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!

https://devotedmentor.com/

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.

 

Can a blog fill a bucket?

I struggle with how to describe this project. I realize in midlife that writing helps me process the world and myself in it. It’s helpful to vent and follow my thoughts ‘out loud’ to avoid exorbitant therapy bills and to fully absorb the lessons of life. I view life as school, “To live is to slowly be born,” as the saying goes. Above all else, writing keeps me honest. Is it then a diary, a series of essays or a blog? A blog to me seems about self-promotion; a written selfie. This makes me cringe.

I worry that the rampant selfie culture is a little dangerous. One of my favorite thinkers, David Brooks, has written about how our world increasingly promotes a ‘resume self,’ over a ‘eulogy self.’ We all say that the most meaningful things in life are the profound, higher drivers: wisdom… grace… love.  A ‘eulogy self’ are the things we want to be remembered for, these BIG things. But we spend most of our time each day chasing ‘likes,’ applause, and material achievement. That’s a ‘resume self.’ The irony is that the more we strive to achieve for the purposes of outside recognition, the lonelier and emptier it can feel inside.

Last Sunday morning, a new friend, Jennifer, suggested we volunteer together to collect Thanksgiving donations. I loved the idea of getting to know this very cool chic better and doing some good. The week before I had been periodically grumpy and less than civil with Jack .  Shane had been travelling for work, Jack had a lot of commitments and I was dealing with the hangover of emotions leftover from this mammoth move. I figured ‘doing some good,’ would do me some good and help make-up for the fact that I yelled at my 9 year-old over something as minor as forgetting his homework.

Over the course of 3 hours, a group of volunteers collected hundreds of reusable shopping bags full of Stovetop, Del Monte green beans and Trader Joe’s cornbread mix. A handful of times, some donors asked to take pictures with their donations, presumably for Facebook, and such. Please understand, these people were clearly generous and self-less. They were doing something charitable by waking up at the crack of dawn to lug bags of food they’d bought for people they would never meet. But at the drop-off point, those selfie moments felt hollow. The pictures became distractions — recording transactions.

The majority of donors who brought bags full of food introduced themselves, smiled, shook hands — a few even gave hugs. They were happy to have help ferrying the goods from their cars and called out with glee to our volunteer group, ‘Happy Thanksgiving!’ Those exchanges were personal and heartwarming.   I think the selfie-takers missed out on that. (Or at least I missed out on that– maybe their social media ‘likes’ provided them love I didn’t witness.)

Jack has a book called, “Fill a Bucket.” The story is simple: all of us have ‘buckets’ (thinly veiled hearts) and when we fill other people’s buckets with love, appreciation, and kindness, our own buckets grow too.  When we tear down others, we are really dismantling our own buckets.

I have a terrible habit of over-reacting negatively to something in a split second, tearing down someone else’s bucket, then in my immediate remorse, I attempt to replace the guilt by overcompensating. I praise, lavish the victim with loving words or apologize excessively. While the apology is good, the net result is 0, at best. I dipped, then I re-filled but both buckets would have been fuller if I’d just not caused hurt in the first place. I am working on that here.

Journaling about my experiences helps keep me honest and reveal my bucket publically. But my goal is really not about my own bucket.  It’s about helping to form a world where all of us can look honestly at ourselves and our buckets. Are our everyday decisions mini-selfies or are they honest attempts to connect with others? I love this time of year and I think the generosity of the holidays can last if we chose every day to donate to others’ buckets. Who’s with me?

 

All will be well Mr. Lincoln

Last week marked the one month deadline I gave myself to settle in. Pictures hung, lamps plugged in, there was no more work to do to get the house in order. I knew that the distractions of my ‘to do’ list had helped me to feel anchored, but I also knew that my efficiency would quicken a feeling of being lost. I was scared of feeling purposeless once the last box had been unpacked. Last Monday I woke up to a sunny day, hustled Shane to work and Jack to school, then thought, ‘Now what?’

Call it obsessiveness, but when in doubt, I walk. Walking calms me, exhausting my body so my mind won’t spin all day. Monday morning, I started out with the intention of making a long, 3-hour circle by walking through our new neighborhood, crossing the Potomac heading east then circling south along a Georgetown canal path, before veering back towards home. After crossing the river, though, I decided to head east farther into D.C. where I hadn’t been. I figured I could explore the neighborhood near Union Station, grab lunch and then hop the Metro back to Arlington. Enjoying the sun and distracted by a podcast binge, I realized about 45 minutes after crossing into D.C. that I was nowhere near the train station. You can’t exactly be lost in the age of the smart phone, but I certainly wasn’t where I intended.

If you check google maps on your phone, almost any birdseye view of D.C. shows an icon for the National Cathedral. You have to zoom out practically to New Jersey to get that icon to disappear. Looking at my phone, I realized my pulsing blue dot was very near the cathedral. I couldn’t see it through the web of fall foliage still on the trees, but a few quick steps and I was smacked by the 6th largest cathedral in the world.

If you know me, you know I studied church history in England, have lit candles in every church I’ve ever been to and have wept rainbow tears sitting in Sainte Chappelle. As I walked up to the gothic cathedral, I realized my morning ‘plans’ to wander were delusional. I had been heading to the cathedral all along.

I paid the $12 entrance fee then turned to my immediate left to read the first plaque. The words were of Lincoln’s impromptu speech to his hometown of Springfield, IL when he was boarding the inaugural train leaving for D.C.

My friends, no one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

Statue of Lincoln inside Washington National Cathedral
Plaque of Lincoln’s speech to Springfield

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It is vain to suggest I felt Lincoln understood me, and yet…  150 years ago, this man facing the greatest crisis of our country, was describing identical emotions to my own. He talked about leaving his hometown, gratitude, parenting, grief, faith in the divine and ultimately hope. “Let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.”

His words tunneled to my deepest fears and dug them out. Leaving the Bay Area has been one of the hardest things for me, and yet it was a choice I fought for. The constellation of emotions I have been juggling include my struggles as a parent, grief over my dad’s death in March but also a fundamental faith that everything would work out.

I walked around the cathedral thinking about how I could turn Lincoln’s message into something lasting, something personal and purposeful. As I contemplated all of this, I noticed groups of people touring the cathedral.  The groups were led by docents describing the meaning of the iconography, pointing to particular stained glass images and connecting all of this to biblical and American history. It was suddenly so clear: I left home last month feeling sad, but hoping there was a purpose for me in Washington. Since I was 19, I have read historical tomes, studied in one of the great cathedral towns in all of Europe and always harbored a desire to teach.  When I left my graduate program, I gave up my aspirations to teach and at some fundamental level have felt like a failure ever since.  As I listened to the docents, I wondered: what if I don’t need a Ph.D. to in order to share stories of the past?

As giddy as that idea made me, I immediately began to doubt myself. These docents seemed wise and ancient (all 3 of the ones I saw were at least in their 70s). Their knowledge was clearly born out of decades of study and experience. Did they all have advanced degrees? How grueling were the qualifications? How rare were the openings?

I drummed up the courage to go to the visitor’s desk. “How does one become a docent?” With a gleam in his eye, the helpful man said, “Do you have a minute? Come with me.”  He led me to a back office hidden by the heavy stones. “Jenn, we have a live one!” he called out to the program director.

Within a few short minutes, I learned that they trained docents once a year. That the annual training was on Saturday, only 5 days away. 24 of 25 spots had been filled. They were looking for volunteers who could commit at least one weekday and most appreciated young-ish docents because so many of the tours were for student groups. Qualifications included a passion for history, art and architecture, but no Ph.D was required. I could self-study, pass a series of tests, lead qualifying tours and then be free to ‘craft my own tour.’

My mom has a saying, ‘When you’re going in the right direction, doors open before you.’ I believe deeply there is a purpose to life and a divine spirit most present when we act on love. That’s what I call faith. Without it, we cannot succeed. With it, we cannot fail. Let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. Will you come with me on a tour?