Sunday, November 23, 2014

40/40 in 40: Let Them Be. It's Fine.

Last in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years. Let them be. It's fine.

I was on the phone. It was late summer 2013. I was talking to Rachel, Fiona's godmother, one of my favorite people alive walking the earth today. I love Rachel because she is like a better version of me. All my good points magnified and some of my bad points--but all taken more gently than my actual faults. Self-effacing and direct and funny and Jesuit Volunteery and beautiful. I don't talk to her often enough because we are both teachers with 3 children and households and husbands and a whole lot of whatnot added in.

But I was on the phone. I was telling her about Troy living with us and how that was going and then she said something to me, about me, that struck me. I can't recall the entire quote but it went something like, "You're so good at just letting people be. Me, I'd be meddling in everyone's business but you've been so good at just letting your kids be."

It struck me because I'd never considered myself someone who would just let people be. So I reflected on the observation and found that lo, it was actually really true. I DO let people be.

That whole summer I let the folks who lived in my house just be who they were, alongside all the other people who were just who they were. And I kept it up. I did it in my classroom, I did it with my friends, I just let people be.

But like most observations of other people, Rachel's statement about me was about my best self--I let people be when I have enough presence of mind to do that. And in saying it to me, proclaiming this about me, she created a goal for me. Something to aspire to. I should let people be. It's fine. It's all fine. And I should let people be.

I can't change people, I learned many many times in the past 40 years. All I can do is love them and work to change myself.

I can't control people, not and still be in relationship with them.

I can't expect people to meet my expectations that are unspoken. I can't read their minds and they can't read mine. I can't hold people to standards based on their own best selves on their best days. I can't expect folks to think the same things are important that I do. I can't love people only for how they are like me, only in the ways I approve. I need to love them because they are people and therefore deserving of my love.

I can't be everything to everyone, I can't be everyone's best friend, I can't be everyone's mom, I can't be everyone's favorite person, teacher, student, neighbor.

All I can do is let people be who they're going to be and love the hell out of them.

Because it's fine. You see? It's fine. And if it's not fine, then it's going to be. Or if it's not going to be fine, it's fine because sometimes that's the best it can be.

Not everyone is going to come around to my way of thinking. Not everyone is going to get sober or get it together or GET IT. Not everyone is going to be in my life forever. No one is ever going to understand how very much they mean to me, how much I keep in my heart and catalog in my brain and hold onto.

Which is why I need to let them be. It's fine. It truly is.

I stood there at the kitchen table, bandana tied around my wild crazy hair that cannot be controlled in the summertime. I wiped down the table and then set a plate in front of him. I tried to figure out how to explain it. How to translate Bridgett.

"I can't know the ending--anymore than I can know whether Daisy
will have another seizure, I can't know. All I can do is pray and clean the bathroom and cook for a bunch of people and try to keep everybody in my house reasonably happy."

He laughs. "Everybody seems happy, Bridgett."

"I do try to let people be," I smile back at him. I sit down on the stool catty-cornered from his. I take a piece of fish off his plate.

"You do. Everybody in this whole house, you just let them be, you don't mess around with their lives." He grabs the sriracha from the cabinet. Our boys run through the kitchen and out the back door, letting it slam behind them, heading to the tree house.

"See?"

It was probably the first and last time in his whole adult life this was true. He's in the wind somewhere on his own again, but I can't do anything about it. I have to let him be. I have to let him come back on his own, if he ever does. And if he doesn't? It'll be fine.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

39/40 in 40: Nichyevo

39th in a list of 40 things I've learned in 40 years.

ничего.

It's nothing. It's no big deal. The thing that has happened is acceptable and not a problem. You can thank me but really? You shouldn't even bother it is so not a thing I worried about. Eh. Nada. Nichyevo.

Shrug it off. Whatever.

I found myself thinking this a lot the past few years. My Russian is rusty but certain things stuck with me. Little curses, polite phrases, the essence of Russian language instruction, some present tense verbs, bits and pieces. And this one. It's all right. More resigned than happy about it, but it's all right. I think about this word and about Russia. The winter is long and life is short and those are probably intertwined and so many things are grim that thanking me for cleaning off your windshield of ice or bringing your boots up from the foyer or grabbing your child out of traffic, well, ничего. Seriously.

Was dinner to your liking? ничего.

Isn't that child on the swing adorable? ничего.

Thank you for the garlic!  ничего. It grows wild in my garden. No sacrifice there. 

Over the course of two years or so it became a sort of philosophy. I like to be noticed for my accomplishments and contributions, sometimes letting that get in the way of getting things done, and this was a good reminder to let that go. If it isn't a big deal, it isn't a big deal. 

I sometimes really mean it, like if I drive someone home from school who lives on my block and I'm on the way anyway, seriously, no big thing there. 

And I sometimes say it to myself to remind myself that nothing is that big of a deal. I'm not that big of a deal. Life isn't that big of a deal. It's nothing. Really.

38/40 in 40: Don't Give Up

38th in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years: Don't give up.

I'm not a sprinter. I'm just not fast enough to get across that finish line in a hurry. In 8th grade I was assigned to the middle distance running, and I took to it fair enough. I was reasonably ok at the 1/2 mile and even went to district finals, where I came in 5th and I was pretty proud of that. I pushed myself hard on that last straight away, I remember, passing two girls at the very end. My coach gave me the title of athlete of the week that week. I never did another track meet, moving to Georgia and focusing on soccer (and boys). But I think about that last race sometimes, because I was up against my toughest competition and I didn't give up. I didn't.

Fiona was born after a rough labor and delivery. We were both sick, very sick, on multiple antibiotics that resulted in systemic thrush. You don't want systemic thrush, just know that. I really wanted to breastfeed that baby and I really didn't want to be one of those women who said, well, I tried, but....I really really wanted to make it.

So I started setting goals for myself. I would breastfeed today. I would nurse her one more time. I would nurse her tonight, this baby who would not sleep and would not be put down on her own. I would do it. I made it through 6 weeks this way, one nursing session at a time. I did not give up, even though everyone around me told me I could. I nursed that baby until she was old enough to negotiate her own weaning. Seriously. And I nursed two more.

Breastfeeding gave me the gift of perseverance.  I was a typical gifted child--if it wasn't easy, it wasn't worth doing because, frankly, lots of things were very easy. Might as well do one of those instead. Here I finally was, with something I really wanted to accomplish, with the odds against me, and I did it. I fucking did it. When I think back to those early weeks of motherhood and what I survived and accomplished, I just want to shake my fist in the air at everyone who thought I wouldn't, who thought I would give up.

I am often wrong. I am often blundering and do cockamamie things. I laugh too loud and am soft-hearted to those with no defenses, be them children, cats, or young semi-homeless acquaintances. I can be strident, I can be boring, I can let my tongue get me in plenty of trouble. But if you need a cut man in your corner, if you need someone to fight your cause, if you need a cheerleader on your sidelines, if you need someone to walk a hard path with you, I will. Because I don't give up.

 I don't give up so hard I had a man with a needle and ink inscribe it on my skin. It's the hobo sign for don't give up.

Don't.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

37/40 in 40: Be vulnerable

37th in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years. Be open, be vulnerable.

This one took me a long time, to learn to take a joke, to roll with it, to let time and longterm relationships grind down those prickly sharp edges and just be with people who know my flaws, laugh at my mistakes, and not take myself so damned seriously.

I'm right out there, there's no hiding anymore. Everyone knows and I can't let my feathers get ruffled when they disagree or point out my flaws or laugh at my ridiculousness. It's part of my plan, right?

Teaching middle school this time around is what finally brought this to fruition. Deciding to put on the frosted lipstick and eye shadow, the mullet wig, Madonna-inspired costume, and walk into an 8th grade math classroom to talk about the ratio of mullet business (front of the hair) to party (back of the hair), that moment I realized that I had lost the last bits of that false self-respect. Because it is false, the type of self-respect that keeps you from being a fool when it serves the greater good. It isn't really a self-respect, but more of a fear of losing respect.

Deciding to be vulnerable, really open, is actually incredibly empowering. Different from winding up vulnerable, afraid, exposed. Choosing to let that guard down and spill that purse or wear a lace petticoat over rainbow knee-highs or admitting that yes, that happened to me too, yes I know--opens me up to a kind of real human connection, real teaching, and real love that holding it all in and taking it all too hard keeps me blocked from.

My vice-principal came into my room one day at the end of school. "You have a blog," he announced.

"Yes," I agreed, a bit afraid. I knew this day would come--and I slipped up, linked my twitter account to school and there I was, vulnerable and not intending to be.

"And there's something I want you to do," he started and I interrupted.

"You need me to take it down," I finished his sentence.

He looked confused. "No. No--not only am I pretty sure I can't legally do that, but I want the opposite."

He wanted me to bring it into the classroom. Open it up, open myself up, to my kids and share it. Oh no, I thought, that will never happen, I am not going to friend students on facebook and I'm not going to tell them about this blog. If they find it by mistake or their own hunting (it isn't hard) that's fine and their business, but I'm not going to hand out cards with the address on it.

But then I reflected on it.

I thought about Br. Stephen, my 6th grade teacher, who told stories to us every Friday morning in Theology class, stories he'd written and was hoping to publish, in the darkness of the classroom with a candle lit. He did eventually publish them, but I heard them first. I thought about him sitting on the floor, cross-legged in his habit, telling stories by heart to middle school students.

So I brought in my "Ten Things About My Kitchen Table" and opened myself up to my 6th grade a bit. I brought in stories about my grandparents to my 8th graders. Told stories about my marriage and about the hardest things we've been through. Stories about high school friends and mistakes and weighty decisions and learning to apologize.

They love story time. Yeah, it's a class with no notes, no written work, nothing but listening to me in the dark, the smartboard playing a set of photos that match up with what I'm reading. It's easy. But it's also vulnerable. I told about my brother and his wife losing their baby, and watched as Tim in the back of class pretended those weren't tears he was brushing away. I had them in my damned hands when I read some of the stories--that one, the one about my uncle not dying in the barracks in Beirut, the ones about my sister being a witness at a murder trial. I opened this book of myself to them and it worked.

Their first quarter project was "Telling Our Stories." They told them to me. And they made me cry. And what I gained from that project was worth every nervous moment of "I wonder if I should say this" and "I hope they take this seriously." They did.

Being open, being vulnerable, letting go that fear of sharing, fear of being, fear of exposing, moves us all closer to each other. And if that is what I can bring to the table in this life, if that's what I can take away? Man, that's enough.

Sunday, November 09, 2014

36/40 in 40: Relax and take the long view

36th in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years. Relax. Take the long view.

Don't hurry so much. Don't expect it all to get done now. Don't try to change everything right away. Not everything can be known now, and nothing is guaranteed. Ease in, ease back.

This is one of the hardest lessons for me. I still don't have it all figured out. I'm kind of smart, and it seems sometimes that things are easier for me to see or figure out than people around me, so it frustrates me when it doesn't seem so effing clear to everyone. Why don't you see that my plan will work? Why can't we give this a try? But in the end I don't see everything and I often miss the layers of complexity in whatever the situation might be.

And then I get blunt, rude, frustrated, angry, cynical.

Nothing is permanent, and very little that is imperative right now will last or matter soon enough. I don't have to have it all figured out, I don't have to have all the answers and I certainly don't have to fix it.

Especially when that "Fixing it" involves other people, in any fashion.

Yesterday was Dorothy Day's birthday. In the end, she says, all we can do with other people is love them.

That's all we're called to do.

All the rest is just details and ephemera and I don't have to make it all so hard. Rein it in, ease it back, tame it down, and relax, Bridge. It's not all that. None of it is.

Monday, November 03, 2014

35/40 in 40: Apologize and Forgive.

35th in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years: Apologize. Forgive.

Just do it.

Even if it isn't your fault. Even if the other person is more at fault. Even if there is a strong history of fault. Just break that ice and apologize.

My friend Mary's dad gave her some advice a long time ago: when you are in an argument, quickly decide which person cares more. If it isn't you, concede immediately.

I have taken that to heart as good marriage advice, good work advice, good life advice. And I take it further. When there's a stalemate or a cold war between you and another person, quickly figure out why. If it's your fault, apologize immediately. If you can't figure out whose fault it is, apologize immediately. If it's the other person's fault but she is too shy or doesn't have the same kind of in-your-face extroversion as you do, start apologizing anyway and see what happens. If it's the other person's fault and she has damaged you in a major way, walk away, forgiving her in your heart. Forgiving is not forgetting. But it lets you be free.

But if it's got anything to do with you at fault, even a smidge? Apologize.

I have a sign in my front hall that a friend gave me. It reads: It's not always all about you. Oftentimes I assume something is my fault and it isn't. But on rare occasions, it's due to some blind spot of mine. So I find it best to just start apologizing. Right now.

He came into the house and walked right past me. Went upstairs and hid in his room. I made fried chicken and waited. We all ate dinner and then finally I went up to fold laundry outside his door. He opened it and saw me there. He needed to apologize but I knew he didn't know how. He sat down next to me, started helping me match socks.

"I'm sorry things are stressful," I broke the ice between us.

He took the cue. "I shouldn't have," he began. "I'm sorry," he finished.

"Don't do it again," I warned him. "Don't ever."

I held him tight. And then I went downstairs and fed him chicken and mashed potatoes.

Saturday, November 01, 2014

34/40 in 40: Don't be afraid to speak your truth

34th in a list of 40 things I've learned in 40 years. Speak truth. Your truth.

Speaking truth to power is something I've never been afraid of. This is part of the reason why I left every job I had (until my current one) on bad terms. I would stand up in board meetings and tell tales literally out of school.

I was always the one to raise my hand and point out the professor's new clothes. The injustice in the workplace, whether I was the victim or a bystander. My tolerance for inequity is low. So it made sense that I was one of the neighbors who called out our alderman at a board of adjustment meeting. It made sense that I was the one that testified against the drug dealers.

I wore a pair of fingerless gloves to work on Friday, Halloween, that my sister Bevin had embroidered on the knuckles: FEAR and LESS. Standing in front of my 8th grade algebra class and Jimmy asks what they say. I lift my hands up in front of me, fists forward so he can read: "Fearless!"  I said, kind of a surprise. It made them laugh. But in the hall later several of them put their fists together and called out to me: "Fearless!" I did the motion with them. Because I'm realizing in many ways, I'm fearless.

I stood around the fire with Daisy's friends' moms, people I know as "Georgia's mom" and "Jennie's mom" instead of by first names. Chilly Halloween evening. Chat kept up without me while I focused on the flames between the logs and feeling the ache in my bones from being up since 5 that morning. Jello shots were being passed around, mango and peach and something blue. And I could watch it happen in front of me, like I've heard it described on Momastery, about standing on the dock and watching everyone else in their rocking boats drifting away from the dock. She stands there waving at them, knowing where they're heading and deciding not to go with them.

Georgia's mom called me out by my Facebook pseudonym. "You ready for one?"

Eyes turned to me. I had several choices. Disdain, lies, shrugs, coyness, truth.

FEARLESS.

"I would love to, I would. But I'm on day 83."

No shocked silence, no embarrassed apologies. "Oh my God, does it suck?" Georgia's mom asked, and I had to laugh.

"Yes it kind of does. It does suck," I said with a smile back at her. "There was a time recently when I would have started and not stopped until I was on your living room floor for the night."

A story is shared. These women drink too much. But that's ok because I'm not.

"Eighty three days is amazing," said a woman next to me dressed as Minnie Mouse.

"Thanks. I have a friend on about day 3000."

"Does he still count days?"

"I think he does. Which means I'd better keep counting myself."

"Food is better anyway," laughs Hannah's mom wrapped up in her fleece blanket with our school's label on the corner. "Eat a brownie, have some ice cream, no hangover and the same number of calories!"

Conversation turned without awkwardness.  I stood with them a few more minutes and then Daisy's 5 more minutes was up (twenty minutes late) and it was time to go home.We said our goodbyes and headed out onto the dark street.

Fearless.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

33/40 in 40: Know Your Weaknesses

33rd in a series of 40 things I've learned in 40 years.

We all have weaknesses, shortcomings, and blind spots. When I was younger I hadn't honed down my personality well enough to see them, though, and so I was always getting caught by them. Our major weaknesses are often described as strengths gone awry, and of course that's what mine are.

I like to learn and do new things. So I often fall prey to doing too many things. I volunteer and then realize I've overcommitted. I wish for the day when my no is just a gentle no thank you and my yes is a real yes that is well thought out and relaxed in its yesness. There are so many things I like to do and so many things, frankly, that I am passably good at. It's hard to say no. I am trying.

I love to talk and listen and converse and be friends. I'm an extreme extrovert. Not in the idea of life of the party crazy extrovert, but in a quieter, somewhat more demanding way. I need people around me and I need them all the time. And this can lead in two directions. Either I get nothing done because I stand around and chat, or the person I've caught in my web of talk dies of boredom or suffocation or oversharing. I try to catch the look in their eyes now and realize it's time to shut up, go home, go to bed, go back to work, whatever. But the next moment I can chat again, I do, but I try to keep in mind that these other people and I both have things to do. I am trying.

I love. I have recently been made aware of the fact that I am extraordinarily emotionally permeable. I pick up on other people's emotions and, if I'm not careful, I make them my own. People talk about boundaries and I can't even figure them out (I'm an ENFJ and I'm told this is the reason why). I try and fail to establish and maintain boundaries for myself--I'm great with boundaries for my kids, for instance, but not for me. This lets me live life in a dangerously invigorating close-knit honest crazy damaging way. I have learned that I gain energy from other people, that I kind of feed off people's happiness and sadness and being in touch with what other people around me are doing, feeling, and thinking is the only way I can live without becoming extremely depressed and disconnected. But it's dangerous and it can be a trap--so I'm learning to keep a net between me and other people. Not a bubble. A net. I've learned the weakness and I'm trying to work around it. I'm trying.

It's taken a long time to come to terms with these things, along with other ones that are more minor but definitely present (I have a somewhat addictive personality; I need affirmation more than I should; I have a great sense of humor that gets me in trouble; I like bad boys; I get bored easily; I let my mouth get me in trouble, sometimes even on purpose). It's not easy to admit that you're flawed, somewhat deeply, in several ways. But I like to think of these things as one side of the coin. None of them is bad, really--it's not like I torture cats or use heroin or something--they just go along with my crooked teeth (how can they be MORE crooked now?) and my messy house. They make things interesting...in small doses.

Tame it down, Bridge, tame it down.