Saturday, March 25, 2017

When You Wish You Were Happy

At the horizon on Route 23 toward Michigan, the sky is the palest but most unmistakably blue. In the distance the cotton-ball clouds smear over a soft layer of smokiness.

"What's wrong, Mommy?"

"Nothing... well, not really."

"What's wrong? Are you sad again?"



"I don't know. Sometimes I just get sad in the morning."

And other times at night, or at noon... I hate telling her any of it, but I try to keep it broad and simple.

"I love you, Mommy." She kisses my cheek and leans her head on mine. I close my eyes. Why isn't this tender heart filling up my heart-hole?

Maybe there really is no bottom and maybe the bottomless pit throws me into a hopeless fit.

Maybe I need to stop right here, close the laptop, lock the door and throw away the key. Maybe all I ever wanted was for her to love me with a mother's love, and she just can't and I need to get over it.

I don't need everyone to love me. But no love can replace a mother's love. I don't need her to be everything to me, just need her to be one thing - a mother.

My phone rings, and, slightly cringing, I touch my screen.

"Hi Mom."

"Ceci? How are you?"

There were many extended periods through the years when she didn't have the mind to ask me that.

"Good." I'm strictly monotone, guard up, poker face.

"Tell me what's wrong. Don't you know what is making you sad?" Her voice is calm and sincere.

"I don't know."

You don't want to know. The truth? You can't handle it. Plus, I'm too damn nice to tell you what you did to me. Plus, you'd deny it anyway. You always rejected my words. You rejected me.

Once lying on a hospital bed, she told me I'm a good mother.

I'm getting ready to hang up, but she's not as ready as I am to give up.

"Tell me. Did something happen? What happened? Just tell me. Maybe I can help you.” How does she know it's a specific thing? How did she know there's something to tell?

"There's nothing you can do, Mom."

Writing about Mom is an inch-by-inch sort of thing, slow, like driving in Toledo traffic during rush hour yesterday.

We're just trying to get through it to get to Southfield. And I'm just trying to get through my mom issues to get to a new place... a place of happiness...

A place of real letting-go forgiveness, where the horizon of our relationship is a pale smoky blue, dotted with sun-infused, lightly toasted marshmallow clouds instead of blackness.

I want to push out of the chrysalis, tired of spinning, tired of hanging upside down, tired of the dark. But at least I'm not still crawling.

"I wish I could do something," she's says believably. She's in a good mood. Her voice is soft like the pretty white clouds in the Detroit sky. Today is a good day for her. But is it a good day for me and her?
Maybe she does love me - in her own way. But I can't really feel it. I know her love for me could never make me happy. I remember it as contingent on whether my behavior and personality were up to par.

But maybe love is there regardless.

Is this whole blasted thing really even about love at all? If she loves me, why am I not happy? Do I want her love or my happiness? Maybe one isn’t necessarily the result of another.

Maybe we all just want to be happy, and love is just a luxury we're willing to give up for the feeling of happiness.

I want her love to make me happy. But it doesn’t, so I'm unsatisfied and sad. "What's love got to do with it?" sang Tina Turner.

The ultimate Love only just saved the world and passed out tickets to heaven forever. But Christ's long, grueling torture and death did not make anyone happy... until someone explained it.

Love is sacrifice. He did it for love’s sake, for God’s sake, for our sake. The best love is His love.

So you say there can be no self in love. And I am trying to make sense of that famous commandment, the big one that I’ve never understood: love your neighbor as yourself.

As I spin silky love-threads around myself in this fragile chrysalis, it will get easier to love her - not in her way, not in my limited way, but in God’s sacrificial way.

I’ll be waiting a long time if I wait for the happiness feeling to light up my sky before forgiving her. Might be an eternity before she loves me the way I want her to. Maybe the answer is not the idyllic love of a mother that I’ll never have, but the love of a Father I’ve always had. Mom’s best love would have brought me sporadic moments of happiness. God’s love gives me unfailing limitless joy that comes with hope.

Love is not a luxury for a lucky few, but a thing He tucked inside of us to resemble Himself. We all, including Mom, have it - a bit of His undying love that becomes ours, that bursts out of our insides when we’re ready and dances around with wings spreading joy on everyone.

Because love flutters joy like a butterfly, and happiness has nothing to do with it.

~by Anastasia (with Conte crayon)

Friday, March 10, 2017

When Sweet Sixteen Turns Seventeen

Candy-apple red lipstick, sparkly headband, black trousers black blazer, pink collared skirt with black polka-dots. And black-rimmed eyeglasses.

Her headaches had persisted since she lost them months ago. These beasts heap dumpster-truck loads of denseness on her broad eyelids and her brain. Daily during the week prior to the speech tournament they attacked her concentration and momentum so that memorizing her persuasive did not happen. 

The night before her first round, George had extracted the lenses from the locker room under her sister's bed. So she was as ready as she could be.

One of these days, she'll believe me just enough to chance the peppermint oil on her achy temples. And when I assure her it's not embarrassing but normal to have a crush, she'll tell me what color his eyes are and hear me not laugh. I'll remind her that it's her laugh I want to hear, the endless giggle that mingles with every conversation in every situation.

But 17 is one year closer to 18 and what am I doing? Do I hold captive every minute with her? Am I remembering everything I need to tell her? Will she be ready? Have I confessed every mistake against her?

I keep staring at her face, round and blushed. It's going to change again. The shades of her portrait have more mellowing to do. Her colors will yet deepen, and her smile will broaden. Her laugh will sweeten and her step will quicken. The Artist and Author of beauty is not finished with her. He's going to keep brushing strokes of inner beauty and strength on her.

But have I warned her about every danger? Has she learned enough? Does she have the tools and know how to use them? Is she confident enough? Is she tough enough? Did she get the lessons in kindness and shrewdness and wit along with geometry, history and grammar? Does she know how to forgive? how to love? Does she believe the right things? Which presidential candidate would she have voted for had she been old enough? I actually know the answer to that one.

Her aunt coaches her through the Strengths Finder program, and one of her top five is WOO - winning others over. She woos with her smile and laugh and a ready compliment just for you. She makes you feel welcome. She wins you over with her willingness to listen and her wealthy memory bank. She doesn't forget a name or a face while I consistently rattle off the names of all her siblings before finally getting to hers.

She embraces the hardships and injustices by calling them what they are - hard and wrong - and then chooses joy, staying as young and giddy as possible despite her mature mind.

She lives up to her name - youthful. The thing about her that will not change is her youthfulness. 

Though this fervent foodie can cook a mean koshery and whip up Teta's baklava like it's nobody's business, Taco Bell and Swedish Fish are always within reach.

Interaction with people is her soul food. For her, to embrace life is to embrace all kinds of people from all kinds of places. This has made her become wistfully lovable and dazzlingly engaged. Since she learned to walk, she has been fluttering from here to there and everywhere, never staying in one place or with one person for very long. No one is out of her reach because she always finds a way to connect with you. 

Forever reserved, I sit and gape. What did she say to that elderly man? to the little girl? to the cashier? to the security guard? to the performer? to her friend's dad? to her friend's little brother? It's not the words that elude me, but her ability to quickly summon the right words for every person.

So her friends are many, but forging deep relationships takes longer because it requires you to stop fluttering and stay put for a minute or two.

He will brush layer on layer of color and texture. Dark and bright days swirl and blend into new patterns and hues. Oils, charcoal and salt are extracted from her life experience to create depth and richness and to cause tension and pain. 

She will succeed and fail, celebrate and mourn, give and take, believe and reject, love and hate, fight and surrender. Her quickly changing canvas will emerge from the simple mess of lines, curves and dots to a well-defined, complex depiction of color, texture...

and love.

I wish I had filled a time capsule with the things we did, things that made her laugh or cringe, things she said or did that made us laugh or beam with pride. I wish I had recorded every single award, performance, report, story and drawing... every single friend, smile, tear, joke, dream and destination. 

Then she'd have one small snapshot of how much she is loved by us. And if it reflects even a wisp, she'd have a glimpse into the wide-open arm-engulfing love God has for her - love that spills across an endless sky airbrushing it with the emotions Juliana's days stir up:

~Yellow for happy

~Orange for witty

~Purple for silly

~Blue for chill

~Red for angry

~Green for adventurous and ambitious

~Black for disgusted and annoyed

~Pink for love and friendship...

-the colors of her complexion.

She's making grown up decisions and preparing to enter a grownup world. Her wings have only just begun to spread, and she's already flapping.

Happy Birthday, Butterfly.


Friday, March 3, 2017

Like My Posts: the Truth About Facebook

LADIES: When you, my friend, post pictures of yourself with your BFF, it feels like you're slapping me across the face - twice - one for you and one for your best friend. Your smug little selfies sing me a song: "We are besties. (is that even a word?) I like her more than I like you. I'd rather hang out with her than with you. She's much more important to me than you are. She's my BEST friend in the whole world. And we're here to stay. Nothing in the whole world will pull us apart because we're BFFs."

I want to block your posts after I finish throwing up, then delete my Facebook account, then text my therapist.

It is easy to clean up throw up, but not to clean up the repugnant mess from the mental wrestling match between me and my mother's unspoken lies, one of which is that I'm not good enough to be someone's best friend.

Do you feel that way when I post photos of my life? I'll bet some of you that show-and-tell your besties think my life is perfect from what you see on Facebook.

I share cute memories of George and me, and in one way or another, tell everyone that I have a great husband. Do you? Do you have a husband? Are you searching for one?

I display my children and broadcast their music, art, and other achievements. With two or three quick screen touches, I paint you a picture of a perfect familial posse of cute, affectionate, and smart offspring. Are your kids cute and smart like mine? Are they healthy like mine? Do you even have kids of your own? If you answer no to any of these, then does my smile, a wide sneering mouth of smugness, seep from my posts?

See? I do it too.

Your turn again. Sometimes you post Norman Rockwell-type images of you and dear old Dad or lovely Mom making precious memories together. You enhance the happy photos with a few endearing phrases that squeal "I love my mom/dad, and she/he loves me. I'm a good daughter. They brought me up right. We're one big happy family leaving a legacy of triumph to shine for the world."

I can't post those kinds of photos because I don't have them, though I wish I did. My dad has passed on from this world, and my mom is still here, but incapacitated mentally. She only calls me when she needs something. So I must not have been brought up right. I must not be a good daughter. No family legacy here.

We all do it.

My most frequent Facebook statuses comprise Zumba-related events because this seems to be the forum of choice to announce class times and build morale and community.

But some of you don't dance. Some of you don't have access or the means or the support to take a class or join a Zumba community. Yet I incessantly remind you that I and some of my friends do. And we have loads of fun that you're not having.

The sickening damage caused by many people's social media activity is the bleeding screen that screams "All your friends have a great life, but your life sucks."

There are days when I want to delete permanently all my social media accounts.

But will I? No. Will I stop posting pictures of my life? No. I want you to keep me posted. And I know you want my updates too.

So this is what you and I need to do with Facebook: We need to be more social.

But first, we need to understand Facebook for what it is - a mixed bag of personal life sharing, marketing, fundraising, promoting, preaching, lobbying, venting, alerting. It's one trillion buzzing conversations inside of one giant train station - a dystopian Grand Central. Consumers are addicted to jumping on a moving car of notifications, popularity and notoriety, but they are not going anywhere. Passengers use it to connect with friends and strangers while secretly ridiculing them.

Surprisingly, studies have shown positive and negative effects on people's feelings after spending time on social media. A researcher from Carnegie Mellon University found, as reported by The New Yorker, that the more people used the Web, the lonelier and more depressed they felt. Over one to two years, their sense of happiness and social connectedness dropped as much as they used the Internet.

In another analysis, forty studies in 2010 showed that "internet use had a small, significant detrimental effect on overall well-being. One experiment concluded that Facebook could even cause problems in relationships by increasing feelings of jealousy."

In this series, researchers found that the more time people spent browsing, as opposed to actively creating content and engaging with it, the more envious they felt. The more purpose motivating their Facebook usage, the happier and satisfied they felt.

We need to post and comment more and browse less. We need to speak up instead of stalk.

What if we chose clear motives for going to the site? According to research, the more we connect with our people by posting with a purpose and very actively commenting and liking their stuff, the less alienated we will feel. The connection will be real.

I think I might have just asked you to like my posts more.

Well, if you do, maybe we'll become BFFs.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

How to Keep Your Heart Beating

My new Zumba leggings are covered with bright pink, red and black hearts. We sported them Valentine's Day and for American Heart Month to help raise awareness about heart disease in women.

Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the U.S. A woman dies every minute, 811,000 per year. And that number is increasing.* I just learned about one type of heart killer named ischemia, silent heart attack - no symptoms.

The trouble with the silent attack is that there are no warnings. You don’t really feel it coming or going, but it does. And when it is discovered weeks or months later, you have to figure out what to do in its wake.

In all types of cases, the medical staff helps, family and friends help. Everyone helps. Even the country helps by making a month of awareness to raise money for research. The American Heart Association works to fight heart disease. Since 1949, $3.5 billion has been raised for research, more than any other organization outside the federal government. That is $51,470,588 per year for 68 years. The AHA has funded 13 Nobel prize winners and lifesaving medical advancements, like the first artificial heart valve.

There is no awareness month for broken hearts. While the National Institute of Mental Health does have a budget of $1.4 billion that comes from government funding, billions of community dollars are not being raised for the silent pain of grief, depression and suicide. In 2015, 16 million adults in the U.S. had at least one major depressive episode. It's not physical death, but perhaps another kind?

The Zumba people dance for fitness and a healthy four-chambered heart. But we also dance for a healthy mind and the other heart that beats to the rhythm of love. There are days when I can barely feel that beat. It's faint from grief or crowded out by my crazy hectic life.

So in class, I don't dance the pain away. I dance in the pain to feel that other beat of my invisible heart. Because afterward, I return to my messy life. My busy home with busy children await. I return to other areas where the same people ask me how I am but don't really want to know. I face smug piles of dirty dishes, laundry and mail. I face the kitchen in which some sort of edible food should be prepared. They have to eat, as my mother would say. We can't live on Wendy's, tempting as it is. I inhale and exhale over lost library books, coats, shoes, final drafts, math books, lunch bags, water bottles, swim suits and winter coats. How do you lose a winter coat in winter (for the love)?

Four pairs of wide brown eyes hypnotize me as they look into mine waiting with questions and answers. I feel their stout open arms, swinging moods and curiosity about whether our cat is spiritually purer than us.

My precious kids, at 7, 10, 13, and 16 are writing their biographies in our minds and hearts. Among the itty-bitty shopping diva, witty sensitive athlete, writer/artist and singing debater/social butterfly, my waking hours are filled with a capricious smattering of genres including drama, comedy, and tragedy. And when Gabriel or the cat brings home a snake, I will add horror to the table of contents.

Their stories are messy, beautiful, and unfinished. And they’re mine, yet as they morph into maturity, sometimes I feel like I’m not a distinct character, but the narrator on the outside peering in. They are growing and changing at warp speed. I’m sprinting in slow motion to keep up and keep them around as long as I can so I can stay close and really know the adults they are becoming.

Breathe in. Let it out.

I need to find the adult I’m becoming. The truth? I am 7, 10, 13, and 16, urgently needing what is too late for me to get.

How can I give them what they need when I need it too?

There are days, okay weeks, when I need someone else to make dinner because I’m too overwhelmed to even think of what to make. My friend surprised me with her homemade orange-carrot jam, and it’s my new daily breakfast. Its rustic sweetness takes me back to the store-brand orange marmalade my mother always liked. But the table she sat down to eat it on was clean.

There are days when I wish things, like for a friend to cook or watch a movie with me, listen to me write, be captivated by something I create, kiss me on the cheek, hold hands and walk, sing me a song, help me put outfits together. But it's too late for all that.

Maybe I am regressing to my childhood, but right now they need me. They need my affections, kisses and caress. They need to feel all my emotions with me and hear my voice gentle, firm, certain, genuine, excited, hopeful, faithful.

They need me to cook and watch movies with them, listen to them play their instruments, be captivated by everything they create, hold hands and walk, sing them a song, help them put outfits together.

They need me to give them the best of myself, like what a mother duck does for her babies.

Mallard mamas construct their nests while already inside them. They use earthy fodder, like grass, twigs and leaves. And I read in a book somewhere that they use a bit of their own bodies. They pluck feathers from their chest to mat a fluffy warm nest for their young.

When you peer close into the creation He called good, you discover just how good.

My young need me to love them out of my chest, like a mama hen. They need my heart.

How do I give them a busted-up heart, shattered into a thousand pieces? The one I had boarded up for decades to protect it from breaking? When the Zumba people tore down the walls, walked in and got comfy, I found it broken anyway.

At least the walls were leveled. Now my heart is open for people to enter… and exit. As a person who grew up boarded up with conditional love, I balk at this. Too risky.

My friends gave me a cute wooden sign that winks, “Love is the key that opens the heart...”

and breaks it into a thousand pieces, I add silently while setting it on my desk next to a spray of flowers in a robin’s-egg blue vase. What’ll I do with all these pieces? If I could pick one up, I would run my hand around a sharp, jagged edge, letting it pierce my skin - a visible sign of the invisible pain of an invisible heart.

Building walls around your heart doesn’t protect it from breaking, it only prevents you from sharing it.

What if we gave away our heart pieces to people? Each little remnant picked up from the rubble, smooth and sharp at the edges, are precious. But wouldn’t they be more useful with others than patched up and couped up? The love cycle could spread and grow - everyone giving and taking heart pieces and holding them close.

The healing is in the giving away. The doctors will not do the patching, but the Creator-Doctor of my brokenness will get the breathing blood flowing in and out of my heart.

And the people will keep it beating.

*All stats taken from

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Hard Truth About Love

It's hot in here. Hotter than a sauna, sweltering, suffocating. There must be some other way.

Choked with grief over people I’ve lost that look a bit like me and people I’ve never had to begin with, I crave cold water. I can almost taste the refreshing relief of being noticed, accepted, pursued, wooed, really really loved.

Who will do it? Who will love me limitlessly, always be there for me, never let me be lonely? Who will hold me when I need to be held? Who will hold hands and take long walks with me? Who will really, really love me?

Who's going to stand in this bloody fire with me?

Though I'm not being burned, I don't like it here. It's hot. It hurts.

The spark to this fire might have been a little prayer tucked away in my heart a long time ago. I might have asked to be useful, to have more purpose. I might have said, "Use me, Lord." And I might have said it off and on for several years as I waded the mostly calm currents of homeschooling inside our family-size bubble. "Use me for more," said I, not knowing what I was asking.

Yeah, that spark was in me, but it was no robust mustard seed. It was just a glint, easily gone in a blink. I asked, hoping He was listening, but not really sure.

That's it. He must be right here fanning my little spark of faith into a roaring forest fire.

I need to jump into a lake. But freshwater does not refine. Fire does.

There's a person whom I love. She is precious to me. She came in and out of my life like an angel would. The beauty of her face makes my heart dance.  She is strong, kind, and so very wise. She steps into my heart, fills it up, then moves on to her next unassuming person.

She will leave me though I wanted her to stand in the fire with me, to get me through. I wanted her to be the one to love me as I am, take long walks with me and never let me be lonely.  I wanted her to hold me. I just wanted her to be around all the time, every minute. I wanted her all to myself.

I love her deeper than her heart will ever fill for me. I am attached to her. My arms wrap around her tight and eternal. I can't let go. Her smile is a spray of sparkling light beams that burst through your eyes into your soul. It's warm, wide and bright, like a sunset. It draws you close. It enfolds your soul with bear-like arms and a tingle.

It is a joy and pain to see her. Because I know like any sunset, she'll slowly go away from me. She'll vanish gently and gracefully, but as time passes, I'll see less and less of her. There'll be times I'll wonder if an abrupt departure would have been more bearable.

There will be other times the loneliness will cover me with a dark suffocating gassy dense fog, and I'll despair of getting through and decide I've seen my last sunset. 

Love’s not pretty, and it doesn’t always feel good. It isn’t always the warming heat of the fire but its burning sting that makes you cry out in pain and the smoldering smoke that makes you grope for air.

I didn’t know any of this before now, before I let myself love someone, let her fill up my heart and let her love me. I’d not done that before. I had loved them from a distance, and it was fine.

What I thought was love was fear. I was afraid of life without her. I was scared of being perpetually sad, but she just wouldn’t let me love her superficially. She made me love her recklessly, when I’d always been so careful.

All the beauty of the world and its creatures is rooted and fashioned in reckless love. Everything else is darkness, confusion, and hate and is rooted in fear.

It is fear that is drawing the thick red line of division thrashing the page of our nation’s history book. I believe the anger, hate and grief experienced by the people that are unhappy with the election’s outcome is because of fear. And under reversed circumstances, that same fear drew a similar line eight years ago. Fear is powerful.

When I finally give love a chance, my worst fear rises up and burns a hole right through me.

Why was she given to me only for her to be taken away? This is exactly what I was afraid would happen.

My heart was trapped in a Brazilian nutshell and has been getting a violent nutcracking. There was no other way for me except the hard way. Breaking through hard heart walls is bound to cause some hurt. You begin to question the point. It hurts too much. Not worth it, I said dozens of times. Begging George and my friends to let me turn off the lights and surrender to the couch with my cozy gray and white blanket, I have made up my mind. I'm done with everyone and everything

But then someone who doesn't have a Brazilian nut for a heart shows up and sits by me. We just talk. And we stay silent. For one night, one slow hour in a night, I can remember that love is showing up in someone else's darkness and feeling it too. Then even in the dark, I'm not alone. That faith spark reignites, and for one hour it's worth it.

Because when you've been grieving in the dark long enough, and you've got a cross on the wall reminding you of the strangest, most wretched, most piercing grief, your eyes begin to look up. And through the wild flames, your faith is kindled, and you can see Jesus dropping down low from heaven and even lower into hell to be with you. 

I could swear His tears are mingling with mine, and together all these tears of ours are going to put out this fire that He's standing in with me.

That’s what a fire does. It purifies, slowly burning out the fear till love glistens and fills up that jagged hole in your heart.

It's true. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear... I John 4:18

As for my disappearing friend, I'll be letting her go.

So I can go. Go do things I've never done, go to places I've never been, go shake a stranger's hand, go pour into someone and fill up their heart. 

Like she did mine.

Fire makes a heart keep the joy amid the pain and kills fear so you can let go of your own Isaac, like Abraham did and like I'll do. When we can do that, we can be free to love others more. Then love's fire won't be trapped in the fire pit, but will spread wildly all over everyone and everything.

That's worth it.

As for who she is? Not yet.. you'll have to wait and see. (Wink, wink)

Sunday, January 15, 2017

2016: The Year I Traveled Back in Time

Last year started, as years are known to do, on New Year’s Day.

I had decided 2016 would be the year of yes. Yes to my kids, yes to more clinging to Jesus, yes to trusting more, yes to adventure, yes to challenge. Yes. 

"No" was still used, but there were more yeses. 

So gathering up my year, I word-draw the neat pretty piles and the ugly messes of the last 12 months because we were made to remember. 

The stale wintry Ohio sky turned into a fleeting spring with the white bleeding heart that returned in the front, a summer garden full of tomatoes and peppers out back and a quick orange-brown fall and Honey Crisp apples from a favorite muddy orchard. I thought my wispy bleeding heart wouldn't make it back, but it did.

We skipped around Disney, saw Celtic Woman, and I changed my hair color, then changed it back. I tutored Challenge A and dissected the world in maps, good books and a cow's eye with enthralled budding teens. I got a license to teach Zumba and began teaching it to friends and strangers, who will become my friends. I went jet skiing for the first time ever, and, yes, my friend and I flipped our boat, and who knew that would be fun?

The year aged and furrowed its brow as I saddened more and more with the days.

There was a double rainbow that brushed away the dark summer clouds turning the sky into a canvas barely big enough for it. It was slippery wet not from rain showers but from my river of tears rushing down into hours.

And hours into months.

The flood rose higher and higher and I, flailing, knew I was drowning. And what do you do when a Nile isn't long enough to get your ache stretched across? What do you do when the dam of dark memories breaks? 

This year? I darkened, not only from the sun but from depression and anxiety.

My short-term memory had already been slipping while the deeper, longer one grew cleats, and I'm afraid my whole life is slipping. I couldn't tell you what happened yesterday, but 30 years ago? Different story. 

These old biting stories are newly vivid like that rainbow. My boy asks me to tell him a story from when I was a kid, and I panic in secret for the forty-ninth time. He wants a funny tale. He wants to know his mama better. He wants to get closer and I've been running away from the stories my whole life. 

They've been locked up in a closet in a house on Winterset Drive since I walked out.

Remembering can sadden and gladden.  It can choke and it can soothe. I used to think old painful memories were sought. But I did not invite these nasty things. This year, let’s face it, remembering was a kick in the stomach.

It’s what I did all year. Remember not meaning to. It all tromped back, invading my present. Or did I go back to my past? Until this year I thought time machines were only the stuff of fantasy. 

But God knew about the closet and turned me into a time traveler. Because He was coming after all of me, and He needed me to remember all of it, all of me.

For his writing assignment, my boy composed a story about two men who travel through a portal and into another world where friendly dragons and children play together. But the Deadly Fire Blasters appear out of nowhere to fight alongside their army of bad dragons, capture the good ones, and throw them and the children into the dungeon.

I’m like those two men, treading a dark portal and its outlying path to a bleak place I’ve been before. I have to see someone, and I’d rather be stuck in a dungeon with Grodd, who’s not a dragon, but a freaky, mind-controlling gorilla. 

Having left her long ago in that lifeless colonial on Winterset Drive, I’d vowed never to look at her again. I know she’s pathetic, and I can’t stand what I’ve yet to see. How will she look, how is she coping with misery?

I forget to breathe as I inch and push through. It’s beginning to look more familiar. I search untamed in the dark for the closet. There it is. The old 70s door tucked at the end of the narrow hall is smaller than I remember. I don’t bother turning on the light, so I just close my eyes, push my heart-shaped key into the hole and turn the knob.

There she is, a shivering, shriveling shadow. She’s weak, stubborn and alone. I can’t see her eyes, and I’m glad.

I’ve come to slay her when I need to love her. But I do neither. I only cry in the dark with my 16-year-old self.

I hold her tight in my arms for as long as it takes to unleash - to remember - almost 30 years of uncried hurt.

And while the tears fall, the stench rises out of the quiet wreckage. She’s surrounded by everything else. The wild anger, shock over lost friends and family, ache of sadness, embarrassment, abandonment, humiliation, neglect, shattered dreams, old hopes and old memories meant to be sweet turned bitter by the rind of disappointment. The odor of my mother’s meanness and jealousy smokes. No one’s been allowed in. Her heart has been surrounded by high stone walls that are beginning their fall. 

The clamor of the crumbling grows as I finally turn on the light.

The stink turns into a perfume of acceptance and embrace. It was not only my mother who emotionally abandoned me when I was 16. I did too. When I stuffed it all in the closet, the meat of me, the best part, was thrown in there too, like the baby with the bath water.

But I’m still breathing, though in tiny ripples, so I say, “I’ve come for you. It’s over now.”

“This is all I know,” she trembles.

“Just you wait, it’s much better now. You’ll see.” I finger the heart-shaped key in my hand, tracing the edges.

“I’m comfortable here,” she persists, but her voice falters. 

“I know. But real love, giving and taking it, is wall-shattering. You’re going to really love now. You can’t love here. Besides I need you. I’ve always needed you, you’re the best part of me.”

“I’m the weakest and most damaged part of you.”

“You’re going to become the strongest,” I show her the key, but she doesn’t see it. 

“Not without a mom. I need her. I need a mom’s love.” She is so young and so broken up. She wipes her eyes, which never meet mine. “I want her to hold me tight and tell me she loves me,” she pleads. “I want her watchful eyes to be keen and her voice gentle and assuring. I want to take walks and hold hands and plant one of her thousands of flower pots with her. I want to watch her paint which she’ll never do again. I want all of her. Most of all, I want her to want all of me. 

“I’m not leaving without her.”

Heart sinking, I speak slow and steady. “She might have lost you, but Love has found you… and He’ll never leave you - ever.”

This God we have with the lightyears-long, galaxy-wide arms reached out and picked me up and sat me down in the Zumba time machine. 

The dancing Zumba people are the heart-shaped key that opened that heavy closet door. They believed in me when I didn’t. They saw a person I couldn’t see. They saw the girl in the closet and invested in her. They loved all of her, even the shriveled part.

Now I see her, and I’m finally beginning to love her too. 

It’s going to take a while, but Love will always remember, and it won’t always feel good. Sometimes, some years, like my 2016, buried memories will come out of the closet and fire up pain, refining you, rekindling your heart so it can breathe love again. Healing love. 

Love that heals is love that will not fail. It will be miraculous, mysterious, piercing but it will not fail when it’s real. 

It will be dangerous and precious. It will gain everything and lose everything. It will bind up a heart and break it. But whichever path it blazes, it will go on and on.

And so will I.

Friday, December 30, 2016

One For Me and One for Her: When You Remember a Gift

The gold bracelet in my hand has a little charm that dangles an engraved bouquet and the word Mom etched tiny. Shiny red Christmas wrap and white ribbon lay on the table, and I’m wondering why I’m giving her a gift this year. 

The last time I saw her was when I brought a friend to meet her and Christmas loomed ugly this year. The white lights, tinsel, manger scenes, pretty songs and plays only made it worse. 

My sixteenth birthday was not much better. Its white candle lights shined meaningless and so did the coppery gold bracelet she gave me for a gift. A relative had given it to her from her extensive stash of Egyptian jewelry, but I never once saw her wear it. She rarely wore her fancy things. Tiny diamonds and a turquoise bead made it striking to the eye, and it struck my heart sharp with the blade of shallow love. In the box it stays 29 years later. I remember that wretched birthday because it was a sweet 16 that went sour.

She had told me to leave that year. “If you don’t like it here, get out, go live with your father,” she retorted to my own tongue-lashes directed straight at her. 

“It’s always about you, and why don’t you let me talk on the phone, and I’m so sick of hearing it, and why did you and Dad separate, he did nothing to you…”  Except protect you.

He had moved four years earlier into an apartment close to work and close to OSU campus, so most of the other residents in the building were partying college students. He paid rent and a mortgage and in return was given the lonely life of a single father, very little sleep, and migraines.

I moved in with him and left the bracelet at home with her.

And now 29 years later, I give her a bracelet for Christmas. She usually doesn’t like anything I buy for her, but she says thank you and will never wear it, just like I never wore mine. So why in the world give her a bracelet?

To her, the bracelet I give her will also seem like a shallow love, because she doesn’t believe I love her truly. Paranoia leaves no room for trust. She can’t trust love. She didn’t trust that Dad loved her till the day he died, and she doesn’t trust that I do. love. her. I didn’t trust hers at sixteen, and she doesn’t trust mine now. 

But even though I couldn’t trust her love back then, she tried to love me with all she had - she had a bracelet.

So the one I give her now is the same - not a shallow love, but a trying love. I’m trying to love her, though she can’t receive it. Her befuddled mind can’t take it, like my teenage mind couldn’t.

Our bracelets are just the same - tokens of a love that tried and hoped against everything that it would be taken. It wasn’t then, and it isn’t now. But it doesn’t matter, because it was all for me to finally understand. I needed to give her a bracelet, because if she can take that, then she can take my love. It must have been the same for me when I was sixteen. I still have mine.

She had given it to me hoping that I would take a sick mother's unfelt, broken love.

My heart is sad, but my mind is clear, and the bracelet I bought her last week from the mall is a mirror of the one she gave me so long ago. 

Two hearts that are broken and can’t trust. Two loves that can give but can’t take. One daughter who’s trying this year.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Becoming Sister-Conscious: My First Zumba Class

When God takes action in your life, you'd better watch out and you'd better not cry. 

All at once, I am teaching Zumba to a bunch of ladies from church.

My Egyptian sisters, excited to move and have fun together, might have danced unsure, but they danced.  I told them over and over they were doing fantastically, I’m not sure if they believed me.

How did we women become so darned self-conscious? When in the world does the poison of it penetrate the soul and mind?

It’s all over the world, not just Egypt. It’s in the Americas, Australia, Canada, Germany, France, India, South Africa.

It’s in our heads.

These women, so beautiful, don’t yet know after just one Zumba class how bad it was for me at first. They don’t know (yet) how uncomfortable and downright intimidated I was the day I shuffled into my first class at the gym. They’ve never seen my two left feet in action. Ha.

They don’t know (yet) how Zumba grabbed it by the horns and wrestled it out of me.

Dancing is fun and feeds the soul, but a Zumba experience can give you the shameless tenacity to grab the beast of self-consciousness bare-handedly by its horns and simmer down the loud lies that sneer at you from the mirror.

The mirror doesn’t lie, you say. We say it all the time to our beautiful curvy bodies that did nothing to deserve the verbal abuse.

But what if we were each other’s mirrors? What if in the space of a blink we could see ourselves in each others’ eyes? We are all very much the same though our journeys might differ. 

Our eyes tell our story, and, like mirrors, they don’t lie either.

On the first day of teaching a class by myself, I missed my Z-sisters, but I was like a little girl who can’t contain her excitement over a slew of friends coming to her birthday party. For the entire hour, I was all giddy, not believing they showed up, the 22 of them.

Not sure if I said anything intelligible when one sweet girl told me that had I not offered the class to this group, she wouldn’t have done it. She wouldn’t at a gym, only in the safety of our group. 

And the mom who lost her little boy to brain cancer, the one I had prayed for, begged for. The whole army of us had heaved the ache on the cross and a little on each other till the very last minute, till there were no more minutes and no more hope of him sticking around. Can a mother’s heart ever beat again?

I kept an eye on her just to check and, well, honestly to satisfy my awe. I might teach her Zumba, but she just might teach me how to keep going when a heart shatters, how to keep smiling when the only feeling is pain.

She was roped into it, but I hope she comes again. She ended all her little phrases to me with Habibi (my love). Her eyes said, I don’t know what I’m doing here, but you’re sweet. She barely knows me. But we both know pain, and our eyes tell it straight.

In a Zumba classroom, a sad, stressed-out, self-conscious soul can get a little relief and a whole lot of love. Because we’re all in this together. We all carry around some hardship from the day, the year, the life. You and me and the whole lot of us, we’ve all got somethin’.

So when the music fills the room and the feet step and twirl to a rhythm, we’re all dancing together. We’re de-stressing, letting go, laughing, panting, sweating - together. Nobody’s judging. Not even the most subtle stare, smirk or pointing finger would survive in this hot energized room with the blue carpeting, wide windows and three doors.

But there’s infinite room for rocking with the beat, braving new dance moves, tripping over feet, bumping elbows, building up sisters, love-bonding.

Self-conscious is defined as “excessively aware of being observed by others.”

In our newborn class, I hope we will “observe” each other - look out, protect, support, smile, laugh and sing. I hope the others watch out for me. I’ll be watching them like an ostrich on her egg. I’ll be sister-conscious and love-conscious. We’ll be “aware of being observed by others” - and love it because the eyes don’t lie.

In a sister’s eyes, I can see her hurt and her joy, and I can see mine. I can see my own experience in her because she’s been there or is there and we’re both just being vulnerable enough to shake it out, shake off the muck and share stuff. We can do that here. Then without even trying, we find ourselves showing the compassion, empathy, vulnerability, loyalty and love that was always there but got buried under the yuck. 

We dig it out in Zumba, like shining a mirror spotless, so we can see our reflection.