"Tell your story. Tell it on your bruised knees if you must, tell it at the risk of madness, scream it at the top of your lungs." –Andrew Lam

Month: February, 2012

Letter to my sixteen-year-old self

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I see you writing poems in Algebra class. You’re scared. You feel trapped. You’re so immobilized by your fear, so hesitant to speak, so unconfident, so self-absorbed in pain and worries and doubts. You are so inexperienced in every way. You assume no one feels the way you do. You want to know the secret, the rules of this game of high school, the secret rules of girls—the password, the handshake. And you never ask anything because you are so afraid of the answer. “How do you feel about me?” you want to ask a particular senior. But you never do, so you always wonder, analyze, second-guess.

You don’t understand why no one makes eye contact with you in the hallways. You wonder why you’ll never be just one of the girls. You wonder why they intimidate you so much. You wonder why girls—and guys—make up rumors and constantly change the rules of their own stupid game.  You wonder when these high school boys will grow up.  You wonder why you feel too much and think too much.  Take heart. You are feeling all of these emotions so that when you become a teacher, you’ll be able to tell your students that you understand. And you’ll be able to mean it. You’ll be drawn to the rebels, the outcasts, the underdogs, and the ones who have extraordinary talent but no confidence. You will make them feel important, seen, worthy, understood.  You’ll tell your classes to never, ever make a person feel invisible.  Thank your English teacher. Thank your choir teacher. They were the diamonds in that dungeon. You’ll want to teach most like them.

  It is okay that you don’t care about what is trending, what is popular. It all changes. Like what you like and be proud of it. You don’t have to be in every activity.  Pick a few you are passionate about, and throw yourself into those only. There’s already too much noise in your head. Stop worrying about trying to impress people.  You won’t talk to very many of those lunch table girls after graduation. You should go off on them and tell a few of them that they are bitches and you’re tired of their gossip.  You are sick of their cold stares, their biting laughter, and their screaming silence when you sit down.  Go ahead. Say it. You were thinking it. In fact, speak up more about everything—the wrong you see, the good you see, the things you need, the things that others need. Slap them with some truth. Tell them they are hurting themselves by making others feel small. One day they will grow up and realize it. And strangely, you’ll become dear friends with a few classmates that you didn’t talk to and thought you had nothing in common with at all. Why could you not see them then? How dare you miss those opportunities? If you just would have opened your eyes, life would have been easier, more bearable, and more real.  

Your parents convince you that your sixteen-year-old emotions, the ones you tell them about, anyway, are normal. It is indeed true that the world does not end because nothing looks good on you that morning and your hair is being especially funky, but you still should have had some therapy.  You’ll feel a lot better knowing that you aren’t crazy, that many people suffer from panic and anxiety. You’re not a freak because you want to drown yourself in the bathtub or drive off the bridge because you can’t breathe and you’re so cold and the weight and the pressure is too much because you have a biology project due and because you know he’s slipping away and because in her fakeness, she makes seemingly innocent remarks pointed straight to you. Every day. And she knows it. And there’s no one to sit with on the cheerleading bus. And this town is So. Very. Flat. 

You’ll meet friends in college, and you’ll feel so surprised they invite you to events and speak to you and want advice and want you around. There are no rules.  You’ll bloom in college. People will tell you that it was ridiculous to go to your beloved university and your student loans will be outrageous, but you meet professors and people who aid in your becoming. You feel at home for the first time. You’ll feel curious, wide eyed, and important. People here are original and have their own thoughts and views. They are not apathetic. You needed to surround yourself with creative people who Were. Not. Apathetic.

You’ll adore the women in the lives of Josh’s friends (Yes, Josh, the guy who winks at you; the one with that voice you sang with at church). They will become your own friends, your own sisterhood. You are connected by the men you love, the babies you dream of, the simplicity and complexity of what it means to be woman, wife, sister, mother, friend—to sacrifice and want, to need even when the needs contradict.  You’ll feel so loved, so light. You’ll meet a friend at work. She’ll hate you at first, but then she’ll become the only friend who truly gets you. Oh, how you learn from her. Oh, how she saves you. She’s the best you have.  Having a person—people like these angels—is worth waiting for. I promise.

There are lots of things that are bothering you right now, my misunderstood teenage girl-self: Your under bite. The bumps on your arms. Your nerves. Your annoying voice. Your expressions. Your flaws.  your sweat and your stupid face. The thoughts in your head.  The way your lips twitch when you’re nervous. The fact that the only thing people do in this town is drive around and sit on the square. You feel like you’re missing something. Everyone is growing up without you. You feel too young and too old for high school. Yes, you’ll always look this young. You want to look mature and sophisticated and older like the other girls, but you’ll always have a pure look about you no matter how much you tan or how much makeup you apply or what kind of haircut you ask for or what style of clothes you wear.  It’s okay that everyone thinks you are too much, too much and yet you feel not enough. Not pretty enough. Not liked enough. Not talented enough. Not good enough. Every day feels like defeat. Some of the things you pray for do not happen in ten years. Some do. Many prayers surpass your sixteen-year-old dreams. Be thankful you and God talked a lot when you were sixteen. You built a solid friendship that carries you. Praise him for the fact that in order to see twenty-five, you had to survive and learn from sixteen.

You’ll meet a man so soon—you know him already, actually– and you’ll never have to wonder about his feelings for you. He thinks you’re everything that drives a man crazy (in all the good ways and in all the bad ones). And he told you so. There is no better person who knows how to take care of you or wants to so fiercely. And when you lose more of your hearing, he cups your ears and kisses your forehead, your nose, your cheeks, your chin. And you can feel him praying silently, asking God to fill you so that you don’t feel that hearing is another flaw or thing you lack. Yes, you lose even more of your hearing and you feel frustrated and forsaken. But, you gain more than you lose. Trust me that you gain more than you lose. You had to lose in order to connect with special people and connect with future favorite students. You had to lose in order to write about it.     
 Josh loves all that you hate about yourself. He’ll be the only one you are ever fully comfortable around. He’ll continue to be your unconditional love. Don’t break up with him just because the world tells you that you are supposed to. You don’t have to date other guys when you know their kisses won’t feel the same. If anything doesn’t feel right, you don’t have to do it. If it does feel right, you don’t have to let it go.  

Commit everything to memory—every sensation, every mistake, every glorious risk. People, memories, moments collide.  Remember the scent of Hollister cologne still clinging to you after he’s left. The white and red tube top with tiny cherries you wore on the Fourth of July resting your head on his lap in order to see the sky and receive tingling upside-down kisses and watch the most colorful fireworks display you’d ever seen. Remember the dizzy hopeful chance encounters at the grocery store. The music–the soundtrack of freshman year and summer.  The titles so fitting of the time—the songs I still play sometimes. Remember the farmer-boy and the undeniable flavor of his cinnamon altoids and your Watermelon Bonne Bell. The undeniable smell of a southern summer.  Remember your young future husband–kissing him the entire length of the train while it rushes by fueling our intensity when we’re stopped at the tracks.  Night swims. Sandy bank on your back. Your rainbow-stained hands that make his favorite cherry snow cone while you watch him walk that way he walks. Towards you. In muddy jeans and baseball cap, sun-streaked from work. The brilliant canopy above us and the sound of leaves crunching while we walked—your only romance that lasts into fall and into the rest of your life. Smile at the way you pretended you were on Broadway when you put on those eyelashes and ruby lipstick and dance shoes. You knew you belonged to the dinner theater lights, the curtain, the audience you wanted to please and create magic for, the show choir where you felt joy and felt like you fit—but got shoved, purposely knocked right between the shoulder blades because you were in front and they wanted you off of that stage.  The way you played “Insensitive” over and over again, feeling the vagueness in his eyes and his casual goodbyes and the chill in his embrace. Remember everything, won’t you?  You are collecting material. Perhaps the unexplainable things happen so that you can grow up and explain them, expose them, understand while simultaneously helping others feel understood.

He’ll apologize to you, the one who broke your heart, at the most peculiar and perfect time. It is the way God’s divine plan for your life always works. You get the apology, the acceptance letter, the proposal, the publisher at the very moment God knows you’ve honestly released your fist of bitterness. You don’t need that grip in order to be okay. Perhaps this is why you continue to write the words in your bones. You don’t have to be published. At sixteen you were filling up spiral poetry notebooks in algebra class to simply write—to be your truest self, to connect to God, to counsel yourself in inexpensive therapy. You are writing purely in honor of the beautiful act of creating. 

You’ll never believe it, but you do get out of there. It was always too flat for you. You’ll get a rush, a reminder of being sixteen and wanting to speed away while blaring Dixie Chicks’ “Wide Open Spaces” when you pass the square and drive seven hours north. You’ll feel peace as soon as you see those hills. You grow into your dreams. You grow into your thoughts and your depth that no one understood and other teenagers felt so off-putting.  You learn to own your awkwardness—sort of. You may still not physically be able to hear, but somehow—you learn to speak.  
Keep your hunger and your thirst, but don’t lose yourself so much. Have hope—the future is more beautiful than you thought it would be. Spend more time with Kathy, your grandma, and especially your sister while you can. Trust this almost other-worldly intuition and instinct that you possess in your heart. You are brave. You are enough.  Now go get that blond out of your hair. Then go force people to look you in the eye. Go burn bright. You have a lot of helping to do. So go. You have a lot of living, a lot of moving on, a lot of people to meet, and a lot of becoming to do. 
Love (Because people finally taught me how to love you),

Decaf. Skinny. Extra Whip.

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Today I stepped inside every shop in Galena. I roamed into the popcorn store, the chocolate kitchens, and the spice shops just to breathe distinctive scents.  My senses: so awake lately. I browsed the boutiques and antiques and books. I ogled at art. I wanted to buy a purse the color of sunshine and wanted to fill my walls with the entire Kelly Rae Roberts collection. Instead, I bought Jovie a nice leather leash and some dog treats at a unique place called New Earth Animals. The owner was beautiful—exotic, with a heart for creatures and a voice of grace. She’s a writer, too, and she invited me to a gathering of the local writer’s guild. I felt that Godwink down to the soles of my feet.   

My senses, so accustomed to “flat,” bask in the beauty of a landscape that rolls and changes and flows. My black lab and I will explore the streams and bluffs which Josh and I discovered at the state park this weekend—the state park just seven miles from my door with its meandering paths where crossing over a bluff could mean you’ve placed your foot onto Wisconsin soil, but no official signs can say for certain. You know only you’re on the edge of beauty on either side.
I also live midpoint between my new two favorite cafes. They both boast tin-punch ceilings and an ambience that begs, “Write.” I ordered my caramel macchiato. Decaf, ma’am. Skinny. Sugar free. Extra whip, please. The barista smiled. I sat in my special nook and realized my coffee order describes me. An oxymoron. A contradiction. A….woman. A woman who can shoot a pistol, quote Shakespeare, catch bluegill, live lovely, love stubbornly. I am a woman who had to leave to find what she wants. I am a woman who can’t help that I need art, words, and culture. I need cafes and cobblestone pathways, fresh markets and bakeries. I need husband time; I need alone time. And I need sunshine and a creek and my dog. I need this melding of new and old, town and country, the midpoint. I need the freedom to indulge and luxuriate while living uninhibited and frugally. In this place I did not know I would be, I love wildly and stubbornly this life that is organic, authentic, free.    

"And possibly I like the thrill of….quite so new"

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“i like my body when it is with your body,” wrote e.e cummings. My rebel-poet refused to capitalize letters and broke rules of grammar and syntax and unconventionally used or did not use punctuation.  He went with whatever he felt like. So did I on this Valentine’s Day.  I immediately thought of the e.e cummings poem when my husband reminded me that I once said I wanted to make love in every room of the new house. “it is so quite a new thing,” anywhere, everywhere, every room.   And my eyes, big love-crumbs, said yes as we tumbled from the kitchen through the dining room to the living room couch and then toppled to the living room floor.     

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                e.e cummings created. He created new. He created beautiful. I love creating anything. I love creating layers of lasagna, grating real mozzarella; I love the the art of tossing in a thousand spices and swirling them into the deep red sauce. I love creating the nostalgic mood of candlelight that frames a halo around the roses, our wedding photographs, the white antique windowsill I turned into a treasure. Even the pina colada scented candle in my kitchen creates in me the balminess of summer, heat on my skin, naps on the dock, everything golden, Okeechobee Florida and the midnights walks lit by stars and lampposts.

                   His prayer before dinner said thank you for a wife who sacrificed for him, who came on this journey with him. My prayer of gratitude was one I whispered all day. Thank you for the gift of time with him on Valentine’s Day when the norm was not even seeing him on Christmas. Thank you for day shift when the norm was sleeping alone. He’s off most weekends? What is this absurdity? A real life? A time for marriage? A time for dancing?  Quite so new. Thank you for the fact that he wakes up and feels excitement for his day. And that’s living—even though there is danger in it.
                I buy groceries and find joy in it. I write letters. I plan, I wonder, I wander. And that’s living too. Peace is just here—it comes in the snowflakes, I guess. But I am warm enough. And I am calm. And I am hopeful. And I am well.
                I get a phone call from a publisher and my heart sings a new song from a very old dream.  So this is my becoming. I am asked how far I am on a book. I am asked what I write about. I say that maybe my work is not focused or where it should be—yet. But I will create. Maybe I don’t like categories or conventional punctuation. But I will create. Maybe my writing is a patchwork quilt of scraps that make up my soul—beautiful scraps about God, teaching, marriage, illness, pain, whatever I feel like, creating, living, becoming. 

What happens to a dream deferred?

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When a woman cooks in a kitchen full of mice and on a stove with only one consistently working burner and she looks at floors that stubbornly refuse to come clean, she no longer wants to cook. She starts believing she doesn’t deserve food. She starts believing she deserves nothing shiny, nothing working, nothing clean, and nothing new. She starts feeling like the women characters from A Raisin in the Sun. Her dreams sag like a heavy load, fester and run.

I had a “hope” plant, too, just as Mama did in the windowsill of Ruth and Walter’s hovel. But even my hope plant died. My plant was a condolence gift from my grandma’s funeral. I have my grandma’s best qualities and her worst. I am gentle. I love Psalms and Proverbs. I see beauty. I can beat you at Chinese checkers.  I also don’t listen to my body. I don’t feel like I am enough. I don’t (verbally) complain. I don’t ask. I don’t speak. I pretend my grandma in heaven is sitting at the right hand of God as an ambassador for the rights of earthly women. In her new kingdom she not only received a new body she can dance in, she also earned a loud and sassy tell-it-like-it-is voice. She points out to God and Jesus that they are men, and sometimes it takes a woman to understand what another woman needs.
My grandma told God and Jesus that I needed to get the fuck out of that house. (I pretend she cusses occasionally now because this was the prim and proper woman who couldn’t even laugh when someone farted). She also told them that it was about damn time her granddaughter had some new kitchen appliances — ones that work and hadn’t belonged to someone else first. I now live in a lovely home worthy of keeping clean, worthy of hanging up our wedding pictures on its walls, worthy of art and photography, candle altars, and anything I find useful or beautiful. Now I have a home worthy of relaxing, of enjoying, of “tonight, let’s stay in.” And my grandma understands that my bright white Whirlpool oven and refrigerator are more than tools used for keeping the milk cold and baking cinnamon rolls. They are symbols of hope and confidence and contentedness.
I am not obsessed with all things new. The house is as old as it is beautiful.  My bathroom is retro mint green and black tile. I like to pretend I’m a pin-up girl wearing fish net stockings and pink sponge curlers and red lipstick while I’m getting ready.  The bathtub is old-fashioned and deep–perfect for my half-mermaid self. As bubbles tickle my chin, I appreciate daily the fact that my cold butt, boobs, feet, and knees can all stay warm under the water at the same time without squirming and adjusting positions. I’m trying not to water-stain the binding at the bottom of all my books. I take time for more books and baths now.
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I take time for pie at Stella’s Café. I take the time to subscribe to Glamour magazine and Poets and Writers because I’ve always wanted to and it is fun to get mail in a new place. I take time to talk to people, to say “I’m new,” to explain that my accent is not from Tennessee or Georgia, and to realize that “God’s country” is everywhere and good people are everywhere, too. I go on dates with my husband. In our future, I see fishing lines and sly crooked boyish grins and “wanna make out?” and “let’s take a drive.” And I think, “Yes. Let’s go. Let’s take these years while we are here to become these hills, to splash in Apple Canyon River, to drink in peace and the view and one another.” I take time to slather on chamomile-lavender lotion and massage my feet, do yoga stretches, wander into the library and antique shops and the Ink and Paper. I simply take the time to be good to myself and love this stranger-me.

Still, I feel in between lives. I wake from dreams in which I stand in the middle of bridges with faces and careers and expectations on both sides. They wave at me; my dear ones wave at me. This darling house has a randomly placed old-fashioned pencil sharpener mounted on the wall in my closet reminding me of the broken one in my old classroom. Each time I pull the cord to light up my closet and grab my warmest coat, I see the pencil sharpener, and I am flooded with overwhelming love and goodbyes and gifts and words and “celebrate good times.” I am filled with the emotion of my final mass, the grandest moment in my life. I experienced the applause, the gratitude and shock of kindness, the floating feeling of Proverbs 31. They clothed me in strength and dignity, laughed and cried with me, taught me wisdom; I watched my children {my students} rise up—the whole auditorium—rise up and call me blessed, and I finally felt like I had done enough. And God and Jesus and Grandma thought so too.      
                As I joyfully clean and organize my home and smell the hearty aroma of dinner, I realize that I am once again trying to prove to myself I am enough. I realize that I can be a “good” wife, though I know Josh loves me anyway, I have nothing to prove to him, and he in no way has ever measured my worth by the fact that laundry is put away, supper’s on the table, and dishes are in the cupboards and out of the sink. I needed to know for myself that I could do something well in an area in which I felt like I was failing. “But honey, you’re not meant to be a housewife,” Josh says, and I know he is right. I feel a heartbeat in my ears constantly, and I know it is more than my Meniere’s, more than my inner ear adjusting to a new atmosphere. The rhythm says, “Hear this? You have a wildly passionate heart. I designed it to love people, to pump passion and energy into others.” “No,” I mutter back, sick at the idea of teaching again, beginning again, and loving different students. But my heart continues to pump reviving blood and faith and balance and slowly brings me back to life. And I am brought back to life in order to do…what? In order to again somehow inspire others to live.