It boggles the mind to think about how long I stayed in my shit-show of a marriage. Writing a book about it really drew the harsh truth into focus. I made choices. He made choices. Everybody involved played a role in perpetuating our extended death rattle and postponing our demise. There’s more than enough blame to go around. Rarely is one person fully responsible for it. Marriage is a far more complex beast than that, even when it’s good.
I should have been able to stop it before it started. Clear warning signs were there at every stage. I was staring right at them, but I didn’t see them for what they were. I looked right past them, focusing instead on desire and childish belief in fairytale promises. In the beginning, they were subtle. There are a lot of reasons I can give for my actions—a wanton disregard for rational thought, for one—but when it comes right down to it, those reasons are just excuses. When all of the stories and outrageous details are stripped away, all that I have left is me and several steamer trunks worth of hard-earned life lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.
I sometimes wonder, if Now-Me (with all my hard-earned smarts) could talk to Then-Me, what could I say to get through to her and spare her the from the struggle? Honestly, I’m not sure if anything could have circumvented the unnatural forces that kept us bound together for so long, but you never know... If there’s any chance that the whole string theory thing was right about anything, then maybe all the words I’ve written can be a cosmic message in a bottle that will wash up on the shore of Then-Me’s life.
Of course, she’d have to be willing to read it. That’s another issue altogether, but with hope for her sudden enlightenment in mind... I send the following message from Now-Me to Then-Me and to any other poor soul that might stumble across this list as she ponders her future relationship:
Alane Gray’s Top 6 Signs He’s Not the One.
(Alt. Title 1: 6 Terrible Omens of a Doomed Relationship.)
(Alt. Title 2: You can’t fix this. Get out while there’s still time.)
1. The Thirsty Suitor.
Yes, it is possible for a date to be too into you. Infatuation is good in small doses, but there’s a very narrow margin between a passionate romantic and an obsessive control freak. If you ‘re feeling weird about how often he shows up, how long he wants to stay, or how desperate he is to be around you, listen to your gut. If you find yourself making excuses for him to your friends or saying things like, “He’s just really intense,” or “He’s just a passionate guy,” it’s time to slow things down. See how he reacts when you set some boundaries. If he’s a good one, he’ll be fine with it. If he can’t handle it, you’ve got your first clear sign.
2. The Crying Crybaby.
When you think you’re dating the one, it’s easy to slide into some deep conversations. You’ve had a great night, and you’re sitting next to each other on the sofa, sipping on the last glasses of wine from the bottle you’ve shared, when the conversation gets more personal. You both start unloading some of the heavier stories from your respective pasts and let your vulnerabilities off the leash for a little while. It’s usually a good sign. It means you’re getting comfortable. It means that you both think this relationship has legs. If you can get past the hormonal rush of love and really pay attention, this important milestone can be very enlightening. But if he cries—run. Unless he’s suffered a recent tragic loss (i.e. death of a family member, close friend, beloved pet, or something like a limb in the last 12 months) there is no reason for him to shed a tear—not at this stage in the relationship. It does not mean he’s good-sensitive. It makes him weirdo-sensitive. At the very least, it means he’s a little too comfortable crying about his baggage. At the worst, it’s a manipulation. Either way, it’s easy to misinterpret this as emotional depth when your brain is telling you that you’re falling in love.
3. Words have meaning.
Always remember that what they say is who they are. I don’t mean that they are what they say they are. I mean that the words that come out of their mouths when they aren’t working at impressing you are the clearest indicators of who they are on the inside. Here’s my point (or rather, three of them):
Point 1: Never say never.
The Bieber, in all of his bubblegum popstar glory, said it best. Your potential mate really should “never say never.” In my case, it was, “Never compare me to my mother!” That ended up being a deep and murky well of relationship drowning sewage that I chose to overlook. Even though he said he wanted to rise above his past, he didn’t. It was a temporary intention. He fully believed himself at the time, but it wasn’t true. When he said, “Never compare me to my mother!” what he was actually saying was, “I am exactly like my mother!” Proper translation in the early phase of a relationship is paramount.
Also, where there’s one absolute, there are many. The first one is usually just the tip of the “absolute” iceberg. One of my ex’s other big winners was, “Never call me buff!” (If you’ve read the book, you know exactly how stupid that one was.) As it turned out, those things were very much on his mind. Of course, we all have our issues, and we all have things we don’t ever want to hear from anyone, let alone from the person we love. But, if he’s compelled to demand that you never utter those words to him, it’s more than just a simple insecurity. It’s probably more like a pathology.
It’s even worse if he claims that it’s the “one thing” that “makes [him] lose control.” Like I said before, where there’s one thing, there are many, and if he openly admits that he loses control—believe him. No amount of love will ever change that. One day, when the new relationship shine wears off, he’ll probably lose it on you whether you followed his rules or not.
Point 2: He’s Just Joking.
The day you notice that the jokes he makes with the guys are at odds with what he says to you—you’re done. Whether it’s just small talk or an all-out meeting of the dude minds, there really shouldn’t be a grand difference between his attitude with them and his attitude with you. Words have meaning. Unless there’s an open and compelling reason for the difference, then he’s lying to someone. Maybe he’s lying to them. Maybe he’s lying to you. Maybe he’s just lying to himself. It doesn’t matter. That dissonance is only going to get worse over time.
Point 3: The Man Doth Protest Too Much.
Let’s face it, when a man fervently opines on his hatred, it’s usually an admission of guilt. Maybe it’s a subconscious reflex, but his lack of self-awareness doesn’t make it any better. In fact, it makes it worse. I’m not talking about simple statements of his dislikes like, “I hate kale,” or “I can’t stand meatless pizza.” I mean his grand proclamations of sweeping hatred. For my ex, it was, “I hate liars.” This particular omen should have sounded like a tornado siren in my head, but it didn’t. Instead of hearing it for the confession that it was, I blamed the people he condemned without question. Furthermore, I made it my mission to prove my own honesty and to unconditionally give him my trust in return. It was a fool’s errand. His words were just verbal sleights of logic designed to distract me from his own inherent dishonesty.
And Lord help you if he ever throws a fervent “trust me” in your face. Simply put, if he has to tell you to trust him, you shouldn’t. Trust is something to be earned and shared, not demanded or weaponized.
If he’s constantly worried about the other men you interact with in your life, it’s a problem. He’s either had too many bad relationship experiences that he hasn’t been able to shake (and has probably cried to you about them at least once), or he’s just too insecure. Whatever the problem, if you ignore it, or worse, if you placate him by dropping friends or changing the way you deal with your coworkers, it’s going to catch up with you. This is step one in the isolation process. It’s a way to make himself feel better by controlling you. This won’t get better with time. It will only get worse. Once you figure it out, the only way fix it is to end it.
(Of course, if you really are flirting with other guys or choose to use sex to advance your career, then that’s on you. Jealousy isn’t wrong by default. Sometimes, it’s totally reasonable.)
5. That Thing You Do.
If he constantly points out one of your habits, he probably hates it. He might call it cute or say it’s adorable, but deep down, he probably doesn’t. (In my case, I habitually squeezed the toothpaste tube in the middle instead of from the end.) When they really think it’s cute, they don’t usually say it to your face. They add it to the pile of all the things they really love about you. When they keep commenting about it out loud, they’re either passive-aggressively trying to change you or they’re trying to convince themselves that it is, in fact, cute and not something they’ll grow to despise.
(The same is true for the reverse. If you dislike his habits now, you’re really going to hate them later on. You can’t seriously expect him to change. It doesn’t work like that.)
How often does he call his mother? How often does he complain about his mother? How many horrible stories does he have about his mother? If the answer to any one of these three questions is A LOT, then your intended has a mommy-wife. (It’s gross, I know.) If so, then you have to ask yourself some really hard questions: Is he with me because I remind him of his mommy-wife? Am I his rebellion against his mommy-wife? Or, is his mommy-wife just fine, and he just can’t cut the apron strings? (This one’s rare, but it happens.) Whatever the answers are, it’s usually never workable. It’s hard to consider that he’s with you because of some uncomfortable dysfunction rather than your own general awesomeness, but you can’t ignore it. It will become a big deal sooner or later.
Obviously, these aren’t all of the possible pre-marriage warning signs. This list barely scratches the surface, but they are the ones that I know best from my own experience. If you see a terrible omen, the solution is simple—just cut things off as swiftly as you can and don’t look back. If you’re not quite sure if it’s an omen or just a little hiccup, it’s important not to panic. In isolation, a hint of one of these signs might be workable. You’ll just have to keep your wits about you. It’s easy to let a hint here and there collect into one big problem over time.
Whether it’s just a hint or a full-fledge harbinger of doom, a relationship warning sign shouldn’t be ignored. It’s a guidepost that can keep you from heading down the wrong path. And remember, terrible omens are like fire ants. The one that stings you is rarely the only one around. It’s just the first one you notice.
If you want more detailed examples of some ridiculously clear warning signs, check out my book,
Terrible Omens: Happiness Is the Other Way.
At the very least, you’ll feel better about yourself.
Astronomical summer is almost here, which means the final tile in the annual summer mosaic is about to fall into place. After that, summer has undeniably begun. Of course, meteorologically speaking, summer has already been here for a while. I think it started somewhere around the first of June. Temperature wise, it’s felt like summer since mid-May, maybe even earlier. Psychologically, for me at least, summer’s been around since about the first of January. This year, I emotionally skipped most of winter and spring altogether and went straight for the good stuff. I went to the beach as often as I could in an attempt to soak up the salt water air and some UV rays in an attempt to trick my serotonin levels into believing it was mid-July. That’s not to say that I don’t love spring or I can’t at least appreciate winter—because I do, and I can. Sometimes, I just need to feel the sun shining enough to burn away the mental fog and warm my bones. It’s the best remedy I have for staving off the dreaded winter blues.
As a kid, I didn’t concern myself with much beyond the seasonal definitions that directly affected my world. For years I went blithely along, assuming that fall started when school started, winter began the week after Thanksgiving break, and spring (which was the most nebulous of the seasons) arrived somewhere around the first of February. (In Florida we tended to wear white all year long and sometimes wore shorts on Christmas Day, so the standard rules of thumb and situational touchstones—like scarves and mittens—didn’t exactly translate. In fact, most of the year felt like summer. Seasonal changes were more like subtle temperature drifts with an occasional hard freeze thrown in the mix. To be honest, during most of my youth, I thought anything under 75 degrees Fahrenheit was chilly. Below 65 was a sure sign that winter was upon us, and once the thermometer dropped below 50, we were squarely in Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell. This made the use of arbitrary demarcations for the seasons a must.) Finally, summer commenced when school let out. It was clearly delineated by the end of one school year and the beginning of the next. That meant summer ran reliably between the last week of May through to the last week of August, and the glorious weeks in the middle were filled with days at the Bath & Racket Club pool, gambols through the sprinkler, and endless bike rides through the neighborhood on my trusty bike, Big Red.
As a side note, Big Red was not my first bike. My first bike was actually a beautiful purple and white banana seat special with glittery fringe trailing from the handlebar grips and a white plastic woven basket on the front. I loved that bike, but thanks to an early growth spurt that made me entirely too tall to ride it without looking like a circus chimp on wheels, I traded in my perfect purple girl’s bike for Big Red. Big Red was a full-sized, rusty, 3-speed bike that required a great deal of TLC, including intense debridement with multiple Brillo-Pads, to make it presentable. I don’t know exactly where Big Red came from. I think it might have been my parent’s communal bike, which meant it was at least 20 years old and probably held some starring role in a long-held family anecdote that included two 50’s doo-wop songs and a MoonPie.
Somewhere along the line, I learned about astronomical seasons, including summer. For a while, after I learned the truth and being the stickler for specificity that I tended to be at the time, I took it on as my duty to educate the less-informed. Light-hearted statements about summer’s arrival and spring’s demise were met with a 9-year-old’s dissertation on the astronomical season and the fallacy of the school calendar. I was the self-appointed keeper of the seasonal truth whose mission it was to protect the world from the oppression of inaccuracy.
Needless to say, that phase of my education was a tad frustrating for everyone around me. In the end, my parents carefully explained that the world was full of conflicting definitions and that many things, including some definitions, were mutable, depending on the circumstances. They became a tad more frustrated when I then asked them if the definition of the word “crap” was one of those mutable words. I had heard my brother say it more than once when he thought no one else was listening to his phone conversations. To that, my mother sighed heavily, proclaimed that I was not allowed to use that word, and said that I was to let other people learn about the astronomical seasons in their own time.
Not long after that, I let the entire seasonal discussion go. It wasn’t worth losing any part of my summer to whatever non-corporal punishment might have been levied if I pushed it much farther. For the rest of that summer, my brother kept saying “crap” whenever he could and soon developed a vast array of colorful descriptors for his growing verbal arsenal. I hopped on Big Red and rode off into the neighborhood.
As an adult, I’ve never been able to fully capture the experience of summer as I did when I was a kid. Big Red is long gone, and real life usually prevents me from embracing summer’s full potential. In my head, however, summer’s warm, blissful freedom lives on. These days, I’m less concerned about its official beginning or end. Like I said, this year I psychologically embraced summer months ago. Still, there’s something about the Summer Solstice that solidifies the season for me. Maybe it’s just a moment when everyone (at least everyone in the Northern hemisphere) is finally in agreement about something. Maybe it just reminds me of a simpler time—back when I actually thought I was absolutely right about the things I thought I knew. It’s difficult to say. All I know for sure is that with the solstice, comes the greatest potential for literal illumination that we will have all year long. I think that makes it a day worth noticing, and I plan to get as much out of it and the rest of this summer (astronomical or otherwise) as I can.
(Image created using photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels )
In general, I like to stay out of the political fray. I feel that way now more than ever, at least as far as open political discussions go. That doesn’t mean I don’t have an opinion. No, unfortunately for most of the people around me, I have plenty of opinions on a cavalcade of topics, most of which no reasonable person on the planet wastes much valuable mental energy considering. I don’t mean I’m always right or that my word has to be the last word. In fact, I usually enjoy hearing the opinions of others. I think it’s the only way to keep learning and growing as a person. I will freely admit that I do not know everything and that I have an ocean of things left to understand. I just mean that I don’t like bringing it up except in very rare circumstances where I feel like an actual discussion can be had. I don’t want to lose friends over politics. My parents and I almost stopped talking to each other over the last presidential election. I detest the cesspool of social media trolls who are willing to shout the most vile and repugnant things without responsibility for the meaning of their words or the harm those words cause. I abhor the ones willing to spew their hate-filled bile in person even more.
In terms of categorizing myself, politically, I guess I am an independent. I don’t really feel particularly aligned with any party. Whenever I think a political party is clearly speaking my language, it usually goes too far and mucks things up for me. In my mind, I am an ardent political activist. In real life, I’m a little too lazy and a little too conflict-averse to actually be one. Truthfully, I’m usually too intimidated to ask for an extra lemon wedge or a straw in a restaurant for fear of getting a derisive look or a dismissive sigh. (Not that anyone has ever actually done that to me, but still…it’s a thing I worry about.) So, am I really going to stand in the street at a rally or go door-to-door campaigning? Not likely, but I can’t entirely rule it out. For now, I remain as I am—a frustrated feminist lurker who watches and waits and (most importantly) who votes. In my head, however, I am a fearless, disobedient firebrand who will fight for important causes, and the time could come when I am pushed into actual, Frye-boots-on-the-ground activism.
That being said, the watching and the waiting is getting a little harder every day. Our current political environment is a circus, and it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Our country is more divided than I ever realized. Our government is more fragile than I ever realized. The things that I childishly assumed to be self-evident are not, and our country, as a whole, has not progressed as far as I thought it had. There has been an insidious widening of divisions along the lines of race, orientation, gender, and religious affiliation. While so many of us thought it was getting better, in reality, it was not. Today, the tools of oppression might be less noticeable, less overtly bloody, but the oppression, itself, remains.
Just because we’ve elected one black president doesn’t mean that racism is dead. Just because gay marriage is federally recognized doesn’t mean that there is no more homophobia. Just because more women have been elected to governmental positions and are holding more executive-level jobs does not mean that there is no gender bias or inequities in pay. The fact that here in North Carolina we spent so much time arguing over who can use what bathrooms just goes to show that as a people, we are far from socially evolved. (It’s really simple—everyone needs to use the bathroom from time to time, and transgendered people are not perverts by virtue of their transgendered status. I suggest that if you are that concerned about the genitourinary equipment of other people when you are in a public bathroom, you might be the one with the perversion.)
When I sat down to write this post this morning, this isn’t where I intended to go with it. I had intended to put my two cents worth in on Joe Biden and his recent video plea to women about his hands-on creepiness with women over the years. My thoughts aren’t particularly timely. As usual, I’m more than a day late and a dollar short when it comes to social commentary. The news moves faster than ever these days, and I’m not quick with things like this. I have to mull it over for a while before I’m willing to say anything at all, let alone write about it, but this Biden thing and his video Twitter post just won’t seem to fade for me.
Here’s the thing. Former Vice President Joe Biden said in his (perfectly casual and notably tieless) Twitter video that was uploaded by NBC to YouTube on April 3rd, “…social norms have begun to change, they’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset, and I get it. I get it. I hear what they’re saying. I understand it. That’s my responsibility, and I’ll meet it, but I’ll always believe that governing, quite frankly life for that matter, is about connecting with people.”
What that tells me is that Joe doesn’t get it at all. It is possible to connect with a person without caressing her (or him) like somebody’s creepy drunk uncle at a Christmas party. Mr. Biden, a handshake or a non-groping selfie will work just fine. You don’t have to touch foreheads with a stranger to form a bond…
…and this is not an issue of changing social norms.
It has never been okay to be overly familiar with a woman without her permission. Period. Full stop. When it was done in the past, it was just as demeaning, belittling, and inappropriate, then, as it is now—in public or in private. Has it ever really been acceptable to smell the hair of a woman you don’t know and then kiss her on the head? It hasn’t. We kiss children on the head. I’d venture to guess that a stranger kissing you child on the head would freak you out a little bit, at the very least. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Vice President. He’s an elected official, not the Pope, and as we all know, the Catholic Church has real problems in the inappropriate touching department—problems that stem from blind trust in men of perceived power. Until now, generally speaking, women have endured this kind of thing. We did not have enough power to ensure that we wouldn’t be overlooked, ridiculed, or punished for speaking out. Our unified voices were not loud enough. Now the chorus of resistance is rising. Now people are listening. That’s the difference—not a resetting of the “boundaries of protecting personal space…”
What Biden calls a social norm is, instead, a malignant distortion of social grace, and it’s not the only one. Distortions like these don’t change merely because they have fallen out of fashion. It’s not just the withering of a behavioral fad. We collectively learn from those brave enough to speak out about intolerance, bias, abuse, or discrimination, and then we collectively change. Naysayers call this “political correctness.” They are missing the point. It’s not about special interest groups oppressing the majority with unreasonable demands. It’s about people demanding to be treated with dignity and respect. It’s about people demanding to be treated equally regardless of whatever it is that makes them different.
So, Mr. Biden, if you really get it, if you really understand what we are saying, you will accept responsibility without saying “but” immediately afterward and without qualification. You will truly accept that what you considered to be a social norm was wrong and not just something that has fallen out of fashion. If you can’t, you are no better in that regard than the president we have now.
I realize that on the grand scale of social and political atrocities, this issue with Joe Biden is relatively small. There are other issues that require more immediate attention, but in our world, there will always be other issues going on. We are not wanting for atrocities, but this issue is a simple one to fix. It just takes a little respect and self-awareness. That’s not all it takes, of course, but that’s a good place to start.
Today is one of those days when “I just don’t want to.” There isn’t any specific thing that I want to avoid or neglect or deny. It’s more general than that. Today, I just want to close my eyes and wish for everything to go away. It’s a tad melodramatic, I know, but it’s honest. It’s just one of those days. It’s also one of those days that the soul-warping mind conditioning I picked up during my time in personal development, practice management, self-improvement boot camp takes over and forces me to keep going. As much as I resented my time in Life Actualization land, there were parts of it that weren’t total hooey. So today, thanks to the collective wisdom of the self-appointed guru-life-coaches of the world, the minute I think “I don’t want to,” I instantly go into shark-mode.
Shark-mode (and the proverbial shark it’s based upon) is what they told me I had to be if I wanted to be a success. Why a shark? It’s simple. According to the gurus, all sharks must continually swim to live and a fully actualized human must, metaphorically speaking, do the same. Therefore, if I stop swimming, like a shark, I will sink to the bottom of the ocean and die. (To be fair, this metaphor is a little overly simplified. There are some shark species that can rest on the bottom of the ocean and not die and others that seem to have the ability to rest parts of their brain and swim at the same time, essentially sleep-swimming their way through the ocean. The human equivalent of that trick is something I am thoroughly incapable of doing in a way that is safe and doesn’t look like something out of a horror movie. Pointing out this kind of minutia tends to weaken the self-improvement message or so I was told when I pointed out these specific inconsistencies.) So, in guru-life-coach terms, to be a shark means to keep moving despite how it feels or what obstacles might be in the way, because stopping leads to negative ramifications and possibly general failure. As a side note, they never actually threatened an outcome of literal death, which I thought was nice of them.
Now, years after my time in Life Actualization land, whenever I am faced with a day like today, my body immediately goes into shark-mode. It’s like a reflex. Shark-mode happens whether it’s the right thing to do or not. In my case today, however, the water in which I find myself feels particularly daunting as if my average reflex induced shark-mode isn’t going to be enough. Today, I feel like my shark-self is swimming in infested waters donning a Lady Gaga style meat-dress. It’s the shark-fashion equivalent of a bucket full of chum. It gets noticed, but not everyone likes it, and it tends to attract as much praise as it does other, very bitey sharks.
To be clear, I am in no way comparing myself to Lady Gaga—only her meat-dress. In my opinion, Gaga is the pinnacle of the success that is possible when training, talent, drive, and opportunity slosh around together over the Bunsen burner that is the entertainment industry. I’d be lucky to possess one tiny sliver of the talent, success, and endurance Gaga possesses. I haven’t always held her in such high regard, however. In the beginning, she was just the annoying background music to my ill-fated marriage. At the time, I was so far down in pop culture hole, I didn’t even know who she was until my chiropractic assistant, Kayla, introduced me to her music and outrageous stage performances. One afternoon at lunch, after I had shared what I thought to be a jaunty retelling of NPR’s discussion of Argentinian Malbecs, Kayla rolled her eyes, called me a geriatric, and then forced me to watch a litany of YouTube videos like “I’m On a Boat” and “D***-in-a-Box” along with several Lady Gaga videos. I had to admit she was pretty good, and I was staggered by the reality that I did, in fact, sound like a geriatric. (I was in my mid-thirties at the time, and it was a bit of a wakeup call.) Later that year, Gaga wormed her way into the office only once more when her effervescent lyrics, “My Christmas tree’s delicious…” poured loudly out of the office sound system over a quiet waiting room full of patients. (Needless to say, that CD was permanently pulled out of the rotation.)
My personal history with Gaga aside, she is the perfect example of the gurus’ shark. No matter what, she keeps going and creating and is not derailed by bad press or a public misstep. She takes all of her hits and all of her misses and learns from them as she keeps moving. She continues to improve. She keeps saying “yes” to opportunities. She works hard and has already created a body of work that is impressive by any standard. Gaga is a shark in every good sense of the metaphor, and she is the original shark-in-a-meat-dress. So, when “I don’t want to” or when I’m having a shark-in-a-meat-dress kind of day, I’ll just have to think of Gaga and keep swimming.
(Image created using a Photo by rawpixel.com from Pexels)
As far as holidays go, Valentine’s Day has always been one of my favorites. It’s a holiday borne of subversion, persecution, and martyrdom. It was later coopted by the privileged classes during the age of formal courtly love, and today has been consumed almost entirely by commercialism. Add to that the holiday’s de facto mascot, Cupid, who started out as elegant Pagan god with a bow and a quiver of arrows and is now a flying diapered baby who lobs pointy sticks at the unsuspecting. (It’s fun to give sharp objects to babies—nothing bad ever comes from that... right?) So, what’s not to love? As I see it, Valentine’s Day is rife with potential—romance, love, lust, passion, heartache, errant projectiles, grievous bodily injury, and of course, candy, flowers, gifts, and maybe a nice dinner out on a good year.
It’s a little bit romcom and a little bit horror movie... for me, it’s nearly perfect.
I have loved it and all of its ridiculous trappings since I was a kid. For this, I thank my mother. Mom, the consummate holiday lover that she was and still is, could turn even the tiniest holiday into an exciting event worthy of days, if not weeks, of anticipation. She loved celebrating and had a knack for finding the good part of just about anything and anyone. As for Valentine’s Day, mom always had some surprise prepared. Usually, it was something small like French toast for breakfast on a school day or a coconut cake for dessert. (In my world, coconut cake was always a big deal since I was the only one in the house who liked it.) On a really good day, I would wake up to find a giant red paper heart with a long piece of red yarn glued to its back outside my bedroom door. The red yarn would trail around the corner, down the hall, and all around the house. Little gifts would be left along its path, and at its end was the biggest surprise. It was almost like a second Christmas only on a smaller, more glitter-covered scale.
Of course, Valentine’s Day in public elementary school provided its own excitement. Every year, as a Valentine art project, we would adorn paper bags with hearts and (more) glitter. Then, at some undisclosed time on Valentine’s day, we would hang said bags off the edge of our desks before marching, single file, up and down through the rows of desks. Our directive was to drop a Valentine card into each and every bag. By the time it was all said and done, I had a bag full of paper hearts and Cupids. Being the relatively self-absorbed child that I was, I never noticed if everyone else did as they were told. I never noticed if anyone was left out, or overlook, or felt marginalized by exclusion. I had been instructed to include a card for every person in our class, so that is exactly what I did. Boy or girl, friend or foe, popular or unpopular, it didn’t matter. I gave one to everyone. It never dawned on me that my bag full of happy valentines was rarefied in any way. Looking back on it now, I can see that it might have been. Not all kids are as bound by rules as I was.
A few times, I think my adherence to the rules might have sent the wrong message. In the 3rd grade, a few short days after the Valentine delivery march, I got my first romantic overture from a boy. That day, Gerald, my classmate, approached me oddly. We were standing apart from everyone else in the breezeway that connected the front office building with the rest of the school. Gerald stood at least one inch shorter than I did. He was smart and a good student who never got in trouble. By 3rd grade standards, he was handsome. He had plenty of friends. (In high school, this would have made him a catch.) That day, Gerald was sweaty and nervous as he stood in front of me. He held out a small, fragrant box wrapped in brightly decorated paper and at least a yard of scotch tape. He mumbled something along the lines of, “This is for you,” as he struggled to look up into my eyes for more than a second at a time. I took the box and blinked back at him. I had no idea what to do next. He didn’t seem to know what to do next, either. I finally croaked out a stunned, “Thank you,” which sent Gerald running off down the open-air corridor. My face flushed, my heart was beating at a furious pace as I stood there holding his odiferous gift. I knew it was perfume without even opening it. I think everyone in a 20-foot radius knew that it was perfume, too.
Then a giggling voice cut through the air, “Alane and Gerald sittin’ in a tree. K-I-S-S-I-N-G!” Then more giggling voices chimed in, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes John in a baby carriage!” Laughter spread through the breezeway. Even the adults giggled a little as they tried to get everyone back to order. There I stood aggressively wondering if I was now obligated to wear Gerald’s perfume and why they picked John as our baby’s name. My chest tightened with embarrassment…
…and then the moment was over.
Gerald had obviously put a lot of thought (and a lot of scotch tape) into his present. Inside the wrapping paper, he popped the question, “Will you go with me?” That was a big deal in the 3rd grade. It was a major binding agreement in kid-land at the time. As far as I can remember, I never answered him. If I did, I must have blocked it out. It wasn’t my intention to hurt him, I just didn’t have the skills to handle it any better than I did. Even so, I knew at the time that this was an important moment. I knew I wasn’t boy crazy. I knew I was going to be trapped in the same classroom with him for what felt like the rest of forever. I wasn’t in the market for a boy to “go with” like some of my friends were already. Actually, the notion of “going with” a boy was a source of great consternation for me. I was perplexed by what I thought to be logical follow up questions like “Go with you where?” and “How will we get home?” Nobody ever talked about that. Beyond that, if I agreed to “go with” a boy, what would I be required to do? My life, at that point, was more or less a series of externally imposed requirements. I was required to go to school, do my homework, clean my room, do my chores, go to dance class, go to bed, and go to the doctor and the dentist from time to time. Of course, I also had to wash my hands and brush my teeth and to say things like “yes sir,” “no ma’am,” “may I,” “please,” and “thank you” among others. To sum it up, my life at that age was mostly a controlled set of requirements with largely foreseeable outcomes. So, before I could answer such a loaded question, I needed a full accounting of the requirements attached to “going with” a boy—Gerald or otherwise. I didn’t think it was all that unreasonable to ask for a straight answer… Was he going to show up at my house? Did I have to introduce him to my parents? That’s what my older brother did with his girlfriends—that and so much more—and I wasn’t ready for any of that.
Later that day, when I showed Gerald’s gift to my mother, she smiled and handled the situation as adeptly as she handled most things. She said kindly, “Isn’t that sweet,” and then called him a “thoughtful young man,” before telling me that I should be nice to him, but I was too young to worry about having a boyfriend. That last part was a relief. At that moment, decided I was going to ride the “my-parents-won’t-let me-have-a-boyfriend-sorry” line as long as I could… and I did.
Looking back on it, Gerald turned out to be the first of many awkward romantic near-misses and flubs. Some were directly related to Valentine’s day, and some were not. Maybe they were all reactions to Cupid’s arrows, but there’s no way to be sure.
Nevertheless, I still love this holiday. Not even my ex-husband’s final—and extremely romantic—Valentine’s Day gift could wreck it for me. That day, he walked in the door and unceremoniously tossed a plastic grocery bag in front of me as he muttered, “Here…” in my general direction. Inside the bag was five bucks worth of bargain bin Valentine’s candy that he picked up at Walgreens on his way home from work. That was the last Valentine he ever gave me. Maybe I should have been honored that he thought of it at all, but I wasn’t. It seemed more like I had been hit with the wrong arrow from that stupid Cupid baby 15 years earlier, and all I got, in the end, was a bag of stale chocolate and migraine.
Even so, I still think we need a day set aside for romance and all of its clichéd trappings. It’s a day for taking risks (like Gerald did) and for investigating possibilities and inspiring passion. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it ends in pain and disappointment, and sometimes serves as a clear warning sign that your relationship has kicked the bucket. No matter how it turns out, we get to experience our lives a little more fully on a day like Valentine’s Day… and I think that’s worth celebrating.
Photo by freestocks.org from Pexels
I think the seeds of my odd relationship with Christmas were planted when I was very young. As a kid, I loved Christmas. Thanksgiving would get here, and I would be so excited that I could hardly sleep for the next month. I don’t really remember ever believing in Santa Claus. Generally speaking, my parents were academics who pushed their love of nostalgia and memory-making moments aside to ensure that I was well versed in the truth about most of the big things that kids typically grapple with early in life. This applied to things like Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. Of course, it also made me “that kid” in elementary school who would blurt out things like “urine,” “epidermis,” or “vagina” with the edified righteousness that only a six-year-old can muster. It made sense, though. My parents were educated people who valued knowledge and truth. Dad was a journalist and a PhD. Mom was primarily a math teacher. That alone might have been enough to inspire fact-filled explanations of things like Santa. Afterward, they would swear me to secrecy where my friends at school were concerned.
There were lots of things that I was allowed to talk about at home but not anywhere else. They weren’t teaching me to keep secrets or lie, exactly. They were teaching restraint and prudence where others were concerned. They were teaching me to consider other people’s feelings, beliefs, and customs. They were also training me to go with the flow in the face of horrible deception and treachery so as to not be an outcast. I have to admit that this skill stuck with me and has played a significant role throughout my entire life. But mostly, I think they took that tack with me to spare me from the inevitable and relentless teasing that I would endure from my older brother if I didn’t know the truth ahead of time. (My brother is seven years older than I am and spent most of my early life swinging back and forth between intense sibling comradery and equally intense sibling torment.)
Despite their efforts to unmask Santa Claus and dash any belief I might have had in a flying herd of caribou or a happily enslaved race of cold-tolerant little people, my parents worked hard to hold onto the magic of Christmas for me. They were, after all, the children of very devout Appalachian Christians. Even though their personal religious practices and beliefs had mellowed by the time I came along, the family Nativity set was front and center in our holiday decorations. I had learned the basic story of Christmas early, but my parents did what they could to enhance my experience of Jesus with what I like to think of as the “Annual Holiday Jesus Abduction Mystery Extravaganza.” Each year over Thanksgiving weekend, we would haul out the Christmas storage boxes and decorate the house. One of us would dutifully arrange the Nativity set on the top of our upright piano, and then sometime over the next 24 hours, the ceramic effigy of Baby Jesus in his hay-crib would go missing.
The weeks that followed were a nerve-wracking hunt for Baby Jesus. There were no clues to His whereabouts. There was never a ransom note. (I think my parents realized that the whole thing could spiral out of control if any physical evidence of the annual Jesus-napping ever got out. Come to think of it, every year they suggested that I keep our annual tradition inside the house. I never really gave it much thought until now.) Eventually, Ceramic Baby Jesus would be found nestled inside a random drawer or cabinet or decorative vase and the lucky person who found it would be deemed the winner. It wasn’t long before I was the only one playing along. After I got better at hunting down The Son of God, I think my parents hid Him someplace I wasn’t allowed to look until they wanted me to find Him. Then they would slip Him into an easily uncovered spot before musing aloud things like, “I wonder what happened to Baby Jesus?” or “I hope we find Jesus before it’s too late!” It was all in good fun and had no bearing on my burgeoning pediatric anxiety issues, I’m sure. Our Annual Holiday Jesus Abduction Mystery Extravaganza continued for several years and only ended after the year no one remembered to look for Ceramic Baby Jesus, and my parents forgot where they hid Him. I found him the next Spring in the back of our kitchen junk drawer. It wasn’t a wordless statement about my family’s religious beliefs. We all just got busy and moved on.
To this day, I still have a bizarre sense that I am supposed to search for something that is lost every December. I also have moments when I regret that I don’t get to pass the traditional abduction of Our Lod and Savior to a child of my own. I think any child of mine would have enjoyed it, and of course, I would have been sure to include a ransom note.
Images creating using a Photo by Jeswin Thomas from Pexel www.pexels.com/photo/jesus-christ-figurine-1652555/
Last week was a momentous one. My first real book was released. That, in and of itself, was momentous. Also last week, I voluntarily said the words, “I’m a writer,” out loud to another human. That was a pretty momentous thing, too. Throughout my life, I’ve always written, but I never really considered myself a writer. I don’t consider those two things to be necessarily inclusive of one another. Obviously, writers write, but not everyone who writes is eligible for the moniker of “writer,” and while there’s no official list of criteria for what makes “one who writes” a “writer,” there is definitely more to it than just stringing words together on a page or on a computer screen.
Before last week, my shoddy attempts at being a writer only existed in dusty, unreadable, floppy discs, in handwritten journals, in cryptic iPhone notes, and in the margins of other people’s books. I would write down thoughts that seemed interesting or important, or I’d scribble down the annoying things that got stuck in my head in a desperate effort to make the thought loops go away. Most of the time though, I was trying to capture a fleeting moment of intellectual brilliance so I wouldn’t forget it. I can always tell when I was impressed by my own brilliance. When my words resurface weeks, months, or years later, they’re usually cryptic, barely legible, nonsense. They’re even worse if I tried using the talk to text function on my phone.
Here’s an example: “Word interesting if the world were living in right now someone just being frank is a relief.”
That’s a real quote from an actual dictation note in my phone. It’s not even the worst one. The innate brilliance of it is nearly palpable. Try not to be too overwhelmed by it. Nevertheless, after last week, I feel like I can justifiably dub myself a “writer.” At least now, there is some real evidence available to back up the claim.
Keeping on with the momentous events of last week, I had my first professional headshots taken in almost a decade. That was a shocker. Generally speaking, I prefer making photographs over sitting for them, but my photographer was fantastic and made me look better than I do in real life. Still, it’s hard to look at myself. I look too old to be called young and too young to be called old. I don’t really recognize myself anymore. Of course, I know it’s me. I’m just older, heavier, and slouchier. Most of all, though, I look happier than I have looked in years, which is nice but weird. It seems like all of those descriptors might not really go together, but for me, right now, they do. I’m happy and relaxed enough slouch a little too much and eat a lot too much. Aside from the stress of a newly published book and all of the pressures that come along with it, my life is really good. I am really enjoying this phase of my life, and I plan to make the most of it.
And then there’s this week. The first week after the really momentous occasion that was last week is starting out a little calmer. Honestly, it’s going to be hard to top last week for a while. It was the fulfillment of wish I made long ago, and I am very, very excited that I had the chance to do it.