As Real As It Gets is getting very real!

My new best friend is command + shift + 4. Because that’s how you take a screen shot on a Mac while choosing exactly what image you want to steal … um, I mean share.

Back in October, I posted a lot about a Kickstarter project for a picture book about a boy who can’t help yelling, “You’re not my real mother!” We made the goal (hooray!) and the always-brilliant Joel Schoon-Tanis has finished the illustrations, so now the project is on to the photographer and the book designer. It’s getting closer!

As a writer, it’s unusual for me to be at a loss for words, but that’s where I’m at every time I look at these illustrations. My co-author, Amanda Barton, and I pounded out the story and shaped my words, and now here they are, given bodies. It’s moving.

So as a treat for us all, here are a few of the illustrations I screen-shotted from Joel’s Instagram feed. To see more of them, as well as other great paintings and images, follow him: https://www.instagram.com/joel.schoon.tanis.art/

If you weren’t part of the Kickstarter and you’d like to find out when the book is available, head over to West Olive Press and sign up.

Enjoy!

It's like a T Rex taking over my body, jaws opening wide for a prehistoric roar.
Some kid on the playground was going on about the monster under his bed. Hah.
I know where a real monster lives.
In my belly.
It’s like a T Rex taking over my body, jaws opening wide for a prehistoric roar.

 

Like a gas bubble, stretching me until I’m a balloon about to pop.
Like a gas bubble, stretching me until I’m a balloon about to pop.

 

The monster always thinks this will be the time it shocks my mother...
The monster always thinks this will be the time it shocks my mother…

 

She plops down with me. “Forever means always. Longer than you can imagine. Longer than even I can imagine.” My “okay” is kind of wobbly...
She plops down with me. “Forever means always. Longer than you can imagine. Longer than even I can imagine.”
My “okay” is kind of wobbly…

Hello, darkness, my old friend

A man on boat on dark water.

I recently finished reading Learning to Walk in the Dark, in which Barbara Brown Taylor pursues literal, physical darkness as a spiritual discipline. She explores the gifts of lunar spirituality to counteract the American church’s preference for full solar spirituality. There are things to learn in the darkness that you’re not going to find when you’re always trying to stay the bright light.

To my favorite biblical passage about darkness, “Moses approached the thick darkness where God was” (Exodus 20:21 NIV), I got to add this one:

And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lordthe God of Israel, the one who calls you by name. (Isaiah 45:3 NLT)

Brown Taylor goes for walks in the dark, spends a night in a cabin with no electricity, and reads about the Dark Night of the Soul, but the part of the book that is sticking with me the most is her discussion of wild caving (going into the parts of caves that are not nicely prepped for tourists). She quotes Barbara Hurd’s book, Entering the Stone:

When you’re stuck in a squeeze, the best response is to study the rock and pay attention to where you are and how your body feels.

Which is also good advice for those stuck in an emotional squeeze of grief and pain. The more you thrash against the constriction, the more you panic, the less able you are to see how you will get through.

It’s also the source of my new favorite phrase: The only way out is the way in. Brown Taylor also puts it another way: The only way out is through. In caving, you literally exit by backtracking. Emotionally and spiritually, it means that the only way out of the dark emotions is through them — not denying them, not burying them, not pretending they have no sway. But examining them, there in the dark, seeing what they are saying about you, about your circumstances, what they might be telling you about God. (Note that she differentiates between this process and depression: her book is not a suggestion to forgo medication if you need it.) Her final wish for us is that we get curious about our darkness.

I found this wonderfully freeing. I’ve always been a rather passional feeler of my feelings, and in the last five months, I’ve certainly let wash over me whatever the daily wave of feeling was: grief, sadness, pain, joy, determination. Not denying them. Not pretending them away. I appreciate Brown Taylor’s assurance that this can be a spiritually healthy practice.

***

So, of course, now I read about darkness everywhere.

***

In How To Live Life, John Vorhaus talks about facing a situation we’re sure is hopeless:

If this feeling is strong enough, it snuffs out all thoughtful reflection. Night descends and the spirit quails, brought low by the assumption of failure (p.30).

His solution:

You don’t need to fix a problem the minute you see it. (Yikes! I’m in a bad situation! Must flee!) And you don’t have to assume that it can’t be solved. You can choose to look at your circumstances frankly and gently, with acceptance….It’s so weird. We won’t look at ourselves honestly for fear of feeling worse, yet every time we look at ourselves honestly, we end up feeling better (p.70)

Vorhaus is so wonderfully blunt: ask yourself the big questions, dare to answer them, use your imagination and your curiosity, gather information to equip yourself with new insights, eagerly engage with the world and investigate any mystery it presents (including the mystery of you).

***

It’s even showing up in my fiction. I’ve been reading the last books of the City Watch books of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and Commander Sam Vimes confronts darkness, his and a mythic darkness, very directly. In Thud!, he becomes possessed by an ancient entity called the Summoning Dark — but not taken over. As a copper who’s worked the night shift most of his career, he knows all about darkness, both literal and internal. He knows the darkness in his soul, and he’s prepared to shake hands with it, use the zeal it gives him to pursue justice, but to not let it overtake him so that he ignores his values. This enables him to use the Summoning Dark, and to develop a relationship with it, without it possessing him. The S.D. leaves when it discovers how at home Sam is in his own darkness, but it gives him a scar, and gives him gifts: Sam can see in the dark, and converse with the S.D. when he needs to for a case.

This is the conversation from Thud! between the S.D. and inside-Sam (the first line is his):

“…Who watches the watchmen? Me. I watch him. Always. You will not force him to murder for you.”
“What kind of human creates his own policeman?”
“One who fears the dark.”
“And so he should,” said the entity, with satisfaction.
“Indeed. But I think you misunderstand. I am not here to keep the darkness out. I am here to keep it in.” There was a clink of metal as the shadowy watchman lifted a dark lantern and opened its little door. Orange light cut through the blackness. “Call me… the Guarding Dark. Imagine how strong I must be.”
The Summoning Dark backed desperately into the alley, but the light followed it, burning it.
“And now,” said the watchman, “get out of town.”

 I also love this one, from Snuff, about the distinction between being acquainted with the dark and being the darkness:

he wondered if one day that darkness would break out and claim its heritage, and he wouldn’t know … the brakes and chains and doors and locks in his head would have vanished and he wouldn’t know.

Right now, as he looked at the frightened child, he feared that moment was coming closer. Possibly only the presence of Feeney was holding the darkness at bay, the dreadful urge to do the hangman out of his entitlement of a dollar for the drop, thruppence for the rope and sixpence for his beer. How easy it is to kill, yes, but not when a smart young copper who thinks you are a good guy is looking to you. At home, the Watch and his family surrounded Vimes like a wall. Here the good guy was the good guy because he didn’t want anyone to see him being bad. He did not want to be ashamed. He did not want to be the darkness.

***

Don’t you just love it when everything seems to conspire to communicate with you about the same topic?

And don’t get me started on the other one — ASK. This post is already too long.

Clarity Hangover

There are few times in life when what you should do is utterly clear. About nine years ago, I left my kids and husband in the States for four days, and went to Canada to take care of my cousin, Esther, who was dying of metastatic colon cancer. I was providing weekend relief for her father, my uncle, who’d been providing 24-hour care for months.

My main tasks were to “burp” her colostomy bag throughout the day and night so it wouldn’t explode from gas build-up, give her all her medicines at the right times, try to get her to eat and drink, and help her go to the bathroom. The colostomy bag job was smelly. She didn’t really want to eat or drink, and she’d always hated taking pills, especially giant doozies like these, so it took a long a time for any ingestion to happen. Even with all the meds, she was often in pain to the point of it seeming cruel that pain alone couldn’t kill a person. It turned out that I was the last person to get her all the way out of bed, the last person to help her use the potty.

The job was messy, and smelly, and sad, and my sleep was constantly interrupted.

Those were four of the best days of my life.

They weren’t the best days in spite of all the mess and stink and grief, but because of them. My job was so clear: all I had to do was take care of her. Her needs were clear. I’m still proud that she told me I could be a nurse, I was taking such good care of her.

We had lovely moments: laying on her bed together during her lucid times, going through her jewelry box, sorting through mementos, telling stories about our childhoods and our Oma, sampling the nice-smelling lotions people gave her. Choosing what she gave me.

E's gifts to N

She asked me at least once a day whether we were square, or whether anything needed saying between us. We were good. She was good.

All she wanted to do was see her daughter, her lively, beloved, long-awaited little girl, who was three. I have a memory of the little one jumping on the bed, and it hurt Esther, but her daughter was giggling and happy, so she withstood the pain for awhile. Her daughter still has an irresistible laugh — in fact, her out-of-control, crazy laugh is just like her mother’s.

***

This post was going to start with Esther and then move to how rare clarity is, and how I’ve had it the last four months — terrible clarity fueled by anger. And about how the shell of my anger is cracking, and how it’s easier and more satisfying to be angry than to live in my hurt.

But I know how to live with grief and hurt. Next week would have been Esther’s 48th birthday; she was 39 when she died. We were born only one month and eight days apart. Our Opa was our minister, and he wouldn’t baptize me until he could do both of us, so by the time it happened, I was too fat for the lovely baptism dress my mother had sewed for me.

N's baptism dress

We were friends from the start — not always uncomplicated friends. My parents still talk about watching her shove some of her mother’s forbidden china into my hands to throw me under the bus when her mom saw her with the tea cup. Her mother gave her thick hair beautiful ringlet curls when I barely had enough hair to comb.

N and E toddlers

In fifth grade, when I came back from three years in Australia and started at our tiny alternative Christian school, she was often the ringleader of my social exclusion, telling me once, “I’m so glad you finally started wearing pants. We’d decided to tell you not to come to school until you did.”

But we also ran around the beautiful Mt. Pleasant cemetery, making up spy clubs and freaking ourselves out. We took photos of each other taking photos of the other.

N taking photo of EN taking photo of E 2

We made chocolate frosting and ate the whole batch. We tried making 7-Up pancakes, but they didn’t cook in the middle, and scrambling them made the whole thing worse — it was over 20 years before I attempted pancakes again. We went on crazy diets at the cottage and then broke them with feasts of saltines and liverwurst. The first time I got drunk was with her. We lived together for a year in college, when she’d walk around the house singing snippets of “Walking After Midnight” and “Crazy” all the time. All. The. Time. We closed the curtains and had an impromptu dance party one night, grooving to Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer.” She loved to visit me when I lived in New York.

N and E at Sonali

She always sent me the photos she took on visits.

N and E at K's wedding

She gave wonderful baby gifts.

W in E's gift H in E's gift

When I’d visit Toronto, she’d make sure there was a party so I could see everyone.

Damn cancer.

***

If I think back to that time, as well as reflect on the time I’m in right now, I think I’ve got a bit of a clarity hangover. That kind of clarity is intense and wonderful, but also terrible and unsustainable. Afterwards, we’ve got to learn how to live with it. So that’s what I’m doing.

***

If any of you have made it this far (thank you!), I invite you to share your own stories of times of clarity, your own stories of Esther, your own stories of people cancer has stolen from you. We’re all in this together.

Thank you, kids, for calling me out

Integrity can be so inconvenient.

Having children has taught me so much:

  • Rice is easier to clean up if you let it sit on the floor for an hour or so.
  • There is darkness in my soul.
  • Being truthful with kids and following up on what you say builds trust.

And one other little, teeny weeny tiny thing:
If I am remotely hypocritical, they will call me on it.

I often spotted my hypocrisy myself when they were younger. When my son was 2 or 3, I swatted him on the butt for hitting his baby sister, but the act of hitting a child while telling them not to hit a child felt so illogical that I never did it again. Instead, I used this airtight argument:

“I don’t hit or push you when I’m upset with you or you don’t do what I want, so you may not do it. That’s not how people solve problems.”

Now that they are both teenagers I, like many other parents, regularly nag them about doing something other than being in front of screens of one kind or another all the time, and I maintain the rule of no phones / laptops / iPads in their bedrooms at night. But then my son noted that I keep my phone and laptop in my room at night.

Yup.

I do.

Every night.

Now, I have my reasons. The phone I keep up there because if there’s a problem in the night, I want to have quick access to it. A few days after getting rid of the landline, one of the kids needed to be picked up from a sleepover in the middle of the night, and it didn’t happen because the cell phones were downstairs. So that’s a safety issue; it stays with me.

The laptop is another story: I’m afraid I won’t be able to fall asleep without it.

It started during my third year of college, when a roommate moved out and left me her ancient little black-and-white TV (bunny ears included). I enjoyed winding down at night with a little Johnny Carson and David Letterman. The next year, when I lived alone, I grew to rely on late-night comedians (and the occasional middle-of-the-night infomercial) to relax me enough that I could fall asleep. It continued through graduate school, and after I was married (marrying a night owl meant that I still fell asleep on my own most nights), and became a firmly entrenched part of my sleep process.

I managed to interrupt this pattern this Spring (The good that I should do, yadda, yadda, yadda), but then I slid back into it, and when my marriage imploded in August, hardcore insomnia moved in and the laptop was my only comfort.

And then my son had to go and point out my hypocrisy. Which means it’s time to give it up. Again. Starting on the time-honored date of January 1, 2016.

My heart rate sped up, just typing about it. I’m scared. But my forties have taught me that being afraid is not a sufficient reason to avoid it, and that fear often indicates that Resistance is trying to steer me away from healthy change. I’ve also learned that I can do hard things.

So on Friday night, I will leave the laptop downstairs. The Kindle is loaded with all sorts of books, I’ve learned how to borrow ebooks from my library, and I’m hopeful. My kids are the secret weapon: I’ll repeatedly disappoint myself, but I’ll fight like crazy to avoid disappointing them.

 

I wish we each had a Lying Cat

There is one fictional character that I want to be real more than any other: Lying Cat from the comic book series, Saga, by Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples.

Lying Cat is not pretty.

lying cat is not pretty

But Lying Cat has a special ability: she can tell, definitively, when anyone is lying — lying to others, but also, and even more powerfully, lying to oneself.

She accompanies a bounty hunter, The Will, who makes use of this ability in his work: she’s able to call out his potential employers and any leads he interrogates on any lies they may be trying to get away with. It’s satisfying to watch this.

Lying Cat calls out The Will's employer

And entertaining when Lying Cat catches The Will.

The Will tries to fool himself

But Lying Cat proves her true power after The Will rescues Slave Girl (later named Sophie) from her sex traffickers. For two panels, she’s talking to Lying Cat, telling her all kinds of things: “My name is Sophie. I am six and a half years old. I can stand on one leg for a real long time. My favorite color is blue-green. I want to be a doctor or a dancer when I grow up.” Throughout this, Lying Cat remains silent. And then there’s this:

lying-cat

And Sophie knows she is not all dirty inside because of what was done to her. Because Lying Cat’s supernatural ability is definitive.

* * * *

I just came from a funeral for a 17-year-old classmate of my children, a young woman who took her own life. It was an amazing service, full of tears, and singing, and telling of emotional truths.

But I couldn’t help thinking about the lies that young woman had to believe in order to kill herself, lies that came from her own mind — that it’d be better if she weren’t here, that the pain would never go away, that there was no hope, or whatever she was telling herself. And I couldn’t help thinking of the kids at the funeral who were currently or had been suicidal; I know there were some.

How wonderful it would be to give each of them a Lying Cat to follow them around, who they’d believe when it said, “That thought is a lie.”

The lies of depression are so enticing, because they often involve a truth. With Slave Girl/Sophie, she felt dirty because of all the things done to her, but she, as a person, was not worthless because of it. When I’ve been in the grip of depression, it always felt like I was telling myself deep truths about my reality, but they were only ever half-truths. Which means they were half-lie.

Here are some truths that speak to the lies of depression:

You are not worthless.

You are not ruined.

You can get through it.

It does get better.

There is hope.

It won’t be easier for everyone if you are gone.

It’s not all your fault.

You are loved and treasured and valued.

You are worth the effort.

But I’m not Lying Cat, I’m just a random grown-up, so my words don’t carry the weight of a supernatural ability. I’m a grieving grown-up in the grips of some magical thinking, imagining that if we could give Lying Cat to each suicidal teenager, it would make a difference.

It’s a lovely fantasy. The reality is much tougher. We have to be Lying Cat for each other. But we have an advantage over Lying Cat, because we have a greater vocabulary. We can not only identify a lie, we can also tell the truth. We have to tell the full truth to each other, and tell it often enough that we start to believe it.

 

 

 

 

I needed you, and you came through

pillars

A lot has happened this fall that I never expected, and pretty much everything in my life has changed, is changing, or has been thrown into question. (see post about the end of my marriage) Some days, I’ve cried so much that I didn’t have to pee in the morning.

What can I be thankful for beyond mere survival?

But tomorrow’s American holiday of Thanksgiving has got me weepy with gratitude. Because of what feels like a throng of supporters.

Some people I knew would help. My parents have given me support both financial and emotional; they bought me a new bed, my dad came with me to meet the lawyer, my mother keeps loading me with food, and she spent a day crouched down in my garden to help me weed. My in-laws slip me grocery store gift cards, get piles of stuff for us on CostCo runs, and deliver delicious home-baked goodies. My siblings (both biological and by marriage) have been wonderful. My bookclub ladies gathered around me one Sunday morning instead of going to their churches with their families; they brought me dinners, weeded my garden, and continue to send me encouraging notes and little gifts. My two divorced friends have commiserated with me and given me the benefit of their experience. My kids have been ridiculously good to each other and to me.

And then there’s my church. We’ve only been there a few years, but they are my true church home. There have been so many notes of support, hugs, prayers, blessings, dinners, gift cards and money given to us (both by people who sign their name and by people who want to remain anonymous), so many coffees with my pastor, and two powerfully good prayer meetings with women in the congregation. People took over some of my volunteer duties until I could take the helm again. And my ribbon dancers continue to bring me joy.

Then there are the notes from people in my wider social group, the flowers left on my doorstep, the dear notes and gifts from some of my friends’ parents, from friends of the family, from uncles and aunts and cousins. And the kind notes from you, my dear readers, after I wrote about the end of my marriage.

In include in this litany, the people who’ve stuck by and supported my husband through his deep struggles.

Not to mention the friend who has given me work, and hope for a full-time job in the future.

And the whole insane Kickstarter thing in the middle of all this upheaval: the 215 backers who supported our book for adopted and fostered kids and their families, and even more who shared the project with their networks.

I’ve been overwhelmed by support. And now I’m overcome by gratitude.

In fact, this might be my most grateful Thanksgiving ever. At the same time, it’ll be my most difficult Thanksgiving: I’ll be spending the day with my husband and his family (and a dozen other people). It’ll be fine, it’ll probably even be good, but my anxiety is ramping up. So if you’re in my throng, please send me prayers or good vibes, as you’re inclined.

This fall, I really needed help, and you came through. You are a pillar. I am grateful.

 

A mighty tree has fallen

A mighty tree has fallen.

fallen tree

It wasn’t the oldest tree in the forest, but it had over twenty years of growth. It was the mightiest tree I’d ever been a part of growing.

It was my marriage. Which has ended.

In so many ways, it was a great and strong marriage with deep roots in shared backgrounds, faith, values, creativity, and parenting. We lived so much of what we’d vowed twenty-one years ago.

But like many trees that look strong but fall down anyway, there was a problem at the core. A hollowness that weakened the tree where nobody else could see it. A secret grief that the tree knew was there, but didn’t know the extent of, so attempts to fix it couldn’t succeed.

hollow core

This makes it sound all nice and natural and inevitable, but the truth is that it’s horrible and sad. A mighty tree has been ripped from the ground that nurtured it: it has died.

I draw encouragement from the forest, where trees, both mighty and new, fall all the time.

fallen trees in the forest

Those trees do not fall in vain. Forest creatures use them for shelter and find food in them.

broken down tree

They break down and provide nutrients for growing plants.

decomposing tree

I could say something about hoping that I will still shelter, feed, and even nurture new growth, but I don’t have the energy for that. I am still in the midst of the grieving and anxiety. The detritus that got kicked up hasn’t settled yet.

* * * *

Even in the midst of this, there is good news. The publishing company known as West Olive Press made its crowd funding goal for As Real As It Gets, so our illustrator, Joel Schoon-Tanis, will get to painting and we’ll publish our picture book next year. And I found out yesterday that I got a writing job (part-time for now, hopefully full-time to come).

I’m doing a lot of just taking the next step without trying to look into the future, which is unusual for me, because the future hasn’t been sullied by reality yet, so it’s fun to imagine.

Here’s to taking the next step, even in the midst of grief and anxiety.

 

 

Let’s never go through this again

Boys and girls, this will be my last Kickstarter-related post.

[I pause here to give you a moment to say, “Thank goodness.”]

In three days, the campaign will be over. We’re getting closer: less than $10,000 to go. And there are a few big contributions that I’ve been told to expect that haven’t come in yet. Still, hope and anxiety are battling it out inside me, swooping in and out of prominence like a murmuration of starlings.

Frankly, that was so mesmerizing, I’m already a little calmer. Mesmerizing murmuration. That’s fun to say. Go ahead, take a moment to say it out loud.

But the reality of all that swooping in my emotional life isn’t nearly so beautiful. I will be relieved when, in three days, we know the status of this project. When we know whether we’re moving full steam ahead, or scrambling to rethink everything.

It’s been a privilege to hear so many of our supporters tell us their adoption and fostering stories. It’s been moving to feel the support of so many people. Still, I will do everything in my power to never do another crowdfunding campaign ever again. I know it’s a good business model for testing market support and building buzz, but I am not well-suited to the emotional roller-coaster.

So one final plea. One final link. I’d be a bad entrepreneur if I didn’t. Here’s the video, and here’s the link.

I love each and every one of you for sticking with me through this month. Let’s never go through this again.

I am not a natural entrepreneur

But my father is. Which may be why I am not one. Or, rather, why I never wanted to be one.

Do you know how long and how hard entrepreneurs work? My dad was still pulling all-nighters well into his fifties.

gif of Homer Simpson reading hard

Do you know how much entrepreneurs carry on their shoulders? For a year after high school, I worked for my dad’s fledgling company, and since I was daughter, as well as employee, I knew those times he was one day away from not making payroll. He always worked it out and found backers, but that’s a lot of stress for one person who’s simultaneously building a product, managing the people making and selling the product, finding new markets, taking care of current customers, pushing innovation, coming up with new ideas so there will be more products in the future, traveling to spread the word, wondering whether they’re making money fast enough to keep the investors happy, making sure that the deals made are solid enough for both the near and the far future, all while doing things like spending time with family and friends (who add their own stresses, as well as joys). Entrepreneurs are superheroes. Seriously.

Mr. Incredible lifts a car

Their ability to maintain hope and determination in the face of rejection and long odds is amazing.

Katara looks hopeful.

I like to have a job I can complete. I like to have work I don’t have to worry about after I leave the office. I like clear expectations and reachable goals. I like to have my evenings free. If I can swing it, I like to have my late-afternoons free.

But, alas. I am too much like my father: I have ideas that inspire and delight and confound me, and in pursuing them, I’ve become a writer who is independently publishing her work.

In other words: I’ve become an entrepreneur.

Tina Fey is in hysterics

This year, I’ve started two companies and brought two writing projects to ever-nearing fruition. I’ve got this Kickstarter thing happening for As Real As It Gets (a picture book about an adopted or foster child who yells, “You’re not my real mother!”) (less than two weeks to see whether we’ll make it!), which is a constant dance of pitching, rejection, acceptance, and learning. So, so much learning. And the thing about mistakes is that you can only see them after you’ve made a decision and acted on it, not before. I am constantly anxious, yet still a little hopeful. Committed to moving forward, mistakes and all.

Given that there are 11 days to go and we aren’t even a third of the way funded, it feels like there is a good chance we won’t make our goal for the Kickstarter, which means that we don’t get any of that money, which means that we have to find other methods for getting this book published. Because we will get this book published.

If every person who told us they think the book is amazing and asked us to let them know when it’s published (not to mention the organizations that do the same), contributed to the crowd funding campaign, we’d be set. But they don’t. Is it because you have to be a little entrepreneurial to contribute to a Kickstarter campaign? I don’t know, but we’re working as hard as we can to get the word out to anyone who might be just that little bit of entrepreneurial. Or to any adoptive or foster parents who might be just a little bit desperate for books that address their kids’ experiences.

Speaking of which, Amanda and I will be interviewed by Grand Rapids community powerhouse Shelley Irwin on the WGVU Morning Show on Friday (I’ll post a link once it’s on the web).

So check us out, if you haven’t already. Spread the link around if you haven’t already.

And pray for me. I’m not a natural entrepreneur and I hate asking people to do things for me … but I’m learning.

 

 

Exorcising High School

My daughter started high school today — obsessing about her clothes, her hair, her make-up, the friends she’d made the night before, the plan for lunch, whether she’d get lost, whether it was actually true that she wouldn’t need her textbooks on the first day and that teachers are lenient about getting to class on time the first week, and probably a host of other things she wouldn’t admit out loud.

As a wordsmith, I chose my words of encouragement with care:
Set the bar low. Just live to the end of the day!

Because I know she’ll do fine. She is her mother’s daughter, freaking out about stuff ahead of time so she’s ready for it when it comes (whatever “it” is).

me at 13; Natalie Hart - Exorcising High School

But I’m remembering the thirteen-year-old from 1981 who started high school without the benefit of a launch day that would take her to all her classes before that high-pressure first day, without the benefit of seeing all the kids and what they were wearing and carrying. That poor sweet girl, coming from a weird and tiny Christian school with its graduating class of seven, all girls, two cousin pairs, four of from the same church. Whose grade had been the oldest one in the school for three years. Who only knew two other kids in this school of hundreds. Who knew no boys her own age. Who bought her own clothes with her own money from the local consignment shop, with a very experimental fashion sense, except for jeans, which (according to the weird school’s subculture) had to be boys’ jeans. Who still wore pigtails in her hair. Who went to high school that first day with a doubled Loblaw’s bag (plastic grocery store bag) in which to carry her books.

Should I mention that she went to a public school that had a reputation as the snobbiest school in the city, even worse than the private schools?

She certainly considered it a victory to live to the end of the first day of high school.

Of course, this sweet girl was me. My daughter starting grade nine is bringing it all back.

I’m having flashbacks to that first day, standing stock still in the central hall, students streaming around me, jostling me, my nerdy Loblaw’s bags (while everyone else had backpacks or school bags — oh, the horror) cutting into my fingers, on the verge of tears because I had no idea where the science wing was and I was too terrified and mortified to ask anyone.

To that day when my choir teacher made an appointment for me with a guidance counselor because the altos had been making such obvious and loud fun of me in class that he’d heard it. I hadn’t wanted to deal with it at all, so I said it didn’t bother me. It did.

To that day when a boy who smoked a wide variety of things in what we called Cancer Alley turned my entire desk around in history class so I had to face him while he told me a made-up and obscene dream he’d had about me.

To that day when someone complained about me being at a party because it brought the stature of the party down — to my face. And I had neither the confidence nor the social capital to laugh it off. Because in the hideousness of high school, it was true.

To that day when someone yelled to me, “Nice ass. Shame about the face.”

Other people had it worse, I know. I was never physically threatened, and I’m grateful I didn’t grow up in the digital age with cyber bullying. But oh, did I hate high school.

Now, I had friends, and I was on the swim team and in clubs (nerdy clubs), and I laughed, and I skipped school to go for bike rides or to the mall a block away. There was my birthday buddy who took me to her house once for an authentic Chinese dinner. There was the girl whose uncle was in the mob in New York City (he really was). There was the druggie girl who liked to tell me stories of her exploits (probably because I had no competing stories). There were the two boys who would practice with the girls’ swim team, so I got to know them enough to flirt with them. There was the girl who would invite me to her cottage in the summer. High school wasn’t all skin that felt permanently red from blushing, and clenched teeth.

I’ll still occasionally dip into a daydream in which I get famous enough to be invited back to NTCI to be a graduation speaker, and I speak exclusively to those kids who had a bad time. Which, now that I’m an adult and I’ve talked to more people, I realize was most of the kids; even if someone looked like they had it all together, inside they felt just as awkward and terrified and self-absorbed as I did. Ah, perspective.

Thank you for indulging me while I got all that out in the open. I feel better now.

Want to engage in a little high school horror story one-up-manship? The comments are yours.