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Drawing the world in closer and truer to myself

Last week I made an energetic shift to the good. The world was a beautiful place. I felt confident and grounded. I patted myself on the back for doing all the personal growth work that led to this result. I had arrived!

Fast forward one week. I find myself googling apocalyptic art.

I feel scratchy and irritable. I am taking things personally; blaming, grumbling and complaining. I feel prickly, fragile, impatient and judge-y. I am two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together.

Try as I might, I can not summon the enlightened person I was the week before.

To add insult to injury, I hate myself for being this way. I am ashamed.

Is this then who I really am? Have I not learned anything in my long life? I see others meeting grave losses with grace and love. Right now, I have no love for even the simplest challenges. I have achieved nothing.

To escape, I watch British detective dramas – murder mysteries. Their simple formula is comforting. If there are interesting characters, they become my world for awhile. I like it there. I want to live there. The good guys prevail by solving the murder puzzle. The bad guys are identified and caught and, in the end, justice is done.

Justice – that is the happy ending I long for, and what feels so elusive in my life and in the real world.

I am going to be 62 years-old in August. As a survivor of childhood trauma, I know I have lost some of the years of a lifespan that was my birthright. They say people like me can die 20 years earlier than people without childhood trauma. I want to make some headway in healing my trauma with the time I have left — toward justice, if at all possible. I want to at least be on my way.

In a prayer and contemplation meditation group today, I felt rebellious. There we sat, a group of privileged white women, in a safe place with no fear about where our next meal was coming from, where we were going to sleep at night or whether a bomb was going to be dropped on us at any moment.

I decided that I was going to deliberately THINK and I wasn’t going to go “back to my breath” or “my word.”

For 20 minutes I thought hard about children in war-torn lands. Children who have lost their parents and relatives and are themselves at risk of dying every day. In my mind’s eye, I saw them crouching in dirty ragged clothes, protectively clutching their younger siblings against them. I saw their huge round frightened eyes.

I communed with those children. And as I write this, I realize that I feel more of a kinship with them than with the group of women around me.

My early life was a war torn country too.

My thoughts also wandered to where my dreams sometimes go – to a fire ravaged, smokey, grey post-apocalyptic landscape of destruction. I saw myself as a “skinless creature” – a crippled skeleton – as fragile as ash. Just one light touch – a single puff of air – would demolish me.

Some days, like today, I know that the “veil” between this skeleton and myself has thinned. Little things can hit me with a destructive power  – a criticism, a jostle, a grimace.

I am not really sure any of us are free of our version of it. We all have been wounded in some way. Jungian analyst, Duncan Carpenter, coined the words “the skinless core” to refer to this, our most exquisitely sensitive, unprotected and vulnerable inner self.

I know that this ash skeleton is part of my “skinless core” and, quite likely, my unseen traumatized self from my childhood.

Try as I might, I can not transcend or escape her. It seems no amount of meditating, crystal gazing, spa days or ice cream will soothe her.

It dawns on me what I can do.

I CAN witness her, commune with her, never forget her, see her truth, and give her a taste of the validation and justice she did not receive from the adults so many years ago in her childhood.  I CAN offer concern, reassurance, attention, empathy, and kindness. I can take her seriously.

Of course when I use the word “her”, I mean “me”.  As fragile as she is, I recognize that she is truly my own savior, part of the my growing personal imperative to draw my world in closer and truer to myself.

I will not wish her away anymore.

 

 

 

 

 

The teacher who saved my life

Beginning violin - Age 8

Betsy Lewis ~ Age 8

My family had significant challenges when I was growing up. I was the oldest of 4 kids and when I was 12, we lost our mother. My father was completely overwhelmed with the job of taking care of us, especially since he needed to work long hours to keep his new business afloat.

That’s when I stepped in to take up the slack and when my childhood mostly ended.

Despite my best efforts to run the household, I regularly fell short. I naturally didn’t know what or how to do things and I took it as a personal failing. My father seemed grateful for my help, but no one told me that this was an impossible job for a 12 year-old. Even today, I work on letting go of shame when I don’t know how to do something or when I fail.

There was one steady adult in my life then — my violin teacher, MaryAnn Butler. She also had a busy life as a wife and mother of four children. She ran a home business teaching violin and piano, and she played violin with the Livermore Symphony Orchestra.

MaryAnn talked to my father and started giving me free lessons — since we could no longer afford them. Later, she hired me to babysit, so I had some spending money. She made me a 2nd violin in the symphony orchestra — picking me up by car every week and driving me to and from practices and performances for 5 years without fail. She also made sure I got music scholarships for college.

She seemed to believe in me and never gave up. This, despite the fact that I was not a good student or violinist, had a terrible musical ear, rarely practiced, and was too anxious to play at her recitals.

Truth be told, I got no joy from music or playing music. My life was simply too stressful — to feel. I am sure I clung to the violin because I knew that each week I could go to a place with a caring adult holding space just for me, who showed me how to do things I didn’t know how to do and didn’t give up on me when I failed.

MaryAnn and I lost touch over the years. From my perspective now, at age 61, I deeply regret this. In a recent Google search, I discovered that she had died at 71 of cancer. I also found comments from other former students confirming that she had done, for many many other kids, what she had done for me.

MaryAnn was a teacher, and teachers do things like this for kids all the time. But, you don’t have to be a teacher, or even in a profession geared to kids, to change their lives for the better.

NPR recently ran a story of a barber who managed to fit in support for kids in his daily work by giving a $2 discount on haircuts to kids who read a book to him in the chair: ( How The Barber, And Other Caring Adults, Help Kids Succeed.)

NPR also cited a study that found “for every 1 percent increase in the adult-to-youth ratio in a given community, there was a 1 percent decrease in the rate of young people dropping out before graduating high school.”

Astoundingly, it doesn’t take much. Simply having more grownups around is pretty powerful!

And maybe you only need to do one thing to make a big difference.

Which leads me to ask the question of myself and of you.

Is there a way we busy adults can carve out just a little bit of extra space for a child in our daily life or work?

I stopped playing the violin soon after graduating from college, but I think MaryAnn would be happy to know that, at age 50, I bought myself a cello and found that I actually had developed a musical “ear” and found joy in making and listening to music.

This was her legacy to me, discovered many years after my lessons ended. Deep gratitude to MaryAnn!

A team of one

12-4-2016

Today it is snowing outside my windows. I have a chicken roasting and my apartment smells delicious. I have a few work and household things to complete, but this is not overwhelming. Truth be told, I am still in my flannel nightgown at 11:00 in the morning and I am looking forward to reading a good novel today. I revel in the freedom to do exactly what I want, when I want.

I used to always be trying to achieve something — to arrive somewhere else more perfect. Lately, I think that I have “arrived” — as much as any human being can. I know there will always be changes and growth ahead, and I hope I will ride them out gracefully, but mostly I am living the life I want to live.

Yesterday morning, I smelled a gas leak. This new apartment is the first time I have had gas appliances in a few years. It was 7:30 am, but I called my landlords, who only live downstairs of me. They called the gas company and one of them came up. It was at that point I discovered that the oven nob was turned slightly on. I hadn’t used the oven that morning, but I did reach over it to an upper cabinet and had unknowingly nudged the knob “on”. It was embarrassing. Something I should have figured out myself, but my landlords are always gracious and kind and told me not to worry about it.

Just now, I realized that the clock isn’t right on the microwave. Most devices change automatically with the time change, but this one didn’t, and I hadn’t made it “fall back” as I should have.

When I was married, I had someone around who took up the slack and took care of the things I missed.

Now I do it all myself and have for several years. I am no longer part of a “team effort” and it made me feel a little afraid — all the things I have missed or am possibly missing, that another person might see. The things that need to be done — that I am not doing.

When my daughter is with me, she follows up on certain things for me. My son can always find, within seconds, things I have lost.

I have some moments of insecurity. Missed things? Little things, big things? I may never know if it was all for good or bad.

Maybe having a clock with the wrong time is better than having to compromise part of who I am for “the team.”

They say that isn’t the way it has to be, but I don’t believe it. That season of my life has passed. I make this choice to be a “team of one” (with lots of support waiting in the wings if I need it), doing exactly what I want, when I want, and living the life I hadn’t really dreamed of, but is the quirky, imperfect-perfect one I want right now.

If not now, when???

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I  am getting ready for a trip to New York City. It’s #1 on my travel bucket list.

This is not the most affordable trip I could take. Like all trips, there is the getting there (not cheap) and the lodging (REALLY not cheap) and the eating, the transportation etc. However, I’ve pulled it together as affordably as I can. I am going with my good friend Patty, who has traveled to many exotic places, but has never been to New York City.

I would put it off if I were younger. But, at 61 years old, my new favorite things to say to myself is: “If not now, when???”

I had this trip planned some 7 years ago, but my kid got into trouble, so I canceled. The ensuing years were filled with worry and sacrifice. I look at the pictures from 7 years ago and it shows in my face, beyond what would be normal aging.

Now this child’s life is not my life — to protect with MY life anymore. But, for a long time there, I felt I was finished. Like I was done with new and growth and a future — and moving backward in a long slow slide to my own demise.

Getting another chance, at what I was planning when it all fell apart, feels like a reboot.  Back to the “before” and still capable of something approximating the future I had imagined. I am still a work in progress.

New York will probably look different to me now than it would have 7 years ago. I will get different things out of this visit – find different meanings and be changed and inspired in different ways.

And, thanks to Facebook, I have discovered that a friend I haven’t seen in 20+ years will be at a theater just down the street from where I am staying — the night I arrive in NYC. Our babies – her boy and my girl – were friends in the Indiana neighborhood where we both lived. New mothers together, we shared a pivotal time in our lives! My baby grew up and is a mother now herself. And her son is getting married soon.

We will both be exhausted by then. I will have traveled all day and she will be flying out early the next morning, but there is a chance we can meet for a few minutes when the play lets out.

It’s funny to think that we would both land, once again, at the same time and at the same place in this whole wide world.

 

On Being Ordinary

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This seems harsh, but it gave me a kick in the pants that it is possible to change my attitude sometimes. And really there is not one thing wrong about my life right now that would lead me to feel miserable!

 

I intended, at the start of my walkabout several years ago, to write my story frequently. What I found is that writing is hard for me. I get too perfectionist about it. So starting now I am writing just for myself — and I forgive myself in advance for typos and nonsense. You are welcome to read along if you wish, but nothing is guaranteed!

Last year I read an article that reported that most of us have a better opinion of ourselves than the facts would appear to support. We think we are all around better people than we actually are.

Which got me thinking about self-esteem.

Growing up, I had very poor self-esteem. A few bad things interfered with what could have been a blissful childhood, and for a good while, the only sense I could make of it was that something was wrong with me. I felt that way in high school – less worthy, almost less human — than the other students.  Many were taking off for trips to Europe. I knew that would never happen for me. I wasn’t upset. I was resigned to my lot in life. I knew I would never see the Eiffel Tower (which felt like the epitome of achievement at the time).

Still, a small ember of self-esteem burned deep within me. I did not picture myself working behind the counter at Woolworths. I felt I should go to college. Although my family was poor, a disastrous mess and no one was encouraging me  – I did just that.

As I’ve gotten older, managed to survive many challenges, picked up life experience and been supported by many people — my self-esteem has soared. I feel good about myself — maybe too good – at least according to this article.

I know for a fact that, the only thing I am really better at than most, is hand-eye coordination (I’m in the top 1%). This has been verified by testing I put myself through during my divorce. (Don’t ask) It explained why I have always been really good at catching things!

Otherwise, I was average in all tested categories  – except that I failed solving mathematical word problems. But that was because, at this point in the testing, I crossed my arms and refused to participate. That probably brought my score down. They were not giving out points for having boundaries.

Both “Super Great Betsy” and “Completely Unworthy Betsy” are not the real story.

I am no better or worse than everyone else. Comparing myself to myself, I am perhaps wiser now, but my cognitive skills are clearly slipping.

I am ordinary.

Don’t knock ordinary. Where I come from, it’s an honor to be part of the club of ordinary human-beings. There is also a freedom in claiming my ordinariness. Mostly now, I am doing things just for myself – because they make me happy. Like this blog. (I do hope someday my children will read it and know me in a different way.)

I can relax. No need to keep proving myself. More and more any standards are changing into MY standards.

Simply getting to live to see another day – feels like quite an achievement – and perfectly ordinary.

 

No one likes an old angry woman

Screaming Woman By Betsy Lewis

Screaming Angry Woman: Mixed Media Collage 11″ x 14″ By Betsy Lewis

My 61st birthday approaches. So far, the “golden years” have been anything but peaceful. I have been angry, spitting angry, a lot this year. I’ve learned (again), that no one likes an angry woman. People wish angry women would just go away, suck it up and be demur and quiet. Probably even more so if you are an OLD angry woman. You’ve lost the bargaining chips of youth and beauty.

And if you are an old angry woman, there will be repercussions — and often repercussions that impact you financially.

I learned this year that you are never too old to be sexually harassed. I spoke up, justice was not done and I took a blow financially. I learned that, although I was being dangerously harassed by my next door mentally ill male neighbor, I would be the one told to leave by my landlord because I demanded (sometimes angrily) to be able to feel safe in my own home. I took another financial blow when I had to move.

I know we are all talking about anger, hatred, violence and war in light of recent national and global events. Many of my friends on Facebook are preaching love and peace. I know I am a privileged white woman, so my experience is not the same as a person of color. I also know there is no hierarchy of oppression. I am angry about it all. I would love to feel peace and love by just saying it, thinking it or wanting it, but honestly I just can’t jump there on a whim.

I need some sort of bridge for me to get there.

So, meanwhile, I am still an old angry woman, but thinking about how I can be a tiny part, with the time I have left, of making that bridge.

 

Lost at Sea

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I was molested by a relative when I was a preschooler.

Some of my memories of this are murky; others are surprisingly vivid. I remember blue-jeaned legs, a round red face, and not being able to breathe. The most disturbing emotion, which can send my heart racing even today, was fear for my baby brother in the next room. I was his big sister, entrusted with his care. I loved him with all my heart. His happiness and suffering I felt as my own.

I also remember what I was wearing at the time – a blue sailor dress with a red tie. I loved Popeye the Sailor Man and felt invincible in that dress. I remember standing on the couch in my dress with my arms out like Popeye – showing off my muscles. That dress and the big sister status — it had to be heady.

In one fell swoop, in that one miserable day, a terrorist entered our home and changed the course of my life forever.

When my parents reappeared to save me, I remember longing to sail off on a fairy boat with my mother.

That this occurred, is not a particularly unique thing. It is estimated that one in ten children are abused before the age of 18.

I believe my parents and other relatives knew what happened but, as was typical of the time, it wasn’t talked about. I am guessing they all assumed (hoped) I was too young to remember.

And I didn’t for a time, but eventually the clues kept appearing, memories returned, and certain mysteries about my life started to made sense.

A month or so before I moved to the Oregon Coast from Portland, I found an old photograph of a little girl at a thrift store I haunted for vintage art supplies. She cost a full $1.00, which was a steep price for where I was shopping. But, after I kept returning to look at her, I splurged and bought her. After I settled into my new coastal house, the first thing I did was pull the photograph out and begin a collage not knowing why or where I was going with it.

When I had finished, I saw a sepia toned phantom of my past – the Popeye girl in the sailor suit.

That little girl had gone away and I would never know her. I was consumed with grief. I call this collage “Lost at Sea”.

There is a memorial to lost sailors in the coastal town where I lived then. Their names are carved in stone and I think about the people they might have become had they lived.

If I could, I would carve the words “Betsy the Sailor Girl” into the stone. Instead, I made this collage memorial to the girl I was who was lost at sea – who didn’t become who she was meant to be, but lived to become another – no better or worse, but who, frankly, has had to swim through a tsunami to get this far.

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