Nothing But The Truth (Because I Suck at Lying)

Transitions.FrontCover.NBTT3rdED_FrontCover_4.2.14Tonight I will be at a Soho bookstore in NYC, reading the essay I had published in the anthology Nothing But The Truth So Help Me God: 73 Women on Life’s Transitions. This is the first time I have ever done a book reading….or had something published in a book….or typed the words “Soho.”

My editor’s instructions were to start the reading with “a few words about your experience with the book.”

Almost two years ago, I entered an essay contest – the topic was “Transition.” I read the contest requirements while sitting at the dining room table of our rental cottage in Scituate, MA, surrounded by boxes of books and board games. Most of our possessions were still in the house in PA we had yet to sell; the rest sat in a storage unit waiting to be reclaimed somewhere in the ambiguous future. I knew a thing or two about transition.

I entered the contest. I didn’t win. I wasn’t even a finalist. This was not at all surprising, considering the last thing I won was the Book Mark Contest in 4th grade. And even then I didn’t exactly WIN, I tied with my friend Deirdre.

Anyway.

A few months after the contest, I received an email from the editor at the publishing house who sponsored the contest, asking if I would be interested in having my essay included in their next anthology, Transitions.

Ummmm, YEAH.

I hooped, I hollered, I did the Dance of Joy. Then, I panicked. Like, cold-sweat-holy-shit-what-did-I-do kind of panic. You see, when I wrote the essay, I didn’t think anyone was actually going to read it. Especially the people who I actually wrote about in the essay. People like my mother-in-law. And pretty much Phil’s entire family. I had gone from happiness to hives in two minutes.

It’s not that I wrote anything bad. I love my in-laws; we are actually very close. Hell, this blog is named after my mother-in-law. The woman gives me some priceless material; she’s practically my muse. But the essay touches on how overwhelming it was for me to marry into Phil’s large and boisterous family – and how for many years I was a fish out of water. So while I didn’t write anything bad…I did tell the truth.

Putting the truth out there – or at least the truth as you see it – can be a tricky business: Am I hurting someone’s feelings? Is this my truth to tell? Should I wait until everyone is dead?

But I am a writer. I write about the world around me in order to make sense of it, because if I don’t, I start to go a little crazy. Sometimes a lot crazy. And it’s important for me to write the truth as I see it, because that is the only thing I know for sure. Writing about something I don’t really know triggers my deep, dark fear of being a fraud.  Of being found out.

As an English major, I spent my college years writing like I knew what I was talking about, when in reality, I was completely making shit up. Most of my papers were complete BS. My motto was: When in doubt, find the Jesus figure. It was a Catholic college, I figured no one was going to argue with that.

But this shot-in-the-dark strategy gave me terrible anxiety. I was sure people were going to call me out for the academic imposter that I was, because I am a terrible liar. My theory is that lying is controlled by the part of your brain that does math and reads maps.

Truth_marktwain

This doesn’t mean I’ve never tried to lie. When I was a freshman, I came home for fall break with a giant hickey on my neck. I didn’t even attempt to hide it, even though it was the year of the J.Crew roll neck sweater. That’s how bad a liar I am – I didn’t even think to put on a damn turtleneck. I walk in the door and my mother says:

“What happened to your neck?”

“Uh..I walked…into…a wall..?”

“With your NECK?”

She walked away, disgusted by either my sluttiness or my inability to hide it, or both. She sat me down later and said: “You know, Jessie, some people can lie and get away with it. You will never be one of those people.”

Wiser words were never spoken.

So, I write the truth, because when I try to be coy or breezy, I look like a poser-idiot. The flip side to not looking like a poser-idiot, however, is the possibility of really pissing people off. Important people. People you need to sit next to at Thanksgiving.

Hence, the hives.

When Phil’s family got wind of my essay’s publication, they were obviously excited and wanted to read it: “What’s it about? Send me the link!”

I tried to avoid this in my signature suave, hide-the-hickey fashion: “Yeah…sure….I will….except that my computer, like…melted….because it was like, too close to the…sun…OMG I GOTTA GO I’LL CALL YOU BACK.”

One night at my house, my sister-in-law Trisha finally called my bluff. Despite my attempts to distract her with cocktails conversation, she insisted on reading the essay. I printed it out and hid in my bathroom.

When I came out, she looked up and said, “I never knew you felt this way. If I had known you felt this way, I would have…I don’t know…tried to help you not feel this way.”

A few things I have learned about the truth:

  1. When I think I know someone else’s truth, I am always wrong.
  2. When I think I know someone else’s truth, I am avoiding my own.
  3. When I am vulnerable, I give others permission to do the same.
  4. People want to tell the truth. You just need to give them a chance.
  5. There is always a deeper truth beneath the truth. So keep digging.

Truth_brenebrown

 

 

Marble Friends

IMG_3037

I declare November Gratitude Month.  This week I am grateful for: Marble Friends.

Let me explain.

Emma -my 2nd grader- has been experiencing some playground drama.  When she gets off the bus,  I can tell from her face what kind of day she’s had.  I take a deep breath and jump in:

“How was school today?”

“Terrible.  On the playground, I tried to play tag with C and N, but they kept running away from me.  So then I asked M if I could play with her and she said she had to go ask K since the game was her idea.  But then they decided to to go on the monkey bars so I just stood there ALL ALONE.  Do we have Pirate’s Booty?”

I was not ready for this.  I thought I had more time to prepare for the “Surviving the Shark Infested Social Waters” conversation.  I was banking on 4th grade. Now I had to come up with something wise to say before I got around to reading Queen Bees and Wannabees. Dammit.

When I was Emma’s age,  I was taught to be nice. Respectful. Be polite to everyone even if they steal your lunch and beat you with it.   As a people-pleaser, I was committed to being liked, so I focused on being nice and funny.  Being funny was my ticket to social acceptance, because even if you are not popular, smart, or athletic, most kids enjoy eating lunch with someone who is willing to snort pretzel salt for a laugh.

Having a sense of humor saved me from myself many times, but the “be nice” thing landed me in therapy created some internal conflict.  Because not everyone is nice in return. Some people are assholes, and others are assholes pretending to be nice.  Many times I found myself being nice to someone who wasn’t respectful, or oversharing with someone who wasn’t trustworthy. Then I would feel icky and desperate, or like the bastard child of Teddy Ruxpin.

teddy

I find it interesting that my parents always encouraged me to “be picky” when it came to potential boyfriends, because I deserved to “be selective.”  But no one ever said that about girlfriends.  Shouldn’t these early friendships lay the ground work for deeper relationships down the road? 

My dad would say, Make sure you can really trust a person before you date him. How about: Make sure you can really trust a person before you play “Girl Talk?  A game that instructed you to “lap water out of a bowl like a dog” and cover your face with red zit stickers was way more traumatizing than getting felt up at a Blues Traveler concert.

80s-girl talk game

The main points I wanted to get across to Emma:

  1. Not everyone is going to like you.
  2. You are not going to like everyone.
  3. That’s ok.
  4. There are different degrees of friendship.

It took me many years to fully grasp #4.  I am pretty much an open book (I know, shocking) and I had to learn how to not projectile puke my feelings self-censor my emotions in certain social spheres.  In order to do this, I had to just shut the hell up for a while – and ease up on the wine, because then everyone is my BFF.  The shame spiral that occurs the morning after you told your neighborhood book club about your Ambien-induced Cool Whip incident is more humiliating than your worst college hook-up.  Yes, even him.  Trust me.

overshare

But how do I describe this whole hierarchy of friendship to a 2nd grader?  I don’t.  I let Brene Brown explain it, because she’s awesome and I drink whatever flavor Cool-Aid she is serving. In Daring Greatly, she describes a situation with her then 3rd grade daughter, Ellen. Ellen shared a secret with a girlfriend at school, only to have that trust betrayed. Rather than find the little Benedict Arnold and force her to play Girl Talk, Brown likened friendship to a marble jar.

Whenever someone supports you, or is kind to you, or sticks up for you, or honors what you share with them as private, you put marbles in the jar.  When people are mean, or disrespectful, or share your secrets, marbles come out.

I relayed the marble jar metaphor to Emma while driving home from karate.  I watched her face in the rearview mirror as she absorbed this concept.

“So who are your marble friends?” she asked.

“Well, I am lucky to have a few.  Aunt Lynnie is one for sure.”

“Why?  What makes her a marble friend?”

“Well….she’s very loyal.”

“What’s loyal mean?”

“She sticks by me. Remember when I had surgery? Aunt Lynnie bought me really nice body wash before I went into the hospital.  That made me feel really loved.  And she lets me be myself.  I can cry and blow a snot bubble and she won’t laugh or make fun of me until at least two days later. Does that make sense?”

She nods.  “Yeah.  It does.  I think I have some marble friends, too.”

“Cool…who?”

“McKenzie.  Because she is kind and we both like to do art….and if I tell her a secret she won’t tell anyone.  And, probably Sophia too, because we’ve taken baths together and she’s seen my private parts.”

“Makes sense.”

IMG_0489

Since that conversation, there has been no mention of the playground.  The Marble Jar.  It’s f***ing genius.

As for me, I’ve been thinking more about how to be a better Marble Friend: Listen more. Don’t fix.  Be on time.  Show gratitude.  SHUT THE HELL UP.

Anne Lamott says:

Maybe we don’t find a lot of answers to life’s closer questions, but if we find a few true friends, that’s even better.  They help you see who you truly are, which is not always the loveliest version of yourself, but then comes the greatest miracle of all – they still love you.

Thank you, Marble Friends.  You know who you are.

Ferris Bueller and Joe Bloggs: Daring Greatly Together

Phil and I were driving home from a doctor’s appointment yesterday when I saw the sign: “Bat Houses For Sale.”

I was intrigued. “Bats buy houses?  I thought they shacked up in haunted attics.”

Phil, always at the ready with an official sounding answer, said, “They need to seek refuge because they are deaf.”

“What?”

“Bats are deaf.”

“Ummmm, I don’t think so Dr. Doolittle.  Pretty sure they are blind.  You know, blind as a bat?”

He laughed.  “Or dumb as a stump.”

I love these rare moments with a less-than-perfect Phil, because most of the time, he comes pretty damn close.  When we first started dating, his superstar resume almost scared me away: 4.0 student, captain of his high school football team, full engineering scholarship to Villanova.  Ok sure, that’s impressive, you say.  But is he a total nerd?  Nope.  He’s fun, charming, and 100% likable.  Think Ferris Bueller.

As I see it, the downside to this charmed existence is the pressure to be happy, dazzling and brilliant all the time. I, fortunately, do not have this problem.  I call it the Beauty of Being Average – no one expects too much.  You are not afraid to fail because the bar is set so low.  It’s like falling off a step stool vs. Phil’s 10 foot ladder.   I was an average student, an average musician, an average athlete.  Think Joe Bloggs.*

In high school, Phil was doing advanced calculus while I was smoking cigarettes outside the PathMark in East Hanover, NJ.  He ran football drills and led student council meetings.  I streaked my hair with Manic Panic while my friend Maureen pierced my ears with a safety pin. He was every parent’s dream and I was an ABC Afterschool Special.  At my college graduation from Villanova, my dad said, “Well Jess, I wasn’t sure you could pull this off. But what do you know, here we are!”  I’m pretty sure that’s French Canadian for “Congratulations.”

These childhood roles – Phil as Superstar and Jessie as Hot Mess – spilled over into the early years of our marriage, and we worked with a therapist to bring more equality into our relationship.  But certain situations trigger old behaviors.  My recent health issues, for example, have brought out the bossy control freak natural leader in Phil.  He feels it is his duty to help me, which is nice….if I ask for help.  But he tends to take over, acting as if he has everything under control – even though I know he doesn’t.  He feels frazzled and I feel like a burden.  This creates distance – the opposite of the intended effect.

I tried to talk to Phil about letting his guard down, but these conversations ended with both of us getting defensive.  I couldn’t figure out why until I read Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly:

We ask [men] to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they’re afraid, but the truth is that most women can’t stomach it.  In these moments when real vulnerability happens to men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust.  And men are very smart.  They know the risks, and they see the look in our eyes when  we’re thinking “C’mon!  Pull it together!  Man up!”

Holy crap. I thought.  Is that really true?  Do I really do that?  The answer, of course, is yes.  I am guilty of this double standard.  I want Phil to be sweet and sensitive when we are talking about “safe” topics.  But when we are discussing issues that make me feel squirmy and insecure – like money and medical bills – I want him to be in control.  Powerful.  Confident.  I want to feel safe at all costs, even if that means being lied to.

But it’s a trap.  Because deep down you know when someone is telling you what you want to hear.  Then you both retreat to opposite sides of the bed with all that bottled up emotion, and you don’t feel safe at all.  You feel alone.

I had to stop this cycle, and find a way to invite vulnerability into tough conversations.  But I needed a mental reminder – a tool to keep me from getting defensive or judgmental.  Like an electric fence.  Or ego taser.

Then, I found this little gem.

Image

When I look at this face – the first face, not the spooky floating ghost-face- my heart softens.  Phil is allowed to have doubts and fears just like the little boy in the picture.  In many ways, he is still this kid who just wants to be seen and heard and loved.  The kid who wants someone to hold his face and say, “Hey. I’m here to help, it’s going to be ok,” when he forgets how to make a slip knot or whatever the hell you do in Cub Scouts.

However, my new approach hit a snag when I started shaming myself for shaming him.  What kind of heartless bitch crushes the spirit of an earnest little Cub Scout?  Who the hell do you think you are?

I am this person.

Image

This little girl still exists, too.  Maybe she feels inadequate, not that smart, a little lost.   She needs someone to place a grounding hand on her shoulder and say, “You can do this.  You are capable of a lot more than you think.”

In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene Brown says:

Love is not something we give or get; it is something we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them – we can only love others as much as we love ourselves.

A part of me cringes at this definition; the self love things always throws me for a loop.  My inner critic has been around for a long time, and that bitch loves a good cat fight.  So I will continue to arm myself with baby pictures.  Because you would never say:

Image

“Get up and do something, you lazy slob!”

or

Image

“What the hell are you wearing?”

Go find that shoebox of old photos and give it a try.  I dare you.

* Joe Bloggs: (n). Brit slang for an average or typical man.  Used by the Princeton Review SAT prep course for the average student prone to choosing the most obvious, dumbass answer.