I turned 56 yesterday.
I am now closer to 60 than I am to 50 and closer to the end of my life than to the beginning. I’m not trying to be morbid. Its just a fact. Even though my brain still thinks I’m in my thirties, and I certainly don’t feel mature (in any sense), the math doesn’t lie. And yet, the older I get, the more I enjoy my birthdays.
I used to hate my birthdays because I felt they represented all I should have accomplished but hadn’t. Now that I’m older, I don’t necessarily worry about what I have or haven’t accomplished. Instead, I celebrate all I have learned and all of the tough lessons life has taught me not because I was accomplishing something but because I was living, making mistakes, and simply being human.
Several years ago, I celebrated my birthday by listing all of the things I had learned in almost five decades. I haven’t gone back to find that post, but I have once again been thinking about what age and experience has taught me, especially in the past few years when, in the middle of the pandemic, I was also struggling to survive an unhealthy relationship.
Don’t worry – I’m not talking about my marriage. I am fairly certain I married the most patient and tolerant man in the world who, despite all of my faults, is always there for me. I’m talking about an unhealthy work relationship. It wasn’t until a co-worker told me I was in an abusive relationship that I began to recognize it for what it was. (My co-worker made the observation as I stood holding a vase of recently delivered flowers – an apology for being treated horribly the previous day, although the card didn’t say that. It said “I hope you have a better day today.” There was no acknowledgement that the sender was the reason my previous day had been so horrible.) Up to that point, I hadn’t even considered that the cycle of abuse can occur in a work relationship – not just a romantic one.
Now that I am out of that unhealthy relationship, I can look back on it as yet another experience that made me wiser, stronger and more self-aware. I guess the same thing could be said for all of my 56 years. My life has been one long continuing education program that’s provided me with the following nuggets of wisdom (five for each decade plus six for the balance of years):
- Don’t ever, ever, ever let anyone else define who you are. Don’t let their negative words sound louder in your head than your own self talk. No one else spends 24 hours a day with you. No one else knows all of struggles you have overcome or the tough decisions you have been forced to make.
- Sing out loud every single day. Trust me – it always helps. Just last week my co-workers and I broke into a random round of camp songs, and it lifted my spirits for the rest of the day.
- Don’t let someone else’s moral code influence yours. If you feel you are doing the right thing, don’t worry about what other people think. We are all just doing our best.
- Forgive others but hold them accountable. People who are abusive or controlling are reaching for something they can’t seem to obtain. They think that pulling you down will bring them closer to what they want. It won’t.
- Don’t confuse being kind with being a doormat. When people are wrong, call them out even if people say you being unkind. There is a difference between being mean and standing up for what right or what is best.
- Spend time outside every single day. I mean it. Every single day – even if it is really cold or really hot. Walk out the door, look at the sky, breathe deep, and appreciate all God has created.
- Don’t confuse organized religion with spirituality. Organized religion was created by men trying to make sense of a confusing world or, unfortunately, often to control others. Spirituality is about connecting to a higher power and a finding a meaning greater than ourselves in life.
- Learn to laugh at yourelf and forgive yourself. I do stupid things every day, which is why my motto is “the day I don’t make a mistake is the day I’m dead.” I also amuse myself every single day. My thoughts are often ridiculous, and the things I say can be completely goofy. I am a complete klutz and I regularly fall down or trip or break something.
Instead of beating myself up– Wait, strike that, I’m always beating myself up because I’m uncoordinated. Instead of berating myself for my mistakes and misteps, I’ve learned to turn my life into an ongoing, and hopefully, entertaining anecdote.
- Don’t let other people’s desire for power be a reason to let go of yours.
- Surround yourself with people who don’t need anything from you other than your genuine, true self. If you are always trying to prove yourself, hide your negative attributes, cling to an entity or organization for validation, or pretend to be someone or something your aren’t, you will never be truly happy.
- Don’t sell yourself short or compare yourself to others. Don’t think not knowing how to do something is a reason not to learn how to do it. Don’t limit possibilities. And don’t ever, ever think getting older means you should stop dreaming.
I turned 56 yesterday, and I can’t wait to see what I learn next.
How to Shut Up a Man
I was doing one of my least favorite things last week: sitting in a dental chair with a numb mouth with what felt like an interogation light in my eyes while my dentist and his assistant hovered over me with various scary looking implements.
I recently read that people in jobs that involve touching their clients need to create a bond or connection with the person for whom they are providing services. I get that when it comes to the person who does your hair. Sara, my hair dresser, is a better therapist than most therapists I know, but I have absolutely no need to pour out my heart to my dentist.
And yet, here he was, trying to make a crappy moment more chummy by inserting himself into my personal thoughts – or, in this case, the podcast I was trying to listen to in an attempt to tune out my real life situation.
“What are you listening to?” he asked.
Here’s the thing: when someone has their earphones in, that is a signal that they don’t want to engage in conversation. It’s the human version of putting a “do not disturb” sign on the door handle of a hotel room. I can understand if my dentist couldn’t see that I had them in, but I had specifically asked if it was ok to use wireless earphones in the dental chair and was assured they were fine and would not interfere with any equipment.
But even if he couldn’t read that I had absolutely no interest in engaging in small talk, I didn’t want to be rude to someone who had the potential to really hurt me. So I turned off my podcast and told him I was currently obsessed with the Murdaugh Murdaugh trial in South Carolina.
He surprised me with his knowledge of the case. Thankfully, he didn’t expect me, with my numb and drooling mouth, to explain it to his assistance, who said she loved true crime but didn’t know that case. I missed some of what he said as I pondered how anyone would be interested in true crime and NOT know about the Murdaugh saga, But then he drew me back into the conversation, “I can’t believe that in this day and age, there are still good old boys who get away with so much.”
He was looking at me for a response, and without thinking I said, “That’s because you aren’t female.”
He actually seemed shocked as though he thought I should have appreciated the fact that he was calling out the good old boy system. He reacted as though I were saying he was part of it. He even stopped trying to make small talk.
In truth, I really hadn’t made the comment to make him feel bad or call him out on anything. I was simply making an observation that he has never been affected by the good old boy mentality in a way that I, and most women I know, have.
I’ve quit a job because the male CEO never even asked his female employees if they were interested in his position when he retired. Instead, he came to us and said, “I know the perfect person to take over the organization when I leave.” Of course it was a white guy just like him who didn’t have nearly as much relevant experience as the women who already worked at the organization. I have had sit in silence listening to the verbal back slapping and one upmanship of men who have turned to me and asked if I could get them something to drink. I’ve even had to tolerate a community leader who insisted on calling me Mrs. Snyder (my husband’s last name) even though he knew that wasn’t my last name. It was his way of putting me “in my place.”
And none of that even touches on the sexual harrassment and discrimination I’ve endured in a system built by and for white men.
My dentist never followed up on my comment, but if he had, I probably would have said something like this: people in power want to stay in power. Until a few decades ago, doing favors for each other while ignoring wrong doings was how men got what they wanted. That doesn’t change in a few decades, especially in communities where that power generates fear and keeps everyone “in their place.” Even worse, in the past few years, I’ve seen women using the same tactics to gain power and control over others.
I think that is why my immediate reaction to his disbelief that the good old boy network still exists was to tell him that’s because he doesn’t have to see it.
I can only hope that maybe, just maybe, the reason he was so quiet during the rest of my appointment was not because he was upset with me or my reaction but because instead of talking, he was thinking about what I’d said. And hopefully, he also understood just a little bit more than he had before.
A few years ago, a former colleague commented on a photo of my daughter. “She is so pretty and talented, she won’t have any problem finding a husband.”
That was literally my reaction: “Huh?”
The comment about my daughter wasn’t made in the 1950’s. It was made in the 2020’s. Who the heck cares if my daughter ever gets married, or if she does, if she marries a man?
I knew responding to this person with a “huh?” wouldn’t have mattered. This same person’s whole identity seemed to be wrapped up in her husband to the extent that she rarely went anywhere but work without him. In fact, even when she went to work, she often dragged him with her as a volunteer.
My internal reaction to her prattling on about her husband was usually “huh?” To clarify, this wasn’t because she was talking about her husband. I mean, I talk about my husband all the time. That’s what you do when you are in a relationship. What bothered me was the way she talked about her husband. She obviously didn’t think she was a complete person without him and that her marriage to him was what defined her.
Even though I internally rolled my eyes at her backwards beliefs, there was a part of me that felt sorry for her. She had never outgrown that myth that many of us were fed as young girls: some day your prince will come and you will live happily ever after.
Thank goodness my mom told me early on that was a load of crap, and thank goodness my dad encouraged me to always be able to take care of myself. That was how I was raised: get an education and never expect that you can rely on anyone but yourself. I thought that was normal until I discovered how many of my peers were raised differently. There were numerous times that I was shocked when a smart, talented young woman put a relationship before education and career.
Of course, these women usually didn’t have a mom who told them that needing a man to be complete was a load of crap or a dad who championed his daughter’s independence. Their parents had actually told them they didn’t need to worry about getting a good education if they found a good man or that going to college was a great place to find someone to marry.
In hindsight, I was extremely fortunate to have parents who had the same expectations of me that they had for my brother. Even though I am very strong willed and I can’t imagine thinking I needed someone else to define me, but who really knows. Maybe I would be a completely different person if my parents had encouraged me to wear makeup instead of encouraging me to be my own person.
I know I shouldn’t judge women like my former colleague who see marriage (and then children) as what makes them successful. If they are truly happy, then good for them. What bothers me is putting that old-fashioned ideal on the next generation, which is what actually prompted me to write this.
Recently, I saw a Facebook post from someone who is the same age as me. Her daughter, who is is in her very early twenties, was getting married, and the post was “I always prayed that “Mary” would meet a wonderful man one day. God is working in her life.”
Should she be happy and joyful and celebrating? Absolutely. But praying that your daughter would marry a good man? Really?
How about praying that your daughter will give back to the world more than she takes? How about praying your daughter will learn to navigate the tough world with the knowledge that she is strong enough to handle difficult times. How about praying that everyone will treat your daughter with the same respect and expectations that they treat your son? How about praying that your daughter has a such a sense of self that she will never consider getting married as something she needs to do to be a complete person.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not against marriage, or relationships or motherhood. I think they are all great. I just don’t understand how some people still hold on to the belief that women have to have these to be complete or fulfilled or happy.
In other words…
Giving Up or Letting Go?
I love podcasts. I seriously don’t know how I once managed to get through walks in the woods with my dog, regular household chores and long car drives without them. They are amazing. I can be productive AND entertained AND informed by just popping in my wireless earphones and going about my business.
I especially like the ones in which I feel like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation with good friends. The hosts don’t pretend they are perfect and sometimes talk about some of the same struggles I often face. These aren’t polished productions with professionals who guarantee they will provide the best advice about how to improve our lives, our budgets, our families, and whatever else self-help gurus talk about. I don’t need anyone telling me my life would be so much better if I just did “this” – whatever the latest, shiniest “this” is.
The podcasts that I prefer don’t have origins in board rooms with the primary purpose being to create productions that ensure shareholders and CEOs get even wealthier. My favorite podcasts started out in basements or at kitchen tables or in living rooms in which the hosts just want to tell stories or talk about something interesting. They don’t need fancy productions or perfectly polished delivery. They just need to be relatable, and relatable they are.
Just this week, the hosts of a podcast I regularly listen to were talking about New Year’s resolutions with a twist: instead of trying to do something new or better you choose something to let go. (This wasn’t the primary content – it was just a conversation the hosts had before they delivered the primary content. Again – I’m not into self-help as entertainment.) They weren’t discussing giving up something – like junk food or drinking alcohol or watching too much television. They were talking about something completely different.
Up until then, I’d never thought about how giving up and letting aren’t the same thing. Giving up can be good (I’m giving up candy) or it can be bad (I’m giving up trying to write the great American novel.) Letting go is about lifting a self-imposed weight that drags you down.
Giving up is about making a sacrifice, like people do during Lent, or about failure. It’s rooted in negativity and requires regular, conscious, decision-making. It’s about trying to maintain control in a chaotic world. Letting go isn’t about sacrifice at all. It’s about choosing to not think or worry about something that generally serves no helpful purpose.
I love this perspective because, like many people, there is so much I need to let go of: automatically feeling like I fall short when I compare myself to others; worrying that I could have done a better job raising my kids; ruminating over past decisions; obsessing about people who have treated me poorly or about people I’ve treated poorly. None of that is helpful to me or anyone else. It serves no purpose other than to create obstacles to appreciating all of the things I do right and enjoying life to its fullest.
In 2023, I’ll do my best to let go because I am at a point in my life that I don’t want to give up things I love (like podcasts). Besides, giving up seems to be more about what you show the outside world you can or can’t do. Letting go is about the stories we tell ourselves. This year, let’s all tell ourselves some great stories.
I absolutely love when a fictional character says something that completely resonates with me to the extent that I’m still thinking about it days, or even years, later. For example, I don’t even remember which Scott Turow novel I was reading or which of his characters made the observation that teenage relationships teach you how to break up not how to stay together. The concept rang so true to me that I still reference it.
More recently, my husband and I were watching Three Pines, the television series based on Louise Penny’s books featuring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache. During one episode, the detective tells another character, “Grief is love that has nowhere to go.” That simple statement captured the essence of grief in such a meaningful way that I know I will remember it forever.
But no quote has ever rang as true as one in the most recent Peter Robinson novel when his character Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks makes the observation that “Superficial people have superficial morals.”
(I’m going to make a brief side note here: Peter Robinson is one of my favorite authors, and I actually got to meet him at the National Book Festival in 2008. Unfortunately, he passed away just a few months ago, and his final novel will be released this spring.)
The statement about superficial people having superficial morals was a reaction to how some people are quick to judge other people’s relationships based on some shallow moral code. No truer statement could have ever been made. Shallow morality is a moral code rooted not in love and compassion but in judgement and fear. Ironically, most people who spout shallow morality don’t think they are superficial. Many think they are spouting a gospel that can not be questioned.
It can, and should, be. In fact, I suggest that everyone ask the following questions before dropping a judgement bomb:
- Do you believe that a relationship can be immoral even if both partners are of age and are not hurting each other? If so, you might have superficial morals.
- Do you use fear and scare tactics as a justification for judging others. For example, do you tell others that trans individuals are stalking potential prey in bathrooms or that gay men are more likely to be pedophiles. If so, you might have superficial morals.
- Do you spout passages from the Bible out of context or without considering that some passages even contradict each other. If so, you might have superficial morals.
- Do you think that you have to be a Christian to be a moral person? If so, you might have superficial morals.
- Do you blindly follow your brand of Christianity, its rituals and its dogma without question or challenge. If so, you might have superficial morals.
- Do you protect your own and circle the wagons to protect others who think like you even if you know they are hurting others? If so, you might have superficial morals.
- Do you make sweeping judgements about other people’s difficult decisions, such as whether to terminate a pregnancy, with no understanding why the decision was made or the consequences of other options. If so you might have superficial morals.
- And finally, do you believe that whole groups of people are less moral than you are and therefore need to be treated differently – whether it’s Muslims or Mexicans or African Americans or refugees or immigrants? If so, you definitely have superficial morals.
The bottom line is that morals should never be used to make us feel superior to other people. In fact, they should instead be used as an opportunity to learn about, care about and love people who are completely different than us. They should make our world and experiences bigger not smaller. They should be based on inclusivity not exclusivity. And most of all, we should recognize that they are subject to change as we have new experiences, meet new people and learn more about the science behind human behavior. To me, superficial morality isn’t moral at all.
I know not everyone will agree with me. I don’t care. As the late, great Leslie Jordan (who like Peter Robinson passed away in 2022) said, “What other people think about me is none of my business.” Thank you Leslie and thank you Peter for your moral guidance.
The chair on the side of the road gave me pause. From what I could see, it was in great condition, but the logical side of my brain told me that no one could possibly throw out a perfectly good chair. So I didn’t seriously consider stopping, checking it out, and, if it seemed ok, throwing it in the back of my car because one of my kids might be able to use it. Yet, something about the abandoned chair niggled at the back of my mind.
I couldn’t help but wonder if it actually was a perfectly good chair that someone just didn’t want. Maybe it was the wrong color, or the wrong shape, or the owner had just gotten bored with it. People do that with pets, so they would have no problem abandoning inanimate objects for the same reason.
Regardless, I felt an unexplained empathy with the chair. Yes, I have probably seen Beauty and the Beast too many times and automatically personify inanimate objects, but I have also developed a deeper relationship with chairs after spending a significant amount of time with them a couple of months ago. The organization where I work had an online auction, and a donation of new furniture, including chairs, provided numerous items to offer up for bid. I had the responsibility of photographing and researching each chair to determine its retail value. Of course, I did this as part of a team, and I quickly realized people can have really strong feelings about chairs.
Everyone loved the rockers and recliners, which were mostly in neutral tones. But the accent chairs were quite controversial. Some people loved the bright, floral ones. Others thought they were obnoxious. I was particularly fond of a paisley chair that my co-worker deemed “absolutely ugly.”
It was simply a matter of taste, and no one tried to convince any of us that we were right or wrong. Because of course, no one was right or wrong. We just liked different chairs. Yet, I felt oddly hurt that someone thought a chair I liked was ugly, and I momentarily questioned if maybe I was wrong. We live in a society that tries to define beauty for us and reminds us on an annual basis what is “in” and what is “out.”
I will be 56 years old next month, and, when I’m honest, I admit that I still worry that my wardrobe isn’t cool enough and that there is something wrong with me because I have nothing to contribute to a conversation about the latest trends in interior paint colors. I tell myself that I don’t care, but a part of me does care. I tell others “you do you,” and “the only person you have to make happy is yourself,” but I worry that they may be putting themselves in a position of ridicule. I feel the constant hum in the background of daily living is telling me what I should look like, how to decorate my house, what music I should enjoy, and even whether or not my kids choices are normal.
The constant pull between being true to myself and true to the dictates of society is a struggle. A part of me will always be that kid whose peers made fun of what she wore when she started a new school in a community very different from the one she had left. I will always be that young woman who downplayed her intelligence and pretended she liked music she didn’t because she thought that’s what she had to do if people were going to like her.
Over the decades, the part of me that needs to fit in has grown smaller with every year while my allegiance to my true self has strengthened and grown. I may still worry about what others think of me, but I rarely make decisions based on that. And every day, I strive to be a champion for individuals who don’t feel they can be true to themselves without being discarded and isolated.
Maybe that’s why the chair on the side of the road made me so sad. It was a reminder of how easily anything – or anyone- can be discarded when they no longer meet someone else’s wants, needs, or sense of what is right and wrong.
I didn’t go back for that chair, but I hope someone else did. I hope they saw its beauty, and purpose and uniqueness and that it’s now sitting in a place of honor in someone’s house or apartment.
Everything and everyone belongs somewhere.
I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts the other day, and the hosts were bubbling with excitement about having just received their 2022 year in review from Spotify. Since I had just received (and of course shared) my year in review from the language app Duolingo, I realized that these reviews are just another marketing tool to suck us in so we share our results while providing free advertising.
Because they are intended to make us feel good about ourselves, these fluffy, feel good, reports don’t capture a realistic snapshot of what really happened over the course of the past year.
I’m always up for a challenge, so I decided I’d try to create my own (realistic) year in review.
Here’s my best shot with the disclaimer the following may or may not be based on valid data:
Hours I spent listening to true crime podcasts: 836
Hours I spent cleaning my house: 12
Phrase I said the most: “The day I don’t make a mistake is the day I’m dead.”
Phrases I never said, “I’d like to live in Florida.” and “I think Texas would be a good place to live.”
The number of times I went to Google to make a diagnosis based on my symptoms: 18
The number of times I went to a doctor to get a diagnosis based on my symptoms: 0
Pounds I lost trying to get healthier: 8
Pounds I gained from stress eating: 10
The number of times in conversation I said, “I have a story about that:” 422
The number of times in conversation someone said “Trina always has a story:” 421
Minutes I spent doom scrolling the internet: 3,523
Minutes I spent reading serious literature: 0
The number of times I’ve stopped my car in the middle of the street and gotten out just to pet a neighbor’s dog: 43
The number of times I’ve stopped my care in the middle of the street and gotten out to help a neighbor: 0
Tears I shed from dealing with a narcissistic bitch who was gaslighting me: 2,530
Tears I shed from laughing so hard I cried: 3,403
The number of times I’ve said “I feel like I’m a bad mother:” 46
Number of children I have: 2
Number of children who are college graduates: 2
Number of children who have been arrested or gone to jail: 0
Number of children who are gainfully employed: 2
The number of times I’ve fallen down while walking the dog, or going down the stairs, or carrying something heavy: 19
The number of black eyes I had: 1
The number of bruises I had: 1,748
The percentage of words that I uttered that many people would consider inappropriate or swear words: 18%
The percentage of times I regretted not telling someone I loved them: 0.
(If I love you, you will know it – especially if you are a dog.)
This year I’ve learned that sometimes justice isn’t possible, and you just have to walk away from a bad situation even if it means also walking away from unachieved goals and people you care about. I’ve learned that if you are a genuine person who cares about the underdog, you will attract genuine people who care about the underdog. And, most importantly, I continue to learn not to take myself to seriously. I’m the only person who has to spend 100% of their time with me. I might as well enjoy that time.
So here is to 2022 and an even better 2023. Here’s to the people who listened to me cry and rant and to the people who I never want to see again but who have taught me important life lessons. And here is to you. I hope you are your own best friend and that you take care of yourself regardless of what others think. It’s a challenge we can all continue to pursue.
The Cover Up
I had an unexplainable flashback to my early childhood the other day.
For some reason, I was thinking about an object that sat on the back of our toilet when I was barely out of diapers. The object looked like a beautiful doll with a large, crocheted skirt, and I thought she was stunning. So stunning, in fact, that I was devastated when my mother told me that I couldn’t play with her because she wasn’t a toy but instead was a toilet paper cover.
She said the skirt was so full because it covered an extra roll of toilet paper.
Her explanation confused me. Why would someone waste a perfectly good doll on toilet paper? But even more curious to me was why we needed to hide the extra roll since there was already a clearly visible one of the holder next to the toilet. If toilet paper was that embarrassing, shouldn’t all of it be covered?
My mom couldn’t answer my questions, and, in hindsight, she probably had the same questions I had. The doll/toilet paper cover thing was definitely not my no-nonsense, practical mother’s style. I’m guessing that it was probably a gift from someone, so Mom felt compelled to use it. My hypothesis is backed up by the fact that the thing never resurfaced when we moved a couple of years later.
I’m not sure why I remembered the mysterious toilet paper cover more than fifty years after I last saw it. But I do know what it represents to me: the tendency for some people to hide what they don’t want others to see by creating distractions. These individuals also shut down anyone who asks questions about what is actually under the full skirt.
Hiding anything is generally problematic, but it can also be particularly traumatic for people like me who question everything and who value transparency.
Over the past few years, I had to deal with a person who wanted to shut down my questions while simultaneously surround herself with people who would swear the object on the back of the toilet was simply a doll with a big skirt and was most certainly not covering up something like toilet paper.
It took its toll on me. I questioned my questions, my self worth, my skills, and my expertise. I could clearly see the toilet paper and wanted to know why it was hidden. But when I asked, I had my hand slapped again, and again, and again and had to deal with a chorus of the hand slapper’s loyal followers who practically chanted “There’s nothing to see here. Just go along to get along.”
I know they probably all saw the toilet paper but were in self preservation mode. I just can’t do that. It’s not who I am. If I don’t call out the hidden toilet paper, I’m fairly certain my brain will explode.
Thankfully, the people I most respect affirmed my questions about the toilet paper and my integrity. They held me up when I would have otherwise crashed. They are what kept me sane.
As I write this, I realize that individuals who don’t know anything about the situation are probably wondering why I am writing something so cryptic, but I have my reasons.
First, a lot of people have asked me why I haven’t been writing. The truth is, when you are beaten down, it’s hard to do anything but survive. For the past three years, I was just trying to survive.
Secondly, I want to emphasize the importance of surrounding yourself with people who build you up instead of tear you down and are willing to look under the big full skirt with you to see what is really there.
And most importantly, I want to publicly state that I have put that entire situation behind me. One of the people who didn’t let me fall actually offered me a path to get away from the toilet paper deniers. I am now walking down it, starting to heal, and starting to write again.
Soon, the situation I left will just be a memory like the weird toilet paper doll cover thing on the back of the toilet, It will continue to fade as more important and current issues occupy my brain. But I know I will still take out the memory from time to time, brush it off, and keep asking questions. One of those questions will always be why so many people denied seeing the toilet paper because, if they had, it could have been used to clean up the load of crap they were also ignoring.
The Place You Belong
I hated feeling like a stranger in my own life.
Thankfully, I rarely experience that feeling anymore, but it used to creep into my psyche like an unwanted encounter with a mean girl from high school. I did my best to present as confident and competent, but I actually felt like a pretender and an invader in the lives of people who really belonged.
I have, after all, spent my entire life living in places where I don’t have a family connection. Or so I thought. Because sometimes, one tiny piece of information can change everything.
For me, that small shift was seeing a headstone at a park where I walk my dog on a regular basis. The last name on the marker is Mowen, which is my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Initially, I just thought this was interesting. After all, I live in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, wedged between Northern Virginia and Maryland. My dad grew up in Massachusetts, my mom grew up in Michigan, and my family moved several times when I was a child. I didn’t grow up around any extended family.
This is probably why I embraced genealogy with a passion and became the family historian. When my grandparents passed away, the treasures I inherited might have had little value for many people, but to me the old photos, ledgers, deeds, and birth certificates are priceless. I’ve done a DNA test, convinced my parents to do a DNA test, and spent hours trying to figure out the puzzle of my family tree. What I never expected was to randomly stumble upon a headstone of a distant relative.
And yet, I did. After logging onto my laptop and doing some simple research, I determined that I was indeed related to the Mr. Earl C. Mowen, who is memorialized by a simple marker on a forest trail in Poor House Farm Park. Granted, the relationship is rather distant as Mr. Mowen and my great-grandmother had the same grandparents.
My great grandmother’s family is actually from Washington County, Maryland, which is only minutes from my house. I have ancestors buried in cemeteries in nearby Hagerstown, and a few geographic locations actually bear the last name of some of my ancestors.
While all of this is fascinating, it shone a light on something even more important: having a family connection to the area where I now live hasn’t affected my feelings about being a stranger in my life. I rarely feel that way anymore not because I have historical ties to this area but because I’ve been able to build my own life. Instead of being a stranger, I’m a main character surrounded by people who accept me, and care about me, and support me even though we don’t share the same DNA or childhood memories. I don’t have to pretend or feel like an invader.
I can create the place where I belong.
Getting Back Up
There is an anecdote in my baby book that explains so much. The brief notation is written in my mother’s perfect handwriting.
Christmas 1969 Trina was in the Sunday School program but kept falling backward.
That is all it says.
As a teenager, I remember asking my mom to elaborate. There really wasn’t much to tell. Apparently, nearly three-year-old me was one of several children singing Away In the Manger, but I could only get through a few lyrics before I’d fall backwards. Then I’d pick myself up, resume singing, and fall over again. And then I’d pick myself up again. And again. And again.
I hadn’t thought about that story in decades until this week when I was clinging to the root of a wild Rhododendron bush on the side of a cliff.
How could I have let myself get into this situation? I am the person who was once too uncoordinated to sing and stand up at the same time.
Being uncoordinated has shaped the person I am. I am the little girl who could never do a cartwheel and failed gymnastics. I am the kid who never once hit the ball during softball. I am the teenager who could run fast during a track meet but tripped at the finish line. I am the college student who sprained her ankle walking down the stairs of her dorm. I am the friend who got left behind on a ski trip because I just couldn’t get my feet to work correctly. I am the woman who shattered her wrist while walking her dog. I am the person who constantly has bruises and who everyone at work worries about every time they hear a crash or a loud bang.
My lack of grace generated a sense of fear in me at an early age. I wasn’t afraid of heights. I was afraid of what I might do to myself if I tried to do anything from a height: jumping downstairs, going off a diving board; springing off a swing in mid flight. I’d watch in awe as other kids did those things, but I avoided doing any of those them myself. And those decisions came with regrets. I once stood at the top of a fire pole willing myself to go down, but my feet refused. They felt as though they each weighed a thousand pounds.
My journalist mother was writing a feature story about a family that had installed the pole in their house as a fun way for their children to get from the second floor to the first floor. All of the kids in the house, their friends, and even my mother had gone down the pole. And yet, I stood in fear at the top unable to grab and go. The shame I felt from having to take the stairs stayed with me and inspired me to push through the fear.
Which is why, earlier this week, I found myself desperately hanging onto the side of the cliff.
My husband and I had taken the week off to spend time hiking and exploring state parks. He was on a mission to find a certain waterfall from a historical illustration, and his search took us to a series of falls that could only be accessed off the beaten path.
Off the beaten path turned out to be what I can only describe as an almost completely vertical cliff.
Getting to the first falls was fairly easy, but I took one look at the steep descent to the next one and said, “I can’t do it.” But then I did it anyway. The descent to the third waterfall, the one that plunges forty feet, was basically a forty foot vertical drop with vegetation and a few foot holes. “I can’t do this,” I said. And then I did it anyway. My forehead and back were dripping in sweat, but I did it anyway.
As my husband and I stood on a rock taking photos of the falls and basking in our success, he turned to me and said, “Now we have to do the hard part and go back up.”
“I’m not worried about that,” I replied. “Getting back up has always been the easy part for me.”
I wasn’t just referring to the fact that, to me, climbing uphill really is much easier than going down a hill, when I often feel unbalanced.
I was referring to the fact that life has demanded that I learn to turn my weaknesses into strengths. When I was almost three years old, I had a problem simultaneously singing and standing. But when I fell, I always got back up. And I eventually learned to sing and stand. And to ride a bike. And to climb trees. And to climb down cliffs. And to trust myself to take risks.
The secret to enjoying life isn’t just about finding those things at which we are innately good and pursuing them. It’s about finding joy in overcoming those things at which we sometimes fail.
It’s about getting back up.