Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Vulnerable Rose

It’s been a tough week. Seven days ago I was so fragile that had someone touched my shoulder I swear I would have crumbled into dust. I’ll come back to that day in a few minutes.

On Monday my ears were hurting again. I began to worry. I was starting the second week of pressure around my ears. The feeling that they needed to pop, as though I was climbing in elevation, was unsettling. By Tuesday I knew it was time to see a doctor. I made it through the school day and figured out the timing of getting to a quick care facility so I could have my ears examined. I returned home with some ear drops and instructions to take a decongestant but was told this was something that would take time to clear up. Still, I was happy to have the reassurance that I was not in any danger of losing my hearing.

The next few days brought more discomfort and fatigue. I tried to take each day as it came, but my nerves were shot with work stress and anxiety. I found myself in bed by 6:30pm on Thursday and on Friday I patted myself on the back for staying up until 8:30pm. Awakened by the dog early Saturday morning, I pulled myself out of bed and made my way downstairs, calculating the number of hours I might still have for sleeping if she did her business outside and came straight back in to eat her breakfast.

But then I opened up my school email. In it were some missing journal entry assignments a student of mine had sent. I decided I’d read a few of his entries as I waited for the dog to come back inside. And that’s when I came across these words. In response to an article I had given my students to read, my student wrote: 

I can’t agree more with Laurie Okin when she says “..arrogance prevents vulnerability, and you can’t have good work with that.” Great things oftentimes come from when you’re feeling your most vulnerable. If you shield yourself off from things that make you uncomfortable or never step out of your comfort zone you won’t get as far in life as those who do. You have to have the confidence to let yourself be vulnerable. As I mentioned earlier in the year, one of the reasons I signed up for Drama II and auditioned for the play was because I wanted to step out of my comfort zone. I knew nothing about acting and wanted to test the waters. Even sticking your toe in requires a bit of confidence that it won’t be bitten off. But you’re letting yourself take that chance. Hell yeah I was nervous when I started. But the longer you’re in the more you feel like swimming. Now I love being involved in plays and am looking for another to audition for. If I hadn’t taken that chance by stepping out of my comfort zone I never would’ve known that being in a production could be so much fun.

I remember my Mom often saying the phrase, “Out of the mouth of babes”. This phrase came to mind as I read my student’s words. Here I am, experiencing an enormous degree of vulnerability this week--physically, mentally, and emotionally--and a young man I had led to taking my Drama class and to auditioning for the last production of the year, was offering me a poignant reminder. The student was teaching the teacher. Now let me return to what happened last Saturday.

I was on stage, rehearsing for an upcoming production with community theater. I am playing Rose, the overbearing stage mother in the musical, “Gypsy”. The show ends with a big blow out fight between Rose and her daughter Louise. Rose is finally put in her place during that fight and leaves Louise’s dressing room. She is seething as she reacts to her daughter’s words. “What did I do it for?” Rose asks herself. She is hurt at being pushed aside. She doesn’t want to let go of her Louise’s career. She fumes and begins a song, “Rose’s Turn”. It is a song full of raw emotion.

I began the song in the final few minutes of our three hour rehearsal. I knew there was much being expected of me in this number. I wanted to shine. But I was distracted by the sights and sounds of my own daughter and her classmates and teachers who were assembling in the lobby outside of the auditorium. They were scheduled to do some filming for a school project. The door was open and I was spewing Rose’s lines. I had one foot in the role of Rose and one foot planted firmly in the role of Anne, Emma’s mother. I kept singing. Then Emma’s teacher was there in the back of the auditorium. He’d never seen this side of me, the actress. I suddenly felt insecure. Emma’s classmates were peeking inside. I kept singing. But it felt like a bad performance rather than a rehearsal. I wasn’t ready for anyone to see me as Rose. I didn’t feel ready. I was distracted and suddenly I needed to stop. I was just a little ways from the end of the song. The director was confused as to why I had stopped. I saw the teacher go over to explain we needed to clear out of the space. My eyes began to water. I could barely speak. I tried to explain what I was feeling but I didn’t really understand it myself at the moment. I stammered out a few sentences, said I was okay. And I left. And I cried all the way home. Taking refuge in the recliner for the rest of the afternoon, I felt embarrassed.

Whether my head and heart were spinning out of control due to ear pain, exhaustion, fear or embarrassment last Saturday does not really matter. What matters is that I felt exposed, vulnerable. Rose is a role that challenges me unlike any other role I have ever had on stage. I knew this to be true when I accepted the role and the truth is, the challenge was, and is, exhilarating. Rose is a strong yet broken. She is hard and harsh yet damaged. She makes promises and has good intentions but she drives off the people who love her. She steals and yells and makes elaborate plans in search of stardom but thinks she is doing it out of love. She goes too far. She uses people. She is infuriating and selfish and desperate. Unlikeable, really. She just doesn’t seem to understand what she does to other people. Yet there is something in her desperation that has me rooting for her.

And now it is time for me to root for ME. I am now in need of finding that resolve I have inside of me that knows exactly what my student is talking about. My vulnerability as an actress will allow me to do great things. I know this to be true. I may have stumbled last Saturday but I can do this. I know I can. I have a lot of work ahead of me. Hell yeah I’m nervous. I’m doing much more than putting my toe in the water. I’m taking the plunge. The pressure is in more than my ears. But with more practice, and with my eye on where that life preserver is stationed for the next panic attack, I’ll be swimming in no time.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Mother, Faults and All

“Surrender not only to the physical pain of childbirth but the far deeper, unending heart pain of letting go, letting go, letting go –  from the womb, from the arms, from the front door...know that umbilical cords can be cut — but heart strings never can”.

I am the Mom of three on Earth with a fourth up in Heaven. I carried each of them inside me, doing what I hoped was enough to give them life. Knowing I was pregnant in April 1991, nine months before I first saw Sydney Rebecca’s face, I pause to think today how I’ve been a Mom for nearly half of my life.

When Sydney was born I began months of creeping to her side. Is she still breathing? Is she warm enough? Too warm? When she cried and cried, before I realized she was not getting enough from me and needed formula, I walked her under the kitchen pot lights for hours to soothe her. In her toddlerhood we played with laundry baskets and cool whip containers which made wonderful hats, and we cuddled and giggled as we read book after book. At night, I took my spot on the floor next to her crib. Sydney extended her hand through the bars to find me. For months, she drifted off to dreamland clutching my hand.

When I was expecting Emma I received false news that she was not healthy. Enduring tests, I waited by the phone for the diagnosis. When it came and they gave the “all clear”, I breathed for the first time in weeks. After her birth, I returned to months of making my way to the side of a crib. By then I knew which floorboard to avoid so as to make a silent entrance. At her changing table Emma would shake her arms, the first sign of bottled inner excitement and enthusiasm for life that would carry her through childhood and into her teens. There were also years of night terrors. But I learned how to endure the fright of those terrors and how to best bring her out of them. I read every article I could find. Why was she having them? Was she okay? Could I prevent them? She’d wake in the morning, completely unaware of them, and thankfully they stopped as she grew older.

Before I carried Paul, I lost a baby. Losing a child, even one that you never meet, forever changes a Mom’s heart. But I know that Joy is watching over us all and that I’ll meet her someday. And I thank her for the gift of my son. If it had not been for her sacrifice, I would not have had Paul who was born 13 months later.

When I carried Paul, I was in pain. I had never had any great discomfort carrying my other children. “Sometimes a woman’s body just starts wearing out”, my doctor said. I remember thinking this sounded foolish. I thought of my own Mom who had five children, and of her best friend Pauline who had seven. How could my body be wearing out so soon? But Paul was born, my body recovered, and I began raising my first little boy. He was a sweet baby, just as easy as his sisters had been, until he discovered he could screech. In his high chair he would make this hideous noise. Unable to talk, this was his way of communicating, but the twinkle in his eye after we each tried to tell him not to do that (as the windows were about to shatter), told us he was not about to make things easy for us. Paul has made his way through babyhood, childhood, and adolescence on a more independent path. Even as a toddler he showed us his stubbornness, his will power, his witty intelligence. But he has always been affectionate and loving; he is forever giving hugs, crawling over into our laps, long after the toddler years of requesting a “bubba-movie”, a movie and a bottle.

My three children are now aged 21, 17, and 13. I am so proud of the young people they have become. I am truly blessed. Two will be in college next fall. I wonder how my son will do alone with his old Mom and Dad for the next five years. Despite their successes and the good people they are, I always remain my own fiercest critic. As my children age, I can’t help but worry whether or not I have been doing right by them all these years. I think I have. I pray I have. Their childhoods went by so fast--how does one know for sure? Did I miss opportunities to do better?  I have such wonderful memories but will they be enough to sustain each of them? Now, as Paul moves into his teen years and as the girls move to the next stages of their life, I am again reflecting on my job as a mother. I make mistakes nearly everyday. I am too loud one day and too quiet and introspective the next. I am too busy one minute but then I hover too much. There are days I worry too much over a clean house, the safety of each child’s adventures, or whether or not they are brushing their teeth or keeping their contacts clean. I am letting them hog the tv or letting them retreat to their bedrooms for hours. Are they okay?  I am seeing too much of them and not enough of them all at the same time. I am giving them too much and not enough. I am too open and too honest. I am too emotional often. But do I cheer for them enough? Do I expect too much? I burden them unnecessarily at times, right? Was I too harsh yesterday? Am I being too lenient? Are we having enough fun? Am I taking enough time to listen? I think of the past week. I missed Paul’s lacrosse game to go to the spa. That was selfish, right? I snapped at Emma for not picking up a mess in the house that I myself had walked past for several days. That wasn’t fair to her. I did not send a finals week care package to Sydney. That wasn’t cool. Have I done anything well as a Mom recently? Has it been enough?

But I know that, down deep, I do my best, just as I have done every day since I first learned I was pregnant with my first born. I miss some ball games, I lose my patience every so often, and I am not the most consistent sender of care packages. But I am there for each of my children. And they know that.

God made me a worrier. He gave me a mouth which can articulately express my feelings but one that is sometimes harsh. He gave me strength, wisdom, and tenderness. He guided me through years of crying babies, projectile vomit, inaccurate diagnoses, screeching defiant toddlers, dentist and orthodontic bills, dirty bathrooms, carpools, endless fundraising, and teenagers who test the limits. And he blessed me with the opportunity to raise three beautiful, intelligent, affectionate, kind-hearted, motivated, self-directed, creative, talented, altruistic, hopeful, and loving children whose lives have enriched and sanctified my own. God knows we Moms all blow it at times. What matters is not that we are perfect Moms, but what we do after we screw up. We humble ourselves with an apology and a prayer, a resolve to do better, and we keep trying. God has to know, has to see that I never stop trying.

Sydney celebrated me today with a beautiful Facebook collage and caption. Emma met me at church with a bouquet of flowers. Paul cuddled with me on the couch early this morning then almost pushed me into a mud puddle as we walked across the church parking lot. Because that is how we are; this is how he truly shows his affection for me. Soon, I’m going to call my own Mom and wish her a Happy Mother’s Day. I hope she is having a good day and feels as surrounded by love as I do. Oh, how I have come to fully appreciate everything she was for me, everything she did. But first, I’m going to get on my knees and thank God for making me a mother, faults and all.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Into the Mud

A week or so ago, I took my husband and two of my children to a mud race. I had somehow hoodwinked them all a few months earlier into agreeing to do this messy obstacle course. I signed us up to be a team of four and paid the registration fee quickly before any of us changed our minds about participating. I was shaking my head as the race date approached. I was scared that I was not going to be fit enough to do the event. But despite the anxiety, I couldn’t wipe the smirk off my face every time I thought about it. I was genuinely excited about the idea of pushing myself out of my comfort zone, forcing myself to achieve what I knew, down deep, I could indeed achieve.

The four of us, donned in silly Avenger costumes no less (as was a requirement of all teams), arrived at the race, signed in, and waited for the announcement to call us to the starting line. With an enormous mass of people, we counted down, “TEN, NINE, EIGHT, SEVEN, SIX, FIVE, FOUR, THREE, TWO, ONE!” and began running. The kids patiently slowed their pace to accommodate Eric and I, and we all laughed as we burst through the first surprise, a cloud of paint. We were racing. We were running together as a family. Smiling at the chaos around us. Laughing. I felt my energy surge. A fleeting thought of, “I can’t run. I’m not in shape for this”, ran through my head but I squashed the thought when I realized I WAS running. My body was there for me. I had two children on either side of me and a whole mass of people running with me and I was keeping up. Sensitive to my husband’s pace, we slowed down and began walking at different intervals, but I could not help but feel victorious. We were only in the first 10 minutes of our journey.

We saw the dirt path in front of us. “Here’s where the mud will begin!” we heard others shouting. SPLASH! We hit the first muddy stream. We saw some charge through and we laughed as we saw mud splattering up on us for the first time. The mud pits continued to greet us, some of them requiring us to crawl on our knees or bellies to get through. Towering hay bales, water filled milk jugs to be carried up and down a muddy hill, giant saw horses, and Chinese jump ropes strung from tree to tree all met us to challenge our physical stamina. The four of us powered on.

At the finish line, people cheered. Hearing the applause and happy hollering was the warmest of hugs. We were not anywhere near the front of the pack, but we were certainly not in the last group of finishers either. We accepted bottles of water and made our way to the grounds where picnic lunches waited for us. As we sat in the sun, the mud dried on our arms and on our legs as we ate turkey sandwiches. I looked up to see the faces of each of my children and my husband. I realized, once again, I am the luckiest woman alive.

The past few years have been especially tough. There has been loss, intimidating obstacles, and it has been hard to find my footing at times.  I’ve fallen. I’ve gotten hurt. I’ve wanted to stop and pull myself off the course. But I kept going. I got up every time I fell. And I’ve grown stronger. Life isn’t always pretty. It gets messy out there. It gets muddy. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by how quickly life changes, with how much it hurts to let go of the past. Frustration sets in when it seems no one quite understands. But whether I’m in mud up to my chest or not, once I stop that inner critic which instigates the doubt, the fear, and the defeat before I even begin, I realize I can power through. Run the course. Set my own pace. Run with the young, the fit, and the brave. Run with others who struggle, for there are many. We all make it through the mud together. We have each other’s back and we are one another’s source of strength and determination.

I’m ready for another race. I see advertisements for charity 5Ks and I think of signing up. Maybe I will. But in all honesty, I’m not sure I need another race to get my heart pumping the way it was last week at the mud run. Time will tell. In the meantime, I am smiling. I felt free when I squashed the voice of doubt in the first 10 minutes of that race. I was strong as I successfully overcame each obstacle. I was powerful as I realized what my body was doing, how I had let go and trusted myself to do it, to succeed. That’s when I defeated the fear. I believed in myself and allowed the arms of the angels to embrace me, mud and all.