There’s a ghost Elizabeth I’m always chasing. She’s an inch or two taller, always finds time to exercise and read the news, and owns incredibly efficient shelving and modern storage solutions. She’s close enough to the actual Elizabeth for it to be possible to imagine merging into her – if I could just find the right professional-yet-casual sundress, email platform and/or new front door paint color. I’m not alone, of course, and it’s why marketing is a field and advertising an even bigger one.
Talking about advertising’s insidious reach into our homes and bedrooms and kitchens and minds is interesting, but not particularly important to me. (I need a colander in my brain that’s constantly filtering interesting from important). What’s important to me is tracing the path from the place where we each get pinned on the hook-end of longing back to what it means about what we need to listen to – or reconcile – or even forgive — within ourselves.
This map is important. And within the map, it’s tracing back to the source that’s the juice. The best therapist I’ve ever worked with (and let me tell you, there have been a few) was masterful at holding me in the “I don’t know” moment by saying, “Try.” Try to know, she would implore. And then had no problem allowing silence to take over while I squirmed and then ultimately, finally, practically against my will but worn out from resisting – tried. Trying hurts. There’s enormous resistance. And my therapist was a horrible, wonderful, evil genius fairy godmother for insisting on it.
In Ikea last June, I saw this swing – the Flurge – a cocoon-like swing which could be hung from the ceiling, taking up a relatively small space in a corner to offer a child a little private, swinging hideaway. I bought it immediately, thinking about Henry, my 8-year-old who has struggled with sensory processing issues. We’ve had Henry in tons of OT since he was 4 and, at the start of each weekly session, his occupational therapist would put him in a special, enclosed swing to help him “organize his vestibular system”. He focuses more, knows where his body is in space, and even better performs motor planning (like telling his hand how much pressure to give the pen to effectively write), after certain organizing exercises like swinging. His OT, a brilliant and compassionate young woman who looked like she was in the 7th grade, would end each session by giving me a list of homework to do with Henry. Wheelbarrow to build shoulder strength, “cross-crawl” exercises to better connect his right and left brain hemispheres, sand paper letters he could trace with his fingers. But the pace of work-kids-dinner-laundry usually meant that I’d be shouting something from the kitchen on the night before his OT appointments like, “Henry, get out your sand paper letters!” or “Hey kids, have a wheel barrow race, whydontcha?” I felt tipped forward under a tremendous yoke of guilt that I was not finding enough time or energy to give him these extra, critical doses at home.
So when I saw the Flurge, it ignited in me so much of how I feel about this constant quest to find new resources for Henry. Under the clean, bright minimalistic lights of Ikea, it fused the tactical with the strategic in a sleek Nordic nonchalance. A tool that would help Henry in a deep and powerful way, and propel him to full mind-body integration as well as redeem me as a mother. Much in the same way as Athleta makes me feel that a biking skort would engender amazing core strength AND a sense of meaningful intellectual contribution in the world AS WELL AS flirty athletic day-dates with my husband. We all get that. That’s the hook-end of longing. But it’s not the source. It’s not why I bought the Flurge.
Try. Try to know.
If I had spent half a minute with a reality check, I’d have seen what Steven saw and said immediately when I brought it home: “How am I going to hang that? I don’t think we have studs in the playroom ceiling and it’ll pull the dry wall down.” In the heat of the moment (read: 6-8 months) I obviously interpreted this as a personal failing on Steven’s part. Where was his can-do spirit? His resourcefulness? His basic carpentry skills?
I bought the Flurge because I am afraid that I can’t give Henry enough on my own. That if I can find a smart, energetic OT and the perfectly Swedish-engineered umlaut of a device, I can crack the code to help him thrive in the amazing, quirky, brilliant way his soul is arcing towards.
But if I am trying, really trying, there’s more. If I stay in this feeling and try to get to know it, then in that difficult meetup, I recognize the less-than-flattering reality that the Flurge was always more about me than Henry. I’m wanting a hyper-designed balsam-wooded device to prove I am an amazing mother. That I am doing it Right. That I am getting an A. That Henry’s sensory and motor challenges are something I own, and can control, and can thereby treat as a task to tackle, conquer and cross off the list. Rather than the reality — that it’s an integral part of him and his own journey, wholly separate from me and not without its own gifts, which I can attend and aide, but never fundamentally own. As hard as the realization can be, I also find it an enormous relief to know we only walk next to each other, touching shoulders, but never really carrying the other – even our own children.
All this was a slow dawning. For nearly a year, the Flurge sat in its package on top of the dryer, an emblem of failure, wrapped in cellophane resentfulness. I would bang shut the dryer door, wondering how Steven could live with himself.
I recently read a so-so article with the amazing title, “America’s Obsession with Adult Coloring Books is a Cry for Help.” Remembering that title when I saw the Mother’s Day display at World Market – two dozen different adult coloring books from mandalas to botanicals, Asian-motifed bathrobes, and winewinewine – made me want to both laugh and cry in a wild, hysterical bark. A national cry for help, in sandalwood and lavender and pino grigio! Do you love your mother? Then facilitate that grown-ass woman the ability day drink in a bathrobe and color hummingbirds with children’s craft supplies in a quiet, and likely angry, desperation.
The article talked about coloring books being just on the whispered cusp of productive mindfulness, without quite being self help, therapy or exercise for burned out, overworked, overstressed people looking, frantically, for something a little healthy to take the edge off. But what the article didn’t touch at all was a cry for help for WHAT? The article did not try to know.
We don’t need a protective psychological barrier to advertising and marketing so much as we just need to be willing to Try. We don’t necessarily need more boundaries, we need more awareness, and a strength that doubles as self-forgiveness.
Try to be willing to make a map that starts on page 47 of Athleta (or your own magazine of choice) and run your fingers along it until you come to the source, and then pause there, gently, tenderly, they way you might when you discover a hidden nest, or a note a child has written, or maybe even your younger self.
Stay there until you know its bulk and heft, its shape and its texture — stay there until it becomes familiar and you become kind. Acceptance is trying too.