A Long Day’s Lesson
I’m going to tell you a secret.
This is such a big, important secret that by telling it to you, I will be revealing parts of myself I normally pretend don’t even exist. Even to myself, which says a whole lot, since I usually make a concentrated effort to self-analyze and over-analyze every single minute detail about … everything I do, think or say. It’s the kind of secret that you know is true, but it makes you sad so you work extra, extra hard to make it not true. It’s the kind of secret that you’re terrified of admitting because, if you voice it, life might get harder. Or fear might get bigger. But today was the kind of day that makes me want to cuddle with Lambie, my pillow, and hide in the bed and never get up again because, I mean, what’s the point? No matter how hard you try, no matter how many ways you fight it, no matter how good you are, something is going to go wrong every day.
I live each day by walking a tightrope. I come up with creative games and lessons and activities for the girls and I to do. We are never still; we go somewhere almost every day of the week. Holding memberships to multiple places in and around Nashville gives us lots of choices. We can go to the zoo. We can go to either of the two children’s science museums. There are about a dozen wonderful parks and playgrounds. We hold a membership to the Y. We hold memberships to Chattanooga’s best places including the Aquarium and the Creative Discovery Museum. In other words, we have no shortage of fun and wonderful things to do. I made it that way because making the most out of every, single day of my life is absolutely crucial to me. We don’t watch much TV. It’s not because I think the tube depletes their brain cells (although it likely does). It’s because I’m terrified of their biggest memory of childhood being of watching television. I don’t really care about, or aim to be, Supermom. I don’t need any awards or accolades for parenting. But I do need them to remember me. And the only way they would remember me in five, ten years if, God forbid, something should happen to me tomorrow, is if I spend time today playing with them today. So we go outside a lot. We have scavenger hunts. We play Lost, a game in which we get in the car and they take turns telling me which way to drive until we are truly lost. This game started because, one day, we were driving and I really did get lost. The girls knew I was lost and got scared. I didn’t want them to be afraid. I wanted them to realize that, even if you make a wrong turn, the trick to joy is seeing it as an adventure rather than a mistake. So, instead of getting frustrated that I was lost, I relaxed and lightened my tone. I told them to tell me which way they thought we should go. They were nervous, asked me if we would ever get home. I laughed and said, ‘of course.’ I would just stop when we were done and ask for directions (another lesson: no one can do it alone: asking for help is not a bad thing. Sometimes it gets you home). Eventually, they warmed to the game and it has since become a favorite. We take the easel outside and paint in the warm sunshine because, when my oldest was born, I made a very conscious decision that I wanted her to see the earth as a bright and beautiful thing because I never had: I’d been too worried about obeying all the spoken and unspoken rules to notice the exact shade of grass. My point is that, while I may seem playful and relaxed all day, I’m really not. I’m really on a mission. I’m trying to secure childhood memories for my daughters that I do not have. It’s a balancing act because it doesn’t matter if I’m tired. I don’t have time to be sad. I don’t have time to be stressed out. I don’t have time to get overwhelmed. I don’t have time to hide. I don’t have time to be mad. Any one of those negative things will burn an image in my girls’ heads that I don’t want them to have.
I want them to remember me happy.
But, every once in awhile, the world crashes in on me and makes me just too tired to be happy. That lost little girl inside me knows how to walk that tightrope though. She did it under far worse circumstances for many, many years. So I go, go, go until they go to sleep. And then I write. And in the meantime, I deny any negative feeling. If I’m busy, I don’t have time to think about it. If I’m writing, then it’s not really my pain, it’s my character’s. If I’m busy, nothing has time to hurt me.
Are you ready for my secret?
Going outside is an act of bravery.
As long as you stay confined between the four walls of your house, you can control what happens. If you limit the people with whom you interact to children, the likelihood of someone hurting you significantly fades. Going outside means interacting with other adults, even if it’s just the clerk at the grocery store. Today, we decided to make our own ice cream sundaes. We live very close to Publix so we decided to go there to get the stuff we’d need to make the sundaes. So off we go. I should also point out that we live in a safe neighborhood and, to my knowledge, nothing violent or unsavory has taken place at this Publix location. It’s a fairy new store: we were here a few years ago when it first opened. We go in, the girls push their baby dolls in the carts, we find the stuff we need and we check out. The girls are both in the car and I’m slamming the trunk shut when a man approaches me. He’s white, got a scraggly looking bear and he’s wearing a baseball cap. He’s not really muscular but enough to look strong. He’s got blue eyes. And, in his hand, he’s got a piece of paper.
“Hi,” he says. “I just wanted to see if maybe you could use a little extra cash?”
I am confused. I have no idea why he’s asking me that. True, I don’t dress like a real diva (it’s hard to play in fancy clothes), but I care enough to make sure I look fairly decent before leaving the house. True, I don’t drive a BMW but I do drive a decent SUV. I just put grocery bags in my car and although they only contain the ingredients to make sundaes, this man doesn’t know that. In other words, I’ve given him no indication that I might possibly be in need of cash. So I have no idea why he’s asking me that question. I shake my head, mumble, “No, thank you,” and head to get into the car. Then he gets a funny look on his face and says, “Well, that’s a shame. A girl like you could sure make a bundle having a little fun. Here, why don’t you take this? I’ve got a nice place not far, you could come have a look see. Anytime.” I’m still confused, although the words are beginning to make a weird knot form in my stomach. I take the paper. He winks and then turns to leave. I look down at the paper, and see a handwritten phone number and three dollar signs under it. My body turns cold, then very hot. I quickly get in the car and start it. The girls ask me to turn music on, and I do automatically, but I don’t hear any of the lyrics. I don’t hear them singing along or laughing n the background. Instead, I’m staring straight out the windshield without even seeing. A semi truck could have been about to crash headfirst into my car and I wouldn’t have noticed. I’m not crying. I’m just shell shocked. We make it home and somehow I manage to help the girls make sundaes. I don’t make one for me. Instead, while they eat, I sit on the couch and stare out at the world. It is not colorful, it is grey. The only thing piercing through is the fact that I was just propositioned. My heart hurt something awful. I spent the rest of the day waiting for night to fall so that I could finally crawl into the bed and hide. I didn’t intend to write this. I didn’t intend to write anything. I didn’t even intend to self-console by taking a bubble bath. I just wanted to lay down and hide for a really long time.
I don’t even know how to adequately explain all this.
Every since I can remember, I’ve sought to be good. I wanted to be good more than I wanted friends. I wanted to be good more than I wanted anything. I have never put a cigarette in my mouth. I have never tasted alcohol. I have only voluntarily had intercourse with one man, ever. I didn’t go to clubs. I made straight As. I volunteer as much as possible. If I wanted anything, I never did it without permission first. When I was in college, living at the dormitory, I couldn’t go across campus if it wasn’t during school hours without calling my mom to tell her what I was doing. Not because she told me to, but because I wanted to make sure it was accepted. People would ask me if I was alright and my standard reply has always been, “Oh, I’m fine, how about you?” If they pressed beyond that, I’d shake it off saying, “Really, I’m good. See, I’m smiling?” while giving my brightest smile. I want, so desperately, to be important to others. I want it so much that I’ve always been willing to ignore pain. I chose not to tell, in part, because I thought I’d be messing up my mother and sister’s lives. After all, he was her husband, her father and I knew telling would mean taking him out of their lives as well as mine. I’ve sought to please the people in my life, all my life. I don’t want praise. I don’t want to be given awards. I just want acceptance, I want to feel like I’m someone’s friend. People don’t want someone with baggage. They don’t want someone who’s always complaining or sad. So I don’t complain, and I go out of my way to avoid sadness in person. I write about it because if I don’t, it’s caged up inside of me and I’m smart enough to know that’s dangerous. I write about it so that I can process it by myself, so that I don’t have to ask for help. Even today, a very independent mother of two, I won’t make any big moves without permission. I’m afraid of disagreeing with others because I’m afraid of them seeing the real me, the one that isn’t good. I’m afraid of showing sadness because I’m afraid they’ll see I’m not really worth the effort. And I never, ever get mad. That would risk total alienation. Even showing simple frustration is difficult for me. I preface everything with an apology because I realize I’m more of an intrusion into others’ lives than anything. I want to be good.
The problem with this of course is that I’m not good. I can make that sound better than it is by saying no one really is good but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m not. No one knows this better than me. So I always come up short. I’m never good enough for friends. I’m never good enough for a lasting, meaningful relationship. I’m never good enough. But, for years now, I’m consoled myself by telling myself that I’ve risen above all the anguish and all the pain. While I’d be lying if I said I never, ever think about a bad memory, I’m not consumed by it anymore. I don’t wake up every night in tears from a nightmare. While it’s true that I still prefer sleeping with the bathroom light on rather than in complete darkness, I don’t lie there seeing The Little Girl as often. I comfort myself by saying that, while I’m not intrinsically good, I’m doing good things. I make an honest effort to help any and all who email me after speaking engagements. I speak in public because I want the pain to serve a purpose; I want it to reach someone and offer help. While I’m not intrinsically good, I do try hard. I give myself bonus points every time the girls laugh, or I trumpet around the floor like an elephant with them on my back. While I’m not intrinsically good, I truly, truly do mean well. I do care about people. And I do want to see the good in the world. Basically, I try hard. And sometimes, when I re-read the “fan email” or am able to surprise someone with a gift, I’m able to believe that maybe I can be worthy of friendship and companionship. Maybe I can overcome. Maybe I can become good after all.
That man today hurt me in more ways than he could have ever imagined because he chose me to come up to. There were other women in the parking lot. Prettier women. Younger women. I was really just an ordinary mom. What would make him choose someone like me? I can’t think of a good reason except that something about me told him that I was that kind of person, that I might casually accept dollar bills in exchange for my body. Something about me told him I was vulnerable. Something about me told him I was the one he should approach. The other women in the parking lot were too good. Too confident, maybe? So pretty they wouldn’t need to barter their affections? I don’t know but whatever they had, it was something I obviously don’t. His approach told me that, no matter how hard I’m trying, no matter how many good things I do, I am still unworthy. I am still not good.
I tell myself that people are good. I read the same headlines you do. I know about the school shootings, about terrorists, about mothers who kill their own children. I know about Sudan. I know that in one of the houses on my very street, some little girl is being hurt tonight and having her entire life forever altered. Despite all that, I choose to focus on the good that people do unto others. A couple of friends have asked me to go to lunch with them—they are willing to give up some of their time to talk to me. People buy my books—they think I’m a decent enough writer to spend hard earned money on. Others trust me enough to let their children sleep over at my house so that my girls can feel surrounded by friends. Leaders at my church trust me to teach children. The people around whom I am surrounded give me more than I deserve.
Tonight, tired and hurt, I posted the following on Facebook: “You know how some days just seem like they never, ever end? Longest. Day. Ever. :)” I didn’t say anything about what happened at the grocery store. Just that it was a long day. I hesitated to post that as opposed to what we had for supper or about how much I enjoy storytime. But I didn’t. I felt it bottled up inside, all those awful feelings of being different, and had to post something about the day. So I wrote that it had been a long one. And a friend I barely know wrote the most thoughtful reply. She told me it was okay to be myself. She told me I didn’t have to end everything with a smile. She said that having a bad day didn’t mean “they” (she meant my dad) won. She skipped the formalities of being polite and cut straight to the heart by telling the truth. And she touched my heart, she made me cry. And she reminded me that sometimes being good means being honest with your emotions. Honestly, I don’t really care about winning or overcoming the past. In a lot of ways, no matter how hard it is to hear, those who sexually hurt children do win. I mean, no matter how good we make our lives afterward, our hearts are scarred by memories we shouldn’t have. We see someone we should trust as dangerous. In my case, every time I see a picture of a loving father, or hear a song about a father/daughter relationship, I feel a distinct void in my heart. Sometimes I even break down in tears. I will never respond to intimacy the way I would have if I had not been introduced to it in the way that I was. So… in a lot of ways, he has won. But I don’t care. What I care about is making the rest of my life count, what I care about is making sure that the rest of my life is beautiful and colorful and full of all the things I didn’t get a chance to do as a child because I was living in fear. I don’t care about vengeance, I don’t care about blame or “justice.” But I was reminded of something tonight. I was reminded of it when that man hurt my heart by suggesting I might sell him my body like it’s not worth anything valuable. I was also reminded of it in a different way when a friend told me my feelings mattered. It struck me that I care. I may not be the prettiest. I may not be the most confident. I may be scarred. But no matter how grey it is outside, or how hard it rains on any particular day, I don’t give up hope of seeing the rainbow. I may be lost sometimes but I turn it into an adventure. I haven’t given up hope on people; I still believe they are good. My body may not be as enticing as another’s, but it’s mine. And I care about what happens to it.
Going outside is brave. You can come face to face with thoughtless people who could very well make the rest of your day miserable. You could die before getting home too. If you’re me, you shield yourself with a carefree smile before you walk out the door so that others will see a reason to stay. It’s almost 1 in the morning now. It’s been a very long day. It’s been an emotional day full of self-doubt and bad memories. It’s been an exhausting and draining day. But as I type these last few lines, what I’m thinking about is the Ritz crackers downstairs and how I’m going to go get some soon. Hanging on the wall above my desk are two pictures the girls drew for me. One of them is a picture of a bunch of monkeys hanging from trees and I’m in the middle. Alight drew it for me because I love monkeys. The other is a picture of a mermaid and two dolphins. Breathe drew it for me and said that I was the beautiful mermaid. And as I look at those drawings, a verse in the Bible about love comes to mind and peace settles like a warm blanket over my heart because no matter how exhausting the journey, no matter how scary the world, it is love that never fails.