Are You My Identity?

AreYouMyIdentity

Below is an excerpt from the my self-published book, The Plight of the Hare & Other Stories From the Shoe. This blog was first written in 2009.

Here I am on the cusp of 50, and I am having an identity crisis like one of my 15 year olds. It is rather humorous and pathetically sad, and slightly terrifying.

I am newly divorced and for the past two decades, I pretty much conformed myself to my husband, his business (a business I liked), his wishes for our family and “subjugated” anything that was purely me to these pursuits. I don’t regret this time of my life, and we did have many things and thoughts in common. Nevertheless, as I face a single life, I am mystified as to who I really am. I am like the baby bird that went from one thing to another asking the profound and longing question, “Are you my mother?”

As I look for direction in my new life, I look back to the days before love and marriage, and try to remember the passions that were truly my own. As a perpetual people-pleaser, it’s hard to distinguish what I really like from what was either popular at the time, popular with the folks I was hanging out with or limited what things my overly active conscience deemed permissible. You see, I looked to those around me for existence confirmation, validation and acceptance. But as those influences diminished, I learned there were certain things I knew for sure that were from me, just me.

I remember my love for languages and cultures which was born in my heart in the sixth grade. After I got saved in 1979, my whole life soon revolved around my church, and that love was reinvigorated by the scores of missionary stories I read. When I got my English degree back in the ’80’s, I intended to go overseas to teach English. Maybe I should pursue that again. I had even started the certificate at Cal, but couldn’t finish because of the demands at home were very high. There were still at least nine under the same roof. They needed a little supervision, and I remembered my first and foremost responsibility. In an old (1991) journal, I copied a little poem:

This is my mission field; the kitchen sink, where countless plates and glasses clink.

While mundane tasks involve my hands, I pray for those in distant lands.

This is my mission field; a child’s heart where endless thoughts and actions start,

For in that heart through word and deed I plant and water sacred seed.

Marcia Baldon

I remember my job as a construction secretary in 1979. I worked on a job site in Redwood City. The radio was set to a local country western station – KLOK – by decree of the cigar-smoking, Andy Devine-cloned superintendent named Andy, and there I fell in love with Willie and Waylon, and Merle and Marty. I got myself some cowboy boots and I was set. “I was country when country wasn’t cool…” well, really, I was going country when it was getting popular. So this city-born country girl started gazing at plans and dreamed of building a home of her own. I taught myself how to read blueprints, and I also crudely drew a floor plan for an off the grid house on Mt. Rose in Nevada. I don’t know where the Mt. Rose idea came from, but the seeds of working in the construction industry were germinated in that little job site trailer. Over the years, I would add to my knowledge of the construction business. Maybe I’ll go get my construction management certificate and stay in this industry.

Finally, I remember I liked to write. I began writing back in elementary school for fun, I even bound my own book titled “Suzanne and the Pig”. Don’t know what became of it, never hit any best seller lists. I wrote poetry in high school; however, I was easily discouraged as you can see from this poem:

Tired of the same old words,

Tired of the same old verbs,

Wishin’ for the capacity beyond my control

To create poems true and bold.

Dreaming does no good,

Nor hoping that I could,

The energy does not exist

To dedicate my heart to this.

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My godfather was an author, and he encouraged my writing, but I don’t think I seriously thought of doing it until I read a book my ex bought for me “Maybe You Should Write a Book”. Maybe I should, I could stay home with the kids and generate an income. I did pray a Gideon prayer in 2006 that if I was to write, I’d need to get published within the year. And I did…twice. But I’ve yet to receive a book contract…I can’t even get an agent to email me back a rejection notice.

So I look back at the expanse of my past life and ask “Will the real Donna please stand up?” Is she the country music loving pseudo-architect, the internationally traveling English teacher or the best-selling “best thing since Bombeck” writer? Actually, each and every one of these parts is a facet of who I truly am: the identities of the past, the present and the future: best-selling writer, mother of ten great kids, and future wife of knight in shining armor, and builder of dreams.

We Miss You, Erma!

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Ninety. Wow, you would’ve been 90 today. Boy, Erma, we miss you. Times are tough now. Humor has taken a nose dive. You know, when I was a kid, my best friend’s mom used to always ask me how things were at my house, “How’s the humor?” she said with a wry smile. I never really got it, since she grew up with my dad, I think there was some tongue in cheek antics going on.

Well, Erma, the humor’s not so good these days. It’s the hyena kind of humor: the creepy, screechy laughing while they rip their prey to smithereens humor. Not very funny.  We still need you, Erma, we need some of your humor.

We need you to remind us of the silver lining of humor in our daily lives before we drown in the ridiculous ridicule being passed as humor these days. It’s good for us to be reminded of the idiosyncrasies of our ordinary lives….like raising kids.

Things My Mother Taught Me

LOGIC: If you fall off your bicycle and break your neck, you can’t go to the store with me.

MEDICINE: If you don’t stop crossing your eyes, they are going to freeze that way. There is no cure, no telethon, and no research program being funded at the moment for frozen eyes.

ESP: Put your sweater on. Don’t you think I know when YOU’RE cold?

FINANCE: I told you the tooth fairy is writing checks because computerized billing is easier for the IRS.

CHALLENGE: Where is your sister, and don’t talk to me with food in your mouth? Will you answer me?

HAPPINESS:  You are going to have a good time on this vacation if we have to break every bone in your body.

HUMOR: When the lawn mower cuts off your toes, don’t come running to me!

Like fantasizing about Paul Newman…

“I don’t know if I can explain it or not,” I said slowly, “but Paul Newman to a tired housewife is like finding a plate of bourbon cookies at a PTA open house. It’s putting on a girdle and having it hang loose. It’s having a car that you don’t have to park on a hill for it to start. It’s matched luggage, dishes that aren’t plastic and evening when there’s something better to do than pick off your old nail polish.

“Paul Newman, lad, is not a mere mortal. He never carries out the garbage, has a fever blister, yawns, blows his nose, has dirty laundry, wears pajama tops, carries a thermos, or dozes in his chair or listens to the ball game.

“He’s your first pair of heels, your sophomore year, your engagement party, your first baby.”

We need more humor writers like you, Erma. We need someone to bring the cynical laughter out of the cultural boxing ring, purify it and bring it home. We really need to laugh because our societal discourse right now is very painful.

An interviewer once asked what the Bombeck family was “really” like. Did we seem as we are in print? A composite of the Bradys, Waltons, Osmonds and Partridges sitting around cracking one-liners? The last time my family laughed was when my oven caught fire and we had to eat out for a week.

I did not get these varicose veins of the neck from whispering. We shout at one another. We say hateful things. We cry, slam doors, goof off, make mistakes, experience disappointments, tragedies, sickness and traumas. When I last checked, we were members in good standing in your basic screw-up family.

There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt. And how do you know laughter if there is no pain to compare it with.

In the midst of all the pain going on, we should be laughing ourselves silly.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Good News According to Erma

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Recently, I wrote a blog post titled “Though Dead, Yet They Speak” marking the twentieth anniversary of the deaths of the Monks of Tibhirine and Henri Nouwen. But there is another person who also had a profound impact on my life like those gentlemen. And through her humor and writing, she spread good news to other women. I forgot about this lady who died twenty years ago yesterday…..in my hometown of San Francisco. And even today, though dead, she still speaks.

The nineties were a blur; from 1990-1999, I had six children. I was actually living the life Erma had been writing about for decades. Nineteen ninety-six was one of the few years of that decade I didn’t have a child. I had one at the end of 1995 and would have another in the summer of 1997. I had two in the eighties and two more in the first decade of the 21st Century. A total of ten. I would’ve engraved and framed the words Erma would have crafted regarding my chosen lot in life. And yet, that is just what she did throughout her career, craft words and stories that highlighted the life of the American woman, the American mother in particular, and all her cares and responsibilities. Women, who felt invisible doing all that needed to be done to maintain their homes, could turn to Erma and laugh as if they were sitting at their kitchen table with a good friend. That good news produced laughter, encouragement and perseverance. Definitely good news for the weary woman.

Perhaps I couldn’t have grouped her with the monks and Brother Nouwen anyway because their content and their lives were definitely different than Erma’s. So it seems. The monks by their lives’ and Henri by his writings changed my life spiritually. But Erma packed a spiritual punch in many of her writings as well, and it behooves us to remember and admire how she wove great truths into her writings.

Of course, we all remember her essay “When God Created Mothers”.  She loosely translates the Genesis record and she nails it on the head as she describes the mystery of motherhood and its incalculable worth. She wraps up the essay with the sublime:

Finally the angel bent over and rang her finger across the cheek.

“There’s a leak,” she pronounced, “I told You that You were trying to put too much into this model.”

“It’s not a leak,” said the Lord, “It’s a tear.”

“What’s it for?”

“It’s for joy, sadness, disappointment, pain, loneliness, and pride.”

“You are a genius,” said the angel.

Somberly, God said, “I didn’t put it there.”

Her words were not just for the mother, “the one who was overkidsed, underpatienced, with four years of college and chapped hands all year around,” but for any woman. Many of her writings were for women in general, and for older women in particular. And for the woman who looked in the mirror and thought it was too late for her, she wrote these gospel-like words:

For years, you’ve watched everyone else do it….And you envied them and said, “Maybe next year I’ll go back to school.” And the years went by and this morning you looked into the mirror and said, “You blew it. You’re too old to pick it up and start a new career.” This column is for you.

Margaret Mitchell won her first Pulitzer Prize for Gone With the Wind in 1937. She was thirty-seven years old at the time.Sen. Margaret Chase Smith was elected to the Senate for the first time in 1948 at the age of fifty-one.Ruth Gordon picked up her first Oscar in 1968 for Rosemary’s Baby. She was seventy-two years old.Billie Jean King took the battle of women’s worth to a tennis court in Houston’s Astrodome to outplay Bobby Riggs. She was thirty-one years of age.

Grandma Moses began a painting career at the age of seventy-six.

Anne Morrow Lindbergh followed in the shadow of her husband until she began to question the meaning of her own existence. She published her thoughts in A Gift from the Sea in 1955, in her forty-ninth year.Shirley Temple Black was named Ambassador to Ghana at the age of forty-seven.Golda Meir was elected Prime Minister of Israel. She had just passed her seventy-first birthday.

You can tell yourself these people started out as exceptional. You can tell yourself they had influence before they started. You can tell yourself the conditions under which they achieved were different from yours.

Or you can be like the woman I knew who sat at her kitchen window year after year and watched everyone else do it. Then one day she said, “I do not feel fulfilled cleaning chrome faucets with a toothbrush. It’s my turn.”

I was thirty-seven years old at the time.

She preached that we can have a second act, or a third act; shoot, some of us can have sequels.

In 2007, more than ten years after she died, the year my first column was printed, I was forty-eight years old at the time. Act II.

 

 

 

I Heart Erma

Erma-BombeckNext week is Erma Bombeck’s birthday. She would be 86 if she were alive today. When I tell folks I write a column, they ask what kind. I say, kinda like Erma Bombeck’s. Some folks immediately know who I am talking about, but some don’t know who she was. This Valentine’s Day I will attempt to pay tribute to the woman whose typewriter ribbon I am not worthy to change, who inadvertently taught me how to write, how to laugh, how to parent and how to appreciate what was most important in life.

If you want a glimpse into the life of an ordinary American housewife in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, crack open one of her many books. She covered it all: the mystery of the lost sock, leftovers, teenagers and growing old. The ‘60’s were hard times, families were in crisis, it was the time of the generation gap, and this woman stood in that gap and managed to appreciate the next generation with all of their quirks and hang-ups. Our mothers and grandmothers read Erma Bombeck, related to Erma Bombeck and appreciated that some woman out there was writing about their experiences which on a bad day seemed so insignificant.

Erma was prolific. At its height, her column, “At Wit’s End”, was running three times a week in 900 newspapers around the country. Her column ran from 1965 to 1996, the year of her premature death. She wrote 15 books, many of them best sellers. She appeared on Good Morning America and other television shows.

Her humor is legendary, but many of her columns were poignant. In Motherhood – The Second Oldest Profession, there is a chapter titled “Everybody Else’s Mother”. She wrote about that age when your kids compare you to Everybody Else’s Mother. Someone is always doing something different which your kid prefers. But in the end she wrote:

Everybody else’s mother is very real and for a few years she’s a formidable opponent to mothers everywhere. Then one day she disappears. In her place is ninety pounds (give or take) of rebellion and independence, engaging in verbal combat, saying for themselves what Everybody Else’s Mother used to say for them. (pg. 27)

Unfortunately, I was that kid. I used “Everybody else’s parent” all the time. I hope my mom got some comfort from Erma’s words. My kids not so much, but I am a veteran now of “verbal combat”.

Perhaps her most popular piece that flies around the Internet is “If I Had My Life to Live Over”.  Although Erma wrote it, she did not write it when she was dying of cancer, but she wrote it in 1979. I have come to appreciate this last part of the column:

But mostly, given another shot at life, I would seize every minute… look at it and really see it… live it… and never give it back. Stop sweating the small stuff. Don’t worry about who doesn’t like you, who has more, or who’s doing what. Instead, let’s cherish the relationships we have with those who DO love us.

I know I read her columns before I had kids, but it was after I became a mother that I really enjoyed her work. With so many kids literally climbing the walls when I was home, when times were very difficult and I did not think I was going to make it, this small paragraph from the end of her book, also titled “At Wit’s End”, carried me through. When asked why she wrote her book, she cited many reasons, but being inspired by authoress Faith Baldwin, she pins it down:

To be honest, however, I will have to admit that I wrote the book for the original model — the one who was overkidsed, underpatienced, with four years of college and chapped hands all year around. I knew if I didn’t follow Faith’s advice and laugh a little at myself, then I would surely cry.

These few lines helped me in that when I wanted to cry over my circumstances, instead I picked up her books and laughed, but I cried too, and I laughed and cried at the same time. You see, so many of us who are raising kids or caring for others feel totally overlooked and invisible. Erma, while just talking about her own experiences, shined a light on all of us who take care of others, whether we are moms, dads, caregivers, teachers, etc. She appreciated what she did and it spilled over to all of us. She wrote a column about Edith Bunker. Edith Bunker was the longsuffering wife of that loud mouth Archie from All in the Family. Erma was sad that there were few Edith Bunkers in the world – few folks who listen, who look you in the eyes, who care about what you are saying instead of thinking of what to say next, someone who really hears. I don’t know if Erma was that much like Edith Bunker, I can’t see her taking too much of Archie’s crap, but I do think she listened and was attentive to what her readers wanted.

Thank you, Erma, for all you did. I agree with your sentiment to your kids in the dedication in Aunt Erma’s Cope Book, “If I blow it raising them…nothing else I do will matter very much.” I think most of us raising kids would agree.

http://pacifica.patch.com/articles/i-erma