I Pray*

This is for all the little girls who learned silence and co-dependence. I pray you let yourselves heal. It will take years. And it will hurt. But it’s worth it when you realize how strong you really are. You’re amazing.

 

I don’t understand. He told me not to call again. But I thought he was my dad.

He’d raised me for nine years. He’d carried me out of movie theaters when my tears wouldn’t cease. He’d carried me to clinics and ER’s. He’d carried me through my advanced math classes.

He’d told me the whole room lit up when I smiled.

He’d also hurt me. He’d shown a temper like none I’ve ever seen. He’d crossed boundaries I couldn’t explain to most people. He’d taught this vivacious little girl to be silent. He’d shown me everything I wasn’t good at.

He’d said I was his little girl.
There’s a sad sort of beauty in the fact that I was always such a daddy’s girl. Every art project was a sort of homage to one of my father figures. These were usually of him, not my birth father or any other male role model in my life. They were of him. They were for him.  I wanted him proud of me. I wanted him to know how much I loved and needed him.

But he told me not to call. He wouldn’t be my dad anymore. So I cried, just once. Then I made a plan to move on. And it worked. I stopped being silent.

But I still remember. And, in the past few years, I’ve let myself cry some more. I was always a daddy’s girl. I loved him. I still love him, that part of him that carried me. But now I know I never needed him. I pray he understands.

 

*Praying by Kesha inspired this piece, and so many memories.

Not One of the “Pretty Girls”

Ann is the cute one. Claire is the creative one. I am the smart one.

Ann is the funny one. Claire is the strong one. I am the responsible one.

Ann is the social one. Claire is the gifted one. I am the quiet one.

The quiet one? Ugh.

First of all, I am not quiet. I never have been. I have, however, felt silenced much of my life. Even though I’ve never been fully silent, I have felt the burden of the expectation. Worse, I always knew my sisters were just as smart if not smarter than I was. And I am responsible, yes, but what choice did I have? Who wants to be defined by a necessity? I want to be defined by my spirit, my mark on the world, my soul song.

For decades, though, I have felt defined not by my authentic self, but in comparison to others. In my social group, I heard echoes of my parents’ characterizations of me. Sarah was the smart one, the responsible one, the quiet one. Why couldn’t I be cute? Fashionable? Fabulous? And why do so few people realize how funny I am?

I’m a natural leader. I get things done. I’m successful. Why not be known for those things? And aren’t I talented, a gifted singer and strong athlete? I can hold my own in just about any circumstance, and people usually like me once the get to know me. How can I make people understand I’m so much more than the labels of my youth?

More importantly, how I can stop hearing those labels in my own internal dialog with myself?

 

“I’d like us to be more understanding with Paulina, more inclusive,” I coached. “I think it must be hard to be one of the beautiful people.”

“Oh, right!” my colleague burst out. “Let’s all feel sorry for the pretty girl. Sorry, I can’t do it.”

We both laughed. Neither of us had ever been known as “pretty girls.” We had both been raised by struggling families, developing more scrappiness than poise we felt. We talked about this often. We’d grown increasingly assertive in our years. We knew how to fight for what we wanted. And, right or wrong, we assumed Paulina had just always been given what she wanted. In fact, my concern for her feelings, and my belief we should be more understanding came from a very conscious belief that she did not know how to handle NOT getting what she wanted because she’d been so privileged in her life as a 5’11”, built like a ballerina, blonde, blue-eyed, upper-middle class, ice princess. And, my colleague was right, no one is or should feel sorry for that.

The real problem is that no one, not Paulina, not anyone, is defined by those first impressions. But we’re all judged by them. Whether fighting the label “smart one” or “pretty one” or any other social short hand derived avoid actually learning about and understanding others and, instead, classify them into manageable data points in our schema, we are all limited by the labels assigned to us.

In the best case scenario, we acknowledge that these classifications are short cuts we are all prone to take but also acknowledge that they are not pathways to understanding–and then allow people and our relationships to grow beyond those classifications. This needs to start with ourselves, though. Because, the worst case scenario is we that we limit ourselves to those classifications and allow ourselves to be constrained and defined by them. They then become more than labels but fully developed stories we tell ourselves. Like these:

 

I am smart. I should do better in math because I am smart. Smart people are quiet and read a lot and stay home on Friday nights and do well in school. Smart is not popular. Smart is not pretty. Smart is not athletic. Smart is not funny. And I can’t do anything that makes me look stupid or that I might not be good at. People might think I’m not smart. And smart and Sarah are synonymous.

I am responsible. I can’t go out and have fun or take a day off. I don’t dare use all my vacation days when I have so much responsibility at work. I need to put the needs of others first, always, and make sure everyone is taken care of before I take care of myself. That’s the responsible thing. Because some people aren’t responsible. I need to be responsible. For everyone. That’s how responsible people live and happiness only comes from knowing I am seen as responsible and everyone feels taken care of. That’s how I’ll fulfill my role.

 

Narratives like this pervade our minds. They’re not all bad. They’re not particularly inspiring either. And they deny so much of who I am and what I can contribute and the countless other gifts I’ve been given by the universe. Isn’t the truly responsible thing to do to maximize all of my god-given strengths and skills? Isn’t that just smart? Isn’t it also fun, creative, and adventurous? I am fun, creative, and adventurous!

So why to I have to remind myself this almost daily in order to honor my impulses and desires and objectives of joy in this life? And why is my dear sister with social anxiety still trying to live up to being the funny social one? And when will Claire and I realize our own beauty and cuteness? And how can Paulina break free of the narratives we have attached to her in all of her beauty?

I’m fortunate to have friends I can be and usually am my truest best self around who remind me, “you know you want to go on this adventure, Sarah!” or “you’re gorgeous!” or “your laugh makes you who you are!” We should all be so fortunate.

They hold me to being my best self and not subjugating myself to others, to my labels past or present, or to the narratives I told myself all those years in order to be who my labels told me I should be. I think, as women, we are particularly vulnerable to these types of narratives and, thankfully, particularly watchful of them in what my friends and I call, our soul sisters. In fact, it seems we are better at seeing the tell-tale signs in one another hiding our light and falling prey to the dark shadow of our old narratives than we at feeling the shadow we hide ourselves in.

I am learning to longer feel bad about about that, to longer judge myself for falling into old patterns that lead, per my narratives, to enabling others even martyring myself and holding back my humor and energy and adventure and silliness. I accept that I am simply in the process of rewiring my brain, carving new neural pathways in an effort to avoid those that have been so well worn. This is going to take time and it’s time beautifully spent asking myself daily how I honored my truest authentic best self and what I can learn from the day’s successes and struggles.

Living mindfully and giving myself permission to be myself and to be imperfect even at being myself–which used to seem like something I should just be naturally good at–is harder than following the old narratives. It just is. But it’s liberating too. And every day I feel more and more joy and more and more in love with the world. Who’d have thought a girl who used to cry herself to sleep riddled with anxiety as young as six could feel this way and have this much confidence? But I do because as hard as it is to be mindful, it was starting to hurt to be otherwise.

I even wonder how much of the stress I put on my heart, mind, body, and soul contributed not only to the anxieties I developed but to the lesions on my spine associated with the most pervasive narrative I fight–a woman living with MS. But just as I am learning to no longer define myself as just smart and responsible and quiet. So I definitely will not be defined by MS. I am so much more than this or any label and its associated narrative.

MS did make me face this struggle with my labels head on though. Overnight, following a terrifying and numbing flare up, I had to redefine who I was and what I said about myself as well as what others said about me. This was no longer a choice. My old narrative no longer were enough. Can you be the responsible one if you know someone might have to take care of you some day? Can the smart one also have cognitive fog? Oh, and I was so done being quiet. Who knew how much time I had to say what I wanted to say?

Challenge accepted. Project redefining Sarah, also known as acknowledging and becoming my true self, was set in irreversible motion.

I now hope to be defined by my authentic self, deep and complicated and full of life in a way that defies labels. I hope I can help all the “pretty girls” and the “smart girls” and “funny girls” learn that maybe they are all of these and none of these all at once. We are women who break through labels and refuse to accept the old narratives of those labels and, instead, create our own narratives of complicated, messy, beautiful lives. After all, why settle for a narrative, a work of fiction, when one can have a reality and make a real mark on this world?

The world deserves this contribution, not just another false narrative. So, are you ready to shed your labels with me Ann, Claire? Paulina? What about You?

 

 

My Soul Song: Look Up

You seek answers.

You seek healing.

You pray for hope, for signs to follow.

 
Stop crying for your angels.

Stop begging for mercy.

Stop looking where you’ve already been.

 
Just look up.

There it is.

The light of God is already there.

 
Receive the warmth.

Receive the glory.

Receive this new day as a gift for the taking.

 
Be assured.

Be thankful.

Be one who stays in the light.

 
Just look up.

There it is.

The light of God is already there.

My Soul Songs: Not Unlike a Rose 

MS is invisible even as it unfolds. 

Fighting MS is completely an inside job. You might never see what’s deep inside my soul as we laugh and go about our days like nothing’s wrong. 

And, like a rose, I will blossom. Like a rose with its thorns, I am beautiful and protected in my frailty. I might not have thorns but I sure do have plenty of fight. And I require plenty of care. 

Consider yourself warned. And appreciated. 

My Boy

I would give you everything.

For you, I would do anything.

I have lived for your every potentiality.

I have vowed to be available to you for all time and eternity. 

Even though you no longer need me, I need you to love me. 

And I’m so thankful that you do. 

You will always be my boy. 

The Queen of Making Due

My brain has always always defaulted to the “glad game,” not just gratitude but looking for any little spark of good. This is a gift and a curse, as you can imagine. I am blessed to rarely feel defeated. I always find something to hold on to and some way to make the best of my situation. I am also cursed to find myself comfortable making due, making the most of a bad situation.

The faucet is broken? Well, don’t we have other faucets in our home? It’s fine. I don’t need to worry about that now. Besides we’re lucky to even have running water. A lot of people don’t.

My hamstring is torn? Well, I can still walk so it can’t be that bad. I’ll just keep going as best as I can… until I can’t. I mean, I’m so fortunate it’s just a tear; I don’t want to be a baby about it just sit around and get sad about it, for heaven’s sake.

My glasses are obviously the wrong prescription and are giving me a headache? Well, it’s better than not having glasses at all, and, maybe I’ll get used to them; after all, my left is isn’t even that bad. And if I sort of tip my head just right I think I can make it work. I’ll just be really careful driving for a while.

Oh? I have MS? Well, at least I have health insurance and can afford my medication. And it’s not like everyone doesn’t have their own problems. At least it’s me and not someone who could never be tough enough for this challenge!

And these are just some mild examples. I won’t get into all the truly horrible things I’ve put up with, allowed, accepted as just part of life. And I’m willing to bet I’m not the only one who does this sort of bright-side justification. I think a lot of women are prone to this, in fact. I just happen to have made it a way of life.

Most people would be surprised about this because I’m far from being weak or a doormat. I’m an advocate, an activist even. I don’t believe people should make due with bad circumstances. I think we all need to make the most of a situation and simultaneously work to improve the situation–unless it’s something in my personal life.

I’ve been telling myself since age nine that “I’m the queen of making due.” The simple little phrase came to me as I ran out of my house one crazy, angry morning eager to head to school and leave all the tension and pain behind.

“At least at school no one knows what my life is really like,” I thought. “So I’m going to be okay.” I set my jaw and grabbed my bag and threw open the door to seek asylum in the outside world. “I can make due as long as I have my friends. Ha! In fact,” I cheered myself, “I can be the queen of making due!”

My mom had always cautioned me against just looking for the silver lining. But I didn’t know how else to survive. I couldn’t control so much of my young life. But I could control if I let it upset me or not. So I became numb to it and became expert at finding any hint of any reason to make due. And I always found plenty.

The old adage, if you expect nothing you’ll never be disappointed, was my mantra. I knew I was tough and I didn’t need much. So I never asked for much. I wouldn’t say I’ve settled for my life. I have worked hard and found a way to access and receive so many blessings. But I have limited myself, my aspirations; and I’ve allowed myself to be unfulfilled–even to accept putting my passions and energies second to others and telling myself it’s good enough.

That’s what hurts. I chose to limit myself, my joy. Why would I do that? Why do I still find myself falling into that pattern? I know who I am. I know what makes me happy. I know my potential is unlimited. I don’t have to make due. Not anymore.

I’m no longer that scared little girl who lacks the ability to control her environment. I can still find reasons to be grateful that things aren’t worse. But I don’t have to stop there. I can also be grateful that I have the power, at this point in my life, to make things better. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

Can I end these false choices? Can I turn off my default switch and push beyond making due? Can I become, instead, the queen of making my world a better place?

I believe I can. I don’t have to settle for “not bad” or even “good enough.” Goodbye Queen of Making Due. Thank you for the solace you provided me all those years, but I’m ready for a new title. It won’t earn a new title overnight though. So, until then, I can make due with doing my best to become something greater. After all, each new breath is a chance to be reborn.

Here’s to new life.

 

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Soul Songs #24

Parables of Love, Part 2: The Guiding Light You do not need to search for the light. It is already there. You just need to open your eyes to see it break through.

Yellows and oranges and pinks swirled across the cover of a thick clothbound text. Parables of Love for the Seeking was sewn in rich green threads around the front edges.The pages had those nice soft, uncut edges with tabs and flags marking favored quotes and sections. A rainbow of ribbons and bookmarks overflowed from the manuscript. But she knew just which one she wanted.

“We start our official lessons today, sweet Sarah,” Emma began.

The clouds parted and revealed bright, glowing godlight in the distance behind where Emma spoke. The big gallery windows of the yoga studio yielded completely to the rays, their panes invisible as the morning fog lifted. The sky still glowed gray beyond the reach of the beams radiating from the pale yellow orb, but the clouds no longer seemed threatening.

I checked my phone and the forecast no longer called for rain. Maybe the April showers were finally coming to an end and spring sun showers settling in.

I put my phone away to attune my energy and attention on my teacher. Emma had been my yoga instructor for three years now. Her group classes brightened my weeks, especially our Sunday morning sessions. We all came to class seeking rejuvenation for the week and we found it, Sunday after Sunday, as our energies merged and the music reverberated off the studio walls and mixed with our own frequencies.

Three weeks ago, I asked about private lessons. I just needed more. I couldn’t explain it, but I followed the prompting and I asked if she was available.

“I’ll only agree if you’re really ready,” she’d replied to inquiry.

I didn’t know what she meant at the time, but, of course, I said I was ready. Last week all we did was breathe and practice listening, so I was curious to see what this week would hold.

“I want you to look at the light. Focus on its subtle movement. Just look. Focus.” Emma lowered her voice bit by bit as she spoke, growing increasingly serene. I knew serenity should be my goal too. But…

I couldn’t help it. I laughed.

“Focusing is not really a strength of mine.”

She just smiled. “Focus, Sarah.”

The light then seemed to dance a bit as I looked at it. Nothing is ever completely still, I thought. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on myself for my struggles sitting still or even with lying in savasana. We are always moving. Forward, I added to myself. I am here, in fact, to move forward.

I felt a calmness begin to overcome me.

“There you are. Now tell me what the light makes you think of?” Emma prompted.

“What do you mean?” I asked, “Like a flame, or like something deeper… I don’t know what your’e after here.”

“Sarah, I mean the lesson it teaches you. That’s what you’re here for, right?”

I nodded.

“Well, the lesson is yours. You already know it. So tell me what you’re thinking about.”

This was not what I expected. Not what I signed up for, I thought.

But then, for some reason, it came to me.

“It makes me think of a poem I wrote for my mom years ago, ‘The Ballad of the Guiding Light’. I gave it to her for Mothers Day. It had been a rough year. I’d been in and out doctors’ offices. I’d changed high schools again. She’d been considering remarrying and was filled with self-doubt. We both were. There had been a lot of tears that year, mostly alone in our rooms, never shared, but we’d known there’d been tears nonetheless. So…”

I paused, a lump forming in my throat as I remembered. I really hoped I wasn’t going to cry now.

“So… you wanted to give her a lesson in love, and tell her that she had taught you that the guiding light was still and always there,” Emma concluded.

“Exactly.”

“That’s your first lesson, Sarah. And it’s one you’ve already learned but sometimes forget. The light is always there. Tell me the lesson, Sarah. How do you know the light is always there. Remind yourself.”

So I began to explain how what had begun as night-lights and bed time songs and family prayers and transformed into something greater. I had learned, through my mother’s love, to see the light in others. At first, it was just her. I saw the twinkle in her eyes and how it never faded. I saw how she beamed when she was talking to children.

Soon, I could see it in the children themselves. Eventually, I learned to see it when she wasn’t even with me. I realized it wasn’t even her light. It was more than that. It was universal, pure and loving. Godlight, I called it, after reading that phrase in a book once in which the author described luminescent rays breaking through clouds. It was always there, somehow, even if forces tried to hide it.

Not clouds. Not sorrow. Not loneliness. Not pain. Nothing could put the light out.

And my mom taught me that. From night-lights to godlight, I knew the darkness could not endure. Light always breaks through.

I was crying by now, but smiling somehow.

“We’re almost done, sweetie. But you have more to say. Tell me more about that guiding light,” she paused, “godlight, I like that. I want to know what you’re not telling me. Something powerful happened in a moment when you knew forever that light would be with you. And, if you tell me, the lesson will never be lost.”

I came to Emma because I was lost. I knew she was right. I knew I had within me all the lessons I needed. I’d been given a rich and complicated life and so many blessings, but I was so unhappy. It  was time to remember what I already knew.

The guiding light is still there.

“About two years ago, I had the most amazing experience. And what I remember most was the light streaming through the windows, surrounding me…”

 

NOTE: Part III was published as Soul Songs 22 and immediately follows this section of My Soul Songs, Parables of Love