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FairyMiddlin

Reflections on finding peace and magic in the middle of…

Month

August 2012

Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!

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I was a hide-and-seek master as a child. I could hide in very creative places and I could hold my breath if that is what it took to remain hidden. Interestingly, I was afraid to try for home base because I didn’t want to give away my prime spot. In high school I remember playing some version of hide-and-seek called Capture The Flag. We were at a church youth group retreat. I don’t really remember the rules. What I do remember is that I hid for so long, listening to everyone run around and get caught, laughing while I remained silent and solitary. No one ever found me, and to my knowledge, no one even tried. I finally gave up and went back to the cabin, where the entire group including the chaperones had moved on to a new activity. No one had even noticed my absence, and certainly they had not sent anyone to find me.

Hiding didn’t always mean literally tucking myself away in a wee spot. Sometimes I hid in plain view. One day in my senior year of high school, my friends and I were goofing around in the choir room with some inflatable frisbees I had in my car trunk from the water park where I worked. All four of my friends struck silly poses and someone snapped a picture. That pic ended up in the yearbook, and my friend Celeste wrote “Where is Kim?” out beside the photo in the book. Where, indeed? I was standing beside the photographer, waiting and hoping that one of my friends would notice I was not in the picture and invite me in. Same thing happened in college at a club Christmas party- my entire group was getting a picture made by the Christmas tree and I was standing off to the side, waiting for someone to notice me.

I think I tend to hide as an adult, too. How many of us find safe, cozy places and huddle in there, waiting for our friends, lovers, children, parents, co-workers to come find us and pull us from our isolation? I will sometimes pass an entire workday without a single word exchanged with a co-worker. I am in a physical location at school that makes it easy to just tuck in to my room or theatre space, teach and direct my kids, then just slide right on out. My bedroom is my refuge, and if someone doesn’t force me out, I will spend days tucked into my bed surrounded by books and sunshine spattered salmon covered walls. Travis is always telling me to call someone to set up a date. I can’t. I just can’t.

Leaving the hidey-hole means risking vulnerability. There is a journey to be made between the safety of darkness and the safety of home base. You may get tagged, knocked down, or made “it.” You may risk love and not be loved in return. Even when you are loved in return, there is even more at stake, because nothing hurts worse than pain inflicted by a loved one. You may express yourself artistically and not be understood. You may try a new career and fail. You may initiate a new friendship and be ignored.

I don’t know if I will ever be comfortable enough to jump into the photo or invite the friend over. If Travis is ever gone from me, you will probably find me tucked away like a hermit, reading books and eating saltines in bed. I won’t send out an S.O.S. But if you come find me, let me know you’re around by hollering that old standby:”Olly-Olly-Oxen-Free!”

First Day of School Jitters: from a teacher.

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I probably won’t sleep tonight. I have already started drinking Smirnoff Ice (pineapple flavor is tremendous, but we are out of my favorite- mango), in hopes that my nerves will just shut down. I will also take at least one sleeping pill at about nine o’clock. Five thirty a.m. is going to hurt.

I read the sweetest open letter to teachers this morning, from a lady who hated/loved her daughter’s first grade teacher. It’s been circulating on Facebook this week. It was so encouraging, and exhorted us teachers to love and welcome the precious souls who cross our thresholds tomorrow. The author says those kiddos, no matter how old, want to be liked by their teachers.

I have a secret for you: we teachers want to be liked, too. I have already decided what I am wearing tomorrow, I have my class handbooks and audition packets run off, tables and chairs are neatly in place, lesson plans have been written through October, with notes for the rest of the year’s lessons. Suburban requests for our Thespian trips have been submitted in hopes of beating the athletic coaches to the punch, scripts for our opening play have been numbered and assigned a character, now they just await the corresponding student actor.

I want my students to believe that I am competent. I want them to trust that if they put their fragile egos in my hands that I will do my best to nurture them. I want them to aspire to excellence because I have set that example. But I really, really, really want them to like me.

I want to be the teacher that students talk about at lunch: “Who do you have for third period?” “Mrs. Bryant for Theatre.” “Oh man, I hear she’s cool!”

I want to be the teacher that kids come back to visit.

We teachers are always told that it doesn’t matter if the kids like us, as long as they respect us and learn from us. I don’t know about that. I mean, I know those things are of the utmost importance, but it just seems like being liked is an okay wish. I know some teachers get out of whack on this, and in an effort to be liked, cross some boundaries. That’s not what I am talking about.

I cringe at the idea that students might dread coming to my room.

I wish I could be Sunshine Sally all the time (she was this sort of odd children’s show character in the 70’s that my Grandmother would put on the console television in the mornings to keep me entertained while she sewed. I remember a yellow dress). My goodness, that woman was a smiler! I have had friends over the years that were their own brand of Sunshine. I teach with a few (though admittedly they were more common down in the elementary ranks). I just am not that radiant. I am pretty intense, pretty focused, pretty task oriented. I am also somewhat contemplative, a bit of an introvert with a dry, sarcastic wit. High school students don’t always know how to interpret that. I can be prickly.

So tomorrow, I will strap on my microphone, greet kids at the door, checking their yellow schedule printouts to make sure they are in the right place, I will smile until my cheeks hurt, and I will secretly be begging inside for them to like me.

Time to crack open another drink and go upstairs to try on my first day outfit. Wish me luck!

What did you say?

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I have been silent since last Thursday. Well, my voice can make a weird little hoarse scrape, but nothing resembling a human voice comes out of this throat just yet. I have found myself communicating through gesture, text, and handwritten notes. Because it’s such an effort to have a conversation, I find myself weighing my words, evaluating whether they really need to be said. Most of the time, they don’t!

It’s been an interesting journey this year, this inability to use my speaking voice to communicate. I have learned that words have power. I mean, I always knew that, but not until the faculty of speech was gone did I really comprehend how much impact a word can have.

I confess that I have, unfortunately, let my mouth get away from me, like a runaway train that I am seemingly powerless to stop. I know I have hurt my husband, kids, family, students. We all have done that, it’s part of being human, and it’s one of the things we hope to learn how to control as we walk our journey. Sometimes, I have just plain talked too much! When our voices become meaningless chatter that our listeners have to wade through to find the nugget of meaning, we dilute the power of our speech. My kids like to tease me that when I am telling them what to have for dinner, I will repeat that there is sandwich meat in the fridge and bread in the pantry at least three times. I want to be sure they hear me! I think that comes from teaching so many years, when you give the instructions three times and without fail a student will raise his hand and ask what he’s supposed to be doing.

Silence has just as much power. We’ve all known the parent, teacher, or coach who affected change not by screaming fits, but with a silent look of disappointment that cut to the quick. I am not good at the kind of silence that allows injustice to perpetuate. I am not good at ignoring problems or pretending that everything is okay. I will find a way to confront the problem. But what I am learning now is to choose my words carefully. A well chosen word can be like the lancet that breaks open the festering wound so that it can be cleansed and healed. A well chosen word can end a fight. It can heal.

I think the most powerful element of communication is the one that gets the least glory: Listening. I know that in this arena, my shortcoming is busy-ness. I just don’t stop moving and multi-tasking to listen to what is being said to me. I believe that real listening happens when I stop moving, look into the eyes of my conversation partner, and stop thinking of what my response is going to be before she even finishes what she is saying. I believe the greatest sign of respect we can give to another person is to listen to what that person has to say, without cutting them off, finishing their sentences, or giving a distracted “uh-huh” to indicate fake listening.

It is impossible to pass through this life in perfect control of our speech. We get tired, frustrated, distracted, and hurt. But I am convinced that as we get older and wiser, our speech must become more meaningful, our words must be chosen and wielded with conviction, and we must learn how to listen and use silence to build bridges.

Tomorrow, I will continue on this quiet path. Who knows, I may stay quiet for the rest of my days. I hope to keep learning how to say things right. I will say this: I want each word I send into the universe to have significance.

The price of bullying.

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I think we have, as a society, become aware of what happens when adolescents and young adults use their words and influence to bully people who are different: whether it’s sexuality, weight, poverty, intelligence, or physical beauty. We have seen the vlogs of kids getting ready to kill themselves, stared in shock at the footage of shooting victims, we have heard the cries of the anorexics.

The “It Gets Better” campaign is a marvelous grassroots effort to assure those that are different that it will, in fact, improve. Each day is its own challenge, and each day is a fresh start. With adulthood comes the power to turn one’s back on the naysayers.

But you know what I don’t hear people talking about much? Parents who bully. Good, loving parents who browbeat the dreams right on out of their kids. I am not talking about parents who hit their kids, neglect their kids, or even verbally abuse their kids. I am talking about parents who are so ruled by fear of risk, by fear of the unknown, by fear of failure, that they attempt to micromanage every decision that their child makes.

In my profession I have the opportunity to encounter all sorts of kids and the parents who create them.

There are the helicopter parents who hover over every moment, the tiger parents who manage every choice, the absent parents who exert no influence whatsoever, the damaged parents who barely limp through their own pain and are not equipped to nurture their offspring, the healthy parents who support and guide their kids but let them make their own choices.

I had a mixture of parents: a mom who was mentally ill and drug addicted and could not be a mother and a dad who was lonely, damaged, and overworked (both have passed).

My husband had the kind who could not bear to let their son be who he was. They love him, I know they do. But his memories are filled with being told what extracurricular activities to participate in, what college to choose, and what major to undertake. The Arts were his true passion and calling. Anyone who has been around him in the last fifteen years knows I am speaking truth. He was good enough to be a professional actor. With the right training, he might have spent a life acting, directing, coaching, or casting. He most certainly could have paid the rent. Browbeaten into submission, he tried the safe route. It has been a difficult path. I have watched him fight depression, addiction, weight, and despair. He has spent his entire life trying to please the two people who should have been cheering him on from the beginning, and I have spent our married life picking up the pieces.

Now we are fighting the same battle on behalf of our children.

I have ever, as a mom, believed that it was my role to help my kids discover who they were created to be, equip them for it, then get out of their way when it was time to stumble on those first uneasy steps to self discovery and adult fulfillment. Rather than watching my children despair as they tried to fit into a mold of someone else’s design, crafted of someone else’s values, I believed they needed the freedom to try new things until they discovered their passions and aptitudes. My task has become to listen to their hearts, teach them to do the same, and show them that fear and failure are inevitable.

Hilary has chosen to get a BFA in Acting and Directing. She’s really good at what she does. She has three nominations, some great roles, and Dean’s List certificates to prove it. I am amazed by her. Will she be an A-List celebrity? Who knows. Probably not. But I do know that she can make a living doing what she loves. Take a look at these statistics from a recent study on the impact of Arts employment in Houston:

“According to the report, 146,625 individuals in the Houston metropolitan statistical area had creative jobs in a creative or non-creative industry, or non-creative jobs in a creative industry, in 2011. That’s more than are employed in the city’s finance and real estate sector, more even than the Texas Medical Center employs…Plus, the median earnings per creative worker are higher in Houston than anywhere else, at $21.58 per hour, which — coupled with great demand (only about half of the $21.93 billion spent on creative goods and services in 2011 was produced and sold locally) — renders the city an ideal spot for creatives.” (Taken from the Houston Arts Alliance, by Whitney Radley)

My daughter is bright and capable. More than that, she is brave. She is brave enough to go to auditions and be told no, then do it again and again. She is hardworking enough to bring people food and drink so she can pay her bills while she starts her career. Most importantly, she knows that if she fails, she will have the utter satisfaction of knowing she tried. She will not spend her entire adulthood grieving over chances never taken. She has parents, a love, and friends who will cheer her on for as long as she needs us.

I think the other ones will be artists as well. We have always known Travis Austin would not follow the typical path of college and 9-5 job. Libby, a member of the All State Theatre cast, is clearly as talented as her sister. She radiates on stage. When she is dancing, it is as though she is transported.

I know Trav and I will hold them when they cry at failure. But we would rather comfort them in failure than watch them chafe at safety.

I just wish their grandparents felt the same, for my kids’ sake, and their dad’s.

Why teach? Indeed.

Today, I spent several hours  at an inservice entitled “Teach Like a Rock Star.” A very engaging and entertaining gentleman with 25 years experience in the classroom made us laugh with stories of what it’s like the first week of teaching, that awful moment when you realize the principal is in your room for a surprise observation, and the A.D.D. kiddo who just grins and wiggles all the way through a lesson, just to ask what he’s supposed to be doing when all the other students are busily engaged (Mason was my A.D.D. kiddo. Loved that boy!) About an hour after lunch, he began to talk about earning the right to authentically critique kids. He exhorted all of us to discover why we teach. Sharing that “Why” with our students is what, in their eyes,  earns us the right to correct and admonish. Sounds simple, huh?

I’ll tell you this: teachers do not teach for their summer breaks. Mr. Rock Star said it, and I have known it for years- if you’re in education for the summer breaks, you’ll only last five years, tops. There comes a point where all the pool time in the world will not be enough to keep a teacher locked in a classroom with 30-140 kids a day the other nine months of the year.

Why do I teach? Why?

Because it’s who I am. I have no better answer than that. I love the act of teaching. I love pedagogy. I love planning and executing lessons. I love watching kids “get it.” I literally get these weird tingling sensations on my scalp when I am watching a particularly effective scene. Student pantomimes and neutral scenes can send me into an absolute rush of goose bumps.

Mr. Rock Star also says you are not a real teacher if your students don’t make you cry. Accountants don’t cry over a column of balanced figures. Plumbers don’t cry over a well-laid pipe. But teachers? We cry.

I have cried over and with kids whose home situations were unbearable and I was helpless to remedy it.

I have cried when kids have said hurtful things to me.

I have cried out of sheer exhaustion.

I have cried with students who clung to me, weeping in sheer panic, leaving mascara stains all over my clothes, as they sorted out relationships with parents or lovers.

Simply put, I love being a teacher.

However, I have discovered that I don’t love being a producer. That’s the other part of my job. I love the part of directing shows where I am really digging in with kids to create character and tell story. I love rehearsal- that’s the teaching part of a show. I do not love the rest- the organization and building of the set, costumes, sound, and lights. I do not love worrying about show publicity. I hate fundraising. I despise doing the programs and posters (even if kids do the artwork, I still have to take care of getting it printed and paid for).

In my ideal world, I work in a school where I teach classes all day, but someone else directs the after school shows. I want so badly to be beyond excellent in the classroom, but the extracurricular program is a large, hungry beast that demands a lot of care and attention.

I think I am the opposite of many of my theatre teaching colleagues. Isn’t that funny? I sense that for many of my colleagues, the after school program is where their hearts are, and that the classroom day is just something to get through.

So what are my goals and aspirations for this year?

I have written at least two months of lesson plans, and have my scope and sequence for the entire year in all subjects. I aspire to teach at least 80% of what I have planned.

I hope to find joy in the tech classes.

I endeavor to stay in the moment with my students. I will not use my valuable teaching time to multi-task. My students deserve 100% of my attention during our 45 minutes together each day.

I vow to simplify. Less elaborate productions will allow me to teach and direct better.

I. Will. Rest. Burn-out is the great enemy of my profession.

I will try just as hard as I can to treat each student as I would want my children’s teachers to treat them.

I will smile more and worry less.

Teaching is a calling. It’s my calling. It’s my passion. May I move forward into a new year with energy, flexibility, creativity, and compassion, never forgetting that I may be the one that kids will remember for the rest of their lives. It is up to me whether their memories are joyous.

What exactly ARE boys made of?

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Today is my son’s twenty-first birthday. He is celebrating with friends, as he should. He started partying last night and I believe has  continued through the day. I have heard from him, and his friend Nicole is posting pics and videos to her Facebook, so I know he’s okay. She also promised to be the designated driver and that she’d be sure he gets home safely.

Twenty-one years ago, this child entered my world. He was taken from me pretty quickly at birth, and the nurses wouldn’t release him from the nursery until his temperature stabilized, so I had to wait a bit to hold him. When they brought him to me, I was alone in my hospital room. The nurse set him in my arms and left the two of us to get to know each other. I will never, in all my days, forget looking into his eyes for the first time. They weren’t like newborn eyes, cloudy and dark. He was clear-eyed and he looked at me as if to say he had known me for a thousand years. He had an old soul, and such overwhelming intelligence from the absolute beginning. I fell head over heels in love that very instant, and there was no one there to interrupt that time. It was just me and my son.

He wasn’t much of a sleeper as an infant. In fact, at night, the only way to get him to sleep was to lay him on my tummy with his head resting on my heart. I had to prop myself up in bed and pat his back all through the night so he would rest. I was teaching first grade at the time and I remember falling asleep at my desk while trying to grade papers. My sweet students sat and colored and read without a peep until I awoke, and they hugged me tight when I lay my head against the chalkboard, weeping for the baby boy I’d left at a sitter’s.

Travis was observant and bright. He loved words. We read Richard Scarrie’s “Watch Your Step Mr. Rabbit!” every day at nap time. He loved to run in the back yard with his border collie, Trixie. He loved baseball like he loved air. He had cowboy boots that he wore with everything, he could read the car manual at five years old, and his primary school teachers loved him.

One of my favorite things about Travis, though, is the way he treats his sisters. I have written before about raising kids who don’t hit, but I have to tell you, this boy was good to his girls. He could always talk with Hil about her stuff, then go play dolls with Lib. Hilary would direct him in plays (someday I will tell you about the Jesus play set to a LeAnn Rimes song) and he’d teach Libby how to bat. No one messes with his sisters, including himself. If a girl ever wonders how he’ll treat his wife, all she has to do is look to how he loves his sisters to know that any wife of his will be a lucky woman.

Travis is a loyal friend. Ask Ben. There is nothing that Travis will not forgive, and he will stand in front of any bullet. Travis loves for life.

Travis will never follow a formula for what many believe is the proper path. He has always needed to find his own way. He has to explore, ask questions, and test limits. That was hard for his high school teachers to accept, it’s been hard for professors to accept. But I know that his life is and will continue to be rich in exploration, knowledge, music, and friendship.

What is MY boy made of?

A generous spirit.

A formidable intelligence.

Art.

If you have a boy, be thankful. Let him wrestle with his dad and brothers and other playmates. Let him cry when he hurts. Teach him to be assertive, but not aggressive. Model gentle power. Give him dance and karate lessons along with the more traditional competitive sports. If he has sisters, teach him how to respect females. If he doesn’t, get him around girls early and often. Answer his questions to the best of your ability, no matter how exhausted or exasperated you are, for then you teach him that curiosity is rewarded. When you don’t know the answers, find the answers together. Model learning and questing. Teach him how to do his own laundry and load the dish washer.

I love my son.

Happy birthday, Travis Austin Bryant.

Fear.

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Yesterday, a man opened fire on a Sikh temple in Wisconsin. I am not sure why. I believe it may be because he was afraid. Afraid of something he didn’t understand and couldn’t control. Fear is a powerful and destructive emotion.

As I dig more deeply into my own psyche, endeavoring to learn what makes me tick and what I might need to change moving forward, I am discovering that I am plagued by fear.

Fear of the produce department at HEB Market Street.

Fear of enormous roaches.

Fear of obesity.

Fear of crowds.

Fear of failure.

Fear of betrayal.

I used to be afraid of being alone at home. When we were younger, I remember sometimes crawling around the house checking windows and doors in the dark, thinking I had heard someone trying to break in. One time when we were first married I ran pellmell out the back door of our apartment, fleeing from what I was sure was an intruder coming in the front door. I drove to the restaurant where Trav worked and sat for hours, terrified to go home until he could come with me. I finally stopped circling the house in the dark about five years ago. I am not sure what changed, maybe I just decided I am too old to be of any allure to a rapist and I don’t have any possessions worth stealing.

I guess my fear is a natural result of living in a precarious house. Sexually abused by a neighbor and shunned by all the children and parents in my neighborhood at the age of six. A mom who hit my dad, burned his face with cigarettes, cut her own wrists, and had to be lifted back onto the couch, passed out cold from overdose by me, her twelve year old daughter. A father made powerless by the weight of his wife and family. Teased by classmates for being filthy and wearing the same clothes day after day as a child. Hidden from my violent mother by friends, employers, and police. Shamefully dirty bug-infested homes. When this is how your childhood is, it’s hard to grow up confident. It’s hard to be brave because there is really no safety net.

As an adult, I have worked to create that safety net for my husband and kids. My greatest dream was not fame nor wealth, it was a great do-over. I wanted to erase the painful memories of my own childhood and replace them with sunny memories of a husband who adored me and children who were joyously secure in the nurture of their family. Guess what? I think I did it. I have done about two hundred scrap book pages this summer, and I have dug through twenty five years of photos and mementos. The five of us: Travis, Kim, Hilary, Travis Austin, and Libby have had some super times! Baseball games, dance recitals, birthday parties, play time, trips, faire, church, shows, and so much more have woven a tapestry of indestructible love.

I didn’t do it alone, that is absolutely certain. There have been extended family members, beloved friends, coaches, directors, and teachers who have shared in creating this family, this refuge.

But, there is an unexpected wrinkle, one I could not possibly have foreseen: the kids are grown. That security blanket, the one that I wrapped myself in every time I cuddled with my babies at bedtime, is gone. They are, as they should be, becoming independent. And Trav cannot and should not be that security. It’s not fair to him. No, it’s time to face my fears.

What tools do I have?

1. God. Now, don’t start jumping up and down, Dorothy and Celeste. I am still not ready for church. Probably not even the Bible. But I think it’s time to start conversing with the Divine again.

2. Exercise. It’s the best stress relief I know, and it keeps me from becoming overweight. I remember the self hate my mom had when she was heavy. Not going there, no sir.

3. Yoga. I don’t count this one as exercise. When it comes to yoga, it’s all about the mental benefits for me. The physical are a sideline.

4. Games. I have to find the path back to joy in my career. Though it seems counterintuitive, I need to spend less time creating the competitive actors and techies and more time encouraging the creative spirits and friendships in my students.

5. Sleep. I know that I need to be rested to keep that demon of fear at bay. That means adequate exercise, medicine, and a glass of wine each evening. It may also mean meditation.

I can have an exterminator help keep the house bug free, and I avoid HEB at almost all costs (much to Travis’ chagrin). Trav has learned to let me hold his hand in a crowd, and when that’s not possible I have learned to use my yoga breathing.

I vow to face my fears. To learn that failure is part of the bargain of risk-taking, but that it is well worth it. That betrayal and disappointment are part of the bargain of loving, but that life without love is useless.

Blessings on those who lost loved ones yesterday in yet another horrific shooting.

Girl Power!

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“I’d rather be thought of as smart, capable, strong, and compassionate than beautiful. Those things all persist long after beauty fades.”
Cassandra Duffy

I have two beautiful daughters. They are strong independent young women. Like most women, they struggle some with body image issues and the female version of bullying that is so rampant in our internet/text society. But they are no wilting flowers. They will speak and think and stand up for themselves. I think it is partly because when I came into my own (around the age of 35), I decided to do the same thing. Tired of trying to please everyone, tired of trying to be the dutiful submissive woman, I found my voice.

I have two stories about discrimination against my girls when they were children. One story happened in church, the other in Little League.

When Hilary was in fifth grade, she went to the Kids for Christ competition held in Houston every Easter weekend. Though she did enter traditional girl events, she also wanted to enter in the public speaking event. She was allowed to, and won a gold medal. We were so proud! She had written her own speech and presented it beautifully. The following week at the Sunday evening church service,all the kids who had gotten medals in various events, including public speaking, were asked to present their speeches to the congregation. Well, all except Hilary. Because she was a female, she had to present her speech in the gym while everyone was in line getting their supper at the fellowship dinner. Her father and I were the only ones who stood and listened to her. Everyone was visiting, filling their tea glasses, and situating their kids. The boys had gotten full and undivided attention in the sanctuary. My daughter was banished to a noisy gym.

When Libby was seven, she wanted to play ball. Not softball like the other little girls, she wanted to play Little League Baseball like her big brother. We signed her up. When the coaches drew kids’ names, the man who drew Libby was angry that he’d gotten a girl. A very nice man named Jim traded a boy to get her. When her team beat the discriminatory coach’s team in the league championship, her coach pulled her aside to give her the game ball and tell her the story of how the man they’d just defeated hadn’t wanted her, but he was so proud to have her. I have a photo of that exact moment. Libby’s face is priceless.

As a minister’s wife in the nineties, I found myself in a small church in Oklahoma, embroiled in a discussion of whether women should be allowed to help pass the communion plate (it’s ludicrous, but if you are C of C you get it). Somehow the standing up and passing out grape juice and crackers became a symbol of power (never mind that the way the memorial was done in New Testament times was completely opposite of how it is done in contemporary America). In public discourse I stayed pretty quiet. I didn’t want to get my husband fired. But in a parking lot outside the mall, where the church leadership and their wives had just eaten at Luby’s, I asked one of the elders why it would be such a scandal for me or any other woman to pass the plate. He told me all I wanted was visibility. I was willing to pass the plate, but was I willing to come early to prepare it? I told him of course I was. But on the way home and still all these years later, I have wished I had asked him- was he? Was he willing to give up the visible job of passing that plate for the invisible and thankless job of preparing it?

I find myself baffled that in this country, we still have so far to go. Every day in little ways, I see girls struggling to find their power, their voices. We battle over who controls our bodies, we fight for equal salary rights. Strong women who are not afraid to call the shots are called bitches. Girls clam up in classes, afraid to either show up the boys or make a mistake in front of them. In my school district, women cannot be hired as head principals above the elementary level. Girls who want to be baptized by their female spiritual mentors have to do it in secret moments when the church is virtually empty.

My girls stood up for themselves this summer. They said what needed to be said without being hateful. They are choosing to move forward surrounded by healthy relationships. They know they can be independent, that if they have a relationship with a man it is because they choose him, not because they need a man to make them complete. They are in control of their bodies, their minds, their thoughts. They run, they dance, they are healthy both physically and emotionally.

It’s a continuum, really. From my mother, who gave up college for marriage and spent a lifetime depressed and addicted; to me, needy and broken in my childhood, teens, and twenties but finally realizing my own worth in my thirties and standing as strong as I can moving through my forties. Now my girls. Dynamic. Capable. Confident.

The world is blessed to have my girls in it. The world is blessed by femininity. We women must continue to stand tall, to walk forward, to refuse to be crippled by the doubt of others or our own fears. We must learn to reach out to each other. In solidarity, there is strength.

Besides, no one wants to drink a Cosmo without a girlfriend by her side. Cheers.

And the winner is…

Astros ring

It’s baseball season! And since I live in Houston, the home of the current World Champ Astros, for whom I just bought a new team shirt and am anxiously awaiting the chance to go to a game at Minutemaid Park,  I find myself contemplating the concept of sport. Of Competition. I wonder how much we Americans are conditioned to Competitiveness and how much is innate. Clearly, some element of Competition has existed in humanity before there was even organized society. Cain Competed with Abel for Adam’s esteem, spilling blood to be the favorite. The Greeks held magnificent athletic and artistic Competitions in the original Olympic games. Who was Alexander but the most Competitive general to lead an army?

So I don’t really have a problem with Competition. It is a necessary force that pushes humanity to make new discoveries, chart new frontiers, and achieve excellence.

But sometimes I wonder why we have seemingly made everything here in America about being the best. We give trophies and tiaras to four year olds who prance and priss better than the other little girls. We pit students against each other in spelling bees in first grade so that the adept learners can lord it over the ones who are a little (or a lot) behind. We award trophies to kids for being on a sports team, making the trophy the desired end, rather than emphasizing the lessons learned about sportsmanship and personal physical fitness.

It is a mentality that permeates every single aspect of American life. We rate our movies according to top box office gross every Monday morning. We look at the cars next to us at the red lights and either pat ourselves mentally or grit our teeth in envy. We slave endlessly (or pay yard workers to) so that we might put that “Yard of the Month” sign in our front yards. Most women eyeball each other in the mall, comparing rear ends, wrinkles, and wardrobes. We brag about our kids’ grades on bumper stickers. It’s in our schools, our churches, our businesses, our neighborhoods.

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Even when the cause is worthwhile we compete. Weight loss competitions abound in businesses. Companies use competition as a marketing tool, cloaking it in contests for charity. For goodness’ sake our kids even compete for medals to see who can read the Bible best (how in the world we American Evangelicals could have imagined that children showing each other up is a Jesus thing is just incomprehensible to me)!

So no wonder we Americans believe we live in THE BEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD! Most of us have never visited any other country, but our Competitive conditioning tell us it must be so. That ideology was a deciding factor in our most recent presidential election. Competition, not competence. Supremacy over alliance.

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I don’t think I really am very Competitive by nature, though I think growing up in American culture can impart a pretty fierce dog-eat-dog mentality in all but the the most passive . I could never enjoy the fierce push to win at team sports, it seemed a silly waste of mental energy to me. When we had to shake hands and say “Good Game” I just wanted to make friends with everybody. I didn’t enjoy the All State Choir audition process in high school. I enjoyed the singing, but not watching some girls cry whose names were not called out. When our class elected its top ten most popular senior girls, I was #12. I watched as girls strategized and agonized about getting on that list, and I could not have cared less about that vote. I was surprised I got as close as I did. One of the top ten boys, Kevin R., told me in my yearbook that I could have been so popular if I had just tried a little harder. As a young adult I couldn’t have cared less about having better stuff than my peers. Still don’t.

As a theatre teacher, I found myself immersed in the arts, and Competition was probably one of my least favorite aspects of the job. Year after year I watched my students create beautiful work onstage and backstage. They were full of pride in their accomplishment. They gloried in the story they had told and they knew they had learned and grown in their craft as well as in their humanity. Then the trophies and medals got handed out and the kids without gold sparkly things suddenly doubted everything they thought about the art they had created. As a director, I had begun to start thinking cunningly, plotting for a win rather than for learning. Principals like it when you can set a trophy on their desks.

Irony of ironies, now that I am no longer a full time theatre educator, I serve as a judge at those very competitions. I go into those days with the goal of teaching and edifying the kids. Most of my judicial colleagues do, too.

I did discover that once the competitive element of trophies was introduced into my local community theatre stomping ground, much of my joy in that hobby was lost. I don’t get involved any more. I guess I have had one too many conversations with people who introduce themselves with their number or trophies, or who find ways to work their victories into conversation.

I am all for excellence. Anyone who knows me well knows I do not tolerate laziness or mediocrity. I used to lay that burden on others. I held everyone to my standards. Then I let go, and just held myself to a constant and unrelenting expectation of quality. That exhausted me. Through my practice of yoga, I have learned that winning has its place, but so does failure; that excellence is a worthy goal, but sometimes relenting and just being is just as worthwhile.

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I envision a world where kids play on rotating sports teams, drawn by lotto. Everyone works out and plays together and switches teams to make new friends and team parties at the end of the season include the whole league in one great big bouncy castle. The top spellers help the ones who are having a hard time. The beautiful popular girls hang out with the regular girls doing stuff completely unrelated to fashion, makeup, and boys. Neighbors come together to help each other with their yards. Plays are not pitted against each other in UIL, so that students and directors can come together and share their work and inspire each other without worrying about medal count, and Americans take the time to learn about all the beautiful countries and societies that populate our planet, appreciating cultural and religious diversity without feeling somehow disloyal to the States.

I may not be the thinnest or most beautiful woman, most talented performer, best mom, winning cook, or most decorated high school director. Fortunately, I now know (at least 80% of the time) that it just doesn’t matter. What I am is a human being discovering her own path, knowing that her path is not a race track. There is no medal for winning at the end. There is only the love we leave behind as our legacy, and there’s no blue ribbon for that.

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