Category Archives: Excavating

For shame

I have buried two shameful secrets for most of my life. Today I’m coming clean.

Which is not easy for a recovering perfectionist.

~~~~~

The first involved the Scripps-Howard Spelling Bee. When I was in 6th grade I made it to the district level and breezed through the written portion of the contest. I got through a round or two of the spotlight spelling, but fell later on the easy-peasy word gauze. Shame filled me. How could I have failed so spectacularly? I was certain that everyone in the room was laughing at the stupid idiot girl who messed up on a one-syllable word.

My parents arrived shortly after my crash-and-burn (they must have had a scheduling conflict for they rarely missed any of our activities) and I was relieved that they had not witnessed my fall. I was more than relieved — I was opportunistic. I thumbed through the Scripps-Howard booklet of words and chose the most difficult one I could find.

I told my parents not that gauze was my downfall, but that psilophyton was. It made my shame more bearable to create the illusion that a more difficult word had knocked me out of the competition.

~~~~~

The second took place a few years later when I turned 16 and set out to get my drivers license. Of course, I aced the written test. All that stood between me and new-found freedom was the actual driving portion of the test. My dad had spent hours teaching me in our family car, and I’d gotten an A in Drivers Ed (they used to offer it in our high school). So I wasn’t worried.

When the time came, though, I bombed the test. I failed to yield to oncoming traffic when turning left. I’m lucky I didn’t cause an accident.

My shame was of epic proportion. I could not tell my parents the truth. Instead, I told them that the instructor must have had it in for me. I just could not face them or myself. I practically convinced myself that my story was true.

Only it wasn’t.

Looking back, and being a parent now, my mom and dad probably knew the truth of both situations (I have never brought it up again, but I suppose this post will open up a conversation!). And of course they loved me anyway, in spite of the failures and the lies about the failures.

I didn’t really get off scot-free. Easing the burden in those moments had the counter-effect of weighing on my conscience all these years.

But instead of now feeling more shame for the young lady who failed, I offer to her compassion for living in fear and forgiveness for hiding her shame with lies.

~~~~~

Why am I bringing these minor-in-the-scheme-of-things up now? Because I’m excavating.

By virtue of burying these episodes for decades, they gained much more power than they merited. Small potatoes, truly. But through the deepness and the darkness, two small kernels of shame became supercharged.

It’s time to neutralize by shining light.

Often, in the light, the things we are most embarrassed by or even ashamed of suddenly seem not so dark, so charged, so burdensome. If we are fortunate, we are able to look at the thing with compassionate eyes and forgive our previous selves for the transgression. We know that most of the time we do the best we can with what we have.

And I think this notion has implications way beyond any spelling bee or drivers test.

All that’s left

About the time I started middle school (or, as we used to say, “junior high”) I had exasperated my piano teacher to the point where she decided I had to find a new teacher. I still don’t know how I flummoxed my mom so. I suppose it could have been my legendary stubbornness.

(Example: My parents told me I could practice any half-hour of the day I wanted. Could be before school or after school or in the evening; I could manage the time as I pleased. I did not like this edict, even though I liked learning to play piano and was quite good at it. Know how I responded? I set the alarm each morning at 3:30, got up and banged my etudes and sonatas as loudly as I could  until 4 am and went back to bed. My parents, to their credit, didn’t mention it at the time, although I know now that middle-aged people don’t sleep very well and absolutely abhor being awakened 3 hours before the alarm.)

Mom found a new teacher for me, a world- renowned composer and teacher who had been featured in the newspaper for publishing her latest opus. Remarkably, she lived within walking distance of our house, but she was not taking any new students. Somehow my mom finagled an interview and audition for me.

I was really nervous for our meeting. But Mrs D, as her students fondly called her, seemed genuinely charmed by me, earnest girl that I was. Mrs D had not one but TWO grand pianos in her living room (a wall had been knocked out to make room) — talk about impressively intimidating. I played for her my best Für Elise on one of the pianos and poof! Mom was no longer saddled with me as her piano student. Soon both my sisters followed me under Mrs D’s tutelage.

Mrs D was quite a character. She taught us not only the notes but to “sniff the keys” — that is, to feel the music and not be afraid to get demonstrative with the keyboard. She would tape ping-pong balls to our palms to counter our tendency to flatten our hands. She was brilliant, whimsical, odd, unafraid, tough, loving, and the most fascinating person I knew. She was a renaissance woman — she wrote novels, painted paintings, traveled the world with her beloved husband, and composed and played songs that evoked a range of emotions for both the listeners and the players. The first time I ever saw my name in print was when Mrs D dedicated a sonatina to me.

Once as a teen I ran away from home…to Mrs D’s house. She listened to me, opened up a can of black olives to console me (our bonding food — with her I was odd, too), and patted me on the bottom as she pushed me back toward home. Another time she and her husband were preparing for their imminent trip to Europe. Not wanting to pay high prices for stuff they could easily bring with them, they one day had me help them make martinis and pour them into seal-a-meal packaging to put in their suitcases. I didn’t realize exactly what I was doing, but it was a merry time helping them get ready.

Several years ago Mrs D’s husband died after a devastating Alzheimer’s decline. She missed him terribly but stayed vibrant and modern, though she was nearing her 90s. She hung out on Facebook, kept composing and publishing music for children, and wrote her autobiography. Turned out she was a codebreaker in WWII but had been under a 50-year veil of secrecy.

Eventually she grew frail and could no longer live in home with her two grand pianos. She was moved to a nursing home where she charmed the staff and entertained the other residents with her piano-playing and storytelling. My sisters and I visited her Thanksgiving of 2010 and sang her this song in harmony. She held each of our hands and made lengthy eye contact, loving us through and through. “Please come back soon, my sweethearts,” she said.

My mom and I visited her last Spring, about this time. We filled her in on our lives, listened to her reminisce, and told her we’d visit again.

Mrs D died last June. She was 92.

I attended the estate sale at her home this weekend. All of Mrs D’s  belongings were on the lawn being picked over by passers-by (the pianos were gone, in the possession of her son). Remnants of a life — junk really. Travel books from the 1970s that no one will ever read. Wall hangings and artwork that look hopelessly dated. Ten thousand travel photos that have meaning only to the two people who took the trip.

I browsed. I time-traveled. I was back in junior high. I was sitting through recitals in that living room. I was either eating black olives or packing green olives in liquid. I was visiting Mrs D while home from college. I was introducing her to the man who would become my husband. I was chasing my toddler around in that living room, trying to keep the knick-knacks safe from her grasp as I showed her off to Mrs D. While my life was ascending, I didn’t even notice Mrs D’s corresponding counter-arc.

This is what’s left of a life. Tchotchkes that outlive their owner, untethered and unowned. Doomed for a landfill. A wave of grief swept over me for the loss and love of Mrs D, the inevitable loss we face, the complete disconnection that waits for everyone. What would my estate sale look like?

I decided to salvage only one item, as impractical as it is symbolic.

A different type of keyboard, to be sure. But a touchstone to a woman who touched my life in a profound way.

Cautionary tale: Why you shouldn’t let social media sites into your address book

Remember when the new wife of an old boyfriend emailed me to say that, No, He Would Not Be Having Coffee with Me when I was traveling to his town?

That was more than three years ago. Two weeks ago? She invited me to LinkedIn.

I deleted the invitation, like I always do. I’m not on LinkedIn.

But the invitation came a second time. And I responded thusly:

Hello, [Old Boyfriend's New Wife].

I’m quite surprised you sent me this invitation, considering that our one and only conversation led to this.

Lori

Of course, she has not responded. But I did see someone from their city peek in and read the post I’ve been longing for him to read for a very. long. time.

Thank you, LinkedIn.