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
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.
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.
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.
if you are like me
you will try letting go of something.
Untie one knot
and keep walking,
glancing behind you to see
Fear of death
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.
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
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
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.]
(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.
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
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
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?
I saw this ant,
this mangled, flattened speck of a thing
frozen on page 23
of Beautiful Souls
I was no longer thinking about Paul Grüninger
and the Jews he saved from certain death
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,
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
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,
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,
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
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
But no more important than the recognition
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.
We, the people who have held this copy of Beautiful Souls.
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.