Friday, January 5, 2018

Eighteen

Eighteen years ago, I was in the hospital. I may have been dozing between feedings or learning how to hold this new human of mine or simply staring at her with Jason beside me. He and I had no idea what we were doing. Anna turned eighteen today and we still don't really know what we're doing.

I have no more idea how to parent an eighteen year old than I did that tiny infant. I didn't cry when my mom left me at college. I didn't cry when I left home after my wedding. I did cry when my mom left to go home when Anna was one week old. I was terrified. I had no real experience with newborns and in the final weeks of pregnancy, Jason and I kept reassuring ourselves, "We can do this. Other people have figured it out. We will, too." I felt every ounce of the emptiness of those words when that tiny girl was placed in my arms. How was I supposed to know what she needed?

The way I handled it then was the way I still approach parenting - I studied her. I don't mean I read parenting books (non-fiction? boring!). I didn't go to parenting classes. I didn't have a community to ask for advice. I simply studied Anna herself. I watched for her wants and needs, her little ways. I tried some things that worked and others that didn't. I thought at the time that I was figuring out parenting. Then Bekah came along and the things that worked with Anna did not work with her. So I started all over. I studied her. And began the same long study one last time when Kate arrived.

I have been a student of my daughters for eighteen years. I know their favorite meals, the foods they won't eat, the best way to wake them up. I know who needs pushing, who needs consolation and who needs encouragement (and when - obviously they all need these things at some time or another). This knowledge doesn't mean I always get it right. Sometimes I misread the situation or my emotions take control. Sometimes I can know them and see their need and still not be able to fix it. I couldn't write a dissertation on parenting. After all, I've only studied three children. But I do know these three pretty well.

And that is why I know that eighteen year old Anna is both young and old. There are some experiences she's avoided that her peers take in stride. But she knows herself - her strengths, her limitations, her needs, her body - better than some people decades older than she is. I know that she is alternately confident and insecure (aren't we all 18?). I know that she is a hard worker, a fast learner and a rule follower. (Today at lunch she assured me that this last trait is what will ensure she is a good worker at any job she gets.  I didn't tell her that her strong writing skills, inquisitive mind and willingness to speak up are just as valuable as following the rules. She will likely learn that on her own.)

For the last five years, my final Christmas gift to my girls has been a list of words that describe them. Each girl gets one word for each year of age, so Anna got seventeen words. Her final word was "ready." I think we both teared up a little when I read that one aloud. But she is ready.

Ready to finish high school.
Ready to learn new things.
Ready to vote.
Ready to spread her wings.
Maybe even ready to break a few rules.
She is ready to go.

None of this really means that *I* am ready. But I've studied Anna long and hard and I know readiness when I see it. For now, that will have to be enough.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Resilience

A little over ten years ago, my daughter auditioned for Nashville Ballet's Nutcracker. She was nearly eight at the time and was cast as the black lamb. After her casting, the list of practices and performances was given to us. After looking at it, I went to talk to her.

"Anna," I began, "I've been looking at the Nutcracker schedule. You know how we were planning to go to Disney World this year before Christmas?"

"Yes?" she replied.

"Well, it looks like the Nutcracker won't be over in time for us to go before Christmas."

A short pause ensued, during which I was about to suggest she wait a year and audition for the Nutcracker next year. Until she said, "Well... could I stay here while you go to Disney World? Do you think Uncle Joel and Aunt Alanna will be here? Could I just stay with them?"

"Um, no," I replied. "We're not going without you. I'll change the trip."

And I did change the trip. It was the first momentous occasion that our family worked around ballet, but not the last. For a decade, we planned vacations, missed major events and run much of our family calendar around ballet. Until August 30, 2017. That was the day Anna walked out of the studio and didn't go back in. It was the day I deleted dozens of recurring events in our family calendar. It was a day of freedom and choosing self-worth and also a day of loss. Crazy how those things go together, isn't it?

The last three months have been quiet and it has been a joy to have Anna at home more than she's been for all of high school. She's played with the dog, finished her homework before dinner, been present for nearly every family dinner and even had time to watch a TV show with me on a weeknight or two. It may make August all the harder when she heads off for college, but I have been soaking up the time with her like a sponge.

And she has unfurled. All of the tension and stress and much of the anxiety have simply melted away. She laughs more. She cries less. Her moods are more even. She is happier.

And yet.

Last night was opening night of her former company's Nutcracker. And we weren't there. And she didn't dance. We talked that morning before school. I asked how she was feeling. We were both a little sad. There's a sense that we were robbed of saying good-bye to the process because she left before her senior year ended. I never got to give her flowers on stage, not even when she danced Odette. She didn't get to have one final dressing room selfie with her friends. We won't have senior pictures that show her dancing.

But she got to leave on her own terms. She got to choose that her last Nutcracker would be one as Snow Queen. She chose to not spend fall of her senior year doing something that would have been laced with sadness. She chose to see who she is when she's not dancing. She chose herself. And if that's not a powerful thing for a seventeen year old girl to do, I don't know what is.

I still have anger and sadness over the truth of what the ballet world is and what it was to my daughter. I regret entrusting her to adults who don't see children as children, but as resources to be used for their own betterment. I regret that I didn't see them for who they were before they hurt her. I hate that the only way to heal and become whole is to experience pain.

I long for the day when Jesus will come back and make everything right. I want him to come and take that small place in our souls that is untouched by anything we have done or has been done to us - that pure kernel he put there at our creation - and bring it to full flower. Because only he can do that without pain. Our only way to find who we are is to go through the removal of all the layers encircling (and protecting?) that kernel. It is worth it to lose the layers, but it's not painless.

So I am sad that I didn't get to see Anna dance in one last Nutcracker. But I am also relieved. And I am immensely proud of her wisdom and strength and courage. On opening night, you couldn't have paid me to go near the theater. But Anna drove over there after school and her friends snuck her backstage so that she could give them good luck notes of encouragement. She has a bravery and resilience that is powerful to behold. May it always be so.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

final

: coming at the end of a series

This will be my final WordGirl post.  After months of thinking about it, I've finally taken the plunge and switched from Blogspot to Wordpress.  I'll still be writing when the mood strikes, but after more than 600 posts here at WordGirl, I think it's time to move on.

There are a few things on this blog that I've outgrown (using only the first initials of my daughters' names, for example) and if there's a theme I want to more consistently explore, it's how the words we use impact others.  So I'll be blogging at www.plantingwordseeds.com from now on.  I want to think about the words I'm planting and what kind of harvest those words might bring.

I'm thankful for the experiment that this blog was for me.  I learned from the discipline of it and I'm always a bit amazed to go back and read some of my early posts and realize not only how much my children have grown, but how I've grown as a writer over these last five years.

In scrolling through the posts on this blog, it's funny to see how things have changed... when I wrote my first post back in 2008, my eldest daughter was eight.  In less than a week, my youngest daughter will be nine.  I'm in a whole new phase of parenting than I was when I started writing about the trials, travails, successes and failures of parenting three daughters.

But some things haven't changed.  I still long to be the best parent I can be.  I long to see myself more clearly and writing helps me do that more than just about anything other than prayer.  I've come to see writing as a way to invite others to join me on my journey through life.

So I invite you to join me at www.plantingwordseeds.com

You can sign up there to receive e-mail updates on posts.  Or just stop by when the mood strikes you and you wonder what WordGirl and her girls are up to.

For this final post, I'll leave you with some images from today's hike in the woods of Door County, Wisconsin.






Friday, May 10, 2013

SWIMSUIT

:a garment worn for swimming



I have recently had the unenviable task of purchasing three swimsuits - one for my teen daughter, one for my preteen and one for myself.  While the definition of swimsuit is deceptively banal, I doubt there is a female over the age of sixteen that sees a swimsuit as a mere "garment worn for swimming."

Yesterday, I found myself standing in a Shopko in Sister Bay, Wisconsin trying on swimsuits.  Why?  Because in the marathon of packing that ensued before leaving Nashville, I forgot to pack a swimsuit for myself.  If K were a couple of years older, I would have just gone without.  But she's not.  She can't swim at the YMCA pool without an adult in the water with her.  Given that she is enrolled for swimming lessons while here, it's a good thing an adult must be present.  The bad news is that meant I had to find something to wear in the pool.

To say that clothing selections are limited on this tiny peninsula is an understatement.  The nearest Target?  A drive that will take 45 minutes to an hour.  

So yesterday I tried on two tankini tops and four tankini bottoms, finally settling on one that will do - at least for the remaining three weeks of this trip.  But what I kept thinking about was how different this experience was than shopping for swimsuits with my daughters.

A few weeks ago, I took A & B to Kohl's to shop for swimsuits.  I thought Kohl's would be a good place to try because their junior's section offered jeans and other clothing that fit A & B well and was appropriate.  But they don't carry juniors swimsuits.  Everything is in the adult section.  This meant 1) a one piece was out of the question - all of their one piece suits looked too old for ME, much less two cute tweens and 2) finding a two piece to fit was going to be a challenge.  They both actually liked a couple of suits in the children's section and while they weren't too small, it was immediately apparent that my daughters no longer have children's bodies.  A swimsuit made for a flat chested ten year old was not going to do the trick.

A few weeks before this shopping trip, A asked me if she could get a bikini this year.  She caught me off guard, so I gave her a bluntly honest answer.  She asked.  I said no.  She asked why and I told her I didn't think she was ready to wear a bikini.  "Honey, I think wearing a bikini sends the message, 'I am comfortable with my sexuality.'  I don't think you could honestly say that, so I don't think you should wear something that sends that message."  She looked a bit shocked at my response, but when I asked if she agreed, she did.  I was much older than any of my daughters before I fully understood that the way guys interpret my clothing and appearance was vastly different than I did.  I don't want my daughters to never be sexy.  The exact opposite, in fact.  I want them to wear a bikini when they are emotionally ready to do so and I want them to wear it proudly.  I want them to know just how beautiful they are and enjoy that feeling.  But for now, we were looking for a tankini, not a bikini.

At Kohl's, they tried on suit after suit - several were too big, A disliked the padded breast inserts in one, B couldn't stand the way another fell off her shoulders every time she moved.  They finally ended up buying identical tankini tops with boy shorts (one black pair, one purple pair) to go with them.  While I felt haggard and cracked a joke about this process needed to come with a free margarita, it was more from the running back and forth from the dressing room to the racks than because we couldn't find a suit that looked good.  They all looked good, some just fit better than others.

As I shopped yesterday, I caught myself thinking about how A & B looked cute in everything they put on.  There wasn't a single swimsuit that looked bad on them because of their bodies - the cut of the suit or its size just meant some of the suits weren't meant for them.  At least that's what I thought.  Maybe B was thinking about her butt or A was thinking about her thighs.  I hope not.  Because while my daughters may have felt like they didn't look good in a swimsuit or two, the fact is that they have fabulous bodies.  The sadder fact is that as I shopped yesterday, I envied them.

I say this is sad because they are 11 and 13 and I am 40.  I should not expect myself to have the body of someone more than two decades younger than me.  But that is what I desire, if not what I expect.  Why do I desire that?  In part because the world tells women that no matter their age, they should have the slim, lithe body of an adolescent girl.  Never mind the fact that I've given birth to and nursed three children.  Or that I was too self conscious in my own adolescence to build the muscle mass I now wish I had.  Or that my natural shape is neither slim nor lithe.  That's still what I want.  What I long for.

I don't want to envy my daughters their cute bodies, but I do - even more, I envy their comfort and familiarity with their bodies and their embodiment of who they are via their bodies.  I know my daughters have had and will have moments when they do not feel swimsuit worthy, moments when they wish for different hair, different breasts, longer legs.  But I hope they will make it through adolescence not with an adolescent body but with a comfort in who they are and how they look.  I hope that, many years from now, when they shop for swimsuits at age 40, they can relish who they are when they look in the dressing room mirror and not long to be who they once were.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

ORDINARY

1: with no special or distinctive features; normal

Once upon a time, I hated taking pictures, hated having them taken, hated most everything about them.  In many ways, I thought photographs ruined the event for me.  I would remember an event with fondness, look at a photograph and see something that contradicted my memory of the experience.

I think I've come a long way since then in allowing photos to be taken and in seeing the value of a picture.  But I still struggle with photographs.  If I'm busy taking pictures, I'm not really experiencing the event.  So I'll often arrive at an event or performance for my daughter with no camera in hand.  Thankfully the iPhone has mostly taken care of this - especially since we arrived in Fish Creek, Wisconsin on Sunday for a month long vacation... only to realize the camera was at home.  This time it wasn't really my fault - I gave our family camera to my middle daughter a few weeks ago, since she enjoys playing photographer much more than I do.  I'm not sure whether I left the camera off her packing list or she neglected to pack it.  Either way, we'll be documenting this trip via phone cameras.

As much as I have mixed emotions about photographs and the way we use them as a substitute for real experience, they are a lovely way to share something with others.

I'd like to have the words to tell you about our day - about waking up whenever we want, reading in bed before breakfast and heading out to a nearby state park, where we saw a lighthouse, hiked a trail and meandered a shoreline.  But I'm not sure words can capture the bittersweetness of watching A and B walk along ahead of me, heads inclined towards each other.  Nor can I give you the feel of the bark underneath your hands.  Or make your eyes squint as you look up and realize how brightly blue the sky really is.

But if you're inclined towards a vacation sometime soon - or your own seems so far away that you can't yet glimpse it on the horizon - take a few minutes and journey along with us on an ordinary day that was an extraordinary gift.



K, B and A walk to Eagle Bluff lighthouse 

It feels like paper under your hand

B stops to rest - and get the dirt out of her shoe

About as close as A will get to this cold water

My cute husband

I swear I watched them get older with every step they took

J teaching K to skip stones

We've driven 16 hours - and arrived right back at Hemlock


Monday, May 6, 2013

BEAUTY

1: a combination of qualities, such as shape, color, or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, esp. the sight

At our final mother/daughter book club of the year, we discussed Uglies by Scott Westerfeld.  The book was good, but the conversation was great.  As I had hoped, the book prompted discussion of not only its content and characters, but our own thoughts and feelings on beauty.  The girls were honest.  They shared that they feel it is important it is to be pretty (almost as important as getting good grades), how it makes them feel if someone look at them strangely ("I must not look good today") and whether it's good to ask others' their opinions (sometimes don't ask, don't tell is the best policy when it comes to fashion and beauty).

If you aren't familiar with Uglies, it's set in a post-apocalyptic world where everyone has an operation at the age of 16 to make them pretty - symmetrical faces, large eyes, not too thin, not too heavy, not too short, not too tall.  When the main character, Tally, meets someone who didn't grow up in a city with this framework for beauty, she can hardly process the differences.  In one key conversation, the outsider, David, tells Tally that she's beautiful.  Her immediate response is that she can't be beautiful: you're either ugly (pre-surgery) or pretty (post-surgery).  There is no room for beauty in a world where everyone looks - and even thinks - the same way.

Our group talked about our own cultural pressures to look or dress a certain way - to wear makeup or not wear makeup, to dress up or dress down.  And we talked about the words we use to describe ourselves.  In Uglies, the pre-surgery children give each other cruel nicknames that emphasize their physical appearance - Squint, Stick, etc.  When David tells Tally this is one of the worst things about the way she grew up, I nodded along.  The words we use to describe ourselves are meaningful - we can see our hair as lank or straight and shiny, our bodies as curvaceous or heavy-set.  To further explore this point, we watched the Dove real beauty video and we discussed that while sometimes it's good to listen to ourselves and follow our heart, we need to be wary of our inner critic.

At the end of book club, I passed around post-it notes for the mothers and daughters to write down what they think beauty is.  We then stuck the post-its to a table and took a few moments to read our thoughts alongside those of others.

It was just one conversation and I fear it won't change these girls' experiences of our culture and its definitions of beauty.  But it's never too early to start this conversation.  In fact, I needed this conversation myself.  I was surprised to think back later on the words that came to my mind when I closed my eyes and pictured what beauty is:

Straight, shiny hair
Gentle curves
Tall
Smiles with her whole face

While there is nothing wrong with any one of these definitions, what struck me most is that there is only one of these terms that possibly applies to me.  If I'm completely honest, I don't see myself as beautiful.  I think I've made peace with my body.  I've accepted what it is and isn't.  But acceptance is a long way from embrace.



I know rationally that there are many kinds of beauty in our world.

Yesterday, we completed a very long journey from Nashville to Fish Creek, Wisconsin.  I've been to Green Bay once before, but that was in February.  It was striking to drive through the early May countryside and think about how different this part of the country looks from season to season.  Sure, winter in Nashville brings leafless trees and more brown that green.  But the landscape in northern Wisconsin experiences a more dramatic and drastic transformation.



I would not say that Wisconsin is more beautiful than Tennessee - they are differently beautiful.  Yet I struggle to mesh my inner experience of myself with my definition of beauty.  What is so troubling and so difficult about beauty is that we begin to define what beauty is and isn't at a very early age.  How can I undo forty years of assimilated thoughts about beauty?

As with nearly everything, I think the first step is awareness.  It was only after I had pictured the long, flowing hair I defined as beautiful that I realized my own hair doesn't look that way. I don't like to wear my hair long - not because my hair isn't straight or shiny but because the longer my hair gets, the more it gets in my way.  It's a definite choice on my part - and a practical one at that.  So should I grow my hair out to make it more beautiful or wear it the way I feel most comfortable?

Or is there a third path?  A path that says the way I feel most comfortable is the way I am the most beautiful?

The Wisconsin birch trees are not spending time and energy trying to look like Tennessee magnolia trees.

Maybe by the time I'm the age of the trees surrounding me, I'll be similarly content with my own structure and able to see the beauty within and without.

Monday, April 29, 2013

SABBATICAL

:a period of paid leave granted to a college teacher for study or travel, traditionally every seventh year





We leave Saturday for Wisconsin.  This won't be a quick trip up to see family, but a longer affair.  We'll stop in Milwaukee for lunch with the in-laws and then keep driving another few hours to Fish Creek.  From what I've read, Fish Creek is a quiet little town on the Door County peninsula that juts out between Lake Michigan and Green Bay.  I imagine spring will just be getting ready to arrive there.  Instead of the gradual transition to sandals and sundresses, our wardrobes will revert to layers of long sleeves and light jackets, maybe even hats and gloves.  I also imagine quiet - birds chirping, trees swaying, neighbors out of sight and sound distance.

This trip isn't exactly a sabbatical since no one in my family is a college professor, but it is a much needed break from the regular routine of our daily lives.  It's a chance for us to be together and experience life in a small town, surrounded by nature in a way we don't get here in Nashville.  It's an opportunity to combat the loneliness that the busyness of daily life brings.  I hope it will be a time of rest, relaxation and exploring.

After I wrote my last post, I was talking with a (highly efficient and productive) friend and I asked her how she manages to do so much and not feel lonely in the doing.  She asked me what makes me feel most connected: "When do you feel the opposite of lonely?  What does that look like for you?"  I didn't answer right then since the conversation moved on without requiring an immediate response.  But I pondered it for days until realizing that when I feel least lonely is when I have time alone for quiet, time alone with God, time to connect with my own soul.  This is why work can leave me feeling isolated and alone - because I feel disconnected from my soul - split apart inside into the real me and the one who is getting the work done.

At a certain point, I do need interaction with other people to not feel lonely, but I think what I've been experiencing lately has not been a social loneliness so much as a soul loneliness.  I interact with people quite a bit in the work that I do.  I just haven't had space or time for soul care over the last few weeks.

I am hopeful that will change starting Saturday.



We don't have much planned for our time away - that's sort of the point.  My only firm plans right now are for the girls to make their own breakfast every morning, so that I can have an hour or two of quiet time before joining them in whatever our day will hold.  Beyond that, I hope for walks in the woods, swims at the nearby YMCA, explorations in the parks nearby and visits to some of the lighthouses in the area.

Last night, we enjoyed a fire on our back patio.  As we sat there, I asked the girls what they were most looking forward to about this trip.  My middle daughter (who is so different, yet so like me) said she is looking forward to days where she doesn't have to go anywhere at all, days when she can stay in her pajamas all day long, days where there are no scheduled activities.  We seem to be on the same page, she and I.

The irony of time away from home to cure loneliness and burnout is that we will miss out on things.  My evite inbox already holds five events someone in our family has had to decline regretfully.  There will be other things we'll miss - a friend's dance recital, the run of a play we'd like to see, birthday parties and casual dinners with friends.  But my hope and prayer is that this time away will leave us better equipped to love, serve and engage with our friends when we return.  I hope we will come back with stories to tell, pictures to share and hearts that are full after feasting on rest.

I nearly ended this blog post right there.  But I would be telling only half the story if I did not mention that I am also afraid of the next month.  Afraid of unmet expectations.  Afraid of bored children.  Afraid of feeling unworthy of this respite.  Fear and shame have swirled around in my heart in recent days as I have asked myself over and over, "What was I thinking?!"  There is much to be done before leaving early Saturday morning.  Beyond the actual trip preparations like packing and cleaning, there are e-mails to be sent, schedules to be set, meetings to be attended and arranged.  I feel so overwhelmed that I have been trying to take it one hour at a time since a full day at a time seems daunting.

But I keep coming back to the idea that I am thirsty - for rest, for God, for something more than my everyday life affords.  And I get the sense that this thirst is one I should tend to - one that was given to me as a gift.  I enter this sabbatical time fearful and excited in equal parts, yet hopeful that this time away together will change us all in ways we can't anticipate from this side of the adventure.