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.

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.

A Control Freak Gets Sober: A Short Case Study

I walked in, freshly pressed in a white shirt, crisp jeans and my beloved cowboy boots. My hair, pulled up in a clip, projected a no-nonsense image. Or, at least, I hoped it did. I wanted to be at the top of my game for this meeting. I pulled back one of the folding chairs, smiled at the people already seated at the table. And then it began: “Good evening. This is the regular meeting of Sobrenity. I am _______, and I am an alcoholic.”

This is how a control freak like me manages the unknown of attending her first AA meeting, at which they will most likely strongly suggest that she admit she is wildly out of control.

My futile attempts to control the AA meeting “situation” began earlier that day: I ran out to the bookstore to procure my copy of Alcoholics Anonymous (aka The Big Book) before the meeting. I wanted (no, needed) to be prepared for this next phase of my journey. I believe I even read the first chapter or so. Like I was going to a book club meeting. “Control what you can” was my motto. Obviously, that was going well.

Turns out, I didn’t need the book at the meeting. It was an open-discussion meeting, which meant anyone could attend, alcoholic or not. Cool. Then I could fly under the radar. They did a moment of silence for the sick & suffering alcoholic (that’s me!), followed by the Serenity Prayer. Which I had heard a million times before but couldn’t remember for the life of me. They were all chanting as if they were part of some secret society. Wait.. yeah. They kind of were.

Next came something about experience, strength and hope. It’s all a blur. And I didn’t have any experience, strength or hope for MYSELF at the moment, much less some to share. Then they got to the line that told me I was okay there, at least for the time being: The only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking. Check! This is where I belonged.

Someone read, “How It Works,” which, cleverly, describes how the program of Alcoholics Anonymous works. Three tidbits from “How It Works” stuck with me:

1) Rarely have we seen a person fail who has throughly followed our path.
I am not really into failure even now, and certainly was against failure as an active alcoholic who had something to prove. So, good… no failing here.

2) We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable. You’d think for a control freak that admitting that she was powerless over alcohol would be wrenching. But I already knew I was powerless (I often have to come to things on my own. Thank GOD, I had come to this realization before someone mentioned it to me, and I had to spend the next several months of my life trying to prove them wrong). I’d done the whole deal where I said I’d only have 2 beers, then I’d wake up in my bed with no recollection of having gotten there. And, if my life was unmanageable, then it wasn’t really my fault, right? How could I be faulted for something that, by its very nature, I couldn’t manage? Time to invite a Higher Power to clean up my mess (btw: this is NOT how things work. Everyone is required to clean up his or her own mess. Think of the HP as a power source; you still have to vacuum)

3) We are not saints. The point is that we are willing to grow along spiritual lines. As for not being a saint, I am a good little Christian girl who happens to be a lesbian. In the church I grew up in, that not only knocked me out of the saint category, it landed me right in the going-straight-to-hell-in-a-handbasket category. So growing along spiritual lines without much outside help was something I did for years (albeit clumsily and sometimes drunkenly). Now I had a church that I totally dug (who of course knew nothing about my problematic drinking–or that I had once served communion drunk), and I had these AA folks to instruct me on spiritual growth. I’d probably BE a saint in a few months with all this help (I totally did NOT get humility yet, obviously).

With the finer points of “How It Works” swirling about in my brain, I sat patiently as people shared their experience, strength and hope. But, honestly, I couldn’t connect their stories to my life. I spent so much time hiding what was really going on with me that I couldn’t open myself up enough to see the similarities. I wondered when I would feel connected. I wanted to be the valedictorian of AA and to do that I needed to be accepted by the group, connected, respected (spoiler: I never felt connected to AA. Perhaps because this was my approach. Holy ego.)

At the end of the meeting, I felt deflated. I didn’t feel changed. I wanted to be able to sit down with someone and talk it out. Not talk about the program or how I was going to work through the steps. I wanted to talk my addiction through until I was better. Right then.

Instead, I went home and took out my Big Book. I tried to start reading the text, but I got bored, overwhelmed, twitchy. So I flipped back to the stories in the back of the book and started reading. They broke past all my defenses, and I saw myself in each of them. I also saw hope. I read until I couldn’t focus anymore. And the next day I read more. It seems so natural now that those stories saved my life. Stories have power. And those stories carried me through my first days, pointing out my character defects (ahem… control freak) in a way that didn’t make me bristle and run for the hills. I share my story because I owe my sobriety to people who were willing to share theirs.

The Coziest New Year’s Eve

I wish I could say I didn’t remember most of the New Years I rung in in my 20s. But being able to forget them would probably be more mercy than I deserve; at the very least, I remember the drunken highlights… always drama-fueled, sometimes dangerous, and entirely cringeworthy. A personal favorite: squealing out of a parking lot in my CR-V into a steady snow in Atlanta as my best friend stood in the parking lot begging me not to drive. My friends finally found me at the next bar, flat on my ass because I slipped on ice coming down the steps. I decided to forgo telling them the car had spun out twice in the snow on my way to the bar; they all seemed so mad already. I had a hard time deciphering why. It was, in fact, often puzzling when people valued me… I had so obviously lost the ability to value myself.

Even on tamer New Years Eves, I carried with me a constant sense of longing. I could always quickly identify something missing in my life on New Years Eve, and I would fixate on it intently. I held an almost subconscious belief that this melancholy made me mysterious, sexy, alluring. Turns out, it made me a sentimental drunk rather likely to cry in her Jim Beam and Coke. I wasn’t sexy-tragic…I was annoying as hell.

But, as it often does in stories such as these, something changed. For me, there was no tragic rock bottom moment. Through all my drinking, I kept my job (barely), my house, my dog and my best friend. But I did lose my self-respect. Maybe that was what I was longing for all those New Years Eves: my ability to look back on the year and know I lived with integrity, that I gave myself wholly to the task at hand regardless of the outcome. When I drank I tended to lose track of what the task at hand even entailed. And resolutions were kind of a wash for me. I found it pretty hard to set my intentions for the year ahead when I was nursing a hangover, trying to choke down a greasy hangover-easing breakfast, and waiting until the time seemed appropriate to have a cocktail. After all, I deserved a cocktail; New Years Day was a holiday, too.

My history of less than stellar New Years Eves made this past New Years Eve stand out for its perfect simplicity. I’ve been sober for 6 years. My first sober New Years Eve was disorienting; I felt a bit hazy, like I wasn’t sure exactly how to hold a conversation, or what I should be doing with my body at any given moment. How did sober people stand? What did people talk about when they knew they were going to remember every word they said? But, despite my awkwardness, I was with my best friend, my partner and some casual acquaintances in a cabin in the mountains. And I felt no longing to be anywhere other that where I was. That seemed pretty groundbreaking.

This New Years Eve found me back in the mountains of North Georgia with my best friend & her family, the lovely folks she calls friends, and my partner and our little girl. After we settled in, we ate homemade lasagna; we chased kids around the cabin. When all the kids piled in the bathtub at bathtime, I laughed–not the self- conscious, measured laugh of my drinking days, but a full-on, deep laugh. Because come on… 5 kids in a bathtub? That is comedy right there.