The Act

circus elephant

I went to a circus two weeks ago with my brother and sister-in-law. I’m staying with them while I do a rotation in a city two hours away from home, and I felt that I owed them at least part of my day off in exchange for their hospitality. They felt the need to entertain me, so to the circus we went—“The greatest show on earth.” I hated it. Of course I was gracious and thanked my siblings for the invitation—they had no idea how I felt. Ironically, by not expressing my true feelings, I was acting out the very thing I despised about the circus.

What kind of person hates the circus? It was the clowns that haunted me the most. Yes, I know—clowns haunt many people. I was terrified of them as a child after accidentally walking into the living room one night while my older brothers watched Poltergeist. I’ve outgrown that fear, and these clowns struck me for a different reason. From the second row of the audience, I could see past their makeup. From the second row, I could see the pained expressions behind painted-on smiles. Most of the clowns seemed born to perform. Their talent was remarkable, and they stayed in full character—their true expressions matching the spirit of the circus. The few who did not were the ones I couldn’t tear my eyes from.

Were they bored? Exhausted? Or worse—were they empty? Was this not the life they envisioned? Why do they do this if it’s not who they are? Are they stuck?

My discomfort was not due to an inability to relate. Rather, it was because what I saw before me was all too familiar. So much of my life has been spent as a circus clown—masking my heart with makeup. And my thoughts turned to my daughter, who would really start learning “the act” in two weeks as a kindergartener.

I saw the first glimpses of it today as I took my 5-year-old to her kindergarten classroom for her first day of school. Of course, I contributed to the act. I bought her the new backpack and lunchbox and all the new clothes. I packed her lunch and put a note in her lunchbox, fed her a healthy breakfast, and walked her into her classroom with a gift for her teacher in hand. I felt like a fraud—this is not the mother I am, although it’s the mother I would love to be. The fact is, I left the city right after I dropped her off, and I won’t pack her lunch or take her to school again until November. I won’t even live at home again until October. Our little family that went through all the motions so perfectly today is hurting.

Even my daughter is learning the act. When it was time for her to take her seat, she turned around suddenly and hugged me tightly. When she finally pulled away, I saw big tears in both of her eyes. I knelt down to her level. “Are you going to cry?” I asked. “No, I’m fine,” she said, avoiding my gaze. “I just got something in my eye.” She quickly found her seat and began to color. I was astonished at her façade. She is our emotional child and had never fought tears before. Crying was suddenly off-limits in her mind.

Her teacher introduced her to the morning activity and pointed out the location of the books so she could “practice reading” when she finished it. From another table, a little girl haughtily informed us, “I already know how to read,” and proceeded to name off several other skills she has already mastered. I jokingly muttered the word “gunner” under my breath to my husband—a term frequently used to describe medical students who are overly competitive and ambitious, and might even seek recognition from superiors at the expense of classmates or colleagues. I actually saw myself in that little girl—although failure over the years has humbled me significantly. Her mother later told us that she doesn’t know how to read—she has simply memorized parts of books they have read to her. This child was already part of the act—exerting dominance, seeking praise. My daughter actually does know how to read and said nothing to her classmate in defense of her own skills—keeping peace like her father might do.

I am only just now learning as an adult that I’m better off without the act. This blog and my support network here have helped immensely with that. So why have I been silent for almost two months? I’ll be honest—after a time of intense encouragement that came with my brother’s recovery and my family’s healing, the reality of normal life hit hard:

In response to my own journey, I heard hatred from believers louder than I heard love. Many of you were supportive and encouraging, but it takes ten times as much of that to overcome one hate-filled comment. Even still, thank you for being there.

After my brother became more and more himself again, I realized that he’s still the same person who didn’t acknowledge my marriage or the birth of my children. Yes, we talk on the phone weekly now—something we never did before. No, I don’t enjoy it. I’m still not sure he loves me at all, and the connection we had started to build before he became sick has dwindled to nothing. Still, I persist. This will not fail for lack of effort.

And—this is the hardest thing to write—after all of my words about love winning, I realized last month for the first time how my heart is prone to wander. No, I did not have an Ashley Madison account and never would. Attacks on my heart are less obvious than that—and thus perhaps more dangerous. They are unexpected, not sought. They come in the subtle form of gentle words and thoughtful questions and humble praise of my beauty and confidence and competence. For the first time in nine years, I had strong feelings for someone who wasn’t my husband. We worked together for a month, and nothing happened between us beyond his expression of feelings for me (on my last day of the rotation) that he insisted he would never act on and my confession that I shared them—then the mutual recommitment to protect our hearts for our spouses. He was only in my area of work for a brief time, and we will not work together again. I told my husband everything that same day, and his graciousness to me was overwhelming. My feelings had been present for weeks, but I had refused to acknowledge them until my colleague put them into words—I’m glad he did, because it shook me awake. I finally, finally understand why some people are so cautious with things like this. I have finally seen the danger of what my heart is capable of and been terrified enough to draw the line a mile from the edge of the cliff. The danger will remain and perhaps increase as my confidence and competence grow—but I will be prepared.

In the mean time, I am deeply feeling the distance from my husband while I work here and grieving the way my heart failed him. He is the one who has been there for nine years. He is the one who has done most of the work in raising our two daughters. He is the father of the child that draws flesh inside of me right now. He is the one who has loved me through every blog post I have written and walked my heart through the season that surrounded each one. He knew me—every flaw, every failure—and loved me anyway. He made me into the woman that other men fall in love with. How is that fair? He took me out on two date nights in a row this weekend, and the conversation was precious and healing. Russell, my heart is yours only for the rest of our lives.

So, readers, how is this for wiping off the painted face and ending the act? It’s probably more than you ever wanted to know in explanation for my silence. But I need you. With tears pouring down my face—tears that I will not begin to fight—please understand that I need you. My silence is because of a stunned spirit. The magic of June faded into the reality of July. Many believers rank highly on the list of the meanest people I know. My brother came back from a brush with death, and he is still a narcissistic jerk. And my heart that was so moved by love is capable of the worst imaginable things. I…am…broken. And I feel like God is silent. This is why I haven’t written. I’ve been afraid of what I would write. Afraid of what you would write in response. I am a master of the act, but I’m so sick of performing it.

So this is the kind of person who hates the circus. A disenchanted member of it. And as I dropped my daughter off at kindergarten, I wanted something better for her. I don’t ever want her to wear a mask that fails to synchronize with the status of her heart. I want her to be more concerned about her heart than about her backpack or her clothes or any aspect of her appearance. I want her to be humble and honest about her talents and abilities, but I also want her to be strong enough to defend them. I never want her to hold back tears when she needs others to see them and walk beside her the way I need you right now. I want her to feel the freedom to not be anonymous the way I am—to be wildly who she is instead of captive like an elephant that can stand on its head or balance on a stool. If my kindergartener can walk through the coming years without succumbing to the rigidity of the act—something I didn’t learn until adulthood—she could be so much more thrilling to watch than the greatest show on earth.

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