The Red Sweatshirt Strings

There was recently a Facebook post in our community about purchasing sweatshirts for a school trip for elementary students. This trip is a tradition in town, and families are invited to purchase red sweatshirts that both provide much needed warmth for all the outdoor fun and memorialize the event for years to come. Because I had kids in elementary school for what seems like forever and was a chaperone on the trip and a parent helper leading up to the trip, I am well aware of the concern over getting just the right sweatshirt. Here’s the thing: all the sweatshirts look exactly the same. Exactly. You can buy one with a hood or one without a hood. And you can buy youth or adult sizes. But wait. The youth sizes do. not. have. strings. in. the. hood. OMG (picture a car screeching to a halt).

With 100% good intentions – really and truly – when the sweatshirt sales start, parents are warned that they must. buy. the. right. sweatshirt. There must have been a year when a child had a meltdown over their sweatshirt not looking like someone else’s, because for years, parents have been warned that if they don’t buy the right sweatshirt, it would ruin their child’s trip or they’d end up having to buy a second sweatshirt when their child noticed theirs was different. The right sweatshirt was clearly not a youth size. and clearly not a crew neck.

Remember 4th grade? Remember how different kids are, physically? Some are babies and some are grown people? All different shapes and sizes. Some call for youth sizes and some call for adult sizes. But “Oh-holy-hell-I-don’t-want-to-risk-a-crappy time-for-my-kid-the-first-time-they-are-away-from-me-overnight-so-I-have-to-buy-the-right-sweatshirt-oh-crap-what-if-its-too-big-and-looks-like-a-dress-on-them-but-I-have-to-buy-the-one-with-strings-because-what-if-the-other-kids-make-fun-of-my-kid-and-I’m-not-there-to-help-and-oh-shit-what-do-I-do-I-need-to-have-strings-in-the-red-sweatshirt!!!” It is so clear to me that this manic worry about the right sweatshirt comes from an abundance of love and care; from the schools to the parents – no one has anything other than generous intentions. I’m actually so grateful for this dilemma, because it has allowed me to see something in myself that I did not necessarily want to see.

The implied message in the red sweatshirt string proposal is, “You Must Fit In.” What may be true for you, doesn’t really matter. Happiness is in doing it right. Show up with the right clothes. Avoid being an outlier at all costs. Whatever you do, don’t embarrass me.

But when we talk “about” raising kids, parenting kids, teaching kids, don’t we do just the opposite? Don’t we preach “you be you”? Don’t we talk about creativity and following your dream and “it doesn’t matter what they say!”? In our generosity of love and care, adults can confuse the crap out of things.

The red sweatshirt strings have become a metaphor for me. I use it. Not in judgment, but as a point of reflection and a way of asking myself, “What are my red sweatshirt strings?”. Even more profound in the metaphor, is the fact that all six (+) sweatshirts purchased for my family lost the sweatshirt strings as soon as they were put through the wash (yes, I bought the “right”sweatshirts for all of them!).

First, with my kids: Where do I send them mixed messages? I can tell you that I teach them about being kind and loving, but then I may try to connect with them by gossiping about someone. Or I might encourage them to do whatever makes them happy, but then hover over them to make sure that their “happy” fits into my expectations for them. I may even offer “you be you” but “you” better also be “me”.

And then, with myself: Where am I so afraid that if it doesn’t happen perfectly, I feel like my life might fall apart? Where am I holding the reigns so tightly that I don’t allow for an opening of experience or a surrender of results? What fears keep me trying to control every detail instead of relaxing and simply noticing what actually is as the process unfolds? And even more so, where do I engage in frenetic activity, instead of just sitting and noticing what I feel?

The red sweatshirt strings have offered me a checkpoint to pull me back and put space between the thought and what actually leaves my mouth. When I feel my body tighten, or my heart race, or my brain race, I know that the red sweatshirt strings are being activated. I know that I need to put them through the wash. Get rid of them by doing any number of things. I know I need to check in with myself. I know I need to return to the present and notice what is and choose how I want to respond. My wake-up call to the red sweatshirt strings is my awareness that I am trying to control the outcome of something that I have absolutely no control over. It’s that frantic speech pattern of worry and decision and control and “what if?”. And then I need to put the damn sweatshirt through the wash.

When I blog, I blog for me. Not for the reader. I guess that somewhere inside, I am worried about the outcome of something. Instead of yelling at my family, tuning out on social media, manically engaging in activity around my house, I’m going to sit. Notice. Breathe. And see what shows up. And I guess at that point, I’d better be ready to do some laundry.

Showing up for myself: A lesson in how knowing myself changes how I show up for what’s tough.

Trust. It’s such a tricky word. Nothing evokes fear in me like that word. And yet, when I can fully and wholly relax into trust….wait. Let’s face it, I’m not sure I can. But I know I have. So what was different between then and now?

As I write, I am aware that I like to think I trust in the Universe, trust in a higher power, trust in the goodness of the world to take care of me and my loves, I am also aware that I generally have a Plan B. If God doesn’t come through for me, I can always take the wheel. Even in the acknowledgement of this, my heart is racing, I feel edgy, and I really have no peace.

What is that all about? What influences my ability to trust in the Universe? Self care. When I am off the beam – not taking care of myself – all of these fears rise to the top. It is like carbonation bubbling up to the surface and disrupting my peaceful, smooth surface (if you know me, you know that there is very little on the outside that says “peace”, but really, I do feel it on the inside!). Self care looks different for all of us. It took me years to know what self care was for me. I remember thinking self care meant having a giant Snickers at 4:00 every day because “my body was telling me” I needed a Snickers and “we should trust in the wisdom of our bodies,” after all. Horseshit. Other things I played with were staying in my PJs all weekend (pre-kids), drinking, and “girl time”, which always seemed to translate into “gossip time” and I never, ever felt good afterwards. You want to see someone robbed of any chance at peace? Put them in Pj’s for a weekend (after their Friday afternoon Snickers – and not the little “fun” size and not even the grocery aisle size – these were GINORMOUS Snickers), give them lots of alcohol (and whatever other substance or food will help them to “know” they are responding to their body’s wisdom), and let them talk for hours with friends about other friends. Oh yes…and I was probably listening to some depressing music like The Cranberries or the soundtrack from Reality Bites. But I digress….

After lots of work and willingness to give up what I think I know for something I truly know (that word “trust” implied again), it is clear to me what it means to take care of myself. I don’t want the details to muck up the message, so I’ll share that for me, it involves exercise, some sort of spiritual practice, and the right food. It involves fully honoring values that I have discovered are important for me to honor in order for my insides to match my outsides. It involves living in resonance and relaxing into what “is” so that I can know how I feel and acknowledge those feelings (the hard ones are usually fear and embarrassment) in some way, shape or form. Things seem lighter and my attachment to them – my white-knuckled grip – begins to loosen.

So back to trust. I have recently had some “stuff” going on that requires me to rely heavily on the Universe because I am so incredibly powerless over the outcome, that I had to get into a place where I could trust that I, and those who are deep in these weeds with me, would be taken care of. I had to let go of my grip on controlling the outcome and find the trust so that I could surrender the results and trust that the right thing would happen. So what did I do? I took walks. I took care of my food. And my spiritual practice involved writing and a whole heck of a lot of “Lead me, guide me, show me the way.” To the outside world, the “stuff” in my life would have allowed me to say “not enough time”, “x, y, z needs to be taken care of,” and “don’t indulge yourself, you are too busy and need to fix this problem.” But I knew, in some very profound place, that I needed to continue to take care of my body and my soul or I would be useless to those relying on me. Was I afraid? Hells yes. Was it paralyzing? No. Not when I was taking care of myself.

Am I still afraid? Admittedly, yes, fear pops up. It’s here today but as I write (read: spiritual practice) it is subsiding. I’m not in the depths of it, necessarily, but I am still in it. And, ya’ know what? I haven’t been taking care of myself. I’ve been working a lot and making excuses for not getting outside or writing or having meaningful conversations with those I trust. Those are the things that feed me. And the carbonation is rising. It’s actually already risen. I can feel the bubbles disrupting the surface of my being. So I start with writing — here at least — and I make sure I get some exercise today. I have lots on my plate so I will ask for help so that I can do what I need to do to not feel that heart-racing, edgy (and let’s face it – irritable) feeling. And by tonight, my trust will return. My peace will be back. Everyone around me will benefit. And I’ll start all over again tomorrow.

What are you facing today, this week, this month that makes you call into question your ability to trust? Is it your high school senior choosing their next phase? A problem in a relationship that needs attention but your fear is keeping you from addressing it? A health concern of yours or someone you love?

Now ask yourself: “How am I taking care of myself?”

“How am I living in resonance today?”

“Does what I know to be true on my insides – my values, my soul-
speak, my core beliefs about who I am – match what I project on the
outside?”

If the answer is no, stop thinking. Just do it. Do the next right thing. Do whatever it is that you know of (and you do know), that points your attention to caring for yourself. See what happens to that situation that causes you to question your trust. Trust that you are being taken care of. Trust that the next right thing will be revealed to you. Trust in the process. And trust that you and your loves will be fundamentally well. As you do, I trust that your grip on it all will loosen and you will start to feel peace. As you do, maybe nothing other than you will change, but that’s the exact right place for it all to start. I’d love to hear how it goes.