Scars

When it came to Hide and Seek in the neighborhood, I was a contender. My go-to move would be to crawl into a small space and maintain composure, stifling any hint of giggle as the seeker was just inches away. One summer afternoon, my hiding skills were tested when no such spaces existed. A few kids chose the shed, but that seemed too obvious. Some faster ones hid on the side of the house, surveying the distance and knowing they could outrun the seeker. Speed was not on my list of assets. Knowing my climbing skills were on par, I instead chose a tall tree in the front yard.

I scaled the tree koala style, wrapping my arms and legs around the trunk as I shimmied up the scratchy bark. Finally perched at the top, I was satisfied with my aerial view of the yard. From my vantage point I watched kid after kid reach home base, but I still kept waiting to hear, “Olly olly oxen free!” When that coveted phrase never came, it became clear that I needed an exit strategy. As the seeker disappeared on one side of the house, I carefully began to climb back down. My plan was foiled when the seeker doubled back and saw my descent. My feet betrayed me and I slid the length of the tree, howling as the bark ripped through shorts and skin. My screeches warded off my would-be tagger but drew the immediate attention of a neighbor. As she hoisted me into her arms and raced across the street to my house, the sense of urgency and looks of panic from adults caused me more alarm than the steady stream of crimson. The words “hospital” and “stitches” floated around my head as I was lowered into the bathtub. My last flash of memory is that my favorite pair of green shorts, with “Soccer” down the sides, was now ruined.

The memory of that day remains vivid with the visual reminder of the pale four-inch line on my left thigh. I will work to conceal blemishes, and I’d rather wear a Snoopy band-aid than have a cut or scrape exposed and scabbing, but my scars are permanent breaks to perfection. They may fade over the years, but they cannot all be concealed. My elbows and knees sport pale patches from numerous falls. My left shin has the faintest remnant of a painful skateboarding incident. The tiny divet at the end of my right eyebrow is a lasting reminder of my impatience with chicken pox. Not all of my scars have a significant story, but they are all an accepted part of my imperfection.

Scars are the tatoos of life. Each one has a story. A fish hook to the arm. A skateboard wipeout. A football mishap. They’re a badge of survival, as the skin rejuvenates its protective barrier. It knits a web of tissue to cover the exposed hurt. At first it’s new and pink, but over the years it will blend in with the other skin and become just another part of you.

Internal scars  are so much easier to conceal. A ready smile, a quick laugh and head nods serve as band-aids to keep the wounds hidden. Shared laughter and jokes carry us through our days and build friendships, but I’ve had relationships deepen when people can reveal their struggles. I’ve had meaningful conversations last an hour while standing in a parking lot. One offhand comment about the past resulted in a discussion through the early morning hours that had the depth of years. These moments are so raw and beautiful when we stop worrying about perception and reveal our inner turmoil. When people open up and reveal how imperfect their lives are, it’s a relief on both sides.

I’ve always viewed my physical scars as tales of adventure. The Tree Climbing Caper. The Skateboarding Saga. The Fence-Jumping Feat. Only recently have I learned to view my internal scars in the same way. Sometimes life is pretty, joyful and full of smiles, but it’s equally marred with ugliness, strife and scowls. When people open up and reveal how imperfect their lives are, I’m both relieved and endeared to them. That’s as much a part of this adventure as any physical feat I have endured.

Nemesis

She’s a vile, insidious creature. She’s an opportunist, waiting to catch me in a moment of weakness or doubt. She preys upon my misgivings, smirks at my nervous smile, echoes my own laughter in my ears until it rings strange. She tauntingly whispers, It’ll never be enough, as she lies in wait.

An antidote to laziness, she shows me a sinkful of dishes and piles of laundry when I want to relax. When I plan to just mow the lawn, she’ll notice all of the weeds in the mulch and around the fence. For future measure, she’ll hint at the idea of replacing that scraggily bush, extending the landscaping and adding another small tree. Before starting any new projects, though, she stresses that staining the porch has been on my “to-do” list for years. Years.

Painting a room, she’ll be there, helpfully pointing out any slight smudges or missed spots. She’s tuned in to the uneven woodwork, which I can never paint straight enough to suit her. Weeks and months later, she’ll examine errors in vivid detail and wonder, Does everyone else see this, too?

Always the helpful editor, she reminds me that writing is not a solitary act as she crosses out words, lines, and whole paragraphs. She’ll stop my pen as she reads that awkward phrase or hint of cliche. Sometimes she nixes the entire piece and I have to start over. When she allows me to publish, even though my word choice is repetitive and the writing lacks detail, she assures me, No one will even read it.

Feeling lonely and waiting for a reply from a friend, she’ll convince me that I’m driving people away. As she analyzes my original message, she frowns at my futile attempts at humor. Wondering if I belong anywhere, she wistfully replays memories of past rejection. Tauntingly, she ruminates on future scenarios where I will be outcast, and she asserts that any previous feeling of belonging was an illusion. She’ll edit further texts, erasing a line or two or abandoning the text altogether. You don’t want to seem too needy, she warns.

I know that she will always be lurking, no matter how much the sun shines. In a moment, she is ready to cloud my view with uneasiness and uncertainty. A formidable adversary, she’s armed with a lifetime of insecurity to draw upon. A respectable nemesis, she has me confusing foe with friend, as I am manipulated by her efforts toward improving me. If I found a way to silence her, I wouldn’t, for fear that everything would unravel.

Silence

Don’t be offended by my silence. If I’m staring off, don’t worry that I’m upset. Sometimes I just need to retreat into the comfort of my own mind. Daydreaming is a mental retreat from endless chatter. Is my silence is unnerving? People seem to want to fill it. There’s a point in each day when I need the silence of my mind.

My silence means I’m listening. My mind receives the words and turns a thought over and over, examining it at every angle. If you’re revealing a problem, I might have some insight, but it’s likely my response won’t be immediate. If you’ve spoken some words of kindness or stated something meaningful, I may not seem to receive it, when the precious words are actually being stored away.

My silence shouts the inadequacy of language. Caught up in the moment, my mind searches but the right words won’t surface. The complexity of thought and emotion are too much for human speech. Sometimes words aren’t what people need, and they’re not always what I have to offer.

My silence is filled with words, but my thoughts are more fluid in text and pen. I see them take shape in letters, words and phrases, see them decorated with punctuation. Confidence forms in the power to omit and shape the writing to reflect emotions. The written word is connective. To be able to read it again and again. To see the shape of writing and catch all of the nuances. To wonder at one word chosen over another.

Words are just a combination of sounds to form meaning. These combinations of letters, spaces and marks are used to express the workings of our brains. But these combinations can also become limiting. “Love” can be used to describe feelings towards a romantic partner, a friend, or Butterfinger bites. It’s not enough to say I simply enjoy them; I love Butterfinger bites. “Like” becomes a baseline verb which can mean you remotely connect with a post online, or it could be said with a shrug. I like “Dancing Queen” and “Fernando,” but overall (shrug) I’m not a huge fan of Abba. “Friend” can be used for a casual acquaintance online–allowed to creep on your vacation photos–or it could refer to someone you trust to see your bathroom after an unplanned visit.

There is no true silence for me. I am consumed with words. In print, my eyes will search them again and again to sort through every possible meaning. Spoken words are recited in my head as if on a reel, savoring the best and putting them on repeat like a favorite song. They can perplex and frustrate me, yet they’ve also carried me through such heaviness. Even now, I sense my words have remained shallow. Ideas tumble around in my brain but stumble when my pen wants to glide across the page or my fingers want to punch at keys on the computer. I am forever confronting the silence.

Devoted

Mid-afternoon she arrives, carefully punching in the code and closing the door softly behind her. She passes through the dining room, a bag of fresh laundry slung over her left arm, and politely nods to the staff. In his room she will place neatly folded shorts and pants in the drawers and hang up brightly colored polo shirts in the closet. If he’s sitting in his armchair, she’ll make the walk back down the hallway and politely wait for help to transfer him to his wheelchair.

With her small frame she pushes his heavy chair throughout the building, taking him to visit the birds downstairs, pausing at windows to remark on the weather. On warm afternoons, they sit in the courtyard, and he’s sometimes dozing off and other times gazing ahead. She has a smile in her tired eyes–the same one that was, perhaps, a little brighter in the pictures on his wall–the ones where his eyes held their spark.

She makes one-sided conversation about the people they knew, while he stares ahead or reacts to the movement of objects around him. How long has it been since he spoke her name? He gropes for her hands and she folds them into hers. How long has it been since his grasp was firm, offering security and affection? She lightly touches his hair, rubs his back and leans her head against his arm.

He’s lost inside a fractured mind. A year ago he reacted to greetings. Now he startles at sudden movement, and his words have become a jumble of sounds. A year ago he could hold his cup and his spoon. Now, his arms sit motionless as she patiently holds the spoon to his lips and coaxes him to eat. When he’s done, she’ll lightly dab his lips with a napkin and take the dishes to the kitchen–much as she would have done at home.

What does she whisper to him when they’re out in the courtyard? Maybe she’s remembering when they were first dating or when he proposed. Maybe she’s describing their special moments when the kids were small or recalling those busy days with little league. Maybe she’s telling him what a great husband he’s been, and how, even though this is so hard, she’d do it all over again. As he stares ahead, maybe he’s listening, and maybe he’s seeing a world beyond this where they can.

Distance

When you arrive, naked and small, your body feels like a sack of flour being dropped on top of her before you are pulled away by a team of strangers. Straining through exhaustion to hear expected cries, she scans the room with a frightened look as your father reassures her, but he’s waiting for those first sounds, too. Everything else in the room is blurred and meaningless until she hears the most relieving sound of your cry,  your entrance into the world, before passing out.

When she takes you home, the three of you emerging into the glaring sunlight of a humid July afternoon, you screech and wail in her arms. What was a relieving, life-affirming sound just days ago has become a shout of her inadequacy. You cannot be comforted. Your sleep-deprived parents try swaddling and re-swadding, rocking. Hours of each day are spent in constant movement, aimless drives and walks, and when she carries you inside, asleep, she shoots murderous looks at the dog upon the slightest whisper of a bark.

When she leaves you with the sitter for the first time, she writes a two-page detailed letter of instruction for your care, and as she drives away, she’s worried she omitted some important detail. How will anyone else be able to distinguish your tired cry from your hungry cry? How will anyone else know that you like to be held in the crook of her arm, facing out and resting your right arm as if on the branch of a climbing tree?

When you are two she’ll try to shush your cranky disruptions of a phone call, until she feels the unnatural heat from your body. As the digital numbers on the gray screen of the thermometer  climb to 105, she pulls on your winter coat and announces, “Let’s go for a ride” as she tries to recall the nearest emergency room. Her arms will cramp holding you in the waiting room, rocking you as you fall in and out of sleep.

When you start preschool, she begins the weekly task of deciding which craft project is precious enough to save. The save pile grows and grows if there is any hint of personal element–a fingerprint, a meaningful squiggle. How many number and letter pages should she keep? And now you’re “that” age–swim lessons, gymnastics, t-ball. What’s the right age for learning an instrument? Are you missing out on some vital early learning experience? Was three bedtimes stories enough?

When you start kindergarten, there is no hanging back at the door for you. You are full speed ahead to make new friends and discover new toys. She’s all smiles and nods until she reaches the parking lot, where she loses the battle against tears for this separation. For the first time you’re spending all day among strange adults and strange children. Who will be there to protect and love you? How can you be ready to go out into the world?

When you grow through elementary school, you naturally pull away from hugs and kisses in front of your peers. She’ll have to sneak them in with a quick, “I love you,” before you enter the school doors. You’ll start to kiss her goodnight before heading upstairs, no longer tugging at her arm for a bedtime story or a tucking in. You read your own bedtime stories and you won’t ask for that magical kiss to heal boo-boos when you are hurt.

When you start to talk about college (already?) and moving out, suddenly 8 years are flashing by. Your current plan is moving into a house on the same street, but she knows this desired distance will increase with age. She sees you as you are, this freckle-faced, bright-eyed boy who still, sometimes, cuddles with his mom on the couch while watching a movie. She sees you as you will become one day, a self-sufficient adult who doesn’t seek such comfort. And she thinks, How can you be ready to go out into the world?

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.