“You Are Beautiful”

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Every now and then a “knowing heart” appears on the literary and social media landscape with a powerful message and a special gift for sharing it – honestly, transparently, eloquently and with a conviction that can only come from personal experience.  Rachel Macy Stafford has such a heart.  Fortunately, for all of us, she regularly and selflessly pours it out, via her blog http://www.handsfreemama.com, which gave us the post heard ‘round the world, “The Day I Stopped Saying ‘Hurry Up’” (http://tinyurl.com/n7taq45), her FB page http://tinyurl.com/qzv9jy4  and, most recently, her book, “Hands Free Mama – A Guide to Putting Down the Phone, Burning the To-Do List and Letting Go of Perfection to Grasp What Really Matters,” which I believe is a must-read for all young parents and parents-to-be who are faced with the unique challenges associated with raising children in an increasingly technologically distracting world.  Rachel, who I’m privileged to call a friend, and her publisher, Zondervan ( www.zondervan.com) have graciously agreed to allow me to share an excerpt from her book in my own blog today.  In recognition of National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, I would urge everyone to spread her message to the corners of the Earth.  It’s that important.

You Are Beautiful

The other day I stopped at the drugstore for a few items.  It was an extremely hot day, and I had just finished working out.  I would have preferred to shower before the quick shopping trip, but sunscreen, Band-Aids, and an anniversary card for my parents couldn’t wait.

I was comparing the outrageous price of spray sunscreen versus lotion sunscreen when a male voice startled me out of my SPF price-comparing reverie, “I just gotta say, you are beautiful,” the man stated as casually as he would tell me my shoe was untied or that Banana Boat lasts longer than Coopertone.  But he didn’t say those things.  He said, “You are beautiful.”  And then the young man, who appeared to be half my almost-forty years, added, “Go Tarheels.”

I looked down at my fossilized college T-shirt just to be sure he was talking to me.  The UNC emblem was barely visible, so I was still not convinced I was the intended recipient of his unexpected compliment.  I looked over my shoulder to make sure a Scarlett Johansson look-alike wasn’t behind me, coyly deciding which tanning oil would produce the best results.  With no other human being in sight, I accepted the fact that he was indeed talking to me, but he must have very bad eyesight.

In my hand, I gripped a tube of sunscreen I would have paid fifty bucks for just to vaporize myself out of the store.  As embarrassment climbed my neck in a prominent red hue, I sprinted to the checkout counter.  Who needs Band-Aids and store-bought cards anyway?  I decided masking tape would work perfectly as Band-Aids and Hallmark cards are completely overrated anyway.  I was certain my parents would love a homemade anniversary card this year.

I am not even sure I waited for my change from the cashier.  I scurried to my vehicle, slamming the door with vigor.  Once I was in the safety of my car, I had a moment to reflect.  I tilted the rear view mirror down until I could see my reflection, but then as quickly tilted it back up.  I surely did not see anything qualifying as beautiful there.

In that moment of bewilderment and shock, the words of a dear friend came back to me.  She had recently posted an array of vacation pictures on Facebook.  A particular photo of her in the album captivated me.  It was a close-up of her face.  She wore not a stitch of make-up and was laughing.  In the comment section below the picture, I had written one word:  Beautiful.  I had never seen this gorgeous woman ever look so beautiful.  Later, my friend sent me a personal message, which she has given me permission to share:

‘Yesterday on Facebook you made a comment I would have never made about myself.  In fact, it took me by surprise.  You typed ‘Beautiful’ about the picture of me laughing.  I almost replied, ‘I don’t think so.  I hate the way my nose crinkles up and how my chin looks in this picture.’  But then I realized your comment is your perception of the picture, not mine.  I thought maybe I should consider looking at the photo again.  Then I smiled and said a peaceful and sincere ‘thank-you’ to you in my head.’

My friend went on to describe her personal battle (and recent small successes) against her cruel inner voice and poor self-image issues.  Using her courage as inspiration, I tilted the rear view mirror down one more time.  I thought maybe I should reconsider beautiful too.

I liked how my cheeks were flushed a peachy rose color from the intensity of my just-completed three-mile run.  And how my hair curled into soft waves from the sweltering heat and humidity.  I even saw the faintest sparkle in my eyes from the exercise endorphins still radiating through my body.

Beautiful?

That certainly wasn’t a word I used to describe myself every day.  In fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I called myself beautiful.

Maybe never.

It was then that I saw the reflection of two hopeful blue eyes staring back at me.  I thought, “Isn’t 39 years long enough?”

Isn’t thirty-nine years of harsh criticism long enough?

Isn’t it time you start seeing beautiful in yourself?

And with that I said a prayer.

At the time it was for me, but now I believe it is also for you.  These healing words are for everyone who yearns to break free from the internal distractions (feelings of shame, guilt, ridicule, insecurity, failure, doubt and regret) that prevent them from grasping what really matters and truly living.

I wish . . .

I wish you victory against the cruel inner voice,

To see self-acceptance truly is a choice.

I wish you victory against the worries that fill your mind,

To seek contentment that you shall surely find.

I wish you victory against a tunnel vision that blinds your view,

From the exquisite beauty that radiates from you.

I wish you victory against the dark thoughts that invade your sleep,

To instead be filled with peace that you shall forever keep.

And through each victory that comes with each passing day,

A melody to fill your heart, for you my friend, I pray.

Loving messages becoming more and more clear,

Drowning out the haunting voice of inner doubt and fear.

And finally you will hear it, and life will truly begin,

The victory song of self-acceptance that only comes from within.

I am not exactly sure what my victory song of self-acceptance will sound like, but I believe it will contain words like capable, brave, and strong.  And it will have phrases like “you are enough” and “you are worth.”

I’m quite hopeful I will be hearing a lot of one particular phrase . . .

You are beautiful!

But this time it won’t come from a young man in the sunscreen aisle at the drugstore.

From now on, those loving words will come from within.

Excerpted from: “Hands Free Mama – A Guide to Putting Down the Phone, Burning the To-Do List and Letting Go of Perfection to Grasp What Really Matters” by Rachel Macy Stafford ©2014. Used by permission of Zondervan. www.zondervan.com. Available at http://www.zondervan.com/hands-free-mama.html

http://tinyurl.com/ov84ksv

The Boy With The Upside-Down Smile

baby

There are a lot of unfortunate “by-products” associated with growing up in a house where the primary caretaker (in this case mom) is an alcoholic. One of them is that you reach adulthood with very few childhood memories. Then again, maybe it’s not “unfortunate” at all. Maybe freezing the lens on the “mind camera” that otherwise would record such memories to be played back in perpetuity is just the brain’s way of trying to protect itself (and its host) from the debilitating emotional pain and dysfunction that is an inescapable part of a family dynamic that has substance abuse at its epicenter.  

It’s not that I don’t have any childhood memories, it’s just that the ones I do have are not the kind most people readily retrieve when they look back on the innocence of their youth – wistful warm summer afternoons spent frolicking in the surf at a South Florida beach; spontaneous picnics at a local playground or neighborhood park; social events with close family members or friends; sleep-overs and camp-outs; weeks spent at summer camp; lazy days spent lounging in pajamas in front of the TV set watching favorite family movies or playing board games; heartfelt embraces at the end of a long day or in a moment of disappointment; soft-spoken words of reassurance that tomorrow “will be a brighter day;” a reaffirmation of self-worth when it was most needed; an occasional smile or spontaneous act of playfulness . . . a simple tucking into bed at night.

No, my childhood memories are of a different kind: of slurred and often angry speech; of incoherence; of mom and next-door-neighbor-drinking-buddy setting up lawn chairs in one or the others front lawn to unabashedly share a few glasses of afternoon scotch; of being “put to bed” well into my early teenage years while it was still light outside, listening to friends joyfully at play outside my window – likely as confused as I was; of waking up to a badly blood-stained carpet in the family foyer, where I surmised alcohol had caused a “friend” of mom’s to mistaken a plate glass door-side window for the door itself; of an enabling dad, who, weary of the battle, chose the refuge he found “at 30,000 feet” as often as he could, leaving us to mostly fend for ourselves; and of vacuous, make-believe hugs that served as a daily reminder that – emotionally – we were on our own.

Those memories and the panoply of emotions they unfailingly bring with them washed over me again this past weekend when, while rummaging through 30 years of personal and family “keepsakes” in a back storage room, I stumbled upon two starkly contrasting black-and-white images.  The first was a Xerox copy of a letter I had forgotten I’d written to my now deceased mom shortly after my daughter was born.  In it, I shared with her, likely for the first time, the hurt that her drinking had caused me.  I urged her in surprisingly non-judgmental and compassionate words (I say “surprisingly” because I was a very judgmental person at the time) to seek help, not only for her sake, but as a first step towards healing the wounds her disease had left in its wake; and then I closed by telling her that, unless and until she did, I could not in good conscience leave her alone with our children (her grandchildren) – ever again.

The second was the photo that accompanies this post – a taken-just-before-Christmas-1959 image of yours truly that captures the spirit (and smile) my mind tried so valiantly to protect and preserve all those years.  As I sat staring at it and the reflection of its now 55 year-old counterpart in a nearby mirror, it occurred to me, as I’m sure it did to my mind long ago, that there was only so much it could do to shield its fragile “neighbor to the south” from the bruises and scars associated with being emotionally orphaned as a child, let alone to prevent the weight of it all from wilting the ends of that precious smile, leaving a trademark, upside-down imposter in its place.  I also realized that, in the end, I couldn’t force my mom to seek the help she so desperately needed or, for that matter, to even respond to my letter or utter the words “I’m sorry” – neither of which, by the way, she ever did.

I did, however, have a choice. I could continue to allow myself to be held captive by the pain, brokenness and/or dysfunction of the past – and by “past” I mean anything that happened more than 5 minutes ago – or I could choose instead to use that past as a catalyst for positive change. I could begin to give myself the credit I deserve for being courageous and resilient in overcoming (or working to overcome) the challenges that have littered the path of my life journey.  Eventually, I could even entertain the possibility that, as those who know me best have insisted all along, I am loved and, more importantly, that I am worthy of love.  I’m not suggesting for a moment that choosing the path of hope (and healing) is “easy” or that it will happen overnight – I know better – as do all who have dared to step out of their brokenness and set foot on it. 

But, I also know this:  There is a joy in the heart of the little boy in that photograph that is undeniable and, before I die, I plan to rediscover it – if only for a day – no matter what I have to do. 


Dear Dad – Trade A Game Of Catch For Pas De Deux?

Dear Dad,

I don’t aspire to be a Major Leaguer, but I would like to learn how to throw, catch and hit a ball so that, one day, when “the boys” ask me if I want to join in their pick-up game I won’t embarrass myself or have to listen to their snide remarks about how I “throw like a girl.” Turns out, I’m free this Saturday afternoon. Do we have a date?

Your Budding Ballerina

P.S. If you’d like, when we’re done, I could teach you a thing or two about how to pas de deux. LOL!

On Broken Wrists And Broken Hearts

dove

Another Monday comes and I just wanna breathe
Cause it’s a long, long week for someone wired to please
I keep taking my aim, pushing it higher
Wanna shine bright, even brighter now
Wish I would tell myself: “Don’t try so hard.”

“Don’t Try So Hard,” Amy Grant

When I was 9 years old, I broke both the bones in my right wrist playing in a pick-up game of tackle football with my neighborhood friends on a rock hard sandlot just across the cul-de-sac from where I lived. It’s one of those memories that’s as fresh today as it was the day it happened.  I was streaking down the middle of the field en route to what seemed like an easy touchdown when I was struck in the back by the human equivalent of a semi-tractor trailer.  His name was Ken McCray.  Ken, who was, by a considerable measure, the biggest kid in the neighborhood, clumsily launched himself onto my back WWF-style and drove me and my right wrist into the ground.  The pain that ensued was excruciating.  I remember getting up without a word, walking across the street into my living room with tears pouring down my face and having the following predictable exchange with my mostly intolerant dad:  Me (looking down at a hand that now hung limp at a 90° angle to my right arm): “Dad, I think I broke my wrist?” “What do you mean you ‘think you broke your wrist’?” he replied.  “It’s not broken – just move it.”  Me (about to pass out): “My brain is telling it to move, Dad, it just doesn’t seem to be listening!”  And with that, we were off to Baptist Hospital, where my arm was casted just above the elbow and put in a sling, where it would remain for the next 6 weeks.

Most would have used the occasion to at least miss a day of school.  It was after all only the third grade.  But missing school was not really something that ever crossed my mind – not that it would’ve been a viable option even if I had suggested it – and so the next day, after momentarily basking in the attention that casts, black eyes, etc. invariably garner, I settled into my front row seat in Ms. Chena’s class at Howard Drive Elementary as if nothing had happened. It was business as usual.  Before the class was over, Ms. Chena came to me and explained that she had taught students with broken right arms before and would gladly make arrangements for me to complete assignments that didn’t require writing.  “That won’t be necessary,” I told her – not entirely sure where those words had come from – “I plan to learn to write left-handed!”  I don’t know which one of us was more perplexed by that statement.  I’d never really done anything left-handed in my life, save for swinging a baseball bat – poorly – but, having made the commitment, I wasn’t about to back out.  It’s who I was – even at 9 years old.  In the days that followed, I actually did teach myself to write left-handed, much to my and Ms. Chena’s amazement.  She was effusive in her praise – to me and to my parents.  I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about, until I got to be 50 years old and started to think about it – “it” and what “it” symbolized.

There’s not another 9 year-old on the planet who would’ve done what I did – not a single one!  So why did I do it?  What exactly was I trying to prove by learning to write left-handed, who I was trying to prove it to and, most importantly, why did I feel the need to prove whatever “it” was at all?  Why couldn’t I be satisfied being just like every other right-handed 9 year-old with a broken right wrist – taken a day (or two!) off of school, milked the broken arm for all the attention and special privileges I could and enjoyed a few weeks respite from written homework and classroom assignments?  Why did I feel compelled to try so hard? Why did I feel the need to go the extra mile – and then some – even to the extent of volunteering to change something about myself as fundamental as the hand I wrote with?!?  Why was I so quick to want to prove myself adequate, capable, up for the challenge? Unfortunately, I never stopped long enough to ask, let alone try to  answer any of those questions and it was unfortunate, because over time the character traits exhibited by that 9 year-old boy seeped into every corner of my life – sports, my work and, most troublingly, my personal life, especially when it came to relationships. In some of those arenas those attributes have their advantages and their rewards; but, trust me on this one: they have no place in the world of relationships.  There, the price of trying too hard is too steep.

But try too hard, I did – repeatedly.  You see, while most would simply grieve a broken heart, milk it for all it’s worth and move on (the relational equivalent of taking a day off from school or a month off of homework), I took the “try too hard approach.”  I simply refused to be derailed by “the break” or the message it implicitly (or explicitly) carried with it (i.e., that I was somehow inadequate, that if I were just a little different, a little better, a little more perfect or did a little more (or less) something, I’d get the love I wanted and needed).  Instead, I viewed it as a challenge – in much the same way that naïve 9 year-old boy dealt with his broken arm.  I redoubled my efforts – intent on “proving” to the object of my desire/affection that they had made or were about to make a big mistake, that I was “their man” and I was willing to do just about anything to prove it – even if it meant changing things about me that were fundamental to who I was.  Actually, it turns out I was the one making the “mistake.”  You see, while I didn’t understand it at the time, relationships, at least those that are healthy and mutually fulfilling, are not intended to be that way.  They are the one place all of us should be able to fully, openly and unapologetically be who we are – and expect to not only be accepted but loved precisely because we are that person!

Mrs. Chena did her level best to teach me an important life lesson that day.  In an hour of need, when I quite literally was “broken” and vulnerable, she offered compassion, understanding, empathy and support.  She wanted me to know that, in my brokenness, I was still enough, that I already had more than demonstrated that I was an exceptional student and that it was “okay” for me to take my foot off the accelerator for a moment – without fear that it would somehow alter what she thought of me.  I’d like to think that if Ken McCray had broken both my wrists that day, I would’ve gotten that message, but chance are, knowing that 9 year-old boy the way I do today, I’d now be one of the few able-bodied 55 year-olds on Earth capable of writing with his mouth instead!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EKkIt5uphdA

Dear Dad – A Few Things You Should Know About Being On My Pedestal

Dear Dad,

I know you didn’t ask to be put on a pedestal, but since I’ve long since firmly fixed your feet in cement on mine I thought I’d give you a heads-up: I’m watching the way you look at, speak to, treat and interact with other women, especially my mom (whether you’re still married to her or not!) with great interest, because I plan to use what I learn to gauge how I should expect men to speak to, treat and interact with me.

Signed,

Your Just-Filling-In-The-Gaps-In-The-Dad-Manual-You-Likely-Never-Received Little Girl

Dear Dad – Trust Your Intuition

Dear Dad,

I don’t believe moms have a monopoly on intuition. Trust yours. If you see “red flags” going up or silent teardrops streaming down don’t be too quick to assume I’m as “fine” as I claim to be or that it’s “just a passing phase” I’m going through. Chances are, I’m and it’s not – and the flags are red for a reason. Don’t panic, just check-in now and then. I don’t expect you to fix whatever it is. Usually, it will be enough to know you’re paying attention and that you care!

Love,

Your Little Girl

A Note To Dad – From The Newborns

Dear Dad,

There are lots of “things” we will profess to want in Life and some to need. But, in the end, at least where you’re concerned, there will only be two true longings of our heart: To know (by hearing you say it!) that you’re proud of us (for who we are) and to avoid disappointing you.

Love,

Your Newborn Son and Daughter