My Own Opposite

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“I’m high but I’m grounded

I’m sane but I’m overwhelmed

I’m lost but I’m hopeful, baby”

–from “Hand In My Pocket” by Alanis Morissette

English is a funny language. Words that can mean one thing can mean something else completely opposite.

The word “left” can mean departed, as in “Elvis has left the building” or remaining as in “Elvis had half of his peanut butter and banana sandwich left.” “Off” can mean deactivated, like “I turned the alarm off this morning” or activated, as in “The alarm went off this morning.”

The key to understanding these words that are their own opposites is context. You have to know what else is going on in the conversation to understand the meaning.

I was reading about these funny words known as contronyms or “Janus words” (from the Roman god often depicted with two faces looking away from each other) when I realized that I’m a contronym too.

I can write with almost manic energy, slinging metaphors or to-do lists like a dervish. But I also can challenge a sloth with days in which only calls of nature can stir me from bed or book.

My daughter can tell you that I am unreasonably mushy, often sending sappy texts to her for no reason at all. But she will also be the first to attest that I can eviscerate when I’m in a hormone-fueled red rage and those closest to me are often the first casualties.

And, like contronyms, the key to knowing which Helen you will find on any given day is context. You have to know what else is going on in my life to know whether what you’re seeing is a smile or a baring of teeth.

I’m betting I’m not the only one…are you your own opposite too?

Janus

A Letter to My Younger Self

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The start of a new year, and we all hope that the coming year brings something better than the old. Out with the old, in with the new.

But the truth is, the old wasn’t so bad. I just wish I had realized it at the time. In case someone invents a time machine that can send a letter back to my younger self, I offer myself this hard-won advice:

Dear Younger Self:

I know the things that worry you, the things you feel like you will never master. So let me tell you what you will learn one day.

Jobs

The longer you’re in the workforce, the less entitled you will feel and the more grateful you will be for a job. The arrogance that came with your jump-start into a nifty job right out of college, will dissipate a few firings and one layoff later. But on the positive side, people will finally start to listen to the credence that experience brings to your voice, and motherhood will give you management experience with the tiny tyrants who populate most offices. And eventually, you won’t have to sell yourself so hard; jobs will start to come to you, and you will be grateful for each one.

Boys

The things that drew you to the bad boys will fade along with the bad boys’ hairlines. You will learn that you no longer need bad boys. On the other hand, the boys who seem like bland best buddies are still bland. You’re smarter, not dead, when you get older, and that sexual sizzle is still important and still worth getting out of – and into – bed for. You’ll just be more selective. Eventually, you’ll find one person who can deliver the lengthy best friend chats along with the lengthy bad boy sex.

Friends

You will figure out that swearing best-friend status for life is laughable. Your life will go through many twists and turns, and friends will come, go, then come back again like angels when needed. You will become so varied that no one friend can possibly fill all your needs, nor you theirs. So you will develop a tribe, a posse, a coven of friends who cover every occasion.

Life

You will work every day to get out of your own way. Sometimes you will succeed and do a little victory dance to celebrate the awesomeness of you. Other days, you will curl into a fetal position and consider it a victory if you get out of bed. But mostly, you will learn that you are good enough. Good enough to handle whatever life throws at you, whether it is losing a marriage, a job, or a mother. And you will learn that good enough..is good enough.

Dear Me