Attention, please!

Last week my local writers’ group reviewed and critiqued a chapter of mine in which my main character, Katie, is nine years old.  My writers’ group sympathizes with my little Katie, and they’ve said some harsh things about certain other of my novel’s characters they’ve met, who are not very kind to her.  (Which makes me do a secret internal happy dance, even though I know exactly why they are such bitter, mean-spirited characters.) 

Katie, in that scene we read, was having one of the toughest days of her young life.  I won’t give you a spoiler for my unfinished novel, which is that messy stage of still being written, like when you are organizing your closet but everything is thrown all over the floor, in the meantime. 

In the lead-up to the scene we were considering, we saw that little Katie had been reading a book to distract herself from a difficult drama going on around her.  I, as the author of this fictional story, had chosen Katie’s book:  Anne of Green Gables, by Lucy Maud Montgomery.  

  

At the center of that classic book was Anne Shirley, a skinny, red-headed hellion of an orphan girl.  I admired her for her vivid imagination and quick wit, and for whacking a boy with her slate when he teased her.  Hard enough to break the slate, which warmed my ten-year-old heart.  I loved Anne’s story beyond anything else I read in all my elementary school years. 

And that is saying quite a lot, seeing as I read so very many books in grade school.  The librarians at the public library knew me by name.

I read each book I got my hands on in the same way a desperate survivor of a sinking ship hauls herself, heaving and choking, out of the vast ocean, onto a floating, splintered plank of wood.  And hangs on for dear life, as the wild waves toss that plank like a toothpick.  

  

Books were my salvation and my comfort. Anne of Green Gables was the most memorable of them, one of my splintered planks, that floated me when the water was rough. Anne herself was my friend.  Anne’s courage and strength inspired me to be brave and strong.  The girl had guts.

So, I put my favorite book in my character Katie’s hands, because Katie needed a friend too, for her own survival. 

Anne of Green Gables has been on my mind for awhile now.  (One reason is that there’s a wonderful new version of the story called Anne with an E, which I saw recently on Netflix.  There are other good film versions available, too.)  But even before that, I’ve been thinking about Anne’s story as one small textural element embedded in Katie’s character, as I’m working on my novel every day.  Katie, like me, loved Anne.  And who we love illuminates our own character, I think.  

Generations of girls around the world loved Anne.  Elisa Gabbert wrote a lovely article in the online journal Literary Hub, about Anne of Green Gables as a childhood cultural reference in her own life.  (http://lithub.com/too-smart-or-too-pretty-the-anne-of-green-gables-paradox/) She pondered the conflict for young girls between being beautiful (or at least feeling pressured to be beautiful), and being smart.  (Isn’t that one a dilemma!)  A paradox illustrated in Anne’s story.

  

Ms. Gabbert wrote, “Anne, as an orphan, simply wants to have value; she wants the world to want her.” 

Ah.  Yes!  Don’t all of us seek that, in our own way?  Whoever we are?  And especially if we are not wanted and welcomed, appreciated just as we are, within our own families, or our world?

My survival by reading worked because I saw something in each of the characters in books I read—as being like me in some way.  I saw that I was not alone in my struggle to establish that I was worthy of attention.  A little less invisible.  Maybe if other people believed in me, I might learn to believe in myself as well. Yeah, yeah.  Go to therapy, Judy.  Well.  What you see now is the product of profound (also incomplete) awareness after doing a lot of therapy.  Beforehand, I was less–articulate about it.

Anne succeeded in convincing the world that she had value.  I knew this because I valued her so highly.  She made the world want her, by making me want her.  And if I could be convinced of her significance, perhaps I could hope that someone would see me as significant.  And they would want me.  Is this really tiresome for you to read?

Anne was scrawny, and I was plump (the bane of my existence, then and—well, now I’m working on self-forgiveness.)  She lived in Canada, and I lived in the southwest United States.  But she was like me.  For one thing, we both felt awkward, and had big vocabularies, from reading so much.  We both wore second-hand clothes we disliked. (In my vulnerable junior-high years, my mother bought my only winter coat at a thrift store, and it was different from everyone else’s.  When I already felt so different.  It was of fake-fur, spotted brown and white to give the appearance of a rather garish pseudo-cowhide.  Yes.  I marvel, looking back, that I was oblivious to what snickers and raised eyebrows may have followed me as I walked to school.  Could they have thought it was cool? When I wasn’t?  I doubt it.  I’m surprised I wasn’t bullied.  I chose to see it as distinctive.  Was it a certain kind of mixed-message attention?  If any of my former classmates remember that coat, just keep it to yourself, would you?  No.  Tell me.  I’d rather know.)  

It might, of course, be pointed out that blog-writing, and novel-writing, can be ways to get someone to see the writer.  Inviting scrutiny, and approval.  So might be a bunch of other jobs, and avocations, as well—people who work in sales, or politics, or teaching, or medicine, or… Wherever there might be appreciation for good effort, there could also be a motive for seeking attention.

There are some people whose style is to avoid the spotlight instead, maybe because they are shy.  Or maybe because being seen was somehow toxic in their experience. Plenty of reasons to admire that, one of which is that it leaves more attention for the attention- seekers.  But you can forget I said that. 

Both Anne and I fought for the regard that made us feel less invisible, and she and I both used our verbal skills to get it.  Other people might use sports, or music, or acts of service, or…?   Attention was oxygen, necessary for life support.  Because it stood for validation, and welcome, and belonging. And if there hadn’t been enough, desperation might have set in. 

I know.  I get impatient with the attention-seeking of others that I might label obnoxious.  Maybe my irritation is a symptom that my own attention-seeking has been interrupted, I guess. 

Oh my God.  Did I just say that out loud?  I’m resisting the backspace-delete key.

 

 

 

 

 

Just us chickens

When I was younger, I will admit, I was intensely intimidated by my mother-in-law. For every minute of the twenty years I was married to her son. Okay, for years afterward as well. She was my daughters’ grandmother, and there were still occasions after the divorce when we crossed paths. When I married her son I was just nineteen, and I longed for her to be my mother. I yearned to belong to a family that seemed so much more functional than I felt my own to be.

But my husband’s mother (I’ll call her Millie—MIL—mother-in-law—get it?) was a tough cookie. I used to say she didn’t have opinions, she had TRUTH. Or so she seemed to think, and would declare in no uncertain terms to anyone who would listen. And I shrank to a tongue-tied state of childish confusion, in the presence of her surety. She scented my fear, and played on it. She didn’t like me, and I never overcame that. I didn’t like her either. May she rest in peace. She lived a long life.

Back when I was married to her son, she used to tell what she considered a humorous story about a young woman (around my age) I’ll call Sue. Millie described Sue (in the story she told her daughters-in-law) as a terrible housekeeper (with all the attendant details supporting the verdict.) I was also a terrible housekeeper, by the way. That much is true. I was depressed for years, but still.

Anyway, the story went that Sue confided in Millie one day that she had recently suffered a miscarriage. Millie’s response to Sue’s revelation, as she reported it to the daughters-in-law, was, “Well, good!”

Apparently, she thought terrible housekeepers shouldn’t bear children. Yeah, I know. Tough cookie. I was horrified on first hearing the story. Still am.

So that just introduces you to a little bit of who Millie was. Bear with me, because I’ll tie all this up a little further on. Promise. I was going to say trust me, but you’ll decide about that on your own. I’m not the boss of you. So.

A few years later on, when I was in my thirties, as the other daughters-in-law and I were assisting in the production of a family holiday meal in her kitchen, I saw Millie accidentally overflow a salt shaker she was refilling. Without missing a beat, she scooped up a handful of spilled salt and flung it backward over her shoulder, onto the floor. And she continued the flow of the story she was telling while she worked. (Just so you know, she was quite careful that her floor always be spotlessly clean. No one would have accused Millie of poor housekeeping.)

Very Superstitious….

I was astonished by the salt-throwing. It seemed so uncharacteristic!

I blurted out, “I didn’t know you were superstitious!” (Google: “spilled salt superstition” if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)

She said, “What?” She looked a little confused. And perhaps startled that I had the guts to tag her.

I said, “You just threw salt over your shoulder.”

She said, “No I didn’t!” End of discussion.

Maybe she was astonished at herself for enacting a little ritual she might have repeated unconsciously. Maybe our relationship had devolved into a one-upmanship she felt compelled to reinforce by denying my reality. But I saw what I saw.

Maybe she wasn’t superstitious. Maybe she was bound to a habitual behavior someone else (who might have been superstitious) modeled for her in childhood. I don’t know.

I’m telling this story because I’m so very interested in the fact I now see, that I found such satisfaction in catching this person who had me so buffaloed, in a behavior that seemed to me: Primitive. Unenlightened. Irrational. Superstitious! Which translated to: In that small moment, I felt superior to her. I cherished that feeling, at the time. Because fleeting superiority contrasted so sweetly with feeling worthless, apologetic, and resentful, in every other interaction I ever had with her.

I have, in my later years, become aware that feeling superior is a real soul-killer. Superiority feeds the ego, and attachment to ego is not a peaceful way to live. I think ego has been eating my lunch for many years. I’ve been noticing it more lately. (Of course, we don’t start noticing without some humbling experiences. That’s for another time.)

So, I’ll tell you another story, about myself, this time—to show I had nothing on her. Superstitious or not. Conscious or not.

I am now sixty-four, I will tell you in full disclosure. This is a supposedly mature age, although that might be debated to document evidence against any claims of actual maturity I might make. Sometime within the last year, there was a morning when I pulled out clothing from my closet, to wear for a casual day at home and running a few errands. Underwear, plus moss-green capri pants, and a light green T-shirt, are what I laid out on my bed, after my shower. I do realize that my sense of style might also be debated. Whatever.

Be that as it may, it flashed into my mind, on the day that this occurred, that it was a Thursday. And the instant that thought popped to the surface, I picked up the chosen outfit, re-hung it in the closet, and pulled out a different set of clothes. I kid you not. And I went about my day without another thought about it.

I now realize I did that because as a child, wearing green on a Thursday would have prompted teasing, chanting, and pinching. (Some ethnic slur about being Irish? Which I happened to be, along with Cherokee and various European blends, but who even knew that, and so what?)

Nobody in today’s world would have teased me or pinched me, for wearing green on a Thursday. Throwback Thursday. Turns out my throwback on Thursdays was the automatic avoidance of green clothing. Knee-jerk reaction. I wore something else that Thursday, in 2017. Not green. At the time, I did not dwell on the meaning of it, or even acknowledge to myself that it meant anything at all. I know this looks bad. Nevertheless, it’s true.

But lately I’ve been seeking awareness. Another freaking growth experience phase, (to paraphrase a quote from someone else I admire, but I can’t remember who it was.) And yes, I asked for it. Leading to my noticing patterns that, in all honesty, I developed in response to my painful childhood. Still, those behaviors are unflatteringly contrary to the kind of life I’ve intended, or claimed to live. (Mature, insightful, kind-hearted, spiritual, generous, blah blah blah.)

Watch out what you seek. Because little lessons bubble up in response. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Seek and you shall find. Today what prompted this little story to bubble up in my mind was this: I spontaneously pulled out the same green outfit to wear—for at-home tasks, and errands. Ba-da-boom. Today happens to be a Wednesday, as I’m writing. But suddenly I flashed on the Thursday wardrobe change. And this time I got it. I made the connection.

Back then—maybe thirty years ago? –When I judged Millie for being superstitious—I claimed a place of superiority, or some more advanced, evolved consciousness than I judged her to have. But if I judged her, I had to judge myself. They are two sides of the same coin. And I did judge myself, as well as others, relentlessly, for decades. Still struggling with that tendency. There is no place of superiority to rest on, from which I will not topple, myself. I ought not to sit up high.

Judge not, that ye be not judged.

So I’m reminded, for another round, that we’re all (including me) just chickens in the barnyard, pecking and scratching. Eating worms and pooping in the dirt. Getting pecked on sometimes, or pecking on somebody else. (This is not to deny that we are children of God, and precious in His sight, and vessels of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus wants me for a sunbeam…. But we also need to get over ourselves. Our superiority complexes. I need to.)

Lest I forget

My only personal experience with chickens (beyond the fact that I have a particular affection these days, for a coffee mug with the image of chickens on the side, perhaps a personal talisman) –is from when I was about three years old or so. My mother would have been twenty-four when I was the age of three, the baby of her little brood. She was impoverished, without any job skills. She had secured a job as a waitress at the Choo-choo Burger. So, she had established herself and her three small children in a little rickety house with no running water, after my father left us. We went to Grandma’s house for baths.

We had an outhouse for the necessities. And also there happened to be a mean rooster on the property. (Did you see that movie “Cold Mountain?” You know that scene where Rene Zelweger’s character, Ruby, says, “I despise a ‘floggin’ rooster! …Let’s put him in a pot!”?)

https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=cold+mountain+rene+zellweger+floggin+rooster&view=detail&mid=6FF9F114C7C90A89B5056FF9F114C7C90A89B505&FORM=VIRE

Yeah, like that!   One day I independently took my three-year-old-self to the outhouse and opened the door, and this floggin’ rooster flew out from there. Maybe he was mad somebody shut him in there, whoever that was. I don’t have to name names. That rooster attacked me with his spurs, and a great flapping of wings. I was terrorized. (Just one of the smaller reasons I felt the need to attend psychotherapy myself, later on.) My mother eventually secured us better housing (with an indoor toilet) by finding another husband, the fourth in a series. I’m only telling you this because it’s my limited experience with chickens. But I digress.

I am no expert on chickens, and if there’s somebody schooled in the ways of poultry who wants to educate me, I’d welcome the knowledge. But it’s my understanding that chickens like to find a perch high up under the eaves of the henhouse. Or the chicken coop, whatever you call it. (Where the chickens come home to roost, so to speak.) Even barnyard animals like to seek out a vantage point (notice the same root word as AD-vantage) that will give them a view of others, while perhaps being less scrutinized by those down there, and also lend some sense of safety. A superior position, if you will, over those lower in the pecking order. But they’re all just chickens.

Chicken vantage point

That “superior” position is the roost I always sought out for myself. All my life. In grade school, I worked very hard to impress my teachers. That was my hand shooting up, and waving furiously, in the front row, whenever she asked the class a question. I was an insufferable know-it-all. Okay, valid point.  I may still be considered that. With a stick up my butt, metaphorically speaking. Smile if you recognize me here. I’m admitting it now, so it’s not necessary to point it out to me. Suffice it to say that you would not have enjoyed playing Trivial Pursuit with me in the eighties. I am acknowledging one of my addictive qualities. Please don’t judge me. Well, if you must, then that’s your business.

I made my career choice, to a significant degree, in order to be “an authority figure,” although there were other fine reasons for my choice to be a psychotherapist. I truly wanted to help. I knew the power of good professional counseling, because I’d received it, and benefited from it, a lot. And I was good at it.

But also, I had a gut level belief (largely unconscious, but not completely,) that authority figures didn’t get hurt. Oh, I knew perfectly well on an intellectual level. But this was my core, my primitive belief system, holding onto the idea that authorities weren’t vulnerable. And that maybe I could find refuge in that role. By the time I got to that career decision, when I was about forty, I had plenty of reasons to want to avoid getting hurt. I was tired of vulnerability. I was ready to stop being a victim. I wanted to be the smartest person in the room, or to give the illusion of it anyway. Here is another trap: it was never true, and it never really worked anyway.

But I had the idea that being smart might save me from what hurt me as a child. Retroactively, I guess. Oh, honey. Didn’t anybody ever tell you that you can’t re-make the past?

Turns out, being a so-called authority figure had its own challenges, and was never insurance against vulnerability, getting hurt, or making poor decisions. And it didn’t automatically confer wisdom, either. Although it could be a handy mask that might be mistaken for wisdom sometimes. Hey, therapists have feet of clay just like everybody else. Even though they can be immensely helpful. So don’t quit psychotherapy because of my truth-telling here, please.

Mental health professionals often choose their career paths to try to heal themselves as much as anyone else. Sometimes unwisely. Psychotherapists (including moi) also may deny that they have made this particular error.

I am—and maybe some of you are too—a lumpy conglomeration of many strengths, and also bad habits sprouting up from woundedness experiences, decked out with surrounding sharp quills, like a porcupine. The quills are prone to spring out spontaneously to defend me from people getting close enough to bump me where I hurt. This makes being in relationship with me a particular challenge. I know. I am not so easy to love.

Oh, I am mixing metaphors here, between the porcupines and the chickens, but I’m just going to have to let that stand.

Perhaps that floggin’ rooster, and Millie, and people whose defensive reactions look like aggression, are wounded souls, trying to protect themselves against anticipated attack from other people, who might bear some slight resemblance to a childhood foe. And maybe this is only rationalization. Maybe that behavior is just meanness. Maybe a lot of us could be found guilty of it sometimes.

I get jumpy when somebody steps near my sore toe after I’ve stubbed it bloody against the bed frame. So when I am vulnerable—to someone who can see the raw, honest truth of who I am, past my old ego-mask of superiority—my quills might flare out. I might peck at another chicken. Or I might automatically withdraw (and abandon the person I say I love) to try to feel safer. I’m sorry. It’s an old habit I haven’t done away with completely. I’m working on being more aware, but for someone who was a therapist for two decades, I’m sad to say I have much more to learn about self-awareness. I’m in the process.

I have my coffee mug to remind me. I am just one of the chickens. Pooping in the dirt and also beloved child of God. It’s a paradox.

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