Mosaic Art Is Life


At least once a day I give myself a silent pep talk: “I am not stupid.” Sometimes it’s after one of my sons has asked me a question about the world I should be able to answer but can’t. Sometimes it’s when a friend mentions a bit of world news or drops the name of a musician in a way that suggests everyone but me already knows it. When that happens my mind spins, then blanks, then settles with resignation on the obvious: I’m so dumb. I can’t remember shit.

The nature versus nurture pondering no longer really interests me. I am who I am. For a dozen reasons or none at all, I grew to limit myself because I didn’t believe I was smart enough to say the right thing or make the right choice. I flat-out didn’t trust myself. I’ve done that team-building free fall exercise more than once over the years, and I never had a problem falling back into a web of others’ arms. For most of my life, though, I would have never relied on myself to catch me. Not without prior approval from at least three people, anyway. Couldn’t risk it.

During the years of our marriage, whenever I would complain about how busy my ex always was with his hobbies, the endless number of things he spent time and money and energy on, he would ask me, “Why don’t you have any interests?” Because I’m stupid, I would think, my mind searching desperately for an activity, a sport, even a single subject in history I might have an inclination to study or pursue. Nothing came to mind. I felt blank, dull, uninteresting.

Then many years ago, quite out of nowhere, I decided I wanted to try mosaic art. The idea of arranging different materials together to form something new appealed to me. It seemed to be the kind of art that didn’t involve having to be a skilled artist at all. It was something even I could do.

I started collecting old plates in varying colors and patterns, imagining the day I’d get to break them apart and reshape them however I wanted. I envisioned myself being surprisingly adept at it, a natural. I daydreamed of giving my art as gifts.

But I couldn’t bring myself to break any of the plates – half of which were already cracked or chipped. What if I did it wrong? What if I wasn’t as creative as I imagined I could be? What if nobody wanted my art? What if nobody even liked it?

To this day I’m not sure how I got the courage to trust myself that first time. I suppose it had something to do with the therapy I’d started yet again, and the gnawing, growing realization that trusting myself was the only thing left to do. My true voice, the one that had been a whisper for so long, muted by my inner “stupid” monologue, began to yell the unrelenting call of the desperate-to-be-heard. She cried for freedom, for the chance to stop playing the role she’d been playing, to yank the theater curtain down and allow herself to be the person she yearned to be, not the character she’d become, the role she’d been playing for years to the applause of the crowd and the dismay of her inner critic.

So I did what I felt I had to do: I smashed the beautiful, flawed plate that was my life, agonizing over its demise as it fell. I watched it crash to the ground by my own hands. Seeing it in pieces broke my heart. Many of the shards cut me; they made others bleed too. I sobbed with guilt and pain. I felt selfish and wrong, and in some ways I was. I patched the wounds and prayed for the scars to fade.

And then I started picking up the pieces, broken into new shapes, revealing previously unnoticed beauty and depth. Through my tears and despite my fears, I began fashioning my first work of mosaic art. Bit by bit I added other elements to my life that make sense to me, that make sense of me.

I fell backwards and I trusted that I would catch myself. Because I had to.

In order for this new way to work, I have to be deliberate and intentional, much more so than I’d ever been before. I have to draw inward each time I’m faced with a decision, whether it’s what to do on a weekend or whether to send a pitch to a new editor. It’s embarrassing, but the answers don’t come easy. I have to focus hard, to fight back the critic and actively choose what will move my life forward, what will make me feel good now and later. I have to force myself to be a grownup, not an insecure young girl. I have to strive to be authentic, not an actor reciting her lines, desperate for applause.

I was not used to doing this. I never used to pause and trust that the answer would come to me; I used to pause and wait for someone else to answer for me. It’s exhilarating but exhausting, and sometimes I still find myself waiting (hoping?) for someone else to decide my salary, my sanity, my Saturday night. I still fight the old way, the paralysis and self-doubt. “Stupid” is not a word I allow in my house, yet it has made a nest in my psyche and it does not want to leave. So when it pops up, I take a moment and define myself using other words. “I am not. I am this and this, and this.” Piece by piece, word by word, action by action, I shape and arrange, glue and grout, and hope it holds.

It must be, because every day I care a little less whether anybody approves of the work of art I am becoming.

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Mommy’s Little Helper

(Both childhood and parenthood can be so difficult and complicated; we live in the same rooms but see them from completely different eye levels. It took me decades to begin to see my mother’s suitcase not just as a means to escape, but perhaps, for her, as a visual reminder when she needed it most that she was making a choice … to stay. 
For at least a minute every day, try like hell to see the world from the perspectives of the people around you. Better yet, ask them. ~ RSP)

 

A little girl in a gingham dress and apron holds a smiling raccoon on the cover of the diary. The furry bandit is clutching a pink flower in its paw; a happy little bird is perched on its tail.

“Memories Are Forever” the journal declares.

There’s a lock on the front but the tiny key has been missing for decades. Scotch tape reinforces the battered binding, worn from years of opening and closing, scribbling and revisiting the shy girl’s secrets on its lined pages.

The first entry is dated Sunday, Feb. 13, 1983, the day she turned 10.

 

Dear Diary,

Today was my birthday and I ruined it! I had bloody noses so I ruined swimming with daddy. I love being with daddy, we both have birthdays on the same month. I didn’t get to have lazonia today either, but mommy promised she’d make it this week.

 

She scribbled notes to herself in that puffy pink book that made no sense, words of self-deprecation and loathing on what should have been the happiest of days. She grew into double digits while shrinking inside, always shrinking, apologizing for who she was and what her shortcomings were doing to those around her.

While the girl penned her innermost thoughts, the truth as she saw it, her mother packed her bag and placed it by the front door again. The faux leather case, its sides slightly caved in, was a near-perfect metaphor for her middle-aged, desperate inclination to be something she was not. “Maybe I’ll go away and find three good little girls and be their mother instead.”

The suitcase typically stayed for days, sometimes longer. The girl never dared touch it, to see how heavy it was or unzip the side and peek in. She hung her head in shame for the disappointment she was. She felt terrible for her mother, who had to suffer so unfairly for her ungrateful children.

 

Monday, Feb. 14, 1983

Dear Diary,

Today I wrote a letter to mom. It’s Valentine’s Day and I know she’s had a rough time. I wanted her to know how much I really love her. Because sometimes we forget to tell her that and she feels down. When I got home Nonny had sent me a card with $10. She always gives me money, I wonder why? Today I got to have lazonia. Happy Valentine’s Day!

 

When she packed her own suitcase for a trip, the little girl’s father showed her how to roll her clothes instead of fold them, how to fit more in and keep wrinkles down. She and her sisters were taught to be good packers, never bringing more than they needed. They always had to leave things behind they wished they could take with them.

“I could get so violent, and I hated myself afterward. I couldn’t control it,” her mother would tell her daughter years later about why she’d wanted to leave so many times. She spoke of being overwhelmed with mothering and angry at her husband, hating herself for the painful punishments dispensed again and again, the rage she had learned from her father, passed down like poison. They’d be better off without me, she’d thought.

She’d be better off without us, the girl thought, lying on her twin bed with the rainbow sheets. She never pondered what her mother needed to bring with her in that suitcase by the front door, only what she wanted to leave behind.

 

Tuesday, Feb. 15, 1983

Dear Diary,

Today I felt like screaming. I didn’t finish my Brownie things or cleaning my room. I didn’t work on my class diary and I didn’t get to bed on time. I never should have asked to stay up til 9:00 because I can’t get to bed by 8:30!!!!

 

Sometimes the suitcase was quietly put away, and a relief would settle over the household. Twice it left with her mother, just briefly, but for those hours the girl’s world spun out of control, the inevitable nightmare having come true. If only she’d been more helpful, more thankful, more loving, more in tune with what her mother needed. But it was too late. She’d failed again as a daughter, a person, a girl.

Without knowing it she’d packed her mother’s suitcase full of her guilt and her shortcomings, stuffed it with carefully rolled scraps of self-loathing and regret. Don’t wrinkle the regret, it’s all you have. The one chore her mother never asked for help with she’d completed unwittingly anyway. She’d packed her mother’s suitcase with all the reasons, spoken and implied, the matriarch must want to leave. Mommy’s little helper.

Three decades would go by before she’d finally get the nerve to ask the question she’d never even thought of as a child. What was in the suitcase, Mom? The answer, like a soothing balm and a sudden slap, made heat crawl up her neck and tightened her chest with something indistinguishable. Anger? Relief? Love? Pain?

“Pictures of you girls.”

 

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Bookmark

Dead ant.

I saw this ant,
this mangled, flattened speck of a thing
frozen on page 23
of Beautiful Souls
and suddenly
I was no longer thinking about Paul Grüninger
and the Jews he saved from certain death
in 1938.
I was thinking about the person
who read this book before me.

Who killed the ant?
A student on the HUB lawn, I bet.
Cramming for a test on Eyal Press’ evocative portraits,
simple acts of humanity
that appeared extraordinary
in desperate, confusing times,
But more concerned with evening her tan
and the boys playing catch nearby,
bare-chested,
their T-shirts draped at their skinny hips
by a corner tucked into their shorts
as they silently graded her.

Maybe a frazzled mom at Spring Creek Park
sitting on a blanket near the sand pit
where her kids were throwing dirt
and not sharing
as she tried to squeeze three minutes of leisurely reading
into an afternoon crammed with
Cheez-Its
and grapes
and bathroom runs
and tiny ants
wandering across her rumpled throne.

When I was a kid library books
had this magical pocket in the back
that held the names of all the people
who’d read the words before you.
I would study the names and the penmanship and the dates,
Wondering
who they were and what they thought.
Will I like this book as much as Steven Cross did?
Mira Schultz checked this out twice in two months.
A little heart dotted her “i” both times.
Who dribbled something on page 16?
Which one underlined “I shall always be with you”?
Are they with me now?
Will I be with the next one who reads this book?

The ant is with me.
I bought the ant and its final resting place
for 3 dollars at a used bookstore and café,
where it smells like knowing,
and wistfulness,
and coffee.
New books are special,
but the best books are used.
The best words are worn, broken in.
Edited. Enlightened. Entertaining. Endless.
Reread, shared, creased, stained, memorized.

When I write something
and send it out into the world
I reread it, sometimes fifty times,
every time from someone else’s point of view.
I scrunch my brain into someone else’s skull
And try to read my own words with their eyes.
I don’t know if it is an exercise in empathy
or a painstaking devolution into madness.
But it is important to me,
to hear my message hit different ears.
Because what I need to say
and what I want you to hear
are sometimes two different things.
But I can’t know that until I do both.

We cannot see fingerprints on words or poems
or books
but they exist.
These stories we read and borrow and dog-ear
and drop tears onto
and underline passages from
and buy and sell
and inadvertently crush ants with
are important,
But no more important than the recognition
and reverence
for the fact that we are sharing them
with other people.
Strangers we are now connected to,
in the way that we know
some of the same sentences
they’ve sounded out in their minds.
How extraordinary is that.
We know what stories they’ve taken in,
the character of Grüninger
they, too, have contemplated.
We share that now.
Us.
We, the people who have held this copy of
Beautiful Souls.

So thank you, ant.
You did not die in vain.

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An Hour After I Cast My Vote, I Wanted It Back

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An hour after I voted yesterday, I wanted a do-over – not to change the person I voted for, but to change the heart of the person voting.

It hit me a few minutes after speaking with a friend, who said she’d cried as she voted that morning. “I didn’t think I would, but I did,” she smiled. I’d become so blind that it took me several minutes to realize what she meant – that the history-making moment of seeing a female presidential candidate on the ballot for the very first time was worthy of spending a second a bit overcome in that little booth.

I had not taken such a moment, and that’s when I realized I’d voted with hate – not love – in mind. I’d hastily filled in the little oval for Hillary Clinton pretty much as a tiny black-inked “f*k you” to the hate-filled campaign of Donald Trump.

And yes I now see the irony. And, God help me, the way out.

I started noticing the signs more and more in my last few runs around town. Despite all the negative press, despite the incomprehensible bigotry, misogyny and fear that underscored their campaign, “TRUMP-PENCE” (Pence! The man who doesn’t believe in such basic things as climate change and evolution and equal rights for the LGBT community!) signs kept springing up in State College. I didn’t know what to make of that. They stole my already labored breath. They made me feel differently about certain streets. In my mind, they may as well have said “A racist probably lives here.”

On Monday I crested a hill I’ve run a thousand times and there it was, a “MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN” sign on the carefully raked lawn of the sweet old couple who’d saved me from heat exhaustion earlier that summer, offering me the shade of their carport and a cold bottle of water when I nearly collapsed toward the end of a sweltering 10-miler. My heart sank.

They seemed like such good people, I thought.

I was doing it without even realizing it. The seeds of hate, planted by good intentions like yearning for equality and justice for all, were sprouting inside me, coloring my judgment, allowing stereotypes to take over where once there were individuals.

“I just hate her, don’t you see, Robyn? She’s just AUGGH I can’t even think about her face without being disgusted!” a friend of mine raged recently, trying to explain to me why Trump would get her vote over Clinton. The hate creased my pal’s pretty face and made her nearly come off the cool grey sofa on which she sat. I stayed quiet, silently appalled and feeling sorry for the misguided, mangled heart of this woman I’d been regularly praying with in a Bible study for more than two years.

Trump’s face makes me feel that way, I thought, feeling more justified in my opinion than the woman sitting across from me, seething and in pain.

“Hillary’s a liar!” people said on social media over and over, ignoring all the times Trump lied – to contractors who worked for him, to students of his own university scam, to investors, to the IRS, to his first wife, to journalists, and to the entirety of America in every single debate.

Five statues of a naked, bloated Trump appeared in cities across America last summer. “The Emperor Has No Balls,” the project was called. People gawked and reveled in the mock-humiliation of the narcissist’s likeness bared for all to see. Many of the same people jumped down Trump’s throat for focusing on and judging women based on their looks over the course of his campaign (and his life). “Body positivity!” they chanted. “Fat shaming is disgusting!”

Hate is what brought us here. Hate on both sides. We picked a side we felt was filled with lies, immorality and terrible judgment and we dug in our heels against it. We ignored or made excuses for a candidate’s shortcomings or mistakes and pointed fingers instead. That one’s way worse, we accused.

I’m sure many people voted with love in mind. Hell, I even posted a video the day before the election, pledging to do just that. But many more, whether they recognized it in the moment or not, cast their votes yesterday based on hate.

Hate for big government.

Hate for small-minded leaders.

Hate for a broken system.

Hate for racism and discrimination.

Hate for lies and deceit.

Hate for immaturity and ineptitude.

Hate for immorality.

Hate for misogyny.

Hate for the idea of having a female president.

Hate for a pro-choice agenda.

Hate for a pro-life agenda.

Hate for Obamacare.

Hate for minorities.

Hate for the fear of gun control.

Hate for the fear of guns taking more innocent lives.

Hate for religions that are different than yours.

I admonish my kids when they use that word, and I’ve used it 24 times already in this post. Hate is a cancer and it must be eradicated. The good news is we already have the antidote. I think right now many of us are worried about how to deliver it to newly elected leaders who are, at best, in denial of even having such a disease. But there must be a way. It is up to all of us to follow our hearts, not our fears.

The first thing I will do is to take the signs down in my mind; I hope you will too. Force yourself to forget ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Train your mind to see individuals everywhere, not stereotypes. And if you read that sentence and thought ‘Yeah, I know a lot of people who need to do that,’ there’s a good chance you are still part of the problem.

I don’t know what kind of change will come from above in the next four years. But I do know that in my life, nothing will change if I don’t. I am the leader in my home and I can be a leader in my community, and I choose to lead with love. I have to, so that I can survive and my children can thrive. We are building their inheritance every day, all of us, the ones who I disagree with on fundamental issues and the ones who weep beside me today.

Last night I cried for our country, especially for the vulnerable and marginalized among us who now might be facing an even steeper uphill battle than they’ve always known. I turned off the TV early and crawled under my covers, trying to pray for God’s will and for our nation’s incoming leaders with a heart that was not clouded by grief and anger. My phone continued to buzz and light up throughout the night, friends and family as stunned by the news as I was grasping for a way to make sense of the darkest implications of this election swirling in their minds.

But as one of our nation’s best and brightest leaders knew, that’s not the way forward. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” said Martin Luther King, Jr., a man whose actions as a regular American citizen had more of a lasting influence than many of our country’s previously elected presidents. That, today, should inspire us even more than his actual words.

This is not me determined to put on rose-colored glasses. This is me with eyes swollen from crying, a heart heavy with anxiety, but a soul that thankfully keeps color-correcting my vision when I begin to process issues or people in black and white, and when the shades of the future I see in my mind become ominously dark.

Love is bright and bold and multi-colored. Our nation is likewise, and it will continue to be that way – more so every day, in fact. If we make it so.

Another famous MLK quote that I woke up thinking about this morning actually was paraphrased from another pastor, Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister who, in 1853, wrote:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

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The Day My Son Called Me ‘Just a Girl’

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“You’re just a girl,” I heard my 7-year-old sputter, and the world stopped spinning.

He was mad at me for punishing his brother, and in a defensive, little brother way, he was sticking up for his idol by trying to argue Kostyn’s case. When I shut him down Evan muttered “stupid” – a word they’re not supposed to use in this house – before his last-ditch effort to dismiss the punishment by dissing the parent.

“You’re just a girl.”

My first instinct was to drag him by the ear to my laptop in the other room, plop him down at my desk and pull up a video of a woman giving birth. Because I’m pretty sure nobody can witness the incredible feats of will and strength and selflessness that a woman calls upon to bring forth another human being into this world and ever use the word “just” again when describing her gender. But I thought that might be a little too graphic for his elementary school mind.

Still. Just a girl? Oh, my son. No. As soon as he said it and saw the crazed look in his mother’s eyes when I walked slowly into his bedroom and dared him to repeat what he’d said, he reneged. “I didn’t say anything,” he pleaded innocently, over and over, until I let him scamper off to find his brother.

I stood there in the hallway staring at my reflection in the mirror. You might think this is an overreaction to a second-grader’s off-handed comment, which I know was designed to make me mad, but I felt sick to my stomach. I considered the fact that he’d been watching me apply mascara at the exact moment he’d said what he’d said, and I somehow felt sheepish for this, as if I was perpetuating stereotypes of girls just wanting to be pretty.

They’re always watching me, my sons. I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m raising future men who will have opinions of women they might not consciously even recognize. But those opinions will someday color who they befriend and who they defend, who they work for and who they hire, who they date and who they hate and who they elect president. Those subconscious opinions will influence whether they see a woman as “assertive” or “bitchy,” as “a bad driver” or “a defensive driver,” as “empathetic” or “sappy.” And all of that, on some basic level, is being formed right here in this house. And in their dad’s house. And everywhere else, which is terrifying.

I began to wonder what subtle gender biases and expectations were seeping into their little psyches just by being in this world. Last weekend I’d helped Evan build a robot from a kit he’d gotten for Christmas, and as I twisted each wire and turned every tiny screw, I tried to ignore his occasional commentary: “Maybe we should have Daddy do this; he’s really good at building things.” Yes he is, exceptionally good. But I’ll be damned if they’re going to grow up in a world where they only see men wield tools.

So yeah, they’ve watched me put on makeup, and they’ve watched me curl my hair, and they’ve watched me try on three different pairs of shoes with the same outfit. They’ve also watched me mow the lawn, and kill giant spiders in their bedroom as they run screaming in the other direction.

They’ve watched me wash the dishes every night and fold the laundry and scrub the toilet. And they’ve watched me hang pictures and assemble shelving units (and half-swear a lot while doing that) and replace batteries and unclog drains and shovel the driveway. They’ve watched me choke back tears while re-reading blog posts I wrote about their baby and toddler days. They’ve watched me compliment strangers, bake cookies for neighbors and let drivers into my lane. And they’ve watched me climb to the top of the jungle gym, dribble a soccer ball, and dance with both of them in my arms.

They’ve watched me fail them, and apologize to them. And they’ve watched me cry, more times than I care to admit.

So what does “just a girl” mean to him? I wondered. Is it all going wrong, despite my efforts? Is it inevitable, this bias? This gender inequality? This ‘just’?

Rather than call them both up for a lecture on how I never want to hear anything like that from either of them, I decided I needed to know where Evan in particular is in terms of defining us – both of us. So I called him over to me, and told him he could earn back Kostyn’s stuffed animals if he helped me out with something first. Always wanting to be his brother’s hero, he said yes immediately. I pulled out a sheet of paper and wrote “Boys” and “Girls” at the top.

“I want you to write down what you think of when you think of these two things,” I explained, handing him the marker. “There’s no right or wrong answers, just anything that comes to your mind. This is not a test. It doesn’t matter what you write, you’ll still get your brother’s friends back.”

He smiled – he still is young enough to love “homework” – and immediately started writing. I walked away. When I returned, he looked up and smiled again.

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“I have so many things for girls but I can’t think of many for boys,” he said. I glanced at the paper. Under “Boys” he had written “Like to fight.” Under “Girls” he had written “Some like dolls. Most like pink and purple. Not like to fight.”

“OK, cool,” I said. “How about some describing words? Not necessarily what things boys or girls like, but what are they like?”

“Ohhh,” he said. We got out a second piece of paper and started again. I walked away again. When I came back, he had three things listed under “Boys:” Nice. Mean. Outdoors. This time the “Girls” column was empty.

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“I don’t really know what girls are like,” he said. “They’re all different.”

“Think about the girls in your class,” I said. “Or your aunts, or your cousins Cora and Ziva, Grammy, Nana, you know lots of girls.”

He still looked stuck, and I realized I liked that he was having a hard time, that maybe he wasn’t able to lump all girls into a few descriptive boxes. We are not all pink and purple.

I was going to let him go at that. But then I blurted out, “Why don’t you use me then. If one of your classmates asked you to describe your mom, what words would you use?”

This, I knew as I was saying it, was what I really wanted all along: The chance to see myself through his eyes. “Just” what am I to him? I wondered. Not so much “How am I doing as a parent?” as “What impression of half of this world’s population am I helping to make?”

It only took another minute and he was done.

“Nice.”

“Strong.”

“Thankful.”

I smiled. I thanked him. I filled his arms with his brother’s confiscated stuffed animals. Then I went back to the mirror to finish blow-drying my hair.

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