The Stories We Tell (or Don’t)

Friday was one of those days that gave me a reason to stop and take stock of my life. It was a gorgeous Fall day and thus, not a bad day to park aways out and enjoy a longer walk across the quad at Sacred Heart. That was a good thing, because, as usual, there was precious little parking available. My stroll took me past the administration building where, five years ago, I had so nervously filled out an application to be re-admitted after having failed out at 19. There hasn’t been a single day on campus in these last five years that I haven’t felt the specter of the anxiety and sense of failure that plagued me all those years ago. When I dropped out of school in 1992, it wasn’t something I talked about. If pressed, I’d say I didn’t really want to go college or that it was more practical to earn my bookkeeping certification from a business school and go to work full-time. That was my cover story and I hid behind that for the next three decades.

Friday was special to me. Not just because I was enjoying one of my dwindling days on campus. It wasn’t that it was Friday the 13th and a full moon or that Halloween decorations are showing up everywhere (and I live for Halloween). No. This day was special because I was so keenly aware of being at a tipping point in my life. 12 years earlier, I had walked out of Superior Court with my copy of a restraining order and the filing for divorce in my hands. I had finally decided that after 12 years of abuse, I was done. I’d had enough and I wanted to build a new life for myself and my sons. I had no idea – none whatsoever – what that life might look like, but it had to be better than where I was.

12 years in. 12 years out.

Friday was the tipping point and I felt it with every step I took. I can still remember every moment of that day 12 years ago. Walking out of the courthouse. Taking off my wedding ring. Picking up my kids. Turning off my cellphone and turning on the new one I’d secretly purchased. Every mile on road was one more mile of safe distance as we went into hiding until the marshals could serve the papers. The deep breath I took as we crossed the state line felt like the first deep breath I’d allowed myself in years. And now, walking across campus 12 years later, watching the sun play across the bell tower of the chapel, every step was one more step out of that long, long shadow of my past. Every step now is beyond it’s reach. I’ve been out now longer than I was in, free longer than I was caged. I know what it feels like to dream again, to look ahead to what life might be in a few years, to allow myself to plan for a future rather than simply survive the present.

For the first few years after leaving, I didn’t talk much about what happened behind the closed doors of my marriage. I was afraid to for many reasons. It took me a few years to find my voice. But once I did, I learned there is power in these stories. What had once seemed an impenetrable darkness, ready at any moment to take over my life again, became a shadow that shrank back from the light of the truth. The flame of truth that I once feared would burn me alive instead became the light that showed me my way forward.

So why is that I don’t have that same profound sense of freedom when it comes to being back in school? Why is it that I’m still competing with a ghost? Why is it that I will obsess over the difference between a 98.01 and a 98.87 when ultimately, it will count as a 4.0 either way? Because, even now, I don’t talk much about those stories. I crack jokes in my classes about having the dubious honor of having spent two semesters simultaneously on academic probation and the Dean’s List. It’s my go-to “fun fact” about myself. But I don’t talk about the emotional toll that failing so miserably had taken on me. I walked out of one of the best high schools in the state ranked 32 out of 182 and felt like a total failure because I was outside the top 20. I suffered panic attacks on the college campus, missed classes, and when I fell behind, I gave up entirely. But that hasn’t been a story I tell.

Until now. This past week, during a break out session in my social work course, one of my much younger classmates asked me a series of rather point blank questions about why I’d come back to school at my age (translation: OLD), why Sacred Heart, how did I fail out, and when I told her my GPA from 1992, she asked, “Like, did you just not even try?”

I hadn’t gone to school Wednesday night prepared to make a confession of my academic sins, nor was it really a part of our discussion for class and yet, somehow I found myself sitting in the hallway, with a dozen much younger students, telling my truths rather than recycling my worn-out old cover story. I told them I had been through a lot of grief and trauma between 14 and 19 and it had taken a massive emotional toll on me. I couldn’t handle it and I didn’t know how to find help, so I shut down instead. And lo and behold, that old darkness of failure started to fade into shadow, losing it’s power in the light of truth.

There is a great deal of power and light and grace in our stories, even the ones that feel so overwhelmingly dark and shameful. There is strength and courage to be found in speaking the truth, even in the tiniest, shakiest of tear-filled voices. I can’t help but be reminded of listening to the stories of alcoholics when I attended an AA meeting as a guest of my best friend. I told him over dinner afterwards that I’d seen more of real church in that church basement than I’d ever seen in any church on any given Sunday. And as I listened to the gospel story this morning of the shepherd leaving the 99 sheep to seek out the one who was lost, then returning with that formerly lost sheep on his shoulders, I couldn’t help but think that that lost sheep probably had one hell of a story to tell when she got back. I have to wonder: did she tell the other 99? I hope she did. I really, really hope she did.

 

Imperfect Lent

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Confession. Yeah, it’s been awhile since I’ve been. I know. I know. It’s Lent. And a Year of Mercy. I know that too. But… Hey, I have my reasons why I haven’t been in a couple years. They aren’t particularly good reasons, but they’re mine.

But I decided that maybe this year for Lent, I might actually try living the penance I’ve been given more than once and by several different confessors: to lighten up on myself, even just a little bit. That’s really not so easy for me to do but there have been days when I’ve managed to pull it off. I actually let myself skip a couple of minor homework assignments in spite of the ding it might put in my grade. Yeah – me – the perfectionist. Crazy right? There was so much going on and trying to juggle it all was making life too crazy. So I actually let an assignment go. More importantly, I let an assignment go and didn’t beat up on myself for it. That’s the hard part. To simply let it go. And I can’t say I’ve completely let it go and never looked back. I still know the grades in all three of my classes averaged out to two decimal places. But I also know that when one of those classes is a bit lower than it could have been, that I’m not going to freak out over it or drive myself batty trying to fix it. It’s just going to be what it is and I will be okay with that.

Part of the juggling act the last two weeks included my younger son, Eugene, needing to get glasses. He only needs them for distance but that will mean wearing them to school. He loves being able to see stuff across the room and he hates wearing glasses. During that ride home from the eye doctor, wearing his new glasses for the first time, his non-stop running commentary was something I won’t soon forget. A snippet of that conversation went something like this:

Eugene: But if I take these off, now I can’t see.

Me: You couldn’t see anyway. That’s why you got glasses.

Eugene: Ack!! I’m cursed!! I can’t not wear them!!

Painful grammar aside, I know what he means. Sometimes, the way we see things changes and to go back to seeing them the old way wouldn’t make a lick of sense. Kind of like me finally seeing that my whole world isn’t going to go to hell in a hand-basket because I allowed myself to be a normal, imperfect human being. That can’t be unseen. And I know that because I tried. Yes. Really. And I’m adding that to the list of things I will no beat up on myself for doing and let that be what it is.

So what about Confession?  Lent isn’t over yet. I’ll get there. I just need to let go of my not-particularly-good reasons. For Christmas, I bought myself an Anglican rosary. The story behind that will be another post for another time. But for Lent, the prayer that I have prayed most often on those beads is from Julian of Norwich. All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.

 

 

With Different Eyes

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After spending five quiet days on the Cape with no schedule, no agenda, no To Do List and being responsible for no one other than myself, coming back home to my two kids, my mom, my sister and my seriously neurotic old terrier was … well… a bit of an adjustment. I can’t say I dreaded coming home but I wasn’t sure I was completely ready either. I drove home on Monday, stopping only long enough to grab a quick lunch before picking up both kids from their respective schools and the dog from the kennel. Homework needed to be done, including a project for Andrew’s Confirmation which was a day late and needed to dropped off at the parish center Monday evening. With everyone having been sick, the refrigerator was empty so I ended up taking the boys out to dinner. Tuesday morning, it was back to work and I settled back into what passes for a normal life around here.

As Friday rolled around, I was glad I had decided to keep my usual day off. My day off included my usual everyday stuff. I got up at 5 to take the dog out and found she’d had a bad night, so I mopped the entire kitchen floor with bleach water, took the poor old dog out, carried her down the porch steps and then back up, fed her, went back to bed for about an hour, got up and got Andrew to school, fixed and ate my breakfast and sipped my tea while posting to several social media pages that I manage besides my own, woke Eugene up and drove him to school, all by 8:30. Then there was a double load of ‘dog laundry’ – the old quilts and towels that I use to line her crate – that needed to go to the laundromat, which was crowded for a weekday. And yet, I still managed to be done and at the beach by 10.

As I looked back over the five days I had spent on the Cape and then the five days that I had been home, I realized just how much I do, and for the most part do cheerfully, on any given day. Even my so-called ‘lazy’ days are full of the hundred little things that simply must get done. I realized how precious little credit I give myself for doing what I do. I have a very nasty habit of seeing the long list of things I don’t get done, especially on the days when the RA has flared and I simply can’t keep up my usual pace. I let my frustrations blind me.

When I was on retreat a number of years ago, I went to confession and the priest actually stopped me mid-confession, held up one finger and said, “Can I… just… add… one more to that…?”

I was so taken aback I wasn’t about to bicker with him. His addition? That I’m far too hard on myself. It was something I’ve been told repeatedly over the last decade but I never quite let it sink in. My pastor even went so far as to remind me that I am, in fact, simply human and asked me would I pretty please just ease up on myself maybe a fraction of an inch.

But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I couldn’t see what they saw. All I could see was what I didn’t do or what I hadn’t done right. That long list I keep in the back of my head of Bad Mom moments, short tempered rants, or important tasks that I blew off. I couldn’t see the exhaustion, raw physical, emotional and spiritual exhaustion that led to those moments.

This week has been different. I feel almost as if I’ve been watching someone else, as if somehow I’ve stepped out of my own skin. Somehow I’m seeing myself with different eyes, eyes that are far more kind than I have ever been.

There are things that haven’t gotten done this week. There are moments that didn’t go at all well this week. I quit keeping track. And you know what happened? Not a damn thing. The world kept right on spinning and life went on.