A Room with a View

As I was boarding my plane yesterday I smiled at the woman merging in front of me and observed cheekily that people were nicer on Saturday. She looked uncertain so I clarified, “Absolutely. You should see people on Thursday at 4:00pm. It’s completely different.” She laughed then and noted that I must travel a lot. The irony was undeniable as we were standing in the group six cattle call and I was heading to a middle seat at the back of the plane. I looked at her wryly before retorting in good humor, “I travel a lot, but not enough to get status.”

Check-in at the hotel was another remarkably predictable experience. Many years of business travel have conditioned me to have my ID and credit card out and to respond knowingly to the questions asked by the employees working the front desk. As the woman concluded my transaction I accepted my room keys without pause, shuffling off to the elevators. I was pressing the up button before I even realized that I’d been given a room on the lowest floor. My sinking feeling got worse as I exited the elevator and saw the sign for the room numbers. My room was closest to the elevators and once inside I walked to the window and grimaced at my view: a flat gray roof displaying in mechanical systems, pipes and a satellite dish. Before I could stop myself the self-pitying words framed in my head.

How did I end up with the worst hotel room here?

It’s amazing how quickly and easily the human mind can complete a comparison and find itself wanting. Within a minute I had gone from being excited to disappointed, forgetting all about the opportunity I had been given to develop my leadership capabilities among other talented women. Why? Because I would be spending a handful of hours over four nights sleeping in a room without a view. And, to be honest, I might have stayed in that frame of mind and grumbled about my sorry lot if it weren’t for a recent podcast I listened to this week that put what I was experiencing — envy — into perspective.

The podcast was Counting Other People’s Blessings on the show Hidden Brain. I’m a new listener, but the show positions itself as using science and storytelling to “help curious people understand the world — and themselves.” I found it to be a fascinating exploration of why individuals compare their lives to others and as I stared out the window I connected back to what I had heard. I realized that I wasn’t mad about getting a bad room, I was mad that I got a worse room than someone else. I was envious of the people on the higher floors with views of sunsets and skylines. I wanted what they had, because what they had was better.

Comparison can be positive, helping us identify role models and aspirations, leading us to be better people. I regularly feel inadequate at these type of leadership conferences because I am surrounded by talented, sucessful people who remind me of all of the things I can’t do and may never accomplish. I’m certain that I went to Smith for the same reason, to push myself to develop capabilities in an environment where it couldn’t be argued that I was already done. Surround yourself with enough amazing people and the idea that you are finished growing becomes more and more laughable. How could I think I was successful when she’s done that? I mean really, what the heck was I thinking?

But comparisons can also be toxic and disempowering, leading to victimization. I felt righteous indignation about being stuck in a poor room, but what was I complaining about really? The room was large, well-appointed, and comfortable — it had everything that I needed. If I had returned to the front desk and pleaded my case it was a certainty that someone else would have ended up with it. I was embarrassed to consider what that person would think and how they would react to my assumption that they were somehow less worthy of a great view and a quiet night than I was. Ultimately, I decided that the best thing I could do was accept the judgement of the hotel gods and take a swipe at envy by sharing it in a post of my own. I could laugh at myself and the feeling of being slighted by shining a light on my own experience.

In the grand scheme of things, feeling envious of a great hotel room is a small matter or a witty Facebook post. Maybe the bigger issues is that we talk so rarely about the ugly side of envy, how we look at the successes of others and instead of feeling warmth for them we use it as a measurement to diminish our own happiness. We don’t talk much about envy in our polite society, but maybe we should. Maybe we should shine a light on the many times each day that we compare our lives to others and find ourselves wanting because guess what, someone always has more. Μore money. More beauty. More success. More stuff. Someone is always getting ahead faster or easier or better. How many times do we ask ourselves, in the dark moments we don’t admit out loud, why can’t I have what they have?

I don’t have an easy answer; this blog isn’t about easy answers.

All I know is that I find I am happier and more able to tackle life’s inevitable obstacles when I start with supporting people in their successes and looking inward to create new opportunities for myself. So, I channeled that mindset this morning when I got up and headed to the bathroom to get ready for a day of learning and growth. Focused, I laughed out loud when I turned on the shower and found myself staring at the best water pressure ever in a hotel bathroom. Ok, I thought, message received. It is not the worst hotel room here.

For all it gave me, it might just be the best.

A Joy of Storytelling

It’s a Saturday morning and I’m sitting in a grocery store cafe. As much as I appreciate the opportunity to focus on my writing for a few hours, weekend sleep-ins are my private luxury and I give them up begrudgingly. When I was a young over-eager analyst with little kids, my husband would get up at the first sign of activity and quietly sneak from bed. He would herd them both to the other side of the house with a soft, “Let’s let mommy sleep.” Now, more than ten years later it’s a chauffeur trip for my daughter that had me setting my alarm for 5:23am. “You’re a good mom,” my husband told me as I headed up to bed last night. Then he paused and corrected himself, “No, you’re a great mom.”

Sipping my chai tea latte, I’m not inclined to argue.

When I started this blog I made a conscious decision to stay away from writing about my kids. They were already in middle and high school, years when drawing attention to yourself is strongly discouraged. And as much as I wanted to interrogate my own journey through motherhood, any stories I would share were bound to put a spotlight on their own development. The more I thought about it, the more it felt wrong to share those thoughts: I signed up for the transparency of Too Much Mel, they didn’t.

No, I don’t write much about my kids, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t the lead characters in the majority of my stories.

This week I was reminded about how important storytelling is to me and the way I show up in the world. We had an all day leadership meeting that included an exercise on how to give and receive feedback. I’ve written copiously about the importance of feedback so I won’t belabor that point. What was interesting was the appreciative feedback I got from one of my colleagues, a close friend who took the time to find me across the crowded hotel ballroom to pass on her thoughts.

She told me that I was one of the best she had seen at explaining the “why” of things, making ideas understandable for people no matter what their level. She shared that it was a struggle for her and she appreciated my natural ability to do it and the way I made it look easy. I thanked her and then told her that I believed she had as many if not more experiences than I had that could be packaged as stories — her personal and professional journey is inspiring to me and I knew it would be for others. The trick, I told her, was to reflect on those experiences and take the time to frame them so that they can be told and retold with authenticity and impact.

As I was sharing that perspective, I realized that I had followed my own advice earlier that week. I presented to a computer science class to support our campus recruiting efforts and was talking over dinner with recruiters and students. The talk turned, normally and naturally, to family. Did the students have siblings? Were they older or younger? How had going away to college impacted their family dynamics? My kids are just a few years away from college and the same age as their younger siblings, so I ended up contributing to some of the conversation. And when the dialogue shifted to the challenges of mothers and daughters, I pulled out one of my favorite stories.

When I was working on a college campus, I had an office in a residence hall. At the time, my daughter was just entering the pre-teen stage when kids begin to see their parents as human, starting to question their wisdom and capabilities. I suddenly found myself booted from hero to an unwelcome and unwanted part of my daughter’s life. I struggled with it mightily. One night, as I was walking to my car I overheard the young woman working at the residence hall front desk talking with her mother. The conversation sounded engaged, positive and, although I wasn’t listening to the words, she seemed eager to get advice and appreciative of the call. When she said good-bye, I thought I heard the same love in her words that I had always heard from my little girl, until I hadn’t.

I waited to the side until the call was over and then walked up to her. “I don’t mean to eavesdrop,” I said, “But I heard you talking with your mother and you seemed to be having a great conversation. I’m interested in getting your perspective: when did realize your mom wasn’t the dumbest person in the world?” She looked at me with a completely straight face and considered my question. With barely a pause, she stated factually and without any humor, “Second semester sophomore year.” We both smiled and I thanked her and wished her a good shift. As I walked away a thought went through my head — at least there was a light at the end of the tunnel.

As I finished the story the table laughed. The students, wise juniors safely beyond their sophomore year, could appreciate their own growth to that point. Looking back at their younger siblings, struggling with their parents, they could see what they still had to learn. The mothers at the table were either struggling with or had survived evolving relationships with their own children. It’s one of my favorite stories because it encapsulates so simply a snapshot of the human experience and I remember with great vividness the feelings I had in the moment.

My daughter is still in high school and there are moments when I know she thinks I’m nutty as a fruitcake. The eye rolls are still there and she often says, “Things are different now, mom.” She’s right, the world is different than it used to be in many, many ways. And yet, I’m certain that there will be a time, about four years from now, when she will realize that what I know and what I’ve learned is a treasure trove that she can dig through anytime she wants. She doesn’t get it but I have faith that time will come.

And I’ll be ready to take the call, second semester sophomore year.

What Brings You Passion?

Before Christmas I found myself in a church auditorium enjoying a performance by the Agape Ringers, an elite handbell choir in the Chicagoland area. I didn’t grow up knowing a handbell from a doorbell, but I was lucky enough to get introduced to ringing by a good friend who attends handbell summer camp every year. She invited me to the concert one year and little by little I pulled the whole family into it. Now, it’s something we all look forward to each year.

Anyway as I was sitting waiting for the concert to start, I thumbed through the program and read the bios of the musicians. Reading through the snippets (family life, work life and tenure with the group) I was reminded just how much collected passion the performers had for thier craft. No matter who was important to them or what they did for employment, I’m willing to bet that ringing handbells brought them significant joy. In my opinion, it’s hard to be really good at something without a lifelong investment, and having seen the group before, and watched the adoration on my friend’s face, I knew they were really good.

I got to thinking about that — the idea of what brings people passion — as I was driving home. Culturally, we have a tremendous bias toward work and the idea that fulfilling work is the central tenant to a fulfilling life. We spend a lot of time at work, after all, so it feels good to believe that people are fulfilled by that activity. But, I know that isn’t true. For most people work is simply a necessary evil, something that needs to done to put food on the table and roof over their heads. And yet, like most people, I still persist in walking up to people at events and asking, “What do you do?” as if the question will bring a twinkle to their eye. I really should know better, because it’s one of the reasons my husband hates parties. He’s always trying to figure out how to answer that question, either apologetically or covertly, because saying that he is a stay-at-home dad carries such baggage.

Ask my husband about what he does and you’ll get a lukewarm answer, but if you ask him about what he’s passionate about, you will get an earful. Talk to him about the time he brought a 1971 pinball machine back to life or when we got stuck sailing on Lake Erie in a storm. Ask him about his family or the odds of the Red Wings making the NHL playoffs. Those are the things that matter.

I find that it’s the same with most people.

A good friend of mine from high school is a drummer, so in love with the art of drumming that he built a sound proof room in his basement. I know that when I want to see that fire in his eyes I should ask about his most recent drum kit or gig — not about the very successful, well-paying job he has had for over 20 years. Whenever I see a YouTube video of someone drumming like a mad fool I think of him and smile.

My brother has spent most of his adult life writing a musical about the origins of the video game industry. He was able to share the idea with one of his idols, Ralph Baer, and it made him happier than just about any other time I have seen him. I’m not sure I want to know how many hours he’s dedicated to taking it from a rough idea through the fine tuning necessary to make him proud. It’s amazing and even so I’m not sure he will ever think it is good enough. Artists can be pretty hard on their creations.

A guy my husband knows is really into pinball. When he and his wife decided to renovate their house, they dug out their basement to double the square footage and expand his collection. He even had a specialized elevator built to make it easy to get machines up and down. I used to think my husband was too into pinball — and then I went out to his friend’s house, looked around and rode the elevator. On the drive home I acknowledged that I was wrong, his pinball hobby was normal.

I’m a workaholic and I’ve spent most of my life a little in love with my jobs. Like any dysfunctional relationship, when things have gone poorly it’s hurt a lot because I’ve wrapped so much of my own happiness up in doing well. It’s like having a huge stock portfolio in only one stock — I haven’t been very diversified. Heck, if I didn’t have my family, and now this blog, I’d be at risk of putting all of my life eggs in my work basket. Happily.

So, I sometimes forget that the vast majority of individuals don’t get that kind of passion from their work — until I see a handbell concert.

A friend of mine from college just announced that she is leaving her job. She’s one of the most professionally successful people that I know and I am confident that people will look at her decision skeptically. They will wonder what the heck she is thinking. But, if they had truly listened to her, they wouldn’t have to wonder. They would know that after doing what she had to do, doing what was needed, she is giving herself the freedom to pursue her passion. Her passion isn’t in a paycheck or a fancy title, it’s somewhere else and she’s heading in that direction. And knowing her commitment and focus, I’m willing to bet she gets there.

Whether it be hobby, habit or happening, here’s hoping that you have a little bit of energy left over from doing what you have to do for whatever brings you passion. And remember, when you meet a stranger at a New Year’s Eve party don’t ask they what they do. Ask them what brings them joy.

Slow Down

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings’.”

– Dave Barry

My work-life is filled with meetings. On an average day my calendar may have less than an hour of non-committed time, with the rest locked down in 30-minute and 1-hour blocks. I run to conference rooms scattered across two buildings and ten floors. No matter how hard I try to make sure I have time to live my “open door” leadership philosophy, no matter how hard I push to say “no” when I am not the right person for the dialogue, I have been unsuccessful in controlling the creeping ooze that is meetings.

And, that is why what happened this week was so surprising and delightful.

As I approached the end of year holidays (and the week I habitually take off between Christmas and New Years) a remarkable thing happened. I watched with giddiness as one by one meetings fell off my calendar, cancelled or rescheduled for next year. It felt like everyone took a collective breath and admitted, all at once, that their crisis wasn’t as urgent as they thought. Nothing catastrophic would happen if the discussion or decision or action happened a few business days later. We wouldn’t all turn into pumpkins if it didn’t happen before — bwahaahaa — the end of year.

In the course of a day, my calendar tipped from 90% meetings to 90% free time. And, faced with that unusual reality, I was able to act differently. I was able to lean into three transformative conversations and address each issue with my full capabilities, giving it not just 30-minutes of my thoughtful attention, but the amount of time the relationship or challenge needed to make true and real progress.

One of those examples started with a completely random event. Walking to the restroom, I saw a project manager from one of my big development efforts heading back to her desk. I paused and asked her how she was. She made a throwaway comment, the kind that says, “Not great, but I’m working it out.” In my normal life, faced with my normal calendar, I would have given her a conspiratorial wink and told her to keep at it.

But, not this time.

In that moment, with a calendar unconstrained by another meeting, I slowed down. I listened past her words to see the tension in her eyes. I thought I could sense that, under the bravado, she was signaling that she needed help. My help. With a wide-open calendar the next day, I asked if she happened to be in and whether she could free up some time for chat. She was and could. She scheduled 30 minutes for us the next day.

We connected as planned and after our 30 minutes were up, she had barely had enough time to brief me on the knotty challenge she was facing. On a normal day, I would have whipped off a few witticisms and metaphorically shouted “next!” to whoever was in my waiting room. But, with the freedom of an open calendar, we had time to explore. I asked probing questions to gain understanding. I jotted down ideas on my white board. What about this? How would that be perceived? Are these ideas connected? Would this be understood?

Together we realized that we didn’t have one challenge, we had four. And that the challenges were not independent but tightly related to a single business trade-off that we could address on a continuum. With an aligned mindset, we modeled an approach that would allow our business leaders to explicitly respond the in an upcoming meeting; we defined a way that would allow us to enlist them in the deciding the answer instead of pushing something on them.

It was invigorating and I went home that night feeling that I had done less but delivered more.

The next morning as I was getting ready for the day’s activities I looked up to see her standing in my doorway. She was smiling and just wanted to let me know that after we talked she had connected with our business sponsor who had been just as excited about the direction we had identified. We talked a bit about the progress we had made the day before and what had made it possible: Approachability. Purpose. Listening. Time.

Later that morning I found myself with another executive and I shared the experience. I told him that we needed to find a way, as leaders, to create more opportunity to shift from activity to engagement. We needed to give ourselves the time to think deeply and help our teams pause long enough to understand the issues fully so we could really resolve them. I looked at him and asked rhetorically, “What happens if we can only count on those moments happening once a year when the vast majority of our team members are on vacation?”

I don’t have an answer. All I can say is that I have been as guilty as the next leader of incorrectly correlating productivity with activity and motion with progress. But this week I was faced with a striking example where real results were connected not with “time-boxing” and “efficient agendas” but with simply being open to listening and letting the conversation go where it needed to go, with letting connections happen not purposefully but organically. That example has led me to a goal for myself.

Next year, I will create an opportunity to do it more.

The More Things Change

This weekend I found myself on my hands and knees struggling around in my crawlspace. I’m short but it turns out not short enough to avoid the crossbeams of a space designed more for utility access and rarely used bric-a-brac than for human movement. The smart plan would have been to get in and get out focusing on the Christmas decorations that had sent me there in the first place.

But no, not me.

Instead, I navigated in the darkness looking for the box of books I was sure was there. Somehow in our last move I lost track of a stash of books I had from college and while I don’t have an inventory, I know that I wouldn’t have jettisoned my copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or the Marketing textbook I researched a case for in graduate school. I didn’t find them, but instead I found a milk crate of my own history.

Nestled in a back corner I found it, filled with small remnants from my 20’s. I found the theatre portfolio I submitted to get placed into the right lighting design class, the binder that contained the artifacts of my journey to grad school (application, acceptance letter and letters from the Dean for grades) and a hodgepodge of stuff from my final desk cleaning when I left my first real job, starting the zig zag of my career.

At the top of that last pile, tossed carelessly in amongst the other miscellaneous desk contents, was a simple printed document. Titled “360 Development Feedback Report” and dated 2006, it contained anonymous comments on my strengths and opportunities for improvement from my direct reports and peers. I scanned the pages, eager to see how much I had changed since then.

My team then, both subordinates and peers, commented on my confidence, clarity of vision, willingness to share technical knowledge, ability to create team and support of my team’s work-life balance. And they noted that I needed to work on my delegation, communication, defensiveness when challenged and ability to manage my own work-life balance. When I finished reviewing the pages I flipped back to the beginning to make sure I was looking at the right thing. I was confused because, to be honest, those comments could have been written about me this week as easily as 10 years ago.

Maybe you’re not surprised. After all, it was in the 19th century that author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phased “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” or “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Maybe it’s not that surprising that someone who was described in 2006 as “one of the most relentless and energetic persons I have ever worked with” is still high-energy. Or that someone who “should sometimes put more faith in her employees, not only by delegating more, but also by trusting the work of the employee and not changing/altering everything that has to go up to senior management” still has a tendency to own the final version of a presentation before it hits prime time. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that at my core I’m the same person now that I was then. And, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised except for one basic thing:

I believe, in my heart, I have been living a growth mindset.

Our beliefs are tricky things and no beliefs are trickier to manage then those about ourselves. I just finished a book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and while Mark Manson’s shocking title (and prolific use of a word frowned upon in polite circles) might put people off, one of the key points of the book is that being open to being wrong, especially about deeply held beliefs, is a key to happiness. He notes that questioning your own values and whether you are living them is critical to determining what you care about (what you should give a f*ck about) and living a life of purpose.

For as long as I can remember, a huge part of my personal identity has been wrapped up in the value that every day is an opportunity to gain insight and develop new and better capabilities. And yet, faced with the fact of the 360 feedback I was given long ago, I can’t help but wonder if I truly value growth as much as I espouse. Ten years, two organizations and a handful of job titles later I appear to still be strong where I have been strong and weak where I have been weak. The more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

Normally, I like to end these posts with some witty closing, some quip or quote or answer that will pull the whole thing together. I like to note what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown or what big question I’ve answered. I don’t have that tonight. Instead, I’ve got some more thinking to do, some more staring the facts in the eye and wondering what it means for my beliefs and my way of going after life. So, this one will have to be a cliffhanger, a two-parter that ends with more questions than answers.

When I know what I think, I’ll write it here.


It’s noon on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and if you listen closely you can hear the sound of football. There’s the play-by-play and the color commentary, crowd noise and the backseat refereeing. Occasionally the sound of a cheer shouted or swear muttered interrupts my thinking and makes me smile. I’m sitting at the table of my in-law’s house where my husband and his mother are garbed in their respective colors: maize and blue for him, scarlet and gray for her.

They love each other, but they are still fighting the Michigan Ohio war.

One day a year my hometown becomes ground zero for one of college football’s biggest rivalries. They brainwashed us early, telling us in elementary school that we needed to pick a side. I remember two things about being a kid heading into Thanksgiving: learning to draw a turkey by tracing my hand and celebrating Michigan / Ohio State day. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t describe the difference between a quarterback and a quarter pounder or that I wasn’t a fan of either team, it was crystal clear that neutrality wasn’t an option.

My husband is a Michigan fan who had the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of the border to a family that all supports Ohio State. I could never explain how it happened, how he managed to buck the trend and become a loyal and devoted fan of “that team up North.” But recently I watched a documentary called Michigan vs. Ohio State – The Rivalry and it all became clear. The man I love was a two-month old baby when Bo Schembechler took the helm of Michigan in 1969 and beat Ohio State, an undefeated juggernaut defending their national championship from the year before.

He has always loved a great win and his loyalty once gained doesn’t falter; mystery solved.

For someone who has been a begrudging participant in this particular tradition, Michigan football has become a big part of my life. Saturdays in the fall have a force field around them, the three or four hours of the game walled off from any other activities. I knew that I was destined to get married in the summertime, because even our wedding wouldn’t take precedence over a game. Our daughter was born in Ann Arbor on a football Saturday, arriving after a sleepless night and ten hours of labor. Exhausted, we watched the game on a tiny tv while our newborn daughter slept in a plexiglass bassinet next to us. Ask him about the day and he will share his still fresh disappointment that Tyrone Wheatley dropped the ball and cost Michigan the game in the last minutes. Ask me and I’ll bristle, reminding him that it was the best day of his life.

If you’re from the borderland, you have friends and family on each side. My best friend and her husband are Buckeyes while my husband is a Wolverine. The first fall after our daughters were born we drove to their home to watch the game with my daughter dressed up in a Michigan cheerleader outfit. A young woman that I know just had her first child and her infant son spent today wearing a Michigan shirt and an Ohio State pair of pants. When we bought our first house, I remember my husband’s feeling of relief to be living in Michigan. He was ecstatic to be in friendly territory until our neighbor hung an Ohio State flag.

In this strip of land, you never know where the loyalties lie.

I’ve spent most of my life in the borderland and this rivalry has been a part of my life for a long as I can remember. This year’s game will be over soon and it will be just another data point in a long tradition. The people I know and love will head back into their lives, some victorious and others defeated, while I sit on the sidelines wondering yet again why I am not wired to care as deeply as they do. Instead, I’ll hit “publish” on this post and head off to dinner completely unimpaired by the outcome. And, I’ll remind the people I love that there is one great thing about rivalries.

It will always be there next year.

Me, too

It’s been two weeks since my social media feeds were overtaken by the hashtag #metoo. As hard as it has been for me to read articles about sexual harassment and abuse perpetrated by and against strangers, it was so much harder seeing friends, relatives and colleagues shine a light on their own pain. I watched quietly, knowing that I had my own story and wondering if any good would come from sharing it. And, more importantly, whether I would be brave enough to bring the words to life.

Two weeks later, the answer is yes.

Unlike many of the women who have come forward, I have not experienced sexual harassment in my career. For nearly 20 years I have worked in male-dominated functions in male-dominated companies. Now, as an executive, I am routinely the only woman at the table. I have worked long hours in empty office buildings and traveled regularly where it would have been easy for someone to use their power to harm me. They haven’t. Yes, I’ve worked with my share of power-hungry jerks, but they were equal opportunity in their actions. They treated men and women badly and, as far as I can tell, never for sex.

I’ve had long moments of reflection on my own good fortune in this regard. When I am feeling self-conscious of my appearance, I wonder if I am simply not an attractive enough target. When I am feeling strong and powerful, I believe that I exude the air of someone who would be unlikely to keep quiet. When I am feeling pragmatic I know that being married early in life created a kind of natural barrier for predators and that I have worked in companies where the culture was inclusive and intolerant of harassment behaviors. I have been lucky and I know it.

I wish I could say that I’d always been lucky.

It was thirty years ago, give or take, that I learned the heart-numbing feeling of being powerless. I have spent many years working to move beyond that feeling and so I can’t get any closer to the timing. I can triangulate the timeframe because of the house we lived in and the fact that I was young enough that my parents wouldn’t have let me stay home with my brothers alone, maybe I was 12 or 13. They went out for errands on a weekend and they wanted us to have a baby sitter, someone to take care of us.

He was an older boy, high school or college maybe. I was a studious, serious bookworm who could be generously called awkward when it came to the idea of boys. When he suggested that we play poker, I thought it would be fun. When he suggested that we play strip poker I felt uncomfortable but didn’t want to seem childish. When he started to touch me I was paralyzed, completely unprepared to deal with the situation. I only remember (at some point) standing and running to the small half bath, locking the door and sitting on the floor waiting for my parents to come home. I could have sat there for 20 minutes or two hours, I don’t know. I just remember that when they walked through the door I pretended that everything was just fine. I was certain that what happened was something that I needed to hide — it was something shameful and bad that would make me less, would make them love me less.

That feeling of shame and guilt is what has kept me nearly silent since then. I told my mother eventually, years later when I was a mother myself. I told my best friend on a quiet night when you feel like your darkest secrets can come out for just a few minutes before you tuck them back away. I told my husband when, in a discussion around why women who have been raped don’t say something, I blew up and told him he had no idea what it was like to face that kind of stigma and that I for one would believe anyone who had the courage to come forward and be judged by the world. The whole story spilled out and he held me while the wave of nausea slid over me. None of them blamed me. None of them loved me less.

I don’t want to have to write these words. Thirty years later I am still physically affected by sharing my story. If this happened to my own daughter, now a teenager herself, I would assure her that she had nothing to be ashamed of and that she was a victim of circumstances beyond her control. But, I have no such forgiveness for the young girl that I was. For her, I have judgement and condemnation: You should have known better. You should have avoided the situation. You should have fought back. You should have said something.

You brought this on yourself.

You deserved it.

I know all too well why people stay silent. I spent two weeks wrestling with whether I had the courage to bring my adolescent self to life in one of her lowest moments and — let’s be serious — on a good day my blog gets 40 hits. It’s not like this is the New York Times.  But, it is important for me to love that young girl for the bright shining person that she was then and for the amazing woman that she has grown to be. I want to be the kind of person who can, once and for all, stop blaming her and support her the way I would support any girl, woman or person in the same position. Yes, I know why people stay silent but I’m finally ready to sit down and say something to my adolescent self, something I should have said a long time ago.

You didn’t do anything wrong, sunshine. I forgive you.