As Halloween approached memories from my childhood are bubbling up to the surface. One in particular captured my attention.
When I was about five, my Uncle Ed created a costume for me. Tradition was that we dressed up, went trick or treating around the neighborhood, and then the community gathered at the local firehouse for cider, donuts, bobbing for apples, and the costume contest.
That year, a pair of my light blue cotton pajamas became the backdrop for all of my uncle’s fireman medals and badges. I wore a mask–a man’s craggy old face and atop his head was a fire hat. I was the hit of the night, and the delight on my uncle’s face brought a smile to my own. I can still hear his cackling laughter echoing from the past.
Recently, I shared that memory with my friend, Anita, who was visiting for the week with her husband, Kit. As we sipped our morning drinks, I recalled walking around the circle with all of the adults laughing and smiling at all the young people dressed in our costumes. I, in particular, felt noticed, and later was awarded first prize for the best costume.
When I completed my story of that event in my childhood, I was stunned at what I had just discovered. Remembering the feelings of being noticed and being elated that I was finally visible to those around me, I suddenly recalled the sense of the mask on my face.
Behind the rubbery facade, it was safe to be seen. And I wasn’t really being seen for me. I was portraying a character that was far from who I really am. There was a certain comfort in that. And I also knew I was winning the approval of at least one person who was close to me.
That pattern of seeking approval from those around me continued far past my childhood, and it’s taken some discipline to overcome that habit. It’s a practice to show up as who I am, no longer worrying whether someone likes what I said or didn’t say, did or didn’t do––and trusting that it’s safe to be seen for me.
There is some risk in this. Potential lovers fade into the background as I adamantly lay down my deal breakers. And many individuals who knew me from the time that I wore many masks are unsettled by my confidence and authenticity. At times, I find our relationships shift and some distance is often required to preserve any of our common ground. It’s necessary to remember as my friend Hilda once said, “Stay in the present. Meet people where they are. And respond appropriately.”
The biggest hurdle of showing up authentically has been to no longer expect my mother to see me as who I am. She never really could, and I struggled for years to change that, often making poor decisions so that I would be seen by her, or surrogates that reminded me of her. There’s a relief in letting go of the need for approval, and with that, I’m able to call her weekly, to check in, to see how she’s doing, rarely sharing details of my own life. I merely listen to hers and answer the questions she has about my kids. In other words, I do stay in the present, I meet her where she’s at, and I respond with kindness.
On a recent trip to New York, one in which I was helping to prepare my mom for a move to my sister’s, I was visiting an old friend. Kathi and I first met when I compromised my values and stayed in a marriage that created an unhealthy environment for my children and me–all because I was trying to please my father, who condemned me for “breaking up the family.” To his credit, he didn’t know just how bad it was; to his discredit, he cared more about upholding the dogma of the church than my happiness. He didn’t trust my judgement, so to ensure his love and approval, I stayed another five years, until finally, I threw that mask away.
I hadn’t seen Kathi for a few years and during our visit, she remarked, “You’re finally comfortable in your own skin.”
And that I am. Occasionally, that old-but familiar–discomfort arises, I quickly assess what mask I’m wearing and why. It doesn’t stay on long, and it reminds me that being comfortable with who we are is a practice–and a journey. Like snakes, we must occasionally, shed our old skin as we make way for the greater potential of who we really are…one season at a time.
Upon wakening one morning earlier this week, I pulled the blankets up close to my chin. This was the first indication that there was change in the air after weeks of heat and humidity that I thought I had left behind when I moved to California.
Stepping out of bed, the early morning chill kissed my bare arms, and I needed to don more than my yoga tank. A light sweatshirt was in order. A few minutes later, Lily and I took our first walk of the day.
As my senses relished the change in the air, I contemplated the significance of the change of seasons. Back east, the place I called home in my childhood, fall represented the time of vibrant colors, rustling leaves, and the preparation for winter. Here, in San Diego, there are hints of the seasonal changes, even while we continue to romp along the beachside or in the nearby peaks. And while there are promises of El Niño, I merely need to consider digging out my raincoats and umbrellas, not stacking firewood and putting the snow tires on the car.
As I continued to saunter along the street with Lily, my thoughts floated back to a blog I wrote a couple of years ago about committing to ourselves. It’s easy in the demands of daily life with work and family obligations to forget that commitment. Even with a regular mentioning of my daily disciplines to my accountability partner, Meg, I often dismiss the necessity of doing my seven minutes of sun salutations when I’m not heading off to a yoga class or reading my affirmations and goals when I’m knee deep in taking actions to attain them. Even now, sitting with my daily discipline of writing for fifteen minutes before I start the day, I heard the garbage trucks heading this way and I stopped, collected the garbage, and tucked it on the curb. The normal demands of every day life drew my attention away from what is important to me. Holding two small bags of garbage for another week would not result in unbearable circumstances. And even though, I know I will write beyond that fifteen minutes and have just added another five to my timer, I wonder why it’s so difficult for me to stay with the task at hand-–particularly when that task feeds my soul and brings great joy to my life.
While many couples regularly renew their vows to their marriage, I am struck with the desire to renew the vow to myself. My soul has been nudging me to look at ways I’ve not been treating myself with the highest degree of respect and kindness. My sleep has been encroached by late nights and early mornings of teaching–and some social events–resulting in an inordinate need for more coffee to keep going during the and a glass of wine to unwind at night. These habits are sending my body into rebellion. Feeling inflamed with aches in my hips and in my hands, and an overall heaviness, it’s time for me to honor the changing of the seasons with a change of habits.
On the way home last night, I stopped at Whole Foods and stocked up on teas–some with calming herbs, some with cinnamon and vanilla, and green tea to take the place of some of the caffeine from the coffee.
Knowing that balance is important, I will have one coffee a day during a pause between my responsibilities and the wine will be assigned a place at dinner with friends, where I can savor the richness of the flavors and aroma. Deprivation can be a form of self-flagellation and I’ve done enough of that in my life. This isn’t about punishing myself for going too far astray to my commitment to my health. It’s about coming back to center. It’s as my friend Carla White, author of the soon-to-be published book, Showing Up – Lessons in Happiness, Humour and the Courageous Heart (2016), refers to as soul care.
As Shakespeare said, “To thine own self be true,” and so I am. Beginning now and in the days ahead, I’m treating myself to savoring delicious teas, a few extra yoga classes, and a massage–along with snuggling on my sofa with at least one of my favorite writers.