“I always wanted a little girl,” I hear my mom’s voice coo from somewhere deep in my memory, “and when the doctors told me I was having one, I was so happy!” I was the long awaited dream. The basket in which my mother had placed all of her hope eggs. Yet, when I was growing inside her womb, she certainly never expected me to be more of a tomboy than my older brother. Once my parents had a girl–well, me–they stopped having children. After all, my mom finally had what she always wanted. For the first few years of my life, my mom displayed her ever-present fashion sense by fitting me in girlish garments. When I developed a vocabulary and a mind of my own, however, I swapped my form-fitting dresses for my brother’s baggy, earth-toned hand-me-downs. I have always preferred boys clothes and chose to wear them in public from my toddler to teenage years. (Let’s be honest, I’d still choose sweatpants over skinny jeans any day.) I loved the coverage and comfort of a loose-fitting wardrobe. While I adorned myself in my brother’s gear, I could do all the things that interested me–climb trees, play sports, catch frogs and fireflies. None of which were female-appropriate activities. In fact, when most girls were cradling and caressing baby dolls, I was throwing them down and picking up a baseball bat. Needless to say, I was not the baby girl my mother had envisioned. She wanted the gender norm and I refused to give it to her.
Don’t get me wrong, my mom and I have always been close. Super close. Best friends, in fact. I became her sidekick and she became my confidante. But I’m sure it wasn’t in her original plan to gaze down upon her little girl and see a knotted, bobbed hair-do and a swishy windbreaker suit with holes in the knees from overuse. She probably wasn’t ready for me to love athletics more than anything else in my childhood world. And she had no idea what a struggle it would be to make me wear a dress. “You’ll understand when you have a girl someday and she won’t let you dress her in cute things,” she’d say as I complained while getting primped and prettied for some special occasion. But, although she may not have understood the choices I made, she never forced, bribed, or manipulated me to be someone else.
For that I am grateful.
It didn’t surprise me, then, when I opened an email from her a few weeks back. Inside, I found a link to a Huffinton Post article by Shannon Bradley-Colleary titled, “Why I Stopped Trying to Make my Daughter be Pretty”. Beside it, were words typed by my mother’s hands, “This little girl reminds me of you.” I feasted on the author’s perspective, finally getting a chance to see through the eyes of a tomboy’s mother.
And I was appalled.
Bradley-Colleary describes her daughter as being beautiful but laments her daughter’s decision to hide that beauty beneath her boyish personality and preferences. According to the mother, her daughter Clare has a passion for reading the Hunger Games, drawing manga characters, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and learning piano and Judo. The author also notes that Clare has gorgeous blond locks which she tightens in two braids. Always.
I made her take her braids down for her class picture. It was an epic battle and I played dirty. I used psychoanalysis, telling her I was afraid her braids were like a security blanket (which I am) and that I wanted her to be comfortable in every Hair Iteration and that I didn’t want her to fall prey to bullies who might socially ostracize her (which is true) and to that end I was willing to bribe her with an Obi Wan Kenobe FX lightsaber that could have paid for a month’s worth of groceries. But underlying my bid for her emotional well-being was the down-and-dirty truth: I wanted her to look pretty in her school pictures, her cascading hair framing her face, so I could show her off to friends and relatives.
What message is this sending to a young girl? Is “beauty” as defined by runway models and movie stars such an idol that mothers will trade her daughter’s character for a glimpse of it? When did mothers start wanting to hold a celebrity in their arms instead of the daughter whom they helped create? Kids aren’t dumb. Naive, maybe. But definitely not dumb. They understand that when anyone–particularly a mother–“tries to make her daughter be pretty”, she is really saying, “You’re not pretty enough the way you are.” Whether she’s intending to say that or not. What a travesty when a mother looks upon her daughter and thinks she’s lacking something that would make her more beautiful. Sure, the child might lack femininity or grace, but should that retract from her beauty? It simply adds another dimension to who that girl is. It doesn’t make her any less of a girl and it certainly shouldn’t define her as less beautiful.
Many times I think adults can learn from children. Sometimes, I also think, adults misunderstand the lesson:
I’m over it. I’m letting it go. Clare doesn’t need to fulfill my vision of how she would look most beautiful. She doesn’t need to care about being beautiful…These kids, man, they teach you how to live.
It seems as though the mother has finally reached a point in her life where she is relieved to throw up a white flag in surrender to her ten-year-old. But what is she truly surrendering? From the looks of things, she isn’t letting go of her false image of beauty, simply her desire to fight for it. I wonder what would happen if she finally saw the real beauty is Clare being Clare. Maybe she’d say to her young daughter, “You should care about being beautiful because you are beautiful, and I want you to value yourself exactly for who you are.”
Perhaps my perspective will change when I’m a mother. After all, I did experience the ostracizing that Bradley-Colleary foresaw in her daughter’s future. And, like many women, I struggle with my own body image and what it means to be beautiful. But, if I’m going to be honest, I look forward to the “someday” my mom predicted–the day I would have a little girl of my own. I will teach her to be strong. To be confident in her quirks. And, most of all, I will show her that she is beautiful. Regardless of what she looks like. Regardless of what she wears. Regardless of what she likes and dislikes. And then I’ll smile upon her little face, knowing all the things I told her were the truest words I had ever spoken.
Through the hazy fog of partially-lost memory, I squint to see my past.
As the mist gently lifts, I see her – the five-year-old version of myself – walking beside my best childhood friend, Janet Maloney. There we were, like two little ducks, scurrying after Janet’s mother as she led us through two huge, heavy doors. Our feet clicked loudly as we tapped our way into the barren chapel. The church felt empty. Abandoned. The ceilings seemed so far away, as if they were suspended from the sky. Creatures had been carved into dark wooden walls that stretched upwards to hold hands with heaven. Everything looked big and dark and reeked of something I had only smelled after rain. This new world around me seemed immense and unknowable, sterile yet smothered in supernatural secrecy. And, as a child who was never taken to church, it was scary. Ominous enough to silence two rambunctious young girls, which as any parent would understand, is a miracle in itself. A strange woman approached us as we loitered behind long rows of benches. Her wardrobe was drab and colorless, just like the rest of this place.
“Hi, Sister,” Janet’s mother said to the woman. Her voice was saturated with something that wasn’t herself. Sorrow, I thought. Or perhaps exhaustion. Later, I learned it was the sound of divorce.
“Hi, Sue,” the woman replied through eyes of pity. She waved her hand, suggesting we follow her into another room. So, we trailed behind as her long garments swept the path before us.
I don’t remember uttering a single sound during my first visit to the Catholic Church, but when the invisible gag in my mouth disintegrated, I gushed about my adventure.
“Mom! Mom!” I shouted with my typical childish excitement. “Did you know that Mrs. Maloney’s sister works at the church?”
To read more, visit the site for my new freelance gig: http://columbiafavs.com/faith/doctrine-and-practice/treasure-hunter-101.
Here’s a little ditty from “This Little Light”, an upcoming documentary that aims to dispel the myths and misconceptions about Christianity. Created, directed, and edited by yours truly. Be the first to see the official trailer!
“Dear Mom,” began my unskilled second-grade handwriting, “I had to write this because I didn’t know how to say it.” I looked at the penmanship, so familiar and yet so foreign, as it blared the reality of my life. At the time, it unleashed my childish fears and feelings. Now, as I read it again, it shouts of new fears–the fears and feelings of my adulthood. It amplifies the shame I carry for being more comfortable with written words than people’s voices, and it echoes the coddled worry that something must be wrong with that. The lead, smudged by the passing of my left hand, reveals a deep truth: I have not changed. I do not remember the day I wrote that letter, but I can sense the relief that warmed me as the point of my pencil flattened. I feel a cathartic whoosh as my burdens poured from my veins onto other thin, blue lines. Lines that someone else could read between and, hopefully, understand. I had found a way to release my burdens, my opinions, my thoughts. My self.
Many people have the divine gift of free speech. Of knowing what to say and letting their tongue springboard the message to their audience. I was not blessed with that gift–or perhaps it has just been misplaced and I simply have not opened it yet. Because of this, the first amendment troubles me. My speech is not free at all. It never has been. My brain is the militant governing body, the one that wrestles my mouth and puts it in a sleeper hold. It’s almost like a perpetual case of laryngitis: having something to say, being unable to say it, then resorting to a notepad to share the message with others. The only difference, though, is that everyone understands a medical condition and obliges to be patient with its victim. In the case of ‘social laryngitis’, however, people just look at you funny and wonder what the hell’s wrong with you. And what incentive is that to be social? Yet, every human has an innate need to be heard and accepted. Everyone longs to belong. For me, there was no epiphany, no moment of revelation. I just did what felt natural: I reached for my pencil.
I don’t write for the glory of writing. If that were the case, I’d throw down my pen and vow never to do it again. I mean, who would consider entire days spent silently staring at a computer to be glorious? Certainly not the people who look at you cock-eyed when you say that you’re a writer.
No, I write because, in the words of a very wise woman I know, that’s where my heart feels most at home. I write because my soul can only fully leak into the world through the tip of a ballpoint pen. The only way I can truly extend my hand to others is if it’s stained with ink, as any other lefty might understand. My life, then, is a complete contradiction: I long to reach the world by sitting in an empty room.
Growing up, my parents never put me in time out. Instead, I invoked the punishment on myself. If I was upset or knew they were upset with me, I ran to my room and locked myself in. The solitude was treasure, not torture. In my room I could busy myself with imagination. I could create stories and watch them unfold. During these moments, new worlds sprung up around me. It was the only time I actually played with dolls. And, by the end of the evening, my heart had rid itself of poison. I turned the golden knob of my sanctuary, listening as the lock clicked out of place. Then I strolled back into the world, humming an original tune that was known only to my lips. Somehow, even as a child, I understood that I was more connected to the world when I was alone. Or, at least, I understood that that was how I felt.
So, for me, writing isn’t merely a hobby. It is my first amendment. It is self-expression and socialization, connection and acceptance. It is me in my truest sense. It is essential.
Last night I dreamt I was trapped–bound and gagged by the stranglehold of marriage. Strangely, in my night vision, I entered this sacred covenant with a friend I’ve known since childhood. Yet, even though he has known me longer than any of my other friends, I still felt shackled to a false future. Life seemed eternally daunting, each day a treadmill of quick sand. My phony husband and I pulled down the covers and turned out the lights before bedtime.
“I told you I liked Vanilla,” I joked, referring to a term he’d given to his culture. But something felt off. There was a void in the air. Or maybe just in my heart. And it separated me from this husband of mine.
When others asked to hear our story, I’d reply with forced joy, “We’ve known each other since elementary school!” Then they’d swoon. And I’d feel more justified for making this lifetime commitment to be untrue. Don’t get me wrong, I love this friend truly and dearly. But he and I are simply not suited to wed.
Regret filled my eyes when I laid them on Kyle, my real-life husband, and realized he was outside of my nightmarish wedding vows. Apparently he had been someone I was dating, but I chose to marry this other man instead.
I wanted to kick Dream Me.
Instead, I felt panic plague my body, settling like lead in my chest and pumping through my veins like a caffeine overdose. Stimulated and shaky, I knew I must do something, but–as always with panic–the knowledge that something needs to be done exceeds the wisdom of what that something should be.
“I think you owe him a conversation,” my dad said, silently sneaking up behind me and nodding in Kyle’s direction. Even in my dreams, he gives voice to reason. I looked at Kyle, alone and dejected, lingering after some post-wedding party that didn’t include him. I couldn’t imagine what I’d say. When the heart aches, it strangles the throat. I wanted to tell him that he was the only one I loved–the only one I could ever love–with the depth of my heart and the breadth of my being. But I ripped myself from him when I pledged to be true to someone else. And those aren’t the kinds of words one can simply take back.
The kindness of morning caressed my lashes and I awoke to find my husband–my true husband–peacefully asleep beside me. The contours of his face, specifically and uniquely his own, comforted my soul. At that very moment, he had never looked more handsome. His jawline seemed somehow more distinguished, and his hair, tousled by sleep, more endearing. I touched the tip of his nose with my lips, overwhelmed with gratitude for the sanctity of marriage. Blessed to have my best friend beside me always. There’s no such thing as “the old ball and chain” in marriage, I thought. Marriage is designed to liberate, not confine. Slowly, he opened his eyes and greeted the day with a stretch.
“Good morning,” he croaked and smiled at me. Indeed, it was a good morning. And, with him by my side, I eagerly await all the others.
“We’re gonna die,” my friend moaned as we shakily descended the stairs to the Dungeon. I put my arm around her shoulders. We punched through the invisible door of heat at the threshold and left the summer day behind us. Even the sun was too scared to enter this place. Inside, the rancid stench of others heavily hung in the air, clouding our nostrils and resting in the back of our throats. The cramped chamber was cluttered with machines specifically tailored to destroy us–to shred us from the inside out, rendering our bodies disabled. We knew this. And yet, there we were, willingly walking into “Hell Day”–or some name that suggested a slim chance of survival. They split us up, and as females, we knew this threatened our safety. I watched helplessly as my closest friends became victims of apparatuses, staring through squinted eyes as they winced and screamed.
“You’re fine! You’ve got it!” I managed to cry as they bellowed loudly for inner strength. We all knew I was a liar.
By the end of the day, our clothes were stained with sweat, rust, and for some, blood. Our taut ponytails now hung limply at odd angles. I raised my arms to re-tighten the hold and keep hair from falling in my defeated face–an act I had done millions of times throughout my life. My brain commanded my arms to rise; my lips even formed the words. But despite my desperate pleading, my limbs stopped moving halfway to my scalp. I gazed upon my non-responsive arms. I felt my fingers as I individually tested their mobility. They seemed fine. I stretched my hands out before me and again tried to lift them to my ponytail. Again they refused. Until that point, I had never lost control of motor function. When my brain said, “Lift the fork to your mouth,” my hands and arms lifted the fork to my mouth. When my brain said, “Sign your name,” the words quickly got scribbled in ink. And, when my brain said, “Tighten your ponytail,” my hands automatically reached up, grabbed a portion of hair and tugged. But this time they wouldn’t even obey the command to reach up. The past hour had left me temporarily immobilized. I knelt down on my knees and asked another partially paralyzed girl for help.
“Good work today, ladies,” our coach boomed. “Now go scrimmage.”
That was one of the first workouts of my four-year bout as a collegiate athlete. And I was merely training to compete against the best of the Missouri Valley. I reflect on that memory and wonder what these Olympians must have done to prepare for the summer of 2012. Spending the past four years–the length of my entire collegiate career–training to compete against the best in the world. And, unlike most athletes who get multiple opportunities for victory over the course of their career, Olympians get one chance–one moment–to prove they’re #1. So, how much does a gold medal cost in Rio? I’d say it costs every second of every day. Starting now.
I know I’m not the first to jump on the Aurora shooting bandwagon, but I also assume I’m not the last who continues to think about it. The night after the shooting, my husband and I sat safely on our couch in the peace of our own home. He hung his head and said, “I can’t imagine what those people must be going through right now,” and “It scares me to think of what I would or wouldn’t have done in that situation.” The eeriness of our humanity haunted us. Life is but a quick breath. Especially when one of our own species snatches our last. Even strangers in Missouri felt the weight of Aurora’s blood. I continue to wonder how the survivors are doing? How are the family and friends who lost a loved one at the movie theater? In this dark, chaotic act of evil, is God present in the aftermath–in the community and hospitality that forms from tragedy? Was He present in the act itself? I’ve read about Petra Anderson, the girl who felt a bullet blast through her nose and shove its way to the back of her head. And I read about the vessel in her brain that she unknowingly had since birth–the same one which guided that speeding metal pellet to the brim of her skull. Petra is alive because of this unique “birth defect” and the seemingly impossible chances that a bullet would sprint down its path. God, it seems, not only protected Petra, but prepared her for this event. If that is true, this horrible massacre was planned long before Holmes gathered assassination toys from his doorstep. And, if that is true, it makes me cringe to think what else is to come our way. What other sinister deeds lurk in the shadows of the future? Will other innocent activities become blood baths?
I picture myself, excited about opening night of one of my favorite characters. Granted, of course, in my mind I’m going to the opening night of the Hunger Games. But it could have happened there, too. This time, though, a small group of my closest friends and family pre-order tickets to the The Dark Knight. Anticipation rushes shakily through our veins. Every sundown brings us closer to the moment when Batman will really begin. Days are electrified with the inability to sit still. We have a countdown marking the minute the movie will roll opening credits and on that night we stride through the door with golden tickets in our hands. The lobby smells of popcorn and butter and we follow our noses to the concession line. Hundreds of shirts marked with the same symbol swarm the theater. I’ve had my eye on those Buncha Crunch all night. It’s my mom’s movie tradition: eat chocolate with popcorn. I top a not-so-small Diet Pepsi with a lid and straw and follow the frenzy to another large herd of heroic-looking people. The ticket attendant motions us toward him. At the moment, he’s the most popular guy in the theater and he tears my ticket before placing the shredded paper in my snack-filled hand. I’m going to keep this forever, I think. Children file in before us–one, a young boy wearing his Batman pajamas, chatters excitedly with his dad; the other, a baby girl, is asleep on her mother’s shoulder. I try to grab a seat around the middle of the row in the center of the theater. I like to feel the pulse of the movie, and what better way than to perch on its heart? My talking-picture posse plops down around me. Our legs dance on the bouncy seat cushions as we turn to each other for snippets of conversation. Perhaps we even comment on the strangeness of that man leaving through the emergency exit door. Then we decide he probably felt weird being here all by himself and decided to avoid the crowds as he skulked away in embarrassment. “Is it time yet?” one friend might ask as the minutes crawl toward previews. And then, the big moment is here: a super villain strides into the room to kick off the show. Somebody hoots and hollers. I may even be tempted to hoot and holler at this innovative promotion scheme. He throws something toward us. I watch the rows in front of me choke on the gas in cacophonous coughs. Something is really wrong, my gut says, churning Morse code. Maybe they’re actors, my head argues. I flinch at the first explosion, grabbing the back of the seat in front of me for protection. More explosions, followed by blunted grunts as bullets pierce flesh. Then screams of terror. And howls of pain. People toward the back are already fighting to squeeze through the door. Some shout words. Others just shout. Between bullets I hear Batman beginning. The warmth of someone else spatters my face. It tastes metallic. The villain begins to make his way up the aisle, swapping one gun for another and crushing pieces of popped corn beneath his blood-stained boot.
What would you do?