When I was in middle school, I didn't have very many "cool" clothes. I have never been to interested in being cool for one reason or another. . .I'm more on the warm side. But my mom took me to Walmart and bought me a blouse that I thought was the epitome of 1993 cool. It was blue and black plaid, with a ruffly peasant collar and a little black bow right on the front. I think you were supposed to wear it off the shoulder but I just wore it up and when I put it on I felt so pretty.
I remember my parents dropping me off at the middle school dance, and I felt like I was really rocking the shirt. I was kind of overly skinny and newly, awkwardly tall because I had just gone through a growth spurt but I had curled my bangs up and I felt like with all that effort I was totally the kind of girl that a middle school boy might ask to dance.
I was standing by a column in the basement cafeteria as the early 90's jams played, awkward and exposed in the fluorescent lights. I was chatting with a few of my girlfriends, when around the corner of the column came a trio of middle school girls, the "cool" girls if you will, looking at me with that sort of smirky classic after-school-special face that girls make when they are up to something.
"I like your shirt, Jenny." said one, in a tone that made me think that she may or may not actually like my shirt, but I thought I would just play along.
"Oh, thanks." I said, smiling a little bit and ducking my head because I thought that maybe the conversation would just end if I looked away.
"Yeah, where did you get that shirt??" chimed another, as my face started to get a little red.
"Um, well, yeah, I don't really remember." Even though I DID remember, and do remember over 20 years later, I was not about to tell the cool girls that I got my shirt at Walmart.
"So, are you supposed to wear it like this??" one said, pulling one shoulder of my shirt down as all of the girls started laughing.
"Um, I don't know, really" I said, fiddling with the shoulder and looking away.
"Well, I really like it, Jenny. Really cool." the first one said, and they moved a few feet away from me. My face burned as I saw them looking over at me, pointing and giggling with another group of kids that they had joined up with. For the rest of the night I sort of awkwardly fiddled with my shirt. I talked with my friends and pretended like I didn't care, but I really, really did. I don't even think I hit the floor to dance when our favorites came on. I just waited self consciously for the night to be over, and watched the big clock on the wall tick the minutes by until my mom would come and pick me up. When I got home I took off my beloved blouse and shoved it on the floor the back corner of my closet, never to be worn again.
Now, it's been a long time since middle school, but even typing this still makes me cringe a little bit. It wasn't the first time that someone else's criticism made me wilt like Chrysanthemum, and it wasn't the last. There were kids at camp who made fun of my freckles and made me want to wear long sleeve shirts in July. The high school boys who laughed at me singing at church and made me want to just be invisible. The guy at the bar in college who teased me about my dancing. (To my credit, it was HARD to dance in those Steve Madden slide platform wedges, OK???) Yet experiences like that shaped me into who I am today, the kind of person who appreciates differences and has a really tender heart for others. And also, despite the previous criticism, wears sleeveless shirts, still sings at church and dances in her living room. I mean, if I wasn't me, who would I be? And if we weren't all different, what fun would life be?
Last week, I bought a jaunty hat. A floppy brown hat so glorious that when I saw it on Pinterest I just new it had to be mine. It would complete every outfit I had with a joyful fall-esque flourish. LOVE. Click. Ordered. Delivered by Mike the mailman. I wore it all over town. Of course, I got lots of compliments, because who doesn't love a fall hat!!!???? And I loooooove compliments!! I compliment strangers on their clothes all of the time, if you love something why keep it inside?? But then. . .I overheard someone making fun of me. Just that little side glance, that little after-school-special-middle-school-girl-esque smirk. The whispered words just barely overhead that let me know that there was some criticism of my clothes and my hat and my style. I almost heard Boyz II Men playing. . .it was 90's cafeteria dance in the florescent lights all over again.
The difference is, now that I am older I know that nothing anyone says about me can change God's truth about who I am.
I am not my works.
I am not my job.
I am not my children.
I am not my image.
I am not even my hat.
If I live in the light of my own truth and God's, I can live peacefully in the world. Some people will hate me for the same reason that other people love me. I often come back to the expression "you can be the ripest, juiciest peach in the world and there will still be someone who doesn't like peaches!" Some people scoff at me for my tender heart, or make fun of me for my openness and enthusiasm and goofball sense of humor and love of big sunglasses and turbans. Other people might equally adore those things about me. Praise and blame are all the same, as neither reflect our deepest truth.
If people don't like something about us, it is more about their own preferences, or maybe even their own insecurities, than it is about something that is wrong with our deepest selves. If someone doesn't like me because I'm an asshole, I would totally get that. Nobody likes assholes. That's on me. But, if someone doesn't like me because I smile a lot and wear jaunty hats, well, that's on them. Agree to disagree (in my best Ron Burgundy voice).
I wrote this for anyone else who shares my sensitivity to criticism, and might have been tempted to shove parts of themselves in the back of the closet, never to get them out again, trying to somehow universally acceptable to all people. I am slowly learning that might just be impossible. As much as I would like to try to be beloved by everyone I meet, it JUST might not be a realistic goal. If everyone liked the same things, the world would be a pretty boring place, too! No human being can escape criticism, not even JESUS, y'all. The true freedom comes in how we accept that criticism, considering it in the context of the source, its nature, its intent and our own personal truth. Sometimes all criticism is telling us is that someone prefers something different, or even simply that a particular person just feels a need to be critical!
So this time my face didn't burn. I lifted up my chin and cocked my floppy brown hat just right. If the Boyz II Men was playing, I would have run out onto the dance floor.
Because now I am learning:
The essential parts about me are invisible and remain unchanged.
Noah is going through a Super Why phase right now. That adorable little Woofster, those catchy songs, the sparkly letters and slow questions and lots of pausing for thought. . .who could go wrong, really? When he climbs up on the couch and says, "I watch some Super Why pweeeze, Mommy? A Woofster? A Super Readers?" who am I to say no?? PBS is like the kale chip of television. OF COURSE you can have some! Oh, did you just eat the whole bag? Oh, well! At least it's kale chips! Right? The highlight of the Super Why episode for Noah is the part in the book club where Whyatt asks everyone to say their name and put their arms in, culminating with "Super Readers, TO THE RESCUE!!" Noah screams his own name and then screams for me to come put my arm in, too, and wherever I am in the house I come running. Mommy can't miss "arms in" time, it's a recipe for toddler devastation. As I put my arm in with his yesterday, I marveled at his chubby little hand and his sweet eyelashes, his raspy little voice and that precious little round belly. I don't know if it was just the fact that it was the same denim couch, or the same jazzy music or the blonde hair or the way the Fall sun was slanting right in behind him but I started to well up with tears.
I had a clear picture of my 2 year old Daniel, five years ago, on that couch (less faded) with the blonde hair (more curly) and the raspy voice (even more raspy), begging me for arms in time during Super Why. In those days I would hear the cry of "MOMMY!! ARMS IN!!! MOMMY!!! ARMS IN TIIIIIIIIIME!!" and drag my tired booty from wherever it was in the house where I was just trying to have a hot second of peace and quiet, typically with an infant Joshy hanging asleep in the crook of one arm. A crazy-haired haired little Phil would be sitting next to D, scratching the top of his head with both hands because he was so anxious that I wouldn't make it to the couch in time for "ARMS IN!" And we would put our arms in. Even though I didn't feel like it. And I could barely move my arm out of my personal cloud of sleep deprivation. And I was sort of cursing myself for walking so far away in order to get to my spot of peace and quiet because now I had to walk back. But I remember saying to myself, "It won't be like this forever. He won't always want me to do this." So I did it.
"Super Readers- TO THE PESCUE!!" Daniel would scream with a huge grin on his angelic face.
"WESCUE, Sir. WESCUE. Not 'PESCUE',"Phil would correct him. Every. Single. Time.
And I would shake my head and half-smile, reheat my coffee for the tenth time and shuffle back to my remaining 20 minutes of peace and quiet and they would sit transfixed by the Super Readers, changing the story, solving the problem, working together with powers to read. . .wow those 20 minutes went fast!
It won't be like this forever.
And it wasn't.
This week at the bus stop, Daniel hasn't wanted to give me a kiss in front of his friends.
He watched Super Why with Noah, but didn't want to put his arm in because, "That's embarrassing, Mommy."
He is now an ACTUAL SUPER READER, and reads to himself at night. Mostly Captain Underpants.
He doesn't ask me to sing him "Sunshine on My Shoulders" to help him fall asleep, or really sing anything for that matter.
The things his friends say and do are so funny and cool that they are now our topic of conversation, not Whyatt or Wonder Red or Alphabet Pig.
My baby boy is growing.
But, the tears in my eyes weren't for him. He HAS to grow! He NEEDS to grow! And he's adorable and smart and wonderful and funny! And I didn't miss out. Although I don't remember much, I took lots of pictures and wrote some stories down. I did the "arms in" and tucked him in every night and sat on the couch through Mister Rogers marathons and took them all to the park for a whole 20 minutes before everyone got tired and we had to haul them back home and made sandwiches shaped like penguins to get them to eat their meat. I did all the things. He remembers with his heart. He was loved, and that love is a part of him now.
The tears were for me. The me I was. The me I am today just wants to go back and give five years ago Jen a hug. "Dear God, Jen, don't be so hard on yourself. Don't expect yourself to be perfect. It's OK to be tired. You haven't had a whole night of sleep in ages!! You've only been a mom for three years, you aren't supposed to have everything figured out. It's OK to let them sit there and watch Super Why. They are tired and so are you. AND THEY ARE GOING TO BE REALLY GOOD READERS!! You may actually be some sort of case study on how PBS makes kids smart someday, who knows. But it's OK. They know you love them because you smile really big when you turn on the PBS and hug them on the couch while you watch Elmo. The house is a mess, but that will get easier. Lower your standards. Ask for help. It will all get easier and then other things will get harder but you will have what you need when the time comes."
When I look back on the past few years of my life, my biggest regret is not being more gentle with myself in the times where I was struggling. I tried to hold it all together by holding myself to a standard of perfection instead of a standard of grace. If I could go back, I would make myself big signs that said, "You don't have to be perfect to be loved!" and "It's all going to be OK!" and "You are exactly where you are supposed to be!" and hang them all over my house to read, instead of looking at myself in the mirror and criticizing my messy postpartum crazy hair and smudgy mascara and squishy belly and wishing that I was doing something measurable with my days instead of doing the same dishes over and over. Perhaps five years ago me might have found current me unbelievable and totally annoying, but maybe, just maybe, I could have helped her out. I just wish that I hadn't been so hard on myself. I gave my kids a lot of joy, but I deserved some for myself.
But at least there's now. And that's why I was crying during Super Why as I put my hand on top of little Noah's. The joy of now and the joy I missed and all of the messy and beautiful days in between. And that's why I write. Since I can't go back and hug five years ago me, I can at least write for myself now. To call myself to a better way of living. To invite others to be more gentle with themselves, too.