Read an Excerpt
WHEN WALLFLOWERS danceBecoming a Woman of Righteous Confidence
By ANGELA THOMAS
Nelson BooksCopyright © 2007 Angela Thomas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Un-Woman
"Blueberries or strawberries?" "Excuse me?" "Which would you like, blueberries or strawberries?" "I don't know. Whatever you think." "It doesn't matter what I think. Choose what you like." "I don't know what I like."
I was thirty-eight. A grown woman with half a lifetime of experiences. Fairly educated and organized. But I couldn't choose between blueberries or strawberries for dessert at a friend's dinner party. We laughed off my indecision, and I sat at the table watching my girlfriend serve me a little of both, wondering, Why did that just cause me stress? Why don't I know what I like? My silly quandary over dessert was just the beginning of a question that went home with me. In the next weeks, I kept turning those thoughts over and over in my mind. Eventually the deeper questions began to surface. What kind of a woman is thirty-eight years old and doesn't know what she wants for dessert? Why don't I care about little things? Where did I go? Why don't I feel anything anymore? Why don't I enjoy anything? When did I stop becoming?
wasn't just that I couldn't make a decision about dessert; I began to realize that I really didn't know anything about me at all. I had no preferences. No top fives. No particular likes or dislikes. I had no idea what kind of music I liked to listen to, so mostly I listened to nothing. I couldn't tell you what my favorite restaurant was or if I'd like to go to the mountains or the beach for vacation. I couldn't choose a paint color with any confidence that I'd like it next week. I collected nothing for fear of collecting something I'd hate later. I realized I always chose what I thought would make someone else happy. About fifteen years of doing that and there was no me left.
I hadn't always been so uncommitted and uninteresting. I literally wore out an eight-track because I loved the funky music of Earth, Wind & Fire in high school. I was adamant about wanting yellow shag carpeting with daisy light fixtures in my bedroom. Mama's fried cube steak was my favorite food, and cherry pie was my favorite dessert. I read everything Lois Lenski ever wrote. I wanted to be the best varsity cheerleader in our county. I loved waking up and I loved Jesus and my youth group and a cherry cola called Cheerwine. I remember laughing a lot back then. And I remember the Angela I was discovering inside me.
College and seminary were vibrant years that I can play back in my head in Technicolor. The world was alive to me. God was my passion. I could see and touch and feel. It seems I danced a lot back then. And told jokes. And trusted God. Still excited and still hoping.
But about four years ago, I was a grown woman in a daze. I kind of knew I was dead to life because I could see other people living out there somewhere, but I didn't believe I could ever be alive again. Actually, I'm not sure I even wanted a real life with real passion. I had become the un-person. Neutral. Safe. Asleep. Numb. Vanilla. Harmless. With an un-life. Going through the motions. Surviving. Reacting. Smiling. Somewhere along the way, I had given up. I guess somewhere along the way, it seemed the easiest thing to do.
Most of us don't just wake up one morning and think to ourselves, I am officially giving up on life. I am checking out. Numbing down. Going nowhere. Only breathing and surviving from here on out. But for many of us it happens anyway. Various degrees of giving up. Various degrees of an un-person with an un-life.
I have tried to retrace my steps to figure out what happened to the woman I was becoming all those years ago.
I have a firstborn, pleaser personality. Born to Joe and Novie in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, I am the oldest child with two younger brothers and a sister in heaven. My sister died when she was two, so most of my life, I have been the firstborn, only daughter. I always knew being the only girl in the house was pretty special. I was twelve when my sister, Amanda, was born and fourteen when she died. After she was gone, I took the responsibility of being the only daughter even more seriously.
Our childhood was stable and very good. Hard work was valued and modeled and applauded. Being lazy or grumbling or playing around wasn't tolerated. Being honest and funny was highly treasured. We had vacations at the beach, family reunions, and afternoons in the mountains. There was always plenty to eat. And we went to church every Sunday because we had no idea that attendance was optional.
All in all, it was a ho-hum, very ordinary, do-your-homework, sheltered-little-girl kind of life. My parents didn't care what anyone else thought or what the latest fashions were or where other people went or what music they listened to. My mom made almost all of my clothes. We ate tomato sandwiches instead of going to McDonald's. My only teenage job was at my dad's produce stand on the side of the road, learning the fine art of sorting rotten potatoes, bagging Christmas candy, and being nice to people. Possibly, everything I needed to know about interacting with the world, I learned selling produce. If I could sum it all up in one sentence, I think those years taught me to be nice every chance I get because people are really hurting.
Ho-hum and ordinary don't mean perfect. My family is weird and dysfunctional in our own quirky ways. We don't show our anger or frustration. That is weird, and a lifetime of no perceived anger has to be wrong somehow. But there is an exception to the rule. In the event that someone you love is being hurt or violated, then it's okay to be angry. We act happy all the time even when we're not. Not many exceptions to that one. We quickly stuff our hurts and don't bring them up again. Time better heal because we're not going to talk about it. We ride in the car a lot. No kidding. Very weird family trait. We don't put together puzzles or play board games; we all cram into the car and ride around. We laugh about "riding around" now, but we all still do it. When I don't know what else to do, I put the kids in the car and ride until we find it. I'm sure there are many other dysfunctional attributes of our family that are highly visible to the rest of the world, but I've stuffed them so far down, they're difficult to retrieve at the moment.
I was raised naive and insulated. I don't know if that's the best way, but it's all I knew. I trusted everybody, loved with all my heart, and assumed my personal mission was to bring joy and happiness to the world, or at least to the folks who came to the produce stand. At some point, I realized that I got a lot of energy from making everyone else happy. So keeping people happy eventually became more important than knowing my purpose or becoming anything. I would stand on my head to make people happy. Spin plates or juggle flaming swords. Anything to get some kind of affirming response.
Guess what I found out? You can never really make anybody happy. They decide in their own little hearts if they will pursue a lifetime of peace and cultivate a joyful spirit. Takes a long time to learn that. Spinning plates takes its toll. Trying to catch flaming swords ends up burning and wounding. A big part of me went away through the years in the effort to please.
As a mom, having four children in seven years took its toll on my heart. I thought I could be the most amazing mother on the planet, but it turns out that survival was about the best I could do. They were clean and fed, but my soul fell fast asleep in those baby years. I didn't mean for it to happen. I tried to pretend it didn't, but a little of me died in the ten years of diapers.
I was married fourteen years. The divorce was embarrassing. In all those years my heart grew numb in order to cope. More of me was gone.
One day my brother said to me, "I haven't seen my sister in thirteen years. She just went away, and I don't recognize who you've become." I hurt over his words, but I knew they were true. I knew that I was gone; I just didn't realize that anyone else missed me.
Add up the years and the events. My ridiculous need to please. The people and the pain. The weariness of an overwhelming life. Take away the community that comes from honesty. Take away the spiritual nourishment that could have come from being known and understood. Add the pride of a woman who refuses to own her flaws or admit to her wounds. Stir in fear. Worry. Doubt. Insecurity. The lies we come to believe. Subtract vulnerability. Heap on pretending. There you have the woman I was becoming.
The un-woman just trying to blend in. Giving up a little more every day. The one who couldn't even choose between berries. A woman just watching the world go by. Afraid. Without confidence. A wallflower.
The Wallflowers Among Us
As it turns out, I am not the only woman to ever give up and retreat into the barren life of a wallflower. I recognize that familiar emptiness in women everywhere I go. I sit beside women on airplanes. I look into their eyes at conferences. I live in their neighborhood and go to church with them and wait in carpool lines with women who are going away. Playing it safe. Blending in. Unbecoming. I can look around my life right now and count the women close to me who are somewhere in the process of giving up on living.
Believe me, I get it. Depending on your circumstances, it can feel like the most painless option to give in to nothingness or lose yourself in the chaos of busyness. I became the un-woman in an effort to avoid the relationship land mines all around me. Like that worked. Then there was some weird decision that I didn't deserve anything more than a numb, timid existence. And then sometimes it even seemed the more spiritual thing to emotionally fade to gray. Be quiet. Remain unseen and unknown. Forget about becoming anything. Neutral. Unrecognizable.
More and more, it seems so many women are surviving decades of their lives by turning their hearts inside out, trying not to feel. Becoming the un-woman.
The Years Go By
Marriage is hard. No married person I've ever met would disagree. Several people I know are in very difficult marriages and remain there because it's the right thing to do. I believe that apart from abuse, staying is the right thing. But as these women stay, I'm also watching them fade to nothing, emotionally going under because the relationship is so bad. I was married and now I'm not, so I probably don't have the right to say anything except that maybe I can see even more clearly from this side. I can see the woman I used to be, and I can see that people might try if they could feel again. It's just that most of us are putting more effort into trying not to feel. And blaming the other person. And counting up shortcomings. And all around us, married women are un-becoming. After a while, the two who used to love each other can come to believe that the pain would go away if the marriage did. The divorced among us know that the pain remains.
I know moms who wake up every morning and go through the motions with their kids, but the heart of mothering is passing them by. Disappointment and responsibility have taken their toll. So they complain about schedules instead of sketching out their dreams. Being the snack mom for soccer this week might just push their fragile hearts over the edge. Moms are tired, and the whole parenting gig is not anything like they thought it was going to be, so they send snippy e-mails about their kid being excluded from an overnight and start little rumors about the teachers because it's just about all they can control.
Then there's the mom with the teenager who barely speaks to her anymore. It's too much to feel that kind of rejection from someone you love so much. So the mom goes away on the inside and smiles on the outside and keeps thinking of something to make for dinner. And the babies become lacrosse players while she is unbecoming.
I talk to a lot of single women and single moms and teenage girls who don't feel anything anymore. They tell me about their pain because they think that I might understand. Unfortunately, I am well acquainted with their loneliness. A desperate, quiet ache that suffocates joy. A private emotional drowning. An unseen heart in an unseen place with unseen pain. We get tired of talking about it because, really, things could be so much worse. What does lonely matter-compared to having a terminal disease or homelessness? So we try not to complain and we act like we're brave. One time I heard someone say, "Embrace your loneliness and let it work for you." That's one of the all-time dumbest things I've ever heard. Lonely, unnoticed people become the un-people. Wallflowers who wish someone would ask them to dance.
Sometimes It's All Too Much
What is it with our society and the pressure to perform, the ridiculous demands, the injury of selfishness, and the incredible pain? Almost every person I know has more heartache and responsibility than any one person should have to bear.
A few weeks ago I was crying on the phone to my girlfriend. Poor thing. She's a couple of thousand miles away. We've known each other almost twenty years, and we talk about once a week. Every so often, usually around midnight when I'm using my last ounce of rational, balanced, thinking person to drive home from the airport, I make her feel completely helpless by falling apart on the phone. My girlfriend will be three time zones away listening to my run-on sentences, trying to make out what I'm saying in between the tears, wiping my nose, and squinting my way home in the dark.
Not so long ago during one of those late-night episodes, I was rattling off the list of my responsibilities. Feeling that I was crumbling underneath the pressure to perform. She let me ramble for a while and then said, "Ang, it's just too much. You have more to carry than one person should have." I know it sounds crazy, but somehow that made me feel better. Yeah, I realized, this is too much. No one should have to carry the whole thing by herself. It's okay to cry and babble. No wonder people just go to nothing. Sometimes it's all too much.
I know that I am covered up with commitments, requests, children, financial obligations, and more pressure than I know what to do with. And I don't have a marriage relationship to figure out! With all I've got going on, I can only imagine the unending demands and stress that some women face. It's too much. In the effort to oblige and perform for everyone else, the heart suffers. The soul is emptied. The mind goes numb. And we just want to get through this day as best we can, without feeling.
Trying Not to Feel
I understand why no one wants to feel. In my most devastating season of separation, the children and I were living with my parents. I was crying endlessly. My body began to respond to my heartache with hair loss and twitching eyes. I experienced anxiety attacks, shortness of breath, and nausea. I was a scary, emotional mess. My parents feared I was right at the edge of a mental ward (and I was) and sent me to their family doctor. I left with a prescription for an antidepressant, a drug that would reduce the intensity of my feeling. I held on to that paper for almost a year.
The prescription stayed in my purse unfilled, because for six months I didn't have to function. I was a stay-at-home mom and during that time, my only activity every day was to take the children back and forth to school. Then I would crawl back into bed downstairs at my parents' house, cry, and sleep for the rest of the day. In all those months, my mom fed us and kept the laundry clean until I could find my way back. I cannot imagine what it would have been like if I had needed to get dressed for work at an office, show up responsible, make decisions, and then go home to care for a family. The pain was too great. I'm sure I would have filled every prescription the doctor would have given to me.
Almost every person I know has at some point been written a prescription that will help him or her keep from feeling. I get it. There are wayward children, distant husbands, empty retirement funds, more bills than money, terrorists, and dread diseases. Life is very hard. It can become too much to feel it all at once.
Women hole up in their homes hoping the world will go away because the world has already caused them so much hurt. It has stolen their hope. Not much happens as you'd dreamed, and things have already turned out crummy, so what's the use anyway? We back away from honest relationships because people hurt us. They tell others your struggles. They respond with legalism. They draw circles that keep you out. All over the world, people are choosing cyber relationships over the real thing and cyber love and the illusions of cyber reality. Becoming invisible. Interacting without feeling. Minimizing the potential for pain.
Excerpted from WHEN WALLFLOWERS dance by ANGELA THOMAS Copyright © 2007 by Angela Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.