I don’t know. It’s write everyday in November. It’s an excuse to try again.
And I need it.
I’m on my way home from Fairfax, Virginia where I’ve spent the weekend chaperoning my teenager and fifty more at a crew regatta. And I’m reminded at how impressionable young people are but also how already very much people who want to be understood.
Teenagers are cooler than I ever knew. I can say that because my teenager is no longer a jerk. (Hang in there, mamas, it does get better!)
So my plan was to start Nanoing tomorrow, but my friend Pam said even if I don’t do it well I have to at least do it right.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.”
I used to long for the day when I would find my Why, my Reason for existence, my Purpose. But I’ve given up that dream; I believe what I can do next is far more important than discerning the singular most important thing I could do over a lifetime.
I will agree with Mr. Twain, however, that it is something special indeed to experience the Click of everything falling exactly into place, of who you are and where you’ve been suddenly making sense. Those moments of perfect clarity when you see you have been traveling down exactly the right road in exactly the right manner and have finally arrived at exactly the right place and time - those are the moment we live for.
I had one of those moments this morning.
I was clutching my coffee mug and trying to figure out exactly what I was doing at an Advocacy Committee meeting at 8am. I mean, literally: what the heck is an advocacy committee? I’d come because a friend of mine was passionate about the project and had invited me, and I knew we shared similar values and an addiction to volunteerism, but I had no clue what I had agreed to.
Here’s what I learned:
There’s a difference between social action and advocacy.
Social action is taking care of the afflicted; advocacy is working to change the systems that afflict. Basically.
The rush I felt when that difference became clear to me is, I assume, similar to that adrenaline high runners are always talking about. I am so much better at strategizing than comforting!!
And this has always been a problem for me.
I care. My justice complex has been nurtured since birth. But I have a very limited capacity for nurturing, especially in the face of a seemingly endless problem.
I am the friend who will listen to you and feed you – and eventually suggest you fix it or quit whining.
I have often felt guilty about this. I’ve felt guilty about my inability to offer unconditional support in the face of self sabotage – especially when that’s exactly what pulled me out of my own tailspin years ago. I’ve felt guilty about wanting – needing – to do more than triage, about always leaping to the big picture in the face of personal suffering.
I want to know why. I want to know how. I want to figure out how to prevent a problem from happening again. This is where my heart and my enthusiasm lie, and also where my skillsets are.
Advocacy is about addressing systemic change. I freaking love systems! Seriously. I will spend three days developing the perfect system for managing the flow of laundry in my house, but loathe spending three minutes putting laundry away.
And not to sound too flippant, but the Internet has given me an impressive education in systemic everything. Thanks to my very smart friends talking about race and gender and all sorts of issues that mean so much to them, I’ve learned a ton about the importance of going beyond “be nice to each other” and ferreting out the institutional policies that harm where they were meant to help.
Another piece: since June I’ve been working for a neighborhood non-profit, and it’s been an eye-opening introduction into a whole world that doesn’t measure success with dollars earned. It’s been thrilling to work with people and organizations who are motivated by a goal that has nothing to do with a balance sheet. Of course, achieving those goals almost always require money – but it’s been fascinating, and extremely rewarding, to work in an environment where money is a means rather than an end.
That paradigm shift helped prepare me for sitting in a room talking about advocacy. It’s helped me learn to use metrics that aren’t dollars. It’s also taught me about other tools at one’s disposal: relationships, power, influence, education, awareness.
Yesterday was a hard day.
I was heartbroken at the news of another school shooting in Oregon, but I was mostly heartbroken at the reminder that being heartbroken on Facebook changes little. I sunk into my couch and let myself be crushed by the weight of my uselessness, my impotence in the face of very real problems that are not inevitable and yet remain unsolved.
Today I feel hopeful. I feel empowered.
Today I was shown how my specific set of skills can be used to address issues about which I am passionate, and I have reason to believe I can actually make a difference.
I am not good at nurturing and comforting. I am grateful for people like my mother who excel at offering support. But in this way, I think, I can play another role in making the world a little bit better.
I want this for everyone. I think we are all uniquely suited to excel in various areas, and so often we spend time feeling bad about the areas in which we are not enough that we miss the signs that point us to our perfectly us-shaped places. There is nothing better than finding the place where you currently fit.
I wanted to share this with you in case you are still looking. Maybe you’re a nurturer trying to strategize, or an advocate trying to triage. Please don’t give up – on yourself or the issues you care about. I promise there is a you-shaped place out there. Keep looking.
I felt like I’d been punched in the gut. I was shocked. I was mad. I was so, so sad.
The message I received instinctively was that, as a woman, my health was unimportant. I don’t matter.
It sounds stupid; it sounds grandiose. I’ve never even been to a Planned Parenthood, but all of my birth control, gynecological, and then obstetric care between the ages of 16 and 25 was received at a community women’s health clinic. I went there because they offered a sliding fee scale for services; I stayed because they took very good care of me (and my two babies) and I trusted them.
I haven’t since found a medical facility where I’ve felt as comfortable or secure.That’s the reality of women’s healthcare in this country.
The members of Congress know that; it’s their job to know that.
So they didn’t vote to defund abortions.
They voted to defund things like:
contraception (to PREVENT unwanted pregnancy)
STD/STI screenings, testing, and treatment
sex education (to PREVENT STDs and unwanted pregnancies)
For women. Especially for poor women.
Because the federal government is “funding” Planned Parenthood in large part through healthcare programs for the poor.
I can’t wrap my head around that. I don’t understand the callousness required to look at a woman, especially a poor woman, and say “good luck staying alive and healthy on your own! Not our problem!”
It saddens me to think of raising a daughter in a country where her wellbeing is so unimportant, where “keep your knees together” is the best sexual education she should expect, unless her parents are fortunate enough to have the means to provide better for her.
Thank God we do. Thank God I can afford to take her to the doctor and talk to her and her brother about safe sex and physical health.
But what if I couldn’t? What if some day I can’t? What if some day she can’t and she is too ashamed or proud to come to me?
The society I’m raising her in doesn’t care enough about her to make sure she has a medical safety net in place if I can’t be there.
That breaks my heart, and it makes me angry.
Fortunately, it is doubtful that the Senate will vote to freeze funding, and President Obama has promised to veto any such bill if it makes it to his desk. But that’s little consolation.
A big chunk of my government, a government that represents my society, has decided to spend time and money making a point: my health and the health of my daughter is not a priority.
I’m sad there isn’t more outrage over this symbolic gesture. I’m sad there is, in fact, a ton of support for this gesture – which is the only reason it was made in the first place; politicians have no problem using my body as a pawn in their job-hunting games.
How can we still be having this fight when there are so many other fights in which we are needed?
Maybe that’s the real goal. Maybe we’re being goaded into protecting our own basic rights so that we are too busy to defend others who are even more marginalized. Or maybe they think no one will stand up for poor women anyway, because their poverty trumps their womanhood on the list of failings.
If so, they underestimate how much fight I and others like me are capable of.
We can fight gender discrimination and racial discrimination and economic injustice. We can, because we have always had to fight on multiple fronts; we have been trained for this since puberty.
Three months ago I would have classified myself as an extrovert without hesitation. I love people and parties, and I thrive on the energy of a crowd. Cities have always been my favorite.
Is that the face of an introvert?
But one of the surprises from my family’s epic RV trip was discovering that nature is also my favorite. I love trees and rocks that beg to be climbed over, and the sound of running water soothes me in a way no urban pulse can.
Still, I unequivocally identified as an extrovert. I just happen to also appreciate nature, which makes sense because we’re all natural in a sense – right?
I equated my cave-diving days with my depression. I only need to be alone when I was in a bad way, and my retreats into solitude were a symptom of desperate coping rather than a healthy desire of mine.
Then, my family went on a week-long vacation with another family of four. The eight of us shared a two-bedroom condo overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, and we spent a good portion of our days playing on the beach or in the pool. Except for the day I went to get a pedicure by myself.
We were about midway through the week when I decided that I could no longer tolerate chipped toes in the sand, and I set off to find a salon while everyone else slathered on sunscreen. As good luck would have it, I stumbled across a place that offered a complimentary glass of wine with fresh polish, and I spent a solid hour being silently massaged and pampered from the knee down. On my way to my car afterwards, I noticed a Dollar Tree in the same strip mall and decided to pop my head in for a minute. And oh the joy that is everything for a dollar! I won’t tell you how long I spent in there or how many deliciously under-priced household products I threw in my cart, but I’ll admit a very good time was had.
Eventually, a phone call from my husband summoned me back to the condo so that afternoon and dinner plans could be made. I was happy to return.
Exceptionally happy, in fact.
At least, that’s what my friends reported.
“What the heck did you do while you were out?” they asked. “You’re completely re-energized!”
Jokes were made about the powers of a pedicure and $30 shopping spree, but I realized all at once what had truly happened.
I’d been revived by being alone.
And it was at once a simple and profound understanding. I hadn’t been depressed or particularly anxious when I’d gone; I’d bee fine, relatively good even. But there was no denying that I was made exceedingly better after spending just a couple of hours without the company of anyone who knew or needed me.
At some point the topic of introverts and extroverts came up in our seaside condo. “I’ve always considered myself an extrovert,” I shared, “but there are times when it feels really good to be alone.”
“You’re probably an ambivert,” my son popped up.
“An ambivert,” he repeated.
“Did you just make that up? What’s an ambivert?”
“It’s just like it sounds – someone that’s both intro- and extroverted. And no, I didn’t make it up.”
Google confirmed he had not, and for a moment I was excited at the possibility of having a brand new label to stick to myself. Upon further reading and consideration, however, it occurs to me that maybe what the discoveries of “ambiverts” really reveals is the foolishness of the introvert and extrovert classification in the first place. If over half of the populations is estimated to be ambivert, doesn’t that suggest that this new classification is just a fancy way of saying “most of us are not all or none of any one thing?”
So, yes, at 35 years old I’ve made the rudimentary discovery that I like to be alone. And as is the case with most of my realizations by myself, I am at once fascinated to be learning the subject of me better and embarrassed at not having known all along. But I will not let embarrassment stop me from intentionally using my new-found knowledge: I know now that I can actually stave off depression and feel more consistently fulfilled if I make solitude as much a priority as socialization.
Once again, the lesson is exactly the same as it has always been: balance, balance, balance.
Anyone who has spent more than five minutes with me would not be surprised to know that I was dying to see Inside Out, a movie proclaiming to be all about feelings and “the voices in your head”.
I love feelings! I have lots of voices in my head!
Then the Facebook reviews started coming in and I could barely contain my excitement. The practically unanimous report was “this movie will make you cry all the tears!” My daughter, who went like a traitor to see it with her Nana, assured me that I would cry “at least twice”.
Crying at movies is my favorite pastime!
And so it was, armed with these expectations and hopefulness, that I went to a matinee showing of Inside Out.
And I did not shed even a single tear.
Not a one.
I laughed. I smiled. I “awww-”ed. I furrowed my brow a bit in sympathy. I even reached over once to squeeze the hand of my 15-year-old son.
But I most definitely did not cry.
I felt cheated. Duped! And wholly confused about what was supposed to have triggered the tears.
“What did you think?” I asked Devin as we walked home.
“I liked it; it was good.” Six whole words constitutes a rave review from a teenage boy.
“Yeah, it was OK,” I said.
“Yeah, I thought it was going to make me cry!” I said, revealing my disappointment.
“People probably thought you’d cry about the growing up parts. You know, the imaginary friend thing.” I nodded.
Maybe that was it, and with a kid just steps away from becoming a full-fledged adult maybe I was just having a hard time summoning tears because an eleven year old was no longer making up songs in the yard.
When I got home I took to Facebook to try and figure out what was wrong with me, or what I’d missed at the very least.
A friend of mine commented that she sobbed. SOBBED. And she didn’t even have kids! In other words: my theory that “it’s so sad because it reminds us kids grow up” wasn’t holding water.
I asked my friend to elaborate, and she did, sharing with me some very personal stories from her childhood that I wouldn’t dream of sharing on a public blog post. But the gist of it was this:
The idea that it was OK to be sad and your parents would be there loving you anyway hit a little too far from home.
It had never occurred to me that moment – the moment when Riley finally lets herself cry and her parents hug her – was anything radical.
We cried a lot in my house. We also screamed and yelled and said things that couldn’t be taken back. And I’ve always assumed that was another example of what was wrong with how I grew up.
But amidst all the yelling and the tears, there was never once a suggestion that there was something wrong with us for feeling less than happy. More than that, there was never a fear that my unhappiness would jeopardize my relationship with my mom. Quite the opposite, in fact.
The tears and the yelling were, in many ways, the cement that bonded us together.
“Don’t you dare walk out of this room,” my mother was famous for saying. “You are going to sit here and we will fight. We will cry and yell and it might get ugly. But you will not walk away, and at the end of this we will both still be here loving each other.”
I’ve sinced learned that it can actually improve communication to let someone walk away for a bit; so no, maybe my mom didn’t get it 100% right. But she did get something so right that I didn’t even realize there was another option.
She never expected perfection. She didn’t worship at the alter of the good mood and a smiling face. We were always, always allowed to fall apart. I never really appreciated what a gift that was until I didn’t cry at Inside Out.
It’s funny how that works: the Important Things we work so hard to make stick seem to fall through the cracks while the afterthoughts stick forever in the flypaper of our memories. Last spring I was in the Pittsburgh cast of Listen To Your Mother, a show in which writers read pieces they’ve written about motherhood, and I read a story about this exact phenomenon. The things that stick, the things that fade, the snapshots our kids may or may not be taking.
The videos from the show were just released. Here’s mine:
I owe my mom a lot of gratitude. I’m still learning all the reasons why.