Wednesday, April 22, 2015

When that Blogger Gets Old and Thinks She Knows Stuff

Today is my 45th birthday.

I've always loved my birthdays: the cake; the celebration of another year well-lived, or at least survived; the cake; the pressure on family and friends to send gifts and cards; the cake; the birthday spankings song followed by my carefully chosen wish that may or may not feature Hugh Jackman; and most importantly, the cake.

The third of four children, birthdays have always been a big deal to me. Middle kids, if they aren't particularly outstanding or particularly troubled, are just sort of, well, there -- sandwiched between the oft-photographed leader of the kid pack and the much-adored baby of the group (case in point: my senior portrait is a modest 8x10, while my little brother's portrait is approximately the size of a billboard).

That's why I was always ridiculously excited about an entire day acknowledging my presence -- and my presents. Mainly the latter. Because PRESENTS! (Please email me if you would like to know where to send the cases of wine).

I also relished the jelly-bean-topped bunny cakes Mom baked me, since my birthday falls near Easter; her special version of the birthday song, always followed by Dad's comical, deep "Annnnd mannnnny more!"; and the annual story of my creation, which goes something like this: In late 1969, Dad was hospitalized following a severe allergic reaction. Mom apparently missed him a whole big bunch. Yadayadayada. I was created. Yea for hives!

Funny thing is, I've never quite outgrown the joy of birthdays.

I still remember the excitement of turning four and tearing open two huge, wrapped presents that had tortured me all day. They did not disappoint. Not every four-year-old gets the Fisher Price Little People Play Family House and the Little People Farm on her birthday. But I did. You are allowed to hate me a little for that because I also had the Little People A-Frame Vacation Home and the Little People Airport. Let's face it: You can't have that many Little People and ever seriously claim you had a bad childhood.

My fourth birthday was infinitely better than my 13th. That was the year I hosted my first slumber party on a stormy April night. If that stupid tornado siren had not wailed at 1 a.m., my parents never would have discovered those neighborhood boys hiding in the basement, and I might not have been grounded until my 14th birthday. Thanks, Mother Nature. Thanks, a lot.

But birthdays are about more than presents, parties and cake. Well, they are about more than presents and parties. Cake is still veryveryveryveryvery important. I cannot stress this enough. Do not show up at my house on my birthday without some sort of buttercream frosted confection or God help you. I once had a husband who did not get me cakes for my birthdays. The key word there is "had". (Just kidding, ex-husband. Okay, mostly kidding. Okay, I'm not kidding at all. No, I'm still kidding. Only I'm not. Or am I?)

In addition to cake, birthdays also are a great day for reflecting on the past year and taking stock of what you have learned in life so far. I'm no Buddha, but I know some stuff.

The following are just a few things I have learned on this crazy journey (look at me rambling away because I have caught The Old!):

1. Life is a gift. Treasure it. Even when it is hard, it is still pretty damn good. Like everyone, I have things in my life that are hard right now. But I am sitting on the back deck, the sun is shining and I'm talking to you while birds sing overhead. So find the good, yo. Always find the good. Need some help getting started? Okay. Bacon exists. Focus on that.

2. Your mom is a gift. Call her. Today. Right now. Man, do I miss hearing my mom sing to me on birthdays. As cheesy as her annual rendition of "Happy Birthday" was, it also was the best part of my day. That's why I do not have a voicemail saved of her singing it. When my mom called, I answered the phone. You do the same. Odds are, your mom always did the the best she could for you.

3. Give Dad some props, too. After all, when you threw your shoes out your second-floor window so you could sneak out of the house quietly in middle school, he did not freak out like your Mom would have. He simply carried your shoes back upstairs and dropped them by your bed. Then he stared at you for a long, long, long, oh-my-God-is-he-going-to-kill-me long time, saying nothing, as you pretended you were asleep and had no idea how your shoes went flying out the window and landed near your friends waiting in the alley. He followed his hour of staring at you with a long heavy sigh, which made his point without a word being said. Amazingly, he didn't tell your mother, who would have grounded you until you were 15 -- which she did, anyway, after you tied those bedsheets together and climbed down the front of the house. You know what? I'm grounding you right now. Geez, you were ridiculous. Hug your parents, friends. If you can still do that, you are very, very lucky.

4. Do what you love, and do it well. It might not pay all the bills, so I'm sorry to say you will likely need a "real job." Bummer, right? I need to get one of those, too. But don't give up on what you are passionate about, either. Squeeze it in -- whether it is writing, painting, taking photographs, dancing, acting, playing piano or learning guitar, crafting, woodworking, cooking, knitting, or doing whatever gives you solace when Prince's elevator of life tries to bring you down. You might not do it better than anyone else, but who gives a flip? Isn't the pleasure it gives you enough? I've been a writer in some form or fashion most of my life, working it in around school, kids and other jobs. It hasn't made me rich or famous, but unlike anything else I do, writing makes me feel at home in my own skin, like I'm doing what I'm meant to do. I'm not willing to abandon that. Of course, if anyone would like to help me become a rich and famous writer, that's cool. In fact, that would make a nice birthday gift. Call me.

5. Relationships are hard. Marriage is hard. Divorce is hard. Dating is hard. Second marriages are hard. Love is hard. It just is sometimes. I would like to say I have all the the answers to a Happily Ever After by now, but I don't. Instead, I refer back to #1 every day: find the good. Does your significant other make you smile, even when you are so, so, so mad at him or her? Annoying, isn't it? But it's also good. Did he start your 45th birthday with surprise donuts from your favorite bakery? If so, keep trying. Just keep trying. I'm pretty sure that's what your grandparents did. They didn't expect a perfect spouse or have some grandiose ideas about romantic love. They certainly didn't have syrupy Facebook posts about what makes a good man or a great woman. Nah. They just woke up every day and decided not to kill each other. And that worked. Try that.

6. Your children are amazing people-in-training. I'll have plenty of regrets late in my life, but I'll never regret the time I have spent with my kids. Still, give your children some space to be their own people, make their own mistakes and learn their own lessons. I know it's hard, but self sufficiency is one of the best gifts you can give them. So back off a little. This is totally how you can justify all that time you spend on the Internet.

7. Get real. My sister-in-law had a grand idea. She suggested we spend a day posting photos of our real houses, not our fake, company-is-coming homes. Did you refuse to post that adorable photo of your dog because of all the unfolded laundry on your bed? Did you crop out the dirty dishes on the counter in the photo of your kids? Get over it!  Real people have messy houses and messy lives. It's not going to kill you to be uncropped or unfiltered occasionally. I promise. You might even find it freeing. That doesn't mean you need to air all of your dirty laundry publicly. But we can help each other out if we will at least admit we aren't perfect. If you are the friend who has the perfect marriage, perfect family, perfect career, perfect home, perfect hair and perfect life, well, I want whatever drugs you are taking that make you believe that. Seriously. Is there a prescription?

8. Speaking of drugs, I prefer wine as my Instagram filter for life. It is okay to allow yourself the occasional indulgence. But all things in moderation -- unless it is cake on my birthday, and then screw that.

9. Faith is important to me. The world is hard, and I for one, don't like to go it alone. I posted more about faith in the piece I wrote for my daughter, and I meant every word. I won't be as poetic here, but I'll cut to the chase: faith is like the day's first cup of coffee. Without it, most things are intolerable. Get you some. But please don't ever use your faith to attack others who aren't exactly like you. That's not cool. It's pretty much the opposite of what your faith should be teaching you.

10. If other people don't like you, or don't approve of your choices, ask yourself this important question: Am I an asshole? If you are, in fact, an asshole, please try to fix that. If you are not an asshole, and you are doing the best you damn well can, then go on with your bad self. I'm not going to tell you it doesn't matter what other people think because that is a big, fat lie. It does matter sometimes. It hurts sometimes. This is why therapists exist, to help us deal with all the different voices telling us how we should be. But at the end of the day, you have to do you, boo. No one does you better.

11. Last but not least, ask for help when you need it, and give it when you know others need it. I am terrible at this. Really awful. Like I suck so hard at it. But I am slowly learning that it isn't weak to admit you can't always do everything or handle everything alone. Admitting you sometimes need help or feel fragile takes real strength and courage. I'm also learning that giving what you have to others -- whether it is your time, your love, your gifts, your grace or your forgiveness -- amazingly, fills you back up. I hope I get better at this in the years to come, and I pledge to try. I want to be fat with all the love.

Today I'll be fat with cake, my memories of birthdays past and my hopes for birthdays future. Even though I have to apply more anti-wrinkle serum every year, I still really dig this whole birthday thing. I'm a little older, a little wiser, a little wider and a little more who I am. Here's to finding the good.

p.s. When my husband asked what kind of cake I wanted, I had PMS, so I requested a half-strawberry, half-lemon layer cake, with a cheesecake center, iced with buttercream frosting and topped with chocolate cupcakes with peanut-butter frosting. Fingers crossed!!

Saturday, April 11, 2015

To My Daughter at Graduation


For Kelsey

There you are
Finally, yet all too soon
Stepping to the edge

Life has always been on your terms, even before you were born, even before you were a tiny ball of multiplying cells. You were not easy to conceive, daughter. I wanted you, prayed for you and tried for you to the point that your father once asked if he could watch television while we worked to create you (it was March Madness in Kentucky, so that is excused). Every month, when the irrefutable proof of your non-existence arrived, I wept at the unfairness and cried to my mother that my womb was a frozen tundra. I stood on my head for you. I saw doctors for you. I peed on sticks for you. The yearning for you became impossible to separate from the wiring of me. I was no longer me. I was me without you. Every errand became painful. The mothers in stores unsettled me, especially the ones who yelled at their children. I would be a better mother, so why was I denied you? One April, after a year of effort and unanswered prayers, I stopped by the drug store for yet another pregnancy test. The cashier grinned as she bagged the pink box and said, "Good luck, hon'!" I smiled awkwardly at her intrusion. At home, I dropped my pants dejectedly, anticipating the lack of you. But a few moments later, I held the test in my hands and watched -- amazed, shocked, elated, terrified, grateful -- as you emerged in the tiny plastic window. A plus sign. There you are.

Here I am
Proudly, reluctantly
Watching you perch on the cusp of your life

The December night you were born, you fought the body birthing you. A larger baby than anticipated, you took root in my narrow pelvis and would not budge. I pushed-pushed-pushed-pushed, again and again, pushed-pushed-pushed-pushed. You would not come forth, my diva, as if waiting to arrive at the party fashionably late. After hours of grunting, without benefit of the epidural that had been ordered off once you stalled, I understood the word "labor" on a visceral level. Lamaze breathing long abandoned, I was bearing down, panting, more animal than woman. I could feel the pressure of you, the mass of you, the whole life of you, pressing against me, resisting your entry into the world. The obstetrician, who had abandoned a Saturday of hanging Christmas lights to deliver you, asked if I had more pushes in me. Exhausted, I did not. I fell back against the bed, too drained to be ashamed, as a nurse and my sister pulled my knees back to my ears. The physician reached into me and affixed a suction cup to your head. I remember the rubbery feel of it, the baby blue cord attached to the cup, extending from you like a leash. He began to pull you forth, the muscles in his arms straining and pulsing, the insides of me, ripping and tearing. Still, you balked. As your head emerged, your shoulders lodged and locked against my bones. I never realized the danger you were in as the doctor reached inside me, adjusted your shoulders and turned you, corkscrewing you out of me. At last, you slipped from me in a gush of warmth. I was suddenly depleted, sore, empty. I felt hollow without you, my belly an unfamiliar mound of squishy flesh. They held you to me, and I tried to put you to my breast, but I was too tired for bonding, and you were too mad for suckling. You looked up at me, red and angry -- your face and head mottled with the battle scars of a birth so intense that it temporarily molded your fragile skull into a cone. My first words whispered to you were, "I'm sorry." How could I be a mother? Why was everyone oblivious to my fear, entrusting this squirming, stubborn life to me? Here I am.

There you are
Eagerly, excitedly
Scanning the horizon

When you were three, you yanked your foot away from me as I attempted to tie your shoe. With steely determination in your impossibly large brown eyes, you said, "I can do it." You slipped off your canvas sneakers, stomped to your room and slammed the door. Your dad and I winced, hearing your groans of frustration. I cautiously peeked into your room and told you that you didn't have to learn to tie your shoes that very day. What was the hurry? You were only three, and most toddlers weren't tying their own shoes. Glowering, you demanded I leave your room. Thirty minutes later, your door opened, and a single, untied shoe flew from your room, slamming into the wall. "Enough's enough," I said, "Honey, it's fine. Let me help you." A pint-sized pit bull, you paused in your doorway for only a second before pulling your shoulders back, marching out into the hall and retrieving your shoe. Your door slammed again. An hour later, you emerged and handed me a perfectly tied sneaker, the look on your plump, toddler face one of triumph, victory, defiance. There you are.

Here I am
Fearfully, nervously
Scanning your horizon

No matter the venue, you could never resist an empty stage: the bookstore platforms for storytelling, the mall stages, the amphitheatres for community festivals. If unoccupied, they were all yours for the taking. Walking to center stage, you would survey your audience. Perhaps you were taking stock of us, perhaps taking stock of yourself.  "Watch out," my mother said, laughing, as her two-year-old granddaughter danced for random admirers on an otherwise empty stage, "This one lives for the limelight." You always have. The spotlight calls to you, a beacon guiding you home. In first grade, you signed up for your school talent show. Would you sing? I asked. Dance? No. You said you were working on a stand-up comedy routine. I desperately tried to talk you out of it. The talent show was well-attended, drawing large numbers of proud parents, grandparents and siblings. What were the odds of a seven-year-old mastering comedic timing? What if you froze and couldn't remember your material? What if no one laughed at your jokes? What if you bombed? But you insisted. Trying to save you from embarrassment (or was it me, I was hoping to save?), I asked to hear your routine, expecting a tiring string of knock-knock jokes. I explained that good comedy must be drawn from real life,  an art form a child would struggle to master. You contemplated this for all of two minutes, then disappeared to write your act.  I was so nervous the night of the talent show that my hands shook violently, ruining the video I hoped to capture. Most of the little girls sang Carrie Underwood's popular "Jesus Take the Wheel" or songs from Bible school. I groaned. The last to perform, you took the microphone like a tiny Tina Fey and said, "I need everyone to look under there." The audience murmured, and you paused exactly the right amount of time before deadpanning, "I just made you say underwear." The crowd roared. You then segued with, "Speaking of underwear," and continued to tell slightly inappropriate jokes about your little brother, your football coach father, your dog Freddie. You also brought home a giant, shiny trophy, the first of several you would earn for your believability on stage in the years to come, as you starred in various school and community plays. I set that first trophy on your bookcase, ashamed at myself for doubting you. Since then, I have tried so hard not to be a stage mother,  or manage you. But do I sit too far back in the audience? Do you know I am always there, mouthing your lines from a distance, basking in your light, even if I'm in the last row? Oh, how you shine. Here I am.

There you are
Hesitantly, carefully
Testing your wings

Do you remember how we would take bike rides to your "special place", and you would collect rocks from the end of the cul-de-sac to put in your jean pocket? Or do you recall those bright pink sneakers, the ones you couldn't take your eyes off of when you walked, so I constantly feared you'd bump into something? Or what about the day you made the paper crown, carefully gluing straws around its perimeter? I have all of those things still: the jean shorts, the pink sneakers, the crown, the magical rocks from the special place. They are in a blue plastic box in the top of the closet, with trophies, ribbons and school awards. Recently, you cleaned out your winter clothes and set aside the cream and gray striped cardigan you wore so often throughout high school. Now stretched and faded, with torn pockets, the sweater was discarded in the Goodwill pile. I could not bear it, and I carried that sweater to the dining room table, littered with your academic and drama scholarship offers, your college acceptance letters. I held the sweater close to me for a while, and I allowed myself to cry. Some were tears of pride. I knew all along that your strong will, as aggravating as it could be for me, would serve you well. But I also cried because, like the night of your birth, my gut suddenly felt hollow and unfamiliar. Where have you gone? Then I dried my eyes and put your sweater in the blue plastic box, tucked among the other pieces of you. There you are.

Here I am
Painfully, achingly
Resisting the urge to pull you back

Have I prepared you enough? Taught you enough? Praised you enough? Humbled you enough? Disciplined you enough? Loved you enough? Liked you enough? Scared you enough? Reassured you enough? Asked you enough? Answered you enough? Nurtured you enough? Pushed you enough? Embraced you enough? Been enough? These questions wake me at 3 a.m. nightly. I lie in tangled sheets, rewinding my life, fast-forwarding yours. I peer in vain through the murky future, trying to catch a glimpse of grown-up, on-your-own you. Are you okay? Are you happy? How was the Play-Doh of you molded and shaped by my hands? God, I made so many mistakes along the way. I grimace as I recall the awful day when you were five, when your baby brother was crying, and I needed diapers, but you refused to go into the grocery, throwing a terrible tantrum because you were scared of the Halloween displays. I was exhausted. I needed to nurse your brother, and my breasts were full and sore. I just wanted to go home, but I couldn't do so without diapers, and it was the only grocery in our small town. The more you cried, and the baby cried, the angrier I became, finally turning to face squalling, scared you. I didn't care that you were scared of Halloween. I didn't care that you were crying. I didn't care that you were my flesh and blood, who I would die to save if needed. All I cared about in that moment was getting what I needed. "I don't like you!" I snapped. You froze. In that moment, we changed. I hang my head even to write these words. Hadn't I begged God for you? And promised Him that I would never be that kind of mother? Oh, child, I do like you. I like you so very much. I have always been afraid to ask if you remember that day, or what I said. Maybe that moment motivated you. Maybe that is why you are such an overachiever. Maybe that is why you strive for perfection, or why you still squirm away from those parting hugs I always insist on giving you. Perhaps this explains your fierce independence. It's possible you have forgotten that day, but I have not. I will always remember it, just as I will never forget the early spring day when your father and I told you and your little brother that we were getting a divorce. I won't share what you said, for that is your story, but I carry the weight of your words like an anchor every single day. It holds me to the earth until my soul takes root in deep, dark recesses, for that is the price of change. Dearest beautiful girl, I am sorry for the wrongs I could not make right. I am sorry for all the times I hurt you, when I chose roads that were harder for your young, tender feet to navigate. Another parent once said to me, "Children are like pancakes. You're probably not going to get parenting right with the first one, but you'll get better at it."I did the best I could, learning along the way. Your brother, as unfair as it is, benefits from the mistakes I made with you. I'm not a bad mother. You're a successful, confident young woman. But are you happy? Are you aware that your life is still precious, even if it is not perfect? I don't need a perfect daughter. Instead, I want a daughter who is pleased with her life, even if it is messy at times. A daughter who looks back and says, "Hey, that wasn't so bad, after all." I hope happiness follows every hurdle. But I'm not finished yet, daughter. Here I am.

There you are
Courageously, boldly
On the verge of flight

There is something truly special about you. I suppose most parents feel that way, that their children are remarkable. But in case you don't know, I think you are ridiculously smart, strong, brave, talented, beautiful and funny (the only way I know for sure you aren't a robot is because your room is atrocious. Seriously. It's gross. God bless your future roommates). As a student, you are rarely challenged, equally accomplished in math, science, English and the arts. Adventurous, you take cross-country trips by yourself to pursue your dreams, with nary a glance back. Your wit matches any comedian's, and your work ethic is extraordinary. And on stage? You glow. As your Mimi said, "Let us pray she always uses her powers for good." Amen. When you started school, I asked you to be a leader, not a follower. I cautioned you to never take your gifts or education for granted, reminding you how fortunate you are to have such opportunities. Thankfully, you put my words in action. You are your own person, one who does not compromise who she is to please others, but who is enviably at home in her own skin. High school was easy for you academically, but I fear it was hard for you socially, the rare bird that you are -- the one who is not afraid to sing her own song, to stand up for what she believes, to express her opinions, popularity be damned. But I must tell you something before you leave me, something important. You are strong-willed, but weakness has a place in this world, too. It is okay to feel weak and afraid sometimes. It makes you human. Temper your strength and toughness with kindness and faith. Kindness can take many forms, large and small, but others need it desperately, in whatever form you can muster. Extend your hand and your heart to others, trusting that kindness rolls out, like rivers to the ocean. Lower your shields, and realize the chinks in your armor, miraculously, make you stronger. And don't be afraid, dear one, to have faith in a love and creator that is bigger than you. You are the smartest person I know, so it is difficult for you to compute faith, I think. You try to rationalize it, but faith is not cerebral. Organized religion is hard for you because your heart judges none, and I admire that about you. But faith is as beautiful and as simple as the sun on your face, darling. It is the translucent rope above your head, offering solace and peace, and an escape from the murky depths of our human failings. Faith will be there, even when you are sure it has forgotten you. It carries the nourishment you'll need when the journey seems endless, a crumpled knapsack that holds your dreams and all of our love. Look out there, child. See the sky waiting for you, so vast, so limitless? You lift your arms to it, while I reach out to you, knowing my arms are the ones that must push you when you need it, but hoping they also are the arms to catch you if you fall. Like most mothers, I raised you for this moment, knowing you will visit home but never really be home again. I remind myself of Kahlil Gibran's On Children: "Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you." You were never mine. Not really. But when the world is inevitably unkind to you, as it is for all who walk upon it, I will reach for the blue plastic box and tell you of its treasures. I will remind you that you are the girl who rode her bike to her special place, who wore paper crowns, who ruled her elementary school talent shows, who starred in plays and who worked her ass off to be accepted to the best schools. Most importantly, you are the girl who threw her untied shoe into the hall but stomped back to retrieve it, to try again and again to get it right. The world? Oh, honey, it's just another untied shoe. March out and get it.

Here I am...


There you go.

By Jennifer Jenkins McAnulty 2015