Child Abuse Prevention and Awareness Month. This post is a coming out of sorts for me, so if you’re reading this know I am squirming a little, no, I’m squirming a lot, on the inside. I wrote this as a part of The Blog Carnival Against Child Abuse, a monthly online event. Can we prevent child abuse? I don’t know. The one thing I do know is no one should suffer in silence. Talk. Tell. Report. Help. A life depends on it.

——–

A first-grader's interpretation of me

The other day a friend sent me a link to Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s 2006 “This I Believe” essay on NPR. Gilmore writes of his struggle to overcome addiction and find peace. One line snagged that loose thread I always have trailing behind me:

“I basically managed to break my own heart.”

Until I read that line, I don’t think I ever acknowledged that I had done this to myself.

How do you break your own heart? Let me count the ways: Maybe you skip school on field day, where you qualified for three events, including relay; or you burn all your artwork and poetry in the fireplace and not submit it to the school’s creative publication; or fail to show up for your college graduation ceremony; or break up with the first guy who says he loves you; or walk away from honest, kind people and chase after projects and enigmas. You do it out of habit, believing you are diverting attention away from yourself. Really what you are doing is serving yourself before others in the most unloving way possible.

As Gilmore says: “It came as a great shock to discover that my real spiritual problem was not a product of the world’s condition, but of my own self-centeredness.”

Over and over I lost friendships and love interests because I couldn’t get past myself and this unnameable thing inside me. The worst part is I failed to see this. I’m still struggling.

The one thing I know now that I didn’t know then is that this stuff came from somewhere outside myself.  For the longest time I thought it hatched from a dark, unreachable pocket within me, almost like a partly formed twin. It must be so because all I ever heard was: We don’t know where she gets this stuff. Not from us, I’ll tell you that much.

Healing teaches that at some point you need to take responsibility for its long-term residency, no matter the terms of occupancy. You are the landlord. Issue an eviction notice.

Long before this knowledge, these inklings of wisdom, someone knew all about this unnameable thing. She watched. She kept quiet. She wept inside. One day many years later, she sat me down and told me everything (because she was tired of watching me do it all over again to myself) and said she was sorry she watched in silence. She was scared of consequences. She wanted to make up for all those years. So she loved me with all her heart. She put me above herself, the greatest gift anyone can give. I hold that love in a little box inside my heart, all that is left of her.

I am a woman of 47 years, a wife,  a mother, a survivor. I paid my way through college. I made a respectable if not modest place in the world for myself. I am old enough to know better but inside I’m still that skinny, hollow-eyed girl with the bull’s-eye on her back, the one who wasn’t pretty enough, smart enough, or anything enough to capture the attention of anyone with good intentions.

Tina Fey, in “A Mother’s Prayer for her Child,” implores: “May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it’s the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the Beauty …”

Obviously, there is a connection between the unprotected, the damaged, and the predators, who will find that loose thread and pull you in.  It’s so easy to spot the damaged ones, the unprotected ones,  especially girls.  Maybe the kindly grocer didn’t see the mark on my back, but the wicked doctor did. Who would believe anything bad about a doctor  – back then?

I dreamed that when I grew up I would magically transform into a golden, blue-eyed goddess, an iridescent rain forest butterfly. I’d rise above.

You should be a writer, they said, you have such a wild imagination.

What was the truth? Where was the line between fact and face-saving fiction? Who knew anymore.

Year after year, sitting in one hard plastic chair after another, in one institutional counseling office after another, a middle-aged woman with red half-moon glasses or a balding man with the beginnings of a paunch and an IBM pocket protector, would lean in closer as if to count my blackheads, asking again and again:  “What is bothering you? Why are you fighting the world?” They’d ask, but I had no idea what to say. Were there words for such things? If so, did you say them out loud? I wasn’t fighting. I was hiding. I wanted to be let alone, ignored.  But this not knowing, this dark thing within, churned until it shaped a cold stone. It’s taken decades to chip away. It left a deep impression, one that cannot be smoothed away.  Sometimes I cannot resist the urge to run my fingers over its rough terrain.

Others taught me how to break my heart. Long after they were gone, I continued swinging the bat. At some point, I set down the bat and accepted the offer of healing balm. Books saved me. Writing saved me. Words in books opened a world of possibilities. If I couldn’t transform on the outside, I could decorate my insides any way I wanted. I could hatch a forest of butterflies within.

Every day, I continue to do so. Three years ago, I answered a call for help issued by the troubled local public school system. They needed volunteers for their literacy tutoring program. It hasn’t been easy. The conditions, the children, the system is a mess. The teachers are stretched to their breaking points. In spite of the obstacles, I keep at it.

Today,  I feel I have found my calling: I want to teach children how to read. Reading is power. Reading is hope. I don’t know what I’ll do, where I’ll end up, but I do know that reaching out to children in need feels right, the right-est anything has ever felt.

Week after week, building a bridge of trust, forging a bond, no matter how tenuous, you realize how vulnerable children are, how much power adults wield, how carefully you must tread. It’s dizzying how much trust children place in adults when they have no way of knowing what intentions lie within.

In his essay, Gilmore says:

“I finally discovered the beautiful, paradoxical truth that genuine concern for the welfare of others is the gateway to the only real satisfaction for myself. I cannot claim to consistently live up to this ideal, but it is with genuine gratitude that I can say I have come to believe the words of the Indian philosopher-poet Shantideva:

All the joy the world contains
Has come through wishing happiness for others.
All the misery in the world contains
Has come through wanting pleasure for oneself.”

Reading helps.
Writing helps.
Letting go of the self altogether helps most of all.

 

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