Cutting Words

I remember the first time my boyfriend at the time belittled me. We sat with two of my favorite people in the world: my stepsister, Emily and her husband, Aaron. The ocean crashed beautifully below us in Laguna Niguel, California, where they lived. The sun rose a perfect day, leading us into lunch, laughter, and Bloody Marys.

I started telling a story. My boyfriend interjected, “Alice doesn’t have a very good memory.” I was taken aback, but let it register no more than had he said, “Look at the bird.” It was the interruption to my story that momentarily perturbed me.

Emily and Aaron defended me. Aaron said, “Dude, what are you talking about? Alice has a phenomenal memory.”

Emily followed with, “I think she has a great memory. Have you heard some of her stories?” The detour passed like a salt shaker across the table.

Aaron laughed and said, “Come on, Alice! Tell us the rest of your story.” I did—because that’s what mattered to me.

Now, fifteen years from that scene, twelve years after marrying him, three years after leaving, two years after divorcing, it registers.

What was I thinking? Why didn’t I stand up for myself?

Why didn’t I question why he made such a statement? Based on what? Why didn’t I kill the monster while it was small? Set a more enriching tone for our communication?

I didn’t do any of those things because I’d been letting comments like that slide my whole life. They slid from my father, another man who loved me and was mostly good, but without evil intent could make words cut like a scalpel into a lemon.

Like when I took a summer job across the country and he told me if I failed he’d buy me a bus ticket home. Like when I headed to my ten-year high school reunion and he told me not to feel bad about my lack of success, as my peers were likely in the same boat. After all, he informed me, mine was the first generation to be less successful than our parents.

When my sister landed a job with a software company, my dad said he was concerned for her because to do well in the position one would have to be smart and learn about computers. (She rose to the executive level in that company.)

My father once told me, of course he chose my stepmom and her kids over my siblings and I; we’d grow up and leave, but she’d always be there.

Later, I chose a man’s condescension to mirror my father’s arrows. Comments I long since resisted registering, but that never stopped stinging on an unconscious level. That’s why I didn’t defend myself.

Now, at almost 50, I’ve learned to call my father on his insensitive remarks. He’s learned to apologize. We’ve come to a place of peace and pardon. But that husband?

The worst part wasn’t that I didn’t defend myself. It was that I ingested his unintended insults like one takes in negative news—like he revealed the fucked-up facts of life I had to deal with.

I didn’t have a good memory. I wasn’t good at math. My humor hurt people. Business wasn’t my forte… There was just enough truth for me to trust, especially early on when I believed that his was the love I longed for my whole life.

Truth is a funny thing. What I told you here possibly paints a false picture of the man I spent a big chunk of my life with. He wasn’t mean or malicious. He was kind, giving, generous, and certainly delivered as many compliments as hurtful words.

He’d just learned to point out the “facts” with the confidence of his father, who had put his own ploys on his seven sons. And so it goes. Or, so it did.

One can’t do better until she knows better. Now I do. Not in a 20-something defensive way. Now, as I near 50, I know myself better.

I know my faults and my weaknesses. I don’t need someone to shine a light on them. Nor do I need to hide, deny or defend.

I know my strengths, starting with my memory. I remember men insulting me, approaching me inappropriately, or dismissing me with male superiority, while their words whittled away my self-worth.

My self is worth more. I can see what’s mine and what’s yours. If you’re mine and you can’t see that I’m more, I remember how it hurts to let that shit fly. So, I don’t.

I’m not a child anymore. I’m not obligated to agree. I’m a woman. If you don’t get that, you don’t get me.

Beauty, Brains or God?

In both subtle and direct ways, my mom taught me it doesn’t matter if you’re pretty or have a boyfriend; what matters is if you’re smart, strong and capable. Women who rely on their looks, a man or God are weak. Women who use their brains are free and powerful.

I never felt free, powerful or smart as a kid. To this day, I don’t know if when I was young my mom believed I was smart, but lazy or if she thought I wasn’t smart and it frustrated her to think she and my dad’s brains combined should’ve created more. She used to scream when I did something she didn’t like (as if I could predict what that would be). “Alice Ann! You’re not stupid!” I tried harder not to be.

At school, looks mattered. When you’re the ugly kid, the mirror repulses and the looks from other kids shame.

Looking at my mom, I think she hid her beauty, the way some women exploit theirs. I wasn’t hiding my beauty any more than my brains. I was ugly. As a little girl, I wanted to be a boy. I thought I knew how to be a boy.

I didn’t know how to be pretty. No one taught me. Even the most naturally beautiful are rarely recognized until they’re groomed. Mothers teach their daughters to groom, like fathers teach their sons to play sports.

Not in our house. The answer to every question, I was told, could be found in a book. From my perspective, my parents didn’t give credence to the human heart or any sort of spiritual knowing. In fact, both my parents were so smart they knew there wasn’t a God.

They sent me out to churches with friends so I could see for myself. Somehow, intended or not, I got the message that what I was supposed to see was just because they believe in God, it didn’t make them bad. They’re maybe just not as smart was the message. Is that any different from They’re not as educated or as wealthy or well-bred? Wasn’t it just another form of “We’re privileged and we’re proud,” whether it was true or not?

The truth adhered to in our house was tolerance. Decades later, I’d learn tolerance is a distance from acceptance. I was free to choose whatever I wanted to believe, which was supposed to be better. As it was explained, Christian children are told there is a God, like my parents once told me there was a Santa Claus. The poor deprived Christian children never got to choose. Choice was a gift.

Imagine me in 4th grade, scrawny girl who may or may not have combed her hair or brushed her teeth that morning, wearing goofy glasses and clothes from People’s Department Store (which wasn’t a thrift store, but sure didn’t sell style), hanging on the playground, explaining my families’ religious philosophy to a gang of kids heckling me.

That day, especially, ugly mattered. All that thinking, evaluating and deciding I didn’t believe in God didn’t make me feel free or powerful.

Later, as an adult, I’d look back and know that yes, for me, choice worked. It worked for me to develop my relationship with God based solely on our communication, not on reading the handbook, attending the meetings or participating in the philosophy.

God and I just found each other when I was a kid. He’d hang out with me, convince me not to jump off cliffs or run too far from home. He comforted me and often carried me. It was just He and I. I didn’t discuss my relationship with God with my Christian friends, although I occasionally went to holiday services with them. Saying I believed in God out loud felt like betraying my parents.

Plus, I kind of liked the McGrath family, with 10 kids, trying to save me. It meant I always had a place at their dinner table.

I stayed with Theresa McGrath in my late 20s while working in Tulsa, OK. The McGraths are the rare family who live their Christian faith—in their businesses, their families and their excessive successes. They’re American Christians.

“This is what we know to be true, Alice. Jesus Christ died for your sins and unless you believe in Him and follow the Bible’s teachings, yes, you will go to hell. I know you love your parents, but they will go to hell. I’m sorry. That’s just the way it is. Read the Bible.”

I read the Bible the way most people do, picking and choosing the parts I liked the best.

I’d long since announced my faith in God without much apology or explanation. The McGraths seemed to believe I was a beautiful child of God who needed their protection. Theresa, by that time, and by the grace of God and American opportunity, had built a successful salon business.

During the six months I stayed with her, she transformed my appearance, catching me up on a lifetime of beauty tips. Oh, I’d mastered the curling iron and mascara, but I never imagined spending $10 on a lipstick.

During my work time (10 days on) I stayed with Theresa. During my off time (4 days off) I lived with my mom. By then, I’d grown “successful” in my own male-dominated field—sales. I’d done my parents proud, in spite of not having a college degree. I presented myself to the world as, “I may not be the smartest and I may not be the prettiest, but I’ll work harder than anyone and learn whatever I have to because I am a strong woman.” Can you hear my parents clapping? I did, and oh, how it made me dance.

While I danced and worked, Theresa did my hair, taught me skin care, what styles were in and where to shop. When I came home, I visited my mom, who lost her job at age 55 and hadn’t been able to replace it, even with that PhD in her pocket.

I became beautiful before her eyes, and for once, she wasn’t too busy to look. To my mom, beauty had always been a frivolous pursuit. She stood blown away by how it looked on me. She savored my beauty, the way one does when falling in love with a new food she never intended trying.

Beautiful, strong, spiritual 28-year-old me watched my mother’s physical strength succumb to cancer. I knew it was bad when she couldn’t read a book. After she died, I found a scrapbook of hers, filled in with goals, quotes and affirmations. God, surprisingly, was included in her plans. That was beautiful. And, damn, she was smart.


Crazy Mind and Strong Heart

Crazy Mind doesn’t want to write. She’s busy thinking of how and what to write and the fact that she’s not writing and all the shit that’s getting in the way of her writing. Crazy Mind is online and has ulcers over lost time. Crazy Mind is irritated by children and dogs. Crazy Mind makes lists and tries to master her vulnerabilities and hide her humanity from herself. Crazy Mind is always searching for the answer, the tool, the right way to do the right thing at the right time. But, Crazy Mind isn’t writing.

Strong Heart knows it’s hard.

Strong Heart coaxes, encourages and seduces. Strong Heart relaxes into moments—all of them. She walks in the woods and returns to her own nature. Strong Heart is young, free, wild and wise. Strong Heart knows. Strong Heart trusts. Strong Heart believes in magic and God and doors swinging wide open at just the right time. Strong Heart waits—without worry. Strong Heart takes the long view. Strong Heart has friends and a life off the page—unapologetically. Strong Heart starts—over and over. Strong Heart is quiet and sometimes she’s loud. Strong Heart prays and dances and sings. She laughs at herself and life. Strong Heart is silly and deep and lighthearted. And she writes.

Work as Hard on Yourself as You Do Your Job, Marriage, Home or Hobby

I’m dismayed by women who rise to the top of the corporate ladder, but refuse to honor their own tears. What’s the point in being a woman who can land a man, purchase a home, and gather a gang of girlfriends, if you feel lonely looking in the mirror? As long as you’re alive, you’ll have a relationship with yourself. Why not work as hard on yourself as you do your job, marriage, home, or hobby?

Those could be temporary. Witness the woman who loses her job, husband or health. Years later, she’s revived and fully alive because when she lost her balance she found her center.

Don’t wait for loss to break you and make you decide you’re worth the investment. Choose yourself now.

We force ourselves to feel what we believe we should and do what we think we must. Give yourself a break! Take time for you. Ask, “What am I feeling?” and then honor, rather than deny, dismiss, or justify. What do you need, now? Have your values changed? What unfulfilling relationships or time-consuming activities could you let go of to spend more time with the one ever-present in your world? You matter. Out-of-balance people become a burden.

You want to be a blessing? Sanctify yourself. We work on relationships with men and family. We work on careers, homes and gardens. Yet, we expect ourselves to just arrive? Growing takes work, energy and time. It’s the best investment you can make. Working on yourself means finding your needs and desires, and recognizing your own evolution. It’s knowing, honoring and nurturing the person you are today. What themes come up short around you? If there’s a hole in your soul, nothing outside can fill it.

You can fool yourself and work on everything else, but don’t you know better? Don’t you deserve better?

What do you really need and want? Quiet, meditation, prayer, yoga, music, therapy, art, dancing, poetry, wild sex, bike rides, trips to the beach? Do you need to quit your job or leave your relationship to live congruent with your soul? Or do you need to step it up in some area of life? Don’t just be a better mother, wife, sister, or friend. Be a better YOU. Think about yourself. Just for five minutes.

Ah, come on! You’d give a friend five minutes without hesitation. Or your child or mate or boss. What about you? Be worthy in your own eyes. What lights you up? Work as hard on yourself as you do anything else and your world will expand. But, hey, if that’s too much, just start with five minutes.



Write Like a Champion

Decide to step up. A champion is not made by default.

Go into writing the way that you once chased running. Remember getting up at 5 a.m. to run before school? Determine to be a writer in the way you focused on becoming a salesperson, learning presentations and product information and agreeing to opportunity.

It’s time to pour your love into your writing the way the way you’ve doused men with attention. Give your focus, devotion and care to your writing. Take the drama to the page.

Decide to do the work. Stack the bricks of discipline into a solid foundation. Continue developing your craft.

Be your own inner coach. Find what works for you and work it. Time is both your responsibility and your opportunity. No one can do this for you. It’s completely up to you.

People’s opinions, good or bad, stand irrelevant. You’re the only one who can be cruel to your calling. A writer who doesn’t write keeps her gifts from the world.

Decide to dedicate yourself to the giving of your gifts.

If you fall short, no one will know. Except you. You alone will know the extent to which you suffer or come alive.

Your soul knows if you’re talking about writing instead of doing the work. If you were born to be a writer, if it’s your destiny, but you don’t write, your life will ring hollow.

Without writing, if it’s in your blood, nothing will ever be enough. Writing is your livelihood; it awakens you into a new level of being.

It’s not the success or fame that brings you joy. If you’re a writer, it’s the pen to the page, the hands on the keys, and the reader connecting to something you wrote. That’s the reward.

Yet, if you want lots of people to read your words, if you want to influence people through your writing, you can’t just throw it on the page. You’ve got to spin it, shape it, and grind the dust away like a diamond cutter. Then, present your words to the world like an engagement ring to life.

Go after your story like it’s a lover you’re determined to win.

You can’t go into your writing hard and demanding. Sometimes you have to charm its little pants off. Other times, you must hold your own hand to get into your writing. Coax it and seduce it.

Go to your writing. Go through your writing. Be with your writing. Fully present and accounted for. Don’t just write the way a child practices multiplication tables.

Write like your heroes. Imagine the writing habits of Marianne Williamson, Joan Brady, Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Dorothy Parker and JR Moehringer. Then, create your own writing rituals.

Honor the doors that have flung open for you. Know the world is conspiring and preparing for your success.

You must do your part so you can meet your destiny when she arrives. You must write like a champion.