Self-definition

Going back as far as my memory allows, my vision of myself was as the person I was told I was. If my parents said I was dumb, then I was. When my brother said I was fat, I was that as well. If a teacher placed me in the lowest group, then I was that as well.

I got to thinking about how we let others define ourselves. Sometimes looking back is a good thing, and in this instance, I believe that it allowed me to understand why I had such low self-esteem for much of my life.

As a young child I was called a whiner. I deserved that label for I could throw a whine-fest over just about anything. One of the few photos taken at that age shows me with fists clenched at my sides, head downcast and a huge pout.

 When I entered school, the teachers treated me as if I was stupid, although that wasn’t the term they used. I felt stupid even though there was no way for my teachers to know that no one had ever read to me, that there were no books in our house and that I’d never been to a library? I didn’t know colors, shapes, numbers or letters. I didn’t know how to cut, paste or trace lines.

While my classmates worked on reading I sat alone, tears streaming down my face doing what was probably extremely simple for everyone else.

In early elementary grades I was placed in the lowest reading group. Even there I was so far behind that I was still trying to learn letter sounds while they read out of books. I understood why I was there, but was too embarrassed to be seen with them. When the teacher called my group up, I slid down in my desk and hid.

My paperwork was filled with red. My writing was nothing but chicken scratches, strange combinations of letters that sometimes turned out to be words. I had no idea about capitals or punctuation. The sad thing was that my teacher didn’t help me.

I felt stupid and ashamed, so during recesses I found the darkest parts of campus and hid.

Add to that the unkind words coming from my parents and siblings that solidified that feeling of being dumber than everyone else.

Somewhere along that time continuum fat-shaming began. I accepted that definition even though it hurt. Classmates taunted me. My brother humiliated me. My dad insulted me. My mother fed me.

So now not only was I dumb but I was fat to go along with it.

In fourth grade I took things into my own hands and began teaching myself. I asked the teacher for extra work and night after night I went over the lessons. I’d fill in the blanks, erase, then do it again and again until I mastered the work. I forced myself to read even though it made me cry. I began with small words that I could memorize. I made flash cards with old paper so that I could add more and more words to my reading vocabulary.

My grades improved. My confidence grew. But I was still fat and getting fatter.

When we moved, I scored high enough on a placement test that I was no longer in the lowest groups. That giant step helped me to change my perception of myself.  I knew that I wasn’t stupid because I had taught myself to read, write and do math.

As time passed my academic accomplishments increased. I was placed in more difficult classes which I mastered. By the time I was in high school my entire class load was at the college prep level.

But I was still fat.

I joined the freshman basketball team. Now I was seen as an athlete. I was too short to score, but my hands were fast. I could strip a ball away any player that got near. I was feeling quite proud of myself. When the JV season ended I was moved to Varsity. I never got to play. Game after game I sat on the bench. I no longer felt like an athlete.

It was amazing how quickly my definition of myself changed. Athlete one week, not the next.

My dad told me I was ugly and I believed him. He said that no man would ever marry me and so I grew into an adult who felt unlovable. I was told that men would only want one thing of me and once they had that, they’d dump me.

When I began dating in college I felt somewhat better about myself, but nothing changed at home. My self-esteem was so low that when my brother’s friend attempted to rape me, I believed that I was only good for the one thing my dad had said. Men would only wanted sex from me, nothing more.

The man belonged to my brother’s fraternity. He must have told them what he’d done, for after that I had a date every weekend. I didn’t consider myself promiscuous, but others might have.

When my wonderful husband proposed, I was thrilled and flabbergasted. The unlovable person, the fat, stupid person was going to get married. So the next definition of myself was as a lovable wife.

I knew enough about marriage, from watching my mother, that I was the one who had to cook, clean and perform all those womanly duties. I hated them. I wanted to continue to work, read and write.Even so, I fulfilled the definition as best as I could.

Our house was clean enough. The laundry was done. Meals were cooked.

When children were born, I read magazines to learn how to parent.The knowledge I gained there helped me understand what I should be doing. Babies were not my thing, but once I could teach them things, I reveled in the definition of mother.

I had always dreamed of being a teacher despite how my instructors treated me. Sharing knowledge with my kids helped me see that I had the skills to be a teacher. I took classes at the community college to learn how to be a preschool teacher. When I was hired for the first job I applied for, my self-esteem shot up. I was a teacher! And I loved it.

But I saw myself as being something more than a snot-wiper and piss-cleaner.

I applied to a credential program, was interviewed and accepted. I was only able to take night and weekend classes, so it took years to finish my credential program. I was hired for the first t full time position that I applied for, a pleasant surprise.

I was a third-grade teacher at a Catholic elementary school. I offered my students the most educational program that I could do while still teaching the required curriculum. My students and parents loved me. I loved that definition of me.

In time, however, my principal’s idea of who I was changed. At first I was innovative and inspiring. But I kept getting older. She saw herself as a beloved principal, surrounded by young, cute teachers. She actually said that at a faculty meeting!

With that in mind, she chased away the older teachers, starting with Yvonne.After she left the principal hounded Marie until she resigned as well. She turned her focus on me, just as she had done them. I was told that my lessons weren’t good enough. She told me how to improve, then wrote negative evaluations when I did as she had said.

I began to believe that she was right, that I wasn’t a good teacher. I left.

It took me two years of working as a substitute to get another job. During that time period I applied for job after job. With each rejection I felt more and more incompetent. I was told that I didn’t know how to teach students of different cultures. They were right, so I enrolled in workshops, at my expense, to learn.

Next I was told I couldn’t teach in public schools because I didn’t know how to teach students who learned differently. They were right. Once again I sought out information on disabilities.

During those years I believed that I couldn’t teach those students even though I had had students like them in my classes at the Catholic school. But, the administrators who rejected me were right, or so I thought, because they knew better than I who I was and what I could do.

My weight soared. I kept buying clothes at larger sizes, then outgrew them. I pretended to diet, but failed at that. In my mind those failures reinforced the earliest definitions of myself: I was dumb. Too dumb to eat less, too dumb to understand dieting.

I didn’t want to be fat and hid it the best way I knew how. No matter where I was going or what I was doing I dressed to hide my body’s faults. I knew that it didn’t work, but my clothes were stylish and clean.

What was interesting is that my husband continued to see me as the slender woman that he married.

During that same time period I was a soccer coach, referee and player. At church I was a reader and singer. At work I was a great teacher, nominated several times for Teacher of the Year.

All these positive definitions were reassuring, but never completely erased the years and years of being told that I was less-than.

When health forced me to change my behavior, I lost the weight. I had to buy smaller and smaller sized clothing. Even when I needed less fabric to cover me, I still saw an obese woman whenever I dared look in a mirror.

Today I know that I look awesome, that I am intelligent, that I am a good wife, friend, mother and grandmother.

I no longer allow others to define me. That power belongs to me and me alone.

Sometimes I slip and cower in self-doubt when another story gets rejected or something goes wrong in a friendship. Back in the early days I would have carried that like a mantle, weighing down my shoulders. Today I brush it off and move on, a smile on my face.

I had to turn sixty-eight before I seized that power. Better late than never, right?

Perhaps someone who reads my story will take charge right now. They’ll say, I get to define myself, not you or you or you.

 What a marvelous thing that would be.

A Special Pet

            My mother hated cats and didn’t really like dogs. She believed that cats sucked air from babies, killing them and that dogs would bite the face off children. When a parakeet arrived after a vicious storm, she allowed us to keep it. In fact, she called friends and relatives until she found someone willing to give us a cage. That was our first pet.

            Petey was an incredibly smart bird. I taught him to say a few words. When out of the cage, he’d sit on top on the structure until he wanted to go back inside. He played with toys and sat on your shoulder. That is until my dad and brother built a giant Ferris wheel out of the erector set.

Petey liked to sit in one of the buckets as it went around. It was fun to watch him. I’d lay on my stomach next to the contraption and watch the bird go around and around. My brother got bored of something so sublime and turned up the juice.

Within seconds the speed increased. Not just marginally, but significantly. Petey got scared and flew off. From then on we could never get him to sit on our fingers. Petey would still open the door to his cage and sit on top, but never again could a person touch him.

Not too long after that my dad brought home a beagle puppy. His intention was to teach it to hunt rabbits. He had gone out with friends who had dogs and decided that he would like to take up the sport.

My mom was so angry that she refused to talk to my dad. She would not allow the dog in the house, so my dad built a dog house which he placed at the edge of our backyard and chained the dog to the structure.

The poor thing whined and howled all day and night. My mother finally gave in after three straight days of incessant misery and allowed the dog in the house, for only an hour. That hour turned into fulltime. She named that dog Lady Coco and spoiled her rotten.

Mom warmed canned dog food in a special skillet. She felt that the congealed mass that came from the can was unhealthy.

When we moved from Ohio to California the dog rode in the car with us. During the trip Lady Coco laid next to me in the back seat. My hand was constantly on her, stroking her and cooing softly to her. By the time we had a residence, the dog was mine.

In the early years of my parent’s marriage, my dad had several tanks of tropical fish. No one other than him was allowed to care for them. Every night when he got home from work he’d feed the fish and clean at least one tank. He sold them all when we moved.

Not too long after he bought our first California home, he brought home two large fish tanks. Once again, they were his to care for.

For some reason I decided to get into the fish care business as well. I began with goldfish because they were pretty, hardy and cheap. I kept the tanks in my bedroom. I loved the comforting sound of the filters bubbling away. Watching the fish swim about comforted me and lessoned my anxiety.

When I left for college, I gave my fish and tanks to my dad. It saddened me to let them go, but since I was attending a college many miles from home, there was no way I could keep them.

After graduation I was forced to return home since I had no job. I bought new tanks and started over, first with goldfish and then some tropical ones. Once again, they made me happy.

I got a job, saved money, bought a car, then rented an apartment. My tanks came with me. Of course fish died and new ones took their places, but I was still happy.

When I married, my tanks moved to our apartment, and then later, to our house. By now I was working full time. I was exhausted when I came home from work. It became a chore to scrub tanks, so much so that as fish died, I didn’t get new ones. When the last one was gone, I got rid of all the tanks and paraphernalia.

As a couple, our first dog was a Dalmatian puppy that was not show quality. She didn’t have enough spots and her tail had a funny bump. She was an awesome dog. She loved our son and kept an eye on him to make sure he was safe. If we were working in our front yard, she made sure our son didn’t crawl away.

She trained easily, but was jittery around men. We took her camping with us and she loved it. The one problem was that she got car sick. That was a serious problem until the vet sold us some expensive pills.

After her there were a series of pets, including guinea pigs, hamsters, cats and birds. We borrowed a rat and a bunny from an animal sanctuary. I didn’t love having them around. Eventually I returned to being a bird keeper, beginning with a pair of love birds.

One time a friend invited me to visit animal shelters with her as she searched for the perfect dog. One of the last shelters we entered had a mother and two pups. They were incredibly cute.

I fell in love with the brown puppy and requested to adopt it when it was of age. We called him MacTavish, a name much bigger than he was. Mac, or Mackey, was seriously ill when we brought him home, something we quickly discovered when he couldn’t take more than a few steps without falling.

My friend taught us how to make a special gruel that we squirted into his mouth with a syringe. Because of force-feeding, he got stronger and better. When Mac was able, we taught him to walk on a leash. He could catch frisbees, but not in his mouth, but with his front paws.

He’d chased a ball and bring it to you, but not let go. He loved riding in cars so much that if he was ever out front, you’d have to take him for a ride around the neighborhood before he’d get out of the car.

His early days of illness must have killed some brain cells because he was so quirky. He was quick to housebreak but slow to respond to commands. We never knew where to put down his food bowl. He was supposed to eat in the kitchen, but sometimes he just couldn’t. We’d follow him around, bowl in hand, until he found the right spot.

Mac loved our large backyard. There was plenty of room for him to run and play. If any of us went out back, he had to come. His favorite activity was when my husband yelled, “Squirrel,” and then Mac would go sit under different trees while squirrels chirped at him high overhead.

Mac’s other favorite activity was going to the shed at the end of our yard. My husband would say, “To the shed,” and Mac would take off, loping like and antelope.

Mac was kind and gentle, warm and loving. He brought great joy to our lives. I really miss him.

My First Paying Jobs

As a fourteen-year-old, back in the mid-sixties, I was expected to babysit. Considering that we lived out in the country, there were few options for any young person, let alone a girl. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but when my parents told me to do something, I had no choice.

My parents found me my first job. A family up the street from us had a baby. They needed a babysitter and I was volunteered. It made no difference that I knew nothing about babies: they hired me anyway. After a quick tour of the boy’s room, the parents left. As instructed, I fed him a bottle. Thankfully that went okay. Shortly, thereafter, however, things went wrong.

The stink began accompanied by a series of ominous-sounding gurgles. I understood that I had to change his diaper, so I toted him into his room and placed him on the changing table. When I undid the diaper, urine shot into the air. I covered him up, waited, then pulled the diaper away. More urine! And more. When I figured he was finished, I tackled the bigger issue, the poop.

It was awful. And, like the urine, just as I got him cleaned up and a new diaper in place, he squirted out more. And more and more until I’d used up every diaper.

Those parents never hired me again.

My next job had a much better beginning. The kids were in bed when I arrived. I was allowed to watch the color TV, something we didn’t have at home. The one problem was that the only programs I could find were horror shows. Every little creak of the house and scrape of a branch terrified me. I called home and begged my dad to come rescue me. They never asked me to come back.

I met a mother when out delivering papers who asked me tie sit her three boys. Her regular sitter wasn’t available. I was too inexperienced to understand the coded message. The boys were perfect angels until the parents left. All hell broke loose! They refused to comply with anything I told them to do. They threw food, stripped, then ran around the house. When I finally got them into the bath, they splashed water all over the floor, making huge puddles that later I had to sop up. The boys were still up, well past bedtime, when the parents returned. I refused any future job offers.

My last assignment was with a sweet toddler. She was easy to take care of and did everything I asked. She fell asleep almost as soon as I got her in bed. The parents had given me another job: ironing. They had an entire basket full of clothes that were badly wrinkled. I finished around eleven, the time the parents were supposed to have returned.

I turned on the TV and tried to stay awake, but I was exhausted. I woke up with the father looming over me with a scowl on his face. He drove me home without a word until it was time to pay. Instead of giving me the agreed-upon amount, his shorted me by about five dollars, a huge difference in those days. And he never said thanks, even though I had done everything they asked.

That ended my career as a babysitter.

My Enduring Phobias

            I have always hated spiders. Going way back into my earliest memories, I cannot recall a time when I was ever intrigued by spiders or wanted to observe them or even yearned to know anything about them. To put it simply, they terrify me.

            A scientist might be able to explain all the beneficiary things spiders do to enrich our earth, which is good, but it would not change my mind.

            Spiders, unlike dogs, creep about. They make no sound as the crawl across my ceiling or up my walls. Sometimes when I am sitting on the couch one appears and crawls across my book or, even worse, up my arm. Or maybe on my neck.

            They have the ability to drop on you without any kind of fanfare. One minute there is no spider, next thing you know, there it is.

            My reaction is swift and certain. I sit up in horror as I attempt to brush it away. I might leap (as best as this aging body can do) while brushing away the offensive creature. If it’s anywhere near my husband’s shoes, I will use deadly force by slapping or squishing. Only with his shoe: never mine.

            Some kids are intrigued by spiders and like to make temporary pets out of them. This gives me the willies. I get the same feeling when I visit an animal sanctuary and see spiders of various sizes and shapes in aquarium environments. I want to look yet can’t get away fast enough.

            I have had negative encounters with spiders.

            There was a time when I was a young teen and was taking a bath. I was just about finished when I felt something land between my shoulders. I screamed so loudly that both my parents stormed into the room, assuming that some terrible thing had occurred. I was embarrassed to have them in the room while I was completely naked, but I put that aside in order to be rescued.

            They didn’t save me. They made fun of me.

            Thankfully my dad left while I dried off, but my mother lingered. Perhaps that was a good thing because she discovered a small, round, red spot on my back. And when the tub was drained, a spider remained. My dad was summoned to witness that I had not imagined it, then terminate it.

            There was no lasting damage and I didn’t become ill, but the event solidified my fear of spiders. This was proof that they were out to get me. I knew that this was not the last attack, but rather the first of many to come.

            Many years later, after I was married, I was taking a shower to get ready for work. Suddenly an intense pain began in the little toe of my left foot. I looked down and spotted a brown spider sitting there. It was probably seeking refuge from the water, much like a swimmer finding higher ground during a deluge. I panicked, to say the least.

            There was nothing I could use to smash it, so I shook my foot until the spider fell off. I turned off the water and got out as quickly as I could. I would have gone for my husband’s shoe, but then I realized that it was, in fact, a brown spider. By this time I’d heard of recluse spiders whose bite could make a person quite ill. Thinking that this might just be a recluse, I wrapped myself in a towel, went into the kitchen and retrieved a glass jar.

            The spider was still in the shower when I returned, so I trapped it. I screwed on the lid and was going to leave it on my husband’s dresser as evidence in case he came home and found me dead. But then I remembered that there would be no air in that jar. Granted I would have smashed the spider if it hadn’t bitten me, but now I wanted to preserve it just in case.

            I carried the jar into the garage and using a hammer and nail punctured several holes in the lid. I kept the spider trapped all day, sitting on the dresser.

            Because I began feeling ill almost immediately, I called in for a sub (I was a teacher) and stayed home. My toe did become a bit inflamed and I thought I saw a red streak going up my leg. I spent the good part of the day with my leg hanging down, trying to prevent poison from getting to my heart.

            This was before the Internet so I had no way to research what type of spider it was nor any side effects of its bite. I acted on impulse, not on fact.

            By the time my husband returned home from work, I was feeling fine and embarrassed. It turned out that it was a common brown spider, it was not poisonous and I had wasted a day of sick leave for nothing.

The next major encounter with a spider was when my husband decided we would head south to the Grand Canyon. I was excited about the trip as I had never been there. After finding a camping spot and setting up the tent, we went to the Visitor’s Center.

            As we followed the path to the entrance, I trailed my hand along the top of a brick wall. Thankfully my hand was on the top and not gracing the side and that my eyes caught something in time for me to withdraw my hand. Nestled in a depression in the wall was a large tarantula. Imagine if I had touched its hairy legs! Imagine if I had brushed its abdomen! The horrors!

            I felt ill just thinking of all the things that might have happened. My young son, however, was intrigued. He wanted to pick it up and let it sit in the palm of his hand. My husband seemed to agree that it would be a great thing to do, but I refused. Even after another visitor did just that. He let the spider sit on his arm and offered it to my son. I shivered as I shook my head. I grabbed my son’s arm and pulled him away, enticing him with the air-conditioned center.

            My first teaching job was at a city-run preschool. Every session I took my classes to the local nature center. I was brave enough to touch the snakes (in order to reassure my students that it was okay to do so) but never the tarantulas. I tried, I really did, but just the thought of doing so made me ill.

            Over the next several years no major spider encounters happened. Yes, one would appear in the bathroom where it would be smashed to death. Yes, one would walk on my arm while I sat on the couch. Yes, sometimes one would have gotten inside my car and have to be dealt with before I could continue driving. But no bites.

            Then my daughter’s family bought a house in Utah that had a serious spider problem. These were not tiny brown spiders or even medium-size spiders. They were gargantuan. They had long legs and thick, round bodies. And they were everywhere.

            You’d spot them walking down the hall or front room. They’d be above your head on the ceilings or coming down a wall. They clustered in windows inside and out. They seemed to be wherever I was.

            One time I was downstairs brushing my teeth, getting ready for the morning. I heard a loud thump behind me, turned around, and discovered that one of them was now sitting on the edge of the tub. The sound I’d heard was it dropping from the ceiling. Put that thought in your mind: a spider so heavy that when it landed it made a thumping noise.

            Add to that the sheer size of the spiders. You couldn’t smash it with a piece of toilet paper or a tissue. It would have needed something the size of a shoe with plenty of applied pressure.

            I had my own shoe handy, but there was no way I’d have spider guts on the bottom of my own shoe. I seem to recall going into the hallway and finding a magazine that had seen better days. I’m pretty sure that I used the magazine to smash that spider so it could never drop down and terrify me again.

            On another visit I was getting ready for bed when a spider came from the ceiling and landed in my open suitcase. I felt nauseous as a shiver shook my body. At first I couldn’t move, couldn’t think. When some degree of rationality returned, I began flinging my clothes, one article at a time, out of the suitcase. As each piece of clothing fell to the floor, I stared to see if the spider emerged.

            I threw socks, t-shirts, pants and underwear, not caring what it was. The spider had to be gone and the only way that was going to happen was if I lifted it out inside my clothes. I got down to the layer on the bottom. I picked up the last pair of panties, shook them, and out fell the spider.

            Relieved that it was gone, I was able to breathe easier. However, it was there, in the hallway, inches from my room. I had to act. Had to do something so that it could never return. The only thing I could find was that same magazine from before. I dropped it on top of the spider then stomped over and over until I was sure it was dead. I didn’t look.

            After my clothes were back in the suitcase, I zipped it up and kept it that way.

            But now I couldn’t sleep. My bed was a foot away from where the spider had dropped from the ceiling. Knowing that the house was infested, I couldn’t sleep. At least with the lights off. So I kept them on. But every time I closed my eyes I imagined spiders dropping. Even though it was warm, I pulled the sheet up over my head, encasing me in cotton. That’s how I got through the night.

            It’s not just spiders that scare me. I am terrified of heights. Back when I was in college in Los Angeles my parents insisted the I fly home every other week. This was back when it cost $14 round trip.

            I hated it. Take offs were terrible, but landings were worse. One time I was waiting to board and so nervous that my entire body was trembling. A man sitting next to me noticed and began talking to me. He told me to keep in mind that the pilots wanted to take off and land as safely as I wanted them to. Just as I wanted to go home, so did they.

            Those calming words spoken over fifty years ago still resound with me today. Because of one kind man I have flown to many different states and countries.

            But I won’t climb ladders. When we first bought our house, my husband needed help cleaning the gutters. He knew I was afraid of heights, so he asked me to just climb high enough to be able to hand him tools. I did it even though it scared me.

            When our kids were young, we bought a blow-up boat. One camping trip we were near the Truckee River. It was peaceful looking, so he decided we would float down the river. As long as the river was smooth, I was happy. When it began getting choppy, I got scared. I rode down the first set of rapids, but from then on, I insisted on getting out just before the rapids began.

            I’d walk back to the truck, drive to the end, pick them up, return to the starting point. While my fear kept me from enjoying the ride, there was a plus: they didn’t have to carry the boat.

            Recently we were on a vacation trip in Colorado. The only excursion option was a raft ride down a class three river. Just thinking about it scared me.

            I can swim. In fact, I am a lap swimmer. So why does the thought of floating in rapids scare me? Because it’s the unknown.

            That’s the way it is with most phobias. We fear the unknown.

            Movies have taught us to be scared of sounds in the night. To be wary of strangers. To not go into the unknown. Bad things happen to characters who break those taboos. They die or come perilously close to death.

            We’ve seen people slide off roofs, fall out of planes, drown in lakes. Boats explode, snakes escape their tanks, lions eat the unaware. Fires consume houses, gasoline bursts into flame and water turns into floods that sweep people away.

            There are infinite possibilities for things to fear. It’s no wonder that we develop long-lasting phobias.

            While I do fly and I did learn to swim, I am still terrified of spiders. I did conquer the river in Colorado and would have gone a second time if the opportunity had arisen. I don’t like ladders of any height, but if my husband needed me, I’d do it for him.

            My phobias will always be there. It’s whether or not I allow them to control my life that makes the difference. And I am determined to live the fullest life possible.

Dreaming of a Different Life

            Do you know what’s like to be trapped in a body that you dislike?  I do.  I had been “fat” my entire life.  My outer body was covered with pudgy layers of rolling fat, while my inner body yearned to be thin, luscious, and downright sexy.

            When I was in fourth grade I attended a Catholic elementary school in Dayton, Ohio.  We were poor, and so I wore hand-me-down uniforms and carried the dog-eared books belonging to a previous student.  Before the school year began, my mother drove me into town for the annual used uniform giveaway.  I hated this ritual.  Because of my weight, we dug through the small pile of plus-size jumpers, most of which had seen better days.  No longer navy blue except where food stains darkened the fabric, these uniforms marked me as “poor” and fat. 

            Fourth grade was a year of becoming aware.  This was the year when my older brother explained that there was no Easter Bunny, Tooth Fairy, or Santa Claus.  This was also when I discovered that others saw me as a fat little girl.

            Sitting in church one morning, a girl next to me reached over and poked me in the thigh.  Her hand “bounced” high in the air, over and over, mimicking playing on a trampoline.  She pulled her skirt down tight over her six-inch wide thigh, measured with both hands, and then held her hands over my much larger thigh.  The difference was startling enough to cause a riot of giggles up and down the pew.

            Not too long after that, one day I had no choice but to go into the girls’ bathroom, something I tried really hard to avoid.  A group of popular sixth graders were lounging against one wall.  En masse, their eyes scanned my plump body as a look of pure disgust erupted on their sophisticated faces.  I quickly locked myself into the nearest stall so as to hide my tears. 

            “Fat people stink.  Don’t you agree?”

            “It’s because they leak urine,” Mary Beth Saunders said.

            “It runs down their legs when they walk,” Sue Anne Watson added.  “It leaves streaks that won’t wash off.”

            “I hate fat people.  They’re disgusting,” Wanda Belter said.

            “If I was fat, I’d hide in my closet and not eat anything until I got skinny,” Mary Beth said.

            “I’d kill myself,” said Sue Anne.

            “Not me,” added Wanda.  “I’d ask my mother to tape my mouth shut and then I’d stay home until I looked better.”

            Eventually they took their comments outside.  Only then did I emerge from my stall sanctuary.  When I got home that night, for what was not the first nor last time I took a long look at myself.  I really, truly was fat.  There was no denying it. Rolls of fat enveloped my abdomen and my thighs quivered with the tiniest of movement.  When I looked down, I couldn’t see my toes, let alone touch them.And because of the horrific things those girls had said, I even thought I saw urine streaks.

Repulsed by what I finally admitted to myself, I fell into my bed and cried for hours.

            I began dieting at the age of ten and have never quit. 

I convinced myself that trapped inside my obese body was a voluptuous woman yearning to be set free.  That woman wanted to be active and energetic.  That woman made me feel guilty about the cookies and candy that I so loved.

I think she got tired of the struggle and simply gave up for many, many yeaas.

            Because I wore rags and hand-me-downs, I dreamt of being able to go into a store and buy tons of new clothes. When I began working and earning enough to take myself shopping, I felt something stir inside me that has never gone away.

I am a shopaholic.  There is nothing that charges my battery like a mall.  It’s as if a competition is on to find the best bargains, and without fail, I rise to the occasion. 

As I stroll in and out of stores I admire the svelte garments displayed on ultra-slim mannequins.  Sometimes I touch the fabric, pretending that I am seriously considering taking one home. 

Back in my fat days, just as I imagined myself wearing the outfit, reality slammed my forehead and crimson colored my neck and cheeks. At that point I would dash away, off to the fat ladies’ department where I belonged.

            One time I went shopping with a bunch of relatives.  My husband’s sister was getting married, and everyone was in search of a dress to wear.  I trailed along as we went into masses of stores. I watched as they pawed through racks and racks of clothes. I drooled as they spoke about how well the colors of the different fabrics blended together.

            They all found things to try on.  They all believed that they had found the perfect outfit. 

But not me. I never carried a garment into a dressing room.  Why?  We never got close to the fat ladies’ clothes.

            For years I shopped alone.  Without prying eyes I could go into Catherine’s or Lane Bryant or the Women’s section of JCPenneys and not die of embarrassment. 

Except on the rare occasions when I visited a truly great friend who understands what it’s like, because she is also “fat.”  When we were together we forgot about size. We saw the beautiful person underneath. 

When we went shopping, we would try on clothes, and purchase our finds, sharing our good luck.

            There were days when I convinced myself that I looked pretty darn good.  I would be wearing an attractive outfit that hid the lumps under layers of fabric.  I would head off to work feeling happy and proud.  No one noticed.  No one sent even a tiny compliment my way.  It was as if I were invisible.

Most overweight people will tell you that being is not unusual. 

A slim person can walk past an obese person without once glancing her way.  In fact, there can even be accidental contact, one shoulder brushing another, with no apologies offered.  It’s almost as if the skinny individual had touched a ghost.

I have heard thin people say that the obese choose to be that way. That if they simply stopped binging on eating cupcakes and chocolate. They’d lose weight.

What critics don’t process if that genetics and physiology play a part in how easily a person gains and sheds unwanted pounds.  An overweight child is extremely likely to remain overweight into adulthood. 

If you are born into a family of obese individuals, the odds are that you will also be obese.  My paternal grandmother stood a little over five feet tall, but hit the scales at well over two hundred pounds.  I was built just like her.  Added to the familial tendency to put on the pounds was my mother’s belief that a fat baby was a healthy baby. Because she fed me until I had fat wrinkles on my arms and legs, I was doomed from the start.      My mother fed the cellulite, which plumped me up like a marshmallow. I spent years trying to reverse the damage.

Over and over I embarked on one weight-loss program after another. Two years ago I developed a serious health issue that required surgery. Because of being obese, the surgeon wouldn’t operate. That was my motivation.

Over a period of a month, the doctor’s deadline, I lost twenty-nine pounds, plus a few that keep recycling off and then back on again.  After that my motivation skyrocketed. If I could do that, then why not more?

It took ma almost a year, but I lost just under eighty pounds and dropped four sizes in pants and three sizes in tops.   

If I could go back in time and change just one thing, one thing that could forever alter the events in my life, I would have been a skinny child. In my mind, skinny children were happy children. Skinny children had friends. Skinny children were invited to birthday parties and given cards on Valentine’s Day. Skinny children did somersaults and laughed and played.

I would have been one of them. Because I was athletic even when obese, as a skinny kid I would have been chosen first when dividing up teams. I would have attended every birthday party and been invited to sleepovers.

As a teenager I would have goon to school dances with a different handsome beau on my arm.  Cheerleading would have been my passion, and as a dancer I would have reigned supreme. 

Whenever I went shopping, it would have been with friends, giggling as we strolled through the mall.  Fun would have been my middle name.

I would have been hired as a flight attendant, the career of my dreams.  Or maybe the receptionist in the front office. Or the statistician in a major think-tank.

Think how different my life would have been!  Zipping here, there, everywhere, always surrounded by friends.

There are some things that I would never change, no matter what I looked like.  I have a husband who loves me, my children are my pride and joy, and I loved my job.  I have been blesses with grandchildren and significant others in my children’s lives.

I have had a good life.

I wish that society did not disdain the obese.  Unless you have worn that body, you do not know what “trapped” truly means.

How We Are Defined

            In early childhood we begin accumulating those factors that define us. For example, a cranky baby’s stories will be told and retold for years, often as a reminder to the growing child that he was challenging, to say the least.

            A child who climbs up on the roof will be known as a daredevil, while that one who huddles in a corner of the living room and reads will be called a bookworm.

            The teens who listen obsessively to loud music might later grow up to be musicians, all because of being defined by their passion. At the same time an overly dramatic child will be called a drama queen and encouraged to participate in the high school’s theater program.

            We are who others see us as.

            The new employee, after being introduced to the crew, might pick up a nickname based on a superficial trait. For example, if the person is tall and willowy, she might be called a giant, while the short, squat individual will be shorty. No matter how hard that person tries to rid herself of the nickname, it won’t change. She’s been defined by a physical characteristic, something that’s impossible to change.

            In later years, as our interests expand, we might change our preferred music styles or learn to cook a new cuisine, but we’ll be forever known as the cupcake queen or the rock-and-roller.

            Other things define us as well. Our hair color influences how people see us. Blondes are often perceived as dumb while red heads are thought to be fiery. Clothing styles might earn us a label of being punk rockers or snobby. Depending upon how new our clothes are, people might define us as being raggedy or fashionable.

            Even the color of our skin and our gender influences how people see us. We’ve become aware of how restrictive dark skin is in terms of negative labels. Almost every day there’s a story in the news in which a dark-skinned person is killed or injured, harassed by store owners or the police, or caught doing nothing more than barbequing while black.

            Some people try to lighten their skin in order to appear “white”, hoping to change how they are defined. They might also use hair straighteners and heavy lacquers to dampen tight curls.

            Some of our features cannot be changed. As Asian person, as well as someone with Down’s Syndrome, cannot change the shape of their eyes. This defining characteristic is currently causing acts of hate and discrimination. Walking down the street can lead to death.

            Another way we are defined is by our weight. If as a child a person was overweight, that child will be taunted and tormented throughout the rest of her school days. Perhaps that’s better then being invisible, but not by much.

            When an obese person walks through a store, people will often stop and gawk, but only after the person has moved away. In crowded situations, such as on an airplane, people cringe and look down, hoping to discourage the overweight individual from sitting next to them.

            Employers reject the obese without giving them the opportunity to perform on the job. Why? Because of a perceived bias, thinking that the obese are slovenly and lazy.

            At the same time an extremely thin person is seen as energic and lively. Picture an athlete, perhaps one who jumps over hurdles. You see someone with long, thin legs. Basketball players fall into the same category, but not necessarily football players. Linesmen are huge, often with bellies that are barely contained by the uniform. Because of being athletes, however, weight does not define them.

            Only the average person walking down the street.

            What all these characteristics have in common is that they are visual representatives of who the individual is. Nothing indicates personality, perseverance, skill or social skills.

            We are defined by how others perceive us and there’s very little we can do to change that. We might lose weight, but those earlier images of us carrying excess pounds are glued to us and cannot be shed. We might style our hair and wear better clothes, but we’re still thought of as poor slobs. We might work on being more amiable, but cannot shake off the perception to being difficult.

            Our earliest definitions stick with us.

            What a shame.

Taking Responsibility

            When I was teaching, I often listened as parents blamed teachers, aide staff and other children for their own kids’ failures. It annoyed the heck out of me. By making excuses, it removed all responsibility from themselves and from their kids for any wrongdoing. Those kids would grow up never assuming that anything that happened to them bore any weight on their actions.

            I often wondered what it would take to open their eyes, for them to see that it was the child who failed to do the assignment or to turn it in when it was due. Would it happen when the child grew up and got her first job? Or would the parent storm in and blame the boss and coworkers?

            There are situations in which it is clearly someone else’s fault. Picture the scene on the playground when the bully shoves a child from behind, who then crashes into the student in front of him. If the bully hadn’t pushed, then the domino effect wouldn’t have happened.

            There are workers who don’t carry equal weight. They only do half the job then blame someone else for not finishing it. No, it was her fault for not meeting the deadline.

            What if there was a time machine in which you could send those people back to whatever the inciting incident was. Picture them watching themselves, as if through a looking glass, as they spend too much time wandering the halls searching for someone to talk with. Would they realize that they didn’t complete the job because they were wasting time?

            Most of us learn early on that we are responsible for our own successes and failures. It might be when we are handed our first award for a job well done or when we are sent to the corner to think about our behaviors. One award might quickly lead to another. One punishment might quell future negative behaviors.

            When we figure in socioeconomic status, we might have to recalculate who is responsible for any successes we have.

            The child who grows up having everything, living in the best neighborhood in the biggest house and attending a posh boarding school might never have to fight her way to the top. Because she’s always had everything, she doesn’t understand the personal sacrifice it takes most people to simply get by.

            Will the privileged child continue to be privileged as an adult? We hear of situations in which the parents buy the child a fancy house and car and place them at a position in the family business. What happens when that child takes responsibility for their own finances? Will he blow his money on lavish parties or set some aside for the future? Will she fly about the country with little regard as to who’s going to pay? Or will these two assume responsibility for their own actions and become contributing members of society?

            Picture now the child who grows up in abject poverty having parents who never graduated from high school. The family is often homeless because the parents don’t earn enough to maintain a steady residence. Clothes are hand-me-downs and food comes from pantries. Sometimes the electricity and water are on: sometimes not. They often go to school dirty and smelling, so are teased and tormented.

            As a small child, there is not much he can do about the situation except excel at school. Through academic excellence the child learns what opportunities await. While she can’t do anything about where the family lives, she can do her homework every night.

            When it’s time for her to get a job, she’ll have to begin at the lowest level and work her way up. When the boss sees how hard she’s working, she might get a raise. One raise might lead to another. Completing tasks might lead to harder tasks being assigned, building skills.

            The difference in situations is not just due to socioeconomic levels: it’s also dependent upon internal motivation.

            A child who’s been given everything might not feel it necessary to put effort into anything. Why bother if it’s all being given to you? She knows her place in the family and what the future holds.

            On the other hand, a child growing up with nothing might strive to be a person who has something. He won’t just complete school assignments, but go the extra mile. He’ll complete all the extra credit problems, turn in additional essays, answer the bonus questions. He sees the goal post and wants to not just walk under it, but leap over it.

            This child understands that his success depends upon his efforts. A poor grade is often the result of poor work, assuming there are no learning difficulties that make a particular subject challenging.

            Waling about the neighborhood you can almost predict from which houses responsible people emerge.

            A well-tended yard requires work. A swept driveway requires work. A clean car takes effort. A maintained house also takes effort. If you walked up to the large front window and looked inside, you’d probably see things put away, vacuumed carpets and swept floors. Imagine the kitchen in such a house: no dirty dishes piled up in the sink, a sparkling stove top and clean shelves in the refrigerator.

            The residents care: not just about themselves but about how they present themselves to the world. They take responsibility for whatever successes they achieve and don’t throw blame at others when something they do is not up to their standards.

            Imagine a world in which blame does not exist. A world in which all people assume responsibility for their successes and achievements.

            Wouldn’t that be a wonderful place?

Addicted to Dieting

            My obsession with losing weight began in my middle-school years when I realized, thanks to the cruel taunting of my classmates, that I was the fattest kid. Not just among the girls, but the fattest student in the entire school.

            The Internet did not back then and since we lived out in the country, far from a library, my ability to access information about nutrition was limited. Occasionally, when I had saved enough money and was allowed to accompany my mom to the store, I’d buy a teen magazine geared that, if my hopes were met, offered tips to losing and maintaining.

            I learned that fresh fruits and vegetables were the basics of weight loss combined with exercise. I was an active kid, so all I had to do was stay outside longer riding my bike or roller skating in the garage or hiking in the woods behind our house. In the summers it was often too hot and humid to spend much time outdoors, so that’s when I’d ride or skate in circles in the garage. In wintertime I was back to circling the garage as well as sledding from one neighbor’s yard to the next. None of that activity helped.

During the summer months our garden produced tomatoes, green beans and carrots. Strawberries, blackberries and rhubarb were the only fruits. In off seasons we only ate canned and processed fruits and vegetables, which much later on I discovered were soaked in a thick, sweet syrup.

I knew enough to eat the fresh over the processed, but there were rules about cleaning your plate. We were also not permitted to refuse a particular item, so maintaining a diet was next to impossible.

Add to my problems the issue of my mom’s cooking: it was laden with sauces, gravies and carbs. Lots of bread and pasta. What meat we did have was tough unless she cooked it for hours. Chicken was only oven-roasted in a thick layer of oil. We never ate fish except for the few times when my dad went fishing and returned with catfish which my mom baked. One healthy meal out of hundreds! Oh…but she ruined any enjoyment of the fish: she was worried that we’d swallow bones, so she made sure that we chewed the fish until it was a tasteless much.

I did what I could, when I could. It must have helped as my weight remained more or less the same.

At the end of ninth grade we drove from Ohio to California, eating out every single meal. Like most kids I preferred burgers and fries topped off with the occasional milkshake, when permitted. By the time we reached what would be our home in the Sacramento area, my clothes were tight.

It was too hot to do anything except eat ice cream. And popsicles. My dad was often away, so my mom turned to quick meals, slopping together anything and everything, none of which was healthy.

Before school began we moved to the SF Bay Area. By now I was hard-pressed to squeeze my body into the clothes I’d brought on the journey. My mom had no choice but to take me shopping, an embarrassment to be sure. There was no mall at that time: only one main street with stores that catered to slim people. The only one that had clothes my size was a Montgomery Wards clearance shop.

My choices were limited to tent-style dresses. Girls weren’t permitted to wear pants to school, so I was stuck with what now would be called mu-mus. Bright patterns of flowing fabric that hid my flab, but marked me as the fat kid.

I returned to obsessing over food, but once again, had little choice or say in what I ate. Back in Ohio I ate school lunches that were awful. No matter as at least one nun made sure our trays were empty before we could go outside and play. I wasn’t interested in playing as I had no friends, it was cool in the cafeteria, and so I’d outlast the nuns.

In California there were no school lunches. Instead I was handed a lunch bag with a bologna sandwich inside, slathered in mayonnaise. Every single day. No fresh fruit, but sometimes a cookie.

No one at school watched what I ate, so I often threw half my lunch away, praying each time that my brother wouldn’t see.

We lived on top of a hill, so taking the dog for a walk became my primary source of exercise. We’d go around and around the block until the poor thing was so exhausted I’d have to carry her.

Health class was mandatory. I learned more about nutrition than I’d ever known before. The problem was that the more I learned, the more I understood that almost nothing we ate was healthy. I tried sharing my findings with my mother, but it only made her angry. I could either eat what she prepared or starve. But I couldn’t choose to starve because I was physically punished each time I refused to eat a meal.

I was able to stay active, however, thanks to PE and being on the school’s bowling team. I maintained my weight, not what I wanted, but at least I didn’t get fatter.

When I went away to college, for the first time, I had complete control over what I stuffed in my face. As I strolled past the buffet line, my eyes feasted on the range of possibilities. I understood that most of the options wouldn’t help me lose weight, but the sheer joy of being able to take what I wanted removed all thoughts of dieting from my brain.

The one thing that saved me from putting on the pounds was the anxiety I experienced every day. I was still a lonely kid, much to my great sadness. That alone should have been enough to keep my weight down. Add to that the pressure to get the highest marks in all my classes in order to keep my state-funded scholarship, and there were times I truly couldn’t eat.

For the first time in my life I lost weight! I never got skinny, but I certainly was no longer obese. I marveled at how good I looked, which inspired me to monitor what went into my mouth. I became more selective, choosing those things that I knew were longer in calories. I even switched to nonfat milk, which nauseated me.

Thus began a years-long journey of yo-yo dieting. At school I’d lose weight: at home I’d gain. I’d lose ten pounds, then put on fifteen. Lose ten more, but add twelve. Until the summer when I got a job on campus and so didn’t have to return home.

That truly changed my life. I was no longer under my mother’s supervision for almost the entire school year, so could eat what I wanted, when I wanted. I was able to lose weight and keep it off. By the time I graduated from college, I looked great. Not skinny, but also not fat.

With no job and no place to live, I returned home. Nothing about my mother’s cooking had changed. Everything was fried, covered in bread crumbs, drowning in a sauce or gravy and paired with pasta. My weight began to rise.

Thankfully I found a job that allowed me to pack my own lunch. I still had bologna sandwiches, which was not a good option, but often had an apple. I balanced the not-so-good with the good. I lost a little.

I saved enough to buy my first car then get my first apartment.  This was a liberating change in my life. I chose what to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. I had freedom to come and go as I pleased. And I took up skiing, an activity that I’d never done before. I wasn’t great at it, but it was hard work. I lost a little bit more.

I got married and now had to cook for two. I was a lousy cook. The one cookbook that saved me used some form of soup in every recipe. I also had one that mixed fruits, cheeses and marshmallows in Jell-O. These were not the healthiest meals, so I gained weight.

We bought a house and soon I was pregnant. The next fifty years were a continuous struggle with weight. I’d diet, lose, then gain. I’d try a different diet, lose, then gain more. I ballooned. There’s no nicer word for it. It was as if someone had attached an air hose and filled me with air.

I drank prepared mixes that were guaranteed to lead to weight loss. I’d lose some, then put on more.

I joined the local gym and worked out at least five days a week. I bought frozen foods that I could microwave at work, thinking that would help me lose weight. They did, but then I regained whatever I’d lost.

Dieting was, by now, an addiction. Every moment that I was awake was consumed with thoughts of food. We now had three kids and I was the primary cook. They were picky eaters and my range of options was narrow. I turned into my mother, plating meals covered in sauces and paired with pastas.

I’d go to the gym only to come home and eat a handful of cookies that were supposed to go in the kids’ lunches. I didn’t know how to cook fresh vegetables, so they came from cans. I’d add slabs of butter or cover them with cheese sauces.

I got fatter and fatter even though dieting was always on my mind. I needed larger sizes of clothes, tops and bottoms. At one point I was wearing size 3X tops and size 22 pants. I was embarrassed, but not enough to cease control.

It was when the photo taken at my school came out that it began to dawn on me that I was obese. For years I had been avoiding family photos, so the idea was in my brain; it had yet to move to the forefront.

Even when doctors asked if I knew I was fat, that didn’t shock me long enough to make positive change. I rationalized it away. I had big bones. I was healthy. I could swim and exercise at the gym. I played soccer and coached a team and even refereed, which meant running up and down the field.

About four years ago I decided to stop the yo-yoing. I had been attending Weight Watchers meetings for a few years by then, but the calculating points confused me so badly that I didn’t track what I ate. I pretended to keep the info in my head. Pretended that I knew what I was consuming and making better choices.

I did lose thirty pounds. My knee went bad. After surgery I put the weight back on. I lost twenty. Then had surgery on the other knee and my weight went back up. I lost ten, then broke something and because I couldn’t exercise, put it all back on.

If I had charted my weight over that period of time, it would have looked like a roller coaster. Up, then down. Climb back up, then drop down. Over and over.

I am proud to say that I no longer fall into the obese category. I lost almost 80 pounds and have kept it off for over three years.

However, I am still addicted to dieting. I think about food constantly. I want to stuff something in my mouth even when I’m not hungry. I yearn for cookies and cakes and pies. I want the pasta drowning in sauce. I’m love a big, juicy hamburger with a side of fries. I love hot dogs and pizza.

I make mistakes. Instead of passing through the kitchen, I stop and scavenge. I try to choose low-calorie options, but that sugar cookie looks awfully good. I have plenty of fresh fruits in the house, but I’d rather have a brownie.

If someone offered me a thick milkshake I’d refuse, but dream of its taste. If plums were on the table, I’d take one, but still drool over the red velvet cake that everyone else was eating.

I’ve never understood why some can eat whatever they want and stay thin while the smell of a piece of See’s candy can add five pounds.

I now understand that dieting, or as Weight Watchers calls it, making lifestyle choices will be with me the rest of my life. For the first time I like how I look. It’s more than that: I’m proud of how I look.

In order to stay the way I am right now, my addiction to dieting is something I’ll be carting with me as surely as I put on a backpack when away from home.

I feel sorry for all those young kids who don’t have healthy choices at home. Their lives will be like mine, a never-ending battle with weight and desire.

Through the Window

            When I was quite small there was a solar eclipse. My mother was so terrified that my brother and I would be blinded, that she closed all curtains and forbade us from peeking through a window. It was if we were blind because the world outside had been removed.

            Since then, I have seized the opportunity to look through every single window that comes into my realm of existence.

            About forty-five years ago we treated ourselves to a trip to Hawaii, thinking that if we didn’t go right then, we’d never make it. Our room was on the twenty-sixth floor. My husband loved sitting on the balcony, enjoying the ocean breeze and listening to the sounds below. I tried to join him, but I couldn’t even get near. My fingers could graze the window frame, but neither of my feet could step out there.

            I missed whatever sights he enjoyed, but with the door open, I could hear the sounds and if I looked out far enough, I could catch a glimpse of the ocean.

            The window was open, but I couldn’t see any more than when my mother closed all the curtains.

            On our first trip to New York City our daughter-in-law recommended an eclectic hotel not too far off Broadway. It was an artist’s paradise from the moment you stepped through the creaky screen door.

            Every hallway featured a work by a different artist. So did the rooms. Ours was a replica speakeasy, complete with a scantily clothed mannequin embedded in the bathroom door. There was a bar that was not connected to water and a tiny twin-sized cradled bed. And one window.

            It was so hot and humid that we had to open the window. Our view was of a brick wall, but if we stuck our heads out as far as we could, we could see the traffic rushing past.

            While we were lucky enough to have a window, it offered little joy. Instead it gave us steam rising up from the Chinese restaurant below and the never-ending cacophony of horns blaring, even well into the night.

            Compare that to our window in Queenstown, New Zealand. We were treated with an unobstructed view of a large lake, snow-topped mountains and rolling green hills.  

            If you approach a window at night, you see yourself. It’s a spooky version, however, due to the poor lighting.  Eyes are hollow pits, cheeks have an eerie glow and the entire body seems to be floating in dark space. You appear as a ghost, one that would scare the bejeezus out of unsuspecting visitors.

            That doesn’t stop me from looking however. I might, if I’m lucky, see the glowing lights of a city in the distance, catch the slow-moving Ferris wheel, or see the reflected boat lights at sea.

            There is a saying about looking into the windows of a soul. It means that if you stare into the eyes of a person long enough, you can see the hidden emotions, attitudes and thoughts. I am not sure if I believe that to be so, but I am uncomfortable when anyone stares that intently at me and I don’t like staring at others as well.

            If the expression is true, that we can indeed see inside, then shouldn’t we? What if a good look reveals a sinister motive, and so rather than investing in the person’s business, we walk away? It would save us money and heartache. Possibly legal fees. Does that justify getting that close to someone?

            Let’s assume you’ve met the person of your dreams. You’re obviously attracted, but what if the person is troubled inside? Imagine staring into those eyes and what you see makes you realize that a relationship with this person would damage yourself. You would walk away before investing time, energy and emotions that would only be wasted.

            Windows are also for looking in. Every year at Christmas time Macy’s in San Francisco allows the local SPCA to place needy cats and dogs in the windows. Crowds hover outside, jostling for the best place to get a good view. Granted many come just to look, but adoptions soar or the event wouldn’t take place year after year.

            Picture yourself in front of a window with cute, fluffy puppies. Their eyes are huge and forlorn, calling out to you to come inside and hold them. Or the playful kittens batting toys about, climbing and jumping and occasionally looking out at the lookers-in.

            In a different scenario you’re invited to someone’s place for dinner, but when you arrive and knock on the door, no one answers. What do you do? Look in the nearest window. If the curtains are drawn, you see nothing, but if the light is just right, you can see the entire front room and into the kitchen. It’s like a sneaky glimpse into a friend’s life, almost like opening drawers in bedrooms and bathrooms while pretending to use the facilities.

            Looking inside a store window reveals the products they sell. If the display is intriguing, you’ll go inside. If not, you move on to the next store, going from window to window until something catches your interest.

            Whether you are peering out or in, windows offer something that solid walls cannot: pieces of a whole. And those pieces can scare you away or draw you closer, depending upon what you see.

            We need to stop and look, however, for if we don’t, then our world is confined to our narrow existence. We never see anything new, never experience anything different, never move beyond what is known.

            Windows open us to learning through our sense and our emotions. They are the gateways through which we become enlightened, through which our universe is expanded.

            Pull back the curtains and look. What you see might change your world.

Facing Obstacles

            When I look back, I realize that many obstacles were placed in my way that I either had to overcome or ignore. Beginning with my early years, I knew that I was not my mother’s favorite and had little respect from my father. I could discount those feelings as being caused by “middle-child syndrome”, but that would be falsifying what actually happened.

            My older brother was not the jock or the mechanic that my father wanted. My mother, however, held my brother in high esteem. It often felt that in her eyes, he could do no wrong. He also had little responsibilities around the house, for she wanted his focus to be on academics.

            On the surface, that was very noble of her. She only had an eighth-grade education, so insisting that my brother graduate from high school and go on to college was admirable.

            However, she held no such regard for me. My primary function in the family was to clean. Not just my half of the room, but my brother’s room, the kitchen, front room and even wiping dust off of indoor plants. Only after those jobs were finished could I study.

            Her expectations for me were to marry as a teenager. Going to college was not encouraged or expected. When I expressed a desire to get a degree, she didn’t actively discourage me, but she also didn’t encourage me.

            Neither did my high school counselor. By the time I was looking to graduate from high school, I already had several obstacles in my way: low self-esteem, low expectations, low placement within the family, and low belief from adults as to what my future held. I fought and clawed my way through all those years of self-doubt and familial stress.

            I graduated from high school and then college with honors. Hah!

            Getting a good-paying job was equally difficult. Back in the late 1960’s women’s opportunities were just beginning to open up. Most women became teachers, nurses or secretaries. Or they got married and had children. Or they worked in elder care or as low-paid office clerks.

            I had no office skills. My typing speed was incredibly slow and I made frequent mistakes. I could file but not operate an adding machine with any accuracy. I did not know stenography and had no interest in learning. I was not pretty enough to catch a boss’s attention.

            I applied for any job that required few, if any, skills. No one would hire me because they all believed that I would leave as soon as a job opened in which college degrees were valued. They were right, but first I had to find that job.

            I tested with a temporary agency, but my skills were so low they refused to accept me into the pool.

            When the phone company announced openings, I made an appointment to take the test. My mother insisted on applying as well. I knew that I stood no chance of getting hired: who would hire someone who could only apply if their mother tagged along?

            I needed a job so that I could buy a car and rent an apartment. Living at home was stifling and restrictive. At college I had freedom to become my own person: at home I was back to being the middle child.

            Eventually I got a good-paying job with the federal government. I hated the job, but it gave me needed experience and allowed me to save money, but a car and move out! Yeah! Plus it was where I met my husband.

            After years of being told how ugly I was (by my brother and father), finding a husband seemed impossible. But when I looked at the man who would later propose, I knew he was the person I had hoped to find.

            Another obstacle overcome.

            I had never wanted a government job. I knew from the time I was quite small that becoming a teacher was my goal. Teachers were kind to me. They never called me names or made fun of me. Not all teachers saw potential in me, but at least they never ridiculed me in public. Because of this, I imagined myself in front of a classroom.

            Another obstacle: there was a glut of teachers and not enough jobs. Add in the cost of continuing education and it seemed impossible that I would ever get to teach.

            When my first child was preschool age, I searched for early childhood education that we could afford. We didn’t qualify for Head start or the county’s programs because, theoretically, we made too much money. I eventually found a preschool program through Parks and Rec that was aimed at parents. While my son was in class, I attended classes in parenting. I needed the class as much as my son needed being with others his age.

            From there I enrolled in classes at the community college, thinking that being a preschool teacher was where I should be. After completing a ton of credits, I got hired by the Rec Department to teach preschool. Yeah! Another obstacle mastered.

            It was not for me. I discovered that dancing and singing in front of tiny kids made me uncomfortable. I hated the art projects and monitoring behavior on the enclosed playground. I hated snotty noses, wet pants, and holding hands with kids who’d just smeared mucus about their faces with their fingers.

            Even though I was teaching, I quickly realized this was not my ideal job.

            I needed to return to college to get an elementary credential. We had no money for tuition. My sister-in-law offered to pay! Another obstacle met.

            After completing my program, I applied for various positions. A local Catholic school was the first, a position that I loved right away. I taught third grade, a good age for me. They had some academic skills and were already socialized and fairly well behaved.

            However, after three years there I knew I couldn’t stay. The principal stated that she loved having young teachers and had already run off two older ones. A third retired. I wanted that job, teaching seventh grade, but the principal hired a young man from outside.

            I left before I got another job.

            Obstacles arose that I had not foreseen. One public school district claimed that my Catholic school job did not prepare me for their students. If only they had listened! I had students with learning differences, students with poor behavior and disabled students.

            I began substituting in my local district. It was awful. Students mistreat subs. They won’t obey, refuse to sit and talk constantly. They laughed and jeered at my attempts to follow the lesson plans. High schoolers were the worst, but so were eighth graders at the middle school in the wealthier part of town.

            A coaching position opened up and I applied, thinking it would give me greater opportunity to be hired as a teacher. I was thrilled when I became coach, that is until the head coach began delegating her responsibilities to me. She mistreated her players, made them run until they threw up, called them names and when one young lady broke her foot, accused the girl of faking it to avoid practice. When I took my concerns to the Athletic Director, he scoffed. I left.

            In October I was told about a job in a different district, applied and was hired. I loved my sixth graders. They were not the brightest kids at the school, but most of them were excited to learn. I developed lessons to fit their needs, including a “dig” for artifacts, a hike through the neighborhood, reading to first graders and even putting together our own yearbook at the end of the year.

            The district did not rehire me because the original teacher was returning from her one-year job.

            By now I figured out that there was a need for PE teachers so I enrolled in classes at the university. I enjoyed learning about physical fitness, warmup activities and taking PE classes to fulfill requirements. I hated the training and conditioning class because I had to learn the names and functions of every bone, muscle and tendon. I’m not good at science, so I had to work extra hard. It was a huge obstacle, but I succeeded anyway.

            I still didn’t get hired, but I kept getting sent to Special Education classes. This was not how I saw myself as a teacher, but the need was great. Back to school I went.

            This time I got hired after my first interview. The one problem: I was warned that there was a difficult parent that wanted to meet me prior to the first day of school. That parent created one obstacle after another. Nothing I did pleased her even though her daughter was happy and learning. Eventually I ended up in an arbitration and then a hearing. It was awful.

            The end agreement was that I would never teach the girl again. One obstacle removed.

            Two years later an awful child was put in my class. He was so violent that an aide was hired to shadow him at all times and step in between when the kid came after me. The school psychologist also shadowed him, but none of that helped.

            The rest of the class and I spent a lot of time outdoors, regardless of weather. The boy was so violent that everyone feared that either myself or my students would get hurt. Later I learned that he got kicked out of his previous placement when he threw a desk at his teacher and broke her foot.

            The parent put up one obstacle after another. She’d want to know how his day went, but if I was honest, she got mad. If I wrote mediocre comments, she got mad. If I wrote the truth, she’d get even angrier. Again I ended up in a hearing. Again I would never have to teach the boy again.

            The district was good to me. When an opening arose at the high school, I was encouraged to apply. I was hired without an interview. I taught there for eighteen years.

            Along the way, however, the state kept changing the rules. I had to keep earning certificates in various specialties or I would lose my job. At one point I returned to college, this time completing a BA in English. To finish, I had to pass three grueling tests. I conquered that obstacle as well.

            There were familial issues along the way. A few years into our marriage my mom tried to get me to leave my husband, claiming that he wasn’t a good father to our son. My mom was controlling and at times abusive toward me. Nothing had changed from my childhood except my age.

            Add to that recurring weight issues, knee problems, and health complications, all obstacles that jumped up, getting in my way.

            The difference was that now I had confidence in myself. I knew I was smart, I knew I was capable, I knew I was loved.

            The obstacles were stubborn, however, refusing to go away. It took determination and years for me to accomplish what I had wanted to accomplish.

            I had learned that, yes, obstacles would keep popping up, but that I had the tools to get past them. So when the pandemic happened in 2020, I considered it just another thing that I could handle.

            Some people give up when an obstacle arises. Some people fight back. While I never gave up, there were times when I doubted myself due to the voices in my head.

            The one thing I learned was that life is filled with obstacles, and that if we face them, if we meet them head-on, we can succeed.