I’ve written before about how Nine Years Old feels like an important milestone. The realization of this began percolating for me earlier this year, as my oldest daughter prepared to turn nine.
Nine was when I began to experience anxiety. It was also the first year I remember feeling shame. A couple of kids in my class informed me that I was chubby. The kidney reflux that I had been battling since I was born flared up again, requiring several hospitalizations. The physical pain of the disorder was exceeded by the terrifying humiliation of the procedures to try to correct it. During this time, the bubbly, outgoing kid I had been grew quieter. I found myself unable to think of what to say to people my age. I was shy. By the time I was 13, the shame was so pervasive, it was hard to know where it left off and I began.
Last night, Emma joined a local basketball league and attended her first practice.
When I was around eleven, I tried out for basketball at my small private school. I didn’t make the team. I proceeded to try out for softball. I didn’t make the team. Nevertheless, I persisted, and tried out for cheerleading. I didn’t make the team.
When Emma asked if she could join the basketball league – anyone who wants can be on the team – I felt the tenderness of pre-teen Christa. My heart leapt at the chance for Emma to have what I didn’t have.
It brought to my mind two things: first, the amazing capacity of this life to give us do-overs.
I wish my parents had been paying closer attention to my desire to play sports. I would have never been an all-star, but I think with the right help, I could have made a team, or at the least played on a city league. I think that would have given me more confidence around my peers.
As pastors, my parents devoted countless hours to the church. They have both told me as I’ve grown up that they wish they would have spent more time focusing on our family and what we needed as kids and less time at church. They’ve apologized for that.
I know one day, I will have to apologize to my kids for something I wish I had done differently.
As I parent, I am so thankful to have the ability to call my parents up and talk with them about raising babies. There is such kind grace in being able to cry and laugh with your own parents. The laughing part is important. We laugh together at how hard and absurd parenting can be, and it makes the heaviness of knowing I will make mistakes at parenting – the one thing I most want to get right, just like my parents wanted to get it right! – more bearable.
I am thankful for do-overs. That, as parents and children and people, we get to keep loving each other until we get it right.
Second, thinking about trying out for the basketball team reminded me of my lifelong quest for coolness.
I’m smart. During middle school and high school, I took special summer classes just for fun. I graduated high school and college with a high GPA.
But what I wanted to be was COOL.
I wanted to be like the girls who played sports and were effortlessly pretty and always knew the right thing to say. I wanted to fit in. I wanted people to like me.
I married my husband because he is cool. He’s the coolest person I’ve ever met. But he’s the kind of cool you can talk to. It’s cool beyond cool, because he couldn’t care less if he’s cool or not. He is himself.
And that’s cool.
It’s been in recent years that I feel I’ve “achieved” coolness in a way that no one can ever take it from me. Which is kinda funny, because in recent years I’ve become an in-my-30s mother of two who drives a minivan. (Not just drives a minivan. I love my minivan.)
For me, coolness means I feel comfortable with my self. I’m at ease with my self. This has a direct relationship with my shedding of shame in recent years. It doesn’t mean that shame doesn’t ever show up. Sometimes, still, when I make a mistake or am anxious for whatever reason, a voice whispers to me, “Should I be ashamed of my self?”
The difference is that now the answer comes, always, “No. A thousand times, no.”
I hope we’ve given Emma what she needs in order to grow up feeling cool. To grow up feeling like she is alright, just as she is. Or maybe peace with one’s self is only found on the other side of a struggle. Maybe that is part of being human.
The weight of all of this sits with me. It is in my heart. Sometimes I sit in meditation, with outstretched hands, and I actually feel the heaviness in the skin of my palms. I don’t have any other answer but to be with it. With the weight of humanity. Of imperfections and failure and anxiety and shame and do-overs and coolness. To love the hell out of all of it.
Rumi wrote, “Through love all pain will turn to medicine.”
I discovered the OR Principle last year while standing in a fitting room, and it changed my life.
My wardrobe includes what is essentially a dozen variations on the same loose, soft material, you-can-breathe-in-it Loft blouse. One can never have too many of these blouses, and I was trying on a new one for summer. I looked in the mirror at my bare arms and thought, “I really HAVE to work on toning my arms.”
The words floated in my brain, and each letter was tipped with the same stones that line a flagellant’s whip. This is always how such thoughts appear to me. A whip that was handed to me in a fitting room many, many years ago when I was just a child, when someone pointed to my stomach and told me I needed to “lose that belly.” The whip was given to me as if it were my birthright as a woman. I was to carry it with me for life. It was to be used as necessary to force both body and soul to submit.
As women, whenever something doesn’t fit – whether it’s a blouse or a job or a relationship – our first instinct is to think of how we can change our selves. That is the default solution. That is the norm. Our realities and our bodies are the aberrations to be controlled. Squished, contorted, fit into the appropriate space.
But this time, as soon as I began to calculate how many gym classes I needed to take and how many calories I need to not take in order to get my arms in shape, a new thought formed and even escaped through my mouth: “OR.”
That’s exactly how I said it. It was a bold, 20-point font OR.
“OR, designers could start making shirts with some damn sleeves on them,” I said.
And everything changed.
In the year since, every time the whip appears above my head, there is an OR right behind it, gently placing its hand over the one holding the whip.
When I am feeling trapped by a problem at work or home, OR opens a door: “This situation is hopeless. I’ll never get it right. I’ll never be good enough. OR…… there may be a different way that I just haven’t thought of yet.”
OR is an invitation to a bigger life. OR opens up space.
OR has a great sense of humor. OR is the wise woman I’ve always wanted to be. The one who has seen it all. Who knows that the energy of her wild spirit should not be used up in keeping a running mental log of calories. OR knows that the way to get a bikini body is to put a bikini on her body. OR knows that it is also perfectly fine to want sleeves on her shirt. OR’s body is soft and strong and sturdy. It exists outside the purview of others to judge. She is soft and strong and sturdy. She exists outside the purview of others to judge.
I am soft and strong and sturdy. I exist outside the purview of others to judge.
You do, too.
* * * * *
Yoga classes are like church services for me in that they are a time when I am open and honest and vulnerable with my self. Last summer, I was dealing with some challenges, and being with the heaviness of those challenges in the rawness of yoga was too much. It had moved from discomfort to pain, and it stung. I had to stop attending classes for awhile.
And that’s ok.
In yoga, the whole point is your breath. In vinyasa flow yoga, teachers will tell you that if your breathing becomes too labored during practice, if you can’t maintain that steady, long inhale & exhale, come back to child’s pose, where you lay your forehead on the mat, chest draped over your knees. All tucked into a safe cocoon, resting your weight on the earth, sinking back into a rhythmic breath. Because yoga isn’t how far you can lift your leg in the air or behind your head. It’s breathing.
Not going to yoga class for awhile was my returning to child’s pose.
It was easing up for as long as it took for me to catch my breath. As long as it took for things to become lighter again.
Of course, it was also a sign. When things are heavy, it can mean an opportunity for us to grow stronger. It can also indicate that something needs to change. Sometimes, as it was in this case, it is both.
Last week, I gave myself a present of a month-pass to yoga. I’ve been to several classes since then, and it feels so, so good to be in that room again, breathing, expanding, being strong.
Breathe with me, wherever you are. Let your breath carry comfort to the hidden places where pain is stuck. Let it open you up to possibilities, those you can dream of and those you can’t, for joy and wellbeing.
Breathe with me.
PS I call this image Tree Pose with Trees. The best kind of tree pose. Obviously.
On Monday, I engaged in nature therapy down at the creek near our house. Nature therapy is a very sophisticated form of self care, involving mud and sunshine.
One of the benefits of being married to a neuroscientist has been a clearer understanding – and, subsequently, acceptance – of the anxiety that has accompanied me from a young age. I better understand anxiety to be a physiological activity of my body (some people say brain, but you know our brains are part of our bodies, right?). The activity is a result of my genetic make-up and its response to circumstances. It is something I experience. I used to think it meant something about who I was, but, while my sense of self and anxiety have some interplay, they are not the same.
In the past couple of years, I have begun talking more candidly about anxiety, which has helped take some of its sting away. I have told friends that I had to change plans because I was feeling anxious and needed to give my self a time out, in the same way I might have said, “I’ve broken my leg and can’t make our hiking trip.”
On Monday, I was feeling anxious. I put one foot in front of the other as we traipsed through the woods down to the creek. I breathed in and out. I paid attention to how the ground felt bumpy beneath my feet and to the temperature of the air on my skin.
For years, when I’ve talked with close friends and my husband and my therapist about depression and anxiety, I’ve said that I’ve dealt with them since I was 13. On Monday, I realized that I’ve actually dealt with anxiety since I was 9.
This thought crystallized in my mind as I sat on a rock, using a long stick to stir the creek water soup that my toddler and I were making together.
In addition to my toddler, I have Emma, an eight year old who turns nine in April. I wonder what nine will be like for her.
Maggie and I stomped around in the mud to feel it squish up between our toes. We knelt and built mud castles. Being Mama means to be making constantly. Making dinner, making doctor appointments, making children’s hearts and my own heart.
It is not in isolation that I walk with anxiety, that I breathe through it, that I learn how to recognize when it is rising and step away from control. Let it flow away. Like the creek over our feet.
I am doing it while holding the hands of my baby girls, which makes it easier and harder, but – for me – it is also the only way. In cupping their hearts with gentle hands, I hold my own. I put broken pieces back together, the crevices filled in with mud and spit and love. In other words, with grace.
I light a candle,
As I putter about the kitchen,
A candle for the mothers
Who are tired
Who want to live freely
But that path was not cut for them,
So they – so I –
Am cutting it now.
In the kitchen
In the office
Through our home so our children may follow
I am preparing dinner
But my soul is kneeled
With my hand on the soft, green
moss covering a rock
And the other on my heart.
From the time I was a preteen until I was about 24, I was ashamed that I was not the effortlessly shiny, attractive person that other girls seemed to be. When I moved to London to get my master’s, I began coming into my own and stopped being embarrassed. I remember the moment this new reality crystallized for me. I had made a mistake at work, and I thought, “Hmm, I am not embarrassed of my self. I want to do it differently next time, sure. But I’m an alright person regardless.” There are still moments when I hear the internal question, “Should I be ashamed of my self for this?” And from deep within, the answer comes, always, “No. A thousand times, no.”
In that vein, I offer Brene Brown’s Manifesto: “Showing up is our power. We are the brave and brokenhearted.” Oh the beauty in brokenness that is brave enough to show up.