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Traveling While Female

Two days in the Pennsylvania countryside wouldn’t be much but I planned to make the most of it. I’d turn my son’s camp pickup into a mini retreat out in the woods for myself and some nearby writer friends. A group of us were psyched to share our work, prepare good meals and enjoy each others’ company. I’d discovered a cozy little cabin on Airbnb for a steal.

Like most women, I follow the rules about traveling solo. Anytime I could achieve safety in numbers, I did that instead. We were a group of five. Check. My early flight would likely get me to the cabin a few hours before everyone. I’d be dealing with this man alone. I mined the reviews for proof that the owner wasn’t a psycho.

One woman’s comments suggested that the cabin was his primary residence.

“Don’t be surprised if he’s out there in the workshop tinkering around.” Alone in the woods with a tinkerer.

I emailed the owner through the website to check out his vibe myself. I told him about our group and asked for his exact address so we could coordinate our trips. Several days went by before I heard back.

“I give out the address the week of your stay,” he replied. Super helpful.

After I booked the place, two of the writers had to bow out. Then the group trip fell apart. The cabin was cheap enough for me to stay on my own, but I wouldn’t dare. I clicked on my reservation and selected cancel.

That night, the tinkerer called.

“What happened? Did I say or do something that made you uncomfortable?”

I didn’t want to tell him that loitering around the property you were renting out was straight up creepy. It’s not something you should have to explain. He had asked, which was a good sign, but in my experience men attribute accusations of creepiness to women’s character defects. I could already read his thought bubble. What a b!tch.If I had a nickel for every man who happily took up space where he didn’t belong, I’d definitely have enough for a Starbucks run.

 

And just so you don’t think I had judged him unfairly, another review demonstrated how the guy handled negative feedback. Another woman had complained about a manure smell which had made the otherwise lovely evenings out on his porch distinctly unpleasant. The host went bananas, accusing her of being a clueless city slicker with no knowledge of the nearby farming community’s seasonal fertilizer. He recommended she study agriculture and time her vacations accordingly.

“No, no, all good,” I said. “Our group trip cancelled and I won’t need all that space for myself.”

“You sure? I’m there alone all the time. And I’m sorry I didn’t get back to you right away, I’ve been up in New Hampshire at a motorcycle rally.” He told me all about his adventure, how great his cabin was and too bad I wouldn’t be staying. I’d make nice with the guy until my refund was processed. No need to antagonize a strange man who had my money and my contacts.

When Airbnb sent a questionnaire about my cancelation, I reported my concern about the owner lurking around the property during one’s stay. That discharged my duty to all future women who stayed there which was really all I cared about.

With the prospect of my peaceful cabin in the woods fading to black, I googled hotel options. Maybe I’d find a place in a wooded area. It wouldn’t be out in nature, but at least I’d get a little trail run in.

Tons of cheap rooms at a golf resort were available.

Too many.

I clicked through the photos. The place was enormous and looked deserted.A serial killer’s paradise. Nope.

 

I took a break to scroll through Facebook and read a post from a friend asking if she’d been too paranoid while out on a solo hike. Some guy had been sitting in his parked car at the trail head. She felt his eyes on her as she passed. She hiked quickly away and disappeared into the hills. Two minutes later, she got an eerie feeling. There he was behind her, coming up fast. She sprinted past him back to her car.

“Not much of a hike!” he called after her. Her gut had told her he meant her harm. The comments were filled with similar stories set in dark parking lots, of handsy men on buses, and haunting memories from childhood, all encouraging her to follow her instincts. The book The Gift of Fear was recommended over and over and over.

I once heard that men’s core fear about women is that we will ridicule them. Women’s core fear about men is that they will kill us.  

 

I gave up on the woods and booked a room at a small, fancy hotel surrounded by a lot of trees. Hopefully I would find a populated running trail of non-killers.

The day before my flight, the tinkerer phoned again during a walk. “I was really looking forward to having you all,” he said. “I’ve so enjoyed talking with you.”

“Ya. Too bad it didn’t work out.”  

“What time are you getting in?”Are.You. Kidding. Me.

I lied about the time and said I had to go. This guy clearly considered Airbnb guests his personal dating pool. The second my refund came in, I would block him. If I pissed him off, he might try to keep my money or come find me.  

That night, I set my alarm for 4:30 a.m to get up for the first flight out. Instead of Ubering to the airport, I would leave my car in long term parking. It didn’t dawn on me until I slipped into bed that the cheaper option would mean walking through a dark parking lot alone.

“Will you give me a ride?” I asked my half-asleep husband. “I don’t feel safe.”

I felt guilty springing it on him. Rides to the airport weren’t our thing. With so much business travel and pick up times conflicting with other obligations, we just didn’t do it. Plus, he expensed his rides anyway. This was different and I know he realized that. He told me to wake him up when I was ready to leave. Phew.

My flight descended into the tiny town nestled inside a forest. At the hotel, I asked the front desk attendant for a running route. “You should probably stick to the main road,” she said. We both knew why. But there were enough people around that it seemed fine for me to try to find a trail myself.

 

My room wasn’t ready, so I stashed my bag and headed down the prohibited golf cart path. Lo and behold, I found a wooded path off the course between two busy main roads. The freeway traffic blared, drowning out the sounds of nature, but I focused on the majestic trees and thanked them for the shade and oxygen.

Soon, the trail grew oddly dark, incongruous to the engines roaring on the other side of the green wall. Perfect for drowning out screams.

I hadn’t seen anyone in a while.

A guy in a navy Sigma Chi sweatshirt leading a beagle on a leash meandered down the trail. No rapist is gonna call timeout to first tie up his dog. Safe bet I would survive the interaction. I said hello, remembering to look him directly in the eye, and strode past.  

A few minutes later, another guy pedaled his bike down the trail wearing special cycling shoes, a backpack and a sturdy helmet. No one with that much gear on had time to hop off for a quick rape.

 

I added to my safety list: there is nothing to fear from a man with cumbersome accessories (bike/dog).

I had been paying close attention to each turn of the trail but got lost anyway. The hair on my arms stood on end. One guy with no props and I’d be done for. I loved being out in nature but this was a lot to go through.

In the distance I spotted a woman running, wearing airpods. Bold choice. Every woman runner knows you don’t wear earphones in places where you are worried for your safety. She had the purposeful look of someone who knew where she was going—probably a local. If she was confident enough to listen to music, this must be a low-assault running route. I breathed a cautious sigh of relief. Soon after, another woman in hiking boots plodded down the path, smiled at me and commented on the nice breeze.

Up ahead, I caught sight of the manicured lawns of the golf course. Soon I turned the key to my hotel room and hopped in the shower. The phone chirped with a text as I toweled off.

“How’s the trip so far?” Airbnb guy. Seriously dude? I confirmed my refund online and promptlyblocked him.

The next day, the camp delivered my son and all his gear to the hotel and we were on our way home.

During the flight’s delay, I searched up places to stay for my upcoming trip to New Mexico to see my dad. A little inn off a main street had two available casitas. I called and asked the attendant which one she’d recommend.

“If I were a woman traveling alone, I would choose the one in the courtyard. The other one is nice and private but on the outskirts of the main property.” The other casita looked better though. Man was I sick of having to make all my choices based on avoiding physical harm, nevermind the stress of constant vigilance.

Staying hyper-aware of my safety as a woman traveling alone is the only way to get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: Do you think men will ever take responsibility for how terrifying they have made the world for women?

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Six Lessons From The Scrap Heap

I am knee deep in revisions on Scrappy, the book I finished writing last August. Before I draft the book proposal, I am taking the hatchet to it for stuff that doesn’t belong. It’s painful, but necessary. Like any other major endeavor, running a marathon, childbirth, writing a book is a metaphor for life. Here are the takeaways:

  1. Your voice matters—let it be strong. I developed my voice on the page by writing this book. In parts, however, I hear myself trying to be someone else. Mary Karr’s, The Liar’s Club, sat close by for inspiration. I do a 10 cent impression of her which makes me cringe. The only voice that belongs in my book and my life is mine.
  2. Feel all the feelings so you can actually let them go. One of the key elements to the revision process is asking how the main characters felt in the beginning of the chapter and how their emotional state changed by the end. In some chapters, the reader is left wondering how I felt because I just marched on to the next thing. When I ran away from home, for example, I didn’t pause to absorb the emotional impact of it. I was too busy surviving. That didn’t mean I had no feelings, of course I did. I just stored them up. It’s not a great plan if you want to be physically and mentally healthy. Feel the feels and release them. They cause trouble if you don’t.
  3. If an experience doesn’t lead to personal growth, delete it from your story. Sometimes we replay terrible events over and over for no good reason. Prolific author and writing guru, Joyce Maynard teaches that your story must take the reader on a journey. You start in Maine, zip through the Midwest, then climb the rocky mountains to get to California. If your story doesn’t do that, keep working. I had to nix some really crazy stuff because it was just crazy. From the retelling, we learn nothing other than, wow, her parents really shouldn’t have hired the town derelicts to babysit. That’s not a story, it was just something that sucked. We don’t need to hang on to experiences that didn’t lead somewhere better.
  4. Recognize when you are assuming you know what someone else is thinking. In parts of the book, I commit point of view violations with my parents. I had a conversation with my father the other day and learned something new about why my parents divorced. This lesson has come to me over and over again. Tap into your curiosity instead of your judgment. Wonderful therapist and writer Linda Carroll loves the phrase tell me more. It takes us on a miraculous path from reaction to empathy. My book could use more openness and fewer rigid convictions.
  5. Look for the helpers. This gem comes from Fred Rodgers of Mr. Rodger’s Neighborhood. I have always thought I survived hard times on my own. I didn’t realize how often teachers took me under their wing. One lonely afternoon, my first grade teacher brought me over to her house and made me hot chocolate. My fifth grade teacher met with me every afternoon to help with my science project even though I was in sixth grade at a different school. I asked him and he said yes without hesitation. A high school teacher encouraged me to journal about the difficulty with my dad. When I shared a horrible friend betrayal with a college professor, she told me these are not the best years of your life and it gave me the will to keep going. A law school professor gave me a teaching job probably because he knew I was broke. Spuhler, Bruce, Romanenghi, Binion, Fischl all went out of their way to care for me. Educators are angels on earth. They see kids for who they really are when no one else does. Please vote to pay these people more. They are literally saving the world, one neglected kid at a time.
  6. Appreciate how far you’ve come. I have spent so much time waiting for someone else to appreciate me. It’s lovely when people thank you for going out of your way for them but the only validation that truly counts is the kind that comes from inside. Today I honor that first grade girl who told her creepy principal off in front of the whole class. Good for you, little lady. Cheers to me and cheers to you too.

When you get some perspective on your life and learn from the hard seasons, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: When you reflect back on your life, what can you appreciate about yourself?

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If You Do Not Transform Your Pain, You Transmit It

My dad is ill.

It took almost a week for me to get word he’d gone in for emergency surgery. My stepmother shared the news with my sister, assuming she’d pass it along. You can’t assume stuff like that in our family.

It turned out that the original surgery wasn’t necessary but they had discovered an infection that could have caused sepsis. It saved his life. Recovery had been slow.

“Should I come?” I asked, having finally reached my stepmother.

“Do you really want to wait until your dad is dying before you come see him?”

It was a good question but a complicated one given our family history. My brain automatically scrolled through the times he chose not to show up for me, said no when I needed him, yelled at me instead of offering support. I felt petty and guilty.

Years ago when I was still a student, I bought a plane ticket I could ill afford to go see my dad for the holidays. Mom hadn’t invited me up to her place and made excuses about it not being a good time whenever I’d ask to come see her. I stopped asking. He hadn’t invited me either, and my brother and sisters didn’t plan to come. But I wanted to spend the time with family, same as my friends. I never had it in me to invite myself to my friends’ homes which I imagined were warm and welcoming. My siblings seemed much better at being taken in by their friends. I was too ashamed to admit I had no one asking for me.

One afternoon, Dad and I walked the dog around a snowy track at the nearby university. The subject of his parenting came up. We were years past accusations and harsh words so the tone was light.

“All I wanted was for my father to leave me alone,” he said. “That’s what I tried to do for you.” He’d been a rebellious only child with a father who’d knocked the crap out of him. His mother didn’t step in.

“But Dad, there’s a happy medium. None of us wanted the kind of father you had. Leaving us to raise ourselves was a whole other thing.” If you don’t transform your pain, you transmit it.

My kids have made fun of my stories for years. They roll there eyes at my version of I walked ten miles to school in the snow.

“Did you know I had to buy my own socks?” They’ve heard that one so often they might put it on my gravestone. Unfortunately, it hasn’t had the intended effect of making them extraordinarily grateful.

The upside of getting a job at 13 and figuring out how to navigate my life without much guidance was that I became resourceful and self-sufficient. Where others might be discouraged, I push until I find a solution. It may involve rule-breaking or stepping on toes, but those are key components to my no one’s going to rescue you training. I think the lesson sticks best if you are left to figure out some critical stuff for yourself as a kid.

I have tried a milder version of it with my own children with less success. Like when I was the only parent not to go on the fourth grade class trip so my very responsible daughter could tell food servers about her allergies herself. For the entire trip, a well-meaning, lesson-thwarting, father informed the buffet attendants, cooks and wait staff of her life-threatening cashew allergy.

Despite our painful past, I did want to be with my dad. Over the next few days, I mulled over the best time to fly out. Should I go before sending my son to camp this week? Or before I pick up my other son at camp next week?

Then I got a message that both friends who’d attended camp with my son were headed home early. He texted that he wanted to come home too. I wasn’t sure what to do but it had become clear that my window to leave town without bailing on my own kid had closed.

I called Dad to see what was happening.

“I’m being released. I am in the wheelchair on my way out.”

The next day I called him. No answer. I tried my stepmother. Voicemail. When last we spoke, I had told her I’d try to figure out a way to come out there.

Calls continued to go unanswered. I assumed he didn’t care if I came one way or the other.

A couple days later, I got a text from my stepmother. Recovery at home had been difficult. He’d gotten another infection. They didn’t answer because they were busy. That hadn’t occurred to me.

The next day, he picked up, his voice hoarse and strained. I told him I wanted to come out.

“There’s not anything to do. I sleep most of the day.”

“Maybe in a few weeks? In the meantime, how about we do a Facetime call?” A smart friend had given me the idea. He said he’d like that.

“It’s really in your best interest to get better, Dad. If your kids descend on Albuquerque, you might be sorry,” I joked.

One sister didn’t talk to either sister but did speak to the brothers. One brother talked to everyone and the other brother preferred to stay out of it. The other sister was mad at just about everyone. If you don’t transform your pain, you transmit it.

I do want to show up for my dad. Not right this second, but I’ll go. There is value in staying in touch with him. When we do speak, it’s a real conversation. Along with learning the skills to take care of hard stuff for myself, he also taught me that our relationship is a no-pressure situation. I do what works for me and he is just fine with it.

I’ll try him again on Father’s Day. He’ll definitely pick up then.

When you have a big decision to make, check in with yourself. If you feel a tightness in your chest, it’s not the right thing. If you relax, it is. When you stay true to yourself, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: What big decision did you have a hard time making? Did you check in with your body to see how the decision felt?

Do you subscribe to these stories? If not, please do at elizabethheise.com. Come check me out on Instagram @elizabethheise1 and Twitter @heiseelizabeth1. Thank you for reading.

Copyright © *2021* *Elizabeth Heise, LLC.*, All rights reserved.

 

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10 Things NOT TO DO When Your Kid Applies To College

On my Friday March 25, 2021 story, I shared my daughter’s unexpected struggle with the college application process. That was an examination of the water they are swimming in, but this is a PSA just for the parents. My apologies to those not in this position. I’ll see you next time!

I received a number of questions this week after the high school held it’s annual event called The Secret Sauce. Each year at this time, the college counselor assembles a panel of a dozen or so high achieving seniors to give advice to underclassmen in this brutally competitive environment. He selects a wide variety of students, all with a unique perspective.

 

My daughter was invited to speak. Jane was her candid self, advising kids not to fixate on any one college, even though on paper they should have had no problem getting in. She had done that to her detriment with the encouragement of her well-meaning, yet ill-informed parents.

At the end, the counselor asked each of them what advice they’d give the parents who had yet to go through this with their child. Jane didn’t hold back.

“My dad got a 1080 on his SAT and got into Vanderbilt. I did way better than him and got rejected. Things are much harder now so parents, manage your expectations. Your own experience may be irrelevant. Just be there for when your kid is crying.”

Now that the process is over, we definitely know what not to do and sure wish someone had told us. Other parents who have been through the process may totally disagree with this list. If you had a different experience, please show up in the comments. Others needs guidance and we are only one set of naive parents. If this discussion helps just one parent pipe down so their kid doesn’t have to cry harder, it will have been worth it.

  1. Do not take your kid to visit any colleges for the purpose of matriculation. If they go with a school group or someone else, fine. Once you are involved, there’s pressure. If you must tour colleges, be there for some other purpose. An athletic camp, summer program or just to pop in if you happen to be in town. Some schools keep track of applicants’ visits to campus and clicks on their website. I’d rather spare my kid the heartbreak than worry about that so it’s a tradeoff. This advice originated from my friend Hagit who’s genius parents followed it when she applied to school. In this climate, your child doesn’t need to get their heart set on going ANYWHERE until they’re in. My kid didn’t get into several safety schools with her insane credentials. Each admissions office is putting together a class and they may already have one of your super special kid. And some schools may be trying to manipulate their acceptance numbers by rejecting students whose record suggests they are applying as their safety school. COUNT ON NOTHING. Take all the virtual tours  you want. Show up in person when she’s got some acceptances in her hot little hand and not one minute before.

  1. DO NOT give a college handbook as a gift for book night on Hannukah/Christmas/Kwanzaa. Jane’s reaction was, “Oh. Fantastic. The thing I’ve been stressing out about for most of my life, you thought would be a fun beach read over break. THANK YOU SO VERY MUCH FOR THE THOUGHTFUL GIFT.” Perhaps your child isn’t as highly strung and may enjoy it? If so, I have one for you. For the rest of you, just no.
  1. When your child actually needs to decide where to apply and starts to hyperventilate, then and only then is it time to break out that college book you’ve been hiding in the closet. Casually leaf through the offerings. Your kid can make sure their scores line up with the requirements, NOT YOU. Your only job is to encourage them to think about where they see themselves loving their life, that is also within your budget. Consider what each place has going on, the size, student life, academic offerings, geography, etc. and ask if it seems like a place they’d feel happy. City or out in the woods? Conservative or liberal campus? Screw the places they think they SHOULD want to go. Jane’s friend got into the school he’d planned on since childhood (Penn) and hates it. Anecdotal but you get it. An otherwise well-regarded school might really suck for your specific kid.

 

  1. If your kid rejects a seemingly great program for them, their reasons may not be clear, even to themselves. When Jane took the virtual tour of the school she ended up committing to, she said she’d never want to go there. It made no sense to us because we’d seen the beautiful campus, knew about the strong the academics and the geography was spot on for her: fun city with a beach! When it was all over she said she never thought she’d get in that’s why she rejected it, then applied anyway. She doesn’t like to have her heart broken. Who does? Just let your kid vent, say nothing, and encourage them to apply to a wide array of schools where they could see themselves.
  1. Don’t join their chaos. When the college counselor says some dream-killing nonsense or the standardized test tutor turns crazy, be the rock.* Assure them that everyone is stressed and doing the best they can. No one can predict the outcome. If any one of these relationships aren’t working and you aren’t contractually bound, find someone else and move on. No need to claw anyone’s eyes out even though it would be extremely gratifying. We were actually good at this one thing which was a suprise considering my checkered past as a hothead.
  1. Whatever you do, do not tell your kid they will have no problem getting into X school. We did this daily. And when the deferments and rejections started pouring in, it became clear that we had committed parenting malpractice. DON’T DO IT. Your instincts will tell you to reassure them because this is your precious child who has worked like a dog and every school should let them in. JUST DON’T. All you may say is, don’t worry, it’s going to work out. You will end up exactly where you are supposed to be.  
  1. Don’t say a word about your own college application experience back in the Stone Age. Doing so will frustrate your kid to no end. This was Jane’s sole piece of parenting advice and it cannot be stressed enough. They will only think you are a clueless moron who doesn’t deserve the academic credentials you now enjoy without a hint of the same kind of suffering. And whatever you do, do not mention your unimpressive scores and lack of AP’s. Mark actually told Jane that Palmetto didn’t have AP’s back then. Oh really. Ask Jeff Bezos, MPSH Class of ’82, if they had AP’s. (For the record, I had enough credits to start school as a Sophomore so I wasn’t the offender in this scenario. Regretably, I did most of the others on this list.)
  1. Your job is to be a sounding board and to validate feelings. Mainly it is TO JUST SHUT UP. Seriously, most of the stuff I said just pissed Jane off during the process. If I’d shut up more, she would have had one less thing to be upset about.
  1. If you happen to interview for your alma mater, don’t come home talking about how impressive some other kid is. Don’t ever talk about how amazing ANY OTHER KID is. It’s basically like announcing. “Hey! I found a kid who is SO MUCH BETTER THAN YOU at literally everything.” Don’t. No one wants to hear that.
  1. Just keep reminding them that it will all be over soon and they will be happy at their college in a matter of months, rid of your inane commentary, and that you are proud of them and love them no matter what.

That is all. Good luck everyone.

When you listen more than you speak, those around you feel seen and then EVERYONE feels like its all going to be okay.

Love, Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: did you give college app advice that backfired? What about advice that worked? Please share! Do you agree or disagree with this list? Other parents and I would love to hear your experience.

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*It sounds like I am casting aspersions here. To be clear, the Palmetto college counselor did no such thing. The only relationship that proved to be an unhealthy one was with Jane’s standardized test tutor who we were contractually bound to for some period of time, are now rid of and won’t be recommending. If you are in Miami, let me know.

 

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Don’t Worry, You’re Normal

I’m normal. 

That was my first thought after I took the Enneagram test.* Initially, I resisted doing this assignment for our relationship class. It categorizes people into numbered personality types. Only nine varieties of human struck me as a bit reductive.

But in the spirit of doing all the homework, I completed the assessment and holy cow.The results explained why I never felt like I belonged anywhere. Why I detest small talk. The reason friends often tell me I am too hard on myself. Why I always want everything to be better.Apparently, it’s my nature to search for what’s missing. And there are others who see the world that way too. I found it comforting to know that in this peculiar worldview, I am not alone.

According to the Enneagram, each personality type has a unique core belief which then motivates behavior. Knowing your type helps you examine your organizing principle and consider what critical life lesson you are here to learn. My enneatype is here to reclaim wholeness in the present moment by appreciating what is here and now. Being grounded in my body instead of getting caught up in story.** It is absolutely worth the $10 and 45 minutes to validate your existence.

I wanted to know more about the origins of the Enneagram and how it could be so totally spot on. A google search revealed a mysterious history. Ancient roots in Babylon some 4,500 years ago, an appearance in Greek philosophy 2,500 years ago. But when I read that one of the first modern gurus had been responsible for introducing the Enneagram to America, I stopped cold.

George Gurdjieff.

This name had been spoken in my home growing up so often I thought he was a special friend of my parents. After a while, I realized it was the man’s teachings that had made him seem more important in our family than me and my sisters and brother. He was the reason my parents spent money we didn’t have on a farm house and a few acres out in East New Mexico. My parents planned to live communally with their group and study Gurdjieff’s path to enlightenment called The Work. My father, a clinical psychologist in private practice, would lead them.

Despite the dusty property having nothing for us kids to do but roam around and dig in the dirt, all the parents brought their kids to The Farm.

 

As often as we could get away, a couple dozen families met at someone’s home in Albuquerque to caravan up to Santa Rosa. Kids were left to catch a ride in whomever’s car had room—my least favorite feature of the weekend. My siblings and I were little and I didn’t like to ride with just anyone.

On one memorable trip, my older sister and I got stuck in creepy Richard’s car. He had a history of swindling kids out of their beloved toys and getting them to wait on him to earn their stuff back. On the long front seat next to Richard, Miriam pushed me against the rickety passenger door to keep away from him. I held my breath and tried not to panic as we sped down a one-way dirt road on a sheer cliff with no guard rail. Once we pulled into the dirt-packed lot, I staggered away from the car having barely breathed the whole way.

At their weekend commune, Dad played the part of guru​The house had not one stick of furniture, save for one long, splintery dining table. We all sat together for dinner, listening to the adults discuss esoteric this or that which often erupted into arguments. One time, a fight broke out and the table was tossed onto the unlucky ones seated on the other side, food crashing down, little kids shreiking.

Days were filled with the adults digging ditches and other make-work that seemed hard and pointless. My mother didn’t love Dad’s harsh interpretation of Gurdjieff’s conscious labor and intentional suffering. That wasn’t how she taught it when we kids lived with her at a commune up in Taos where she lead the group. But she was done being a guru and had left this one to Dad.

One morning I heard a commotion outside and picked my head up over the sleeping bags in the kids’ room. Adults were lined up against the barn, stark naked, while Dad took photographs from a distance. When I asked about it years later he said, somewhat defensively, “that was a body study and it was really well done.” He wouldn’t say much about it so I looked it up and deduced that the comparison of ectomorph, mesomorph, and endomorph body types was a critical part of awakening to the inner experience.

The one thing I actually liked about Santa Rosa was the abundance of baby frogs. Past the barn, at the foot of a large reservoir, I sat with my knees tucked under me in the dirt, as tiny frogs hopped into the palm of my hand. I delighted in their little webbed feet jumping off me like I was their friend.

My siblings had tried their hand at pets. Kitty, my sister’s cat, had dined on her fair share of my brother’s gerbils. No one seemed bothered by the periodic loss of life, but it put a chilling effect on my desire to own a pet. But I loved the frogs so much and it seemed like they liked me okay too, so I planned to bring some home and take care of them. I had stuffed a Tupperware container in the back of our turquoise Subaru for just this purpose.

The morning we were set to leave, I popped the trunk and grabbed the container. At the reservoir, I peeled the top off for the frogs to jump inside. They didn’t go in right away, so I let them hop into my hand then placed a dozen or so gently inside and sealed them up.

I walked them carefully back to our car and shoved the container in the way back so that they could ride undisturbed. I didn’t tell my siblings. I figured they would want to play with the frogs and squish them by accident.

Smooshed between kids on the way home, each bump in the dirt road caused my heart to jump. I pictured their tiny frog heads hitting the top of the container and prayed they’d be okay. My stomach was in knots by the time we arrived home a couple hours later. I scrambled out of the car, slipped the container out and took the frogs up to my room. I hoped they would like their new home. Maybe I’d save up and get a fancy terrarium at the pet store so they could live in style instead of in the plastic box.

I nestled the container on my pillow and gently lifted the top off.  The frogs lay motionless at the bottom. Why weren’t they moving?

And then it hit me. I hadn’t made any holes in the container. I had killed my first and only pets.

I didn’t tell my parents. I didn’t even think to share it with them. I had broken my own heart and they didn’t even notice.

 At the time of the frogs, I felt flawed and alone. It is only now, some 45 years later, that I am taking a personal development course with my husband and dear friends that Gerdjieff has shown up again. Up until now, his name has evoked only a dim flicker of heartache. His enneagram has helped me understand myself though, specifically the ways I react under stress. I try to be someone I am not. I attempt to guess what the other person wants and act like that even though it’s not me. When I am feeling whole and peaceful, I am a responsible, organized person who seeks to make the world a better place.

Gerdjieff is here to tell me those feelings I had all those years ago were normal and I don’t have to feel shame about being who I am now or ever. My identity has nothing to do with my parents–they didn’t ignore me because I was unlovable. Today I seek only to know how to do my life better. As a healthy enneatype four, I am honest about how I feel. I own my motives and contradictions without bullsh!tting myself.

This experience has also helped me understand where my parents might have been coming from back then. At the time, their way of seeking enlightenment was as foreign to me as I’m sure my zoom call would be to them. I just want to laugh and grow with people I care about. At our core, we weren’t looking for such different things, my parents and me. I’d just prefer my friends to remained clothed during the zoom calls, so don’t get any ideas, Matt Goodman.

When you realize you aren’t alone in your quirky view of the world, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT:  Is there anything from your past that has come back to change you mind? Have you done the Enneagram? If so, what did you learn about yourself?

*Click here to take the test: https://www.narrativeenneagram.org/-test/. And for my friends who’ve wondered why I am such an odd bird, this explains it: https://www.narrativeenneagram.org/types/the-romantic/

**It also provides insight into how different types react with one another. It totally nailed Mark and me. You have to take the test first and find your number and then do this one:

https://www.enneagraminstitute.com/the-enneagram-type-combinations

If you don’t subscribe to my Friday stories, please do at elizabethheise.com, follow me on Instagram @elizabethheise1 and Twitter @heiseelizabeth1.

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Let It Goooo

 

Let it go.

Before it became a Disney song that played on a loop in your head, it was a glib remark, typically delivered with a judgey side of eyeroll. How annoying is it to hear these words? Without exception, my inward response has been: “I’ll let it go in my own damn time.”

But guess what? We actually can let stuff go, once we are aware it’s a choice. Just this week, I learned that a feeling, positive or negative, lasts for only ninety seconds.* A chemical process occurs in the brain and it takes that amount of time to work its way through the body.

When the ninety seconds are up and you continue to feel the anger, sadness, or fear, it’s a sign that you have chosen a thought that is re-stimulating the circuitry. The thought, not the emotion, is what causes the physiological reaction over and over again.

Why would we do this to ourselves? Because telling stories is how we humans make sense of the world. We build a narrative around the emotion. We connect our past experiences to the feeling and voila, we continue to suffer. Once the emotion has a deeper meaning, we can then cling to it until we drop dead.

The better news is, we don’t have to make up awful stories and continue to feel bad. We can stop ourselves in the act of creating a story after the feeling has passed. And now that I know it’s an actual choice, I am determined to let stuff go like a champ.

I tested this theory last night at the children’s hospital. My son, an avid skateboarder, has rolled each ankle and been x-rayed so many times that Gerardo, the x-ray tech at urgent care, seems more like extended family. I’d noticed that the slight limp after Finn skated all afternoon in front of our house hadn’t resolved. We are a week away fom skateboard camp. I decided we should go in one more time to see if he’d receive the same advice as always, stay off it for a week.

“It’s a fracture,” said the doctor. “You should cancel camp.”

We both crumpled. He needed this camp. He is the baby of the family and Covid has been the least tolerable for him. Starting middle school where he knew no one was particularly cruel to a kid during the masked-up pandemic. On top of that, everything he’d looked forward to for the last year had been cancelled. All except for skateboarding camp.

But also, I needed this camp. A portion of my brain has been on high alert for him all year. I’d put off my big revisions and book proposal until the weeks he would be taken care of by someone other than me. At camp.

I can’t ever get time to do my own work. Everyone else matters more than me. My work doesn’t matter. I don’t matter.

And then I caught myself. I had done exactly what one does to cause suffering in perpetuity. I had attached a crappy meaning to the feeling. I had chosen to be preoccupied by my son’s every move and pushed all the work to the three emotionally-free weeks in my calendar. Intellectually, I know he has his own path and he will be okay. I don’t need to use him as an excuse not to get my work done.

Once I realized I had turned his injury into a story, I noted the familiar theme. I don’t matter. That was an ancient one for me. My story around self-worth goes back to my mother. She left us and I took it personally. As a twelve year old kid, I figured I wasn’t enough to stick around for. And that is what I need to let go.

I wondered if the ninety second thing could conquer this emotional mountain. I called in an expert to ask. Relationship therapist and friend, Linda Carroll emailed me some advice.

The ninety second rule doesn’t count for grief.

When you think about your mom, and the chemicals fire for ninety seconds, what do you do next? How do you minimize or maximize the feeling? Both ways are trouble. Can you allow it like a wave and then continue on? Allow it and make it your Tonglen. It’s a Buddhist practice for empathy where you take in the suffering of someone else and sending them back what they need to heal.**

I try not to think about my mother at all actually. When I do it’s more like an empty cavern inside me than actual emotion. My feelings about her are so desolate even I don’t want to hang out in that place with myself anymore.

As I sat in my writing chair overlooking the quiet backyard, I closed my eyes to try the Tonglen. On the in-breath, I inhaled her sadness as the eldest of seven. The one who heard the stranger say to her mother, “you have lovely children. Each one more beautiful than the next.” As the first child in the row, she took that to mean she was the least beautiful. I breathed in her urgent need, at the age of thirteen, to leave a home ruled by a violent, alcoholic stepfather. Then to escape a lonely, faithless marriage, leaving behind her four children. My chest filled with the torment of damaged relationships with me and my brother and sisters.

The darkness filled me and I sobbed out loud. My heart began to pound as I struggled to turn her pain into loving energy, pink and airy, and send her back light and healing. I was shaky, but I did it. When it was over, all that remained was sadness for her.

I know grief for the relationship won’t disappear in one go, but the exercise opened space for compassion. I felt something for a mother I have felt very little for since she ran out on our family back in the eighties. I will do anything to unburden myself. I don’t want to create distance between me and the rest of the world in service to the story of my mother.

When you let go of fear and open yourself to empathy, you get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

*https://onebodyinc.com/the-90-second-rule-you-cant-afford-to-ignore/

**https://www.lionsroar.com/how-to-practice-tonglen/

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Why Do You Stay?

The other day I asked my husband what topic he’d like me to cover in a Friday story.

“Why do you stay married to me?”

“That’s what you want me to write about?” I asked.

“You’ve got a lot of gripes, Elizabeth.”

He was not wrong. I am a fixer. Of everyone and everything. He’s been the one closest to me for twenty-five years, so you can imagine how much I’ve tinkered around in his head.

The night before, we had rushed through dinner with the family to get on Zoom for our relationship class.* It started off well. Mark shared a breakthrough he’d had in communication. As he spoke, the other couples inside their Zoom squares finished last spoonfuls at their kitchen table or settled into the pillows in an unfamiliar bedroom.

“Elizabeth told me how stressed she was about an upcoming trip to Philadelphia. I thought to myself, she’s traveled the world, why is she acting so incompetent? Instead of expressing that, I said nothing, which hurt her feelings. I thought about it during my run afterwards. When I came back, I asked her to tell me more. What she shared helped me understand her better.”

“That’s wonderful,” said the therapist. “You listened with true presence. Tell me more is a powerful phrase.”

I was glad for his effort to understand me, but what he said stuck in my craw. If it had been a private therapy session, I would have pushed back, but the topic had changed to rituals.

The therapist explained that a daily practice to foster connection keeps us continually learning about each other.

“Couples tend to undervalue them,” she said.

I could understand why people bailed on these exercises. When I feel disconnected and ornery, the last thing I want to do is “share” and “connect” with my “husband.” Especially if he’s stewing in his own negativity. We retreat to our corners and a gulf widens between us.

“We don’t stop doing other important things just because we don’t feel like it,” she said. “Changing the oil, brushing our teeth. We do those things no matter what. Often, we treat rituals to keep our marriage strong like they are optional. If someone gets their feelings hurt or has a long day, we drop them.”

Our ritual was for me to share something with Mark that had upset me and for him to say nothing. I now understood that in his head, he’d been judging me all along.

The therapist suggested a daily practice that included five separate categories. Before life got complicated and we became marriage bots, we did these things naturally.

 

Appreciations

Share five things you are grateful for about your partner.

Meeting a minimum threshold hadn’t been a problem before now. After we had our first child, Mark sent extravagant flower arrangements every time he left town for business.

News

Often one person is better at sharing information than the other—this is a reminder for both partners to let the other know what is happening in their life.

I couldn’t wait to show Mark how I found out our then six-month-old daughter was a genius. “You have to see this,” I said when he walked in from work. “Jane, go get your monkey.” She scooted to her play area and dragged back the stuffed toy. He slapped his knees and hooted.

 

Puzzles

Clear up mysteries before they become suspicions or resentments. Most “puzzles” have simple explanations.

Years ago, Mark had gone to a football game out of town with his best friend. As he was dressing in their hotel room, Harry noticed a gaping hole in the butt of Mark’s underwear. As Mark told me the story, he could hardly speak over his own laughter, “I’d cut the hole for Norm’s tail so he could wear them after he got neutered. I forgot to throw them out.”

 

Complaints & Requests for Change

This helps us say what we want, along with what we don’t want, and teaches us how to make a complaint rather than criticize.

The therapist asked us all to go off camera for ten minutes and practice “giving a complaint and request for change.” Mark went first.

“I feel like there’s a disconnect between your Instagram posts and how you are at home,” Mark said.

How dare he.

I did not do the steps to pause and rebalance that we had learned.

“Do you think I can’t be inspired in the morning and post about it, then raise hell after a day of interruptions? Try working from home with house guests, virtual school, and Cocoa barking and let me know how sunshiney you are. I am a full human being with all the complexity. You’d accept my imperfections if you ever allowed yourself to have any.”

Mark turned back to the laptop, now a grid of screen savers.

“You want to hear my complaint?” I asked. “I don’t like that you judged me for being nervous about getting lost in a new city. That doesn’t make me incompetent. Some people are good with directions and some aren’t. So what? Even though you weren’t saying anything, I could feel you being critical.”

I knew he wouldn’t respond. I clicked our video back on to join the class. We spent the rest of the session parked under separate black clouds.

I thought about Mark’s question for a couple days. I took a long walk and reflected on what each of us had witnessed as kids. In our homes growing up, resentments and anger went unexpressed, polluting the air like toxic waste. When my parents announced their divorce, my mom said, “your dad and I haven’t spoken in four years.” At his house, there was lots of muttering under their breath. I didn’t want that for us.

When I got home, Mark stood at the bathroom sink, brushing his teeth.

“How come you never said what you were thinking until now?” I asked.

“I was afraid you’d bite my head off. Or use what I said against me in a future argument. I figured it wouldn’t change anything. There was no point.”

He had been trapped in his own head with an inner dialogue he never felt safe enough to express. For years. While I felt free to say all the crazy things I felt. I don’t know how he did it. My own head would have popped off ages ago.

As I felt the unfamiliar sensation of empathy for my husband, it dawned on me that I had judged him for judging me. Both of us considered ourselves the authority on how the other should act. Until now, neither of us had been curious enough to ask what was really going on.

“If we learn nothing else from this class, those three words were worth it. When either of us says something that triggers a judgment, we replace it with curiosity. Tell me more. That’s gold,” he said.

“So why do you want to stay married to me?” I asked, knowing I still hadn’t answered the question myself.

“Out for my run this morning, I had the thought, I’d like to feel more connected to Elizabeth. I never would have learned how to relate better if you hadn’t forced me to take that class. Believe it or not, I actually want to do this.”

I guess that’s my answer. I stay married to this guy because he is still willing to grow with me.

When you show up to your life as your true self without reservation, the people who stick around give you the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: What uncomfortable conversations have lead to breakthroughs in your relationship?

*I suggested a six week course with Therapist, Author and Life Coach, Linda Carroll based on her book Love Skills, The Keys to Unlocking Lasting, Wholehearted Love. For more information on her awesome programs, check her out on lindaacarroll.com.

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Speak Your Truth.

 

We had been warned about going back to regular life after an intense writers’ retreat. The work required raw emotions that didn’t go away once you cleared Customs. Crying in the shower? Normal. Unloading a torrent of vitriol onto unsuspecting loved ones? Possible. Spending days wondering what just happened? Likely.

I had attended once before, so I knew this re-entry had been extra weird. Last time, I came back with my hardest story workshopped by our host, a prolific author and writing teacher. A whole book had grown up around that story. This time, I had wanted to unearth my next story. I had no desire to work on the manuscript that I had completed months ago. Instead of writing new stories, I returned home with a load of revisions that amounted to a scrapped manuscript and a heap of self-doubt.

My inner voice had gone quiet. Trying to get myself back on track had me in a panic.

Before the trip, I had planned a holistic health reset. The pandemic had been a year of less than healthy choices. An Ayurvedic consultation awaited when I returned home. This Hindu tradition, known in India* as The Mother of All Healing, teaches you to listen to the body’s signals. Through observation of emotions and physical symptoms, you learn how diet, seasons, weather, relationships and past trauma affect your health. Balance is the goal. This would bring me back to myself, I was sure of it.

The naturopathic doctor first asked about my emotional state. I told her what happened at the retreat.

“I started out bursting with creativity. A few days in, I didn’t speak up for myself. After that, I was unable to work on new material and stopped reading what I had brought to share. Right now I can’t even hear my intuition. It’s freaking me out.”

“Suppressed emotion can be a volcano inside us,” the doctor said. “It’s important to recognize when you are releasing emotions and when you are holding them in.”

 

I had definitely stuffed them down and now the anger and sadness had followed me home. I am a planner and this was not at all where I wanted to be post-workshop. I expressed almost none of my complicated feelings at the retreat, concerned I might tank other writers’ creativity along with my own. That would have made it all worse. But energy is matter and I’m sure they all felt it.

I had no qualms expressing myself at home, however. My patient husband watched me get stuck in the seven stages of writer grief. For several days, I looked at him in disbelief and shook my head. “How did I let this happen?” I asked him, again and again.

I blamed myself for not being able to voice my concerns about how things were going down. There were only two ways I had always communicated hard feelings. One was to be silent. When I sense I may be rejected or judged, I hold back and say nothing. Then I carry that uncomfortable truth and it eats away at my insides. The other way is to drop the truth on the person’s head like a falling piano. When I feel safe, that’s how I do it. People seem not to like that.

“I have been told that when I tell the truth it feels like I am being mean,” I said to the doctor.

“You see things clearly and you speak your mind. Those are virtues. You can share them compassionately.”

It was news to me that there was something in between hammering someone with honesty and saying nothing at all. Perhaps my truth bombs came from holding back so often that when I unleashed the truth, the built up pressure shot out like a nail gun.

The doctor advised that when I restore balance to my body and mind, I will feel more able to express myself with compassion.

“This is a wonderful time for healing, Elizabeth.”

A little over a week has passed since I have been following my plan for spiritual and mental balance. It may not be long enough for a fair assessment. So far, however, the net effect of yoga, breath work, meditation and complying with the recommended food choices is that I feel calm. I can’t say my inner voice has been fully restored, but the lesson about speaking up for myself has stuck. I have recommitted to keeping my own counsel. I am already who I am trying to be.

When we honor our own truth and express our thoughts and feelings with compassion, we get the sense that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

*The people of India are suffering. Please help unicefusa.org.

WRITING PROMPT: Do you have trouble speaking the truth with compassion? How do people respond to it?

If you don’t already, please follow these Friday stories on elizabethheise.com and check me out on Instagram @elizabethheise1 and twitter @heiseelizabeth1. Thank you for reading.

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The War Is Within

 

By mid-week, my writing workshop in Guatemala had taken a turn. Despite the enchanting casita on a tranquil lake in the shade of three volcanoes, I could no longer write. True stories demand total vulnerability. Mine had fled.

Back home, when worries overwhelmed my creative voice, I cleared my head with yoga, the bright Miami sun, a long run. Here in this magnificent place, I couldn’t even meditate without sobbing midway through.

I had pre-booked a session that day with an energy healer who worked with crystals. Until then, I had avoided such things. I believed in the power of energy, but magic rocks were my mother’s territory. I viewed them as a New Age prop for those who wished to avoid the real work of therapy. After twenty years on Dr. Waddington’s couch where I rarely discussed my mother, I found myself here, among the crystals.

 

A woman with flowing gray hair sat at a small table, writing. Lining the walls of her small studio, stones of every color lay in intricate patterns.

“You need to feel your grief and allow yourself to cry,” she said, peering into my eyes over rectangular spectacles.

Not knowing how to respond, I sat down in the wrought iron chair across from her.

She was right, this total stranger. I had mourned, a little, but hadn’t cried—who had time for that? I came down here to revise my book.

“Are you grieving the loss of someone or something?” she asked.

I told her about my mom and sisters who no longer spoke to me. And the friend who had just announced she was so mad at me, she couldn’t read anything I wrote. The little girl in charge of my creativity had run away to hide. My writing was done for now.

“People who act like your mother will keep showing up until you resolve your relationship with her. Has this friend ever behaved like that before?”

“No,” I said.

“That’s your mother.”

It sounded both absurd and exactly right.

But I didn’t want my mother to take up any more of my mental space. She hadn’t been in my life in any real way since she left our family when I was twelve. The four of us kids received the rare phone call and had no regular visitation. I had longed for her to ask what might be bothering me as a kid growing up with no mom. But now I wanted to be done.

The healer invited me to lay on the table. I closed my eyes as she placed crystals at energy points along my body.

“You have to forgive her.”

I didn’t know what it meant to forgive anyone. It sounded impossible. I would not be doing anything hard for my mother.

“This is how you find comfort and peace. Nothing is out of your reach when you are inward, whole and revitalized.”

“How do I do it?”

“You have to write to her. Get it all out on paper. Then destroy it,” she said.

I lay on the table, composing a letter in my head.

Dear Mom, even when you lived with us, you barely looked at me. It made me feel unworthy of being seen. In every relationship, I feel like a temporary employee trying to prove myself. You judged me and now I do it too, pushing away the very people I want close. I always worried you would leave. That anxiety turned me into someone who tries to control everything. That drives people away too. Worst of all, you left me. Now, when things are hard, I fight the urge to leave too.

I burned the note.

I had not felt this shaken in decades. Until now, I hadn’t allowed the feelings to pass through me. I worked through issues intellectually, but didn’t waste time “processing emotions.” That was for sensitive people. It had served me well until now. I had hardened into petrified wood. I was ready to turn back into a live tree.

“It is time to gently cast away the attachments to your past and build the foundation of a new and beautiful journey. Today the doorway opens. You may pass if you are willing to look forward rather than back. You are striving to become who you already are. You are a Spiritual Warrior and your war is within. Let your life be transformed. Magic will happen.”

I rose from the table and purchased the two crystals that would assist in my healing. One to balance my overactive crown with my underactive root chakra. The other to turn chaos to order. I placed them in a pouch and secured them under my clothes, close to my heart. As I walked up the steep stairs to my tuk tuk, I detected a lightness in my chest. Maybe I could let go of her. I didn’t have to be part of her story any more. I could write my own.

I have learned that to forgive is to remove judgment—to allow others the dignity of their own journey. This makes space for acceptance. This is love. With a deep breath, I send the message to my body that it’s all going to be okay.

Love,

Elizabeth

WRITING PROMPT: What do you do to let go?

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Guest Post From Down Under

It’s Time to Normalise* Normal
By Helen Ferguson

I crave seeing normal faces and normal bodies of middle aged women. Up on our screens, in advertising material and in general day to day media–I want them everywhere.

I see normal on the train, at the shops and walking down the street, so I know normal exists. I really want to see normal middle aged women filling as much media space and time as normal middle aged men.

It is harder than necessary to find examples of middle aged women in media and entertainment who didn’t come out of a cookie cutter.

I’m constantly on the lookout for positive, diverse representations of normal middle aged womanhood.

I need them.

It’s not just for my own sake. I’m thinking of the generations of women following behind us.

If we can’t see it, we can’t be it.

If we can’t see it, how can we appreciate it?

I remember as a teenager in the early 80’s, the teen magazines regularly had articles about our bodies and our faces.

We were warned by the advice columns not to be too skinny, because boys didn’t like that. The articles were accompanied by photos of clearly unwell girls, focusing on the way they looked, rather than how they were suffering.

We were told to strive to keep our skin clear, because spots were unattractive.

The opinions at the time were very outward facing.

I recall how a young female body made society react if it wasn’t ‘quite right’.

Normal teen girls, the target customer of these businesses, weren’t represented on the pages. Normal girls with normal skin and normal bodies couldn’t see themselves being valued, so they set about under-valuing themselves.

Getting older and growing into my 20’s in the 1990’s, the message shifted dramatically.

Being skinny was now ok.

Skinny was more than ok, actually.

Skinny was the goal.

The thigh gap was the holy grail.

Hip bones sticking out slightly, with a flat or slightly concave stomach…that was what dreams were made of.

Have a black coffee for breakfast and go for a run, aspire to look like a model.

Don’t be normal.

Guys don’t like that.

I wondered at the time, if all men only find one type of woman attractive, why are the rest of us even in the dating game?

What if attracting a male was not my chief ambition. Can I be left out of the judgment and live by normal standards, please?

I looked around to find normal, average looking women on television, in movies, reading the news, or presenting business forums.

They were there, but in categories marked ‘friend of love interest’  ‘unmarried sister’, ‘ball-breaker’, ‘feisty/whacky’ , ‘single/childless’ ‘ambitious’.

We were being sold a dud.

We were being short-changed.

The boys and men were also being cheated.

The only ones benefiting were the people selling us the products to achieve that (airbrushed) complexion, those (photoshopped) bodies, or the impossibly tiny clothes to drape over those bodies.

Fashion and beauty models became younger and younger. Finding grown-ass women with faces free from life experience and bodies devoid of age-appropriate development was nigh on impossible, because…experience and maturity happens to women.

We’re almost like actual humans in that regard.

My early years of motherhood coincided with the rise of magazines plastering photos of celebrities on their covers, 10 weeks postpartum, wearing bikinis.

What on earth????

I didn’t buy into the hype. I was too sleep-deprived, thankfully, but I did get it wrong.

I just assumed that these women had personal chefs and trainers on hand to allow them look so astonishing post-delivery.

It didn’t dawn on me until years later that the photos were so heavily edited that they were a barefaced lie.

Normal isn’t aspirational.

Normal, by it’s very definition, is what the majority of us are.

I want to see me, I want to see you, I want to see us!

As a middle aged woman, I want to see women in my life stage, wearing clothes that fit them, that let them feel comfortable and allow them to feel beautiful. Show me the brand that has the talent and willingness to provide that, and I’ll be a loyal customer.

I’m quite happy being 54.

I’m not anti-aging, so why must practically every skin care product claim to be anti-aging? I’m pro-moisturised skin. I’m pro-non-irritated skin. I’m pro-long lasting makeup that brightens me when I want to be brighter, but doesn’t stain my clothes or make my eyes water, but I’m not anti-aging.

Think about it, if I’m not aging, what am I doing? Repeating myself? Stagnating? Dying? 

No, thanks. I choose aging over those options.

If media bosses and advertising gurus were braver, they could open their creative minds and appeal to this largely ignored resource.

The landscape has shifted in the real world, and the media mantras need to change to keep up.

The ‘middle aged white man in a suit’ is not the only way to convey gravitas and authority. We’re ever so tired of the same old same old.

The ‘hot young thing in a daring gown’ might be the obvious and traditional choice, because ‘sex sells’, but surely that depends on what you’re selling and to whom.

I am a grown up with disposable income; I have the power to make my own purchasing decisions, the ability to choose what cinema ticket to buy, what company to hire, which news channel to watch, what restaurant to book.

I recommend things to my friends, my colleagues, my clients, my book club.

I want to see what women in my age range are thinking, what careers they have, what questions they’re asking, what well cut clothes they’re wearing, where they are socialising and who they are voting for.

I want to see all of these things now, for me, but I also want younger women to see us, being ourselves, enjoying the fruits of our labour and living real lives.

I want younger women to view the next phase as something to look forward to, not dread.

We have to fight harder and shout louder for normal, for our own well-being and for the young people coming up behind us. We didn’t grow up in the age of social media, cosmetic surgery and advertising at every turn, but they are. What they are seeing every day on their screens is unrealistic and unsustainable.

We have to normalise normal.

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Helen Ferguson is a British woman living in Sydney, Australia where she co-owns and runs a family business and recently launched hermiddleage.com.au. Recognizing that middle age is often when women suddenly experience a sense of invisibility, she started a project to amplify their voices by inviting middle aged women to tell their stories, share their wisdom and join a supportive community. She invites her audience to email her at contact@hermiddleage.com.au with a story to share or nominate a woman we should hear about. You can follow the blog on her website and on Instagram @hermiddleage. She is lovely and I think you’ll treasure her as I do.

*Little known fact about me, I have a Masters in linguistics and I am totally fascinated by regional variations in English orthography. Helen’s British spelling adds even more charm to this fantastic piece, don’t you think? But because Americans think we know everything, I had to change her British spelling of “judgement” to the American “judgment.” I hope you’ll forgive me, Helen. I just don’t want to encourage this spelling in America because many of us do not know better.