I watched in stunned disbelief as my friend’s face started to change, to screw up into a shape in which I had never, in all the years I have known her, seen it before. Hers is an exceptionally expressive and lovely face, but this was so unfamiliar that I didn’t know what was happening at first, the edges of her mouth turning down, her chin bunching up. It was only when I looked to her always-brilliant eyes, and found them instead pained, squinted, and damp that I realized the obvious: my tough, talented, and together friend had begun to cry.
She’d seemed so certain, so self-assured just a minute before when she’d started to tell me the story, but now, as she spoke the words she’d been holding in, about how she’d felt excluded, uncool, and – this was the most excruciating part – less than the others, she was as surprised as I was when the tears came. I could tell that it felt to her just like when she was in middle school, just like it felt to all of us felt in middle school, when we thought we were the only ones that weren’t fully a part of things, didn’t have quite the right outfit, hadn’t figured it out like the others. It all came flooding back to me, too, and I started to wonder then – and have not stopped wondering since – if our our pained and awkward middle-school selves ever really leave us behind.
And then, day after day, it kept happening, this one thing kept coming up for me; I kept finding myself in the same conversation, in different ways, and with different people. And when that happens, I usually figure that the universe is telling me to think about this a little bit more, to pay a little bit closer attention.
It was just a few days later when I sat with another friend having coffee. (All right, if you must know, yes, it was at the same Starbucks. Don’t judge me.) I don’t know her nearly well as my other friend, but our girls are the same age, and both she and her girl are gifted, radiant, gorgeous, and kind. And as we sat, talking about our girls, and how they really feel, how things are really going for them, how – despite social media posts to the contrary – they struggle sometimes, they feel isolated and alone, we kept nodding in agreement, finishing each other’s sentences, reaching across the table with our hands just to say, wordlessly, “Yes. Me, too. I know exactly what you mean.”
And as we talked, we eventually found ourselves in the company of the teenage girls who sat there still, carefully hidden in our middle aged bodies and laugh-lined faces, at the same little table at Starbucks. This friend, too, soon confided how she’d felt alien and unwelcome, excluded by the cool girls, who also hide, though perhaps a bit more skillfully than the rest of us, in middle-aged bodies and laugh-lined (or often Botox’ed) faces. And we talked about how isolating that feels, how deep it cuts, reminiscent of the days of our youth, and how quickly and completely we can begin to believe that that kind of hard stuff is ours alone. And how confusing and painful it is when our girls’ stuff sometimes gets too close to our stuff, when the exquisite tenderness of old injuries can make it difficult to sort out what is hers and what is ours. And how just sitting there, telling the truth in Starbucks and finding that we were not alone, and that our girls weren’t alone either, made it all somehow ok.
A few days later, purely by happenstance, I started listening to the Dear Evan Hansen soundtrack. The Broadway show (that won a whole bunch of Tonys the other night) is telling some painful truths about the pain of adolescence, and isolation, and even some of the challenges of social media. I was searching for errant golf balls in my yard when I first heard the refrain of “You Will Be Found“, and that irony made me laugh, but then I had to stop in my tracks. It was happening again.
There’s a place where we don’t have to feel unknown
And every time that you call out
You’re a little less alone
If you only say the word
From across the silence
Your voice is heard
Even when the dark comes crashing through
When you need a friend to carry you
When you’re broken on the ground
You will be found
Remember when the kids were little? If you were lucky enough to have a group of moms in your neighborhood, or at your preschool, you might have played a version of a game called Who Has the Worst Toddler. It was a game everybody won, because eventually, they were all awful. But when we told the truth about the awfulness to each other, and watched our friends dissolve into knowing laughter as we described the meltdown (the toddler’s, or worse yet, our own), the ruined drywall (with marker, or worse yet, poop), it kind of started to feel ok. The infuriating humiliation of having to crawl our 8-month-pregnant enormo-selves into the McDonald’s Playplace to try and retrieve the stubborn 2 year old while concealing our rage and embarrassment and also our enormo-maternity underwear was met with guffaws. The tale of having to leave behind a cartful of groceries just to remove a screaming toddler from the store and return home empty-handed was met with a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread, picked up by a thoughtful friend and delivered with a hug during the child’s much-needed nap. These were the staples, enough to get you through until the next day.
Maybe it’s because the sheer fatigue had worn down our defenses, or maybe because we were so close to losing it so much of the time that our survival depended on it more, but I think we were more honest with each other then. I wonder when that all stopped?
When did everything get to be about hiding the imperfection, the struggle, the self-doubt, and even the shame of knowing that despite your best intentions, there are days when you are just short of the staples necessary to survive another day? That there are days that your kid who is no longer a toddler is struggling, lost, or badly behaved? And, perhaps even more importantly – and definitely more closely concealed – that there are days that you are all of those things, too?
How can our kids know they’re not alone if their grown ups aren’t even sure?
What do you say we start telling the truth to each other again, and listening to it, too? For me, that’s the whole reason to blog in the first place: to call out to our sisters, as women have done for generations, at the cooking fire, at the well, at the sewing circle, at the playground, but almost never by the time of the first college counseling meeting. To say the word, which some days I think is just Hi, as in, This is who I really am, and what I’m about, and do you want to be friends? And some days the only word that comes to mind is Help, as in, I’m totally out of my depth and gosh, I really thought I’d be farther along by now, I thought I would Have It Together, but I clearly do not, and do you ever feel that way, too? But when all else fails, when I have no idea what to say, the word can at least be Here, as in, I’m here for you, and now, at least, neither one of us is alone. Consider us both found.