My Scarlett O’Hara moment

The summer after I finished fifth grade, Dad retired from the Air Force. After 20 years in the military, he rose only to the rank of staff sergeant, so there was little retirement pay. Dad’s skills in repairing flight simulators weren’t in great demand in the Real World, so he decided to go to college on the G.I. Bill. The college he chose was Washington State University in Pullman–a 5-1/2 hour drive away from our home.

With Dad away at college and no one earning money, Mom had to apply for public assistance. Now, my mother was no stranger to need. She survived World War II in Germany on rations such as one egg per person per month. But during the war, everyone was in the same boat. While Dad was at college, we couldn’t help comparing our poverty to what we perceived to be the riches of everyone around us. Initially, we received USDA commodities, including cans of chicken, milk in plastic bags, and one-pound bricks of butter. We consumed them in our own home, so it was easy to hide our need, but moving on to food stamps “outed” us. Handing food stamps to the cashier at the grocery store was so humiliating for my mother that she burst into tears.

We were also outed at school, where the three of us kids got free lunches. In the cafeteria of my junior high school, a bulletin board depicted a big construction paper fish eating a smaller fish, which was eating a still smaller fish. Underneath were the words, “There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” which only compounded my shame and self-consciousness.

At 12 and 13, my brother and I started delivering newspapers to earn money. Seven days a week, rain or shine, we traveled miles to deliver The News Tribune to the residents of our rural town, Roy, Washington. The town is bisected by railroad tracks, and Tom delivered papers on one side of the tracks, while I delivered them on the other. Mom got a physically demanding job at a tree nursery called Silvaseed.

Although my father eventually graduated from WSU, things never got much better. He worked here and there as a substitute teacher, but was never able to function outside the military. It had told him what to wear, where to go, what to do, when to do it, how to do it, and whom to salute. He couldn’t figure those things out for himself as a civilian. Socially and emotionally, he remained stuck in his early teens.

When I moved on to work-study jobs in high school, my little sister inherited my paper route. I attended Pierce College, and managed to get through on grants, scholarships, and more work-study jobs. Then I transferred to Seattle Pacific University, where I also received grants, student loans, and work-study.

I don’t know if it was not being able to afford a 10 cent postage stamp or a 25 cent load of laundry, but I eventually had one of those Scarlett O’Hara moments. You know, the moment when she collapses on her knees, grabs a fistfull of dirt and says, “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”

And that is exactly how my life turned out.

Not having enough money made me feel desperate, stressed, embarrassed, trapped, powerless, and afraid–all definite signs that I was not on my path. When I graduated from college and was able to assume full responsibility for my own destiny, I redirected my course, and things got a lot better.

Desperate Stressed

Embarrassed Trapped

Powerless Afraid

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Desperate,” “Stressed,” “Embarrassed,” “Trapped,” “Powerless,” and “Afraid” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

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Guilt as a motivational tool

As a child, I believed that I was responsible for my mother’s happiness. The way I ensured her happiness was to behave in exactly the way that she wanted me to. I believed that my mother would love me only if I stayed within the “target zone” of her expectations, and losing a parent’s love is a risk that a young child cannot safely take.

I became a master at reading the subtle changes in her facial expressions and moods and adjusted my behavior accordingly. In my constant attentiveness to her needs, I never became acquainted with my own. In fact, it never occurred to me to want anything that she didn’t.

What I learned from my mother served me well when I went to school, because meeting my teachers’ expectations led to good grades. And it made me a good employee, because I could anticpiate my employers’ expectations and quickly respond to their needs. But I still didn’t know who I was, what my own expectations were, or how to think for myself. That didn’t happen until I was in my late 20’s, when I quit my job, cashed in my 401k, and spent a year in Europe.

The farther I get from childhood, the more I doubt some of my memories–especially those having to do with my mother’s parenting techniques. Fortunately, I have an 8-year-old son, and watching the two of them interact confirms that my memories are accurate. If Adrian doesn’t do what my mom wants, she says something like, “Well that makes me really sad, Adrian.” I watch to see if he will be as consumed by guilt as I would have been, capitulate, and do what my mom wants. But he doesn’t. For him, guilt doesn’t work as a motivational tool, and I am so relieved to know that he has not inherited what I call my “overactive guilt gland.”

When I read Drama of the Gifted Child by Alice Miller, I realized that my mother had used guilt to get her needs met. It takes a special combination of people for that parenting technique to work–a match made in Hell, if you will. Guilt doesn’t motivate Adrian to do her bidding, for example, and it didn’t work on my sister either. But me? Oh, God. On me, it worked in spades.

It has taken a lifetime to overcome the effect that guilt has on me, and I’m still working on it. Even as I write this, I worry that my mother might see this post. What if it hurts her feelings? What if . . .

But the silver lining is that, in the process of working through all this, I created Mixed Emotions.

Guilty

Kris Wiltse’s illustration for the “Guilty” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.

Is it selfish to be happy?

I once had a conversation with artist/author Jerry Wennstrom that I’ll never forget. I had recently created my card deck, Mixed Emotions, but wasn’t really sure what to do next.

“When will I have met my obligation to the Universe?” I asked Jerry. “Have I already met it by creating Mixed Emotions, or won’t it be met until every single copy in the warehouse is sold?”

“Maybe,” Jerry said, “Your obligation to the Universe is to be happy.”

Isn’t it funny how the biggest epiphanies you’ll ever experience are also the simplest?

I didn’t feel like I had much choice in creating Mixed Emotions. Sometimes you have an idea and sometimes an idea has you. Mixed Emotions was definitely an idea that had me. I felt like I was hand-picked to bring it into being. I enjoyed creating it, but once it was published, I had no idea what to do.

Like many creative people, I didn’t have much experience in business. I also unexpectedly found myself separated from the father of my 12-month old son. Our divorce was final three days after my father died, and a few weeks later, the first few cases of Mixed Emotions arrived from the printer. It was onto this fertile soil that Jerry dropped his seed–the idea that my happiness might just be a worthy and legitimate thing to pursue.

I was not raised to believe that my happiness mattered much. It was the happiness I could give others, especially my mother, that mattered. But, to be fair, how am I doing as a parent? Am I teaching Adrian that nothing is more important than his own happiness? After all, he would’ve been happy if I’d let him skip school yesterday and I said no.

As the creator of a deck of cards, I’ve collected quite a few sets of cards over time. One of my decks is by Esther and Jerry Hicks, and is called The Teachings of Abraham Well-Being Cards. My favorite card sits in a holder above my sink and says simply this:

My happiness is my greatest gift to others

Thanks to Jerry Wennstrom, that is now the motto that I live my life by. And if I can somehow get that across to my son, I will consider myself a success as a parent.

Happy

Kris Wiltse’s illustration for the “Happy” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.

Illustrating emotions

When I realized that I had to come up with 60 images, I knew I’d need help. So, I invited three dear and creative friends–Tony Nahra, Rand Babcock, and Peggy Fitzgerald–to join me for regular brainstorming sessions. We sat around my dining room table and tackled one emotion at a time. Each of us silently wrote down images that came to mind, and afterward, we discussed them. Usually, one image emerged as the strongest, and we moved on to the next emotion.

Our ideas enabled me to tell artist Kris Wiltse, “Grief looks like an adult curled up in a fetal position.” Kris drew a rough sketch, and after I approved it, started carving the linoleum blocks. In the case of Grief, the rough draft and the final illustration looked a lot alike:

Grief Grief

But other illustrations went through changes before we settled on a final image. Here are the rough and final versions of Hate, for example:

Hate Hate

These changes came about, in part, because I sent the rough drafts to a group of people via e-mail. The feedback that people sent led to better images.

One of the things I enjoy most is collaborating with others to create something that none of us could have created individually. Being artistically ungifted, there’s nothing better than working with a commercial artist as talented as Kris. But Kris wouldn’t have had anything to illustrate without Tony, Rand, and Peggy. What a gift they gave to me, and to the world!

The best place to see all of Kris Wiltse’s illustrations is in the free e-cards area on the Mixed Emotions web site. Just click a thumbnail to view a larger image.

The extremely high price of not following my feelings

Not being an artist, I knew I’d have to hire one to illustrate each card in the Mixed Emotions deck (there are 60). At the time, a friend of my former husband’s was just beginning to represent an artist who appeared to be quite talented. Though I had misgivings about working with him, I convinced myself that what was best for Mixed Emotions wasn’t necessarily what was best for me.

The contract with the artist was set up in a way that enabled him to receive a monthly income while dedicating himself fully to my project for a year. Over time, it became more and more evident that he wasn’t going to deliver. By the time I finally pulled the plug, I’d paid him more than $50,000, which, of course, I never got back.

I learned a couple things:

  1. When I have misgivings about something, I don’t talk myself out of them anymore.
  2. I needed to be the one to determine how each card was illustrated, not the artist. Which means that I needed to tell the artist what grief looks like. I needed to tell the artist what exhaustion looks like, and so on.
  3. To do that, I’d need to brainstorm with a very creative group of friends. More on that later.

I still feel sick to my stomach when I think about losing that much money. Imagine how I must feel writing about it.

Embarrassed*

Embarrassed. Really, really, really embarrassed.

May this cautionary tale, and the very existence of Mixed Emotions, prevent you from making the same mistake.

*Kris Wilste’s illustration for the “Embarrassed” card from the Mixed Emotions deck.

How it all began

When I was in my thirties, words were my trade. I was good at expressing things–especially technical things. Yet, I found myself sitting across from a therapist, perplexed by the question she had just asked, which was: “How do you feel about that?”

I was tongue-tied. How could it be so difficult to put my feelings into words? And I found myself wanting to cheat. What I needed was a list of feelings that I could choose from whenever she asked me that question. But a list alone wasn’t enough, I needed each word on the list to be movable. Maybe it needed to be something like emotional Magnetic Poetry or emotional Scrabble or, maybe it could be cards.

Hey, cards. Now there’s an idea.

So, I created a deck of cards to help people put their feelings into words. It’s called “Mixed Emotions,” and I’ll be writing a whole lot more about what I learned, and the mistakes I made in later entries.