Reflections – A Vignette

I can’t stand my reflection.

You can’t understand how hard it is to look in the mirror and feel such monumental disappointment. Every time our eyes meet, the loathing increases. Wasted, I think. So much incredible potential wasted.

Tradition holds that each person has the option to approach the mirror on their 25th birthday, to look into the eyes of their reflection. Not everyone does, which leads to its own disappointment. Some of the hardest moments I’ve faced have come during late night conversations with friends who looked not into the eyes of their reflections, but instead into the blackness of an empty mirror. Unwanted, unloved, by someone who is a near replica of themselves.

That would have been better. Much, much better.

I remember the day. The crew had been planning around the day for months, finishing up our latest heist to give us plenty of time to stash the take, tuck away our aliases and get to Central City. Maybe it was foolish, but my whole life I had wondered at the possibility of two of me. Two criminal masterminds. Two brilliant, driven women capable of bringing others to their cause, creating new and innovative schemes to control and mainpulate a weak and slavish world.

It was too much temptation to resist.

So, we made the journey and at 1:47pm I entered the queue for the mirror. At the exact moment of my birth I stepped into the room and with giddy anticipation walked forward to the portal to meet the alternative me — exactly me, with one small difference. One inverted part of me. Just like a reflection.

I’ll never forget that moment, realizing that she came and staring at myself in the blackness. Looking into her eyes I knew we would be linked forever, never again needing the mirror to connect. After today, she and I would build the strongest criminal enterprise either world had ever seen. I never anticipated the one thing that could ruin my plans.

My reflection was a goddamn rule follower.

We’ve talked every day since that moment and my reflection has all of my intellect. She’s great at strategy, collaborative as anyone could ever want and the team trusts her now at least as much as me. But she refuses to do anything unethical or immoral. I pushed her once, just to see how tightly she was wound. She refused to so much as pirate a movie off the internet.

It would be bad enough, just knowing that all of that mastermind potential was trapped behind her goodie goodie nature, but it’s worse than that. It’s the lectures, the daily lectures about how I should be using my talents for good. Every frickin’ day she drones on and on because just like me she is a ridiculously persistent.

No one knows, before the mirror, what they will see. Whether their reflection will bring joy or pain, love or hate, peace or heartache. All I wanted was world domination and I couldn’t for a minute see the one small thing, the one inversion would stop me.

Morals.

Shhhhh, secrets…

Yesterday, I listened for the second time to the TED Radio hour podcast, Keeping Secrets. The lead off segment was focused on Frank Warren, who started a community art project to collect stranger’s secrets. He started in 2005 by handing out 300 pre-addressed postcards in Washington DC and he asked something simple: Write one secret and pop it in the mailbox.

I remember being intrigued the first time I listened to the episode, but I didn’t do anything about it. Last night, I took the time to go out and visit the website and poke around. And, it sucked me in as soon as I saw the same postcard:

I loved you so much…that when I miscarried, I told you I had an abortion so you could blame me…instead of God.

Wow.

I suppose that, by definition, secrets are the antithesis of Too Much Mel. I’m just not wired to keep secrets; I never have been. So, no matter how hard I considered it, I just couldn’t put myself in a position where I would tell my partner anything other than the truth about losing a baby. Frankly, I’m not sure I am capable of that, even if I felt it would make it easier.

That doesn’t mean I don’t have secrets — it just means that the secrets I carry aren’t mine.

It is a great irony to me that someone so unlikely to keep their own secrets is trusted by others to keep theirs. When I think about what I have tucked away in my vault I am both humbled and scared. Humbled because I must have done something to allow individuals to feel comfortable sharing their stories and their secrets. Scared because what if my over sharing tendencies let someone down?

Once, someone felt I let them down. Someone I worked with many years ago shared something with me in confidence. Not long after that, the secret came out and they accused me of telling our boss — they had told no one else, they said. No amount of protest would convince them that I hadn’t spoken to anyone about it. Years later I don’t even remember what it was, I only remember the hard conversation when they told me our friendship was over.

That haunted me for years. At the time, I played the minutes, hours and days back in my mind, trying to figure out if it was possible that I just didn’t remember doing it. After all, I’m not the kind of person to hold stuff inside. I believe that sharing trials and tribulations, fears and dreams, wings and warts builds the kind of relationships that last the long haul.

But, the truth is this no matter how hard it is to keep someone else’s secret, it is much harder to lose their trust. Looking someone in the eye and facing down their disappointment is more painful that tucking someone’s secret aside in a hidden part of my mind. That’s how I found a way to make it work. Turns out that keeping other people’s secrets is easier than breaking their trust.

And that’s no secret.

Broken Is Beautiful

I’m not sure who coined the phrase beauty is in the eye of the beholder. A quick Google search generated at least five different alternatives and I’m not that enamored with the phrase to dedicate myself to finding a more satisfying answer. Someone said it sometime, a long time ago, and we’ve been parroting it ever since.

The problem is this: as good as that sounds and as much as most people like the idea most beholders have pretty narrow standards. Me, too. Brainwashing or human evolution, some characteristics just tend to rise to the top. I read somewhere that symmetry has been a constant sign of beauty throughout history. I thought that was interesting in its pure objectivity.

But, it’s not physical beauty that got me thinking today, it was inner beauty. Beauty of spirit that comes from not how one looks but how one lives. I was stunned by this quote:

She made broken look beautiful and strong look invincible. She walked with the universe on her shoulders and made it look like a pair of wings.

It struck me as true because the women that I know who have beautiful spirits didn’t get that way without facing hardship. And remarkably they proudly share the experiences that have broken them as proof of survival. They share what they learned and what they lost freely with friends and younger generations as testimony and inspiration.

Occasionally, I will reach out to one of these amazing, strong women and tell them how much I respect them and what they have accomplished. “The fact that you made it through _________ is a reflection of the strong, amazing woman you are.” I have typed a version of that in Facebook Messenger so many times. It is one of my favorite things to do, to tell people how awesome they look from the outside. How my eyes behold their inner beauty.

The hardest part for me though is that most times they are surprised to hear me say it. The most common responses are self-doubt, embarrassment and incredulity. Sometimes, they turn the compliment back to me. Which (ironically) causes me self-doubt, embarrassment and incredulity.

Rarely do they send me the 😏 emoticon and reply, “Thanks, I am pretty kick-ass.”

So, when I saw one of the strongest, most awe-inspiringly amazing women that I know post this quote on her page to inspire others, I just had to do something. I had to say something. And here it is, what I want to say to every woman who has pulled her life out of some horrible cesspool of ugliness. Who has faced down a bad choice or a letdown or a lost dream. For every single one of you that looks in the mirror at a life that isn’t what you thought it would be and feels broken, I have this to say.

You may be broken, but that doesn’t make you ugly. It makes you beautiful and it makes you strong. You inspire me every day and you remind me that I too am capable of being both broken and beautiful.  I promise to wear my wings not apologetically but fully aware that I built them through living. If you will embrace the strength of your beauty, so will I.

No matter who’s looking or what they see.

I’m Not a Princess

I grew up addicted to Disney movies, so much so that when I was a young married woman I had the entire VHS collection before I had children. Even though I loved the plots, characters and music, I never saw myself in any of the princesses. They were all too polished, too poised, too perfect. Even the princesses in exile acted liked princesses. And to make matters worse they cleaned, too.

And then there was Belle. Outspoken Belle who adored her eccentric father, didn’t have time for boys and walked through the village with her nose firmly in a book, blissfully unaware of the world around her. She fought her own battles and although she had a feeling that she didn’t quite fit in, she moved beyond it.

I loved Belle because even though she was beautiful she felt like me.

Disney’s Beauty and the Beast was released my freshman year in college and I remember riding the public bus to the pathetic mostly abandoned mall to see it in the theater. Seeing Belle then, at that time and in that place, reinforced my self-image as a warrior queen and the last shred of princess aspirations fell away. Poof. Later on, Disney would give me Mulan, Merida and Elastigirl, more strong girls and women who didn’t quite fit in. Just like me.

Now don’t get me wrong, I still loved the princesses and the girls and women I knew in real life who were like them. My daughter got a Barbie make-up desk for Christmas when she was four and watching her seamlessly navigate the aisles at Ulta now amazes me. There is a part of me that thinks it would be fun to be polished, poised and perfect. But that isn’t me and it won’t ever be.

My husband gets that. I have neither asked for nor expected a pedestal — and he would have no idea how to put me upon one. The closest we get is with my car; I casually mention that I need an oil change and it magically gets done. But even that is mostly a reflection of my inability to prioritize preventative maintenance and his need to keep things in tip-top shape. I’d be fine with a car that went 6,000 miles between oil changes, but he’s not.

Mostly, I’m thankful that we live in a society where both princesses and warrior queens can exist, along with the talented amazing women who don’t identify with either of those categories. I enjoy watching the expanding diversity and representation in tv shows and movies to give individuals characters with whom to connect. We live in a big, amazing world and I love to be reminded that I’m both weird and normal compared to it.

Besides, everyone deserves a Belle moment.

Why I’m Not a Doctor

I have always found the human body to be fascinating. In fact, at least once a year some news story, podcast or article gives me another reason to marvel at our complex physiological systems and the amazing individuals who study and repair them everyday. And every time I do, I feel a little bit jealous that I am not one of them. I would have loved to be in the medical field, but I have one fatal flaw.

I can’t stand the sight of blood.

I’m not just a little squeamish, seeing blood and needles makes me pass out. Growing up I learned to lay down when giving blood. I learned to cover an injury immediately and then get help for treatment. I didn’t hesitate when I cut my finger badly at my mother’s 60th birthday party — I grabbed a wad of paper towels and applied pressure. And then I asked my sister, a nurse, to take care of it while I sat and looked the other way.

People told me that when I had children I would be able to deal with it — that motherly instincts would help me rise above it for them. I wish that was the case. When my daughter was five or six she was holding our dog’s leash when she was quite young and she got pulled hard, fell and ended up scraping herself on the sidewalk. I carried her the half mile home eyes forward, focused on calming her down. When we got home and it was time to treat the abrasions I took one look and had to sit down. My husband sent me for supplies.

Another time, my infant son had surgery to remove a fistula. After he was safely out of the anesthesia the nurse sat down with us and explained how we had to clean and pack the wound so it could heal properly. I started to get woozy and the nurse hurriedly pulled up a stool telling me to put my head between my knees. A week later I found myself alone and having to deal with it myself. I tried — so hard — to pull my crap together and do what needed to be done. I yelled at myself and started crying standing over him on the diaper changing table. I called in the calvary: my sister-in-law, a nurse, drove over and did it in about 3 minutes.

She didn’t laugh. Much.

I am thankful every single day that there are talented people who can do what I cannot. People for whom the human body  is just as fascinating but not frightening. People whose bodies do not let them down when faced with blood, bodily fluids and tissue. People who are capable of running into danger without becoming another medical emergency. Without you, I would be in deep trouble. I need you, literally, to stay alive.

In return, I promise to do all the tortuous Excel and PowerPoint. It’s the least I can do.

The Ovarian Lottery

On my drive home from work last night I heard a snippet from StoryCorp that touched me. A young woman shared that she had only met her father once when she was four years old. Many years passed and when he couldn’t be found she and her mother concluded that he must be dead. Until she Googled him as an adult and found a booking photo — he wasn’t dead, he was in jail in Oregon.

An hour later I was scrolling through Facebook and stopped at a Humans of New York photo. The woman shared her story of meth addiction, her regret that she had stolen her kids’ childhood and her lack of confidence that she could recover. I read and reread this quote:

I’ve cheated my kids out of normal lives. My seventeen-year-old daughter is in a home for teen moms. My twenty-one-year-old son is in jail. My eighteen-year-old daughter is doing OK. She’s got a job at FedEx and goes to college. She hates drugs and thinks the world is a good place and that nobody is out to hurt her. She wants to help me. She wants me to come live with her when I get out. I don’t think that’s a good idea.

Two stories of families torn apart by drugs, four children whose lives had origin stories that were miles away from my experience, either mine or my children’s. I thought about it, how hard it must have been for those children and how I couldn’t possibly understand it.

I shared the two stories with my family as we were driving home from dinner and my son — sweet, sensitive boy that he is — said, “Mom, I’m not sure which would be worse, growing up without a parent or growing up with parent who is a drug addict. I’m lucky, dad is awesome.”

He is lucky. He has a dad who has stayed and loved him constantly since the day he was born and he has a mom who won’t drink more than a glass of wine without worry. And it is luck because he didn’t do a single thing to be worthy of it. Just like those other kids didn’t do a single thing to end up in their situation. The circumstances of one’s birth are the ultimate dice throw. The ovarian lottery.

I heard that term for the first time listening to a podcast about the failures of family-owned companies in the second and third generations of ownership. Warren Buffet used it to describe the unlikely odds of having it all work out in your favor. And yes, even though I sort of understand the science behind genetics, that our building blocks are based on the building blocks of our parents, no child ever said, “Yeah, put me there, that looks right.”

Nope, by the time you’re old enough to understand the ovarian lottery — old enough to know that things are different for other kids — you have gained appreciation or grit. Or you haven’t. Because you can’t do anything to change who your parents, are you can only play the hand you’re dealt. I just hope my kids recognize the stacked hand they’ve received. Not because we’re perfect, far from it. But because even on our worst day we’re here and we’re all in. 

And I was reminded yesterday that not every kid can say the same thing.