I started my career working for a former politician. My next job put me on the staff at a church, and years after that, I started working in schools. Now I'm back in a church-ish world. One time I took a quiz on Facebook titled "What is your version of hell according to your personality type?" and the answer was working for a soulless corporation doing something I knew was designed to cause a harmful addiction or take advantage of desperate situations.
I shivered when I read the description and thought, "Yep, that would be hell for me."
I have worked with and for some of the most earnest, passionate people you can imagine. I've doodled in my notebook at meeting tables while planning events to raise awareness about food insecurity and hunger in the local community. I've listened on the edge of my seat as my old boss and his colleagues talked about hard decisions that made the world a more peaceful place, at least for a little while. I've stood up in front of students and colleagues and friends, in classrooms and assemblies and group meetings, to encourage people to live with empathy and understanding for themselves and others. One of the best things I've done in my professional life was organize a day when a handful of teenage girls and faculty members shared their experiences with the school community through "What is it like to be me...?" essays. I love people in the individual and the aggregate, and I am able to put a roof over my head by helping them do a better job loving themselves and others. I have to pinch myself sometimes.
And that's usually when I stub my toe on something someone posts on Facebook.
If working for world peace is like "trying to get along in a really big strange family" as the Storypeople image above suggests, then Facebook is the awkward family reunion. We all have a Cousin Eddie (and in some cases, it's us!) lurking somewhere, and for every moment of connection and reconnection we get by showing up, there's always some exchange that sends us away muttering, "Why do I come to these things?!"
As an introvert, I love Facebook because it lets me skip over the awkward small talk at the beginning of a conversation. "How are you? What have you been up to?" turns into "So how was ______? The photos were beautiful." Then we're off into an enthusiastic account of a vacation or party or event, and a genuine exchange unfolds, all because I saw a snapshot of a family on a beach posted on someone's wall. I enjoy keeping up with my friends and their families, and I've found that commenting back and forth on Facebook takes some of the sting out of the half continent that has separated me (from one direction and now the other) from many of the people and places I love.
My own wall looks like a jumble of recent photos of my kids and memories with friends and loved ones. I put up an occasional sarcastic observation, and I repost content that resonates with me in the hopes that it will encourage someone else. I sometimes put up events I'm attending so that other people with similar interests will come, and with any luck, we can trade digital interaction for something more personal.
In general, my stuff is well received by the people in my "Friends" list, and that matters enough for me to feel encouraged when I get a lot of "likes" and a little deflated when I don't. I put a lot of my life there, but there are big pieces I don't or won't share--my older children ask me not to post pictures of them, and I try to respect friends who prefer to keep their lives private. So even though I see Facebook as an opportunity to live in a much wider community, which I believe is a good thing, I also recognize that it doesn't come close to a full, accurate representation of my life or anyone else's.
I dread the months leading up to the 2016 election. I might even consider a temporary ban on Facebook until mid-November, except it can be helpful to commiserate with other people who are in the "Can't we all just get along?" camp. I always have to step away on days that are painful for me--it's one thing to accidentally stub your toe on something that catches you off guard, but it's something altogether different to repeatedly slam your fingers in the door on purpose. But even if I step away temporarily, I know I'll be back. Knowing and being known--even imperfectly, even somewhat superficially--offers the hope of building something better, together. Even if that's just less awkward conversations at parties.
Plus it's too fascinating to see so much of humanity on display. And I love people, I really do, even the Cousin Eddies out there.
When I was in fifth grade, I decided to quit gymnastics. Every day I grew more tired of the intense conditioning at the end of every practice, mandatory attendance in order to keep my spot on the competitive team, and constant haranguing from coaches who gave me unwanted nicknames like "Raggedy Ann" and whose manner of instruction tended more toward berating than encouraging. I spent 15-20 hours a week at the gym with the same handful of girls, and while I liked everyone on the team, seeing the same faces all the time started to lose its luster as other social options presented themselves. I wanted to go to sleepovers and birthday parties with school and church friends. I loved dance and wanted more time to spend at the ballet studio. So I told my mom I wanted to quit.
My mom wasn't an athlete, neither as a child nor an adult. She dabbled in Jazzercise and jogging, and a few years prior to my telling her I wanted to quit gymnastics, she played on a co-ed softball team with other people from the hospital where she worked. Her flirtation with team sports evaporated as her affair with one of the guys on the team solidified; by the time I decided to quit gymnastics, they had both divorced their respective spouses in order to marry each other and create a family out of two tribes of children and a lot of broken promises. Watching the lot of us fumble through life must have been like watching a grotesque caricature of the Brady Bunch--everything over-exaggerated and out of balance as we tried to project the fiction of a smiling, harmonious blended family.
(I know healthy, supportive blended families do exist. However, the one in which I found myself was the diseased fruit of a diseased vine in a time before people had any real appreciation for how hard it is to merge the remnants of a violent disruption like death or divorce. We never had a chance.)
So Mom had more pressing things on her mind than whether or not I continued with an expensive, demanding sport. I'm sure it cost her more than just money to keep me on that team. She lined up carpools to and from practice with my grandparents and other team families; the monthly fees always got paid somehow, whether the money came from her pocket or my dad's; I always had the right uniform and the kind of grips and floor shoes everyone else had; she took me to meets and exhibitions on weekends when I know she had other things to do. She never pushed or pressured me, and she didn't play the role of "gymnastics mom" (or "dance mom" at my ballet studio), but she made sure I could participate at the level I wanted without making me feel guilty for demanding so much time and effort. Still, it wasn't hard for her to say yes to letting that activity go.
I went back and forth about the decision for quite awhile before actually pulling the plug, but eventually I told Mom that yes, I was sure, I wanted to quit. The payment schedule imposed some pressure to tie up all the loose ends before the end of the month, and the team contract required written notice of any changes. Mom wrote a letter, and I bit my lower lip and nodded as she asked me one more time before sealing the envelope and dropping it in the mail--irretrievable, irrevocable, a done deal. We lived in a small town, so I knew the receptionist would receive the note the following morning, which was also the last day of the month.
We drove away from the mailbox, and I sighed, feeling free and light and planning to celebrate the next evening by watching all the TV shows I usually missed because of practice. I felt a small twinge thinking of my friends on the team moving on without me, but that quickly faded in my gratitude at the knowledge I would never have to face those self-satisfied, bitchy coaches ever again. The one who taunted me by shaking my legs and calling me "Loosey Goosey" as I stood in handstands during strength exercises; the one who forced me to do a floor routine to the Miami Vice theme song because I missed the practice when everyone else picked the good music; the one who walked around with a sawed-off broom handle he referred to as the "Strength Stick" (or "Steve's Stick"--there are some things I've blocked from my memory) and used to correct our form: none of them were outright abusive or inappropriate, and they could be kind on occasion. But the waves of disapproval emanating from them made some critical piece of myself shrink, curl inward, and hibernate until I went home at the end of practice.
I skipped through the next day, though I couldn't quite meet the eye of my best friend on the team who also went to the small private school I attended. I didn't say anything about quitting because I knew it would become obvious later that night without me having to initiate an awkward conversation, but my cheeks burned a little bit when she wanted to talk about practice at recess. When the last bell rang, I hopped into the car with my grandfather and thought about how quickly I could finish my homework and turn on the TV.
That lasted until we got home when he turned to me and said, "I'll wait out here while you go change for gymnastics." I thought I hadn't heard him right, or maybe Mom hadn't told him. As I started to protest, he held up a hand and said, "Now listen, your mom said you have to go. You are done with the team as of tomorrow when it's the first of the month, but you have one more practice left this month, and you're going."
He gave me a look that communicated the futility of arguing, so I changed and grabbed my bag. My stomach churned on the drive to the warehouse-looking building that would no longer be my home away from home, and I kicked myself for my earlier optimism. Of course it wouldn't be that easy. I should have known better.
When I walked into the lobby, it was like someone jerked the needle off a record in the middle of a song. Conversations stopped, heads turned, and I swallowed hard as I walked the gauntlet through the observation area to the entrance to the gym. The receptionist looked me up and down and said, "We got your mom's letter." I nodded and kept going, back straight and nose up in the air in my best attempt to be haughty.
I walked across the threshold to the area where my not-yet-former teammates congregated while waiting for the earlier classes to clear the equipment. A hush fell over the group as I approached the vertical cubbies where we kept our stuff; getting a cubby with your name on it was one of the perks of being part of the competitive team, and I remembered a day not long before when that simple piece of furniture lit a fire under me to learn and improve until I earned a space of my own. I brimmed with pride the first time I saw "Emily" drawn in artsy letters on the clear plastic in the top left corner. But on the night of my last practice, I blinked at the now-blank space, streaked a little bit from a hasty swipe with some kind of cleanser. I set my bag there, but the streaked plastic mocked me, my stuff pretending to belong somewhere it no longer had any right to be, until I couldn't stand it any more and moved my bag to the set of shelves used by the younger students.
The head coach came over and called me aside. I fought to look her in the eye.
"We didn't expect you to be here tonight. Your mom wrote us a letter that you wanted to quit."
"So why are you here?"
"We paid through the end of the month. Today's the 31st, so I had one more practice."
She looked at me hard with a mixture of frustration and curiosity. Silence stretched out long enough to make me shift my weight back and forth and worry whether the churning in my stomach was turning into a real issue (a possibility I normally would have found horrifying but in this case would have given me an excuse to go home early). I didn't look away, though, and she sighed and sent me to the floor for stretching. "Join your usual rotation," were the last words she ever spoke to me.
The hours passed in a blur. A couple of complicated strings of skills I'd been working on for months finally came together in one of those ironies I couldn't quite appreciate at the time. My teammates either ignored me or asked a few tentative questions. The ones who cared enough to talk to me recognized I was barely holding it together and didn't push. One girl whispered to me in the line for vault that she was going to quit, too, but her mom wanted her to wait until the end of the school year. I nodded in understanding before taking off down the runway and hurtling myself into the air.
"Keep your head up on the landing," the coach (the sawed-off broomstick guy) called out as I scurried off the mat. I wondered why he bothered with critique if he knew I wasn't coming back, so I looked at him over my shoulder.
"Keep your head up," he said again and nodded for emphasis. I nodded back and walked away. When practice ended a half hour later, I walked out into the night where my other grandfather waited in his truck and sobbed all the way home.
I would go back to gymnastics off and on for a few years at different gyms, then I would take what I loved from it and turn that into a run as an NCA All-American cheerleader. My body still bears the outlines of strength and power etched into it by all those sit ups and chin ups and jumps, and when I feel loose and out of shape, I return to the exercises I used to hate. Gymnastics wove discipline and desire and the beauty of form and motion into a framework that continues to offer me structure and balance all these years later.
"Keep your head up on the landing."
Yes, sir. I remember.
It took a few months for his newborn face to un-squish enough for me to know for sure, but then there was no doubt--my son has my eyes. Same shape, same color (maybe a little darker), same old soul depth to them--it's like looking in a mirror. His little sister has them, too, but he had them first, and I have stared into them with wonder pretty much his entire life.
I can look at him from across a room and know what he is feeling, even though I don't always want to acknowledge everything I see. He's braver than me about refusing to play along with everyone's expectations (including mine), and I appreciate his unflinching honesty about who he is. I call him the "emotional barometer" of the family because he's the first one to show it if something is off, sometimes long before any of the rest of us are ready to admit whatever storm is brewing.
He is pure motion (except when he's putting together intricate Lego structures), and I don't even try to keep up most of the time. Instead we have worked out a system in which he's free to race ahead as long as he remembers to double back for me every so often. Special outings with him must involve some kind of activity--renting bikes for an afternoon, going to a quarry-turned-water park, trampoline and bouncy house warehouses, so many trips to the playground--though he can demonstrate surprising restraint when he's interested in something. When he was five, we took him on a tour of one of the Vanderbilt mansions in Newport, Rhode Island, and he not only resisted the urge to swing from the chandeliers or slide down the banister of the grand staircase, he also listened carefully to the audio tour and can still recall many of the details. He likes antique shops and thrift stores and flea markets, and one of his favorite shows for awhile was American Pickers.
We both like pop music and dancing, and though he's outgrowing it a bit now, we used to have dance parties in the kitchen most nights. He stops me for hugs as I walk through the room, calling "Mama!" and holding out his arms. We get cross with each other a fair bit, especially these days when we are all worn so thin by adjustments and transitions and the demands of life in general, but I try to always stop for those hugs with some measure of grace and gratitude.
He is both foreign and familiar, challenge and comfort, and I thank God every day that I get to be his mother.
Still, the days are often long, and during the last half hour before we all go to bed, it can feel like something from the "Currahee" episode of Band of Brothers: three miles up and three miles down with a full pack before we can all rest. Life is good, and I'm not complaining. It's just reality that any unexpected variable thrown into that part of the evening tends to have exaggerated impact.
When my oldest was home for Christmas break, something happened with the latch on my doorknob. I got stuck in my room two separate times and had to pound on the door, yell loud enough to wake her up (no small feat), and get her to open the door from the other side. I had no idea what to do about it. When confronted with things I don't know how to fix, I tend to devise a workaround rather than address the issue head on. In this case, I stopped shutting the door. Easy peasy, problem solved. For months my bedroom door stayed open.
Until one night not long ago when my son, without even thinking about it, closed the door and trapped all of us in my room. We were in full Currahee mode: already late going to bed, there had been some drama earlier in the day that wasn't quite resolved, and as the door swung closed with me too far away to stop it, I had one of those slow-motion movie moments, yelling, "Nooooo!!!!" even as I heard it click shut.
Technically, we weren't stuck since we could still get to the back door, but the deadbolts were all locked in the rest of the house and my keys were sitting in their designated spot by the front door. To gain access to anywhere we needed to go would require breaking a window or calling the fire department, and neither option seemed appealing.
For a few moments, we stood mute, staring at the door and willing it to pop open of its own accord. In my mind, I scrolled through a range of options and landed on the only question that seemed to hold out some hope: "What would MacGyver do?"
I confess I never watched MacGyver, but I know the pop culture reference to the main character's ability to get himself out of a jam. He used random objects and improvised solutions to save the day, over and over again. If we had to pull something out of thin air, MacGyver seemed like an appropriate guide.
I examined the hinges to see if we could take the door down that way, but we couldn't get anything to budge. I dug around in my bedside table until I found a metal bookmark vaguely resembling a screwdriver on one end, and we went to work on the door knob. I got the handle off and looked at the exposed guts of the mechanism. I tried turning a piece, but it fell on the floor on the other side of the door. I sat down, flummoxed and defeated.
That was when my son took over with an authority I didn't expect. He found something long and skinny enough to slip underneath the door, snagged the piece that fell, and pulled it back in our direction until we could reach it. He fitted it back into place in the door knob, and together we got it to turn . . . ever . . . so . . . slowly . . . until the door finally popped open. I'm pretty sure we both let out a whoop followed by a huge sigh of relief. I hadn't wanted to call the fire department; he hadn't wanted to be the reason I needed to call (though he could have made a strong argument that it was really my fault for not fixing the door as soon as I realized it was broken).
One thing that has felt overwhelming about being a single mom is the fear that it would always be this hard, that I would have to constantly pull something out of a hat (or my ass) over and over again to clear all the hurdles stretching out in front of us.
But that night as I watched my son take charge and contribute to a solution--a small but critical solution--I caught a glimpse of a day when I no longer have to play MacGyver. Sure, there will be plenty of occasions when we have to work with random variables, and "improvising" is kind of my middle name. But it will get easier and more natural to share responsibilities; everyone can and will contribute to the common good. Knowing that makes me want to let out a whoop and a sigh of relief, even if we still have a ways to go.
Mother, photographer, writer. Expert in making things up as she goes and figuring things out along the way.