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On the Bright Side: Stories about Friendship, Love, and Being True to Yourself

On the Bright Side: Stories about Friendship, Love, and Being True to Yourself

by Melanie Shankle


Learn More | Meet Melanie Shankle

Chapter 1

The Bright Side of Finding of Finding Your People

Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.

—ANAÏS NIN, THE DIARY OF ANAÏS NIN

When I was about four years old, my mom woke up early one morning to the sound of knocking at the front door. She got out of bed to see who on earth had decided to drop by at such an unacceptable hour for visitors and found our neighbor standing at the door, holding my hand. It seems I’d woken up, gotten myself dressed, and decided to venture next door to see if my friend Margo could play. The day before, we’d launched a very lucrative business selling Hershey’s Kisses wrappers we had painstakingly smoothed out, and I didn’t want to waste any time before earning more cold, hard cash in what was clearly a genius venture. I guess that was before I’d discovered the glory that is sleeping late.

There are several takeaways from this childhood anecdote, probably the most important being how mortified my mom must have been to realize her child had left the house without her knowing it. But what stands out to me is that even at that young age, I was always ready to spend time with my girlfriends. This has been a constant throughout my life. I love my friends, and there have been many who have added more value and joy to my life than I could ever express in the pages of this book.

As women, I think we spend a lot of the first part of our lives dreaming about finding our Prince Charming, and we are fed an abundance of movies that focus on true love, so we buy into the idea of our soul mate being out there waiting for us. I spent several years thinking my soul mate might be George Michael from Wham!, so I clearly missed a memo on something. His hair looked so good in the music video for “Last Christmas” that we can chalk that up to an honest mistake. But when I look back over my childhood and teen years and even into adulthood, the real constant in my life has been my girlfriends. Even after being married all these years, I wonder if someone can really be our soul mate when they don’t care to hear all our thoughts on the best waterproof mascara or talk about which anti-aging creams are the most effective. It’s our girlfriends who remind us of the woman we were before we were a wife and a mother. It’s our girlfriends who encourage and challenge us to grow into the woman God intends us to be. They see the girl in us who is still trying to figure out life and find our way in the world. They are the safe place where we can admit we don’t have all the answers and we have no idea what we are doing and life feels a little scary and uncertain.

After my best friend, Gulley, had her second baby back in 2005, she was living in the haze that is trying to wrangle a toddler who thinks a couch is also a trampoline while simultaneously nursing a newborn and trying not to fall asleep standing up because she was constantly sleep deprived. And so, for her birthday that year, I decided what she probably needed most was a girls’ night out. I called our mutual friend, Hilary, and she helped me put together a small group to go eat Mexican food and celebrate Gulley’s birthday. There were six of us at that first dinner, and most of us didn’t know each other very well or even at all, but we were all in the same stage of life: raising babies, fighting postpartum depression, trying to lose baby weight, and figuring out how to keep the spark in our marriages when we’ve had whiny toddlers hanging on our legs all day. It was a pretty random group, but the things we had in common bonded us together over that first batch of margaritas and chips and queso. We were all desperate for grown-up conversation and interaction that didn’t involve Elmo and Mr. Noodle and having to ask someone repeatedly, “Do you need to go pee-pee?”

By the time that first dinner ended, we had already made plans to do it again the following month to celebrate my birthday. Eventually, we called ourselves the “Birthday Club” because our original purpose was to get together for each person’s birthday. When our dinners out became a monthly thing, our husbands all questioned how we managed to celebrate a birthday every month of the year when there were only six of us. To which we responded, “Mind your own business.”

For the next ten years, we got together on a regular basis and even upped the Birthday Club ante by taking a girls’ trip each summer. We lived through pregnancies, new babies, marital struggles, potty-training nightmares, strong-willed toddlers, and all manner of family drama. We shared stories from our past and our present and talked about our dreams for the future. Those monthly dinners were the thing we looked forward to most because they were essentially free group therapy over chips and salsa.

But then our babies started to grow up, and it wasn’t as easy to get our kids in pajamas and headed to bed by 7:00 p.m. so we could have a night out. There were sporting events and school programs to attend, and as life continued to get more and more busy, our monthly dinners turned into bi-monthly dinners, and then once-a-quarter dinners, and eventually we were managing to get together only once or twice a year. We’d all forgotten to prioritize the very thing that kept us sane and grounded.

Last summer, as it got closer to my birthday, I realized the thing I wanted most was to get together with Birthday Club. Gulley sent out a group text, and we all agreed on a time and place to meet for dinner. And even though it had been a while since we’d all been together, we immediately fell back into our same shorthand and closeness. Because we all have a tendency to talk fast and furiously in an attempt to cover every bit of conversational ground, we started a practice many years ago that we call, “Pinky up!” This just means that we are briefly tabling a new thought that just occurred to us while still discussing our original thought. Saying “Pinky up!” is a verbal reminder to circle back around so we don’t forget to cover whatever that topic happens to be. For example, “Pinky up! When you mentioned those cute sandals you found at Target, I just remembered I need to tell you about what happened in the carpool line at school the other day” or “Pinky up! Speaking of postpartum pregnancy underwear, I just realized we haven’t talked about Meghan Markle’s post-birth photo shoot and if we think there really is a feud between the Sussex and Cambridge families.” As we sat around that dinner table eating a mix of roasted brussels sprouts and parmesan fries, there were more pinkies-up than I could count, and I could almost hear the collective sigh of relief that comes from being with people who just get you.

Our kids are almost all teenagers now, and if there is ever a time in your life when you need to air it all out and get real about things, it’s when you are raising teenagers. There is no handbook or guide. There is no one right answer. We all agreed that the dirty little secret no one tells you about having teenagers is that none of us know what the heck we are doing. It’s a precarious, humbling time in life when you find yourself trying to teach children to drive while simultaneously wondering why your hands are starting to look like your grandmother’s and how you can increase the font size on your text messages so you can actually see the text from the child you carried in your womb for nine months that says, “GTG TTYL” (Got to go. Talk to you later).

By the end of that dinner, we all renewed our commitment to get together on a regular basis, no matter what we had to do to make it happen. We left that night a little lighter in that way you feel when you realize you aren’t alone and, even better, that maybe you’re actually not crazy. It’s that feeling you get when you remember you have people who would do anything in the world for you and for whom you’d do the same, which sometimes looks a whole lot like just listening and understanding and not judging when you share that you flipped the bird at your child behind his back as he stomped into his room. We’d gotten so busy being busy that we’d forgotten to make friendship a priority, and that dinner was the reset button we all needed to remember the things that brought us together in the first place. We’ve lived up to our promises, bringing back our girls’ weekend this summer, and we have gotten together more often, even in the midst of all the other things we have going on, because it’s worth it. People talk all the time about self-care, and I believe one of the biggest things we can do to take care of ourselves is spend time with friends who make us feel normal.

Here’s the thing about Birthday Club that snuck up on me. When we first started getting together all those years ago, it felt hard to open up and make new friends. I’m a person who likes my old friends. I like the familiar and the comfortable. But over the course of all those dinners, I opened up little by little, and eventually I looked up and realized that my new friends had become old friends. We have lived a lot of life together, but every friendship has to have a starting point.

We can trick ourselves into believing we’re doing okay on our own for a while, but eventually, I believe we all circle back to how much we need people who know us and love us in real life. Seasons of life change, but the need for ride-or-die friends never does. They represent some of the very best stuff that life has to offer.

***

Last fall, I traveled to Marshall, Texas, to speak at a women’s event. This meant I got to fly into the bustling East Texas Regional Airport. It only has one gate. The entire airport is essentially the size of my living room. On the upside, this meant I was able to walk five feet to the rental car counter as opposed to the fifty-mile shuttle ride required to reach the Hertz counter when you fly into the Dallas/Fort Worth airport. Not even O. J. Simpson would be able to rent a car quickly at Dallas/Fort Worth. Is it too soon to make an O. J. Simpson joke? I’m going to go with no.

I walked up to the rental car counter, and the clerk said, “Honey, let me see what cars we got in right now,” as she opened up a drawer and pulled out three sets of keys. She turned to her co-worker lounging in a chair behind her and asked, “Don, how’s that VW Beetle?” Don sat up with the realization he was being called into action and replied, “Well, it’s okay. It’s got something hanging down underneath it that drags as you drive, but I don’t reckon it’ll hinder you none.”

This isn’t really the type of rental car security and safety I’m looking for when I travel alone to speaking events. What if Don is wrong, and it hinders me to a great degree in the form of getting stuck on the side of a road in East Texas? I voiced this concern, and Don offered to follow me out to the lot to check out the VW Beetle before I got on the road. He even wheeled my suitcase out there for me, loaded it in the car, and then lay flat on his back to shimmy under the car and check out the offending car part that was dragging on the ground. And to Don’s utter delight, he was able to just break that piece of plastic off the car and eliminate the dragging. Was I a little concerned about whether or not that piece of plastic might be a crucial component of the car? Sure. But I felt like Don had offered up exceptional customer service in the form of rudimentary auto repair, so I drove the VW Beetle to my hotel, and all was well. Don was right. It did, in fact, hinder me none.

As soon as I arrived at the hotel, I called home to check in with my people, and that’s when I found out that Caroline had had a terrible day at school. There were tears, and it was one of those moments when I wished desperately that I wasn’t so far away. It’s hard to know your child is hurting and not be able to be there, and this was the breaking point of an ongoing situation that had brought us all to the end of our patience. I left for my speaking event shortly after I got off the phone with Caroline and got through the first session of my talk without incident. But when I began speaking during the second session, I got to a point where I talk about life not always turning out like we hope, and I found myself in tears. I had to stop in an attempt to compose myself, and I ended up sharing what was going on in our lives and how hard it was to watch Caroline struggle. It was a moment when I went from being semi-scripted to being totally raw and vulnerable. I felt like I was on stage in my underwear.

But you know what happened? One sweet woman jumped up from the front row and brought me a pack of Kleenex, another one grabbed me a water bottle, and I could feel that something in that church sanctuary had shifted. In that moment of unplanned honesty and emotion, God entered in, and everything got real. The women in that church will have my heart forever because they were there for me. After my talk was over, I lost count of how many of them came up to hug me, share their own stories, encourage me, and tell me they would be praying for my family. They had become friends. We all showed each other our true selves, all the ways we felt broken, and were stronger for it on the other side because we realized that none of us were alone.

When I got home, I pulled the little pack of Kleenex out of my purse and noticed that the custom label on it read, “Happy Tears.” I thought of the kindness those women showed me and knew that while mine weren’t necessarily happy tears, God had made them holy tears. It was a reminder of how awesome it can be when we remember that we’re all in this life together and that being real always outweighs pretending you have it all figured out. That’s what happens when women feel safe with each other. Those are the moments when friendship begins.

I believe one of the most important things we need to pass down to the girls who are growing up after us is the beauty of female friendship and what it adds to our lives. We need to teach them that we need people who will listen to our stories and be there for us as we go through heartbreak and joy and figure out everything life throws our way. We all need loyal soldiers who will defend us and stand with us when times get hard and it feels like the world is against us, because it seems that we’re creating a generation with a tendency to substitute the joy of real friendship with cheap imitations, such as community on Facebook or Instagram, or friendship via text messages that allow us to communicate with someone without a face-to-face commitment. We swim in the pool of shallow relationships because we all know that going deep requires being vulnerable. It’s so much easier to just text someone the praying hands emoji than it is to actually take the time to listen and hear what’s going on. And maybe, for a while, that feels like real community. Until it doesn’t.

We all need people who will show up on our doorsteps with fajitas and cookies and Kleenex when the hard times come. And we all need to be that person for someone. We need people in our lives who can look into our eyes and ask if we’re okay when they already know we’re not. Our friends are what make life worth living and remind us we are never alone.

***

Almost three years ago, I lost one of my oldest and dearest friends to breast cancer. Jen was one of the strongest and most faith-filled people I have ever known. She lived just about eighteen months after finding out her cancer had spread and that the odds were against recovery. During that time, those of us in her circle of friends spent more time together than we had in years because there was a sense of urgency to make the most of the time we had left. We fit as much love and laughter and tears and truths as we possibly could into what felt like an increasingly small window. And Jen never stopped showing up for us. Even when she was at one of her lowest points, she talked our friend Jamie into making the five-hour drive to San Antonio with her to be at the launch party for my book, Nobody’s Cuter Than You.

That night, our whole group of friends was together for what turned out to be the last time, and it will go down as one of my most precious memories. We howled with laughter because, when Perry went to leave my book signing that night, he hugged Jen and said, “Jen, I guess I won’t be seeing you again,” meaning he knew she was leaving early the next morning to head back to Dallas while he would already be at work. Without missing a beat, she looked at him and replied, “Put that in the category of things you don’t say to someone with terminal cancer.” She never quit making us laugh. And she taught us all how to love better.

When Gulley and I got the call that we should get to Dallas to see Jen during what appeared to be the beginning of the end, we immediately jumped in the car and made the drive. Caroline wanted to come with us, and several hours later, we were sitting in Jen’s hospital room. She was on a lot of pain medication, and we weren’t sure if she would even wake up and know we were there, but she did. We were able to talk for a little while and share a few laughs and tears. I was so thankful my daughter was there to witness this holy moment of friendship, because it is the very marrow of life, the kind of moment that really matters.

Then it was time to leave. We all knew what this goodbye meant. I can’t even write about it now without tears rolling down my face. Jen had been a part of our lives for the last twenty-five years. We’d all grown up together. We met at Texas A&M, and we watched each other graduate, move away, move back home, get married, have babies, lose parents, rediscover our faith, and survive heartbreaks. We’d eaten countless amounts of raw chocolate chip cookie dough curled up on couches everywhere from College Station to San Antonio to Dallas. Our lives had intersected when we were nineteen, and we had been to one another the very air we all needed in order to survive the ensuing years. How do you say goodbye to a relationship like that?

Jen had her eyes closed as we got ready to leave, and we hugged her and told her through tears how much she was loved, and she said, “I don’t want to open my eyes because then I’ll know I’m seeing you for the last time.” I whispered, “It’s not goodbye. It’s I’ll see you later,” because I do know we will see each other again where there are no tears and no cancer, and the laughter and cookie dough will flow like milk and honey.

While Jen was in the middle of losing her fight with cancer, she wrote these words about Moses and the children of Israel crossing the Red Sea.

I couldn’t imagine how the Israelites ran headlong toward the sea, not knowing if it would open, yet trusting the Lord to deliver them. I thought about how if the sea had parted two hundred yards before they arrived, it wouldn’t have required the same faith. I admire them. And I thought of how I feel like people give me too much credit for joy and peace and grace in this season, but that it’s truly he who has opened the seas and provided a smooth path in the face of death. And I’ve seen him provide supernatural peace and grace. Until I was willing to step all the way up to the water’s edge (or he walked me to the edge), I couldn’t experience the sweetness of this “deliverance” into joy that completely overwhelms me.

None of us wants to walk right up to the water’s edge of the painful seasons in our life without knowing if God is going to part the seas. We prefer to know in advance what is happening and where we are going and that we are going to be okay. But I believe as we take those baby steps of trusting God with what is right in front of us—in this hour, then this day, then the next day, and then the next week—we will come to realize that no matter how difficult things are, he sees us. He’s like a proud dad watching a toddler finding her footing, cheering us on because he knew we had it in us all along. We were the ones who didn’t know.

And you know what I love as you get to Exodus 15, right after the Israelites crossed through the Red Sea on dry land against all natural and human odds? It says, “For when the horses of Pharaoh with his chariots and his horsemen went into the sea, the LORD brought back the waters of the sea upon them, but the people of Israel walked on dry ground in the midst of the sea. Then Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and dancing” (Exodus 15:19–20 ESV).

Moses and the people of Israel had fled from Egypt. They were being pursued by the greatest army in the world at that time. They had no idea where they were going or how they were going to make it through to the other side. I can’t even imagine their fear and panic, the certainty that they were all surely about to die at the hands of Pharaoh’s army. They were living a nightmare. But then God does deliver them to the other side and Miriam and all the women get out their tambourines and begin to dance.

Think about what that means. It means that in the midst of what had to be the scariest time of uncertainty they had ever faced, they packed their tambourines. Because, yes, they were afraid and, no, this wasn’t their plan, but they trusted God, so they packed their tambourines. They believed and trusted that a day would come when they would dance and rejoice again. And you know who led the dancing? All the women.

Life can bring some heartaches that just won’t fully heal, and we will have struggles we didn’t anticipate. We will question the way we mother, the way we live, the decisions we make, and whether or not we are up for the task at hand. We will struggle with anxiety, depression, insignificance, and whether or not it’s okay to email a teacher to ask about our kid’s bad grade on a test. We will all walk up to a version of the water’s edge many times in our lives, but when we are surrounded by the women we count as friends, they will help us remember to pack our tambourines. Because life will bring us down, but the women who walk it out with us are the ones who will give us the strength to dance again. They will cry with us when we need to cry, they will hold our hands through the worst of it, and then they will pass out the tambourines when it’s time to get up and live again.

The bright side is knowing that our lives are forever changed for the better by the women God gives us to walk with through life, to be each other’s greatest cheerleaders, encouragers, teachers, and tambourine players.


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