Sturdy. Rugged. Capable. Responsible. Strong: all adjectives that have been used to describe me at some point in my life. Admit it, you’re thinking of some stocky Russian peasant woman with a stern expression and babooshka on her head aren’t you? Awesome.
I’m not quite sure where the roots of my sturdy and strong reputation took hold. I remember learning early on that there were precious few who would come to the rescue of the crying fat girl. So I stopped crying. I remember my mother, a native of Utah who was far more Yankee than any proper New Englander, telling me that there was a time and a place to ‘indulge” strong feelings and that it certainly wasn’t in public. My mother, the inventor and master of the greatest weapon in the lexicon of confrontation, which I have long since coined “the Stare of Death,” did not believe in showing your hand, betraying your weaknesses, or giving anyone the satisfaction of seeing you cry. She had a reputation of being ‘strong,’ a reputation she handed down to me. The child of deaf parents my mother was incapable of talking without using her hands, and confided in me that when in a difficult situation rather than display her emotions or enter into an argument, she would sit on her hands to keep from talking. And she would just stare. Woe to those on the receiving end of that stare. It had the ability to drop the temperature of a room by 20 degrees and cripple those who were unfortunate enough to be caught in its wake. (I am but a humble apprentice of the Stare of Death but I like to think I use it well in my own fashion.) But I knew that at home she would retreat to her room or even the bathroom (probably the one sanctuary from her demanding daughters) and pray, and cry, and “give in,” but only a little and only in private. In public she was strong, unyielding and unflinching in the face of challenges to her family and faith that would have leveled anyone else. I watched her and I learned to be strong as well, and that there wasn’t anything life could throw at us, any fool that would cross our path that couldn’t be stared down.
I’m not sure when I learned that staring down difficulty was easier if I bit the inside of my cheek, but I that know I have a lifetime of scars and canker sores and worn teeth from doing so. When you’re 5’10” by the time you’re in 7th grade and built like a junior linebacker you learn pretty quickly that people are not going to indulge your feelings the same way they indulge those of the more delicate girls. You know who they are. The ones who sigh wistfully and brush at their hair until someone just has to ask what’s wrong. (In high school I was that girl who all the boys called to ask what had been bothering the moody beautiful girl they all had crushes on. Did I know? Was it them? Oh what could they do to help that precious princess through her pain?” It’s not altogether possible to give the Stare of Death over the phone but Lord knows I tried). These girls are the ones who grew up to be women who regularly use phrases like “I’m not strong enough to handle things like that,” or “I need time to process this.” The ones who quote Rilke or Mary Oliver or Virginia Woolf on their Facebook walls until the whole cyber world falls over themselves to reassure them that yes they are good enough and smart enough and beautiful enough and so absolutely wondrous they are a sight to behold, and by the way can I get you an iced coffee, write you a poem or sing you a song to make you feel better? The ones like the heroine in the beach novel I just finished who ‘retreated” to a friends Nantucket house after a personal trauma and spends most of the book being applauded for rallying the strength to sit on the deck and read a book and gaze wistfully at the ocean (Wrapped of course in a Pashmina, oh those fragile women love them their wraps don’t they?).
Yeah. I’m not them. Even if I TRIED I couldn’t be them. No matter how much I wanted to be them for even a day I couldn’t pull it of. My sister was, however, a different story. She would regularly take to her bed with ‘headaches’ or “sorrow’ for an entire day, missing school or work to lie with the shades drawn watching the ABC soaps lineup and drinking Tab. My mother would excuse it all by saying “oh your sister is different. Sometimes she just needs a day. She’s not as strong as you.” And I bit my cheek and never asked how she was so sure I didn’t need a day every now and then myself.
The year my mother died, a few of my co-workers also suffered personal losses of their own. Each time there was a collection to give my bereaved friends a gift certificate to a spa so they could be pampered and relax and have some ‘me time’ in the face of their deep personal pain. I was totally on board with this and contributed happily. After all, I am a massage junkie and I know well how restorative its powers can be. Then my mother died and I had to travel to Maine for several days for the services and my co workers sent me…. A Harry and David boxed collection of nuts, crackers, cheese fruit and chocolate. Because clearly what the fat girl needs is a hearty snack to heal her grief. Don’t get me wrong. They were and continue to be well-intentioned and lovely people who I hold dear, and their gift absolutely came from the heart. But I confess that I thought “really?” when it was delivered. Oh sure, I was able to get a pretty good comedy routine out of it, but I also knew in that moment that my Yankee stoicism and “strength’ was interpreted by others as not needing the same kind of care and comfort as those more, God help me, ‘fragile’ than I. Others needed pampering and soothing. Apparently I just needed a hunk of cheddar and some moose crunch caramel popcorn.
Now I will confess that my mother’s admonition to ‘be strong” and “don’t give in” didn’t always work. During the most difficult time in my life, in my mid-thirties I grew tired with biting my cheek and had what can only be described as a massive personal crisis. My neediness during that time knew no bounds and when I think of how I behaved and how I abused the good intentions of my friends, I cringe. A few times I even uttered the “I’m not strong enough for this“ phrase but it felt hollow and as if it didn’t fit me. Eventually I grew weary of trailing my long list of problems behind me like Linus’s blanket and I did what I had to do. I sucked it up, I dealt with it, and I moved on, vowing never again to allow myself to go to that desperate place. To never again be anything but strong.
Sometimes all this sucking up and moving on makes me impatient and irritable with others and I’ll admit it’s gotten me a bit of a cyber reputation on my favorite message boards as ‘the cranky Yankee’ who doesn’t suffer anyone who wants to process or who needs validation. But another thing I learned from my mother is that being strong brings with it a responsibility to be strong for others. My mother listened, supported, encouraged and stood by her friends. She was strong for them and in doing so she showed me the importance of being strong for mine. And in my own way, I do try to be that.
After all this, I still bite the inside of my cheek and I still wish that just once I could be the one wrapped in a Pashmina gazing at the ocean while people fret and cluck about me. But there are worse things to be known as than strong so for now I’ll take it.
Just don’t call me sturdy. I really hate that one.
My daughter spent yesterday in her room. A good chunk of today as well. She wasn’t in trouble. She wasn’t grounded. Her exile was by choice. Safe in her bright pink refuge with her stacks of “Pretty Little Liars” books, her Netflix queue of some Australian show about teenage ballet dancers, her iPod, and her phone she was in thirteen-year old girl heaven. School is out, summer theater and dance programs are still two weeks away and the girl, like some Victorian heroine has ‘taken to her chambers,” for the duration.
THUD! THUD! Oh now she must be dancing. I can tell from the banging on the living room ceiling beneath her room, and the telltale trail of single socks she leaves in her wake all over the house. (One sock on her turning foot helps achieve those multiple pirouettes don’t you know.) I hear the faint strains of a heartfelt Idina Menzel tune and imagine the soulful lyrical dance she’s creating above my head. I would knock on the door but I know to do so would only invite a put-upon “WHAT?” in response and any hopes of glimpsing the dance in progress would be dashed.
And so this is summer.
Last summer, if you were reading this blog, you may recall that the specter of the girl’s looming move to a new school hung over us like a dark cloud that kept us from fully enjoying the long hot days, as both of us, worriers by nature, were consumed by anxiety about the coming change. Neither of us handle change well, and let’s just say we were not at our calmest as Labor Day marched closer and closer. As usual our worry was for nothing, as the fit with the new junior high was a wonderful one and the year flew by in a blur of choir concerts, new friends, report cards, the school musical, field trips and all the sturm and drang of seventh grade dances. As the end of school drew closer I told myself over and over again how nice it would be this summer, when we both knew that at the end of August now lay a familiar routine in a school she loved. Yes this summer would be ‘our’ summer to be carefree companions. It would be ideal.
Except, what I didn’t count on was that while I was busy watching the year pass by, she was busy growing up. Turning another year old, and becoming…. a teenager. It seems like yesterday (warning! Cliché alert!) she was a five year old with ‘floaties’ on her arms at the condo pool begging me to ‘swim with me momma swim with me!” This morning she deigned to head to the pool with me and from my spot on the neighboring lounge chair I steal a glance at her. All five foot ten inches of her in her binkini, transition glasses darkened in the late morning sun, hair piled on top of her head, book in hand. “Stop looking at me.” She mutters, languidly turning a page and settling herself more comfortably in the chair. Bored with my magazine I contemplate two options – swim or break into the snacks. The dieter in me chooses the swim and I rise from my chair asking her if she’ll join me. “Maybe later,” she murmurs. As I enter the pool a neighbor compliments me on my grown up daughter, “I feel like I blinked and she became a young woman, she’s lovely!” I smile and plunge into the water for a few laps and emerge to see the girl in the shallow end announcing she’ll come in to cool off but has no interest in getting her hair wet or ‘really swimming.” I remember the long days of throwing dive sticks, making up silly water ballet routines, underwater handstands and looking longingly at my lounge chair and book wishing I could just relax for heavens sake. Well. Now I can. Except I can’t. Against all reason I want one more day with that stocky little girl with the overbite who splashed with me in the pool those first few summers of my new life as a single mom. I want one more night of begging her to please, please ,PLEASE put anything on the TV except That’s So Raven or the Suite Life of Zac and Cody, PLEASE. I want one more request for a cuddle and a song before bed. And I want one more Sunday morning in a little girl’s room full of Barbies and dolls.
Frankly this sentimentalism astonishes me. I don’t romanticize Liza’s childhood. I was ill equipped to be a mom and chafed at the chains of parental responsibility for years dreaming of a day she was more independent, more a ‘real’ person. This is the time I had been waiting for! For a daughter who was old enough to amuse herself, read for hours, pack her own bag for the beach, watch “real’ movies and TV shows with me, and eat something other than chicken nuggets. So why am I so sad? So wistful? Perhaps its because I know that this summer will be the summer she takes even more steps away from me. With every night out at the movies with her friends, with every casual “a bunch of us are going to walk to the sub shop for lunch” announcement as I drop her off at her theater program, with every text message, with every eye roll, the steps get bigger and bigger.
But as they say, ‘careful what you wish for or you will surely get it.” After all, this is what I wanted for that girl who clung to me and worried and needed me so very, very much. And in all honesty I have pushed her to make more plans with friends than with mom… so I really am OK with this new development (Really!). And Lord knows I don’t want her to grow up like me and spend every Saturday night watching TV with her parents (thank God for Love Boat and Fantasy Island is all I can say). Besides, I’m not SO old that I don’t remember how I used to escape to my own bright blue room with the windows that looked out over the ocean. How I too spent long summer days reading in my bedroom chair while the white curtains blew in the breeze, or recreating entire production numbers from Gypsy or Funny Girl with only my stuffed animals as audience members. I do get it. A room of ones own is a powerful thing- even for a thirteen-year old girl. So I go about my business. I read, I write, I run errands shouting only “I’m leaving!” or “I’m back!” through the closed door. I try not to perk up too eagerly when she runs downstairs for a bottle of water or a snack. Most of the time I’m granted a perfunctory “hey mom” before the blur of motion takes her back to her sanctuary. But sometimes I am permitted a brief hug or a kiss on the top of her head, or maybe even allowed to watch that new triple pirouette she’s now able to land, and I feel like I did in 7th grade when my crush used to actually acknowledge my presence in the junior high hallways. Giddy. Special. Wanted.
For so many years it has been Liza and me. An unbreakable team who’s gone through so much together to find the happy place we are at now. I loathe the thought of giving that up so soon. “I want more time” I pout to Kelly one evening by the pool (where Liza has declined to join us). Kelly teases me gently “didn’t you want time to lie on your chair in the sun? To read? To write? Now you have it! And besides she’s still as needy as ever…don’t worry.” For Kelly, the realist who watches us interact on a daily basis sees what my funk has not allowed me to. She sees the way the girl still calls for momma when she has a question, if she can’t sleep, if she can’t figure out what to wear, or if she needs to talk through a problem, or share a triumph. She stops me from romanticizing the past when the truth is those years were long and difficult. She helps me recognize this new development for what it really is: the start of something very special and long awaited. The start of a true Teenage Summer.
Recently I became embroiled in one of those classic Face Book arguments. You know the kind. Person A reads news story that upsets them. Person A makes displeasure known through a political status update. Persons B, C, and D agree with person A, then person E comes along and demands that person A admit they are wrong, wrong, wrong! Persons B, C and D respond with disbelief than someone could disagree with what is so clearly the “Truth” (capital “T”, intentional). Meanwhile Person A has gone to the grocery store and returns 110 posts later to find friends that range from college chums to local pals to cyber friends embroiled in a heated and emotional argument as well as multiple private messages from both sides of the debate asking “what is UP with your friend? “ If you haven’t guessed it by now I was person A. Good times.
I know, I know. I shouldn’t post anything political on Facebook, it’s just asking for trouble. But sometimes I can’t help myself. There are a few things I feel deeply and passionately about: women’s rights, access to health care, marriage equality, better education for our children, social justice. Ok, that’s more than a few things but you see what I mean. You see, I was raised in a household that prized political conversation and dialogue and with parents who taught me to stand my ground and speak up for what I feel is right, but to always be respectful of others’ opinions. Before the age of Facebook I was a regular on the debate boards of iVillage and Yuku where I was regularly schooled by some seriously smart women and savvy debaters – many of whom have gone on to be cherished ‘real life’ friends. And I live in New Hampshire, where political dialogue and debate is practically as much a part of our way of life as mud season and summer days on Hampton Beach. So it’s fair to say I know my way around a good political argument. But this most recent one (or two) on Facebook was different. On an Internet message board you may be clashing with someone who is just a screen name to you. In real life you may be debating someone you know well. You can read his or her expressions and body language and manage to have a great discussion without being personal or hurtful. But on Facebook, everyone is thrown together. The college friends, the former co-workers, the cyber buddies, the family members, the people who you went to kindergarten with for heaven’s sake. All arguing a topic on your ‘home page.’ Think about it. What would it be like if all those people were suddenly in your living room? As my daughter and her friends like to say, it would be “that awkward moment when” everyone you’ve ever known in your entire life shows up on your doorstep. And then you’re suddenly in the position of explaining to your friends on one side of the issue why you have friends on the other side of the issue and vice versa. Frankly it’s exhausting.
During the aforementioned debate that was sparked by one of my status updates, I interjected a few times to remind people to be respectful and polite even while disagreeing. After all, my friend on one side of the argument doesn’t know the deeply personal experiences that formed the opinion of my friend on the other and vice versa. But I know them both, and even though I may actively be disagreeing with one of them, they are both friends I cherish. To say that things got uncomfortable for me was an understatement. At one point, in an effort to explain that life is not always clearly defined, I tried to make the point that it is mostly “so many shades of gray.” Except I was typing too fast and autocorrect was in overdrive and my reply was changed to “life is soapy shades of gray.” Soapy shades of gray. This might possibly be the first time autocorrect has provided a writing prompt.
I’ve spent time exploring these shades of gray lately with some surprising results. A few months ago I ranted to a friend about someone who was very publicly on the opposite side of an issue very dear to my heart. Turns out she knew him and within minutes had emailed us both suggesting we get together. He instantly agreed and offered to meet whenever it was convenient. It was time to put my money where my mouth was. And I was frankly skittish. I wasn’t sure I was tough enough to actually meet and sit down with someone about whomI had an admittedly strong and not at all positive opinion. But my friend assured me that we would get along and that he was a great guy and that speaking one-on-one was a much better way to air my concerns than shouting at my computer screen. But still I wasn’t sure. I stalled. I hemmed and hawed, and ignored the invitation for weeks. But then something in me made me return the email and before I knew it we had a plan to meet for coffee. I figured we’d meet, we’d talk about all the ways we differed on this very important subject, and that would be that. What I hadn’t figured on was how much we would have in common, how nice he was, and how much we would enjoy each other’s company. Oh sure we talked about the “big important issue.” We talked about it a lot. And nearly four months later, we’re still talking about it. We still don’t agree, but that’s almost beside the point right now. I no longer see him as just “guy who is opposed to big important issue” and I would like to think that getting to know me has given him a new perspective on the “big important issue.” And now our conversations are just as likely to be about good restaurants, theater, our families, or the joy of a really good cupcake. Our friendship is unexpected, it’s funny, and it lives inside that soapy shade of gray that makes life so interesting.
This admittedly strange new friendship has taught me a great deal about the danger of seeing only the issue and not the person behind it, about snap judgments, and angry outbursts. And out of respect for this friendship and a few others I’m blessed with, I’m trying very hard to stay away from the inflammatory language that marks so many Facebook tirades. Do I still get angry? Of course! I get very angry and I get more than a little scared. But ranting to my computer screen and forwarding a meme isn’t going to fix anything. I have learned from my own missteps and my own hurt feelings how damaging words can be. We are not “liberrullllls’ or “repugnicans” we are not ‘”stupid progressives” or “greedy conservatives.” We are people and like it or not we’re all in this together.
Now, I know it’s a big tempting cyber world out there, and that it is still deliciously wonderful to post something from Huffpo or Fox to our Facebook pages, so post away! But there’s more to the conversation than that. Here’s my challenge. Find someone on the other side of a big important issue, and invite them out for coffee and listen to them. Really listen. You may not change their mind, they may not change your mind, but who knows? You might make a friend where once you only saw an enemy.