1. Here’s a picture of me from a vulnerable time. Cheerleading camp. Superlatives. Ugh! These pictures make me laugh, but I also see something in my eyes that I don’t like remembering. Here is a girl performing. Here is a girl trying desperately to please others. Here is a girl hurting.
2. I’m raising two daughters. This feels like the challenge of my life.
3. I recently read a book by Rachel Simmons called The Curse of the Good Girl, which talks about that nasty death of female confidence that begins in adolescence. She writes about ritual apologizing, passive aggressive confrontation, the lengths girls and women go to to restore balance and peace to their relationships, and their self-destructive, self-effacing behavior. I read this book thinking it would help me parent, but it also dredged up painful memories of my adolescence and young adult years.
Suddenly I was the girl fanning her face in class, too embarrassed to speak, afraid to be smart and express my opinions, though I had many.
I was the college student who drank too much because she was uncomfortable in her own skin. I hated myself and I didn’t know what to do about it. When I think about my daughters possibly feeling this way, I freeze up with fear. Despite my best attempts at parenting, it could happen.
I know we grow from challenge and failures, but that doesn’t mean I’m ready to watch it happen.
4. My mom recently reminded me of the month we moved to South Carolina. 1996. I was a junior in high school. I had just come out of an unhealthy relationship and was devastated about leaving my friends in North Carolina. I’d been a straight-A student, near the top of my class. When I went to the guidance counselor’s office, she tried to speak to me about the classes I could enroll in. I started to cry and put my head down on her desk.
My mom told me to pick my head up but I wouldn’t. I would not look at anyone; I would not speak. I spent a lot of the next two years with my head on various desks. I wore a pilled, gray LL Bean fleece almost every day; in retrospect I think I was wearing a security blanket. I didn’t fit in at my new high school and I didn’t try. I thumbed my nose at the hyper-religious, well-intentioned students and drew mustaches on the women in my textbooks. I don’t know why. (God bless the friends who took a chance on me then, who offered me some humor and understanding.)
Here was a smart girl from a loving family who could do many things. Here was a girl who wanted to disappear.
Last week I asked my mom if it was hard to watch me act that way. She couldn’t answer me. She had tears in her eyes.
5. When I wrote this story for Ploughshares and Medium, I was thinking about that vulnerability. I was thinking about tipping points, self-destructive thinking, the complex construction of a girl’s self-esteem. The girl in this story is not me or anyone I know. But I feel like I know her.
Read it, if you will, and tell me what the ending should be.
Some of you might know I have a thing for Beryl Markham. Or Beryl Markham's ghost writer. Her line "Never hope more than you work" is my writing mantra.
Here's another paragraph I've been holding onto. On silences:
“There are all kinds of silences and each of them means a different thing. There is the silence that comes with morning in a forest, and this is different from the silence of a sleeping city. There is silence after a rainstorm, and before a rainstorm, and these are not the same. There is the silence of emptiness, the silence of fear, the silence of doubt. There is a certain silence that can emanate from a lifeless object as from a chair lately used, or from a piano with old dust upon its keys, or from anything that has answered to the need of a man, for pleasure or for work. This kind of silence can speak. Its voice may be melancholy, but it is not always so; for the chair may have been left by a laughing child or the last notes of the piano may have been raucous and gay. Whatever the mood or the circumstance, the essence of its quality may linger in the silence that follows. It is a soundless echo.”
A month later, here's the skinny: Simon Le Bon Bon is a love.
He's sassy about the bit - he's had one in his mouth before but he's pretty clear about not wanting to work. And by pretty clear I mean running away from the trainer and zipping around the pasture like a crazy beast and coming to a last minute stop in front of me, like, HEY, MOM, TOUCH ME AND MAKE THIS TRAINING STOP I JUST WANT TO BE A FAT PASTURE PUFF MORE PEPPERMINTS MORE PEPPERMINTS.
The trainer said: he's more horse than donkey. He's fast.
We're easing into convincing Simon Le Bon Bon that a little work is okay. The farrier called him a sweetheart. He hasn't tried to stomp on the dogs when they sneak into the pasture to root through the compost. He play bows, and is pretty quiet, except for the one or two hee-haw/neigh hybrid sounds he makes per day. He approaches us in the pasture and visits the girls at the fence line when they're playing. He wants to be touched.
He's still a bit of a bully to the goats, but they graze together. Oliver and Olivia just have a healthy respect for Simon when he gets ornery at dinner time.
Speaking of dinner time, Simon Le Bon Bon is getting fat. We should consider a feeding basket, but they remind me of Bane from Batman, and uh...yikes.
I spend time with him almost every day - grooming, stall mucking. I'm trying to get better about doing groundwork with him daily. It's a new skill for me. I turn into a high-strung Southern woman when I'm leading. I'm working on the calm, neutral trainer voice. No swearing. Damn.
I was so afraid of everything the first week we had Simon. Every stomp, every snort. But we're building trust. He has these magic spots that you can scratch and he'll make funny faces with his lips, sort of camel-like. Thanks to my friends at Wing and a Prayer Farm, I've now read more horse books than fiction this last month.
What's most magical about rescuing a mule - and let me tell you, haters, there are a lot of magical things about rescuing a mule - is how supportive my horse-savvy friends have been. I've had five different people over talking to us about training and grooming. One of them even helped us look through an old box of leather tack which had no less than 3 dead mice in it. That's friendship, people.
File "Rescue Mules" under "things I do instead of finishing my novel."
I've said before that it's easy to make life in Vermont look storybook.
So I want to be quick to tell you when it's not.
I made a questionable decision last week - I decided to rescue a mule. I've had donkey fever for a few years now, and started following some rescue sites (Note to fellow bleeding hearts: Do this with caution). The mule is small - 10 hands high. He'd been working in a pony pen in a pumpkin patch and ended up at an auction house. I got wrapped up in the narrative, as we bleeding heart folks tend to do. I thought: we have a pasture. I miss our old mare. He looks like an easy keeper. We could take him on. And so I did.
And then he was standing in the barn with me, and I noticed how strong he was, and then fear washed over me. I was in over my head. I had assured my husband that I had this, that I could take this on.
Newsflash: I don't have this.
Simon Le Bon Bon is social, flirty, funny. But I don't know how to train a mule, and mules don't particularly like dogs.
We have a lot of dogs. And so far Simon is not so keen on the goats in his space.
It's not that I didn't know these things, I just didn't know them in practice. We separated the goats from Simon and they broke through the pasture fencing handily.
This was all part of my plan to pull my girls out of the house, to teach myself more about equines. People told me that we needed something bombproof and tested - I didn't listen. I have a rescue mentality to the core. And this time, I may have gotten myself in some trouble. I'd never forgive myself if one of our animals got seriously hurt. Or one of my girls.
I've gone and complicated things. I got an animal with very little back story. He could be an angel; he could be dangerous. I know rescue work is all about managing unknowns. But it's easier to "wait and see" with a twenty pound dog than a mule with hooves.
Simon has proved to be a mostly gentle soul, silly even, but he's been here 36 hours. He was great for the vet, and great for the dear friends who have stepped up to help me. I feel a surge of adrenaline every time I lead him around; I need more training to make this work.
Farm chemistry is important. I need my animals and children to get along (mostly) and to be safe.
This week...it's a big lesson learned. I don't know how this is going to turn out. I do know that my husband and friends have been really supportive. I'm going to try to get this right - but growth hurts.
A few gifts from my father:
1. A big, open-minded, bleeding heart.
2. A gritty tobacco-field work-ethic and immutable swearing habit to counteract the bleeding heart.
3. Love of a good laugh.
4. Love of a good story. My dad put the first big stories into my head, ones that resonated and deeply affected me, stories about his tough upbringing, about first dates with 50 cents in his pocket, tin foil Christmas ornaments, his years as a pool shark with a knife tucked in his knee sock, the first time he fired a man at a mill in rural Virginia and watched him walk to his car.
5. Distrust of all hot dogs, and general squeamishness.
6. My face.
7. A love of soul music. He used to sing Rainy Night in Georgia to me as my bedtime song.
8. Autodidactism. When my dad wants to learn something, he teaches himself. This habit was at first born of necessity, but continues. Teaching yourself takes a certain stubbornness, but sometimes it's the only way.
9. Awareness of song lyrics. He was always calling my attention to certain lyrics, their deceptive simplicity. Now I do the same for my girls. It's how I learned to pay attention to words, meaning, and sound.
10. Enjoyment of tidy mysteries (Angela Lansbury!) and history. Taking these things in with a rational mind but opening a window for questions, for just a little magic.
11. Driving advice - Look over your shoulder before you change lanes. (I do this without fail now. Repetition works.)
One day, when I was in middle school, I came to the fancy corporate office where my dad worked so that we could have lunch together. (Picture a corporate 80s cafeteria in the south. Jello. Biscuits. Salad bar with cubed meat.) We got our food, and sat down with the janitor, Earl. It wasn't just a teaching moment; it was something my dad did often, not just when I was watching.
But luckily I was watching.
Here's to good dads who spend a lot of time reminding their daughters that they can do anything.
Confession: I was once in a sorority. A southern sorority. I'm embarrassed about this, and rarely talk about it, hoping that it will go away, just like my old dance recital videos.
But last year, something happened that led me to reconsider my feelings about those years. Yes - there's still plenty I'm uncomfortable about and even regret (like, say, participating in a Pimp and Ho theme party. Or the inevitable judging of other young women. Not going to lie - I shudder when I think about it. I didn't know any better at the time, and the reality is that I didn't try to know better either.)
But there was also a lot of good. I just couldn't see it up close; like most things, a little distance helped. What other time in my life has female friendship been such an enormous part of my life? Support. Belonging. Ceremony. There's something to it. There's a weird sort of intimacy that happens that most of us never quite find our way into again. Being intoxicated roughly 70% of the time probably had something to do with it.
I didn't stay in touch with a lot of the girls I was close to in college; I have some regrets about that. But I recognize the lingering affinity for those women, older and younger. And that's what drew me to Emily McQueen.
Emily scared me to death while I was in college. She was high energy, suffered no fools, was funny, smart, and seemed to draw loyal friends. She was southern and yet not. She was one of those belles who didn't look or act like a belle. She did the Worm at parties.
A few years ago we found each other on Facebook and struck up a friendship that quickly turned into a meaningful conversation. To summarize, the writer in me realized Emily was living one of the most beautiful love stories I'd ever heard. The sister in me only regrets that she's no longer here to tell it to you herself. And she wanted to.
Read about it here.
My 4 year old may be a better driver than I am.
I undertook a massive garden project yesterday, reclaiming a flower bed that we'd given over to weeds (Because, well, you know. Life gets in the way of weeding sometimes, and suddenly you have a jungle in front of your porch and your perennials are choked and the cats are hiding/pooping in there, and the spiders are laying eggs.) F saw the pile of weeds and ran to the barn, volunteering the use of her John Deere (a non-birthday present from Opa. Thank you, Opa.)
This is a very Vermont sentiment: see someone with a problem or a tough project, and volunteer your man power. You have a vehicle, tool, extension cord, or spare piece of wood for that. You have extra seed potatoes and heirloom tomato starts or your grandmother's lilacs or a spare wheelbarrow or a tall-enough ladder.
Minutes after seeing my epic pile of weeds, F comes zooming down a fairly complicated hill and sharp turn (around my car - gulp) with Z in the passenger seat...and suddenly the girls are loading weeds in the back of their vehicle.
F: Mom. You're probably small enough to drive this.
Me: <knows it's true, sort of wants to try> No, dear.
Then they went to dump the weeds and I felt the need to hover a little bit.
Me: Turn right, Honey.
F: I know.
Me: <scampers behind the Gator, thinking: F looks good, but how can they kill themselves in this thing? Will they run over the dogs?>
F, calmly: Z, you can't push the pedal when I'm driving. Only I push the pedal.
Me: What about dumping the weeds behind that tree over there?
F, calmly, slyly, and very much in control: If you don't move, I'm probably going to run over you.
Me: <stares. Is this what 16 is going to be like?>
F: <Dumps weeds. Hops back in the Gator, tosses ponytails, puts one arm behind the passenger seat like a pro, and begins to reverse.>
Those purposeful strides! Be still my heart!
Now. If I can only write with as much zeal as I weeded that garden...or with as much confidence as my 4 year old drives an SUV.
This week 2 injured kittens found their way into the Dogtor's clinic from the shelter. One was hit by a car, and the other had his paw slammed into a cage by accident. But both are in casts.
Cats in casts can still play and run. This little guy is a purr monster. Here's to strong spirits, resiliency.
Order the paperback from Battenkill Books and I'll sign it for you!
Click here to watch Megan discuss Birds of a Lesser Paradise.