My heart hitched yesterday.
This email came that I was nominated for the local YWCA’s woman of the year. I stared at it.
And stared at it.
I know this might not be a big deal to some people, but me? I flipped out.
It had been a weird rollercoaster day. I signed with a new agent of awesome. I traced down the smell of dog poop to Gabby’s front paw and managed to pry the smooshed and stuck poop out of those giant doggy paw pads five minutes before I had to go lead a Rotary club meeting.
It was disgusting. I had to bleach floors.
I made a resume.
I ran a meeting.
I did all my writing work.
I figured out what I was going to say at a breakfast Rotary meeting the next day that started at 7 a.m. and was three hours away.
I cleaned a toilet.
But that email? It kept resonating.
That email meant something big inside of me – something so big that I couldn’t even talk about it for 24 hours.
“People can nominate women of all ages who make a difference in this community,” said Jackie Davidson, executive director of YWCA MDI. “You can nominate anonymously as well. We want as many women as possible to be recognized for what they do to make our community a better place.”
Make the community a better place.
That email made my heart hitch, the same way that selling my first piece of art made my heart hitch. I know I won’t win and that’s totally fine. Someone awesome will. But the thing is.. someone thought I deserved this.
That means so much to me.
Why it means so much
I grew up poor.
There’s no getting around that.
My mom tried really hard to pretend we weren’t poor. She tried to hide it from everyone, including my much older brother and sister who grew up 15 years earlier than me in a much nicer working class reality. But when I came around we were poor.
My nana stood in food lines to get us commodity cheese because my mom wouldn’t do it herself because she was too ashamed. Credit card companies and collection agencies would call constantly. I was taught early on to lie on the phone when I answered it and say my mom wasn’t home if it wasn’t my sister or one of my aunts calling.
We had a typewriter, not a word processor, not a computer. Every time I had to get clothes, I’d feel full of guilt. It didn’t help when one of my older siblings taunted me for my quirky style. Goodwill sometimes makes you have a quirky style.
As a child, we would go to my wealthy uncle and aunt’s house for gatherings with their friends. Their friends were senators and doctors, people who worked for WHO, people who helped create the measles vaccine, documentary filmmakers who headed AIDS awareness efforts. I remember looking at their fancy clothes and listening to them and being both inspired and terrified. They placed napkins in their laps. They kissed people on both cheeks. They made eye contact when they talked, and they used different forks for different things.
They were all kind to me. That wasn’t it. But I knew that I didn’t know how to play by their rules. I went to a window seat that looked out on Lake Winnipesaukee. There was a bookshelf at the end of the seat and in that bookshelf was an etiquette book full of how to eat at the table, what manners were, how to write ‘thank you cards,’ exchange greetings, and so on. It was a beautiful summer day. All the other kids were swimming and playing tag. I was reading and memorizing and trying to learn how to be like the others.
Getting Called Out
Eventually my Aunt Maxine noticed that I was sitting there, reading.
“Carrie. What are you doing? Go out and play,” she said. She liked to use people’s names a lot. She also was sort of bossy in a nice way.
I was afraid of bossy, but I also loved my aunt so I said as bravely as possible, “I’m reading.”
“Don’t you want to go swim with the other children? They’re all outside getting sun, having fun.”
They were. They were splashing around in the water, doing cannonballs off the dock, or perfect dives. They had perfect bathing suits from L.L. Bean and every single one of them seemed to know how to play tennis.
She took the book from me and read the title. After a second, she sat down on the bench next to me. “What are you reading this for, Carrie?”
And I said, “Because I want to be better.”
“Be better! That’s ridiculous. You’re wonderful as who you are.”
“I want… I want to fit in.” I looked her right in the eyes and she got it. I knew she got it. She understood all the things that I couldn’t figure out how to say.
She handed me back the book. “I will make a deal with you. You read this for another half hour and I’ll set the kitchen timer. When it goes off, you go play with the other children and get some exercise.”
Nodding, I thought this was okay. “But I might not finish the book.”
“You can finish it after dinner and games.” She pet me on the top of the head. “I’ll bring you the timer.”
I was five.
That book changed my life and so did my aunt and uncle. They realized that there was a social code and a way of being that wasn’t easily accessible for me no matter how hard my mom tried. I was a poor kid in a wealthy town. I was a latchkey kid who was awkward and driven and terrified of failure. Paying for acting lessons, to play on the soccer team, to play piano were huge stretches for us. Sometimes they happened. Sometimes they didn’t.
I want to be better
My aunt and uncle understood my situation and my want because my uncle was the same way. He was the oldest son of a single mom. He pushed himself hard to succeed, to learn the social code of success and wealth. He went to UNH because it was the only place he could afford and he was valedictorian there, desegregating the fraternity system while he was class president. He eventually went to Harvard Law, married Maxine who had so much intellectual stock and prowess it was just ridiculous. He ended up being the head of an international law association, head of a law firm, chairman of the board of trustees at UNH and so many other things.
My little five-year-old self was trying to do the same things as he did. I wanted to make a difference in the world, to make it better.
Somehow. I took the first and only step I could think of taking – reading that book, trying to crack the social codes of behavior that made his friends and him so different from me.
You Aren’t Death
I was in college when he was dying. We had all gathered for one last Thanksgiving. There were tons of people there, the same kind of brilliant, world-changing people that were there when I was five and when I was ten and when I was 15. My mother and my nana were barely able to sit still because they were so overwhelmed with Dick’s impeding death. They’d have to leave the room every time someone mentioned his name.
During dinner, Maxine called them into his bedroom with her. They stayed for about two minutes and left sobbing.
“He’s too tired,” Maxine said at the threshold of the hallway that led to those bedrooms. “He needed them to go.”
But then, a minute later, she called for me. “Dick wants to see you, Carrie.”
I remember pointing at my chest. “Me?”
“He’s not too tired?”
“No,” she said. “Not for you.”
There was a bit of a murmur at the table because Uncle Dick wasn’t really calling for anyone to come see him. He was barely holding on.
She ushered me into a back bedroom that wasn’t their normal place to sleep. The wooden walls were dark because the shades were drawn. There was only one bedside light on. My uncle was thin and his breathing was so heavy. It seemed like there were a million blankets layered on top of him.
He met my eyes as I came to his bed and sat on the edge of it, ignoring the chair.
“Everyone sits in the chair,” he rasped out.
“I wanted to be close to you.” I grabbed his hand.
“Nobody wants to be close to death.”
“You aren’t death. You’re my uncle.”
We were quiet. The weight of his hand in mine seemed like nothing and everything all at once. I think he might have fallen asleep, but I sat there thinking about how beautiful he was, how elegant, how he changed systems of injustice one at a time, as best he could, how he taught himself Japanese, how to play the organ, how to be wealthy, how to fit in with an entire class of successful people that he wasn’t born to, and how he and my aunt Maxine both tried to lift other people up into that class with them.
He opened his eyes. “Carrie, I’m throwing down the gauntlet. Will you pick it up?”
There was only one answer.
“Yes,” I told him. “Yes.”
It was the last thing he said to me. He fell asleep again. We left for home. I left for college. And since then, I have spent years trying to figure out how to make my words to my uncle not be a lie. How to meet the challenge of his life so well lived.
How to pick up that damn gauntlet.
And I know I’m not doing enough. It’s hard to motivate other people. Sometimes it’s hard to even motivate myself.
I have a friend who recently said to me, “You do so much volunteering. I don’t. I can’t. I’m a selfish person. I want to make money.”
And I didn’t know what to say.
I still don’t.
I have only succeeded as much as I have because people were willing to let me read a book, to be examples of goodness, to give me the opportunity to interact with senators, opera singers, doctors who have saved thousands of lives. Humiliation and exclusion are not what we should aspire to. Inclusion and praise are not things to be afraid of giving to other people. Enjoying other people’s successes and happiness doesn’t make you any less likely to succeed.
That’s why a nomination for making a difference means so much to me. And to have it be at a YWCA event? The YWCA that’s all about empowering women and fighting oppression? That means even more.
Aunt Maxine and Uncle Dick told me throughout my childhood that intelligence was a privilege I was born with. It could be cultivated and expanded on, but what was the most important thing was finding a way (or many ways) of using that privilege (intelligence, class, race, gender, being physically fit, and so on) and using it to better other people’s lives, your own life, the world not in a way that makes you a hero but in a way that makes you a friend.
Yes, we need to take care of ourselves (thus being selfish), but we also need to not live in bubbles – to see where our language and our rules, our so-called ‘cultural norms’ can be a code that even five-year-olds realize doesn’t include them.
I don’t know how to fix this, but I know we all have to try. I was so lucky to have an Uncle Dick and Aunt Maxine. Not everyone is. And when you feel excluded because of economic, racial, gender, religious codes? How can you not hurt?
I’ve tried to pick up the gauntlet by being friends, writing books, and I’ve even tried to be a politician. I’ve tried by how I raised my daughter, by being on boards, on fighting against bullying, for literacy, against domestic violence, by promoting diversity in children’s literature.
It doesn’t feel like enough.
Honestly, it feels like nothing, like I am barely touching the surface of need, of change.
Part of why I’m in Rotary International, and even why I decided to be the volunteer Public Image Chair for a huge part of Canada and the United States is because this organization of 1.2 million people are picking up the gauntlet, over and over again. From helping to eradicate polio (one vaccine and one fundraiser at a time) to building a local playground or a creating a book festival, Rotary grabs that gauntlet. The only difference is, they do it together.
How are you picking up the gauntlet? How do you feel excluded? Included? I’d love to know.
If you could nominate one of your friends for helping her community, who would you nominate as a woman of distinction? Tell her. It will mean everything. I promise you.
*I’ve posted pieces of this before, I think. I’m not sure. But it’s my story and I want to make sure I remind myself of it a lot – of how grateful I am to have a story and for the people in my life who have been so good to me. I hope you have those people too.
I made a video about copy editing my next book, co-written with Steve Wedel. It’s called IN THE WOODS and its scary self arrives in 2019. BUT HERE IS THE GOOFY VIDEO!
Our podcast DOGS ARE SMARTER THAN PEOPLE is still chugging along. Thanks to all of you who keep listening to our weirdness. We’re sorry we laugh so much… sort of.