In my romances, part of the gift the hero and heroine often exchange with each other is what I call, turning the telescope around.

Anna sees that Westhaven’s somewhat fussy personality—for which his siblings tease RA at his deskhim—is the mark of a man who cares enough for his family to take on endless hours of thankless paperwork.

St. Just hardly notices that Emmie is socially marginalized, he sees her as resourceful and self-sufficient. Emmie sees him not as a twitchy, nervous wreck, but as a war hero painstakingly reclaiming a capacity for tenderheartedness.

Joseph is not put off by Louisa’s brains, he’s enthralled by them, even as he understands her intelligence has made her lonely—as he’s been lonely.

lone puzzle pieceWhen somebody turns the telescope around on us, we feel bewildered, but also oddly happy to have been wrong about ourselves. They show us where that puzzle piece should go that we were sure was in the wrong box.

I will never, ever forget an exchange with my brother Tom at a family wedding. While Tom can be funny, kind, charming, and wise (Louisa’s book is dedicated to him), as an adolescent, he was often a trial to himself and those around him. That capacity for moodiness and sarcasm hasn’t entirely left him.

I made some comment about being fat (and oh, what I wouldn’t give to be that “fat” now), and he shot back, “You were never fat, you were just big.”


I’m a few inches above average height, (albeit shrinking fast), and I was stacking hay wagons by age thirteen, but big? Then I recalled how often people had thought me older than my sister Maire, who’s two years my senior, though several inches shorter.

PUZZLE_IMAGE_2_bodyI wasn’t fat, I was just big.

The result of this insight was a rush of compassion for my younger self, a realization that I’d struggled possibly with some extra weight, but also with weighty misperceptions of myself that nobody bothered to correct. And I was grateful, too, to know that Tom, for all the nonsense he went through as a teenager, saw me more clearly and more positively than I saw myself.

He turned the telescope around on me, and showed me that what I thought was a weakness, was not a weakness at all.

Those moments are great fun to write, when I can surprise my point-of-view character with how wrong he or she has been in their self-concept. The good news is, they aren’t as dull, awkward, plain, arrogant, rigid (supply pejorative of your choice) as they believed themselves to be. The scary thing is, somebody is watching them intimately, learning their secrets, and paying attention.

Wonderful material, the stuff of real intimacy.

And now, you know what I’m going to ask: When did somebody turn the telescope around on you? Because you will recall those moments clearly, down to the angle of the sunlight, or where the salt shaker sat on the picnic table. We’d love to hear about those moments, but we’d also like to hear about when you were able to show somebody that what they thought was a weakness, you didn’t view the same way at all.

Bet you remember that too.

To one commenter, I’ll send a $25 Amazon gift card.

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25 comments on “Retro-Grace

  1. I’ve had discussions with my sister (who’s also my best friend), when I’ve been down on myself over a lack that I perceived. She always gives me a new perspective, showing me her point of view, and it has turned things around for me quite a few times. I’ve been able to do the same with her as well, as a matter of fact just today during a serious discussion of making amends.

  2. My husband and I married and had our daughter at a very young age. My memories of the first years of our marriage and parenthood was that life was hard and that we couldn’t do all the things we wanted to for our daughter. She is 35 now and her memories of that time are that we always went out of our way to make sure she had a good life. She says that when she looks back now it is obvious that we didn’t have much money, but as a child she said she didn’t feel like we had less then other families. She says that we always made sure she was dressed nice and always had good food and made sure Christmas and birthdays were made special. So she didn’t feel poor, even though we were. So now I look back at that time with pride, because she thinks it was a wonderful childhood.

    • Mary, my siblings would probably say the same thing. Raising seven children on a college professor’s salary, there were plenty of hand-me-down, few extracurricular activities and nothing in the way of family outings or vacations (we wouldn’t all fit in one car), but we also had Christmas and birthdays, and we had lots of love and laughter.

      Despite how many grouse about “kids today,” I’m sure many children would rather be raised by their parents, than having both parents work so the kids could be raised by others. That’s a tough, tough choice, and every option along the continuum has a difficult downside.

    • Mary I understand where you’re coming from completely. I raised my daughter as a single parent and did the best I could for her on what money I could make in mainly minimum wage jobs.
      A couple of years ago my youngest niece mentioned the fact that I always gave my daughter “the best birthday parties” she and her siblings had ever seen. I couldn’t understand that statement as she only got one party at a Chuck E Cheese, when she was in middle school, with a whole 6 other kids! Most of her parties, when she had them, were held two houses down at my best friends house as she had kids and always offered to help out. It’s amazing that people see what they want even if it doesn’t actually take place.

  3. When children come rushing to spend time with me (at work) and protest when I send them back to class, when they seem to be oblivious of the fact that I put some rather intense challenges before them, I feel such pleasure that it can last me for weeks, even months.

    Does that count?

    • Absolutely. I recall when a piano teacher referred to me as an intellectual musician. I at first thought she meant I couldn’t convey the music, only the notes, but she clarified: I could do both, whereas somebody who didn’t bother to grasp the theory was never going to fully appreciate the composer’s intentions.
      Oh. OH.
      And thus, did I pursue a degree in music history.

  4. When I got divorce with 3 children to raise, I felt overwhelmed. My life got better with the help of family. I worked hard to raise my children right,and now they are all grown up and I’m proud.

    • Belinda, hats off to you for sticking with your children, doing your best, and knowing a success when you see one (or three).

      I sit in foster care court, week after week, watching one sorry mom after another troop through, and listening to the judges exhorting the moms, “Get sober, get a job, ditch the bum, stay in therapy…” The moms try hard, and many of them do get their lives together, but as we’re lecturing those moms, week after week, I have to wonder: If DAD had pulled his share of the load would this family be in trouble? Just where is Dad, that’s more important than trying to look after his children?

      You managed, somehow you managed, and you should be very, very proud–of them, and of yourself!

  5. Sometimes, you need to do this for yourself. I’ve been told many many times that I’m over-emotional, as in you’re too much and you’re also not enough. I choose the view that many people are undersensitive because I’ve found my sensitivity to be a gift that allows me to excel in other ways.

    • Myrna, I got the same thing, from my dear, “do enough house work and you can get over anything,” mother. She coped her way, but my way doesn’t allow me to keep silent as well as she did.

      People who speak the truth often find others not appreciating that gift. Speak it anyway, as kindly and honorably as you can, but speak it.

  6. When I was in 6th grade, and before, I used to think of myself as shy and told my favorite teacher so one day when we were chatting before class started. She told me that wasn’t true, that in fact I wasn’t shy at all but I was reserved and a silent observer of the world around me. She told me that she was quite certain that I missed nothing. I was astonished! She also told me she was quite certain that I had a lot to say about things and that I should never be afraid to speak up for myself, something which I never did. Well, since I had put this teacher, Mrs. Bush, up on a pedestal and considered her the most perfect person, I listened to her. I don’t keep much to myself anymore, though others have also told me that I am a keen observer and a very good listener!

    • Kim, what a marvelous little vignette! This teacher was probably organizing lesson plans for the day, offering you the casual benefit of her vocation, and yet, her words lit a candle for you that has shone brightly ever since.
      I’ll remember this distinction too: Not shy, but reserved, and observant. You might read that in one of my books some day.

  7. If asked, I readily admit to having a Big Voice, which I exercise freely. I like people, hearing their stories and sharing mine. However, I have been made to feel loud and sometimes rude in certain (often professional) settings. Then, we were taking a new member of our department out for a welcome lunch, and someone turned to me and said, “Oh, good. I’m glad you’re here. Conversation always flows more smoothly when you’re here. It would have been awkward without you.” Yes, I remember it clearly as a moment of kindness.

    • Suffice it to say, I’d rather sit closer to you, at lunch, and especially at the bar. People who take an interest in others have a gift. My mom has it, and she’s right when she says you can serve people peanut butter and celery, but if you take a genuine interest in them, they’ll feel welcome and want to come back.

  8. In 8th grade, I was called into the school counselor’s office. My friends were “worried about me.” After some tears and talking to Mrs. Fry for a bit, she smiled and said, “Julee, you are fine. You’re just a little more mature than the other girls. Lighten up a bit and give yourself a break.” Heady words to a teenager wanting to fit in….Thanks, Grace.

    • And why, at that age, at any age, are we so quick to view a difference as a detriment? Eighth grade is such a hard, hard year… like sixth, seventh, ninth, tenth… Thank goodness for Mrs. Fry, who knew what to say, and where and how to say it.

  9. Like Kim, I have always been considered shy and a lot of people have told me I seemed unapproachable before they got to know me, but I have had a few people in my life that have seen through the quiet to realize that I am observing what goes on around me and taking in everything. I do have a lot to say about a lot of things, but usually don’t say it unless asked. Then I usually amaze people with all that I have kept hidden. I am one of those people who changes with the situation I am placed in. Growing up I was quiet in school because I was there to learn, but when you got me out of the school setting and into a more social setting like a birthday party I came alive. I am the same way today. When you get me away from the kids and out with the girls I become a less serious person, it may take a few minutes but it does eventually happen.

    • I’m not mistaken for quiet, but I am mistaken for serious. This is probably a function of appearance, dress, demeanor, and a sort of hypervigilance I’m not likely to outgrow. I come across like Snoopy on his croquet wicket.

      Maybe being perceived as shy isn’t such a bad thing?

  10. Let me tell you a long story as quickly as I can.

    In 3rd grade I was placed in a Chapter 1 (I think they now call it Title I) math class because of borderline scores on the state achievement test. From that point on I was convinced math was not my subject. It didn’t matter that in 6th grade I took (yet another) standardized test and did better in math than in reading (despite the fact I tried to hide my book under my desk and read during math class), I still didn’t believe math was my thing. My 7th grade math was a struggle, not because of the content but because of my mind set.

    I was out of college (where I managed to only take Math 101) and in my first teaching position (working with adults who were preparing for the GED) when I found myself having to teach math (the basic stuff). When my supervisor decided to try something new I was given a math group to teach. I came to realize I knew the math and could explain the math to most people. When I went to work at the 2nd high school I taught at I wanted nothing but Algebra because, while I didn’t know it then, I knew I could re-learn it and enjoy it way more than Senior English. Now, I still am not great at answering “why” in a math class (“Because that’s what I told you to do) because I probably don’t know (but I can Google that shit for you).

    • Sabrina, I think math is a subject where the people who are good at it should be prohibited from teaching it. They never had that experience of peeling back the quadratic equation one variable at a time, of seeing proportions finally make sense, of figuring out why “invert and multiply” gets the right answer.

      The Math People are born knowing why it works like that, so they can’t explain it to us Mere Mortals. Works the same way with riding horses. Do not ask somebody with a natural seat how to sit the trot. They cannot tell you. It never came in the verbal side of their brain, they’re not going to be able to describe it verbally.

      Like you, once I escaped from higher education, and had to USE math, I found my understanding of it was above average. Dare I mention, I even LIKE to use it now?

  11. When I was 18, I spent a year abroad living with a family with three boys aged 9, 12 and 14. And the boys helped me realising something by just being them: spoiled, demanding, not doing a damned thing to help with anything and not appreciating what was being done for them.
    Now I can’t say I was like them, but nevertheless I think they put a mirror in front of me and I understood! I so much learned (rather realised) to appreciate what my parents had done for me: demanding and teaching manners and good behaviour (what child likes that??), helping me/being there for me when I needed it, not giving me all I always wanted but make me treasure things.
    And now, that I am a mum myself, I am having a hell of a time teaching my children all I would like them to be and even more appreciate my parents’ efforts…

    • Catch ’em being good, Conny. Children, horses, dogs, lawyers, they all respond well to positive reinforcement, even if you have to start with, “What a kind smile you have,” when they’re plotting the downfall of the known world.