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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.
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.
My husband told me to write this.
Well, he didn’t tell me to write these exact words.
I was complaining that I can’t relax because I can’t stop thinking, and he told me that I should write. When I said no one wants to read about what is currently going on in my head, he suggested I discuss the weather.
Since today is stormy and perfectly reflects the thoughts cycling around in my brain, his suggestion wasn’t very helpful.
Here’s the thing: the devil on my right shoulder wants me to write about the people who I prefer weren’t in my life right now. The angel on my left shoulder is telling me I can’t always control who is in my life nor can I control their behavior. I can only control my reaction to them.
And right smack dab between my right shoulder and my left shoulder is my head with all those thoughts blowing around like the gusts of wind currently rattling the windows. Since my brain is centrally located in the neutral position, I guess I should feel safe sharing some thoughts about the types of individuals who are currently setting me on edge – people I don’t trust.
I don’t trust people who never challenge authority. History provides dozens of examples of what happens when people blindly follow the leader rather than do what is right. When people are more concerned about protecting their status than they are about protecting those who are most vulnerable, I will never be able to trust them,
I don’t trust “suck ups” and “brown nosers.” Anyone who uses a significant amount of time and energy trying to impress those in power is doing a disservice to people who actually have integrity. If your words and behaviors don’t provide any evidence of your personal values, I can’t trust you.
I don’t trust people who don’t like dogs. According to my baby book, one of my first words was “doggy.” When my mom took me to the library as a toddler, I gravitated to the books with pictures of dogs. The worst moments of my life have always improved when I’ve been able to wrap my arms around a nonjudgmental furry friend and sobbed uncontrollably. And yes, I do have human friends who don’t like dogs, but they’ve had to earn that friendship and my trust.
I don’t trust people who have college degrees but still don’t use proper grammar or punctuation. I understand language is learned, but going to college requires a lot of reading and writing. It should also involve professors who demand the use of correct grammar. If you leave college still using mismatched verb tenses and confusing “wonder” and “wander,” you either didn’t truly earn your degree or there is something significantly wrong with your education.
And finally, I don’t trust people who try to buy my friendship or my approval. I don’t need gifts or flowers or disingenuous compliments. If someone has to give me something in order to validate the relationship, it’s not valid at all.
As I was writing these stormy thoughts, I realized my husband’s suggestion was actually a good one. Because as I went through my list of the types of people I can’t trust, I realized something really important.
In all of the aspects of my life over which I have control, I have surrounded myself with people whom I do trust. My friends are social justice advocates who always question authority. They are the people who call me out when I say or do something stupid and allow me to do the same to them. They are the people who give me the gifts of time and understanding. They are people who want to build a better world for others rather than for themselves. And yes, for the most part, they are also people who love dogs.
For months, I’ve had an ongoing debate with myself that goes something like this:
Me: I need to tell everyone exactly what I think about President Trump and the antics of the WV State Legislature because their rhetoric and decisions are pandering to hate, greed and hypocrisy.
Also Me: There’s no reason to write about my opinions. I’m not going to change anyone’s mind. It’s just a waste of time.
For a while now, “Also Me” has been winning.
Then two things happened. First, I was privy to a debate regarding whether or not an organization should issue a public statement about the egregious comments made by a state legislator. The second was a brief conversation with my neighbor.
The issue concerning remarks made by state legislator Eric Porterfield began a couple of weeks ago during a debate in a legislative committee about a bill to add protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. Not only did Porterfield make scathing comments about the LGBTQ community, but he subsequently defended those comments to the point of likening the LGBTQ community to the KKK. Much to the embarrassment of many West Virginians, the story went national, and individuals and groups from both sides of the political aisle condemned Porterfield’s comments.
The organization with which I am affiliated also decided to publicly condemn his comments. The statements didn’t go without some internal debate. A few individuals believed that Porterfield shouldn’t be given any additional attention for his hate-filled rhetoric. To me, the public condemnation was important. While I didn’t like keeping Porterfield in the spotlight, I was more opposed to keeping silent about any form of hate speech, particularly against a community that has fought so hard for equal treatment.
And only a day after that realization, a neighbor stopped me to casually ask why I wasn’t writing my blog anymore. I hemmed and hawed about being too busy, but I didn’t say “because I started to feel like what I have to say doesn’t matter.”
I’m glad I didn’t, because her response was, “I miss it. It’s good to know that other people think like I do.”
And I realized she was right.
So, even though I’m probably never going to change anyone’s mind about what matters, I can lend support to all like-minded souls about the current state of affairs in our country.
So this is for them:
- I don’t believe that Americans are superior to people from other countries, regardless of their country of origin, the color of their skin, the language they speak, their profession, or the amount of money the do or don’t have.
- I think building a wall is in opposition to everything America is supposed to be about.
- I don’t believe that people who have money work harder than people who don’t have money. In fact, I believe that wealth is usually (not always but usually) more a matter of good luck than an indicator of perseverance, intelligence, or stellar character.
- I believe that most privileged people don’t realize how privileged they are. (I’ll never forget last year having a friend show me a Facebook post by a middle-aged white guy. He was questioning the credibility of Congressman Joe Kennedy because he was “born with a silver spoon in his mouth.” The guy ridiculing Kennedy actually inherited his own family business. For most Americans, that is exactly what a silver spoon looks like.)
- I believe in public education. Period. I don’t think tax dollars should be used to pay for schools that include a curriculum based on religion or that teach a particular religious philosophy.
- I believe good teachers are our greatest hope for the future, and they should be treated with the same respect and pay as other professions.
- I believe in science. Period.
- I believe that allowing industries to buy off politicians is damaging our country, And I believe that only people, not businesses or industries, should have opinions.
- I believe too many people use religion as an excuse to hate and to feel superior to others.
- I believe that a person’s sexual orientation isn’t anyone’s else’s business. You should be allowed to love who you love.
- And to the Eric Porterfields of this world? I believe you are purposefully ignorant and use religion to hide all of your insecurities. Your missionary work is an excuse to share your hate with others. If you really understood Christianity and what Christ taught, you would be too busy caring for the marginalized to be concerned about whom they sleep with. And in doing so, you’d probably learn that they actually have a lot to teach you. So know this, my internal debate about sharing my opinions may have just ended, but my battle for the greater good is just getting started.
Last month, I was contacted by the Huffington Post about being a contributor after reading one of my previous blogs. Here’s my second post on the HuffPost.
Thirteen years ago,”Pomp and Circumstance” played as my son wore a red cap and gown to accept his diploma.
Because his class was extremely small, the formal ceremony was short. As the post-graduation celebration began, my son led his friends in a unique rendition of the “Chicken Dance.”
Throughout the afternoon, there were several other moments when he grabbed, or attempted to grab, the limelight. At one point, his teacher pulled me aside and whispered “All the world is a stage for Shepherd. Just enjoy it.”
But I couldn’t.
The next 13 years, starting in kindergarten, weren’t easy.
I worried obsessively about my son.
Even though my son was very smart and very funny, I worried that he didn’t have the same interests as his peers.
I worried that he was awkward and uncoordinated and would never find the place where he belonged.
I worried that he often seemed oblivious to what others automatically understood.
I even worried that he didn’t care that I was worried.
But somewhere between kindergarten and twelfth grade, my son taught me more than algebra and English literature classes ever could.
He taught me that going out on a limb will always be more interesting than standing on the ground hugging the trunk.
He taught me that winning a dance contest doesn’t necessarily require the best moves. It simply requires the most guts.
He taught me that more people appreciate the sheep who wonders off to explore new pastures than the ones who stay with the herd.
And he taught me that grabbing a mic and singing in front of the entire student body can never be embarrassing if you get everyone to sing with you.
On Monday, I will listen to “Pomp and Circumstance” while my son wears a red cap and gown to accept his diploma.
I wish I could guarantee he won’t lead his entire graduating class in a rendition of “The Chicken Dance,” but I can’t. Neither can I guarantee he won’t pull off one final, ridiculous high school stunt.
But here’s what I can guarantee: I won’t be worried.
Because I know that my unique, gifted, funny, ridiculous, smart, sarcastic son already has plenty of experience in finding his way in the often rocky terrain of life.
I also know, that his preschool teacher wasn’t entirely right. All the world is not just a stage for my Shepherd. Instead, all the world is HIS stage.
And I can’t wait to see his upcoming performances.
I felt a bit like a cat with nine lives as I glanced at my watch on Friday night.
I hadn’t recently escaped a serious accident or overcome a life-threatening illness.
I was just sitting in a high school auditorium watching my son and his friends turn what was intended to be a serious ceremony into something that more resembled a comedy routine. He and his fellow senior marching band members were supposed to be “jacketing” the freshman, which involved putting them into their uniforms for the first time.
As the antics on stage wrapped up, the band director made a short speech. He told the newly inducted band members that they now have a ready-made family as they start their high school journey.
At that point, I could feel my eyes begin to water and my chest tighten. What seemed like only yesterday, my son had been one of those freshmen. Now, in a few short months, he will be graduating from high school.
As I sat in that auditorium, I promised myself I would do all I can to treasure the next few months and the memories that have yet to be made.
That’s when I glanced at my watch and realized that more than 300 miles away, my 30 year high school reunion had just started.
As my son was animatedly and comically stepping into his last year of public education, my classmates from three decades earlier were reminiscing and remembering that time in our lives.
I had absolutely no regrets about choosing to celebrate my current life rather than a previous one.
At the same time, the poignant reminder of the quick passage of time is what made me feel a bit catlike.
My high school years are part of a past life.
I long ago left behind the girl I was in high school.
She existed in my life before college – a time when I learned to form my own opinions instead of parroting the most popular ones.
She existed in a life before I stumbled and failed at numerous adult relationships.
She existed before I learned to keep my mouth shut in order to survive horrible jobs with mean-spirited bosses because I needed a paycheck more than I needed to be happy.
And she existed before I became a wife, a mother and a person who strives to live a life of joy rather than one of fear, to speak out for compassion instead of accepting misunderstanding and to take risks rather than live with regrets.
I’ve only arrived here after surviving several lives during which I let fear win, silence overpower truth and safety override risks.
But I’m here now, and I’m sure my present-life friends and colleagues wouldn’t recognize or even believe whom I was in my life as an 18 year-old.
I can only hope the same for my own children. Although I love them dearly as they are today, I don’t want them to live the same life forever.
Last Friday, as I watched my incredibly goofy son on stage, I also knew that boy won’t always exist.
Life isn’t supposed to be static.
It’s about adapting to change. It’s about seeking out and enjoying as many experiences as possible. It’s about developing new relationships. Most of all, it’s about embracing the inevitable fact that, while nothing stays the same, each moment and life stage should be appreciated for what it can provide.
I wish I could give that advice to the me I used to be, but I can’t. All I can do is share it with my children.
Whether they choose to listen is up to them.
Something tells me that, in their current lives, they probably won’t listen or understand.
But someday, in one of their future lives, they’ll know exactly where their mom was coming from.
I probably would have liked the REAL person I used to be. What I wouldn’t like is how she presented herself to the rest of the world.
What I needed was an editor: someone who adjusted my words (and actions) so they took into account the perspective of others and helped me better explain where I was really coming from.
Take, for example my test taking experiences as a teenager.
I’d take a test then complain to everyone around me that I had failed. When I’d get back a 94 or a 96 out of 100, the other students would groan,roll their eyes and show their basic irritation that I had lied about failing.What they didn’t understanding was that I hadn’t lied. To me, any score less than perfect was a failure. I hated falling short.
What I didn’t get was that some students really failed – even when they did their best.
If I’d had an editor, he/she would have told me that failure really is a relative term and instead of proclaiming it, I should have said I wish I’d done better.
Recently, instead of worrying about a score on a graded test, I find myself worrying that I’m falling short in various aspects of my life. I’ve come to realize that I still need an editor. Life experience is a good editor, but it’s not perfect.
Maybe that’s because I still expect myself to excel at everything I attempt, and when I fall short, I focus too much on my imperfections.
A good editor would tell me that life is as much about the experience than it is about the outcome, and I should appreciate the experiences.
Maybe that’s because I still find myself judging people by the standards I set for myself, and when don’t show the same passion, or they blame others for their shortfalls or when they just show up rather than commit to making a difference, I get irritated.
A good editor would tell me that judging someone never provides any insight. Giving people the opportunity to tell their own stories in their own words does.
And maybe it’s because I worry that there is so much to accomplish.
A good editor would tell me that any thought, belief or desire that we actually put in writing is an opportunity to touch lives and influence others. Once our words leave our care, we can’t control who is actually listening or reading. We just have to trust that the right person will hear them.
There are times when I wonder how I will someday look back and view the person I am today. And I wonder if I’ll still note how I needed an editor.
That’s when I realize that I am actually my own best editor.
All I need to do is listen and follow her advice.
They embraced danger.
After hiking almost to the top, I told my kids not to walk along the ridge or the narrow trails others were carefully navigating. I imagined how a mere slip could result in disaster, and the signs warning about the number of people who had died on Seneca Rocks didn’t help. They simply fed my fear.
Later, as we were driving home, I thought about my fear.
And I realize that one word “my” said it all.
To me, fear is all about the risk of physical or emotional harm to me or someone I love. I identify that risk and then I do everything I can to avoid it.
That’s how I operate.
Apparently, others operate differently.
My friends tell me that some people don’t analyze their behavior as much as I do.They say most people don’t even know when they are afraid. Instead, they just think they are angry.
Lately, I’ve been debating whether I agree. I never used to think my anger stemmed from fear.
I get angry at injustice when people aren’t treated fairly. Am I afraid that I too can be a victim of injustice?
I get angry when incompetent people are allowed to continue in their jobs despite their ineffectiveness. Am I afraid that my hard work is pointless?
I get angry when people blame me for their inability to be effective. Am I afraid that others will believe them?
My answers to all these questions is”maybe.” But I’ve begun to realize the question shouldn’t be if my anger is rooted in fear. The real question is: “If I am afraid, how do I deal with that fear?”
I can either face it, like the rock climbers do.
I can avoid it, like I did when sitting on the cliffs.
Or I can learn to turn it into something meaningful.
And that choice is the real fear factor.
I have no idea what our pastor said that caused my daughter a moment of panic in church last Sunday, but he obviously said something that triggered her concern. She looked stricken then leaned over and whispered, “When, exactly, does Lent start?”
I pointed to an announcement in the bulletin about Ash Wednesday services, and she breathed a sigh of relief. That afternoon, she asked me what she should give up for Lent. I told her that was a personal choice.
Days later, she announced she was giving up playing the game Flappy Bird. I must have sighed because she asked, “What’s wrong with that? I like Flappy Bird.”
She may like Flappy Bird, but I don’t think she’s making any great sacrifice by giving it up. She downloaded it on my phone, not hers. In other words, she only plays the game when her phone battery is running low and she is looking for something to do when we are out running errands.
My daughter’s decision reminds me of a student who lived in my dorm during college. I’d always considered the young woman superficial. My assessment of her proved right when she announced that for Lent she was “giving up eating junk food after getting drunk.”
She was missing the point of Lent, and I think my daughter might be too. She can certainly spout the reasons Christians give up something during Lent, but I’m not sure she has fully embraced the concept of spiritual growth.
Sometimes, I wonder if I have either.
That’s why I’m not giving anything up this year. Instead, I’m taking on something, and I already know it’s going to be much harder than giving up caffeine or chocolate.
I know it’s going to be challenging because I’ve been practicing. At least, I’ve been trying to practice, and I’ve been failing miserably.
I’m taking on praying daily for people I don’t like or who have hurt me. And the purpose of those prayers isn’t about my relationship with these individuals or my hopes that they will change their behavior. My prayers are simple: that they find peace and happiness. My emotions aren’t as simple. Letting go of anger is difficult and embracing forgiveness is tough.
As Lent begins this week, I hope I find the strength for both.