Behave. How to Belong, Part I

With my siblings off the Isle of Skiathos, 1967.

With my siblings off the Isle of Skiathos, 1967.

In June 1967, my family had to leave our home in Beirut because of the Six-day War. While other expats waited it out in Cyprus, the Waring family soaked up the sun on the Island of Skiathos. After about a week on the Greek isle, we returned to the small college compound that held all my before-evacuation-vacation life experiences.

For a long time I thought evacuation was the way to vacation.

For even longer I thought right behavior was the way to belonging.

On the small island of my experience, most every person I met — from earliest memory until I entered college — belonged to the same group. Everyone I knew studied at the group’s schools, worked at one of the group’s hospital, or, most important, attended the group’s churches. These people all knew the same Truth with a capital T — so they all behaved in certain ways. And I learned early that good behavior meant approval and belonging.

Imagine my surprise when I found out about life beyond my island of experience; not everyone on earth was part of the group!! My illustrated story book showed dark-skinned women with huge gold hoops in their ears. I prayed that they would stop wearing jewelry because it meant they didn’t know in Jesus. But if they stopped wearing earrings, they could go to heaven.

As I grew older, belonging became super important. I might live in a man’s world and feel like an unfriendable freak, but I was part of my group. I knew almost everything about good behavior and bad behavior.

Good Behavior

Bad Behavior

Pray Listen to Rock music
Obey Skip church
Stay home and study for school and memorize Bible verses Eat meat, drink beer, smoke, use drugs, go to movie theatres, dance, wear jewelry
Make parents proud: get good grades,           keep room tidy, practice piano Disappoint parents: get bad grades, talk back, or do the above bad things

You either stand inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” ~ Brené Brown.

Without a thought, I hunkered down to hustle and behave. I needed to say I am fine. I am fine. I am fine, Fine, FINE! Behavior was a stellar way to smother all that was not fine and numb the pain that was below the surface of my story.

Behave (get busy!)

I found heaps of acceptable ways to live on the surface, to ignore the inner ache. In high school: sing in the chorale, work on the yearbook, take violin lessons, work part-time as a hospital messenger, join the drama club, play summer softball, learn racquetball, and shadow the hospital chaplain on visitation. In college: sing, run, swim, jazzersize or play more racquetball, join & then lead a student volunteer organization, work part-time on the paint crew, join a national honor society, and become student body religious vice president.

Looking at my day planner with every slot filled made me smile. An empty hour slot made me anxious. Was I slacking?

The beauty of busy was that when I kept moving and I could mostly rush past the moment in front of me. The busy bonus: I proved over and over and over that I was worthy of belonging to the group. I might even score points in the game How Will You Make Us Proud?

Keep Watch

It’s so easy to figure out who belongs by watching how they behave. And boy, did we group members watch. We watched each other and wondered, Is that right? Do I do it as well as that? We watched ourselves and wondered, What will other people think? Between looking at other group members and worrying about how our own behavior measured up, it’s amazing that we had any energy to look around us. But we did!

We had the truth. And the MOST important behavior was to spread it!

Spreading the truth made me queasy. I lived in fear of meeting someone outside a story book illustration. Someone real who wore earrings, ate meat, danced, said Jesus as a curse word, prayed to the Pope, or smoked pot. In short, behaved badly.

The non-believer’s agenda frightened me: she wanted to tempt me to smoke, drink, dance, eat lard, say sh*t, and deny Jesus. My own agenda was just as scary: I must fix the person. Explain the Truth, give her the list of right behaviors, and convince her to fix her behavior. This would prove that I was a worthy sharer of the truth. That I belonged. Oh, and I that really loved Jesus.

Honestly, I didn’t care enough for anyone’s eternal salvation — mine or a stranger’s —  to resist temptation, explain truth, and fix behavior. I loved Jesus, but couldn’t I love him with the people who already knew how to behave the right way?

Right behavior & belonging

Without question I saw myself as broken and in need of fixing through right behavior. (In college there was still the small matter of waves of wonderful to confess and stop.) I saw other people as broken and thought it my job to fix them by fixing their behavior. If I could fix my behavior, I would belong. If I could fix others’ behavior, they would belong.

Belonging never came with right, approved, or perfect behavior. It never does.

I am angry that I believed behavior was the way to belonging. For. So. Long.

But now I am here

How has belonging bloomed for me? I’m still a bit puzzled on that one. I do not have a full day planner. I don’t own a day planner. This makes me so happy. On good days, I have nothing to prove. Zip. Zero. And there are fewer and fewer bad, prove-your-worth days. It is a privilege, a small victory, to show up as myself and believe that is enough. Honest about pain, joy, loneliness, and confusion as I pay attention to the difficult and delicious moment that is right now.

I never expected to have this life of connection, hope and wonder. But I’ve decided to stand inside my story, and that has brought me here.

Over to you

What have you mistaken for ways of belonging? Do you feel angry about it? You can’t change the past, but you can change how you see it and choose how your story ends.

When we deny our stories, they define us. When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending.” ~ Brené Brown

It’s time to step inside your story, sit with personal anger, and start healing.

If you appreciated this essay, let me know. And feel free to share it with your friends.
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Self-Betrayal; The Big Break Up — Part 2

The standard-issue horrors of puberty ambush me in 6th grade. Why is my body so stinky, hairy, oozey, curvy and big? I am five feet, eight inches tall. I tower hideously over most of my peers. Why am I so not normal? I ask Julie Whitman if I can borrow her cool pants. We are both tall, but the cool pant legs drag and the waist is too low on me. I am a freak. When it starts, my period is totally unpredictable, but the science textbook in Mrs. Mauler’s room says “the normal cycle is every 26-28 days”. I am a freak! And how charming are feminine pads worn with wandering belts under my old-lady panties the other girls see when we change for P.E.? My freakness is complete!

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If You are Female

It is a truth universally accepted: How you look is more important than how you see the world, what you think, or the things you do or dream of doing — IF YOU ARE FEMALE. Attractive women have glossy lips, perfect hair, and run braless in high heels. How do I know? Charlie’s Angels starts daytime reruns. In 7th grade I kiss a boy underwater at the pool. At the eighth grade class party I have my first experience with something totally taboo: dancing!! (Why don’t Adventists have sex standing up? People might think that they’re dancing.)

Farah Fawcett, kissing, dancing. Consciousness level raised — self-consciousness that is. I am so sure everyone is looking at me and criticizing my appearance that sometimes I get cramps in my shoulders. How anyone survives middle school is a total mystery. And that’s just the warm up for high school.

The First Bad Boyfriend

I have my first boyfriend at 15. His name is Dal. Point of personal anger: I am so desperate for male attention, that I think Dal a catch. He is an 18-year old who 1) dropped out of high school, 2) has his license suspended, 3) often stinks of beer and sweat 4) believes that life is like Saturday Night Fever. Yup, lucky me.

A walking ocean of hormones he is quick to tell me I look good. He whistles at me. He is thrilled that I’m a tall blonde. Dal believes deeply in transaction/exchange relationships: time listening to me traded for time touching me. With a wink he calls me Jailbait which I think means I’m so cute it’s criminal. Yes, it is possible to be that sheltered.

We talk, but have little conversation. But that’s okay; Dal thinks I could be a model! I tell Mom and with very little urging she enrolls me in Barbizon School of Modeling. What if I could skip college? I’ve been told how hard serious subjects are for girls, so posing in fashionable clothes would be great. Other people will do my hair, make-up, clothes. Pay attention to my body, my skin, how I look. Wait, what?

When we first make out I feel some chills and a few thrills, but no waves of wonderful. I think, Gross! What is with the tongue?! So so so gross! Keep it to yourself. But there’s something even worse. This boy introduces me to the term erection in the practical sense. We kiss good night at my front door and one time I pull him close for a proper hug. Oh! The rigid shape below his belt startles me. He quickly says, See what you do to me. I do not like knowing this or feeling it. But once I do, it becomes a routine part of every good-night ritual. Mentally, I check out. I abandon my body and enter my head. Is that geometry quiz tomorrow? Are my favorite jeans clean? Are we almost done?

Who’s Driving

We never have intercourse — I am jailbait and a nice girl — as Dal says, but his hands end up on all parts of me. A horrific burning develops between my legs. I’m scared it’s an STD. The shame of my first yeast infection — thanks to his filthy fingers on my privates — burns as much as the itch. But if I want someone to listen to me, call me, take me rollerskating — the understanding is clear. He will (seem to) listen, I will let him touch.

When I was very small my father would tell me, Be a good girlie. I wasn’t sure what this meant. What would be good enough for him? Now my father tells me: It’s the girl’s responsibility to put on the brakes. I don’t drive yet, so what does that mean? The metaphor is a one-line harpoon of guilt because at summer camp I was told that Jesus should be in the driver’s seat of my life. Now I’m supposed to be in the driver’s seat, but I’m taking Jesus to places he doesn’t want to go, and not putting on the brakes! I am a physical AND spiritual mess. Not ever good enough.

How do I put on the brakes, I want to ask Dad. But I don’t because Dad has lots of work to do and expects me to know. 

Let’s Pretend I’m Fine

My busy father makes time to play golf with my brothers, and takes time to give me a dating tip. That’s all he can give me; it’s a man’s world. I tell myself that if I don’t put on the brakes I’ll just get what I deserve. It is supposed to happen. I have to accept it and be fine. I start pretending.

I complete the modeling course. I break up with Dal. My mother is upset. She takes Dal’s side. But I soon have another boyfriend. Mom is happy again. I have a string of less-than-great boyfriends. Mom likes them all. Dad not any. With an exception or two, each boy expects the trade: listening for touching. I believe I get what I deserve. I pretend I am fine. I get so good at pretending I forget that I’m pretending.

I’ve heard the phrase Damaged goods. I know I am a damaged, a disappointment, nothing near good enough. Jesus knows too. If my parents knew of all the time I didn’t put on the brakes — Hoh, boy! Talk about disappointment. I feel ashamed and alone. According to the transaction model of relationships, aside from my body, I have nothing to offer. I have nothing that is worthy. What I have is shame and secrets and a freakish body I do not know how manage, protect, or respect. 

I am unfriendable. Who would want me as a friend? If someone could see the real me she would be utterly disgusted! She would throw up. Then leave forever. Or the earth would swallow me whole. Same thing. So I try to look totally fine. I tell people I am fine. I am fine. I am fine, Fine, FINE!


When I began writing this series about personal anger and the break up of my Body/Mind/Spirit trinity, I thought of it as just that — a split, a Big Break Up. Now I see that it was not so much a Break Up, but a process of self-betrayal. I compartmentalized. I abandoned the truth. I said I’m fine when I was not.

All kinds of things contribute to the self-betrayal process. But I can name the trifecta of self-betrayal: Pretending. Silence. Shame. So I continue writing. When I click Publish on this piece and share my story of anger and shame the world will not stop spinning or swallow me whole. And someone reading, maybe you, will say me too.

Enough Pretending. Enough Silence. Enough Shame.

Because we are enough as we are.

Thanks for reading, friend. With gratitude ~ Rebecca 

If you know someone tired of pretending, tired of silence, tired of shame — please share! Thank you.

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Waves of Wonderful; The Big Break Up — Part 1

The swing where I discovered waves of wonderful.There was a swing in the yard when we lived in Beirut. One day I straddled one of the support posts and, inch by inch, shimmied up toward the crossbar. Something happened. Waves of wonderful rolled through my body. It was great. If I slid down and rested my arms I could climb the post again. Great again. If I didn’t want to go outside, I could hold on to a doorknob with a leg on either side of the door and hang there for a bit. Great again!

Comfort in my body

When I was six my family left Beirut and all that was familiar — the people, the house, the community — and moved to the other side of the planet. Life was lonely and confusing. But I knew how — for a few minutes — to find comfort and control. When my parents realized what I was up to, they said Stop that! Mom made it clear I was doing something wrong. Don’t rub your tinkler. No explanation why it was wrong, or why I should stop. I liked the way it felt. I didn’t stop. The scolding continued.

My need to obey and my need for the waves of wonderful see-sawed through grade school. I was the small child hanging from the edge of a chair or reading table. In third grade a few other students recognized what I was doing. They sniggered at me. On the playground one boy shouted, “Hungry! Hungry, Becky!” He laugh and leered at me. I didn’t know personal pleasure was a dirty joke.

Shame in my body

My sister figured out her body. She was scolded. We became informants — I tattled on her, she tattled on me. We were both punished. Instead of the usual spanking, we were shamed. Personal pleasure was wrong, naughty, bad. We were wrong, naughty, bad. We each quit. Dozens of times.

The scolding began including stories of girls who injured themselves or women who, because they knew the secret to their own pleasure, were not happily married. This totally baffled me. I didn’t see a connection between what I was doing and marriage. Eventually, Mom sat me down for the talk. How babies are made. How this was special for a husband and wife. Her tone was strange and secretive. But nothing was said about pleasure. I still didn’t get the connection.

Eventually I understood three things:

  • You cannot be trusted with your body.
  • That authority is outside of you. It belongs to a man (your future husband).
  • When you are tempted, pray about it.

I grew up with the song —

Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.

Little ones to him belong. They are weak, but he is strong.

I love those words. But when I failed to resist the temptation of those waves of wonderful, the words of the second verse rang in my head.

Jesus loves me when I’m good, when I do the things I should.

Jesus loves me when I’m bad, though it makes him very sad.

My parents would tell me that I made them cross, disappointed, angry, or sad. Now I was responsible for how Jesus felt. Every time I chose personal pleasure, I prayed for forgiveness. I prayed a lot. I became more discrete about personal pleasuring, but I knew God could see me. I felt ashamed.

Anger with my body

Shame grew into anger. I was angry that my body could shake and melt with waves of wonderful, angry that I knew how to make my own waves, and angry because I wanted the waves & knew they were sinful. When I resisted the desire for pleasure I felt self-righteous. When it didn’t, I felt wicked for making Jesus sad. Shame grew into anger that grew into self-loathing.

This is the first of two parts about breaking up with my body. For part two, Subscribe.

I’m writing about very personal anger. Thank you for standing with me and creating a safe place to bring dark topics to light. If this is an essay worth sharing, please do. With gratitude, ~ Rebecca

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I am angry that I loved my father

I love you Daddy! The words rushed out in happiness. I was about ten. I smiled waiting for the four word reply. Daddy nodded.

Don’t tell me you love me. Show me.”

I am angry that I loved my father. Angry that I was made to love so freely & and want such love in return. 

What his childhood may have looked like. Image from the movie Angela's Ashes.

What his childhood may have looked like. Image from the movie Angela’s Ashes.

Dad was almost silent about his story of growing up in Belfast. The few details that did emerge were raw and harsh. I imagine it as Angela’s Ashes except in Northern Ireland, and not Catholic, and Dad’s father was a mean drunk and a philanderer who ruled the family with his fists and a cat o’ nine tails

In his teens my father joined the church. His brothers taunted him and picked fights. What a sissy! But they could not throttle the faith out of him. Church people valued stability, education, and clean living — no smoking, no drinking. They proclaimed hope and offered certainty. With their encouragement Dad left Northern Ireland and completed college. He married. He gave his wife and children the home he had not known. He was, as he liked to say, Pretty good out of the stuff. He earned and owned his place as the spiritual leader and head of our family with unquestioned (and unshared) right to strong preferences, critical observations, impatience, and anger. And, I learned, the right to say Show me you love me.

Emotional Poverty

Dad escaped physical poverty but never shook off emotional poverty. Every relationship was an exchange, a transaction. Speaking of a new acquaintance, my father might say, He doesn’t have much to offer — meaning influence, ideas, humor, or clever conversation. He would observe, So and so brings little to the table — reason enough to let a relationship cool. To get something you must give something. Perform. Prove you are worthy. 

If I disappointed the parents, Dad would shake his head and say, After all we’ve done for you! What was fair exchange for all they had done for me? To do well and be good — preferably better than my peers. But way before puberty I figured out that somewhere in the world, in fact in my classroom, was another child who got higher grades, ran faster, played piano better, spoke with more confidence, and behaved more obediently and respectfully than I. My performance was shabby. I could not compete.

When life ran smoothly Dad laughed, whistled, joked. But when Dad was disappointed or displeased, harsh words were just the beginning. The climate in the house cooled. He withheld approval until the offender — my mother, one of my siblings, or I — felt sufficient chill to really, really apologize and know better in the future.

Dad’s transaction and performance expectations shifted over the years. But they didn’t go away.

In his eighties the burden to perform and prove continued. Dad stayed at a retirement community for a few months. On meeting another resident for the first time, Dad launched into a poetry recitation. After two verses of a long, lilting rhyme, pedestrian conversation pales. With a murmur of confused awe the new acquaintance stood silent.

I am angry that I loved my father.

my high school graduation with DadI am angry that I loved my father. Angry that my fierce, childish love was not enough to obliterate the prove-your-worth script he knew better than his own name. Angry that I breathed in the belief that I had to prove my worth — while certain I had nothing to offer. Angry that I believed I was unfriendable because of this. Occasionally, I am angry that my father didn’t feel the need to look for and learn new skills. On most days, I am simply sad he missed the freedom and delight of healthy emotional connections. We can only give what we’ve got.

I’m over fifty years old. I still do not know what Dad expected when he said, Don’t tell me you love me. Show me.

Unlike my dad, I am not so silent about my past. I see openly grappling with my story as an expression of love. [Thank you, Brené Brown.] Shining light into darkness. Staring down fear. Finding new ways to see.

Through the writing process, I realize that much of my personal anger is linked to not being seen. 

Dad, I see you. Your striving ended the physical poverty that your father, and his father, and his father before him handed to you. You broke that cycle so I can stand where I do. Thank you.

Standing right here, right now, my calling is to address the scars and patterns of emotional poverty. The wounds of family history and practices of a toxic culture go deep. The road is long. But I will show up as wholeheartedly as I can — to offer & receive acceptance freely, to give & get help without keeping score, and build and belong in relationships where authenticity is the best reward.

Because this is the love we are made for.

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a man’s world

I grew up in man’s world. My father was Dean of Men at a small college. Our family lived in Morrison Hall (pictured below), right through that center door and straight back.

Morrison Hall: the men's dormitory where I grew up.

Morrison Hall: the men’s dormitory where I grew up.

From the time I was seven until I turned 20, I was surrounded by 18-22-year-old-males. The smell of testosterone was so familiar that I never really noticed it.

Dad loved deaning. He needed it. In the dorm Dad ruled. One summer we left Bethany Beach a week early because Dad wanted to get back to the dorm. No matter that my mom, sister, and I enjoyed vacationing on the beach. He loved his work more.

The tide of testosterone dialed down a skoche when Dad stepped through the door that separated the dorm from our apartment. He sat at the head of the table facing Mom at the foot. Beverly and I, the girls, faced each other across the table as did our older brothers, the boys. Three males, three females. This balance was a visual illusion.

Dad’s preference for all things male flavored every part of life. I tasted it early and often. I knew Dad was busy, but noticed the way he made time with the boys — to putter on a car, play golf, or meet on the soccer field.

The Game

Dad loved games. He believed in the value of competition. The game How Will You Make Us Proud? was always in play at our house. It’s a small miracle that Beverly and I liked our brothers as much as we did. The parents held them up as examples of excellence at every turn.

  • When the boys were your age they took calculus.
  • When the boys were your age they had jobs.
  • When the boys were your age they knew how to study, socialize, exercise, and change the oil in the cars they bought themselves — all at the same time.

As luck would have it, there were ways a girl could try to compete. Dad shared his expectations freely about how I should: keep my room, do my school work, practice piano, style my hair, and spend time with peers. But no matter how I tried, I lost more points than I gained. There was always something that was not quite enough about my efforts, about me. Appearance was an area of particular interest to Dad. You look tired. Your blouse is too tight/low/wrinkled. You’re slouching. You seem a bit wide in the hips.

He was confident in the value of his opinion. It boiled down to this:

Dream, but not too big. You’ll set yourself up for disappointment. Be attractive, but modest. Be interesting, but not brilliant. (You’ll intimidate men.) After all, Don’t you want to get married and have children?

Growing up in a man’s world I came to believe:

  • I will never have a penis and so I will always be second rate, a disappointment.
  • Points go to the woman who makes her voice, her dreams, and herself tame, quiet, and small.
  • No woman lives bright & big and finds approval. When I figure out I am bright and have big dreams I entertain the idea of a lobotomy. Yes, really. Better to alter my brain than live with longing I’ll never realize.
  • I am a wretched ingrate. I collect all of the game-approved points — finish college, get married, have children, support my man — and it is not enough. I am so depressed I want to die rather than get out of bed.

I am angry that I believed this. I would love to redeem every single megawatt of emotional and spiritual energy I burned to win approval from Dad and the males like him I’ve met.


Someone — a mentor, neighbor, sister, teacher, coworker, writer — comes into your story. In my experience it took quite a few someones. It feels strange and disorienting when you meet a game-changer. Like the first spring thaw after a lifetime of winter. A game-changer finds you delightful, has no desire to fix you, and celebrates all of the you’s you become. You are neither too much or not enough. With this someone you cry shamelessly. Breathe deeply. Laugh freely. It’s weird and incredible.

I met Ken. And my friend Lisa. And a literature professor. And my therapist. And the writers Henri Nouwen and Anne Lamott. And many more. It takes a village. But I’ll talk about Ken.

Ken is nothing like my dad. So I try to fix him! I’m so accustomed to criticism and never being enough, that after we marry I give Ken prompts: Don’t you think I’m a little overweight? Look, Ken, here in the belly. I have a roll that needs to go. I’d look better if I lost five pounds, right? I badger him to take up the game. But Ken does not need me to make him proud. Quietly, stubbornly, he resists all that I have learned and believed about men and approval. He does not want me to be tame, quiet, and small. He respects wild, loud, and large, so he says the beautiful words I shared when I started this series,

I think you should have been angrier.”

Game-changers refute the rules. Male privilege exists, but it is not acceptable. We are not meant to live in a Man’s World. We are meant to be an all-inclusive world. Thanks to Game-Changers, the anger generated by impossible games recedes. It is still large and dark, but you can look it in the eye. Examine it in the open. Recognize its lies. Figure out what it’s taught you. And decide how to use it to make your life more deeply and tenderly your own.

This is one essay in a series I’m writing about personal anger. Something happens when we tell our stories. Only when we face & frame our stories of anger can we process this difficult emotion and learn how it can serve us.

If I talk about my anger, maybe you will find ways to talk about your anger too.

Wondering what will come next? Subscribe.

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This will hurt me more than it hurts you.

This will hurt me more than it hurts you, Dad says. He is not angry. He is disappointed, but calm. My father raises his belt. Tears already flowing, I clench my muscles as the belt smacks my bare bottom. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! Afterward, I sit on the edge of the bed with snot on my face. Dad hugs me and prays with me. I feel powerless and small. 

B&W 5 year old alone

Do not think I was abused. I was not. My father was a consistent disciplinarian. Mom could snap and fly into a rage. But Dad was reliable, methodical. His reliability framed the foundation for our family. It meant that I always had a safe place to sleep, clean clothes, three meals a day, a ride to school, a good education, and someone to call when, as a teenager, I was in a car accident. More than most other children in the world. Much more than my father had growing up. I took it for granted. I needed to.

Dad’s reliability also meant that he is the one: the one I needed to please, the one I needed to understand and be understood by. But I didn’t understand his words. This will hurt me more than it hurts you. I turned them over and over to make sense of them. They become a tangled heap of confusion in my heaving heart.

Physical pain is the way to make someone stop doing what is wrong and start doing what is right. Parents must punish children. Parents do it even though it hurts them. It is okay because it is done out of love. I shouldn’t feel angry or upset. Dad is more hurt than I am. He loves me. 

My heart wrestles to make the pain, the punishment, the words Dad says, how I feel and what I think make sense. But I can’t. I need my family, my father, and my life to be alright. So I shove down the thought that what I feel is wrong. I don’t want to believe that pain and powerlessness are part of love. I hide these deep inside and cover them with a story. I tell myself that I have a special family, a reliable father, a wonderful life. I tell myself the story over and over and I believe it. I need to.

Years after my last spanking I sit on a therapist’s couch. Gently she walks with me into the deep trough of memory. She asks, How did you feel growing up in your family? I search for the right word. Erased.

Captured: a rare moment of truth.

Captured: a rare glimpse of truth.

I add quickly — But they loved me. We were very close. I had everything I needed. I was so lucky.

Did it feel like love?”

Did it what?! Where does she get such a question? How can she even ask? What psychobabble juju is this? 

I begin to tremble. If I tell the truth I will destroy my story that I had a special family, a wonderful childhood. If I lose my story I will shatter into a trillion pieces and disappear. They loved me. I know they loved me.

Did it feel like love? she asks again and waits. I inhale. Then exhale. My voice is small —

No. It didn’t feel like love.”

The room is still. I speak the truth* and I do not disappear.

I see the This-may-hurt-but-I-love-you moments in my life. The pain. The self-betrayal. The stories I told myself to make them alright. And I weep.

*Did my parents love me? Yes. Did it feel like love? No. Both are true.

This is one essay in a series I’m writing about personal anger. Something happens when we tell our stories. Only when we face & frame our stories of anger can we process this difficult emotion and learn how it can serve us.

If I talk about my anger, maybe you will find ways to talk about your anger too.

Wondering what will come next? Subscribe.

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Seeing and Being (seen)

It’s hard to know what we don’t know. Like how to see and how we are seen.

2nd Grade

Me in 2nd grade. See those eyes! So blue. So near-sighted.

This is me smiling into the unknown of second grade. I couldn’t read. The kind first grade teacher (not to be confused with the mean one) promoted me to second grade, but I had not unlocked the magic of marks on a page.

The popular approach to teaching reading at the time includes The Whole Word Method and Sight Words. I stand in the cool hallway outside the classroom while one of the kids who can read holds up flashcards for me. Held inches away from each card, I will it to tell me its secret. The only one I am sure of is the could card because it has a smudge on the corner. 

In second grade I have my eyes checked for the first time. My mother takes me to see the man who makes glasses. There is old leather furniture in his dim street-front office. He sits me up in the exam chair. Look at the chart and read the first letter you can see.

I can’t make out the biggest letter. The man fiddles with a huge pair of metal wings and swings them to my face. I sit up taller, each eye peers through a tiny window in each wing. Now, he says, tell me what letter you see.


Silence. I see the marks but I don’t know their names. I have not learned the letters. I can sing the alphabet song, but no symbol pops up in my mind for the names. Oh, except A! I know A! There is not a single A on the chart. Now the man can see I am dumb.

He has another chart:


Tell me if the legs on the letter point up, down, left, or right. I don’t know the difference between left and right. I feel embarrassed. Use your hand the man says. Point your fingers the direction you see the legs pointing. That works. 

A week or two later we go back. My new glasses are ready. I put them on. BOOM! A slant of light pours into the office. I can see a million dots of dust dance in the beam. I blink. Mommy and I step out onto the sidewalk. I stare. The entire street rushes into my eyes. I can see the tire tread on a car parked at the curb. The bricks on the building across the street. And the leaves — swarms of perfect, tiny, individual leaves on the tall oaks along the block. This? THIS is how the world looks?! This is what other people see?

My world was not transformed in one moment.

I can see with my glasses on. But when I take them off, I forget all that I have seen. Like at the swimming pool. I leave my glasses in the locker room. In the pool, other people are a blur. I know my sister and our friends by swimsuit color. I can not see faces or silly expressions. I see other swimmers as blurs, and I am sure that this is how they saw me. Without concern I pick my nose or pull my swimsuit out of the crack of my bottom. As the self-conscious child I am becoming, I would horrified to know the truth. But instead I am just one happy, floating, splashing, little blur among many.

We see ourselves as we think we are seen.

Thanks to phonics I begin to wrestle meaning from marks on a page. But I know I am eons behind my classmates. As third grade unfolds, I see smirks from easy readers and multiplication table mavens. I am a slow, hesitant learner. Nothing more than a blur. 

The personal anger.

Fissures start early in the break up of the body, mind, spirit, union. By the time I am nine years old I know two things:

  1. Something is wrong with my feelings — my heart (spirit). Showing my emotions means parental displeasure or a scolding. If I say I feel lonely or sad, I am told You shouldn’t feel that way, or even You don’t feel that way. What I know is This is what I feel, but important people, like Mommy and Daddy, know my feelings are wrong.
  2. Something was wrong with my mind. I can’t read. I hate spelling.

I come from a family of quick, clever people. They learned to read by osmosis. They play Scrabble by the hour. They read for fun, dammit! Intelligence is noticed and praised. One person’s work is held up as an example for the others. The subtext: Can you do as well? There is no way I can compete. I know I am too emotional and rather plain looking:4th grade school picture I now have four-eyes, cry too easily (pretty girls should smile!), and not musically gifted or athletically inclined. I hate school and myself because I am slow, dumb, stupid. In a family where relationships are transactions -- What do you have to offer? How will you make us proud? -- I have nothing. The trinity of my body, mind, spirit fractures a bit more.

I now have four-eyes, cry too easily (pretty girls should smile!), and not musically gifted or athletically inclined. I hate school and myself because I am slow, dumb, stupid. In a family where relationships are transactions — What do you have to offer? How will you make us proud? — I have nothing.

The trinity of my body, mind, spirit fractures a bit more.

So often anger blooms from pain. I talk with you about my anger — walk right toward my pain — because owning all of the story, especially the painful parts, is how I find healing, compassion & redemption.

In two weeks I begin teaching Basic English — a reading and writing class for college freshmen who struggle with the marks on the page. These students probably see themselves a slow, stupid, just another blur in the classroom. Because of my own anger and pain, I believe teaching as sacred. I see words — reading, speaking, and writing — as modern magic. It is my intention to see my students and teach them to see themselves and the words on the page in clear, fresh ways.  

How can an experience of personal anger from your life make you more tender, more passionate, more compassionate?

Wondering what I’ll say next? The next essay in the series will magically appear in your inbox when you subscribe.

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too emotional ~ personal anger part 3

Where do emotions — fear, loneliness, anger — live in the Body Mind Spirit trinity?

Too tricky? What about a symptom of these emotions? Crying is a such physical thing — so are emotions of the body? Or do the mind and spirit partner in the process? Culturally, we are taught to be suspicious of emotions, of being too emotional. As a result most Western men are separated from their tears. Big boys don’t dry. Express emotions — aside from disgust, triumph, or indifference — and you face a litany of labels sissy, hysterical, worked up, losing grip, too emotional. And just like that a person, or personal experience is minimized. Ability, maturity, credibility: instantly in question.

This week I gave my statement at a hearing for a “Potentially dangerous” dog. Before the hearing the reporting officer called me. The officer told me that the dog owner had contacted her several times after I filed my complaint. Each time the owner said something new. Her dog was never off leash. I had been walking on private land. Some woman was harassing her dog.

Knowing this, I felt distressed (angry + anxious) as I braced myself to tell the truth and be called a liar.

The hearing: I report all of the details

Encounter #1:  I walk my loop. In the wild and quiet space away from the roads I see a woman with a Great Dane and say Please have your dog on a leash. The woman shows me the leash in her hand and tells me lots of people walk dogs in the area. Just so I know. She doesn’t leash the dog. The dog noses me up the butt. I blurt, Whoa, that’s offensive! Your dog just stuck her nose up my butt. No reply.

Encounter #2: In the wild again. I see the woman and the off-leash Great Dane. I pick up a walking stick. I overtake the woman. She tells me I should have the sense to walk somewhere else when I see her on the trail. She calls me a dumb ass. Brandishing my newly acquired walking stick I announce that if the dog comes at me, I will hit it. (Not my wisest idea.) The dog doesn’t come at me. I do not use my stick for protection.

Encounter #3: In the neighborhood leading to the wild. The barking Great Dane charges me. I stand my ground with my walking stick. I shout Your dog should be on a leash! You are breaking the law!! The dog owner replies You should be on a leash!

I report Encounter #3 to Animal Services. I am told an officer will visit the owner and educate her on the leash laws.

Encounter #4: Several weeks later I walk without a stick. Suddenly I am face to face with the off-lead Great Dane. Completely surprised I stand in the path and cry. The owner sees me, Oh no, she says. Hands to my face I sob. Then woman passes, Just so you know, she’s never hurt anyone.

I call Animal Services to report again. And now we’re at a hearing.

I give a full account. I include it all: the nose up my butt, the walking stick, shouting, and finally tears. Then it is the dog owner’s turn to make a statement.

Her first words are, “Everything she said is true.” 

I blink. Oh? Ok. Keep breathing.

She goes on to say all of her neighbors walk their dogs off-leash in the wilderness space they call The Royo. They all respect each other. If I don’t like wild places — with snakes and coyotes — I should walk somewhere else. She would like to know when I’ll be walking so she can avoid me. She has asked the Animal Service officer where I live because she feels threatened.I have emotional outbreaks [sic]. She’s considered a restraining order. I stalked her to find her house. It’s clear that I’m very emotional. She is worried. She is the one distressed.

Wait. What? All that I’ve said is true. But because I have shown strong emotions I am suspect? She feels unsafe? I know where she lives in her fenced and gated house and she’s worried? (The officer found her by searching files for the dog’s name — which I heard the woman shout and watched the dog ignore — filed in that neighborhood. Not because I knew the address.)

Personal Anger

As a child I cried when afraid, when tired, when scolded. “Turn off the crocodile tears. Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” my father would order. I tried. In the long shadow of his disapproval I tried to turn off my emotions and shut off my tears so he would not be angry. So I could please him.

in tears in a tree

A cry of anger.

I could not find the muscle to stop my heart from pounding, flailing about in confusion, or breaking before pouring down my face. Crying is so much more than a physical thing. It is possible to stop the tears, to numb emotions, but I never mastered it. Those who do stop their tears stop much more.

We cannot selectively numb emotions, when we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” ~ Brené Brown

Before I learned this truth, I hated myself for being emotional, for failing to control tears and repeatedly having wrong feelings. I felt anger. I could not oblige my father. I could not do what he wanted me to do, or be something he expected me to be (a repeating pattern in our relationship). For much of my life my tears came with shame and self-loathing.

But the trinity of Body Mind Spirit knows the real wisdom science now validates. Tears heal us. Emotional tears, angry tears, help us release and recover.

Back to the Hearing

Emotion. Fear and anger expressed in shouting. Anxiety expressed in tears. That’s what the owner of the Great Dane used against me. It was surreal. The woman admits that she walks her Great Dane in a public place without a leash. But I’m the suspicious one. My account should be questioned because I’m the only one who’s ever complained. Clearly, I’m too emotional.

Sometimes we can not access words to explain our emotions, our tears, our anger. This doesn’t mean they are invalid. As we listen to all the parts of ourselves, Body Mind Spirit — the raw, messy bits included — we can choose the practice of self-compassion. For more on self-compassion Click Here.

The charge of too emotional sank in. Talk about a personal trigger. But I stayed very calm. I reached for all the compassion I could find. For me. For the other woman. Asked if I had a response, I found words, “I agree that I have been emotional. I’d like to put things in context. About four years ago I was walking this same area. A large dog named Valentino ran from his owner — someone who lives in the same neighborhood. Off leash, Valentino ran at me, and bit me.” The owner of the Great Dane said she knows Valentino. She had no further reply.

A determination will be made in a week’s time.

How do we unlearn self-loathing and shame about our emotions? For me unlearning has included work with a counselor, lots of time with people who see me as broken and still worthy of love, and a growing practice of self-compassion. These transformed and continue to transform my relationship to my too-emotional-self.

Anger, sadness, frustration, loneliness. Emotions — yours and mine — are not a liability, somehow suspect, at odds with reason and logic. When we own them & sit with them, we can learn from them. I do not feel angry for feeling angry. I do not feel shame for tears or fears. I feel the feelings and I feel very alive.

Where do emotions live in the Trinity? In the Body, Mind, and Spirit. Have you developed coping skills and learned to distrust and distance yourselves from your emotions (or body, or soul)?

How will you relate to your emotions to live more whole-heartedly, more wholly, & more holy as the healthy, vibrant trinity you are made to be?

Was this essay helpful? Let me know about it. Would it help someone you love? Let them know about it!

Read earlier essays in this series on Personal Anger:

The Secret No One Talks About

the first time I saw it

before it had a name

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Anger: the first time I saw it

Me and my little sister Beverly circa 1967 (a year or two before we caught fireflies)

Me and my little sister Beverly circa 1967 (a year or two before this story).

It is in childhood, often very early, that we see anger expressed by someone else. Someone we know. Someone we love.

We stayed in the extra bedrooms upstairs when we visited Aunt Lydia. The big two-story house with its sloping roof and wide lawn sat in a nice Chicago suburb. My sister Beverly — was she four or five? And I was two years older — caught our first fireflies on that lawn next to the tall blue fir tree. We made a lantern by scooping the tiny living lights in a mason jar. There they dimmed and went out.

Bev and I were reminiscing about that summer over the phone recently. I was sitting in the upstairs bathroom, looking out the window, she said. Then you walked past. I was so surprised! She pulled up her panties fast and came out to ask me, How did you do that!? A flash of excitement stirred the hot, boring afternoon. Look, here’s a little door, I pointed. Together we stepped onto the slightly slanting roof. What a splendid way to see the green grass and the fir tree below. Standing on top of the first floor we were not one bit bored. We took a few steps on the tar and gravel shingles toward the edge. Oh the thrill! After exploring the tiny patch of roof by the door and a narrow sort of walkway that passed the bathroom window, we went back inside. What an adventure!   

I think we got in trouble for that, I said.

Beverly stopped me. Trouble? Don’t you remember? Remember what? Mom lost it. She came upstairs and asked, “What have you been doing?” And I told her. We went out the door and walked on the roof. Next thing we were face down on the bed and she was whipping us. I told her the truth and she whipped us. Don’t you remember? And just like that the smell of the humid room and hot bed sheets came back to me. I was writhing, buttocks muscles clenched, my voice a ragged wail. The length of leather flew. (A belt? the dog’s leash?) Again and again it stung. Anger flashed through me, a flame filling my body and mind. Trapped, I raged with all my being. Then dimmed and went out.

I blanked it out. My seven-year-old self could not process it. A part of me went into hiding. 

Mom never spoke of the whipping. Ever. Beverly’s words nudged the memory that had been too raw for me to hold. In a few sentences a blank page of my story filled in. But instead of the fire of anger that had been too much me, I found only the ashes of sadness. Sadness that anger was expressed as violence. Sadness that so much shame surrounded the emotion and actions that Mom never spoke of them. Sadness that my mother had no tools to address her anger in healthy ways. And I grieved that I didn’t have tools to talk about it with her before she died. It was after her death that I began the work of facing my own dark emotions. The exploding and imploding of my own rage. 

How does this story serve?

I think midlife is when the universe gently places her hands upon your shoulders, pulls you close, and whispers in your ear:

I’m not screwing around. It’s time. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go.

Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy of love and belonging, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever.

Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through you. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.” ~ Brené Brown [emphasis mine]

  1. I know the value of having someone bear witness. My sister shared the experience. I was not alone. We can process this together.
  2. When the body and spirit cannot make sense of reality, the mind shields it, provides armor — sometimes for years — until it is ready and something, or someone says, Don’t you remember?
  3. As I face a dark memory, a piece of armor falls away & leaves me lighter.
  4. Early examples may teach us one thing, but we are capable of learning new, healthy ways to cope. Learning may be painful and take time, but it is totally worth it.
  5. Wrestling with writing about this led to a rich conversation with my own daughter. I told her of my fear of criticized — for telling family secrets, for having “wrong” feelings, for sounding bitter. She listened well. She reminded me that people will think whatever they want. No matter what. She confessed that she has grieved the time before I began addressing my fear, anger, and loss, and these seeped into our relationship. She said a bunch of other wise, funny, and gracious things (yes, I cried) and she reminded me of the words of Harriet Lerner, author of The Dance of Anger.

Anger is neither legitimate nor illegitimate, meaningful nor pointless. Anger simply is.” ~ Harriet Lerner

Or as my daughter paraphrased, “Anger is neither good nor bad, it simply is.” (I’m thrilled that she quotes from a book I gave her!)

With this view anger is not taboo or frightening. We can face what is and find out what it has to tell us. As we do, we can mend our fractured trinities; bring body, mind, and spirit back into alignment. Owning and telling our stories is how we find integration.

This is not easy writing, it may not make easy reading. Thank you for coming this far.

There are certain notions about what is okay to say about people and what is not. This is especially true of dark experiences. We live in families and communities. When I tell my stories I also tell pieces of other people’s stories. My account is just that: mine. My goal: 1) To write from a place of peace — knowing that I am always processing, wrestling — to live with body, mind, and spirit in closer alignment. 2) To say This happened to me. Maybe it happened to you too.

If you missed earlier essays from this series click on the links below:

The Secret No One Talks About

Anger, Before it had a Name


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anger, before it had a name

We know the feeling before we know it’s name. One of my big brothers teasing me. Kind of typical sibling stuff. So why did I cry? He wouldn’t stop. I wailed Stop! Stop it! but he didn’t. When he did stop, it wasn’t because of my words.

The year I turned six my family moved from Beirut, Lebanon to Bakersfield, California. I knew I was six and I knew being six meant going to first grade. The story is that I insisted on going to school. I probably did. Here is my first grade class picture:

1st grade classphoto

First Grade. Find me fourth row down, third from the left.

I was unhappy. I didn’t know any one. The other girls and boys had been in kindergarten together, their families went to the same church. I watched them sit together at lunchtime and save each other a place in line. I spent recess waiting for a turn on the swings or sitting atop of the monkey bars, alone. 

I couldn't bring myself to cut these apart. Notice how proud I am of my loose tooth??

Just couldn’t bring myself to cut these apart. I really want you to notice my loose tooth.

I was confused. There was so much about school I did not know. And as the girl who stared at the sky wondering when it will end, I knew even less. Is this handwriting or spelling time? How do I write a little letter a? With that cap thing, like thislowercase-letter-a serif— Or without it, like this lowercase letter a sans serif ? I looked at Mrs. Isaac for a hint. Here she is smiling about the mystery of the little letter a.

Mrs. Isaac, my first first-grade teacher.

When I asked her how to write the little letter a she did not smile. She had already given instructions. I had missed that. So I looked for a clue. Maybe on the paper of the girl at the next desk. Mrs. Isaac called out, “No cheating!” What? But I…

Her scowl withered the words on my lips.

One day something good happened at school. I saw a painting easel for the first time. Large blank sheets of paper clipped above a row of paint pots. Each pot had a lid like a donut. The handle of a paint brush stuck out above the hole and the brush bristles rested in the bright color below it. We would be taking turns painting butterflies! Riveted, I watched each boy or girl ahead of me. They painted colors on one side of a line on the large paper, removed it from the clips, folded it on the line, and opened it to find to perfectly matched pair of “wings”. It was magic! I thought of how I would make a beautiful butterfly. I would use red, and yellow, green, orange and blue!

Finally, I stood at the easel wearing a big backward shirt as my smock. So SO excited! First a blob of yellow. Put the brush back. Then some swirls of red. Put the brush back. Next some green. Put the brush back. Mrs. Isaac swooped down. I had put the green brush in the red pot. She pulled it out. The paint was the color of mud. Mrs. Isaac told me I had to use it. On my beautiful butterfly. I don’t remember what I said; but my words didn’t matter. I remember how my excitement left me in a whoosh. My now-icky painted paper was folded in half and opened to reveal a brown butterfly. A roar of rage welled up inside me, but all I did was cry.

That was a dark year. I didn’t learned how to make friends, or how to read, or how to put my feelings into words so that others would listen. My parents didn’t seem to notice my distress. It was a tough year for them too. My father found a different job and for the second time in less than 12 months we moved. West coast to east coast. A new school. A kinder teacher. A fresh start. I went to first grade again. But there was still so much I didn’t understand. And it seemed the other kids did. I began believing that something was wrong. With me. With how I learn. With how I feel.

That belief was the first tiny crack of disintegration, breaking up the trinity of my body, mind, spirit in an attempt to stop the pain of anger unattended.

What about you?

You probably don’t have a brown butterfly, but you have a story. Gently scan your memory. Do you see your small self? Do you remember the feeling without a name? When you felt it? Why? Tell yourself the story out loud or write it down. Now, speak to your child self. Wondering how to start?

Here’s some of what I say to my six-year-old self: Oh my gosh, look at you! Those big eyes and that loose-tooth grin. Yes, peachy, that was a tough year. No wonder you hated school! And look at you now? The woman who LOVES the classroom — as a student or a teacher. The person who knows and values the power of words, of self-expression, of compassion, of listening. That started then. Of course you are tender-hearted. You know loneliness, the sting of labels, the confounding ways of people in power. No wonder you rankle against exclusion, injustice, and hierarchy. Those were bad times, but there is good news: You, my little scab-kneed darling, not only survived, you have kick-ass-thrived.

This is part of a series I’m writing about personal anger. Something happens when we tell and examine our stories. Only when we frame our anger, with words or actions, can we truly see it, process it, and learn how it can serve us.

If I tell you about my anger, maybe you will find ways to talk about your anger too. Wondering what will come next? The next essay in the series will magically appear in your inbox when you subscribe.


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