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On Fitting In vs. Belonging

“Well, I don’t know if I want to say that,” she says, watching me flat iron my hair and apply my BB cream. “Because the girls will laugh at me.”

I grit my teeth together and wait a moment before I respond. I want to respond with hateful comments. Real Mama Bear stuff about what I think about those girls. But that’s not helpful. Fighting mean with mean never seems to work out.

I wish this wasn’t still going on. But it is. The teacher knows about, and she’s doing her best. The three of us, Kate, me, and her teacher, had a sit-down conference about the goings on in the classroom. The teacher made it plain to Kate that she had her back. And I do, too.

But we can’t control them. And, sadly, this won’t be an isolated incident. She will meet mean girl after mean girl after mean girl for the rest of her life.

*

She doesn’t want to get out of bed. For the second day in a row. I pad into her dark room and sit on her bed. Smoothing back her hair from her forehead, I ask her what she’s thinking.

“Nothing,” she says. “I’m just tired.”

This, from the girl who once told me: I never need sleep because I’m never tired! This from the girl with limitless amounts of energy. This from the girl who ran all over the soccer field laughing last night at practice. This from the girl with a Tigger temperament?

I know what’s going on. I feel the anger welling up in my chest. I want to scream.

But I’m out of moves.

*

I pull the van up in the Kiss and Ride line. Sliding the gear shift into park, I turn around and coax her up. There are people behind us. But I don’t care. They can go around. She needs a few more minutes.

Her head hanging, she slides up and perches behind me.

Taking her cheeks in my hands, I lift her head up.

“Your name is Kate Susan Bagley, and no one is better than you are,” I say. She nods. But I’m unconvinced.

The van door slides shut. I roll the window down and call to her. She pauses by the window. “I love you. Stand tall!”

She nods. But I know my words fall flat. Tears sting my eyes as I roll the window up and watch her walk away.

*

I’m crying. And I’m okay with her seeing. Because I want her to know, she’s not alone. Mean girls exist at any age. Even 32.

I’m crying because an email exchange with someone I barely know stunk of mean girl undertones and hit my raw nerves. That exposed nerve that says you’ll never be good enough. It was my raw nerve that says you’re out of her league. That raw nerve that says how dare you think you could be as cool as her.

I’m honest with Kate. I tell her a mean girl hurt my feelings. Just like the girls at school, this mean girl (woman) made it clear she thinks she is better than me.

“But she’s not,” I tell Kate. “She’s just mean.”

*

I’m playing Taylor Swift’s “Mean” in the bathroom while I get ready. Kate’s standing next to me.

“Did you know Taylor Swift got picked on when she was a little girl?” I ask Kate. She shakes her head. “Well,” I say. “If Taylor Swift let all those mean girls get her down, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy her music. I’m so glad Taylor Swift didn’t let those mean girls get her down.”

“Yeah, me too,” she says. “I love Shake It Off!”

“Me, too!” I say.

*

I’ve tried to fit in almost all my life. I tried wearing what all the cool girls wore. I tried acting like how all the cool girls acted. I tried talking like them, walking like them. But still, they’d snicker as I walked past. Ignore me when I tried to engage with them.

I spent most of high school eating in the library or the journalism room. I spent a lot of my years at college, trying to fit in, and, after I failed, wandering around the U.Va. grounds with a heavy backpack and a heavier heart, spending hours alone in the library.

As an adult I tried to fit in online with girls I met on the Internet. I tried to fit in with mommy groups. I felt like I was back in high school. There were the Cool Girls. And there was Me.

A couple of years ago, I gave up on trying to make them like me. Sometimes I catch myself doing it. But, mostly, it was too much energy to try to fit in. Around this time, I organically met some new women. Women who didn’t care about how I was dressed (or how my children dressed), how many IG followers I had, how many podcast downloads I boosted, or how many Facebook likes I had.

I didn’t need to fit into anything. Because I just belonged.

*

I’m a nice girl.

Sometimes I want to be a mean girl. Sometimes I want to be catty. Sometimes I want to talk smack.

Because being a nice girl means sometimes you get hurt. And sometimes, you’re lonely.

But I’m okay with that. I don’t need to fit in. I want something more. I want to belong. And I’m going to keep being nice. No matter what. Because that’s who I am.

*

We’re driving to soccer practice, and we see a dad and a girl about Kate’s age on the sidewalk. The dad is holding a water bottle, and the girl is holding a soccer ball.

“Hey! That’s the new girl on my soccer team!” Kate shouts from the back seat. “I’m going to be nice to her because that’s part of my job, you know.”

“Oh?” I say.

“Yep. I like being nice.”

“Me, too,” I say.

Following Around Old Ladies At Walgreens

I’m doing it again. I didn’t even know I was doing it. Until I was doing it. She moves at a glacier pace, and I creep along behind her, pushing my rickety, undersized shopping cart. I’m aware my kids are somewhere near, but I’m not really paying attention. Because I need to follow her.

She’s got that short-cropped platinum hair, and it is that hair that I see first and led me down this aisle. Whenever I see that type of hair, a shock of recognition jolts through my body. “It’s her!” I think. And then I know it’s not.

But I follow her anyway.

She pauses at the Revlon display. I grin because I was hoping she would. She gets real close, so she can read the lipstick labels. I sidle up next to her. She’s wearing one of those matching old lady track suits, just like Rosemary used to wear. She doesn’t look like her, not really, except for the track suit, and, of course, the hair.

But I don’t care.

“Hi!” I say. “That’s a great lipstick.”

She looks surprised, but she smiles at me. We chat briefly. I help her read the name on the small-print labels. She puts that familiar green tube in her basket and shuffles away.

I repeat this behavior at Target, CVS, RiteAid. And at other places, too. Like Panera and Harris Teeter and Home Depot. I seek out these platinum haired little old ladies. Because, for an instant, I think it’s her. My grandma.

But it’s not. But I take any and all opportunity to talk to these little old ladies with platinum hair. They might be someone’s grandma. Or they might not.

But for a minute, I pretend they’re mine.

From the Mouths of Babes // On Questioning and Worrying and Maybe It’s All Okay

“Mama?” Kate asks. “Is being a mom a hard job? Because you’re like a writer and a yoga teacher and work for Miss Jen and take care of three kids!”

Snapping open a garbage bag and leaning over the trash, I answer, “Yep, it is a hard job.”

Turning towards her, I give a wink and follow up. “But just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”

But sometimes I’m concerned about what I’m showing her.

As many mothers who have gone before me have pondered, I myself often ponder: Am I doing the right thing?

Did I give the right answer? Say the right words? Give the correct response? And what about what I’m doing? Should I be working like this? More? Less? Differently?

I can play this game all day.

____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

I’m putting her to bed after reading our new favorite series, the Ramona Quimby books. We love Ramona and her antics. I pull the covers up to her chin and hand her her favorite stuffed bear, the one her dad got her in London on a business trip.

As I lean over to kiss her cheek, she grabs hold of my face and says “I know, I can be an artist AND a mom. And when I need to work, my husband can pick up the kids.”

I freeze, and for a minute, I’m concerned. Have I planted worries in her head about how she will manage work and childcare? When Dan and I talk logistics over the dinner table, does she worry? Find this all concerning?

“Oh,” I say, as she rubs my cheek and gives me a big smile. “Yep!” she says. “Just like Daddy does.”

_____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

It’s my sister’s birthday, and we’re eating grocery store cake loaded with sugary pink icing, and, of course, fights over who gets the frosting roses. Somehow we get on the topic of “passions.” Kate announces that Thomas’s passion is “to be annoying.”

We all laugh. And agree. And I say, “Kate, what’s my passion?”

Without a beat, without a moment’s hesitation, without a thought to consider the question.

“Family!” she says.

Maybe I’m not doing such a bad job after all.

Where We Come From

One day, someone is here. And the next, they aren’t. And you find yourself Googling: how to write an obituary.

My Grandma Rosemary died over two years ago. Just a day before her 88th birthday. She lived a long life! That’s true. She clapped for me at my college graduation, danced at my wedding, saw my husband and me move into our first home, and hold my daughter, her great granddaughter. That’s a blessing, to be sure.

And still, it’s sad. She had dementia, so for the past five years, I’m not sure what she remembered. One day Dan and I took her out for dinner at Unos with Kate. I could tell that several times that evening, she wasn’t sure who she was with. She knew we were someone connected to her. But I don’t think she remembered who we were.

Yet, a few days before she died, we talked on the phone, and she recalled Kate, seemed to know who she was, remembered being with her.

I’m fortunate I knew Rosemary for 30 years. That’s a long time. She was my best friend at a time when I didn’t like myself very much, years filled with angst and self-hatred. Rosemary would let me drive her car and took me shopping and out to lunch and listened to me rattle off a list of grievances and injustices I believed my parents made me suffer.

She was always up for fun, especially when we could be conspiratorial and not tell my parents. We ate ice cream in her bed. I tried on all her jewelry. I’d comb through her tchotchke drawer and ask if I could have that little ceramic elephant or tiny gold ring after she died. “Sure,” she’d say. She taught me how to needlepoint on her rickety old dining table with the mismatched chairs. She had this one dining plate that spun; something about the bottom was uneven. We kept saying we were going to toss it out, but we never did. And inevitability one of us would end up with “the funny plate” at every meal. After her Boston Terrier, Cricket, died, I was her co-conspirator in her next dog purchase. Somehow we ended up driving to a farm in Fredericksburg and purchased not one, but two, Boston Terrier puppies. Litter mates would entertain each other, we reasoned. One Christmas Dan and I bought her a giant pack of cordless phones from Costco since she kept breaking her current set by leaving them in the fridge or outside or throwing them away. When we came over to set them up, she’d squirreled them away in a drawer, saying she would save them for another time.

I hold onto these memories like a vise grip because I can feel her starting to fade away. I don’t know what I believe about the afterlife, but I do believe that keeping someone in your memory is how they live on spiritually, if not physically.

I’m a big story teller. At every family gathering, I start the story telling going. Remember that time when…Mom, tell the story about…Who remembers how…

This story telling keeps our family narrative alive. I want the kids to hear where they’re from. I want them to know the past, even thought it’s not perfect. There are no family secrets. The good, the bad, the funny, the sad, I want it out on the table. This is who we are, this is where we’re from, this is what we’ve learned, this is how history should not repeat itself.

This is where you’re from.

The other day, in an attempt to entertain the kids, I started cleaning out my office and involved the kids in organizing and tossing out stuff. At some point, they came across a book of clips I put together from my high school and college journalism days.

What are these?!

Oh, those are just articles mommy wrote for the newspaper.

The real newspaper?!

Umm…yeah kind of.

And what’s this?

Oh, that’s an award I won.

An award?! Like a trophy? For what?

Hmm…that’s when I was selected as high school journalist of the year. It’s like a trophy for writing.

And what’s this? Oh, it’s a book about me?!

Yeah, I put together that scrap book when you were a baby. See, that’s when I was pregnant with you. And that’s our old house. And there are Susie and Papa meeting you. And your Dad holding you for the first time.

They say quietly flipping through my high school paraphernalia and those homemade scrapbooks filled with the short history of their lives. The interest they showed in our family’s history reminded me of why I’m always trying to keep in touch with our past.

Mama, what did you like when you were a little girl? When did you get your ears pierced? Did you like school when you were my age?

I love these questions. Sometimes I tell her I don’t know, so we call Susie and ask her. Sometimes I do know, and I share the story. I bring up Rosemary frequently, talking about how special she was to me, just like her Susie and Meme are special to her.

I don’t know about death. But I know about the people death leaves behind and how to honor that death by keeping them in the forefronts our mind, while not assuaging that loss, keeps that important life linked to the present. We need to know where we’re from so we’re connected to who we are.

#reverb17 // January // 12 Things

If you’d like to join in the #reverb17 project, we have started a Facebook group where you can find all the details of each month’s writing prompt.Β  We have no requirements or expectations other than to give you a way to express yourself in writing on a regular interval.Β  We post monthly (with some fun Instagram Challenges) from January through November, then have daily prompts in December to reflect on the past year and set intentions for the new year!Β  Join us here!

January’s Prompt: 12 things you want to read/see/listen to/experience this year

1. Write everyday. In my heart of hearts, I’m a writer. But, gosh, it feels so painful sometimes. The pain is similar to when you haven’t taken a BodyPump in a week and then try to lift the bar. Ouch. So painful.

2. Grow this seedling of an idea I have about connection, creativity, and community.

3. Take a trip ALONE.

4. Take a trip with Dan.

5. Host several live podcasts. One is already in the works!

6. Read. I already read a lot (at least once a day for a good stretch). But I always want to read more. One book I have on my to-read list is the latest Joan Didion. I’m also in a book club, and we read a lot of things I wouldn’t normally pick, so that’s good, too.

7. Work on my photography skills.

8. Finish the draft of my book.

9. Build a daily gratitude practice.

10. Expand my fitness routine repertoire.

11. Have fun with my family. Little kids are tough. And sometimes I just want to hide with them at home. But we can do better.

12. YIRAH.

Thinking Time, Talking Tallys, and The Break Chair

“I had to sit in the break chair today. I just couldn’t stop talking!”

I nod and keep loading the dishwasher. Each evening, around the dinner table, we all talk about our days, the good, the not so good, and sometimes, who was sent to The Break Chair.

I used to seize up about any form of school discipline. Ack! One of my kids had to sit in Thinking Time?! Oh, no!

I wasn’t upset because I believed my kids to be perfect and incapable of doing anything naughty (Nope. I live with them. They are not always saintly.). No, I used to get flustered because it sends me back to Elementary School Sarah and the Talking Tallys.

When I was in elementary school, I attended a strict, conservative Christian school. My family wasn’t religious; my parents just needed the before and after school care this school provided. So I spent many confusing years listening to tales of a Fire and Brimstone Jesus. But that’s a story for another day.

This school, like many schools, invoked disciplinary measures. It was rumored around huddled discussions on theΒ  playground that one form of discipline involved a paddle. One with holes in it, so when the principal swung it down across your bottom, the impact created maximum burn.

I’m only a little bit scarred from attending this school.

Anyway. I wasn’t ever paddled. So I can’t attest to that. But I can attest to Tallys.

Tallys were handed out left and right and up and down, for what seemed like every indiscretion. You step out of line. Tally. You’re a girl who dares to show up in pants. Tally. You forget to raise your hand. Tally.

You talk too much?

TALLY!

I racked up a lot of Talking Tallys. A lot, a lot. I remember that hot shame rolling over me as my teacher handed me a stack of Talking Tallys to bring home for my parents to sign.

I’m not saying schools shouldn’t discipline. I’m also not saying I have problems with a Break Chair. We all need a break sometimes. And we all need to be respectful. I’m just thinking that sometimes, sometimes, the thing we get in trouble for is also our biggest asset.

“You know what, Kate?” I said, rinsing and loading plates into the dishwasher. “I talked in school too. And I had got a lot of tallys for talking.”

“You did?” she said.

“Yep. I sure did. And it’s important to be respectful to your teacher and the class. And sometimes we need to take a break. But, here’s the thing. I built a success career out of talking. Talking is my job.”

She runs over to me and gives me a hug. I squeeze back and wonder how my chatty girl will use her talent.