Soul Songs #20: Extraordinary Girl

“She’s all alone again wiping the tears from her eyes. Some days she feels like dying. She gets so sick of crying.” *

Though ultimately an optimist, I spent my childhood nights in tears worried about the future, scared I’d never find love, praying for my family. I was so scared I’d let people down and never be good enough. I even had a special pillow that I used exclusively for crying into so my sister with whom I shared a room, could not hear me cry.

I’d cry for hours sometimes. Then I’d take a deep breath, say another prayer and rest with the assurance that tomorrow was a new day and held new possbilities. I’d listen to music until I fell asleep and always awoke ready for the day, wearing a smile more times than not. I would even tell myself that no one ever needed to know how I really felt or how weak and scared I was.

I now have a life far easier than anything I’d known was possible. I’m comfortable. I’m confident in who I am. And I  become bolder and braver every year, more my true unabashed self. My prayers are mostly for others and offered in gratitude.

But I still cry. Comfortable is not the same as happy. Grateful is not the same as fulfilled. But I am not scared. I’m an extraordinary girl in an extraordinary world. I know that now.

*lyrics from Greenday

Soul Songs #16

Learning to Love Myself

I have always known that I’m quite amazing. Does that sound egocentric? Just kidding. I know it does.

I’ve always been confident. I’ve always known my strengths. And I’ve been criticized for being too self-impressed.

But I am impressed with myself. I’ve overcome a lot. I’ve achieved a lot. I know my work makes a difference.

I also know that I love people. I genuinely love and care about others. The funny thing is that for the longest time I didn’t realize that I didn’t really love myself.

I didn’t love myself as much as I loved others anyway. I always put myself last. I always said “I can help” or “I could be good for that person.”

I actually thought that made me even more impressive. I managed to walk around a contradiction between “I’m amazing” and “other people matter more than I do.”

I have fancy language for all of this now. But I won’t go into it. All that matters is that I learn to love myself. IMG_1628

It’s not enough to be impressed by myself. I must love myself and care for myself. I might even put myself first sometimes–because sometimes you just have to.

Love matters. And I’m going to love myself more than anyone else. Because I am always with me; and that relationship matters too.

Maybe I can help myself. Maybe I could be good for me. And I can still be pretty damn impressive.

Pink Tube Socks 

I never understood the reason to be just “sugar and spice and everything nice.” How limiting it seemed! Of course I told everyone that. I could play house, play school, play with my dolls and do their hair. I could dream looking through the JC Penney catalog at all the princess dresses I dreamed to wear with my long golden blonde hair cascading in waves over the back. I could sing lullabies to my sisters and give eskimo kisses to soothe souls.

But I could also climb a tree higher than anyone I knew and win every race on our bikes. I popped the best wheelies and had the best hot-wheels collection in the neighborhood. I could dream of being a stunt driver. I could scare the other kids with spiders and snakes and worms and any creepy crawly. I could be dared to do just about anything. And I never lost a game of dodgeball! I loved my “snips and snails and puppy dog tails” side.

I was lucky that my family supported my supposed contradictions in my tomboy/princess persona. I remember months and months of my parents going store to store to find a pair of pink tube socks for me. This gesture exemplifies the love and dedication my mom gave me. And this very specific fashion need exemplifies my true nature.

My mom would have done, and did, just about anything for me possible. No desire was ever considered silly. The countless hours caring for my hair and learning new styles so I could feel like a princess in a fairy tale as I ran around in my green baseball tee, nike shorts and pink tube socks are cherished memories. My beautiful dollhouse and coveted race car track for my shiny hot-wheels weren’t the most expensive toys in the neighborhood but they were exactly what I wanted. And the yards and yards of fabric for me to make clothes for my barbies stored next to my sports equipment fed my imagination and boundless energy. My mom made all of this possible.

I was encouraged to be uniquely me and proud of my complexities and gifts. Pink could be my favorite color even if I loved sports. I could be a tough princess. And I could be very clear on what I wanted and fight for it with a loving heart.

I was artistic and athletic. I was adventurous and nurturing. I was a peace maker and a leader. I was loving and driven. I was tender and strong.  And I was always supported.

No matter how many struggles life threw my way–hospital visits, abuse, lost friendships–I never doubted I was loved for just who I was.

Like many women, the world challenged my strength and my unique nature. I subscribed to magazines that advertised very specific ways I should act and feel. I listened to music about how I should love and dream. And I lost myself a little bit more each year.

The path of least resistance was the path of suppressing some of what made me uniquely me, until I forgot just what made me special. But life sent me a wake up call a few years ago that I couldn’t fully appreciate until recently. When you realize life is short you realize you need to make the most of it.

We have to do what makes us truly happy. We have to be true to who we are and make the most of our gifts. This is our mortal cause. Every year we must become more and more who we truly are.

The world needs our unique contributions and will love us for who we are, if given a chance. My mom taught me this and I’m finally learning to believe.

And, today, these pink tube socks remind me of this.

How do you remind yourself to be bravely true to you?

 

ajs-a51627-retro-tube-socks-white-with-hot-pink-over-knee_2080458

Soul Songs #9

Who Am I?

When I imagine the way in which others see me, I still think the shy, smart, sad, and painfully quiet little blonde with glasses is all there is.

But I was the bubbly blonde who talked and laughed all through Sunday school. I was the girl who was everyone’s friend. I was the girl who could outrun and out arm wrestle any boy. I was the girl who had boys vying for her attention. I was the girl who could sing like an angel. I was the fashionable girl who made her own trends.

Still I became the shy, quiet, but smart little blonde with glasses. I cried every night. I lost my voice and stopped speaking up. I learned to blend in, not wanting to make waves or risk attention. I feared making friends I would just have to leave.

It hurts me even now to realize I learned to suppress my laughter, my strength, my energy, my very needs and goals. But what hurts even more than acknowledging the forces to which I was responding when I learned to hide my true essence is the fact that I allowed myself to be only half alive for far too long after those forces ceased to be part of my life.

I have decided to stop responding to those forces, now long past, and to live fully, true to myself.

I am brave and strong. I give voice to the voiceless. I sing songs of joy and love. I put myself out in the world. I take risks. I fear no one. I live for no one’s approval. I live to love life and make a difference.

I am not shy and quiet. I am bold and vibrant. I am no longer hiding who I truly am.

 

img_1416img_1344-1

 

Extraordinary Girl, Part 2

I pull out my American Idiot tee, hoping to feel sufficiently badass for strength training at the gym. But it happens again. I relive everything in the moment it takes to pull it over my still-sturdy shoulders.

I request Siri begin playing “Extraordinary Girl” to get me pumped, and to process the pain of the memory. And I travel back in time.

It was December 2, four years ago. I stood in line to purchase my commemorative tee, and one for my husband and son of course. I was giddy with anticipation before the show.  The reviews had been solid, but that didn’t matter. I’d wanted to see American Idiot for years. It had been a feat to get tickets and coordinate our schedules, but everything had fallen into place and now, there I was, buying mementos to mark the moment.

Following the sing-alongs, the tears, the groans, the laughs, I stood for the ovation. “Well, crap.” I thought. “I can’t feel my back. That’s strange.” I walked out to the car, pounding my side, trying to bring the feeling back. It never came.

Ruston drove home as I tried to calm my nerves. I noticed, instead, that it wasn’t just my back. It was the whole right side of my torso. I wasn’t as scared as I should be, but I was mentally playing the odds like I always do. “What are the odds this is cancer? Circulatory? Spinal? Neurological? Just a pinched nerve?”

Two weeks later, it was worse and the pinched nerve theory was eliminated completely. After a course of steroids and ant-inflammatory drugs, so was the spinal theory. Something wasn’t right. I began researching. I knew what was wrong, but the odds seemed so slim! How could God allow me to have this condition? The same condition that claimed my step-dad’s first wife? The condition I had donated funds to for more than a decade so none would have to watch their loved ones deteriorate as he and my stepbrother and sister had.

How could it be?

Time passed and I visited clinics and doctors a few times each week. 9 MRIs later, the diagnosis I had given my self four weeks into the ordeal proved irrefutable. MS.

Insert favorite curse word, tears, anger, regret, complete frustration with statistics and probability–my beloved logic… all of it.

“I wish it was you” I said, as horrible as I knew it was. I am good at taking care of people. I like it, even. I hate being taken care of.

So I dedicated myself to caring for others while I could. “I should do this. I don’t know how much longer I’ll be able to…” That warped sense of depreciating value shifted, though, and I’m thankful.

I increased my attention to my own health and wellness. And I realized that not knowing how much time I had left could be an important reminder to enjoy life, live as I had always wanted to–and not wait!

I run to the car now, chilled by the frigid 20-something weather and lightly falling snow. Fully present, no longer dwelling and processing on my lessons learned, I start the engine. I have places to go, people to see, things to do!

Heading to the gym tonight, I’m reminded of my strength and the power of living fully. My choices determine my destiny far more than any “condition” outside of my control. And, so, here I am, on my way to laugh with friends as we lift, squeezing in an extra strength session between travels.

This is the life I want. I want fun, fitness, friends, and the family I’ve made around me of those who treasure joy as much as I do and never take a moment together for granted.

 

FullSizeRender

Reaching for the Sun

It appeared out of nowhere, like something from a modern fairy tale. As the sun began to rise it caught my eye. Well, how could I have missed it, really? Coffee in hand, I pulled open the heavy drapes to begin my morning meditation and there it was.

The stalk was more than four feet high and the golden petals circled a seed-pod large enough to drop a garden’s worth of seeds to spring to life in the coming year. It’s massive leaves, unfolded, sparkled a bit in the early light reflecting off the morning dew. I stood in awe, mug poised, paused, just before my parted lips.

Somehow, a stunning sunflower had sprung up in the middle of my roses–my carefully cultivated rose bushes. For years I have cared for and photographed my 24 rose bushes. Their fragrant layered petals and prickly stems have kept me company since we moved in more than a decade ago. I had dealt with the random stray weed, the circling bees, and cobwebs from friend and foe. But I had never had anything like this surprise sunflower.

Truth be told, I am not a huge fan of roses. They had been planted before my time but I cared for them. I loved their scent and their bright colors outside my window, surrounding my porch as I sat and studied. I would have planted wild flowers though, free, untamed, varying heights and colors and needs. But I live within the boundaries of my HOA and knew roses were manageable for this chronic allergy sufferer to care for with limited time and effort, and huge reward.

Roses had always seemed too predictable though, too typical. And those thorns! So uninviting to the photographer stepping in, leaning in for the zoom on a perfectly poised honey be in the center of the bunch when–“ow!” If roses were people, they would be the admired and cooly popular girl who didn’t want a hug or offer a smile to those she didn’t know. Not the type I would be friends with!

But this morning, in the midst of those cold beautiful roses, stood this reminder of not only the kind of person I would befriend, but the kind of person I want to be. This singularly strong and vibrant sunflower in a bed of roses, not looking down on them but looking up to the rising sun, turning to face it’s golden god-light breaking through early morning clouds. “Wow.” That was all I could say.

I don’t know for a fact that this sunflower was sent as a message to me, but that’s how I chose to take it. I sat and meditated on love, light, and the strength to grow into the fullness of who I am meant to be even amongst those who might prefer something more typical or traditionally beautiful, or something that seemed less out of place. I gave thanks as I watched the rays of light unfold from behind pale clouds. I felt a little taller, a little bolder.

I will never be traditionally beautiful or sweet but I have my own appeal. I am so strong. I am so full of life. And I refuse to stop growing, no matter where I find myself. I just keep reaching for the sun. sunflower-closeup-480x294

 

No Amount of Makeup Can Cover these Scars

“Now, girls, there is no way that this mascara is ever going to fully coat your lashes if you just put it on one side. You have to paint both sides of your lashes, like this. Close your eyes, dear.”

My friends and I looked at each other in shock and horror. “I never even thought of that!” I said, and was greeted with a murmured chorus of me neithers. We were thirteen and fourteen years old and we had been bravely, even boldly making up our faces before school, at lunch, after PE, in the bathroom before classes for which we dared to show up tardy. Just a month before, in fact, I had been re-applying my makeup in the bathroom before fourth period because I wanted to feel confident before our quiz; when the bell rang, I tossed my compact and brushes into my purse–yes, I carried a purse at all times–and ran to class, falling down the stairs and ripping all the tendons in my left ankle in the process. But my make up looked great.

The presenter continued and we leaned in to listen from our seats in the multi-purpose room. All 8th grade girls were seated in rows, surrounded by teachers and staff, as we were given instruction on how to apply our makeup and pick the most flattering clothes for our “season.” The guest speaker was from Nordstrom, an upper-end retailer most of us never entered. She had talked to us already about how to select our best colors and how to flatter our various body types.

“Now, you’re going to need to line your lips or you might as well not even wear lipstick.” This statement triggered my first negative thought of the hour. ‘I don’t have time for some of this,’ I thought. ‘Maybe I could do this just for special occasions like school dances,’ I decided.

I was an honors student, a spelling bee champion, a student of the month, and a tiny little girl living below the poverty line, walking more than two and a half miles to Shumway Junior High so that I could still walk to school and see my friends from my old neighborhood. And I wasn’t bothered by the presumption that fashion and makeup were not a luxury but a necessity, nor by the notion that it was deemed appropriate by the principal (whose name I never knew) to take time from our instruction to “learn” these things. I was bothered by the fact that I might not be able to live up to the standard being set in this assembly.

Applying my makeup this morning before even stepping out to get my coffee and the paper, I am reminded of that moment in junior high when I felt not demeaned, but motivated. I increasingly improved in my make up and hair and fashion skills. I grew to love getting ready in the morning. I found cheap ways to emulate the look I was supposed to create. I studied the styles of the likes of Whitney Houston and Madonna and Susanna Hoffs to develop my own look–that, we had been told, was very important. I convinced my mom to help me buy Seventeen and Young Miss magazines so I could research the latest trends and learn more fashion tips each month. And, in our home of liberal political activists, no one questioned this or felt it inappropriate not just for society to set such standards, but for my school to have done so.

I had actually been told, since my first day of kindergarten, to hold in my stomach, stand up straight, and smile whenever I entered a room. It’s funny how it never occurred to me to share this advice with the children I later nannied or raised. But I still think of it ever time I enter a room, just like I know to apply my makeup and fix my hair before leaving the house–to go to the supermarket, even.

As a high school principal, I  rarely found girls in the bathrooms applying make up or fixing their hair. They’d be late because they were standing in one of those circles all fiends make when sharing stories and gossip, but  never because of hair or makeup. I wonder what they would think of my friends and I. Were we more vain, more superficial? Was it just the 80’s? I don’t know. But, even at 42, I hear the voice of the stunning fashionista telling me, each morning, to make sure I coat both lashes fully with mascara.

Even today, I recall that day I sat listening and learning how to make my lips look properly pouty and my eyes to look sufficiently sultry. I should have been listening about how to report the acts that I was being put through by a trusted adult male each week, or how to feel strong enough to run away, or how to study for the SAT so I could get the education I so desired so I could escape from the life I feared I was being sucked into. But I wasn’t taught these things. And I wasn’t questioning why. I was just worried about my makeup.

I’ve come a long way since junior high. But I still have the scars. And, try though I might, I can never cover them all with makeup.

IMG_3358

Look Up

She was walking alone. The silky black hair falling forward would have hid her small round face were it not bouncing and swaying in the slight spring breeze. She was beautiful, but not in the way that would be idolized in her high school yearbook. She had a grace she appeared to not even know existed. Her eyes downcast, her face down, I worried she would not even see a car coming as she crossed the street. My soul cried out to her soul, “look up, sweet girl, there is so much to see and do, both for beauty and for your very survival; look up.” I’m sure I imagined it, but her chin did seem to tip up and the sun caught her soft features and her bronze skin glowed.

I caught my breath as I was transported back in time to see the other side of the image, the yin to her yang.

*     *     *

A slight young blonde took purposeful strides as she rushed home. She had to walk fast since she chose not to deal with the drama of the bus ride but had to be home in time to greet her sisters when they got home from school. She had to let them in and make sure they did their homework before she settled in to do her own hours of studying.

Her head was down as she walked. She refused to make eye contact walking through the city, it wasn’t safe to draw attention to oneself, she thought. The Portland sky was mostly grey but bits of what she called “godlight” poked through from time to time to keep her going as she peered through the long bangs and swishing hair in her face. A shock of sunlight caught the edge of her hair as she stepped forward. “Wow, my hair has gold highlights, fiery gold.” She was surprised to realize she thought it was pretty. She wondered if she was pretty. She lifted her chin and bobbed her head up and down subtly in a few different directions to admire the sparkling highlights from different vantage points as she walked, still careful not to move too much or draw attention to herself.

When she made it home, she had a few minutes to herself before her youngest sister arrived. So she stood before the bathroom mirror, in natural light then electric. “My hair is pretty,…” she didn’t know what to do with that thought and it didn’t change anything, she knew. She was still the same quiet, smart, shy little girl no one at school even wanted to know. She knew she had talents and skills and dreamed often of showing these, but never did. Finding something pretty about herself did not change that. She would keep to herself, it was safer that way. And she had too many responsibilities to spend time with anything but schoolwork and family duties. More important than talent was dependability. She was and always would be dependable; let her sisters get the attention, grow their talents, receive acclaim. That was the way it should be.

She turned off the light above the mirror and went to prepare the afternoon snacks. No more time for self-indulgence.

*      *     *

The light changed from red to green. The girl had crossed the street and it was safe to turn and continue the drive home. “I wish she knew how beautiful she was; I wonder if she’ll ever know, ever learn, like I have, to finally love herself.”

How do we teach our girls to love themselves? How did I learn? How did I go from lonely dreamer to beloved leader and empowered activist? I don’t know if it was just time and maturation. I love who I am though, and I love my life. I still retreat to that shy quiet girl from time to time, like when I received a life-altering diagnosis last year or when I hear a song from my childhood and remember…

Maybe this is why I went into education, for all the little girls who needed someone to tell them, you are beautiful, you are powerful, you are a gift to this world. Look up, sweet girls, there is so much to see and do.