TBT…Sweet 16. 1981. Lake Catholic High School. Bye Bye Birdie.
“Do anything, but let it produce joy.” Walt Witman, Leaves of Grass
I tried to clean my attic this week. Which means I mostly sat on the floor, surrounded by boxes and memories, laughing and crying and remembering. When I came upon this photo, I was immediately struck by the innocence and joy it conveyed. Little did I know that within about the next eighteen months, I would experience my first heart break. That my sober alcoholic father would begin drinking again. And that I would lose my mother within 3 months of a cancer diagnosis.
But this was a season of pure joy. Four souls, just learning about life and love and friendship. Fragile yet eager and hungry to experience all that life would offer us. It was a time when I believed that I could do anything. Be anything. It was a time when the biggest worry I had was what I was going to wear to the party Friday night. (A dilemma only uniform-wearing Catholic school girls would understand). And there was no fear of being unloved. No thoughts that I might someday be unwanted or even parentless. No mean voices in my head about how inadequate I was as a person. Everything was possible. And as I stared at the photo longer, I had to ask myself, “where did this bright-eyed girl go?” And “Is it possible to return to a such a state of pure joy?”
James was “helping” me clean the attic. As I looked through old photos, he would pick up one and say “cheese” and move it to another pile and repeat. Then it dawned on me, “James will never look back at a photo of himself and say, “wow, I was so happy back then, how do I get back to that?” Loss and pain in life will never take away his joy. Because his joy is not circumstantial. His brain does not live in the future or the past, but in the right now.
I went to Lake Catholic High School in Mentor, Ohio, and this photo was taken during our theater production of Bye Bye Birdie. The show was directed by John Paulett, an incredibly talented and kind and generous man. I will never forgot my first audition for him. I sang “Que Sera” and when I finished he got up out of his seat, walked up to meet me on the empty stage and grabbed my hands. “That was great,” he said. “Now do it again, but I want you to let go. I want you to be in the moment.” He gave me my first leading musical role as Kim MacAfee. We won the Lake County Rotary Award for Best Musical that year – to toot our own horn! I turned sixteen this week and life couldn’t have been sweeter. But things change.
We grow up. We grow old. And everything gets complicated. Year by year, wound by wound, we start to close up. The mean voices in our head get louder and louder. And we begin to think they matter. We start to shrivel, then hide. It’s taken me years of therapy and chocolate to understand what happened in my own journey. To be at the place now where I can look at this photo, and many others from this season in time, and understand where the foundation of shame was laid. Where the walls got built. Where and when and why the anger dug its heels into my heart. But we don’t see it.
Shame does not arrive via email or in a nicely wrapped package. It seeps into your soul when you’re trying on bathing suits.
But what I know now is that for me, is that it wasn’t just that I lost my mother, it was that I had no idea nor the tools to deal with the grief that came along side her death. It wasn’t that (name withheld) broke my heart, is was that I didn’t know the difference between my internal voice telling me I wasn’t good enough for him, and the truth, which was that he wasn’t good enough for me! Or the real truth… which was that we just weren’t suppose to be together. And it wasn’t that my father began drinking again, it was that I thought his drinking was my fault, and worse, that I could stop it.
Lake Catholic High School and Mr. Paulett created more than just a successful drama program. What they did was create a space for teen-aged girls to have fun and learn about life. A safe place to grow and be inspired and build friendships that would last a lifetime. I am so happy that I am still friends with these girls today. Laura Feller Stacy and Monica Morgan Daly will always be special to me. And my heart still aches that Amy Feller Robertson left us tragically way too soon. You are missed my friend. And the loss of you continually reminds me to stay present.
The only slightly good thing about losing a friend is that in the space where they once were, you can find more of yourself.
It turns out that cleaning the attic wasn’t at all about getting rid of stuff. It was about finding stuff. The girl in this photo still exists. I have to put on reading glasses and look past the wrinkles and the age spots to see her, but she’s still in there. And this photo reminded me that as we get older, we have to make an effort to create a space in our lives for joy. No one is carving out a two-hour window for play practice every Tuesday and Thursday night so that we can have fun. (Although I do think a Bye Bye Birdie reunion must be planned!) But we have to choose everyday to stay present. Because that’s where the joy is. I learned that from James. He does not fill his brain with what was or what will be, only with what is. And it is in that place where joy is abundant. Que Sera.
Thank you Lake Catholic, John Paulett, Laura, Monica, Amy and James for reminding me at fifty-one that anything – especially joy – is still possible. Yes, I know it’s true, you can never go back, nor do I want too. But I do want to move forward in my life full of as much passion and desire and faith as I had back than.