Heartless Kingdoms and Tough Cookies

Tough means strong and durable, not easily broken. Many words have been used to describe Penelope Przekop, but tough is not one of them. I’ve learned to accept that I come across as the soft type children suspect they can outwit. I sound like a kid on the telephone, and (believe it or not) a well-meaning Vice President once sent me to corporate voice lessons so I’d sound tougher. I didn’t like the idea, and it didn’t work.

As a child, I was terrified of dogs. I generally preferred to stay clean, and my outdoor activity of choice was taking long, solitary bike rides. One of my favorite pastimes in junior high was organizing my dresser drawers while listening to poetry on my favorite radio show. I was just about the only one in my first grade class who didn’t tease a kid named Eddie about his mother jumping into the Red River. He lived with his grandparents, and the story was that his mommy got gobbled up by chomping alligators. Eddie was a little odd but I loved him. I felt his pain because my mother was busy deciding whether or not to jump into a deadly river of her own. I also suspected that the story wasn’t true, although I knew something wasn’t quite right with little Eddie’s life. In the culture where I grew up, although this was quite perceptive for a six-year-old, it was certainly not tough.

Sounds like I may have been a tad on the boring side, doesn’t it? No worries there. I developed my own unique methods of finding all kinds of adventures, both solitary and social. However, I never gained the toughness factor some of the neighborhood girls had in spades. I generally stayed away from them. They became the high school gym class team leaders who picked me last, and shot me leathery, chomping looks when it came my turn to serve in volleyball. But while they were honing their brand of toughness, unbeknownst to all, I was developing quite a feisty soul.

Do you subscribe to tough love? That kind of love is nearly impossible for long-term softies like me to swallow. But there was a time in my mid-twenties when I desperately needed it. I was lucky enough to find someone who dished it out brilliantly. At the time, I sobbed, thinking I’d landed in the kingdom of the heartless, and that I just wasn’t solid enough to survive. I heard a lot of harsh phrases such as: suck it up, grow up, do what you got to do, stop feeling sorry for yourself, get a grip, and stop it with the pity parties that don’t accomplish anything. Every time, the message was, “When the party’s over, I’ll be here.”

It hurt like hell but an interesting thing happened. After a while, I realized I had a different kind of toughness that deserved further exploration and exploitation. One that just might be more valuable than pure athleticism or a polished corporate voice. Beneath all the genetic softness, I found a tough heart, filled with calluses so strong that no amount of rejection could stop me from overcoming whatever challenges and roadblocks crossed my path. I had tenacity. I began to see how far it had propelled me, and how much father it could take me if I chose to stop wasting my talents on elaborate pity parties. The so-called kingdom of the heartless turned out to be the best possible detour for me at the time. That’s what it took to show me how to begin using my head to channel my emotional drive and insight.

In my novel, Aberrations, Angel can’t seem to embrace her father’s girlfriend, Carla, who wants nothing more than to love and help her. Carla’s harsh; she dishes out tough love, which is what Angel needs. But Angel also needs and craves feminine tenderness. This yearning and her youth cause her to misunderstand Carla. She’s also hung up in the conflict of wanting mother but rejecting it because the way it’s being provided does not align with her idealistic perception of what mother is. Sometimes the emotion we crave blinds us to our own self-centered behaviors—the ones that push away the very thing we’re after.

Understanding and accepting tough love is painful and tricky. Choosing to dish it out involves a conscious choice to walk the thin line between love and cruelty. Genuine tough love is strong and durable, not easily broken. When someone loves enough to risk losing, surely they believe the risk they’re taking is well worth the effort. After all, parents are the most well-known group of tough love operators. These folks would gladly throw themselves in front of giant buses and speeding trains for those on the receiving end.

Sometimes the strongest hearts vacation in the kingdom of the heartless. They serve tough, painful cookies packed with all that is essential. If you venture to take a bite, you’ll feel a cutting sting followed by a strong burst of power. After all, another word for tough is resilient.

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