I Am Water, I Am Sunlight

I remember seeing an interview years ago on Oprah that shocked me. Dr. Laura Berman was being interviewed, and the gist of what she was saying was this—as parents we should be teaching our young girls to masturbate. I think the age she recommended was between the ages of 10-12.

Gasp.

Her reasoning—if we teach our daughters to pleasure themselves, they will learn that this is something they can do FOR THEMSELVES. So when the first boy comes along who does the things that make her toes curl, she will not associate this kind of pleasure with another person. She will know the pleasure is coming from HER OWN body. She will know that this boy IS NOT A WIZARD (forgive me, I’m paraphrasing). A girl may be less inclined to stay with a boy who doesn’t treat her well, or less inclined to be constantly seeking that NEXT boy to engage with sexually—because she will know that, like Dorothy, SHE has the power all along.

At the time, I had a two year old and a newborn—both girls. Talking about sex with them was a long ways off (not so much, anymore). I found myself sitting there in complete conflict about what I was hearing. My mother NEVER talked to me about sex. We never even talked about menstruating, never mind about masturbating. I can’t think of anything more mortifying than having had that conversation with my mother. Still, it made sense. I filed it away in my mind as something to consider down the road. Something to chat about with other mothers of girls. Probably not something that would end up in my mothering repertoire.

As the years passed I found myself in an increasingly unhappy marriage. A marriage wherein affection was sparse. He never told me I was beautiful. Or smart. Or funny. Or kind. Or a good mother.

And I needed him to say these things in order for them to be true.
(Read that again.)

I was a shriveling houseplant.
He was water.
He was sunlight.

I posed for a photo shoot done by some friends who were trying out a new concept of helping women to feel seen through photography. To feel empowered. They posted my photos on Facebook. I sat on the couch with my computer in my lap, watching as my Facebook blew up with lovely comments over the photos of me. Across the room my husband was looking at the same pictures and his first comment was, “Whose shirt is that you’re wearing?”

“Look at ME!” I screamed silently through the internet….from the other side of the room.

An old boyfriend reached out to me on social media, and we began to chat. He would write that I was incredibly sexy. And the smartest woman he knew. That he respected me. Admired me.

I was hooked.
He was water.
He was sunlight.

We never saw each other in person. And at a certain point I messaged him that we couldn’t communicate anymore. I wanted to work on my marriage. I knew that I was spending too much time thinking about him. Too much time thinking about the version of me that HE TOLD ME I WAS. I didn’t love him. I loved HIS version of ME.

Despite therapy, nothing changed in my marriage. And after a while I resumed the messaging. I’m not proud of that. I was so thirsty.

I needed water.
I needed sunlight.

Where else would I get them if not from him?
Surely THIS is where it is kept?

When my husband told me he knew about the messaging, I felt like a scorned child who’d gotten caught playing with something she wasn’t supposed to. I was ashamed.

Looking back I realize this was the moment I knew our marriage would not be saved. Not because of the “emotional affair” as he called it, but because he had known for a long time about these communications, and had said nothing. And then—when he told me he knew—it was in an email, sent while we laid side by side in bed.

Where was the passion? Where was the jealousy? The outrage?
It was further validation of the fact that I was unworthy.
Of water.
Of sunlight.

And the old boyfriend? I was only irresistible when I was unattainable. When he saw my marriage going down he did not want to be counted among the wreckage.

No more water.
No more sunlight.

About a year after my divorce, I went on a date. The man was poetic and dreamy and said the words I needed to hear about myself. “You are so beautiful.” “I wake up in the middle of the night longing for you.” “You are a wonderful mother.”

He was water.
He was sunlight.

When he took it away abruptly, I begged to have it back.
Just a splash. Just a beam. Please.

Just when I thought he would never feed me again—I’d feel a drop of rain, a flash of light. And then I’d wait, with my hands cupped. With my face tilted to the sky. Thank you. This will sustain me a while. Surely there will be more to come.

Upon refection I have come to realize that this pattern did not begin with my marriage. I chased after a man—a boy—from high school all the way up until he became engaged to be married ten years later.

He was water.
He was sunlight.

Another man in my twenties, the same…I coveted him until he was no longer available.

He was water.
He was sunlight.

Recently this particular man returned to my life—offering water, and sunlight. But I didn’t want it. If he was offering it so freely, I thought there must be something wrong.

I’m SUPPOSED to beg. I am SUPPOSED to be dying of thirst.
Doesn’t he know I am not worthy of this kind of abundance?
This is NOT how it works.

This pattern has been a hard one for me to recognize or acknowledge, because I have had no fear of being alone. I’ve spent way more time single than I have in relationships. I am independent. I am not lonely.

I do not seek to have just ANY man in my life in order to fill a need. What I do instead is to appoint someone as the assessor of my self worth. (I think you can guess that this person has NEVER been ME). They may have this job for many years, until the torch is passed to the next man I deem worthy of this title.

How does one gain this dubious honor? He must simply water me and warm me in the light of his affection…and then, take it away.

Tell me I’m worthy, and then make me doubt it. I’ll be hooked for years.

This revelation has been—as you can imagine—unsettling. I’ve been in a bit of a tailspin about it. How do I get to a place wherein receiving love freely and abundantly from a man will feel…normal?

To where I don’t feel there must be something wrong with him if he thinks I’m worthy…not just in the beginning, but——STILL?

To where, upon having someone withdraw their affection, I won’t be inclined to believe this simply means I must work harder to prove my worth?

To where I won’t place my beliefs about what I deserve in the hands of someone who may never have even volunteered for the task. (Whether it was a willful endeavor or not, it was never his to have.)

This morning I sat with my coffee, reading a book by Brene Brown, “The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.”

And I don’t know why, but I thought of that interview years ago, with Oprah. TEACH THE GIRLS THAT THEY HOLD THE POWER WITHIN THEMSELVES.

And I had this Aha moment about my life.
About my loves.
About sunlight. And water.
And apparently—about masturbation.

It seems to me that teaching our daughters how to self-satisfy goes WAY beyond sex. I know that feeling powerful when it comes to sexual pleasure is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to a woman’s self esteem and personal power. But teaching our girls ownership of and appreciation for their own bodies seems like an excellent idea, doesn’t it? Just one more way of teaching them that they don’t need someone else in order to feel good about themselves.

And I must teach my girls to appoint no one but themselves as the ASSESSORS OF THEIR OWN WORTH.

I understand wholly and humbly that I can ONLY teach them by example.
By being worthy…of myself.

I want each of them to know she has EVERYTHING she needs WITHIN HERSELF. What a man chooses to offer—or to withhold—is no reflection of her worthiness.

SHE is water.
SHE is sunlight.

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Humanity on a Train

NYC bound we happened to sit behind a young man traveling alone. An older man took the seat next to him, and I smiled as the young man got up to help this stranger lift his bag into the overhead compartment. 

As we headed toward the city these two talked and talked. I wasn’t paying any attention to what they were saying until I heard the young man say, “Well, what if I told you that I am gay?” The older man said, “Then I would pray for you.” And the the young man said, “Well I would pray for you, too.”

And the discussion continued. And for the next hour I listened to this young man calmly and intelligently object to this older man’s bigoted, homophobic and misogynistic views. I mean, this guy was UNREAL. From claiming AIDS was created by God to punish homosexuals, to claiming women are going against their innate design by working outside the home—therefore ruining society and causing themselves and their children great psychological harm.

He said that children of divorce have no one to model love for them and therefore become SAVAGES.

(I have to admit, at that I literally laughed out loud. I couldn’t help it.)

There were moments when I wanted to slam my feet against the back of this awful man’s chair. But this young man—he remained calm. They both did, actually. Never was a voice raised between them. Never did I feel that I needed to leap to his aid, either.

“That’s simply untrue,” the young man said repeatedly, and he would argue eloquently against each point. Respectfully.

It was clear to me that this polite and intelligent young man was NOT going to change this older man’s opinion about a damn thing. I’m sure he knew that too. And he could have chosen not to engage. He could have shot the conversation down after the man obviously said something derogatory about gay people. Or he could have reacted in an angry, or sarcastic way.

I can’t say anyone would have blamed him for that. I wouldn’t have.

But…I am so glad that he didn’t.

Because behind him sat my daughter. A child of divorce. The daughter of a single, working mother. The daughter of a trans and bisexual father.

And she was listening.

Ultimately the young man said, “Well, I am not a gay man. I am straight and catholic, actually. However, within the last hour you’ve managed to insult nearly everyone I love. I think we’re done here. I’ll pray for you.”

And I looked over and winked at the incredibly loving little savage in the seat beside me, grateful we were witnesses to this exchange, however ugly one man’s opinions were. Because it showed my daughter that resistance does not always have to be loud, aggressive or hostile. It can simply be a soft spoken young man on a train, respectfully and intelligently defending humanity on a Thursday afternoon.

train shot

Telling Our Stories

The other day I wrote about facing life’s challenges – the ones that shake our foundation. Among the examples I gave from my own life were my father’s death, my mother’s cancer battle, and my ex coming out as transgender. I was careful to explain that I did not equate one’s changing gender identity with death nor with cancer, but that I do consider it a foundation rattler. After I sent what I wrote out into the world, I worried. I worried about having acknowledged that this transition is hard for me.

Why?

Because it is so much harder for her. Because it isn’t my story. Because I want to show my unwavering support of her. She is so brave – after having lived four decades as a male, to have the courage to express who she really is. I am not the courageous one, she is. The other day I read that the suicide rate among transgender teens and adults is 40%. Let that sink in. My mother had a better prognosis with stage 3 breast cancer. I burst into tears when I read that statistic. It makes me cry again sharing it with you.

There are layers of reasons why the suicide rate is so high amongst this population, and of course at the root of it is people would rather die than to have to live in a body that feels wrong. They feel trapped, either because they fear not being accepted, or they have already experienced not being accepted, for who they are. They are trapped in the wrong body, and they don’t see any other way out.

I have always been supportive of LGBTQ rights, but I have to tell you I had never met anyone who was transgender. That was, of course, until I realized I had been married for ten years and was raising two children with a person who is exactly that.

Introduction by fire, anyone?

Soon after I discovered that my ex is actually a woman, I went on Amazon (as one does in these situations) and looked for some help in the form of a book. What I found was, ‘Trans Bodies, Trans Selves”.  One click and I would hold the answers to all of my burning questions right in my hot little hands.

It arrived weighting about ten pounds and looking like a college text book. I leafed through it – medical and legal advice, very graphic diagrams – this book was not going to help me. It might be a great reference guide down the road, but for me, a newbie, it was overwhelming. I knew I wouldn’t get my head around this situation with anatomy and law. I needed to get to the heart of it. So I read stories – real, from the heart, stories written by real people who have lived through this. For me, reading “She’s Not There” by Jennifer Boylan was so helpful. It is the story of a boy who always knew he was different, but didn’t want to be (of course) so he hid his true self. He grew into a man who fell in love with a woman and had two children. He became the Head of the English department at a prestigious college in Maine. Then, he came to a point where he felt he had no choice but to risk everything to be who he was. To be Jenny.

I realized in thinking about all of this that it is so important that these stories get told.  It is so incredibly important that transgender people tell their own stories. It is stories from the heart that bring us together and help us to understand each other.

They make situations that seem so alien to us relatable.

It is for this very reason I think it is also important that their loved ones tell their stories too. We need to tell our own stories. I believe there are people out there who need to hear what I have to say.  Someone needs to hear me say that this is hard. Someone needs to hear me say that this is confusing. Someone needs to hear me say that it is scary. They need to hear me say that sometimes I resent it being hard and confusing and scary. They need to hear me say that it is okay if their foundation has been shaken.

And frankly, I need to say it.

This doesn’t mean that we are not 100% supportive of our trans loved ones. This doesn’t mean we are being dramatic or making it all about us. These are our lives too, and therefore it is also about us. It is about all of us. It is about how we will greet this foundation shaker together.

It starts with us telling our stories bravely, just like our loved ones have.

I am Not the Buddha

The following quote by poet Tyler Knott Gregson came up on my Facebook memories this week…

“To begin again, sometimes you have to take life down to the studs, knock down all the walls, and pull out the insulation that kept you from the world. You must get dirty and feel the ache in the muscles you used to pull the house down around you. You must stare wide eyed and grinning at the mess you have made, seeing through the rubble to the clean floor that will emerge when the work is through.

Now, now is the time to destroy the foundations of fear and apprehension, the walls of waiting and wishing; now is the time to begin again. Laugh at the piles of the past you stand in, knee deep and smiling.”

I so loved it at the time I posted it. Reading it again brought me back to that moment in time. It was two and a half years after I had split with my husband and moved out of our home. I had – we had – torn it all down. It was not working. We were not happy, though we had tried and tried. I had already gone through the grieving, much of it while we were still together. I was, at that point in time, ready “to laugh at the piles of the past in which I stood, knee deep and smiling.”

The date was February 2016.

About a month later, my ex-husband (and the father of my two girls) came out as transgender. Nine months after that, my beloved father died suddenly. Nine months after that, my mother was diagnosed with BRCA and stage 3 cancer.

Let me be clear – I am not comparing my ex being trans with death nor with cancer, but I list it here because…well because when the person with whom you were in a relationship for twelve years reveals this kind of secret – when you realize you didn’t know, percieve, understand…have an inkling of something so fundamental about your spouse as his gender – it has the power to shake one’s foundation. As is, for my girls and me, navigating the outward changes of our loved one. When you think about it – what is more fundamentally true to a child, than that Dad is a man? (Or to a woman, that an ex-Husband is a man, for that matter?) Love is love…and what is revealed within that can still be a wall rattler; a soul shaker.

Once again I found myself standing in the rubble that was once my life. However, THIS time – I hadn’t asked for it. I had not held the sledgehammer in my own two hands and swung wildly, hungry to tear it all down. I had simply woken up one day to find a big hole in the roof, and then I watched helplessly as the foundation cracked, and the walls buckled, and everything seemed to crumble all around me.

The question I find myself asking is – Is it possible to approach the rubble we’ve willfully created in the same way that we greet the rubble we did not? The rubble we never asked for? The rubble we never saw coming?

The Buddhist answer would be yes – simply greet what is. Embrace it.
I can assure you, I am not the Buddha.

As I have stood in the piles of the past, I have grieved. Heavily. I have cut myself on the jagged pieces of the past as I tried to fix what was there. I have tripped and fallen as I tried to hold up the pieces that were still hanging on by a few desperate nails. When you never wanted the destruction, it is hard to accept the fact that nothing can be put back exactly as it was, in its imperfect perfection.

Whether the rubble was intended or not, Gregson was right about looking THROUGH it all, “to the clean floor that will emerge.”

Because it will. It is there, beneath it all. It is always there. Whether we brought on the demolition ourselves, or we helplessly watched as everything fell apart. Either way, we must rebuild.

We have no choice, as we stand there in the rubble, but to get to work cleaning up the mess and to begin again…and again, and again.

Such is life – learning to push up our sleeves and do the work…

The work we asked for, and the work we didn’t.

I still may not be able to greet both with a smile – to greet them equally with gratitude as bits of the house that once sheltered me cling to my hair and dust my eyelashes – but I do understand that it’s the building and rebuilding of my house that will teach me the most about myself.

Above all I must remind myself that I am not the house.
Its destruction never has to equal mine.

Day 326 Radical Empathy

I’m sorry.

Such a powerful phrase…except lately, in relation to my children, hearing it has been making me feel…

Panic.

Let me backtrack.

I believe in the power of a heartfelt apology. It can be healing both for the person receiving it and for the person offering it.

It can also be hollow…we all know that.

At the preschool where I work, we never force the children to apologize. We model a compassionate response. We model sincerity and empathy, but we don’t force the children to say something they aren’t feeling. We are of the opinion that this does not bring forth authentic caring. Sometimes it can even teach children that they can do whatever they want, as long as they offer that magic phrase….even if the words are called out over their shoulder as they run off to greener pastures.

If a child hurts another child, the teacher will say (in the presence of the “doer”) –

“I am so sorry you got hurt. How can we help?”

Sometimes just acknowledging the hurt makes a child brighten. Other times the teacher may have the child who did the hurting go retrieve an ice pack or a band-aid for their friend. The child may even spontaneously offer a hug.

We find this approach to be much more effective in teaching true compassion. Eventually, children learn to say they are sorry on their own…and they mean it.

I employ this technique in my own home, too.

I have found that when given the time to cool down, my girls come around to apologizing on their own. I am also cognizant of offering my own apologies when warranted. Sometimes I eff up, you guys. (I know, it’s shocking). I want my girls to see that I know I am not infallible. I apologize for using an unnecessarily harsh tone, or for saying something insensitive, or for forgetting something important…and I mean it.

I want them to know that there is no shame in an authentic apology. In fact, it can be an act of bravery, humility, and integrity.

img_6190Back to where I’ve been triggered as of late.

One of my children has been a bit more…moody lately. {Sweetheart, if you’re ever reading this, please know that I totally get it. No judgement.}

She has been a bit surly, and not always for a particular reason, except…adolescence. She has been holding onto hurts longer, and taking out anger she is feeling toward one person or event, on the world as a whole…or at least “the world” that is our home. Sometimes she has no idea why she’s mad/sad (she has literally said – I don’t know why I feel this way right now).

Sometimes, she is radiant…but other times…when she gets stuck in this place…well, it’s like a dark cloud settles over the house.

For an empathetic person, this cloud is hard to be under. It can be intense. Her sister becomes heavily weighed upon by these sister-storms. What happens then is, she says,

“I’m sorry.”

What’s wrong with that, you may ask.

It is this…

She takes responsibility for her sister’s feelings. She blames herself, even though she doesn’t know why. Even though she didn’t do anything wrong, she feels responsible.

Therein lies the trigger. 

Hearing her apologize for someone else’s feelings, mood, behavior, demeanor…

Making it her fault. 

Hearing my daughter do this is KILLING. ME.

It’s a special kind of hell seeing your children adopt behaviors of yours which make you feel ashamed.

I know for me this blame-taking via I’m sorry is something I have struggled with my whole life, especially during the unhappy years of my marriage. I recognize it now as part extreme sensitivity to negative emotions, and part (Ahem…a BIG part) insecurity… 

 

I am NOT ENOUGH to keep this from happening.

Wait – is that insecurity, or is it…ARROGANCE?

As the kids say, “Oh, SNAP.”

(They probably don’t say that anymore, but whatever.)

Why is it so hard for us to allow others to sit in their own…stuff? Why do we internalize other people’s feelings? Why do we make it a reflection on us…on our possible shortcomings as sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, friends, lovers…humans?

So the next time it happened – this blame-taking via I’m sorry on the part of my daughter – I asked her,

Why are you sorry?”

 

“I don’t know,” she said, “I just feel bad that she seems really mad and I don’t know why. I feel like I must have done something wrong.”

Mmmhmmm.

What is equally fascinating to me is that this unfounded apologizing makes her sister – the one “in the mood” – so irritated. She yells,“You don’t even know what you are apologizing for!”

Isn’t that interesting? She isn’t even looking for someone to blame.

Let me be clear. I want my children to be compassionate. I like that my daughter notices when her sister is having a bad day/hour/moment. The question is, how can I teach her to be empathetic without taking responsibility for her sister’s feelings?

I think it would be perfectly sincere for her to say she’s sorry that her sister is hurting. Like the preschool teacher who is sorry a child got hurt (even though it wasn’t the teacher’s fault). After all, not being to blame doesn’t make her less capable of compassion about the pain. She could also ask, just in case…whether she has done something to upset her sister…but also be prepared to accept NO for an answer.

Whoa – to have empathy without making it about us. 

Radical, I tell you.

Radical empathy.

 

 

 

 

Day 325/365 Let There Be Color

This weekend we celebrated my mother’s birthday. I told her I’ve never been happier to celebrate someone’s birthday…and that’s the truth.

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While still mourning my father, the idea that my mother might not survive breast cancer this year was a very real and visceral fear for all of us.  Coming around to her birthday – cancer free – was truly something to celebrate. 

I got to thinking this morning about something I read once, somewhere…it was something to the effect of…

What would you do differently if you knew you were dying? Well, guess what…YOU ARE.

We are ALL dying. 

Not to be grim [smirk].

The truth is, we are all inching toward death, every day. Of course, some of us have a lot longer to go than others. Sadly, this doesn’t necessarily have as much to do with age as we’d like to think.

Sure, we can take precautions; be smart. We can eat healthy, exercise, manage our stress, try our best not to run with scissors…but beyond that we don’t have much control over our ultimate fate.

So…live every moment as if it’s your last!

Hmm.

I am not going to say that.

I have had enough hard knocks over the past couple of years to understand how unrealistic that is…and I am not going to shame myself for my emotions. Sometimes we get hit hard, and we reel from it. If I have a day when I just want to crawl back under the covers and hide…and that is even remotely possible to do that day…I am going to go for it. I am not going to force myself to savor the day because it may be my last.

True contentment and joy are not forced. They are arrived at with grace.

Grace for ourselves, and for everyone else…even, or especially, the people who challenge us.

Grace is not always an easy place to land.

Sometimes it means processing our reactions – not stuffing them down under the guise of perpetually enjoying the moment!

Sometimes, we need time…space…perspective.

So…if we can’t possibly enjoy every moment, yet we are aware that the number of moments we are granted is never truly known…where does that leave us?

I think it leaves us in a place where we have to learn to appreciate the full experience of our humanity. We can allow ourselves to experience ALL of what it means to be human,  and get to a place where there is no shame in it.

No shame in feeling angry, sad, jealous, afraid –

And then…

Learning to release it...because we can’t stay there.

An image comes to me of an abstract painting. Can you imagine a piece of art that could convey all of the emotion of your life –

No identifiable images – JUST COLORS.

How would it look?

Would you want the painting of your life to be monochromatic?

Not me.

I’d want it all to be there – messy and spilling out over the entire canvas – the light, the dark, the passion, the fear, the joy...

I imagine if you look closely, analytically, you could see the detail of each emotion, both the subtle and the dramatic shifts in hue.  The colors would weave toward and away from each other…often overlapping…one spilling into the next.

Then, if you were to stand back from it…when you take in the piece as a whole…

You would truly see it.

The whole me;

My whole life.

You would see all of the messy layers aren’t random. In fact, they come together to evoke one very palpable and permeating emotion –

LOVE.

Let there be color.

Day 320/365 Spring Will Come Again

We are nearly a month into what the calendar calls “spring” and it is cold outside…really fucking cold, and just to add insult to injury, it is also windy as hell.

(Is hell windy? Probably not, I just really feel like cursing today, damn it).

Actually, I am in a perfectly fine mood, albeit begrudging of the winter for overstaying his welcome.  The howling wind outside makes me want to continue to turn inward, when what I want to be feeling this time of year is an opening…a blossoming…a gesture of expansion…

I want to be bursting with warmth and JOY, damn it.

I know, I know…warmth and joy should be found within, regardless of whether the weather is cooperating, but seriously…

My vision of spring does not include wool socks.

And yet, yesterday…ahh, yes…yesterday was beautiful…perhaps twenty degrees warmer. The sun shone. I was, at long last, liberated from my winter coat.

Fleeting as that taste of spring was…it was a reminder that winter won’t last forever. 

It never does, you know.

Such is life.

Sometimes the cold hangs around longer than we would wish.

Sometimes it appears to leave, only to come rushing back…a frigid gust shocks us – just when we have dared to shed our protective layers.

But always, it relents.

It must, for the cold is not sustainable…and in knowing this, we must also understand – nor is the warmth.

We cycle through them, again and again.

We endure…and expand…and endure again.

So I will curl inward another day…and wait.

Spring will come, again.

Damn it.