When I was a young, I was painfully shy; I was the kid in class who dared not raise her hand to answer a question. However, I had no trouble making friends, and my friends ranged from shy to popular to outspoken. But by the time I started high school, I was tired of being timid. Like most of my family, I’d always had strong opinions, but didn’t share them much, except with my closest friends. So, I made a conscious decision to change. It wasn’t one of those lightning-bolt-from-the-sky moments, or I’d remember the exact date. And I didn’t share my decision with anyone; it was my big secret.
Every football game day, we had a theme for the day and for the pep rally during school hours. The student body was encouraged to dress the part, to show our team spirit. For example, “Sock it to the Wildcats” would mean we’d wear crazy socks all day. One day, our theme involved jumping or hopping on our opposing team. I don’t remember the slogan, but I remember my interpretation of it. I went through that day dressed as a rabbit; it was my first big coming-out-of-my-shell day.
Many years after high school, I ran into a fellow alumnus I vaguely recognized but hadn’t known personally. But he recognized me very well. “Hey, I remember when you dressed up as a rabbit in high school.”
Stunned, I wondered if he could be mistaken. Then a vague recollection, much like those hazy flashback scenes in old TV shows, floated through my mind as I replied, “I’d forgotten all about that. I can’t believe you remember that.”
“Um, it’s hard to forget someone walking around as a rabbit all day.”
Indeed. Unless you happen to be the rabbit impersonator, and buried that memory in the what-was-I-thinking drawer of your brain.
It had been easy to change my behavior when I dressed up as something I wasn’t or wore accessories that stood out. People were drawn to what I was wearing, and laughed, which helped me become more visible while I safely hid behind my wardrobe and played a role.
When I dressed up for punk rock day, my picture ended up on the back cover of my senior yearbook; I hadn't expected to have a permanent record of that lovely display of courage. But, I carried on. Being on the newspaper staff in junior high had given me a name; reporting for the high school paper gave me confidence. Regularly interviewing people for feature articles, drawing attention through editorials, and co-editing the paper left no room for shyness. I was forced to get out of my comfort zone on a daily basis. It was exhilarating.
All that confidence led to my trying out for the high school Senior Variety Show, along with several girlfriends. We decided to lip sync to "Another One Bites the Dust," with a little choreography thrown in. But our audition bit the dust. Apparently, we weren't as entertaining as we’d thought. I enjoyed being on stage, although it was scary. I’d always wished I’d tried drama, but could never get past the fear that I might forget my lines. Daily, I forget why I walk into a particular room in my house, so I can’t imagine having to remember dialogue. But I could portray a mime. I'm considering auditioning for a part at a community theater, when I turn 85. If I forget what to say, they’ll just blame it on my age.
The more I practiced not being shy, the more extroverted I became. “Fake it till you make it” was my lifestyle. And it worked. When the costumes finally came off, figuratively speaking, I was who I’d wanted to be for a long time. The me I was meant to be.
But the most important part of my transformation was learning the power of practicing something I wanted to be true. I wanted to be seen and heard, voice my opinions, and make people smile and laugh – including people I didn’t know. Not much has changed; those are still some of my top goals. I’ve added many other life goals as I’ve aged. And lately, one goal in particular becomes more important with each passing day.
In the past year, over 20 people I’ve known have died. I wasn’t close to all of them, and some were spouses of girlfriends, so I’m closer to the widows than I was to the deceased. But some of them were such a part of my world, I’m still learning how to do life without them. I’ve grieved rivers, both for myself and for their families. Among those who've left this world are my stepmom, my mother, and dearly beloved friends my age. In the midst of these times, I’ve changed. I’ve grown. I’ve learned a lot about life from those who were dying; their journeys have affected mine.
For weeks after Mom left, I sat on my couch. Every morning, I turned on the living room lamp and sat there alone.
“What are you doing?” Flash asked the first time he walked into the living room and saw me staring into space.
“I’m just sitting,” I replied.
Day after day, this was my ritual. No TV, no music, no phone - just nothingness. Sometimes I cried, sometimes I laughed at memories, a couple of times I read my Bible. But most of the time, I was just still, listening. I had more peace than I’ve ever experienced. Peace of mind; peace in my spirit. Nothing bothered me for those five weeks; if you know my propensity for worry, you know this was a personal record.
During this time, Cowboy was sick for 23 days, due in large part to his own grief; for the first time in seven years, he told me he was sad. But it was a treasured time of healing for both of us. Even in the midst of his illness, and when other daily issues arose, I had no worry. Peace reigned.
“I held my mother’s hand while she left this earth,” I told my friend Rosebud. “That was one of the greatest honors of my life. All the other stuff I thought was important, isn’t. Things that would usually stress me out, don't; those things are so temporary.” My perspective had become more eternal.
Don’t let me change back, I begged God one morning. I want to be like this forever. To never sweat the small stuff again.
But, when the sixth week came, the Stress Monster reared his ugly head, bringing Worry along with him. As you see, dear reader, I assume Stress is a male. I gave in to pressure, trading my Eternal Glasses for my old Earth-Bound Glasses. It was disappointing.
For several days I walked around disgruntled. When I had to deal with health insurance issues, a task that can drive anyone to commit homicide, I was grouchy. When I had too many interruptions during the day, preventing me from finishing my to-do list so I could relax, I was snappy. The old me was back. And she was getting on my nerves. I wanted my peace back.
Then, it hit me. Somewhere along the way, I'd quit practicing being still. Suddenly, I realized there was a direct correlation between practicing stillness and how I reacted to stress. When I had taken time to be still, my reactions were calm, and worry fled. That’s why Mom didn’t have a problem with worry; she regularly spent time being still and listening.
I started making time, again, for stillness. And each time, peace came.
Of course, my new Peace Quest is so powerful, that when drama comes, specifically other people’s drama, I resent the interruption. It’s one thing to deal with my own drama that creeps up; I don’t have time or energy for anyone else’s.
“Geez!” I exclaimed in the car one day recently.
“What’s wrong?” Flash asked.
“That ticks me off that Mildred messed up my serenity!” I yelled. “I’ve got to get it back!”
I glanced over to see Flash’s shoulders shaking as he laughed. Obviously, I need more practice. And it’s best if I practice in the mornings when nobody is around.
“Shhh,” I directed Flash one evening last week.
“Why do you keep walking around the living room?" I asked.
"Because I live here," he explained.
"And why do you keep talking to me?" I continued.
"Because I want to. Married people do that sometimes."
"Could you stop talking? I’m trying to get some peace.” The situation screamed irony; I’m sure he’s thought the same thing countless times throughout our marriage.
I left the room to look for my peace.
I’ve had to practice many things in life, and still do, including worship, patience, kindness, prayer, mercy, and housework; I’ll still be working on that last item when I’m in eternity dusting the pearly gates. But practice always pays off. So, I’ll continue being still, one day at a time, knowing that peace isn’t the absence of stress – it’s a gift that helps me respond to this thing called life. I'm becoming who I’ve wanted to be for a long time. The me I was meant to be.