Sunday, April 6, 2014

Two Armed Hugs---My Messy Beautiful

This essay and I are part of Momastery's Messy Beautiful Warriors Project.  You can read all of the project entries here.  Glennon Doyle Melton is the creator of Momastery and author of the New York Times Bestselling memoir  Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life.  

Madeline, my five-year old daughter, came home from Kindergarten one day upset and unwilling to talk.   Under normal circumstances, my girl excitedly bounces and shouts about every detail of her day (which takes nearly as long AS the school day- her nickname isn’t “Mady Motormouth” for nothing!), so I knew something was amiss.

It took over an hour to get the story out of her.
During recess, Mady was playing with two of her classmates when one of them created a new game called “Pick Your Favorite”.   In the game, the other kids lined up at the other side of the playground and Mady was supposed to run to the classmate she preferred out of the two.
She ran straight up the middle.
The girl who invented the game was supremely annoyed at Mady’s non-choice and demanded that Mady “get it right” and try it again. 

Right between the uprights.  AGAIN.
At this point, the little girl who invented the game was utterly disgusted with Mady’s unwillingness to choose and the other child was crying because he was afraid he wasn’t going to get picked.  Mady then did what I could only dream she’d do---she said that she liked both of her friends equally and wasn’t going to choose, walked away from the game and played on the swings, by herself, for the rest of recess.

My girl is a tiny little warrior. If given a choice between being cool and being kind, she chooses to be kind.  For now.  I'm lucky.  I'm proud.  And, if I'm being honest here, I ask myself three questions.

1.  How did I get such a cool kid?
2.  How can I possibly raise such an effortless little warrior?
3.  Where the hell were kids like her when I was growing up?

Mady's lucky.  Pretty much everything comes easily to her.  Raising her is interesting----because not one damned thing in my whole freaking life came easily to me.

I really struggled over participating in the Messy Beautiful Warrior project--mainly because the only attribute that I consistently show is the messy part.  My car and my closets these days are Board-of-Health level disasters (ah, just another joy of parenthood- who wants a fossilized french fry?) .   I may look pulled together and I'm a damned fine actress, but a huge mess lurks just beneath the surface. Beautiful?  Maybe for a flash after having my makeup done at Nordstrom on a skinny day following the stomach bug or a tapeworm.  Speaking of the tapeworm, I need to buy one a few days before Memorial Day.



When I think of a warrior, I think of a champion who has overcome some great heartbreak.  Someone who overcame drug addiction, or an illness, or poverty, or the death of a parent.  I think of overcoming the extraordinary.  Under no circumstances do I think of me.

The problem is that I'm pretty ordinary.  In fact, I'd call me pretty remarkably unremarkable.  My parents are happily married after 43 years.  My parents are amazingly supportive.  I have an awesome younger brother. I certainly didn't grow up wealthy, but I didn't want for much either.  I went to a good college and graduated on time and with honors.  I got a Masters degree at an Ivy.  I ended up with loyal friends and a decent job.  I have a beautiful family of my own in a decent house that is full of laughter.  I have a kind, smart, and good husband and have been married for nearly 11 years.  I have my spirited little girl.   My life is good.

I barely drink and I've never touched a drug in my life.   I do smoke cigarettes and  I spend too much money on shoes and clothes that I do actually wear and makeup that I don't.  I'm from New Jersey, which means I swear both creatively and far too much.  I looooooooooooooooooove the F word.  (Do I have any street cred yet?)

Like I said, remarkably unremarkable.  In other words, boring.

There is no great heartbreak here (insert sigh of relief and gratitude)...which pretty much means that there can be no great triumph either.  No one's going to be making a movie out of my life anytime soon..not even the crappy cable access channels.

But...somehow, in the absence of great heartache and enormous obstacles, there still remain a million little heartbreaks and even more setbacks....those heartbreaks of an ordinarily beautiful and messy life.  The accompanying collection of bruises and scars that heal but never entirely fade...I have 'em.  Aplenty, in fact.  And maybe, just maybe, there are others like me out there who refused to succumb to those ordinary heartbreaks.

My Madeline has a quiet warrior's confidence.  She fundamentally believes that most people are good and that most people like her...and she carries herself accordingly. Me?  I fundamentally believe that most people are awesome and accomplished and smart...and that most people won't think I'm worth the time of day and the ones that do will eventually figure out that I'm just a fraud and a loser and bolt.

Scars and bruises.  I keep telling myself---they're just scars and bruises.  They're done and over with.  They can't hurt me anymore.


The ordinary heartbreak started, really, in 7th grade.  I remember the exact date--October 1, 1987 (which makes me frightfully middle aged).  Pretty much everything I am not today and everything good that I actually am stems back to that one Thursday.

Up until that point, I certainly wasn't what you'd call pretty or popular (and I also was in serious need of  some braces and I needed to stop looking up to Debbie Gibson and the Jersey mall scene for fashion advice), but school was a reasonably okay place to be.  I flew beneath the radar, but I had my friends and things were generally fine.

Then I ended up on the wrong end of a clique of girls who I sat near at lunch during those lovely middle school years where everyone is so gracious and charming.

During lunch, the three girls (formerly known as my "friends") who sat near me began sending me notes.  Notes that read "we won't ever be your friends again, loser"....and "you're ugly"...and my personal favorite "we all abandoned ship and no one is EVER coming back for you."

To this day, I have no idea what I did, other than say that I liked Debbie Gibson more than then-more-popular Tiffany.

By the time I walked to math class (which immediately followed lunch and always made me question how good news could travel so quickly before the advent of cell phones), my next round of torture awaited me.

I took my seat, which due to the marvels of alphabetical order was square in the middle of the classroom.  Every other girl in my class (I exaggerate none) then surrounded me and I was presented with a petition that they all signed and expected me to sign as well.  A petition that read that I was an ugly loser.  A nerd.   That I wasn't allowed to speak to anyone for the rest of the year.  That no one would ever be my friend...ever.  That I should just kill myself.

Girls.  They're lovely, particularly when they travel in packs.  And I suppose that I should thank my lucky stars that I was all of 60 scrawny pounds soaking wet, or it probably would have been even worse.

I wanted to run out of that room and cry...but I didn't do either.  I just sat there and took it, completely stonefaced.  I pleadingly looked at the boy who sat in front of me in many classes.  His response?  "Go away, Walrus".  The boys were in on this, too.


At some point during that class, the teacher asked a question and I answered it.  I was good at math.  Apparently, that was the wrong decision because half the class turned and stared at me once I opened my mouth.  After class was over, the ringleader pulled me aside in the hall and screamed that I was not allowed to talk to anyone--including teachers.  The teachers hated me, too.

(Yes, I look back now with an adult's perspective and realize that the last statement wasn't true....but at the time I was only 11 years old.   I believed pretty much anything anyone told me).

I could not wait to go home and get the hell out of there.  To go somewhere safe.

The one smart thing I did was tell my parents what had happened.  I should note that his was before the days when parents interfered with virtually everything--back in the day (ugh, I'm old) parents trusted kids to handle their business.  My parents were great---they listened.  They were sympathetic.  They let me  have ice cream for dinner.

And they absolutely insisted that I go back to school the next day and face the music.  There would be no staying home and hiding....which was exactly what I wanted to do.

That mandate was one of the best things that ever, ever, EVER happened to me.

None of it was easy.  The next day was even worse, as the news had spread that I was the world's biggest contagious loser.  I knew better than to speak to anyone (teachers included) or make eye contact, but I could hear.  I sat at the same lunch table--the same freaking seat--where my life unraveled just the day before (thank you very little, assigned seating) and I silently listened to them as they directed all sorts of verbal assaults my way.  I sat and just prayed that it would eventually stop.

At one point, I was actually granted permission to speak.  It was to announce "I am an ugly loser and I'll never have any friends."

I believed them.

It didn't stop anytime soon.  I sat--at that lunch table, in the hallways and in class--in complete silence for the rest of that school year.  I sat there in silence for eight long miserable months.  I sat in silence when I read what seemed like thousands of notes stuffed in my locker that read "Loser".  "Ugly".  "Kill   Yourself."     I sat in silence when I read desk-grafitti that read "Nicole should die".   I sat in silence when the ringleader answered a teacher's question "What would you never want to be when you grow up?" with MY name in class.  The whole class laughed.  Even the teacher laughed.  I said nothing.

It was a long year.

It was a long year made longer because no one stepped in to help- not one kid, not one teacher, not one bus driver.  No one.

It was a long year because I realized in my then-12 year-old wisdom that I was going to have to make it out of that mess entirely on my own.

And I did.

That year blew big balloons, but it was also the year that I learned some pretty sacred truths that I still carry with me to this day:

1.  No matter how badly people treated me, I was still on the hook for handling my business and accomplishing what I needed to accomplish.
2.  No matter how badly people treated me, I was still on the hook for not being a jerk myself.  Being mean back would make me no better than them.
3.  If I ever made my way out of that mess and ever had friends again, I was going to tell them exactly what they wanted to hear and do exactly what they wanted me to do.  No way was this happening to me ever again.

I didn't dare speak in school, but I managed to get straight As and keep them.  I wasn't allowed to speak, but no one said anything about writing:)  I wrote good papers.  I wrote good test answers. I wrote good stories that I never shared.  I wrote all the time.  Writing was my saving grace.  Because I wasn't speaking, I learned to actually listen and observe.  I learned that I could completely separate myself from what I was feeling---I could feel completely rotten and miserable and still DO and still accomplish.   I learned that I was pretty freaking capable on my own and I didn't need anyone else or their assistance.   I managed, for the most part, to not be a complete jerk.

By year's end, I decided on a little act of defiance.  What does one do when they know they're the ugliest loser that ever lived?  They run for an officer spot on student government, of course:)  It was slightly troubling given that I was forbidden to speak, but I did.  I stood on a stage, in front of my 300 person class, and gave a speech.  Ever give a speech that when you're introduced, no one claps---complete silence in the room?   I have:)  I'm fine with that---and I'm also fine with the fact that I'm nearly certain that I'm the only person who voted for me.  It was a good speech.  No one clapped when I started, but some did when I finished.  I call that a win.

Turns out I learned a lot that year.

Each passing year got a little bit better.  Through high school, I knew that I was still a loser and I was a far cry from popular, but I made friends (good ones, too) and each year was a just little bit better than the last---but I remembered, and I know that some others did, too.  I was counting the days until I could get out, though--go to college, move somewhere else, and start a new life where that year didn't have to haunt me wherever I went.

More time passed where I built that new life that I wanted so badly.  A good one.  By some miracle, once my braces came off, I became half-decent looking, which helped (thanks, boobs!). I did what I was supposed to do.  My grades were really good and later, my performance reviews at work were really good.  I never got in any trouble. I handled my business.  I made a list of everything I wanted to accomplish by the time I was 30 and did them all.   I, for the most part, wasn't a jerk.  I'd made friends---good loyal ones--and had plenty of boyfriends (some good, others not so much).  I'd traveled nearly everywhere I had wanted to go.  I earned all sorts of performance awards.  I married and had a beautiful daughter.  I forgave everyone involved in that miserable year.  Kids are kids, everyone has their own story and no one taught us how to help each other.  I'd become a pretty good friend to others when their chips were down.  I'd changed from the underdog to someone that no one would believe was ever an underdog.   I was fiercely independent.  I did it on my own--largely because I was the only person that I mostly trusted.

I made it.  I won.  I survived.  I don't think anyone calls me a Loser anymore.

Except for me.  I do it....all the time...and I live in fear that I am one mistake away from being mass-exposed as a loser again.  I'm most afraid that my Mady will figure out that I'm a loser...thus making her half-loser.  I can't and won't have that.  She's 100% awesome.

I started this blog on New Years Day 2012 as a resolution to myself and Mady, who was then three.  I had realized that I had built my way out of a mess by being resolute and by getting up every single time I was knocked down, but it came with a cost.

Until Mady came along, I hugged everyone with one arm .  My left arm was the hugging arm and I held my right squarely across my own chest.  I'm no body language expert or anything, but I suspect that tells you all you need to know.

I managed to build a life near people and around people, but not with them.   I spent over twenty years keeping people---many of them good- at arm's length.  I spent over twenty years being dishonest with people, too.  Not by lying or by saying unkind things--but by always agreeing with people (even when I didn't).  By saying yes to virtually everything that was asked of me.  I was just too afraid to do otherwise.  Speaking my real opinions and saying no to requests seemed like the express path back to where I was...and I just wasn't going there again.

It's remarkable, actually, how I didn't end up a  total slutbag or a drug addict. I'll just be thankful for that and move on.

My daughter deserves two-armed hugs, and what's more, she deserves to believe that many others are worthy of receiving them.  She deserves to express her honest opinions.  She deserves to believe in trust.  She deserves to believe that life (and other people) are going to be messy, but still beautiful and worthy of being embraced---no matter how f'ed up they were.   She deserves to know who her real friends are---when she says no, when she disagrees, when she screws up.  She deserves all of these things.

And I need to be the one to show her how, which meant that I need to learn how.

I kind of suck at that part, but I owe her that.  I owe me that.  I'm learning---it's messy and slow  and clumsy and awkward and I've acquired more bruises in these two years than in the preceding twenty--and I wouldn't change a damned thing.  Not a one.  I'm 38 years old and I'm finally becoming a real person.  It's time.

One of the things I learned as a real person is where my strengths lie.  I have a job outside the home which is demanding and gratifying and brings along a truckload of guilt and pride.  I'm a good mom to Mady--at least enough of the time.  I know what it feels like to be hurt and ignored in a time of need, so I'm often empathetic.  I'm often the person that people turn to when things are a mess.

I needed to combine those strengths to move I joined forces with Mady, and started a food drive on January 1 of this year with a goal of collecting and distributing 20,000 pounds of food  to local food pantries this year.  Mady and I are in partnership every step of the way---she's actually the President of our little venture because her leadership qualities far exceed mine.  As of April 6, we have collected over 5,000 pounds of food and distributed nearly all of it.

Here's us on the news....and in the paper... and in real life:

We have a long way to go before meeting our goal---helping a lot of people a little bit--but we're excited and proud and can't wait to see where we end up.   It turns out that a big part of our messy, beautiful lives involves us being there and helping others through theirs.

And for me?  It took 38 years and change, but I'm finally starting to appreciate the joys of being independent and the strength in vulnerability...and in all the hope involved with being beautifully and messily real.

(aka Nicole)