Pigeon

A cool March mist turns to rain and begins to patter onto the pavement as we scuttle along the sidewalk and then push through the glass doors of the dance studio. As I stand in the entrance way and survey the room, I have that familiar sinking feeling of being out of place. My name on the check-in list at the door is the only proof that I am not crashing the party.

In faded jeans, a hooded sweatshirt, and my worn sperrys, I walk quickly past women in sparkly gowns. I am peered at by expressive eyes framed by thick layers of mascara. A sparkly palette of blue, green, purple or pink adorns the archway between lashes and eyebrows. In the dressing room I glance at my own plain face in the mirror, and I realize that I am a pigeon in a room full of peacocks.

It was just a few weeks ago when fear hijacked our lesson, as my feet stuttered and stopped with each mistake. My jaw clenched and I muttered, “Oops, sorry! Sorry!” each time I lost my balance, stumbled, or started the wrong lift. Apologies continued after reassurances, my feet and my brain proving much less forgiving than my dance partner. At one point Laura stops the lesson, takes my arms and shakes them loose. She has to address my struggle against my inner critic.

“You’re trying to be in control. Let go of that. There is no perfect routine. You will do it differently every time.”

These words don’t take root immediately, but I let out a long breath and close my eyes. I have to release my hold on thoughts of perfection. I have to push through the awkwardness to find my own style. Does my body have any idea what it’s doing? How do I trust that when it’s been at odds with my brain for so long?

The dressing room is a flutter of activity. I pull on the satin kelly green dress with blue and green rhinestones that sparkle along the neck and through the waist. I tilt my head to the side and scowl at myself in the mirror. I’m foolishly relieved when Laura hands me a shade of deep red lip gloss–much more striking than the pale pink I have brought along. Within 10 minutes she’s styled my hair into a ponytail adorned by rhinestone clips and supplied me with emerald jeweled wristbands and large hoop earrings.

We only have to wait through 3 performances before taking our place on the floor.  I stare ahead and take a deep breath as the music begins. My feet falter during the beginning turns and my body is rushing through the steps instead of waiting to be led. The dip, which felt too long for months, suddenly can’t last long enough as I seek to calm my nerves and find the beat. None of the moves are as smooth as I would like, but I keep dancing. We haven’t forgotten any steps, our final lift feels strong. I can hear clapping and a few gasps of surprise when I lace my hands around Matt’s back and slowly flip my legs over his body and onto the floor. After a bow and a curtsy, we leave the floor, and I shrug and smile.

It wasn’t perfect, but I kept dancing.

I danced through summer when it was still frustratingly new. I danced through fatigue brought on by insomnia. I danced on heels before I could adequately walk in them. I danced through the mental and physical darkness of winter. I danced when I was sure I should give it up–that my stiff demeanor would never give way to style or grace. I danced through awkwardness. I danced through performance anxiety even when I knew I made mistakes.

And still, I dance.

Speak

What it means to be anyone is complicated. We all deal with labels about gender, race, religion and politics. I can only speak to what it means to be me, and to wrestle with these labels. I am a woman, a Christian, and a feminist. The first label was assigned to me upon birth. The latter two chosen in adulthood. And, yet, how do any of them define me?

The past year in America has brought to the surface issues which have been boiling for so long, and finally women are taking a stand against sexual harassment and assault, as well as the prevailing attitudes that have led to the normalization of such treatment. Much-needed changes are occurring, but we’re not yet making changes in the places where it really counts. We can all agree that it’s not okay for a man to touch a woman without permission, but what if he’s verbally degrading her based on appearance? We can all agree that it’s not okay for a man to abuse his position of power over a woman, but what if she’s being kept out of such a position simply because of gender?

Men have gotten push back from using the phrase, “As a father…” or “As a husband…” in talking about women’s rights. The reason that phrase should be omitted is that it puts the man in a protective role, not an equal one. Offering someone protection means that you’re the one in power. If there’s an imbalance of power, there cannot be equality. If women are not able to achieve every position of power and decision-making, then we will always be less than, subject to someone else’s standards and ideas of what’s best for us.

There have been many movements of activism for women’s rights in the past few years. The sheer number of movements is a reaction to decades of silence. Women’s voices have been hushed in subtle ways. I’ve stifled my own voice in many circumstances, uncomfortable with undue attention or standing out.

Today, I experienced something refreshing and powerful. I attended a church run by a woman pastor, and I had the privilege of hearing her teach. At first, I was caught up in the newness of everything. I was seeing the stark white wall of the room for the first time. I was listening to the band play with a modest sound system on a plain wooden stage. The words of the songs were projected onto the wall in text only, without a decorative background. And when the female pastor stepped onto the stage to begin teaching, I thought, “Yes! Finally!” But it wasn’t long into the sermon for the exciting newness to dissipate, as I was caught up in her words, her teaching, her telling of the Truth about Jesus. Her words were meaningful, eloquent, and confident. It was powerful. It was natural.

Introversion causes me to listen more often than I speak up. Sometimes it’s out of the desire to learn more from others, to hear their thoughts and learn a new perspective. Sometimes it’s driven more by a shying away from attention, uncomfortable with scrutiny. When I am compelled to speak, or write, or give voice to my ideas, it’s never a light endeavor.

True equality means that everyone has an opportunity to achieve positions of power, without consideration for the differences with which we are born. This means that women can effectively take the reins in any form of leadership, in the secular world and in the Christian church. It’s simply wrong for women to be kept out of these positions.

Jesus didn’t just sit quietly by and mumble about the status quo. He flipped over tables in the temple and made people in power squirm. And He empowered women. Hearing the sermon today was a much-needed reminder for me. I’ve listened long enough. Now, it’s time to speak up.

Light

Needles scratch fingertips as I place the ornaments at carefully chosen spots on the tree. In ornament hierarchy, my favorites will be located at the top, in the front, eye-level. The crystal Madonna and the glass angel glow rainbows from the multi-colored bulbs that are hot to the touch.  Bits of sap cause silvery strands of tinsel to stick to my palms. The last bulb must reach down and into the wooden Nativity set, setting an orange glow upon the occupants. Decorating builds the anticipation for the moment when I’ll walk down the stairs to find shiny rectangles with curly bows, corners secured with piney-smelling scotch tape.

Christmas wasn’t a day; it was a season. In the weeks following gluttonous Thanksgiving, we dusted off the chilly boxes of decorations from the attic. I seized upon the random strand of glittery garland and extra string of colored lights to add a glow to the festive scene on my dresser, where villagers caroled, exchanged gifts, and played in the cotton ball snow.

In my room, an assembly line of construction paper, markers, and stickers was arranged. Sheets of red, green, and blue were folded neatly, with designs of presents, Christmas trees, wreaths and snowmen drawn on the front. I made a list of each aunt, uncle, and grandmother I’d visit on Christmas, and each would receive an imperfect but carefully tailored card.

Over the years, there’s such a level of expectation that builds. There’s pressure for perfection at every turn. Everything must be special. Decorations. Cards. Gifts. The season becomes wrapped up in an unattainable version of a Hallmark movie, where the entire town has the fuzzy, warm glow of a Thomas Kincaide painting come to life, with everyone wearing matching hats and scarves. Reality feels closer to George Bailey yelling about his daughter playing the piano, or Clark Griswold kicking a plastic santa and reindeer in the front yard.

But then it snows on Christmas Eve. I feel a lightness as the flakes begin to float through the air and a sparkly white blankets the ground. And as much as I identify with holiday imperfection, I must admit that I want the happy ending. I want George to discover that his life has deeper meaning. I want Clark’s lights to shine brightly for the entire suburb. And I definitely want Ebeneezer’s last-minute largesse to surprisingly bless those he has wronged. Because it’s all of the human expectations that weigh on us; it’s the Divine gift that brings us Light.

 

Attention, Attention

Bits of desiccated mushroom are sprinkled on and around the microscope on the dining room table. A football and a squirt gun are abandoned there as well. A grey hooded sweatshirt jacket has been flung over the back of a chair, inside-out sleeves waiting to frustrate him in the morning. Math worksheets fan out from the edge of the navy blue homework folder.

Send him to his room on a simple errand, and his path along the way mimics Billy from the Family Circus cartoon strip–a series of dashes that loop around every distracting object in his path. On the stairs he’ll try on a stray glove. Then there’s that shiny blue truck he’ll drive up the railing. At the top of the stairs he’ll be faced with organized piles of yellow squares and green rectangles–adjusting a few pieces for his latest Lego creation. A book half-read is in an upside down V, the carpet serving as a bookmark. He might need to stop and read a few pages.

Where is your homework packet? Why aren’t you dressed? Did you brush your teeth? His days are filled with rhetorical, interrogative sentences.

ADHD has always been there, along with the social implications. The exasperated eye roll of the gymnastics teacher chasing my preschooler across the gym. Again. The whispering of dance moms as he interrupts the routine. Again. The bristling posture of the aftercare teacher who must report another behavior problem. Again. And the frequency of hearing his name called to attention by every coach, teacher, and instructor. Again, and again, and again.

With the start of every school year, it’s the same inevitable discussion. The first reaction is telling. Perhaps the eyes glaze over. Maybe they stare fixedly, trying not to roll. They might flit around the room while the head is nodding, already searching for an end to this conversation. Perhaps there is a list of student names on the desk sharing the same acronym. It becomes a cliche.

It’s an inevitable discussion, because it’s not parental pride at stake. As he navigates his world, his self-image will be marked by interactions with these grownups. I have to help them see beyond the daily annoyances and disruptions, so that they don’t just become reactionary forces in his life. I want them to view him through a different lens–one which can look past the incessant chatter, constant movement and wandering gaze. If they can see even a fraction of what I see…

And yet I sigh as I repeat myself each day. Where is your homework packet? Why aren’t you dressed? Did you brush your teeth? Again, and again, and again.

 

Depression

Hot, dry sand crunches with each step. It’s the end of summer, but somehow the sand hasn’t been softened by the endless plodding of feet along the shore. Despite the coarse feel, it’s not entirely unpleasant. The beach is filled with couples and families savoring one last weekend at the lake. Terry cloth portraits of superheroes and unicorns are strewn along the sand. Carefree legs race through sandcastle villages. A Labrador leaps with abandon as he chases a neon ball.

Putting one tentative foot forward into the crisp lake water, I gasp. There is nothing inviting about moving forward, yet one foot follows the other into the green, murky water. My feet begin to numb. At each step I expect the water to be less biting, while the chill continues to spread from feet to calves to thighs. Other swimmers plunge ahead, diving under and emerging with smiles. They gracefully stroke the surface with suntanned arms. They splash and flip with ease.

Internal voices shout, “Be like them!” and I’m suddenly submerged in icy wetness. Every inch of my skin is covered with goosebumps. I shiver and gaze back at the happy shoreline. Children inspect the sand for tiny seashells. Red plastic frisbees soar through the air. Sand sparkles. I should return to that place where I was warm and dry and happy, but sinewy hands begin to grasp at my heels and pull me under. I’ve gone out too far and my feet lose their grip. My head dips under again and again, and I gasp for light. Shrieks of laughter echo in the distance, taunting me. It’s cold and it’s dark and I want to go back, but my unseen adversary grips my legs and binds my arms.

The shoreline is hazy, with one person’s movement blending into another. Perhaps it’s only a mirage, and the truth is found in current misery. Uncertain, I lunge forward as my legs fight against the heavy current. I’m thrown back every few steps as I strain towards some distant, happy memory. Fetters of darkness loosen as I stumble out of the stagnant lake and collapse onto shore. The sun warms and dries my body, and I shudder with one final chill.

Looking out onto the water, waves shimmer. Sailboats are dashes in the distance. My hands grasp the sand. I turn my face towards the sun and greedily gulp in sunshine. A giggle of relief bubbles in my throat but is smothered before it erupts. Despite the firm ground below me, I can feel the darkness lurking, threatening to pull me under at the slightest slip.

 

Goodbye

Last Friday we watched your birds. We sat in the shaded part of the cement patio, both remarking on the delightful warmth of the day. The three-tiered stone fountain bubbled and splashed a lulling rhythm. Playful sparrows hopped along the edges, dipped beaks in for a quick drink, coming up with feathers askew in a mohawk shape that made you laugh. Cardinals swooped in with a flash of scarlet. A rambunctious squirrel darted among the doves for discarded seeds, grasping his cache between grateful paws. There were an unusual amount of birds accompanying us on the patio. They were not deterred by our presence. We were amused by theirs.

We had many afternoons similar to this. Once I discovered your fondness for the outdoors, it became a welcome part of both of our days. We’d pause during our sessions to just observe the world around us. Not knowing the names of the different trees, you’d point out your favorite ones by the shape of the leaves. I’d notice the pattern of the bark. One day, we watched a mom and son cart a wagon load up that steep hill, and we took bets on whether they would make it. Guessing at their load, we wondered why they took the wagon instead of the truck sitting in the drive. You told me stories about this neighborhood from when you were a kid, and you came to this very building to visit the residents with your grandfather. As I carefully navigated the wheels of your chair back to the building, I imagined you skipping up the sidewalk as a young girl.

Monday afternoon I am called to your room. You cannot speak. You try, but we cannot understand. Your eyes have a faraway look in them, which I mistake for fatigue. Illness. As I smooth back soft strands of wispy white hair from your forehead, I call your name. Do you see me? I wipe away beads of sweat with a cool washcloth and pat your arm. My mind is searching for a way to comfort you. Does everyone else understand what I do not? Your sister prays aloud as she holds your hand and I am still calling your name over labored breathing, when I am suddenly aware of an audible silence. A final calm falls over your body, and in that moment my composure breaks as hot tears sting my eyes. Quiet whimpers and sniffs fill the room. A small crowd gathers in disbelief. It was so fast. 

—–

You always wondered at the language of the birds. Often you would gently talk to them. It seems fitting that so many came to visit you that Friday afternoon. There are pieces of our conversation that come back to me, but there is one quote that stood out then and even more so today. As you tried to describe your enjoyment of the simple pleasure of delighting in nature, you said, “Being out here like this, it just lights me up inside.”

All week I half expected to see you sitting in the dining room. It feels strange to walk by your room. Your absence is palpable. I know this will fade in time. And I know I already said this while you were with me, but it bears repeating. Thank you. Thank you for all of the peaceful afternoons we spent together. Thank you for sharing your warm memories. Thank you for sharing your light.

 

Perception

I sit at the edge of her bed and talk about nutrition, hydration, and the recent eating problems she’s been having. She’s a wisp of a woman who I could easily lift out of bed. Her clothes hang askew in a way that shows recent weight loss. Her cheeks have a wrinkled, sunken look and she’s more bone than muscle, with not even a trace of fat. As we talk about her progress, the “limited intake”(speech therapy code for “not eating”), she opens up and admits that it feels good being thin. She doesn’t want to get fat again. When I mention she could easily gain 5 pounds and notice no difference, her eyes widen in disbelief. Maybe fear. She tells me that she used to be “big”—at least adding 50 pounds to her current slight frame. There are no pictures in her room to confirm this, but I read the truth in her eyes. And I find myself telling her, “I used to be chubby, too. When I was a teenager.” Her eyes widen further and she shakes her head in disbelief. But when I describe what I think she’s feeling, she sees truth in my eyes. Suddenly there aren’t 45 years between us. We could easily be girlfriends talking late into the night.

We talk openly about how difficult it is to get past those old perceptions of ourselves. I assure her I am not trying to make her gain weight—that I just want her to be healthy—and her posture relaxes. She smiles. She’ll work with me on this “food” thing. She’ll try.

What kind of broken world do we live in when an 85-year-old woman has issues with body image? What kind of dark path has society walked that a clearly malnourished elderly woman finds worth in being thin? Yet, we pretend that these are the problems of youth. If a young woman in her teens or 20s struggles with body issues, we figure she’ll grow out of it. Severe cases might warrant therapy, but we otherwise adopt an attitude that these problems will somehow disappear over the years. What do we assume is the cure? Marriage? Parenthood? I don’t see how women are supposed to break free of this when body image is so ingrained in our culture.

I can walk into any grocery store on any given day and see “fitness” magazines full of images of thinness that are not realistically achievable by most women. And even if they are, what values are being driven out to achieve them? Physical beauty is something we’re born into. Or we’re not. The preferred body type of the decade is something we’re genetically predisposed to. Or we’re not.

How do we combat this? I wish I had more answers. I am filled with a general angst and frustration with the value placed on the physical beauty of women. We’re all a bit guilty, and we all buy into the lies in one way or another. We all want to believe in a better world where we see people for inner beauty. In the movie Shallow Hal, the main character is brainwashed into seeing people for their inner beauty—or ugliness. The results are irreverent, silly, and strangely heartwarming. As light as the movie is, I’ve often found myself wishing I could go through life being brainwashed like this, whether I’m looking at others, or looking in the mirror.

Perfect

Perfectionism is one of the most joy-stifling mindsets. Beyond decorum, it’s the idea of avoiding mistakes to a paralyzing degree. It leads to willful silence for fear of saying the “wrong” thing, looking silly, or being laughed at. There should be a better word for it, because while I use “perfectionism” to describe my attitude, I do not see perfection in my life. There’s nothing perfect in standing stiffly in the corner of the room while everyone else is dancing. There’s nothing perfect in sitting mutely with unspoken ideas for the conversation. For many years, these responses would win out over the possibility of regret and the loop that would play over and over in my head as I critiqued my actions. If I don’t try, at least I can’t fail.

When I’m confronted with something new, the flight or fight response is activated, and I want to choose flight every time. My frustration threshold is low, and there are lists of activities I have abandoned over the years because frustration was stronger than perseverance. If I care about my performance and an action is not coming easily, I become irrationally angry. As a kid I tore apart a new badminton net and broke the racket when I just couldn’t keep that birdie over the net. In my early adulthood I tried to learn how to play guitar, and I had to restrain myself from throwing it at the wall, instead opting for tearing up replaceable sheet music. Emotion overcomes reason and tells me others have natural skills I wasn’t blessed with.

Perfectionism is something I’m striving to root out of my life. One way I’m tackling this is by purposefully pursuing actions outside of my comfort zone. Sharing my thoughts with a public audience is one recent venture. Now, I’ve added ballroom dancing into the mix. Dancing may be the extent of discomfort for me when it comes to physical activity. Give me the controlled movements of yoga or the measured steps of running and I’ll tune out the world and become happily consumed by pushing myself to new limits. But dancing involves skills I just have not developed. Rhythm. Spatial awareness. Graceful movement.

“Slow, quick, quick, slow,” our instructor, Laura, calls out the measured beats of our steps over the music. I hold my arms stiffly in position as I mentally picture the steps, but the connection is lost by the time my feet move. I lead with the wrong foot over and over. Just as one series of steps becomes comfortable, we learn new ones and my feet become confused all over again. Laura models a new step with Matt, then nods at me to try, and I stare blankly. We learn several steps, and we begin putting them together to move across the smooth wooden floor from one mirrored wall to another. The corners of my mouth begin an upturn. My feet are moving where I want them to and there’s a light bounce in my steps. Then we begin spontaneous movement in response to the music, and while Matt moves lightly and naturally, I’m irritated that no one has given me the game plan. My feet fumble and I stop mid-step with a sigh.

We’re several weeks in when we have the shoe discussion. Apparently Nikes and ballroom dancing don’t jive. As Laura shows me the dancing shoes from her catalog, she innocently asks, “What size heel do you wear?” My mouth hangs open dumbly as Matt chortles. She looks at both of us and takes a deep breath. “Okay, we’ll keep it on the shorter end.” My usual joke about wearing heels is that I can walk in them as long as I have an arm to hold onto. Comfort zone officially exploded.

The first time I put on the shoes, I am seized with regret for ever considering ballroom dancing. It’s not the bronze satin fabric or the rhinestone buckles that I object to, even if they do strike a contrast with every single shoe I’ve ever owned. The straps criss cross around my arches and tug tightly across the tops of my feet. More straps at the front squeeze all of my toes together and my pinky toes go numb. An image of a cartoon hippo in a tutu comes to mind. As we begin to dance, concern for the steps is overtaken by the discomfort of the shoes. Laura tells me to limit my first session in them to an hour, and I am willing away the hour in my mind. When I finally remove the shoes and allow my feet to resume their normal, plodding shape (cartoon hippo now dons a sweatsuit), I wonder if I’ve just made an expensive mistake.

“Should I wear the shoes when I practice at home?” I ask as I massage the indentations in my feet. Laura takes another deep breath, and with careful words she replies, “In a few weeks you won’t be asking me that question.”

Will I ever be a good ballroom dancer? I don’t know. Practiced movements have become easier. I’m learning to respond to spontaneous movements, and I’m dancing through my mistakes. A month ago I could barely walk in heels. Now, I’m dancing in them. Most importantly, I can feel this chipping away at my perfectionist mindset. I’m pushing through frustration, and I’m giving myself grace to enjoy learning something new without the fear of failure. For me, that’s a pretty big deal.

Tree Moments

The room is filled with soft evening shadows. A backpack rests askew on the rocking chair, carelessly discarded the minute its owner stepped in the door. My honey-colored dog stretches across the back of the couch, her hind leg stretched out as she sniffs at the cool spring air through the window screen. A tuft of white fur straggles across my arm as another dog’s head rests contentedly on my knee.

Peace. Silence settles in the house and is only broken by the ticking of the clock. Windows are open and the neighborhood is so quiet I can hear the distant whish of tires on wet pavement miles away. A dark barks staccato in the distance. A motorcycle whirs down the road. Neighbors arrive home, conversing in muffled tones as they shut car doors. Her tinkling laughter fades with her steps up the sidewalk.

Spring holds the promise of summer, which is my favorite season. Increased warmth and sunshine have always meant more time outdoors. As a kid, I spent nearly half of my summer hanging out in some tree. My favorite one grew at the edge of our yard. A barbed wire fence separated our property from the vast acres of a neighbor, as part of his yard snaked around the woods to meet with ours.

Climbing to the top of my tree involved careful footing along the ridges and branches up to a spot where two parallel branches formed a seat. I would lightly kick my legs to feel the distance below as I scanned the roof of the shed and looked down on the ominous rusted fence. Adults told us it would electrocute you if you touched it–a careful ruse to keep us off the fence and out of the woods. From high up in the tree I could easily count the rows of newly planted evergreen trees that would one day obscure this view, as well as my path to the woods.

In my tree I was alone but not lonely. Was it the presence of God I felt? As the wind rustled the leaves, I would close my eyes and imagine myself in another time, connected to other people who had lived in these houses or even the first people to explore these lands. Perhaps it was a rare moment of peace even then, as I felt far from the responsibility of chores or homework. I was in the moment. Taking in the warm sunshine peaking through the branches. Watching ants scurry around the bark. It was a sense of getting back to something essential.

Stillness is elusive to me. I must contend with the “must”s and the “should”s that cycle through my mind, the peace of relaxation broken by a nagging guilt about various mundane tasks. Busyness carries too high a value. To fill the calendar with appointments and to have an endless to-do list is lauded. Relaxation is something to be earned. As I strive for more peace, I see the need for more stillness. It’s the only way to return to the essential. I want more tree moments.

Unwelcome

It announces its arrival with an early morning restlessness that pulls me out of bed before the alarm.  My breath quickens as I begin to feel the familiar sensation of twisting and burning in my stomach. The sun is not yet up, but already the day is looming.

As the twisting turns into tightness, I strive to make sense of the illogical response my body has to simply waking up. My hands fumble in separating coffee filters.  I lose track of my morning routine. Did I already pack my lunch? Where is my phone? I should’ve been on the road 10 minutes ago.

My thoughts gallop towards an undetermined finish line for a race in which there are no winners. I breathe deeply and rehearse my inner dialogue. This is irrational, but my body has been commandeered by a powerful adversary. Reason and logic are being overpowered by a dose of fear and worry mixed with a hint of panic.

A shaky hand twists the silver knob on the car radio in a futile attempt to drown out the intruder of my peace. I sing along to mindless lyrics in hopes of slowing my thoughts. Maybe a veneer of calm will settle in before the work day begins. Maybe this will just be a morning episode that fades away by mid-afternoon. Maybe I will conquer this one day and attain a lasting sense of peace. Maybe.