Remembering from You

Yesterday, I found myself sitting beside my husband on the metal bench of a ferry. Like I had countless times before, I was taking the short ride from the shore of Ohio out to one of the Lake Erie islands. We had moved up to the top deck so we could look out over the water and enjoy the crisp blue sky and I had settled down to wait for the tell-tale engine rumbling that would signal our departure. And then a sparkle of motion and crackle of sound alerted me to a small girl.

“Daddy, when will we get to the island? How big is the ocean? Mommy, when will we be on land again?” Her mother told her it wouldn’t be long and that it was a lake and not an ocean, to which the girl replied, “I am going to call it an ocean. Okay?” I smiled and turned around to see a pixie with her face painted with an elaborate turquoise and green peacock feather.

“Is this your first trip to the island?” I asked. She nodded shyly and leaned back in her bench. I lowered my voice and put every bit of smile I could into my conspiratorial tone, “My little girl is 17 now, but we brought her here for the first time when she was about your age. It’s an awesome place and I bet you’ll have a really fun time.”

I realized, in that moment, that there comes a time when your memories are triggered not by your own experiences, but by watching the experiences of others.

My daughter had been five, her brother two, when we had decided to take our first family trip to the islands. Even growing up on boats this was a new adventure. Going on our boat didn’t require buying tickets or standing in lines. Our boat didn’t have three levels with stairs and so many people. Why did it have tables like a restaurant and chairs like a movie theatre? Did they really NOT have to wear a “boat coat”? How long will the trip take? What will we do when we get there? They had wanted to see every inch, rushing from area to area to pick the perfect place to sit.

At the time, I had experienced the moment with a mix of worry and wonder. Every time my heart widened because my children were seeing something for the first time I had to fight off less positive feelings. There was nervousness that they would hurt themselves, from a mundane skinned knee or a catastrophic fall over the ship’s rail. There was embarrassment that other parents would find my children poorly behaved and judge my parenting skills. There was anxiousness that the trip wouldn’t live up to the hype and they would be disappointed.

But now, watching someone else’s child dash about I could fully enjoy her excitement. I understood completely what her parents were feeling as they said quietly, “Alright, let’s find a place and settle down” but I also wished they could be better than I had been and enjoy the moment. Sure, I knew that bad things were possible, but in retrospect I was able to see what they couldn’t. My husband and I had our eyes open and would ward their children like our own. We felt no judgement for their daughter’s exuberance, only joy for her and nostalgia for our own times gone to never be reclaimed. And that anxiousness? Wasted. She would love every minute of it.

Sitting at the end of our day at a picnic table, I flipped through the photos I had captured of our own first trip. My son, standing and clutching the rail of the ferry with my husband’s entire arm wrapped around him. Both kids standing on the shoreline throwing pebbles into the water, my husband arms crossed watching for danger. My daughter, arms thrown triumphantly out, ready to start (or perhaps finish) a glorious spin.

Looking back I’m sure of two things: we were so young and we didn’t realize what we had.

I have friends now with young children. Some are people my age who entered parenthood later than I did. Some are a generation younger than me following a path like mine just 15 years later. I don’t want to come off as preachy or a know-it-all — goodness knows I don’t know anything except my own history — but I desperately want to help them understand what I didn’t know or couldn’t appreciate at the time. Yes, parenting small children is trying and tiring. Yes, you have the constant worry that something horrible will happen and you won’t be able to prevent it. Yes, it is an awesome and awe-inspiring responsibility that hits you like a ton of bricks the minute you pull away from the hospital with the car seat strapped down behind you. Yes, yes, yes. But, it is also a chance to see the real honest-to-goodness joy of a new experience lived for the first time. Over and over and over again.

Until it’s gone.

I have a friend that I’ve lost touch with, a woman who had two children when she was young and then a third after a long gap. I asked her, sincerely, what that had been like. She told me it was amazing because she knew from experience how useless the worry was, how much it took away from enjoying childhood. My kids were young then, so I didn’t really understand.

I do now.

Incredible Fathers

Last night, I dragged my family to see Incredibles 2. I’ve been waiting for a sequel to the classic Pixar movie for years, wanting to go back to an animated world that seamlessly connected the super hero mythos with the everyday challenges of work, marriage, and parenthood. So many of us have been waiting so long that the director and stars did a pre-movie statement, acknowledging the hiatus and thanking the everyone for their patience.

When the first Incredibles was released in 2004 my life was in a very different place. I was a young professional with two kids four and under. We were just starting our journey as parents, struggling through what I recognize as the “little kids, little problems” stage. But there was something about the movie — as crazy as this sounds — that made it feel like someone understood the adulthood balancing act we were working through. We’ve watched it many times since and each time it feels like we catch another small point of connection, each time we feel a new kinship with Helen and Bob Parr.

Their conversations are our conversations.

Their challenges are our challenges.

So, as I headed into the movie theatre I was prepared to love whatever I saw; all I really wanted was another dose of the same. The only thing I was nervous to avoid was the incompetent father stereotype that is so common in pop culture today. Too many father centric movies, tv shows, and commercials cast dads as bumbling idiots who can’t complete even the most basic parenting and household tasks without either complaining or creating chaos.

Thankfully, Incredibles 2 was not that movie.

I won’t fill this post with spoilers, but the movie delivered everything I never thought to hope for, namely a loving mother’s joy in returning to a job at which she excels and a capable father taking on the primary parenting role so she can do it. It was like the movie gods got together and made my perfect Father’s Day release.

Look, I get it. Fatherhood has changed a lot since I was a kid and pop culture is still playing the old gags that fit when dads weren’t capable of parenting their own children for a night while their spouses went out with friends. Back in that era, dads weren’t really expected to have much to do with kids until they were old enough to carry on a conversation or catch a ball. Even then, many fathers were hands off, responsible for bringing in a steady paycheck and creating rules that everyone else worked hard to follow. Generally speaking, care-giving and nurturing were seen as a mother’s role. We acted like that was fine — and some people still long for that age — but as I talk to older men who were fathers during this time, they often regret that they weren’t expected to be an active part of their children’s lives. They weren’t expected to do it and it wasn’t normal to want to.

But that’s not the case now.

Now, I see an openness to let fathers experience the full range of parenting no matter what the age of their children. More and more men are taking on primary parenting roles or actively supporting career-driven spouses. They aren’t shy or uncomfortable, they are proud and engaged. Just this week a friend of mine welcomed his third son into the world. The Facebook posts he shared were poignant and loving — and incredibly funny. Another friend adopted his daughter this year and is celebrating his first Father’s Day. I love seeing the pictures and knowing that he is fully present as a dad. Most of the dads I know on Facebook post regularly about their kids and their parenting adventures, generally in the same proportion to their spouses.

Outside of my network, I don’t see any of the stigma that would have been associated with the active participation of fathers, none of the “who wears the pants in your family” ribbing that was common in 80’s movies like Mr. Mom. In my office, fathers talk openly about commitments for their children, leave early for activities, and flex to support their spouse’s calendars. There’s a whole website and community for dads called Fatherly dedicated to providing resources to fathers at every part of their parenting journey. I have a hard time seeing something like that back when I was growing up. Would my dad have read an article called “How to Trick a Grade Schooler into Opening Up”? Did my dad even notice when I was quiet as a kid, much less suspect something was wrong?

So, today I honor the fathers of this generation who have stepped up to be a fully present parent. This is to the men who are as aware of the needs of their children as any mother from a generation ago. You are capable of feeding, diapering, bathing, and reading bedtime stories. You balance nurturing with discipline and advice with admonishment. You can throw balls and handle kids throwing tantrums. For all of the dads (including my wonderful husband) that I see stepping fully into a fatherhood that feels more complex to me than at any other time in history, I have something to say this: You may not be Mr. Incredible, but you’re incredible fathers.

Thank you.

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.

A Lesson from My Roommate

I had five roommates during college. One I lived with for only a day, deciding early that I would be incompatible with the house’s party culture. A second had the single in our triple suite and I remember only two things about her: her propensity for taking our phone into the bathroom and the way she had claimed the common room by the time I arrived with my stuff. I remember talking about it with my roommate and deciding that it wasn’t worth it to make waves. We lived quietly in our shared room for our semester and then parted ways. I reconnected with her recently on Facebook after more than twenty years apart.

My closest roommate lived with me sophomore year. We couldn’t have been more different, but we had an easy way of coexistence and connection that has endured. I was in her wedding when my daughter was a toddler and we visited her again last year. Our low-stress friendship is characterized by our mutual acceptance of someone for the person they are, even when that person confuses the crap out of you. It’s simple: she knows and loves my crazy and I feel the same about her.

Each of them played a role in my life, but it was my first roommate who taught me the power of learning from someone else’s experience.

When I went off to college I had a vague understanding that meeting people unlike me was important. I felt the limitation of my insulated life and was eager to see what I had missed. That natural curiosity burbled below the surface, popping out in late night conversations with the close friends I made over my first year. My growth was subtle, tucked inside and passive. I learned quietly bit-by-bit without intentionality or drawing any attention to my efforts.

 

 

My roommate, on the other hand, telegraphed her intent. She was outspoken about her desire to learn from the diversity and experiences of others. Sitting down with someone she would boldly ask, “What is it like to be __________?” She had grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had lived her whole life in the city, so she found my very different rural Midwestern upbringing interesting. She didn’t have a driver’s license and asked me about the persistence of the car culture in my home state. Didn’t we realize how problematic the fascination with driving was and that we should walk and utilize public transportation? I told her, amused, that it wasn’t an option. We lived miles away from anything and there was no public transportation beyond the yellow school buses that took kids to and from our consolidated school district.

Her sincere interest often came before any deep friendship had been formed. Her questions were sometimes taken as an intrusion into people’s privacy, or worse as a kind of oblivious entitlement. As an 18-year old eager to fit in and find my place in the world, even I failed to see her intent clearly. It is only recently that I can see it for what it was and wonder, in retrospect, whether I would have grown more had I been bold enough to try her approach.

The simple truth is that I have only learned so much from my own experience. Casting a wide net out into the world and keeping my eyes and heart open to the experiences of others has helped me grow more. I feel empathy and understanding building every time I read a book, listen to a podcast or watch a film and wonder, “What was that like?” Even so, those moments pale in comparison to the impact of a close friend sharing their experiences. Those are the stories I tell others, the ones that cause me to reframe every future interaction through their words and the look on their faces. They are burned in my memory, especially when I find myself shaken by something I had never considered.

That’s why I can recall the moment I realized how little I understood about being a black woman in the United States.

 

I was having lunch with a good friend, an African American woman about ten years my senior. The weather had been pleasant and we had walked companionably the mile or so to the local pizza place down the street from our offices. Sitting down we ordered and then started talking about our children. Mom talk was easy for us, even though her son was in graduate school and mine was still just a little boy. In the wake of the Treyvon Martin shooting, she was sharing what it was like to fear for son’s safety in the world and the feeling of being constantly on guard. The conversation went through a number of twists and turns and then she calmly made a statement that I will never forget. “Mel,” she said, “I regularly get followed by security guards when I’m shopping at the mall.”

My first instinct was dismay. Sitting in front of me was one of the most sophisticated, stylish women I have ever known. The idea that anyone could see her as a shoplifting threat was ludicrous. Frankly, it was easier to believe that someone might look at me skeptically, but I had never given a thought to being a target of store security. And here was my friend, the wife of a police detective, sharing that it was a regular part of her lived experience. I stared. I stammered. I tried to rationalize away her experience as misguided or overly sensitive. Maybe she only thought she was being followed? Maybe she was remembering things wrong? Maybe it was a one time thing and not something that regularly happened? My brain tried to reject the truth of her statement and the calm look on her face and when it couldn’t I did the only thing I could do as her friend.

I believed her.

It may seem like a very small thing, believing that your well-dressed friend could be shadowed by plainclothes security at the mall, but to me it was transformative. Once my brain accepted that she had been profiled, I opened myself up to all kinds of other possibilities outside of my own lived experience. I was able to read articles and listen to stories without filtering it through my truth. If she could be profiled, I thought, certainly that was possible.

Now, more than ever, we need to understand that no one has cornered the market on experience. There are more than 7.4 billion lived experiences on this planet, from an elderly person who has lived their entire life in the same earthen home to the toddler of privilege who has already filled a passport. In a world where my own experience feels too narrow to understand and appreciate the questions of my generation, I find myself channeling that roommate of mine from long ago. No, I don’t go up to people and say, “Tell me what it’s like to be…” but I listen to people tell their story and no matter how hard it is to fit within my experience of how the world works, I try to do one thing.

I try to believe them.

 

A Home Rooted in Stories

Last weekend my brother and his wife moved into their new home. Well, new to them. The house itself is more than 70 years old, lovingly built and renovated by the same couple throughout their marriage. You can see their uniqueness throughout the character of the rooms: a great room off the entry perfect for entertaining; a large, private master suite with only a sliding glass door for escaping to the backyard; a central galley kitchen designed for efficiency; small private spaces for hobbies including a dark room, library, office and wine closet. It is the kind of house that leads to questions and wonder in every oddly shaped room, layer of plaster and bricked up window. It is a house begging to share its stories.

I know many of them — the owners were my grandparents.

My grandfather returned from World War II ready to marry his sweetheart and start his life. He told me once that there weren’t enough homes available for the returning GI’s — he just wasn’t able to find a home to purchase. So, being the resourceful person he was, my grandfather moved his new wife and infant son into his parents’ house, bought land from his father and proceeded to build his young family a home. Years later, he could articulate the thinking behind each of the design decisions and the practical evolution as his family grew and their savings made enhancement possible.

When I was growing up we visited their house every Sunday. It was a family ritual that needed no explanation and brooked no argument; few things overruled our 5:00pm trip down familiar roads to my father’s childhood home. I learned the little bit of patience I have from those visits, over the 2,500 hours of amusing myself and my brothers while the grown ups chatted. To be honest, I learned about life without even knowing it. Once during a job interview I was asked what interested me about the automotive industry. I answered, without embellishment, that listening to my father and grandfather “talk shop” had taught me about business before I even knew I cared about business. Family, loyalty, conflict resolution, straight talk — I learned all of that and more as a child at their feet. 

I remember that sometimes grandpa would fall asleep and we would all wait patiently for him to wake up knowing he would smile and assert that he was just reading his eyelids. I remember my grandmother disappearing into the kitchen to come out with plate after plate of snacks (cut fruit, cheese, chips, cheese balls) that we would eagerly devour. I remember getting old enough to be given permission to go off on my own into their bedroom (the only room with a tv) to sit on the bed and watch 21 Jump Street and Star Trek the Next Generation. I remember summers throwing lawn jarts, climbing trees and playing hide and seek under the massive willow tree — the one that was later struck by lightening. I remember one glorious summer afternoon (and only one) when we churned ice cream by hand — it was filled with chunks of Oreo and delicious.

As an adult I created new memories. I got dressed there for my wedding, journeying across the driveway to walk down ‘the aisle’ — a cobblestone path through the grass to my parents’ back deck. We brought our children as infants and toddlers, setting them on the carpet and pulling out familiar toys while grandma brought fresh baked cookies. I remember the warm feeling when my kids first asked if they could go over to “Old Papa’s” house, watching from the kitchen window as they ran across the driveway on their own. They would open the door and head straight to the back bedroom without any warning; grandma and grandpa didn’t mind, their door was always open.

My grandfather only admitted to one time when he and my grandmother had truly disagreed. It was when his business had been taking off and his peers in industry had suggested that he needed to move to an affluent town to ensure financial success. Achievement was important to grandpa and he thought they needed to do it. My grandmother was adamantly against it — she argued that they had to remember where they came from and stay true to their roots. More than 20 years into my own marriage I have a hard time seeing that argument in my mind’s eye. It must have gotten pretty heated, but my grandma was a strong woman and she loved her family more than anything. She won and they didn’t move.

I have a hard time imaging my life if she had lost.

There was a time in my life when I was convinced that my past, present and future would be lived within a few miles of that house. I thought I might be the one to live in their home. My parents were living in my great-grandparents house across the driveway and I had moved home to raise my own young children just a few miles away. I envisioned the changes I would make, how I would be true to the history while building a bright future for my own family. And then I moved away, pulling up roots four generations in the making to start over in a place where we had no history at all.

I would be inclined to be maudlin if not for my brother and his wife. I’ve watched as they have embraced the old while creating a new space totally their own. Walking into the front door brings a feeling of comfortable recognition tied to their own character. The house includes furniture that was my grandparents, pieces that were once mine and things all their own. They’re creating new stories, stories that the next generation will share. I can’t help but think that perhaps it has worked out the way it was meant to — that the house was always destined to come to them. I like that.

Grandma would have liked it, too.

A Space of Her Own

I didn’t always love books. (I’m going to pause a moment while the people who know me in real life stand back up after falling over. Ok, everyone good?)

No one who knows me well will know what to do with the fact that as a child I thought that reading was horribly boring and that I used to do just about anything to get out of it. I didn’t like any of the books that everyone said were good and I wanted to be out playing with my friends or climbing trees or riding my bike. Literally anything was better than being stuck in a stuffy room sitting still and reading. And so it is a great irony to me that I spent a big portion of yesterday putting bookcases together and organizing the shelves of my very own library and loving it.

One of the books that I put away, lovingly, was a tattered copy of The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley. It is the Newbery Medal winning fantasy novel that tells the story of a socially awkward princess whose largest offense was that she was born a girl and not a boy. She tries desperately to be good enough, the whole time acutely aware that she is an embarrassment as she prefers adventure to more ladylike pursuits and she ultimately does the unthinkable, saving her kingdom from disaster. I loved Aerin immediately; in my mundane suburban experience I wondered if I could ever be as powerful as her. I loved that book so much that it started my passion for reading; I loved it so much that I actually didn’t give it back.

(Sorry, Mrs. Aubrey, I promise I’ve taken really good care of it.)

After that my love of reading was unstoppable. I bought books with any spare cash I had and became a frequent flier at the school and public libraries. Do you know that there is a limit on the number of books you can check out at any one time? I did, and it annoyed me. I found ways to sneak a flashlight into my room so that I could read under the blankets, I tucked books inside text books and would read during class. My seventh grade pre-Algebra teacher actually called me out for not paying attention many times and told me to put them away; I complied until I couldn’t help myself and then would do it again.

By the time I graduated from high school I had collected a library of over 200 books, most bought with money earned babysitting that most other kids would have spent on clothes or going out. As I headed off to college to study English at a top ranked liberal arts college, I donated most of them to our local library, carrying in bags and bags of books hoping that other kids would love them as much as I had. I thought that I was beyond the juvenile experiences of that little girl. When my own daughter hit middle school I wished briefly that I hadn’t been so short-sighted, but I relished the fact that I put aside a few of the series that I thought were ‘adult enough’ to keep. I can see them, the foundation of my library commingled with books collected in college and even newer ones from my last decade.

Sitting in my library, still incomplete and with much work yet to do, I am content and I am thankful. I am building a room of my own where my passion has a place of prominence, where I can be surrounded by my love of words without apology. Looking over at the bookcases I am reminded of that young girl who awoke to a love of reading and never gave it up. Not through middle or high school. Not through college. Not through graduate school. Not through working or marriage or the rigors of day-to-day life. Not even when my books were boxed up in the back of closet or double or triple deep on a single bookcase. That young girl had patience and she waited to have a room of her own.

And this room is hers as much as it is mine.

Cheering the Cheerleaders

We headed out today for a pleasant jaunt in our speed boat. Our family, and every other family in Northern Illinois, thought it would be a great day to get out on the water. But, there was a ton of algae in the water and our intake got plugged up. Twice. The channels were crazy crowded and at least three boats came barreling into no wake zones in full throttle. So, I had been finding the bright side of every complaint, looking for something to be happy about, when my husband caught me with a knowing glance.

“Why are you always so positive?” he joked, “It’s irritating.”

I’m not sure when I realized that there was something unique about my blend of energy and positivity, something quintessentially too much Mel. The first glimmer of it came during a late night my first year in college. I was struggling trying to write a standard 3-5 page lit paper and I had sought help from a woman one year older than me. In the course of the work we got to discussing our high school experiences and she asked me, completely seriously, if I had been a cheerleader. I was shocked. Beyond shocked. It must have shown in my face because she clarified. “You’re so energetic and perky; you have a great smile. You would have been an awesome cheerleader.”

On that night, in that room, I came up with many reasons why that wasn’t true. I wasn’t pretty enough. I wasn’t popular enough. I wasn’t athletic enough. I tried to help her understand why I could never have been a cheerleader, why she was wrong. I wanted her to be wrong because I had built strong images of both myself and cheerleaders and I knew that they couldn’t co-exist. I knew it like I knew the sun rises in the East and a rock thrown into a pond will sink.

And as much as my eighteen year old self knew it was wrong, my forty-something self knows it is right: I am a cheerleader.

At some point I realized that people count on my energy and positivity to push through hard moments. My friends rely on me to stand on the sidelines of their life and remind them that they are strong and capable and good. My co-workers rely on me to come into the office each day with the certainty that problems can be solved and to roll up my sleeves and make it happen. My family relies on me to take the ups and downs of life in stride and find a way to smile and power through it. I don’t resent that reliance, I understand it. They aren’t expecting me to be anything but me, an Energizer bunny with a unique capacity to find the good in life.

Most of the time it works out great.

And once in a while, once in a very great while, I just can’t put on my cheerleading outfit. I look at a situation and I really don’t know how to handle it. I am overwhelmed by a hard relationship. I feel hopeless and not hopeful — against all facts to the contrary I feel alone in my failure to figure it out. Depending on the depth of the problem, it might be enough to get a good night’s sleep or sing loud and off key to my motivational playlist. But sometimes that doesn’t work and I am wracked with sobs that echo from deep in my chest, with snot and tears everywhere.

It’s not a pretty picture, the emotionally capsized cheerleader.

But, I’m lucky. I have a great network of people who are watching out for me. When I send out warning signals people offer me chocolate or a hug. When I just tell my network I’m on rickety ground the support is overwhelming. People who would never consider themselves cheerleaders stand on the sidelines of my life with shaking pompoms chanting, “Give me an M! Give me an E! Give me an L! What’s that spell? Mel, Mel, Mel!” And it’s enough for me to dust myself off and get back into position.

I get it now. I understand that my contribution in this life isn’t just about what I can accomplish, but about what I can inspire other people to accomplish. Years ago I rebelled against the cheerleader moniker, but today I embrace it. Who wouldn’t welcome a chance to support others achieving their best self? And if there is something in my DNA that makes it just part of the way I’m wired, well, it would be unexcuseable not to leverage it. I’ve stopped fighting it, I’m here on the sidelines of your life ready to cheer you on.

Just don’t ask me to wear the outfit.