“Fifteen, dear God fifteen,” was my friend R.’s response to my daughter’s last birthday. And her reaction wasn’t in a “wow I can’t believe she’s already fifteen” kind of a way it was in a “oh my God fifteen was the worst,” kind of a way. Fifteen. When, as that modern day troubadour Taylor Swift once wrote “all you wanted to be was wanted.” (Oh Taylor. Can we just stop pretending you were ever that 15 year old?) .
I expected having a fifteen-year-old would make me feel a lot of things: old, certainly, proud for sure, sentimental, definitely, even slightly relaxed as the light at the end of the adolescent tunnel was finally in sight. I thought I was prepared for some teenage angst over finals and friends that I would navigate by engineering Hallmark Channel worthy moments of motherly wisdom dispensed over coffee shop lattes after a girls day of shopping. As I’ve written before, I didn’t handle the baby or toddler years well at all, and the ‘kid’ and ‘tween’ years were equally challenging. But I HAD this “parent of a teenager” thing. “Bring it on, fifteen,” I thought. I GOT this. Ha. That’s cute that I thought I was prepared.
I turned 15 in 1981. I often joke that there wasn’t an episode of Love Boat that I missed that year or the three years that followed, because I spent every Saturday night in my parent’s living room watching TV with them until my father fell asleep after the opening credits of Fantasy Island and my mother would nudge and nudge him until he went up to bed. Oh I had occasional exceptions to the rule but for the most part my teenage years were spent with my TV, my books, and my ever-present variety of comfort food. School provided the comfortable framework for life. At school I knew who I was supposed to be, where I was supposed to go and how to behave. Drop me in the middle of a slew of classes and non-athletic extra curricular activities like yearbook or drama club and I was your gal. Plunk me down at a Friday night soccer or basketball game and you would have thought I had landed on Mars. School gave me my identity. Out of school I was just another fat girl who couldn’t find clothes to fit her and had no idea what to do with her hair. So I clung to the familiar: my parents, my home, my favorite TV shows that ran on syndication every day, and endless re-readings of Gone with the Wind and Little Women. And I waited: For fifteen to be over. For high school to be over. For life to start happening.
When I was fifteen (or sixteen or seventeen for that matter). I would arrive at school on a Monday morning, having spent my weekend in the cocoon of my room and my family, to find the hallways and homerooms would be filled with gossip about the weekend. Who was at what party. Who went out to the Pit to go drinking. (If you’re from a small town you had a Pit. You may not have called it that but you had one. How telling is it that I’m 48 years old and to this day I have no idea where this infamous Pit is located in my hometown. Now that’s nerd status for you.) Who went to the movies. Who went into Portland. Who kissed whom. And so on, and so on. I’d listen and smile and nod as though I had even one clue what anyone was talking about and on the inside I’d wonder what forces of nature decreed that girls like me never were included in weekend revelry. Yeah, I know, the fact that I used words like “revelry” should have clued me in. Now I don’t want to give you the impression that I was bullied or teased in anyway. Oh I was in my youth, but that ended long before high school. In high school I might as well have been one of the teachers for all that my classmates cared. I was just… overlooked. I compensated by excelling in all things nerdy – editing the yearbook, serving as President of the National Honor Society and Secretary of the Student Council– and trying to pretend it didn’t matter.
But for all that my teenage years were frustrating and lonely there is one thing that I didn’t have to contend with – social media. Now I love social media as much as the next person for a variety of things- it’s connected me to long-lost friends, brought me three amazing, funny and supportive on-line communities of mom-friends, and of course provided entertainment in the form of finding out what song is about me or what kind of sunbeam I am. (Ok granted, I could live without knowing how far someone ran, how many yoga classes they go to, or how “totally awesome’ crossfit is but that’s my own fat-girl baggage.) But I’m not fifteen. And when I was, I didn’t have the ability to sit home by myself on a Saturday night and scroll through an Instagram feed chockablock full of my high school peers at bonfires, on beaches, at pool parties, or shopping. I wasn’t confronted by endless selfies of girls in identical bikinis talking about thigh-gaps. I didn’t have photographic evidence of all the things that were happening when I was home by myself watching Carol Burnett and Friends.
I occasionally scroll through Liza’s Instagram feed just to make sure there’s nothing objectionable and what I see often makes me shudder. Oh there’s no violence or bad language or sexual content- but there is photo after photo after photo of teenage girls in more makeup than a toddlers and tiara contestant, pouting at herself in a mirror or posing for a friends camera on what apparently teen girls now dub “photoshoots.” Ah yes, Instagram, where everyone is a celebrity. Where white suburban girls in shorts tinier than my dad’s old pocket handkerchiefs and bikini tops throw gang signs and hashtag #gangsta as if they have one clue what that even means. Where, you can with the aid of filters, airbrush yourself to the point that you appear to not even have a nose, as did one young lady whose photo I came across. Where everyone is a celebrity for the sheer achievement of being born beautiful. Where teenage girls engage in this bizarre ritual of insisting they are ugly while their friends clamor to be the first to tell them they are “perf! Totally perf!” The existence of one airbrushed beauty can convince even the most hardy of girls they are ugly. A casual glance at her feed leaves me wanting to shout at every golden princess in size 00 bikinis “you think you hit a home run when you were born on third base.” And then I realize I’m a 48 year old woman getting unreasonably angry at a teenager I don’t know for the very fact that she exists. But more than all this, a teenagers Instagram is where you can get instant, undeniable, photographic proof of the parties you miss, the trips to lake house or beach houses you’re not invited to, the impromptu outings that bring your peers together for that inevitable hashtag #bestniteever ! I may have had a ‘sense’ I was missing out on a lot of life in high school but these kids have proof every time they’re not invited to the party.
I remind myself over and over that Liza is not me. That her fifteen is not my fifteen. She is blessed beyond belief to have the friends she does, especially her close knit community of theater friends. And to be fair she has a pretty lively Instagram feed herself although blessedly it’s mostly rehearsal photos or cast party photos and she has refrained from airbrushing and filtering herself out of existence or overdoing the eye shadow and lipstick. But I was unexpected for how it would feel to see her go through the normal ups and downs of being this awful wonderful age. A recent bout of feeling lonely and blue had me telling her rather harshly “step away from the Instagram.” (I know, hypocritical coming from someone with as active a social media life as I have. I never said I made sense). Fifteen is hard enough (right Taylor Swift?) without the pressure to provide constant photographic evidence of your existence and your worth.
Fifteen years ago when I was handed that red-faced screaming ball of a baby that grew into my 5’11 beautiful talented smart girl, I couldn’t conceive of a day when the things that upset her would be any more serious than an ear infection or a missing pacifier. Those situations were easily remedied. The complicated minefield of emotions and hurts that is being a fifteen year old girl presents me with challenges I have no idea how to tackle. When she hurts, I hurt. And, without sounding like some new age guru, the ghost of my 15 year old self hurts as well. I want to tell her life is more than this and there is a world past the walls of her high school and the city limits. My late sister used to reassure me of that very fact and it got me through more than one lonely weekend. So this weekend I’ll arrange some mom and me time, perhaps spend more than I should at the mall, and try to sneak in those same words of reassurance over an iced coffee, and remind her that life gets so very much better after fifteen. Dear God fifteen.
Like many of us in our forties, my childhood and teenage memories are full of hazy family vacation images. My father going the wrong way down a one-way street in Philadelphia as we tried to find the Liberty Bell; strolling Fisherman’s Wharf with my mom in 1977 while a girl on roller skates tried to sell my dad hashish brownies; my brother and my cousin Joey showing off in the surf of Nags Head while my Uncle Wig patiently built another sand castle with me; buying a Confederate Hat in the Gettysburg gift shop for my Arkansas-born grandfather; my sister and I somewhere on a lake in a paddle boat, the location long-since forgotten; and most treasured memory of my mother teaching my father how to properly put my hair in ponytails before he took 8-year old me to Disneyworld – just the two of us.
When I became a parent, I knew I wanted to give Liza those same kind of vacation memories, and I’m fortunate to be married to someone who is one of the best trip-planners around. Over the past ten years our family trips have ranged from quick weekend getaways (from Storyland for then six year old Liza to touring the mansions of Newport last summer) a week at a beach house in Maine; Florida, New York City, Hilton Head, the mountains of New Hampshire, and, this past week, Washington D.C. My wife’s penchant for making lists of attractions and consulting guidebooks and maps has led me to dub us “the Gay Griswolds,” after the family in the classic Chevy Chase “Family Vacation” movies. We’ve had some bumps along the way like any family on the road together, but for the most part our yearly vacations and getaways are the highlights of every year.
This year’s trip was sorely needed. The longest winter ever had compounded our stress levels to the point where going on vacation felt like more work than staying home. A staff member’s sudden resignation early in the year had left me short-handed with twice my normal responsibilities, and I had grown short tempered with everyone and everything at work. Kelly had dealt with particularly difficult situations in her work as a psychiatric nurse, and Liza was feeling the pinch of the last quarter of freshman year with papers and tests coming a lightening speed every day on top of the demands of a challenging theatrical role. We needed to get away, and remember how to be a family of three again rather than three individually stressed-out women. So in the darkness of a pre-dawn Saturday morning we set out, bleary-eyed and silent to catch the train that would take us away from it all for five days.
We had picked DC and Williamsburg partly due to Liza’s interest in government and politics, partly because most things there are free, and partly because I hadn’t traveled to that area for over 30 years and was interested to see how things had changed. The trip in most ways was like all our others, lots of food (let me reiterate: LOTS OF FOOD), lots of laughter, a few frustrated moments of teenage angst, and morning conversations about who had snored the loudest the night before. But this trip, with Liza’s fifteenth birthday hurtling at us with breakneck speed, seemed different. Along the way I found myself keenly aware that the coming years might hold more for Liza than trips with her old moms. Finding a part-time job, a possible school-sponsored Europe trip, and the allure of the company of friends over the company of moms all compete for her attention and her time and these family vacations would be fewer and farther between. Finally under way and weary from rising at 4am to catch a 7am train, Liza and I grow drowsy on the long ride to DC. Her head rests on my shoulder, growing heavier and heavier as she falls into a deep sleep. For a moment I am reminded of the weight of a sleeping baby on my shoulder and how I used to be afraid to move lest the sleep be disturbed. The next seven hours are a blur of passengers getting on and off the train in Providence, Hartford, New York, Newark, Philadelphia, Baltimore. They come and go, and with each stop, each change of scenery, I shed another layer of stress until we emerge into the chaos of Union Station and the humid D.C. air.
Our first full day in DC we take a ‘hop on hop off” trolley tour and ‘hop off” to explore Georgetown. Liza has an interest in the college so off we go to get gloriously lost on campus for an hour or so. The longer we spend in the area though the more uncomfortable and self -conscious I get. My size and modest means suddenly seem to define me even more than usual. All around me are the people I went to college with but never associated with– wealthy, skinny, blonde, sleek – dropping money on Kate Spade bags and brunching over Bloody Mary’s, their oversize sunglasses perched atop shiny beautiful hair, wearing near identical looks of bored disdain. My ‘plus size’ cheap jean capris, oversized gap outlet sweater, sandals and bag mark me as a fat tourist from the boonies and I want to grab Liza and say “not here! Please not here! Not with these people, not all over again.” She and Kelly are oblivious and suggest stopping in a coffee shop for iced treats. I take a step inside and instantly turn around and leave. The tiny tables and short ceilings compound my clumsiness and I can’t breathe for fear of knocking something over. I wait outside in the sunlight fascinated by an older woman with red hair and a thick accent lounging with her coffee as a much younger man stands behind her rubbing her head. “But what will he doooo eeeen Brazil?”, she woman asks her companion. Kelly and Liza spill out onto the sidewalk before I can hear his answer.
Cities always make me keenly aware of my size. Not just my weight, my ever present companion on every journey, but my height, my frame, the amount of space I occupy. I work with a very, very tiny slender person who casually commented that, “you can really drop a lot of weight in DC from all the walking you do.” Really. Really? We are staying in Dupont Circle, (which we came to call “hot gay boy central”), and every street seems full of athletic men and women in running gear, or on bikes, or going to or coming from the gym. Every restaurant or café seems manageable only for the tiny and I consciously try to take up as little space as possible. The clothes I thought might be reasonably breezy and summery back in New Hampshire seem frumpy, faded and old among the sleekly dressed DC denizens. It’s only when we are doing something typically touristy such as walking from monument to monument, or piling on to the trolley with a tour group from Kansas clutching take out boxes of chili dogs and chicken tenders that I feel I can blend in again. I laugh at the irony that the chiseled gay boys of Dupont circle make me more self-conscious than Midwestern tourists.
After three days we pick up the rental car and head to Williamsburg in the rain. The forecasted rain has us briefly wondering if we should just try to head home. Traipsing around a historic site doesn’t seem appealing but off we go determined to make the best of it in spite of the weather. Far from the tony bistros of Dupont Circle we grow ecstatic over finding a Sonic, unheard of in New Hampshire, and dive into hot dogs and peanut butter milkshakes with abandon. Yeah, yeah I know. I was complaining about my size in the last two paragraphs. I never said I made sense.. or had an ounce of willpower. In spite of a weather forecast that promised everything from rain to tornados to plagues of locusts, the sun peeks out from a blanket of clouds for our day at Williamsburg and we enjoy speculating about future careers as historic re-enactors. Later in the afternoon, when feet and interest were waning and I was ready to throw in the towel, Liza suddenly insists we tour the original capital. I’m fascinated by how engaged she is in learning about early courts and political processes. I am continually fascinated by this child of mine, part theatrical diva and part political aspirant wrapped in a 5’11 package of mascara and lip-gloss. The day ends with a torrential downpour of truly biblical proportions that leaves us breathless and soaked after a mad, puddle-filled dash to the car.
Our vacation draws to an end when three-hour drive back to D.C. takes closer to five hours in rush-hour traffic and includes my wife’s frantic search for a bathroom that leads us to, of all places, the Pentagon. But the train is made on time and we are safely ensconced again in our seats settled in for another 7-hour ride. As the scenery rolls by, in between helping Liza study lines and reading and napping. I think of the family vacations I went on as a child, and how I wish my parents were here to hear the tales of our adventures. But as the long day ends with yet another traffic jam just miles from home we find ourselves helpless with laughter as we relive every funny moment from the trip in all their hysterical glories. And I know that no matter where we travel, where we go, and how much of the world we see, there is no better place for me than laughing with my girls. I can’t wait to see where we’ll go next.
To say that 2013 got off on the wrong foot for me is an understatement. To say that it ended on a spectacular high note is also an understatement. A friend of mine sent me a message a few weeks ago telling me that he was expecting a triumphant “end of year” piece on my blog, because things had turned around so dramatically for me. I wanted to oblige him, so for the past week I’ve started and stopped roughly a dozen pieces trying to find the right words, the right tone. Nothing seemed to work, and everything seemed awfully self-serving, boastful even. Then it struck me. At the beginning of the year when things were going so horribly wrong, when I was faced with disappointment after disappointment, writing about it was cathartic and helpful, even offering the opportunity to make a joke or two. And, to be honest, at the time I fully believed that everything that was going wrong, every fractured friendship, every hurdle, was somehow cosmically, karmically justified and it was my job to just get the hell through it all in one piece. Writing helped me do just that.
So why weren’t the words coming to me now? Why couldn’t I find a way to say in a witty and two-adjective-phrases-worthy way, just how content and happy the end of this year has made me feel? For someone like me, bred and firmly rooted in Northern New England sensibilities this feels boastful and arrogant. The setbacks I faced in early 2013 called for action, for a grit-your-teeth-and-just-get-through-it attitude, for sarcasm and self-deprecation. The good fortune of the last few months seemed to call for modesty, humility and some more self-deprecation. I wrote, deleted, started again. Wrote, deleted, started again.
Started again. Start again.
That’s what this year has been all about, starting again. In fact that’s what life is about, starting again. Ten years ago I lept off the cliff and started again as a single mom newly out of the closet. Three years ago I started again when Kelly and I got married. Sometimes we start again, out of necessity because to remain still is to suffocate. Sometimes we start again because we have no choice. Early 2013 remains a six-month blur of slammed doors, angry words, broken friendships, and frustrated tears. An ‘annus horriblus’ as Queen Elizabeth once said, seemed to be in the making. But all those hackeyned sayings about doors opening and closing? Turns out they’re right. Yes, the friendships that had been hurt were ultimately repaired, but in the interim new people had found me and had begun to fill the spaces. Yes there were days I felt terribly alone, and then someone unexpected would turn up asking “how can I help?” Yes, I wondered if anyone would ever cast me again. Then they did. And they did again and again, and again. And I ended 2013 sitting in silent disbelief as I looked back on some of the best if not the best work I’d ever done. Work that had been recognized and appreciated. Work that challenged me and rewarded me in such personal ways that my chest ached from it all. And greeting each opportunity, each new part, each new cast, was as if a beautiful blank book had been given to me to write in and fill the pages with a new story. An opportunity to start again. Not just on stage but in the way I greeted each day, loved my family, connected with friends, and tackled my work. Start again. The very phrase even showed up in as an oft-repeated line by my character in the last show I performed this year. It was as if even my scripts were telling me it was going to be ok. That in fact it was going to be more than ok.
It’s well into the first week of 2014 now. And I can’t help but marvel at the difference between the start of this year and what I was feeling a year ago. Before me lies a whole glorious year, maybe this year I’ll finally get my act together and get rid of that extra weight I carry around. Maybe I won’t. Maybe this year I’ll find some more wonderful shows to perform. And maybe I won’t get cast in anything. Maybe I’ll be diligent about putting more money away in savings. And maybe I’ll squander it on weekend getaways, drinks with friends, family dinners out, and trips to the ice cream stand. Maybe I’ll write my book. And maybe I won’t. But no matter what happens I’ll remember this feeling, this feeling of being totally whole, totally at peace. Proud, satisfied, surrounded by my adorable, supportive and hysterically funny family and friends new and old.
And ready to start again.
Happy New Year.