For better or worse, I tend to put a lot of thought into words. Even though two words can mean the exact same thing, I’ll weigh the options. Here’s an example: take the words “grumpy” and “irritable.” If I say, “I’m grumpy today,” I have said that I am in an unpleasant mood but it will pass and don’t take me too seriously. But if I say, “I’m irritable,” I convey that I am an easily angered person on a regular basis or I have some kind of condition, like a chemical imbalance or PMS. Words can technically mean the same thing but feel very different. And I get really stuck on them. If you give me a blank piece of paper and a pen and tell me to sit still for twenty minutes, you won’t find me doodling. When I was in elementary and middle school, my friends were professionals at doodles and bubble letters….and I was good at making word collages.
“Give me a topic, any topic, and I can make you a word collage!” Okay, I never said that. But I sure did think it.
Because I’m one of those people that thinks a bit too hard on words, I come across some words that rub me the wrong way. For example, I used to have major trouble with the word “upbeat.” When I heard it, I always thought of someone who ignores deeper issues, who acts like everything is okay no matter what, and who wears a kind of fake smile. I thought of someone who frowns a bit when someone in a group stirs up a discussion and says, “We try to keep things upbeat here.”
Until recently, I’ve been pretty unkind in my thoughts towards “upbeat.”
Then something changed. It happened in January, that hallowed month of new beginnings. I was rethinking the way my days went, and one of the things I started realizing was that words I had always liked, such as “melancholy” and “pensive” and “soulful” were not really fitting me anymore. The thing is, you can’t really wake up each morning and expect to mother two happy children if you think of yourself as “soulful.” You have to think more along the lines of “optimistic” and “cheerful” if you expect cheerful children. I knew I was going to have to start identifying with different words. I may naturally be a more quietly active, contemplative person, but it was time to think of myself as more. It was time to start realizing I had become, and needed to keep becoming, a person who was more than those words I formerly used to define myself.
Like it or not, everyone knows that moms set the tone. I’ve known this since I was a little girl. Remember how everything felt off kilter when your mom needed a sick day or you could tell she was preoccupied with some inner worry? I remember that very well. I saw it in my own daughter’s eyes last week when her eyes filled with tears after I told her I didn’t feel like dancing with her right then because I had a stomach ache. It’s a minor illness to me, but it’s worrisome and tragic to her. And mothers seek to avert all tragedies, real or merely perceived.
January was when I started getting out of bed, facing the rainy winter day, and giving myself a mental pep talk. I would remind myself that every day is a gift, even January days, that my children would remember the feel of the days more than the things we did. I would try to remind myself of my bigger goals, like how I want them to be able to make believe and play with whatever was at hand. And I wanted to keep the TV off as much as possible. In these pep talks, I found myself speaking new words into my identity. “You are fun,” I’d say to myself. “You are full of grace and joy.” “You are giving and forgiving and open minded. You are not afraid of messes.” “You are magnanimous.” (Ha).
But none of these new, lofty words stuck like the dreaded “upbeat.” I started finding myself saying it all the time, kind of like a mantra. Upbeat. You are upbeat. I would remind myself of that when we ran out of milk and diapers again and had to go to the store, as I bundled up the kids and herded them into the car: “just stay upbeat!” At first, I wanted to slap my forehead every time my inner consciousness told me to be upbeat. Then, I realized the word wasn’t going away. It had stuck as one of the key new words in my new mental word collage of who I am.
The great thing about word collages is that you can always add another word. I can add new ideas and character qualities without erasing who I am deep down inside. I’ll probably always be a person who is capable of living inside of herself for long stretches of time and not speaking a word for hours on end. I’ll always love a quiet walk on a lonely country road or an uninterrupted hour to read. But I like to think I’m expanding at the same time. I can enjoy running in a sprinkler outside. I can hide in a blanket fort with kids and tell stories. I can make the Lego men talk about the awesome trucks my son builds for them. I can make my kids giggle and shout with laughter during a pillow fight. I am becoming more playful, more energetic. More upbeat. It’s not always easy, but I hope to keep making progress on my mental word collage as I open myself up to claiming not only the identity I was born with but also the identity I was created to adopt. I’m sure there are plenty of other character qualities I need to adopt into my identity, but for now, I’m happy to be upbeat.