I can’t say no to my daughter when she asks me to buy her a new book, no matter how broke I am.
“Words fuel, feed, nurture and nourish,” I say to my daughter, reaching for my wallet to give her money. “Books are as good as blueberries.”
“Except you can’t eat a book,” she says.
“Oh, sweetie,” I say, “you can devour a book. You can suck and chew and gnaw on the same one over and over and over again.”
I didn’t confess how I lived off books when I was her age. I didn’t say how without books, journals and pets, I wouldn’t have made it to now.
Instead I spoke of Mary Oliver’s poems as though “Dogfish” was a relative who whispered the secret to life.
Pema Chodron has been the bottle and binky I’ve suckled through all of life’s major storms. Pema fed my infant and primal emotions with the tenderness and love my mother couldn’t. I slept in, on and with her books even before I could understand them.
In fact, I’m still chewing on all the books I’ve ever read.
“Books are necessary” is what I say to my tweenie.
“I guess,” she says, more interested in her iPhone now that I’ve given her the money.
“No guess about it,” I want to pull over and say, urgent and insistent.
I leave it, and her, alone. It’s not up to me to say what will fuel her engine.
The other girl—the girl I once was, now an invisible and palpable presence in the back seat—is pulling my attention. I’m driving her—this stranger to my daughter, who is my history and core—around with us.
And I ache.
My 11-year-old self was a bet-wetting girl who also got her period and didn’t have access to sanitary supplies. She went to school sitting on her hands, hoping blood wouldn’t mark school chairs. She held her breath, hoping it would keep others from smelling her. Abuse and neglect weren’t words she knew or could understand. She just thought she was doing life wrong and that’s why it was hard.
When I hug my daughter and say, “I love you,” she says, “Of course you do. I’m awesome.” The mother I am smiles and the little girl I was shakes her head and wonders what it would be to feel loved and lovable as a child.
She’s the part of me who cried earlier this week when my soul friend, Heidi Aylward, called me a pencil-slinging warrior princess. I choked up and put my hand on my heart. Even though I’m a close to 50-year-old goddess-queen, it was the little girl princess tearing up.
For years, I thought I was damaged, broken, flawed and a magnet for violence. I was wrong. I now know I’m a strong warrior, but it was the first time I realized I was a warrior—even then.
When my friend called me a pencil-slinging warrior princess, I felt the words spread over my skin; they were rolling pin and I was the dough spread on the kitchen counter. Each word was a cookie cutter of love cutting into my skin and marking me as resilient. Heidi is an Amazonian motorcycle-riding brunette mush-hearted Barbie mother you wouldn’t want to fist fight. She totes a bow and arrow and shoots humor, adventure and loyalty, and she’s a leader who rallies forces during a siege.
Pencil-slinging warrior princesses and scrappy bow and arrow weilding fighters with combat boots or high heels are everywhere.
I’m considering getting a tattoo of those words up my spine, over my shoulder and across my collar bones.
Pencil-slinging warrior princess.
Those words sing inside the cells of my bone marrow and dance hard down my bones.
Maybe on my next medical form, I’ll use it as a title or occupation. I’ll write those words instead of checking the single, married, divorced or widowed box.
Her words are a warm coat, a blanket and a bite of bread. I give them all to the little girl in my psyche who’s sitting in the back seat of my car.
We survived, which I think is amazing. Before we trusted humans, we swam in words and dreams, collected thoughts and hope in the form of quotes or lines or books. First it was tea-bag wisdom, fortunes from Bazooka gum wrappers or Chinese cookies. They were messages from the universe. They weren’t addressed to me, but felt conversational, intimate and personal.
I hoarded, jarred and stored word-food like dried fruit I could pull out in the winter when my soul craved something unavailable in the cold season of my childhood: hope, perspective, the warm soup of marinated love and the crisp tang of clean truth.
Books raised and grew my soul, challenged my mind and shaped my core. Words cut away the excess of my ego and still do.
My mother was only four years older than my daughter is now when she started a family, got pregnant before her prom and gave birth before graduation. She battled to keep a roof above us, food in our bellies, and our minds in school. And she succeeded in those, but she couldn’t protect me from what happened in the back seat of cars, in the rooms of our home and to my body.
But she never said no to books. Not ever. I got the love that saved my life from her.
She left poetry on my bed and played music constantly. Words got in too.
Books allowed bite-size exposure to new ideas I could taste and let simmer.
Books even gave me the keys that drove the car away from my family of origin—where I still feel like an exile, though I know I was loved and I love them in return.
I rest my complications down and put them on paper. Truth-telling and silence share the foundation of the duplex I live in both sides of.
Books filled me with possibility, hope and discoveries, even when my actual circumstances were constricted, violent or difficult.
Books were a raft, a ship and a life jacket.
Open pages were the palm trees and the sky, the sun and the characters I wanted to meet.
The Buddhist trauma and abuse survivor Cheri Huber wrote: “There’s Nothing Wrong with You: Going Beyond Self-Hate.” That book schooled me.
She spoke of sitting still, being with or watching feelings, which was so abstract and wacky sounding. How would all that improve life, peace or self esteem?
I was skeptical.
She insisted that the relentless need to fix ourselves was based on a faulty premise—that we’re damaged and need to be fixed. Instead she said we need to love and accept ourselves and others and that this love was the most powerful force and acceptance.
Maybe she’s crazy, I’d think and argue with her in my mind. Yet even before I believed her words, seeds were growing. Each word-seed was planted and made it harder for my judgments to take root.
She raised the sea level of my compassion so deep it trickled up through my foundation until I myself became more fluid.
Would words have mentored and corrected me like a mother and a father if I had parents who weren’t depressed, stressed out, drug-addicted teens?
I’m not sure.
I thought I was alone, but I had guidance. I was climbing ladders and supported too.
With words and dreams, I wrote my way into the future when the present of that past was unbearable. I’m still learning how to settle back down into my skin now that I’m not running.
I hung on to a lifeline until it became a rope that flung and freed me.
There are so many pencil-slinging warrior princesses still out there: us.
We did it! We made it! We’re soaring!
Eventually, but not always, or right away.
Sometimes we gasp and fall and cling and stumble.
And some are falling even now.
Let’s band together and build a net beneath us for our sisters still navigating the precarious trapeze. We can knit together our lifelines into huge net so they won’t hit concrete, and we can help them regain balance and orient them in hope.
Here’s to my soul friends, my pencil-slinging warrior princess-queen-goddess guides and mentors from time past and time forward, in books and words, in real time and dreams. We got this and each other!
I picture us soaring out over open waters, screaming, brave, bold and wild.
Author: Christine “Cissy” White
Editor: Evan Yerburgh
Image: via the author