My daughter and I like to shop. As hobbies go, I don’t recommend it. It doesn’t provide a ton of aerobic exercise and it’s hard on the wallet. It’s not even all that successful in curing that most potent of human disease – boredom. But I digress. The other day, my daughter and I were…stamping out a little boredom…when she found and asked to purchase an otherwise unremarkable necklace with a small, round, inconspicuous medallion that says “Be Brave”. Sure, why not. A small investment for a worthy motto and only slight guilt at being sucked into the commercialized machinery that seeks to prop up our youth’s self esteem with tiny tokens of wearable art while at the same time tearing them to pieces with unending adverts and merchandise that tell them, over and over again, that they aren’t pretty enough, skinny enough, good enough. Fear not, I am not here to rail against consumerism. Perhaps another day.
IMHO, we are not, as a species, in this current version, brave. Sure, there are moments of bravery. Those that step in when confronted with peril are most certainly, if only momentarily, brave. But I would venture to say that our current climate of suspicion, judgment and violence, in thought and deed, are born out of a sense of fear. But again, not writing about the general breakdown of our global society and the overwhelming absence of sensitivity, acceptance, love – dare I say, humanity – that we find ourselves living in (wallowing in?). But I do wonder what has happened to us. We were once brave, weren’t we? Surely when survival meant going up against the fiercest of the animal kingdom to fight for food with a spear, we were brave. And when survival meant going to battle on horseback against our fellow man, we were brave. But somewhere along the line, we stopped being brave and we started being fear mongers, in small ways at first, and then, with the globalization of everything from McDonald’s to CNN, on a very large scale indeed. But this isn’t about all that. This is about two people trying their best to be brave. Wait, that’s not right either. It’s about one very young but very brave girl trying her best to hold on to her sense of self, to be brave in the face of crushing societal and cultural pressures, and completely by accident, helping to show another human being, who actually already thought she WAS brave, how to be brave herself. Yes, I think that’s right.
My daughter is brilliant. I’m not an objective assessor of all of her qualities, but honestly, it’s a fact. She’s super smart and will graduate next month with her AA at 17. She’s an honor student taking college level classes. I think that qualifies her as smart as fuck. But for me, that is not what makes her brilliant. She is an old soul in a young person’s packaging. Frankly, I think she is the gift God, or Buddha, or Santa Claus, gifted to me to guide me through the war zones of my life. But here’s the thing, She is SO brave. Not just brave. SO brave. She has fought a battle for self acceptance for 17 years and I am here to tell you, while she may not have that dragon slayed, she has it tightly chained in the bowels of Gringotts where only a tiny roar can occasionally be heard.
The path to this day has not been an easy one for her, not by a long shot. Years of trying to fit her square body, mind and soul into a round “ideal” forced on her every day by television, fashion magazines, clothing stores, her peers and, sadly, misguided adults, including, at times, her mother (OMG, I’m NOT perfect!?!?!) nearly crushed her true self and left her feeling ashamed, self conscious and afraid. She didn’t fit in. For many years, this was cause for sadness and despair. But no more. Now, her not fitting in is cause for celebration. She is unique. She is not like others her age. As her mother, I cannot tell you how much easier this makes my life, but if you have ever been near a group of teenage girls while out and about, you know exactly what I mean. And while it has taken years of conscious effort to get there, she is proud to be unique. As the poetic genius Popeye used to say, “I am what I am, and that’s all that I am.” She has come to the fork in the road of self acceptance and decided to take the road less traveled, the path relatively invisible to youngsters, and to many of us adults, where the road sign reads “Be Brave”.
I believe what makes her journey so much different than mine, and of many of us, is her recognition of her struggle and her conscious decisions to cast aside the dispersions of society and be true to herself at 17. I won’t speak for the rest of you, but my journey to self acceptance took a whole lot longer. My life would have been much easier if I’d gotten where she has much sooner. Like her, I didn’t fit in, not because I was more mature than my peers or because I was physically too far outside the norm, but because I carried around with me physical and mental scars like shackles. If you knew me then, you’d have thought I had a lot going for me, and in looking back, I did. I was a gifted athlete. As a swimmer, I went as far as the Olympic trials when I was just 16 years old. I was smart, graduating from high school two years early. But in my mind, that took a major backseat to what I felt at the time was the one thing that defined me as “not normal”, the secret that I believed, if others knew, would cause them to find me unworthy. What my brilliant daughter has made me realize is that, to a great extent, it still is.
When I was three years old, I was so very envious of my brother. He was older, he was a boy and he was already in kindergarten. I wanted the freedom he had, to be wild, to swing from the trees, to ride my bike with wild abandon, to play football and hang with the other boys. In my crazed attempts to be like the boys, I pushed myself beyond my physical capabilities and managed to break first my right arm, and then within weeks of that healing, my left arm. All that to say, I was a handful for my mother. Every day, she would make my brother lunch, so he could eat when he got home from school. One fateful day, a day that would forever shape who I am, I decided to climb up on the stove to watch the soup boil. My shirttail caught fire. For reasons I will never comprehend, instead of screaming and getting off my perch on the stove, I sat there and started singing. By the time my mother came back into the kitchen, my entire body was in flames. She grabbed me, rolled me in the hallway carpet, an act that most certainly saved my life, and called for an ambulance.
I spent months in intensive care. I spent weeks isolated from human touch out of fear of infection. I could only see those I loved and needed through a glass window. I endured baths at the hospital so painful I screamed. It took years to heal my battered body. I had to sleep with my hands tied to the bedpost so I wouldn’t accidentally scratch the wounds. I cannot, as I sit here, imagine how it must have killed my mother’s heart to bind my hands to the bedpost every night for my own good. I had multiple surgeries for skin grafts in an effort, lead by my father, to minimize the scarring so that I could, as much as possible, have a “normal” life. But I survived. I lived. But the events of that day, the consequences of it, would impact me in ways large and small, every day for the rest of my life. It would determine how I perceived myself, how I hid myself, undermined my own successes, downplayed my own achievements, and discounted my worth.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to recognize how self defeating this behavior has been. But I was in my thirties before I started sharing my story with my closest friends. And it wasn’t until my forties that I consciously decided to stop letting it define me in my own head. I cannot change it, therefore, I must accept it. And here’s the thing. Everyone has a story like mine. I don’t mean like mine in its details. I mean like mine in that we drag it around with us, that it defined a major portion of our lives, that it shaped who we are and how we interact with the world, that it impacted our relationships as adults. It’s part of the human experience. But I decided not to let it interfere with my life. I wanted, like my daughter, to put that dragon in its place. And I honestly thought I had. Turns out, not so much.
As I write this, we are in Maui. We love this place. It’s where we feel at ease. We were trying to count, the other day, how many times we’ve been here. Suffice it to say, we’ve been here a LOT. Yesterday, we fulfilled a long held dream of hers to swim like a mermaid in the sea. She had a mermaid tail that matched her pretty blue bikini top. That photo is now my wallpaper on my phone. She is joyous and beautiful. The night before our mermaid adventure, I lamented that all the photos online were girls and women with bikini tops. I’ve never worn a bikini in my life and was feeling deflated about having a photo taken with my one piece with a mermaid tail attached. My daughter was much more concerned that my tail match my swimsuit and dismissed my expressed concern – “who cares mom”. Indeed, why should I care! I tried not to. But I also asked the photographer not to put me into too many of the photos. I just wanted photos of my daughter, I said. Lucky for me, she paid no attention to my request.
Yesterday afternoon, after deciding not to drive around the island, we ended up….stamping out a little boredom. My daughter, skillfully and subtly, nudged me toward the idea of getting a two piece. My heart seized up. I just couldn’t get across that proverbially line in the sand of self acceptance. But she insisted. “Just try it mom.” She picked out some tops for me to try, ones that would likely cover most of my scars. I went along with it, tried them on, but I did not see what she saw. I saw flaws. I saw someone I didn’t want to see on the beach. What she saw was freedom, to wear whatever I wanted to. She was looking through a lens uncluttered with decades of fear and self loathing. I wanted to throw up. We left that store, empty handed. But my daughter was undeterred. “Do you want to try some other swim suit stores?” she asked. No, thank you.
We went into Tommy Bahamas to look for gifts, not for swimsuits. But she pulled a few she thought would work anyway. “Come on mom, just try them!” Ugh. Ok. And as I tried them on, I started to see that I might actually be comfortable in one of them. It was cute, too. That was all she needed. Off she went to find the right bottoms. I must have tried half a dozen. And all the while, in my head, I wrestled with my psyche about whether or not this was OK. And, oddly, I went from worrying about my scars showing to worrying about how my belly looked. I lamented about how white it was (it never sees the light of day!) and how I have these love handles no one wants to see. She jumped up from her chair and flashed me her beautiful white belly, and laughed at my insecurity. “Who cares mom!” Indeed, who cares. I bought that two piece. And I’m wearing it to the beach today. I’m pretty sure my tummy will get sunburned, but my heart will sing and my daughter will be proud of me. And that will be amazing.
I thought I was brave. I thought I was setting an example for my daughter in how, as one of my dear friends likes to say, “not to give two fucks”. But it turns out, she has been teaching me. I am what I am, and that’s all that I am. I believe we can all takes steps to be brave. We can all, in our own lives, learn to accept who we are. We can all, as my daughter has done, cast aside the manufactured expectations that society tries to dictate and focus on what makes each and every unique one of us happy and content and satisfied with life. And we can all make that path available to one another, with sensitivity, acceptance, love – and dare I say, humanity. Be happy with yourself. Be grateful for your gifts. Take credit and pride in your successes. Recognize your struggles and your failures as lessons, not as defining moments. Be who you are. Love yourself. Go ahead, be brave.