How Do I Love Thee?

Two nights ago, after a particularly devastating episode of “This is Us” (who am I kidding…nearly every episode is devastating when you’re either: child of an addict, recovering addict, married to recovering addict, estranged from a child, watching your daughter divorce, adjusting to the empty nest, a singer whose voice is in her past, struggling with body dysmorphia…), my sweet husband, who was sitting on the floor with our beagle, looked up at me with the most woeful, teary eyes. I climbed onto the floor and into his lap and we just cuddled and comforted. And with my arms wrapped around him, I wondered: Why? Why do I love him so? Why does he love me? Why? And not for the first time, I settled on this answer. Who cares why? It’s enough to know its truth.

We have, at times, even asked each other, “Why do you love me?” It’s an unanswerable question. This morning, I was listening to SuperSoul, and Pastor A.R. Bernard said that when we love each other for no reason- that’s unconditional love.

I mean sure, I can make a list of things I love about my husband. I love his laugh, his blue eyes, his easy access to deep and profound thought, his capacity for peace-keeping, his legs. I love the kind of father he is. I love how he wants to protect me from harm, whether it’s an advancing category five hurricane or a work colleague who is showing me something less than respect.

But why do I love him? I just…do.

I guess it’s what bothers me about making lists of why we love someone. This last Valentine’s Day, I saw one of those social media posts that tells you how to be a good parent. And you would put all these cut out hearts on your kid’s door with the reasons why you love them (specifically it said that, not “things you love about them”). And one of the hearts said along the lines of “You play basketball well.” And I thought…If I am a kid whose well-meaning mom said she loved me because I played basketball well, what would happen if I couldn’t play any more? What would happen if I couldn’t play well anymore? Kids want to know that they’re loved. Just because. Same with spouses. Just because.

Someday, my husband’s brain will be less sharp. His laugh will be creaky. His legs will be veiny. I know I won’t care.

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Elizabeth Barret Browning put it so perfectly in her famous sonnet, in which she enumerates the ways, not the whys of her love:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Truest, deepest love doesn’t have a reason. It just is.

On Golden Pond

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This week, I began my journey to Golden Pond. I had seen the audition dates months ago, and in a rare case of wanting to do a show badly enough to make sure I remembered the dates, I put the audition dates on my calendar. Circumstances out of my control took me out of town on the weekend of the audition dates, so I told myself that I clearly was not meant to do the show, that I had never worked with this director, so he probably wouldn’t cast me anyway, that my high school reunion conflicted with one of the show dates so I would just go to my reunion instead, that the 45 minute drive to the theatre was too much trouble.

Then I found out auditions had been postponed for a week.

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I spent several days reciting all the reasons above and skipped the first night of auditions. On Monday, I posted on Facebook about my struggle and asked for advice: audition or high school reunion? The overwhelming response was “Audition!” So I did. Most of my friends are theatre folks, they totally get how doing a show can trump just about anything, and my high school and college friends know that I have always been a performer first, so they probably weren’t too surprised!

Auditions are hard for me. I don’t get stage fright on opening night, but at auditions I can barely breathe and I keep having to dash to the ladies’ room. Auditions are scary because you’re being judged, you may not have seen the script, you’re sometimes partnered with folks who are not helping you be your best, and if it’s an open audition, everybody there is watching.

But I did pretty well, I thought. I remembered my Shurtleff guideposts, thought through the relationship/objective/obstacle/tactic mantra, and tried to use the breath like my teacher said to. If I ever felt disconnected from the character, Chelsea, I just visualized my mom. That did the trick.

On Tuesday, I tried not to strain to hear the ring of my phone. It didn’t ring the entire day at work, nor on the drive home. When it finally did ring, I missed the call! I called the stage manager back, and she asked if I could come for a call back.

Last night’s call back was nerve wracking: me and one other lovely lady, both reading with the actress who had been cast as Ethel, the mother. My competition was pretty, tall and willowy with a sharp pixie cut and a cute dress. I recited my mantra while she did her reading, then went on stage.

Magic happens on stage. True magic. If you’re an actor, you know that sensation. Suddenly, the story takes over. If it’s a good script, the playwright’s words dig deep and a well of emotion springs forth. Sometimes laughter, sometimes tears. If you’re lucky enough to be on stage with actors who know how to connect with their scene partners, it’s exhilarating. I was lucky.

Last night, after I got the call that I had been cast, I got a Facebook message from my stage father saying he was looking forward to the show. He and I used to work together teaching theatre, and it was a rough relationship. I am both excited and nervous about that- this play may be instrumental in closing that chapter.And I just got off the phone with my stage mommy, a local actress I have wanted to share the stage with for quite some time. She wanted to let me know how excited she is that we are going to be working together. It’s always nice to work with folks who are giving.

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I am looking forward to working on this script. My relationship with my own father was not fraught with the antagonism and misunderstandings that Norman and Chelsea face. But my mother’s relationship with her own father was. She was ever the little girl, trying to be pretty and thin enough to please him, still chasing softballs to earn his praise until she just couldn’t physically play any more. I think this play will help me get into my poor, damaged, addicted, deceased mom’s head and heart just a little.

I bet I’ll cry more than once. And I think I will learn something about myself. I think Ethel’s words to embittered Chelsea will resonate deeply for me:

“Don’t you think that everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret about something?  It doesn’t have to ruin your life.”

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Plays can heal. Relationships can be mended. Hearts can be opened. Family can be made. Right, fellow Thayers and Thespians? I love what actress Juliet Binoche says about the power of theatre to create connections:”Choosing to be in the theatre was a way to put my roots down somewhere with other people. It was a way to choose a new family.”

What’s coming? I don’t know. Late rehearsals, exhaustion, sweat, tears, bright lights, these I know will happen. But there’s a whole world of exploration, revelation, and love to come.

Where Are The Stairs?

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It’s so weird now. My husband and I raised our kids, for the most part, in two-story houses. The first one we bought was a cute 1,750 square foot house built in the 1980’s, with high ceilings and a loft playroom. The kids liked to raise and lower toys in a purple plastic bucket tied to a jump rope, and the older two tormented the baby by dangling her toys in the bucket just out of reach. It was the first two story house I lived in, and I felt so uptown! The next one was an early 1970’s number. We had driven by it, and I hated the exterior- ugly arches and hideous outdated paint were a deterrent, but eventually we did go in and see it. It had yellow kitchen cabinets, which I loved, so we made an offer after just one tour. When we walked into it after closing, I sat down on the window seat and bawled. I had just bought the ugliest house on the planet. Dated Brady Bunch wallpaper, carpet that had been just cut and spread by the owners,  not properly installed (there was so much furniture in it when we looked at it, we couldn’t tell), dingy walls, and mildew soaked powder blue carpet in the master bath. But it did have a second floor! And bedrooms for each child, a separate formal dining room, and the most beautiful pine and oak trees. I immediately set about transforming it. I’ll tell all about that in another post.

As our youngest child approached her high school graduation, we decided to sell this two story haven/money pit and move into an apartment. We wanted to be ready to relocate- we thought we might look for jobs in Florida, New York, California, or maybe even overseas, and we didn’t want anything concrete, like a piece of property, to be an anchor. As so often happens when we mere humans make grand plans, the universe giggles and throws a curve ball. We ended up taking jobs just 25 miles from the house we sold.

Back to the drawing board!

We hated apartment life, so we embarked on building a new house.

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I have always known that building a truly custom home would be too overwhelming for me- finding an architect and contractor, choosing from ALL the faucets and doorknobs and paints, trying to find a plot of land…just…too much. So we opted for a neighborhood where we could choose our builder, choose from a list of floor plans and options, and choose from a specific set of finishes. A year ago this week, they broke ground.

I love my new house, and in another post I will write about the building of it. But what is striking me about my new house this week is its mostly-emptiness. And its lack of stairs.

We don’t really need all the space of a two story house anymore. It’s just the two of us. We have our bedroom, a guest room, and each of us has his/her own room for personal use. Mine is a yoga retreat complete with laminate flooring, a dance barre, and lots of sunlight thanks to the biggest double windows of the house. Trav’s is a study, furnished by a wooden desk, sleek leather recliner, and vintage Star Trek posters.

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Our kitchen table has four chairs. The two yellow ones get dusty because no one ever sits in them.

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I can do laundry just once a week. The attic is no longer full of toys. Trav and I can watch whatever we want to on television.

I no longer make Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for summer lunches, I no longer decorate my refrigerator with kid art, and I don’t have to stand at the bottom of the stairs, bellowing for one child or another to get a move on.

Because there are no stairs.

Because there are no children.

Since this whole blog is supposed to be about “finding peace in the middle,” I gotta say that this part is hard. I am conflicted- I want my kids to be independent, but I keep having to transfer money into their bank accounts. I miss throwing noisy birthday parties, but I love that birthdays now consist of alcohol filled brunches and dinners with the kids (no more babysitters). I miss the Disney movies, well…scratch that one, Disney movies still happen. I love the quiet and the neatness, but I miss their noise and energy.

I miss climbing the stairs at night to kiss each one and tuck them in. But my knees love having no stairs. It’s all part of the journey, I guess. Loss and gain, tug and release. All on the same floor.

Hilary takes wing

 

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Earlier this summer, while starting to pack for our impending move,  I discovered a pile of brown detritus inside a decorative bird cage on my porch. It looked like just a pile of dead leaves and pine needles, so I carried it down three flights of stairs to dump  all out in the green space behind the apartment. As I turned it upside down, though, I heard squeaks. It was not a pile of dead leaves, it was a nest, with three tiny birds. Scrawny, pink, eyes sealed shut, hungry beaks gaping, they chirped fear and indignation at my up-ending of their safe home. I looked up, and the mother was perched on the rail near my front door, worried and watchful.

I returned the nest to its cage and carried it back to the porch. We checked on mother and babies for weeks. One didn’t make it, but after a while the two surviving hatchlings, covered in soft down, left the safety of the bird cage and flew to the pines just behind our home.

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I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my eldest child, my own hatchling, has an affinity for birds. My goodness, she even based an entire faerie character, Avian, on a bird. She carried around an egg and had little patron girls help her nest throughout the day!

She has little birds all over her room, and last night, as she finished packing to fly the nest today, we had to discuss which decorative birds she would take, and which she would leave.  Happily, she left me some that I will be using to decorate my part of the new house.

My first bird just flew away in her Easter egg yellow Chevy Spark. I don’t think she saw me standing in the parking lot, watching her until the speck of her sunny car disappeared around a curve.

A couple of weeks ago, she found a box of old letters that had been in storage. Most were notes passed in junior high between she and her (still) best friend, Mandy. But tucked in amidst all the expressions of adolescent angst was a letter I had snuck into her backpack on her first day of high school. As we read it, both crying, we realized that my words to her in 2004 were the very same I say a decade later as she heads halfway across a continent to chase her dreams: remember who you are.

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I wrote to her then, and it strikes me now, she was the one who awakened my mother’s heart.

There are a lot of precious firsts in this life: first day of school, first two-wheeled bicycle, first kiss, first car. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that compares to the first time you feel the flutter of tiny feet or hiccups inside your own stomach,  the first glance into the eyes of your first-born child, or the first time you put that child to your breast and hold her close as she draws nourishment from your very own body. With Hilary, I learned how to change a diaper, swat a behind, and deal with a child’s digestive distress. I discovered how to make a ponytail, waded through parent/teacher conferences, and practiced listening without judgment (or keeping that judgment to myself). I learned about letting a kid make and clean up her own messes and how to let her make some truly unfortunate fashion choices.

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Hilary is a study in contrasts. Her diminutive stature, enormous eyes, and button nose perfectly match her sweetness. But she has a salty side, and a will that is nearly indomitable. She is, as Shakespeare described, little but fierce (not, however fierce enough to face a tree roach unarmed. At age 11 she clad herself in toe-sock gauntlets and a jester hat to do battle with the one in her room). She is an introvert who illuminates a stage.

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I will never, ever forget the breath she took as Ondine’s memory was erased, the smile that lit her face. Performing started at age four as a clown in the Wild West show in Annie, Get Your Gun, continued with her first endeavor as a director-actor-costumer with her musical pantomime to LeAnn Rimes’ “The Middle Man,” and drove her life through dance recitals, high school plays, post collegiate work, and now to L.A.

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As she has become a young woman, I have discovered the truth that your daughters become your best friends. We drink way too much pinot, have watched every episode of So You Think You Can Dance together since 2008, and have tentatively learned to share secrets about being women that have only deepened our love for each other. I am so very blessed that she was my first child, and even more blessed to behold the woman she has become. One of her very favorite plays is J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. I think these words perfectly sum up why: “‘Pan, who and what art thou?” he cried huskily.
‘I’m youth, I’m joy,’ Peter answered at a venture, ‘I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg.’”

Fly, my little bird.

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It was a really great holiday at our house. But I have one complaint: I got too many presents. This stresses me! Because of the four (yes, four) dogs in the house, we had not wrapped all the presents ahead of time and placed them under the tree to be shaken and guessed over. Everyone pretty much wrapped Christmas Eve or morning, and presents did not get to the tree until Travis, the only early riser in the family, moved them there Christmas morning. I had no clue what was about to transpire. Her siblings having given up fighting for the privilege about ten years ago, Libby played Santa, as always, and she just kept piling gifts in front of me! In our family, we typically open one present at a time, taking turns from youngest to oldest. This way everyone gets to share the joy of the surprised and delighted (or sometimes puzzled or nonplussed) expressions on the faces of our sweet family. Tuesday morning, I had to open two presents for everyone else’s one. The kids were getting tickled at my panic, and I just felt loved. And guilty. Moms are not conditioned to accept that sort of generosity. We just want to give it (and I have to add that my particular husband is the same way).

It’s been a hard couple of years. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I am unhappy in my career, recovering from a crippling vocal injury, frustrated with a sense of stagnation, and stretched to the absolute limit of financial strain. I thought my family might be sending me a message: relax! Your stress is killing us! The gifts included a tray  for me to put my wine and books in while I take a hot bath, a whole set of stress relief bath gel and lotions, a thick soft bathrobe, and well, you get the idea. But really, I believe my family wanted to surround me with visible evidence of their love for me.

I don’t always feel very lovable. I’ve been told I will probably not last another year on my campus, a group of my students had me curled in a ball sobbing in my office about three weeks ago. I can be snarky and judgemental, I worry a lot. Somehow, in spite of all of that, my husband and kids love me. They tell me every day in countless little ways that no matter what happens out in the big wide world, that no matter what new principals or grouchy teenagers or estranged relatives think of me, I can drag my wounded self into this home and be loved, and through that love, healed.

When I started this journey of wife, then mother, all I ever really wanted was a do-over. I wanted to create a new family, the family I had always wished for as a child. I did not have aspirations to fame or wealth or performance success. I wanted a Home that would erase all memories of other homes, a Family to supplant the brokenness of my childhood family, Holidays worthy of photo albums filled to the gills with pictures of genuinely joyous children. This did not come naturally to me. I had little upon which to model my approach to Motherhood. I drew on memories of my grandmothers, I channeled my aunts, I remembered Mama Bea, Chellie’s mom, who took me in when my own family was in tatters. As the children became teens, I listened to Dorothy, a mother who had shepherded her flock through many many trials with grace and mercy. I struggled. I did. Perhaps nothing scared and scarred me more in my young motherhood than when an extended family member got me alone and threatened to take my children away from me by legal means if there was even a hint of bad mothering happening.

Through sheer determination, prayer, and dogged love, I managed what I set out to do. When the five of us are together, and now we have added a couple of precious young adults, we laugh. We hug and tease and speak honestly and without judgement or anger. Not one of my children believes that there is a thing in this world that could separate them from the love of this family. I know without question that no mistake is so great that it can separate Trav and I from each other or our kids.

I cannot change the whole world. I wish I could. I have learned that I have limitations on my physical and emotional energy. I need a little alone time every day. I need to face new challenges and stretch myself intellectually and creatively. I need a little music and wine in my life. I need true and significant relationships. And if my girls are to be believed, I need a new wardrobe. But mostly, I need these four precious people. I need their unconditional and abundant love. I am grateful every single day that the Divine has given me my deepest heart’s desire: a Family. Happy New Year, dear friends.

Libby Bryant- Astonishing!

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Every day at the 12:15 lunch bell for the last four years, a certain young curly headed lady has traipsed into my office, hungry for lunch and ready to share her day’s concerns and triumphs. My Libby. She turned eighteen yesterday, and she is a force to be reckoned with. There are those people who come into a room and look at someone else and say, “Oh, there you are!” and proceed to quietly move from group to group, nibbling on cheese cubes and nodding attentively as friends share their stories, interests, observations. I am one of those.

But then there are people who come into a room saying (even if not literally) “Here I am!” and the party begins to swell with energy, charged by the individual who seems to just glow with it. The dancing gets more exciting, the volume escalates, and the laughter surges. That’s Libby.

I am not sure she realizes it. She is a thermostat- she sets the temperature for a room. She is gorgeous, tall and leggy with a killer smile (thanks, Dr. Mardaga), golden skin, and beautiful lips that she currently accentuates with bold red lipstick and a Rosie the Riveter hairdo. She is equally gorgeous inside. She has a tender heart and a moral center that is firm. She is ambitious, setting her sights on some of the most competitive and elite schools in the country and aggressively hunting for scholarships to ensure she doesn’t have to take options off the table for financial reasons if she can help it. She keeps trying to quit her job, but her employers and fellow employees love her too much and won’t let her. She has no interest in having a boyfriend to distract her. She is driven.

But when I see her, I also see, like one of those cheesy eighties double-exposure Olan Mills portraits, a frizzy headed toddler dressed in mismatched high heels and her sister’s dance recital costumes, singing with gusto and ordering her siblings about. I see the snaggle toothed first grader who insisted (rightfully so) that she could play baseball as well as any boy and should be able to, the girl who broke her fingers playing a game of touch football on the BBES playground. I remember the choir concerts at Ellisor, where I dropped her off every morning at 6:45, giving her a new silly nickname every day before she headed to help the primary teachers prepare for their days.

I remember my pregnancy, when she seemingly refused to enter the world. Neighbors pointed and laughed as I trudged the streets in Muskogee trying to Get.The.Child.Out. Church members teased (lovingly) from the pulpit that when the roll was called up yonder, “Kim will still be here” waiting for the baby. Her birth was my favorite, a home birth with only Travis and a midwife named Ruth, sunlight streaming through the stained glass church windows in my bedroom, Ruth literally laying her hand on the emerging child and bathing her in prayer as she came into the world. I exclaimed at her tinyness and Ruth drily told me the ten pound girl was NOT tiny.

It’s not that Libby is fearless. She’s not- though she was when she was a wee thing. Life has knocked her around enough that she knows that taking risks can sometimes backfire, that loving too deeply can wound. Libby just seems to be able to look fear in the face, make friends with it, and leap anyway.

Every day at lunch time, we have thirty minutes of uninterrupted mother-daughter time. On top of that, I get to teach her every day and direct her every afternoon. I got to do that with all my kids, but the other two were in junior high when they were mine, and it was only two years (they also didn’t eat with me!) I have watched her become this wonderful young woman. I will miss her so much next year I cannot actually allow myself to think about it.

But this girl is ready. Ready to make her mark, to toss her hat in the air with a smile and kick the doubters to the curb. I hope she knows that she can always come back to me, to sit on the couch in my office or climb into my comfy bed, where she can lay her precious heart open, amaze me with her insights, make me laugh, and be still for a bit. I will play with her curls and rub her back and maybe even sing with her.

I love her so. Happy birthday, my sweet girl.

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.

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.

Friends: the family you choose.

Most of my original nuclear family is dead. My mother passed away in 1991 at the age of 46 from the complications of drug addiction and starvation. My father passed in 2008 due to pneumonia, heart failure, and diabetes complications. My brother was found dead in a hotel room from an apparent drug overdose in 2009.

I have one brother left. He is a cop in Arlington, married to a lovely lady who is a cop in Mansfield. They have two precious daughters. I am not part of their lives. My brother made it known to me that he really did not want to continue any sort of relationship past my father’s death. We got together to distribute our brother’s ashes in 2009 and have not spoken since.

My extended family is…distant. On my mom’s side, lots of cousins live way far off. It’s hard to get together. There has been lots of divorce, lots of fragmentation. With my mother gone, sometimes people forgot to let us know there were events. Years in youth ministry and renaissance festival have kept us from going to family reunions and connections have been lost. On my dad’s side, everyone is busy with their own kids and grandkids. I am not Christian enough or conservative enough to fit in, the mutual connection of my father is gone. Trav’s family doesn’t gather as a large group, and we feel somewhat alienated there, too (I think it’s the tattoos. And maybe the Obama/Biden sign from 2008 still in our garage). I absolutely think my brother and sister in law and their two kiddos are the cat’s meow, but somehow we just never manage to spend time together (for the record, walking the nature trails this Easter with Mason and Abby was an honest-to-goodness 2012 highlight).

So, who do I think of as family? Who do I think of when I need to laugh or cry, or borrow something?

My friends.

Dorothy is the mother I never had. She is kind and generous. She loves without judgement. She only gives advice when asked (do people realize how valuable that is, to wait to be asked for advice, rather than offering your opinion so freely?) She shares enough of her own struggles that I feel like I am privy to her own inner life.

Ellen is the mentor I adore. She is in her seventies and in chemo but her spirit is indomitable. She is a passionate theatre artist, a fiery liberal patriot, a loving (if unconventional ) mother. She has refused to sit down and accept aging as an excuse to wither.

Serena is the cool aunt. I may never have met a more independent woman who still manages to nurture and love so selflessly.

Sylvia, Sherry, Brandi, and Stacy are the sisters I wish I had. The first feeds my spirit, the second two feed my need to laugh, and the third feeds my need to talk about absolutely anything (but especially kids).

Jeff and Jono are the brothers to replace my lost two.

Dane cannot be explained. But I love him like no other.

Robby, Shannon, and Piper have become the surrogate brother, sister, and niece that I lost. I see their family growing in love and adventure and I feel so blessed to be a part of it.

Rileigh and Mandy and Daniel and Brandon are the children of my heart.

I have looked with envy at friends like Chellie and Dorothy, whose nuclear family bonds are so tight they are a true force to be reckoned with. In those families, if there is a crisis, the brothers and sisters and aunts and uncles and grandparents answer the call. They spend holidays together. They have slumber parties with all of the cousins.

If you have blood family that is close, be thankful. Revel in those memories, for nothing can replace them. If you don’t, create your own family. Love can be found and nurtured in any old place. Last Sunday, I think I may have met some new sisters to add to my list. I cannot wait to spend time with them.

Tell your family, whether biological or heart, that you love them. This is my love letter to my heart family. Mwah!

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