Thursday, May 2, 2019

Don't Go Chasing Waterfalls



When my first son was born I heard angels sing.  I was heavily drugged and I believe I saw a double rainbow and heard Kermit singing Rainbow Connection in the room too.   Notwithstanding the hallucinations, the one thing I have absolutely no doubt about is how the sight of his face worked as a defibrillator and my heart began to beat in a way that it hadn't before.  
I'm sure most parents feel this way.   Despite planning for that moment for nine months, or 42 weeks to be exact, I was ill-prepared for the intensity of the emotional (rainbow) connection I had to him.   I felt a little tug in my chest before he entered the world that day as he grabbed a to-go piece of my heart that he carries around with him, and some days I feel the pain of that missing piece.
In addition to that, he must have done a system upgrade to my anxiety before he left my womb because what was anxiety level 2.0 was instantly operating on a 10.0 version.  And that was just the first day.
That sweet little 9 lb. nugget that I kept a daily journal tracking how much he was eating and how much he was peeing and pooping is now 16. And I still know how much he is eating, and he often shares additional information that I don't care to know... okay, maybe I do care a little bit, I mean I want to know he is getting enough fiber, which reminds me that I may consider changing to a whole grain pasta.   
I often wonder who thought I was qualified to be a mom. I grew up in the 90's  and the songs from that decade are always on the tip of my tongue, I actually use 90's pop as a parental guide. I even take ownership of the lyrics and quote them to my sons like I'm giving sage advice sometimes without their knowledge. For example
   
    "A lonely mother gazing out of her window
    Staring at a son that she just can't touch
    If at any time he's in a jam she'll be by his side
    But he doesn't realize he hurts her so much"

This original heart thief of a firstborn who couldn't leave my side is eager to walk around without me. 
He has a life, a life without me.
And I need to be okay with that, but to be honest, I miss knowing exactly what he did all day every day.  I miss being able to look at his t-shirt and know if he had a popsicle or being able to touch his hands to know if he played with glue or look at his upper lip knowing he drank chocolate milk.
Relinquishing this control has been hard for me.  I give him space, more accurately, I accept the space he has created.  I trust him.  I try not to ask too many questions.
His first year of high school took an emotional toll on all of us.   We had to learn together.   The hardest part by far was learning that he had been held at gunpoint by another teen.  And the worst part of this was that I didn't learn about this until 2 weeks after it happened.  Two weeks of him acting distant. Two weeks of mama bear crawling towards him trying to close the gap, only to have him create a bigger one.
I knew in my heart something was wrong.   The word "fine" started to sound like nails on a chalkboard.  He was not fine. I was not fine.  
The normally happy son had turned indifferent. My husband and I thought it might just be a teen thing. But how did we know for sure? We had never had a teen before.
Then one night as I began to clean up dinner after what I thought was a pleasant meal together, I received a message on Instagram from a friend of his.   She said she was contacting me because she was worried about him.  That he had said some things to her that concerned her about his well being.  I was confused, we had just had dinner and he seemed okay.  Was she misreading something?  I responded to her.  She said she wouldn't have contacted me if she didn't think it was serious.  I could hear my heartbeat in my ears.  I showed Don the message, I stopped what I was doing
and called up to him but he didn't answer.  I went up to his room and his door was locked.  I knocked and knocked and right before I was about to rip the door off he responded.  "What?" I said I wanted to see if he was okay,  he said he was "Fine". That damn word that everyone says when they are absolutely not fine. The word that people text when they are upset. The word people say in an argument when they are pissed off. 
I asked him to open the door and he said no.  He needed to be alone.  I got down on the floor to see if I could see under it.
When he was a baby I would put him in his crib and sink down to the floor and army crawl out of his room so he wouldn't wake up and see me leaving.  Now, 16 years later I'm on the floor again desperate to get in and see him.
I sat there outside of this door made of wood, but it felt like concrete. I couldn't get through to him.  I said I wanted to see him, I wanted to know he was okay, I wanted to talk to him. I asked him if he knew just how much I loved him. I, I, I, I, I.
It was all about me and what I wanted.  And how could I ask him such a question?  There is no way he could fathom how much I love him. I had no idea how much my mother loved me until I was a mother myself. I wanted him to know how my heart would stop beating if his ever did.   I wanted him to know how much he is my world.  But I just kept asking if he knew how much I loved him.
He didn't answer.
Don explained that sometimes boys just need to be alone and if that is what he said he needed and we should let him. 
I agreed but there was no way I was going to do that, especially that night.  I decided to change the dialogue I was currently having with the door. I ran my finger up and down the grain.  Maybe he was listening, maybe he wasn't, but I wasn't going to take the risk.  I told him, he was important. He was loved, he is cared for.  I explained that he is a light in so many people's lives even when things felt dark. I told him Wally had now joined me on the floor.  I stopped making it about me and made it about him.
And maybe I should have left him alone but I didn't, because I never could, I needed him to know he might be feeling like he is drowning but all he needed to do is ask for help and I would reach in and pull him out.
Dogs can sense when someone is upset.  I'm not sure if Wally was there for me, or for my son or maybe both.
In my head, I kept wondering how I missed this.  When he was little and was hurting he would cry, I appreciated that more now, than I ever had.  The silence is worse than any scream.
Being a teen is complicated. Being a parent of a teen is complicated.  That is where we can start.
After what felt like an eternity, he finally came out of his room.  I wanted to smother him with hugs because that is what I needed but I knew that wasn't what he needed right now. 
He went downstairs and Wally followed him.  He grabbed a quart of ice cream and sat down next to Don on the couch and watched TV.   I  grabbed a spoon and sat next to him just to regulate my heartbeat.  Eventually, his brothers found their way into the room, completely oblivious to what we had just experienced and mostly upset we were eating all the ice cream.
What had we experienced? I don't even know. 
When he was little, it was the three of us, trying to figure out this parent/ baby thing out at 2 am on the kitchen floor. 
The next day, it was the three of us, trying to figure out this parent/teen thing out at 4 pm in a professional's office.
As we left the office I realized that I was struggling for an answer that really doesn't exist.  Which of course, if I had only listened to the rest of TLC's  90's wisdom and not focused solely on the mother/son lyrics I would have known this sooner.
    
    "Don't go chasing waterfalls
    Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you're used to
    I know that you're gonna have it your way or nothing at all
    But I think you're moving too fast"

Trying to hold on to what a relationship was in the past is impossible.   And if I try and do that with any relationship, whether it is a child, a partner, a parent, sibling or friend I might end up without it.   The best way to approach any relationship that I want to keep is to accept that it is never going to stay the same.  

Once I think I have it figured out, I get hit by a massive wave, washing away any indication of that notion . When I was swimming in California as a teen I got caught in a rip current.  I panicked, which made it even worse. I kept trying to swim to my family, I was embarrassed to call for help because they were so close but I couldn't reach out to them.  I had no idea what to do and I was out of breath.
Finally,  someone recognized what was happening and yelled at me to swim parallel.  And I ended up safe on shore.

I think of that experience a lot as I navigate the choppy teen waters. The one thing that stays the same is an undercurrent of love, and what worked a few years ago is now pulling you in the opposite direction further from the person you are trying to reach. The key is not swimming at him or trying to pull him in my direction to save him.   I have to swim alongside him if we want to get anywhere.

Monday, February 18, 2019

You've Got this



I stood at the edge of a 20-inch wood box. I had already jumped on it 28 times and I had 2 more jumps to go.  It was 5:45 a.m. on a Friday. I hadn't had a particularly great week so far.   In fact, the day before had been one of the worst days I have had in a few years.  Sweat was running down my chest, my tank top was drenched, my high ponytail was no longer a high pony, and looked more like a style a colonial boy would wear. People were starting to leave the gym.  I stood there staring at this stupid box wondering why I even do this to myself.  Then a far off voice yelled, "You've got this!" I'm not sure who yelled it.  It could have been my coach, a workout friend, Jesus Christ, my imagination.  I don't know, but I heard it loud and clear.   I thought about it and as I often do, got completely lost in thought for an undetermined amount of time until the voice said
"Come on, Gunn"... My maiden name, this person whoever it is, must seriously want me to finish this workout.  I lifted my body, which felt twice as heavy as it did than when I walked in, off the ground twice to finish the damn workout.
Who was this voice, telling me that "I got this"?  How does he know?  I'll tell you what he didn't know.  That less than 24 hours prior I was in the corner of the restroom at work sitting on the floor of the handicap stall crying in frustration.  It was my pressure cooker moment.  I had been putting a lid on all my worries and doubts for a long time.  And at that moment, it was just too much.   I've got this?  Well, what I had in that bathroom moment was confirmation that I wasn't good enough to accomplish something I had so desperately wanted.  What I had was other people telling me that that I didn't have this.   What I had was an accumulation of every insecurity about myself displayed on an imaginary table for me to peruse.  I can try and be poetic about this, but when you don't get what you want, it really sucks.  I was told that if you work hard you can achieve what you want.  At that moment, sitting on the bathroom floor it didn't feel like it.
I'm not a woman who cries very often.  I'm aware this isn't healthy and it is one of the many things about myself I'm working on.   So if you can imagine, I was trying to muffle my sobs, while simultaneously stopping the mascara from running down my face.  I would take a few deep breaths to calm myself, only to exhale and start the whole ugly process all over again.  I was texting my Mom, husband and friends who knew what was going on, but all my texts seemed dark and cryptic.  Like... It's over.  I suck (sad emoji).   Crying at work is my nightmare. I don't like people seeing me vulnerable.  I started talking to myself, telling myself that my entire undercurrent of my soul is filled with being positive and building people, particularly women, up. Yet here I was getting caught up in the self-doubt and quickly being pulled under. I pity the person who came in the restroom and overheard what must have sounded like a female fight club.
 Once I knew I was alone, I emerged.  I blotted my cheeks in hopes to walk out of the stall not looking like I had just been punched in the face then made my way to my office.
I wish I could say, I calmed down, but I couldn't.  I gathered my stuff and went home for the day.   I proceeded to call one of my best friends and cry on the ride home. Once I got home, I tried to hide my tears from my boys.  But then I thought this could be a lesson.   They saw me work hard for something and get rejected.  They saw that it is okay to feel disappointed or let down.  And that you don't always get what you want.
I was gentle with myself.  Don took care of driving our boys places so I could enjoy a drink (or three).  I didn't move from the couch and watched mindless television while simultaneously eating chocolate, scrolling social media and making an argument to the Universe why every other person was smarter, prettier, sexier, taller and more successful than me.  Eventually, I went to bed and woke up at 4:30 out of habit, took my bloated and puffy face to the gym where I stood at the box and someone yelled, "You've got this, Noelle!"
And despite everything, I believed this person.  And if I believed this person, then there must be a tiny part of me that believes in me.   So I jumped.  And indeed, I had it. If you think about it,  "this" is all we have.   And sometimes "this" doesn't go the way we want and that is okay.

The sting of rejection can linger for days, sometimes years if we let it.   A few days later a new friend reached out to me asking me if I had gotten what I wanted.  When I told her about my disappointment I wrote if anything, this has lit a fire under me and motivated me to try even harder.  She responded that she had no doubt.  Another way of saying, you've got this.  What I know I have for sure, is an amazing support system.  I have worked hard. As hard as I can?  No.  But hard enough to have gained amazing friends along the way that I can reach out to.

It is okay to get knocked down once in a while. And it is totally okay to stay down, but by the count of 3, you better get your butt back up.  You may be knocked down but you are not knocked out. I'm confident, as there was in my case there will be someone in your corner that will help you back up.  Because there is so much more to fight for.

I've got this. You've got this.  We've got this. 

Monday, February 4, 2019

Unapologetic AF


As many people do,  I attempted to declare a few resolutions when the New Year started.  The first one, which I kept to myself because I knew I couldn't keep it, was to refrain from cuss words the entire year.  I told myself that cuss words are cop-outs. A wise person should be able to express herself without resorting to adding the f-bomb.  This lasted about one day.
We were on a family vacation in Los Angeles at the time and all it took was 15 minutes driving on the 405 to exhale in frustration along with a string of cuss words.  I didn't even realize I had done it until it was too late.   I try not to swear a lot in front of my boys.  But, they have certainly heard words come out of my mouth, especially when I'm frustrated.  My oldest son recently said "fuck" to me and I didn't even notice, and when I did, it was too late to look shocked.
Another resolution was to be more intentional. For example, if I'm at the gym, I want to be present.  I don't want to think about anything else, other than the fact that I am at the gym.  The same when I'm with my boys,  husband, friends, dog, colleagues, etc.  Because you never know when that time might be taken away and all you wish for is more of it.  I took Facebook off of my phone.  Not because I think FB is the devil.  But mostly because it took me away from being present with the people I was with.
I know a lot of people loathe Facebook and I can see where they are coming from all the BS. However, I'm thankful for the friendships I have been able to maintain and I have blocked most of the toxicity, which makes it much more pleasant. And the toxicity that I haven't blocked can be entertaining at times.  Basically,  in 2019 I want more social, less media.
Lastly, I decided to stop being so apologetic.  Towards the end of the year, I became hyper-aware of how often I found myself apologizing. And not for things I should be apologizing for.  It seems that when I really do owe someone an apology, it takes days (sometimes weeks) for me to actually do it. My face cringes thinking about it. It. is. so. hard.   I'm not talking about that kind of apology. I'm talking about the kind where I hide who I am to make other people feel more comfortable.
For example, I liked turning 40.   It felt like a right of passage into I don't give AF land.   When I was in Las Vegas recently I was in the bathroom with a group of women who were there for a bachelorette party.    I walked out of the stall, washed my hands and made sure that I didn't have a coffee stain on my shirt.   I watched one of them tug at her dress and say how much she hated her (size 2 and flat)  belly. I told her she looked amazing.  Because she did.  She brushed off my compliment and said: "Look at you!" which made me wonder if she was saying that because I was her mom's age, or if she was drunk.   I listened as they talked about some guys outside waiting for them.   I too had guys waiting for me, 5 of them to be exact.  And who were annoyed that I had to pee so much.
Sure, I may not like my non-size two belly, but I wouldn't trade the four guys waiting for me outside of the bathroom for it. They are worth every stretch mark.  And because I'm crossed the border of IDGAF land, I decided not to worry about it. It is beautifully liberating.

In my teens, 20's or even 30's, I was constantly apologizing.  I'm sorry I was too loud, I'm sorry I can lift more than the boys can in gym class. I'm sorry I make up metaphors trying to explain my feelings.  I'm sorry I bothered you. I'm sorry that you harassed me, I must have done something to deserve it. I'm sorry you violated me, I must have led you on.   Even in my 40's I have found myself apologizing for things I did wrong that I didn't do wrong.  Like, I'm sorry I raised my voice when I was defending my opinion.  Or I'm sorry I feel so strongly about this.  I'm sorry I'm so emotional.  I'm sorry I texted you so much today.

On the final day of our trip, we took the boys to a spot in Arizona that I discovered one very early morning when I was 19 years old.  I remember back then I would put in a Dave Matthews CD and drive to clear my mind. I hadn't been able to sleep and I just drove until the sun came up.   I came across a place called Gate's Pass.  It took my breath away.  I wanted to boys to experience it.  As I drove up the familiar road I had tears in my eyes.  I didn't apologize.   The sight of this place was so familiar and showing my family was so overwhelming and beautiful I cried.

I find tremendous joy in working out.  It is a reprieve from anxiety, worry and it is when I feel the most comfortable in my ability.  And my body is a reflection of this.  I have big muscles.  I'm not sorry about that.  I started working out with my sons and I can bench press more than they can.  I didn't apologize about that either.   I know very soon this won't be the case.

I don't cry very often.  But when I do, I usually cover my face or apologize.  I'm not going to do that.   While some of the reasons I cry are noteworthy, some might be silly but  I shouldn't feel apologetic.   Also, I'm done apologizing for things I like.   Just because other people don't like the same things, why do we feel the need to say we are sorry.  "I'm sorry, I just love chocolate."  I'm not sorry about that at all. Chocolate is my BF.  I also should mention that I love the Hallmark channel, I haven't missed an episode of  Days of Our lives in YEARS and I'm not sorry about that either.

What I have learned is that every time I apologize, I'm paying homage to the thought that what I am sorry for is bad.

If you made resolutions, great. If not,  great.  2019 is about being proud of  exactly who you are and no more damn apologizing for it.



Wednesday, December 12, 2018

The Happiness Vortex


A couple days ago I had one of those mornings that nothing seemed to be going right.  My workout, that usually starts my day off right, felt laborious both mentally and physically.   When I returned home, not one of the other five individuals who live there had woken up. Six if you include Wally.   Meaning that we were already late and when they finally did roll out of bed it was like a symphony of chaos.  Hungry chaos I might add.  Milk flying, cereal boxes being fought over.  When my husband and I did speak we were already yelling because we couldn't hear each other over the noise.
We all headed into our days that day on a bad note, and not to mention extremely wrinkly.  On the way to school and work the news of shootings and fires and school bus crashes fueled the sparks of negativity that were just waiting to be ignited.  When I dropped my 3 younger boys off at school they were punching each other as the door opened and I didn't even have the energy to reprimand them, plus they were at school now, and the head of school could deal with it.. or their dad. I understood the desire to lash out.  But I don't hit, I just start punching down my worth solely based on my inept ability to get my family out the door successfully on an average Wednesday.

We believe what we tell ourselves.

As I drove to work I began creating worst case scenarios of the meeting I had to have with my boss that afternoon.  Little things irritated me. The car in front of me that was going below the speed limit during the morning rush. I could feel the sharp clasp of the 20-year-old bra I have had that I refuse to get rid of despite it literally stabbing me in the back.  Or the damn gas light that always seems to read empty.  Or my coffee cup that has already leaked on my coat because I washed it on the bottom rack despite the instructions not to.  And not to mention my phone constantly receiving phone calls from numbers I don't know.   If they did know me they would know I only respond to texts.
"This day is going to suck," I told myself as it began to rain as I parked into the closest parking spot which was a mile away from my building remembering that I had left my umbrella in my office.
I sat in my spot with my face illuminated by the empty gas light and looked over at the car next to me.  A woman was sitting there, talking on the phone and did not look happy.   In fact, she looked mad and judging by her SUV and the school magnets stuck to it, I could only imagine one of her kids left his lunch or homework or violin at home too.

The world is in disharmony right now.  Do you feel it? People are quick to point out each other's faults. Everyone needs to be right.  People are looking to be offended just so they can express virtual outrage for attention.  Nothing is fair.  Everything is awful. Appearing to be angry seems more assertive and acceptable than being content.  We are all declaring war on each other, even ourselves and there is never going to be a winner.

I turned on my Christmas playlist in an effort to exorcize this demon of a Wednesday morning out of me before I went into work.  I had already decided that I wasn't going to take my lunch break today since I was late, so that allowed at least fifteen minutes to save my soul.
I put my head back on the seat and tried to climb out of this attitude that was only serving as a happiness vortex to the rest of my day.

I thought about looking at my morning from a different view.  Like a movie when you see the same scene but from the view of a different character. Like when Marty sees McFly finally punch Biff.   In this case, all views of our morning were heinous, so I scrapped that idea.
I imagined flying in a plane over my hometown. Even though I know all the streets, I get excited to see what it looks like from above.   The cars always look like they are going slow.  Even an accident, if I ever witnessed one would look like bumper cars from that view.   The houses and the people all look relatively the same.  You can't tell a nice car from a crappy one.  Or an unemployed person from a CEO.  We all just going along in what appears to be harmony.   If I could see my home, what I would notice was the how it looked solid, and warm in contrast to the cold air.  The abundance of having exactly what I need for survival comes into hyperfocus when you stop allowing all the disruptive negativity to cloud your view.

Sure, you may have a sick child, or a sick parent or an empty bank account.  But, you also still have that child, still have that parent, and still, have that account. I may have yelled in frustration at my husband, sons, and dog but I could pull out my phone and text (most) of them and tell them I adore them and I'm sorry. I have that option because they are still here.   Negativity and hate are contagious they spread like wildfire and before you realize it, you have set your entire house on fire. If I choose to, I could post on social media just how awful the world is to me, or I could post how wonderful the world has been to me.  How do I want to affect my friends today?  Love and peace are even more infectious.Everyone has bad days/weeks/ months.  My bad day doesn't have to be your bad day or my family's bad day.

Even when things are crumbling around you, you still have to find your footing and bringing others down with you will only make it harder to climb back up.  When I'm in those situations I have a select few people I can reach out to and tell them I'm at the bottom.  Not to bring them down, just a call for help.  They can throw me a rope so I can climb my way out. Sometimes the rope is just a text telling me that I'm capable of doing it.  That's all.  But wow, that positivity is powerful and in some cases all I need.  If they joined in on my negativity, I might fall even deeper.

I have close friends who have lost a child, or even multiple children.  The worst possible thing a person could endure.  And I know that in those dark times, positivity isn't going to make a dent in their pain.  They don't ask for anything and it is hard when my desire is to want to take the pain away.   These are cases where you just have to sit in that pain with them. But as the years pass by there is a common thread that I have heard each of them say.  They want to talk about their child. They want you to say their child's name. They want to celebrate the positive gift of that life and the short time they had with them.  They don't want to focus on their child's death, they want to focus on their life.

We can learn a lot from them.

Amazingly, this decision to shift my mindset only took about five minutes. Every day is a gift, even if it appears to look like a lump of coal.  I took another sip of my coffee, tied my hair back into a bun and stuffed it under the hood of my coat,  added an additional layer of lipstick and walked into work knowing that I was in control of turning this day around even if my feet were wet while doing it.


Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Soul Skipping


Part of the warm-up at the gym I attend regularly is skipping.   For me, the act of skipping, despite its apparent health benefits,  opens a window into my childhood.  As a little girl, I would skip to my friend's house down the street with my dog Ginger close behind me.   I would skip with my arms swinging and I thought if I skipped high enough I might touch a cloud.  Even though my body never did, my head was certainly up there.
So at 5 a.m. when I'm skipping across the gym with my workout buddies, I can't help but laugh. Nobody is immune from the skipping portion of the workout.  Young, old, men, women, it doesn't matter, if you are there, you are skipping.   And I dare you to try and skip and not crack a smile.
Last weekend I took my son, Oscar to his friend's birthday party.  He was very particular with his outfit that day.  He wanted to wear sweatpants instead of the corduroy pants I had suggested because of his concern that if they played hide n seek his pants would indicate his location.   He also spent a lot of time picking out a shirt he thought would be ninjalike.    He could hardly contain himself when we arrived at the house and as soon as we arrived, he skipped all the way to the front door.  Arms swinging, knees high, with a homemade birthday card in his hand and an enormous smile that took over his entire face.   He is my son after all, and skipping is just happiness exiting our body so we don't burst.
He skips because his soul is happy and nobody has told him not to.   And he skips everywhere.
But my other boys don't.  My husband doesn't.  My coworkers certainly don't.  And somewhere along the way, I stopped too.  If you think about it, it is a perfectly effective way to get from point A to point B.  It is faster than walking,  more fun than running,  yet you never see adults skipping past you because they are late for a meeting.  Walking fast with your eyes on your phone makes you look more important anyway.  If you saw me skipping past you on the street you may assume I'm either intoxicated or a bit crazy.  But why does that matter?
Why do I suffer from worrying about OPO (other people opinions)?  Just last week my son, Jack said that some of his classmates told him he is weird because he enjoys different things than they do. I told him that being weird is a wonderful thing because it means you are unique and that you think freely instead of conforming to what other people think you should like.  And truthfully in our family, he doesn't stand a chance of not being weird.  He comes from a long line of weirdos.
Yet last week I really wanted to paint my fingernails black, but I didn't because I worried that people would think that I was too goth, or not professional or whatever. But seriously, who the hell actually cares what the checkout lady thinks of my nails?  Me, apparently.
If I don't follow my own path of happiness, then whose path am I following?  No other person can possibly know my deepest feelings, passions and desires more than me?
Yesterday, I caught myself saying, " I really wish I would have done (blank) when I was younger."  I actually said that out loud while my mind was racing with creative thoughts.  And before I could even finish my own sentence, my heart and brain skipped right past that thought and screamed: "Why can't you do it now?"   Nothing speaks truer words than your heart.  But the trick is you have to listen.
When I write, my body may not be skipping, but my soul is.  My heart feels full. My body feels relaxed and my mind is calm.   It is my personal happiness oasis.
My husband finds his happiness in building and fixing things, whether it is a pergola in our backyard or building curiosity in the minds of the children he teaches.  His soul skips in those moments. Mine would fall flat on its face.
I need more skipping in my life.
For the past week, I have been introspective while observing the messiness and weight of everyday life. How my interactions with certain people make me feel.  Or how simple things can spin me into a tailspin of emotion. 
For example, my brother was in town and we were standing in my parent's kitchen.  The same kitchen that both of us grew up in.  I can't imagine all the times he and I have stood in that kitchen in our lives.   My mom had made enough of Mama Gunn cookies to feed the neighborhood.   They take an entire day to make.  They are by far the best cookies on the face of this Earth and have some addictive ingredient that nobody really knows what it is.   I can resist temptation in most any other circumstance except this.  I am defenseless. And so was my brother.
We both stood there cutting off another piece of this cookie and a rush of every childhood emotion came over me.  It was as if the taste brought me back to the excitement and joy of the holidays and it was absolutely transcendent.  (Maybe I should really find out what is actually IN these cookies.)
For that moment, I just allowed myself to be completely content in the simple act of eating this cookie in the safest place I know with people that love me more than life itself. If I would have been able to pull myself away from those cookies, I would have skipped down the hall.
As I approach this holiday weekend, my goal is to embrace simple joy and happiness. And if I am able to do this openly without fear,  my hope that it will spread.  The photo above is from my son riding a penny mechanical horse in a public supermarket.  He was laughing, talking in a cowboy voice and didn't care who saw him. Because he doesn't suffer from OPO he didn't feel the need to mute his fun.  And a crazy thing happened.  Everyone who was watching him couldn't help but share in his joy.
If skipping down the street is what makes you feel happy then do it with confidence.   Or if reading a book, or volunteering, or hugging your best friends or watching a cheesy movie or singing at the top of your lungs, or wearing fleece lined Christmas leggings and obnoxious Christmas sweaters are what brings you joy then just do it without fear of what anybody else thinks.
 I'm convinced that when you are doing something that makes your soul skip, then others souls will want to follow.








Thursday, October 25, 2018

Beast Brain


I was texting with my BFF and she sent me a link about Monkey Brain.   Ironically a monk was explaining how to tame monkey brain. Which is basically just a million thoughts running through your head. So many thoughts that you can't complete one because you are already thinking of the next. Monkey brain is very similar to the conversations I have with my mom.  She will be talking about an obituary and somehow seamlessly transition to a discussion about sweet potato fries.

The Monkey brain texting thread arose from an email, text and a conversation where three people gave me extraordinary compliments.   They went out of their way, to tell me something that I did right. Or something that I said that made them feel loved, or even someone saying I was incredible.  
And I didn't believe any of them.  I do believe my mind races itself into knots,  but not with a cute little monkey.  Mine is a doubt beast and a really scary creature.  She doesn't scurry about, she stops and slams and makes herself known.

This beast is pretty intelligent too.  She took each of the compliments and created a pretty convincing case as to why they were false.   One: I did something right at work.  The beast's response is that it was just a fluke and I happened to do the right thing at the right time and somebody just happened to notice. Two: I made a friend feel special and loved.  Well, I was just being nice.  If they feel that way, maybe they are just having a bad day and my niceties came at a perfect moment.  And three,  I'm incredible. The beast reminded me that person may just be saying that because they don't see the real me, only what I write so they feel like they know me, but they really don't... Oh, and the other day someone called me beautiful, and the beast immediately thought they needed to get their eyes checked.

When Don and I were first married we had his parents visit our new grown-up house and I made strawberry shortcake.  Or I made what I thought was strawberry shortcake.   I was so proud of it, but they all giggled because it wasn't what they had thought was the right way to make strawberry shortcake.  Don said something like, his mom could teach me the right way to make it. The beast whispered in my ear that, I will never cook or bake like his mom. If I suck at strawberry fricking shortcake I could assume I suck at pretty much everything else, so what is the point of even trying.  I may also mention that this was about twenty years ago and I have never forgotten it.  And even more, I believed it as if it were carved in stone somewhere on a testament slab or something. That I,  Noelle cannot and will never be, able to cook or bake anything edible.  Anything that his parents may have said about how our house was decorated, or how happy they were to have me as a daughter-in-law was completely disregarded and not believed because the doubt beast is just so loud.

I wrote a great article that was shared more than anything I had ever written.  People loved it, I got emails from all over the world thanking me,  even today, I still get messages about it. Letters explaining how this article changed their life. In one case a woman told me it saved hers.  Which is amazing and I do believe it, however, that same article was posted on a well-known site and as I was riding this wave of self-achievement, a tiny little comment caught my eye.  It said " Good article, but she is a terrible writer."   This person must have been talking to my beast because they knew exactly what to say to drop a pin into my bubble and burst it into pieces. Now whenever I think about it this article, that is all I see.

So today, for whatever reason it occurred to me, that I have to tame this annoying beast. Because she is not only hurting me but now the people who love me.  And I may not protect myself, but if anyone threatens my family, well, game on.    When I compliment a loved one, I mean it. When they do same thing, I brush it off.

How I tame this beast of doubt seems impossible.   I have tried and tried over the course of my entire life. So I decided to try a new tactic.  What if I follow this beast. Follow it and find out where her home is. Find out where she nestles and originates her hunger to make me feel bad.  It might be a scary place.  I might discover something that makes me feel uncomfortable. But the truth is, I'm tired.  I'm tired of trying to tame this constant chatter of doubt.  It is not welcome anymore.
I want a truce, and I want to try and work things out.

I had my first opportunity when I was sitting in a meeting and I tried to say something and was talked over.  The beast whispered in my ear, "stop trying, you don't have anything interested to say."  But I do. So a little while later I tried again.  Granted, I had to raise my hand and practically wave it around, but I said what I needed to and by God, they heard me. I followed the beast's thought. You don't have anything interesting to say.  Ouch. I wouldn't say that to anyone that I love.  But I do recall a time that I felt that way and it was way back in elementary school. Not those words exactly, but a teacher told me I was wrong when I tried to explain why I wanted to have a polar bear as a pet.   The class laughed.  My seven-year-old heart broke.  (btw, my parent's got me a subscription to a world wildlife foundation magazine after that.) Which is rock start parenting in my opinion.
But even so, decades later that teacher is dead, but her words are very much alive in my head.
This doubt beast is persistent, but not unbeatable. It will be a work in process. I plan on writing out these doubts and find out where they originated because once I do, I can acknowledge them, face them and let them go.

I remember my mom saying "You are what you eat." and laughing that she was a Twinkie.   But I think the same thing could is true that  "You are what you think."   Be mindful of what you think about yourself, be kind.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

A Love Letter to Yourself


A few weeks ago, I found myself in an apple orchard with a good friend and a new friend who happens to be an amazing photographer, who loves taking pictures of women.  She had two dresses I was wearing the white one and my friend chose the blue one.  Both dresses were the embodiment of femininity.   Not because it was tight, in fact, it was the opposite. It was long and flowing and had a deep V in the center.  The material was thin enough to let sunlight through but not sheer enough to show everything.
In other words, this was not a situation I find myself in often.
This tapped into my secret fantasy to live on an orchard in an undiscovered town in California and have chickens and the boys would only eat the food we grew and raise them all free-range style.  The boys... and the food.  I wouldn't wear makeup and walk around barefoot all day, read books, listen to music, paint, drink wine for lunch and wear long flowy dresses. 
My reality is quite different. This orchard was in Goshen, Indiana which is about 45 minutes away and the only reason I go to Goshen is to visit my grandparent's grave site.   Ironically, this orchard was a stone throw away from that.
The dress required some strategic undergarments because of its material. In my California fantasy, I'm not taping things to my nipples to cover them up, because, in California, nobody cares, but we were taking photos after all and thought it would be a good idea.
As I was walking through the orchard, picking apples, I felt a deep and unequivocal connection to my roots.  Whether it was because I was in nature or because I was near my grandparents, or just because I slowed down. Whatever the reason, I felt at peace.   And that is what comes through in these pictures.

I shared with my friend that I had done this and she asked me why.  She couldn't imagine getting photos taken of herself for the sole purpose to get pictures of herself.  

First, I told her about a photo I have of my mom.  It was taken when she was a new mother and it is by far, the most beautiful photo I have ever seen. And not just of my mom, but of anyone.  My heart actually throbs when I see this picture of a woman who was doing exactly what she wanted to do.  I treasure that photo.
Next, I told her that she is worth getting her picture taken.  So many women don't feel that way. Or they worry what other people will think, or that people will say they are vain, or even worse, that people won't like what they see.  There is nothing vain in celebrating yourself. 
When I was walking through the orchard I felt radiant.  Not because of my makeup or hair or dress, (which were all fantastic and not done by me) but because I was doing something for myself, and I was with girlfriends who were positive, fun and supportive.

 I'm not going to apologize for that.

When she sent me the photos, my first reaction was to find my flaws.  I was worried other people that would see them too.  I worried that if my sons saw the pictures they would be embarrassed.
That is when I had to make a hard stop and ask what in the hell my problem was.  This is who I am.  I am a woman who for the most part, is comfortable in my body.   There is beauty in that.    Think about the time when you felt the most beautiful.  For me, it was immediately after I gave birth to my first son.  In the photo, I'm laughing through tears and sweat, my hair is a mess and all over the place. I'm 40 lbs heavier and I'm natural, primal and gorgeous.   Of course, I can't recreate that every day. But if you feel most beautiful in sweats and a t-shirt, then you celebrate that.  If you feel most beautiful with amazing makeup and your hair done up, then celebrate that.

Because when you feel beautiful, you are beautiful. 

When you do things for someone else, (like when I cut my hair really short because my boyfriend liked it that way) then you are looking good for someone, but not feeling good. The point is not to chase beauty but be an example of it.  From the inside out.

In college, I learned that when you attach your worth to what other people say about you, then you are giving your power away.  So it only feels natural and good to write a love letter to yourself, or just do something that makes you feel really good. Maybe that is food, maybe that is a hike, maybe it is sex, maybe it is sleep. maybe its spending time with friends. Maybe it is all of those things combined.   Whatever that is for you, just do it. 

In my case, it was doing this. These photos embodied so much of what makes me feel beautiful, and  I don't think hiding my true self from my boys will make them better men, in fact, I think it would only perpetuate a stereotype of what a woman should or shouldn't be.   At the end of the day, I'm the only one who can give the boys an example of a happy mother who is squeezing the most out of life or at least tries too, on most days.

I won't display the photos above the mantle.  I'll keep them with the rest of our family's pictures. This entire day was more about celebrating myself and the pictures are just a result of that. Someday I hope my sons will stumble upon them and see me for more than just their mom. But as a woman who loved life even when things weren't easy.   A woman who could be a mom, wife, daughter, sister, friend,  but also own her sensuality,  have a desire to learn more, to excel in whatever she takes an interest in and to take care of the ones she loves, including herself.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Believe It Or Not, Kids Are Listening.


Last weekend we went to a barn party.  Well, it was actually a hog roast, but we called it a barn party because the boys are particularly empathetic to animals. And in this case, they knew the hog and his name.
It was a laid-back family kind of party where you bring a blanket, and take walks around the farm.  We feel very comfortable there and the boys run around and play with their friends while we talk to ours.  It reminds me of summer parties from my childhood.  Returning to my parents just before it was time to leave, sweaty and tired and tan after playing capture the flag in a Midwestern neighborhood.
There was a band and Don asked me to dance.  While we danced Jack and Oscar joined us and we formed our own little mosh pit.  When the song was over, following what he had witnessed his daddy do, Oscar asked me to dance.   I put my flip flops back on and heading back to the driveway which was serving as our dance floor.  He twirled me around until I got dizzy. We held hands and did a ring around-the-rosey type dance we made up until the band stopped for the night.
We were sweaty and tired and tan when we returned to our blanket.
On the ride home Don texted me the picture he had taken while Oscar and I were dancing.  One of those pictures that someday, when I'm old I'll look at it and won't be able to recall a time when Oscar was shorter than me.  It was a perfect moment frozen in time. I shared it on social media.  I showed Oscar and he said it was a cool picture. All was well in the world.
My cyber friends saw the beauty in the picture too and a lot of people liked it. The following day I viewed the photo again.  The barn party weekend euphoria had ended and it was Sunday night.   As I looked at the photo I said to Don "This is a horrible picture, I look 6 months pregnant, I should delete it."  Don didn't respond because after 18 years he doesn't entertain negative comments I say about my body.  But a low little voice from behind the couch did. 
Not only did Oscar hear me say it was a horrible picture, but also that I looked pregnant and that I wanted to delete it.  He asked me why looking pregnant was a bad thing and why I lied about liking the picture yesterday.  In his 8-year-old mind, he thought I wanted to delete dancing with him from my memory.

I felt like someone had punched me in the gut.

Being the only woman in my house, I try so hard, maybe extra hard, to show the boys that I love who I am. I want them to see me taking care of myself, so I can take care of them. I want them to see me sweaty with no makeup on when I come home from the gym.  I want them to see me put on lipstick and heels before I go to work.  Or wear a dress to go out to a concert.

When Jack commented that all I ate was salad, I tried eating a bigger variety so that they wouldn't assume that all women just eat salads.
In public, I make a point to comment on how beautiful pregnant women are.  Yet... here I was, saying the opposite.   I mean, in his mind, if pregnant women are beautiful, why would I be complaining about it if I felt I looked pregnant in a photo? 
Obviously,  as a mother of four large babies despite my best efforts, there are times and angles that my mid-section is not flattering.   How shallow of me to focus on the one thing in the photo that didn't matter. The one thing that nobody else was thinking.    The one thing that I shouldn't even care about.

He sat on the couch and I told him he was right.  That I do love that photo and I loved dancing with him even more.  That I was wrong to say mean things about anyone, especially myself.  After all, my body is amazing and it was able to nurture and carry his brothers and him.

But let me be completely honest.  I don't tell my body that on a regular basis.  In fact, if my body was my friend, it would have unfriended me long ago.  I continually look in the mirror and see things I don't like. In the process, I completely overlook the things I should.  Some of them stem from things that have happened to me when I was a teen.  Other things are my opinion based on the unrealistic expectations I alone have decided as to what beauty looks like.

I keep those all in my head, until I don't, and one of my sons hears me putting down his mommy.

Kids are always watching and listening. Even when you think they aren't.    When they are engrossed in their Nintendo DS or phones or watching YouTube. They listen. I know this because I can speak the words "dinner is ready" and they come running, even when moments earlier I screamed at the top of my lungs asking whose turn it was to empty the dishwasher and nobody responded.  They hear you moan in the mirror.  They see you stuff your body into garments to make you appear that you take up less space in the world. They notice when you look yourself straight in the eye and frown.  

I don't have daughters. But I have an important task, in raising sons.  I need to let the boys know, that women are beautiful because of who they are, what they are capable of doing as human beings and not what they look like.  And if they don't like something, they change it. But there is no room for judgment. Especially in oneself.  The people whom I love know that I love them hard.  And, that should include myself too. All of me.

What Oscar saw in that picture is everything I aspire to be.  He sees the beauty in the first woman who has ever loved him and will never stop.  And he sees his mommy. Who he asked to dance and she said yes and if he asks again, as long as I am able,  I always will.  That is true beauty and has absolutely nothing to do with the size of my waist.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Finding Soul-itude


I don't spend a lot of time alone.   Even times that I should be alone, like in the bathroom, I don't have much solitude because just on the other side of our old wooden door is either our dog or a son having a barely audible one sided conversation with me about Minecraft.
I recall a time when I felt alone a lot.  I was living in one of the largest cities in the country, and I had never felt more lonely.  I had plenty of friends.  But as I drove home from my acting class in Hollywood to my apartment in West Los Angeles, I remember having an overwhelming sense of isolation. Despite having plenty of connections, I didn't feel like I was actually connecting with anyone.

Now 18 years later my only solitude is found between dropping the boys off at various social and extracurricular events and usually, it is brief.    My minivan is my sanctuary.  It's climate controlled, kind of echo-y has the best music and it is the place that I can let everything out. For as many times the odometer has clicked a new number,  I have prayed, worried, sang, laughed or pulled over to cry.  I have had deep hands free phone conversations while in the Target parking lot which probably made me look crazy.  I have taken cat naps.  I have asked questions and expected to hear the answers.   When you're busy, you have to find meditation wherever you can get it.
Last week I was on the cusp of what felt like a big decision in my life.   I had finished a particularly challenging workout.  The sun hadn't quite come up yet, and I found myself pulled over next to the river. I opened the sunroof, turned off the engine.  It is not a secret that I'm a very artistic person.  I have come to realize I see things through a more colorful lens than your average person.   With that in mind, I will continue.
I looked over at the hospital.  I was born there.  My siblings were born there.   All four of my sons took their first breaths there. Even the two souls that never did, were born there.  Every single school day, my dad and I would drive past on the way to school.  Every day my mom and I would drive past on the way home.    I can almost feel every joy, pain, anxiety, happiness that I have felt throughout my life when I look at that building.  I still pass the hospital every single day, and it still catches my attention.  It's like passing an old friend, one who doesn't say much but observes everything.  knows a lot more about you than you think they do. 
As I sat there contemplating a change in my life, I turned to the hospital, almost expecting an answer.   Sometimes I think listening is the most powerful tool I have. Even when the answer doesn't come in words.

When I was my loneliness, it was because  I was trying to conform to someone that I wasn't.  I was on a mission to hide who I was, trying to please someone else, to be liked by people who weren't my friends.  In the process of trying to go from a size 4 to a 2 to a 0.  I wasn't just physically shrinking, my true self-was disappearing too.  I couldn't even be alone because if I sat really still, I had to listen to the voice that knew my authenticity had been seriously compromised. I'm not one to shy away from an argument, even with myself. 
The truth came to me in a really dark moment.  I had been out with friends for about an hour when I was drugged.  Thankfully they recognized this and got me to safety. To be out with friends one moment and 12 hours later wake up and not have any recollection of how I had gotten there was incredibly scary. I was home, in my little apartment bathtub, which is confusing as it is, but at least I was home.  (In hindsight, I wish they would have left a note) but I at least they got me there.

After I stopped being sick and was laying in my own bed, in my own pajamas, I took an inventory of every inch of my body asking myself how I had gotten there. Both literally and figuratively.  And while taking inventory, I had to make sure my soul was intact.  And at that moment, it wasn't. Not at all.  I listened hard that morning.  And even took a break from L.A. for a few days to find me again.  

Sometimes you need to be in solitude to allow your soul to give you the answer it has been trying to give you this entire time.  I'm not saying being drugged by a stranger is ever a good thing, but in this case, it was a dangerous wake-up call.  That I needed to stop searching for answers from others and search inside myself.

A few weeks later I met Don.  A few years later we returned to my hometown to raise a family.  And live a stone throw away from my old hospital.

And now, I find my sanctuary, sitting in a van down by the river.

I got my answer that day.  But only after I truly stopped. Stopped my body, and my racing mind. Stopped scrolling and lifted my focus away from my phone, away from the worry of what other people were thinking.  And I took a sharp turn inward. How amazing to give yourself the gift of solitude in a  crazy busy world.  A splendid moment of isolation in more restorative than any conversation could be.  And when you quiet the noise you can finally find your voice. 

Monday, August 20, 2018

Ripped


My dad would take me to school every morning on his way to the office, and as soon as he was out of eyesight I would roll.  I mean roll and roll and roll the top of the skirt until it was about mid-thigh.
The dress code for skirt length at my Catholic high school was fingertip length. My skirt wasn't that long to begin with.

Unfortunately, I had to walk by the office for my second class, and just when I thought I was in the free zone I would hear Mrs Hatfield call out " Miss Gunn, please come back here."   She would ask me to put my arms down to inspect the length of my skirt.  Before I would do this, I would shrug my shoulders up to my ears in an effort to fool her.  I tried to explain I was genetically predisposed to extremely long arms, and even longer fingers and this rule wasn't fair.   I received a warning, but as the years went on, I would be forced to wear the school "pants" which were hideous corduroy bell bottoms. I wore them so many times that when I graduated, Mrs Hatfield told me I could keep them as a commencement gift.
My husband went to an all-boys military boarding school, so I can't imagine he was a fashion rebel unless you count letting his shoes lose their shine.

I share this because right now I have a teen that is the same age.  Fifteen years ago I remember his birth. Specifically, I remember asking (pleading) for an epidural.   Which makes me think epidurals are wasted on the birth, they should be offered for the teen years. It would make it a lot less painful for me.  I'm kidding, sort of.  It is not physically painful. More emotionally.  A friend of mine told me that he doesn't give a flying f*ck what his son wears to school.  But the thing is. I do.  I give a lot of flying f*cks about it.

If you are my friend, you know this because I have talked about to anyone who will listen.   Since my friends are all busy now, I have to write about it, and since you are reading this,  you are going to have to be subject to it too.

My son has recently taken an interest in his personal style.  Up until this point, I have had the privilege to dictate what my boys wear.   I enjoy this.  Every morning, I would lay their clothes out.  I would describe my boy style as East coast casual with a hint of West Coast edge.  Or professorial kid-chic.  The truth is, the boys didn't care what they wore as long is it was easy to put on and wasn't uncomfortable.   I was also hoping to influence their little boy minds so that when they were adults, they would know that plaid doesn't look right with stripes. 

So now I have a boy, who wears ripped jeans and jean jackets.  He looks like Zach Morris if Zach Morris would have been mugged on the way home from the Max.  Or as a friend pointed out, he looks like Donny Wahlberg from NKOTB circa 1989.   Another friend of mine was much more flattering. She just came back from an Italian vacation and said that he looks very European.

Being a control freak, it takes all I have not to take these ripped jeans and send them to the European boys.  

I thought long and hard and probably too long about this.  Why does it bother me so much?  Why do I have a guttural reaction whenever I see his knees through his pants?  I don't have the same reaction when he wears shorts.  
After discussing it over drinks, with yet another friend, I had an A-ha moment.  

 I'm using my children as mini representatives of me.

I'm worried that anyone who sees one of them walking around with ripped clothes is going to have some opinion about me, and my lack of parenting.  That ripped jeans are the universal sign of neglect.  That ripped jeans are a red flag of my ability to control our family's image.   That ripped jeans scream horrific fashion sense and I cannot deal with it.

The truth is, this isn't just about clothing. I think parents do this all the time.  For example, you might be hesitant to tell a fellow parent that your child is not interested in going to college, but a trade school. Because that ultimately says your child won't have a collegiate degree.  "Then why did you spend all that money on tutors, and SAT classes and after-school activities?",  they may ask.  What will they end up doing with their lives? They may wonder.   And then the questions will be pointed at you.  Why didn't you force them to apply to college? It turns into a parental issue and has nothing to do with what is right for the child.

My friend pointed out that my son is an amazing young man.  He has empathy for animals and little kids (other than his brothers, that is an entirely different blog post).  He is creative and thoughtful and very funny.  He loves spending time with his grandparents on Sunday afternoons. He has more friends than I can count.  He sends me texts telling me to have a good day at work. 

No amount of ripped faded jeans are going to change that.

The reason I wore short skirts in high school wasn't that I was trying to be provocative.  It was because it was the style.   It was also because I played soccer and my mom had told me that I had beautiful legs.   Can you imagine if she would have told me the opposite?  That I had ugly legs? A parents reaction to their child's attempt to express themselves could leave a lasting impression, do I want it to be a positive or negative one?

I have decided to let these ripped jeans go. If this style makes him feel good about himself, then who am I to tear him down (pun intended.)   I have spent the better half of his life preparing him to be strong and have his own opinions, I guess I just thought that his opinions would be more in line with mine.  Parenting mistake #501.

I'm not going to love him any less if his opinions just happen to be different than mine. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

I was the Pariah Girl


When I was in grade school my dad would drop me off early because it was on the way to his office.  Back then, you could just wander around the school until everyone got there.  I was in second grade and I walked down the long hallway to my classroom.  My best friend, Kristen arrived on Bus #3.  This day I decided to write her a note with a sticker I had gotten at the mall the day before and put it in her desk.  
When she arrived I couldn't wait for her to see it.  It was one of those oily stickers that you pressed on and it made all sorts of swirly shapes.    When she opened it, she folded it in half and stuck it back in her desk.
For sure I thought by snack time she would crack a smile or at least acknowledge the note.    When I returned from grabbing my milk she approached me and gave me the note back, but written in bubbly print it said: "You are not my friend and nobody likes you."
Up until this point, I had only had the wind knocked out of me while playing a sport, her words punched me just as hard. I looked around the hallway and she had returned to the group of girls in my class. They stood there giggling and whispering while I made my way to the girl's bathroom with floor to ceiling yellow tile and sobbed.
Of course, this is through the lens of my 8-year-old self.  Maybe the girls in the group were already laughing. Or maybe they didn't know about the note.  But the rest of the day, not a single girl talked to me.  It was a game they were playing that week.   At recess, I played four square with the boys.  I ate lunch alone,  (this was before buddy benches).   Luckily for me, I was a bit of a tomboy.  Many times I was the only girl invited to boys birthday parties.  I was so thankful for my knowledge of Garbage Pail Kids and Mighty Muscle Men that week.  What I didn't know was that this was a game the girls in the class had decided to play. To call out one girl and treat her like a pariah.  I don't know how I was chosen to be first, but thankfully I was the last. This game only lasted a week before everyone became uninterested.
Obviously, this had a significant impact on me.  I had trust issues with girlfriends after that. I spent most of my childhood being friends with boys in my class. Peter H., Noah G., Clint O. and Adam K., to name a few. They were fun, they played sports and they didn't play hurtful "games" like the girls did.
  
Eventually, I found a new girl that came to the school in 3rd grade.  As much as I loved playing football with the boys, I missed nail polish and dolls. I knew this was my opportunity to befriend someone who didn't know anyone.  It worked.   We became fast best friends.  And when you find that, you don't let it go.  Even 32 years later, we are still best friends and she was my maid of honor.
But the majority of my good friends, even today, are male.  This doesn't sit well with some women.  I get that, but they don't know my story.
I understand that even today, that some women groups still choose a pariah to collectively distrust or hate.   But if you have been the pariah, you don't participate.
I'm not perfect.  Initially, in high school, I fell into that trap.  I was popular  and with that I gained some sort of false power that made me believe that I could be mean without repercussions.  It would make me feel good at first.  But I began losing girlfriends. Then, on cue, another new girl came in.  She was beautiful, and she didn't know a single soul at this small Catholic school.  We had met at a party in 7th grade and she remembered that I was nice to her.  She gave the office my name and shadowed me all day.  When I got married 7 years later, she was a bridesmaid. 
Over time I allowed myself to trust women until eventually, I had enough for an entire bridal party!

But I carried the pain from 2nd grade around in my back pocket. It's amazing that a simple act of cruelty, even if it feels harmless can have a lasting impact.  In college, my roommate and I got into a fight and she screamed: "You are so closed off, you don't let anyone in!"   I was a theater major for God's sake, I was letting people in all the time! Or maybe I  let them see a scripted version of myself.  A predictable story. A protagonist, an ingenue, and best of all, a curtain at the end for keeping my distance.
She made me realize that I had been protecting myself and in the process, I was missing out on a lot of amazing friendships.
After I got married I decided to aggressively and proactively pursue female friendships.  Surprisingly, it wasn't that hard.  You find something you like and do it.  Eventually, you find other people who also like those things. And BOOM, you have a friend.  Then when you have kids, that makes it even easier.   Also, work-friends are a no-brainer.
I joined two book clubs. I joined mom groups, I joined CrossFit, and spinning or yoga, I took an art class, even a dog walking group.  And along the way, I was creating a little army of women who were there for each other. 
Equally, as a simple act of meanness can impact someone,  a simple act of kindness or inclusion can have an even bigger impact on someone, especially a woman.
I spend a lot of time at war with myself and I'm assuming that other women do the same.  The worn out recording of the same old crap. I'm not (blank) enough.  People think I'm (blank).   We have no business tearing other women down because chances are, she already does that to herself enough and is much better at doing it then you could ever be.

A year or so ago I found out that a woman had said some really awful things about me.  She doesn't even know me, but still thought she would go out of her way to say mean things.  Of course, her hurtful words made their way back to me. 
The funny thing is, is that when you surround yourself with army of strong women who you actively build up, they are going to go to battle to protect you.   Her effort to gain friends by being cruel resulted in having the opposite effect.

Even so, it still hurt, and it is really hard for me to forgive that person. It's like standing the hallway at snack time all over again.

I saw her recently, sitting alone in a bar that I was having a drink with one of my guy friends. I went on a 10-minute tirade about why I hated her, I also decided to call out all of her flaws.  He just looked at me in shock, he had never seen that side of me and told me it was ugly.  At that moment I was not choosing an action that was in my best interest. Or hers.  I was hurt and I was venomously expressing hatred that would carry me to a dark mean place, which made me just as bad as she was.  I figured this out the hard way after I yelled at my friend for pointing this out.  (That is another perk of guy friends, they have no problem calling you out.)

So the next week or so I went out of my way to make up for this discretion.  I friended women on Facebook who had bad ass profiles that exuded happiness and confidence.  They friended me back instantly, and I sent them messages, even though I didn't know them, explaining why I wanted to be their friend. Not just in cyberspace, but it real life.

I also started liking selfies of women friends on Instagram.  Taking a selfie takes courage. Unless they are seriously narcissistic, it's not a braggadocios act. Maybe their skin or hair or make up looks really amazing that day. Maybe their relationship with a significant other is just going super well and they want to document it.  Maybe the opposite is true, who the hell knows, but what I do know, is I am going to LIKE it. Because it takes courage to put yourself out there.  Every single time a woman  supports another woman we win.

This isn't a competition. It is a collaboration.

So what the girls in 2nd grade didn't realize is that they were teaching me a very important lesson.  That kindness trumps cruelty in every. single. situation. 

For that one day, I'm so grateful.  I was the lucky one chosen to be the Pariah.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Unlocking a teenager


Last night there were about 6 things that needed to be done.  About 4 of them HAD to be done,  like making dinner and opening a bottle of wine. But of those 4 items, I only managed to get one done and I'm sure you can figure out which one that was.  I needed to finish yet another paper for grad school and should have been researching data analysis.  But instead, I found myself on my bedroom floor surrounded by a dozen old journals. 

Just by looking at the worn covers I can tell you exactly where I was in my life.  The yellow one with pink and green flowers with the word "Help" on the side?  That was the beginning of high school.

I flipped through the worn pages that if I run my fingers over the print it almost feel like the words are engraved.  I can tell how I was feeling by how deep the impression of the words.  I flipped through until I found 1992.  I was 14.
It was my adult self's desperate attempt to figure out what it feels like to be 14 again.  

Memories have a way of filtering out things. For some people, they filter out the positive. For others, they filter out the negative.  If you asked me now,  I would say I liked being 14, I had fun. I had a lot of friends and was well liked, I was a great athlete, a cute girl and a decent student. 

My 14-year-old self would vehemently disagree. According to her, she loved people that didn't love her back, her friends betrayed her,  boys made fun of her. She let her team down in a playoff game, her body was fat and her face was hideous,  and she was the dumbest person in her class.

I was given my first journal when I was 8 and since then, when I needed to sort through my feelings, I turned to writing.  The entire rainbow of feelings, high and low and everything in between. That is one thing that has withstood the test of time. And right now, I need to figure some things out.

Like a library, I can go back to a very specific stage and read my very own description of exactly what it felt like.

I pulled the journals out from their hiding place in the name of research. I was trying to figure out a combination to unlock my one of my sons. 

When he is hurting, as his Mom, I feel like I need to do whatever it is to help him.  Every child is different and he internalizes.


The combination that would work as a toddler,
Pick him up.
Tell him I love him.
Make him laugh.

When he was a little boy,  I would
Give him a hug.
Tell him I love him.
Make him an ice cream sundae.

When he was a preteen, I would
Go for a walk.
Tell him I love him.
Give him his space.

Now as a teen.....
Tell him I love him.
Text him I love him.
Text him a funny dog video

But last night my combination failed. Nothing I said or did worked.
I desperately wanted to unlock him, because if I understood what was bothering him, I could surely fix it.  Don spoke to him and said, I should give him his space.

I didn't.

I tried every combination I knew. 

Something you should know about me is that I don't like people to feel sad.  Especially the people I love.  When I see someone broken in pieces, I want to put them back together. 

So, I didn't listen to Don. I went up to his room and I tried to pick the lock, and truthfully, I only made it worse. And my son continued to turn inwards. Every attempt I made another lock was added to keep me out.  When I looked at him I saw the Pont des Arts in Paris. Lock upon lock upon lock.  The wall was getting thicker the more I tried.

But a mom stops at nothing.

That is how I ended up on the floor of my bedroom reading my journals. searching for a code that I could offer it to my son.

Before I went to bed I went up to his room and saw the door was shut.  I stood there and said "Goodnight" but got no response.  I considered sleeping outside his door just in case he needed me but even I know that is a little crazy. 

As I walked away I forgot to do the one combination that I always attempt. Through the door, I said "I love you" ..... I waited a few seconds in hopes to hear it back but didn't.

I sent him another text with those same words, he didn't respond.

Those locks in Paris were called Love Locks.  In 2015 the wall was removed and 45 TONS of padlocks were removed and there was a public outcry.  All those locks represented people who loved each other.  45 TONS of unbreakable Love.

Maybe I need to think of his locks differently. They aren't keeping me out, but keeping things in.  And he will unlock them when he is ready.

And no matter what, I am going to continue to tell my boys that I love them, I'll never stop. Even if they don't want to hear it or read it.  What I know for sure is that they NEED it.

And that is all I can do.

My hope is, that when any of them are in a dark place that my voice will reach the places that my hands can't and serve as a light to guide them back to a familiar safe place, which will always be unlocked for them.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

An Open Letter to The Person Who Critiqued My Son's Performance in A Christmas Show


I was having a pretty decent morning. Yesterday, our neighborhood had a freak power outage at 7:30 a.m. right after I had dried half of my hair.   Luckily for me, the wet side was on my left and I was able to roll my window down and let the brisk 41-degree air dry the other side as I rushed to get my boys to school on time So compared to yesterday, it was smooth sailing.

Until a few friends of mine told me not to read the local newspaper.  To be honest, I didn't need coaxing with that.  I don't usually read it anyway, but now I was curious.  As you know, there was a review in the paper of the show two of my sons, my husband, and numerous (new) friends are in.  It is a timely production of A Christmas Story. An adaptation of the movie and my son plays Ralphie. 

I felt that little tingle.  The tingle I can only imagine Bruce Banner feels right before he turns into the Hulk. Except, I'm something far more dangerous than a giant green meathead, I'm a Mama bear.   I tried to suppress this feeling before I made it to my office and searched the Internet.  

You see, Jack has wanted to be on stage since he was 2.  Any opportunity he has had to perform he has jumped at the chance.  Both my husband and I spent a good amount of time on stage.   We didn't let him audition until he was 8.  Jack's older brothers were in plays, but we wanted him to be ready for the massive time commitment any production takes.   He auditioned for a few shows and while his brother got lead roles, he got the chorus and ensemble, if he got a part at all. 

When auditions for A Christmas Story came around, he wanted to audition, but talked himself down saying he would probably be cut.  We encouraged him to try. When he got the news that he had not only gotten a part but the lead, his world blew up.  

That was in October.  We are now in December.   What I don't think you could have even possibly considered was that, a commitment to five- six nights a week for 2-4 hours is tough for anyone. It's not just the actors commitment, it is a family commitment.   We ate dinner at 5:15 every night so we could still see each other and make it to rehearsal on time.    I'm currently in the trenches of my master degree, while working full-time and raising four young boys, but you see, all that doesn't matter when you finally see the spark in your child's eyes when they finally find something they love doing and believe for the first time, that they are good at. Running lines day and night, became our life.

A little history about me,  I have a theater degree, hence me returning to get my masters at the age of 40.  I was in my junior year of college auditioning for parts across Los Angeles, I got some bit parts here and there.  Then I got a big break, an audition with an agent that I believed could change my life.  And he did, but not in the way I had hoped.  He told me that I was a great actress, that he wanted to represent me, but that wasn't good enough. I needed to change my appearance and test my morals if I really wanted him to be my agent.  The really sad thing is, is that I believed him.   I was just 21 and I thought he knew what he was talking about.  And just like that, I believed something someone else said to me, and I gave up my dream. 

So today, when I sat down at my computer and saw that you critiqued my 10-year-old son's acting I couldn't help but feel a bit defensive.   I'm not a theater mom. I'm just a regular mom, who just read someone publicly criticize her son.  In a community theater production. At Christmas.   Can you imagine if every kid that did any kid-like things was judged?  Jack loved playing basketball but he was terrible, thankfully someone like you wasn't there to point out all his flaws there too. He gave it up on his own accord. 

The thing is, my son is a kid, playing the part of a kid.  And the criticism was that he wasn't engaged when other characters were speaking.  Holy cow, talk about method acting, I think this is a brilliant interpretation of how every kid across the world interacts with their parents on a daily basis! He deserves a Tony Award.

I apologize if this is starting to sound a bit too Mama bear, theater mom crazy, but I'm writing it for every parent who has sat crouched in a cold dark backstage room telling kids to be quiet or listening for cues . Or pricked their finger sewing on a feather that has fallen off a costume. Theater is so much bigger than just the acting.

This little town of mine, and the kids in it, need this community theater now more than ever.  Why? Because acting is more than just pleasing the audience. It's allowing our kids to learn to express themselves in creative ways. It's showing them alternative ways to deal with complex emotions. Being a kid today in this violent world is not easy, but what is easy, is being a kid, playing a kid in an imaginary world and loving every single second of it.

The last thing I would want is for someone to read a bad review of a community theater production, and then decide not to attend. Because without an audience, those kids are just rehearsing, and they do a LOT of that already.  Plus,  those ticket prices, although they may seem high, are what keep these little theaters going, and these kids dreaming and learning how to navigate in this unpredictable society.

So thank you for saying my husband was the "highlight of the entire production", that was sweet, but I kindly disagree, I think every single person on that  stage was equally as bright.  And thanks for saying Jack did a fine job reciting all of his lines (167 of them in all, he counted). But, he isn't going to see your review.  We have taught him that people will forget what you say to them, but they will never forget how you make them feel. 

After his opening night, the same show you saw, as I tucked him in way, way, way past his bedtime,  he said the best part of the entire night, was hearing people laugh and seeing people in the audience smiling.  You should know, you were there.

Really, that is what theater is all about. It is making people feel.  And with every kid who can stand on a stage and that is willing to do that for me, is a star in my book. 
All I ask is that next time, you feel like tearing something down consider the community that took the time to build it up. 

I encourage every single person in our city of South Bend, Indiana and a 25-mile radius to go and see the remaining 15 shows if they get a chance.  And if you aren't local, go and see your community's Christmas Show.  I can promise, you will smile, at least twice, and I don't know about you, but lately, our world has been filled with a lot of frowns.   

Thank you,
Noelle Gunn Elliott

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Losening the Reins

I have never broken in a horse.  I should say that up front.  Although recently I told a friend that breaking in a horse would be easier than raising a teen.  She didn't question my comparison, at least not out loud.  The last couple weeks have been challenging.  Since last month, I have two teen boys in the house.   I don't want to freak anyone who is currently raising toddlers out, but I have lost more sleep and felt more guilty about my parenting than I ever did when they were young.

And guilt was my middle name.

My teens are 13 and 14. This is just the pony stage of teen life and if I can't even handle a pony how in the world am I going to handle a full-size horse.  Again, I have no experience with horses, the last time I rode one was in Sonoma on our honeymoon (16 years ago). The thing about horses is that you they are beautiful, but at the same time, they can scare the shit out of you.  For example, you can be going along riding a horse on a trail, and then all of the sudden something freaks them out, they start galloping and you think you are going to die.  And you say "Whoa", but they don't listen, and just before you think you are going to get bucked off, they start walking again like nothing ever happened. That is why I feel like raising two teen boys is like breaking in a horse who doesn't like having someone on their back telling them what to do. And for the simple fact that horses eat a ton....
What I do know from brief horse encounters, and the obscene number of Lifetime movies I have watched where the movie takes place on a ranch is that horses respond better when you loosely hold their reins.  When you guide them gently, but let them follow the path without forcing them to go where you want them to, they will do it.

I have learned that teen boys are kind of like that too.  In every instance that we have ended up in a conflict, it has been because of someone's ( okay, mostly my) expectations have not been met.   My preconceived ideas about how a conversation or a situation is going to go, and when those expectations are not met, all hell breaks loose.  This happened recently with a movie night I had planned.  All I wanted to do was put on my comfy pajamas, make some popcorn and snuggle with my husband and the 4 humans we created surrounding us.  I announced my intentions numerous times and put it on our kitchen chalkboard that the movie would begin at 7.

We were all ready, and my oldest was missing.  He had decided to go to a volleyball game instead. He texted me and called, but I had put my phone away so I could be fully present.  When I did read the text and see he called 9 times. I was mad.  How dare my high schooler want to spend a Friday night with his friends?   If I'm honest, it hurt my feelings.  And I know how pathetic that sounds.  When he got home he couldn't understand what the big deal was, and truthfully, I couldn't articulate it either.

It isn't a secret that I'm a bit of control freak.  I like order, organization, and predictability.  The three things that teens are not notorious for.  At least not mine. So I continue to try and shove them in this perfect square I have created with four equal and straight lines.  And when one of them decides to veer off, I pull in the reins. Making it even worse.

It's a hard realization when you suddenly have kids who are the size of adults in your house.   I look up to their eyes and I still see the little boys holding a sippy cup, and a blanket.  And that is the problem.  I'm trying to keep them in this box that they no longer fit in.    They are growing, so I might as well too.

I decided it was time that I loosened my reins.  I'm not hovering. I'm trusting. I'm keeping them safe, giving them guidance but letting them find their way, (within reason).  This is tremendously hard for me, and could possibly blow up in my face. You see, for the past decade, I have been doing my absolute hardest to teach them right from wrong.  I have made them apologize when they have done something inconsiderate,  write thank you notes when they need to show gratitude, and put their dirty dishes in the sink.  In addition to being the single female in their house and trying to make them see me in a way that they will see all other women for the rest of their lives.  The last one, being the most important to me.  I want more than anything for them to respect everyone, but especially women. I want them to be the men I needed at a party in college, or at my first job, or second, or third job.
And my fear is that if I step aside, they may get off this path, so  I have painstakingly tried to put them on.

My answer came in the form of this text.


It's not groundbreaking, but I texted him at what I thought was his lunch time.  Just letting him know I was thinking about him.  But then, he returned and asked me how my day was.

Reins loosened. A 14-year-old boy asking his mom how her day was going.  It may not seem like a lot, but to me, it was validation that not only does he care about others, he takes the time to ask.

I may not know anything about riding horses or getting them to stay on the path, but the little that I do know has helped guide me in the right direction in raising gentlemen.