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

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?

 

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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.

 

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The Hike

The woman sighed, that kind of audible, can-you-feel-my-pain type of sigh that begs for attention. “My daughter is still trying to figure out what she’s going to do with her life.”

Boisterous laughter followed immediately from the younger of her two companions. “Me too!” she giggled now. “I mean, I just graduated last week, and I’ve been working in my field for more than three years, but I have no idea what I want to do with my life!”

I couldn’t help myself. “Do any of us? We work on that every day of our lives. I promise it’s normal, no matter who you are–or how old.” My laugh at the end softened my unsolicited interjection.

The younger of the companions whose name I would learn was Mia, looked up from her determined gait along the trail we traversed, and almost beamed.

“Really?” And she laughed again. Her laughter was strong and sweet and evidence to me that she was going to be more than okay. She had the keys to success already, joy and a passion for adventure. And the way she tackled our hike, it was clear she knew how to work hard and overcome challenges too. She didn’t need to do anything with her life but live and love it!

“Really.” I reiterated. “I still wonder, on a regular basis what I want to do now, or next, and even think to myself…’when I grow up I want to be …’ … seriously, we’re all wondering and seeking…  .”

Her mom, Lila, chimed in, “isn’t that the truth?”

And, isn’t it?

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We hiked Paradise Trail today, a name too obvious for pondering our journeys and reflecting on our destinations, but real nonetheless. As we hiked my mind wandered even as my feet fell solidly on the path.

What will I learn this year? What will I overcome? What difference will I make?

When will I finish my dissertation? What next? Am I doing my best? Is my heart full of love? Do I see people as people?

Do I see myself as valuable enough to answer these questions without judgment?

Atop Paradise Trail I felt strong and certain even though I don’t know what the future holds. I can answer these questions one day at a time, without judgment, and remind myself that I’ve already come a long way.

I have a path I’ve chosen, and it’s beautiful. It’s not paved, but it’s clear enough to follow. There are also plenty of opportunities to veer and revise my route if I choose, which I know is something of a luxury. And there’s some amazing scenery to take in. Even better, there are places to stop and replenish my body and soul with some shade, some company, and of course plenty of water and time to catch my breath. Places like Paradise Trail today.

A group of strangers, all somehow from the state of Oregon converging in the middle of the southern Utah desert to remind each other that no one has it all figured out. We are all deciding daily what to do with our lives. And we need to celebrate that together, for ourselves and for each other.

We’re all doing the best we can with what we have to carve out our own paths and to make them beautiful. Paradise is just where we meet along the way.

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“Going my way?”

“Which way?”

“I’m not sure, it looks promising in all directions.”

“Then let’s head out this way, together, for now.”

“Perfect.”

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Keep Moving Forward

The play was powerful. Audience members were choking back tears, sobbing, inhaling,then gasping for breath when their lungs noticed they’d not been released after moments of tension.

We sat in the back of the theater, grasping each other’s hands in an effort to find strength. Would this be our life?

Would my husband become the lonely care provider for my failing body and mind? Maybe, I thought. But that changes nothing–except the daily reminder my condition brings that I must be grateful. I must be strong. I must live and love every moment.

I don’t know what tomorrow holds. None of us do. I joke sometimes that, if there’s any kind of afterlife or supreme being, well then, I have some suggestions when I get to “the other side.” But other times I think, maybe not knowing is better. The mystery reminds us to cherish The Now. It reminds us that not only can we not control everything but that’s okay. The world is not on our shoulders. The world, instead, is our gift.

So, through tears and very natural fears, I left the theater, not at peace, but at acceptance. Will I still fight illness? Absolutely. Will I still worry about the likely period in my life when others need to take care of me? Inevitably. … and that’s not that different than anyone else. No one knows. No one controls. The lucky, though, we live–really live—each day.

I take a deep breath as we get in the car to head home and spend another night together, blessed in our marriage, and I remind myself as I instinctively check the time on my phone: “Don’t watch the clock; do what it does. Keep going.”*

*quote from Sam Levenson