Keep An Open Heart

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We took a selfie one day, giggling in the snow. The snowflakes stayed in tact when they landed in her soft curls while my hair looked every bit wet dog. It’s an image, a moment, I can’t find in my phone, but forever burned in my brain.

We’d ski, drink spiked hot chocolate and share crazy stories. There were so many trips, date nights and dinners in pajamas with glasses of wine. Our friendship was one of ease and in the past few weeks I have seen her everywhere. In the profile of a woman at a conference in Salt Lake. In dark curls bouncing through a crowd. The freckles in someone else’s Instagram post. I randomly found myself in the same restaurant we were in during a blizzard in Utah. I ordered her favorite salad without even realizing that’s what it was until it was placed in front of me.

What are you trying to tell me, Briar?

I hold enormous guilt. You see, we had a falling out before she died. I was there for her the day she was diagnosed with brain cancer and I was there for a long while. When she first fell into a coma her husband and I walked behind the bed the surgeons were wheeling her away in as we clutched each other and cried the big tears that you don’t wipe away. Then I went through a divorce and stories were twisted and I saw how the pain of my breakup was hurting her. After I shared my tearful side of the story I heard her sob after she thought I’d hung up the phone. I felt selfish. She was undergoing hardcore chemo and radiation therapies and I was talking about my problems. I decided not to talk to her about it anymore.

She tried to get us back together. She begged. She asked me to keep an open heart, to listen to her, to accept a marriage intervention of sorts. I stopped talking to her altogether because I was in pain. I was hurting and I was hurting her and it was easier to hide inside myself. So I did. She sent me emails, texts. I explained that it was hard to see her because I knew she was spending time with my ex and that we used to be couple friends. That I just needed some time to get over everything.

I didn’t have time.

She didn’t have time.

My ex husband called me almost two years ago, “Jeanette, Briar is dying and you are going to regret it if you don’t see her.”

The doctor had determined it was the end. She had maybe a week and I immediately left the office and went straight over to her house. I felt her in my chest as soon as I entered the room. It almost knocked me over. Her pastor and several friends were sitting with her while I wished them away. I finally realized they were there for her and whatever was about to transpire. They knew our rift was the last thing she had to resolve so were firmly planted, no excuses.

I took a deep breath to steel myself, “I have to say this….” The room got incredibly quiet, “Briar, I was never mad at you.”

She immediately started crying, “I know.”

“I was hurting and I was so broken and I didn’t want to talk to you about it. I was losing my family and never once was I ever mad at you. Never once. I need you to know that.”

Now, in hindsight, I realize I probably could’ve included another sentence or three, “I knew I was losing you as well. I was too weak to handle all of that loss at the same time. I’m a jerk.”

We both sat there crying, softly sobbing and nodding. No more words needed to be said and before long her pastor asked if he could say a prayer.

Briar lost consciousness soon after my visit and passed away several days later.

Sometime before that day and between the emails, texts and tears, I shared the biggest gift she ever gave me and I know it filled her heart. She brought me back to faith. I’d forgotten the God of my childhood and I found some semblance of him; different, more amenable and forgiving, in the prayers that came after Briar’s first seizure. I thanked her for helping me find the courage to give something bigger than me a chance again.

At her funeral her mother and I locked eyes and moved directly into each others arms, crying. I apologized through sobs and she shushed me, “She loved you so much. That was her unfinished business. You helped her let go. Thank you.”

I felt guilty for my tears, guilty that I was mourning someone I’d abandoned. I didn’t feel deserving of my grief or time with Briar before she passed. I ran from the loss rather than facing it head on. I also didn’t know that I was still carrying all of this with me until this past week.

When I saw flickers of my friend in the life of others.

I’d like to believe she was sending me a message. That she’s ok. That she’s at peace. That WE are at peace and all is forgiven. I don’t think she’d say it exactly that way. I’m pretty sure it would be like, “I’ve seen your tears. Cut that shit out. We’re good. Have you seen my wings? They’re ridiculous.”

She’d probably have a beer in hand.

Say the things you need to say to the people you love. Say them before you can’t. Forgive like its your job. Love them when they’re in front of you. Love them hard.

And, in the words of my friend, “Keep an open heart.”

Miss you Briar.

xo

Love Yourself Some You

loving-yourself-revolutionMy inside-and-out beautiful friends at Kaia Fit asked me to guest blog for Valentine’s Day and I jumped up and down and said, “Yes, pick me!” It felt fitting as LORE turns two today! I’ve reposted my article for them below and I am so excited to spend a week with them in Belize in March to dig into the love letters process. Well, in between all the diving, hiking, yoga and such, I need a vacation.

Happy Valentine’s Day, lovers!

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, love is on the mind. I’d like to use this occasion to remind you of the most important love affair of all and that is the one with yourself.

I first began collecting and publishing love letters from women to their younger selves over a year ago. Successful women took off their shine to virally mentor those women who are still in the struggle. What I didn’t expect (nor did they) was the deep, cathartic work the writers would undertake. As I began to interview them about the process, it became clear I was on to something pretty amazing. Since that time I’ve been gifted stunning letters by incredible women. Donna Brazile, the former Chair of the Democratic National Committee, shared that she felt it was important to reflect, pause, and give yourself credit for what you’ve accomplished. Emily Nolan, a plus-sized model and author, expressed the deep love she found for herself after years of severe body dysmorphia. Many themes bubbled up around forgiveness, boundaries within relationships and learning to ask for what you want in your life. Every woman shared how important the work had been, but one message stood out among the rest and on the heels of Valentine’s Day, consider it our gift:

You have to love yourself. First. Foremost. Always.

Easier to read than practice, granted. I’m not talking self care. Self care is now almost medically approved. Many studies have been done to show the direct correlation between self care in all its iterations and life happiness, longevity and the avoidance of disease. I argue that one of the most loving things you can do for yourself is to dig in, do the work, learn who you are under all the layers you’ve put on and start to love yourself some you. Release all the stories you’ve been told and in that blissful, painful work you will begin to see the you your children and lover see. I’m here to get you started.

The instructions are easy. Imagine a younger version of yourself. Is she 5? Is she 8? Is she a teenager? When you see her, really see her, trust your gut. What do you want her to know? When I began this exercise I was completely blown away by my first sentence. I had an overwhelming desire to tell this dejected little girl I imagined that she was so loved, so worthy. The first sentence hit me like a ton of bricks,

“You will spend most of your life believing you are unlovable.”

I had to take a deep breath and sit back for a moment, shocked at how true that sentence was and how it had colored so much of my life and relationships. It is ok to take a moment as you write. Just don’t leave it because the feelings are too heavy. There is no growth without pain, my love. If you have to wait until the kids are in bed and you have your glass of wine and a box of Kleenex you do it. Give yourself the gift of time to feel your feelings. If that means you write one sentence and have to process it for several days before you get back to it, you are still on the path. I have found most women need time, because the unlocking of these truths have a bit of a whiplash effect. They bring up memories and misgivings that no child should believe about themselves. With all that said, if you begin unlocking repressed memories or find yourself reeling or having dark thoughts from what you begin to feel, please seek the counsel of a professional therapist.

As women have complete these exercises I have found that the ages they choose are typically aligned with the moment right before or during a tragic or painful event or memory. One writer, Chelli Wolford, a survivor of sexual violence, wrote to the four year old that was being molested by her uncle, “It’s not your fault.” It took her until she was forty to realize she’d carried so much of the responsibility for the behaviors of others on her shoulders and what a relief to finally put them down.

You will also notice that your tone changes. The harshness which you likely view yourself today, get it together, sister, falls away and is replaced with, it’s not your fault or you are perfect the way you are, love. You will find that you begin to guide your younger self with the tone of an older sister. One writer suggested that if we could be as gentle with ourselves today how much healthier we would be.

Once you imagine that younger version of yourself and start with your first sentence of the letter, begin to scan over the distance between that version of yourself and who you are today. How did that first message you’d share with your younger self play out over the course of your life and do you want to carry it with you?

Some questions to ask yourself:

What is one thing I’ve always known about myself? My greatest strength?

What is one thing I’ve always known about myself that was negative? How was it originally triggered? Was it reinforced by my family? Is it true?

What is the best thing that has ever happened to me?

What was your most humbling experience and what was the lesson?

What was I missing as a child?

Who or what do I need to forgive? Is that person me?

The act of writing the letter and referring back to it helps excavate old programming, memories and feelings that you’d like to release and offers you a chance to start fresh at a new point in your growth.

If, after you’ve written your letter, you realize you have something you’d like to share with other women or girls to further help our gender, I have the platform to do that and would love to publish your letters for others to read. If you would like to keep it personal, then thank you for having faith and trust in yourself to do the work and I hope you will share your experience with me.

I will be teaching a workshop at the Kaia Retreat in Belize in March and so look forward to meeting you lovely Kaia women in person!

Happy writing!

Love,

Me

An accomplished author and public speaker, Jeanette founded LORE Advocacy, a network of professional women who aspire to change the world through a gender lens. Jeanette also founded “LORE and Little Things” in 2015. It is a platform for women to discuss issues relevant to professional women and mothers. Her articles and “Love Letters to Myself,” a viral mentorship program, have been seen on Huffington Post.

During the day Jeanette is a Senior Vice President and Institutional Client Advisor within the financial services industry. She serves on the boards of Spread the Word Nevada, the President’s Advisory Council for The Smith Center for the Performing Arts and a large charitable foundation. She is a member of the Hall of Fame of the Women’s Chamber of Commerce of Nevada and a 2016 Vegas, Inc. Woman to Watch.

Connect with Jeanette at http://www.loreandlittlethings.com, on Twitter @msjwrites or Instagram @msjwrites and @loreandlittle. Letters can be sent to jeanetteschneider@gmail.com.

“Love, Me” featuring Emily Nolan

The Love Letters project began a year ago with Jessica Moore’s letter to her younger self. I found that as I got to know the writers I was privy to insights and gems readers were not. I had questions about their struggles and how they overcame, which they very openly shared. I wanted to make the experience more dimensional for everyone involved and began filming interviews over the summer.

We had fits and starts as we worked through storylines and production, but the result is gorgeous. I am so excited to debut the very first “Love, Me” webisode featuring model and author, Emily Nolan. We sat down in Phoenix in August to discuss her love letter (see below) and I was taken by Emily’s willingness to be vulnerable and her deep faith in something Divine. She was a few weeks out from a breast explant and spoke so openly about her lifetime struggle with body dysmorphia and what she hopes to share with every woman and girl.

**Please see submission guidelines if you are interested in sharing your love letter**

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Emily Nolan –

Dear Emily,

You are eighteen years younger than I am and you’re already so incredibly smart, strong and beautiful inside and out. You are the greatest gift God’s ever given the world and you are perfect just the way you are. You were born to be a brave leader. And, most importantly, you’re a fierce lover. You lead with love so divinely well; it’s a special gift you’ll always had unlimited access to. Use love as much as possible.

Dear warrior, use your bravery to listen in to who you are throughout the years. There will be challenging moments that make your heart break, sadly, and you’ll need to be there to love yourself fiercely. You’ll need your friends and family, too, to lean on for help, because you can’t do everything, always. Sometimes you’ll need help. Everyone does.

Those moments of listening to yourself feel like “listening to your gut,” and choosing not to believe in a bully or someone else’s unremarkable opinion of who they think you should be or what you should look like. Later in life, you’ll know those brave moments to be God’s grace. Which is also your own divine grace.

You’re a child of God, Emily. Your parents’ divorce and the bullying at school, and other moments to come that might make you feel icky and sad inside, they do not decide your worthiness. God does. You do. And because you get to decide what a miracle you are, continue to be brave enough to listen in and honor your own inner voice that says, “I’m awesome!” This way, no one will be able to rent valuable space in that precious little noggin of yours. You are a holy vessel. Be brave enough to always believe that. It’s not arrogant to think your God’s greatest gift, its love. And remember, love is what you’re best at.

You’re strength is in being bravely unique. You’ll feel that looking like everyone else is boring and has very little divine purpose. Like, what in the world are we accomplishing here by trying to look pretty? Aren’t there bigger fish to fry? Like who’s on second base and how we’re going to get the third out?

Your fierce bravery will be a rising tide that lifts all boats. Most of your girlfriends are waiting for you to make the move, to feel good enough, just the way that you are, and to allow them the same feeling by being brave enough to own it. They’ll thank you for your courage and permission to be beautiful, just the way they are. And they will support you immensely in the years to come. That bravery you own will make you feel full and good and happy. You’ll say things like, “I’ve never felt closer to God. I’ve never felt closer to myself.” Little me, you were born to be pretty brave.

Being an athlete has taught you that your body is a tool to be used for movement that’s fun and life-giving. Your body is not meant to look a certain way, it’s meant to work! To be useful! Being an athlete makes you a leader; leadership and teamwork will be as important to you as going to school and learning. All of the leadership training you’re getting now, by wearing heavy catcher’s gear every weekend, shouting directions across the field to your teammates, committing to team goals, attending every practice, calling the signals and telling your teammates what to do when the ball comes to them, conflict management with girl drama, all of these skills will be absolutely necessary in your life.

One day, you’re going to have enough courage and leadership skills to believe in yourself. You’ll believe that you can teach women and men and girls and boys that they’re great enough, just the way they are. You will share your love with them in so many kind and gentle and generous ways.

I also want you to know that you’re brave enough now, to ask Mom for help, whenever you need it. Bullies, diets, body image, questions about your body, questions about boys and friendships, ask Mom; she wants to see you win, not suffer in silence. She wants to elevate your bravery, lift you up! That’s her medicine, let her support you. Never feel ashamed to ask her questions. Talking to Mom is always going to help you and you’ll feel so good you did it. Your thirty-year-old self promises.

You are a remarkable young woman, Emily. I love your pigtail braids, dirt smeared across your chin from your catcher’s mask, and your fierce bravery, going onto the softball field shouting out positive affirmations to your teammates. You’re going to use all of these lessons in the next eighteen years as tools to inspire and motivate others to keep moving forward on their own journey until they find the light, which is essentially the love, for everything and everyone, including themselves.

You’re a complete magic trick—how could your precious, pure spirit be so perfectly tucked into that beautiful, capable Earth Suit of yours? I just love you so much. You are a miracle. How could you not be, Emily? You’re a child of God. And you are perfect, just the way you are.

I love you forever,

Emily

Emily Nolan is the author of My Kind of Life.com. She’s also a model and the founder of TOPLESS yoga. #TOPLESSbyemily is a bras on, bellies out self-confidence event used as a tool for self-love. This event is about exposing vulnerabilities by practicing radical self-acceptance.

Emily’s effort to share what is real and authentic in media was the catalyst for the #HealthyBellySelfie social media project contributing to the global conversation around body image.

Emily publicly speaks about her journey through 10 years of disordered eating, plastic surgery, body dysmorphic disorder and shame. She believes that honesty in conversation can spark individual transformation. 

Emily is on Instagram and Twitter @iamemilynolan and Snapchat / Periscope @MyKindofLife_Em

Dear Lil’ TK by Tania Katan

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Tania Katan doesn’t take the stage. She becomes the stage. She also becomes the inspiration for those who have the privilege of watching her shine as they sit breathless wondering, what’s next? Few have such a gift.

I met Tania at Girls For Progress 2016, a conference for girls. It was created by the very talented 12 year old entrepreneur and philanthropist, Aleena Valdez. Aleena asked both Tania and I to speak and what came next was pure magic. Tania very quickly achieved rock star status for the 12-17 year old girls that lined up for an autograph and a selfie with the lady wearing a cape that gives them hope. She is the brains/soul behind the #itwasneveradress campaign. I now see signs of her influence wherever I go. I recently spoke at Kaia Fit’s Annual Konference, which was hosted at South Lake Tahoe High School, and stopped short on my way to the girl’s rest room. Even without the official #itwasneveradress swag, girls across the country are inspired by this amazing woman.

I asked her to write a love letter and send in a photo of her younger self. Of course she sent me a shot of her as SuperGirl at age 4.

We call this foreshadowing in the writer world.

 

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Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the very unreal Tania Katan – 

 

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Dear Lil’ TK,

You come from a long line of outsiders; people who didn’t, and would never, fit in. Suckiest DNA ever! Especially because, right now, the ONLY thing you want to do is fit in. I know. You want parents who pack snacks for you, who have ordinary jobs, who eat dinner at a certain time, who own a freaking dining room table! You want to live in a home, with married parents, not a shitty little apartment with one parent and the other parent on the lam. You want a mother who isn’t a French citizen, doesn’t make you look up words in the dictionary because she doesn’t know English. You want a father who went to school and knows the nuances of his native language, English. You want some other 8 year-old to learn phrases like “ends meet” and “Section 8 housing.” You want a mother who doesn’t throw parties with belly dancers and stinky French cheeses and artists and joy. You want a father who doesn’t have “BIG IDEAS” that compel him to bet on horses and get-rich-quick schemes. You want friends. You want normal. You want consistency and you want it NOW!

Well, I gotta tell you, Lil’ TK, it’s BECAUSE of your outsider birthright, not in spite of it, that you will do—and be—some amazing things!

All the times you eat lunch by yourself and wish you had friends so instead you write skits, plays, jokes, and funny operas in your notebook; all the ways you rewrite poverty, how you use humor to reframe a crappy-and-routinely-magical childhood. These practices will create a foundation for you to leap from.

Eventually, you’ll realize that the same parents who embarrassed you by being themselves are delightfully idiosyncratic, which in turn, inspires you to be delightfully yourself. You’ll realize that your single-mom worked two jobs and took care of three unruly kids (you, included), and yet somehow managed to take you to every arts festival, event, and space under the sun! And even though she had trouble making ends meet, Mom always found a little cash (usually stashed in her bra) to buy art supplies. Mom will show us that commerce can be a creative pursuit with the Barter System. To this day she still pays the guy who fixes broken stuff around her house with homemade quiche!

Dad also found creative ways to provide for us, namely, gambling. Once, Dad found himself down to his last 100 bucks. Instead of getting a job, Dad gambled his life savings on a craps table in Laughlin (couldn’t even afford the real Vegas). Within 20 minutes of rolling the dice, Dad turned his misfortune into a $500 jackpot. One could say that Dad was the outsider pioneer of the “work smarter, not harder” movement. Or one could not. It’s a fine line.

Our parents inadvertently taught us how to be creative, value creativity, gamble and have fun! Which are pretty much the hallmarks of arts, innovation, and everything else worth doing/being in this world!

You will go to university and study Theatre. You will meet other outsiders in Theatre, the freaks and geeks who compete in Speech and Debate, write plays and stand upstage left—which is really to the audiences’ right (still confusing). You will finally feel like you fit in, just in time to jump into the workforce. Don’t panic! You will have many jobs, most of which won’t make any sense to you or your employers; that’s ok, it’s part of what makes you awesome later in life.

You will spend years selling crap, bagging groceries, serving pizzas, slinging coffee. You will wonder how you can be creative while working in non-creative fields. You will write plays and stories and even books that will be performed and read and published all while working day-jobs.

In your thirties you will realize that when you hate your job, it’s because you’re not doing your work. You will start doing your work, the work of a creative, even in places that aren’t designated CREATIVE. This shift in consciousness will lead you to your calling, your vocation, which is sneaking creativity into all the nooks and crannies of work and life, even when people and places say KEEP OUT or NO SOLICITING or NO TRESPASSING, you will go inside with all of your outsider skills. You will call this Creative Trespassing.

So, hang in there little tiger, keep writing, observing, and performing because you’re gonna win awards for your writing, travel across oceans to perform, and help create a campaign that millions of people around the world will embrace as an emblem that celebrates outsiders everywhere!

Love,

Me

Tania Katan is an award-winning author, keynote speaker and creative trespasser who believes in storytelling at all costs! Katan has performed her stories at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, NPR, Comedy Central Stage +. Her work has been written about in the New York Times, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed +. She has been a featured speaker at Business of Software, S.H.E. Summit, TEDx +. As Brand Evangelist for B2B SaaS company, Axosoft, she cut her teeth on Agile + Scrum methods. She holds a degree in Theatre, is a graduate of Creative Capital’s Professional Development Program and is certified as an Anti-Bias & Diversity Trainer. As a Speaking Coach, she works with best-selling authors, TED speakers and CEOs empowering them with the tools and techniques to engage and inspire audiences. Katan is a whiz in disruptive marketing strategies, audience engagement and radically activating spaces online and off.

You can find Tania at www.taniakatan.com or on Twitter @theunrealtaniakatan.

 

“We Will Lead You” by John Duran

I love you mommy

 

I am at a loss for words.

I cried as I tried to watch the coverage on Sunday. Yesterday I couldn’t make it through Anderson Cooper’s coverage of the shootings in Orlando, giving faces and names to the people murdered in a place of acceptance. As a mother the image above haunts me. To imagine a grown man reaching out to his mother to tell her he loves her, knowing so resolutely he will die, is unfathomable.

A friend text me last night, sharing that he was concerned this event was giving rise to more ignorance and hate. I sat in a brief moment of solace as I text him back, “The largest US hate crime was against the LGBT community. Things are going to change.”

I thought of my friends who have fought to marry one another and how proud I was as I stood as a witness of their love. I thought of the HRC events I’ve attended and the LGBT community that doesn’t consider me an outsider because I am a straight white woman. I have no other label than ally and I look like the allies next to me. We have no color or gender, no religion, no affiliations. We are thanked graciously because we simply love our friends and demand they be allowed to love one another. Our children sit side by side in classrooms. We are raising them together to see love is love.

I was blessed to receive another text a few hours ago, “A friend of mine sent this to me a couple hours ago. I thought you might be interested to read it….”

What followed gave me goosebumps and crystallized everything I have felt in my heart about the LGBT community that I now look to because I have seen their resilience. This email was sent from John Duran, West Hollywood City Councilmember, to our mutual friend. He has given me permission to post it in its entirety.

I don’t have the words.

He does.

My dear friends, please read this letter from West Hollywood City Councilmember John Duran – 

John Duran

My heart hurts. I have been going back and forth all day between wanting to cry. Wanting to scream. Questioning everything. It’s been a very painful 48 hours for our people.

My phone rang initially at 4:30 in the morning the morning of gay pride with a concerned phone call from the Sheriff’s Department about what had occurred in Orlando and the possibility of a copy cat crime in West Hollywood. 4 hours later another call that the Santa Monica Police Department had in fact arrested someone that was heading to Santa Monica Blvd with a car full of assault weapons and a pipe bomb.

Federal government officials suggested that maybe it was best we cancel the (Gay Pride) Parade and Festival this year. We sent a message back from West Hollywood.

Maybe you don’t understand who we are!

Our community was born in the face of violence at the Stonewall Inn when angry drag queens fought back against the ritual violence inflicted upon them by the New York City Police Department. And the night that Harvey Milk was assassinated… I am wearing my Gay Men’s Chorus t-shirt like my choral brothers behind me because the night Harvey Milk was assassinated a group of men gathered at the steps of City Hall in San Francisco and began to sing songs they knew from their churches. And out of that was born the first chorus in this country and 146 LGBT choruses that would follow. And we were not afraid then.

And, maybe you don’t know that we’ve walked through plague. That when nobody else responded to HIV & AIDS as a people, we gathered together, we acted up and fought back, we created institutions. We walked in the face of death itself and we fought for our people!

Maybe you don’t know that over gays in the military – that we fought for our military service members…

When you told us we couldn’t serve as schoolteachers through the Briggs Initiative in 1978…

When you told us we couldn’t serve as clergy members and Rabbis…

We have fought back at every institution, in every church, in every part of this country!

We, the LGBT people, have shown courage in every single fight!

So, if you think we are going to be afraid of terrorism then you don’t understand that:

WE’VE BEEN TERRORIZED FROM THE SCHOOL GROUND PLAYGROUND FROM THE VERY BEGINNING OF OUR LIVES!

And we have fought back!

And we have loved one another!

And we have fought for marriage!

And we have fought for equality!

AND, EVERY STEP OF THE WAY WE HAVE BEEN AFRAID! AND we walked forward anyway!

If you look at the (Gay Men’s Chorus of LA) chorus and if you look at yourselves, we are united colors. We are what is the BEST of this country!

We are Black, White and Latino and Asian. We are Christian and Jew and Muslim and Atheist.

We are straight and gay and lesbian and bi and transgender men and transgender women.

We are all of America as one people!

And, we are at our best and our brightest when we have a common enemy.

So, America instead of shaming and denigrating us as a people, look to us as an example of what to do in the face of fear!

We are a people who know how to walk proudly and nobly in the face of fear itself! We will lead you America! We will show you how to be brave, and strong, and courageous – no matter what the consequence!

I love you all, my LGBT brothers and sisters. God Bless You.

My Mother’s Lover: Growing Up in the Shadow of Addiction

 

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I’ve heard my mom was beautiful. Intelligent too.

I don’t really remember.

She started drinking when I was in preschool. Over time it makes your hair coarse, your skin paper thin and when you are a mean drunk there is nothing beautiful about you. When you fill your body with alcohol, pills, cough syrup and cooking wine it also seems to slow down those shimmering, firing neurons that never seemed to spark around me. Maybe they did when I was a baby. I can only imagine that she must have loved me before she started a decades-long affair with her demons.

At some point she chose them.

I always wondered what day that was and if I was at school or cowering quietly away from her in the room I shared with my sister. I tried to stay as small and as quiet as possible. Until she came after us. Then I was bigger than a tiger, louder than a lion, puffed up and screaming so she couldn’t see my little sister behind me. If I wasn’t bigger than the house, a raging monster to contend with, then she took it out on others. My sister would crumble into herself as if her heart alone couldn’t withstand the hate and she had to cushion it with her body to deal with the blows. My dad would only listen to so much before he would leave for hours at a time, so it was best that I dig in and grow limbs with claws and breathe fire because I could take it. I could handle the mean words. I knew that I wasn’t the things she said I was and I knew that she was the bad one. I also knew that when she set her sights on me dad would eventually load my sister and I in the car to get us away from her for a while.

There were a lot of long country drives and silent meals at Dairy Queen with red rimmed eyes and unanswered questions about why we let her do this to us.

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My parents got married when they were 19. My dad always said it was her legs he noticed first. They were muscular, strong. I get that a lot too. My hands are the only other reminder that we share DNA. For a very long time I wouldn’t look at my own hands. They looked like hands that hit me. Hands that grabbed me, pinched me, hurt me. I thought that if I got them from her I could have other things too. I didn’t want the other things and promised myself that I would do everything I could to make sure my appendages were all we had in common.

So, I left as soon as I could and I forgot her.

Until I received calls that she’d had another DUI, another accident, been arrested and forced into rehab, as if I would have the answers that would unlock the problem that was her lover. I would find myself feeling for the families that had to post crosses and Mothers Against Drunk Drivers signs on the side of the highway and wonder when it was that I’d have to face one.

My mother was the drunk driver.

Her BAC’s never came in below .18, but thankfully she was always the only person hurt. The highest, .32, was pulled from her veins after she fell down a set of stairs while watching my niece and nephew while my sister was at dinner with her husband. Mom was in the first ever two year stretch of sobriety and had passed my sister’s hurdles only to dig through her cabinets, likely drinking cooking wine and cough syrup while “connecting” with her grandchildren. That is when we, as sisters and mothers, made a decision on behalf of our children, born and unborn.

No more mom.

Calls still came and I shook my head when my sister finally summed up our unspoken family consensus, “Is she dead? Call me when she’s dead. Then I’ll know what to do with her.”

I never told my sister about recurring dreams I’d had where I’d be called home. I would face the family of the person she killed, I would identify her body and then handle the clean up. I would tell my dad and sister after it was taken care of. The last gift I could offer them when it came to the woman we survived together.

Several years ago another call came. A judge had sentenced her to a rehab facility and as she’d been shipped to another coast and hadn’t paid her rent her landlord had to discard of all of her belongings. This included our baby books and boxes full of our childhood that she guarded with her life. It also included a little wooden stool my dad had made for me with a puzzle on top, my initials carved into it. When I was a toddler I would sit on it and eat waffles. I had asked for the stool so many times, been turned down, and now it was gone.

I grieved a nonsensical little wooden stool and for the first time in a very long time I was angry with her for canceling out my childhood. First with her refusal to choose me, to force me into the role of parent for her and for myself, and then for losing every momento that proved that I once looked much smaller, much more innocent.

So, I forgot her again.

When I found out I was having a little girl fear set in. I worried that I wouldn’t know how to be a good mother. I found myself sad at times that I didn’t have a mother figure in my life to experience my pregnancy with me or give me advice. I knew that when my daughter had babies I would fold my wrinkled knees onto the floor and help her set up her nursery, answering any questions, quieting any fears.

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The night Olivia was born I held her in my arms and I looked into her searching eyes and promised her, “I will always choose you.”

I didn’t realize that in choosing my daughter I would be forced to face anger I had held within me so tightly. So, I stopped forgetting my mom and finally allowed myself to remember. I recognized that no able-bodied woman would ever look upon a child and choose to hurt them if they are strong enough. Looking into my daughter’s face I knew without a doubt that my mother loved me. I’m sure she still does in her own way. But, I cannot fight against addiction and she wasn’t strong enough to do it either. It was a blackness, a murkiness that settled into her bones, into her skin, into those places in her brain and in her heart and snuffed out the pieces of her that a child longs for.

She never had a choice. She never made a choice. It was made for her a million times over in a million different ways throughout her life.

So, I forgave. Over and over and over again. With that forgiveness comes very strong boundaries and an understanding that finally feels calming. I’m certain it is because I have my daughter. I have the mother/daughter relationship I so desperately wanted and had I not experienced darkness I don’t know that the light would be as bright.

I don’t even notice my hands look like hers anymore. I’ve repurposed them to care, nurture and mother in the way my daughter asks when she crawls into my lap for a hug or nighttime cuddles.

These hands have never hit my child. They’ve only known love.

Olivia has recently become curious about my childhood and my mother. She asks her name and asks me what I looked like, who I was when I was five. I pull together the handful of photos that my father’s side of the family squirrels away for me from their own photo albums and piece together a story that sits well with Olivia’s understanding today. She has asked why we don’t see my mother and I’ve shared that my mom has some grown up problems and she’s not like her father’s mother. She very intuitively asked one day, “Mom, was your mom mean to you?”

“Yes, baby. My mom isn’t a very nice person.”

“Will I ever meet her?”

I paused, thinking of all of the things I want to protect my child from, all of the bad that she doesn’t need to see or experience, “Maybe one day. I’m not sure yet.”

Olivia nodded, seeming to understand something she shouldn’t and very resolutely ended the conversation, “Let’s talk about it when I’m 7. That seems like a good age to meet a grandmother.”

Indeed.

Its in these conversations with my trusting, kind-hearted daughter that I recognize my strength and conscientiousness as a woman and a mother is because of the fight, the boundaries, the determination, the heart that refused to be shadowed and the grit that has become encased in my cells.

I’ve become the mother I always wanted and the woman I hoped to have in my life.

I guess you could say, in a strange and unexpected way – I got it from my mama.

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