Adventures of Puptastic (& Me)

I don’t want to brag, but Delilah the Boxer & I are kind of a big deal in our neighborhood. Or, at the very least, we’re real conspicuous… That’s the same thing, right?

Our walk this morning perfectly illustrates who we are, as dog & owner:

In Atlanta, the past 3 days have been snow days. THREE DAYS. Snow in Atlanta means a complete shutdown. No school. No going anywhere (at least for the first 24 hours–then it’s a matter of playing chicken with the ice). So, this morning, I decided to take Li on a nice, long walk. She’s been trapped in the house too, after all.

I head out in my incredibly stylish aqua & black baja, some jeggings, and my high top Vans. I threw on a red puffer jacket for good measure, which ended up being a stellar move because it was still below freezing outside. Also, I had on a black yarn hat, flecked with a rainbow smattering of other yarn, with a puffy ball on top. None of this matched. And not in a cool, mismatched way, either. In an I’m-finding-adulting-overwhelming-right-now kind of way. Also, I never took off yesterday’s make-up. So it looks like I’m doing some wonky walk of shame through the neighborhood (which, incidentally, I haven’t done since the summer of 2003. Just for the record. But that summer was pretty shameful).

So, obviously, I’m looking awesome.

Delilah & I are almost through one of the intersections when she starts flipping out. Seriously. Standing on her hind legs. Swatting at her nose with both her paws. I’m both a little frightened and incredibly amused. So I’m laughing, trying to tug a dog (who is still on her hind legs swatting at her nose) across the street.

Turns out there was a leaf stuck to her nose. God deliver us from Boxers.

Then, I spy a dog across the street. Delilah spies it, too. All the hair on her back stands up immediately. A tough guy, she is. She growls slightly. To avoid a scene (and trust me, there have been many, many scenes), I start talking to her in a slightly. high-pitched, way-too-cheery voice: “Who’s a good girl?!? Who isn’t going to bark? That’s right! What a good girl! You’re okay, girl! Yes, you are!” Meanwhile, Delilah has let loose one loud and proud bark, has pulled on the leash enough to be on her back legs for a few steps… and then carried on walking next to me, as if nothing happened. Nothing to see here, folks. Because who’s a good girl? It’s Li.

After all that excitement, we carry on mostly without incident. We’re chatting, as we do. I’m narrating things for her. But, when we get close to home, she gets a little eager. She’s pulling on the leash a little–which I DO NOT LIKE. So, I decide to make her walk beside me. As I’m reeling her in, I step on a patch of ice… and land square on my ass. Delilah thinks this is great. We’ve never sat down in the middle of the sidewalk before! So, she climbs right on top of me. Now I’m sitting in the middle of the sidewalk with my 50 pound boxer in my lap.

So, yeah, I think we’re probably neighborhood famous, Me & Puptastic. We’re trying not to let the stardom go to our heads.

 

Reckoning

All my life, I was taught to curry favor with men. That’s the honest to God truth.

All my life, I was taught to curry favor with men. That’s the honest to God truth.

What men thought of me, how they perceived me, needed to remain top of mind if I hoped to be happy (and happy always involved a man). Men were not to be offended. Or led on. They would expect things, if I behaved a certain way. So, I should be ever-mindful of signals I sent.

I got the message. Oh, I got it. And I internalized it (as one does).

But here’s what happens: the messages we internalize find a way of manifesting themselves in our daily lives. The be-ever-subservient-to-men message showed up as a giggle.

Yep. A giggle.

What the hell?

But it’s true: when faced with an uncomfortable situation involving a man (or boy, as it first began), I would simply giggle. Why? I’m not sure. Maybe I thought it seemed carefree. Or maybe I hoped it would be dismissive without being offensive. Who really knows? It wasn’t a conscious decision, the giggle. It was a coping mechanism.

You know what that giggle protected me against?

Not a damn thing.

I giggled in fifth grade when a boy told me he liked me but I didn’t like him back. What was wrong with him liking me? Nothing at all. What was wrong was my utter lack of understanding that it was okay to say “Thank you, but no,” even at 10 years old.

I giggled when, as I was standing outside my middle school sucking on a Blow Pop, some crude ass boy asked if I was “practicing.” I had no idea what he meant. But from the way his friends let loose peals of laughter, I immediately got that sexual innuendo was likely. Did I tell him to fuck off? That word was CERTAINLY in my vocabulary as a seventh grader (I had tried it out as all different parts of speech, in fact). Nope. I giggled. Because? I don’t know. Maybe I thought I should be glad he considered “cute” enough to make sex jokes with.

I liked a boy in eighth grade—a boy I believed had been having sex with his older, high school girlfriend. He and I engaged in a make-out session, during which he climbed on top of me. My thought? “Well, I guess this will be how I lose my virginity.” Casual. Detached. Like one considers the weather: “Well, I guess it is going to rain today.” I don’t remember giggling that time. Maybe I didn’t think I had the right to be dismissive. I’d let him climb on top of me, after all.

I hardly think my experience navigating interacting with boys qualifies as unique. What galls me now, as an adult—and as a mother—is the belief system that I whole-heartedly subscribed to as a child. A child with no sense of control over her own body. A child with no belief that she had the right to say no.

The past few days, the article about Aziz Ansari and the subsequent social media flurry of response made me a little spinny. Every time I tried to talk about why I wanted to push back against categorizing this truly common interaction between men and women as assault, I felt like I was grasping at air. And the I read this brilliant piece. And I found my footing again. It was this quote in particular that gave me a place to land my thoughts:

“People are quick to label sex crimes as deviant or aberrant, but the truth is that sexual violence is socialized into us. Men are socialized to fuck hard and often, and women are socialized to get fucked, look happy, and keep quiet about it. 

 Aziz Ansari has been socialized. And if we don’t like the way socialized men do sex, then we need to take a hard look at our society, friend.”

I don’t like the way socialized men do sex. But I don’t like way socialized women do sex, either. That giggling I was doing all the time as a kid? Yeah, by 10 I already knew about the looking happy and keeping quiet.

This isn’t about victim blaming. And it isn’t about silencing women. On the contrary, for me, this is about agency. A lot of really solid thought already exists about the way young girls are socialized—especially when it comes to beauty, sex, and power. But my reading of these pieces was disassociative at best. Oh, of course we don’t want girls growing up feeling powerless and  preyed upon—without ever admitting that I grew up feeling precisely that way. And it didn’t even occur to me that this worldview might be flawed. Wrong even.

I grew up accepting the basic tenet that I had to be pleasing to men in the world to have worth.

To have worth.

So, I didn’t stand up and say no. I didn’t tell Blow Pop boy to fuck off. I didn’t speak up for myself because I thought I wasn’t worth it. Because without the male gaze, what was I?

That’s a pretty painful truth to have to reckon with.

Hard Truths

Through quick glances in my rearview mirror, I watched my sweet 6-year-old sob on the way home from the grocery store yesterday. I wish it was because I wouldn’t buy her something in the checkout line. Or because she’d gotten in trouble AGAIN for her reckless driving of the shopping cart. But it was much more complicated–and painful–than that.

Through quick glances in my rearview mirror, I watched my sweet 6-year-old sob on the way home from the grocery store yesterday. I wish it was because I wouldn’t buy her something in the checkout line. Or because she’d gotten in trouble AGAIN for her reckless driving of the shopping cart. But it was much more complicated–and painful–than that.

She was crying because she’d just come to the difficult (and necessary) understanding that some folks are not going to like her because she’s white. My outgoing, loves-everybody child found this particular truth heartbreaking.

Here’s what happened:

Jane and one of her closest school friends were in the back seat of the car. Sometimes I pick this friend up from school, if her mom needs a quick childcare fill-in. Neither girl had known they’d be hanging out together that afternoon, so they were super excitable. Chattering, squealing, giggling, saying bootie and chicken nugget constantly–the usual. Once her friend realized that she probably wasn’t going to get a full-length playdate at our house, she asked if I could drop her off at another friend’s house instead of taking her home. (Uh… NO. But good try) Jane protested that she wanted to hang out, too. Her friend responded, “You could come too! Oh… no. No. You couldn’t. She (this other friend) wouldn’t like that. She doesn’t like white people.”

To her credit, in the moment Jane kind of just skipped right over what her friend had said. They carried on. More BOOTIE! More CHICKEN NUGGET! And so much running around the store. They drove me crazy–and had a blast. They hugged each other goodbye  one MILLION seven hundred and forty-seven times.

Then her friend was gone, and I got to have the tough conversation in the car. The one that made her cry.

I get it. I like to be liked. And, even though I have a much broader perspective of systemic racism and white supremacy than my six-year-old, it still stings when a person doesn’t give me the benefit of the doubt because I am white. But then I pull myself together, recognize my own privilege and acknowledge that, by and large, white folks have done very little to facilitate positive, interpersonal relationships with black folks. In fact, we’ve spent a lot of time doing precisely the opposite.

And that’s where I started my conversation with Jane.

This past weekend, Jane interrupted me in the second to last chapter of The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963. She started talking to me as if nothing were going on, while I was mired in the child narrator’s perspective on the Birmingham church bombing–the one where four black little girls were slaughtered at the hands of white men. Once I finished the book, I had to explain why I was so upset when she interrupted my reading. I reminded her what she’d learned about the civil rights movement. How separate was not, in fact, equal. And how people fought so hard for the very basic civil rights that she and I enjoy every day. Then, I told her about the kind of hate that would drive grown white men to bomb a church and kill little girls. Just because they were black.

Fast forward a few days…as Jane sat crying in the backseat yesterday, I reminded her about the church bombing in 1963. That MLK got shot for leading black folks toward liberation (or civil rights, at least). That her black friends will not always get the same benefit of the doubt that she does, simply because of the color of her skin. And I reminded her that we still have to say that Black Lives Matter, because to so many, they don’t.

These are hard truths. These are truths her black friends are never spared.

Jane is a warrior for what’s right. It’s just in her nature. She believes passionately in fairness and equality. To her, someone not liking her because she’s white is the epitome of unfairness.

But when I reminded her of the unfairnesses–in education, employment, housing, incarceration, etc, etc, etc–that black and brown folks endure every single day as white folks keep institutional and systemic racism firmly in place, well… she found a little bit of perspective on the unfairness of some kid not liking her because she’s white.

And, just for good measure, I begged her to never say “not all white people…” because FOR THE LOVE OF GOD. NO.

Instead of worrying about what one little girl she doesn’t even know thinks about her, we agreed that maybe she could focus on all the lovely friends she does have. And that she could do her part to try to make the world more fair for everyone. And that, regardless of what comes her way, she would always, always be a warrior for what is right.

I Love You More Than Littlest Pet Shop

Jane is an easy child to parent.

There. I said it.

By nature, she is kind, warm, independent, curious, and fun. We exchange I love yous like trading cards—each one more fantastic than the last.

“I love you more than peanut butter.”

“Well, I love you more than my new Shopkins backpack.” (that is SO MUCH LOVE right there, y’all).

Sure, we have our tussles (like when she asks me what something is, I tell her, and she says, “No, it’s not.” WTF, kid?? Then why did you ASK me???) And she constantly brings down a torrent of parental wailing and gnashing of teeth regarding the chaos that is her bedroom floor. But she’s an easy kid, and I know it.

Here’s what I also know: being a mother is the toughest challenge I’ve ever undertaken. Because you’ve gotta bring your whole self to this mothering gig. Your BEST self. And that’s tough.

She sees me. Really sees me, in a way that almost no one else does. Sometimes I swear she can read my mind. Which means, there is no hiding my reactions from her. So I damn well better be on my mental A-game all the time.

For me, that translates into: no negative self-talk, offering apologies when I’m wrong, radical acceptance of my body, prizing strength (of body & spirit) over beauty, laughing at myself, and being honest about what I know and what I don’t.

I suck at all these things.

BUT… I am approximately one TRILLION times better at them than I was 6 and a half years ago.

I’ve considered all the things I want her to be when she grows up… then I’ve tried to become all those things myself. Because, let’s be honest, I have no control over what she will choose as an adult. All I can control is my influence on her now—how she sees me live my life.

So, I am passionate about social justice. I look for the best in people. I ask questions about the whys of people’s behaviors, instead of just making assumptions. I see great beauty and pain in the world—and try not to shy away from either. I dance for no apparent reason. I sing loudly in church—even though I’m confident that Jesus is the only one who appreciates my singing. And I pursue my passion—even when I have to get up at 5:30 a.m. to write—because I want her to one day feel fully justified in pursuing hers.

Jane makes me a better person. Every day.

On the morning of her first day of First Grade, I sighed as I redid her braids three different times. She stood there in her brand new navy uniform dress (the one with the ruffle on the front & the bow in the back) and complained of boredom. I rolled my eyes because the braids wouldn’t stay in right. But we both stuck with it—because Jane has tremendously well-honed sense of self. The braids were an important part of her first day outfit, the way she wanted to present herself in this new chapter of her life. And I want her to live into her vision for herself. I wish I’d known who I was at six years old.

She went to school brimming with excitement, self-confidence, and hope. She will rock First Grade. I’ll cheer her on—through both the super-amazing stuff and the not-so-easy stuff. And I’ll hold on to the hope that, one day, she’ll look up to me as much as I look up to her.

 

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Practically Perfect in Every Way (photo credit: RM Lathan)

 

 

Saying Yes to Sloth Backpacks (& dreams)

On July 1, I embarked on my biggest writing adventure yet: a novel. I’ve wanted to write a novel since I was 8 or 9 years old. This obsession coincided with my newfound love of Nancy Drew. Nancy Drew was my hero: independent, smart, determined. I wanted to write something like that–something that would make a kid not want to put the book down until the very last page.

Then I made a mistake. I let an adult in on this dream of mine. And, as adults sometimes do when they think they’re just being pragmatic, this adult laughed and said, “But what are you going to do to earn money?” For some kids, this nay-saying would’ve only made them more determined. But I was a pleaser. And my self-esteem was shaky at best. So, what I heard is, “You may love writing. But you don’t have what it takes to make it. Go find something attainable. Something that doesn’t require any real talent.”

Even as I got older, when it was clear that I could write–that people enjoyed reading what I wrote–I stuck to academic writing. I can’t do creative writing at all, I’d say as if it were totally no big deal. And then I’d make some offhand quip about how I’d let other people write the stories, and I’d just critique them. Which, you know, denied my own dream, belittled an entire profession, and also managed to be self-deprecating. I was a piece of work.

But this dream wouldn’t let go of me. It was determined, even if I was not. I tried multiple career paths… communications (at least I got to write sometimes), writing instructor (maybe the dream would just shut it if I taught someone else to write. Hundreds of someones. Nope.), children’s ministry director (what the f…?!?). But, on a transAtlantic flight back from Paris, I got real with myself (I mean, hell, I had time… what else was I going to do for 7 hours?). I admitted that I would not be happy, could not be happy, unless I was writing. What that looked like could be negotiated. But the writing, that was non-negotiable.

A few of my friends took a chance on me and hired me to write for them: blog posts, technical papers, web content. I loved every minute of it. Because I was creating something. Something that wouldn’t exist without me pouring my heart & soul into it. I’m so grateful that I get to do client writing all the time now. And I’m so grateful to my friends for believing in me.

But that dream….writing a novel… it wouldn’t stop nagging at me. I found NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) a few years ago, through Facebook I think. And I intrepidly started a novel last November. Which I quit in the middle of. Because it was hard. Oh, and that’s right around the time my marriage was falling apart. So, you know, my creative focus was a bit out of whack.

But this July, I found Camp NaNoWriMo. I don’t know if it’s because it’s called “Camp” and that made it sound fun (read: non-intimidating). Or if it’s because I had characters living inside my brain that were dying to get out… But I started a novel. And I’m 6,999 words away from completion. And every minute I’ve spent writing it is like living a dream. A dream I’ve had since I was 8. And any time a voice has tried to tell me I can’t do it, or that it’ll suck, I’ve told it to SHUT THE HELL UP.

I’m doing it. And I’m madly in love with my characters. I even bought the very same backpack that my character, Rowan, has. Because I feel like she’s with me all the time. Might as well be backpack twinsies.  (And, besides, sloths are cool.)

I wish I hadn’t spent years believing a lie about myself. I deserve to live into this dream. At the very least, I deserve to give it a chance. A real chance.

I’m almost there. And it feels really, really good.

Back Together Again

Breaking up and getting back together—all within a 48-hour span—well, it’s not for the faint of heart.

When Simon & I woke up the next morning, it was like being on an incredibly awkward first date. In my pajamas. With someone I’d known for over a decade.

I had no idea what to do or say.

I made coffee, like usual. That seemed right. We probably still needed caffeine to function.

We sat down in the living room—which miraculously was still OUR living room—and I chattered on in a way that managed to be simultaneously overly-chipper and politely reserved. Which translated into rather happy, equally meaningless, small talk. (I despise small talk.)

Beneath my frantic efforts appear normal(ish), I felt completely unmoored. I was thrilled to have Simon back. But I was terrified if I did or said the wrong thing, he’d decide all over again that we were done. But for real this time.

The problem was that I both knew—and did not know—exactly what had gone wrong. When I could focus long enough to sort my thoughts, I knew that Simon had left only because he believed I didn’t want to be with him anymore. He thought he was doing me a favor. He thought he was fixing things. But the why was buried under my fear, which just kept shouting: He left you! He doesn’t love you! He left you!

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Fear is a bastard.

In yet another bizarre twist, on this awkward, small talk filled Saturday morning, we also needed to go rent a U-Haul to fetch the remainder of the furniture we’d stored at our best friends’ house. Moving furniture together is an admittedly odd reconciliation activity. (Note: I do not recommend). But we dropped the kid off with said friends and headed out for a day of furniture relocation.

Odd task aside, sitting in a U-Haul truck next to Simon (without the kid anywhere in earshot) allowed us to talk openly and honestly for the first time in probably over a year. The stark reality that Simon could leave (and would, if he didn’t feel like the relationship was serving both of us well) knocked the anger and resentment right out of me. And not in the way that fear robs people of their fight. I wasn’t angry or resentful anymore because I’d been presented with a real, viable exit strategy. For the first time since Simon told me he wanted to/needed to transition, I felt like I had a choice. And I made my choice. I chose to stay. Because that’s what I wanted.

It was amazing to look at Simon (probably for the first time ever) and feel completely awash in love. I mean I was smitten. I was all hand-holdy and lovey. And I was driving him batshit. Because these ways, they are not his ways. But he understood. And he held my hand. And told me he loved me, too (for the 400th time).

We talked about difficult things. We talked about how to start over. We acknowledged that we needed to bring our best selves to this reconciliation—whatever that looked like for each of us. I asked questions I was scared to ask. He trusted me enough to answer me honestly. It felt real. Like communication. Things felt possible again.

It was in the middle of this hard but good conversation that we pulled up to a red light at Memorial Drive. I didn’t see them at first, because I was looking at Simon. But his eyes got wide. He looked excited. Like, kid picking out a puppy excited. And he said, “Are those LLAMAS?!?” And sure as shit, I looked across Memorial, and there were 15 or so llamas being led around a small enclosure. Outside a bar. In intown Atlanta.

Some people find signs in rainbows or floating feathers. Ours came in llamas. Because the pure joy that those llamas brought Simon wouldn’t have even been possible a day or two before—not with all that baggage we’d been carrying around. But now, he could be as exuberant about those llamas as he needed to be. Unfettered. Because now we’d both made a choice we could live (happily) with.

 

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Viator.com (image has been altered)

Revelations

After the yelling, the tears, the panicked confusion, I was left with only the stark reality: Simon & I were unraveling. This family I’d poured my heart and soul into was disintegrating—and I couldn’t do or say anything to stop it.

I was in a whirlwind of rage and pain by the time my best friend swooped in to rescue me for a few hours. I needed desperately to get out of the house. Simon & I had tried being quasi-normal for Jane. But being around Simon felt like the most exquisite agony. I loved AND hated him. I wanted to be near him AND to cast him to the outer realms of space. I wanted to reconcile AND move on with my life—alone.

Bets pulled up in front of my house, and I jumped in. I really didn’t care where she took me. All I wanted was to get away from the nagging, gnawing pain. But, really, what was I going to do to escape it? I’ve been sober for years. And that means I don’t drink. Even when my marriage falls apart. Even if the world explodes. I. Do. Not. Drink. But a best friend, one that’s known you for over twenty years, offers her own kind of comfort. And it’s a damn good kind. So, I felt safe and loved while I sipped a latte and my world fell apart.

She let me rage on and on. I said ugly things. I cussed. I developed new uses for cuss words. And then, I’d spin on a dime and talk about how much I loved him. How I’d always known we were right for each other. And I cried when I told her that the thing I’d been most sure of in my life was Simon’s unending love for me. But, really, what I’d been sure of all those years was that Amy loved me. Simon and I had been on pretty rocky terms. And, truly, what had I given Simon to love about me? Sure, I’d stuck around. But I’d been resentful; I’d constantly harped on my attraction to women; I was supportive enough—I supposed. But, who wants to build a life on something that’s just barely “enough”? I heard myself telling Betsy how much I wanted a life with Simon, how much I loved him… and, yes, how desirable I found him… and I wondered if he knew any of that. Things were, I realized, completely fucked to hell.

As Betsy dropped me off at my house, she left me with only one set of instructions: Do not beg him to take you back. In 2001, Bets had born witness to my alarming downward spiral after a particularly bad break-up. She was doing her level best to ensure I didn’t head right back down that path. I assured her that I would not beg. That I was done begging, pleading, and negotiating.

I walked slowly through the house—the house that was ours, that would no longer be ours, because there was no more us–got in my bed and laid down. I turned on Melissa Etheridge’s Skin (which, incidentally, is a pretty solid break-up album) and tried to sleep. I dozed off, and when I woke I felt incredibly calm. For about five seconds. But even during the calm, I knew something was wrong. Something I should be upset about. And then I remembered. And it was like breaking up all over again. I couldn’t take it. I absolutely could not sit with the pain for one second longer.

So, I did exactly what Betsy told me not to do: I went out to the living room and sat down on the edge of the couch. Simon sat up immediately to ask what was wrong. Like he’d been waiting for me.

“I don’t understand,” I sobbed. “How can it just be over? I love you so much. Why don’t you love me?”

“I do. I do love you,” he said. He pulled me close to him and held me while I cried. “I don’t want it to be over either.” I cried on him a little while longer, afraid to move. Afraid to breathe. Afraid to break the spell.

Finally, I wiped tears off my face and looked at him. “Then why did you leave?”

He sighed. And for the very first time since things had started to fall apart, I could see that maybe this wasn’t as easy for him as I’d thought. He was hurt. “I thought you and Jane would be better off without me. That you’d be able to move on and be happy. That I was just weighing you down. I don’t want to just be just some concession you are making. That isn’t good enough for either one of us.”

Oh my God. No. Was that what he thought? Of course, that’s what he thought. Really, he would have been a fool to think anything else. But I’d been wrong—wrong that I could take or leave our relationship, wrong that I wanted to date other people (read: women), wrong, wrong, wrong. And now I knew it. I laid my head on his chest and cried. “No. No. I’m not better off without you. I love you. I want you. I want to be with you.”

“I want that, too.”

All my life, I’ve craved that one moment where life plays out perfectly, just like in the movies. Where love prevails despite the odds. Where what seems impossibly broken magically mends. Where love wins.

Truthfully, I’d given up on those moments. Believing in them had caused me lots of heartache, had held me back so many times when I should have cut my losses and moved on.

But this time, oh this time…

I finally got my moment. The moment where I got everything I dreamed of. Just like that, he loved me, and we were us again.

 

(But nothing’s ever really that easy, is it?)