Meek, Strong, Big, Small – A Story of Strength in 7 Snippets

IMG_3444.jpg

I.

Scene: It’s 2006.  19-year-old me behind the register at a local pharmacy.  My summer job until I return to school for my sophomore year.  A woman comes into the store and starts perusing the aisles in a peculiar, suspicious manner.  My supervisor — a petite, blonde girl, who is maybe a year older than me, at best — has me follow her.  Standard retail procedure: pretend to clean the aisle, to put things away, yet all the while a presence around a potential shoplifter.

The woman doesn’t purchase anything, but she also doesn’t steal anything.  She just leaves.

“Thank you so much for doing that,” my supervisor said. “I would’ve done it myself, but you’re so much more intimidating.  I’m too tiny — I wouldn’t scare anything.”

I smirk self-consciously.  Me?  Intimidating?  I’m 5’11”, but the idea of me holding any weight or space is foreign to me.

 

IMG_3409.jpg

II.

“You don’t really look people in the eyes when you talk.”

I smile sheepishly.  I don’t deny it: when I talk, I look to the ground, to the wall, at my lap.  I almost never look people directly in the eyes.

“It’s not like it’s a bad thing,” she continues on. “But it can be seen as a sign of weakness.”

“You definitely have to be careful with that,” says another friend. “As someone with a psycho ex, trust me on this one.  That’s what sociopaths look for.  They look for the meek ones and swoop in.”

I nod in agreement.  I already know what that’s like, to attract that type of people, those who sniff out the timid.  Those who can easily detect what your body language means and know that you won’t confront, won’t stand your ground, won’t put up a fight.  They might not be sociopaths, but they are those who don’t exactly wrack themselves with guilt over abusing your mild-mannered nature.

They’re the ones who, at best, will play both sides of the coin to get what they want, knowing full well you won’t slip on your Big Girl Pants and call them out.

And I already know the consequences of having such people around — as well as the consequences of thinking they’ll become kinder, more considerate, less manipulative, on their own.  And with each year I become more determined to not let that become a returning guest in my life.

The rest of the night, I force myself to look people more in the eyes.

“See, you already appear more confident,” says the first friend.

 

IMG_3381.jpg

III.

It’s almost a magic trick.  I can take someone like me and make her the tiniest person in the room.

I’m 5’11” and yet know exactly what to do to become small and unassuming.  It’s a terrible parlor trick, and the training for it is not something anyone should go through.

And it’s a trick that I’ve spent the last few years actively fighting.

So small, so unassuming, so acquiescent, that I might even become invisible to the naked eye.  David Copperfield has nothing on me.  He can trick people into thinking the Statue of Liberty disappeared.  I can trick people into forgetting I’m even in the room.

I used to live by the motto, “I’d rather be forgotten than have someone mad at me.”  I was timid and scared and went submissive at the first sign of aggression.  I started clawing and scratching my way out of such a mindset, and each year I think I pick up just a little more momentum.  I find a little more height, a little more space, a little more force.

But even now, the magic trick can start up, and at all the wrong times.  All it takes is one confrontational remark and I’m hunched over, moving my drink around, looking to the table.  A woman who is Amazonian in height is suddenly on par with the mouse behind the wall.

I told you: it’s a terrible magic trick.

 

IMG_3302.jpg

IV.

I hate when people ask me if my books are autobiographical.  Partly because they’re not, and partly because they are.

The details are fiction.  I’ve never worked in a bookstore while having an existential panic at 24.  Likewise, I’ve never been a teenaged ballerina on the verge of going pro, or a gay Chicagoan on the verge of losing her father figure, or a widow who realizes how much of a lie her life has been.

But there’s still me in every book.  Every single manuscript, I can see me.  The same way Stephen King writes about alcoholics and depressives and writers down on their luck.

Details of my life always seem to sneak into the books — a character assumes the personality traits of someone I know; an experience of mine becomes the backdrop in a scene — but the biggest section of my soul found in my books is the underlying theme:

Every. single. one. of my manuscripts tell the tale of a woman becoming.

Whether she is 16 or 24 or 63.  Whether she is piecing her life back together or figuring out what to do with her life.  Every single one of them follows the same pattern — a woman fractured coming into her own.

And, by the end, each woman walks away with a little more of herself than she did before.

The biggest complaint I got from Chick Lit & Other Formulas for Life — the only one of my manuscripts currently out and published — was that the main character was too painfully passive for much of the book (well, that, and a slow first chapter).  I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was writing an indictment against my own passivity, as well as the sheer beauty of finally standing on your own two feet — even if it is a little too late.

 
IMG_3319.jpg

V.

“You start getting addicted to not getting enough.”

My best friend and I are talking about something completely unrelated to strength or being big.  But the words resonate so deeply that I yelp back, “Yes!  That!  That’s exactly it!”

It’s a terrible cycle.  When you revert to being small & unassuming, you get used to becoming someone’s doormat.

That’s the other problem: when you’re small, you get unconsciously attached to being treated like you’re small.  You go back to things that prove how insignificant you think you are.  You become addicted to being fed scraps, to never getting enough, to being mistreated and taken advantage of and taken for granted.

I’ve written this as a poem, I’ve written is as a line in a few notes for my memoir, and now I’m writing it here: until you can confront your demons, you’ll forever attract people who confirm them.

 

 

IMG_3278.jpg

VI.

“You had to be small.  It was a survival instinct.”

My husband, my therapist, my best friend — shit, any friend of mine who grew up in a similar household and shared their battle scars with me — has said this.

You learn to be small.  When the world around you is volatile and unstable, being tiny means slipping through the cracks — and that means escaping the area.  Being big means competing for space with the elephant in the room.  And you’ll always get smashed in the stampede.

But I don’t want to be Alice in Wonderland anymore.  I don’t want to touch the cake that says Eat Me and become small enough to slip through the cracks.  I’m tired of reverting to minuscule when the response is to grow larger.

It’s a behavior pattern that can become impossible to break.  It’s an easy-out as ingrained as learning to walk & talk.  Whenever there is any heat, or confrontation, or discomfort, or anger: get small.  Get really small.  Show your belly and maybe the alpha dogs won’t attack.

But it’s a behavior pattern I’m breaking.  I started with the body — feeling at home and strong and capable in my own, literal skin.  Through martial arts and yoga and running and hiking. I build up physical strength in hopes that it would transfer over to my mind.

I know it’s a multi-pronged approach.  It’s more than just getting big and hoping for the best.  And I still back down too quickly.  I avoid conflict to the point of madness.

But there are still moments — these precious, fleeting moments — when I use that strength to prop the rest of me up.  When I remember I’m 5’11” and broad-shouldered and muscular as all get-out.  When I hold my shoulders back and my head up high and go:

“You have no idea who I am.  Allow me to introduce myself.”

 

 

 

IMG_3256.jpg

VII.

“Now give me your victorious pose!”

Whenever my husband takes my picture, he says that.  It’s my cue to flex.

And in that, my smile gets easier — like I can better own the space because I’m reminded of my own strength.  The context of the picture is not enough — it’s not enough that I’ve scaled a gigantic mountain, or found a breath-taking waterfall, or stumbled upon something wonderful, something worthy of posing next to.  But it is enough to flex, to remind myself of my own strength — to have my husband remind me to remind myself of that.

Scene: It’s 2006.  I’m a month or two away from my 20th birthday and standing in front of a bus stop bench in Cambridge.  In front of me, my now-husband, then-newish-boyfriend, sits and laces up his shoes.  Behind him, one of Cambridge’s treasured pizza shops, the light from the pizzeria spilling out from the large windows onto the sidewalk and onto the bench.

I’m dancing.  It’s not much of a dance — little arm circles and head bobs and hip swivels — but I’m dancing along to the music in my head before my boyfriend finishes tying his shoes and goes into the pizza shop.  I’m still outside, but I can see from my spot the guy behind the counter — a middle-aged man with grey hair and olive skin — pantomiming my dance with a smile.

My boyfriend comes out with the Gatorades he purchased.

“What did he say?” I asked.

He smiles.

“Dancing girl!” he replied, mimicking the man’s thick Mediterranean accent. “She dances for you!”

I smile sheepishly.

Scene: It’s 2017.  The power is out in our neighborhood, so we opt to drive out and grab Mexican food just off the main street in the city.

Selena’s “Si Una Vez” is playing on the radio and I’m bobbing along as we wait for food.

“Dancing girl,” my husband says in the same thick accent, a quote that’s been repeated for the past decade. “She dances for you!”

“I dance for you!” I repeat back with my own terrible accident.

I stop and cock my head to the side.  I go silent.  I look towards the table.

“I can’t believe that was ever me,” I say after a moment. “She doesn’t feel real.”

“She was a lot smaller,” said my husband. “She hadn’t yet realized what potential she had.”

I think about that version of me.  I’d probably intimidate her, even if I attempted to be small & unassuming, speaking to the floor and the wall and the ceiling but never looking her in the eye.

Or maybe I wouldn’t.  Or maybe I wouldn’t try to be unassuming around her.

Maybe I would just draw her in for a hug.

“There’s no use warning you about what the next decade will bring,” I would say to her. “But you will be amazed at how strong you will become.”

IMG_3102.jpg

Type Four

19702397_10103645777659159_7321242607215740577_n.jpg

I’ve been blessed in my adult life with people who are primed to dive deep into the waters of the human condition — from all walks of life, these incredible people who are willing to admit we don’t have as much knowledge or control over who we are as we’d like to think we do, and that it’s vital to learn our own authentic story before — as Jeanette Winterson puts it — the story takes us in directions we don’t want to go. Continue reading

Urgency 

IMG_2764

I can’t do beach vacations.

At least, not the type where you lay in a lounge chair all day (to quote Bill Engvall: “With a mai tai in hand, and keep them coming until I fall over.”)

To paraphrase Eddie Izzard, I’m a running, jumping, climbing trees type of person — even when the location is tropical.  Even in Puerto Rico — at a resort made for relaxing on a lounge chair with mai tai in hand — I had to keep moving.  The idea of being idle all day sounded like hell.

“I’ve got an hour of laying on the beach in me, tops,” I say to my husband, as we’re discussing our anniversary trip — a trip that has, not once, been a beach vacation, despite that being the #1 way my husband relaxes.

“Why would that be so difficult?” he asks.

“Because…I’m anxious,” I reply.

“But, why the anxiousness?” My husband asks, his usual inquiring.  There’s nothing accusatory about it.  He simply wants to better figure out how I tick.

“Because…there’s an overwhelming sense of urgency,” I say.  “I’d spend the entire time feeling like I should be doing something. I’d feel like I was wasting my time. There’s nothing relaxing about that.” Continue reading

The Adventure

The flight to Orlando goes off without a hitch.  That much we get.  At that point, the most annoying part of our journey is the fact that our connecting flight in Orlando — which will bring us to our first destination in Salt Lake City — was delayed by 45 minutes.  But we board without issue and I’m already looking forward to when we land — when we can pick up the rental car and drive to our hotel and rest our travel-weary heads before embarking on our mini-road trip across Idaho and into Montana.  I’m already looking forward to the dawning of the next day, when the sun will peak over the mountains of Utah and we start our adventure.   We’re two days out from our 6-year wedding anniversary and my head & heart are filled with what we will do.

As we’re preparing for takeoff — as we are literally preparing for takeoff, plane on the runway, engines firing — the captain comes on and tells us we have to turn back to the gate.  Something is wrong with the air conditioning system.

We return back to the gate.  We wait in the plane, all the while a very upbeat captain with a slight brogue tells us that it shouldn’t take long — and that he doesn’t want to deboard the plane over something as minor as making sure the cooling and heating systems are working.

Twenty minutes later, we have to deboard the plane. Continue reading

To Do With Myself

19238252_10103598084032569_3815817439534609641_o.jpg

On Sunday — on Father’s Day, no less — I finished my in-person exam/practicum, thus completing my 300-hour training in yoga therapy.

It capped off an amazingly busy May into June; a time where there seemed to be so much going on at once that I could focus only on the most immediate deadline.  From my maid of honor duties, to my best friend’s wedding; from leading workshops, to taking them; from hosting dinners & barbecues, to my in-laws coming in from Ohio.

It also capped off a gently transformative and evolutionary 10 months, a time where things fell into place — where light was shined where it needed to be shone — and everything tumbled into the exact spots they were always meant to be.  It was a 10 months that were never calm, never linear, never one-thing-at-a-time. Continue reading

Thelma & Louise

My maid of honor speech — at least, the written draft:

Like any good maid of honor speech, I’m starting off with an anecdote.

(Bear with me on this one – at least this anecdote involves us jumping out of a plane.)

I should just jump ahead and say that it was a skydiving plane, for skydiving purposes. It wasn’t like we were on a commercial jet and decided, “YOLO.”

But that’s just what we did the summer after our freshman year of college.  And it all came about as we were driving around the shorelines in our hometown area south of Boston, reliving the days when we would do this practically every evening and weekend in high school.  I forget exactly who proposed the idea at first, but I do remember the conversation going a little something like this:

“Do you want to go skydiving?”

“Yeah, sure.  Let’s do that.”

And, with that, we turned the car around, drove back to her house, got online to find a skydiving (because this was before smartphones back in the dark ages when you had to find a computer to access the internet), found a skydiving place, and made a reservation that day.

Two weeks later, we jumped out of a plane. Continue reading

Wounds vs Scars & Desperate for Stories 

It started with a conversation about writing a memoir — particularly, my memoir (or, perhaps, technically, second memoir) and how I’ve hit the brakes a little bit.

“I don’t understand,” my husband said. “I feel like, when I was growing up, the only people who did memoirs were presidents and generals, and it was usually a look back on their lives.  Nowadays, it seems like there are all these women writing memoirs about one or two events that had happened to them.”

I had never given too much thought to that before — that we live in a post-Eat-Pray-Love-world, one where the nonfiction section is lined with memoirs written by women about somewhat recent events.  I thought of the fervent successes of books like Wild and Love Warrior and the response to my husband’s inquiry came flowing out, as if the answer had been hiding in my subconscious the entire time.

“We’re desperate for stories,” I said. “Women are.” Continue reading