“Wait for me!” my niece yells as she runs after the older kids. But her six-year old legs can’t keep up with the other four in the nine-to-thirteen set.
“You’re slow,” the nine-year old yells back and waves her off. “Just wait for us here and we’ll tell you what happens.”
“No!!! I want to be there with you. I want to do it too!” She huffs and puffs and runs. “Wait for me.”
“You’re not good enough, yet,” said the ten-year old. “Stay with Aunt Sharon.”
I follow behind, in my natural position as watcher, bearer of snacks, and on-the-ready first aider and sports agent. Which means I’m carrying the picnic basket, camera, and everything else I thought we might need for an all-day adventure in the canvas bag weighing down my shoulder.
“It’s okay,” I say to the girl who wishes she was bigger. “I’m here with you. And I promise we won’t miss anything.”
“But we will,” she whines. “They’ll give out the best baseball positions before I get there.”
Although tempted to point out that five children do not make a baseball team, I sigh and hand her the bat that sticks out of my bag at an odd angle and keeps hitting me in the head as I walk. “They can’t do anything without the bat. So before you give it to them, use it to bargain for a better position.”
“Okay.” Seemingly appeased with her new source of power, she smiles and takes off. But it doesn’t take long for her to turn around and come back for me.
“They’re gone. And they took the bat.”
“They just don’t understand.”
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Her shoulders slump forward in an exaggerated way and she sticks out her tongue. “How much it hurts to be left behind.” She kicks the ground. “I don’t like it. I want to be grown so I can be part of the group. And I want it now.”
My shoulders ache and I count the number of steps until we get to our favorite picnic table. I honestly don’t know what to say so I start to unload everything. She might be small, but she’s smart. And she’ll roll her eyes at any pity or insincere comments.
She’s a six-year old who demands honest answers from her adults.
In other words, she knows bullsh*t when she hears it.
It’s one of the things I admire most about her. So I hand her the only Coke in the bag. (It’s mine. Which means my options for lunch have been reduced to a warm juice box or the park’s water fountain)
She opens it with a practiced pop-fizz. “How come it’s so hard?”
“How come what’s so hard? Being small? Or being left behind?”
She looks up at me with those too-old eyes. “To be so close to what you want–so close you can almost touch it–and not be part of it. To watch everyone else doing what I want to do but can’t. It’s like holding an ice cream cone and not being able to lick it.”
My heart catches in my throat and the words from a friend of mine rush through my mind. Like all authors, she’s had her share of rejections. And despite being multi-published, the most recent rejection had been particularly painful. “I can see my goal in everyone around me who is moving forward,” she said, “but when I reach out to touch my dream, it vanishes. And I’m left behind. I really hate this time of year.”
I’d asked why, wondering if there was a particular time of year when the rejections were more difficult than others.
All she’d said was, “Conference season.”
And those two words had sent a cold wash through my body. I knew exactly what she was talking about. For those of us who are yet-to-be published, the hard moments include book signings you’re not a part of. The publisher parties. The awards programs. If there was ever a time during the year when an aspiring author felt left behind, alone and unwelcome, it was during conference season.
But I also knew the other truth. That once the published barrier was broken, the loneliness that comes from comparison doesn’t end. From what I could see, those feelings of inadequacy, the sense of being unseen, become amplified.
That snapping, barking fear, which hounds all people chasing a dream, never goes away. But when you finally have something to lose, the fear magnifies.
So even though I’ve had my own moments of being left behind, especially as my own writing friends became published and moved on without me, I’d had nothing to offer my friend then or my niece now.
Hallmark encouragements looked nice printed artistically on pieces of driftwood, but they wouldn’t give the six-year old the weapons to slay her insecurities.
And the truth was, in order to beat those feelings, we needed a weapon. A particularly sharp and scary one. Because, like my niece and my friend, I too was afraid I’d be left behind.
Afraid of remaining unseen.
Afraid that all the baseball field positions would be taken.
Afraid that there’d be nothing left by the time I arrived.
But I had to give my niece something.
I knelt in front of her. “Do you know who Winston Churchill was?”
“You mean the dog from the movie Oliver & Company?”
“No. He was the Prime Minister of Great Britain. And he had an important job to do. He had to stop the spread of evil throughout Europe and the rest of the world.”
“He was terribly afraid they would lose the war, but he had a saying for those who had to face the enemy face-to-face. Never, never, never give up.”
She burped from too much Coke.
I stood. For many reasons, that quote is my absolute favorite. That quote never fails to keep me going. That quote was my last arrow.
Except it hadn’t worked on the six-year old. She needed something tangible, something concrete, something she could do, like when my daughter would get excited or upset about something and dance around the room singing High School Musical songs.
As I pull out the butterfly nets and lay them on the table, my niece’s direct stare demands an honest answer to a tough question.
Not some seventy year old quote from a man she’s never heard of.
She comes over to help and finds the battery powered iPod speaker. “I wish I could fly,” she says suddenly. “Then I could fly over my brothers and poop on them.”
I laugh out loud. “You don’t want to poop on them. You want to rise above them.” Then I smile, remembering something. “You know, I’m a member of a group call the Firebirds. We’re named after the Phoenix.”
“Cool,” says the thirteen year old girl who’d just arrived from the baseball field. “A mythological bird that rises from the ashes.”
“What do you do when you feel left behind?” the six-year old asks the teenager.
“I make a playlist,” says the teenager. “I have one for every situation. Reading a book, taking a bath, doing homework. But when I’m really upset, I make a playlist of Victory songs.”
“What’s a victory song?”
The teenager picks up her cousin and twirls her around and around until they both fall onto the ground in a pile of tickles and laughs and twisted limbs. “It’s a song you play before you do something hard, like take a test, or when you’re sad or your feelings are hurt. It’s a song that reminds you that you’ve already won. There’s even a Victory song called the Phoenix. It’s by Fall Out Boy.”
“So what is the victory song?” My niece jumps up and down. “I want to be a Phoenix. Then I won’t be scared anymore.”
“It’s not about not being scared,” says the teenager. “It’s about knowing what you want, in spite of the fear, then telling yourself you’re going to win anyway. The Victory song is just there to remind you that you’re exactly where God wants you to be and that it’s okay to be there.”
She pulls out her iPod and pops it on the speaker. Then she picks up some dirt, mixes it with the dregs of the Coke can, and makes a paste. “Get ready,” she says, spreading the mud on her cousin’s face. “We’re going to dance the Phoenix Victory Song.”
“What’s this?” she asks. “Face painting?”
“No, silly.” The teenager stands and smiles. “War paint. A true warrior never goes into battle without it.” Then she hits play.
As I dance with the two girls, disregarding the frowns from other picnickers, I realize that my daughter has just given me and my amazing Firebird sisters a weapon with which to slay our “left behind demons”. Our very own Victory song. (and how many GH classes have their own song?)
Let the conference season begin. Without loneliness. Without envy. Without fear.
But with love. Courage. And a whole lot of war paint.
Because none of us have been left behind. We’re exactly where we need to be.
We just needed a Victory song to remind us.
(Disclaimer from the teenage girl: The phoenix in the song is not to be confused with the uber-romantic dark exiled angel hero Phoenix from Jessica Shirvington’s Embrace YA series with whom said teenage girl is in a ship with because he’s now her OTP. Unfortunately, her ship with Phoenix is not Canon but she assures me it is still real and their shipping name is Phoellen.
If you do not understand the terms in this disclaimer, ask one of the YA authors. I’m sure they’ll be happy to explain.)
All photographs courtesy of Sharon Wray.