Saturday, March 12, 2016

Center of Attention

 6 year old me, not terribly pleased with the new arrangement.

40 year old me, surrounded by people who want to hang out with me as often as 
I want to hang out with them.

I was extremely lonely growing up. Which is strange because I grew up in a house full of people: mom, dad, little sister, two older brothers, various pets. But I felt lonely a large chunk of the time.

Part of it may have been the age difference between me and my siblings. We're all 5 - 6 years apart. As a parent, I'm a fan of this age gap in my own kids. It gave me time to catch my breath and get a bit of sleep before cycling through the infant and toddler phases again. But for the kid, it can be problematic.

My oldest brother left home for college when I was only 5 - 6 years old. My second older brother went through his angsty adolescent phase at that same time, meaning instead of playing with me he started hanging out behind the closed door of his bedroom with his friends and his Commodore 64. At that same exact time my baby sister was born, a baby so damned cute that the whole family lost their collective minds (not that I still harbor any jealousy or anything). So, yeah, there was little 6 year old me, feeling like I'd lost my brothers and that my place as the cute little girl was completely usurped.

As I grew older, my sister and I began to play together. Quite well, actually, if you overlook the knock-down, drag-out fights that peppered our interactions. But Nora has always had more of an introverted side than I have, so after playing with me, she would need some time alone to catch her breath. Time that I, a chronic extrovert, did not like to honor. Time that I often interrupted, much to her chagrin and sometimes furious anger.

Even when I went through my own angsty, adolescent phase, I craved interaction. It was frustrating, because Nora had a lot of friends in our little town that she could play with, but my best friends lived at least a 10 minute car ride away, and I couldn't drive yet. So I spent my time either on the phone with my friends or listening to show tunes on the carpeted floor of my room.

It didn't help that I was certainly a square peg in my round hole family. We've come to terms as adults that our politics and views of the world do not really align, but as a kid I kept a lot of my opinions to myself for fear my family would disown or be horrified by me if they found out that I kind of thought Dukakis would make a good president. And beyond politics, I've just always been the kind of person that craves constant stimulation. I like to go to museums and see movies and eat out and try something new all the time, and the other members of my family were just much happier to be home bodies.

My parents were in no shape to hang out with me. They were constantly in some state of arguing or violence or financial turmoil or legal trouble. And unlike today's overachieving parents, the parents of Gen-X kids didn't feel obligated to plan and schedule all our time for us. And living far away from any sort of metropolitan area and not having a lot of expendable income meant I didn't sign up for camps or extracurricular activities all that often.

So, yeah, I was alone a lot. Even our pets - the adorable dogs and cats that came into and fell out of our lives - preferred the company of my mom, the woman who fed them and kept them clean and loved. Go figure.

When I got old enough to wander the neighborhood on my own - which was pretty darn young back in those days - I would ride my bike all over the place, stopping to stare at the daffodils pushing through the soil in March or admiring the way the sun shone through the slats of a dilapidated barn at sunset. I found this ancient, walled cemetery next to Big Springs, Upton's main body of water. So, especially in my early teen years, I'd walk to the tiny (despite the name) spring, soak in the sound of the flowing water, then hike through some guy's farm - cows and all - to the cemetery. Sometimes, the gate was locked, so I'd climb over the wall. At certain angles in the cemetery, you couldn't see anything above that wall but sky. I'd pretend I was Anne of Green Gables or a medieval princess who'd run away from her tower. Yes, I said I was a teenager; I didn't say I was a very mature teenager.

I'd pack a lunch, some water, my big book of tear-jerking poetry, my diary, and my sketch book. I'd engage in every form of creativity I could think of, and sometimes I'd spread out on one of my mamaw's quilts and take a nap, right there among the dead.

I'd wander around and study the tombstones, the ones that weren't crumbled or vandalized. The infants, the young children, the couples that died within days of each other. Most of them from the 1800's.

And all the while I'd wish that I had someone to talk to. Someone who understood me. Someone who wanted to be around me, only me, all the time.

When I'd wander back to the house, I'd be dismayed to see that it was still early in the afternoon. Everyone was doing their own thing, dealing with the dysfunction of our family in their own way. Especially in the summer, hours stretched ahead ominously, time upon time to sit by myself, watching TV or studying my map of Paris in the hopes that I'd make it there one day or eat whatever processed crap I could find to try to stifle the sadness.

I try to conjure up this time of extreme loneliness a lot these days. Because now, I have the opposite issue.

Students who want to hang out with me before school starts and after it ends. Students who crave my approval over the work they did or who sweetly think I have all the answers to any questions that pop into their heads. My 2 year old who no longer needs me to provide his sustenance, but who needs my attention and affection as often as I can give it (along with all the patience I'll ever have to cope with his frequent boundary-testing). My 7 year old, incredible daughter who craves human interaction and conversation just as much as I did when I was a little girl. My wonderful husband who values me, loves me, treats me as an equal, and wants to spend time with me (the manifestation of that young girl's fantasy on that cow-ridden farm 25 years ago). A couple of cats who sometimes act like I don't exist, but other times need me to pet them like crazy (and who always demand that I feed them, no matter how aloof they are). Our new, sweet dog who loves to snuggle so much that she'll actually bark at me if I spend too much time doing housework and not enough sitting on my rear end and petting her.

I get a lot of attention. A lot of people think I'm pretty cool and want to be around me. A lot of people want my kisses and hugs and advice and imagination. I'm loved beyond measure, in a way that I craved like crazy growing up.

But there are many days when I'm simply touched-out. Afternoons like this one where Dave takes the kids to the park and I sit in a quiet house by myself and write. Nights when I count down the minutes until everyone's in bed and I can crawl into a scalding hot bath with a Southern Living Magazine. Days when I'm an irritable, immature mess, begging the people around me to "just be nice to me" and "stop asking me to do stuff." Yep. My exact (very mature) words.

But really, I'm grateful. So grateful. I wish I could travel back in time and find that maniacally extroverted teenager, standing alone in a cemetery and tell her just to hang on a bit longer. I could have used that back then.

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