Texas has beautiful lakes, and Lake Brownwood in central Texas was where I spent countless hours, swimming like a tadpole. I swam a lot in pools, too. I remember swimming in the pool in the apartment complex where we lived when I was eight and my dad taught me how to blow out under water and how to dive off the edge of the pool; when we moved to Grand Prairie, the heavily chlorinated community pools were regular destinations. My mom signed me up for summer swim lessons at Cottonwood Park, and this, along with sports practices and games, were the only things she could be reliably depended on to take me to as her depression and addiction worsened.
The head swim teacher was named Miss June, and she was magnificent! She was tall and athletic, loud and bossy, with spiky strawberry blonde hair and a slightly crooked front tooth; she ruled the pool with an iron fist, a shrill whistle, and a sharp eye. Forty years later I can hear her voice as clearly as my own: ordering flutter kicks, holding up tummies so our backs stayed straight, and teaching us how to cup our hands to get good water resistance. Over the course of several summers I moved from beginner swimmer up through the ranks to advanced, swimming 60 to 75 laps a session under her watchful eye. She taught me the jackknife dive, and she tried, summer after summer, to get me to dive headfirst off the high diving board. I would walk right to the edge of the board, toes gripping the end, breathe deeply and visualize a smooth easy fall… but I could never do it. I could never take that plunge. Fear was too much, like I said, I have ever been cautious. She wanted me to swim on a team or certify to be a lifeguard, but I didn’t quite have the resources to make that happen. Later, when I was thirty-one and offered the chance to certify as a river front life guard for the church camp my husband worked, I jumped at the chance. I got into the pool with all the teenagers and swam the laps, drug the weights off the floor of the deep end, and earned a bright red swimsuit and my very own whistle. That was a dream come true, and every time I grabbed my float and climbed the ladder to the lifeguard stand, I swelled my chest just a little and sent a thank you to Miss June.
Even better than the pool at Cottonwood Park was the lake. I have a very favorite place in the world: my grandparents’ lake house in Brownwood, Texas, a cedar shake cabin surrounded by live oaks and marked by a mailbox set in an antique milk can. My love affair with this place began when I visited it for the first time as an awkward twelve year-old, lost in the morass of junior high hell, wearing a polyester red gym suit and having my bra strap popped by idiot boys. Mornings began on the porch swing, my grandmother June drinking coffee while I had orange juice. She loved to watch for birds. My brothers and I caught tiny frogs and kept them in plastic margarine bowls provided by my grandmother and we spent the afternoons taking running leaps off the top of the boat dock. One time, my brother Lance grabbed my hand for a pellmell vault into the brown water, and my foot caught on a nail. The nail embedded itself in the fleshy ball of my foot and I just sort of rooted myself to the spot. Lance kept pulling me, exhorting me not to be a chicken, until he realized my silent misery. Seeing my wound, he helped me to the house for first aid and loved on me the rest of the day. He had a sweet heart. There were three life jackets for all the cousins to share: blue, red, and yellow. Big to small, we all graduated through the color-coded sizes until we were grown. I slept on bunk beds covered by quilts that my ancestors had stitched.
As I matured, I began to see the paneled walls, blue kitchen cabinets, colored striped carpets and brightly hued quilts and displays of art glass as the very safest and most love filled place on earth. After my grandmother died of breast cancer in 1982, this cabin became the living embodiment of her compassion and joy, and of the love she and my grandfather shared. My grandparents spent the first months of their marriage living in a tent near the dam on Lake Brownwood while my Pop recuperated from TB. That lake was a place of love and romance for them. To honor that, I wanted to get married there, but the logistics of planning a wedding somewhere far away from where I was in school were so daunting, I changed my mind. I have always regretted that. I believe now that we must acknowledge and pursue the deepest desires of our hearts, no matter how seemingly impossible.
I took my kids there every summer. We have many, many pictures of them jumping on the trampoline or riding the inner tubes, wearing the very same red, yellow, or blue life jackets that I, their uncles, and their second cousins had worn. Their childhoods can be traced at the lake, like growth marks on a doorway. We had Hilary’s seventh and Travis Austin’s third birthdays there, and Thanksgiving and Christmas celebrations that revolved not around the water, but around the card table. Lake Brownwood is where I spent time with my dear cousins, aunts, and uncles.
I dream of the house often. Always surrounded by water, sometimes Pop is there, sometimes my aunts and uncles, sometimes my cousins. The new owners have replaced the old dock and blue kitchen cabinets, much to my dismay, but the spirit of my grandparents lives on.
Today, my home is filled with little lake touches. My grandmother’s glass collection is on a shelf in my kitchen, the quilt that was on my grandparents’ bed hangs on a rod in my living room, and I painted my kitchen cabinets blue. I keep geraniums because my Pop did, though to my chagrin I can’t seem to get house plants to flourish like Grandma did.
I never stopped loving water.
As a forty-eight year-old lady, I got to own my first swimming pool. We built a tiny little pool, the smallest a contractor would do, with a spa in the corner, a sun shelf, a turquoise painted wooden deck, and enough room for me to do water aerobics or just float in a chair that had a cup holder for wine.
I loved to go out in the back yard at night, strip to nothing, and float on a pool noodle under the moonlight. I could spend hours floating. When it was too cold to swim, I would relieve work stress just by sitting near the water and letting its drift and shimmer soothe my spirit.
I don’t have that house or pool now, but I am counting pennies to get one at our new house. I still crave water. My spirit needs it.
If I could be the architect of my perfect Afterlife, it would be a slate blue boat dock with a swing and an eight-foot roof from which I can take endless joyful flights into the refreshing water.
This selection is an excerpt from Dandelion Wishes: The Magic of a Quiet Spirit in a Noisy World, a work hopefully coming soon!
For Mother’s Day, my daughters took me to a Korean spa. This was a wholly new experience for me- I was excited about soaking in pools of warm water and sitting in steam with my two girls. Then I learned something: you have to be naked. Fully unclothed. As a jaybird. Buck. Naked.
I did not handle this well. I had brought my swimsuit- but I was not allowed to wear it. I put on the short green cotton robe that was provided in my locker and just quivered.
I was raised to be modest, and since I was naturally shy, it went hand-in-hand. I am not sure I ever saw my mom naked, maybe once or twice. By accident. I never saw grandmothers in dishabille, even once my grandparents moved to live at a lake, my Grandma June did not wear a swimsuit.
Once, on my first sleepover with a friend, my third-grade self started getting dressed by putting my shoes and socks on with my nightgown. My little friend was puzzled, “Why are you getting dressed like that?” “This is how I always do it,” I replied. The truth was that as she started getting dressed, I was too embarrassed to do the same, so I started with the safest thing: shoes and socks. Of course, once it was time to take off my full length flannel nightgown and put on pants, I had to take off my shoes anyway.
Cover ups were worn to and from the pool, and when I was in drill team we were required to wear cover ups to and from rehearsals. We did not leave a dance rehearsal in our leotards and tights- we covered up.
Shorts were not allowed at school. They were not allowed at church camp- we sweltered in jeans in 100+ degree heat. When I went to college at a conservative Evangelical school in 1985, the same policy held: no shorts except in the gymnasium (no co-ed pe classes), intramural fields, or in the non-public areas of the dorms.
This was the norm in the 1980’s- especially in Dallas, Texas, where the Bible Belt influence is tenacious.
And to be completely honest- I dig a little modesty. I might be a mite old-fashioned, but I feel a jolt when confronted with booty shorts and crop tops. I don’t think I am judging the ladies who dress that way, but I feel uncomfortable, nonetheless. I once saw a really great political cartoon, in which the dichotomy of modesty and freedom in Muslim and Western culture is obvious:
I might fall closer to the figurative hijab or burqa, personally, and the cartoon above really brought it home to me. It’s about perspective, really.
But shame? That’s a whole different ball game.
Confronted with so much female nudity in the Los Angeles Korean spa- a clean, well-lit, secure environment- I could barely lift my eyes, which at moments filled with frustrated tears. I glanced surreptitiously- there were women both fatter and thinner than me, older and younger, darker and lighter, shorter and taller. There were abundant cellulite, lithe limbs, bellies stretched from childbirth, taut tummies, surgical scars, small breasts, large breasts, and in-between breasts. My body would have just blended in. No one would have given me a second glance, yet I just perched on the edge of the hot tub, feet sitting down in the hot bubbling water, robe wrapped tightly and clutched fiercely to make sure it didn’t gap. After a few scorching minutes in the steam room, I curled up on a sleep mat and let the heated floor send me into a sweet snoozy cat nap.
My daughters suffered no such self-shame, by the way.
I have given so much thought to the shame thing- where does it come from? It’s cultural, of course. Ad campaigns, tv shows, blah-blah-blah, on and on. But even more insidious is the way it creeps into the real conversations of the real people who impact our lives.
Like that drill team director who instructed us to cover up as we went to and from the gym or practice field and who also required regular weigh-ins at which all the officers were allowed to sit and comment on our weights as we stepped off the scales.
Once, without realizing I could hear her, a grandmother looked at my photo and commented to my father that I had gained weight. At fifteen, I had been so proud of that photo shoot and had felt very pretty. Until.
On another occasion, while hugging another grandmother tight, she disparaged her own body, saying there was too much too hug, how could my arms reach? I told her I loved her just as she was. Her reply? “Your grandfather would love me more if I could lose some weight.” I was thirteen…
and I believed her because that very grandfather would look out the window at their lake cabin and mercilessly critique the neighbor who, in her 50’s and then 60’s, liked to do yard work in her two piece swimsuit. Her body was fair game, both for its size (which was quite healthy) and its age.
Don’t mistake me- I loved (and still do) all of these grandparents. But somewhere along the way, their comments mixed with church and media messages to create a powerful and addictive cocktail of body and age shame in me.
As the mother of two girls, I tried to be very careful of what I said to them about their own bodies- I wanted them to feel comfortable in their own skins, and for the most part, they do. They didn’t have any problem stripping down to hop in the pools. But what I didn’t realize was that what I said about my own body was affecting them, too. That they were watching. They were listening. They were copying.
When I was visiting in LA just a couple of weeks ago, and I started the litany of body criticism, my older daughter looked at me with exasperation and said, “Mom, please don’t ruin this week with that. Please don’t go there. Please.” It stopped me dead in my tracks- I don’t just hurt myself when I clothe myself in shame. I hurt my girls, who have learned to love themselves, and who love me just like I am. It’s the craziest thing- they admire me. They respect me. And their adult selves have very little tolerance for my self-shame.
I guess body shame and body ownership are two sides of the same coin. I feel empowered when I am a little more modest. Some women are empowered by the burqa. Others are empowered by bikinis. We accept shame when we listen to the voices of the world, and when we let those voices supplant our own.
So, in my own voice, I spent time in my morning gratitude practice saying thank you to and for my body. Part by part: legs, knees, lungs, heart, eyes, mouth, womb, hands, belly…I acknowledged what my body does for me. With me. Sometimes in spite of me.
And just maybe, next time I will get in the naked pool. Maybe.
Women are killing it in 2018. Killing it. Though we still haven’t completely leveled the playing field, it’s getting closer. Oprah at the Oscars, “Wonder Woman,” and the #MeToo movement which resulted in the Silence Breakers being named as Time Magazine’s most recent Person of the Year have been highlights. On a personal level, I am finishing two book drafts- those are major accomplishments for me.
And on the fun front, I got to see “I Feel Pretty” just this week, and I loved it. Before the movie started, women and only women (most at least 30 years old- the humor is probably only funny for those of us who have lived a little. The marketers knew their audience, the first glimpse I got of the movie was on Pinterest) got comfy and ordered lunch while watching a preshow of Amy Schumer highlights: clips from “Trainwreck” and “Snatched” were interspersed with her comedy shorts. The movie trailers were for “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” “Ocean’s 8,” and the “Mamma Mia” musical sequel. All films about women who make us laugh. “I Feel Pretty” made me laugh. A lot. It also made me cry.
“I am beautiful.”
“Am I beautiful?”
“I’m not beautiful.”
That’s the progression for so many women. When we are little girls, we don’t doubt it. We play dress up in our mom’s heels, smearing lipstick on our faces and striking poses for photos. We throw on a pair of shorts or a swimsuit for play without a second thought about our bodies. But it changes somewhere along the way, doesn’t it? At least, for a lot of us. Some charmed angels manage to stay whatever society says beautiful is all the way through childhood and adolescence- shiny hair, clear skin, thin. But most of us go through some awkwardness, and that’s where our hearts and psyches stay.
And so we meet Renee Bennett, Amy Schumer’s beleaguered Millenial in the new release “I Feel Pretty.” She’s watching a YouTube tutorial, trying to recreate a “faux-hawk” hairdo. It’s not going great. And she gives herself a long, long look in the mirror. It made me tear up, and here’s why: without speaking one word, I saw in her eyes exactly what she was saying. Because I say it to myself on a daily basis:
Not pretty enough. Not thin enough. Not enough, not enough, not enough.
To see her undress and take in her reflection after being fat-shamed into leaving a clothing boutique was, to be honest, gut wrenching. I teared up again here. Every time she looks in a mirror her shame radiates. Until the magic moment when it doesn’t. In a moment that is an acknowledged meta nod to the Tom Hanks gem “Big,” Renee bonks her head in a fall off the bike in her Soul Cycle class and wakes up completely convinced that she is fantastically gorgeous. And she is- but the trick is that nothing actually changed. She is the exact same person, but instead of an inner monologue of self shaming, she caresses her size ten legs and declares them perfect. It is her perception that has changed, not her actual appearance, though she doesn’t know it.
We watch what happens when this seemingly average, thicker girl owns her own beauty. She rules. And she falls in love. She makes courageous choices.
I feel charming
Oh, so charming
It’s alarming how charming I feel!
And so pretty
That I hardly can believe I’m real!- Maria, “West Side Story”
Make no mistake- this film is not “The French Lieutenant’s Woman.” It’s not going to be nominated for any Oscars. Schumer is not a Streep-level actress. But she’s funny. Really, really funny and fearless. The bikini contest scene was uproarious- the theater was rocking at that point. Watching Michelle Williams, who is an Oscar nominated actress, play against type was utter joy. I fell a little in love with Rory Scovel, who played a slightly bewildered and really sweet love interest. Aidy Bryant and Busy Phillips are the trusted sidekicks. I was so relieved that Aidy’s size was never mentioned. Not once. Not even as they created a triple-threat online dating profile. The audience that I watched with was completely female, and the laughs were loud and frequent, grounded in the reality that so many of us have lived: the magazines may not see us as goddesses, but that’s okay. We are goddesses even without their permission.
The Dove company did a really great campaign not too long ago, its message was just that- it’s how we see and define our own selves that matters. They did a hidden camera video of women who had to choose between two doors to enter a building: one labeled “Average” and one labeled “Beautiful.” I cried when I saw it. I cry to even think of it. Because almost no women chose the beautiful door. Their faces fell, in fact, as they made the choice. Heads hung as they walked in. Why do we do that to ourselves?
“I Feel Pretty” matters. It really does. It reinforces, it shouts, the truth that we are all beautiful. We all struggle with romantic relationships, friendships, and careers. Yet we are all pretty- fat, thin, tall, short, chic, basic, brown, white. Oscar trophies? No. Big laughs and happier ladies? Hell yes.
This morning, I awakened to a gift. A poem that my eldest child, my daughter, sent to me. It was by Mary Oliver. I read it. I was stunned. And then I was intrigued. So I decided to find some more of Oliver’s work. What followed was no less than a descent down a white-rabbit tunnel into a wonderland of beautiful words and exquisite thought. It seemed I had found a poet who spoke to my soul. It turns out Mary Oliver is also a deep-thinking, dream-driven introvert who loves nature, and she has drilled deeply into the questions of Divinity. God’s nature. God’s revelation in nature.
Unitarian Universalist minister and blogger Fred Hammond described it beautifully, and he quoted author Kathleen McTigue as well:
“Kathleen McTigue writes regarding Oliver’s theology, ‘By that word [theology] I mean not only what her poems reflect of her beliefs about God, but what they reflect about a host of other religious questions: What is holy? Who are we? What are we called to do with our lives? What is death, and how do we understand it when we turn our faces toward its inevitability? These questions matter to all of us. And the answers in Mary Oliver’s poems feel so resonant and so true…’”
These are the questions that have become the very litany of my new existence. I now have an empty nest. It’s just me and my husband and our two dogs knocking around the house. I always believed my calling to be a mom was holy. I know it was. But it’s pretty much over. Now I wonder what I am called to in this new chapter. And with each arthritic pain and new wrinkle, I am forced to turn my face toward the inevitable. My parents are gone, my husband’s parents are slowing down. Beloved aunts and uncles seem so much older. These days, my heart is tender. Tears hover behind my eyelids, waiting just out of reach for a bit of tender piano music or the sight of a mother nursing her baby to call them forth, dripping down my lined face.
I have begun to embrace the idea that I am holy, in and of myself. Not my motherhood. Not my wifehood. Not my artistry. Not my vocation. Not my voice. Not even my silence. I am all of those things. All of those things are holy. But even without them, I am holy.
And trees are, too.
This poem moved me to tears:
When I Am Among the Trees
When I am among the trees,
especially the willows and the honey locust,
equally the beech, the oaks and the pines,
they give off such hints of gladness.
I would almost say that they save me, and daily.
I am so distant from the hope of myself,
in which I have goodness, and discernment,
and never hurry through the world
but walk slowly, and bow often.
Around me the trees stir in their leaves
and call out, “Stay awhile.”
The light flows from their branches.
And they call again, “It’s simple,” they say,
“and you too have come
into the world to do this, to go easy, to be filled
with light, and to shine.”
I love trees. I love them. I just got back from a walk, and the photo above is where I walked: a quiet lane completely enfolded in green leaves and branches. The trees whispered in the spring breeze. Like Oliver says, trees save me. Daily. All my life.
I have always loved trees. The first tree with whom I fell in love was a locust that lived in my neighbor’s yard. My seven year old self, a neighborhood pariah, would climb into the tree and nestle in its branches, eating the little brown beans that grew in pods, watching the kids play without me from the safety of my perch.
My ten year old self adopted the tree in our new house, wedged into the V shape that just fit my scrawny behind, Beverly Cleary and Madeleine L’Engle books nourishing my lonely little soul.
Near my house there was an enormous weeping willow, and I would stand in its fronds, imagining that I was in a safe and magical world where no one could find me. I recently visited that street. Both of those precious trees were gone. I grieved.
In the yard in front of the house where my husband and I spent most of the child-rearing years of our family, there was a giant oak tree whose leaves created a canopy outside my bedroom window. All of every spring and summer, I felt like I slept in a tree house. I kept a chair on the balcony just outside my bedroom, and when my spirit was angry or in despair, I sat in that chair and simply let the tree speak to my soul. I hugged that tree. Literally. I hugged her. And when we left that house, I had to spend time with her, saying goodbye and thanking her for taking such good care of me.
Psalm 52:8 says: “But as for me, I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever.” I think that oak tree in Shenandoah, Texas was a gift from the Divine One, to show Her lovingkindness for my soul.
Have you ever seen a giant tree? Maybe a California Redwood? When I visited Sydney Australia with my younger daughter, we found what I think might have been a giant gum tree in the Royal Botanical Gardens. It was stunning. I almost couldn’t walk away. I had to stroke her trunk and talk to her a bit, much to my daughter’s amusement. She’s a bit more pragmatic that her older sister, who balances her chakras and talks to trees like I do.
My daughters, my son, my husband, our parents and grandparents back and back and back have created, as have all families, forests of family trees. Roots go deeper than we can imagine, soaking up nourishment of love like water. Branches reach toward the azure sky and the vibrant sunshine as the seeds of dreams are created and carried. Sometimes there is disease. It might cause a branch to fall, or perhaps even need pruning. That is the great cycle of life that the Divine One has created and set in motion, isn’t it?
What I know today is that my walk amongst the trees fed my spirit, so will the rich poetry of Mary Oliver. Her inner monologues, as revealed in her poetry, just seem to affirm that there are other introverted and tender souls out there who are like me. God has given me my soul, Mary’s poetry, and gorgeous trees to hug. His lovingkindness is everlasting.
- McTigue, Kathleen; God of Dirt: Theology of Mary Oliver, sermon delivered on May 7 2006 at the Unitarian Universalist Society of New Haven, CT as found athttp://www.unitariansocietynh.org/content/usnh/God_of_Dirt_sermonliturgy_5-7-1.pdf