I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
I’ve noted before that my word is resilience. My favorite word when teaching, though, is a different word. It’s not particularly melodious. It isn’t fraught with meaning. Almost any kindergartner can spell it. It’s a modest, seemingly unimportant word- except that when it comes to learning, it is the WHOLE BALLGAME.
The most powerful word I’ve come across in terms of teaching and learning is just three little letters. Yet. Yet is the silver bullet. Yet is the golden ticket- the whole enchilada.
I began teaching art in general ed classrooms. My daughter’s classrooms, to be specific. I started out as her Art Docent in kindergarten, and served in that capacity every year of her elementary school career. In the beginning, I had no earthly idea what I was doing. The kindergartners scared the bejeezus out of me. It was like herding cats. Feral cats hopped up on Red Bull. On more than one occasion I found myself in a flop sweat. SO MUCH ENTHUSIASM! SO LITTLE FOCUS! SOOOO many QUESTIONS!
Little people either over the moon about their efforts, or undone with frustration. It was… a LOT. I wish I could go back and re-teach that year, knowing what I know now. I spent a lot of time cheering, “You can do it!” It was really well intentioned. It’s also something I don’t say anymore. Ever.
I eventually took over the Art Docent program, and when I did I came to learn that the two special ed classrooms at our school didn’t have docents- and that it was not unusual for that to be the case. It makes a lot of sense, actually. Many of the kiddos lived out of district and were waivered in, or else their parents were stretched incredibly thin already- and we all know that taking on a recurring volunteer responsibility even without those additional stressors can be overwhelming. Having said that, it was not okay with me for their classes to go without the dedicated arts education every other kid at the school was getting, so I agreed to teach them in addition to my daughter’s class.
It is the single best gift I ever gave myself.
My first lessons were a lot like my first lessons in kindergarten. A lot of faking it, a lot of sweating. Two multi-age classrooms full of kids with different challenges and abilities. I was used to dealing with frustration in the context of art education. Children, as I’ve noted before, self identify early on as ‘good at’ or ‘not good at’ art based on their ability to successfully translate the idea in their imagination realistically onto the page. I’ve had sixth graders burst into angry tears over their inability to realize their vision for a piece they’re working on. When you add cognitive and behavioral struggles into the mix, it changes the whole dynamic of the lesson.
That was when it truly became about the process for me, and therefore, my students. That’s when I shifted my focus from results to experiences. That’s when I became a teacher rather than a project leader. That’s when I learned about the power of YET.
I had one little friend in my 1/2/3 class who would get so frustrated. The lessons just made him ANGRY. And every time I tried to encourage him, it only served to make things worse. He looked at me with tears in his eyes one day and said, I CAN’T do it. All of a sudden, things came into focus for me.
I knelt down beside him and said quietly, You’re right. He looked up at me in surprise. You can’t do it. But can you do me a favor? He muttered, What? I said, Can you add one word to that sentence? Can you add the word YET? Can you change it to, I can’t do it YET? He looked puzzled and a little annoyed.
I said, Can you tie your shoes?
Could you always tie your shoes?
Was is super hard to learn?
Buddy, you COULDN’T tie your shoes RIGHT UP UNTIL the first time you could. Before that, you COULD NOT DO IT. YET. So you are not going to be able to do this, RIGHT up until you CAN.
I know. It seems a little counter intuitive. But in my experience, You can’t do it YET. is a *far* more encouraging and effective statement than blithely chirping, You can do it!
You can’t do it acknowledges the child’s reality and their struggle. YET is about possibility. You can’t do it yet is both true and hopeful. It is about where the student IS, and also where they CAN be- where you have faith that they WILL be.
It holds immeasurable power in our adult lives, too. I know that when I am overwhelmed, I tend to shut down. If I can’t make the decisions, or the progress that I think I should be able to, I decide that it’s IMPOSSIBLE. That I CAN’T. That is not a good place to be. But add that one word.
I can’t find a job. Yet. I don’t know what my next step should be. Yet. I can’t get this toxic person out of my life. Yet. I can’t imagine my life without him or her. Yet. I can’t imagine ever loving again. Yet. I’m not ready to put my art out there. Yet.
I can’t forgive. Yet.
You don’t have to be able to do something. It’s okay not to be ready. Every single one of us has been on that journey. And as long as you acknowledge that, as long as you say, YET, you haven’t given up. You haven’t thrown in the towel. You are still in the process of *becoming*. Of getting ready. Of being, and doing. You’re just not there. Yet.
There is no blue without yellow and without orange.
Vincent van Gogh
Vincent van Gogh is one of my favorite artists. I know. That’s a little like saying, “You know what *I* like? CHEESE. On my PIZZA!” Mind blown, right? He’s van Gogh for heaven’s sake. His work is so ingrained in our culture, so ubiquitous, we almost take it for granted. His most famous work is on mugs and neckties, notecards and mouse pads, and on the walls of dorm rooms everywhere.
What many people do not know is Vincent was also a beautiful writer. Not a professional writer- but it could be argued he wasn’t a professional painter either. He only sold one painting in his lifetime, and it was to the sister of a friend. Luckily, the legacies of both his painting and his writing have been preserved- the writing, most notably in his correspondence with his beloved brother, Theo.
He is one of my favorite artists to teach. Children respond to his work with such purity. They look at Starry Night, and they SEE him- sadly, in a way he probably never felt seen during his all too brief life. I usually teach van Gogh as a color lesson because he understood color in such a simple way. That’s not a bad thing.
One lesson I loved was on complementary colors. Complementary colors are colors- one primary and one secondary- that when placed in proximity to one another, make each other brighter, more vibrant. If you take a primary color, and look directly across the color wheel there will be a secondary color that is its complement. Vincent van Gogh’s work is resplendent in its use of complementary colors. Reds and greens. Purples and yellows. Blues and oranges. Bigger, better, more glorious colors for having been near their, what I used to call in my lessons, color buddies. Don’t you have friends like that? Not just people you like, but friends who enhance you in some way? Who intensify and distill your best qualities? Those individuals who help you to be the best version of yourself? I do. I have friends who push me, or inspire me. I am brighter in their presence. My friends are a diverse group, and I truly love who they are, and who I am when I am with them. When the ceaseless chatter of the outside world gets in my head, my friends help me to remember who I really am, and who I aspire to be.
My friend Angela is the most spiritual person I have ever met. Her relationship with God takes my breath away. When I attend church with her, I crack wide open in a way that is a struggle for me when she’s not around. She has the faith of a child, in the very best conceivable way. She’d also help me bury a body if I needed her to. I know this for a fact. She’s offered. My friend Kate reminds me, by example, to make time for my art. My friend Kristina- easily one of the smartest people I have ever met- challenges me intellectually. My friend Bonnie is the hardest working person I know. Her perseverance as a single mother makes me almost believe I can pull it off.
My friend Jen reminds me that I am a survivor. My friend Lisa has served both as inspiration and encouragement in my writing. The way my friend Juleen is with her children makes me want to be a better mother. My friend Jaime reminds me I need to get really pissed off from time to time about the state of things, and then DO SOMETHING about it.
My friend Jim has one of my very favorite qualities in a person- he’s curious. When he doesn’t know something, he seeks. He learns. He encourages me to do the same by his example.
My sisters… Oh. My sisters. I feel the brightest and most me when I am with them. All of these precious friends are orange to my blue. And we all have friends who do the opposite, yes? Who wash us out, who drain away our light. People who begrudge, or belittle. Who incite us to live small. Who encourage the snark, and dim our sparkle. It’s funny, if you look at van Gogh’s early work, his use of color is really muddy. Part of that was intentional- he was depicting hardship and strife. He’d just come off a short lived stint as a preacher, his heart was on fire for the underprivileged, and he was making a statement about their lives- I get it. But the palette was a real bummer. I have friends who make me feel muddy, too. Fewer and fewer, because as I get older I have less patience for that particular brand of nonsense- but, still. I understand, I think we all do, that to truly appreciate the good times, we all need a little struggle. We’ve all seen quotes about there being no light without dark- and YES. Yes, of course that’s true. One cannot have shade without sun. The pale moon is brighter because it hangs in an inky sky. Of course. But for me that’s a little, forgive me, black and white.
Give me the orange stars with their yellow halos, glowing happily in the windswept blue sky that dances and skitters across the canvas. Let me lie under THAT sky. I need the hues and shades of all of my friends, and the different things that they bring out in me, to help me be everything that I can be. And I need to do that for them. I need to be someone’s blue. And I need my orange.
Close friends are truly life’s treasures. Sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves. With gentle honesty, they are there to guide and support us, to share our laughter and our tears. Their presence reminds us that we are never really alone.
Vincent Van Gogh
Peace is such hard work. Harder than war. It takes way more effort to forgive than to kill.
This is hard for me, guys.
There is a video circulating on FB right now, and it is making me uncomfortable. When something makes me uncomfortable rather than angry or sad, I know it is something I need to examine. I hate examining things. It’s exhausting, and not even a little bit fun.
Monica Lewinsky spoke recently at the Forbes Under 30 Summit. I kept seeing the video pop up in my feed. I saw it was trending. A few people I know posted it. I really, REALLY did not want to watch it.
Infidelity is something I have strong feelings about. That is, perhaps, putting it a little mildly. Infidelity is something I have a visceral reaction to, for many reasons.
I do not understand it. I remember asking my ex-husband what story he’d told himself to justify his behavior, because he told himself SOMETHING. I was treated to a list of all of the reasons why his cheating was my fault. I wonder at the story the other women told themselves. At least one of them knew he was married. We’d met. She’d met my kids. I’m sure he spun a tale of woe about his dreadful wife- but anyone who’s ever seen a Lifetime Movie or an episode of Dateline knows that married men on the prowl seldom extoll the virtues of their wives when looking for a little action on the side. This just in, cheaters lie. It’s not rocket science.
I know. I sound angry. Infidelity makes me really angry.
I decided to watch the video. Ms. Lewinsky is intelligent, well spoken, and clearly cares deeply about the cause with which she’s aligned herself. She spoke briefly about her affair with President Clinton, she had one line about other people being hurt, and then spoke extensively about the aftermath. The toll their relationship going public took on her, her family, her friends. She cautioned that your reputation can be ruined in an instant, in this day and age of the internet and social media.
I know that was the thrust of the speech. I know she wasn’t signing up for a mea culpa tour. I know she was only 22 when it happened, and I know he was the President. I know all of those things.
I think she paid a terrible price. I think she paid a steeper price than he did, which is decidedly unfair. She feels her reputation was lost in an instant. I’m not sure I agree. It calls to mind the story of Samson. My pastor gave a great sermon on Samson when I was in the middle of the awfulness. He said that Samson didn’t ruin his life in one step. With one decision. On his way to Gaza he walked thousands of steps, and could have turned around at any point. He could have changed his story any step along the way. We *found out* about the affair in an instant, but her reputation was compromised over thousands of steps. Thousands of decisions.
As far as I am concerned, there are two victims in this scenario. Two. Their names are Hillary and Chelsea. They are the only two who didn’t have a say in this. President Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky were playing Russian Roulette with their lives and the lives of others. So, yes. Ms. Lewinsky got hurt. It is the risk she took. And no, President Clinton did not suffer the long term effects that she did. Is it fair? Nope. But we have other contexts for him. This is all we know about her.
Hillary will likely run for president in the next election, and if you don’t think questions, comments. speculation and snark about this decade and a half old event will follow her the entire time, you are giving our media FAR too much credit. She is still paying the price for a decision which was not hers. THAT is beyond unfair.
As I watched the video and listened to Ms. Lewinsky speak, I could feel my shoulders tense. I consider myself to be fairly empathetic. I’ve always loved the line from Steel Magnolias, “Nobody cries alone in my presence.” It’s pretty true for me. But when she started to get emotional, I felt myself getting annoyed. I could feel myself hardening my heart toward her. That is, until she said the word SHAME.
That’s when I went from angry to uncomfortable.
Shame is something that has dogged me for as long as I can remember. It is, perhaps, the most harmful feeling you can have. In fact, when I learned of my ex-husband’s infidelity, it wasn’t anger I felt. It was shame. I know it doesn’t make sense. I mean, my brain knows that.
It was harder to be judgmental and angry at her once she began to speak about her shame. I know what living with that dark shadow feels like. I know how it contaminates every part of your life. I don’t wish it on anyone. Nothing good comes of shame, for anyone. Ever. It is singularly destructive.
It seems as though she is in a better place now. I hope that’s true. I would not want her mired in unending shame. It shouldn’t be a life sentence. She should not have to apologize forever, but I do hope that she apologized to Hillary. I hope she did it in a private way. Not to a camera. Not in a magazine. I hope she sent her a letter or an email, simply saying she was sorry. That what she did was wrong. Unequivocally. I hope the apology didn’t contain the word, “but.” Real apologies never do.
I hope she gets the chance to live a full and happy life, not one defined by this one chapter. I hope she gets the opportunity to give us other contexts for her. Reputations may be lost in an instant, but they are rebuilt slowly, bit by bit. I think this speech was a good first step.
That’s where this post was originally going to end. Then I had a really bad night’s sleep. I dreamed vivid dreams about all of those nights when I would stay up wondering where my husband was. When my texts, emails and phonecalls would go unanswered. When I was put in the position of almost having to hope he was with someone else, because the alternative was that something terrible had happened.
I went back to the days where I would have epic tirades at the other women in my head, crafting what I would say to them should we ever meet face to face. The thing is, as much as I wanted to berate them and tell them off, I realize now I didn’t actually want to meet them in person. Because then they would be, well, people. I am much more adept at hating the IDEA of people than actual people.
I have friends on both sides of infidelity. I have friends who’ve been betrayed, and friends who’ve been unfaithful. In some ways I am glad about that. It is so much harder to judge close up. If I didn’t know anyone who’d made that mistake, I would likely not require myself to feel any compassion or to think about the “other” person as a fallible, flawed human being, rather than an enemy.
I love my friends. They are not that one mistake. We are none of us all one thing. Nobody- not Ms. Lewinsky, and no, not even the other women in my story. I also had to ask myself why I’ve been able to forgive my ex-husband and not these other women.
I thought about that A LOT in the wee hours of the morning. I think it’s the same reason we’ve forgiven Bill and not Monica. As much as he hurt me- shattered me, really- I have other contexts for my ex-husband. The other women are just…other women. One-dimensional, unwanted strangers who invaded my life.
Except they’re not. They are someone’s daughters, someone’s friends, someone’s sisters. They are the apple of someone’s eye. And, my faith tells me, they are beloved children of God. Just like me. Just like you. Just like Monica.
Knowing what I do now, I think about shame and worthiness in this way: ‘It’s the album, not the picture.’ If you imagine opening up a photo album, and many of the pages are full eight-by-ten photos of shaming events, you’ll close that album and walk away thinking, Shame defines that story. If, on the other hand, you open that album and see a few small photos of shame experiences, but each one is surrounded by pictures of worthiness, hope, struggle, resilience, courage, failure, success, and vulnerability, the shame experience are only a part of a larger story. They don’t define the album.
Hold it! Hold it! Grandpa, you read that wrong. She doesn’t marry Humperdinck. She marries Westley. I’m just sure of it. After all he did for her, if she didn’t marry him, it wouldn’t be fair. Well who says life is fair? Where is that written? Life isn’t always fair. Who gets Humperdinck? I don’t understand. Who kills Prince Humperdinck? At the end, somebody’s got to do it! Is it Inigo? Who? Nobody. Nobody kills him. He lives. You mean he WINS? JESUS, Grandpa, what did you read me this thing for?
William Goldman, The Princess Bride
Kids are big on fair. Things need to be fair. Parents spend an inordinate amount of time making sure everyone has the exact same number of Gummi worms, or the same allotment of time on the X-box. Making sure everyone takes a turn picking tv shows, and no one gets to stay up ten minutes later than anyone else. That seems to be the childhood barometer of fair, by and large- EVEN. EQUAL. THE SAME.
I hear adults telling children life isn’t fair all the time. They’re right.
It is not fair that in a wealthy country like ours as many as 17 million children go hungry on any given night. It isn’t fair that the quality of a child’s education frequently depends on their zip code. It is not fair that racism and homophobia still rear their ugly heads every day, intent on convincing wide swathes of our population that they matter less. It isn’t fair that women make 73 cents on the dollar for doing the same jobs that men do. It is not fair that innocent children get cancer, and that some people do terrible things and are never held accountable.
It is brutally, deeply, fundamentally, crushingly UNfair.
While we get frustrated with our kids for single mindedly insisting all things be equitable all the time, let’s examine where on earth they’d have gotten the notion that’s the way the world works.
How many Disney movies have you seen where the hero dies? Where the villain is not vanquished? That’d be zero- because the smart people at Mickey’s headquarters know that shit will. not. fly. The princess must get her prince, and whatever evil beings stood in their way must get their comeuppance. Happily ever after is a given. You need only look to the grandson’s reaction in The Princess Bride to see what it looks like when a kid is served up an ending that doesn’t fit that mold.
We tell them life’s not fair, and then feed them a steady diet of stories and movies where everything’s coming up rainbows and unicorns. We insulate them from life’s biggest inequalities, and strive to make everything fair all the time at the micro level. No wonder they’re shocked when confronted with the unbelievable harshness of the real world. We pay them lip service by telling them not to expect fairness, but we do precious little to prepare them to face that in reality.
When I hear the Life’s not fair mantra coming out of adults’ mouths (including my own) it’s almost always done in a ‘get over it’ tone. But I don’t think we, as grown ups, have gotten over it.
It strikes me that while a child’s perception of fair frequently seems to be centered around everybody getting the same whatever, adults fixate on fairness, too- but we’ve re-branded it. We call it JUSTICE.
I’m not sure how much time I spent being an actual child. I learned life isn’t fair pretty early on- so I don’t remember spending a lot of time angst-ing over the perceived inequality of things. I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know there was imbalance and darkness in the world. I think I skipped straight to adult mode. I didn’t automatically assume things would be okay, or people would always be good- but when they weren’t, I wanted things RIGHTED.
That happens less often than you might think.
Adults have moved through the world enough to know things are not equal. Not everybody gets the same. Not even close. This is new information to kids. They still have the luxury of outrage. Sadly, most of us have moved past that.
Perhaps it’s because, as we get older and fully understand how profoundly unfair the world is, we can’t let ourselves think about it too much. If, while we’re hollering at our kids for taking epically long showers, we let ourselves think about the fact that somewhere in the world a small child is walking miles every day for potable drinking water, the staggering injustice would paralyze us. Maybe that’s why we’re dismissive when our kids complain about things not being fair.
I think the difference between the way children think about this and the way we do is pretty simple when you get right down to it. Children still believe the world CAN be fair. They haven’t given up on the idea. I think we have, to a certain extent. I think we look at everything that is wrong, and devastating, and imbalanced in the world, and we throw our hands up. We focus on punishing the evil-doers. We give ourselves a pass on fixing the inequalities in the first place.
I want to get back to looking at the world through the eyes of a child. I want to watch the news and not sigh hopelessly. I want to be freshly outraged- because outrage precipitates action. I want to, when faced with how unfair this beautiful world of ours can be, say JESUS, Grandpa! And then DO something about it.
She stood in the storm, and when the wind did not blow her way she adjusted her sails.
Do you have a word? I do. I have a love affair with words in general- and like many love affairs, it is tempestuous. I have words that I LOVE, and words that I HATE. I’ve always had strong reactions to words that sound like what they are. I have a list of words I have deemed unacceptable. Damp, chunk, scamper, panties, scuttle, mucous, canker, and don’t even get me started on the word moist. It actually makes me gag a little. But there are other words I love for that very same reason, like cacophony, stringent, mutinous, elegiac, mellifluous, bombastic and resilience.
I love Elizabeth Edwards. I have from the very first time I heard her speak. She was incredibly smart, wickedly funny, pragmatic and compassionate. If she had been running for president, I’d have voted for her in a heartbeat.
She wasn’t. She was married to a man who was a Vice Presidential nominee, and later might even have become a Presidential nominee, had his personal misconduct not derailed his campaign. It’s unfortunate, because he is a brilliant man who was talking about issues that no one else was touching at the time, like healthcare and poverty. But, enough about him.
Elizabeth’s book (I like to think she’d want me to call her Elizabeth) Resilience came out in paperback about six months after my marriage started to fall apart. I’d always really liked her and might have bought it anyway, but suddenly I felt a kinship with her.
When I read Elizabeth’s book, it was like sitting down with a good girlfriend. She had a very clear voice as a writer- and she wrote the way she spoke. I really relate to that.
She spoke of loss, and surviving it. She wrote at length about the death of her beloved son, Wade. About what that kind of tragedy does to you as a mother, as a couple and as a family. She talked about her husband’s infidelity. About what THAT kind of tragedy does to you as a wife, as a couple and as a family. She articulated the emotions and doubts that were keeping me up all night, every night, as I tried to navigate the waters of my marriage, which had become unfamiliar and treacherous.
Merriam Webster defines resilience as the ability to become strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.
In her typical, no-nonsense fashion, Elizabeth had this to say:
Resilience is accepting your new reality, even if it’s less good than the one you had before. You can fight it, you can do nothing but scream about what you’ve lost, or you can accept that and try to put together something good.
She’s right, but getting there took me a while.
During that time I found myself doing two things any time I had a pen or pencil in my hand. I found myself writing the word resilience over and over again, and I found myself drawing willow trees. That year for the school auction I even did a willow tree art project with one of my classes, using text of their words as the branches. Over and over, resilience and willows.
Later that year my younger sister Stephanie gave me an amazing gift- a tattoo consultation. I had been entertaining the thought of getting a tattoo for years, but could never settle on the ‘what’ or the ‘where.’ My ex-husband and I had toyed with the idea of getting them for one of our anniversaries- something with each other’s names. Think about THAT averted disaster for half a second… Oy.
When I went into the tattoo parlour, I did not… what’s the word? BLEND. I felt very suburban. And out of place. And also, suburban. I felt like a blank canvas next to all of the extravagantly inked and pierced people sitting in the waiting area. I kept thinking- where are they even going to PUT another tattoo? And also, OUCH! I felt conspicuous, and alien, and
a little hopelessly boring.
When I finally went back to consult with my artist, I talked to her about what I wanted and where I wanted it. I showed her what I’d sketched. She let me know that because it was going along the middle of my spine, it would likely be a little painful. And then she smiled and said, I have to ask- what’s the significance? There is obviously a story here. And then- because I am super cool- I burst out crying. Full on ugly cry, shoulders heaving, nose running. Awesome.
The only words I managed to get out were, It’s just been a really hard year.
She was so lovely to me. She sat down next to me and put her arm around me. She assured me that this happened all the time. She said that many times, people get tattoos- particularly a FIRST tattoo- at a major crossroads in their life (cue me crying harder.) She said that there are events in life that are so big, that cause such a shift in us, that we feel driven to mark the occasion. Literally. And that it is a powerful ritual.
She told me she’d make a stencil and that I could come back and if I liked it and hadn’t changed my mind that we would go ahead. I came back the next week. The stencil looked exactly like my doodles- only better. I was sure.
When she put the stencil on my back, she wasn’t satisfied. She said, It’s a little off. It won’t be perfect.
Good, I said.
Imperfect, a little painful, permanent, and ultimately- beautiful.
I actually got my tattoo a while before everything was final, but I think of it in terms of my divorce the same way I thought of my wedding ring in relation to my marriage. It is a symbol, a talisman, a reminder.
I don’t think everyone who goes through divorce needs to get a tattoo, necessarily- but I DO think ritual is important. Weddings are full of ritual. Divorces are… paperwork. I mean, obviously they are much more than that- but that’s how we conclude them. We haggle over details, and we sign a bunch of documents. There needs to be more than that. I needed there to be more than that. I needed to mark the occasion.
As much as my ring served to remind me of the vows I had taken, my tattoo reminds me that I am resilient. That I, like the branches of a willow, can be tested by the storm surrounding me, and remain intact. I can bend without breaking. I can survive. And continue to grow.
Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.
In July of 2012 I was packing up my house to put it on the market. I’d filed for divorce. My soon to be ex-husband had quit his job, and I’d been a stay at home mom for nearly 13 years. There was simply no way for us to stay in what I had once considered to be our dream home- the house I’d truly believed we would live in forever. Where we would have family reunions, where the kids would get married in the backyard, where we would grow old together. The day we moved in I saw all of those things stretched out in front of us.
Cut to less than two years later. I’ll be honest, I couldn’t have cared less about leaving that house. I hated that the kids hated to leave. I hated that my daughter needed to change districts just as she was entering middle school. I hated to leave my best friend, who lived next door. I hated to say goodbye to a neighborhood I loved. But by then, I also hated that house.
It was a Herculean effort to pack it up, and I did almost all of it alone. That is NOT because I didn’t have endless offers of help. My friends were amazing and would have done anything for me. I just… couldn’t. The process was so awful, so painful and humiliating. Every box felt like a defeat. Every family photo I took off the mantle felt like a failure. It was bad enough to have to do it, I couldn’t bear to have witnesses.
Over the course of my nearly 20 year relationship, I saved every letter and every card that we gave to one another. When I was packing and came across that box of memories in my closet, I dropped it where I stood, and walked away. I couldn’t even look at it.
As I dismantled our family home, every time I came across something that was too painful to deal with, I threw it in that same box. Photos, keepsakes, anniversary gifts- these little wooden blocks with heart shaped map cutouts of places that, at the time, I believed to be sacred to us- Napa, Chicago, Jackson Hole, Seattle, Whistler, Boston. It was one of the loveliest presents he ever gave me. I threw in (and I mean literally threw) our wedding album. Our unity candle. The ring pillow I’d hand sewn for our wedding. Everything that made me wince, or cry, or fill with rage went into the box.
My first instinct was to set it on fire. My best friend Angela had a lovely fire pit, and I knew she’d be only too happy to light the match. Somehow, though, I knew not to do that. Somehow, I had enough clarity to know that I DIDN’T HAVE CLARITY ENOUGH to make that decision right then. And that I couldn’t un-throw something away. And that I might regret it. So I closed the box and taped it up. I took a big blue Sharpie and wrote on the top and sides, NOT YET.
The box moved with me to my new house, and I threw it under the stairs in the garage where I wouldn’t have to look at it. And I didn’t. Not until I was packing up again to move back to the east coast. By that time, I was in a relationship- which was part of the reason for the move.
When you are in a long distance relationship and there are three thousand miles between you and the person you love, Skype is your best friend. He and I would Skype every night. Sometimes, because of the time difference, he would fall asleep while we were skyping. Sometimes I’d disconnect- and sometimes I’d just leave it up.
One night, after he’d gone off to dreamland while we were chatting, I sat watching him sleep and realized it was time. He and I had been talking about the logistics of the move and all of the packing that I needed to do. Again. I was feeling utterly overwhelmed. But not alone. I knew I wasn’t alone, because he told me that. Every day. And suddenly, I had clarity.
I went down to the garage and dug out the box. I brought it up to my room, sat on my bed and looked at it. And looked at him. I knew I could not bring that box of darkness with me to my new life.
I took a deep breath and opened it up. I read each card, and then ripped it in two. I read each letter, and did the same. Not in anger. They just weren’t mine anymore. I went through our wedding album, took out a few pictures that I thought the kids might like some day, and then threw the rest away. I threw away the candle, and the wooden blocks. I looked at each thing. I held them in my hands. I let myself remember. And I threw it all away. I still couldn’t bear to have a witness, but I wasn’t alone- he was right there next to me, in the way that I needed him to be.
Mary Oliver was right, you know. She always is, for heaven’s sake. I realize now that the box of darkness was a gift. Both the figurative box of darkness- the brutal demise of my marriage; and the actual box that I’d just unpacked- the one that allowed me to say goodbye to my marriage in the way I needed to, once I was ready. Sometimes a gift comes in terrible packaging. Sometimes it shatters your heart, and makes you doubt every little thing.
And I know- if you are in the middle of it, being told that one day you’ll think of it as a gift seems impossible. Ridiculous. Maybe even a little insulting. I get that. I do. If someone had said that to me during the worst of it, I don’t know what I’d have done, but it probably would have resulted in jail time. That’s okay. Not all gifts are meant to be opened right away. Just… Put it aside. Mark it NOT YET. And, friend? HANG ON. Both hands. The gift is there. It will take some time. It will take distance, and healing, and perspective- but it will reveal itself when you are ready. I promise.
For two years I disappeared. Well, I gave it my best effort, anyway. Shortly after my fortieth birthday, I discovered that my marriage was a lie. That sort of realization causes a palpable shift to take place. I lost my center of gravity. Literally. I felt unsteady on my feet. I walked around in a daze, dispassionately observing myself from the outside. I lived in a beautiful house, in a beautiful neighborhood, with two beautiful children and a beautiful dog. And this thing, this ugly, cancerous truth had been introduced into our lives. Everything was topsy turvy. I was Alice in Wonderland, and I just wanted to get home- to exit the rabbit hole and go back to NOT KNOWING.
The night I found out, I skipped dinner, took a bottle of wine out of the fancy wine refrigerator, and went upstairs to my room. The thought of eating was ridiculous. The thought of feeling, even more so. I was aiming for numb. I hit the mark.
The next morning, I made breakfast for the kids. My husband tried to hug me on his way out the door, and I stood frozen in my lovely kitchen. I sent the kids off to school, and went about my day. I skipped breakfast. Lunch made no sense to me. At dinner, I pushed food around my plate hoping that the kids would think I was eating. I felt empty, and that felt appropriate. I was empty.
Every day, I went through the motions. I packed lunches. I got dressed. I put on make-up. I smiled. I volunteered. I laughed with my friends- but it felt like a fun-house version of my life. You know how, when you are watching a horror movie and the scene is idyllic, it usually means something terrifying is about to happen? That’s what it felt like- as though the soundtrack to my life was that super creepy music that all ice cream trucks are apparently mandated to play. A distant, tinny, haunting version of what it used to be.
I began to lose weight. That felt right, too. I felt untethered, as though at any moment I could fly off the face of the earth. The things that had grounded me in my life were gone. Or broken. Either way, weightlessness felt right.
`What a curious feeling!’ said Alice; `I must be shutting up like a telescope.’
Eventually, people began to notice. I stepped out of the shower one morning, and my husband said, You look great. I felt a wave of rage wash over me. Perhaps he meant it genuinely, but it felt as though he was admiring his handiwork. That was beginning of it. That was when my not eating became intentional. When I began ACTIVELY not eating. I think on some level I wanted to look outwardly the way I felt, inwardly. Wrecked.
`Curiouser and curiouser!’ cried Alice
After the first ten pounds, friends and acquaintances began to say things. When I’d lost twenty, it became a daily occurrence. Every day, I would hear how great I looked. You look amazing! And, What are you doing? I would always say, Atkins. I actually feel quite a bit of shame about that, when I look back. For anyone who was trying to lose weight in a healthy way, it must have been discouraging to see the weight falling off of me, seemingly without a struggle. But it was a struggle. Just not the right kind.
All told, I lost forty pounds in seven months. And I have never gotten so much positive feedback in my life. And mostly from other women. And I knew it wasn’t true. I didn’t look great. I was disappearing, bit by bit, every single day. The only two consistent exceptions were my friends, Angela and Juleen. Juleen said on several occasions, You look beautiful, but are you eating? I would reassure her that I was, but I think we both knew I was lying. Angela, my best friend, lived next door to me. Our houses were connected by a pretty little path through the woods. I remember going over to her house one night and turning back halfway, because my size 2 jeans were falling down- and I knew it would worry her. She was already worried sick about me. I am so sorry to have done that to her.
I was living two existences. At home, when the kids were at school, I was, quite literally, on the floor. Undone. Wasting away, every day. And then there was the shiny, happy version. I had cute clothes, and I smiled, and I was in the PTA. And I was the ‘right’ size. Because we’ve decided there’s a right size. WE have decided that. That’s what’s so painful. It’s a self-inflicted wound.
“But it’s no use now,’ thought poor Alice, `to pretend to be two people! Why, there’s hardly enough of me left to make one respectable person!”
I had a really lovely email from a woman in my old neighborhood- not a close friend, but someone I knew casually and liked. She expressed her sorrow at my divorce, and said something along the lines of seeing me- living in that beautiful yellow house- walking hand in hand with my daughter to school every day, and thinking she knew what my life was. That email meant the world to me. It’s so true. We decide about one another, based on jean size, and wardrobe, and granite countertops. We decide about each other from the outside. In other words, based on exactly nothing. It’s so much more comfortable not to look behind the curtain.
As women, we get rewarded for being the smallest possible versions of ourselves, in every way. Be nice, be quiet, be THIN. I had become the absolute tiniest version of me. There is a Shawn Colvin song, Polaroids- one of my all-time favorites- that has the lyric, “thinner than oxygen.” That was me. And even though I felt awful, there was a sort of power in it, too. I got more attention for my appearance then than at any other point in my life. And I was dying. I really was.
“You used to be much more…”muchier.” You’ve lost your muchness.”
And so, what to do with this? Well, for starters, I’m trying to be better at extending grace to everyone- including me. Working on that. Every day. Because I know first-hand that you never know when you are walking in on the worst day of someone’s life. I am in a relationship now with someone who wants me to be the biggest, best version of myself I can be. He delights in me. That helps. But in the end, it’s up to me. Balls. I am the weakest link, as it turns out.
When I finally started telling people that my marriage was falling apart, my mantra was that I wanted to come out the other side the same person. Mission NOT accomplished. I am older, wiser, battle weary and decidedly changed. And much ‘muchier.’ Thank God.
Unused creativity is not benign. It metastasizes. It turns into grief, rage, judgment, sorrow, shame. We are creative beings. We are by nature creative. It gets lost along the way. It gets shamed out of us.
A couple of years ago I was entertaining the thought of opening an art school. We-ell, that doesn’t quite cover it. I was passionately PLANNING to open an art school, before life and reality brought me to my financial knees. I’d planned to offer classes during the day to children who are homeschooled, special ed classes, afterschool art lessons, camps, etc.
While in the planning stages, I read everything I could get my hands on about arts education. What there still IS of it. I devoured strategies, theories, philosophies. I am not professionally trained, I’d only taught as a volunteer, and I was feeling a little audacious even thinking about undertaking such a thing.
I came across one study that floored me. The researchers found that most children stop drawing for pleasure at age nine. When I first read it, I thought- this CAN’T be true. But the more I sat with it, and thought about my own experiences in the classroom, I realized with a heavy heart; it is. The article theorized the reason is this: by age nine, most children have self-identified as GOOD AT ART, or NOT GOOD AT ART. That’s bad enough. It gets worse. The matrix our kids seem to be using to make that determination is whether or not they are able to draw things realistically. Damn.
I’ve had the opportunity to go back and teach a few kindergarten art classes over the years. I always have the kiddos put their heads down on their desks. I’d say, “Raise your hand if you are an ARTIST!” And all of the little arms would shoot up in the air. All of them. And not just, ‘I *guess* I’m an artist…’ They are not only certain they’re artists, they are pretty sure they’re fan-freaking-tastic. And it is the last year every one of them will answer the question that way, I guarantee it.
I got in the habit of asking it every year, to all the classes I taught, and watched the numbers dwindle as the arms got longer, and elbow-ier. I learned to have them put their hands back down before they raised their heads, and when they sat up I would explain that it was the only question they would be asked in my art lessons that had a right or wrong answer. I would go on to explain that the definition of an artist is someone who creates art. That’s it. So if they had put crayon to paper, picked up a paint brush- or, for that matter, written a poem, sung a song, danced a dance- they were artists.
Why is art one of the only areas of our lives where perfection is the bar? I’ve discussed this with my friend Jim, a professional artist, and he made what I think is an excellent point. He said that anyone can learn to draw something realistically. That’s because drawing realistically is a SKILL not a talent. Just, as he pointed out, like shooting a basket. If you get instruction, and spend the time and discipline required, you will eventually be able to do it. That does not mean you will be Michael Jordan.
You can learn to draw an apple realistically. You can learn about composition and dimension, you can be taught the strategies and methods of shading and value, shape and form, and eventually your apple will look just like an apple. Which is fine, if that’s what you want. Doesn’t mean you will be Picasso.
But, here is the thing. NO ONE IS PICASSO! He was a freak! A unicorn! A triple rainbow! Why is our bar artistic GENIUS? I know lots of kids who have taught themselves to shoot a basket, and even though they’ll never be competitive still enjoy the odd pick-up game. You might not make the high school concert choir, but you probably still sing in the shower or in the car, right? You know why? Because those things are FUN. The *process* of them is FUN. Why are the visual arts different? Because, sadly, they seem to be.
It’s US, you guys. It’s US. WE are the ones praising the apple that “LOOKS JUST LIKE AN APPLE!” And WE are the ones praising talent. No one earns talent. It’s like praising someone for winning the lottery. Congratulate them, sure- but praise? Really?
Reading that article only put into statistics and pie charts what I, as a teacher, already knew to be true- and what I had begun to push back against in my lessons. At a certain point I made a conscious decision to stop praising unearned attributes. I’d had that dope-slap moment where you think, “MY GOD! Of COURSE!” I wouldn’t excessively praise a girl for being pretty, and ignore the children who didn’t win the genetic lottery- because it would be both ridiculous and unkind. Well, being smart is winning the genetic lottery, too. So is being athletic. And so, to a certain extent, is artistic talent.
I began only praising kids for things that they could control, or complimenting them for the choices they’d made artistically. I stopped telling them about their art (OH! I see you drew a house!) and began asking them to tell ME about it (Can you tell me a little about what you’re doing in this piece?) I’d praise them for taking their time, for their persistence, for their creativity. I’d admire their problem solving, their resilience, their bravery. It’s so simple- but you would be amazed at the difference it makes in how a child feels about the artistic process, once they understand that it is ABOUT the process.
So if we’re not praising talent, then why not praise skill- right? That’s a fair question. Because if a child has to work for it, then skill is earned. I think it is fine to praise the initiative, and hard work and practice that enabled them to have that skill. I just take issue with the notion that artistic skill should be the goal for everyone.
It is okay to slap paint on a canvas because it expresses how you feel in a way you cannot do otherwise. It is okay to sink your hands into a mound of cool clay with no other purpose than to experience what it feels like to create in that medium. It is okay to take your pencil for a walk around the page with no intended route or destination. Those things, in and of themselves, are pleasurable and meaningful and have value.
We get so caught up in the pretty. And you can tell a kid their work is great, but if you then gush over that other kid’s drawing that looks JUST LIKE an apple, they know what’s up. And if you make statements about how, “Oh, GOD- I can’t draw a straight line!” or, “I’m no artist!” they internalize it. And they stop drawing. They stop painting, and sculpting. They stop having that creative outlet that feeds a part of us that is usually starving by the time we are adults.
I’ve seen lots of articles aimed at women urging them to stop body shaming themselves in front of their kids. That is seriously good advice. Let’s start to change how kids feel about themselves as creative beings by applying that same idea to art. Let your kids see you drawing or painting and not being your own harshest critic. Because you don’t have to tell them they are not artists to shake their faith in their ability to create, you need only tell them that YOU aren’t.
PS And the next time you get to deciding that the only ‘good’ art is realistic, please remember that Pablo Picasso, arguably the greatest artist of all time, didn’t paint like THIS because he *couldn’t* paint like THIS He painted the first piece when he was an established star in the art world and the second when he was fourteen years old. YOU get to choose whether you want your apple to look like an apple. The art is in the choice.
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain one once he grows up.”
If you want others to be happy,practice compassion.If you want to be happy,practice compassion.
The two most holy beings in whose presence I’ve been are the Dalai Lama, and my dog CJ. Some people will be offended by that- either because they don’t believe the Dalai Lama is a holy being, or at the very notion I could put a dog in the same category. You know who I bet WOULDN’T be offended by it? His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.
I had the good fortune to hear His Holiness speak on two occasions a few years back. It was when he was in Seattle for the Seeds of Compassion campaign. A friend knew one of the organizers, and so we were able to get tickets to two events- one on the UW campus, and one at the Seahawks’ stadium.
The event on campus was at a much smaller venue- in an auditorium with several hundred people. It was a panel discussion on the scientific basis of compassion. It was moderated by an author who’d written a book on emotional intelligence, and the panel included childhood development experts, neuroscientists- y’know. Wicked smart people. The emphasis was on discussing the quantitative benefits of compassion.
I went with two girlfriends, and we were ridiculously excited. Like, Springsteen concert circa 1984 excited. We took our seats and waited for the panel to enter. Eventually, out came a handful of people, most of whom seemed pretty ordinary. They weren’t, of course, not with all of their advanced degrees, published books etc. – but only one person on the panel was GLOWING. Now, you might think it was because of his fetching orange robes- and they were lovely, indeed. But that wasn’t it. He sort of…shimmered. I know it sounds silly, but all three of us saw it. I’m betting all several hundred of us did.
The discussion was really fascinating- but I couldn’t tell you a single thing that any of the other panelists said. I do remember that when His Holiness started to speak he was talking about animals and compassion. And that in the animal kingdom mothers need to have compassion, because otherwise when their babies cry incessantly and keep them up all night they would simply leave and the babies would die. (Can I get an AMEN, mamas?) So therefore, it was his opinion that compassion was a biological imperative necessary for the survival of the species. Some animals, he noted, had babies that could survive independently right away- like turtles- and so, he said, “Maybe turtles…no compassion!” And then he, and there’s no other word for it, giggled. The Dalai Lama giggles. Doesn’t that just make you feel better about the world, in general?
Here is the thing about holiness, at least in my experience -it looks an awful lot like joy. I think that shimmer was joy. He exudes peace and joy like no other human I have ever encountered- and I felt more peaceful and joyful just being in his presence.
In the middle of the implosion of my marriage, I found myself constantly on the interwebs trolling for puppies. Nothing made sense to me, I’d lost my center of gravity, I hadn’t told any friends or family what was going on- and so, naturally, PUPPIES. My now ex-husband and I had discussed going to the local pet shelter where we’d found our dog to see what we could see. He pulled up a picture of this ancient looking chocolate lab from their website. I looked at him and said, “You know if we go and see her we’re going to adopt her.”
We went to the shelter- I was still holding out hope for a suitable pup. We rounded the corner, and the first kennel we came upon was CJ’s. She came right up to the door and looked into my eyes. I’m pretty sure I said, “Shit.” out loud. She had the sweetest battle scarred face I have ever seen. She’d been at a backyard breeder (think small scale puppy mill) all her life, and had never lived outside of a cage. She was overweight, sway backed, practically toothless and decidedly NOT housetrained. And she was eleven years old. She was wagging her tail so fiercely, that her whole body seemed to vibrate. Maybe even shimmer.
Her whole life had been one of abuse, neglect and violence- and she stood there in the shelter wagging her tail and looking at us so expectantly. What the hell did she have to be so happy about? And why was she looking at me with such absolute love? She had no reason to trust humans at all- but there she was, with her perked up ears and her stretched out belly, swinging in time with her tail. Radiating joy.
I was a goner. The kids were goners. We were ALL goners. We brought her home the next day.
We never did get her housetrained. She would squat right in front of you peeing (or worse) on the carpet and wagging her tail furiously, never breaking eye contact with you. She was entirely delighted with herself. Think Ricky Gervais, but without a mean bone in her body. She would root through the trash and break into the pantry, if the door was left open even a crack…
Sounds awful, right? Here’s what else she did. She would lumber up on the couch and sit, nose to nose with me and gaze at me adoringly. During the worst of the divorce, she slept next to me in the biggest, loneliest king sized bed the world has ever seen- and the days I couldn’t get out of bed, she didn’t either. That last Christmas, when we were separated but trying to give the kids one final family holiday (I don’t advise it) and I was sitting on the floor of my walk in shower, hoping that the sound of the water would keep the kids from hearing me sob, she walked in after me, lay down beside me and stayed with me, getting drenched, until I stopped crying. This, from the dog who hated the rain.
CJ had a thing where she would obsessively lick EVERYTHING. It was a little disconcerting. I read somewhere that it was a sign of anxiety- but even given everything she’d been through, our sweet CJ was the least anxious critter on the planet. She exuded peace. I got it in my head that it was about her puppies. All of the many litters of puppies that had been whisked away from her too soon, so that she never really got to mother them. I went on Amazon and bought a small stuffed chocolate lab. I sprayed it with the calming pheromone spray they recommend for dogs. It helped.
Our CJ was no turtle.
Here is one of the many things I learned, and continue to learn, from our sweet, old girl. When someone is bereft, look them in the eyes. It might be hard to see them in pain, but there is something sacred in bearing witness to their grief. There is grace in sitting still beside them when there is nothing else to be done. In quietly loving them, until they are ready to stand up and move on. Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like compassion? Doesn’t that sound an awful lot like CJ?
I’m not sure if I believe in angels, but if they exist there’s no doubt in my mind CJ was one of them. We were blessed to have her for about two and a half years. For two and a half years she did nothing but love us. Well, love us, and ruin the carpets. I used to say she was a rescue. She wasn’t. She was a rescuer. She saved me. Our Dalai Mama.