This is a video of me telling my story at the West Chester Story Slam Grand Slam in November 2014. The theme of the evening was ‘thin line’ and all us, myself included, beat that idea to a pulp. My story is about losing my last baby tooth last year at Thanksgiving dinner.
At the bus stop today, which I visit regularly to stay in touch with my youngest neighbors, I showed the kids how to get my dog to do tricks in exchange for treats. One little girl was so charmed as my dog dutifully came to her on command, that she said to me quite directly, “You come back tomorrow and we’ll do this again.” Once the older kids were on the bus and she was headed back home her mom insisted she and her very young brother say thank you to me. She didn’t let them off the hook when it seemed a little difficult. They both knew, they’d been down this road before with mom, and they said their thanks. I thanked them in return for being great friends to me and my dog.
The parents of my piano students do the same. After every lesson they instruct their children to say thank you to me. I in turn thank them for working hard and for being great students. Kids don’t always want to do this. When my kids were little we called it a ‘proper thank you’ and it required that you look directly into the eyes of the person you were addressing. It matters to me that we acknowledge one another.
Friends of our stopped by last night to say thanks for a favor we’d done them. They stayed and chatted and let us know what it all meant to them. We shared in the joy of having a connection. We said thanks back for being great guests and for acknowledging our favor.
The reason I bring all this up is because saying thanks is part of how we get to know ourselves. It is a significant means by which children learn who they are. My MANTRA! Helping kids know who they are! It is important to me because it is the reason kids ever leave home and get jobs. They are itching to go and be who they are and live the life of a grown-up after all those years of being a kid and just thinking about it.
Saying thank you is a way to become aware of what they like. They are grateful and they say it out loud. Parents help kids know this about themselves. Know what they like. Consciously. Out loud. And this in turn helps them get to know who they are. And then they often hear back why the other person is grateful for THEM. Bonus that kids then learn even more about themselves. Teaching children to be grateful, to show gratitude, to not take the world, even neighbors and piano teachers, for granted, is a gift to your child because it is a doorway to helping them learn who they are. If they know who they are they have a chance of figuring out what to study in high school, in college, and then into the work world. Knowing who they are helps them direct themselves in life.
There are a whole bunch of other benefits to saying thank you, like bringing a positive spirit to those you interact with, like character building which is shown to be a key to doing well in school, like inspiring others to be conscious of themselves, like teaching children how to treat their parents once they themselves have become teenagers and then adults, and on and on. And there are, of course, many additional ways to learn who you are. But saying thank you is a cultural norm that I love to see young parents teaching their children. It is good for children, it is good for parents, and it is good for us all.
Because I wanted to I stood on a stage and told a story of faith to a gathered audience of folks contributing to a local charity. There were ten stories told that night and you can learn about them at the Center Stage link at http://www.wcstoryslam.com. Mine was about allowing myself as many churches as I want, but holding in highest regard the one I find under my own personal sky. The video the producer took that night failed by the time my story came up (I was the closer), so I told the story once more to a group of gathered women in a private home and tried to videotape that. It’s a bit rough due to ringing telephones but it is a video. The text of my talk is as follows:
Under My Own Personal Sky
My faith hasn’t wavered much over the years. I’ve had the same sense of what I believe in since I stood under my own personal sky, alone and isolated, on the vast private estate of my childhood. I grew up in a place so big it had three lakes. There were 70,000 acres of trees out my back door. And it had a sky under which it seemed God himself heard me speak, answering with strong winds, teeming clouds and raindrops that pelted my skin.
I was raised Presbyterian, locking up the church with my folks every Sunday since Dad was head of the Session and Mom, the church secretary. I helped wash communion glassware and put folded tablecloths away after each fundraiser. Once we had a family of our own, my husband and I did the same with our children, teaching Sunday School and serving on committees.
Twelve years into raising our family Presbyterian I spotted an odd note on a congregational meeting vote card indicating the funds we were approving were being used in health insurance benefits that allowed abortions. And it bothered me that someone had highlighted this detail. There were other rumblings that led me to discuss with the minister just who we are. Turns out there are different factions of Presbyterians and some don’t like homosexuals, and some don’t like abortion, and some don’t like women to have certain roles. I was disappointed in myself for blindly following a faith that I possibly didn’t even agree with. Since when had my religion become so political?
I reluctantly decided that allying myself with folks who draw such lines didn’t feel right, and we started more often to attend the Quaker Meeting two blocks away to sit in silence, because after all, for me, checking in with yourself is the way to find your faith. To welcome silence, to stop each week and remember your spirituality, to be reminded of your own truths, is what makes sense to me.
About seven years after starting at the Quaker Meeting, I got a letter in the mail indicating I needed to come in to the Presbyterian church as a member in good standing to cast my vote. Apparently ideas like the one I’d seen on a congregational vote card had grown, camps had set up, and folks couldn’t tolerate one another anymore. I’d been gone so long I’d missed the big fat ugly fight that was culminating in a showdown next Sunday at 10:00am. Please be in attendance.
This letter urged me to make my voice heard in an attempt to salvage a community in crisis. Only when I got there it was like third grade… microphones set up for those ‘in favor’ of a break over here and those ‘against’ over there. Official proctors manned timers to make sure no one spoke longer than two minutes, red and green flags were held up to let speakers know when their turn could begin and end. I stood and said that I wasn’t too up on the specifics of the furor, but I was sure we should not let our differences divide us. That we had come together for a common purpose in the first place, and deciding that some of us were more right in our praise of God, or in our interpretation of the words we share in our effort to find God, could not be right. And between these imploring words, as I watched a divorce unfold, even though it had been me who left in the first place, I heard my own heartbreak.
Two days later I got a call asking me to be a deacon in the newly formed Presbyterian church. I assured them I was Quaker. They wanted pastoral people who cared, I was told. So, I said yes because I love the church, whichever one you want to talk about. Whichever one has us coming together to share the struggles of being human. I worked hard on behalf of my Presbyterian colleagues helping us get established again given that the minister, most of the support staff and nearly half the congregation had left to set up their own church elsewhere where they could more freely exclude whomever they wanted. I served eighteen months as a Presbyterian deacon even while attending the Quaker Meeting.
A few months later I was emotional as I spoke at the Meeting House. There is great respect for sharing honest thoughts there, and even I felt a reverence for the truth in my words. I said that in attending any church I appreciate seeing the faces of people who have known me for years. I don’t have much of an extended family so it matters to me that there are people from my past still with me in my life. People who have known me a long time and haven’t walked away. People who want to connect.
So I have my foot in two churches it seems, the Presbyterian and the Quaker…but I have my foot in a third church as well, one that straddles both, really… and that is the church under my own personal sky. It’s the one that tells me people are human no matter what religion they practice.
And so I am allowed two churches. I am allowed ten churches. Because sometimes I walk the beach on a frosty winter morning, alone except for the sunrise and I tell God my life. I tell of my struggles to do what is in my heart. I tell of my fears and my wishes and my heartaches. I tell God that I want more than anything to connect with the people around me and to feel them loving me and me loving them back, whatever religion that makes any of us. However many kinds of churches that takes.
And for that… I have perfect faith.
I went to the West Chester Story Slam again last night to watch and learn what it is to tell your story. I am also sizing up the competition so I can be prepared to compete in the Grand Slam storytelling event in November. I am eligible for that since I am this year’s January winner (see my video tab above) and all the year’s winners compete against each other at the end of the year. It gave me a chance last night to talk to the winner and ask him about his process. Even though he is about as smooth as they come, easily rattling off his story and hilariously, I’ll add, it turns out he preps just like I do. He writes and he rehearses and he does all the things I was sure I was doing as extra work that ‘real’ storytellers surely do not have to do.
But the real winner of the evening was a gentleman I’d never seen there before. He stood and told a spellbinding story of childhood sexual abuse of a sickening proportion. I went looking for this guy just afterward but I think he left quickly because it had to have been a monumental feat to do what he did. Michael Trageser told a poignant, eloquent, heart-wrenching story that ended with him admitting he is wracked as an adult by guilt and shame and cannot carry on in an adult role because of his haunting, debilitating past. I wanted to find this man and tell him how proud I was of him for standing up there and telling his story. It’s hard to tell your story when it isn’t about your life having been ruined at the age of five, so to do what he did, I am sure, was excruciating. I wanted to let him know that by telling his story he starts conversations among people that then allows light to come to a topic that is usually hidden in the dark. I wanted to tell him that although he feels he cannot carry on in an adult role, he is indeed doing something only adults can do, and that is to bear witness to a childhood stolen, for all the kids out there too young to speak for themselves. I wanted to tell him to keep telling his story, to contribute as an adult to the rescue of children who are so victimized. Being brave enough to tell your story is scary, and this guy did exactly what he should do, and exactly what only he can do.
I would have liked to have talked to this fellow. I would have liked to have urged him to forgive himself for the life that happened to him, and to encourage him to continue to share his story as a way to heal himself and help others. I really liked that guy.
I heard something pretty unusual last night and I liked it. It was my daughter laughing. I guess I hadn’t heard that in a while because it cut through the air with a happiness that made me stop a moment and take note. She just recently decided not to continue on the travel softball team she’s been on, not that that was such an easy decision because she really enjoyed it, but I believe the weight of that decision and the weight of all the practices and tournaments has been lifted and there is room again for childhood fun. She’s seventeen and not quite an adult so the last vestiges of her childhood are hanging on for her to enjoy. And I think she saw that and didn’t want to go another year forgoing her life.
The travel team was actually a lot of fun. The families in it were great because they came from all walks of life and we met people we otherwise would never know. And everyone was fun to be with. The girls were great because they worked hard, grew individually, played so well they won far more than they lost and made the long hours of tournaments a lot of fun for the parents. My daughter did well individually too, improving her positions, her hitting, her fielding, everything got better because she put in the time and took it seriously.
That might have been the problem in the long run. It was pretty serious. You had to make all the practices, twice a week, or explain why you weren’t there. Your excuse had to be approved, because it was, after all, a team effort. The tournaments were serious too because everyone was counting on everyone else to make it a win. This was a showcase team so girls were being scouted by colleges in hopes of getting scholarships, and several on our team did. But my girl wasn’t even sure she wanted to play softball in college.
So when it came time a year after joining the team to sign up again and start a new season she told us she didn’t want to do it. It was a hard decision for her to make because being on a winning softball team had a lot of good in it but she told us that even though it was fun, it wasn’t enough fun. Enough fun for all the hours she put in. She’d rather do something else with those hours. And it’s not like she would be idle. She still has marching band, academic team, pit orchestra for the school play, softball for the school team, volunteer work at a horse farm, and as she told us, time with friends. And all of this is in addition to her honors classes and applying to college.
So that’s what I heard last night that sounded so unusual…laughing with friends. She and her girlfriend were singing their heads off with karaoke in the basement. I am glad to see her having fun and relaxing and enjoying the last days of childhood. She’s been playing tennis, and baking, playing piano and walking the neighbor’s dog. She’s been playing cards with us at home and going out for ice cream. She’s had time to do things that before just didn’t fit in.
Travel softball was fun, but for her it was too much pressure. Too much working for something she didn’t necessarily want to work so hard at, and all in favor of having the time to just be a kid.
Comparing myself to others just doesn’t work.
I am moving along after my own dreams and my dreams for my kids. It’s easy because they are all the same. I wish for each to feel such security in love, such safety, that he has the freedom of spirit to follow his heart and be whomever he truly is inside. And in this, I feel so confident that each will be satisfied with the person he finds. That each may give and take love with joy. That each may love himself and the thrill of life as all children, of every age, should.
I have had friends who it turned out were near me simply to get a closer look at the competition. And here I thought we were hanging around together because we both shared the thrill of having kids, of being human, of living life together. I didn’t notice their preoccupation with my accomplishments and those of my children, because I was too busy directing my own life to compare myself with them.
I never thought that when I was talking about my son’s excitement, years ago, at learning to be a keyboardist at an after-school performance program, that it would become cause for jealousy. After all, even I questioned the value of encouraging my son to dream of growing up to be a rock star. It felt great, I thought, that those around me saw the real value in it too. That is, that it was really about celebrating his opportunity to take risks and master something as a young adult, to envision himself as a successful person, not the literal idea of being ‘the best keyboardist ever’. For me, the idea that my son was excited about something and felt an apparent joie de vivre that led him to apply himself and try hard at something, was worth celebrating no matter what it was or how well he’d do at it. It was cause for celebration, not bragging.
And by the way, it’s tough to get me jealous. So many of my dreams have already come true. And when I don’t have everything I want, I go out and get it. I go out and fulfill my own dreams one baby step at a time. I do this by keeping my wants realistic. I get rid of wants like beautiful legs, and a cure for my sugar addiction. They are not worthy goals so I reject them in favor of others I can truly be proud of, like becoming a parent who understands what kids need and putting that before my own needs without denying myself in the process. That’s definitely worth the effort that could have gone into those legs.
Why not be jealous of the fact that I’m turning my life into what I want it to be? It’s not happening to me; I’m making it happen. God gives everyone gifts. Learning how to appreciate them is not a competition. Find your gift and those of your children and go be a star shining brightly enough to help illuminate your life AND mine.
Teenagers are difficult. You want to help and tell them the answer to the question they ponder, yet the truth is, if you do they turn you off and shut their ears and bound off in another direction in search of the answer you are holding in your outstretched arm.
Our girl had two great job offers this summer, to lifeguard at either the local Y or to lifeguard at a nearby summer camp. It’s a great position to be in but it was complicated by the fact that one looked significantly more challenging than the other. She would be expected to teach swim lessons even though she’d never done that before, and to teach little ones to dive in the water head first. There would be in-service days once a month, weekly staff meetings, a paid week of training before the season began, more hours than she’d had before, and the list goes on. The job at the summer camp sounded like too much. At least to her.
And on top of all that, these were her first real job interviews, ever. At the summer camp she’d been asked many questions, and to her delight had been complimented on the way in which she’d answered, apparently pausing to consider her answers before sharing them. But they wanted to know difficult things like what she’d learned at her last job and who was her role model. What kind of seventeen-year old girl names her mother and then feels free to come home and tell her all about it? Sometimes she seems about forty, mature in her understanding and acceptance of herself, willingly consulting with herself on important matters. Exactly what I would have given an arm for when I was her age. Yet, there is doubt despite the maturity.
We told her we didn’t care which job she took but the better one looked to be the summer camp. It’s too hard, she said. What if I can’t do it? So in the end we advised she do what she wanted, but consider in the process the various adults who felt she could do the harder job. Between the folks who offered it to her on the spot, her references including a family friend who works at the camp, and her parents, I pointed out that there were about seven adults who each believed she could do the difficult job and even hoped she go for it. Keep that in mind when you choose a job, honey.
And I walked away and hoped to God she would realize the opportunity before her, the support she has behind her, and her own ability to put herself right where she needs to be. I told her how I felt and then I left it to her.
She loves the kids, she’s surprised how easy it is to teach swimming and she comes home every day with a smile on her face, learning and growing as you should as a teenager at a summer job. Every bit of this is part of the important lessons you just can’t get any other way.
Have I already confessed to watching American Idol incessantly? I am serious, I collect every show on DVR and then watch it over and over again when I’m home alone.
But it’s more than enjoying the music. I want to see how the winning contestant/artist, who is new at this, gets there. That’s the part I like. I like watching people who are new at trying this thing of singing on television, in front of judges. And truthfully, anyone really good on this show has been singing for years because they indeed do love to do it. It’s that they are new at thinking of themselves as worthy of the opportunity to sing in front of influential people and millions of people.
I like watching this because there is a clear progression from people who are scared and trying it out in the beginning, to those same folks getting comfortable being themselves. I love watching this! I love seeing people get out of their own way to just open their mouths, get into their song, and let it come out. This is inspiring to me, someone trying to do the same thing that I am trying to do in my life, just not in singing. (Alas, I am a terrible singer.) I’d love to get more comfortable writing my story, hearing my own voice in it, being myself and not worrying about what others will think, or what will happen if I show who I really am. I am obsessed with trying to get there. Trying to let go of the hiding that has happened to me.
Growing up I was not allowed to be myself. There was always something wrong with that. I rarely felt I was doing the right thing, and I didn’t often inspire my parents into saying that they were pleased with me. They did not say they loved me and they did not say I was wonderful. I worried about how they felt, but I had no idea how they felt. I had no idea if they even liked me. It was terribly confusing as a kid to be constantly trying to get it right with so little information, so little feedback about anything I ever did that WAS good. I had little to go on about what I was doing right, and plenty of information on what I was doing wrong. I learned to be afraid of being myself. I was actively NOT doing things rather than actively DOING things.
So here I am today trying to figure out still how to be me!
Watching the folks on American Idol try to be themselves, which is what is needed to sing like a rock star, is fascinating for me. I see tiny developments when I watch the show over and over, that tell me the contestants are trying new ways of allowing themselves to ‘be’, as they do not stop themselves or worry about what others will think. Jena is the contestant I saw do this so well this season.
She came on singing music she wrote herself. She got better each week but you saw her stumble trying new ways. Once she even said that some things worked and some did not, showing us that she was challenging herself to try things and forgiving herself when not everything went perfectly. Yet in all that she never lost herself or her ability to sing beautifully. She kept going, kept adding new skills, and in the end she is fantastic! Always being true to herself and allowing herself to show through. I am so proud of her, and simultaneously jealous that she has people around her actively trying to show her how to do it. Encouraging her out loud, and kindly, to do this difficult thing.
I have always wanted that. So I live vicariously through the contestants on this show, not only because they get to sing so well, which I’d love to be able to do, but because they have people around them dedicated to lifting them up and showing them who they are and encouraging them to be bold enough to embrace that and share it.
We’ve had a Mother’s Day re-do recently. I didn’t like Mother’s Day that much this year because I spent too much of it crying. Yeah, usually I like Mother’s Day, but this time I wasn’t feeling the love. Not that my kids aren’t good to me, but really, the effort was so low it hurt.
My husband does a great job of making me a super breakfast and showering me with gifts of flowers and such, but maybe because he’s taken on this job, my kids have not felt the need to rise to the occasion. In any case, even though I thought I made it clear that I wanted hard copy photos of my kids in their lives away from me, it didn’t really happen. Somehow it got lost in translation, and on Mother’s Day I had a beautiful computer file of photos from one of my kids and no hard copies from anybody. This is not a big request, folks.
I also asked for the ability to have a five-way Skype-like phone call since we are not living together anymore, and that is what led me to tears. It actually fell to me on that day to figure out how to do it. Yikes. It took an hour for the five of us to ascertain that we could not manage a five-way phone call because of various technical shortcomings in our respective hardware. I was so frustrated at my inability to communicate my desire for the photos, or the phone call, my inability to execute this desire when it fell to me, and the whole ‘lameness’ of the situation we refer to as ‘Mother’s Day’.
So, I called for a Mother’s Day re-do. This time I was definitely explicit about what I wanted. Hard copy photos, please. Many arrived in my hands just days after my breakdown with the kids. This time I wanted more than just a phone call, too. I wanted a real in-person fun day together where it was evident that kids went out of their way to celebrate their mom. I wanted kids to cook a meal for me, sit in the backyard enjoying it, and I wanted to know we have the capability, really this time, of having a five-way call once everyone goes back to college or their lives or whatever.
Given that everyone was poised to make a super looking meal, at my request, I felt free that morning to do something I have always wanted to do. Even though I wanted the kids to cook for me, I got up extra-early and made homemade cinnamon buns complete with a double rising (went back to bed for the 2 1/2 hours of risings) that I served piping hot, to my own delight!
I have failed to insist on being shown the love I know my kids have for me. And I have not adequately taught them how to demonstrate this love. I might have taught them inadvertently to take me for granted. I know my kids just needed me to tell them this. They just needed me to be explicit about my feelings, to let them know that ‘not much’ wasn’t enough, and that I feel I deserve more. I know I deserve more because I have tried hard to raise my kids with love and kindness and thoughtfulness, and even if I haven’t been successful at that, my effort has been stellar.
We had a wonderful day of cooking, eating, and hanging out in the yard. I had the unusual experience of sitting at my own kitchen table really getting to know my sons’ girlfriends, while others cooked. I was a guest in my own kitchen, and I loved it.
I proposed that this be our first annual Mother’s Day re-do, and everyone agreed to make it a re-do on the first try next time.
In my family silence is a form of hiding. You know, kind of going off the family grid and not talking to anyone anymore, feigning disinterest in the ways of the family. Oh, I make it sound deliberate, but really it is a form of fear one can barely help indulging in. It is a form of hiding who one is from behind a wall, scared of being one’s true self, waiting for others to be in contact as some kind of proof that you are valued, even if, illogically you are willing to wait decades. But that’s okay. It is a form of coping that may be the best choice possible.
Paradoxically, I have noticed that the hiders seem to have a high degree of interest in what the rest of the family is doing. So although hiders are silent they are keenly attuned to the goings on of their relations. And it’s easy these days to Google the family member you’ve neglected to speak to for years, to see what they are up to, or follow blogs or Facebook pages or twitter. It is easy to keep tabs on who’s had a legal proceeding or a publication, a problem or a success, without ever having to admit to caring.
I know a little bit about this since my default setting for scare is to shut down and not talk, claiming to myself all kinds of irrationalities. Making all kinds of oaths to myself about what I will or won’t do next time. Convincing myself I am not worth shit. Telling myself words of hate and self-loathing, pressuring myself to do things that feel too hard or too scary. Carrying on the ways of my parents who taught me to regard myself this way, and in turn creating a kind of comfort in such practices. It actually feels good to hate yourself when that’s what mom and dad have taught you to do, be it deliberately or inadvertantly. And so it is hard to break out of such thinking.
And even though I am not guilty of searching for family members online, I know that is what happens. There is a certain kind of glee in being able to have the power of knowing what others are doing without revealing what you yourself are doing. Or what you care about or whether you are okay or not. In not putting yourself out there yet reaping the benefits from others who do.
It’s a form of coping. A way, learned in youth I am pretty sure, that keeps one safe from people who might hurt you with the knowledge of what you care about, of what you do, or where you go. It’s a way to protect yourself.
It’s a tough way to live, hiding all the time. Being out of touch and keeping silent to feel safe. But I understand. I really do. It’s what you have to do to get by.