There’s this guy who stands outside at parent walk-up at my son’s school. I do not know him. Every day when I walk up, he stares at me. I don’t mean lingering glance, I mean full-on staring at me like a I was prancing down the sidewalk with a singing kangaroo hanging out of my purse. And he does it every. single. day.
It happened last year, too. Never a “hello” from this guy or a smile or even a weak, “you look so familiar.” Nope. He just looks at me without blinking for an inordinately long amount of time. My kids have asked me who he is. I don’t have any idea, except that he is a grown man with apparent respect and boundary issues.
Now….normally I’m not a confrontational person. My father calls me “peace keeper”. I prefer to avoid arguments when possible. I try to model problem solving behaviors to my kids. I’m not violent. But this guy, this guy is stepping over a line and I think it’s because I am female and I am small and to this man, small female equals powerless. Voiceless.
It makes me angry. It makes me wish I was some secret super-ninja so I could just reach out and snap his arm in half and leave him in a heap by his truck.
The funny thing about my size is that – as I said to my friend today – I am not small on the inside. I am mighty, lionhearted, and full of righteous indignation. You will not make repeated attempts to humiliate me or back me into a corner and not receive commensurate response.
So one day, as I was walking towards my son, this man was walking the opposite direction (towards me), his gaze fixed on my face the entire time. I had had enough. I stopped, right in front of him, took off my sunglasses, and asked him loudly if he had a problem. Yep. Gangster style. Threw out my arms and said “do you have a problem?”
Actually now that I think about it, it was much more Jennifer Love Hewitt screaming, “What do you want from me?!?” than anything else.
The guy… a bit unsettled by my Moms in da Hood behavior… stopped, looked at the ground, muttered something, and then made a beeline for his vehicle. Since then, each afternoon at walk-up, he makes a concerted effort to look anywhere else but at me. There have been a handful of afternoons that I stare directly at his face, daring him to look at me. He doesn’t.
Victory? Maybe. Maybe he’s not a bad guy. Maybe he thinks I’m a bitch (I don’t care.) I think plenty of men don’t know how scary/creepy/intimidating they can be. Maybe he was clueless. Maybe he’s just rude. I don’t know.
What I do know – or hope – is that thanks to our brief exchange he won’t choose to look at a woman like she’s on the damn dinner menu just because she’s small, or attractive, or defenseless against it. He knows now that despite appearances, she might call him on his disgusting behavior. A lion may live within her.
I used to think that love was a wildfire. A hot, passionate, all-engulfing blaze, sometimes fleeting and often times destructive. The kind of fire that consumes and takes everything for itself. That exciting, fervid heat that tears through the dry brush of the heart, bringing destruction to all it touches and with it, a chance to start over from nothing. A white-hot bolt of lightning illuminating the whole sky. Electric. A summer night’s kiss on the hood of the car that is so conductively charged, the engine might spontaneously turn over from the contact.
You think you might not survive it. You’re not even sure you want to.
Now that I have more years – and in theory a measure of wisdom – under my belt, I still think that love is fire.
It’s the orange-blue embers that smolder in a deep stone fireplace in the heart of a woodland cabin. Quiet, save for the occasional crackle and pop of the logs it slowly, methodically devours. The kind of fire that gives itself to warm others, lights up the dark, soothes the world-weary bones that have been out in the cold too long. It is the smoke billowing from a tall red brick chimney, signaling a safe place – a refuge from the elements. The fire that though it may sleep for a night, is certain to resume its work in the morning radiating heat and lighting the darkness. Dependable. A gentle hand on the small of my back, reassuring me that we’re in this together.
Still hot, still potentially destructive, but a comfort to everyone who feels it.
You know it’ll always be there, no matter what you do or where you go, and there’s no satisfaction in the world greater than that.
I never understood the phrase “what kind of fool do you take me for?” As a child it was strange to think there might be a variety of ways one could be a fool. Now I know there are innumerable ways, incomprehensibly vast are the possibilities.
A young fool, an old fool, a stubborn fool, a blind fool, an optimistic fool, a lovesick fool… You get the idea. I suppose it should be a comfort to us that we all will embody at least one of these fool archetypes in our lifetimes.
It isn’t. In fact, my ego bristles at the thought. The mere implication that I’ve been had sends me reeling. Yet, I rush in. I take people at their word. I believe love always wins. I’m a textbook fool.
Maybe it’s not that I mind being foolish. Maybe I just don’t like having it pointed out to me. There’s the rub. It’s embarrassing to have egg on your face and worse to have to clean it up yourself because the loud accusing voices have gone eerily silent.
Fools are hopeful, generous, and sometimes make stupid choices – but I always think they have great intentions. I want to open myself up and expose my intentions. Then I wouldn’t be called a fool. I’d be called a humanitarian. Maybe if I was understood I’d be better loved.
It’s a gray day and the sky is overcast and I can’t tell what time it is because everything around me is white and pale and motionless. I’m driving aimlessly towards some forgotten destination. Daydreaming. I look up and see a tiny opening in the clouds. Just a crack, just enough to allow a sliver of yellow light to peek through. As I drive the crack gets larger and golden rays begin to rain down from the heavens. I change direction. I drive towards the light. Parking in a field, I get out of the car and walk until I am underneath the ever-widening celestial portal. I stand still and let the warm sunlight dance along my face and shoulders. Goosebumps. For the first time in I don’t know how long, I smile so hard it hurts my cheeks. I bloom like the flowers in the field, hips swaying in the breeze. I am happy. I want to stay here, engulfed in sunlight, forever. Eventually the light fades and the air gets cooler and I know I will have to drive back home. I feel at once grateful for the sun’s caress and angry for having touched it, only to lose it again. Just yesterday my whole life was gray and until I looked up I hadn’t known it could be colorful. I am angry at the sun for embracing me so, for offering me a glimpse into possibility. How can I return contented to my cold, gray life? How can I think of anything else but the few moments I spent illuminated in that field? I pass the time looking up at the sky, chasing the sun, coveting her glowing affections. One tiny opening – a crack in the clouds – has changed my very existence.
I don’t want you to feel guilty. You couldn’t have prevented this. Bleeding things are my weakness and your soul is made of my own. You were a gift from the moon herself, one I could not accept. But you promised. I have loved you before I knew who you were, before I even met me…
I cut myself open to show you
That I hurt, too
My soul dripped out
Onto your hands
And we danced…
The beginning was different. You were not like the others, then you slowly recovered and I reluctantly discovered… it wasn’t real. It never was, it could not be. It’s ok. I understand. Many have sought my radiating light. Your morning star. Temporary. Like a storm that rolls in after a week of beautiful sunshine, I knew this would come. Expected. I hoped I was wrong, hoped I could believe my dreams, hoped there was a place for us. You promised.
In the end I will be hollow
Drained from loving
All I see in that place
Is your face
I have learned to keep my distance. I will learn to shut my mouth, not let it out. Do not be seen. They don’t like that. Vulnerable. Be strong instead. Amuse them, but never reveal yourself. Do not speak of love or sadness or longing. Albatross. A lesson. A gift. …but he promised.
There is no heart in me
It sits, unbeating, next to you
Whatever you do
Throw it away
I want you to know you are different. You are everything. You are the resplendent beach house I could never really afford. I will miss you in the way one misses a beautiful thing that was not theirs to keep. I’ll hide the photographs on my bookshelf. I’ll whisper your name in my sleep. I’ll hear your voice in crowded rooms and echoes of your laughter in other universes not yet imagined. I promise.
Yes, I’m quoting Tom Hanks as Coach Jimmy Dugan in the classic film A League of Their Own. The entirety of the quote is thus:
“It’s supposed to be hard. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great.”
Now, Coach Jimmy was talking about baseball in this clip, but I think this sentiment can be applied to a lot of other things in life. The movie itself is about half the Americans who were a part of what we now call the Greatest Generation. The extraordinary women who held this country together during World War II. Their husbands went away to fight, and these women put on their big girl britches and handled it. They worked in factories, some joined the armed forces themselves and yes, some played professional baseball. We women are magnificent creatures: adaptive, nurturing, capable, with strength unexpected in common hours (to borrow from Thoreau).
Tonight – in the shower, of all places – I got to thinking more about this. It stemmed from a conversation I had earlier today about respect, dignity, equality, and all the things going on in our country and our world today, and this quote is what came to mind. Why? Because I cannot think of a single hero, a single inspirational story, a single great achievement that happened without some pain or struggle or sacrifice.
When we talk about the greatest generation (my grandparents), we talk about their fearlessness. Their work ethic, their grit. Where do you think that came from? Put simply, they had hard lives. Yes, they were happy and yes, they lived at quite an extraordinary time in America’s history, but they definitely carried much on their shoulders. Many of them were mature as kids, holding jobs and carrying a workload at school that was greater than ours (much greater than that of our children). They didn’t have the technology we have or many of the creature comforts that have made us soft. Seems to me there’s something to be said for adversity. Friction. Failure.
Nowadays there are movements to stop bullying, which I believe in and am a part of. There are movements to respect people’s feelings, and I also am fine with that. Movements to keep people from saying things. Movements to keep people from being triggered. I can’t help but wonder if we’re doing this all wrong.
Shrinking this down to include only my household, I think that in my efforts to provide my kids with a soft place to land, I may be inadvertently depriving them of their potential. I think that I am part of a generation that may be working too hard to protect ourselves and each other from the very things that will make us – and them – great. Perhaps our kids will live up exactly to the standards we set for them. Perhaps that bar is getting lower and lower all the time.
Does that make sense? Maybe not, but let’s follow the thread and unravel the sweater and see what’s left behind. My dad said something to me today about his work environment being so different than it was even 15 years ago. “What do you mean?”, I asked him. “Well, nowadays, if you say something that even slightly comes off as harsh, you hurt someone’s feelings, they’ll just quit on ya.” I am so surprised by this because Dad works in construction, which historically is a field chock-full of gruff guys who can take a bit of criticism. What – if anything – does it say about society that a man can’t correct another man’s work for fear of hurting his feelings? Are we at a point now that we cannot hear criticism or we do not wish to improve, or we shut down and quit a job each time a situation is uncomfortable? Is this what happens when every kid in a tournament receives a participation trophy? Is this what I create when I run to the school every time my kid gets picked on?
Further down the rabbit hole, I think about the stories I’ve read or heard about great women in history. Strong women. (Women in particular because that’s who I identify with. Powerful, defiant, rebellious ones – well, for the same reason.) Fiery. Fierce. Independent. Defiant. The world changers. WHY were they so strong? HOW did they become so? WHAT was so important to them that they were willing to risk their lives? WHY are we still talking about them today? Would we know their names at all if they hadn’t experienced some injustice that lit a fire within them to reshape their world?
Would ANY of these women have made history without first being told they couldn’t?
In a word… no.
I put it in perspective for myself and ask the same questions. Would I be me if I hadn’t been hurt before? Would I feel so triumphant if I hadn’t had to figure out how to claw myself up from rock bottom? Would I be so passionate if no one who spoke to me was ever allowed to hurt my feelings? I think not. Granted, a certain amount of fire is in my blood, and I was more or less “born this way”, but I don’t think I would be this version of me if I hadn’t had to go a few rounds in the ring.
I think that kids learn resilience from standing up. I remember some parts of my own childhood and the feeling of pride that swelled in me when I finally conquered something I had been working on for ages. I don’t believe I would have felt that pride – or felt anything at all – if someone had done the hard work for me. Now, I have this thought when I watch my own kids struggling. Of course I want to run to them when they are frustrated about trying something for the twentieth time. I want to reach down, swoop them up in my arms, complete the task for them and make it all better. If I’m honest, though, that’s got nothing to do with them and everything to do with me. I want to make ME feel better. I want to soothe my OWN heartache. I want to keep myself from hurting because when they are upset, of course I feel it.
I’ve resolved to hike up my boots and get the fuck over that.
You see, before they can stand, they have to be allowed to fall down. We do them no favors by shielding them from ugly and uncomfortable parts of life. In fact, we do them a great disservice. We underestimate their capabilities when we don’t let them handle difficult tasks on their own. They need to find their own voices, and then they need to figure out what they want to use those voices to say. Without adversity, they cannot ever truly discover who they are and why they believe what they do.
Life is hard for all of us. It’s a struggle. It is, and I know it is, and I am not making light of that or trying to minimize it in any way. There are big hurdles for each of us, and each journey is different. Divorce. Death. Sickness. Pain. Heartache. I have been hurt a lot in my life, many times by people I love and trust. That’s very hard to go through. It’s hard to heal from. Hard to talk about, and hard to forgive. Hard to move forward, hard to grow, and hard not to get stuck in resentment or bitterness. The hard, though, is part of the journey. Without the trials, there couldn’t be triumph. We cannot be victors if we are unwilling to step into the skirmish for fear of having our feelings hurt.
(I say this with love, as I am one of the MOST sensitive souls out here. I’m not advocating for rudeness, but I know that rude people exist. My kids will either crumble into dust at their first unpleasant conversation, or they will know how to handle it and feel secure in themselves. I want them to be bold and confident and capable. That’s what I’m getting at with all this.)
I want my kids to know that life is good, that it’s full of love and light and good people and potential and promise. There’s another side to that coin, though. I also want them to know that life is grind and sweat and conflict and strife and it’s fucking hard. I never want to see them hurt. I do want to see them succeed – and I want to see fire in their eyes when they do. I’d much rather have world-changers as kids than comfortable semi-adults who can’t handle confrontation. It’s SUPPOSED to be hard. After all, the hard is what makes it great.
I scribbled the words excitedly in my journal like a 15 year old writing about her new crush. So profound. Or was it? I can never tell with these thoughts that occur to me in the shower, or while driving around town, or while I’m half-watching Law & Order: SVU and half-making an imaginary grocery list. (Does anyone else do that? I’d imagine it’s a normal part of life as a mom/household manager/toddler wrangler.)
Anyway… beige. The walls in our apartment are beige. I don’t mind it. It’s not particularly exciting, but it’s fine. Beige is a neutral – one of the blending colors. It’s a color that allows all the other decor to be seen. Beige is a good background because it isn’t memorable or noticeable. It does not stand out.
Don’t be beige is my new motto. So what exactly do I mean when I say, “don’t be beige”?
I mean show yourself. Reveal who you are. Don’t be afraid to live your life at full volume because you think someone else won’t like your song. In order to live a fulfilled life, you need to in full glory and magnificence, without any care for what anyone else thinks.
I think that people are comfortable being beige. Beige isn’t scary. I get that. They feel beige is safe. It’s polite. It doesn’t offend. I tried to be beige, I tried to please people, tried to blend, tried to step back so others could have the attention. While blending in and being beige may make others comfortable, ultimately living life this way ends in disappointment and regret.
Two major things I noticed while I was consciously camouflaging myself:
There is no benefit to me. – I gained nothing from stepping back, dimming my own light or quieting my passion. Literally nothing good comes from silencing my voice so that someone else can speak. I get no life experience, meet no new people, and receive no praise because no one sees me. And ironically trying to please others didn’t make them like me more ore less.
There is no benefit to others. – The people who shine do that because of who they are. Colorful, magnetic, fun, talented. My beige-ness didn’t accentuate them. It only hid me. Worse, being beige causes me to miss out on contributing to the world in a way that only I can.
When I realized I wasn’t being my authentic self, I made a choice to be more colorful. I spoke up when I felt passionate. I accepted invitations to parties. I wore the sexy dress without worrying what someone else might think. Creatively, I have so much to give, and expressing that through writing, podcasting, and other venues allows me to contribute something tangible to the world. My kids see me being silly and it shows them that they can be silly too. I follow my own rules and beat my own drum and in the same way, peers and friends hear me telling my story and they are emboldened to tell their own. It’s a beautiful domino effect.
These days, I have renovated my soul. There is no beige. I am memorable. I stand out. I am not a neutral, because I have a voice and I’m not afraid to be seen, and my home – and my whole world – is so much more colorful.