Girl in the Snapshot

Looking at old photographs is not something I do much. I live here, after all, in the present tense. Last week, however, I got a jolt. A friend sent me a few old photographs. I wasn’t expecting them. In fact, I didn’t even know these pictures existed until the moment they popped up in a text message—pictures of pictures. 

SNAPSHOTS

She had come across them in a photo album. They came from the time before smart phones, back when taking a picture was an intentional act. You had to have a camera. With film in it. You had to get the film processed. You had to store the pictures, in this case in an album. You had to value them if you were going to hang on to them. She valued these snapshots.

THE OFFICE

One was taken at work. She and I were part of a larger group who were friends because we spent so many long hours together at work. There are ten of us in the picture, all laughing. I wonder about the joke. What is it we find funny as we pose in a conference room of the law firm where we worked? Papers strewn about on the table in the foreground; we must’ve been taking a break in the day, maybe lunch. Someone had a camera. 

WHO’S THAT GIRL?

I recognized others before I recognized myself. In fact, I wondered at first why I wasn’t there. Then I saw someone I couldn’t place; the girl in the middle, in the front, smiling big and laughing. Me! I was shocked. When that snapshot was taken, I was around 25 or 27 years old. Over thirty years ago. 

1988, that’s my guess. Give or take a year or two. Chicago. Married. I look so happy. I don’t remember being quite that happy. I don’t remember feeling so sure of myself, confident like the girl in the picture. Proof that what’s outside is no reflection of the turmoil and doubt surely swallowing her up on the inside. But why? Why such doubt and insecurity? Look at the girl. She sits surrounded by people who like her, care about her. She is dressed in her designer office attire with her hair combed straight and long. Her eyes shine. She is pretty. Why would such a woman be so lacking in self-esteem? Looking back, it makes no sense. 

THAT GIRL NEEDS SOME ADVICE

I would like to talk to that girl, tell her some things.  First of all, I keep referring to her as “girl” when, in fact, she is a woman. 

Stop fighting independence, I would like to tell her, stop wanting to be taken care of and embrace your autonomy. Pragmatism now will lead to time and space for self-expression later. Be kind to yourself and believe in yourself, your dreams. Stop fretting and live your best life. Don’t believe the myth, I’d tell her, the white-picket-fence is not for you and that’s okay! Create the life that works for you. And above all, stop compromising! 

If only I could give her a hug, talk to her and prevent the pain and poor choices that were to come. 

To all young women I say, please be kind to yourselves, listen to your heart, have the confidence to live your dream.

September

For nearly twenty-five years I spent the month of August preparing for a new school year. I commuted back and forth to school. I attended professional development workshops and meetings; some less relevant than others. I decorated my classroom and later my library to welcome students back. I collected certificates from the state-mandated online courses about blood borne pathogens, sexual harassment, and a myriad of other topics repeated exactly the same every single year. Every August I studied a new way of doing old things because every year the wheel is re-invented. I learned the expectations of the school principal, the district, and the state; I adjusted accordingly.

Students returned and we all fell into a routine that was unique for that particular year. I learned my students’ names, their strengths and weaknesses and idiosyncrasies. And they got to know me too. 

A TEACHER’S YEAR

The life of an educator cycles through the year in a way that is unique compared to other professions. Each season or month holds its own, distinct expression. From August to June, time is measured by holidays and test dates. Valentine Parties and Field Days. Cafeteria Thanksgiving and book fairs. Pep rallys and football games. Homecoming and Prom. 

SEPTEMBER SLOWLY

September is a completely different experience when you don’t work in a school. It feels slower than it used to be. When September comes, teachers and students are so involved in activities that it’s hard to notice the days growing shorter. It’s still hot here in Texas, but the mornings and afternoons are cooler than before. There is a breeze and the air has a different scent. Now that I am no longer part of the education system, I get to slow down and notice the gradual and quiet change that occurs this time of year. It’s nice. 

MINDFULNESS

Now I get to immerse all of my senses in the changes around me. I get to spend more time outside. For the first time, I see that September is a wonderful month. It’s not just being away from school culture that makes me so aware, but also because I have learned to live in the moment, to be mindful of the here and now rather than constantly planning what comes next. This is a fantastic way to live. It’s what we strive for. 

FALL MINDSET

In September birds behave differently, squirrels are busier, different kinds of flowers bloom. People act differently too. Although the weather still says summer, people display pumpkins on their front porches, suffer the heat in pants and sweaters and drink pumpkin lattes. They fall into an autumn mindset, looking ahead to Halloween, Thanksgiving and beyond. Not me; I squeeze out as much summertime as I possibly can. 

Teaching is a rewarding profession. For many years it was just right for me. I feel fortunate, however, to explore new ways to live, to see things from another perspective, to really stop and look around and watch the seasons change. I am lucky to have so many experiences. 

I left the school in December. Other retired teachers told me I wouldn’t feel retired from education until the beginning of the new school year; then it would hit me. That is true. I do not miss it. I loved what I did at the time, but no, I don’t miss it. Both things can be true. 

Happy Fall ya’ll. I think I’ll go for a swim!

Ship Island

When I was a child I spent a great deal of time at the beach. We would sail in my grandfather’s boat, the “Dixie Flyer” or my parent’s boat, the “La Moette,” to the islands off the Mississippi coast.  Ship Island was where we would go most often. When I need a place to go, when I need to make a mental escape from the world, when I am trying so hard to sleep at night, that is where I go.

I can’t remember the last time I was actually, physically there but I often go there in my mind. And the Ship Island of my mind and heart may or may not be what it was then or what it is now. I only know my reality of it.

I remember playing on the white sand beach for hours on end. I was sun-kissed and happy. My brother and I would dig trenches and have hermit crab races. Of course we would build sandcastles and swim. The water was so clear in those days. We would dive for sand dollars! I remember that.

Sometimes we poured Mountain Dew over the stern of the boat and watch the swarms of catfish the sugary liquid would attract.

Ship Island is unique because in the very middle of the island there is an artesian well with an old pump. After a day of sun and salt, we would run through the sea oats, take turns pumping and allow the fresh, pure water to pour over us. Wonderful!

I recently  took a trip (a mental trip) to Ship Island to see the little girl who was me. I thought I might tell her some things. Instead, she told me.

She runs along the beach, bare feet pound the hard, wet sand. Wet hair slaps her tan shoulders. Her tongue licks the salt and sun from her lips. She runs. She wants to see how fast she can be. Her skinny legs will take her far.  Her skinny legs will move her forward to the future.

But now there is a woman who wants to see her, talk with her and hold her little hands. That woman is me.

“Be kind to yourself,” the little girl tells me. She smiles.  “Look,” she says, “I swam deep as my brother and got these sand dollars. It’s hard to go that deep,” she says, “but this is what you get for it.”

I love that little girl so much.

She’s not surprised or disturbed by my presence. She is quite accepting that I’m there. In fact, she acts like I am always there with her—a companion, of sorts. She is astounding. She flits here and there. Digs in the sand for a while. Runs through the sea oats stopping to watch a flock of seagulls.  She finds a stick to write her name in the sand. My name. She writes it big and proud then adds a heart at the end. Drags the stick. Drops it. Runs, then wades, then swims to the boat for lunch. Sandwiches, Barq’s root beer, cold watermelon. I stand on the beach alone. She looks up and waves.

I have nothing to tell her. Her life will be good and sweet. It will be bitter. She’ll have long stretches of sunny days. She’ll have sadness and anger that seems unending. But the sadness will end to be replaced by more sunshine and calm. Back and forth, her life will go. Like any life. Like everyone to different degrees. That’s ok. She’s telling me the same thing. Be kind to yourself. Smile a lot. Look at the sand dollars and seagulls. Be kind to yourself. Forgive yourself. The rest will follow.

“Be kind to yourself,” she tells me.

Fraudulent Activity

“I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this?”

Meryl Streep

 This is a cold, wet Sunday morning in the hill country. As I lingered in bed reading, I came across a new term. While I tend to steer clear and roll my eyes about anything with the word “syndrome,” this one   got my attention.

 Imposter Syndrome

Po Bronson in What Should I Do With My Life? The True Story of People Who Answered the Ultimate Question tells us that this is the “unqualified feeling of being an imposter at work.”  It is the feeling that you are fooling people into believing that you are qualified to do whatever it is that you do.  In other words, in spite of the fact that everyone around you has faith in what you are doing, you don’t believe in yourself. I know this feeling. I know it too well.

Years ago, I worked as a paralegal in a very large downtown Chicago law firm. I couldn’t believe they hired me. I couldn’t believe I went to work every day and fooled these smart people. I didn’t know what I was doing and they paid me pretty well.  I was just a little southern girl. I didn’t have much of an education (my grades weren’t great but I did graduate from the University of Texas which isn’t exactly “Podunk Community College!” HELLO!), and I did not consider myself to be a success. My perception of myself was not very positive.

Looking back, I see a very different person. I see a young woman just starting out in the world and trying her best in every way. She is quirky but smart. She is pretty and witty. She is determined and surprisingly strong for such a boney little thing. She never gives up. She burns to make a creative mark on the world.  This is a girl who wants a pat on the back of assurance but she never gets it from herself.  Today I give her the biggest hug! I like that girl. If I could travel back in time, I would tell her so.

Even as a mom I always felt like a fraud. I wanted to be the perfect mom. I wanted to get at least this right. I planned the birthday parties. I decorated the girlie bedroom. I took my daughter to church and to the beach, and the museum. I taught her how to sit properly at the dinner table. All the while I was looking over my shoulder wondering who could tell I was making it all up as I went along.

Well, let me tell you something about parenting: we all make it up as we go along. There is no other way to do it. And while my own life may look like a train wreck sometimes, my daughter is doing pretty damn well. She is amazing! I may have felt like an imposter sometimes but I am her mom and no one else in the world can ever be that.

As an educator, both classroom teacher and teacher-librarian, I feel like an imposter. I’m not good enough to be doing this, I often think. I don’t know enough. I’m not smart enough or patient enough.

It is one thing to suffer from this imposter syndrome in your work life or even as a parent, but when you think you are an imposter in your own life—well, that is pretty severe.

Living on my own and learning how to be by myself I often think, “This isn’t me. I’m not like this.”  I am not the kind of woman who mows the lawn, pays the bills, fixes the bathtub drain, remembers to get the car serviced, eats dinner alone, goes days without seeing another soul, depends on herself for everything, the list goes on and on. But I am that woman. I am. I am doing these things. I am independent and I am strong. I am even stronger than that young girl in Chicago.

I have always looked up to my dear friend, Therese. She is like a big sister to me. She personifies what it is to be a strong and independent woman. It always seemed to come so easy to her.  That’s who she was but I didn’t see myself that way at all. Thinking about it now, I not only see that I am, in fact, much like Therese, but she is much like me too. It is really, really hard to know yourself, to become yourself.  It isn’t easy for her either. She just makes it look easy! “Look Ma, no hands!” In the years I have known Therese, for the first time I am beginning to feel like her equal.

In my life I have accomplished some things. I have high hopes of doing so much more. I hope I can learn to play my new roles with confidence and with the knowledge that I am good at what I am doing, whatever that may be. No one should ever feel like a fraud in their own life story.

Today’s Gift

Eighty something degrees and sunshine. Today I walked. Living all alone on I-don’t-know how many acres of ranch, I can walk for a long time. I see no one. I see no cars. I can hear the traffic in the far off distance but only because I live on a hill. I am the only human being.

The only beings as domesticated as myself (and decidedly more domesticated, I might add) are the cattle.  I see the deer and the squirrels and the multitudes of birds daily. When I walk I see different kinds of droppings. I see the prints of animals in the dusty caliche road. I recognize some. I know a turkey print, deer, raccoons.  I see others too—perhaps porcupine, opossum, rabbits, coyote, maybe even mountain lions. I am surrounded by wildlife.  It is impossible to be unaware that they are here.

The birds especially force notice. They are so noisy! They make the funniest, most beautiful and interesting sounds. When I scatter stale bread in the yard the ground moves like water with every kind bird—quail, mockingbirds, cardinals, and doves.  Lots of them.  

Today I should be studying. I should be writing a paper for school. Instead I am living in my present. I am feeling the warm sunshine and fresh air. I’m listening to the birds and allowing butterflies to flutter by.  I prepared a beautiful meal only for myself and now I am playing with words.  The paper will get written. Work always gets done somehow. This moment, however, this day, will not repeat itself. Unless I take it now, embrace this life as it is at this very moment, I’ll miss it. I want to grab as much of it up as I possibly can.

I saw a mockingbird alight a cactus in a sunbeam.  That’s enough of a gift for one day.

How I Came to be Here and Why it Matters

“Women, then, have not had a dog’s chance of writing poetry. That is why I have laid so much stress on money and a room of one’s own.”
– Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

From the time I was a very young girl I had an ideal of living far away from any civilization where I could have solitude and think about things. I had other dreams too; I wanted lots of animals and lots of children. I wanted a man to love who loved me in return.  I wanted family and friends.  I wanted to live in the city and be anonymous. I wanted to live in a small town and be known and loved by everyone.  I wanted it all.

I read Thoreau and Emily Dickinson. I read everything and voraciously. I let the waves of life push me along the beach, sometimes gently, sometimes with more force until I was nearly drowning.

I have been so fortunate in my life to have many experiences. I have attended cocktail parties at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House in Chicago, I’ve traveled the locks in Amsterdam on my parents’ boat, I’ve hauled hay and mended fence line. I have inoculated pigs and cows.  I have given birth to a perfect child.  I’ve read the best books and speak several languages. I can sew and knit and can pickles.  I’ve danced the two-step (albeit not well); I’ve attended punk rock concerts in Austin and the symphony and opera in Chicago. I’ve walked the streets of Paris and I’ve walked the trails of the Texas Hill Country.

I’ve been beautiful and young. I’ve been ugly and I’ve said things I regretted. I’ve been happy to the point of elation and so sad that I had to be scraped from the very bottom of humanity and put back together. I have loved people and sometimes not loved them enough. I never loved myself enough.

I never stopped to take care of myself, to know myself. For a long time I have been busy trying to make other people happy.  I never really believed that I could have a “room of my own.” In the homes of my failed marriages, I tried to make a space for myself—a corner or room—but it never felt right. It was never truly mine. I realize now, it wasn’t about the physical space. The space in my heart was far too crowded to allow me the “room” to right down my words. I never imagined that it was really possible for me to have a little place all my own just to write, create, and think about things. I never imagined that I deserved it.

I came about having such a place quite by force. A big wave pushed me there and said, “there you are—you asked for it!” So now I am happy counting my pennies to make ends meet, using my little space heater when I must, going to the Laundromat, and heating my food on the stovetop (no microwave). I also watch the sun rise and set, observe the deer and quail, and listen to the funny birds. I am truly so incredibly happy.

I don’t worry so much about money but I am taking care of it.  I’ve given up the man who is my best friend, the love of my life and I miss him terribly but for the first time in my life I have myself.

When I am not at work or attending classes, I can write, I can heal my relationship with my daughter, I can heal myself, and I can make of this life what I was intended to make of it—something very good.

I have no apologies for sounding very selfish. I am being selfish. I also want other women to know that they don’t have to go through an entire life feeling insecure or insignificant. You can learn about yourself and take care of yourself. You can know that all the things you do hold tremendous value in this world.

This blog is intended to be the story of my time alone in my little cabin.