Your Song

I wonder what song will make my kids think of their mom after I’m gone.

Not even gone gone, just not in their daily lives anymore. When they’re grown and off to who knows where, what familiar yet distant strains of which random tune will come on in the grocery store and call me to mind, the way “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue” instantly conjures up my mother, her permed hair framing her smiling face singing to me in the wallpapered kitchen of my childhood home.

I’ll be fine when you’re gone
I’ll just cry all night long
Say it isn’t true and
Don’t it make my brown eyes blue

My mind is a twisted mess of lyrics and people, and if someone laid them out in two columns, songs on the left and faces on the right, I could draw lines connecting them faster than my third-grader connects continent names to their land shapes on his social studies worksheets.

The magical thing is that they’re mostly hidden; I don’t make the connection until I’m driving home after dropping off the kids at school and “Fade Into You” comes on the radio. Then suddenly within the song by Mazzy Star there’s Amy, with her golden locks and gorgeous smile, from a friendship that was once so intense and all-encompassing I’m pretty sure we were closer to each other for a time than we were to our spouses.

I want to hold the hand inside you
I want to take a breath that’s true
I look to you and I see nothing
I look to you to see the truth

“Fade Into You” plays and I remember Amy and I sharing sordid secrets, boozy late-night talks around countless bonfires, road trips and sailing excursions and football games and baseball games and theater performances. Amy holding my hand while I wait in the ER in the wee hours of Jan. 1 for an X-ray on my separated shoulder, a crazy end to an epic New Year’s party. Me holding Amy’s hand a couple years later as she lies in a hospital bed, her eyes watering through another contraction. “Just breathe … you’re doing great … he’s almost here …”

I get home and send Amy a message, telling her of the song I just heard on the radio and how it had her face in the notes, and later I wonder whether my face is in any notes for other people. I wonder if there are songs they remember me liking, or songs that played when we were together, or songs whose lyrics somehow match the time we shared.

For some I bet it’s a band. I can see my friend Shawn’s face in a mental collage of parties and bars over the years from our college friendship and well beyond, whenever the first notes of “Black Dog” or “Ramble On” or “Traveling Riverside Blues” hit the room and he scans the crowd and points at me. “ZEPPELIIIIIINNNN!” he yells in a way only Shawn can, dancing toward me, swinging me around, his Zep buddy for life. I hope these days when he’s driving to work listening to some classic rock Pandora station and Robert Plant’s high-pitched wail bleats through the speakers, my smile is there with it.

And if you promised you’d love so completely
And you said you would always be true
You swore that you never would leave me, baby
Whatever happened to you?

 


When I pick up the boys from school Evan hands me a piece of paper. On it he has scrawled two song titles: “Beat It” and “The Final Countdown.” I smile. “This is for the ride,” he says. Their music teacher is always introducing them to new songs, which are old songs, and so we queue them up on the way to and from school and they marvel in the backseat at how I already know the lyrics to songs they just learned.

We’re leaving together,
But still it’s farewell
And maybe we’ll come back
To earth, who can tell?
I guess there is no one to blame
We’re leaving ground (leaving ground)
Will things ever be the same agaaaain?

I beat on the steering wheel and belt out the chorus to a song I never liked but right now sort of love, because this time it’s different, this time it’s ours. And then it occurs to me how possible it is that someday this could be the song. “The Final Countdown” could be the thing that brings me to mind, dear god, and for a moment I freeze, no please not this song, not something as cheesy as Europe’s poor excuse for a Space Oddity.

But we don’t choose these things, do we. It’s completely up to the way a random moment gets wedged into our memories, the way our subconscious finds a connection to a string of notes or lyrics that just feel like someone we love. Or lost. Or miss.

There are so many people I have loved and so many I miss, in so many ways. They are in “Brown-Eyed Girl” and “Respect” and “Tangled Up In Blue” and “You’re My Best Friend” and “Take Five” and “Budapest” and “The Greatest Sum.” They’re in “Get It Together” and “My Backwards Walk” and “The Beauty of Gray” and “Two Princes” and “The Aspidistra Flies” and “The Search Is Over” and “Joy To You Baby” and so many more. They are embedded in The Wall and Soulrocker and New Jersey and Everything Now and Nebraska and in the soundtracks to Pulp Fiction and Singles.

They live inside the music of Sting and U2 and The Killers and Garth Brooks and Billy Joel and Uncle Tupelo and Muse and Edith Piaf and Bruce Springsteen and Kenny Rogers and Peter, Paul & Mary and on and on and on, and they will be in those singers’ hooks long past the day I’m not around anymore to hear them. Music is bigger and louder and stronger and longer than any of us, and it bears far more than we know how to hold and express on our own, thank god. All I can do is keep listening and, when someone’s face appears, smile at them, sing to them, send an intention of love and light in their direction and, whenever possible, reach out and tell them, like I did with Amy, that I see their face in the notes.

I bet that, too, is a nice thing to hear.

A few days after “The Final Countdown” car ride, Kostyn and Evan start up a dance party in the living room after dinner. They don’t go for Europe, much to my relief, instead opting for the not-much-better “Cotton-Eye Joe,” a ’90s remix of a folk classic. They pull me in and teach me the line dance they’ve learned to the song, and we tap, tap, tap our feet and spin to the left, spin to the right.

If it hadn’t been for Cotton-Eye Joe
I’d been married a long time ago
Where did you come from,
where did you go,
Where did you come from Cotton-Eye Joe?

It takes a few times for me to get it right, but that’s because part of me has pulled away and is standing off to the side of that makeshift dance floor marveling at how they’re choreographing the dance parties now, quite literally, instead of the other way around.

Our dance parties used to be carefully choreographed by me. Not the moves, but the timing, the setting, the props. I’d break open a bunch of glow sticks, get the kitchen and living room cleaned up, turn off all the lights. In the early months of separation, of two homes and split time, I was desperate to build traditions and make memories they’d remember as fun and happy. I wanted to give them the feeling of wholeness when we were all a little broken.

And man, it always worked. Jumping and spinning, they’d fly into my arms, first taking turns and then challenging me to hold them both, my arms and back and core straining to “Jump In the Line (Shake, Senora),” the dog repeatedly darting out of the way.

After we master the moves to “Cotton-Eye Joe” they choose “Beat It,” and then I pick another MJ classic, “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” Our moonwalks are sorely lacking but it doesn’t matter, we’re working up a sweat now as they queue up old dance party favorites like Maroon 5’s “Sugar“ and Eels’ “Hey Man (Now You’re Really Livin’).”

Have you ever sat down in the fresh-cut grass
And thought about the moment and when it will pass?
Hey man, now you’re really living

Now you’re really giving everything
And you’re really getting all you gave
Now you’re really living what
This life is all about

Eventually my attention is pulled back to the messy kitchen and dirty dishes, but they want to keep going. Kostyn is asking for a particular song but he doesn’t remember the words and I can’t place it based on his valiant attempt at speaking the beat. We try a few but he nixes them all, and my enthusiasm for the whole thing begins to sag.

“You used to play it when we were littler and we would dance. Before the last house we lived in.”

I search my memory for songs from their toddler days, before glow sticks and line dances. “’Thank God I’m a Country Boy’?”

“No, it’s a rock song. The guitar starts it like this – du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du…”

I squint at him, trying, searching, blank.

“That singer you love sings it too, with the band,” he says.

Singer I love? A rock song. Du-du-du-du-du–

“‘The ’59 Sound’!” I yell triumphantly. I dash to my laptop and search for it. The guitar starts – du-du-du-du-du-du-du-du – and then a drumroll spills in and the bona fide rock song crashes through the tiny speakers on my desk.

“Yes! This is it!” he exclaims. I used to play a video of The Gaslight Anthem playing this song live, and in the clip the band introduces Bruce Springsteen to come onstage and play it with them. That singer I love. We perfected our air guitars to that video many moons ago.

“You guys were so little then. That was in Palmyra, so you were about 2 and 4,” I marvel. “I can’t believe you remember that.”

But they do, and I notice their air guitars are still in tune. I smile then, realizing for the first time that maybe my face is in these notes.


Well, I wonder which song they’re gonna play when we go.
I hope it’s something quiet and minor and peaceful and slow.
When we float out into the ether, into the Everlasting Arms,
I hope we don’t hear Marley’s chains we forged in life.

‘Cause the chains I been hearing now for most of my life,
The chains I been hearing now for most of my life.

Did you hear the ’59 Sound coming through on grandmother’s radio?
Did you hear the rattling chains in the hospital walls?
Did you hear the old gospel choir when they came to carry you over?
Did you hear your favorite song one last time?

The Best Way to Lose Weight in the New Year

You can exercise
and watch your calories
and say no to dessert
and count your steps
and be diligent and vigilant
and self-castigate over cellulite
but
if you are like me
you continue to put on weight
year after year.
Because if you are like me
you are spending your life
dragging things behind you.

 

Holding onto old hurts.
Regrets.
Unfinished business.
The inner disappointment of untapped potential.
That time you drank too much and did that thing.
All the other times.
Insecurities, real and perceived.
Ideals you cannot reach but cannot relinquish.
The pain of not having been loved well by that one person.
The shame of knowing you let them treat you like that.
Anger.
Wistfulness.
Nostalgia.
Traditions.
Expectations.
The self-imposed prison of needing to be liked.
Religious rules and “truths” you were taught as a kid.
Contempt for the religious rules and “truths” you were taught as a kid.
Fear of death.
Fear of what will happen if you live the way you want to live.

 

If you are like me
you have so many small burdens
known only to you,
like invisible weighted plates tied together with nylon rope
that you drag dutifully behind you,
year after year,
the rope cutting into your skin
as you trample the ground you cover,
your heavy existence
leaving ruts and grooves in the land
where your footprints should be.

 

Next year,
if you are like me
you will try letting go of something.
Untie one knot
and keep walking,
glancing behind you to see
Anger
or
Fear of death
or
The false perception of not having been good enough
getting smaller as you go,
leaving it alone to rot into the earth,
still and useless and discarded.

 

That sight will embolden you and,
if you are like me,
you will try loosening your grip
on the whole damn rope.
Breathe,
and be brave enough to acknowledge
that the weights only exist if you want them to.
The burdens are perpetuated only by your fragile heart
And the mind that fights for you and against you.

 

If you are like me
you will keep inhaling
and exhaling
until you have the courage to live
without the weights
without the rope
without the destructive ruts created by your mind.
Maybe for just a minute at a time, at first.

 

And then you will realize the irony,
that dropping the rope
is harder than lugging it.
It is not a single freeing act but a repetitive exercise.
Drop the rope.
Drop the rope.
Drop the rope.
Over and over and through time and persistence
that exercise will help you lose more weight than you ever dreamed possible,
until finally you see only your footprints behind you,
unique and unspoiled.

 

Drop the rope.
Drop the rope
and step lightly, joyfully
into your
new
year.

Photo by Steve Shockley

The Hardest Thing Parents Do Is Compromise … With Time

Kostyn at 4, and at 10. Thanks, Time. Ya jerk.

The thing I do most often as a mother is compromise. And I’m not talking about all the compromises I make with my boys about sharing toys and breaking up fights and whose turn and which snack and we have to run this errand but we’ll get that for dinner, and I’m sorry this Friday you’re at Daddy’s but we’ll do movie night Sunday instead, and bedtime battles and who showers first and how many pieces of Halloween candy is the right amount.

All those compromises combined are nothing compared to the other ones, the harder ones I find myself making over and over, compromises between the demands and desires of two formidable opposing forces: My heart and Time.

And Time is a relentless opponent, a real bitch. She doesn’t match a parent’s heart stride for stride, she outruns it in a flash with no warning and no apology, just off to the races and you’re left there in a cloud of talcum powder holding an empty infant car seat with the soft bell thingy still dangling from the handle while you watch the baby who is now a toddler unbuckle the belt from his “big boy” seat and scamper out of the car practically on his own.

You’re amazed and thankful, and you love the growing independence and the “I do it!” You really do. And you mostly hated the cumbersome infant seat anyway, dammit. So you adjust. You choose to not think so much about the wide-eyed gummy smiles you used to be treated to when you opened the car door and unclipped that backwards-facing seat and he saw you again for the first time. Mama’s face! Here I am! The sun and the moon and the stars right there in one smile. Two.

You concede the intoxicating hit of Johnson & Johnson’s lavender baby lotion scent you used to get off the top of his downy-soft infant head because you have to, because there is no infant head anymore and there is no night-night lavender lotion routine. There is a dodgy, grabby 2-year-old now, full of discovery and testing limits. That’s what you get instead, that’s your compromise. And it’s great. It’s beyond great, it’s amazing, the way he spells out every sign you pass in the car. “S-T-O-P this spells stop!” his sweet voice sing-songs from the back seat, and you smile your sun-moon-stars mama smile at him in the rearview mirror, even though he is looking out the window at the world.

As a parent, you constantly give up something you loved more than you thought you would, something just weeks before you couldn’t imagine not having anymore, and you find the good in the new/bigger/older/different. You compromise, and you’re happy.

Then Time glances back at you with her sneering grin before sprinting ahead, and you both know another compromise is right around the corner, because it always is. Because that’s what you’ve come to understand about parenting. More than how to get them to brush their teeth or use the potty or mind their manners, you’ve learned most of all how to give up one beautiful thing after another that you will never get back, in favor of some other beautiful thing you will likely only have for awhile, too.

So you give up rocking him to sleep, feeling his milk-buzzed body sigh and go limp in your arms, but you get wondrous bedtime book conversations about how many animals could really fit inside a mitten.

You give up the efficiency of carrying him quickly into the store at your pace, but you get the milestone of him walking beside you instead, his whole tiny hand wrapped around just one of your fingers, his legs pumping fast to keep up.

You give up all the scrambling into your lap and snuggling he used to want to do, but you get all the impromptu puppet shows and block tower unveilings and “Mommy look at this!” feats of strength and creativity his busy little mind and body can manage.

You give up minding him and his brother in the bath, but you get a little time to yourself in the evenings while they help each other with showers.

You give up kissing him goodbye at school, but you get the swell of pride in watching him carefully hold his green froggy umbrella over the head of a classmate so she won’t get wet on their way inside.

The hand that used to be only big enough to hold one of your fingers grows to hold two, then three, then your whole hand, and then one day you realize you’ve somehow given up “Take my hand!” for “Look both ways!” And now you’re letting him look and wait and cross and be safe ahead of you, even though you’re right there, right there, your legs pumping fast to keep up.

It is wonderfully heartbreaking the way life keeps pushing forward.

Earlier this year my 10-year-old, Kostyn, stopped wanting goodnight kisses, then kisses in general. Hugs yes, kisses no. So I obliged, respecting his personal space and boundaries of affection. But he and his little brother knew I still kissed the tops of their heads late at night when I re-tuck them in one last time before I go to bed. I whisper “I love you” into their ears and pretend my words enter their dreams. It’s my thing, my compromise. And last week Kostyn asked me to give it up.

“Mommy please don’t kiss my head anymore, even when I’m asleep. That’s so germy. Gross!” he said, turning his face toward the wall and pulling the covers higher. As I contemplated the idea of just patting his head or simply leaning close to him from now on, something cracked inside me. It was one compromise too many, and my heart had had enough.

“No,” I said defiantly, like a child, not really to him but to Time, that bitch who was stealing my little boys from me every single day, replacing them with older, stronger, fascinating people I adore getting to know, but taking their little boy counterparts I already knew by heart.

Kostyn looked at me, his eyes angry.

“What does it matter to you?” I asked defensively. “You’re asleep! It’s just a tiny peck on the top of your hair, you don’t even feel it or stir in the least.”

“But it’s my head and I don’t want you to kiss it,” he said.

I was quiet for a moment, silently hoping he’d see the pain on my face and give in. He didn’t. “Fine,” I said, not sounding fine. “I won’t.”

I got up and left the room, then stopped in the hallway. I needed him to know that something could be fine with him and fine in general even if it didn’t feel fine to me. I took a deep breath and walked back in, sat down on his bed. He looked up from his book.

“It really is fine, OK? It’s just that this is hard for me sometimes,” I said, looking into his 10-year-old eyes and seeing his 4-year-old cheeks. I explained to him how I used to hold him and hug him and kiss him all the time when he was little and he loved it, how I used to know everything about him, almost like I was on the inside of him, because he was linked to me. He came from me. And now it’s different, and different can be even better, and what he wants now is perfectly OK, but it takes me a minute to adjust, to understand.

I told him I loved him and respected him and would always be right here if he wants a hug or a kiss or a question answered. Anything. I’m right here.

We hugged, and I left feeling better but a little broken, like I’d given up something without getting anything this time. This wasn’t a compromise. This was just one more thing I had to leave behind in the unrelenting parental march toward the future.

Then the next evening we were talking about our days, and I told them both I’d had some constructive criticism at work and was having a hard time with it, that my confidence was often easily shaken and I needed to regroup.

Kostyn, sitting on the couch with a book in his hand, looked at me with kind eyes and said, “Aww, Mommy, you can walk in the shadows, but don’t live there.”

His eyes got wide, possibly because he saw mine getting wide, and we smiled at each other. He blushed a little. “I don’t know why I just said that,” he stammered.

But I did. I knew it was Time, cutting me some slack with an easy point, a shot at the foul line for the elbow to the gut she’d given me the day before. She was helping to even things out a little bit. Just for now.

Thank you, I thought. There’s my compromise.*

So, I am giving up the easy affection of my oldest child from years gone by, and I miss it terribly, this precious thing I once thought would never end. But I am getting the wisdom of the ages in my own son’s voice, the unfolding of a beautiful mind right before my eyes. It is magical, and I will take it with awe and gratitude.

 

[*Plus, I still get to whisper “I love you” straight into his dreams. Please don’t tell Time. We parents need to stick together in this illogical race we desperately want to win but never want to finish.]

Why I Left Facebook – And What Life Is Like On the Other Side

(I wrote this essay months ago at the request of an editor who then realized a different department’s editor at the same magazine had assigned something similar to someone else. Sooo it was dropped, and has been sitting on my laptop ever since. I’m finally posting it here because words should not be wasted, and because I have a feeling many out there can relate.
One thing first though: Lest anyone think I’m taking a holier-than-thou approach when it comes to social media, rest assured that re-reading this today forced me to re-confront the hold my phone and social media still have over me. I may one day return to Facebook, for professional or personal reasons, but not until I can use it rather than it using me. Leaving it was a giant step in my chosen direction toward living more and scanning less, but it was not a cure. Twitter, you’re next on the chopping block.)

 

I left Facebook on Feb. 6, 2017. It was a tiny act of defiance against the trappings of modern society that felt at once empowering and self-sabotaging, a way of relieving anxiety while generating a different kind.

My only regret is not doing it sooner.

It was my father’s 75th birthday, and that morning I posted an old photo of the cake we’d given him when he turned 40. I wrote a sweet caption and watched as the “likes” and good wishes began rolling in.

That’s when the anxiety hit. I wasn’t nervous about people’s reactions to what I’d written; I was anxious about my use of the social network, angry at myself for spending time wondering who was reacting to my post, and annoyed at how pressed I felt to check for and respond to people’s comments.

I had turned off notifications and deleted the Facebook app from my phone long ago, yet I still compulsively pulled it up on my phone’s web browser many times a day, and seemed incapable of closing the Facebook tab on my laptop for more than short bursts. When it came to social media in general, but Facebook in particular, I increasingly felt like a lab rat. I was a classic example of what behavioral scientists call being enticed by a “variable reward schedule,” pulling the social media slot machine lever again and again waiting for the next “hit” in the form of a “like,” a share or an amusing or enlightening tidbit posted by someone else.

Whether or not my life was actually being enriched by such things is up for debate. But one thing was becoming clear: My Facebook usage was more than a habit. This phone glancing and finger flicking had become an almost involuntary tic, filling just about every crevice of my daily existence that wasn’t already spoken for (and, increasingly, time slots that were spoken for).

And I hated it.

Anxiety and Dependence

It wasn’t my fault, exactly. In a 2012 University of Chicago study, social media and email communication were shown to be more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. Assistant professor Wilhelm Hofmann, one of the lead researchers on the study, had a plausible explanation for their findings. “Desires for media may be comparatively harder to resist because of their high availability and also because it feels like it does not ‘cost much’ to engage in these activities, even though one wants to resist. … So, even though giving in to media desires is certainly less consequential, the frequent use may still ‘steal’ a lot of people’s time.”

Ohhh, yeah. Not only was my phone always readily available, but little nips of social media felt as harmless as popping a few M&Ms, momentary escapes into a virtual adult world of news, entertainment and wit to balance out hours of being immersed in the little kid shenanigans and grown-up stress of my real life.

But if I was honest with myself, many of those “momentary escapes” ended up lasting longer than I’d intended, leaving my real life swirling around me in the background as I passively scanned “breaking news” headlines and virtual updates on other people’s days. Not only that, but my general attention span had gone down the tubes; my book and magazine reading had taken a way-backseat; the voices in my head were increasingly unkind regarding my looks, accomplishments and life; and the country’s collective reaction on social media to our president’s first few weeks in office had spiked my anxiety level off the charts.

While some might think becoming anxious or depressed because of what’s shared on Facebook is an issue only for the most sensitive among us, Facebook’s own controversial study from 2012 gives my reaction some merit. For a week in January of that year, the Facebook news feeds of almost 700,000 users were secretly manipulated to show either all positive content or no positive content. Researchers found that those who were seeing only negativity created and shared more negative posts, and users who were treated only to positivity posted more positive content.

In short, what we see on social media affects our moods. And I was passively letting the increasingly unhinged body politic dictate mine.

Stepping Offline

Ironically, the only thing that gave me more anxiety than being on Facebook was the thought of not being on Facebook anymore. How could I walk away from the easiest means I had of knowing what my friends and family were up to? As a freelance writer, wouldn’t I be hampering my career by cutting myself off from the ability to share my work with the largest social network in the world? I would miss valuable tips and insider info posted in the private Facebook groups for writers on which I’d come to rely. And what about my kids’ classroom Facebook pages? I looked forward to seeing pictures and reading updates about what they were doing each day.

For a long time that Fear Of Missing Out kept me hanging in there, always pledging to check it less, to put down my phone for longer periods, and to refrain from posting more than a few times a week. But those promises were as empty as the ones I’m guessing smokers and alcoholics make to themselves, before they decide to do something drastic.

In the end, the fact that I grew anxious at the thought of leaving Facebook meant that I should – at least for a while. I didn’t like feeling dependent on something that in some sense wasn’t even real, and certainly wasn’t necessary. And for me, using a temporary blocking app like Moment or Offtime wasn’t enough. I needed a 24/7 detox.

I needed to go cold turkey.

So two hours after I posted my birthday tribute to Dad, I deleted it – along with every other trace that I’d ever been on the social network. Turns out everything becomes invisible when you deactivate your account. Until or unless I reactivate my Facebook profile, it is as if I never existed there.

Gaining Time

Once the deed was done I felt an almost palpable relief, and as the day wore on I noticed the calm increasing. My mind was no longer buzzing, burdened under the weight of the massive amount of information, images, headlines, ads, opinions and invites it was used to taking in. And I was dumbstruck by how many times I caught myself glancing at or reaching for my phone, ready to queue up my web browser and refresh my news feed.

On the flip side, I felt lonely. At least I thought I felt lonely. I had made no public announcement about my departure, and I wondered how long it would take for people to notice I was gone. Would they notice? In those first couple days, it felt like I was living on a deserted island.

But after a few days I came to realize I wasn’t feeling lonely, I was just experiencing being alone. Without the crutch of grabbing my phone to pull my thoughts away at every turn, I was left with time to sit and think about whatever I wanted or needed to think about. Like a tentative, relaxing exhale, I began filling those little crevices in my day with daydreaming, and reading, and exchanging text messages with friends, and sometimes nothing at all.

In short: I traded Facebook for staring at the wall.

And time! I gained so much time. That first day, in addition to my normal workload and parental duties, I finished reading a magazine I’d been trying to get through for weeks, caught up on a TV show, wrote an essay, organized the rest of my work week, lingered on a birthday call with Dad, texted with some friends and family and got eight and a half hours of sleep.

Eight and a half glorious hours.

No Mo’ FOMO

Nearly seven months later, when I think about reactivating my Facebook profile, I get tense. I kept my Instagram and Twitter accounts, both because I have no intention of becoming a hermit and because those sites never siphoned away my time or spiked my anxiety the way Facebook did. Yet the most startling thing about leaving the giant social network is the fact that after several years of being one of its more active participants, having been routinely complimented there on everything from my parenting to my professional endeavors, I feel much healthier without it.

I do miss the easy access to people I like – watching their kids grow, enjoying their humor and talents, and supporting them in times of need or stress. But I realize they, too, were only sharing carefully crafted bits of themselves, just like I was. To really know someone, you have to connect with them personally, and I’m trying to do that in more intentional ways.

No matter how many “hits” I scored pulling that virtual slot machine lever as part of the Facebook community, those feelings of social acceptance and camaraderie are no match for having more time to live my own life in the here and now, to fully appreciate what and who is in front of me. Because we can have as many lives online as we feel like crafting, but we only get one shot at the real thing.

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.