Breaking Through

Dear MeLast week I had a true emotional break through as I was writing.  That is, there was a specific sadness that had been locked down since I was a kid that managed to push up and out, like an over ripe zit. It emerged not entirely recognizable as my own, like looking at my face in the mirror can be sometimes, especially as I age. I knew that exact feeling intimately, knew the blurred corners of it and the rounding pain it brought through my chest, but I also saw it clearly as coming from another time.  It had the patina of a certain moment that still meant something to me, even though it occurred a lifetime ago. I felt it the way I would have when I was still young, but with the perspective of an adult. It was an extraordinarily subtle experience, so unlike other sadness I have known. The catalyst for this unexpected but welcome regurgitation was the rewriting of a scene for my book.

Over the last few weeks I’ve been making a big push to finish the fourth draft of my manuscript.  The story is a challenge because it’s so personal and old.  I’m writing about the period before my mother died, when I was just becoming a teenager and she was in her mid-forties.  I started it four years ago when I was forty-six.  This isn’t a blog post, it’s actually a fourth grade math problem: What year was I born and how old is the story?

Right. 1964, which makes me fifty and if you count from where it begins, makes the story forty years old. It’s almost as old as my mother Sue when the book begins and only ten years younger than I am now.

The book is a mixture of fact and fiction and many of the scenes are made up, but this one really happened and I remember it like it was yesterday.  I was rewriting the scene where Annie (my younger self) is opening a letter from her father, in which he scolds her for writing what he calls “a disrespectful note.” His letter is a scathing reprimand that Annie does not feel is warranted. She doesn’t understand why she is in so much trouble, when she feels she was just trying to lighten things up. She realizes too late that being flip about her mother’s cancer obviously hurt him, but she’s not sure why he is so mad. On the back of the page is her mother’s response, which is softer, but Sue says she agrees with everything Annie’s father said.  Annie is devastated.  She feels that her mother knows he is overreacting but won’t stray from her role as his supporter.

The problem with the scene was that I didn’t feel I had really captured the letter from my father.  I had tried it a few different ways and it never felt right.  So finally, as I was rewriting the scene for the fourth time, I tried again with the letter and all the right words flowed out.  It was easy and it sounded just like him.  I had the same experience with Sue’s words and as soon as I finished it this wave of sadness began.

I opened myself to it, nudging away any judgment that wanted to creep in. I recognized the feelings as belonging not to me, but to the fourteen-year-old version of me that lives within.  I gave her my full attention, as if witnessing for the first time those feelings of betrayal and shame that I felt in 1978.  I was able to mother myself in that moment, and be the comfort I had longed for as a teen.  It sounds like some kind of therapy session and it really was.  The beauty of it being that I did it myself.  I sat alone, pen in hand, just like I had forty-six years ago, now writing my way out of trouble, instead of in.

Dreaming of Raisins and a Man

ringLately I find myself dreaming a lot in the morning.  I wake up early, when my husband starts stirring, which is much earlier than I care to rise.  I feel a little annoyed for a nanosecond until I realize I’ve been sleeping again and he is waking me because I need to get up.  It’s seven.  I have forty-five minutes to get ready and make lunches while he cooks eggs for the girls and gets them to dress for school.

The first of two dreams this morning was about raisins.  A friend who is happily and recently divorced was enjoying some large black ones and I was saying, “Oh I don’t like raisins,” to which she rolled her eyes and held out a handful as if to say, “You think you don’t like them but you haven’t tried these.”  I tried them and realized she was right.  They were delicious and could potentially replace my love of prunes.  And I might be able to put them in the girls’ lunches.

The next dream was more complex.  There was a big sprawling party outside.  Friends were there but my husband was not.  In fact it seemed as though I was single.  In the dream I didn’t remember if I was married or not.  I wasn’t thinking about him.  I was a free spirit.

It was a beautiful day.  We were near the water.  I was talking to a man who seemed nice.  He was tall, dark haired with glasses and looked as though he might be part Asian.  He seemed smart, very kind and a little soft in terms of personality.  His sense of himself wasn’t sturdy.

Something happened with a bird.  It was like a pelican but more colorful, large but unrecognizable, and close enough to get a good look.  It was on the ground briefly.  The sight was extraordinary and I was very excited to pull out my phone to check my bird app.  “I use this more than my bird book these days,” I said and the man seemed impressed.

We were sitting on the ground, on a blanket, and he leaned into me as I was looking for the bird on my phone.  I knew what he was doing and was surprised when I leaned back.  Our bodies were touching in several places, legs, arms and feet and I could feel a palpable energy coursing through me.  It was exciting.  I felt admired and adored.  I could tell he was falling for me.

He asked me something.  Who was I there with?  He knew something about me from our mutual friends, J and S.  I told him I came alone but that I was married, adding as if just remembering these facts that my husband and I were separated.  That was when Dave nudged me awake.

I didn’t want to wake up.  I never do, but I forced my way back into the dream, curious why I had said I was separated.  Was I lying or was it true in the dream?  I was aware that I didn’t like the way Dave wakes me up.  I don’t like a lot of things.  Marriage is hard I tell people.  No one is perfect.

The man in the dream wasn’t perfect either.  He was a little over eager, ordinary in his looks, and I didn’t know much about him.  I sensed a boring job.  Science.  Looking back I can see that he was like Dave in some ways and opposite him in others.  But he liked me a lot and was not shy about it.  I felt his excitement being around me and that was different.  Maybe I miss that feeling.

Or maybe marriage is something one has to rediscover, like the raisins.  There are so many different kinds.  If the reason I think I don’t like them is because they are dry or sour then maybe the sweet juicy black ones can change the story I’ve been telling myself.

The story I tell myself about marriage is that it’s hard.  It’s hard to maintain the excitement we feel as young lovers or the enthusiasm to keep working things out that seem impossible to ever really fix.  That’s the thing.  The idea of fixing it is the problem.  It’s like the idea of fixing myself.  I can work on things and there’s definitely room for improvement, but the issues I’ve been dealing with my whole life are still with me.

Last night we had a fight that upset us both.  We managed to let it go before dinner and reassure the girls at bedtime that we love each other before talking it through alone.  It was a magnificent talk.  It was a conversation I am proud of because we both spoke deeply about our feelings and listened to each other, coming to the same conclusions and shrugging at the things we know we can’t change or undo.

The beauty of the hard work of marriage is that there are new things to discover and work through that you don’t know anything about on the day you marry.  It takes years to get that tired of someone and used to the things that are annoying.  It takes time to accept the things we can’t change because in the beginning we thought anything was possible.  It was all in front of us.  Now we look back, pat ourselves on the back for managing to stick together for twelve years and hope we can keep going for another twelve, or twenty or whatever we really want.

I read a great quote about marriage last week from someone who has been married thirty years that went something like, the reason we’ve lasted is because neither of us wanted a divorce at the same time.  That made me laugh and say I hope we’ll be that lucky.

Sometimes I feel madly in love and at others I want to throw it all away.  Start fresh with the man on the blanket.  But last night was a great discussion that I will treasure for a long time.  We’re parents and that’s an equally hard and imperfect situation.  There is no such thing as a perfect parent or a perfect childhood, just as there is no perfect marriage (or raisin for that matter) but we still expect ourselves not to make mistakes.  It felt good to acknowledge our shortcomings and forgive each other, and resulted in a good night’s sleep.

 

Magic

Hawk_overhead_webI love Harry Potter because I love the way JK Rowling imagines the way magic works.  That it requires skill, education, talent and above all, practice.

I ran up the mountain again today.  It’s something I worked hard at for months before I could do it.  Now it’s not that hard and I do it every week.  It gets easier every time, which still amazes me.

Today when I reached the top I laid down.  I wanted to just let myself really feel that sense of accomplishment of making it to the top.  My body was buzzing with the effort it had made and I started to meditate on how grateful I was to each part of my body for getting me there.

I thanked my feet for all their hard work and skillful balancing.  I thanked my calves and shins for their quiet uncomplaining support.  I thanked my knees, acknowledging that they were hurting and thanking the complicated arrangement of bones and tendons for not giving me too much trouble.  I thanked my thighs and gluts for their strength and power.  I thanked my internal organs for making the whole machine work so well.  I thanked my lungs for getting oxygen to my muscles so efficiently and I thanked my heart for working so hard to get blood through all my veins and corpuscles.  I thanked my spine and back for keeping me upright and for loosening up a little.  I thanked my arms and hands for their role as cheerleaders, propelling me up with their enthusiastic pumping.  I thanked my neck and throat for holding up my head and for allowing me to express my love of running and I thanked my head, scull, face and all the senses for taking in the sights, sounds and smells along the way and allowing me to enjoy each step.  Then I thanked the Universe for my incredible life, my health, my family, and for the ability to write every day.

When I opened my eyes there were three ravens circling above me.  I thought, wow, they are either wondering if I’m carrion or they appreciate my gratitude.  I decided to thank them with a song I wrote about crows and as I sang, a small hawk, probably a sharp-shinned, flew by the circle of ravens.

I love birds.  They always seem to show up when the magic is happening.

Raising Girls

toenails

It is such a conundrum being female.  How do I teach my young girls that how they look is not important?  They love Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, two women who push boundaries and poke fun at feminine ideals of beauty, but they also put a huge emphasis on their outward appearance. Both are known for their image more than the content of their music, and yet it’s the words they sing that my kids connect to.

“Just love yourself and you’re set.  I’m on the right track baby I was born this way.”- LG

“So you wanna play with magic, boy you should know what you’re falling for”- KP

I want to teach them to take themselves seriously for who they are and what they do, not how they look.  But I also want to teach them how to look their best, because I know that when I put effort into my appearance I feel more confident and have more positive interactions with people.  I don’t have to work as hard to be heard or noticed if I already have someone’s attention.  I want them to feel confident about how they look so they can learn to project their inner confidence to the outside world.

But that’s complicated.

In college I learned that I was living in a patriarchal society that subjugated women.  Out of some vague impulse to protest this injustice I stopped wearing a bra, stopped shaving under my arms and wearing makeup because these were things that male society expected me to do.  Of course my breasts were perky little things and pretty sexy under a tank top with no support, so that wasn’t really a hardship.  The hairy armpits smelled so I went back to shaving them along with my legs, which looked so much nicer without hair.  Makeup was easy to reject because I never liked putting it on.  It was too much work to do all that in the morning.

Truthfully, even if I was trying to resist conventions of female beauty, I was still trying to be attractive.  All I was really doing was trying to be sexy on my terms.  I wanted to decide what looked good on me, instead of following what others did.  And that’s still true today.  I prefer men’s pants and boots to high heels and skirts.  I like nail polish but I usually don’t wear it because I don’t like what it does to my nails over time.  It’s the same with makeup.  I’m fine putting it on occasionally, but I notice that women who wear makeup every day don’t have great skin by the time they’re my age.  I could go on about how feminine codes of beauty are generally destructive to women’s long-term health and beauty but that’s pretty obvious.  High heels, hair color, plastic surgery and all the toxic chemicals women put on their skin and hair are evidence enough.

I asked my eleven-year-old daughter Grace how she feels about makeup and this is what she said:

“I like makeup because I think it makes me look pretty, but I’ll never wear it all the time.  Besides the girls that wear makeup every day are annoying.  They’re always trying too hard to get the boys attention.”

At eleven, she already thinks that trying too hard isn’t very appealing and I have to agree.  It’s fine to put some effort into looking good but too much makes a girl seem overly concerned with her looks, as if she has nothing else to offer.

I take my job as a role model seriously because I know how much I looked to my mother for guidance when I was their age.  She was gone by the time I was a teenager, so I didn’t have that platform to stand on or compare myself to every day, but the image of her remained.  She was a lot like I am today.  She didn’t put much effort into her appearance unless it was a special occasion.

On Saturday night I got dressed up to go to a black tie fund raising event and my daughters were both excited to watch.  I had bought new shoes and new earrings, I had my nails done (and they had theirs done too), I had my hair done, and I put on a gorgeous dress that’s been hanging in my closet for years.  “Are you ever going to wear this?” my seven-year-old daughter Frances has asked many times.  Last of all I put on a full face of makeup.  I must admit I looked terrific.  I had Frances take a picture of me, sort of like how parents do when their kids get dressed for the prom, except in reverse.

Both my daughters were really excited watching me get gussied up.  Maybe it’s because they are so used to seeing me in tired cords and loose sweaters that it was exciting to watch my transformation into an elegant woman.  But I also think girls just really love seeing their mothers get dressed up.  I know I did.

I hope that NOT getting all dressed up every day shows them that I value my intelligence and my humor more than my hair or my outfit.  But when a situation calls for dressing up, I think they want to be sure I fit in and look as good as everyone else.  They know what it feels like to be sitting on the sidelines in an ill-fitting skirt and flats, because it’s the same feeling they get when someone makes fun of what they are wearing.  We all want to fit in to some degree, but it’s important to be able to do (and wear) what you want.

What I don’t like is the pressure on women these days to look sexy all the time.  It could be just living in Los Angeles, or perhaps I should blame it on social media, but in the last ten years or so it seems like I never see young women out in jeans and tee shirts anymore.  They’re all about makeup and jewelry, shoes and bags.  When I was in my late twenties it was the glory days of Grunge when making an effort meant trying to find the coolest beat up sweater at the thrift store.

So maybe I’ll get lucky.  Maybe in the next few years spending a lot of time and money on your look will be uncool.

“That would be awesome,” says Grace.  “I hope that happens.”

Ego Trip

poolpic1.smI have been thinking a lot about my, or as people often say, “the” ego lately.  I’m no psychology major, but the ego seems to me to change over the course of a life, and turning fifty has certainly calmed my ambitions and simultaneously boosted my confidence, two interconnected aspects of the ego.

Human beings have many flaws but the ego seems to me to be the greatest of them.  My ego tells me I should try harder, be like so and so, and that I need to strive for bigger and better accomplishments.  It says I’m a loser if someone else is chosen for the job or my manuscript is rejected five times.

When I was young, in my twenties I guess, my egomaniacal outlook was the driving force in my life.  Unlike my mother’s generation who were focused on marrying and having children, my peers and I wanted careers.  For many of us, what stood in the way of great jobs or rock star careers was a lack of confidence.  Everyone I know had ambition but only a few had real confidence in themselves.  Confidence, I saw, was in no way tethered to talent.  And a blind confidence in oneself, one that was unaffected by rejection, was the best kind to have.  People I knew then who are now quite famous artists all share that quality.

There’s a small part of me that is eternally hopeful that I will still make my mark in one way or another.  There’s that lingering fantasy, there since I can remember (was it fifth grade that it took hold?), that I will be recognized on a grand scale for my accomplishments.  A major museum show.  A hit song.  A best-selling book or some big award.  All such fantasies dwindle as I age and I don’t actually think any are really possible, but my ego likes to tell me that nothing is impossible, which I must in the end admit.

On the other hand, and this is the good bit, post fiftieth birthday I’ve been enjoying a great sense of accomplishment on a highly personal scale.  This is harder to identify because it doesn’t come with a plaque or large sum of money.  Nonetheless I feel it so clearly that it permeates all my interactions and experiences.  It’s a new feeling that allows me to do what I want, to please myself above all and to make decisions based on my gut.  What it comes down to is confidence, which shows up in the smallest of things, and allows me the greatest freedom.

I noticed it playing with my kids in the pool and thoroughly enjoying every minute without the feeling edging in that I had better things to do.  It shows up in the way I lead classes or circles and pays off when an appreciative participant tells me I made a difference.  When a middle school girl comes running up to tell me she loves to draw after a class, it certainly boosts my ego.  But when I see my daughter clearly feeling proud of herself, I am gratified on a scale that I don’t think any career achievement could touch.

This is the healthier side of my ego.  The one that strives to enjoy life and recognize all that I have to offer.  The other, always striving for accomplishment, is still alive and well, but these days I see it simply as the motivation to keep doing all that I love to do.

I Dream of School

Desert DeskSometimes, I have this dream that I think I’ve been having all my life.  I’m hoping that if I try and describe it in words, that it will become clear to me.  Something I’ve never tried until this moment.

I am in school.  I suppose when I was younger it was Oberlin where I went to college, and then it was CalArts where I went for graduate school.  But for many years it has been a school called Art Center where I worked for two and a half years, part-time, seven years after I got my MFA.

But no matter the setting, the dream is always the same.  I can’t seem to finish.  Or I have finished but I am still taking classes.  I don’t have enough credits to graduate or I have graduated and I just keep taking classes.  Someone, a boss, a teacher or an advisor is asking me what I’m doing.  Why I’m still there.  I need to graduate and move on but I can’t.  I just keep taking classes.  I have more credits then I need, but sometimes, as I said, I don’t have enough.

That’s the gist of it.  Never enough or too much but always, no matter what the story, the feeling is the same.  I’m a loser.  Never is there the sense of accomplishment I felt when I was in school for real.  In the dream, school is something I will never be good at, never finish, and never graduate with any satisfaction.  I seem always to be running to catch up, trying to figure out the one class I need that will get me out of there.

And that person, the boss or the advisor, seems always to be asking me, “What are you still doing here?”

I haven’t had the dream for a while which may be why it’s not coming very clear to me right now, but as I write this I realize that that feeling of being a loser, and that question, what are you still doing here? are both feelings that follow me everywhere.  Those are the very same feelings I have to combat when I wake up in the morning or go to bed at night:  That I haven’t done enough, that I’m not finished yet or that I’m stuck in a place that I should have left long ago.

Being human is a complicated business.  I can see that I am growing all the time, learning to ignore those voices and feelings that would have me believe I am less than what I know I am.  That I’ve accomplished less than I know I have.  That I am stuck in some place that in fact I left ages ago.  But still, the dream comes around, reminding me there is work to be done, that I’m not finished, and that maybe being stuck in school is not the worst place to be.

Bay Ridge

bayridgeRecently, I found myself driving around a neighborhood in Brooklyn that took me back to a pivotal moment in my adolescence.  The neighborhood hasn’t changed that much from the way it looked to me all those years ago and the story of how I almost lost my virginity came galloping back to me.  Sometimes a flavor or a smell that I have only been exposed to once or twice will return years later and bring back floods of memories to go along with it.  It was like that to be back in Bay Ridge Brooklyn, a place I had only visited once before.

Like all teenage girls I suppose, I was concerned at sixteen about the fact that I had never had real sex.  I had not “gone all the way.”  My best friend already had, over the summer visiting cousins in New Jersey, after meeting a very cute boy who deflowered her in the back of a borrowed truck.  She was smitten with him for months afterward, swooning over a particular Bob Dylan song that he liked every time she put it on the record player.

We all thought it was supposed to happen like that.  On some dirty floor or couch that didn’t belong to either party and would link you forever to a boy you would always think of as your first love.  We assumed this from romantic movies and the scant information we picked up from our mother’s, older sisters or cousins.

Then another friend did it with Nate Ovalman who was the cutest guy in our school and a grade above us.  Nate was extremely athletic and daring.  He would do anything, including climb the cables of the Brooklyn Bridge at night, and once, on a dare, he jumped out of the second story window of his father’s apartment building onto the gassy courtyard below without getting hurt.

I had no chance of doing it with someone like Nate.  There weren’t very many dreamy guys in our small school and the ones that were cute were taken.  My friends felt the same way and we had started looking elsewhere for eligible dating material.  We had fake IDs and went to clubs on the weekends where the bouncers would always let us in, knowing we were underage, and we assumed it was because we were dressed up and pretty enough.

One night we were at a club called Harrah that was often populated with older guys from New Jersey and Long Island.  Being underage females we were in the minority and got plenty of attention, which was exactly what we wanted.  My best friends were both beautiful girls so I was used to being noticed last or not at all.  That night a couple of cute guys bought us drinks and we danced and flirted with them until one of them asked for my friend’s number and I drifted away, onto the dance floor alone.

At the time I was obsessed with Elvis Costello, which had created in me an eye for more nerdy types and I noticed a guy staring at me who was cute in that way.  He was tall and had a receding hairline though he didn’t look older than twenty.  He might be Italian or Jewish, I thought, with his black hair and sleepy brown eyes.  But it was his obvious interest in me that excited me the most.

We ended up dancing and talking a little and I let him clasp my hand for a long time.  By the end of the night I decided he was okay and I took his number.  He looked at me seriously as he handed it to me.  “Call me okay?” he pleaded.  “Really.  I want you to call me,” and I said I would.

Two days later I called and we talked over the phone for ten minutes.  His name was Bruce and he was sweet.  He lived in Bay Ridge.  He worked in Manhattan, for his uncle, selling something or other I didn’t catch.  What did I know about jobs in Manhattan at sixteen?  I stood in my kitchen, my father a few feet away from me wiping dishes, and I wrote down his address on a piece of paper.

The following weekend I was on the R train heading out to Bay Ridge to see Bruce.  I didn’t have any romantic notions of our being boyfriend and girlfriend.  This was strictly business.  I wanted to get it over with.  I figured he was a good candidate.  He seemed nice and I liked his looks even though he wasn’t exactly handsome.  His skin was very smooth, I remembered from touching his arm at the club and he had bought me a drink and touched the small of my back as he handed it to me like a man would. He seemed mature and even though it didn’t take long for us to run out of things to say over the phone, I believed I liked him.

It was a few long blocks from the subway station to his house.  He had offered to meet me at the train but I insisted on meeting him at home.  I had only seen him in the dark and the idea of walking down the street with him in broad daylight was too risky.  What if he had horrendous acne scars I hadn’t seen or what if he was much older than I realized?

It was a very different neighborhood than mine.  All the houses looked the same.  Narrow, only one or two stories with brick walks and aluminum awnings, some of them striped like a barbershop.  Definitely Italian, I thought as I noticed statues of The Virgin Mary in people’s windows and in the area next to the houses short stoops where people sometimes planted a tiny garden but most stored their garbage cans.

His place was just as ugly as the others.  Fake brick siding and the red and white aluminum awning.  There were matching plaster Virgin Mary’s on either side of the front door, and as I stood there waiting for someone to answer the bell I thought about turning around and running back to the subway, until the door opened.

It was Bruce.  He wasn’t looking particularly nice.  He had on a tee shirt that was nothing special and some jeans that were the same.  I noticed a tiny gold chain around his neck.  “Hi,” he said happily and led me inside.

I had never been inside a place like his before.  We seemed to be in the main room, which was not large and was crammed with more furniture than I could take in at a glance.  I saw white lace doilies everywhere and cabinets full of little figurines, tiny decorative plates, and souvenirs like they have in tourist shops.  I think Bruce sensed my overwhelm and led me into the kitchen where he offered me a coke.

“Who lives here?” I asked, genuinely surprised not to find myself in a bachelor’s apartment.

“Just me and my mom,” he said.  He seemed only mildly self conscious about living with his mother.  Maybe all his friends did too.

We went back to his room, me clutching my glass full of coke and ice, grateful for its cooling effervescence as I found myself feeling claustrophobic for the first time in my short life.  I never minded waiting in a dark closet during a game of hide and seek, but this place with its cramped rooms and busy walls was making it hard to breathe.

I sat on the bed next to Bruce and we tried to talk but it was more awkward than I had dreamed it would be.  We had nothing to say.  We tried music but he didn’t even like New Wave, he said and I couldn’t go on after that.  I noticed his shoes were all wrong and there was nothing I could even comment on in his room.  He had tartan wallpaper and posters of sports heroes that looked like they had been there since he was eight.  He was duller than I had even imagined and I suddenly realized I had to get out of there before something happened.

I didn’t even finish my coke.  I don’t know if I was there longer than five minutes.  I sort of feel sorry for him, now that I think about how he must have felt in that moment.  But what was he thinking?  That he really liked this young girl?  That he was lucky because some girl from Brooklyn Heights wanted to lose her virginity and had picked him?  I wonder if that thought occurred to him or if he actually thought we might date.  I have no idea.  But he wasn’t a bad guy. I didn’t pick someone strange or aggressive though I clearly could have.  It was just dumb luck that I merely didn’t like him.

Walking back to the train I felt a mixture of humiliation and relief.  I was only humiliated by my own decision to go out there in the first place.  But I also recognized that I was lucky nothing more happened and I was grateful that I had decided to leave, no matter how it made him feel.  I realized, faced with the option to “get it over with,” that my virginity was something important and I didn’t want to just toss it off like some minor inconvenience to a guy I didn’t even know.

Running with the Girls

girls-running-track

This week I started coaching an after school running program for girls.  My older daughter is participating, and after the first day we both agreed that it was a lot more fun than we expected.  It’s a nice group of about a dozen girls, eleven to fourteen years old, and we spent the first day getting to know each other and warming up to running.  It was my first time coaching anything, so I was relieved that it went so well.

In this particular program the practices are all mapped out.  All I have to do is show up and lead it along with three wonderful assistant coaches.  The program is not just about running, it’s about teaching girls to feel good about themselves physically, as they begin their transition to adolescence.  There are discussions worked into the activities and games that are designed to raise the girls’ awareness about negative thoughts or feelings they might have.

I have read that around the age of seven or eight, kids begin to be self-conscious of their actions.  In my own experience teaching art, every six year old child seems to think they are the greatest artist that ever lived.  Around second grade they begin to compare their drawings to others, and often feel theirs don’t measure up.  It’s a normal stage of development but it’s also sad to watch vibrant kids who instinctively believe in themselves suddenly doubt their abilities.

By the time they are on middle school, kids are so self-conscious they often become reluctant to try anything they are not already good at, for fear of looking foolish.  I have noticed this is particularly true for girls, and especially with physical activities.  Boys tend to have a surplus of energy that needs to be expended and friends of mine with boys would always take their boys to the park or to a physical activity after school to run off the pent up energy they had from being in classrooms all day.  Whereas my girls were very happy to go to a friend’s house and play games that involved a lot of sitting and talking.  Of course there are boys who prefer not to play ball and girls who love sports, but I have noticed that boys and girls in general are different that way.  It seems to me that even just having a brother can change the way a girl feels about herself physically.

There are a lot of programs out there today that are designed to help girls gain confidence in their physical abilities.   It seems not only our educational system but the culture at large, subtly discourages girls from being involved in physical activities besides gymnastics and dance.  I’m not sure where it happens; if it’s on the play ground, or during recess at school or in phys. ed. classes, but the vast majority of kids I know who do not feel confident about their physical abilities are girls.  All these girl-centric sports programs designed to address this problem, are evidence that the problem exists.

I am a perfect example of someone who hated sports growing up and didn’t really learn how to be athletic until I was an adult.  I liked skiing, and horseback riding but I hated team sports and gymnastics.  There was no sport that I enjoyed year round until I discovered swimming in college.  I also liked yoga, and as I got older I found I really enjoyed hiking, which eventually led to running.  The best thing is that one can run anytime, and invite a friend to make it less boring.  This running program aims to teach the girls that running can be a social, as well as a healthy activity for them.

On the first day of the after school program last week, we were all a little reserved.  The kids were reluctant because they were afraid it would be boring or make them feel silly.  I was nervous because I was afraid they wouldn’t like the activities.  Reading through the first few lessons ahead of time, they seemed a little hokey to me.  The language was slightly patronizing and even though I liked the ideas they were teaching, I worried that the girls would think it was all stuff they already knew.  When we did our coaches training, we were encouraged to be super positive and high energy, but I am pretty low-key so that idea just made me more self-conscious.  I would do it my way.

But much to my surprise, the first practice went extremely well.  Even thought the girls were slightly reluctant to run around the little cones we had set up, and even though the games were a little silly, by the end they were all saying they had more fun than they expected to have.  A seasoned coach from the program named Stacey was there on the first day to help get us off the ground and Stacey is the epitome of the super positive high energy coach.  When she talks, her beautiful smile is always spread across her face and a bubbly laugh constantly erupts, as if everything you say is much funnier than you realized.

Stacey’s presence at our first practice was contagious.  We all had fun because she was having such a good time.  She was laughing at everything, smiling at all of us, not worrying about a thing and just there, it seemed, to help us relax and have a good time.  As I led the practice I looked at her once and a while to get a shot of positive vibes from her smile.

I was curious to see how the next practices would go, without her infectious enthusiasm.  I did things my way, which was more low-key but also, I hoped, a little more in tune with the girls.  Sometimes all that gung ho hi energy rah rah rah can make some of us a little uncomfortable.  I didn’t want to fake it even though I had seen how Stacey’s presence had made a difference.

Our second practice was different without her there, but it was fine.  I think all the girls were a little more relaxed, knowing what to expect, but they were still enthusiastic.  I didn’t try to be like Stacey, bubbling over with enthusiasm, but I did realize as I was packing up on the second day, that I could definitely push myself a little more in that direction.

Some of the girls asked if Stacey would be coming back, and I said I would ask her to visit when she can.  She really is a great example of having a positive attitude.  And if I’m going to ask a group of middle school girls to push themselves to do their best, to be willing to look foolish or make mistakes, then I’m going to need to bring up my game, and bring more positive energy to practice with me.

 

 

Book Review: Ghost Belly, A Memoir by Elizabeth Heineman

black crystalDear Elizabeth,

I have been laboring, actually agonizing over this review for more than a week.   Somewhere along the way I decided I would address it to you instead, in case that made it easier.  But it turns out this is equally hard.

The problem is I care so much.  The issue your book raises, how to mourn a baby, is core for me.  It touches sensitive issues, like how to be a good mother, how to love, and how to grieve.  Having written my own memoir on the subject, I’m not sure I can be objective.  It feels better to write this open letter, as though from one person to another, since such intimate maternal issues are best relayed from friend to friend, mother to daughter, grandmother to aunt to niece.

Another reason it has been hard to write is because I want to tell you how impressed I am, but I also know how that sounds, having been told that myself when I was putting out my book.  Everyone talked about my bravery and in some ways that felt like an insult, because I was just being myself, coping with a great loss, trying to record something of this child I would never know.  So I am reluctant to tell you I feel that way, but it’s true.  And it was true from the start, as I read the first few pages of your astounding book.  http://www.ghostbelly.com/

In the beginning of the story, after your baby dies during labor and is taken in a separate ambulance to the hospital, and the doctor tells you they will be bringing the baby you still haven’t seen, you insist on a longer visit with his corpse than the 30 minutes normally allotted.  You manage to stand up for what you need in that moment, having been through a harrowing ordeal and presumably still in shock, to get the Medical Examiner to allow you several hours with your baby.  It seemed an amazing feat of strength, and yet I know you were just being yourself.

I found Ghost Belly moving and compelling and also, at times, maddening.  Sometimes it was hard to understand why you made some of the decisions you did, but I was always impressed by how you stood up for yourself, your family and ultimately, for love.

Women usually write about their stillbirth experiences as a way to fight against the obfuscation of the child that never had a chance to be someone.  We write for our sanity, having carried this person in our bodies and loved them more than we knew.  Our job, as mothers, to care for and love our child does not simply vanish with the child’s absence.  You write:

How do you make sure your baby who died an hour before he was born is not nothing?  …  Do you do it by showing him the rooms in your house and reading to him and telling him stories, so he gathers some experiences, so he has his own unique little life, even if it comes after he died?  …  Do you do it by writing about him?

And yet your book is much more than a record of your son Thor’s short life.  It’s a portrait of an exceptional woman in extraordinary circumstances.  I was fascinated by how you cared for Thor’s body, how you decided to have him embalmed so you could have an open casket and then extended visits with him until he was buried, dressing him and bathing him again and again.  His body became the surrogate for what was gone.  You write:

I liked to imagine being with Thor, and this body was Thor, so the body became part of my imagining.  I never confused Thor’s dead body with a living thing, but I also never confused it with something abhorrent.

How could a mother find any part of her own child abhorrent?  We deal with their vomit, blood, feces and mucous for years and never find any of it repugnant. Disgusting, yes, but still part of them and so still worthy of our love and caring.  You were sensitive to the fact that people might not understand your choices.  I loved when you describe taking Thor’s body for walks in a sling, how you avoided talking to strangers knowing they might be upset by such an act, but thoroughly enjoying walking and talking with him the way you would have, had he lived.

All of this impressed me.  I was a little uncomfortable towards the end when you were at the cemetery to oversee the placement of the headstone for Thor’s grave and you lost your patience with the workers there.  They had showed up before the appointed time, robbing you of the chance to see them place the stone.  You had them undo it and do it again, with absolutely no apology for the extra work that entailed.  I wouldn’t have done that.  But that’s just because I don’t like making people go out of their way.  What impressed me was how strongly you felt about each step of the mourning process and how you never let anyone’s rules or conventions get in the way of how you needed to do it.  That you were unapologetic even when you knew your demands were a little out of the ordinary.  They weren’t crazy, just a little different, and you never tiptoed around any of it, the way most people do around the grieving process.

I have read many memoirs about still births and found most of them difficult to get through.  Not one impressed me.  And I know you weren’t trying to do anything but keep Thor from being nothing.  But by making people a little uncomfortable, by standing up for your family and your unique grieving process, you opened the door for the rest of us, to be that brave.

Book Review:
Ghost Belly, A Memoir by Elizabeth Heineman
(The Feminist Press)

http://www.ghostbelly.com/ 

 

 

My Best Reader

I asked my eleven-year-old daughter Grace to read my manuscript for two reasons:  I knew she wanted to read what I have been working on for four years, but more importantly I wanted her feedback.

The book is about me when I was about her age, and I’d like it to appeal to both adults and preteens.  Grace is a voracious reader and she likes books with a lot of action and intrigue, so I was anxious to know if the story, about a kid and her dying mother, kept her interested.  I also wanted to know if she thought my character was a believable kid.

She read the whole thing in about two days.  We talked a little before she finished it, but once she was done, she asked if we could go out and have a meeting, just like I do with my adult readers.

So we went to her favorite little tea house, the one that is decorated as if you are sitting in a garden with plants and vines everywhere, a ceiling painted like the sky and walls that are meant to look like the outsides of little cottages, as if we were in a quaint English garden squeezed between tiny houses on a lane somewhere.

We ordered tea and scones, and I pulled out my legal pad to take notes.

“First of all,” Grace said, “it’s a great book.  I’m really proud of you.  But also it was great to read the story of what happened.  I knew your mom died and all that, but I never knew the details of what it was like for you.”

Of course I knew this objectively, but to hear her tell me how much she appreciated hearing my story, was deeply moving.  I wrote the book primarily for my own healing, but also for my daughters who stand to inherit my emotional scars, just like I inherited so much from my maternal line.  To break the subtle cycles of thinking, feeling and acting that are outdated and out of sync with our lives as they stand today, is part of the purpose of the book.  That Grace understood this, even on the simplest level of, now I understand you better, was profound.

That’s one.

We sipped our tea, tasted what each other had ordered and she went on.  She told me which characters she believed and which ones seemed too thin.  She pointed out scenes that were unnecessary and which ones needed more.  She wanted to know if certain things were true and told me straight where she thought something sounded made up.  We went through the entire book, chapter by chapter, with her explaining very specifically what worked for her and what didn’t.  These were excellent notes.

I had to ask about the main character, the daughter, because many of my readers had found her a little hard to understand.

“Oh no,” she said, “I totally got her.  I had trouble understanding why the adults were treating her like a little kid but expecting her to behave like an adult.  She really didn’t understand what was happening.  She didn’t know her mother was dying and no one sat her down and talked to her about it.  They just kept getting mad at her for not getting it.  They didn’t want to have to be open about it, probably because it was too hard for everyone to talk about, but that was exactly what she needed. “

Wow. This was great to hear.  The complaint I had heard over and over from adults was that her character was too quiet, too removed from the drama of her mother dying.  Grace understood instinctively that this was what she would have done in that situation.  “No one was taking her seriously or being direct with her, so of course she ignored what was happening.  She felt invisible.”

She hit the nail on the head.  I think all kids know the feeling of being invisible, even in this age of over-parenting and doting on our kids left and right.  We still treat them like they are not there when it comes to illness and death, even when it’s happening right in front of them.

Part of it, I explained to her, was that as a kid I didn’t want to talk because I was in denial about what was happening.  And being in denial was perfectly appropriate for someone my age.  “Yup,” she agreed.  “I totally prefer not to talk about things I don’t know how to deal with.  I think it’s natural.”

The trick is how to show my adult readers what is really happening with my character; that the main character is shut down because she has no other recourse, not because she is stubborn or self absorbed.  Grace and I talked about how to do that without changing how the character acts, and she had some great ideas.

When I decided to write the book I never dreamed it would have such a huge payoff within my own family.  The conversation Grace and I had that day, as mother and daughter, but also as friends and collaborators, was one of the great conversations of my life.  It’s hard to find readers that understand where you are coming from, what you are trying to say and can help you get there.  I never expected my best reader to be living under my own roof, and I feel pretty lucky to have her in my life.