Last night we placed a blanket on our lawn and watched the Perseid meteor shower. We had a good view on the Oregon coast—clear skies and no light pollution. Even though my boys are thirteen and already too cool for some of the things they used to enjoy, we all felt a sense of awe watching meteors leave brilliant trails of light on a black velvet sky.
I love these moments. I know we’re too plugged in most of the time, each of us in our respective corners of the house. We’ve been better about unplugging this summer. One of my sons goes to swim practice four afternoons a week, so my other son and I committed to taking the dog for walks on the beach during that time. It’s been a good investment, if only for the chance to have deeper conversations with each other. We’ve enjoyed small discoveries—interesting rocks and shells, sculptural pieces of driftwood, washed-up jellyfish and isopods, and sculpin swimming in the estuary. One afternoon we didn’t walk at all, but stood mesmerized as we watched a whale breach over and over. It’s been good for the dog too, getting regular exercise. She’s a better dog for it, and we’re better people.
Even though my other son hasn’t been a part of our walks on the beach, we’ve included him in unplugging experiences too. We tried new restaurants and went roller skating a couple of times. He loves to read, so we’ve made weekly trips to the library. It’s been a great summer.
A complaint I’ve often heard about my boys’ generation is they can’t function without electronics—they always have to have a device in their hands, and they never go outside to play. They’re not social. They have no imagination. This is not true.
While my kids don’t play outside as much as I did, and they do love their phones and computers, that doesn’t mean they don’t like the outdoors. They do. Sometimes they just need a reminder to unplug, as do I.
They do have imaginations, and use them to create all kinds of art. Sometimes that art is made using pencils and paint, other times it involves a virtual canvas. They problem-solve constantly, whether it’s building worlds in Minecraft or solving puzzles in online games. They learn all the time. If they can’t figure something out, they research it using online resources. They watch videos about science experiments as well as silly stunts. They learn social skills, working with friends to win games. Yes, they are chatting over a distance, but they are still communicating. They talk to their friends in person too.
I think the biggest difference between their generation and others has to do with stuff. It’s not that my children don’t enjoy material belongings, but what they value is often virtual. They are not into physical toys. They still receive them as gifts sometimes, and they do play with them, but the enthusiasm is not the same as for online games.
When they were little, they enjoyed toys more. They had stuffed animals, legos, cars, dinosaurs, even toys they could ride. We had a lot of fun playing together, but every year we’d sort through the toys, passing along older toys to make room for new ones. Somehow we ended up with entire collections of Happy Meal toys—the other day I found one under the seat of my car. We got rid of boxes of toys and clothes before we moved 1,500 miles from Arizona to Oregon, but still, we had boxes and boxes that made the journey. In third grade, the boys’ teacher mentioned a project to give toys to other children. To my surprise, my kids were eager to participate. We went through their closet and collected five boxes of toys to give away. I was proud of my boys’ generosity, and amazed by their ability to let go of material belongings. It inspired me to go through my closet too. Letting go of my own belongings was a relief—it made me feel less weighed down. I wish I’d done more purging before we moved all those heavy boxes across the country.
Virtual toys are certainly lighter than physical ones, and they take up less room. I love that my boys don’t go crazy when we visit stores, wanting to buy more stuff. They see things they like, but they weigh the costs of purchasing them. They have learned to save their chore money for things they really want. This year one of my sons has made three major purchases with the money he’s earned: a video game, a fish tank, and a ukulele. The other, who hardly ever spends money, has only bought two items: a video game and an ocarina, which is a small, ceramic wind instrument.
The only problem with the boys not being into physical toys is gift-giving. While my husband and I know what games they’re into at the moment, it’s hard to translate this for relatives who are shopping for birthday or Christmas presents. To me, it feels selfish to ask for a gift card or cash even though the boys’ interests are so specific I know it will be nearly impossible for someone to find the exact gift they’ve been wanting. Asking for that feels like a demand, even though I prefer gift cards because they don’t take up space and they save on shipping costs for the giver. I also feel we shouldn’t make demands about the amount spent—it’s about being thought of by the giver.
I actually wish people wouldn’t give me gifts at all—just send me a note with kind words or give the money that would have been spent on a gift to a charity. I have everything I need, and the few things I want, I tend to buy for myself. I have more than enough. I know it’s not fair of me to force that idea on other people, however—on my kids or the people who give them gifts.
I don’t have an answer about how to handle the gift issue except to make gentle suggestions to givers and to teach my boys to be grateful receivers. And to periodically go through our stuff and pass along what we no longer need.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
A friend in my book club recently reminded me that my tastes in books and movies run a bit darker than most folks’. I laughed, thinking my tastes are different in other areas of my life too. Growing up, I don’t remember my family ever having ham or turkey at Christmas. We might have, but it seems like we always had enchiladas instead, and that suited me fine. I like my food spicy and my books spooky.
Having said that, I’m excited about the It reboot, featuring Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s going to be fantastic. The book is amazing, and by that I mean it’s one of the most terrifying novels I’ve ever read. It hooks you from the beginning as you follow poor little Georgie Denbrough, racing after his paper boat as it goes down the storm drain. I’m fairly certain we won’t be reading It in book club. I don’t want to be responsible for triggering someone’s coulrophobia.
To my knowledge, I don’t have any phobias. There are things that scare me, sure, but not to the extent I become incapacitated. I’m not afraid of heights, but I have a healthy respect for guardrails and I don’t take stupid risks. I love roller coasters and water slides. I’m not terrified by sharks, but I get that some of them are dangerous. Even so, I want to go cage-diving with great whites.
I’m not even scared of spiders, which really annoys my family because I usually let the spiders in our house live, so long as they’re not venomous. We have a lot of spiders on the Oregon coast, but few dangerous ones. Some of them, like zebra spiders with their striped abdomens, could even be considered cute. I know—most of you find them revolting. We’ll have to agree to disagree though, because I like the way my little friends devour mosquitos. As long as they do their job and don’t want to snuggle, I’ll grant them a stay of execution.
My greatest fear is something bad happening to people I love. I’m also frightened of demagogues. And angry mobs. Beyond that though, I like the adrenaline rush that comes from being frightened. I guess that’s why I write scary scenes in my books.
I like watching horror movies, but the jump scares always get me, even when I suspect they’re coming. Still, I’m cool with gore, especially if it’s campy. The one subgenre I’m not fond of is demonic possession—those movies tend to give me nightmares. I’ve never watched The Exorcist all the way through. (Well, I have, but I covered my eyes for some of it.) I don’t play with Ouija boards either. I believe demons and predatory spirits exist, so to me it’s common sense not to dabble in that stuff. Better safe than sorry, right?
But back to clowns…am I afraid of clowns? Not really. Do I find them disturbing? Yes. Partly because of Pennywise, but also because there’s something horrifying about someone hiding behind a mask, whether it’s an actual mask or face paint. I don’t like mimes for the same reason. When people cover their faces, their features are disguised, making it difficult to read facial expressions. Their identity is disguised as well. You don’t necessarily know who you’re talking to. (Which, of course, is the same problem with Ouija boards.)
When I was a kid, we attended a local festival every fall, watching a parade. Clowns would march near the spectators, handing out stickers and candy. There was nothing overtly scary about them except they were strangers, and there was something frightening about talking to a stranger, even if they were being nice. I never quite trusted them, particularly if they were the kind of clown who felt it was a personal challenge to get a quiet kid to talk. I didn’t like going to see Santa either. I liked the idea of Santa Claus, but even as a kindergartener I could see the man in the suit wasn’t the real Santa. He couldn’t fool me, and I wasn’t about to sit on an imposter’s lap.
Years later, when I worked as a counselor, I had colleague who loved clowns. She volunteered as one, and her office was filled with paintings of clowns. She probably had twenty of those paintings adorning her walls. One time, she invited me in to talk over a case. I sat there, trying to focus on our conversation, but all I could think about were those clowns. What did her clients think of her décor? Did they find it as disturbing as I did?
I figured the woman had never read It, but Pennywise wasn’t the only evil clown out there. Had she never heard of John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who sometimes dressed as a clown? To me, that seemed like reason enough to go with a different design theme, but I guess my mind went to a darker place than hers.
Clearly, our opinions on clowns were polar opposites. I wonder what she thought about spiders.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I now have teenagers. Somehow this is not as scary as I thought it would be.
That may be because I’ve worked in mental health, helping kids, so I’ve seen teens in heart-wrenching situations. I knew a girl who got pregnant at twelve and had a baby at thirteen. That baby is nearly grown now—I hope she had a better childhood than her mom did. I knew a kid who was hooked on meth by the time he was a teen, and another who tried to kill herself with a shotgun blast to the stomach when she was in middle school. So…yeah. The bar for shocking me has been set pretty high.
I’m not a perfect parent, but so far, my twin boys have turned out to be amazing people. They are smart and funny and kind. They are sweet to animals and loving to their parents. They are loyal to their friends and brave enough to speak up if they see someone being bullied. They set goals for themselves and do well in school. I can’t complain at all (even if they remind me I’m not as cool as I used to be because the latest slang is a mystery to me or I’m clueless about dance moves).
I’m thankful to have good kids. Really, I’m thrilled to have kids at all. Back in my twenties, it looked like that was never going to happen. I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome, which is a nightmare if you want to have a biological child. It’s a horror show for other areas of your life too, wreaking havoc on your endocrine system, but the disease is cruelest when it comes to fertility. This doesn’t say much for my character, but I’ll be honest: working in social services with people who didn’t want to be pregnant was tough when I wanted a kid and couldn’t have one. Still, the hardest part of having PCOS was the shame. Talking about infertility was taboo, and yet, I was at an age where everyone wanted to know why I hadn’t had kids yet. Didn’t I want children? I felt like I was under a microscope with all the intrusive questions and comments I received from people who likely meant well. I felt broken.
Then came the day I found out I was pregnant. Staring at the little blue lines that finally appeared on the pregnancy test felt miraculous. Finding out I was having twins felt too good to be true. I was terrified something bad would happen, that I’d have a miscarriage. We didn’t tell anyone but our family for a long time because I was scared we’d jinx our good fortune.
Confined to bedrest the week before my boys were born, I remember watching fireworks outside my hospital window. That July there was a forest fire, and the mountains around Tucson flickered with orange light, a show to rival Independence Day festivities. Then I had two new people in my life. I remember how miraculous it felt to finally see their tiny faces, how surreal it was to know life would never be the same.
There was more fear when we learned that one baby had been born healthy but the other would have to stay in newborn intensive care. We didn’t get a serene, post-birth moment of bonding. We got a machine, pumping air into my son’s fluid-filled lungs, keeping him alive. We bonded with him as best we could in the hospital, knowing he might not make it, while feeling grateful to be able to take at least one of our children home to live with us. We did a lot of praying. Over the following month, we drove back and forth to the hospital to see our sick baby, while taking care of our other newborn.
This was not an ideal way to start out as a new parent. Between our daily trips to the hospital, I had a lot of guilt about not being able to give either of my children the time or attention I wanted to give them. Things turned out better than they could have though, and for that, I’m thankful. My son did live, and now he’s a healthy, broad-shouldered kid who towers over me. My other son is almost as tall as I am, and often reminds me that he too will soon outgrow me.
The other day I found a bunch of videos of my sons as toddlers, much to their embarrassment. We filmed everything because we were so happy to have children.
One of my favorite videos is of them at age two, playing board games. Operation was a big hit, sending them into fits of giggling every time the buzzer went off. I know I’m biased, but it’s adorable. We also played Jumanji—after watching the movie—which pretty much scarred one of my sons for life. There’s video of him hiding under a chair as his dad reads a card about a hailstorm. (Bad parenting, but darn cute.) The other son (the one who had such a rough start to his life) loved the game. He thought the idea of a rhino crashing through our house was marvelous. He wouldn’t have objected to a rampaging elephant either.
So now my boys are thirteen. Time has gone by too fast, but I’m so thankful we’ve had this time together. We’ve got a few more years before they’re off to college, and I’m grateful that we’re close, that we still take walks together on the beach and talk about our favorite books. I know there are a lot of changes coming, and with those changes, new challenges. I hope, no matter what happens next, they always know how much they are loved.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I struggled with what to blog about this week. If you’ve been paying attention to the news, the past two weeks in this country have been full of darkness. Between the Stanford rape case and the shooting in Orlando, there’s a lot I could write about: anger about a minimal sentence for a horrific sexual assault, frustration that rape victims are so often second-guessed and blamed, sadness at the loss of 49 lives in yet another mass shooting, fury at those who use religion as an excuse to harm LGBTQ people (and I’m not thinking about Islam here as much as I’m thinking about some of the comments I’ve seen from fellow Christians). I’ve cried for people I don’t even know. I’ve felt hope seeing people come together to show love and compassion to those who are hurting and to demand change so these terrible things don’t happen again.
I started to write about these things in depth, in an attempt to make sense of the evil in our world, to somehow express the emotional turmoil I’ve felt. Then I took a walk.
Today was the last day of school, and to celebrate, my twelve-year-old twin boys invited over three friends. The six of us walked to a local lake–the five of them, chatting happily about all the things kids that age talk about, and me, tagging behind just a little bit, watching them, marveling at how untouched by darkness they still are. How they joke and laugh and scream with delight when they jump into a cold lake. How they splash each other and play catch and see how high they can swing when they finally get out of the water to warm up in the sun. How they get excited over seeing a fish swimming next to them.
I need this sometimes, this silliness and joy. To witness all the life in these kids—pure and full and beautiful. I need this so I remember how much light there is, even when there’s so much darkness.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
When I was twelve I thought I was cool because I learned how to ride a motorcycle. My uncle Dan, who is a few years older than me and has always been more of a cousin than an uncle, taught me. He was cool because he was in high school and had his driver’s license. Me, not so much. I was just a skinny kid with holes in the knees of her jeans and a fondness for climbing trees and building forts.
One time when I was staying at my grandparents’ house, my uncle took me for a ride on the back of his dirt bike. We went off road, to this cattle pond at the bottom of a pit. It hadn’t rained for a long time, so there wasn’t any water and the mud had dried out, leaving the surface fractured like puzzle pieces. With the engine idling on the edge of the pit, Dan asked me if I wanted to go down there. I looked at the steep incline we’d have to drive down and said no. “Okay,” he said, ignoring my protests, “Hold on.” I wrapped my arms tight around his waist and off we went. It was a whole lot of fun until we got to the middle of the pond. It wasn’t quite as dry as we thought. The first two inches were a dirt crust, and below that was a foot of mud. The bike sank, and we had to wade out, walking the bike.
We got back to solid land, hopped on the bike, and sped off toward home. The problem was the bike didn’t have fenders, so all that mud spinning off the back tire flew up at me. By the time we got to the house, my back was covered with mud, my hair plastered in filth. Grandma was mad. “How did she get so dirty?” she yelled at my uncle. I thought it was hilarious.
My grandpa let me ride the bike on my own. The only real warnings he gave me were to watch out for the tailpipe, so I didn’t burn my leg on it (I did, and one time was all it took for me to avoid it from then on) and to use the brake. Once, I panicked when the bike got going too fast and I forgot where the brake was, so I just put my feet down and let the bike go. That was a bad idea, but better than crashing. My legs got scraped up, but my head was okay. I think someone, probably my mom or dad, told me to wear a helmet. I remember putting one on, and having a hard time seeing because it was too big. I don’t think I wore it after that.
What I did wear were my grandpa’s aviators and his black, rubber irrigation boots (like galoshes but for farmers). Paired with cutoff jeans and my favorite pink shirt* (which read, Girls can do anything boys can do—better!), I made quite a picture, I’m sure. I wore the boots (several sizes too large) because the bike bled motor oil, and I wasn’t supposed to get the sneakers I wore to school oily. Instead, my chicken legs got splattered as the oil ran down into the boots. Still, there was nothing like feeling my hair flowing in the wind, growing more tangled and stringy every time I circled my grandparents’ house at a thrilling pace of 15 miles per hour.
I imagined I was a real biker, even though the dirt bike didn’t look or sound like a respectable motorcycle. Instead of a thunderous roar, the engine whined. Less Bhah—VROOM! and more Vreee, vree, vreeeeeeeee!
I think all this posturing on my part was meant to impress a cute older boy who lived down the road from Grandma’s. Tragically, I don’t think the he ever noticed. He was too busy doing whatever it is cute older boys do.
*With three brothers, two male cousins, and an uncle who was basically a cousin, I became a feminist at an early age.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Remember the Greek myth about Icarus? He and his father were imprisoned in a labyrinth, and escaped by making wings out of wax and feathers. Then, elated by the success of the plan, Icarus got carried away and flew too close to the sun. The wax melted and he fell to his death. I guess the lesson here is to keep one’s hubris in check. Pride comes before the fall.
I can relate. I try not to be an arrogant person, but I do take pride in my accomplishments. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing because I’m goal-driven, and I try to see the silver lining when faced with obstacles. I consider myself an optimist, continuing to strive in spite of challenges. I’m also a realist—experience has taught me that even though I hope for the best, I should prepare for the worst. Something is bound to go wrong.
Seems like every time I think I’ve got it together, the universe is quick to school me in humility. Case in point, my career as a high school cheerleader. I’m not the most athletic person, so some of the jumps we did were a challenge for me. The pike? Never going to happen. I could do a high kick though, so I came up with this signature move combining a hurdle jump with a high kick. I was pretty proud of myself until one football game, when I performed said jump kick and fell on my butt in front of the entire town. I scrambled to my feet, brushed myself off, and pasted a smile on my face, trying to convince myself that only half the high school saw me wipe out.
I’ve come to believe I’m cursed. It doesn’t matter how many degrees I earn or how many awards I win, if I start to soar too high, I’m sure to crash. I guess the universe doesn’t want me to get cocky. Being an author is a continuous lesson in humility by the way—there’s plenty of rejection to be faced even after you get published, between trying to get reviews for your book and trying to find gigs. To say one needs a thick skin is an understatement. You need a suit of armor.
I once approached a venue about a speaking gig, and got turned down. Three books later, I finally earned enough credibility for the venue to invite me to come and speak. I was excited. I came early, armed with an excerpt to read and books to sign. Unfortunately, fate had other ideas. My name was misspelled twice—my last name on a sign outside, and my first name on a poster inside. I think I’m justified in feeling annoyed about that, since my name was right there on the cover of the book, prominently featured. Nevertheless, I was grateful for the gig, and chose not to say anything.
There weren’t a lot of attendees, so when a woman walked in right before the event was set to begin, I was thrilled. She took one look at me and said, “You’re not Melissa (insert somebody else’s last name here).” Her tone was slightly accusatory, as if she had been duped and it was my fault for not being the expected Melissa. “No, I’m not,” I said, giving her what I hoped was a winning smile. I proceeded to explain who I was and what my talk was about. I then invited her to join us. She let me finish my little speech, and then, without a word, turned around and left. Her abrupt exit was so unexpected and rude, I couldn’t help but laugh. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
Then there was the time I interviewed for a position as a professor. I flew out to San Diego and put on my best interview clothes, a navy jacket and skirt with a cream top, and a pair of expensive leather heels I’d splurged on. The stilettos were killer. They elevated the outfit and boosted my confidence. They were also my undoing.
I sailed through the interview, and was feeling pretty good about things when one of the other professors took me to lunch. After that, I was due to come back to campus to make a presentation, so the interviewers could gauge my teaching abilities. We drove to the restaurant in her car, and she parked next to an island dividing the lot. When I got out of the car, I found the woman had parked close to the curb, so I had to step onto the island, which was covered in small plants. I tried to tread carefully so I wouldn’t trample the ground cover, and successfully made my way around the side of the car to where the professor was waiting. We started walking toward the entrance of the restaurant and suddenly, I noticed my foot was caught on something. Someone had tossed a slice of pizza into the low plants, where it was hidden from view, and my stiletto had speared it. As I walked away from the parking island, I dragged the pizza slice along with me. Are you kidding me? I asked the universe, as I frantically tried to keep up my end of the conversation while discretely using the toe of my other shoe to pin down the pizza slice, so I could free my heel. I’m pretty sure the woman noticed. I didn’t get the job.
I don’t know why these things happen. I know bad things happen to everyone, so maybe I’m not truly cursed. The rain falls on the just and the unjust, no? (And of course, things could be worse. Things have been worse, and I keep getting up each time I get knocked on my rear end.) Maybe spearing the pizza slice was God’s way of letting me know that wasn’t the right job for me, that I wouldn’t have been happy on the tenure track. Maybe the challenges I face serve to guide me, to push me in a new direction I wouldn’t have tried otherwise. I just wish I could learn these lessons without damaging my pride.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Go Bag Contents:
1 Frying Pan
6 Rolls Toilet Paper (super important for pretense of civilization)
1 Pack Wet Wipes
1 Can Opener
1 First Aid Kit
2 Camp Forks (not just for roasting marshmallows)
4 Sets Plates, Cups, Utensils
3 Fire Starters*
4 Rain Ponchos
2 Swiss Army Knives*
3 Packs Dog Food
4 Mylar Rescue Blankets
1 LifeStraw Water Filter
12 Bottles Water
Dry Goods for 3 Days (note to self: don’t forget pop tarts and top ramen)
4 Missing Persons Posters (plus 1 for dog)
*Not for twelve-year-old boys to use unsupervised. Trust me on this.
Plan for 15 Minute Warning: Grab Go Bag, walk (quickly) to higher ground. Leave dog if necessary.
Plan for 30 Minute or More Warning: Load Go Bag and camping gear (tent, tarp, sleeping bags, flashlights, emergency radio, grill, shovels, etc.) into car, drive to higher ground. Take dog.
In the six years I’ve lived on the Oregon coast, I haven’t felt so much as a tremor. Reality isn’t based solely on my experiences though, and I’d be foolish to assume it does. Our area has a history of earthquakes, so it’s important to be prepared, especially living near a tsunami zone. Emergency management experts for the region say we’re overdue for the big one, an earthquake strong enough to shake the ground for five minutes, causing landslides and a 50-foot high tidal wave. The thought of that is enough to send me into fetal position. Even if the big one doesn’t happen in my lifetime, we’re still at risk for tidal waves originating from across the ocean. That happened in 2011, when there was 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan. Fortunately, the waves that reached our shores were small and did minimal damage, but debris from that natural disaster still washes up on our beaches, several years later.
My children regularly practice earthquake and tsunami drills at school, taking refuge under desks for the shaking and then filing out of the building in an orderly fashion to walk up a hill. They know they’ve got about 15 minutes, maybe less, to get to safety, assuming our bridges haven’t crumbled. We know where they’ll be if a quake happens during the school day, and we know where we’ll meet if a different scenario happens, say, they’re at home and I’m at work.
We put together a Go Bag, which is exactly what it sounds like—a bag filled with the essentials we’ll need in an emergency where we can’t stay in our house (earthquake, tsunami, zombie apocalypse, you get the idea). The thing weighs 50 pounds, and it would be tough to carry it alone, but we’ve tried it out and we can all tote it without falling over and kicking the air helplessly like a turtle on its back. If we have a longer warning, we’ve got a plan B, which involves packing more survival gear. We have to assume there will be power outages, and communication will be disrupted if cell towers go down. This is not too scary of an idea though, because every winter we face storms with gale force winds, and we’re used to living days without power.
The most disturbing thing about preparing our emergency kit was creating our own missing persons posters. It was a little like writing your own obituary—a morbid exercise. You have to list your height, weight, hair and eye color, and any identifying characteristics (like birthmarks or scars). That’s so you can be found alive and reunited with your loved ones, best case scenario, but also so your body can be identified if you don’t make it. Like I said, morbid.
Still, we have to assume that one of us could get separated, if somebody is in a different location when the quake hits. We even created a poster for the dog. In an ideal situation, if there can be an ideal in a terrible event like this, we’d have time to get our dog into her harness, or at least attach a leash to her collar, and calmly take her for a walk to our designated meeting point. Odds are, that won’t happen. As neurotic as Gryphon is, she’ll hide under one of our beds the second the shaking starts, and we’ll never be able to coax her out. In that case, we’re just going to have to leave her behind, as heartless as that sounds. We love her, but we can get a new dog. We can’t replace each other. Our piranha, by the way, is toast. The only way Gladiator gets to come along is if he’s dinner.
We’re not really okay with sacrificing the dog and the piranha, but we have to be. We also have to be okay with sacrificing everything else we’re forced to leave behind. I’d love to save family photos, but I just can’t. Maybe, if there’s time, I could grab one or two favorites, but they’ll take up precious room if we’re able to take our car, and there’s no room at all in the Go Bag. Forget about clothing, furniture, or my beloved books—all that is gone in a situation like this. I will grab my lap top if I can, since there are photos on that as well as my works in progress and other information that would be helpful in rebuilding our lives. It’s a sobering thought to look around me and realize all the material goods I depend on—let’s be honest, cling to for comfort—could be gone. But isn’t that going to be the case regardless? I’m not going to live forever, and I can’t take any of those things with me when I die. They’re only material things. What matters—the people I love—those are the things I can’t bear to leave behind.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
This post is less about politics and more about critical thinking. I’m not going to tell you who you should vote for—that’s your prerogative. I will challenge you to think critically though. Dr. Eskue Ousley is dusting off her Ph.D., so you’ve been warned. If you’re okay with thinking about tough issues, read on.
This week I read an article where Donald Trump stated, “Frankly, if Hillary Clinton were a man, I don’t think she’d get 5 percent of the vote.” He went on to say, “The only thing she’s got going is the woman’s card.” My point is not to defend Clinton (she’s capable of doing that herself, and already has), but to say that Trump has a history of making misogynistic statements. He also has a history of making generalizations.
What’s a generalization? Allow me to explain it using an example from grad school. I had this fantastic mentor at the University of Arizona named Gary Rhoades. He’s a brilliant professor with a gift for telling stories. One day his young daughter threw a banana at him. He got on to her about it, telling her not to throw things at people. Her response? “But Daddy, all little girls throw bananas.” A generalization is a concept inferred from specific cases. However, as in the above example, it may not be grounded in facts. It should be, if it aims to be credible.
Back to Trump—he too is making a sweeping statement (on par with a justification for throwing fruit), but where are the facts? What’s his source for saying a candidate would get five percent of the vote? Is he citing a poll? Has he done quantitative research, conducting surveys with representative samples? Doubtful. In all fairness, other people make generalizations as well. I daresay we all do (and that’s a generalization right there).
But what, exactly, is the “woman’s card”? I guess he is saying the only reason women will vote for Clinton is because she is a woman. Maybe some women will vote for her because of that. I cannot speak for other women voters, but I feel confident I can choose the candidate who best represents my interests without regard to gender. I also feel confident there is no force in hell that would make me vote for somebody who vomits sexist comments like he’s got diarrhea of the mouth, but I said I wasn’t going to tell you who you should vote for, and I won’t tell you who you shouldn’t vote for.
I would like you to think about those sexist statements, however, and to consider how even small aggressions based on gender affect society. (By the way, aggressions can go both ways, and they are not harmless.) We’ve lived in a world where rules were made based on gender. Some things have changed, to be sure. That’s why I have more education than my great-grandmother did.
There are some things that still need to change. I would like to see a world where my great-granddaughter can walk down the street without being harassed because she happens to be female. I would like her to never experience the fear she could be abducted and raped because some man drives past her as she’s walking alone, and tries to convince her to get into his car. That happened to me when I was a teen. The guy drove slowly past me, and when I crossed the street to avoid him, he turned his car around and followed me. He stopped when I entered the parking lot of a shopping center, where there were other people. This didn’t happen in a big city, rife with crime. It happened in my small, supposedly safe home town. The real tragedy? Every woman I know has a story like this. This is not a generalization. This is qualitative research, supported by quantitative research.
I would like to live in a world where I form my own definition about what it means to be beautiful. Beauty is, after all, subjective. It is in the eye of the beholder. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve observed that Trump often makes statements about beauty. He seems obsessed with the topic, using the phrase “beautiful women” and ranking women by attractiveness. To my ears, “beautiful women” sounds like some kind of sacred voting demographic, or perhaps a type of mythical beast, too ethereal for the likes of us lesser mortals. If you want to have a laugh, read his quotes, substituting the word “unicorns” for this phrase. As in: “I tend to like unicorns more than unattractive women.” Or “I love unicorns and unicorns love me.” Ridiculous, isn’t it?
I know beautiful women. They are smart and kind, and because of that, they are beautiful in my eyes. I believe Trump’s definition has nothing to do with intelligence or character. I suspect it has to do with genetics and surgery. I’m not against genetics or surgery. If your DNA has provided you with highly symmetrical facial features, good for you. If you feel you can’t be beautiful without altering your body, go for it. Who am I to tell you what to do with your body?
Do whatever makes you feel beautiful, whatever your gender. Wear what you want. Wear makeup. Or don’t wear makeup. Plank. Or don’t plank. But don’t tell me I can’t be beautiful because I choose to do something different, or because I believe being educated is part of what makes me beautiful. I’m certain I’ll never make Trump’s list of beautiful women, and I don’t care. Why would I even want to be on that list? It’s demeaning. He can say anything he wants (and he does), but that doesn’t define me as a woman or a voter. Like I said, I’ll vote for the person who best represents my interests.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
It’s easy to find excuses to avoid things. Case in point: exercise. I can find a hundred things to do instead of exercising. Start a load of laundry. Wash the dishes. Write a novel. I love to swim, but I’ve found excuses not to do it—the time it takes to drive to the recreation center, the increase in monthly fees.
Forget about running. I don’t run. Unless I’m being chased by a homicidal maniac wielding an ax, I don’t see the point. I’ll walk though, and I’ve found that pairing a treadmill with Netflix works to get me moving. It’s easier on my knees than running, so that’s a plus. I try to get in a couple of miles any day I have time, but sometimes I make excuses to avoid that too.
Before buying the treadmill, I could use rain as an excuse not to exercise. Now I can’t, but I sometimes use rain as an excuse for staying inside. I live on the beautiful Oregon coast, and we’ve got a number of trails meandering through forests or leading to beaches. I love hiking, so it’s a shame I haven’t gotten out every weekend to explore them all. I’m an Oregonian—rain is no excuse. If it were, we’d never get anything done.
Still, I have a bad habit of letting weekends slip away, sleeping in and doing mundane things I won’t care about in the long run. It’s easy to use the time doing things I can justify, like paying bills or finishing household chores. It’s just as easy to get lost surfing the internet. The rest of my family does the same thing, the four of us in our silos, on various devices, spending time in the same room without spending time with each other. All of us—me, my husband, and two sons—are introverted, so we’re comfortable having time to ourselves. We need that sometimes, to recharge from our busy weeks at work and school.
Last weekend we broke free from our bad habits. It was one of those glorious weekends when the sun was shining on the coast. I do love rain—without it the Pacific Northwest wouldn’t be green—but I love our sunny days. Summers on the Oregon coast are a dream. That’s why we have so many tourists, bumper to bumper on the highway. (And we appreciate them all, along with the money they invest in our economy.)
Since the weekend was so gorgeous, we decided to head to the beach. We unearthed our boogie boards from the garage, sorted through the sunscreen, trying to find a bottle that wasn’t expired, and pulled out our swimsuits and towels. We threw in a couple of shovels and buckets too, and then headed to Sunset Beach, one of our favorite places to play.
The boys wanted to build a driftwood fort, so that was first on our agenda. We scavenged the beach for logs big enough to use, yet small enough to carry (or drag), and got to work. A huge log had washed up near the dunes, so we built around that, excavating a bunker, and laying out logs and twigs to fashion a roof. We did a great job, creating a cozy spot to lounge and watch the waves.
After that, we grabbed our boards and caught some waves. We’re not cool enough to be surfers, but we love the ocean. (I keep saying we should at least take a surfing class. Maybe this will be the summer we do that.) The water was freezing. It was actually painful to wade in up to my waist, but I was willing to make the sacrifice for my boys. They won’t be twelve forever, and it won’t be long before they won’t want to spend time with me. They’ll be too busy hanging with friends, checking out girls. The clock is ticking, and I want to make the most of the time we have left.
After a whole lot of yelping and squealing, we finally got used to the cold. Translation: we were numb from the neck down, and having too much fun to care. Playing in the waves is not without risk. Besides the cold, there are riptides that could sweep us out to sea. There are hungry great whites that might nibble on us (unlikely) and sea nettles that could sting us (more likely, though maybe the cold will dull the pain). But there’s risk to everything, isn’t there? There’s risk crossing the street. Heck, there’s risk to eating dessert. If you use risk as an excuse to avoid doing things you love, you’ll never have any fun.
We have a lot of fun in the waves. It’s thrilling to see the perfect wave rolling in, and then to catch it in just the right spot so it carries you to shore. I love feeling the pull of the tide going out, right before a really big wave forms. I love the rush of speeding along, harnessing the power of the water. What I love most is hearing my sons shout with joy when they catch a good wave, laughing until their boards bottom out on the sand, and then scrambling to their feet, hurrying back to catch the next wave. These are the days they’ll always remember. These are the days made for living, and I don’t want to waste a single one.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
There’s a story in the Bible about gratitude that has always stuck with me. Jesus was headed to Jerusalem, walking along the border of Samaria and Galilee. He came to a village and encountered ten men with leprosy. Leprosy is caused by bacteria, and if untreated, can cause deformity, crippling, and blindness. It still exists today. What you have to understand about the disease at that time is people with leprosy were considered unclean and cast out from society. This was because the disease was thought to be highly contagious, and people tended to think that if you were sick, you must have done something to deserve it. You sinned, therefore God punished you by giving you leprosy. You had to stay away from your family and friends. You couldn’t get a job. And without a job, you had to beg if you wanted to eat. But, you were an outcast, so who’s going to give food or money to an unclean beggar? Hardly anyone. Basically, it was a lonely, miserable illness.
The men with leprosy called out to Jesus, asking him to heal them. He did, and told them to go show themselves to the priests, so it would be known they had been cleansed and could rejoin society.
It’s a compelling story, but here’s where it gets interesting to me. Only one of the men came back to say thank you.
One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.* Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.”
Do you get the writer’s sarcasm here? “There were these ten guys, and not one of them came back to say thanks except this guy, and look at him, he’s not even one of us. He’s just this dude, from across the border.”
Here’s the question I ask myself: who am I in this story? Am I the person who skips off happily when somebody does something nice for me? Or do I take time to express my appreciation? I try to remember to be like the grateful guy rather than the others, though I don’t always succeed.
Still, whenever possible, I say thank you for the kind things people do, because no one’s required to be nice to me. Even our parents don’t have to be kind. In a world as dark as ours, sometimes parents don’t even like their kids, much less love them. (I’m blessed to have parents who love me and do nice things for me. Hi Mom and Dad.)
I’m a fan of handwritten thank you notes. Not for everything. I call or email to say thanks for things like birthday gifts, just because my family would think I was being ridiculously formal for sending a note. (Probably they’d think me pretentious as well.) But for some things, yes, I send a note.
This weekend I attended a book fair in Cannon Beach. Jupiter’s Books hosted 24 indie authors so we could chat with readers and boost our sales. This is no small thing for an independent bookstore to do. The owner gave us a generous cut on sales and invested who knows how many hours putting this event together, making sure it was widely advertised. I wrote him a thank you note because I truly appreciate him doing this for us. He doesn’t have to be so nice, but he is.
Sometimes I fear I say thank you too much. Is that possible? Maybe. In one note, I might say thanks three different ways. I can see how that could be annoying. I hope the recipient knows I’m being sincere. I am thankful, and I’d rather err on the side of gratitude, than let someone think I don’t appreciate a kind deed.
*Some things never change. People were pretty horrible to outsiders back then too. Samaritans were considered low-class people and it was taboo to associate with them. Really, the only person who was cool about Samaritans was Jesus. He often casts them as heroes in his stories.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
This is me waiting to go through security at an airport: long before I get to the metal detector, I’ve got my jacket off, tickets and shoes in hand, pockets emptied of coins and keys, and bag positioned to pull out my laptop. I try to think ahead so things go as smoothly as possible, but of course, there are sometimes complications, especially when traveling with small children. There are two fears behind all this prep—missing my flight and holding up the line, annoying my fellow travelers.
When I stay in a hotel, I tend to keep my belongings in my bag, only unpacking what I need at the time, like toiletries or clothes for the day. I’ll hang up work clothes that might get wrinkled, but I never use the provided dresser drawers. If I do have loose items, like books or snacks, they end up stacked neatly next to my purse. Type-A behavior to be sure, but I wouldn’t say I’m a type-A person. It has more to do with anxiety that if I spread my stuff all over the place, I’ll forget something when I check out, or, if I’m rooming with someone, I’ll hog too much space and annoy them.
There’s a theme here—social anxiety about annoying people—but the other part of this is a desire to be self-reliant. To keep my crap together, so to speak. Self-reliance was a message drummed into me from the time I was young, but it’s also part of my personality. I love being independent, and I hate relying on other people. I want to be seen as competent. I think it also has to do with how kids, especially girls, are socialized. “Don’t make a fuss. Don’t draw attention to yourself. Keep your head down, and toe the line.”
I was a cheerleader in high school, and we performed stunts. I was a base, which meant I was the one with sneaker hickeys on my neck from letting another girl climb on my shoulders, holding her ankles tight so she could tower over the crowd. Sometimes we’d throw a girl into the air and join hands, forming a basket to catch her. It could be hazardous, both for the person being thrown and the people doing the catching. I had bruises to prove it. I never wanted to be the girl on top. It was partly a fear of falling, though I doubt anyone would have dropped me, not on purpose at least. Part of it was this savior complex I have—no one was going to fall on my watch. I knew, as a base, I had the strength to hold someone, and I’d let them crush me before I’d let them land on the unforgiving gym floor.
That attitude has served me well as a parent. I’m overprotective, but my kids have survived childhood thus far. The savior complex has gotten me into trouble a few times too, walking toward bad situations instead of away from them. I did stupid things when I worked in mental health. I was a naïve young woman who wanted to save the world, and that translated to volunteering in bad parts of town, providing therapy for homeless men. It’s amazing nothing awful happened to me, because I spent a lot of time alone in windowless rooms with addicts and parolees. Somebody must have been looking out for me, because none of the guys I worked with treated me badly, though I’m sure they doubted my competence. Sometimes I think about that girl and wonder what wisdom she thought she could offer people with far more life experience than she. Maybe they were kind because they knew more than I did about how vulnerable I was, in spite of my bravado.
Strength is a point of pride for me—I try not to look vulnerable. I’ve been known to brush off injuries for fear of appearing weak. When it comes to helping other people, I’ve gotten better about saying no, but at times I still take on too much instead of letting people know I’m swamped. When I get in a tight spot, I tend to keep it to myself, only sharing how bad things are with those in my inner circle.
Most of the time it’s good to be strong, to help others. I’ve never seen myself as a damsel in distress. For one, I’m not exactly dainty. Two, I favor boots over heels, and I’ll carry my own sword, thank you very much.* Usually, when I get in a sticky situation, I save myself. But what happens when I can’t?
The problem with working to look like you’ve got it together is people can’t always tell when you need rescued. If you’re like me, you don’t actually have it together all the time, but it’s hard to ask for help. I’d rather suck it up and suffer than expose my vulnerabilities. There have been times when I’ve needed saving, and I kept that fact to myself. Sometimes it was because I had a problem nobody could fix. Other times it was because I was so busy keeping up the illusion I didn’t need help, that I didn’t take time to connect with people so they’d be there to ask.
I’m trying to be better about this. I recently read Amanda Palmer’s The Art of Asking, and she makes valid points about giving, receiving, and letting people see you, scars and all. One thing she said that resonated with me was about the act of receiving—allowing people to help you is a gift you give. We need these exchanges, because none of us can get through this life on our own. She also said it’s easier to ask for help for others than it is to ask for yourself. I have found this to be true.
I’m lucky. I have loving friends. I know the closest among them would take me in if ever I showed up on their doorsteps in the middle of the night. But even among my most trusted friends I could stand to show a little more vulnerability, to be brave enough to ask for help instead of trying to save myself.
*I do own a sword. My dad made it for me. See Exhibit A.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
I have this fantasy where I get rid of all my stuff and live in a tiny house. It’s a charming cottage, with cedar shingles and flowers blooming in window boxes. Most importantly, it’s free of clutter. What little I still own fits within its walls. There’s a place for everything and everything is in its place. I park it next to a lake, where I can go kayaking if I like, or maybe just lounge in a hammock and read. Or, if I feel like an adventure, I hook my house up to a vehicle and go. It’s a simple, serene life.
It’s not realistic right now. I have too much stuff. Books would be a problem—I own way too many books. (I have a conflicting fantasy about owning a library with a rolling ladder. I don’t think that would fit in my tiny house.) I also have a husband, two tween boys, a dog, and a piranha. It wouldn’t be easy sticking all of us and our stuff in a tiny house. Maybe this cottage fantasy is more of a retirement plan, and I can work on paring down worldly possessions bit by bit every year.
I did clean out my closet this weekend, getting rid of clothing I haven’t worn for a long time either because they don’t fit or are no longer in style. I felt an inordinate amount of joy over seeing my clothes arranged by type (dresses, jackets, pants, skirts, tops) and by color. I admit to being a little obsessive compulsive about such things. I try not to force the urge on the people I live with, though I did make my boys go through their clothes and toys and get rid of things they no longer use. The three of us stared at their neatly organized closet, amazed at how much better it looked, thrilled to be free of clutter, even though my sons would have preferred to spend their time doing other things. They are growing up differently than I did, without so much of an attachment to material goods. They still want stuff, but most of those things are virtual and don’t take up physical space. I don’t think that’s a terrible thing.
I went to a talk by Dee Williams, author of The Big Tiny. After a medical emergency, she realized life is short and chose to live simply. She sold her large house which drained her finances and required too much upkeep for someone with health issues. She built a tiny house, and parked it behind a friend’s residence, bartering space for help with an elderly relative. At her presentation, Dee brought a tarp with her home’s 84 square foot floorplan to demonstrate how tiny her house is. She has a composting toilet but no running water. Her friend lets her bring in water and shower. Running water is a must for me, but I could certainly appreciate a utility bill of less than ten dollars a month and that it would take about five minutes to clean the house.
In contrast, I recently watched a documentary on Iris Apfel. Now in her nineties, Iris is a business woman, interior designer, and fashion icon, known for her large, round glasses and style with layering accessories. She’s a force of nature in the fashion industry, setting trends and mentoring designers. She’s a collector too—curating shows about fashion at the Met. She’s a fascinating person with refreshing views on beauty. She said, “I don’t see anything so wrong with a wrinkle. It’s kind of a badge of courage.” I agree. In the film, she relates a story about how she used to frequent Loehmann’s, a shop in Brooklyn. The founder would sit on a high stool, observing customers. One day the woman called her over. She said, “Young lady, I’ve been watching you. You’re not pretty and you’ll never be pretty, but it doesn’t matter. You have something much better: you have style.” While that would have crushed some people, Iris took it as a challenge to use fashion to become interesting. She succeeded, and went on to live a fabulous, jet-setting life filled with dazzling couture.
Here’s what bothered me about the film though. At one point, Iris takes the audience for a tour of her warehouse, filled with racks of clothing and remnants from her interior design business. I couldn’t help but wonder—valuable as it may be, what does a person do with all that stuff? It was just sitting there, unused and gathering dust. I think that has less to do with Iris Apfel and more to do with people who grew up during the Depression, who had to go without. My grandfather was the same way, hoarding tools he might someday use, as well as things he hoped to sell.
After he passed away, my mother was tasked with cleaning out his house and discovered countless brass keys and aluminum cigar containers. He wanted to sell the metal, but never got around to it. He was a man of few resources who had to make his own way. He was never wealthy, but he built a home and a carpenter business, and he took care of his family. He held onto things because he knew bad times could return, and he wanted to be prepared.
I can understand that. Still, after seeing what a challenge it was for my mom to unload all that stuff after he died, I decided I want to live my life differently. I don’t want to be weighed down by material possessions, and I don’t want them to be a burden to people after I’m gone. I don’t think my grandfather ever meant to burden my mother—he took pains to make funeral arrangements before he died, so it would be easier for those left behind to grieve. After my grandmother died, he bought a plot next to hers and had a headstone made that they would share. It was already carved with his name—the only thing missing was the date of his death, to be added after he passed. Even so, his house still hasn’t sold, and my mother has to pay taxes on it. I doubt that’s what he wanted, but what can you do? You can’t force interest from a buyer.
Maybe the same thing will happen when I die—my kids will have an estate sale and then try to sell my house. I hope I’ll do things differently though. To me, it doesn’t make sense to hold on to things I’m not using. As I age, I want to purge extras from my life and choose to live simply. I hope I can downsize to my tiny cottage by the lake, free of all the possessions currently tying me down.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
This week I was talking with a friend about advice. When you’re seeking advice, it’s always wonderful to find someone who can help you, who can say the exact right thing to help you solve a problem or give you a nudge to take a risk you would have been too scared to take otherwise. Sometimes you’re not seeking advice though, and when it comes unsolicited, usually from someone who means well, it can be difficult to digest. My friend related the story of her wedding shower, when someone announced that everyone present needed to share marriage advice with her. Some of the advice touched on topics the guest of honor didn’t feel comfortable discussing in a public setting. I imagine the person who started the chain of advice-giving had only the best of intentions, but my friend still felt like a bug, skewered to the wall and put on display.
I could relate. When I was trying to get pregnant, I felt like I was suddenly in the spotlight, a beacon for unsolicited advice. I have health issues which made it difficult to have children, and that was hard enough as it was, trying to understand what was going on with my body, and grieving the fact that I was never going to be able to have children like a normal person, that I would be lucky to have a child at all. It made me feel like a failure, like I wasn’t a real woman. People with good intentions, who had no idea what was going on with me or who didn’t understand the medical issue, came out of the woodwork to give me advice. A few people asked questions that were shockingly invasive.
Part of the problem is I am introverted, and wanted to keep the issue to myself. I hadn’t gone around telling everyone about my troubles, but some people in my inner circle had. Part of it was I was embarrassed—infertility is a deeply personal issue. It wasn’t my fault my body was screwed up, but I still felt like I had failed somehow. Like I was broken. There was so much pressure to have children—it was part of the culture that surrounded me. That was what a woman like me was supposed to do. No one said it directly, but within all those intrusive bits of advice, there was a message: if you can’t have children, you are to be pitied because you are not fulfilling your role. Never mind that I had a master’s degree and was working toward a doctoral degree. Never mind that I had a good job. Never mind that I was an adult in my late twenties who paid her own bills. It didn’t matter how independent or accomplished I was, it all came back to my ability to reproduce. The barrage of advice was relentless, and made me feel even worse about the situation.
Finally, I got pregnant with twins. I was scared to tell people for a while, worried I’d jinx myself and lose my children. I felt great joy and a sense of relief about finally being able to have children, and I hoped I’d find respite from all the advice and questions. I didn’t.
When you are pregnant with multiples, you start to show early, and my bulging waistline now made me a target for strangers. I worked with the public, providing customer service, and nearly every person, every day, had something to say about my pregnancy. It was exhausting. I was often tempted to hold up my hand, stopping people mid-sentence, to tick off a list of questions for them. “Are you pregnant?” “When are you due?” “Boy or girl?” “Twins? Oh my gosh! You’re so lucky!” The same thing over and over. Every. Freaking. Day. Now and again, I’d get a real weirdo, who would ask something off the wall. One guy wanted to know who my OBGYN was. “Why do you need to know that?” I asked him. Seriously, why did he need to know?
Now the unsolicited advice I got was about what I should be eating, how much weight I should or should not gain, what I needed to know about giving birth, how to get my figure back after birth, and how I should care for my bundles of joy once they arrived. Again, it was all well-intentioned. But here’s the thing: I am not normal. The body I live in is absolutely not normal. I can accept that, but what works for every other woman on this planet is not necessarily going to work for me. For example, I know that carbs are my kryptonite. A low-fat, veggie-only diet is never going to work for my body. I need low-carb protein, dang it, and woe to the fool who denies me. I am a carnivore, and you should not cross paths with a hungry carnivore. Especially one who is eating for three.
I learned to listen to my body and disregard bad advice. I learned that when you care for multiple babies, all those nice little parenting rules go flying out the window. You’re in survival mode, and you do what you need to do to keep those things fed, diapered, and happy, or you’ll lose your mind. When people ask me what it was like to have twins, I’m way too honest. “That first year was hell,” I say with a sweet smile. If they say they always wanted to have twins, I’ll throw in a horror story as a bonus treat (preferably one that involves projectile vomiting or poo—I have quite a repertoire of those). One woman told me she always wanted to have triplets. I informed her she was mental.
Don’t misunderstand me. I love my children, and I’m so blessed to have them. They are awesome kids, and I feel grateful for that too. In spite of my failings, they are turning out to be wonderful human beings. But I’ll tell you the same thing I told my sister-in-law, when she was having a baby shower and someone decided she needed pumped full of advice. “Having a kid is not going to be easy,” I said. “Everyone is going to give you advice. Some of it will be good advice, some of it will be bad. Do what works best for you and your baby, and don’t worry about what everyone else thinks.” That’s the best advice I can give.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
When I moved to the Oregon coast five years ago, the first place I went was to the wreck of the Peter Iredale. As I stood next to that rusted iron hull and dipped my toes in the frigid surf, I remember feeling blessed to live in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. I felt like I was finally home after wandering in the wilderness for many years. I turned forty last year, and started a new birthday tradition: to revisit that moment each year, sneaking away to the shipwreck to slip my feet into the ocean. A ritual to reflect on my life and express gratitude for the good things.
I celebrated my birthday this week, but didn’t have a chance to visit the Peter Iredale on the actual day of my birth. Twin storms blew in, and with hurricane force winds and twenty foot waves, the beach wasn’t exactly peaceful. I visited once the winds calmed down, but even then, I had to brave freezing rain to set foot in the shipwreck for a few short moments.
By the time I got back to the car, I was dripping—my hair completely soaked and plastered to my face—like I’d just stepped out of the shower and into a wind tunnel. I had a good laugh about my ill-fated adventure as I cranked up the heat and drove home. So much for serious self-reflection.
My forties have been good thus far—maybe my best decade yet. Not physically, as my worn out knees can attest, but definitely emotionally. I’m more at peace than I’ve ever been.
It seems like my twenties were all about reaching milestones: getting my education, obtaining the right job, traveling, getting married, buying a house, having kids. It was a race to be a grown-up, to prove myself. It’s not that I was trying to impress anyone in particular. I had goals for myself, things I felt I needed to accomplish to be whole. I managed to check off my to-do list just before I entered my thirties.
The first half of my thirties were rough, juggling the care of small children with a demanding job. I felt out of balance most of the time, and stress took a toll on my physical and emotional health. A major reorganization at work made things even harder. I felt broken, longing for change, clinging to faith so I wouldn’t lose hope. It was a dark time I wouldn’t want to revisit, but it served a purpose. I started writing and that kept me sane. Then we sold our house, moved from Arizona to Oregon for a job opportunity, and I found respite against chaos through a new life. As bad as things were, I’m glad I experienced them. I’m stronger now than I was, and without those stressful times, there might not have been an impetus to change. I realized I can’t live without writing. It’s something I have to do, even if that means writing late at night after working all day to pay the bills.
In the last half of that decade, three of my books were published. It wasn’t easy. I learned hard lessons, and I’m still learning. I’ve made mistakes, but in the process, I’ve become a better writer, and I’ve learned a whole bunch about marketing and social media. As tough as it’s been, I’ve relished learning. There were moments of self-doubt and despair to be sure—a sense of scaling an impossible obstacle, thoughts about digging a hole and wondering if I’d ever be able to climb out. Overall though, I feel energized by the challenges I’ve faced in building my writing skills and getting exposure for my work. I have lots of ideas for stories I want to write.
So now I’m forty-something. I’ve survived (in no particular order) a close encounter with a rattlesnake (and a bear—though not at the same time, and the bear wasn’t as scary), a fist-fight (I didn’t start it, but I sure as hell finished it), break-ups and make-ups, betrayals from close friends and admired mentors, a boss from the fiery depths of Hades, an equipment malfunction forty feet under the sea, a stalker, a hurricane, major surgery, and an endocrine disorder that will probably kill me if I don’t get hit by a bus first. I have constellations of scars, souvenirs of battle. (And so what? Lots of people have survived worse.)
But here’s the great thing about being in your forties, kids. You just don’t care anymore. I’m not saying I don’t care about people. I do. If I’ve adopted you into my fold, I love you unconditionally. It’s you and me against the world. I’m passionate about the people and things I love. But I’m not out to impress anyone. Not anymore. And that is liberating.
This is who I am. A little odd, probably not entirely sane, but content to be myself, and at peace with my life. I don’t feel the need to apologize for that, and I won’t cave to be something I’m not. I don’t have all the answers I thought I had in my twenties, but I’m okay with not knowing as long as I keep learning. I’m still driven to reach my goals, but I don’t feel the same pressure to make things happen. I’ve lived long enough to know nothing ever happens quite like you plan, and I’ve failed enough to know I can survive and things will work out eventually. This is me at forty one.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016