Part 3: The Inner Circle

I just finished Michelle Obama’s Becoming. Michelle writes lovingly about lasting friends from childhood, college and her early jobs. (For example, Valerie Jarrett became a confidant when Michelle was working at Chicago City Hall.) Once Michelle was on the world’s stage, friends who knew her before she was FLOTUS grew to be even more valuable as the White House bubble limited her circle.

What Michelle describes, essentially the difficulty in developing new, intimate friendships in mid-life is common. Most of us in the middle of life are consumed by work, family and household obligations. We rely on past connections, if we spare any time at all for maintaining friendships. We give lip-service to the significance of friends, but for me, it wasn’t until major life events hit that I realized how continually I need a sisterhood.

Moving was a test for me on how to cultivate new relationships and add to my inner circle. In leaving home, I was giving up the proximity of loyal intimates at a time when I also knew that I would need even more people around me to hug. It’s been over a year and there are a growing number of women who I’m thrilled to get to know. Within this widening tribe, there are a special few who I feel particularly devoted to, friends I’ve been waiting my whole life for.  

The sign that drew me to the neighborhood and a new kindred spirit

When our realtor first turned the corner into our neighborhood, before we even saw the house, I spotted a woman wearing a progressive T-shirt outside her house. Next to her porch was a ‘Hate Has No Home Here’ sign. I literally said, out loud, “I don’t know what the house is like, but I already love the neighbors.” It turned out both the house and the neighborhood were a perfect fit.

A few weeks after the move, I ran up to this new neighbor as she was piling into her car with her son, work bags and carrying a can of diet soda. “You don’t know me yet, but you’re the reason we moved here!” I sounded deranged, I am sure, but she hugged me without a word. The time we’ve spent together doesn’t justify how much I cherish her. With texts, gulps of shared time sprinkled between life’s demands, and little acts of kindness for each other, we pretty much adore each other. Shane joked recently that this friend and I were going to open a B&B in Vermont together. She and I decided we’d prefer Santa Barbara.

Two other friends came to me through Jack and I met both on the same day: August 4th. With both ladies, our friendships started out sharing parenting conundrums. But what draws me to these lovely souls is not solely our similar contexts as moms. They are each super supportive, candid in a way I need true friends to be, and welcoming to solicitations of time together. I know which snacks they hide from their kids. I am learning how they navigate marriage, work and meals. I’ve come to know them by walking, taking our kids on local adventures and asking if there are errands I can run for them. They usually say no, but I’ll keep asking. Accepting help is like a trust fall: can I admit to you when I need help,or accept yours when you offer? We all can do more of that: gifting to others that chance to help. The irony is when we accept little things, big things bloom and we turn new friends into family.

Midsummer, I got a text from a woman who was a ‘friend of a friend of a friend’ who had read my blog piece, ‘A Nice Place to Visit.’ Similarly forced to leave her beloved California because of her husband’s career, someone  had sent her my contact info. At the time of our first chat, we cracked up as it was discovered NEITHER OF US knew the people who had supposedly connected us. I don’t believe in coincidences; I think that’s how God works.

What began as phone chats about moving anxiety (essentially my overbearing relocation advice) has grown into a true sisterhood. Of course we walk, but we’ve also grocery shopped and protested together. If you got the Johnson family Christmas card this year with Jack golfing in our living room, you’ve seen what an exceptional photographer she is. We are very different in some endearing ways and I think she’d agree that we are also similar in our mutual affection for each other.

There are other new-found confidants I could describe, but my message on nurturing relationships that can be as meaningful as those from our past is simple: make intimate friendships a priority. Find ways to spend time together, even if it’s just running errands or exercising together.  Offer help when they don’t ask. Ask for help when you would have shied away from it before. Those of us who are managing to just barely endure life’s busiest era can appreciate what Michelle Obama herself had to learn: our sense of belonging in the world is secured by our inner circle.

Part 2: Friends, where are you?

In 1995, I moved to England to attend the University of Durham. I arrived a week before classes to find 3 huge boxes of crap I had shipped off months before, torn open and abandoned at the bottom of an empty stairwell.  The dorm was vacant, but I was so tired I fell onto an unmade mattress and woke up after the sun had set and risen again.

When I finally woke up, I was probably the hungriest I have ever been. I had eaten all of the chalky protein bars I had packed for my Pan Am flight from SFO to Heathrow, so I had no choice but to stagger my way through town in search of food. (I have not travelled so ill-prepared since!) As I walked along the cobblestones, inhaling smells of diesel, wet pavement and the stale beer/stale urine fumes of pubs, I passed librarians on the way to work, uniformed kids hustling towards school, arms and bags flailing and lorry drivers idling on the side of the road. To every single  pedestrian, I said, ‘hello.’

I was met with stares, and even snickers by the kids.

Again and again, as I made my way to Durham’s city centre, I looked people in the eye and tried to engage. By the time I made it to Safeway, I had been ignored by at least a dozen people. As I sat devouring a soggy tuna salad sandwich (with corn in the tuna salad!), I remember thinking how hard-hearted the world seemed. I was embarrassed by my foreignness and my naivete. It was the loneliest I have ever felt.

That experience seems like it happened to another person, in another era. Clearly, in 1995, I was used to people saying hello in my hometown in California. It must have been the custom to always greet another walker back then, if only in eye contact. But it is only through the memory of how shocking Durham was, that I remember how it once was in the U.S. Now, over 20 years later when I walk those same hometown streets, very few people say ‘hi.’ Most have white cords dangling from their ears, exempting them from any personal contact.

The English inaccessibility of 1995 has spread, but I am determined to change it. The demise of greeting strangers scares me. For years after returning from England I didn’t have the fortitude to lock eyes with a passerby or dare to say ‘hi.’ At some point in the last 10 years, though, I have come back to exuberant greetings. I am now the obnoxious one who habitually smiles and greets strangers, wherever we meet. Jack does too.

We all sense that human connection is fundamental to our well-being. I’ve discussed how friendships, a fulcrum of human connection, is vital to my own sense of peace. But friends start as strangers.

Finding strangers to connect requires commitment. You have to brave possible rejections. I understand that for those who tend toward shyness, this sounds super scary. But at the very least, introverts can smile, open their hearts metaphorically, and walk through a door when the invitation is given. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you must intentionally go out of your way to meet a fair number of people in order to find the special few worthy of meaningful bonds.

The easiest way to meet people as an adult is from work, or through your kids’ schools or activities. That’s fine for most, but it’s a little like cheating to me. For starters, you don’t get the broadest swath of humanity when you stick to those who are already in arms’ reach of your circle. With all the talk of resurgent tribalism in America, surrounding yourself with a homogenous posse doesn’t change that.

A lovely couple from Spokane. We chatted after I remarked on his Gonzaga hat.

So how do I meet strangers who may become friends? For starters, I walk up to people I don’t know and start a conversation. I met an agreeable couple on the Mall a week ago because the man was wearing a Gonzaga baseball hat.

When I first started training at the Cathedral, I sat next to a fellow California transplant. We decided within minutes we were both ‘cool chicks worth knowing.’ Jennifer and I have celebrated birthdays together, brought our families and dogs together, and discussed everything from nut allergies to pre-HIV San Francisco.

A cool chick from the Cathedral, Jennifer

Before we moved to VA, I joined a book group. In a few hours, I will be sharing leafy greens and diet soda with one of those book club friends, a bibliophilic Texan who has been a bartender, a realtor and an expert on the middle east.

As we become adults, we forget the thrill of ‘new relationship energy;’ a term my cousin Steve taught me about. I suspect when we forget about the excitement that can come from ‘flirting’ with new people we are susceptible to mid-life crises and marital affairs. But those new relationships can be friendships, you don’t have to destroy your other bonds. In fact, I’d argue that what people are seeking when they cheat on their partners is deep human connection they feel is lacking. As they say, ‘the sex appeal wears off.’

So, as adults charged with expanding our human connections, how else can you meet people outside of work/school/soccer practices?

Here are some ideas that have worked for me, both in landing in new cities and in entering new stages of my life:

  • Choose Uber/Lyft pool. Chances are you’ll add a few minutes to your ride, but you’ll have more time to chat with the driver and other passengers not normally in your sphere. (They might not become lifelong friends, but who’s to say!)
  • Travel. We don’t all have to be Rick Steves (did you know he got divorced?) but hitting the road opens you up to people in ways staying home doesn’t.
  • Become a regular at a restaurant. Two of my closest friends are those who know how much I love free refills, even at 6:30 am. (Tom and Becky, I am talking to you!)
  • Walk more. In our cars, we can ignore people. When you are waiting at a bus stop, hiking a trail or taking your kid to school, you meet people. Dogs are an easy foray into striking up conversations with people you don’t know. Borrow a neighbor’s if you don’t have one. (If you don’t know your neighbor, you know where to start this existential exercise! Teresa and Jocelyn, thank you for our new-found walking routine!)
  • Trader Joe’s. The cashiers are abnormally friendly and even the lines can spawn friendships. I had a walking buddy I knew tangentially before we started seeing one another weekly picking up cheerfully-branded staples. (Have you heard the insider Trader Joes podcast?)
  • Social media is having a crisis of identity, but my mother’s forum is made up of hundreds of women I couldn’t pick out of a lineup, but who share a listserv that is a virtual community. I have sought parenting advice, donated to causes I wouldn’t have known about and found camps for Jack when school is closed for election day. (Yes, the second Tuesday in November is a Holiday in VA. Vote November 6th even if you have to take PTO!)

My point is that meeting people, going out of your way to lock eyes with someone, is a prescription for whole-ness. Like the Grinch, your heart can grow three-times each time you turn a Who into a friend.

Part 1: Friendships, why bother?

The move to Arlington VA from CA brought fears and anxiety, but my biggest heartache was leaving my friends.  I knew I could replicate most other aspects of my life, but I worried my long-developed friendships were irreplaceable.

In a short series, I am compelled to write on why friendships are key, how to nurture them, who to cultivate (and who to release) and where to find them.

A compilation of 40 well-known studies on friendships gets to the heart of why developing deep connections with people outside family is so important for a good life. Longevity, intellectual stimulation, professional success and mental health are all found to be enhanced by friendships. I couldn’t find a single study that said friendships weren’t worthwhile, except for a few that centered on teenagers and how bad seeds can influence peers. It’s a pretty universal belief that friendships are good for you.

In my own life, I know that when I was the saddest, feeling the most crazed, I had few friends. As a kid, I remember feeling like a looser. I envied my younger brother Alex who always had lots of friends and didn’t exude the insecurity I felt about being liked. My first true friendships came in high school, where I joined others who felt similarly marginalized; our bonds were strengthened by feeling like outsiders. It’s so common, right?  Packs of friends define themselves by the brands they wear, the playlists they create, the veganism they adopt. You begin to identify with a tribe of your own making in your teens and that tribe helps you to build up your own sense of self.

Phyra and I can go weeks without talking and yet I sometimes wake up and absolutely *know* we’ve just been together.

In college, you basically ONLY have your friends to depend on.  I think most people sense it is in this phase of life where we intentionally build up a base of friends meant to last.

My first few weeks of college, I was sick and hospitalized.  By the time I returned to the dorm, everyone seemed to have paired off.  I remember feeling totally alone. In the first weeks back, I was destroyed by my preordained roommate’s wish that I move all my stuff to another dorm so her new bestie could move in. We got over it and that freshman roommate, Jen, birthed my godchildren.

My freshman roommate Jen who birthed 2 of my godchildren. Actually, I think I am technically only the godmother to one of her twins, but I don’t remember which one. I adore them both!

Ultimately, it was my college friends who carried me through my 20s. I lived far from home throughout and it was my friend Anna who held my hand when I dislocated my knee. It was my friend Phyra who took an 8-hour train to bolster me so I could stick out my first week of school abroad. It was my friend Liz who flew across the world to read at my wedding. I naively chose a tired, cliche biblical quote about marriage, but Liz still brought tears to my eyes. It was Charly who moved in with Shane and I when our couple-hood was in its infancy.  Shane and I have often said that if Charly hadn’t lived with us that first year and balanced our teeter-totter, we might not have outlasted the stress of our new adult life (it was the first year of my low-carbing and HANGRY didn’t do justice to my pre-dinner psychosis.)

When I felt the lowest in that period, I was terribly lonely. I had no real way to build friends when we moved to Chicago in 2005. I worked as a solopreneur and had no way to make friends like I did when I met Julie in Ann Arbor. It was the first time I sought therapy.

I remember walking away from a session, having paid $150 and realized that I just paid for friendship. I called my friend Jenn and felt more heard in that free call than I did with the therapist. Very quickly, I did the cost-benefit analysis for my newly minted M.B.A. husband and we agreed we could move to costly California,  where I had friends without the hefty payout.

My dear friend Jenn of 25 years who has come to DC twice this year!

My spirits soared immediately after the move ‘home.’ I had pre-built bonds: Jenn to walk the reservoir with, Steve, to cry with while eating Chinese, another Jen to write a reference letter to Jack’s adoption agency.

By my 30s, the bulk of my time was spent entrenched with my work besties, my work husband Travis, my second sister and colleague Kelsey. Despite the relentlessness and guilt of new parenthood and stressful career challenges, I was cheerful. I had authentic, strong friendships. But having built up my community around work, I was crushed when I left that career.

A gaggle of former coworkers who to a person I care for deeply.

Having attached my sense of belonging to a family of co-workers, I had inadvertently neglected my other friendships.  A few weeks into my ‘early’ retirement, I recognized the familiar depression I had experienced as an isolate before. I dove head-first into cultivating new companions. Acquaintances became confidantes, yoga partners became buddies who texted at night to remind each other of our proscribed bedtimes. I developed loving unions with other stay at home moms, moms who I had never had the opportunity to know deeply when I was in conference rooms.

The last 4 years I have felt more peace, wisdom and calm than in any other sustained period in my life. Don’t misunderstand: I have lost my fucking mind with Jack too many times to mention. I held my dad’s hand waiting for his death. I swabbed out mucus from a wound so deep in my mom’s boob that I almost lost a tweezer in the cavity. These haven’t been easy times. But the day my dad died, my friends Samantha and Tiffany left flowers on my doorstep. Colleen held my hand when I told her about my mom’s cancer.  “Oh HONEY,” she said over and over until I wept in her long, curly hair. Those days when my voice was hoarse from yelling at Jack, I called up friend and friend and confessed my sins.

Colleen gave birth literally just a few hours before this picture was taken. She is one of the strongest women I know and helps calm me down when I have felt the shakiest as a Mom.

The periods in our lives which are painful or tough are common and unavoidable. But if we turn the pain into suffering it’s because we haven’t tapped the vital friendship well.  A circle of friends is too easy to dismiss, forget or put on the back burner.  But I am telling you people, real connections with friends are essential for a well-lived, fulfilling and  meaningful life.

There was a parable I heard a few years ago. Two friends are walking on a beach and are facing an army of threats coming after them. One friend trips into a sand hole. A good friend reaches out her hand to help that friend up out of the trap.  A GREAT friend turns to her dear one and says, “Stay here babe, I got this.” Life is so much sweeter with those spirits by our sides.

What One Normal Mom Packs For Lunch

Since I helped to run a healthy kids lunch company in CA for 7 years, a few of my friends have asked me this week about what I pack for my 10-year-old son’s school lunch. I know Back To School pantry shopping is on our minds, so I thought I’d share in case it was helpful to others.  There is a backstory involving shame, a 100-pound weight loss and a parenting epiphany to all of this, which I will include below:

In short, I pack 4-5 items that are as convenient as possible, taking me no more than 3-4 minutes to throw together but still offering my M.O. of ‘Protein and produce.’

  • String cheese (always since this is easy to eat, and a well-liked source of protein)
  • Pre-packaged nuts (more contentious since so many schools are nut-free, but you can also do packed de-seeded sunflower and pumpkin seeds, roasted chickpeas, or dry-roasted edamame)
  • Beef jerky when I am feeling flush
  • 2 fruits or veggies (Jack likes strawberries, baby carrots, grape tomatoes, grapes, bananas, easy-to-peel cuties/tangerines and apples (when he was little, I’d slice them vertically and then re-form the apple and wrap a rubber band around it like an equator. The idea is easy-to-eat fruits.)
  • Snack crackers/pretzels (sometimes I buy whole grain, sometimes not)
  • Granola bars that won’t melt or get crushed
  • Baked chips
  • Popcorn
  • Trail mix with raisins or non-melting ‘treats’

Now here is the back story and my EVOLUTION:

Starting in 2008, when my son was an infant, I was obnoxious and self-righteous about his food. I never had time to carve panda bears out of a slice of bread, but I prided myself on his ‘unpackaged’ preschool lunches. I am sure there were days when he just threw away the salmon and kale I presented carefully in his eco-friendly lunch box. I felt his lunches reflected me, especially since I was the poster mom of healthy kid food in our affluent area, having helped run that healthy lunch company.

 I never bought into the ‘all organic/non-GMO’ movement (I have toured enough organic farms to know they aren’t necessarily what we do-gooders hope they are) but I was super strict about healthy choices and what Jack had access to. This was largely born out of my own complicated issues with food. About 20 years ago I lost 100 pounds and fear has kept it off all this time… My own eating plan is ‘Protein and Produce.’ That’s it. And that’s how I was feeding my kid.

When Jack was about 7, though, he caught onto how different his lunch was compared to some of his peers who had ‘real snacks.’ There was a particularly awful moment involving tears, shame and a melting popsicle at his summer school that had me re-think my approach. It happened to coincide with a revelation about how my son felt LOVE (at that age though junk food) and me leaving my company.  News flash: I WAS MAKING HIS FOOD ALL ABOUT ME!

So, for the past few years, I have really reversed course. Jack is NOT me. Now that Jack is 10, I realize the best I can do is model healthy eating, somewhat limit the junk that comes into the house, but mostly let him figure out how to satiate his hunger. There are times when he makes great choices and with righteous indignation judges other kids on what they choose (like at a birthday party, ‘Look Mom, I picked carrots instead of cake!’) but most of the time, he picks some combination of what I think of as healthy and ‘carnival’ food (French fries at restaurants, ice cream sandwiches at the swimming pool snack shack, convenience store candy on our summer road trips.)

 For my overall approach to all meals and snacks, I still focus on protein and produce. There is always at least a little of both on offer. But I rely HEAVILY on packaged foods and convenience, off-the-shelf stuff I can throw into his lunchbox (or lunch bag as this summer’s bevy of camps required) in between clearing the table after dinner and before I ‘clock out’ every night at 7 pm. (The division of labor in our house is a whole other topic;)

 I have come to learn that at a certain point, I have to let go. One way for me to not take everything my son chooses about me, I do things as easily as possible to reduce the resentment I am prone to. If this means a lunch is a string cheese, planters pre-portioned nuts, an apple, a banana and a Quaker s’mores granola bar, so be it!

A rare rant: Might As Well Buy a Tabloid

A recent NYT article explored how social media exacerbates already-existing prejudices and feeds our basest instincts. Tribalism, prejudice, violence… essentially Facebook and it’s doppelgangers are drugging the world and encouraging us to be more hateful.

Facebook is on trial, Sheryl and Mark are apologizing and blame is spreading like wildfire. IMHO, this is not their fault! It’s our fault!

It used to be that grocery store tabloids were ridiculed for encouraging naive housewives to believe that aliens lurked everywhere. If she believed it, she wasn’t thinking critically.  Ha ha, she was stupid! To those who understood the reference, Social Darwinsim gave hope that this poor soul wouldn’t procreate.  Yes, the tabloids were blamed to some extent, but really, they were just a joke that profited from stupidity. Good for them for finding a capitalistic opportunity.

How is that different from Facebook? Just because social media is more complicated and less overt in its mission, at the end of the day, Facebook and YouTube are selling stories, regardless of their truth. If you don’t think about your news feed critically, you might as well buy a daily subscription to the National Enquirer.

We have a natural instinct to assume the worst in people and be suspicious of outsiders. Algorithms which spread fake-news makes this worse. I totally get that.

What I don’t get is why our natural instincts to be suspicious don’t extend to our Facebook news feed? If we are being duped, it’s our own fault. The best we can do is to be rigorous in our thinking and reading, ask questions and assume that others are just trying to do their best also.

If that’s too much, just be kinder.

A nice place to visit

A nice place to visit

It has been six months since I circumnavigated the Lafayette Reservoir. Six months since I enjoyed a ‘South of the Border’ breakfast at Sunrise Bistro. Six months since I impatiently drove around Broadway plaza, desperate for a parking spot.

As a Bay Area native, I have moved away 3 times, only to return a year or two later, grateful for sunshine, professional prospects and a sense of belonging nurtured over many years. The last time my husband and I moved back in 2006, we trusted we would never leave again. We took on an obligatory jumbo mortgage, a dog, a kid and mounted ‘fast passes’ in both our cars. We understood that the traffic and the taxes were both draining but that the benefits outweighed the sacrifices. Yes, we worked long hours, but weekends offered Mount Diablo hikes, wine country lunches and farmers’ market bounties.

Last year, though, it was announced my husband’s job would be transferring to Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac river from Washington D.C. I was adamant about staying in Walnut Creek. I could not move away from my aging parents in Rossmoor. Leaving my son’s elementary school was out of the question; he had an IEP honed after years of securing limited public-school resources which nurtured our quirky kid who can tell you the date of the last Beatles concert but not the signing of the Declaration of Independence.

After half-heartedly interviewing for other positions, however, the move required serious consideration. Last summer, my husband and I went to D.C. on an exploratory tour. We fell under its spell. Yes, the winter cold and summer humidity would demand more tolerance than this California native was used to, but the proximity to the Capital was intoxicating for two former history majors. Additionally, people in Virginia seemed kinder. Surprised by a mid-August thunder storm, a stranger handed me his umbrella as he carried his food truck lunch into an office building. At Safeway, a teenage employee escorted me through the aisles, looking for my favorite seaweed snacks. He may have thought my obsession unjustified, but he seemed pleased to help. The houses in the quaintest neighborhoods in Northern Virginia looked like gingerbread houses with brick chimneys, flag poles and progressive signs with Human Rights declarations on many lawns.  Sure, houses were also over a million dollars, but at least they had basements!

Flying back to the Bay Area after the week-long visit, it took us over almost 2 hours of sitting in traffic to get home along Highway 24. The hills were dry and thirsty-looking after the fertile greenery of the South. Houses in our charming Walnut Heights neighborhood were going for hundreds of thousands over asking price, though we had toured an idyllic cape cod house that had sat on the market for 3 months in Arlington because of some unfortunate paint choices. I was convinced we could buy the house for $100,000 less than the original asking price, unheard of in the Bay Area housing market.

But beyond all of that, there was something else that was playing out in my head. I woke up the morning after our return, in the stupor of a middle-aged mom who feels condemned to monotony. I loved my easy, comfortable life, but the repetition made it hard to appreciate. An adventure on the East Coast seemed full of possibility. Who could I meet? Where could I walk? Who could I become?

We signed the closing papers on that cape cod in Arlington 45 later.

This past month, I came back to Walnut Creek for a visit. I soaked it up!  It was a treasure to talk with friends who have known me since I wore Doc Martens and drank espressos at 11 pm. It was soul-filling to lap the reservoir and wave at people who I passed daily for years. They acknowledged my return and I hugged these recognizable strangers, grateful to feel I belonged. I devoured my beloved diner breakfasts, not yet having found comparable replacements in our new town. But with each resurrected memory, I recognized something else too: a feeling of dis-ease.

Everyone here looked anxious. Standing in cafe lines, people were desperate to pound their pour-overs and race to their next appointment. On the roads, Teslas pursued Porsche Cayennes, only to be stopped at the light 100 yards farther down Ygnacio Valley. My friends talked about how they no longer went into the city because the stress wasn’t worth the hassle and they had to signup days in advance for their Orange Theory classes for fear of not getting a workout scheduled.

I realized I was witnessing a scarcity mindset, the idea that money, housing, movie seats, Starbucks points… there is never enough. I suspect this sense of competition must be tied in some ways to the costs of living. The idea that a 6-figure salary is inadequate, forces families to work multiple jobs, endure soul-sucking commutes and fill each waking hour with errands or duties, even supposedly relaxing ones, without regard to well-being.

I don’t think that this is new or unique to the area. The Bay Area has always been full of ‘boom towns’ attracting the most ambitious, successful people in the world. Certainly, D.C. is no bastion of calm or composure…  ‘cut throat’ comes to mind. I suspect my impressions are amplified, born out of being away from the Bay Area bubble for six months and still in the honeymoon faze of living in an exciting new place. But things do seem unsustainable here and at some point, we have to ask ourselves if it’s all worth it.

My friends and I have a pact that when we are 55 (the age of entry for Rossmoor,) we will buy up a co-op. It’s over a decade away and who knows what my life might look like then, but that unknown future is exciting and one of the reasons I moved away in the first place. For now, the Bay Area is a wonderful place to visit.

12 Diet Cokes a day

A few weeks ago, one of my dear friends came to D.C. for a visit. Jenn and I traipsed the town, savored some unseasonably lovely weather and marked each day with an ‘event.’ The women’s march, the Hirshhorn museum, miles walked along the Washington Mall…  We spent a lot of our time talking about everything from mutual high school memories, marriage quirks, grocery shopping patterns and a shared taste for diet Dr. Pepper. Jenn isn’t a soda fiend, like me, but we bonded over the sharp effervescence of a freshly-cracked can.

The genesis of the trip was a forum with Brene Brown at the Washington National Cathedral (where I will soon be a verified docent!) Both Jenn and I have read Brene Brown’s many bestsellers and were eager to see her speak. Her themes are human connection through vulnerability and ruthless self-awareness. She ‘speaks truth to bull-shit,’ with a louder bullhorn than almost any other woman and I admire her greatly.

One of Brene Brown’s messages was about the dangers of tribalism. We faction ourselves off from each other politically, professionally and personally. We define ourselves by who we are and who we are not, with the TV shows we watch, the Facebook pages we follow and the neighborhoods we live in.

Jenn and I became friends as teenagers, when these markers of identity were exactly what we needed as we broke out of our childhood uniforms and tested our own brands of adulthood. Our group of friends was defined by our love of lamenting alternative music, Doc Martens and midnight coffee in a Lyon’s diner complete with faux rock walls and Trident gum sold from a glass case below the cash register (though even then I preferred diet soda to bitter brew).

In adulthood, our tastes had changed (only one of our group of friends still struts purple hair;) but both Jenn and I recognized how we had closed our worlds to ‘others.’ Brene Brown’s point was that we ALL do that, and the narrative on cable news these days is that we are doing that more than ever.  I don’t necessarily agree ( I can’t think of any prolonged period when nations/cultures/religions didn’t largely define themselves by their enemy), but I recognize that on November 9th 2016, I wanted to brand myself with progressive T-shirts, buttons and unity safety pins to make it clear I belonged to the Left-y tribe.

Brene Brown’s message to us, though, was to recognize differences as they are, but intentionally seek the similarities, too. Open our arms, our hearts, our ears to each other, no matter the clan they identify with. We don’t have to agree, but we make matters worse when we don’t even acknowledge the other’s rights to an opinion. Brene brought up Trump- we don’t have to like Jared Kushner, but we can honor his humanity as we would Chelsea Clinton’s.

In that vein, I have spent the past few weeks, intentionally seeking similarities in people. Most of these people I am opening my eyes to are strangers, since I am still cultivating friends here, but last weekend I passed a homeless person and honed in on the Michigan sweatshirt he was wearing–it was just like Shane’s. I smiled and in his eyes I saw kinship. The  college sweatshirt was a gateway for me to witness his personhood.

The guy with the man bun who almost ran me over in the crosswalk- he was clearly in a rush. I’ve felt that way too and behaved similarly. I felt empathy for him, instead of my default anger.

Lately, Trump  has been made fun of for drinking 12 diet cokes a day. It’s a behavior I share and I felt a twinge of compassion for him.  A twinge. It’s a start.


Letting go

When I walk in the mornings, I love to chat with friends. Even if we live many miles apart, it’s a blessing to have friends in my ear. This week, I had two disparate conversations, and although the topics of conversation varied widely, there was a universal theme: letting go.

Early in the week, I talked with one of my best friends, my cousin Pam (pictured above with her sister, Dinah and I.) Pam used some of her time over the holidays to clear out the garage.  In the last few years ‘The Happiness Project’ and ‘The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up,’ have described clearing out our physical closets to release the mental clutter that can clog our minds. Clearing out stuff really is cathartic, but it’s hard to do. Pam rallied the troops, including my equally beloved cousin Dinah who collects wine, magazines to be read and fancy bottles of shampoo from her many world-wide travels. They got a dumpster and attacked small stacks and piles each day. Pam described the relief that comes from getting rid of shit, even if it was expensive, a cherished memento or hypothetically usable for some future need. Pam and Dinah let go and felt better for the effort.

It’s hard to do. In moving my mom into our house, mom and I have had to confront our different approaches to ‘simplifying.’ Like everyone else, I keep stuff, especially photos, books, and some clothes. (Much of my closet is taken up by ‘work clothes,’ even though it’s been exactly three years since I had to go into an office with any regularity and I’m more prone to wear yoga pants from Target and T-shirts with grey deodorant stains everyday–so why do I keep the khakis?)

In general, though, I’m pretty disciplined in clearing stuff out. My relative minimalism has led to small kerfuffles with my mom. She somehow thinks the walls of her two rooms will accommodate 100+ years of family photos, many of whom are of my dad’s family in Greece, who died decades ago and who she never met. When we (and by that I mean me, my sister Kathy and a hired helper–one of Jack’s old babysitters) cleaned out her condo in California, I found many, many rolls of wax paper (used for her microwave meals.) Mom had post-it-notes in all shapes, sizes and degrees of stickiness. There were boxes of unopened neosporin tubes, clothes I’ve never seen her wear and newspaper clippings from 2007. We are still adrift in much of her detritus, but mom is slowly allowing that not everything she insisted on bringing will find a new home here in Virginia. She’s letting some of it go, slowly.

After chatting with Pam, another friend and I were talking about our pedometers. Sam needs a new phone, but because her daily step counts are recorded on her phone, she is hesitant to upgrade without the assurance the history will carry over. I totally get that–if you don’t have a record of it, it’s almost like it didn’t happen. I suspect Sam will have a new phone soon; she’ll let her record go, knowing she did still log many miles, and her strong muscles are the proof.

This theme of letting go has actually been bubbling in my consciousness for some time. About a month ago, my phone died. I lost voice memos of my dad’s last days. Pictures of Jack as an infant and toddler which were never saved in the cloud, evaporated. Notes, contacts, podcast episodes… everything washed away. I was devastated, but there was something that ultimately lifted for me, too. I didn’t have to feel guilty about saving my dad’s voice, but not listening to the recordings for fear of triggering a meltdown. I forgot some of the podcasts I had habitually listened to, but which were no longer euphoria-generating for me. I saved new pictures of Jack to my wallpaper and updated my screensaver of the almost 10-year old who smiles back at me from the screen.

Back in October, I read a fictionalized account of Hemingway’s’ first marriage. At one point before Hemingway published his first major work, a suitcase of all of his hand-written drafts was stolen from a train in Paris when his wife was trying to help him impress an important American publisher. This in a time before  copies were easily made or early editions were magically saved in a computer. Hemingway returned to writing, a bit dejected, but later, many fans have said his innovative, sparse style was born out of that loss. Hemingway didn’t choose to let those hundreds of hours of work go; the universe chose it for him.

Letting go of things, especially precious relics, is difficult, but there is something more heart-breaking going on for me right now in life. I find myself having to let go of people. It’s not by choice, but circumstance. Some of my beloved friends and I have lost touch since the move to the East Coast; the time change and the distance insurmountable. I can feel them drifting away. Last night I dreamt about my college roomate, Jen. I was waving to her fondly from a shore. We’ve lived apart before and the consolation is that when our lives even out, we will reconnect, like an infinity sign. Still I miss her right now and have her Christmas card saved on my desk. I am working though accepting this hiatus of relationships. It’s happened before and then there’s a  resurrection… a phone call, a visit, a move. I suspect my work right now is to let go of expectations, but maintain the love until circumstance weaves us back together.

Sharing Space at B and N

Right before Christmas, Mom and I were at Barnes and Noble. The store had a self-serve gift wrapping table to lure habitual Amazon customers, like myself. Those of us who braved holiday parking to venture into an actual bookstore were rewarded with free tape and appropriately generic gift paper; take that, $3.99 Amazon gift surcharge!

About 20 minutes into our wrapping, I felt another customer hovering behind us. She seemed slightly annoyed, and rightly so as my mom and I had basically taken over the table with our 10+ purchases. I moved my books to clear space, but she still seemed a little standoffish.

As I am prone to do, I instantly profiled her. This woman had bought an awful lot of coloring books. I guessed that she had caught on to the trend of adult coloring as a way to meditate in a creative way and generally SLOW down.

If you are a middle-aged white women, you’ve been similarly encouraged to buy fancy coloring books and happily wash away your cares with crayons.  If you’re a Mom and incorporate this fun activity as a way to spend quality time with your child, you’re golden. Bonus points for educational coloring books. On one hand, the idea of coloring is to leisurely spend our time and slow down,  but without multiple checks off the ol’ to-do list, coloring still feels wasteful for people like me who are a little high-strung.

I judged this fellow shopper in a split second and imagined the gaggle of Lululemon-wearing friends of hers opening these coloring book gifts during a ‘girls night ‘ cookie exchange. In a flash, I dismissed her as being too similar to me to be worth getting to know.

As soon as I reduced her as too much like me, I had an awareness that I was also reducing myself. What I was really saying by closing myself off to connecting with this fellow shopper was that wasn’t worth chatting to. I was not worth getting to know.

I have a recurring story in my head that is viscous. The gist is pretty much, “I am not enough.” This isn’t verbatim, but 100 times a day I whisper a version. “I am not exercising enough. I am not a good enough mom. I am not kind enough to others.” I feel guilty for not responding to emails. I feel guilty for not working full-time. I feel guilty for relying on Trader Joe’s composition dinners, rather than the from-scratch versions I used to enjoy making.

The absolutely nutty part of this is that deep down, I secretly think this guilt prevents me from losing my grip on everything I have. By keeping the guilt and fear of loss, I am trying to control my world. And the tragedy is that by its very nature, this fear and guilt and need to control prevents me from enjoying any of it.

This was all in a mental microsecond: I came to Barnes and Noble for the same reason I came to Virginia – to better understand the world and myself in it. I came to challenge myself, get out of my routines and to connect with a bigger world. If this woman was worth opening my heart to, then maybe I was worth it too.

I took a breadth and cheerfully asked the gift wrapper, “Who are you shopping for?”

“My brother. He has Alzheimer’s.” My mom and this quiet stranger then began chatting while wrapping. Her name was Linda. Her brother was a scientist. In early middle age, Linda’s brother developed early-onset Alzheimer’s. He was exposed to many chemicals in his job as a scientist and now his mind was dormant. Coloring filled his idle time.

My initial dismissal of this woman was made on false assumptions. Reductions. I would have missed all of this, if I had let silence sit.

We all do this. We all make judgments about ourselves and each other.  And if we look closely, often our greatest fears about ourselves are reflected in how we engage with others. If we can take a step back we can really see and listen to others. The paradox, of course, is that we’re really coming closer to ourselves. Even at Barnes’ and Noble.


Home with Mom

My mom has been my keystone, even when we lived thousands of miles apart. Being with her has always felt like home. Sure, we can irritate and frustrate each other and in some ways, are opposites, but no matter how much we bicker, we relish each other’s company.

I love the way she smells, a combination of Irish Spring soap and the soft-leaded pencils she special orders from my hometown stationery store.  I love that we both believe deeply in destiny, god’s omnipresence and the universal wisdom of women and age. My mom taught me that dreams are opportunities for interpreting our psyches. That a day without reading is a day without purpose. That nothing feels better on an upset stomach than diet 7-Up.

When I left my full-time job at Choicelunch three years ago, my mom and I had more time to spend together. Each Sunday, we’d plan our week and go to matinees, have lunch or shop at Target. When the treatments began for her breast cancer last year, my mom and I became even more entwined. I’d drive across town to her condo in order to treat a deep wound left by a botched lumpectomy and she’d take me out for eggs at one of  three or four favorite lunch places – we both love breakfast foods at non-breakfast times.

When it was clear that Shane, Jack and I had to leave California for Shane’s job, Shane and I took my mom out to a trendy burger joint. In a cavernous restaurant with Edison light bulbs and exposed brick, I begged her to move with us. My dad had died just a few months before and mom blew me away with her willingness to leave all her life-long friends, our extended family and her beloved native state full of sunshine and comfort. Mom’s bravery was tested as we discussed the living situation, whether she’d sell her condo and how she’d manage visits with my brother Alex and his family in Portland, but she remained enthusiastic and very encouraging.

As the reality of the move across the country set in, I grew increasingly nervous. Mom and I hadn’t lived with each other for close to 25 years. It’s one thing to meet up for an hour or two and discuss Colbert’s monologues or go to doctor’s appointments together.  It’s another thing to figure out how to share space, without intruding on each other’s privacy. Shane and my mom have a deep connection, but their relationship has never depended on the other’s willingness to close the bathroom door.

I worried that her inclination to keep newspapers stacked untouched for days would drive me mad. I thought about how a shared calendar could be set up to inform everyone of the schedule (a schedule I dictated.) I created mental lists to codify the housecleaners’ schedule, the cable bill breakdown and the rules of engagement with Jack who’d likely be confused on who exactly was the ‘boss.’  Living with grandma was different than visiting her once a week and I worried she’d overindulge Jack. My need to control would cause her frustration but my own fears of chaos would surely drive me towards bossiness.

Have you read ‘Of Mice and Men?’ I haven’t since 6th grade (Thank you Mrs. Beebee!) but I remember the scene when Lennie crushes his puppy by petting it so hard, he squeezed it to death.  Lennie was so lonely and desperate for the puppy’s companionship, he suffocated it. As the two months between our small family’s move to VA and my mom’s arrival approached, I grew more and more anxious about how this would all workout. I wanted her close, but as the big move loomed, I increasingly worried we could both suffocate with the proximity. Like Lennie, we were both prone to loneliness, but the potential was there to take the breath out of our friendship.

It’s been two weeks since I went to California to bring mom back to Virginia. We’ve endured some a few sleepless nights, a torn ligament in her knee and one breathless marathon-like sprint through the Kansas City airport with three bags, a wheelchair, a cane and her giant green faux-fur winter coat circa 1996.

Our intertwined lives are a work in progress, a puzzle with many holes left to patch, but something magical is transpiring.

After the initial logistical challenges, I find myself relaxing. Her humor is infectious, for Jack, Shane and I. We’ve spent the last few nights building routines; I make dinner, she clears the dishes. I get show-time snacks prepped, she turns on the electric blankets, lays them across the blue couch and by the time Jeopardy starts, the L-shaped nest is warm and toasty. Shane still tucks me in bed and we cuddle each night, but on Tuesday night, instead of him solitarily returning to the TV to wait for the election results to come in, he and my mom celebrated collectively at the miraculous Democratic victory.

Don’t get me wrong, this is all a work-in-progress. Today Jack stomped downstairs at 6:20 am and likely woke my mom up and there’s a good bet I will roll my eyes at her more than once today (I can be nasty when I am hungry!) But my mom has made me feel more at home in my home the past few days than I have since I boarded that plane back in October. Thank you, Mom, for always being home to me.