Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Take it Off

“Um…that’s not really a Mommy bathing suit.”

We are leaving for our beach vacation in less than 48 hours and I have left that dreaded chore of bathing suit shopping to the last minute as usual. My seven year old daughter has accompanied me to give me her unsolicited fashion advice.  I have been eyeing this cute polka dot bikini, but somehow she doesn’t seem to share my vision of myself as a modern day Annette Funicello skipping down the sandy beach, Frankie and his ukulele serenading me in the background…

 “What do you mean?” I ask her, not quick enough to curb the defensiveness in my voice.

“Well, that’s more of a young person’s bathing suit. (Ouch)  It won’t cover all your …soft bits.”

She’s right of course.  Over the years my mid-section has expanded and not so gracefully begun to rise in an abundance of stretch-marked doughy softness.  Fact is, a couple of nursing babies and the comfort of a secure relationship have contributed to a lifestyle more Poptarts than Pilates and a figure less fit than flabby.

My body isn’t the only thing to soften as I approach middle-age.  My heart has become as Pillsbury as my upper arms and these days it takes little to melt my defenses and reveal my…soft bits.  Hearing kids laugh, listening to a colleague’s personal heartache, witnessing harsh words, receiving kind ones, the slightest human moment releases a hair-trigger response in my eyes which quickly dampen and belie my bleeding heart.  As my waistline grows, so too it seems does my well of vulnerability. 

I used to admire those who are carefully composed, who seem so strong and always put together.  I would listen to friends talk of others who got randomly emotional.  “She’s burning out,” “He’s oversensitive,” “She’s too involved and has boundary issues,” and would feel shame at my own PDS (Public Displays of Sappiness).  What muscles of theirs were so firm and tight that they never open and spill over? How do you connect if always disconnected?  

As a young new Child Protection Worker I would sometimes accompany my teenage clients to juvenile court. On one particular occasion, my client was a 15 year old boy who had already had a few run-ins with the law. He was a good kid who had fallen in with the wrong crowd after his parents separated and his father moved to another city with his new girlfriend.  Today he was facing charges of break and entry. He and some “friends” had gone on a looting spree in their neighborhood, breaking into homes and stealing small electronics they would later sell on Craig’s list to unsuspecting soccer moms.  The kid didn’t lack entrepreneurial spirit, so much as a little basic judgment.

I knew from the moment we walked into the courtroom that my young client was in for a rough ride.  The crown attorney was a man whose path I reluctantly crossed every so often. Slickly groomed, he tended to ooze cold ambition more than warm fuzzies.  Charles was a handsome man but hard and seemingly inaccessible in his rigid determination. While I might have admired his success, I always felt uncertain in his presence. He had a tendency to inspire little in me beyond oceans of internal eyeball rolling. Maybe it was his knock-off Armani suit and the snugness of his tie that made me sympathetically uncomfortable. More likely it was the ease with which he walked the line between truth and calculated manipulation. A master at politicking, a skill I just don’t have and could never compete with.

The proceedings began ordinarily enough. As witness after witness rose to the stand to tell their story, my teen charge slumped deeper and deeper into his chair, mimicking the depth I predicted his future was sinking into this impossible hole he had dug himself. I felt my own body start to slip into that end-of-day-coma as my mind wandered between thoughts about the futility of my chosen career path and the list of groceries I had to pick up on the way home. Finally it was time for closing statements. It had been a long day and we were all tired when Charles began,

“Listen, I know what it’s like to suddenly find yourself without a parent.  To feel lost but …" He paused in mid-sentence. The judge looked up from his bench, waiting for the punchline.

And that is when things got weird and out of nowhere, Charles got naked.

He began to tell us how as a young man he was forced to give up his dreams of law school and take a factory job near home to help support his family.  How his father’s drinking had begun innocently enough, an extra couple beers at half-time on Sunday afternoon but following a work accident, soon progressed to overnight binges and impromptu disappearing acts. He described how almost overnight the man who taught him how to drive a stick-shift became a menace on the road. Charles’ voice wavered as he recounted how sometimes his father, fueled by Scotch and self-loathing, would curse at him furiously, lashing out physically and breaking things around the house.   His childhood story was one of cowering in corners, bruises hidden, and dreams disillusioned. Absentmindedly palming the tears from his cheeks, he whispered how at times he was so angry at his father for disappearing on him, and at others he would rage at the fact that he would keep coming back.

Charles paused for a moment. His words hung in the air and I looked around the room, relieved to see my colleagues as winded by this unexpected flash of exposure as I was.  I don’t know what sparked this spontaneous confession.  I just know that it took one look into Charles' glossy eyes and each of us in that room were swallowing and blinking back the ache of our shared humanity. Finally he continued,

“I’m sorry, I just…” He took a deep breath, pulled himself together and turned to the accused.  “I get it. You feel abandoned and angry. You’re angry at the world. Hell, you're probably angry at yourself. But you can’t let that anger define you, kid. You can’t.  You can’t let it be the end of your story.”

And just as the drawn out silence began to push the boundaries of comfort, adding a cherry punch to this already surreal sundae of a disclosure, the judge, like some black-robed Yoda, recited,

“Qui n’a vu que la misère de l’homme n’a rien vu; il faut voir la misère de la femme; qui n’a rien vu que la misère de la femme n’a rien vu, il faut voir la misère de l’enfant. »*

He who has seen the misery of man only has seen nothing, he must see the misery of woman; he who has seen the misery of woman only has seen nothing, he must see the misery of the child.”

The air buzzed with a collective drawn out exhalation. We sat frozen, wondering who would break the silence. My eloquent client took the leap.

“Yeah ok, guy….whatever.”  (What? Were you expecting a dramatic moment of adolescent self-discovery? Juvenile Court is not produced by Disney.)

The rest of the hearing was unremarkable. My client lost and ended up with 240 days of community service and endless pages of conditions and we all carried on as if nothing out of the ordinary had occurred.  As if boundaries hadn’t been broken and this hearing hadn’t been turned on its head by one man daring to take it all off. But as we all filed out and I led my teen client to the exit I found myself giving Charles a nod as I said, “See you next time." I wanted to thank him for bravely peeling back the layers to reveal this hole in his heart, for reminding us of the common Swiss-cheesiness inside us all. For proving there is far more power in our softness than our muscles.  My baggy-jeaned companion might not have got the message, but I did. Our soft bits, our real bits, are those that connect us, and at the end of the day, the greatest gift that we can give anyone is but ourselves.

These days I find myself drawn to courageous souls who like Charles, unmask themselves so openly and aren’t afraid to go deep and bare it all.  And when my own tears sometimes unexpectedly rinse my eyes to clear the view, I no longer panic but raise my hands in surrender, laugh and proclaim “It’s hopeless!” as I whip out another brightly-colored minipack of Kleenex from my purse.

In the end, I didn’t buy the polka dot bikini but it wasn’t fear that stopped me so much as geometry and basic physics. I wasn’t afraid to let it all hang out. I actually didn’t even really try it on.  I mean I TRIED to try it on but in the end it turns out the teeny weeny bikini was even more itsy bitsy than I had realized and no amount of sausaging was ever going to get it over my hips.

To my daughter’s relief I chose a different suit, one that wouldn’t threaten to cut off my circulation or lead to a holiday week of awkward poolside wedgies. Instead, I bought a suit that would comfortably display my full self to the warmth of the sun. No cover up. No shame.  Nothing hidden.  Just me.  Fully exposed. Soft bits and all.

*Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Names and some details have been altered to protect the privacy of those involved but remain true to the essence of the events.