Who I wished to be

One morning, in fourth grade, my teacher told us to pick up our chairs and follow her outside.

We were going to watch a demonstration.

I didn’t know then what the demonstration would be and I can’t remember now what it was (a model rocket launch?) because something else happened to fill that space in my memory.

My class lined up our chairs in a row on the blacktop where we usually played foursquare. Then we sat and waited as the rest of the fourth grade filed out, carrying their blue and orange plastic chairs, forming rows behind us.

It felt like a long time to sit in the sun. I counted how many kids wore Birkenstock sandals.

Emily also waited somewhere in the row of chairs. She was one of the most fantastic girls in our class. She made everybody smile and her hair swooped away from her face in a way I couldn’t replicate. From where I sat, I saw her stand up about ten chairs down the line. She turned to face the kids near her and sang a little song and did the silliest dance and they all laughed and laughed.

Her song and their laughter brought up a wish in me, as bright and burning as the sun over our heads:

I wish I could do that.

I could, of course, do that. I considered it. I imagined standing up right then and doing exactly what Emily had done. I pictured the movements I would make. And because I hadn’t heard the words she’d said, I tried imagining my own.

But then I realized that I didn’t just want to stand up and do a dance that everyone laughed at. I didn’t want to just copy Emily. I wanted to be the kind of person who would do what she did, easily, without overthinking—the way I was overthinking right then.

The wish changed: I wish I could BE Emily.

So badly. The strength of that wish flared up in my throat and made it tight.

And then came the stomach-clenching recognition right after it: I would never be her. Goofing around came to Emily as effortlessly as breathing. For me, it did not. While waiting, Emily’s natural impulse was to get up and do a silly dance. That idea would never have come to me had I not seen Emily do it first, had I not seen how her silly faces made everyone love her.

I longed, all that day, to be a person other than who I was.

That longing took away the rest of the day. We fourth graders were outside to witness an unusual thing, but I couldn’t tell you what it was. That morning is still etched in my mind, but the actual reason we went outside is lost to me.

That longing follows me to other parts of my life sometimes—a wish to be stronger, funnier, prettier, more admired. But those wishes never actually makes me stronger, funnier, prettier or more admired. They just take away the time I could use being the best version of myself.

I picture that quiet, lovely nine-year-old on her orange chair, looking down the line at the class clown she’ll never be. She doesn’t see that her best friend is sitting right next to her and they could be giggling. She doesn’t notice the wide, shining sky or the sunlight warming her arm. She doesn’t recognize what a glorious thing it is to be nine and still new in the world and completely herself. Instead, she’s aching to be loud and hilarious because she believes that’s how to be loved.

I want to tell her: Honey, don’t. It’s too beautiful a day to waste time wishing you were someone else.

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Surplus September

Taken together, the world’s chaos is all too much.

Too much anger, too much uncertainty, too much belligerence between heads of state, too much contempt on the internet, too much violence, too much ignorance—even too much rain.

I ask what I can even do in the face of a world like this.

*

Every month or so, I choose a theme to focus my thoughts. I’m calling this month Surplus September. It’s a dumb name, but it’s an easy, two-word reminder of what I want to practice in the next few weeks.

Surplus: more than sufficient, an amount of something left over when requirements have been met.

I keep myself fairly busy doing fairly good things. I work for a company that helps people. I try to be a good parent and spouse and friend. I generally meet the requirements of my commitments.

But what if I go beyond the bounds of what feels required.

Required: Pick my daughter up from school. Surplus: Put away my phone for the hours between pickup and dinner time to be present with her.

Required: Show up prepared for a work meeting. Surplus: Actively make that meeting more enjoyable for myself and people in it.

Every inch of surplus adds territory to a better world, expands my own capacity for good.

*

What do you want more of? Create some of it right where you are.

If you want peace, talk to someone you disagree with, treat them like a human. Brush up on your geography.

If you want a variety of voices to be heard, listen to a variety of people. Read books they wrote.

If you want safety and comfort, consider how safe or comfortable people feel to be themselves around you. Donate to flood victims in India and Texas.

*

This weekend, after starting to write this post, I argued with my husband. While I wrote at my computer, my daughter interrupted me and I snapped at her: When do I ever get a minute to just finish a complete thought?

This month already offers a surplus of opportunities to practice.

*

I can’t change the world, but I can change myself. And the changes I make in myself over time may change the sliver of the world I’m in.

Upon being married for 10 years

Ten years. That’s how long my husband and I have been married.

We’re even more grateful now to have chosen each other than we were on our wedding day. I’ve been thinking about what has carried us this far, to this place, ten years later.

Commitment. Love. Trust. Forgiveness. Fun. Obviously—these are givens.

Looking beyond those, I keep seeing evidence that the key (at least for us, in our particular marriage) is honesty.

By honesty, I don’t mean just fidelity or the absence of lies. I mean a priority for finding the truth, about each other, about ourselves. What kind of person am I really when my guard is down? Which fears do I still carry around with me? Which shining gifts have each of us not recognized in ourselves? When we’re arguing, what’s the truth about what’s going on? How well will we help each other achieve what we care about?

We reflect the answers back to each other like mirrors. When we see answers we don’t like, we only make progress if we don’t look away.

Honesty has been present in every gain we’ve made in building this marriage.

I think honesty might be necessary to create anything good or lasting, whether it’s an organization or a book or a class or something new. 

In my experience, I can’t breathe in an organization where everyone wears a façade, I write junk when I try to be clever instead of honest, I make dumb mistakes when I avoid being honest with myself.

To honesty. And to ten more years even better than the last.

Destruction is fast and brainless

Destruction is fast, brainless, unimaginative.

If we want to live in a better world, we can’t destroy our way to it. We have to build—and building requires care, creativity, patience, and time. Building is quieter, slower, and less dramatic than shouting or violence, but it’s required if we want any kind of peace or light that lasts.

At the end of 70 summer days

Heading into my family’s first full week back to school feels like summer officially ends tonight.

So I’m checking in.

What did I make this summer?

Memories, stories, jokes, crafts, healthier food choices.

Progress through stacks of unread books. Headway on ukulele chords.

A new weekly family tradition called Ice Cream Sunday.

But what I’m most hopeful about is making space. I’m practiced in taking on too much, in crowding out the fun in my own life—and this summer has made clear that I can’t (and shouldn’t) keep that up.

Today, making space meant making ice cream with my daughter. Tomorrow, I’ll see.

***

I want know what you’ve created these past summer weeks, if you’re willing to share. Comments open. I’d love to hear.

Complete these 2 sentences without stopping to think:

The rules: When you complete the two sentences below, write the first response that comes to mind. Just go. No extra thinking. Whatever comes to mind.

You may also write the second or third thought, but only if they come quickly. Do NOT give yourself more than a second to start writing. If you do, your brain will find a way to explain away your true answer.

Ready? The first response that comes to mind:

  • Even though I want to, I can’t _____________.
  • What I actually want to do is _____________.

I used this exercise to open a class I taught recently. My objective was to open people up to the idea that they may have more choices available than they thought.

Sometimes, if you just say what you think you can’t do, you realize how silly you sound and then you just go do it. Other times, the word “actually” can help you find something you didn’t know was there.

Those questions also brought up two particular roadblocks for us:

But-I-really-can’t answers

Even though I want to, I can’t stop changing poopy diapers.

Sometimes, we really do feel barred from a certain choice. I have a baby. I can’t just stop changing her poopy diapers. Whether or not I want to change her, I have to.

Hold up. I could actually stop changing diapers. Some parents do. Their children live in squalor and neglect. If I recoil from that option, then I’ve actually made another choice a step before the diaper ever gets dirtied: I choose to raise a child that’s healthy and cared for.

The choice you feel you “have” to make (the diaper) is often a result of a higher-level choice one step before (a cared-for child). Back up and find out what that choice is and the thing you “have” to do takes on new meaning.

Impossible wants

What I actually want to do is run / fly / cure cancer.

The word “actually” can help dredge up the thing you didn’t realize you wanted and then you can go and do it. Easy peasy.

Or that word can present you with an impossible desire. Maybe you want to run, but you’re not physically capable of running. Maybe you want to fly, but you literally don’t have wings.

This is not a dead end. Your impossible answer still holds information. What would you get out of your desired action? Freedom? Greater independence? Respect? Take the “to do” out of the sentence and write your answer again.

What I actually want is ____________.

You may have a wider range of choices available to you than you think.

The dream you already have

I have a picture of my dream house in mind: Craftsman style, blue siding or red brick, steps leading up to a wide front porch, built-in bookshelves, and my writing desk positioned near a bay window. This kind of house does not exist in the neighborhood where I currently choose to live.

But we rearranged our furniture this summer and I realized that my current home already has a bay window. It’s not the most obvious room for a writing desk, but now I can’t imagine the desk anywhere else.

Sometimes you already have a version of a future dream. You just have to notice it.