Saturday, December 3, 2016

How many nights must it take
one such as me to learn
that we aren't, after all, made
from that bird which flies out of its ashes,
that for a man
as he goes up in flames, his one work
to open himself, to be
the flames?
—Gallway Kinnell, from "Another Night in the Ruins" (Body Rags)

Last weekend I had a tarot card reading. I've gone to psychics before, in South Florida, where I'm from, and even, once, to Cassadaga, a psychic village. And I realize that there is a distinction between psychics and tarot readers in methodology, but in my mind I've always lumped them together, under the umbrella of the occult—and I've rejected them as such, pursuing it only as a form of amusement or as a chance to bond with my mom or a girlfriend, and preferring instead the idea that the universe is indifferent.

Yet I was persuaded to get a reading after meeting Judy, after many years of eschewing it  all virtue. She set up shop at one of my favorite weekend spots, a red bungalow in downtown Dunedin that serves organic food and offers a large outside area for children to play while their parents enjoy their coffee.

Judy has thick, glossy black hair and wore it down, with a chunky braid accenting the right side of her head. She wore a short, breezy white dress that showed off her tan, and sandals. With her unlined face and slim physique, I guessed she was anywhere between forty and fifty (though she later hinted that she was much older). 

What was more striking, however, was how calm she seemed, how in her body. Despite myself I was drawn to her, and when I asked her for a reading, she greeted me with a genuine, warm smile.

With my girls occupied by bubbles and a sand pit, the sunlight soft and comfortable, Judy and I settled on the front porch. She had two decks of cards to choose from. I chose one, and she began laying them out on the table in between us. 

A pattern soon emerged. The cards that kept repeating were the Cups and the Swords. Most visceral was a card that showed a woman lying face down with at least ten swords in her back.  Ominous as it seemed, Judy explained that it likely meant that I had  done a lot of emotional legwork to overcome some turmoil and emerge a stronger, more evolved self, that I "died" to let the new self in. The Cups, she said, indicated that I was on the threshold of an even larger change. She told me that this was my last life and that in order to ascend fully, I would have to give up the remaining vestiges of my defenses and let go of being fearful and jaded. Only then would I be able to achieve a childlike wonder and joy, and, for its purity, a deeper connection with myself and others. To get there, my male and female selves would have to merge, meaning, more specifically, that all of the archetypes of each would need to become one.

The archetypes are something I am familiar with because of the Jungian phase I went through in my mid-twenties. After months of dissecting my dreams with a Jungian analyst, and after reading The Hero Within, I was able to identify the archetypes that exist within all of us, that are part of the "collective unconscious." (Though all that remains is a general sense of them now, as more than a decade has passed since I first learned about this, and I couldn't rattle them off with any accuracy today.)

Once the reading was finished, I thanked her, said good-bye, and collected my children. I had no immediate reaction; I just needed time to process it all.

I've been buying all of my kids' Christmas presents through Amazon, some of which are books. One of the authors I admire, Neil Gaiman, has a few children's books that he's written, though I've never read them. Neil Gaiman likes to tell scary stories, so I wanted to look them up and make sure that they wouldn't be anything too scary. I'm not opposed to scary stories; I've enjoyed reading them fairytales from the Brothers Grimm. But I've always wanted to make sure that if I expose them to something dark, it's something that manages that delicate balance between being scary and age-appropriate. 

My Gaiman search led me to an article about a TED talk he gave in 2014 in which he discussed the psychology behind the appeal of scary stories. When asked why we tell ghost stories, he said:

We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live, and that there is something special, something unique and wonderful about the state of being alive. Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses. You ride the ghost train into the darkness, knowing that eventually the doors will open and you will step out into the daylight once again. It's always reassuring to know that you're still here; still safe. That nothing strange has happened, not really. It's good to be a child again, for a little while, and to fear — not governments, not regulations, not infidelities or accountants or distant wars, but ghosts and such things that don't exist, and even if they do, can do nothing to hurt us.
I remember that when I was a kid I loved ghost stories. Once, when I was eleven, I even manufactured a ghost story about a boy my age (whom I named Matt Monahan) who died a mysterious death and called upon me to solve his murder. When the weather was overcast, I put on my mother's trench coat and heels and walked up and down my block in the fog, listening to the clicking of my heels as I searched in vain for clues. One day I even walked to the police station that was near my house to let the officer manning the desk know that I was on the case and that if he had any files about this missing boy, I'd be happy to take a look. Although I'm sure he was amused (or maybe alarmed), he maintained a straight face and told me that he didn't have anything at the moment, but that he would let me know if he came across anything. I left him my home number.

I took the fantasy so far, in fact, that I even roped my friend Chrissy in. She lived one neighborhood over, and I convinced her that the best time to work on this case would be in the middle of the night, which would require us sneaking out of our houses. On the designated night, I made it out my bedroom window and onto my bike without incident, but Chrissy had apparently been caught. After circling my neighborhood a few times, I realized she wasn't coming, so I went home and to bed. (Chrissy wasn't allowed to be friends with me after that.)

I wasn't delusional. I didn't really believe in Matt Monahan or that I would be called upon to solve a murder mystery. Rather, everyone was just a player in my fantasy, and even after considering the fact that they might think I was weird, I didn't care. It was all just too appealing, exhilarating even. The sense of adventure. The chance to view a setting I'd otherwise be bored with with new eyes. This sense of my own power. This fantasy, this ghost story was a metaphor for my unconscious desires, so the appeal was huge. And, as Neil Gaiman suggested, it was just the right amount of scary.

Eventually, of course, I gave it up. Nowadays there's nothing invigorating about things I'm afraid of, and I'm afraid of a lot. In fact, the older I get, I've noticed, the more afraid I become. I'm afraid of losing my job. I'm afraid of one of my girls choking. I'm afraid of them running off and getting lost or abducted. I'm afraid of an axe murderer breaking into my house. I'm afraid of getting in a car accident. I'm afraid of my girls growing up to hate me. I'm afraid of being wrong. I'm afraid of failure. You get the idea.

But I also know that being too afraid is completely unproductive, and that working through your fears leads to growth. So now that I've had a week to process the tarot reading, and to remember what it was like when I embraced fear and existed in a pure place where I had not allowed my selfhood to be compromised by others' opinions of me, I feel ready for the big change that Judy saw coming my way. I'm ready to allow any remaining darkness to flip to light, to come from a place of vulnerability and authenticity at every opportunity, to tolerate and even embrace a controlled burn so that I can emerge anew.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Make New Friends But Keep The Old

She always wrote me the coolest letters. (Also, I like to think that "Shanno" was just her sense of humor rather than a mistake.)

"She is a friend to my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It's good, ya know, when you got a woman who's a friend to your mind." — Toni Morrison, Beloved

Every day after school, I go to Robin's house. I live on West Daffodil Lane, and she lives on East Daffodil Lane. We walk there from the bus stop around the corner.

Her house always smells like fish from dinner the night before, you have to take your shoes off by the door, and the first thing she does is say hello to her little black dog, Cookie, who has to live on the porch. Then I grab a handful of shortbread-like cookies that she bought from an international grocery store. She plays Enigma, or Deep Forest, or Georgian Chants, loud, and we retreat to her bedroom where we either sprawl out on her bed or the floor and close our eyes, relaxing (me imagining an elaborate candelabra with melting wax in a dark room or a soaring cathedral, doing my best to suspend the angst I carry with me everywhere and ignore the light behind my eyes).

Her dad never turns on the air-conditioning, so it is almost always hot, but after a time, I ask if I can try on some of her clothes, and maybe borrow something for school the next day. An eggplant-colored peasant blouse is my favorite. Robin's mother is dead, and has been for many years. Cancer. As far as I can tell, Robin's wardrobe is made up entirely of her dead mother's clothes. Now that Robin is sixteen, everything fits like a glove. She wears micro mini skirts with wool turtlenecks and corduroy bell bottoms paired with vests and knee-high suede boots. Her clothes are impractical because we live in South Florida, in an everlasting summer. Her mother lived in Taiwan when she wore those clothes, in a place where, I imagine though I have never asked, it must have been much cooler. 

If anyone can pull it off, though, it is Robin. Robin's hair is long and black and, even uncombed, drapes seductively to her waist. Robin, who effortlessly floats through social strata while I struggle to find my place. The only makeup she wears to school is red lipstick, which I am always in awe of, because I frantically reapply my makeup throughout the school day. Aside from her interest in New Age music, she also listens to Cowboy Junkies and The Pixies and The Cure. She introduced me to Blue Velvet, The English Patient, and Orlando (Tilda Swinton!), films which I still consider some of my all-time favorites. 

She spent a semester last school year in Germany as an exchange student, an arrangement she planned all on her own, since her dad was always at work, at the laundromat he owned. So she now speaks three languages fluently: Mandarin, English, and German. She is an artist, too, experimenting with charcoal and watercolors and oils. When she shows her artwork to me, I know immediately that I like them love them, in fact — but I don't always know what they are  or how to describe why I like them, so in the interest of self-preservation, I keep my mouth shut.

From the beginning, our friendship has been easy. Had we not lived down the street from one another and gone to the same school, maybe we never would have been friends. Though it's hard to think that there was nothing more at work in bringing us together than proximity. But we are friends, and our friendship has a confessional nature, like all of my friendships do at that age, and we trust one another implicitly. For as world-wise as Robin is, it was me who taught her how to ride a bike when she was fourteen, and I also had to break the news to her about how babies come out of a mother's body. (One day Robin casually mentioned that it must hurt when a baby comes out of a mother's butt, and I was shocked when I realized she wasn't joking.)

The only time I ever remember really getting mad at Robin was when we'd sit by the canal in our neighborhood and I'd complain about my mother, telling her about our latest argument. Once I'd uttered my last exasperated sigh, Robin fixed me with a cold stare. My first instinct was irritation. Why couldn't she just side with me the way my other friends would have? And then I remembered she didn't have a mother, and I hated myself.

After high school, Robin went off to art school somewhere near Berkeley, California, and wrote to me about exotic experiences I couldn't imagine for myself, like how she'd met an older boy and how they'd had tantric sex in a treehouse. She also started nude modeling for her fellow art students to make some extra money.

I, on the other hand, stayed in Florida for school, a college just hours away from where we grew up. I spent my weekends teetering from one frat party to another in borrowed high heels.

Eventually we lost touch completely. Last I heard she was living in Beijing, attending grad school and teaching English. 


Now I am thirty-eight (old enough to have to think about it for a second). I have two children. These two children have play dates, which is how I've been fortunate enough to make some new friends. Perhaps because I've had friends like Robin, and also because I place such value on an examined life, I reflexively talk about very personal things, even with new acquaintances. I've had to learn restraint. I tell myself not everyone knows how to sift through all that honesty, or cares to. I've had to remind myself that, like me, most other women my age are nestled securely in their lives and already have all the intimacy they need, satisfied by relationships with their husbands and children and extended family and childhood friends.

Perhaps it is for the best. In high school, friendships are everything, even taking precedence over academics. Without friends you risk heartbreaking isolation. But as an adult, there is little if anything at stake. By now, many of us have built a career and family and made peace with who we are. It is natural at this stage in life to exist in a more fragmented way— to wear the mask that the situation or relationship calls for. It is a function of maturation, in terms of age and the expectations that come from adulthood.

Still, I miss Robin. She taught me that friendships can be an opportunity for personal growth. That there is nothing more valuable than being seen and accepted for who you are; than finding a lasting connection. So even though I appreciate all my friendships, in all their permutations, and even though I am more content than I have ever been, I will not close the door to riskier friendships, those that demand vulnerability, that expose hardship — for hardship, if you've done the work, breeds insight. I will remain open to the possibility that there might be another person out there, someone who I know in my gut, on a cellular level, is my kind of Robin.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

"The Force That Through The Green Fuse Drives The Flower" (poet Robyn Schiff)

"We make ourselves." 
from the novel Hold Still by Lynn Steger Strong

Lately I've been trying to get my six-year-old to take a shower. It'd obviously be much faster, and would thus speed up the bedtime process and give me a break. Also, I know some other kids her age who are taking showers. Plus, I thought it would be a good opportunity for her to have some independence.

Well, she doesn't want to. First she protests, then, if I keep insisting, she starts to shriek, and I give up. As I've mentioned in previous posts, Violet is all about play. So Violet wants a decent chunk of time to play in the tub while I wash her. I was a little annoyed, but I get it. And I remind myself not to rush it, that one day I will miss the kind of dependency that she has on me now.

She's resisted other things, too, as of late: She loves to sing, but she doesn't want to take singing lessons. Ditto for ice-skating and dance. And she asked to take Tae Kwon Do, but after just a few lessons, she stopped listening to the instructor, would run around the room and play with equipment, and then begged to quit. My husband and I debated whether or not we should make her see it through, but in the end decided against it since she wasn't going to participate and because she's young enough where, we feel, she should be able to explore different interests (or, in this case not).

She's also not really reading yet. She can read some things and some very simple books. Her writing is a mix of correctly spelled sight words and then phonetically spelled words. She loves books and writing and is very motivated to do it (and beyond proud when she does), but it just hasn't all clicked yet.

Intellectually I know the dangers of overscheduling kids with extracurricular activities. I know how important play and outdoors time is to kids my daughter's age. I know that if a child is asking or needing physical caretaking, you shouldn't deny that. And I know that it is imperative that I work hard to ensure I am not projecting any anxiety onto her.

But I still have my moments of weakness. I worry that she might never find the one activity--be it dancing or playing a musical instrument or a sport--that she falls in love with. And I worry that if she doesn't have that, she'll regret it when she's older and she'll be at risk for getting into trouble as a teenager. I briefly worry that by continuing to wash her and brush her hair and teeth (and, until not that long ago, get her dressed), she's going to lack self-confidence. (I mostly worry about this when I hear that other kids her age are more independent, and I'm not positive what is age-appropriate.) 

So I occasionally give into my anxiety and contact her teacher to make sure she is on track with reading (she is, and, according to her teacher, even a little ahead). I show her the websites of different classes around town to see if she's interested in just sitting in and observing, and then making a decision after that. Sometimes I grab a few early-reader books on our way out of our biweekly library trip, but then when she doesn't want to read them (preferring instead to lie back on her pillows and be read to), I just throw them into the passenger seat of my car, ready for return.

The other day I was twenty cars deep into the car line at her school, and I was thinking about how, as she's gotten older, our relationship has become more nuanced and complicated. As a baby, it was so one-sided. Aside from the brief period of time when I worried that she wouldn't reach her milestones because she was dealing with a medical issue (which I wrote about here), her needs and desires were so basic, so like every other baby. And everything she did was so exciting for me, like when she first smiled or rolled over or crawled, or grew a tooth. It would have been more difficult if she had been colicky or  hadn't been a good sleeper or if I'd had no support, but since none of those were factors, everything just felt so easy. I was never angry with her. 

It's only as she's gotten older that all of this expectation has begun to set in for me. And how she responds to those expectations can make me feel disappointed or annoyed. I believe there is no such thing as a bad kid. So I always have to ask myself where those feelings of anger and disappointment are coming from. What is her rejection of my expectation triggering in me? I don't mean to suggest that there aren't any healthy  expectations, like being a good person and performing to the best of your ability academically, but for me, by and large, the expectations that I have of her are something that I need to let go of. They have more to do with me than they do with her. And I can see how this will continue to be a challenge for me as she gets older, and that our relationship will struggle at times because of those expectations, not just of her, but those that she will have of me as well.

Someone once told me that the most important relationships you have will be with those people who hold a mirror up to you and force you to deal with all of your pain and fears and dare yourself to offer up all of the love that you have. That's one of Violet's greatest gifts to me. My hope is that if I continue to be introspective, to continue to see her for who she is and not who I want her to be, to embrace our struggles, for they will bring us growth, and that by offering her the purest form of love that I can, she will be the force that drives that Violet flower.

Friday, July 29, 2016


"To err is human, to forgive divine." --Alexander Pope

My dad tells me he is an evangelical preacher. He has his own congregation, mostly Filipinos, and he is now married to a woman from the Philippines. Her name is Rose. Rose is wearing a floral-print dress and has what looks like a fresh haircut. She smiles a lot and speaks in broken English.

I haven't seen my dad in a while. He lives five hours south of where I live, but that is not the only distance between us. The greater distance is an emotional one. My father began abusing drugs when I was seven, and after my parents divorced, when I was nine, I only saw him a handful of times. Sometimes--too often--he didn't show up at all when we were supposed to meet. When he wasn't homeless, he moved around a lot. One of the studio apartments of his that I spent the night in was overrun by cockroaches. I could feel their spindly legs skittering across my neck as I tried to sleep. While away at college, in my late teens and early twenties, my childhood sorrow mutated into an impervious disaffection, almost a nonchalance, that was easier for me to manage.

I was twenty-three, newly married, with my first job, and I'd agreed, after some thought, to meet him for dinner at an Applebee's. He was in town for some religious conference--I wasn't really listening. It soon became clear that he wanted to show me that he had turned his life around and that he was experiencing some modicum of success. As he spoke, though, and grinned his crooked-toothed grin, a familiar rage began to flare up. I noticed that he didn't ask me any questions about myself. I snorted, thinking, "Where did this man get the audacity to call himself a man of god? To put himself in a position of authority, of superiority? Where was his humility?" 

I remembered the time when I was fifteen that he'd called. He was still struggling with his addiction at the time. I'd wanted to test him, so I'd said, "Don't you remember when you used to put me on your shoulders and run around with me, and I'd squeal in delight, repeating 'I'm a flying monkey!'?" I was looking for an apology. I was looking for him to acknowledge how he'd failed me, but all I'd gotten back was a weak, "Yeah, I remember. What do you want me to say, Shan?" Well, I wasn't going to spell it out for him.

So now, in this Applebee's, despite myself, I couldn't resist the urge to test him again, to slip into that familiar outrage. Perhaps he really had changed. Perhaps he was ashamed that he hadn't lived up to his financial responsibility while I was growing up. Maybe he could guess at all of the things he'd missed--the Sun-In and perm and mixed tapes and prank phone calls and raft wars and too-short skirts and school dances and sunburns and volleyball tournaments and self-destruction. I missed out on fatherly remonstrations. I was denied a mentor.

"So now that you're all, like, religious, do you think I am going to hell when I die because I don't believe in god?"

His smile grew stiff, manic. "Yes. That's right."

"So to be clear, I am going to hell and you're not? Despite..." and here I swept my hand over the table as if all of my little hurts and disappointments lay among the napkins and dirty plates "...everything?"

He nodded, looking as though he were unsure where this was going or how long it would last, hoping with every fiber of his being that it would end soon. 

He had failed my test.

Over the next several years, I didn't see him often. I only visited occasionally when I traveled south to visit my mom, and even then, the visits, for me, were just obligatory 10-minute pit stops.

I got a call one night when I was twenty-eight. Rose was on the line, and she was asking me to please drive down to see my father. He was in the hospital, having a triple bypass, and he was asking for me. My husband and I left immediately. 

When I got to his bedside before the surgery, he reached for my hand. It was the most tender he'd been toward me since I was a child. His hand was cold and dry, and his eyes were watery. He was afraid. I tried to be as reassuring as I could. 

As I sat in the waiting room, counting down the hours until his surgery was over, I grew short of breath, increasingly anxious. I hadn't told him I loved him; in fact, until the moment he was wheeled into the operating room, I hadn't even allowed myself to feel any real affection for him. But now, confronted with the possibility that he might die, I knew that I did love him. Just the fact that he wanted me there at a time when he knew his health was in danger spoke volumes. It may not have been the apology that I was looking for, but it was clear how important I was to him. So even though it was a dream that didn't die easily, maybe I needed to accept that it might not be something he was capable of giving, at least not in that way. It occurred to me that maybe he was scared of me. Maybe apologizing to me in the way that I wanted him to would mean confronting his shame, and my disappointment in him. And that's a tall order.

Once I had my daughters, my dad was thrilled. He visits them as often as he can, always bearing too many gifts: clothes, toys, coloring books, candy. Violet shows off, which, for her, means rolling around on the floor, making strange animal-like noises, and parading around in the different outfits he bought her. Harper always asks Rose to take pictures of her on her iPhone, and then immediately asks to see them. My dad grins from ear to ear watching their antics and asks for a hug before he leaves. 

Family has never been as important as it is to me now. That's one of the many things having my children has taught me.  So even though I feel justified in being angry at my father, and even though I think it's understandable that our relationship has been strained, I've learned that it's a mistake to think that you are going to live up to the life that you've imagined for yourself, or, by extension, that you can live up to the parent you imagined you would be. I also can see now that my father has a backstory that led him down a destructive path for many years, and that, as has been said, people wound each other in the same ways in which they were wounded.

My father can't take back the past, and he may never be able to apologize in the traditional sense, but he can be present now. He can develop a healthy relationship with my children. He has taught me that I need to meet people where they are in life and acknowledge the person he has become. And maybe, if we're lucky, he'll pass along some of that resilience. At long last, I've come to the conclusion that showing me that he has changed his ways is apology enough.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Graduation Day

The closer I got to my high school graduation, the more I began to take off my clothes. 

I don't mean I took them off in front of a boy, desperately hoping to please him, desperate for validation, self-conscious, daring myself to show my body to another person even if I hated it myself, acting out something I'd seen on TV or acting out of pressure or the fear of losing someone. 

At first, it was spontaneous. Once, my friend Meredith, who lived down the street from me, and I were rollerblading through a nearby neighborhood. (It was the '90s.) It was May, and the heat was already oppressive. My T-shirt was saturated with sweat.

"I wish I could take off my shirt," Meredith said. "It's not fair that we can't. Boys can get some relief, and we get nothing."

I nodded my head in agreement and shrugged. It was unfair, yes, but that was just the way it was.

Meredith reached out and touched my damp forearm. "Wait a minute. What if we did? I mean, there's no one around, and who cares anyway, right? Soon we won't even live here."

A wicked smile played across my lips. Finally, a touch of wonder to what had otherwise become my drab, predictable universe. "Yes." And like that, we wriggled out of our shirts and balled them up in our fists. We threw our heads back and laughed at our own brazenness; the air felt charged. 

Sometimes I was alone. I'd started driving out to the beach after dark to stare at the moon and squint through the diaphanous light from the nearby street lamps, past the soft curve of sand, out into the riotous swell of the ocean and black night. In front of me were shadows. I'd sit on the hood of my car and take off my shirt, letting the temperate breeze wash over me. In just three months, I'd be away at college. 

I was saying good-bye. 

I was saying hello.

For my high school graduation I chose to wear a sleeveless, beige dress with imperceptible belt loops and a stiff belt the same color. I wore stockings and nude kitten heels. I wore a cap and gown at the ceremony, like everyone else, but I was excited to reveal my outfit at the small party my mom had thrown for me. Really it was more of a gathering, just me and three senior friends drinking soda and eating pizza. 

At seventeen I hadn't realized how misguided the outfit was. The dress and heels were something a career woman would wear, to an interview or meeting or lunch with a client. I should have worn a flouncy, flirtatious skirt or my most comfortable jeans. But instead, subconsciously, I'd chosen to dress for the future, even though, in reality, I had no idea what that might look like.

Once my mother went to bed, I devised a plan. My friends and I would take off our clothes, each put on one of my mother's coats, go to the end of my block, then toss off our coats and run down the street naked. 

At first my friends scoffed at my idea, but before long, I'd convinced them and they'd become giddy with excitement. 

Fortunately, even though we lived in Florida, my mom had held on to a few decades-old coats that she kept in the downstairs closet. One was a denim ankle-length coat with fat navy buttons and a sash around the waist. Another was a brown rain jacket with a hood that hit my friend Jackie just above the knee. My friend Lauren chose the pale-yellow trench coat that brushed her mid-calf. That left just me without a coat, so I offered to take off my belt, shoes, stockings, and underwear in advance, and just heave the dress over my head when it was time.

We crept out my front door, giggling, shushing each other and telling each other to "be quiet," and made our way to the stop sign perpendicular to my street. It wasn't late, but it was very dark and still. The plan was to run naked a full block down the street, past the church and a couple of other neighborhoods, and then run back to the stop sign to throw back on our clothes.

I held still for a moment, my dress still on, looking out into that authoritative blackness. I thought about how confident my friends were, how they all seemed so sure that they could design their futures, and how I, no matter how intensely I looked, still couldn't see what was ahead of me. I was nervous to run naked down the street, yet I felt this persistent urge to tear into that immersive blackness, to tear through it. I would know the end when I got there.

I started counting: one, two ... We gave each other furtive glances, but when I said three, we flung off our clothes and took off like a shot, gulping for air, one of us squealing, our silky sheets of hair flying behind us.

We made it back to the stop sign without incident. I was panting, exhilarated. The shapeless night had been a worthy audience for my nakedness, both literal and figurative. I had been wholly unselfconscious, uninhibited, perfect. I had shed that laughable dress, never to be worn again, leaving it behind for good. I had loosened myself from where I stood and rushed into what was in front of me, even though I couldn't fully see it. 

And even though I didn't know it then, I had given myself a gift. I had given myself an insight: It didn't matter how I chose to dress or act based on other people's expectations or even my own expectations of myself. Underneath all that, there would always be a certain purity, as real as the body I was born with, that could be hidden away but never denied. The distinction between actual and artifice can be hard to make as a teenager, but knowing that the real me was a constant, not something that could be changed as easily as a dress, was comforting in a way. As I was about to move away from home and attend college, I knew that the learning curve might be steep and that I'd make mistakes along the way, but I also knew that I'd always be the same girl I've always been and that I could trust myself to recover from missteps and land right where I needed to be. It's funny sometimes how striving to have an adolescent adventure can instead lead you to do something you'd never planned on doing -- growing up.

Saturday, June 4, 2016


In the family where I grew up, sacrifice was imperative. What had started out as an idyllic childhood for me, and, I have heard, a happy time for my parents, slowly became a time of hardship: emotional, psychological, and financial.

In upstate New York, where I was born, I built igloos and snowmen in the winter, coming inside to hot chocolate, and I ran through the grass naked and swam in the lake in front of our house in the summer. But we left it all behind--moving my dad, mom, little brother, me, and our nanny--to South Florida, for what we believed would be like taking a permanent vacation.

For a while it was. I made friends easily, both in the neighborhood and at school. I had the hot-pink bedroom and waterbed that I dreamed of. I could wear my favorite Dr. Seuss T-shirt and overalls for days and stand in front of our typical 80s wall of mirrors and sing David Bowie and Moody Blues songs at the top of my lungs, easing the fact that I was becoming unconsciously aware that I was not the most special girl in the world. I was growing up, and some hidden part of me began to realize that the world did not revolve around me.

But soon after my eighth birthday, my parents split. My dad had become so violently addicted to drugs that he abandoned us. I would only see him a handful of times over the next ten years as he struggled with his addiction. 

That left my mom, who, after fourteen years of marriage, had to find us more affordable places to live. With no child support and just a teacher's salary, it was a struggle. As I got older, I became more aware of our financial limitations, and embarrassed by them in the face of the much wealthier kids I went to school with. 

When I was thirteen, I went to my best friend's bat mitzvah. The dress I wore was a black-velvet clearance item from Ross, and the gift I'd brought for my friend was a twenty-dollar silver ring. I knew it was all wrong when I got to the party and saw the delicate diamond earrings in her other friends' ears, and the pale-pink lipgloss on their lips, and the thick envelopes of cash being passed to my friend; not to mention the venue itself, with its polished dance floor, tables with centerpieces, and a D.J.

By high school I'd grown resentful of my mother for not being able to provide my brother and me with a lifestyle equal to that of my friends', and for not, at the very least, recognizing how critical this was for me in terms of my social standing. I also, of course, suffered the ramifications of having an absentee father. My self-esteem was low, I was angry, and my mom was an easy target. We began to fight. A lot. We yelled at one another or ignored one another more often than we spoke. I told myself she didn't love me. Home was a hostile environment, and I took every opportunity to escape it.

I took little notice of the sacrifice she'd made when she asked her then-boyfriend Jim to move out. Jim had lived with us for a year. He'd never had children of his own, and it was clear, every day, that my brother and I were irritants. When he spoke to us, it was only to correct our table manners or tell us to be quiet.

One night he'd gone out, and then returned because he'd forgotten something. By then I'd already locked all the doors. He went around to the back sliding-glass door and tried that. That was locked too. I watched him from the other side of the glass as he pulled at the handle. "Open it. Shannon, open it," he seethed through gritted teeth. It wasn't entirely a conscious decision at the time, but more primal. I wouldn't open the door--no matter what. The angrier he got, the more I smiled. Eventually he left in a huff. A few weeks later, my brother and I went off to New Jersey to visit my grandparents, as we did every summer, and when we returned, Jim was gone, never to be heard from again. 

I also didn't fully appreciate the time that, for my sixteenth birthday (even though I didn't deserve it), my mom surprised me with a limo and reservations for me and a few friends at a posh French restaurant downtown. We ordered escargot and then spit it out into our napkins. We ordered every dessert on the menu--crepes, and mousses, and truffles. Another patron even sent over a bottle of champagne, and the wait staff didn't bother to I.D. us, so we polished it off. I couldn't have even imagined a birthday party so decadent. She had gone out of her way to spoil me. 

There were countless other ways, too: the effort she made to stay involved in my school, the money she scraped together to make sure that my brother and I got the item we wanted most each Christmas, the time she took to make each birthday party special.

Of course, it was complicated, though. I didn't always appreciate her, nor her me. I suffered from low self-esteem for years. I made bad choices. We all struggled personally at times.

And so it was that, from my fractured family life, I'd decided on a couple of things: to be a good mother is to sacrifice and I would not repeat the mistakes of my past nor allow my children to struggle the way that I had.

I married young, at twenty-two (almost twenty-three), a teacher who later became a writer. We share creative interests, academic interests, religious philosophies, and the same basic moral compass. We waited until we'd finished graduate school and I'd found a new job to have a baby, a girl, Violet, whom we named after Violet Baudelaire, a character in one of the Lemony Snicket books. 

I loved being pregnant with her. I was drowsy most of the time (something that is unusual for me), and I was pampered by my husband, who ran out at all hours, in that stereotypical way, to get me anything I wanted to eat, which was almost always ice cream. I found that people treated me differently, too--they seemed to always compliment me on my looks and let me skip ahead in line or offer me the last open seat in the movie theater. I had not one but two baby showers. I had a room in my old 1920s house all set to go for a nursery, and I was getting this gorgeous antique-white iron crib and this whimsical bird chandelier and a warm pink rug and an overstuffed rocker. The few baby gowns I had so far were from boutiques and had delicate little flowers on them. I was so pleased with myself. It was perfection.

At seventeen weeks, the tech doing my ultrasound noticed something that was "off" and had the doctor come in to speak to us. He said there was a large area of lymphatic fluid on her left side that was not being absorbed as it should, and we'd have to keep an eye on it. After that, I became a high-risk pregnancy, and there were more frequent ultrasounds. 

I didn't become alarmed until over the next several weeks the sac of fluid began to grow as she grew. It became less and less likely that it was an issue that would go away. The worst part was that none of the doctors were familiar with it. They believed it was a lymphangioma, but no one had any experience with it. I met with a handful of doctors and was told that she'd have to be delivered via cesarean, in case of a rupture; that she would need an MRI as soon as she was born, so she'd have to be put under; that she might need a blood transfusion; and that many tests would have to be done in addition to surgery to make sure the lymphangioma was not attached to her brain or spinal cord. Being that they didn't know how this would affect her developmentally, the situation was less than perfect. I felt what I'd imagined slip away, and I was brought to tears. 

She had surgery once at four months and again at eighteen months, and over the course of that time, I hovered over her. If I saw her reaching for a toy, I'd grab it as fast as I could and give it to her. If she cried, I sang her favorite song, "Skinna Marinky Dinky Dink," even though I hated it. I went to every pediatrician appointment with a long list of questions. When she was first born, if I heard her cough in her bassinet, I thought she was going to die. When it took her longer to walk than other babies I knew, I thought something must be wrong with her. Once, when she was twenty months old, she fell on the playground step and bit into her tongue, causing blood to gush down her chin. I ran with her in my arms at top speed back to the house, yelling for Ryan to call an ambulance. (Fortunately, he had more sense and we just gave her a washcloth and drove to her pediatrician.)

Very early it was clear that Violet had no intellectual or physical delays, so I began to back off and give her a little more freedom. Then, when she was three, I discovered RIE (Resources for Infant Educarers), founded by early childhood educator Magda Gerber, and now largely taught by RIE instructors Janet Lansbury and Lisa Sunbury. In a nutshell, the RIE approach is to respect children; to see them as whole, fully formed, beings, from infancy; to accept them fully; to disengage from power struggles and yet set firm boundaries; to use natural consequences; to be a calm, benevolent leader; and to not interfere or use bribes or consequences to manipulate them. 

I wanted so many things for Violet. Top of that list was, and still is, to be happy and confident. I don't want her to ever worry that she isn't loved. I don't want her to struggle the way that I did, and that would mean that I would have to undo some of the patterns that I'd learned from my own childhood and carried with me into adulthood.

So I threw myself in full force. I read as many blogs as I could on Janet Lansbury's website. I bought the books she'd authored, and even read some of the books that she recommended. I also poured over Lisa Sunbury's site. Once I felt I had a good basis for understanding, I started making some changes.

First, I stopped doing time-out. According to RIE, the idea here is that by sending a kid who is demonstrating strong emotions into time-out, you are shaming her and teaching her that you would prefer that she repress her feelings rather than share them. Well, as someone who went through much of her life repressing her feelings, the decision to abolish time-out came easily. I'll never forget the huge grin that Violet got on her face when we said we weren't doing time-out anymore, and how she made sure to brag about it to all her friends at preschool.

Next, I turned off the TV, which is believed to be too much of a passive activity, is believed to negatively affect children cognitively, and to send negative messages. Then I got rid of some of the toys that she received--of the blinking-light, talking variety, as they are believed to discourage children from using their imagination and are robbing them of the chance to discover how to do something on their own. I taught myself how to give her the language to express her emotions; I stopped saying "please" and "okay?" at the end of my sentences in an effort to sound more authoritative; and I taught myself to give more specific compliments, rather than just saying "good job."

Shortly thereafter, I enrolled her in a Waldorf school, which, although not specifically sanctioned by RIE, follows many of the same principles. I felt the environment was idyllic for a three- and then four-year-old because she spent her time baking bread, making lentil soup, playing with open-ended wooden toys, doing light chores and free-form art, and playing outside three times a day.

The calm-authority component proved to be more of a challenge for me. Intense by nature, and having come from a home where there was a lot of yelling, I often was just going through the motions of acknowledging her feelings and racking my brain, trying to think of a natural consequence for running away from me at the store and hiding somewhere until I almost had a heart attack.

At first, I felt things went well. If nothing else, I was buoyed by my own self-righteousness. But soon I ran into trouble. Violet took a really long time to potty train--longer than anyone else I knew. I started going to therapy, for myself, because I believed I had wounded her in some deep psychological way. At my therapist's behest, I sent her to a behavioral therapist who specialized in kids Violet's age, to evaluate her. Her diagnosis was that Violet was very intelligent, and perfectly normal. After that, also at my therapist's suggestion, I sent her to a psychiatrist. I was sure that he was going to tell me that she had some kind of anxiety disorder or mood disorder or was wounded by me. But he didn't. As with the previous specialist, he said that she was very intelligent and seemed well-adjusted.

While I found that all those tools had given Violet a high emotional intelligence, she was still prone to fits of rage, where she would yell and hit, seemingly over small things. Even though I'd taught myself how to disengage from a power struggle, it seemed that, no matter what, most things still were.

That's when I reached out to the RIE experts. I consulted with Janet Lansbury herself three times. I consulted with Lisa Sunbury twice. And I consulted with Davina Muse, LMHC, of Simplicity Parenting, twice. Janet said that I might not be calm enough when I am disciplining, and that if I am angry, she can see right through that. When I told her that Violet was a very picky eater, Janet suggested that I make whatever dinner I want to make and calmly state that "this is dinner," and she can eat it or not. I did this for a very long time, and Violet just went to bed hungry every night. As far as the potty training went, the consensus was that I drop the whole subject altogether because I am creating a power struggle, and that she would "get it" when she was ready. Janet even went so far as to suggest that I offer diapers to show that I am on her side, and say that she can wear them as long as she wants, that I know that she will tell me when she is ready. Well, Violet chose to wear them until she was three-and-a-half, and she was perfectly comfortable in them and showed no signs of wanting to use the bathroom. The only reason she took them off at all is because she had to for school, and in order to do that I had to bribe her (reward her).

Davina (God bless Davina) told me that because Violet was separated from me during such critical times in her babyhood--four months and eighteen months (the two times she had surgery)--she has a deep psychological wound and desperately needs my attention to close the gap between us, more attention than other kids may need.

And that's not all. Partly because I wanted to, because it gave me the illusion of being a perfect mother, and partly because I felt guilty for my shortcomings (and I realize those two are probably related), I went out of my way in other areas too. To help make dinnertime less stressful for her, once I'd talked to a well-respected nutritionist, I had her pick out dishes from cookbooks, go grocery shopping with me, and help me prepare the meal. Needless to say, she never touched those meals. Then I started serving things family-style, and I put many of the things she liked in little bowls, along with some of the dinner that I prepared. Once again, the dinner I prepared was never touched. 

Per RIE, I tried to observe when she played so that I wasn't inserting myself, interrupting her, or showing her how to do something that she could discover on her own how to do. Of course, I also had to make sure I gave her enough one-on-one time every day, and during that time, I had to let her direct me. When we did art together, I had to encourage the process, not the finished product, and do as little as possible if she asked me to draw or color, so as not to make her feel like mine was better or that there was one right way. True to form, Violet wants me to do the voices for the toys myself when we play together, and she always, always wants me to show her how to draw something or mold something out of clay, and feels I am being unfair if I don't.

I made homemade banana bread every weekend so she could have it for breakfast. I put her bath towel in the dryer while she was in the bath so that she could be warmed up when she got out of the tub. I put her bathrobe on the back of her chair at night so that she could put it on in the morning because she often said she was cold when she first woke up. For her fourth birthday I hired a face painter, for her fifth birthday she had an ice-skating party, and for her sixth birthday she had a Pinkalicious party with homemade crowns, wands, and tutus. Of course, I made all the cakes myself, from scratch, save one.

I bought into all of this. Violet is everything to me, and if making these changes in myself and doggedly pursuing these paths as I have been for as long as I live are the keys to making her happy and self-confident and protecting her from the difficulties I endured in my childhood and adolescence, then so be it. There was no fee too high or resource I wouldn't avail myself of. Even if I was growing more and more frustrated. Even if I started to feel exhausted by the rigidity of this philosophy. Even if I was feeling like a failure. Even if I was starting to suspect that this philosophy put all the blame on the mother and never accounted for the fact that maybe it wasn't my fault--and that I had needs too. Maybe she was just not listening or was hitting or was running away from me because she could, and because she wanted to--and maybe it didn't go much deeper than that. 

A few days ago, Violet drew a picture of a rainbow with clouds and two little girls in pink. She showed me the picture proudly when she was done, and I, remembering my training, said, "How colorful. Very creative, Violet." Violet scrunched up her little brow and frowned. She looked back at me, and in a complete deadpan, she said, "Just say 'good job,' Mom. Just. Say. Good. Job. That's what I want to hear." I couldn't help but laugh. It was unexpected how effortlessly she saw right through me, and I was also laughing because it was a relief.

Then, just yesterday, we were driving home from school, and she pulls out this old cellphone of Ryan's that she's pilfered out of the cabinet, secretly charged, and brought with her to school, and she plays this song with the lyrics, If I roar like a lion, does it make me a lion? If I bark like a dog, does it make me a dog? If I hiss like a snake, does it make me a snake? No, no, no, no. I'm so much more than you can see. I have life inside of me that makes me move, feel, and love. I can act a certain way, and do all kinds of things, but in the end, I'm me. I'm me. I'm me.

And so finally--finally--I am ready to hear it. She is so much more than the challenging behavior. She is also my girl who likes to cuddle with me. She is also my girl who still likes to be held. She is also the adventurer who will leap fearlessly off of swings, climbing structures, and trees. She's the explorer who likes to go through the woods and collect pine cones and rocks for her treasure box. She is my lover of insects and all things creepy-crawly. She is the girl who asks the most no-nonsense questions. She is the one student in class who will do the creative project differently than anyone else. And she is the great big sister to three-year-old Harper, and I often catch her wrapping her arm lovingly around her sister, kissing her on the head, and saying, in what I can only imagine is something I say, "C'mon, honey. Let's go play."

Just like she said, "Just say good job," her singing that song to me is a clear message: I'm not perfect, but I'm me. And by extension, I'm not perfect either. She's got the loving home, two parents, doting grandparents, and an extended family who loves her, and all the toys and clothes she needs too. And that's gotta count for something--but it doesn't count for everything. I won't be able to protect her from all hurts, and I won't play a role in all of her negative experiences. But what I do know is that it's the acceptance--of myself and of her, imperfections and all--that matters most.