We talk about it, think about it, hear about it, accuse it, and deny it – but trust me – if you are enjoying any moment of this weekend – you are privileged. A profound thank you to those who died in service to our country – whose sacrifice I most certainly have not lived up to – but am eternally grateful for.
As I drove into the parking lot of the grocery store, I weighed my options. Would I be bold and fearless or continue to color within lines that have been drawn around almost every public activity for over a year? If I was bold, would I also be deemed a rebel with or without a cause? If I stuck to my modus operandi of benefitting the common good, staying obedient to the “science,” would I now be deemed anti-science or a flaming liberal? Who knew that a quick trip to the market to pick up bananas could become a study of societal norms and my psychological un-doing?
The last time I shopped here, I found myself an oddity and the recipient of eye-rolls from those breathing free and easy as I observed the rules set forth by management to wear a mask while in the store – rules that were not enforced but highly suggested. And now, here I was, mask in hand – not certain whether I would once again cover my face as I entered or go with the flow. The day before, the much anticipated and argued about news rang throughout the land – the mask wearing edict had been lifted from on high! Despite news to the contrary just days before, the science now said that if I was fully vaccinated, I could go places without a mask on – inside and out – and not have to socially distance with minimal to no risk to myself!
The news seemed to come out of nowhere – like a swift gust of wind announcing the arrival of a storm. Only this time it was like the wind we had all been running into headlong all year suddenly changed direction – leaving me feeling a bit short of breath. For well over a year, we have been told to look out for each other – that it wasn’t just about me but what I could do to another person just by exhaling in their presence. With a long way to go before the population is vaccinated and immunity to the viral presence that has inhibited our livelihoods is reached, especially in my community, this all seemed rather abrupt. Not wearing my mask left me feeling a bit vulnerable as I contemplated going inside but what would wearing one say about my confidence in the vaccine? What message would I send? What would I do?
The fact that we are all sick of wearing masks should not be lost on any of us. We are weary of not seeing each other’s faces, of not knowing whether someone is smiling or frowning – not to mention tired of smelling our own breath and walking around with fogged up glasses. The very notion of such a thing becoming a habit has spurred many a social media rant. And yet whether we know it or not, every single one of us wears a mask every moment we are conscious of others. Not unlike our recent accumulation of masks for every outfit, many of us have an assortment of masks we don for different situations – and without them we feel exposed, vulnerable, if not right out afraid. Afraid of being found out, afraid of not fitting in, afraid of being seen for who we really are. Suddenly our innermost flaws – the ones we regularly scheme to ignore or hide – seem to be on full display. And so, we don the mask of the moment and present a vision of ourselves to others that will get us by. A new experience, stressful moments, or times filled with great uncertainty seem to be those occasions I reach for a mask. In essence, we make ourselves out to be what we think others expect us to be. Done often enough we risk losing sight of who we really are.
This past year I have had a marked decrease in opportunities to don my assortment of masks. I will admit to having breathed a sigh of relief at the chance to just be me on a regular basis. But it hasn’t been the mental sanctuary I had hoped for. Rather, the reprieve brought to light that I have lost sight of just who I am in my own eyes. What is my story?
What am I hiding from others? If I felt secure and sure in the presence of others, what is it that I would want them to know about me – all of me? How earthshaking would it be if the real me stepped forward all the time? What if we all were the “real me’s” in the presence of others? How might our relationships change? How might our lives in community change?
The stories we tell others about ourselves – the good and bad – of what we have experienced in our lives help us make sense of the world and shape us as individuals. These stories are what Northwestern University professor Dan McAdams, a pioneer in the field of narrative psychology, calls our narrative identity. We tell these stories to give our lives meaning and help others understand us. While many people may experience a similar event in their lives, each person interprets the event differently and assigns different levels of importance to it. Some people will simply move on from an experience like a swimming lesson gone awry, while others are transformed by it, perhaps emboldened to face their fears throughout life or traumatized by the experience they viewed as a broken trust. McAdams calls these “narrative choices” and they predominantly fall into four thematic categories: redemption (stories that transition from the bad to the good that follows), contamination (stories that transition from the good to the bad), communion (stories that emphasize connection, love, friendship, intimacy, caring, or belonging), and agency (stories that emphasize achievement, self-mastery, empowerment, status, and influence).
McAdams’ studies have shown that those whose narratives fall into the redemption, communion, or agency themes have a better outlook on life, find more meaning and purpose in their life, achieve more of their goals, seek out and find more connection, enjoy deeper relationships, and generally report a greater sense of well-being. People who tell their stories through a contamination lens tend to see themselves as victimized, less-than, and fail to thrive in their personal and professional pursuits.
How we interpret our experiences, how we tell our stories, will set the tone and direction for the course of our life. In order to do this successfully and have a positive course going forward, we have to sit with our past experiences, savor or make peace with them, learn from them, grow from them, and be willing to let them go. Whether good or bad, our past experiences, the stories of our lives, made us who we are today but do not have to define how and who we are tomorrow. We also have to be willing to honestly share them. If I present myself to others as one thing but my past experiences have shaped me to the contrary – I will never be my authentic best and my relationships will be missing out.
Recently, I wrote here of a very difficult, life changing time in my life and also shared the story on social media. It’s not something I often share with even my closest of friends but something inside spurred me to tell “my side” of the story. I wrote into the night, hit post and went to bed. I awoke in the morning in a panic. What had I done?!! I had revealed too much!!! I raced to login and delete my revelatory words, but it was too late – I had shared a side of me that made me who I am today – and people had already read it – at 5 a.m. in the morning!! Who reads a blog, let alone my blog, before 5 a.m.? Don’t people sleep??? Not only had they read it, but some had commented and some even took the time to send me personal messages as well – thanking me for sharing and confiding in me similar thoughts, regrets, and hopes.
Instead of deleting my post in shame, I experienced a sense of relief and connection I had not felt in a long time. Not only had I helped myself by revealing my true self, I had helped others express their reality as well.
As we begin to emerge from this pandemic, we will all have a different story to tell of a shared moment in time. Each of us will have experienced life differently from the moment we were born right up to the last 15 months. Each of us has the opportunity to put our mark on this world. I encourage you to drop the mask(s) and share YOUR story. We will all be better for it.
And now for the rest of the story… What did I do? This woman whose life has always been about following the rules and seeing that others come first, donned my mask as I read the same mask notice I have passed by every visit for recent history. I will admit, no matter how much I detest it, the small piece of cloth that covered my mouth and my emotions – gave me a sense of security – necessary or not – for the moment. Was I rebel or a complaisant? I’ll let science settle that one.
“There is far more to your life than the food you put in your stomach, more to your outer appearance than the clothes you hang on your body. Look at the birds, free and unfettered, not tied down to a job description, careless in the care of God. And you count far more to him than birds. “– Matthew 6: 25-26 The Message
LET YOUR LIGHT SO SHINE!!!
I have come to dread the second weekend in May, for the sadness it brings, the shame I feel for the envy I harbor, and the stark truths it reveals about me and my place in this world beginning from my first exuberant breath to this moment as I write of yet another Mother’s Day – survived.
Ours was a difficult relationship, but then, the things that matter most in life are not always easy. Nonetheless, I know my mother loved me as deeply as any mother could love a headstrong daughter. While I often wished we could have a relationship like those my friends enjoyed with their moms, one filled with lunch dates, laughter, and dreams for tomorrow – I came to accept that those things were not important to my Mom. Of course, there were wonderful memories – or I wouldn’t feel so conflicted about our relationship still today. She was a wonderful Brownie leader, tender of tummy aches, and mom to the wayward kids on the block. We became best buds when it was just the two of us for a cold Virginia winter when my dad was away on an extended trip and schooling and my brother was away at college. But my best and fondest memories of my mother and me together all occurred before I was 13. And then things began to change. I was growing up and those changes meant the world would also have an influence on me. I can count on one hand the times my mother and I had a joyful, in-depth conversation about life. Those we did have quickly deteriorated into expressions of her fears for what would happen to me “if” or judgment-tinged commentaries beginning and ending with “you are so much better than that.” I knew much more about how difficult her life was than whether or not she ever believed in me.
Ironically, it was in the throes of my 7-year dance with death a.k.a. Anorexia, that she began to encourage me, to tell me that those who were “judging” me simply didn’t understand, that she was thin too and was the envy of her friends and sisters. Even as I laid in ICU with less than a 30% chance of survival if a miracle didn’t happen, she “fought” against the “system” that was “failing at every step” to save me. Defending me when psychiatrists suggested a problem, denying that there was something wrong with her daughter. When I finally hit rock bottom, faced down death, and accepted the journey to wellness outside of my mother’s realm she refused to accompany me. As I boarded the plane to travel to my saving place – Remuda Ranch – all 78 pounds of me and still in critical condition, my mother was at home refusing to see me off. I remember looking back down the ramp – and seeing my father and godfather standing together with their utmost love veiled by a dread that they might not see me again shadowing their faces. The same two men whose frustration with me often led to bursts of anger because they couldn’t understand – now stood behind me in love.
After 4 rides in an ambulance and 7 years in and out of the hospital with my final stay lasting from New Year’s Eve until Memorial Day, my mother still insisted there was nothing wrong with me. I so wanted to believe that. For once we had something we could share! But that very thing joining us would prove fatal to me if it was allowed to continue. I was gone for 4 months. During that time Mom sent me care packages of piano music for me to play on the ranch’s grand piano, new dresses as I “outgrew” the ridiculously small ones she had sewn for me because nothing in any store any where would fit my skeletal body, and she wrote me notes that reminded me of the lunch box notes she would write me when I was a child – before her depressive anxiety began to take over her life.
When I returned home from treatment, I didn’t have a cent to my name. Having worked and paid my way through college what money I did have was depleted by astronomical medical bills. Insurance companies didn’t cover treatment for mental illness back then. So, I returned to the family home to begin life anew. I had changed. I had grown. I had a new story and a new perspective of myself. My mother had not. This would be a point of contention between us for the rest of our life together.
I have been in recovery now for 26 years. I am 64 pounds heavier today than I was at my lowest point. Though it was a pivotal point in our relationship, I do not blame my mother for what I went through. Psychiatrists coaxed me to believe that it was my mother at the root of my problems but I never once placed that onus on her. My eating disorder was a manifestation of my desperate need to have some sort of control in my life and be good at something. I mastered both. According to the plethora of doctors and specialists who worked on “my case” and the numerous studies asserting Anorexia (especially as extreme as my situation was) has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness, I am a walking miracle but not one without scars. My eating disorder ravaged my body. 7 years of starvation will do that. I would learn that I could never have children, that my bones would forever be susceptible to breaks, that I must always, always treat food as a medium for life and not something that could bring me pleasure or cause me distress, and that well-meaning inquisitive people would always find my weight to be an acceptable conversation topic. Exercise had always been and remains my means of escape, my coping mechanism, and my Achilles heel. Told by doctors that the fact I was a runner with a strong heart was the only reason I survived the starvation-induced cardiac arrests (plural) – I remained certain that I could never do too much of a good thing. This too has been a hard-learned lesson as I continue down the never-ending road of recovery – and one I am still learning – 26 years in!
Counselors told me I needed to set boundaries on my relationship with my mother but how do you set boundaries between yourself and the person that gave life to you? While fences make good neighbors, boundaries do not address the conflicts that created the need for them. No matter the strife between us, I always loved my Mom as much as I felt beholden to her.
Finally putting a physical boundary of 400+ miles between my mother and me with my move to the Flathead changed the dynamic between us. On visits home, we still engaged in rapid-fire from time to time but during our long-distance phone conversations, rather than constantly butting heads with me, my Mom seemed to relish the fact that though I was living my own life and she could live vicariously through me in her old stomping grounds. How comically ironic that I would end up where she once lived “some of her happiest days” as a young woman right here where I am now. Sadly, by that point in her health and our relationship, our conversations never ventured much past the surface.
As I reflect on 50 years as my mother’s daughter my heart aches for the young woman I was and for the woman she was too. To think we are solely responsible for who we are is naivete at its worst. As I struggle with my own place in life right now, I have wondered just what brought her to be who she became to be.
Since my mother’s illness and death, I have learned much about what is important in life and the lesson has been painful. Past conflicts between us remained a barrier to my heart and have raked my heart ever since. The fact that my mother and I could not realize a reconciliation of any meaningful depth fills me with deep regret. Why had I not pursued this with my Mom sooner? My hopes are such that the pain and anger we inflicted on one another disappeared into her lost memories as I am not sure she could comprehend the feelings I wanted to express. Part of me feels at peace in the simple sweet conversations that we did share. Perhaps that is God’s grace reigning over my ineptitude. I have learned that life is finite. Its seasons far too short for anger, guilt, pride, and selfishness to linger in our relationships. Storms will come and we do not know when or how they will end.
King Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes:
“As you do not know the path of the wind, or how the body is formed in a mother’s womb, so you cannot understand the work of God, the Maker of all things.”
Solomon was wise. Life is meaningless if we do not tend to what truly matters. All the fun, work, accolades, and treasures of life we collect along the way are meaningless. What matters are the relationships we have; that our hearts are right with God; that we resolve conflicts with those we love; that they know they matter to us; and how very much we do indeed love them.
Reconciliation with my mother was a selfish goal of mine. But how much more powerful and life-giving it would have been had I been able to make peace with my mother while she was alive. Perhaps it is best and all I can hope for that my Mom and I pursued the springtime memories of our lives as we walked through her final winter together.
I last spoke to my mother on my 45th birthday, 18 days before she passed away. It was a conversation I will never forget. Aside from the fact she was upset that I would be celebrating alone and didn’t have a special dinner date she just kept saying all she wanted was for me to be happy and would I consider coming home. I kept telling her I was happy but I had too many mountains left to climb to think about coming home – but that didn’t mean I didn’t miss her. I told her I loved her so very much. Her last words to me were: I love you and I just want you to be happy.
For all these reasons, Mother’s Day haunts me. This day of celebrating the gift of life that mothers give reminds me of all that I lost and all I will never be. There are times I see my mother’s nature of sadness in me – and it strikes a paralyzing fear in me that I might be following in her steps towards darkness. But I take comfort too, in that I am my mother’s daughter just as much as I am my father’s and my father loved her to the very end. As my Daddy’s girl, I know I will be okay. God has blessed me with tools of His light and my own life experiences to fight the darkness that robbed me of my mother’s best days.
One of Mom’s favorite songs was “His Eye is on the Sparrow”.
His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. His eye is on the sparrow and I know He watches me. I sing because I’m happy; I sing because I’m free; His eye is on the sparrow And I know He watches me.
It has become one of my favorites, too.
Mom, I know we had our struggles as a mother and daughter but I will forever carry with me your sweet love of the joys of life, the tender ways you loved me through childhood, and your simple understanding of what is good. I will continue to strive to live the kind of life you so wanted for me – one that is happy and lived for the Lord. I never stopped loving you and I will always hear your voice and feel your love whenever a songbird sings.
And when I do, I will sing because I know you are happy, and I’ll sing because I know you are free. I’ll smile at the sight of every sparrow because I’ll know you are right here, with me.