A Misshapen Valentine that I Made Myself

canstockphoto1838112It was at a relative’s funeral over 15 years ago that I began to wonder about my ability or inability to love. The spouse of the deceased, an awkward and unlikable man, cornered me. He began to explain my relatives to me in critical terms. She doesn’t know how to love. They are such cold people. He would never understand love. Grieving requires latitude, so I stood there, numbly, and listened as he described the people I loved as terrible. And maybe they were.

I’ve written before about my upbringing and childhood. And it is only significant in the fact that it had consequences. I was a sensitive, shy kid in a household where tears and really, any emotion, were mocked or ridiculed or punished. When I laughed I was too loud, when I cried I was being too sensitive, when I was sick I was faking it, when I was angry, I was unjustified. Toughen up was the order of the day.

So I did. I took up sarcasm and cynicism as weapons and armor. I worked when I was sick. I cried in private. I muffled my laughter and subdued any excitability. I smoothed out the sheets until there was not a wrinkle in sight. I grew up, muted and self-conscious of any outward indications of emotion.

I did well in the Army. No drill sergeant could yell me into anything more than a look of stony silence. I’d stare placidly as my bunk was torn apart and an angry man got up in my face screaming about my worthlessness. It was nothing to me.

canstockphoto13168497Once I started college, I couldn’t relate to the excitable undergrads and buried myself in work. The cracks were beginning to show. I began to suffer chronic depression. The emotions that I’d suppressed had begun to curl inward and were finding their way into toxic relationships and self-destructive behaviors that left me gasping for air.

But I was tough. I could survive. I could make it through anything, especially the self-generated miseries. Two decades of muted smiles and disdain for anything sentimental or emotional. I was still me, sensitive to not only the moods and whims of others, but of the environment, of sounds and smells and shifts in the wind. I just had a hard shell.

This is what we’re told as children – grow up, toughen up, be like an adult. A generous interpretation is that we fear for these little, soft beings going out in the world. So often, though, we’re re-enacting our own childhood pains and fears, wishing on our children a kind of protection we never had.

It would be easy for me to say that being in a happy marriage and having a healthy child was what changed me. It did. How could it not? But the change began happening before he came along and she was born.

canstockphoto18089949It started with decisions. A decision to leave a dead-end job that made me feel stupid. A decision to leave a relationship that would have gone nowhere, a relationship that made me feel inferior and worthless. A decision to leave a town where I’d worked through a lot of permutations and none of them fit.

Then there was therapy. Talking about things I’d never talked about, to a person who didn’t have a horse in the race. Crying a lot. Often feeling worse than I’d ever felt in my life. The cracks became canyons and I feared I would never get out. But every gaslight was extinguished when the therapist leaned in, with a quizzical look on her face and said “You do understand that they were trying to hurt you, right?” The elemental difference between feeling worthless and not.

I’ve softened over the years. It’s uncomfortable to me still. Sometimes I’ll hear myself laugh and I’ll think stop that cackling, a phrase I heard repeatedly as a child. But I split my heart wide open when I committed to a marriage. I laid all my vulnerabilities out on the table when my child smiled her first smile.

canstockphoto20639927The softening of middle age isn’t just happening around the middle. I seem to be leaking tears and flashing smiles at the most inopportune moments. It feels like an odd awakening to the exquisite beauty of this fragile existence.

I will never be an effusive person or greet Valentine’s day with much more than a grimace. But my family is well-loved year round and I laugh a lot these days. I’m at a point where repairs are no longer underway, my psyche no longer under construction.

There’s a peppy little song by Cathy Heller called “Gonna Be Happy”.  The lyrics are saccharine sweet, but there’s a line that has burned itself in my brain.

How can we set each other free?

I’ve been thinking about this as I go about my day. I’ve been watching people – at the grocery store, at concerts, walking their dogs, talking to their children, using their walkers, and blasting their car radios. And that line pops into my head.

It’s realizing that a smile can make a difference in a person’s day. It’s understanding that most people are not out to intentionally hurt us, that we are all on our own orbital paths and sometimes that makes us careless of other humans. It’s assuming the best, giving the benefit of the doubt, of attributing things not to malevolence, but to inattention.

canstockphoto3960689It’s love turned outward. It’s that moment when it cannot be contained and wrangled into submission – when the impulse to smile or laugh or cry is no longer embarrassing or shameful. It’s startling when it happens. My first thought is always “Who is this weirdo and what do they want?” But defensiveness obscures my vision, makes me miss the moment, the connection. Curiosity is the antidote and is, in some ways, the best gift of love we can offer each other.

33 Comments on “A Misshapen Valentine that I Made Myself

  1. Michelle, you’ve reached right in and touched my heart with your writing today. Thank you so much for this, I’ll be saving it and re-reading it from time to time.

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  2. Thanks for sharing this personal message, Michelle. So many parts of it resonated with me: curiosity, choosing how we want to interpret the world around us, accepting our vulnerability and claiming our authenticity, and, of course, the power of a smile. It was also a needed reminder of how resilient we humans are—even when what we must overcome seems insurmountable. Your writing is always graceful and thought-provoking, and today’s seemed especially luminous.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Donna. Perhaps it is all the reading I’ve been doing lately, but I find myself trying to imbue everything with some sort of meaning, even Valentine’s day. I like making a deliberate disconnect of sentimentality from consumerism.
      Curiosity is something I’ve been meditating a lot about. I think about how, when we are wrapped up in ourselves, we stop looking outward and how that shrinks our world. And if we’re at a point when we don’t have to spend all our time sorting ourselves out, it’s time to take that “okayness” out into the world and connect with others, a practice that is easier if we remain open and wide-eyed. It still feels like a new concept to me, this idea that it’s time to come out of repair mode and be something more.

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      • Curiosity is also something that requires that we pause, so we’re less likely to succumb to that knee-jerk response or to say words that we regret later. If we pause to wonder why someone acted as they did, or why we felt threatened, or how the other person may be feeling, then when we do engage, it’s likely to be our best self … and not the lizard brain….

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  3. Wow. I thank you for this heart to heart chat. “How can we set each other free?” What a brilliant question. What could I do for you today to help you feel free?

    BTW our site has moved from WP (.com) to independent so I am hoping to be able to follow your blog via email and that you might like to sign up for our updates, giveaways​ ​and mystery book launch contests at Dog Leader Mysteries.

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  4. That’s a revealing post, with a nice shape around the middle 🙂
    I connect with the value in a smile and the seeming, smallness of that
    That’s really big
    Lovely story.

    Bill

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      • Amen to that. More often than not it probably starts (vs ends) problems eh? For me it’s the latter.

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        • Because I’m re-writing my novel for the 4th and final (I hope) time, I’m having to curb my tendencies to create more problems while writing it. I’m sick to death of the thing, so I’m incentivized to stop lollygagging. I’m beginning to wonder if that’s the trick to getting over perfectionism and procrastination – you get so sick of something, you just want it done.

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    • I like to think of it as the alternative to the Star Wars Imperial March that often plays in my head when I walk into a room. As to the rest of your comment, I’m going to mutter “thank you” while not making eye contact and giving a side hug. Then I will back away slowly. So much more to learn…

      Liked by 1 person

  5. A great post. I think of Edith Bunker in the old TV show, “All in the Family,” with Archie and Edith Bunker. We laughed whenever the husband yelled at his wife to “stifle it.” What a cruel notion. And to demand the same with children? My mother believed the best way to approach any disagreement with her husband was to remain silent. Silence doesn’t make the hurt, confusion and anger disappear. As you point out, stifling oneself leads to internal and external problems. All that suppression has to go somewhere. Glad you found your realizations. And your joys.

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    • Thanks, Sandra. I think the worst part about it, is that it teaches children that their emotions are somehow not right or not be trusted. I went to parenting classes after having my daughter and it was all about getting them to express their emotions in ways that could be understood – an opposite message from the one I got, where any emotion was inappropriate. Seeing how self-assured, confident, and happy my daughter is, I’m so grateful that I learned how to grow beyond learned boundaries.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. A beautiful post Michelle, and I relate to much of it. I didn’t do the army thing, but developed an armour non-the-less: be who they want you to be, it’s the only way to be safe. I love that you, and I, through living life (oh yeah and a lot of therapy) have come to a place where we can be comfortable in our own skin, and have long term meaningful relationships with people who accept and love us as we are. Lucky us!
    Alison

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    • It’s only after I write a post like this that I see the journey. Sometimes I get so focused on my failings in the present, that I’ve forgotten how long the road has been and how fortunate I am to be here now. It’s probably good to remind myself on occasion. Gratitude, like curiosity, takes practice!
      I’m glad, too, Alison, that you’ve found your way. And maybe we can be examples to those who are still working their way through the weeds. The proverbial tunnel lights…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I had a lot of that type of anti-emotional training in childhood too, but with me it didn’t take. I wouldn’t have survived the army, or even the drill sergeant, without breaking down. My failure to be able to adopt that mask had negative consequences for a number of relationships. It’s only now in hindsight that I see that as a kind of red flag, or even a get-out-of-jail free card. Those relationships weren’t good for me (or for the other person) and it was good that they ended. It’s especially hard when it’s family who insist on the mask. Thanks for sharing. You put this very beautifully.

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    • I missed this comment the first time around, so sorry for the delayed response. I think you’re right that being able to openly express oneself brings a level of honesty to relationships, whether to make or break them. Thanks for your kind words about the post.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh, how I do unterstand you. I made the same experiences as a child. I was told to be dump and bad. My parents were never happy with what I did or want. They wanted for me to be perfect. My father yelled and screamed: You are so stupid. I went to “Realschule” (I don´t know what it is in Amerika, I am German) and when I had a 2 oder 3 for a test (1 is the best 6 the worst) my parents were always pushing: do it better. Now after years I decided to be what I want to be. And when people or employer say: You are bad. Then I say: Fire me. I don´t want to change.

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    • The greatest gift from a flawed childhood is the gift of resiliency and it sounds like you have it. The down side of course, is that we have to work harder to build a sense of self and confidence and that it never an easy task. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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