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?


Lemon icing and oreo crumbs

When I first thought about moving away from the Bay Area, I fantasized about food. What were the local delicacies? What were the favorites on Yelp? Where could I get an egg white omelette and diet soda at 6:55 a.m.? It was a way for me to feel connected to the area while waiting anxiously for the seismic shift ahead.

While I explore food by looking online at pictures and menus, I don’t actually taste them. Like a porn addict who never cheats on his spouse, I look, but I don’t touch. To celebrate one month in Virginia, however, I decided to treat my son to a sunrise breakfast at Duck Donuts, a local donut shop known for customization. The made-to-order donuts slip out of the fryer and are lacquered in any combination of icing, sprinkles and drizzles.

The line formed as soon as the shop opened as people placed complicated orders for boxes to take to work. The ordering process isn’t streamlined, but it gave Jack ample time to contemplate the options. He stared. For a kid who struggles with focus, I thought I was being helpful in calling out possible combinations I myself would have liked to try: Pumpkin icing, marshmallow drizzle and crushed graham crackers seemed fitting of the season. He shot me down. Again and again as I offered classic combinations, he dismissed my conservative suggestions.

Finally, “Mom, I want lemon icing, oreo crumbs and fudge.” I questioned him, “I am not sure you’re going to like that. Lemon and chocolate? Are you sure?”


We ordered then watched his special treat from dough to drizzle. Jack devoured it with glee. “This is the best thing I’ve ever had in my life. You’re the best Mom in the world.” I loved the praise, but I wasn’t convinced he wasn’t just swept up in the moment. Much like his Mom, Jack is prone to exaggeration.

As I watched him, though, I realized how much fear dictated my own choices and how kids can more easily take risks. Jack was driven by exploration, ‘What would lemon and oreos taste like?’ We tend to grow out of that. He know how rare a donut on a Wednesday might be and we make safe bets: vanilla icing or a dusting of powdered sugar..

Watching him, I saw once again how courage is a muscle. You flex it, it grows. You keep it bound, it atrophies and pretty soon you’re watching Wheel of Fortune every night eating Hostess.

Maybe I didn’t have to leave my hometown, all my family, friends and favorite hiking trails. Maybe I could have stayed and eaten more donuts. My tendency to live exaggeratedly got me to move across the country to remind myself I could take risks, live spontaneously, flex my courage muscle. You might not have to do that. You might choose to order a crazy donut concoction instead to remind yourself how brave we can all be.


Examining self-exhile

The first time I exiled myself, I was 19. That’s what my dad called it, ‘self-exile.’ Papa could see it clearly because he had done the same; he left Greece as a foreign student just after the Nazis retreated and the Communists took power.

As a foreign student in Michigan, my Mediterranean Dad learned what ‘winter’ really meant

In 1995, I was leaving the U.S. to claim my own power. I knew myself well enough to know that if I stayed in the local college I had enrolled in after high school, I would stay scared. I would stay chubby. I would stay the same.

For months before moving to England to go to university, I had methodically packed up my pictures, books and clothes, debating which were worthy of my new life. I shipped tea cups I imagined an English university student would need to drink Earl Grey. I packed books that proved I was worthy of my place at one of England’s top history programs. I lugged my artifacts and aspirations through San Francisco airport by myself, though I was shepherded to the gate by my parents and my younger brother Alex. I refused help, even as my heart broke boarding the plane. Leaving was the most courageous thing I had done in my life and yet with every step closer to my seat, the guiltier I felt.

Boarding that flight, I was betraying my family. I was leaving them when things were bleak. My father had lost his tenured professorship because he tried to seduce a student and my mom politically struggled in her job despite having slogged through a Ph.D. late in life to climb the ivory tower. My mom applauded my courageous decision to go away to school and gave me extra money at the last minute. She didn’t have the money, but she gave me a check drawn from her credit card account anyways. My dad wept and held out promised funds, grasping at the one lever of control hem still had. As I hugged them at the gate, I projected confidence and strength. I was faking it. My palms were so sweaty, the heavy duffel bag of books and tea cups kept slipping from my grip. But I kept walking.  I lasted 18 months in England; enough time to prove I could do it, but less than I had planned.

This time, at 41, the exile is for many of the same reasons. I fear sameness and complacency. I believe life is about growth and growth comes from courage not comfort. This time, the books, tea cups and photo frames fill an entire truck, not two duffel bags. This time, I grip my 9-year-old son’s hand boarding the plane, holding tight despite anxious sweat. This time, my faked smile of assurance is for my son, Jack, not my parents. I know Jack can see my phony bravery, but he smiles back, wanting to assure me equally. I realize he is learning to fake it too and I know we were leaving just in time.

I need to write this story because I appreciate only now how few chances we have in life to reinvent ourselves, to change. I need to write it out to remember why I left home in the first place.  When I am feeling lonely in this new life, I want to remember what I can do to build a sense of belonging. I want to capture experiences that will be fleeting but that could be permanent lessons if only I could conjure them when I’m most in need of some truth.

This story is for anyone who understands change takes courage. Have you ever exiled yourself? Have you ever jumped off the cliff of your own life to see what happens, to prove yourself to yourself? Me too.