Prayers, pleasing, and protecting

This is the part I don’t want you to see.   It would be so much easier to stay invisible, and not set obscure questions I ponder sometimes out there in the breezy air to flutter around . . .

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It’s my fault.  I’m sorry. 

These phrases course through my blood like cancer cells.
I feel like they’ve always been there.
That I was born with them inside me: it’s my fault.  I’m sorry.

As an intuitive person, one with more empathy than any one person should have, I’m always sensing, always alert to how others are in a situation and to the unspoken vibration of moments.  “It’s my fault/I’m sorry” is my go-to emotional response, when a moment feels charged, uneasy, subtly dangerous.

My stomach muscles tighten, and my mind scurries across the past several minutes, back and forth, scanning, scanning:  Why is she not smiling?  Why is he not talking?  What did I do wrong?  Why is he yelling? Why is he in that room with the door closed? What did I do wrong?

I remember my 3rd grade teacher once stopped in the middle of yelling at some other student and looked straight at me:  “Am I yelling at you, Colleen? No, I’m not yelling at you. You didn’t do anything wrong.”  To her, I must have looked slapped in the face or terrified or something, I don’t know, but she could visually see I was reacting to her anger, even though it wasn’t directed at me.

So I know these things about myself now.  I spend time consciously reeling back this initial and irrational response I feel I was born with.

It takes energy and focus, but I’m doing it.

One day at the page, I began to reflect about this and a series of questions unfurled from my pen . .

Do you think an unborn baby can sense its unwed mother’s secret thoughts and prayers? Her heartbreak, her shame her sadness?  (Go away, go away, dear God, make this go away . . . )

And then, do you think it’s possible for this same unborn baby to grow up into a girl and then into a woman, yearning to be seen but never to be too much of a bother?  To feel, at her core, that she shouldn’t take up too much space, be too big.  And that she must please and protect – like some unspoken penance for causing this shame and suffering, this derailment of her mother’s then-intended life?

How is it possible to discern the beginning? Where is it?  When does one’s story start?

***

Postscript:  I’m happy to take the blame for my parents’ marriage.  In October 2016, they will celebrate 50 years together.

Reflection by Colleen Nolan Armstrong, drafted in June 2012 and completed today.  #outofthebox

A love letter to you

10867026_sDear Reader,

I am trusting you to hold what I share with tenderness, like a nestling in your hand.  Please do not laugh or shame me into the corner . . .

This afternoon when no one but the dogs were home,   I knelt before 2 small boxes. There was a plain white box, with black magic marker scribbled on it, and a robin-egg blue Tiffany box.

Both of these boxes had been packed inside the larger moving box in my closet – the one filled with my writing that said “Do not open until Mother’s Day 2016” – and which I opened 3 days ago.

My heart guided me to the blue box (the only Tiffany box  I’ve ever received.)

All its contents – papers and notebooks and journals – were wrapped carefully in gift-bag tissue, tied with satin ribbons.  Old greeting cards and saved hand-written notes from my children were tucked deliberately throughout  – their messages perfectly timed and resonant.

To say my heart is overwhelmed is just too small a phrase.

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My heart feels like I have pulled open a heavy-wooden door of some ancient church – and been invited into the largest, most sacred space I’ve ever known – my soul is rising up and stretching itself  to embody the height of its arches, the length of its aisles, its gold filigree, its field of candlelight – such a holy, trembling stillness inhabits this space, this moment . . .

So moved and so full is my heart that there was no way for me to open the other box.  Instead, my heart whispered : it is enough.  And the hymn Amazing Grace emerged from my mouth as I knelt there..

Then, I stood up and walked to my chair and sat at my desk to begin typing this letter to you,

I wanted to share this private moment with you,  to mark its importance, its sacredness, its beauty with you.  Every part of me knew I needed to tell you, while still being immersed in its beauty, not to wait another minute longer or for some better time . . .

Also, there is a promise I need to make to you,  my reader and to you, my writing.   And like this reflection, I must make this promise today.

To my Writing – I will honor you by being brave and taking action.  I promise to take each page out of the left-side, desk drawer beside me and read it, with as much love and time and attention as I can.  Then, I will make a choice: to share you immediately here, to hold you back and thread you into a larger tapestry of story, or to let you go, as hard as that will be.  No more boxes.

To my Reader – I will honor you by showing up at the page, by demonstrating courage, and being truthful with my words – even when I fear what I write may hurt or frighten you or make you hate me.  I will trust that truth trumps secrets every time.  And that our shared stories matter, even the seemingly ordinary ones.

With these promises,  made on this 3rd day of January in the year 2016, I honor you.

i remain, your loving & brave writer

colleen patricia

Talkin’ ’bout a Revolution (with Dancing Bear)

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Would you open this box?

I have always been a rule follower.  Are you one , too?

Here’s a partial list of rules I’ve quietly and consistently placed on myself:

  • No junk food during the day (only while watching television, in the dark, when no one is watching (except your husband, lucky him)
  • No deep-fried foods eaten or ordered in public
  • No loaded baked potatoes – just plain, no butter with salt and pepper
  • No mayo on turkey sandwiches (“she likes her bird dry” a former boyfriend once remarked drolly to a deli clerk off some upstate New York parkway)
  • No farting in public (or in front of anyone for that matter)
  • No talking (writing) about private, ugly things that would embarrass or draw attention to or cause pain (shame) to someone I love.  Or to the town I live in.  Or to people who have suffered enough and do not deserve to have scabs re-opened.

Nice box I’ve built, huh?
Very predictable.  Very controlled.  Very safe.

So here comes  our second-to-last Quest 2016 prompt  – tromping down the lane carried in its pretty basket  and gifted to us by visionary Jen Louden (whom I adore):

“What is the story you most desire to bring to life in 2016?
Duh.  The one in the “Do Not Open until Mother’s Day 2016” box.

“What is the story your just-right clients most desire to bring to life in 2016?” Their own story (the one they hide from, shutter away, pretend isn’t there)

Where do your stories OVERLAP?
In that magic space where darkness meets light
And bears dance.

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Naughty Bear 

This afternoon, on an intuitive leap, in the midst of writing this reflection, I went into my daughter Katie’s room, and asked if I could please have her stuffed bear.

“I guess so,” she says, accompanied by her my-parents are so-weird teen look.

In 1996, this Bear entered my life  – “adopted”  from the Blue Lantern Inn at Dana Point Harbor, CA.  My  first husband Jay & I stayed there on a second honeymoon of sorts.   It was spring and such a sweet beginning time for us – before kids, and just after my leap from corporate america to the land of sole proprietorship (owning my own wedding consulting business).  Possibilities were endless and hope was as high as the moon.

There on the king-size bed, in the pretty suite overlooking the bluffs and the Pacific ocean, was this same stuffed bear.  First he was there, sitting all prim upon the shams, and then , after housekeeping’s turn-down service,  he was caught mid-cartwheel on the pillow.  Obviously, this bear was a mischievous one, one who liked to romp and play when no one was watching. I adored him!   And needed to have him.

So I purchased him at check-out (I didn’t buy “the new one, just-like-this one”bear, the desk clerk tried to sell me from the Inn gift shop, but the one who played and danced in our beautiful room with the view)

For the rest of the trip, I held onto this Bear and looked down at him closely  for many, many precipitous miles, heading south to San Diego along the western-most rim of California on Route 1 (yes, I was on the side closest to the cliffs.)  In years to come, this same Bear would accompany me to our hospital’s  labor & delivery room (twice) and be cuddled every now and then by both my children.

Guess it only makes sense for this same Bear to re-join me now – 20-years later – at the start of this grand adventure  – a kind of falling into the beginning of this StoryBox – with you.

[By the way – I’m calling him Dancing Bear now.   I think it suits him.]

***

Rounding out WEEK 4 of Quest 2016 on “Doing Your Best Work, Not Someone Else’s” is JEN LOUDEN.

Jen Louden helped launch the self-care movement with her first book The Woman’s Comfort Book (HarperOne 2005). She’s the author of 7 additional books on well-being and whole living, including her most recent book, A Year of Daily Joy (National Geographic 2014). She believes self-love + world-love = wholeness for all.

(Do not)open until . . .

Last May, I packed all my writing in a tall moving box.  It is taped up and buried behind all our luggage in the closet in my office/guest room.

The closet is stuffed with plastic-packed toilet paper rolls, outdated over the counter drugs,  random Band Aids, all the family towels (even all the beach ones shoved in a giant blue Ikea bag), a clothes steamer I’ve never used, which my mother gave me, the ironing board, a scale we bought for our German exchange student last year to weigh his luggage.  There is every manual to every appliance we own (except for the washer and drier, which I searched for last week, without any luck).  On the shelf, there is an unrolled sleeping bag and Katie’s old comforter, Mike’s hard hat and bright-blue safety suit for when he strolling through refineries. The closet also has (temporarily) all the Christmas presents I’ve bought, and have yet to wrap, stacked up against the luggage and the toilet paper packages.

This is no place for my best work.

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In response to the second prompt for Week 4 of Quest 2016

Theme:  Doing your best work, Not Someone Else’s
Visionary:  Charlie Gilkey
Prompt:  “Which element of your best work do you most want to amplify this year?”

On January 1, 2016, I reveal The Story Box.

I rescue my writing.  I set out short imperfect, fragmented pieces, one by one, in no particular order, for readers who are guided to them.

(At least in the light,  there is some chance of growing.)

In doing so (in my being brave):

  • I risk opening my own Pandora’s Box
  • I risk being truly seen
  • I let go of the Story that’s haunted me for more than a decade
  • I protect my family from the horrifying task of “what should we do with your mother’s writing?” should I delay any further

This writing is my best work (not someone else’s), and it is my responsibility alone to release it, amplifying its rise out into the open, into the light . . .

“p.s.  You can’t stand out and fit in at the same time.”

[Thank you, for that PS, Charlie Gilkey.]

***

Charlie is a champion of and catalyst for Creative Giants – talented Renaissance souls with a compassion-fueled bias towards action. He’s the brain and heart behindProductive Flourishing, best-selling author of The Small Business Life Cycle (JETLAUNCH 2014), Ph.D. candidate in philosophy, and a former Army Logistics Officer. He’s driven to figure out how to help Creative Giants be their best selves in the world.

 

I will remember you

 

2939612_sI love Sarah MacLachlan’s song I will remember you – you will hear me singing it often to myself when I am holding the story I’ve yet to birth in my heart.  When I do that, I feel this beautiful feeling, this warm sense of something larger than I am inside.  The feeling is resonant of that sweet stretch of  an April day when I  knew my daughter Katie would be born, but chose to keep the knowledge secret, this constant, bearable labor – an echo of a Christmas Bible verse I love:

” But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” Luke 2:19: 

***

On that early March day in 2006, when I was diagnosed with cancer, the reality that I might not be there for my kids and my family struck first like a hot iron thrust in my center – I’m not ready-I’m-not-ready-I’m-not-ready was all I felt, as these stormy waves of fear and sadness passed through me,  sweeping me under. 

On that same day, I also thought of the story I’m speaking of (the one in the box in the closet)  and panicked –  if I wasn’t here, no one else would write it, and the world would never know the profound impact this one child had had on my life.

***

That September,  I applied for a writing residency at Hedgebrook on Whidbey Island, WA.  It was my 4th or 5th time applying. Here is part of my essay:

The piece I am creating is, by its nature, going to be a painful, like birth I imagine.  The places that I will need to go in my heart and mind are dark and uncomfortable ones: the murder of a child; a mother’s struggle with post-partum depression; and the gaping-hole-in-the-heart that is September 11.  Being diagnosed with breast cancer last March was probably the best and worst thing ever to happen to me. Cancer broke me, forced me to look in the mirror at the woman and mother I had become.  I had not recognized how isolated I was; how much I was taking my children and family for granted; how little of life I was allowing myself to experience.  I had built an iron wall around my heart, dug a moat around my life, and kept the drawbridge up and closed.

I can write this story now because I am here and alive to tell it.

My application was rejected (wisely).  And while I began an application again the following September, but in the midst of divorce, I needed to let it go . . .

***

The truth is:  I am afraid.

I am afraid that once I finish this piece (the one boxed up in the closet marked: Open on Mother’s Day 2016), and it is out there in the world, I will have accomplished all I am have been called to do in this One Beautiful Life.  That  the cancer will come back.  That I will die.

[Typing this now, though, I can see the frayed and irrational connection my mind has made – between this story and my health. As though by not writing it, I could somehow  keep Death over there, at someone else’s door]

Sarah MacLachlan sings:
I’m so afraid to love you, but more afraid to lose

Clinging to a past that doesn’t let me choose
Once there was a darkness, deep and endless night
You gave me everything you had, oh you gave me light

***

I didn’t directly answer the Quest 2016 prompt this time.  Instead, this piece emerged  when I held on to Seth Godin’s question:

Theme:  Imagine Your Future While Being Wholly Present
Visionary:
Seth Godin

Prompt:  “Would they miss you if you were gone?  What would have to change for that question to lead to a better answer?”

Would they miss me if I were gone?  All depends on who “they” is.

  • My children & Mike and my parents and my family (and of course the dogs, but probably not the cat) would miss me.  So much so it breaks my heart to think of their pain.
  • The few friends I have would miss me.   A little bit. (I’ve kept myself hidden from them for the most part anyway)
  • My corporate work colleagues would be shocked and some sad, but only for a moment, barely a breath.   Sure, there would be a flurry of activity trying to piece together budgets and understand where things are and how to cover my role.  But soon it would be like I had never been there.  I know this.  I’ve watched death visit  here too many times, in my 22+ year career.
  • Readers here might miss me  though, the sad truth is that they wouldn’t really know how much.   Because I don’t show up consistently for them.  And up to this point, I have not been  brave enough to finish the story and send it out into the world: to race it down the beach – smiling, laughing, child-like – to catch the breeze and to watch it rise and hold, and then hold and hold, tugging at its string – this soaring beauty cast against a wider sky.

The birth of the story I am to write has required an unusually long gestation and a great love.  It will also require great courage.

***

Seth Godin is the author of 18 books that have been bestsellers around the world and have been translated into more than 35 languages. He writes about the post-industrial revolution, the way ideas spread, marketing, quitting, leadership and most of all, changing everything.

 

Sometimes I write

 

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Sometimes I write because my heart is too full and the desire to set beauty on the page feels like a song rising up, unrehearsed.

Gratitude.

Last night, I stood among faces I knew from long ago, the ones that filled my high school classrooms, sifted through halls, this colorful blur of velour and Jordache jeans, standing tall, yet awkward, spinning combination locks right-left-right, hip-checking grey/green lockers closed, arms laden with textbooks, covered in brown paper, scribbled with hearts.

I remember you. You touched my life, whether or not you knew you did.

We were tumbled together like this haphazard mix of pretty aquarium stones – not because we chose one other, but because we lived in the same small town, for the same 4 years – the town with the pretty white church on the long triangle of lawn, where each June, all would gather to eat strawberries, this annual Festival marking the close of one school year and  the beginning of summer –  something delicious to mark time passing – so sweetly, juicily, stickily.

Yet, our town seemed split across by railway tracks, this jagged old scar, littered and gravelly, overgrown.  On one side, there were these white Quaker stones sitting low, almost invisible in the block-wide field where the town clock once stood and the giant Sycamore, shedding its papery brown/white bark.

These remembered lives.  This litter of Life passing.

It is gratitude I feel for having grown beside you  – during years I was not yet the woman I am now (and still becoming), but the seed of her, I’m guessing.

Thank you for nurturing me while also toughening and strengthening me, through times marked by struggle, mostly the hidden kind.  I didn’t know then, what I know now.  That none of us felt like we fit in.  Even the cheerleaders, even those who lived in wedding-cake mansions on Chester Avenue, even football players who scared us with big bellowing voices, even the field hockey beauties, in their black and gold skirts, and pony tails swinging – no one felt at ease, as though she belonged.

How I wish I knew that back then.  How I wish I did.

Yet, perhaps that is the way it must be.  Perhaps we aren’t to know those things, when we are young and not yet fully-grown. Perhaps the discomfort is necessary and crucial for our lives’ unfolding.

Honestly, I don’t know.

Yet tonight, having returned safely to my home, here in Chicago, my heart full – to have been welcomed back, embraced again, by those I knew growing up – to have danced and laughed and eaten cake with them – all that remains is gratitude – this overwhelming gratitude that unlocks my voice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home coming

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One hour before my 30th high school reunion

When I let myself remember and feel the good, it brings up the not-so-good too.  To be here, back in the suburban Philadelphia town I grew up in, from 7th grade to 12th grade,  I am feeling is this sickly sense of dread, of why did I do this to myself, when I told myself I wouldn’t.  (“I’ll never go to my high school reunion. I mean, never. I’ll never go back”)

I am scared to be with people I knew 30 years ago, when I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t.  When I held feelings down and deep inside, this gurgling-green, invisibly waged  war I caused, this self-destroying, controlled battle – that is bulimia and perfectionism.

Coming home, I reluctantly greet that sad & broken girl again, and it unsettles me, but I am not that girl.

Tonight,  I hold that fearful girl I once was,  in loving arms.  And I let myself remember her.