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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Brave

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A few weeks ago, I posed for a publication that I write for and I did it with no makeup. The magazine, Skirt, is one I write for regularly and this was their “Age Is Not An Issue” issue. So, I trusted them when they asked me to pose with no makeup. I even talked a friend into doing it with me.

Afterward, I heard lots of “how brave” comments. My friend and I were on the older end of the photo shoot spectrum. The youngest was a reality TV star who has done some modeling and the ones in between could all be models, if they aren’t already.

So maybe the comments were because I was an old broad without apology and without blush. As though I had shown not just my makeup-free face, but some more intimate part of myself.

That was not comfortable.

But it was not brave.

Here’s what’s brave:

The woman who survived a childhood as a Rwandan refugee and grew up to write the beautiful, “The Girl Who Smiled Beads.” If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend it. I thought I understood what it must be like, but I had no idea.

Brave is anyone who has kicked cancer’s ass, and anyone whose ass has been kicked by cancer.

Brave is anyone who deals with depression or mental illness and is still here and still fighting.

People who have been kicked in the teeth by love but still believe that true love is out there? They are brave.

People who have been bullied or abused who figure out a way to make that violence stop before it gets its oily fingers on another generation. Those people are brave.

And if you stand up to a bully or an abuser, whether you’re the one being abused or whether you just see it happening? That’s brave.

It’s brave to take the time to talk with a homeless person, especially if they stop long enough to make eye contact. I remember reading a book forever ago by Jonathan Kozol, Rachel and Her Children, that quoted a homeless man as saying that the worst thing about being homeless wasn’t the cold or the hunger; it was the feeling of being invisible. When you spend your days with no one meeting your eyes, you start to question whether you are there at all.

People who figure out what it is that scares the hell out of them – could be jumping out of an airplane, could be public speaking – and goes ahead and does it. They’re brave.

Anyone who has the grace to speak honestly but kindly is brave.

All of those things are brave. But showing my face without makeup? That’s not so brave. I may look more tired than normal in that photo or older. But it’s not a brave face.

Curious…what does “brave” mean to you?

Age Is Just A Number by Jenn Cady Photography

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Guilt-Shaming for Charity

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Let’s talk social media. Not the Russian infiltration or the zombie screen-starers it has made of all of us. I want to talk torture by my friends, wonderful people who ought to know better.

First, I have a confession to make: I didn’t get you anything for your birthday. You and I don’t have that kind of relationship.

I do celebrate the day you were born – you wouldn’t be my friend if I didn’t feel that way. But we don’t have the kind of friendship where we get each other birthday gifts.

So, why, I have to ask you, did you think I would send money to your favorite charity in lieu of the gift I was never going to get you?

If you’re like me, your social media feeds are filling up with virtue. This friend and that friend are saying that, for their birthday, they are raising money for their favorite charity. Well, bully for them.

I have my own charities. They’re meaningful to me because of the things I’m passionate about. Animals. Children. The environment. And when I am feeling charitable, I give to them. But I’m not expecting my passions to be yours. You do you.

And, while I’m at it?

No, I won’t post photos of book covers or album covers. I know these people mean well too, but honestly, life’s too short for me to play these reindeer games of tag-you’re-it online.

And that goes double for prayer chains, angel chains, cut-and-paste-this-content posts and the WORST – the self-pitying “I’ll bet you won’t read to the end because you’re not a real friend.” No. Just stop.

You may believe in prayer. Cool. I believe in energy and sending good, loving energy and that’s probably pretty close to prayer. And I will send positive energy out for loved ones or even friends’ loved ones who are in trouble. But don’t blackmail me into it. Don’t guilt me into prayers, because that kind of thing? It’s bad energy, and it’s the opposite of prayers.

And, as long as I’m being cranky, here’s my final plea. No more photos of abused animals. I think people who abuse animals should be sent straight to hell, stopping only long enough for some in-kind torture along the way. But I can’t bear the photos. They don’t help the animals, and any monster who tortured an animal in the first place? They’re beyond the ability to be shamed on social media.

My birthday is in March. But you can give me my gift now. Do something nice for yourself. If that means giving money to charity because you enjoy the endorphin rush of helping others? Go for it. Just don’t tell me about it.

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Dancing with Daddy

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When my parents danced, their marriage played out on the dance floor. The two moved together in rhythm, my mother throwing flirtatious little grins over her shoulder as dad spun her, my tall father’s body like a comma so he could lean close and whisper in my petite mother’s ear.

The two anticipated each other’s moves and the dance floor would empty around them as other dancers’ energy flagged. My mom and dad danced every dance at every wedding and every Mardi Gras ball and every party.

Like many girls, I learned to dance atop my father’s feet. Jitterbugs and waltzes and crazy turns and dips.

When it was time for my first school dance, my mother watched from the sofa while my father and I turned methodically around the living room, all of us laughing at my mis-steps.

“Just watch my eyes and not your feet,” my dad would say. But gazing into his eyes was an intimacy for my mother and nothing I could sustain without breaking into nervous giggles.

Later in life, I took dance lessons. Salsa and ballroom. Country western line dancing. I could cha-cha and boogie on cue. I couldn’t wait for the next family wedding so I could take my dad to the dance floor and finally keep up.

And, finally, a cousin married. That night, after many dances with my mother, my dad held his hand out to me while my mother, fanning herself, went off to get a cool drink.

I faced my dad, right hand loosely clasped in his, left hand perched on his shoulder. The music started. And I stepped on his feet. And then he stepped on mine.

“Sorry,” he said with a wince.

And, the secret was out. My dad didn’t know dance steps! My one-two-three-cross was at cross-purposes with the dance he was trying to lead.

“I just dance,” he said, shrugging.

We stumbled through the rest of the song and then, with relief, my dad reclaimed my mother.

It would take years – years of watching my parents swoop along the dance floor – before I realized that dancing isn’t about the steps. It’s about improvisation. And feeling rhythm. And trusting someone enough to follow, even when you’re not sure where the heck they’re leading.

Dad’s been gone for two years now and I’m still dancing. I’ve gotten pretty good at leading, but I’m still a novice at that following stuff. On and off the dance floor.

Joe & Pauline Mitternight
50th Anniversary Party
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Editing Friends

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I was reading a book by business writer and nice guy Daniel Pink. It’s called “When,” and it talks cites a bunch of studies about the best times to do things…from scheduling big meetings to delivering bad news.

It’s a cool book – well, Daniel Pink is a cool guy and yes, I have actually met him. In fact, I may do a whole thing on this book in the future, but for now, I want to focus on one part.

So, in one part of the book, Pink says we have three stages of life…the launch, which gets us from childhood to young adulthood; the harsh reality stage, when life slams us with setbacks and sadness, along with some triumphs. And, finally, the final bittersweet stage.

That last stage starts around age 60 or so.

And the scientists found that the last stage is a time in which the number of friends drops.

You might think that’s sad, but you have to look more closely at the data from the researchers – and they are from the Washington University in St. Louis and Stanford University, in case that kind of thing matters to you. Anyway, these researchers say that it’s not that older people lose friends. It’s more that they EDIT friends. Because there are friends and then there are FRIENDS.

First, there are the kinds of friends who are like family. The womb-to-tomb kind of friends. Those friends, we keep. And, then there are the other friends. The Facebook friends. The nod-to-at-the-grocery friends. The friends you only see at yoga class. Those friends? We start to shed them like a snake sheds its skin.

And it’s not just that these friends drift away. We actively delete them. The researchers say the closer we get to the end of life, the more we narrow in to what’s really important in friendships, and that means fewer, but deeper, friendships.

Interestingly, this phenomenon was true for any ending, not just the end of life. End a job? Suddenly your lunch companion isn’t around anymore, and that’s fine. Graduate? Your study buddy isn’t on speed dial. It’s natural.

I did an episode of my podcast, Keep it Juicy!, on decluttering recently. It’s all about getting rid of the stuff that brings you down and doesn’t bring you joy. If you haven’t worn it in a year, toss it. Don’t be the family caretaker of all the memories. Stuff isn’t people, so have a yard sale.

All of that makes sense.

Except…

Except when it doesn’t.

Now, maybe I haven’t reached that final stage yet. I’m not quite 60, although I can certainly see it waiting around the corner.

And I’m not talking about when you finally fire a toxic friend…actually, I did a whole thing about when you need to fire a friend.

 

So, no, I’m not talking about the kinds of “frenemies” that you need to get rid of, pronto, no matter what stage of your life you’re in.

But…

I moved to a city where I don’t know anyone. If I didn’t want to stay inside the house staring at my husband – and he would have started making references to The Shining after Day One – I had to meet people. I had to make new friends.

I can’t say they are my soulmates like Liz, my very best friend from college days. But they are fun, I care about these people, and they end our dates with “I love you,” so there’s at least some mutual affection.

I’ve been here for about five years. And maybe I just got in the habit, but I still feel that every new person I meet could be a friend. I still get excited when I click with a new person and we make a date to get coffee. I’m not editing, I’m adding.

I like to think of it as building up a valuable collection.

And I don’t feel like these friendships clutter up my life or that I need to edit them.

I’m like a magpie, collecting soft things for my nest. Not every friendship is going to meet every need. But someday, some quirky emotion will have me pulling a particular friendship out of the nest and it will be just exactly what I need right then.

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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

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