“Take the high road,” was a particular favorite expression of my mother’s. This was often followed by her other favorite expression: “Rise above it. “Don’t give them the satisfaction of letting them see they’ve gotten to you,” she would say when I would come home crying about the kids who called me Elephant, the girls who laughed at my clothes, or the friends who had ditched me because I wasn’t ‘popular’ material.
My mother was the world-class reigning champ in ‘rising above it.” When my father’s good name was under attack, when our family suffered the losses of my grandfather, father, and sister, when friends let her down, when her work as a teacher ran into administrative red tape and bureaucratic changes, she took a road so high it seemed to end in the clouds. Someone who signed from the age of four, my mother was incapable of talking without using her hands. She used to tell me that when things got too tough and she was afraid she would “let loose,” she would literally sit on her hands to keep her from talking. She relied on a steely gaze, a firmly set chin, and an unrelenting ability to hold her head high no matter what. I admired her, but a part of me always wished that just once she would have let it all go, let loose on the people who had hurt her or our family, put a few folks in their well-deserved place. Would it have righted any wrongs? Of course not, but it sure would have been satisfying. The closest she ever came was years after my father’s death when an acquaintance apologized for some particularly damaging things he had said about my father’s reputation. She fixed him with her inimitable gaze and said “I forgive but I never ever forget.” I imagine he quaked a bit inside.
My mother’s advice has guided me through my adult years. I’ve “high-road”-ed myself in the face of friends who felt compelled to provide me (in writing!) with a laundry list of all my short-comings, professional acquaintances who threw me under bus after bus, of people who walked away from obligations leaving me holding the bag, and donors who reneged on pledges without thinking how it felt for the underpaid staffers left scrambling to fill the shortfall in expected revenue. I’ve “risen above” jabs about my parenting, passive aggressive remarks about my ‘lifestyle,” comments about my weight, and being dumped by friends who have ‘moved on’ to greener pastures without telling me. I’ve swallowed my hurt and nodded and smiled in the face of situations that made me want to scream, cry, run away or all three. I know the high road so well I could write a TripAdvisor review.
But often I wonder: why do people like my mother and I cling to this high-road ideal? Why do other people get to indulge when we rise above? Sometimes the suppressed anger and frustration are so great they bubble to the surface in my dreams and I wake up crying from a dream about telling someone off, yelling at someone ‘til my throat hurts, of the satisfaction of making my voice and my feelings finally known. I fantasize about how good it would feel the way dieters fantasize about hot fudge sundaes or enormous pizzas. But just as the overindulgence of sweets and carbs can backfire and leave one feeling sick to the stomach, I know that to indulge in this romanticized notion of payback would leave me feeling sick to my soul. It is not me, nor shall it ever be.
So, on the cusp of a New Year, as I contemplate the ups and downs of the year just finished and wonder what will be in store over the next twelve months, I gently say no to the voice in my head begging that I resolve to “speak my mind” in the coming year. For I am my mother’s daughter and one thing Mary Youngs taught her baby girl was that there is power in a steady gaze, a well timed raised eyebrow, and the inner peace that comes with ‘rising above.” The high road may take longer to travel, but what you gain is worth the journey. Happy New Year wherever you are, momma. I’ll be thinking of you along the way.
And so the shortest Day came and the year died*
Dark morning, dark afternoon, snow falling on the deck on this, the darkest shortest day of the year. Solstice, my new age friends claim, is necessary. One must retreat to the darkness to restore in order to fully appreciate the lengthening days of late winter, the cold light of early spring and the sunshine of a July morning. Those of them with advanced new age degrees might wax at length about mother earth and holding her children close or something. But my eyes yearn for light and my skin longs for warmth and my heart wishes for summer lightness. My soul is weary of anxiety, of the worries that come with me wherever I go: of not being good enough at work; of not being good enough at motherhood; of navigating slippery roads on dark afternoons; of lack of money, lack of time; of the looming prospect of college bills with no way to pay them; of aging and the fear and reality of loss; of health and weight and clothes that don’t fit and backs that ache without cease and unsettling patches of darkening skin from too many days on the beach; of friendships once so solid now fragile or even broken without explanation; of being forgotten; of being alone. The shortest day has dawned dark and cold to match my mood and in spite of my Yankee resolve, frustrated tears fall into my coffee cup as fast as the snowflakes fall on our deck outside the window.
And everywhere down the centuries of the snow-white world
Came people singing, dancing,
To drive the dark away.
They lighted candles in the winter trees
And so in the face of darkness we string the lights – on trees and bushes inside and out – webs of extension cords working overtime to keep the bulbs burning brightly. I fight the darkness with light and the creeping cold with fleece blankets and space heaters. But that doesn’t still the voices of anxiety whispering in my ears — whispering that it’s my fault. My fault that I lack the discipline to be thin, to be fit. My fault my poor financial management leaves the college fund coffers bare. My fault that I’m too sarcastic, too brittle, too self involved for the friends who have made it clear I’m not a part of their lives anymore. And on this shortest day, even in what is supposed to be the Season of Light, the darkness seems impenetrable and the temptation to sink into it and not emerge until the light of spring is great indeed.
And when the new year’s sunshine blazed awake
They shouted, revelling.
Through all the frosty ages you can hear them
Echoing behind us – listen!
All the long echoes, sing the same delight,
But the Shortest Day brings with it a promise as well as the darkness – a promise of light. For tomorrow, the daylight minutes will begin inch ever upward, even though the winter winds of January, February and March have yet to blow. But in the meantime, the holiday beckons so I do my best. Kelly patiently navigates my stress, rubbing my head at night, and reassuring me that my doomsday scenarios may be just a little exaggerated. Rather than the scratchy holiday albums of my youth, she fires up a Songza “Sixties Holiday Party Mix’ on our iPads to set the mood and we wrap gifts, decorate the tree, address the cards. We make Christmas happen. And as we do the anxiety releases its grip on my chest and I remind myself of all the good that is. That I am not alone. Won’t be forgotten. That there are movies to watch, popcorn to eat, naps to take, and games to play. There are phone call dates with my oldest, dearest friend, and lunches and cocktail parties with new ones. There is family and there is food and there is laughter and music.
This Shortest Day,
As promise wakens in the sleeping land:
They carol, feast, give thanks,
And dearly love their friends,
And hope for peace.
And now so do we, here, now,
This year and every year.
A few weeks of holiday lights and Christmas cookies won’t make everything magically better, this I know. I’ll still cringe at my fat reflection and my thin bank account. I’ll still miss the friends I used to see and worry that my career path is a dead end. I’ll still go to great lengths to avoid driving on snowy roads and I’ll still curse at the ice on the steps. But maybe my New Age friends are right. Maybe we need this day to retreat inward a bit before turning once again into the breach. And so, on this, the Shortest Day, I’ll remind myself that I am loved, and I love and that on the edge of the darkness there is the promise of light and for now that promise is enough. Happy Solstice.
*All quotes are taken from the poem ‘the Shortest Day’ by Susan Cooper.
I stepped on one of our cats the other day. I was carrying the laundry down the stairs, which blocked my view of her lounging at the bottom of the stairs like the princess she is. I didn’t realize I had stepped on her until I felt the fur under my feet and heard that ear-piercing squeal that only angry cats can make. Horrified at my clumsiness, I tried to make it up to her. I cajoled, I wheedled, I followed her from room to room expressing how sorry I was and offering petting and love to appease the guilt I felt. She would have none of it. She ran from me, hid under chairs and eyed me suspiciously as if to say “oh sure you want me to come to you? You STEPPED on me!” No matter what my approach, it was the wrong one.
Earlier that day I had been shopping with my teenage daughter, an activity that brings up a wide range of emotions. We grow them tall in my family and my daughter is no exception, which can lead to some unique challenges when shopping. When I shop with Liza I have to restrain myself from wanting to buy her everything in the store because I remember my own teenage years, so overweight, so tall, so without any sense of fashion, always buying the wrong thing and never ever able to shop at any of the cool stores. Some days when we shop we find everything and some days are full of frustration. Unfortunately this day was one of the latter, as we went from store to store, optimism turning into trudging along, glumly leaving another store with no purchases. I found myself grappling with the ‘triggers’ (as my new agey friends like to say) of my unhappy teenage years. As I stood outside yet another dressing room stall watching one size 00 girl ask another size 00 girl if the jeans she was trying on were “too tight in the thigh,” it took all my willpower not to exclaim ‘really? REALLY?” Suddenly it was my senior year in high school, shopping with my best friend who was maybe a size 4. I picked up a dress desperate to find something, anything that fit, and couldn’t tell if the size tag was a 10 or a 16 (in those days they were handwritten, people). I showed it to my friend saying that I hoped it said 16, what did she think? She looked at the tag then slowly looked up at me and I saw confusion mixed with pity on her face as she slowly told me that no the dress was a 10, with the dawning understanding that that size wouldn’t fit me. While that was thirty years ago, it haunts me every time I brave the crowded racks of Charlotte Russe or the pungent darkness of Hollister with my daughter. Today, teenage goddesses in inch-long shorts, crop tops or baggy sweaters that do nothing to mask their skeletal frames rule the racks of retail. And on this day when I would have bought out an entire store for my funny beautiful girl, I hated every one of them.
When we got home my mood remained dark. I raged silently at why girls like us were cursed with the height (and in my case the weight) that made it so hard to just walk in a store and buy anything we wanted. Our day wasn’t the joyous mother-daughter day I had hoped for and I was sullen and resentful to the point that Liza kept asking me if I was mad at her. Finally, at the brink of tears, I tried explaining that this shopping trip had brought up so many unhappy memories when all I wanted was to buy every single thing she wanted so she could have the teenage years I never did. She looked at me with that singularly unique way that teenage girls have of looking at adults who are certifiably crazy and sort of murmured “Ooookkkkkk. Well you need to get over that.”
I realized that just in the same way I had stepped on our hapless cat, I had also stepped on my daughter – because I didn’t see her. I hadn’t seen the cat because of the mound of laundry in my way and I hadn’t seen my daughter because of the mound of my own baggage in the way. And now I was going to have to coax her back out to me just as I was with the skittish and skeptical cat.
Parenting without tripping on our own baggage and stepping on our kids in the process is tricky. Sometimes I’m so desperate in my desire that Liza have the social life and high school life that I didn’t have that I push too hard, suggest too much and make too much of a mess of things. I want to buy her every beautiful dress in the world because I never had them but in the process don’t see the actual person in front of me with her own ideas, her own tastes and her own needs. Every now and then I am reminded that, just as I have to wait patiently for the cat to decide she loves me again and head- butt me for some petting, I have to back off when it comes to my daughter, be there for advice if she asks, but not push, and wait for her to come to me. And it’s hard. For someone so eager to fix things it can be torturous. But she deserves a mom who isn’t looking backwards at the long dead ghosts of high school past, but at her in all her wonderful fifteen-year old glory right in front of my eyes. After all, this is her life, and her high school reality, not mine. Maybe next time I carry the laundry down the stairs won’t step on the cat. And maybe the next time I go shopping I’ll won’t step on my daughter either.