How To Be A Great Parent

parenting

3 Parenting Essentials

parenting essentials
Simon Matzinger
Did you have a great father growing up? Was your mother perfect?

Are you a good parent, intentional and aware of how you’re raising your kids?

 — If you are like me, your parents were far from perfect.

 — If you are like me, you’re realizing that you have much less control of how your kids turn out than you thought.

When you’re in the middle of raising kids, trying to provide food and a roof, not to mention an education, how do you do it well?

All the parenting books you read can’t get under your skin enough to scrape out some deeply ingrained flaws. Will you transmit them to your kids? Are there any parenting essentials you’re missing?

You probably already know this but here goes:

Great parenting begins with the parents’ relationship.

3 Relationship Essentials

You can do a lot to become a great parent and mitigate the effects of your imperfections and ignorance about child-raising. You can:

  1. DEAL with your history
  2. WORK hard on your marriage
  3. Make GRACE the guiding spirit of your home

Take an honest look at the baggage you’ve individually brought to the marriage relationship.

 After that, share with each other what you’ve discovered.

 Now that you’ve acknowledged what you’re both dealing with, let grace find its place in the center of your relationship and home.

Short Story

parenting essentials
Mohamed Hassan

Let me tell you a very short story. I recall one tender moment when my dad hugged my mom and she hugged him back.

I was maybe 8 years old. My heart wanted to explode with joy and a sense of well-being in that moment. It had nothing to do with me but I still remember them in the dining room doorway more clearly than many other memories I have.

It was a rare show of love and acceptance between my parents. If they had cared for each other this way on a daily basis, my childhood would have been a completely different story. Their broken relationship impacted me more than the hundreds of parenting mistakes they made.

But where did their brokenness come from?

Short History 

My mom grew up with some family dysfunction which she never dealt with as a child or as an adult. My dad had his own traumas and personal impairments which he tried to drown in alcohol. They brought these hidden forces to their marriage, which was a train wreck waiting to happen.

At the start, Mom and Dad had very few tools for maintaining their relationship. With 3 kids in quick succession and Dad’s desire for autonomy not going anywhere, their break-up 13 years later was inevitable.

Forty years after the fact, I am still feeling the effects of that crash.

Long Story Short

If you are like me, you’ve seen a lot of marriages going off the rails. Maybe yours is one of them. You may think the kids in these situations are too young or too busy to be affected by carefully hidden flaws and faults. We may hope they don’t notice the broken parts of us driving us toward total derailment.

But they did. And they do.

From the outside looking in, others sometimes spot the problems in the relationship long before the parents do. Hard to miss the disconnect between the story they are telling and the way they are living. Their body language says more than their words. Likewise, his extra drinks and her bitter jokes make us want to brace for impact.

parenting essentials
SeppH

Children riding on this crazy train know something is wrong, too. They may be too young to register in cohesive thoughts but their bodies and souls know it. Their cells vibrate in the fear and anger frequencies of Mother simmering in the kitchen. Father’s baloney smells up the house whether he’s selling it on the phone or right there in the living room.

History Lesson

If you are like me, you’ve had or have a few blindspots of your own in parenting.

My husband and I have 3 grown-up kids who’ve told us what it was like to be on board when Dad and Mom were conducting their lives like crazy people.

Some of the disconnects? Too much fear in the decision-making. A little too heavy on the helicopter parenting. Not enough practicing of what we preached. Just a couple of dumb thirty-somethings acting like we knew everything.

As a homeschooling mom, I’d thought my nurture plus their “perfect” education would equal all kinds of easy for them. Turns out they borrowed some of my baggage and even added some pieces of their own. No magic formulas.

Notwithstanding the personal flaws we must own apart from our parents’ influence, what hope do we have with so much history to overcome?

1. First Parenting Essentials: Name and Release Your Elephants

parenting essentials
Larry Li

Your number one priority is to DEAL with the forces that have shaped you. Each marriage has two individuals who bring some baggage to the bedroom, living room, and kitchen.

When we acknowledge and name the elephants in the room, they begin to shrink and find their rightful places. Then we can send them on their way to a sanctuary for worn-out animals.

My husband and I each lumbered into our relationship encumbered with our fathers’ alcohol addictions and our mothers’ anxiety. It took us awhile to begin dissecting and dismantling their effects even as we were raising our three children.

Recovery groups, counseling, bravery, and honesty gave us the traction we needed for growing up as grown-ups.

(I offer a small disclaimer: our work is never done. I think I will be working on growing up until the day I die.)

2. Next Parenting Essentials: Get to Work on Your Marriage!

The saying goes, if you are coasting, then you’re going downhill.

How parents relate to each other is of utmost importance. If kids know Mom and Dad are solid, they walk their own paths with a bit more confidence. If kids can trust the love Dad and Mom have for each other, they are likely to trust in their own ability to love and be loved.

But we married people know that stress and time can jangle the nerves and loosen the love we once had for each other. We are going to have to work at it if it’s going to last. No matter what the movie stars say, I say we’d better get some good tools for the long haul. Gotta keep the wheels greased because the friction is inevitable.

Get counseling. Ask hard questions. Tell hard truths and don’t be so defensive!

You’ve got this because people have been making marriages work for a long time. Find those people and ask them how it can possibly be done! Put lots of tools in your marriage tool box and then use them.

Read more on how your relationship impacts your kids

and the ways our parents affect our relationships.

3. More Parenting Essentials: Grace is a Superpower

parenting essentials
Mohamed Hassan

GRACE is essential for any lasting relationship. It is impossible to have a good marriage and solid family life without that 5-letter word for getting more than you deserve. Gifts for the bratty. Kisses for the prickly people.

The reason for hope even if you think you’ve already done too much damage:

 — Grace is a superpower.

 — Grace works forwards and backwards, bending and softening the boundaries of space and time.

 — Grace hangs out with other commendable characters like Mercy and Humility.

I’m sorry,” “forgive me,” “I forgive you,” and “I love you” are their constant conversation.

These 3 characters can mend a multitude of wrongs. Their love steps back over time boundaries and transforms what once was bad into the shape of a blessing. They move magically through space, waving wands that heal wounds and turn scars into touchstones for others.

True Story

I have a friend whose 25 year marriage should have been history 10 years in. Her name isn’t Grace but it should be. Her response to his adultery, after her initial shock and anguish, was an attitude of “let’s start over from here.”

Instead of condemning him and leaving, my friend stayed. She offered forgiveness and grace in huge quantities. She began to look at her part in the mess. And together, they began the slow and painful work of sifting through their baggage in the wreckage.

 Grace, mercy, and humility permeate their home to this day because together, they found — and still find —  a way to stay. This has had an immeasurable impact on their children.

End of Story

If I had refused to look at the sickness I brought to my marriage 30 years ago, would I be married today?

If I had refused to compromise and not let my husband’s needs and desires soften my hard edges, where would we be now?

 If I had let resentment and un-forgiveness simmer in my kitchen, would the smell and stench have overwhelmed the entire household?

Yes, our kids did get some of the brokenness their mom and dad brought to the relationship. However, the honesty we brought to our struggles, the work we did separately and together, and the grace we gave each other on a daily basis were like fresh layers of blacktop. They smoothed over some of the roughest bumps on the road.

It’s OK if you are already in the midst of parenting. Even if your kids are grown, there’s hope because it’s never too late to work on relationships. Being honest and humble with our grown up kids keeps the door open for unexpected graces to drop by.

Here’s what I’m saying: Great parenting is not easy, pretty, or tied up in a lovely bow. But it’s good, solid, and strong. Like a sturdy train on a steel track with a gentle grade.

  1. DEAL with your history
  2. WORK hard on your marriage
  3. Make GRACE the guiding spirit of your home

(related post: Closer to Free)

I’m Worse Than You Think!

finding freedom from judgment

Finding Freedom from Judgment

I heard a Christian pastor announce that he had decided to stop worrying about what other people thought of him. He needed freedom from judgment. He chose to be honest with himself and say,

“Yeah, if they are judging me, they’re probably right. Not only that, I am actually worse than they think I am.”

finding freedom from judgment

My friend, Cathy, once lamented about her selfish and judgmental thoughts rearing their ugly heads in one of her college classes.

Her impatient and mean thoughts about some of the other students surprised her.

I said that’s why it’s a gift that we can keep our thoughts to ourselves. If everyone could hear what everyone else was thinking, the world would erupt in all our private wars made public.

“Fake it till you make it” makes a lot of sense in this context. This has worked for me many times.

Or has it?

Maybe my faking it is like a teenager who cleans up her trashed house after her illicit party but before her parents get home. They don’t see the breach in trust but the lie hovers in the house and does some hidden damage of its own.

Perhaps finding freedom from people’s judgments of me AND freedom from my own judgments of others is going to cost me more than a hurried house cleaning.

Is there a better approach to finding this kind of freedom?

My Ugly Underside

I was walking along with a crowd of typical American families recently — judgment alert— and noticed the many overweight people around me, their soda straws pressed between their lips and the french fries pouching on their hips.     

I pulled my husband Scott aside.      freedom from judgement

“I have a really mean joke that I just thought of,” I giggled.

“What?” He grinned, warming to this rare confession of my judgmental cruelty.

I said, “imagine a T-shirt for kids that said, ‘Destined for Greatness’ only the ‘Greatness’ is crossed out and below it is scribbled, ‘Fatness.’ Ha! Get it? All of these fat American parents are raising their kids to be fat!”

He was shocked. It really isn’t funny. It is quite mean and arrogant of me. Easy for me to laugh when I’ve done the parenting and nutrition thing perfectly—NOT!

Hear My Confession

The next week we were hanging out with friends and Scott began to tell this story. Midway through, he realized he was about to confess my sin. Giving him a sideways glance, I picked up where he’d left off and finished the story in all its gory detail.

I’m not sure if any of our friends thought it was funny. But if they had any lingering doubts about my proud and  wicked heart, I certainly dispelled them.

That night, I lay awake regretting the revelation of my depravity. A vulnerability hangover of sorts. BUT—was I sad about my judgmental heart or just embarrassed to be outed?

The next morning it dawned on me that I could be glad that the blackness of my heart had been laid bare. Especially to friends that, I think, love me.

No more pretending. I am free to be me. I had a taste of freedom from judgment. Yum!   

freedom from judgement 

What’s The Point?

  • I write this for people like me who long for freedom from pretense, long to tell the truth—show the truth about themselves.
  • I write for Christians imprisoned by the belief they have to present a picture-perfect, “what would Jesus do” kind of life.
  • I write to encourage self-righteous or shame-filled people to find freedom by telling the truth about themselves.
  • I write at my own risk of losing (or gaining) a reputation, friends, acceptance, and love.

The ugly underside that we try to hide is actually the key to finding freedom from judgment.

When we stop pretending, we can also let go of the judgments we make and the ones we fear from others. 

 

freedom from judgement
https://www.thedailymind.com/quotes-2/14-quotes-judging-judged/

Finding Freedom From Judgment

I have spent a lot of my adult life trying to look good—be good—when in fact I am not all that good.

Some of my sins I can keep between me and Jesus. He says He loves and forgives me unconditionally. Not every confession need be public. 

However, other transgressions are painfully obvious so I’d better get honest with myself and others.

Pretending has created lots of space between me and would-be friends. I have presented myself as a whole-grain-cookie-eating, Bible-reading, clean-freaking woman.

  • Why would someone want to come under my radar?
  • Why should I be surprised that people think I’m better than I am?
  • Do I really think my friends don’t smell my baloney from a mile away?
  • Am I afraid they won’t love me when I’m not awesome? 
  • Will they love me because I’m not perfect?

Will you love me even though you know the truth?

Now that I am not pretending and defending my own righteousness, I can look at you without condemnation. Admitting my own mess frees me to have compassion for your struggle. 

It’s true: I am judgmental, proud, and mean sometimes.

So if you are judging me now, you’re probably right.

In fact, I’m worse than you think!

 

other related posts from me: Making Pretend and Closer to Free

Butterflies Inside

finding freedom to change

“Finding Freedom to Change”

 

finding freedom to changeI feel myself on the edge of better things

Close to giving all my wishes wings

Change for some comes fast and furious

For me it’s slow and hidden in the chrysalis

 

 

In this song, I sing about change as something that comes quickly for some but slowly for me, like the slow changes hidden inside a caterpillar pupa.

Aren’t you glad I didn’t sing that word, ‘pupa?’

Instead, I chose the slightly-less-awkward ‘chrysalis,’ which is what entomologists call the hard case where the transformation from caterpillar to butterfly takes place.

Entomologists say it is the stage of the life cycle in which the caterpillar’s body tissues break down and the butterfly’s tissues form. I can relate.

I am a Chrysalis.

Here in my middle age, I feel somewhere between young and old, breaking from foolishness and moving into wisdom. In this transitional phase, my growth toward maturity is hidden inside a rigid little case.

I witness no wizening even when using my magic magnification mirror. I only see the imperfections of the specimen. It can be frustrating at best. Infuriating at worst.

Looking For Change

I enjoy uncovering the origin of words — their etymology — so I surfed a few sites and found out that ‘chrysalis’ means ‘gold’ in Greek and Latin, which refers to the gold sheen of some butterfly cases.

I envy etymologists who get to study words and their histories all day long. Digging up meaning like precious metals, they reveal the richness of the words we inherit.

Having gone through the metamorphosis of time and human use, words become tools for transmitting vivid and multi-faceted messages, implications, interpretations or connotations. See what I mean?

They shine a light on the mundane parts of life.

In my case, I feel kind of unremarkable — rather ordinary. Getting older has lots of advantages but I have a love/hate relationship with it. Being somewhat invisible shakes me to my foundations.

I’m opaque as a butterfly chrysalis. But I am becoming free to change shape. And when the light is just right, there’s a golden sheen on me with hints of my future in the midst of my incompleteness.

finding freedom to change

Finding Freedom to Change

My husband and I are officially empty-nesters this year. Our youngest, Chloe, is about to graduate college and her summers of coming home are over.

Parents have experienced this change in every generation. My mom suffered through it. But now it’s my turn and it is all new to me. I imagine I should be better at adapting. But like the cooling temperatures signaling the season’s change, these shifts surprise me every time. I don’t want to say goodbye to summer.

When I reflect on this shift, a sadness settles over me. Like birds gathering in the trees, it’s a slow dawning that something’s coming, something else. Could it be something good, as precious as the past?

Change Is Good  finding freedom in change

On a recent August morning, Chloe and I were on the lawn enjoying the bugs, birds and butterflies we love so much. It was her 21st birthday. She was visiting from her college town in which she’d decided to live for the summer.

We sat under the trees with our coffee and I cried: about her being 21 and me seeing the time slip by. I wasn’t trying to make her to feel bad. I was setting my emotions free instead of bottling them up.

Besides, part of our relationship is the safety of us taking turns crying together.

Signs of Change

I see myself in the mirror of His face

Reflecting imperfection but the change is taking place

This for some comes fast and furious

For me it’s slow and hidden in the chrysalis

Flying Diaries

I used to journal regularly. I have discontinued this practice because of what happened whenever I read back a few years: I would discover that nothing was different — I wasn’t changing, but writing about the same issues over and over. It felt pathetic and made me mad. I let a few diaries fly across the room.

I know I am not truly stalled in my evolution into God’s perfect design for me. It just feels suffocating to grow older with no cracking open. I don’t feel any wings forming back there. Just those tense, bony shoulders rising up around my ears.

Every now and again, though, there’s a little flutter in my stomach. My prayers and petitions for positive change have made a difference in me.

  • Like when I haven’t worried about my kids for days on end.
  • Or when my first thought is love for my neighbor even when she’s less-than-friendly to me.
  • Or when I feel gratitude for an empty house because there’s more room for rest and reflection.
  • Or when I recognize my particular suffering as necessary and even good.

These tiny signs of life are moving through my soul and finding their way out. I’m not bottling them up. Thanks to the entomologists and etymologists, I’ve got lovely metaphors for the changes taking place. I’ve got butterflies inside. Lifting from my lips, they learn to fly.

I’ve got butterflies inside

Forming in my mind

Moving through my soul, I know they’ll come alive

These butterflies inside

Flutter in my heart

Lifting from my lips they learn to fly

Listen to Butterflies Inside here!  More like this : “I Wanted My Dog Dead: Practicing Compassion”

I Wanted My Dog Dead

sweet white dog

“But I’m Finding Compassion Instead”

I’ve threatened to kill Luna.

I’ve cursed her name. I’ve smacked her on the butt a few times in her life. Oh, and maybe kicked her lightly once as she went out the door.

Luna is the family dog. Throughout the 13 years of her life with us, she has deposited pee, poop, puke, and piles of her white fur on every inch of my floors and carpets. Her fur is woven into the upholstery as well as into my clothing, especially my favorite black polar fleece jacket, a magnet for her stiff white hairs.

In the family we like to say that Luna has been everywhere we have been, all over the world, really. Her hair is in our suitcases and guitar cases, on our coat sleeves and the soles of our shoes. I have had a hard time finding compassion for this animal. As far as I go, try as I may, I can’t get away from Luna.

finding compassion learning lessons for graceful aging from my dog
Young Luna with my youngsters

We all loved her from the start. She was so sweet and shy when we rescued her as a puppy. The kids and I thought her shyness would melt with our love. The people at the shelter said she’d been found in a ditch, possibly abused and abandoned. We all showered our cream-colored pup with affection as we brought her up in the safety and security of our family.

Thirteen years later, she still flinches at quick-reaching hands and threatens to bite those hands that have fed, petted, and thrown countless tennis balls across the lawn. She’s an emotional wreck when any family member comes home — doing her weird whiny throat yodel — as if she’s surprised we haven’t abandoned her. Lunacy! Her defensiveness and neuroses are mysteries we may never understand.

All The Rage

Now that she’s older, she’s decided to potty-train in reverse. I am finding fresh pee stains on my new shag carpet. She can’t hold it as she used to, and she seems confused by body signals that used to tell her to go outside.

So it’s back in the kennel at night and when we go out, the one we used for potty-training when she was a puppy. I’ve even purchased some doggy diapers at the pet supermarket. As I run the vacuum, I realize that her fur accounts for 85% of the dirt I’ve sucked up for 13 years. Why do I even have dogs in my house?

And as I watch her age, my rage grows. It’s not just the fresh pee or the perennial fur. Luna is the embodiment of all that I cannot control.

We’re both getting older. And we’re both wearing out.

We spend a lot of time together now that the kids have grown up and out of the house. In the mornings, she’s a little leg-stiff. Me, too. We both hobble out of our beds and head outside to scan for life on the lawn. Squirrels and birds scatter as we step onto our mossy grass and sniff the wind. We find a comfortable seat and settle in, staying out there under the trees all day when it’s warm. We like to go for afternoon walks in the woods with our other dog, sweet (non-shedding) Josie. We keep moving even though it would be easier to sit still.

 

finding compassion learning lessons for graceful aging from my dog
A walk in the woods with Josie and Luna

Graceful Aging

Luna was a great athlete in her youth. Her sport of choice: Tennis Ball. She awed everyone with her soaring mid-air catches. Our joy was in recognizing her joy, the embodiment of doing exactly what she was created to do: run, leap, land, and loop back to do it all again. And again. And again. And again.

Perhaps too many rough landings led to those shaky back legs of hers. I admire how, even now, she’ll surge after a squirrel, though she’ll pay for it in pain later.

I can sometimes see her attributes:

  • She stays clean and white and doesn’t smell bad.
  • She cleans sweet Josie’s eyes and ears.
  • She accepts each day as it comes and lives in the moment.
  • She doesn’t seem to worry about what the future holds.

I’m trying to learn from Luna. Soon enough, one of us will die, and the odds are against her.

My brother’s dog, Annie, died last month. He and his family are heartbroken. She’d been a part of their family for a long time. I think I would miss Luna if she died today.

Finding Compassion

She has become a mirror for me. After years of our love/hate relationship, I have reached a new awareness: If I can learn to find compassion for this dog, perhaps I can find some for myself.

Luna teaches me to get creative with aging. Some new tricks I am learning:

  • Bending over again and again to clean her mess offers me a constant choice of cursing versus gratitude.
  • Scratching her favorite spot behind her ears gives me pause to recall the years of walking this dog with my husband, kids, grandma, and neighbors.
  • Pondering the love she accepts and gives prompts me to remember the love I get and give away, too.
  • Finding compassion when she flinches for no good reason helps me acknowledge my own flinching fears, still with me after all of these years.

Something tells me I’m never going to get control of all the chaos in my life, whether it’s dog crap or my own crap. In fact, I suspect I will have less control over normal things, the older I get.

Strange how we often end the way we start: a little unsteady and needing a close eye. Like infants and the elderly, dogs like Luna often just want a little love, patience, and compassion.

I had never intended to kill Luna. I guess I don’t really want her dead.

She’s out on the porch now, barking at me through the glass, demanding to come in. Today, I will open the door and scratch her ears as she enters, offering an extra dose of love. She’ll thank me with a grunt and a shake, depositing a fresh sprinkling of her lovely white fur on my freshly-vacuumed rug.

Read next: Closer To Free

Get Out of Your Head and Into Health

emotional mental health

“3 Unusual Ways to Move Toward Emotional & Mental Health”

I sometimes totter on the edge of despondency. Especially in winter.

If you are like me, you get stuck in your head and need help moving toward emotional and mental health.

Do you have a secret sadness? Maybe a shapeless grief you can’t explain?

What if some unique and creative activities could alleviate melancholy for people like us?

I have found 3 unusual ways to keep despondency at bay. I’m not suggesting changing anything your doctor has prescribed — just bringing a little color to the palette.

These 3 exercises are not easy — but they are good!

1.  TELL YOUR STORYmental emotional health

When I was in my twenties, I had an eating disorder called bulimia. Looking back, I wonder at how much of my story I kept stuffed inside, rarely sharing the hidden parts of myself. Fresh out of childhood, my feelings were trying to surface but I didn’t have an escape hatch for them. This disorder kept me from dealing with the story of my past.

Then I met Scott, who later became my husband. He helped me take an honest look at my life and begin to tell my story. When I told him about my bingeing and purging, it was like a tiny shaft of light broke into my cellar. My heart felt less heavy and I began to let the truth about my childhood come out.

There are many ways to tell your story:

  • Talk to a friend, spiritual advisor, or counselor to pop the lid on bottled up emotions. Our negative emotions have a way of dissipating when they decompress and spread their weight across other shoulders.
  • Journal. Pen on paper helps disentangle the jumble of thoughts and feelings in our minds and bodies.
  • Pray. Our creator knows our weaknesses and fears. He listens well and won’t be surprised by anything we have to say.
  • Form a fictional tale from your experiences or current turmoil. You don’t have to be writer to create a character that acts as a mirror. Can you create a short story to represent what’s stirring deep in your soul?

2.  WRITE A SONGemotional mental health

I am the kind of person who spins and spins inside my head until I make myself dizzy and sick. Songwriting has helped me work out a lot of sadness, confusion, and anger in my life. In the process, I found a lot of hope and healing.

Years ago, I wrote a song called “Tell Your Story.” As a recording artist, I had the luxury of writing and recording my kind of crazy. Call it music therapy.

Writing a song can be tricky but it’s not as hard as you think. You’ve listened to countless songs in your life and even followed the lyrics on a page as you listened to a favorite artist. What if you grabbed one of those song lyrics you love and used it as a model, a template for writing your own lyric?

  • Try to write and sing your lyrics to the same rhythm and melody as the song you are using as a framework. You’re not trying to plagiarize and publish here.
  • Connect to the emotion of the song you love and write your own words and music.
  • Build on snippets from your journal or a poem that connects to your soul.
  • Create a tiny soundtrack with your own melody. Go with the flow of emotion that comes from listening to a favorite song.

See if songwriting is therapy for your soul. If you want to go deeper, here are 10 more unusual tips for songwriting.

3.  SING OUT YOUR SADNESSemotional mental health

As a teenager, I belted out a lot of Linda Ronstadt ballads. Singing along with her soulful voice, I found a connection to my own soul. These days, I don’t sing a lot around the house or even in the car. I stay too much in my head and must remind myself to sing.

  • So sing in your shower, house, or car!
  • Join a band or choral group which can be especially healthful and uplifting.

Time Magazine explained the reasons why singing can lift the spirits:

“The elation may come from endorphins, a hormone released by singing, which is associated with feelings of pleasure. Or it might be from oxytocin, another hormone released during singing, which has been found to alleviate anxiety and stress. Oxytocin also enhances feelings of trust and bonding, which may explain why still more studies have found that singing lessens feelings of depression and loneliness.”*

I let go of the bulimia when I learned to find words for my feelings.

Can you bring your hidden insides out to help lift the weight of those heavy emotions?

When I find myself wearing winter blues or spinning inside my head too much, I get to work on one of these 3 ideas. Let me know how it goes for you!

If you want to hear the song I wrote and recorded with my husband as Out of the Grey, check it out here: “Tell Your Story.” (lyrics here)

If you want to learn more about songwriting and singing, my handbook/workbook, The Singer and The Songwriter can help.

Clap, Follow me, and Share if this gives you a lift!

Closer to Free

finding finding freedom: woman floating down a river

“Finding Freedom To Be”

I remember the day I became a slave to my face.    old polaroid christine finding freedom

I was nine and taking some visiting kids on a tour of my elementary school. I don’t remember the occasion. All I know is that a teacher chose responsible me to lead and I was up for the job. At the end of the quick trip around the school, I stopped the small group of kids about my age outside the cafeteria.

“Any questions,” I asked.

“Yeah,” said the closest boy, “are you a boy or a girl?”

I was mortified. His question knocked me off-balance, challenging how I saw myself. And how others saw me. So began my journey of asking mirrors to tell me who I was and who I should be.

Old Polaroids

To solidify my new bondage to image, the series of shocking photos came next:

  • school pictures featuring my incongruous teeth and hair which reared their ugly heads year after year
  • the snapshot of my belly bulging in its bikini sandwich
  • the polaroid my dad took where I felt so beautiful in my pink night gown, only to disappoint again as my image materialized as not-so-pretty me

I struggled with my complexion for most of my life. Hormones and stress were my enemies. Even in my thirties and forties I leaned into mirrors, picking at the blemishes embedded in my skin. “Not better, only redder” was my ineffective mantra.

Getting older has its advantages: fifty-something skin and less stress have freed me from some of my mirror-gazing slavery.

Deeper Than the Skin

But the freedom I’m seeking is deeper than the skin. It’s farther in where heart meets soul.

Freedom from judgements: my own and those of others.

Freedom to be the real me is the center I seek.

I taste that freedom whenever I’m untethered to my image or my productivity or my critics. No lackey to fashion, no vassal of shame. No bondage to beauty as defined by me and my culture.

To me, real freedom feels like sliding along a river, body buoyant, no friction in the flow. Crank the self-conscious volume knob back to zero, I’m on a roll.

Recreation

Have you ever tried to recreate yourself? I tried once in college.

In the fall of 1982, I drove to Carnegie-Mellon University, 5 hours away from home for the first time in my life. I thought about becoming whomever I wanted to be. No one in this college town would know if I was naturally sassy or sweet, gregarious or aloof. I could present myself as the person I chose to be.

Trouble is, it is hard to stray from who we are at heart. I tried to gather my energies and garner new friends by behaving like a party girl, carefree and easy. But I didn’t have her in me. I couldn’t stick to the part and stay late in my party clothes. I just wanted to go home.

Free People

I recently wrote a song called, “Closer to Free.” The initial inspiration came as I perused the Free People clothing catalogue. At first, I thought it funny that a company would make such a statement about a line of clothing. Those hippie-esque styles in strange layers and pairings said, “be adventurous and creative and don’t worry if it doesn’t match.” The wispy indifferent models propped in languid poses declared, “we wear what we want wherever we dare.”

finding freedom: free people

They began to draw me in, these Free People. I’ve never had much sense of style. I have always admired girls and women who seemed to throw on any old thing and make it look good. Sometimes it was their sheer confidence and caution-to-the-wind that made them so attractive. Freedom from caring about what others would think seemed to set them free to flow in their clothing and throughout their lives. Like a river.

I was hooked. Sold! to the woman in earth tones and sneakers. Maybe now my inner critic will nap because I’m wrapped in these fabulous fabrics. Oh, the glorious freedom of not giving a crap.

The Catch

But there’s a catch. It’s there, squeezed between the freeze-frames. If we stretch it out to see the real-life spaces where we live our lives, it gets a little messy. Suddenly we see the props and pins that keep it all in place for the shot. A make-up artist and a clothing wrangler rush in to fix the blemishes and slips. These clips and vignettes, I sometimes forget, are only old polaroids of curated unconcern. We are all truly, sadly, very concerned.

The Thirst

We are a thirsty people and there’s no sating. We are hungry for love and acceptance. We hide our shame and insecurity behind snapshots and complicated layers. We buy the lie of self-re-creation.

Yes, we can dress for success and wear our truth to some extent. But freedom, true freedom from what we don’t want to be, implies a freedom toward something. If I am free from my naturally fearful, insecure and angry self, than what am I free to become?

Becoming

Back to center. In pulling focus, I discover a door to another room: a place called Acceptance.

What if I believed God loves me and accepts me as I am? What if I accepted myself ‘as is’?

We are told that’s what Jesus does: “Come to me and I’ll give you rest. Yoke yourself to me.”

If I am tied side by side to Jesus, I’m free from any other slaveries. I suddenly become free to be who I am, the girl He made me to be. Being tied to Him is a burden but it’s easy and light compared to all those other slave-drivers out there. I am Becoming, what I once was, the girl in the mirror of His love. I am becoming. His love becomes me.

Every once in a while, I see through the facades of photos and mirror images. Like floating down a river, these moments of clarity, of sweet release, are the times when I know I am closer to free 

Listen to this song here!

You say you’re one of the free people

Nobody tells you how to live

You splash your face across the page

And spread yourself so thin

 

Yeah, you look like one of those free people

Embrace the world and make it spin

But even you can only take so much

Til something’s got to give

 

Come closer to free

Come know your poverty

Feel your thirst and recognize your need

Come closer to free

 

Your clothes don’t cover up the heart of you

And freedom’s deeper than the skin

You think you’re shining like a star

But we see the shape you’re in

 

Yeah you could be one of the free people

No need to re-create yourself

The beauty you want to so much comes

From being loved so well

 

Come closer to free

Come know a sweet release

Can you feel your thirst and recognize your need

Come closer to free

 

Come closer to free

Come know the love you really need

When you feel the hunger and it grows you know

You’re closer to free     You could be one of the free people

 

Every Day the Dust Comes Back

dust cover

“Finding Mercy in the Morning”

woman in frustration at dust
Every day the dust comes back. I see it first thing in a slant of sunlight. The dust has returned despite yesterday’s efforts.
Grabbing my cleaning supplies, I begin again to remove the thin film on furniture and floors. The hood over the stove is the worst. Grease mixed with the stuff of dust makes paste. It would rather smear than disappear.
I think about Sisyphus pushing boulders that in the end will crush him if he doesn’t get out of the way. Live to find futility another day. Why do I bother, knowing that the clean won’t stay?

Beaten by the Peanut Butter

It’s like being beaten by peanut butter.

 

Once, when full swing into raising kids, I was making the PBJ sandwiches with that organic stuff. You know, the jar of peanut paste which has a layer of grease on top. Evidently, healthful eating means you’re going to have to work for your food. Thanks a lot, Eve and Adam.
So I began to wrestle the all-natural peanut butter into submission. First, I tried stirring in the oil which immediately heaved itself out of the jar like a rolling ocean displaced by a giant rudder. Undeterred, I slashed my knife deep into the unwieldy bog of organic matter, coaxing some of the oil to sink and soften the clay. Alternately stabbing deep then pulling up, I started to lose my grip. The jar slipped with the force of my efforts and shot to the floor. Of course, the oily mess went everywhere.
After some cursing, I reached to salvage what was left in the jar and dug out a chunk. I transported it to the slices of bread lying open and expectant like a hungry bird on the plate. Only this was no ordinary bread. It was organic whole wheat with a few other grains thrown in for mom satisfaction. Most likely the kids would complain about the grit but I refused to acknowledge it.
I began spreading the semi-greased peanut silt. I saw that even this hearty bread possibly made by peasants from another era was going to disintegrate with the force required for spreading. Like paste, the peanut butter grabbed the bread and held on, lifting and digging holes as it went.
I surrendered, cursing my first ancestors again.‘You win,’ I muttered and I found the hidden jar of Jif. I sighed as I spread its sugary smoothness across the bread. I had tried to do right, being choosy and fighting the good fight. But the wider world of disarray and futility had beaten me. Utility won the day.

Ground Hog Day

Think about entropy and the second law of thermodynamics. Gradual decline into disorder is the house rule. Increasing disintegration runs the universe. Why do I try to sweep up the pieces and put them back together again and again?
Because of the movie starring Bill Murray in which each morning takes him in a endless time-loop of the day before:Ground Hog Day.
After freaking out at first, he begins to use his new time-prison to express the worst parts of his nature. As each new day dawns, the same scenes repeat and he is mean, lustful, and gluttonous.
He eventually works within his confines to improve himself. Piano lessons and poetry reading begin to win him the woman he wants. Shockingly, even these cosmetic changes are not enough to fix his bad character which confronts him at the end of the day.
Still, as the days roll out in monotony, our anti-hero begins to try simple kindnesses for their own sake. Caring for others has a transformative effect on him. True love wins the day and breaks the spell. Time moves on and we recognize the grace of these recurring days in which the Patience of the Universe gives him space and time to become our hero.

Mercy in the Morning

 

dawn on a beach

There are Bible verses in which Saint Peter reminds his antsy flock that the Lord is not slow in keeping His promises. With Him, one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like one day. God’s not slow, He’s patient, wanting us all to turn and head His direction.
We get a new chance every morning. For most of us, it will probably take a lifetime of repeats until we get a clue.
Every day the dust comes back. But so does the dawn. And I begin to see it in a different light.

My Moment at the Well

finding life

He startles me as I walk up to the well. I hadn’t seen him sitting there under the trees. I turn around to face him as he begins talking to me. He says he wants some water to drink. I think it strange that he is alone. We are in the middle of nowhere. In the heat of the day. He has no way of getting to the water. No jar and such a deep well. He’s obviously parched. What is he doing here all by himself?

 People come from all over to sit and drink where Jacob himself once watered his flocks. He and his sons had walked these surrounding fields. This place is holy to us even if it isn’t to the Jews.

I mess with him a little. “You’re asking me for a drink? A woman of Samaria?” I know Jews don’t want to have anything to do with us. With me. Yet here he is, needing my help because he’s worn out. Thirsty. He is depending on me. How funny.

He answers me, saying something about if I knew who he was, I’d be asking him for a drink of ‘living’ water. He seems a little crazy. Well, I’ll take the bait.

I say to him in my sweetest voice, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water?” I’m smiling at him like I do when talking to a little kid who tells me that the stones he’s holding are real gold.

Who does he think he is, anyway? This well has been here for thousands of years and probably took months to dig. Out of nowhere he’s going to produce this so-called living water and I’m going to beg him for it? I don’t think so.

“You’ll never be thirsty again,” he is saying. If I drink the water he could give me, he says it will become in me a spring of water welling up to eternal life.

Wow, that sounds fantastic. Water that just wells up in my body. Exactly what I need so I don’t have to come back again and again to this damned well just to stay alive and keep my dishes clean.

I’m so sick of trudging up and down this path alone with an old container that empties as fast as I fill it, with no kids to help, no man who cares to lift a finger for me, and flocks of women moving aside when they see me coming. Sure, fella, I’ll take some of that living water.

Of course now he tells me to go get my husband. Always turns out this way: women need a man to speak for them. A man to head the household. A man to stay around and do what he said he would do. I haven’t had any men like that in my life since my first husband died. After that, the others left or divorced me as soon as they realized they weren’t getting any sons and daughters out of me. Those liars are long gone.

“I have no husband,” I tell him.

“You’re right,” he says, “and the man you have now isn’t even your husband.”

His accusation is right. But how could he know that? He hasn’t been in town or hung around long enough to hear the gossip. And gossip they do, those heartless witches. No compassion- only judgment for a girl who tried to live by the rules but got stepped on and left behind by those rules instead.

He must be a prophet or something. This is getting interesting… and a little too personal. I wonder what he’ll say about those rules for living God’s way. If it is God’s way. So many rules that I can’t seem to keep to satisfy anyone around here.

“You Jews say we’re supposed to worship in Jerusalem even though our fathers worshiped God here on this mountain.” That’ll get him talking about what all men want to talk about: religion and politics.

He’s looking at me with a sweet smile on his face. “Woman, believe me…”

The way he called me ‘woman’ just now almost made me cry. Like I was someone he cared about. Someone he knew.

He’s saying that the time is coming and is even now happening- that it won’t matter where we worship God. He says true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth. He’s even saying that the Father is looking for those kind of people.

I’ve never heard anyone talk religion like this! It feels like he’s just toppled over a rock wall inside of me. I’m tasting the dust of fear and freedom at the same time.

I mumble something I’ve heard all of my life, something about the messiah someday coming to tell us everything we need to know.

“That’s me,” he says. And I know he isn’t lying.

All of a sudden, some guys are coming up to him, looking shocked that he is talking to me.

I don’t care. My insides feel like churning water. My legs are weak as if I’m ripe wheat, just cut down and gathered up into the arms of God. Something in me wells up and I begin to run for joy. I float and fly into town. Suddenly I love everyone and want to hug them and tell them about the man who knows my story better than I do. The man who saw right through me. The man who saw ME and still smiled as if he loved me, cared about ME!


That day they all followed me back out of town and down to the well. I must’ve sounded like a crazy person. But I must’ve looked like a prophet because they followed me and for some reason, they believed me. Like I was somebody that had tasted something they were thirsty for.

I don’t know what life is gonna be like around here now that Jesus has come through. He only stayed a couple of days. That was long enough to make believers out of a lot of people in this place. They said they know that he is indeed the Savior of the world.

Everybody’s talking about him. They feel the way I felt.

But I met him first. I got to talk to him alone when no one else even knew how awesome he was.

Now, every time I go to that well, Jacob’s well, I remember the man who gave me a taste of living water. Sometimes that visit seems more like a dream than a memory. But I know it’s real. I remember how he told me about my crazy history. How he said that he was the Christ. How he looked at me and loved me.

I don’t worry now that I can’t get to Jerusalem to worship. I don’t just hope that the Father knows I want to worship him the right way, because He already knows. Because even though I’m way out here in no man’s land, He came through once, looking for me.

Read next: Everyday The Dust Comes Back 

 

“Animal House”: A chapter from my book, Lifelines

“Lifelines: Tracing My Journey in Story and Song  “

I recently published a book for those wanting to know more of my story and the story behind some of my songs! These stories trace the lifelines of God’s healing and grace in my life.

Here is an excerpt:

Animal HouseAmish farmer and mules pulling plow

I grew up in a house on Horseshoe Road in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In the midst of Amish and Mennonite farms, that drafty rental formed the backdrop of my playing days.

An Amish family, the Kings, lived across the road, and their kids sometimes invited us to run around in the barn or whisper through the house. I’ll never forget the smell of that natural-gas-heated kitchen or the smooth, simple surfaces in that dimly lit Amish home. Or the fact that the cats and kittens lived in the barn and were only there for the mice and rats.

It made me wonder and worry at the practicality of their lives. The horses’ main purpose was pulling their black buggies. The dog that hung around the gravel lane was less a pet and more a second thought. The scraggly cat with the oozing eye would never see a veterinarian for her ills. Even the mules seemed to be just tools for fieldwork.

Dogs and Cats and Mice, Oh My!

In my house, the animals were everything. They formed the basis of love in my early years. My cats and dogs were there for touching and hugging. Had I a mule, I’d have coddled him and kept him in my room. What would the Kings have thought if they knew I had a mouse in a cage in my house? I can’t remember her name, but I can still picture her fresh litter of wriggling pink babies.

My hamsters were a staple and scores must have scurried through my childhood. Added to their naturally short lifespan came the playful but deadly tosses from cats and kids alike. I remember coming home one evening to a dark bedroom where Spooky, my Siamese, was batting something around on the bed. I flicked the light to find my Sophie mostly dead beneath his playful paw. I have no idea how the poor thing got out of her cage.

The Birds and the Bugs            green praying mantis

Many damaged birds found their way into my living room infirmary. There was a sparrow with a tumor that would have died peacefully had Spooky not followed his feline instincts when no one was watching.

I even had a pet praying mantis named Herman. Each day I fed him freshly whacked flies. With lovely circumspection, he’d examine the squashed insect I dangled before him, then, swift as a whip, those spiky forearms grabbed that fly from my fingertips. Herman ate with relish and refinement, keeping those black-dotted orbs on his dinner and me simultaneously.

A few weeks later I discovered that he was a she, as I found my lovely green friend dead in the jar with an egg sack snugly glued to her twig. Her babies by the hundreds eventually hatched, and, like Wilbur keeping his piggy promise to Charlotte, I set Herman’s brood free to carry on her legacy.

Spooky

Spooky the Siamese catSpooky was my best cat and had stayed on with me through my high school years. He made the move with us when my parents split up and we left the house on Horseshoe Road. After a few years in a mobile home, we moved again twice, and he came along. Osteoarthritis and old age had hobbled him by the time my turn for college arrived. I had to put my childhood constant to sleep and bury him in the yard a few days before saying good-bye.

I still dream about Spooky and some of my other cats. Something about the way they smelled and felt in my young, unsteady world. I could count on their warmth, their love and acceptance.

They needed me, and I needed them. 

Puppy, Puppy, Puppy

Of all the pets we had, the family dogs were beyond compare. My sister Ginny and brother David and I had three dogs across the years that we named “Puppy.”

Puppy #1 actually was a puppy that never lived to see her doggy days. I remember the accident like it was yesterday. It was a Saturday morning and David and I were playing in mud puddles in a low strip of grass that bordered Horseshoe Road.

Our backs to the macadam, we hadn’t thought to leash our wandering Puppy. Duh-blunk. I heard the thud of what could have been a brown paper grocery bag run over by a car. I straightened and spun to look. There was my puppy on the road and a shock-faced woman coming from the side of her car.

I ran screaming into the house where my dad rushed downstairs from deep sleep. He met the apologetic driver at the door in his underwear, so afraid it was one of his kids who had been hit. Realizing what had happened, Dad left to dress. A minute later, I followed as he went to see what was left of our Puppy. She was alive for a few more moments as we cried there in the middle of Horseshoe Road. My eyes still fill up when I retell the story.

Puppy #2 was the love of my life when I was 9 years old. He sang for joy every time the family returned to the house, always ecstatic that we had come back. His acceptance and availability was exactly what we all needed.  I was crushed when we had to give him away because my parents separated and we weren’t allowed to have a big dog in the trailer. Losing him seemed the saddest part of my parents’ leaving each other. 

small dog in the grass
Puppy #3

Puppy #3 came from the shelter and was small enough to fit with us in the mobile home. She lived with our family for 14 years. We walked many roads together. She also went boating, swimming, river-rafting and jogging—wherever her people were! She died long after we three kids had grown and gone away to college.

Signposts and Symbols of Healing and Grace

Who can account for the impact of these pets? Their lives seem to be signposts and symbols of a sort.

My first Puppy died early, as did my innocence, marking a time of loss and death that probably prepared me for some losses ahead.

My second Puppy could be a symbol of grief and heartache that eventually healed.

And my last Puppy lived to tell of life’s longevity, normality, and dependability even when it begins in disruption and confusion.

Spooky, like the dogs, showed me unconditional love for all of his years by my side.

Maybe I am reading too much into it. But maybe not.

Whether insects and rodents or cats and dogs, these wonderful creatures mark the cycles of life and death on a small scale, which were, for a little girl like me, exactly what I needed.

If you want to read more, find Lifelines on Amazon or an autographed copy at my store.

More like this: I Wanted My Dog Dead, Making Pretend

 

Making Pretend

performing pretending

I grew up pretending and performing.

As a little girl, I made pretend by trying on my grandmother’s old dresses. These garments from her younger days made me feel older and beautiful. Even though most of the fabric draped disproportionately on my frame and settled in piles on the floor, I would still stand on tiptoe admiring myself in the mirror, hoping to someday grow into her clothes.

In high school, I overcame adolescent insecurity by trying out for all sorts of roles too big for me: cheerleading, plays, talent shows, marching band, and other popularity contests. I got good at exuding confidence 3 sizes bigger than I felt. Making pretend on many stages, I began to grow into the parts I played.

I arrived at music college largely self-assured and full of ambition. My singing and performing talents increased with the training and the experience that came with the classes and the shows we put on.

For my new acquaintances, I also played the good little girl from Small Town, USA, who’d had a great childhood and didn’t have a care in the world. I didn’t know I was kidding myself. Thankfully, my act did not fool everyone and some new friends began to tug at the loose threads of my story.

Making Believe

I call it coming out of denial.

The costumes I had grown into began to fray in my twenties. I was bearing false witness against myself, refusing to look deep and admit to the small and broken parts of my character. For sure, the story I lived in high school was the one that kept me tethered in my fragmented family life. My dad’s alcoholism and my parents’ divorce had been a devastating part of my growing up.

New college friends helped me to recognize this as they began questioning my happy narrative. The “me” I wore on my sleeve was actually a plastic jacket everyone could see right through. Other hard truths and feelings about childhood and about myself began emerging.  I started to shed some of the dress-up and become more grown-up than I had ever been.

Keeping Up Appearances

I have been a singer, songwriter and performer for several decades and have learned to put on the person I want to be when I take the stage. There is a lot to be said for keeping up appearances when putting on a show. The audience expects competence and engagement so I make eye-contact even when my self-confidence is flagging and my voice feels weak. Sometimes the best advice is  ‘fake it ’til you make it.’

However, the pretense can get out of hand and we can lose our true selves by hiding behind ‘false selves,’ projections of what we want others to believe about us. We also grow out of some of our roles and can confidently let them go. I am now 53 years old and recognize that I must let go at last some of my personae from the past. There’s a thrill and a qualm in moving on.

Making Metaphors

My story might go something like this:

In the afternoon of my life, I decided to disband my circle of loyal ladies. I was in no rush, wanting to slowly let go of my cadre of steady companions. But go they must.

So I stood to face each one in turn. I thanked Competence for her good service, shook her hand and let her go, surprised by the weakness I felt without her by my side.

Control was the next one to step forward. She’d kept me in a lovely blind spot for many good years. But now her veil was lifted and must list to the wind, leaving me quite vulnerable. Goodbye, my dear friend.

Her closest kin, Self-control, came out of the shadows and reminded me that she was more a phantom than a friend over the years. We waved as she slipped down the road behind me.

I looked ahead, greeting Beauty and Talent, my leading ladies. They’d always preceded me on the road and now they too must say goodbye. I thanked them for their good service and moved past them, grieving the journey ahead without them. Who else is here, I asked, that I must bid farewell?

Miss Good Health and Mrs. Good Mother have been quite faithful friends. Yet even they must take their place in the line behind me. They kissed my hands with tears in their eyes and bowed into the background.

The path ahead looks desolate. A lonely place. Space has been made for a Truer Companion. I stand on tiptoe to see who might be strolling down the road towards me.

 

I have been making music with my husband Scott since we met at Berklee College of Music in 1985. Known as Out of the Grey, we spent many years in the studio and on the road, making music and raising our 3 children. Read more of my story in my book, Lifelines: Tracing My Journey in Story and Song.

Hear our latest CD, A Little Light Left

Follow me on MEDIUM.com / Christine Dente

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