My most embarrassing moment

When I was in my early teens, I accompanied my father as he ran some errands in town. We stopped at a McDonald’s for lunch, and as we headed back to Dad’s red Toyota pickup truck, I started feeling sick to my stomach. On the way home, I felt worse and worse. About a mile down the road, Dad stopped at a Dairy Dell and said, “Go in and get a Coke. It’ll settle your stomach. And while you’re in there, get me a large cone.” He remained in the truck.

So, I went into the restaurant and stepped to the back of the line. As I inched forward, I continued to feel sicker. Finally, when it was my turn to order, I stepped forward and threw up all over the counter.

A kind woman took me in back and cleaned me up. When I finally returned to the truck, all Dad said was, “Where’s my cone?”

More than 30 years later, that restaurant is still called “The Pukery” in my family, and I trot that story out when the subject of most embarrassing moments comes up. It was funny until I had a child of my own, which shed new light on the parenting I had received. My experience at the Dairy Dell was definitely eye-opening from the perspective of motherhood. If my son was ill, it wouldn’t occur to me to “medicate” him with Coca Cola, send him into a restaurant alone to purchase this “medication,” and ask him to get something for me in the process. But that is how my father parented, and it makes me a little sad for the embarrassed girl standing at the counter of the Dairy Dell.

Sad Embarrassed

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Sad” and “Embarrassed” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

When the shoe doesn’t fit

My mother raised us on German fairy tales, so we heard the original Brothers Grimm version of Cinderella while we were growing up. In its gruesomeness, it has become a perfect metaphor for some of my life experiences. You can read the original version of Cinderella yourself, but for me, the pivotal point comes when the prince arrived at Cinderella’s house to see if the golden shoe that his beloved left behind fit any of the young women who lived there.

The older stepsister took the shoe into another room to try it on, but it was too small for her. Her mother handed her a knife and said, “Cut off your toe. When you’re queen you won’t have to go on foot anymore.” So the daughter cut off her toe. The prince rode away with her, but as they passed the grave of Cinderella’s mother,  a couple of pigeons cried:

Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There’s blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!

The prince returned to Cinderella’s house and asked the second stepsister to try on the shoe. It didn’t fit her either, so her mother gave her a knife, and said, “Cut a piece off your heel. When you’re queen you won’t have to go on foot anymore.” So her daughter cut off part of her heel. The gullible prince fell for the trick again, and rode into the sunset with the second stepsister. However, the pigeons on the grave of Cinderella’s mother cried:

Rook di goo, rook di goo!
There’s blood in the shoe.
The shoe is too tight,
This bride is not right!

The prince returned to Cinderella’s house, insisted that she try on the shoe, and you know the rest: The shoe fit, and they lived happily ever after.

Like the stepsisters, I could not fit into the golden shoe of Christianity. And, like them, I was encouraged to cut off parts of myself to make it fit. The fact that I can’t bring myself to do it reduces my mother to tears, because only those who fit into the golden shoe go to heaven and she wants me to be there with her.

Although I refused to cut off parts of myself for Jesus, I have done it for the sake of relationships without even being aware of it. It was only after the relationship ended that I realized how much of myself I had pruned away. How much sense does that make? If your partner doesn’t fit, remove parts of yourself until he or she does? I am embarrassed to say I have done that, but I think we all have.

Unfulfilled

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Unfulfilled” card from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Divorce and guacamole

Not long after my husband and I split up, I stood in front of a cooler at the grocery store. I was completely baffled–was he the one who hated guacamole or was it me? 

I was beginning the process of finding my edges and reclaiming those parts of me that I had compromised for the sake of our relationship. I was disentangling and rediscovering myself.

Eventually, I remembered that it was my ex-husband who hated guacamole. So I bought some.

 

Guacamole

Image courtesy of the Hass Avocado Board

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.

Oh, rats!

Why? Why, with the Great Outdoors at their disposal do rodents set up housekeeping under the hood of my car and decide that electrical wiring is just the best thing they’ve ever tasted? More than $500 dollars later, we don’t call it “the car” anymore. We call it the “rat buffet.” As in, “Adrian, get in the rat buffet.”

I found no help for this problem online, so thanks to the helpful hardware man at Ace, I submit the following procedure for the general good of humankind.

How to keep rats from eating your car wiring

  1. Go to your local hardware store and purchase the following:
    A roll of twist-tie material. This is usually green, and you can find it in the gardening section.
    A box of RatMax Mini-Blocks by Enforcer.
    If you don’t have a pair of rubber gloves, get a some of those, too.
  2. Open your hood.
  3. Cut off a piece of twist-tie material, oh, say, a foot long.
  4. Put on your rubber gloves.
  5. Take a block of RatMax, and thread the twist-tie through the hole in the middle. Give the twist-tie a few turns right above the block to keep it from moving moving along the plastic-coated wire.
  6. Now, fasten it to a spot under the hood that won’t interfere with the workings of your engine. If you’re unsure about where to put it, ask a mechanically inclined friend or your mechanic.
  7. Hang two to four blocks of RatMax and monitor them regularly.
  8. When you discover that rats have nibbled one block away, replace it. The manufacturer of RatMax sys to “Maintain a constant supply of fresh bait for 10 days or until signs of rat activity cease.”

I now have rat poison hanging under my hood like Christmas tree ornaments, and the good news is that the rodents have been eating it. I typically avoiod getting into an adversarial relationship with nature, but this? This is WAR.

Having rats eat my car wiring feels frustrating and disgusting, which is how my “internal guidance system” let’s me know that I need to do something about it.

Frustrated Disgusted

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Frustrated” and “Disgusted” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Building from the heart (I)

In my mid-forties, I decided to build a house. Sometimes people seemed surprised that I’d even consider building a house on my own. I told them that I’d heard home-building is hard on a marriage, and since I had no marriage that would suffer, it seemed like the best time to do it. Besides, I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to meet the expectations of my parents, teachers, employers, spouse, partners, therapists, the clergy, and others. Building our house is the first time I have pleased only myself. It is the most self-indulgent thing I have ever done, and certainly one of the most empowering, creative, and fulfilling.

There are thousands of decisions that have to be made when you’re building a house. Sometimes I wished I had someone to talk things over with, but as I made each decision alone, I learned more about myself. It was like turning myself inside out for the whole world to see–everything about it was an expression of who I am.

Building a home is relatively easy when you build from the heart. You just close your eyes and imagine how you want to feel when you’re in a room. Then, you let that feeling inform every decision you make.

I wasn’t born knowing this. My parents were big do-it-yourselfers, and frankensteined their house together from pieces of other buildings. They recycled long before it was hip. Dad was proud of the solid-core doors he got from an insane asylum. He salvaged hardwood floors from a navy ship, sink fixtures from a hospital, and paneling from an old box car.

I admire my parents’ resourcefulness and am proud the fact that my 78-year-old mother is still adept with a Skil saw. But spending the night in what was once my bedroom drives me insane. My parents did not observe conventions. For example, molding should go on the wall, but in my former room it sometimes meanders up to the ceiling. The door doesn’t swing into the room as it should—it swings out—and I skin my knuckles on the door jamb almost every time I close it. There is no source of heat whatsoever, but then, there’s no source of heat in any of the bedrooms.

Elsewhere in the house, light switches were installed upside down. Mom writes “on” and “off” on the switch plate covers with a Sharpie to remind her which way to flip the switch. In the living room, Dad mounted light fixtures on wooden panels that he made out of green wood, which later cracked and split terribly. The button for the doorbell is so small that no one ever finds it, so mom wrote “Bell” above it in calligraphy. And when it rings, it isn’t a pleasant “ding dong” but a “BRRRRIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNGGGG” that’s as loud as a phone ringing at a lumber yard.

Everywhere I look in my parents’ house, I stub my eye, and I don’t feel comfortable in any of the rooms. I didn’t want that kind of house. I wanted a house built from the heart, and I got exactly what I wanted. Oh, I could go on and on about the process of building it–from having the plans feng shui-ed to milling our own lumber. Here are a few picturesTime-lapse photos of our house being builtTime-lapse photos of our house being builtof it going up.

While building our house, I felt excited, fulfilled, creative, and empowered.  Those feelings assured me that, as far as my life’s journey was concerned, I was headed in the right direction.

Excited Fulfilled

Creative Empowered

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Excited,” “Fulfilled,” “Creative,” and “Empowered” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Emotions as messengers

I have wrestled my son to bed for the night, and am sitting on my own bed, ready to do some work on my laptop computer.

“Mama,” he calls down the hall, “I’m sad.”

“About what?” I ask, trying to determine whether this is just another ploy for a “sleep-over” with me.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Well, your sadness is just a feeling you’re having. It’s a messenger that has some information for you. What is it trying to tell you?”

After a long pause, he says, “Connor gave me a stick and made me hit Tunji with it.” (Tunji is Connor’s dog.)

“I’m your mother,” I say, “and I know how hard it is to get you to do something you don’t want to do. There’s no way Connor made you hit Tunji.”

Long pause.

“So, you’re feeling sad because you hurt Tunji?” I say.

“Yeah,” he said.

“Tunji forgives you,” I say, knowing that he’s just one tail-wagging ball of love and fogiveness. “Now you need to forgive yourself.”

“How do I do that?” he asks.

“You need to love yourself,” I say.

After a bit, he says, “I still feel sad. Can you tap?”

“Sure,” I say. And after two rounds of tapping, he goes to sleep.

Adrian was born with an instinct to provide and defend by killing, which we don’t really value or create a natural outlet for in the 21st century. Being male, he is the result of thousands of years of natural selection, in which only the best hunters and warriors survived. He loves animals, though, and is often conflicted. One minute he wants to hunt rabbits and deer to provide meat for us, and the next minute, he wants to help a local farmer’s beef cattle escape so they won’t get slaughtered. Sometimes his wires get crossed and he hurts an animal he cares about, such as Tunji.

When Adrian feels sadness and doesn’t know what to do about it, he talks to me. Sometimes, he refers to an undefined jumble of negative emotions as a “clump,” and we sort through it to figure out what he’s feeling and why. This typically happens at bedtime, when he begins to reflect on his day.

Sad

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Sad” card from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

The tractor beams that bring us home

I lived in Seattle for about 20 years, but soon after my son was born, I began to feel the urge to move. This was unusual for me because:

  • My father was in the military while I was growing up, and all I ever wanted was Never To Move Again.
  • My marriage came to an end when my son was 12 months old, so if we moved, we’d be doing it on our own.
  • My support network was in Seattle and moving away from it, especially as a single parent, made no sense at all.
  • My father was very ill, and I was making many trips south of Seattle to visit him and support my mother.

But in the fall of 2001, my father died. Three days later, my divorce was final, and a few weeks after that, I got in my car, drove north, got on a ferry, and started looking at property on Whidbey Island. It took about a year to get my house ready to sell, sell it, buy a new house, pack everything we owned, and move.

What possessed me? I still don’t know. Architect Ross Chapin once told me, “Whidbey is a calling,” and I couldn’t agree more. I was “called” so intensely that I felt like I got caught in a tractor beam.

We’ve lived here six years now, and I’ve spoken to many Islanders who felt just as intensely called, in spite of the fact that it can be challenging to earn a living here. Sometimes, when I’m in Langley, I still can’t believe how wonderful life here is, and I expect a klieg light to fall out of the sky, as it did in the movie, “The Truman Show.” (The idyllic island town that Truman lived in turned out to be a movie set.)

There were so many logical reasons for me not to move to Whidbey Island.  But I followed my heart and did it anyway, which just goes to show that I can learn from my mistakes. The rewards are incredible. This place felt like home the moment we set foot on it, and we’ve never been happier.

Before we moved, I felt a sense of longing. I felt receptive and open to the possibility of leaving Seattle, I trusted that moving was the right thing for us to do, and I feel incredibly happy now that I’ve done it.

Longing Receptive

Trusting Happy

Kris Wiltse’s illustrations for the “Longing,” “Receptive,” “Trusting,” and “Happy” cards from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

Following our own yellow brick road

In first grade, my son’s teacher read The Wizard of Oz to the class. I had never read the book, and became curious when Adrian recounted parts of the story that weren’t in the 1939 version of the movie I’d seen. Not long ago, we checked out the recorded book from the library, and listened to it several times.

In the book, the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman, the Lion, and Dorothy all yearned for things they thought they lacked. The Scarecrow wanted intelligence, the Woodman wanted a to be able to love, the Lion wanted courage, and Dorothy wanted to go home. They were all convinced that the Wizard of Oz could give them these things.

But as problems arose on their journey to see him, the Scarecrow solved them with great resourcefulness and intelligence. Whenever the Woodman witnessed injustice, he wept tears of compassion (which always caused a fuss, because everyone was afraid he would rust. Surely author L. Frank Baum must’ve known that tin doesn’t rust?). The Lion carried his traveling companions across obstacles and defended them when they were threatened. And Dorothy? She experienced “home” as being with those she loved–not just a place to live.

Long before they reached the wizard, they already possessed what they desired. On arriving in Oz, they discovered that the wizard was just a regular person who could not grant their wishes.  But he gave the Scarecrow, the Woodman, and the Lion symbols that represented what they sought, and that seemed to satisfy them. He intended to take Dorothy home in his balloon, but the balloon took off without her.

Dorothy’s journey was the longest. Although the Scarecrow, Woodman, and Lion had already found what they sought, they accompanied Dorothy on a yellow-brick-roadless journey to find Glinda, the Good Witch of the South. It was Glinda who revealed to Dorothy that she (surprise) possessed the ability to go home all along. All she had to do was ask her silver shoes to take her there.

There’s a lot to learn from the Wizard of Oz. As we follow our own roads (yellow brick or otherwise):

  • We find that it is not in anyone else’s power to give us the qualities, characteristics, and things that we seek.
  • We develop the qualities we think we lack by facing the challenges that arise on our journeys.
  • Our life experiences transform our perceived weaknesses into strengths.
  • The shoes that have been on our own feet all along are the ones that will take us home.

Unsure

One of Kris Wiltse’s illustrations from the Mixed Emotions card deck.

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.