Monthly Archives: December 2012

the not enough place

There is a very dark place inside some of us.  I think of it as the “not enough” place.  It is a space in our psyche in which we are consistently less than adequate, always falling short of expectations, never quite good enough for the task or person we are striving toward.   This place has no light.  It is heavy, pregnant with expectations never met, people never pleased and ideals fallen away.

For some people, this place was constructed early, as part of some childhood experience — an emotionally distant or highly-critical parent, physical abandonment, or unstable family dynamics.  For others, it appeared suddenly, maybe even overnight, the result of an intensely traumatic experience that shattered their sense of personal safety and value.  Whatever the cause of its appearance, once present it is a difficult place to dismantle.

The not enough place is where all our worst personal demons are housed.  Once in the room, we are treated to a litany of our short-comings, a veritable laundry list of all the ways in which are less than we should be.  Our imperfections, in all their stark, harsh realness are on display, brightly lit for all to see who enter.  It is in this space that we are told that we are now and always will be unworthy, unlovable, not necessary, a human mistake.

Sadly, it is often those we trust most who first thrust us into this place, slamming the door behind us and subjecting us to the torment of our worst thoughts about ourselves.  Parents, extended family members, teachers, coaches, boyfriends, spouses…. The people whose esteem we value and strive for most are the very people most capable of creating the darkest corners of our psyche through their mistreatment or neglect.   Some of them constructed the not enough place intentionally, believing that it would help us to see ourselves more clearly or avoid the pitfalls of hubris or relinquish fanciful self-concepts.

Some people are blessed to travel through this life without more than a cursory visit to the not enough place.  They don’t stay long enough to absorb any of its poison, but instead are strong enough to resist its sirens’ song of denigration.  They blithely move on, secure in their self-worth and sense of place in this world.  They are the truly lucky.

But others are not so lucky.  Some fight a lifelong battle with the not enough place, boarding it up time and again only to sneak back and re-open its dark chamber once more.  Others succumb to its thrumming mantras of self-loathing, giving up entirely on their sense of self-worth and hiding fearfully behind a mask of their own making, hoping desperately that it never slips and reveals their unworthiness to the entire world.  Then there are the few, so ravaged by the beatings endured in the not enough place, that they surrender completely to the madness.  These are the Sylvia Plaths of the world, for whom no amount of external validation can convince them that they are worthy of love, or friendship, or even breath.

The holidays can be a magical time, but for many, they can also be a time of considerable stress, emotional highs and lows, and a readjustment of all kinds of expectations.  I suppose that I am publishing this tonight as an homage to those feeling let down, perhaps most of all by themselves.  If you have a not enough place in the deepest recesses of your heart, please stay away from it this season.  I guarantee you that there is at least one person in your world who believes you worthy, and lovable, and valuable, and irreplaceable to them.

I have, on my bedroom wall, a prose poem called The Desiderata, given to me by my dear friend Caitlyn some 20 years ago.  When the not enough place starts  its infernal pestering, I remember and recite these lines:

Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself.  You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars, you have a right to be here.

The trees and stars do not have to ask if they are lovable or worthy or valuable.  And neither should we.

shooting star and tree

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Filed under personal growth, sadness

the angel tree

I had a date this weekend with my daughters.  It was not my usual weekend to have them, but in the bustle of the holiday season, one important bit of Christmas shopping hadn’t gotten done yet.  And, because of some custody adjustments to account for holiday plans, I won’t get them back until Christmas Day.  So, my ex granted me Saturday afternoon with the girls and off we went.

To do my favorite Christmas shopping of the season — the Angel Tree.

For those of you unfamiliar with an Angel Tree, it is a Christmas tree decorated with paper ornaments.  Each of those ornaments has the name of a needy child (or family, or senior, depending on the tree), their age, and a short list of the things they’d like or need most for Christmas.  You select an ornament (after reading heartbreaking lists that have included things like underwear, “a doll, any doll,” and a winter coat “for walking to school.”)   Every year since 1996, my family and I have selected at least one ornament — sometimes more, depending on our own financial security — and had the honor of playing Santa for someone who truly needs these things in ways that we are fortunate enough to not understand.

The tradition started simply enough:  Bryce and I had been dating for nearly a year when we were Christmas shopping at a local mall near our home in DC.  We came upon an Angel Tree, which neither of us had ever heard of, and I, being the sentimentalist that I am, immediately had to stop.  But when I began looking at the ornaments, I froze and tears sprang to my eyes.  Bryce, seeing my distress, came to my arm and looked at the ornament in my hand and then at my face, still not understanding.  But how could he?  The name of the organization meant nothing to him and everything to me.  It was the orphanage where I spent the first month of my life, parentless.  Here was a whole tree full of infants, toddlers and children who, for one reason or another, were spending a Christmas without a forever family.  When I explained this to Bryce, he shifted into “Fix It Mode,” as I came to call it over the years.  He pulled me over to a bench and sat me down.  Then he said, “Get as many as you want to.  We’ll find a way to pay for them.”  I knew we didn’t have much money. Both of us were in our first jobs after law school and paying down my crushing student loan debt.  I was working at a non-profit, while he was slaving away as a first-year associate.  The hours were long, the money okay, and the stress enormous.   So, I chose carefully.  I’m pretty sure we read every single ornament on that tree.  Eventually we picked 3 ornaments, and spent the rest of the day imagining what the children on our ornaments were like and stretching every penny we had to grant every single wish on those lists.  And we did.  Then we went back to our little apartment, spread out our treasures, and took photos of each child’s haul.  That Christmas, someone gave me a photo album with a Christmas tree on the front and our Angel Tree book was born.  Every year we have taken photos of the things we bought and put them in the album, along with whatever we knew about our recipients.  It is so amazing to look back on the photos and remember all those shopping trips, all those children, and all the Christmas spirit the Angel Tree gifted to us.

But it hasn’t always been fun and games.  When our girls were younger, there were a couple of years that were so discouraging they were nearly unbearable.  Too young and self-centered to appreciate the neediness of others, my girls whined and complained their way through the mall: “This is so boring!”  “How come we’re buying her better toys than we have?”  “I’m hungry!  Are we almost done?”  “Why do we have to do this again?”  Ugh.

Bryce and I discussed possibly stopping the tradition after two years in a row of that experience, recognizing that the girls’ abhorrent behavior was killing any enthusiasm we had for our Angel Tree trips, as well.  But we quickly decided that, no, this was important to us and it was an important lesson that we were determined to teach our children, come hell or high water.  Sure, they didn’t see the checks we wrote each month to various charities now that we were financially comfortable.  And sure, they didn’t appreciate the volunteering that we did for local organizations we cared about.  But they could damn well give up one Saturday a year to a child who probably had a tenth of what they were blessed with.  Yes, we were resolute.  The tradition would continue.  And so it did.

The last two years have seen the fruits of our labor and patience.  Now the girls start reminding me after Thanksgiving not to forget the Angel Tree.  Last week, they sat together on the chaise in front of the fire and paged through the Angel Tree album, remembering the various trips through the years.  And on Saturday, they thoughtfully and carefully chose each gift for Maribel, the 9-year-old girl they selected off the Angel Tree.  They laughed and argued about what she would like, selecting various clothes and putting them back until they had the exactly perfect gifts.  They have learned over the years that the needs of these children are somewhat different from their own — they pick shoes that are sturdy as well as fashionable, clothes that can be layered for multiple seasons, and how to bargain shop for toys to get that one extra thing she’ll love but didn’t ask for.

I am so grateful that Bryce and I didn’t give up when the girls were younger.  They still complain, but now it’s to lobby for the more expensive bike or an extra doll for our Angel Tree child.  And when we got home, they argued, but it was over how to arrange the goodies for the photo, each exclaiming that it had to be perfect and the other was ruining it.

After the girls returned to Bryce’s on Saturday, I sat down for a moment with the Angel Tree album and thumbed through the photos and descriptions, marveling at how one heartwrenching moment in a mall 16 years ago and 7 states away has led to a family tradition that might, quite possibly, be the best gift of all.

merry christmas tree

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Filed under parenthood, relationships, single mom

how to write a love letter, by Johnny Cash

In the course of my life, I have been the privileged recipient of many love letters.  Some so tender they are heart-breaking, others so sweet they made me tingle, and still others so suggestive, I involuntarily blushed while reading them.  But the best — always and without exception — were the ones that were short and simple and devastating in their sincerity.

This morning, I was rendered dumbstruck — truly, mouth gaping, breath holding, eyes wide — when I read two love letters written by Johnny Cash for his wife, June Carter Cash.  They were published by Letters of Note, a blog that is something of an altar to the written word, in all of its power and beauty.

You might remember John and June’s love story as portrayed in the film, “Walk the Line,” and you probably assumed that the love story was embellished for Hollywood’s sake, but you’d be mostly wrong.  June Carter blew him away from the beginning and Johnny Cash didn’t stand a chance of getting over her.  Despite being married, despite being a screw-up and an addict, when love hit Johnny Cash over the head, he knew it and he was utterly powerless in its wake.  For a certified bad-ass, it’s especially touching how vulnerable he was to his feelings for this woman.

I think that John’s letter to June on her 65th birthday in June 1994 is so perfect that I hesitate to dissect it too much, lest I disturb its beauty.  I think I would love it no matter what, but I am fiercely attached to it because John composed it as an ode, not to a young woman, unblemished by time or nature, but to an older woman whose spirit and soul continued to shine and entrance him.

Letter courtesy of House of Cash, from Letters of Note.

Letter courtesy of House of Cash, as posted by Letters of Note.

Sigh.

The second letter is bittersweet, having been written just a couple of months after June’s death in 2003.  Its simplicity conveys so much —  grief, and loss, and yearning.

June's an angel

Letter courtesy of House of Cash, as posted by Letters of Note.

John died two months after writing this note, four short months after June.  Their children expressed surprise that he lasted that long without her.

Do you suppose that June Carter Cash knew what she had?  Do you suppose that by the time they got together (he’d been married once and she multiple times), she understood how rare and priceless a connection such as theirs is? Do you suppose that she loved him back just as much?

Looking at this photo, I’d say the answer to all is a definite “yes.”

John and June

Photo courtesy of via.

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Filed under happy endings, love, marriage, relationships