Strong but Safe

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In May 2018, I was honored to be part of a performance of the Charleston performance of, “Listen to Your Mother,” a live performance of essays about motherhood. 

You can read my essay below, or scroll to the end and see a video of my performance. It was a helluva show and I made some wonderful friends. Enjoy! 

“Are you going to be okay?”

My mother was on her deathbed and she wasn’t letting go until she made sure that her only child would be all right. Her dark eyes were sharp despite the pain, and lasered into mine.

A good daughter would offer reassurance. Mom had struggled for months and she was tired. A stronger daughter would ease her mind so that death could ease her body.

At that moment, I didn’t want to be strong. All I wanted was to push aside the monitors still strapped to her, and nestle under her soft arm, wailing and moaning and being weak. Mama, please don’t leave me.

Who will I be if I don’t see myself reflected in your eyes? How will I stand strong when I no longer have you as my soft place to fall?

My mother, my closest friend and biggest cheerleader, was dying. No, I wasn’t going to be okay. I probably would never be okay.

But that wasn’t what she needed to hear, and this moment was about her and her death, not me.

So, when she asked, “Are you going to be okay?” I answered, “Yes, Mama, I’ll be okay. You raised a strong one.”

And, she did, although I didn’t feel strong at the moment. She raised a strong one almost despite herself.

My mom lived in terror that something would happen to me. It was so important to her that I stay safe.

Her fears ranged from the traditional “stranger danger” to the repetition of mistakes she made. My mom married my dad quite young because she was pregnant with me. Up until she fell in love with my dad, she was a good Catholic girl from an Italian immigrant family, going to a Catholic high school. Sex – let alone pregnancy – before marriage was a sin and my presence in my mom’s womb caused grief for everyone my mom knew.

It didn’t matter that she and my dad married and would stay happily married for 53 years until Mom died. My mom was determined that I would never make the mistakes she made.

Sometimes, it meant that she overreacted a bit.

My announcement in 7th Grade that I was “going steady” with a boy – which meant only that we would hold hands and sit together at lunch – was met with screaming… and tears…and threats… and dire warnings unless I returned the cheap silver ring he had given me. Sobbing, my mother explained that spending time alone with a boy so young would lead to “urges”… and then giving in to those urges… and then sex and pregnancy and disgrace and destroyed potential.

It seemed a bit extreme, but I gave the ring back.

In college, when I went camping –not my thing, but my boyfriend at the time sure loved it – she sent news clippings about a crazed killer who had murdered young people in their tents.

It was just one of many dire warnings as my mother let me know that I was truly wonderful – but likely to be struck down by fate or drunken drivers or serial killers at any moment.

And, as I got older, I promised myself I wouldn’t be bound by my mother’s irrational fears.

Living in the city? Yep. Waiting for a bus on dark street corners after covering a meeting for the local paper? Sure, I was tough. Sex? AIDS wasn’t really a thing yet and the Pill was, so BIG yes.

I was fearless. And I wasn’t going to let my mom’s obsession with my safety affect my life.

And, when I had my own daughter one day? She was going to be fearless too.

Except, right before I got pregnant with my fearless daughter, there was a case in which a young girl was taken, just as her mother looked down to pack up their things after a Christmas party at their apartment complex. She looked up and her daughter was gone. And she would stay gone until her body was found, years later.

So, yes, my daughter would be fearless, but I would keep a better eye on her so she would also be safe.

And because I had taken so many risks in my life on the road to being strong, I could share with her the obstacles that might trip her up.

I would raise my daughter strong but safe.

Well, that’s what I thought I was doing.

Isn’t it funny how your children can become a mirror to reflect back to you a version of yourself you just don’t see?

My daughter is an adult. She has a wonderful job, a rich life, and boundless enthusiasm for one thing after another.

Recently, she decided to raise chickens. She has her own house, so it’s not like she’s going to be raising them in an apartment.

But I immediately started trying to clear the obstacles. Had she checked zoning in her city? Informed the neighbors? There are woods nearby and her yard isn’t fenced – what about the danger of coyotes?

Hard to imagine, I know, but she didn’t react well.

And, confident in my rightness, I laid out a list of all her enthusiasms over the years and how few she’d stuck with, and why listening to me would have saved her time.

This was by text, by the way. That’s how we seem to conduct all our arguments these days.

And, my daughter, in the most loving way possible considering how angry she was, sent back a text with a list of her own. All the times I had responded with dire warnings very much like my own mother had done.

Lost that extra 10 pounds? Great, but don’t expect the rest of the weight to come off as quickly because the last five pounds always hang on. Buying a house? Great, but don’t spend too much on decorating, because things are going to break and you’ll need money for that. Make more money than your photographer boyfriend? Fine, but one day he may come to resent the disparity — and you may as well — so be prepared for that.

My daughter told me: “You will say that you’re proud of me but honestly it doesn’t mean much because you turn around and question every decision I make. Not in a constructive way, in a limiting way, a way that takes away my feeling of autonomy. I’m simultaneously the light of your life, but incapable of making informed decisions, impulsive and foolhardy. It gives me whiplash.”

I, who prided myself on being fearless and optimistic, had become the Greek chorus of doom in my daughter’s life.

Even in the midst of the text argument, I had told my daughter that I loved her. Her response?

“I love you right back but my perception of you is that you are far more negative than you think you are.”

It rocked me.

All I wanted was my daughter to be safe. Why couldn’t she listen to me?

And then it hit me.

My daughter was ignoring my dire warnings, much like I used to roll my eyes at my own mother’s doom and gloom. My daughter wasn’t stupid and she wasn’t reckless, but she had assigned my drumbeat of fear the role of just background noise.

And, by raising a daughter who ignored me, I too had raised a strong one.

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You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

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Before I tell you this story, I have to set ground rules. I’m not posting photos. Not gonna happen. You’ll get clip art and like it.

So.

I think I get what old age is going to be like: it will be making up heroic adventures to explain injuries sustained in the most mundane ways.

I think I cracked my rib.

And, for my readers, I’m going to be honest about the injury.

I was posing for my husband, a photographer who is always frustrated by the lack of cooperation his spouse exhibits whenever a camera lens is turned her way. I do not like the way I look in photos. I have an image of myself, one that props up my self esteem, and I do not care to see it contradicted in four-color glory.

But, finally, in a burst of what-the-hell, I agreed to let him take photographs of the boudoir nature. I had lost weight. I wasn’t getting any younger. He finally asked often enough. Whatever the reason, the date was set.

My husband set up a privacy cabana of hanging bedsheets on the upper porch to ensure privacy and capture the best daylight. And there we were.

I decided to try a pose on my stomach and then I remembered someone said that Kim Kardashian simultaneously arched a bit and sucked in her gut for the best photos. So I tried. Slowly. But even moving with caution on the hard wooden porch, I heard a crack from my left side.

The pain went all up my side for a second before settling beneath my left breast. No, not a heart attack. This tale is a comedy, not a tragedy.

Now, the day after, it hurts to press on my sternum, hurts to twist certain ways, and god help me if I sneeze. The rib is either cracked or bruised, neither of which can be treated with anything but time. But that story is just for you.

For anyone else who sees me wince, I’m going to expound on how I saved an entire city from a villain, super-hero style and got injured in the battle. Because, who would believe the truth?

pinup-girl-sexy-wearing-pink-bikini-84986312Check out Helen’s podcast, Keep it Juicy!

The Dance: #MeToo. And 3 and 4.

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Every day, another man is brought low by #MeToo. Some men are alarmed and comparing it to the Salem Witch Trials (men who apparently are unaware of irony). Some women are angry and cheering, some women are angry and skeptical.

My own reaction is mixed.

My mama taught me how to flirt. Flirting was a dance of flattery and smiles that made life more charming, flattered those who could help you, made even the rudest man puff his chest up and offer to carry something. I was such a flirt that my principal in kindergarten – kindergarten! – dubbed me “Kissyface” because I kept trying to go after the older boys for a smooch.

Obviously, flirting was a dance I was still learning the steps to.

When I got to that age where curves softened my body – way younger than my peers – older boys still looked my way. And men. I had something but I didn’t know what it was or how to use it – or what the consequences could be. I was clumsy. I probably hurt people. And I got hurt, too.

Because the consequences for that dance of flirtation were that some men tried to join in and lead me to dark places. There was the drama teacher who promised an easy “A” if I just followed flirtation with what he called friendliness. There were countless bosses who said things just to watch me blush and to watch and see if I would say yes. And the alcohol-fueled date rape after college.

So yes, #MeToo. And Three. And Four. Like the beat of a dance you can’t stop.

Even years away from all that, I still wonder. Was I too flirtatious? Was I just so sexually powerful that the men couldn’t help themselves? I mean, that’s what some of them said.

“I’ve never done this before…”

“You make me so….”

Always my power making powerful men helpless.

Maybe they were just awkward at the flirtation dance, and not evil. Maybe they were just guilty of #MeToo Manslaughter and not #MeToo Homicide. Well, except for the rapist.

I asked my friends how they felt. Granted, the survey isn’t scientific and the “n” is almost nil, but I found it interesting.

I asked my friends to check all that apply and I did a different survey for women than for men, thereby probably invalidating the whole methodology. Still. Here are the results when asked how #MeToo made them feel:

Women:

Vindicated that women are finally being heard – 54.17%

Empowered -16.67%

Uneasy because not sure how this will play out – 45.83%

Angry that the issue is so widespread – 45.83%

Angry that these women are speaking out – 0%

Skeptical that there is such a widespread problem – 8.33%

None of the Above – 0%

 

Men:

Afraid to Interact with Women in Workplace – 0%

Neutral – Doesn’t affect me – 0%

Angry – These guys getting a raw deal -0%

Angry – Those poor women! -50%

Sad – Had no idea the problem was so prevalent -50%

Resolved to change my future behavior – 0%

None of the Above – 0%

Women added comments ranging from being traumatized at having to relive their own experience, to anger that the attention would be fleeting, to hopeful that we’d reached a tipping point. Men didn’t comment and – perhaps all my friends are really evolved males – but none doubted the women who have stepped forward.

I want to believe that some of these men being brought low – and I am NOT talking about people who brag about grabbing pussies, or who date girls so young they have to ask their mothers’ permission – but maybe some of them are just as clumsy at knowing the dance as I was. But I doubt it. Because I know that if these things happened to my daughter and not to my own young self, I would have no mixed feelings.

My dance of flirtation brought me the illusion of control. The difference, I think, is that most of these men have actual control. When you have the power in a relationship, the steps aren’t a dance anymore. A dance is choreography for two. #MeToo is an advance by someone with power, and retreat by someone without. It’s not a dance. It’s a goose-step. Complete, apparently, with goosing.

The survey is still open and I would love to hear your responses.

Women can take the survey here

Men can take the survey here

Sexual Harassment

 

 

Leave the Gun AND the Cannoli – Grab a Book

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We are all so very angry today.

If you’re not for us, you’re a-gin’ us.

We are all so righteous and we are angry that the “other” cannot concede our obviously correct point of view that we spew vitriol on social media and to our friends.

Stupid President (either the current or the past, depending on where you stand). Stupid Congress. Stupid Bigot, Stupid Racist, Stupid Sexist, and Stupid Snowflake Liberal.

The truth is, we are as unable to see others’ truth, as they are to see ours.

This kind of anger and frustration leads some to pick up a pen, others to pick up a gun.

The solution might be to read a good book.

A 2006 study cited in a recent Wall Street Journal article says that psychologists in Toronto found a connection between reading fiction and being more sensitive to others.

For people who read fiction (and it seems that it had to be fiction) that transported them – the kind of transport that jolts you when the book ends and you find yourself back in your room – there was an increased ability to see the world through others’ eyes.

Another study three years later reproduced the study but stripped away variables like age, gender, stress or loneliness, and English fluency. They found that fiction readers had higher levels of empathy (and, interestingly, better social networks in real life).

A later study in 2013 refined the findings down to genre – literary fiction that requires the reader to figure out characters’ motivations using more subtle cues had the most empathy. It seems that trying to figure out what the flawed protagonist is going to do next is good practice for trying to read our fellow humans.

A much-loved quote from the movie, “The Godfather,” is to “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” While I love pastries, we might all be better off if we “Leave the gun AND the cannoli. Pick up a book.”

 

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Grateful Enough? Thanks!

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Every morning, I try to meditate. I don’t actually meditate every morning, but I’ve read that it helps, so I try.

Part of that meditation is an accounting of the things I’m grateful for, because I’ve read that helps, too. Helps with what, exactly? Well, helps to make me the calm, accepting person I always wanted to be. There’s a whole industry around gratitude journals.

Gratitude is a good thing, right?

Because the opposite of gratitude is entitlement, i.e. “Why should I be grateful? I deserve this!” I worked hard to be sure my daughter never felt that way, and she couldn’t even play with toys she received until she’d written a thank-you note to the sender. I am suspicious of people who don’t write thank-you notes. When I was hiring, it was the people who wrote thank-you emails or, even better, notes, after interviews whom I favored.

But now, the scientists who study such things say that some people aren’t wired to be thankful. The ones who are the most independent feel like being grateful means they owe a debt of gratitude, and they are profoundly uncomfortable with owing anybody anything.

I get that, because I will go to extreme lengths to return a book or a loan. I have not run for office because I can not stand the thought of asking for money. It’s funny, when I did public relations for causes, I could easily ask for support for the good cause, but asking for myself? Just can’t.

Gratitude interventions – like the popular gratitude journals — don’t work for everyone, despite the marketing, according to the psychologists. Not everyone benefits from forcing gratitude.

But gratitude is still important, even if we’re not wired for it. The psychologist in the story about the gratitude research says that he would, “worry that people who are uncomfortable with gratitude and with receiving gifts may be undermining their interpersonal relationships.”

So, how do we balance the importance of gratitude with the need to be independent and strong?

Maybe we ought to share some of that gratitude with ourselves. For example, “I am so grateful to be published, because a lot of talented people are not. But I am also grateful for my own talent and perseverance that led to my being published.”

Maybe the secret is giving credit where it is due, not with arrogance, but not with false modesty either.

Oh, and thank you for reading to the end. I’m grateful.

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The Witching Hour & Ghost Voices

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In traditional Roman Catholic teaching, 3 am is the witching hour – when the forces of evil mock all that is good.

Certainly, when I wake up at 3 am, it is never good thoughts that flood my mind. It is shame over my inadequacies, worry over things that probably won’t happen, but might. A few times, I have even been awakened by the silence from my husband’s side of the bed, convinced that I’ve been ultimately abandoned by his death. He does not know how many times I have rested my hand on his chest just to feel him breathe.

Sometimes, as I lay in bed, I hear muted voices. It sounds like a conversation, a calm conversation, but I can never quite make out the words. Maybe it is the neighbor’s television, through thick antique walls and over a driveway. It could be. Charleston is funny that way; sometimes I can hear my neighbor’s laughter louder than my husband calling from the kitchen.

Or maybe it is the voices of ghosts, trapped within this 175-year-old house, words that echo across generations. The tone is so measured, that it is not arguments or passion captured here. If these are ghosts, they are discussing the mundane, chores and meals and minutiae.

You might think that ghost voices would add to the dread of the witching hour. But I treasure voices of the past.

There are some voices I would give anything to hear again.

I recently switched cell phone carriers. They assured me I would keep the speed of my connections, that my old text messages and contacts would appear like magic. They neglected to mention that I would lose voice mails, and I never thought to ask.

And so, the message from a friend, her voice already a bit breathy from the lung cancer that would kill her – gone. The message from my dad, wishing me happy birthday, the one I planned to play next March when I have my first birthday without him – gone.

I have photos so my eyes can remember, but already the feel of my father’s big fingers in mine, gone. The smell that was uniquely my mother’s – I think I would recognize it, but I can no longer describe it. And now, the sound of my father’s voice, a memory growing more distant.

Hearing, robbed. Another sense gone.

So the ghost voices of the witching hour?

They don’t frighten me; they offer comfort even if I can not make out the words.

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Memory Keepers

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We lived in a planned suburb and our back yard jutted up against Farmer George’s rickety old white clapboard.

Farmer George had a tenuous relationship with the suburbanites. We could hear his roosters and some would complain; the neighbor’s dog escaped and chased one of said roosters, and he complained. My family was cordial with him and I was fascinated by this stubborn man, clinging to his last acreage.

Until the exposure incident, when I was forbidden to ever talk to him again.

One night, my mom happened to be looking out the kitchen window, which faced Farmer George. And, according to my mom, there he stood in his window, naked and erect, fondling himself and looking, it seemed, right back at my mother.

It happened a few more times. My dad called the cops. But, they explained, there was no law against standing naked in your own house, and there was no proof that he was “aiming” at my mother. My dad wanted to go beat up Farmer George. My mom’s cooler head prevailed. And, later that night, my dad, for the first time ever, cried in frustration and helplessness at being unable to protect his family from who knows what perversions.

That’s how I remember it.

I can’t know if Mom or Dad remember it differently, because they both have died, taking with them the certification of my memories.

In a family so bound by storytelling, when the only ones who were there as you created memories die or go away, you are left wondering if your stories are the right ones. In my extended family, stories are repeated, burnished, embellished at every family gathering. Like some Japanese movie, each participant has his or her unique point of view.

But, my stories? Who will I share them with, and, if they are wrong, who will correct the details for me?

I know the incident with Farmer George happened. But did it happen exactly that way? I remember my father crying. But was something else happening at the time?

I won’t ever know. My memory keepers have vanished.

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