Assateague

Assateague Island

I awoke suddenly, to find my vision held by a girl with a choppy, asymmetrical haircut, one I'd given her the previous week before our band's first show.  Her eyes were wild as she told me, "We're driving to see the ponies. Get up!"

My roommate grumbled at me as I stumbled around in the dark, throwing my favorite thrift store sweater and used CDs into my denim shoulder bag, “Shut UP!  I have a test in the morning.”  She rolled violently over to face the wall.

My friends were always breaking in to do things like this---grabbing me at 11:30pm to drive to Philly to get soft pretzels from the factory the second they came off the oven rack, whole gaggles of boys (which was against the rules at our university) in the middle of the night, picking me up in my pajamas and throwing me down the wet hill, as I screamed and laughed and rolled.  She requested a single room for our second year.

I shuffled into my shoes and ran to catch up with my friends in the parking lot, who were already hopping into their huge old cars, sturdy Cadillacs and Buicks that once belonged to their grandmothers, all with names like "Marge" or "The Porkchop Express", based on our favorite movie vehicles of the 80's.

I angled to be in a car with Sam, because I knew he would be quiet most of the way and that is what I craved: hours of this dark night to be spent staring out at towns going by that I'd never seen before, drawing designs on the window whenever they got foggy enough.  Alas, Chatty Cindy climbed in beside me, sodden down with snacks and jokes.  She proceeded to build a nest in the hatchback of Sam's car, which we took turns wiggling back into, to take little snoozes on the three hour ride.

I kept trying to get Patti Smith's Horses in the CD player, but mostly we listened to Modest Mouse and Cat Power, which got no complaints from me.

Sam looked over at me and smiled.  "Have you ever camped on the beach before?"

"I haven't done much camping at all.  I was always more of a take-the-train-to-NYC kind of girl."

"Well, we'll hook you up.  It's going to be so magical."

Sam was one of those neo-hippies who was always saying things like this, when he talked at all.  His hair was floppy and his clothes were simple, fitting his soccer body in an effortlessly attractive way, without attention to what was hip to wear.  He was also never seen without his guitar, on which he played sparse songs leaning more toward experimental music than hippie rock.  An enigma for sure, he was my first friend at college.  I was considering ditching the high school boyfriend I'd hung on to to make out with Sam, but sometimes I wondered if he was quiet because he really didn't have that much going on up there.

Cindy was babbling away in the backseat, creating little songs about her round tummy, and making Erin, the botched-banged girl who had woken me up, laugh beside her.  Erin had a great laugh, one of those honking ones that made everyone in the cafeteria stare.  It was also a bit rare, as she was a severe gal, more prone to tell you to get the fuck out of her face then laugh at your jokes.  But Cindy was so absurd and relentless that eventually everyone joined in.

When we finally got to the beach, it was still dark out, and I helped carry equipment that made no sense to me, eventually dropping it with a clamor on the sand.  "Where's the campsite?"  My voice sounded louder than it had in the cramped car.

Len, whose afro was listing to the side from the door he'd slept against in the Suburban on the way there, replied, "There isn't one.  We're technically not allowed to camp here.  But it's such a huge beach that they probably won't catch us."

Probably.  We were a sober bunch, so with a lack of alcohol or drugs to give us thrills, we were often taking these kinds of risks, to get the feeling that we weren't wasting our youth.  I was plagued with a constant fear that I wasn't living big enough, that I was going to look back with regret, wishing I'd jumped from higher peaks.

With that fear riding on my back like a dark-cloaked demon, I stripped down to my underwear and ran, legs akimbo, into the sea.  Allison, always eager to be in some version of nudity, splashed in after me, Sam at her heels.

I floated out on my back, astounded at the amount of stars that clotted the sky.  Sam started pointing out constellations, a skill I'd never quite mastered.

"Wait, where's Orion's Belt?"

"Right there, don't you see it?"  He pointed one spindly figure up, outlining the curve of the famous symbol.

"Ohhhh, yeah. . ."  I hoped no one could tell I was lying.

Len and Erin were building a fire when we came dripping out, and we warmed up and ate the snacks Cindy had brought, and some we'd scored at Wawa on our way out of Pennsylvania into Maryland.

"So, what do we do now?"  I asked.

"We wait. . . for sunrise.  And hopefully, for the ponies." Sam answered.

"What, are they just going to come running through here or something?"  I looked around me, picturing a herd of animals tearing down our precarious tents with their hooves.  The sky was changing, from pitch black to midnight blue.

"Maybe.  They're wild."  I snuggled down closer to him in our sleeping bag.  Even if I wasn't going to cheat on my chicken-haired boyfriend with Sam, I was at least going to feel his body alongside mine, like when I was on family vacation with my boy cousin, and we shared a bunk, my body alive with his otherness and what could not be.

Eventually Cindy finally ran out of things to say, or perhaps she went on a walk to look for the ponies, a huge woven blanket draped around her shoulders, her steps small and plunking.  Either way, she quieted and I dozed off.

I woke up to find the light around me hazy orange, the sun a fiery beach ball floating up over the sea.  I sat up and pulled my knees to my chin, careful not to disturb Sam, looking impossibly young in slumber beside me.

Erin was awake, standing just at the edge of the campsite.  The light made a halo around her skinny rockstar body, ringing it and burning it into my memory.  She turned to me and pressed her finger to her lips.  "Look.  The ponies!"  she stage-whispered.

I scrambled out of the bag and hurried over to her, my glee unconfined.  On a dune, amid some grass, were several beasts, horses so unlike the groomed ones I'd seen on farms and in Central Park, they could have been a different species.  They didn't look my way, lost in their own world of breakfast grazing and spraying each other with sea air as they whinnied.

I looked back at my own pack, all laying on top of one another in a semicircle around the fire.  I went over and nudged Sam with my nose, mouth clamped shut to stave off a whiff of my stale breath.  I pulled him up with my hand and stood him beside Erin, who slung a gangly arm over his shoulders.

Our smiles were like we'd figured out some precious secret.  My hands felt tingly and numb, with the knowledge that for at least this one moment, I was doing it.  I was living flat out all the way up the stars.

A Taco and Something to Drink

A Taco and Something to Drink

By Catherine Close

Last night, I got together with a friend for dinner. I ate a greasy taco and washed it down with a beer. Tacos — in fact, almost any kind of Mexican food — are my happy food when I need a little culinary comfort. While crunching on my taco, my thoughts ran to my grandmother Frannie, as they so often do. Frannie introduced me to Mexico, and at the end of her life, I supplied her with tacos.

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How It Will Come Back to the Beginning

postcards from france

More than seven years after I first meet her, Madeleine has a baby girl named Cléa. On Facebook she looks like any other baby, small and pink and bundled in blankets, but I can tell that she’s different. And I get to meet her in less than a week.

I’ve been working on the lavender harvest outside of Aix for two weeks, followed by a week at Juliette’s house helping her to make cheesecakes and scones to sell at the market. I’m making my way up north, stopping to visit Alice in Paris, where she is living my adolescent dream with her small apartment, her French boyfriend, and her studies at the Sorbonne. Now I’m catching the train from Paris to Caen, where Clémence, Roger, Pauline, Fréd, and Madeleine are waiting. And now Cléa.

I imagine her seventeen years old and coming to stay with me in San Francisco late one summer. She’ll speak classroom English and will be surprised that the bathroom and les toilettes are the same room in the United States and she’ll discover a newfound love for bagels, like Clémence did. She can stay for as long she wants, I’ve decided. It’ll be the least I can do.

[you can read all of Liv's postcards here]

"I Don't Want a Bigoted Friend"

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

A college friend of mine has an attitude problem when it comes to race. We met 12 years ago and lost touch a year into our studies when our programs diverged. At that point she had already made 2 racist comments, one which I pointed out was unfair and biased, and she conceded. But when the second comment occurred, I cut my losses and went on my way.

Five years ago she moved to my city and sought out my friendship again. I was happy to hear from her, because she does have a lot of good qualities and has turned out to be a fairly loyal, if somewhat self-centered friend.

She had done some traveling after college and I was hoping her mind had opened and she'd matured with regard to her unconscious views on race. Not totally. There were a few less-overt comments that I let slide, due to my passive nature and just general cowardice (ugh). I never thought that she would remain my friend for this long, or that she'd figure it out eventually by interacting with more folks from different backgrounds (our city is fairly diverse and she's since entered a multicultural graduate program).

Alas, that's not really how privilege works, as we both know, Sibyl! The recent release of the film Fruitvale Station, and its confluence with the Trayvon Martin verdict have produced some ugly & awkward moments with her—which unfortunately I've heard of second-hand. Her comments were to the effect of, people are just saying nice things about this movie because of the trial, subtext being that ... black people are getting away with "it"??  It makes no sense. It's getting to the point where I have to run interference with other friends because I'm (perhaps selfishly) afraid this reflects badly on me. I don't want a bigoted friend, but at this point she has become so important to me that I can't just cut & run either.

I think I know the right thing to do, which is to gently bring it up and act like I just don't understand why an otherwise nice person seems to hold these views, and to sort of cushion it by saying I think she's much smarter than that. But I'm afraid that instead I'll start shaking with rage and go off about white privilege (I'm white too, so it doesn't take a rocket scientist to recognize what's right in front of our eyes). Any tips? Thanks so much!

Losing the Race

 

Dear Losing the Race,

In the past month, people all over the country have had some unfortunate surprises, seeing how folks close to them reacted to the Trayvon Martin murder case, and the film Fruitvale Station, which depicted the murder of Oscar Grant III.  It’s been awkward, depressing, and downright enraging to see that people you thought were allies are actually indifferent, ignorant, and/or even full-out racist.  How is it 2013 and so many white people just don’t “get” the effects of institutional racism?  Well, privilege is a sneaky thing, and no one wants to give up power they don’t want to believe they have in the first place.

The message I heard, over and over, from the black folks in my life was, “White people who are conscious, please handle your people. We are tired of explaining racism to them.  It’s time for you to step up.”  So, although I recognize that my efforts are far from complete, I’ve been using every platform afforded to me to discuss race in America, and I thank you for another opportunity to do so.

What I am finding is that since most people avoid talking about race like the plague, they are clunky with it.  Their opinions are not fully formed, untested by debate and expression.  They are a bit like teenagers in Health class on Sex Ed day - there’s all kinds of jokes where there should be depth, and the level of tension in the room is palpable.

I like that you are willing to examine what having a bigoted friend says about you.  What it says about you is you are a human with human friends, that are complicated and imperfect and not totally aware of themselves.  Everyone has their equivalent of your bigoted friend in their lives.  It’s like the embarrassing uncle who you used to love as a child for all the reasons you now hope he doesn’t show up at the family functions—his loudness and silliness was fun for kids, but less funny as an adult.

You probably enjoy the bluntness of your friend, in other contexts.  You like that she tells it how she sees it, doesn’t hold back, and isn’t always perfectly PC.  However, you were hoping she would evolve over time.  Ignorant views in college students are to be expected—I’m so lucky I still have any friends who knew me in my early 20’s, a time of bizarre absolutes all over the political spectrum.  However, in adult life, friendships are really difficult to hold on to, and for all the effort one puts in, you don’t want to feel like you’re giving your time to someone who is on the wrong side of history.  It feels like collusion.

This friend has been placed in your lap so you can do your part in making change, starting right where you are.  Relationships are the only thing that change people.  The person with homophobic beliefs has to reconsider when they find out their beloved piano teacher is gay.  And someone with unconscious racist beliefs won’t change them unless people they care about start to stay, “Listen, this is not cool.”

So what you need to do is practice.  Talk about this issue with people you know agree with you, first.  Practice with people you don’t care as much about, too.  I remember when I first started confronting racism in conversations, and the visceral physical reaction you described happened to me.  I shook, I cried, I had to leave the room and hyperventilate.  But, over time, I was able to get those somatic responses under control and speak more freely.  I actually think it’s fine if you shake and cry—it could be compelling for your friend to see how much this means to you.  However, it would be best for your health if you didn’t go into anaphylactic shock every time you talk about this, so practice and breathe.

I actually don’t think you should pretend not to understand why an otherwise nice person holds these beliefs.  Because you do know.  You should be forward, direct, and use examples.  You can do this compassionately, in a way that helps put your friend’s statements into context, showing her that it’s not her fault that institutional racism exists, but it is her business and duty to recognize it and stop propagating it.

I suggest following up your conversation with some reading material for her to peruse.  An article your friend may connect with is Peggy McIntosh’s Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which includes a list of day-to-day examples of how white privilege works itself out in real life.  She may not want to believe that all of the examples on the list are true, but there are at least a few that she will be unable to refute.  I do understand that this article is problematic, but it seems that your friend really needs to start slowly, although she should be encouraged quickly to move on to bell hooks.  This could be the beginning of a really important personal growth journey for her.

People do not want to acknowledge their own ignorance and privilege.  In order to get them to do so, you have to provide both positive and negative reasons.  For instance, you’ll be saying, “It makes me really uncomfortable and upset when you say these things.  It is why I didn’t call you for years.”  So, the message is, “your racism hurts your friends and makes them not want to hang out with you.”  But also you can tell her your journey, from unconsciously enjoying white privilege to being aware of it and trying to call it out when you can.  What have you gained from this process?  What personal growth can you offer her by becoming awake to how the world really works?

I think it is great that you don’t just want to cut this friend out of your life—that would be a missed opportunity for you both.  Just being aware of white privilege is not enough.  We have to have the courage to speak out about it when we see it, calling it out and encouraging the people in our lives to do the same.  And, what have you got to lose?  You said yourself you don’t want to have a bigoted friend, so give her the chance to evolve, and see what happens!  I really believe this is the only way things are ever going to change—one-on-one conversations with people we love.  The personal affection makes it matter in a way that a movie and a court case never can.

In Solidarity,

Sibyl

A Little Walk

process_header

Flowers by Plenty of Posies. Photo by Wonderbliss Wedding Photography.

On the night before our wedding, I woke up when Brian came to bed and thought, “I can’t believe we got married and didn’t go to bed at the same time!” Then I walked to the hotel bathroom with its mysteriously and perpetually wet floor, flipped on the light and realized, no. It didn’t happen yet. That was just the rehearsal dinner.

When I woke up again, in the morning, it was grey and raining a little. “It’s supposed to be good luck if it rains on your wedding day,” I thought, and got dressed for coffee with the wedding team. Some logistics, vegan waffles, gossip in bed and a hot shower later and it was time to get ready.

A lot of the time, I try to want the minimum, take care of my own needs, be the helper. But on your wedding day, people don’t really let you do that. If you say, “Oh do her makeup first,” when it’s 3:00 PM and becoming clear that either you or your sister-in-law, but not both, will be getting her makeup done, nobody’s having it. So you sit down in the chair and someone brings you a bottle of water. Being able to feel fine about that feels freaking awesome.

While we were getting ready, my sister-in-law Wendy, a practical, hilarious class act, as both my sister-in-laws are, called down to order champagne. She possesses that innate understanding that some practical people have of how to celebrate—what to splurge on, where to pin a corsage, when to have another drink and when to call it a night. It’s a skillset that my parents and I lack, but that somehow my brother ended up with. All my in-laws have it, and I find it absolutely thrilling.

The guy on the other end of the phone told her, “I’m sorry, we only have sparkling wine.” (Who knew the Holiday Inn were such sticklers about authentic, Champagne-region Champagne, what with the baby poop in the lobby and all.)

“That’s fine,” Wendy said, in her quick, deadpan voice.

“Well, I don’t have a price list here. My manager will be here in an hour, so I can call you back then.”

“Well, why don’t you just figure out a price, and if it’s not reasonable, just . . . make it reasonable,” she said, before hanging up the phone.

My sister-in-law Karen looked at her approvingly, “That’s my kinda girl.”

My friend Allison’s wide-set baby mammal eyes trained on my face as she applied foundation and blush with little white sponges. I drank bottled water with my mouth in an O shape to try to avoid rubbing off my lipstick.

Around 5 PM, the photographer told us that she’d been down to the wedding site and the clouds had broken and the sun was out.

I hadn’t allowed enough time for getting ready and we had to start over on the hair a few times, so we ended up arriving at the ceremony about 15 minutes late. We pulled into the farmer’s market parking lot just as my cousin Ricky and his girlfriend Amanda arrived with their dog Buddy, a giant “man in a dog suit” kind of dog.

“Is it ok if we bring Buddy?” Amanda called out.

“I think I saw a sign saying no dogs in the pavillion?” I replied.

“Oh we asked someone, she said it’s really up to you.”

“Then sure!”

Who doesn’t want a man in a dog suit at their wedding?

The chaos, cheer, and rule-breaking of my family already in full effect, I felt heartened. We may not know how to class things up, but we know how to make things irreverent, which I think is equally important.

We walked through the gravel towards the market. Wendy and I held hands. When they dropped me off at my waiting area, Karen looked over her shoulder and said, in her 80’s movie star voice, “Don’t worry. You’re just takin’ a little walk.”

I watched them find their respective husbands and start down the aisle to the Peanuts song. The flower girl walked to her “mark” (the day before, at my panicked request, my friend Ted, a film director, had graciously taken over directing the rehearsal) and took the ring bearer’s hand. I started to walk out behind them and Ted stopped me, whispering, “Wait a second, we’re building a dramatic pause for you.”

The music changed to the traditional Here Comes The Bride. It was funny the things I ended up feeling traditional about. We didn’t have a cake or toss flowers or do the garter, but I wanted that song, and I made sure to have something old (my necklace), something new (my dress), something borrowed (thread and time from my friend Kara, who helped me hem my dress by hand, watching Pretty Little Liars on the internet, just like they did in the olden days), and something blue (my eyes.)

I went to my mark, and though my instinct is always to rush, I thought, “Molly, this is the one time it’s ok to make people wait.” Which is probably really for the best, given I rarely wear heels and my dress was nearly floor length.

I walked past the decorations, which I’d helped to coordinate but which were made into reality by friends. These friends who amaze me all the time with their creativity and art had made the space so beautiful, so much better than I’d envisioned it, and I’m pretty sure I started crying right then.

I made it (slowly) down the few steps to the area where everyone was sitting, and the first things I saw were a little kid and Buddy the dog sticking their heads into the aisle and I thought, “Yup. This is my wedding.”

Brian was standing all the way at the end of the dock, so he walked up as I walked down, and we met where the water meets the land. My friend Andrea was our officiant, and looked so beautiful that I got choked up like it was her wedding day.

I had to laugh at myself a little as she read the ceremony, which I had written, clearly in a time of great trepidation, for the whole thing is kind of a pep talk saying, “don’t be scared! You can do this!” But it turned out that once it was happening I wasn’t scared.

My friend Kallista read a poem about an old man saving toads in the road, because “they have places to go, too,” which Brian referenced a few days later as he carefully saved a large slug from getting stepped on. My friend Q read a passage by Pema Chodron and Brian’s brother Mike finished it up.

I’d partly picked that Pema Chodron piece because it talks about a pilot saving his passengers, and Brian’s father, who worked for a manufacturer that made airplane engine parts, starting in the foundry and ending up head of sales, loves pilots. But when I looked to see if he was enjoying it, I saw his eyes were closed and his mouth drawn in a frown, holding back tears, a pose he maintained the whole ceremony. I recognize that sensitivity because he passed it on to Brian, and it regularly breaks and melts my heart during funerals, weddings, and tv commercials alike.

I cried all during my vows, which I hadn’t thought I would. But with all those people there, showing up and making this day, how could I not be cracked open?

By midway through the reception, I became the “I love you, man!” guy from Wayne’s World.

I told family members I’ve never said it to before that I love them. My mom’s cousin Tamison, whose house we’ve stayed at about half the Thanksgivings of my life, whose house we’d stayed at, in fact, two nights before and who, incidentally, gave my friends and I her bed to sleep in, who spent the following day making 30 pies with us and then took us swimming, replied, with her signature wild grin and Mary Louise Parker-esque lack of jaw movement, “WHY?”

And I said easily, because for that one night everything felt easy, “I can’t help it, I just do.”

She seemed satisfied with that and replied, “Well, I happen to be very fond of all my family members, even the ones no one else likes!”

Which satisfied me.

When the reception was starting to wind down, a group of us went swimming, stripped down to underwear or nothing. The moon was almost full. I went in first (unlike me, but this night I was brave) and looked back at the glowing bodies wading through the water, like bathers in an old painting, or people performing a baptism ritual, or sirens.

When I was still in the midst of wedding planning minutia, my sister-in-law referred to the impending wedding as “the happiest day of Molly’s life.” I thought that was a ridiculously romantic thing to say. Why would a day that’s just about me and Brian be the happiest of my life? I love lots of people in lots of ways, not just him. But that, it turns out, is the point.

xxxxv. provence

postcards from france

After two months of gazing up at the white limestone mountain, I finally sign up for a trip to hike to the top of St. Victoire.

Leah, Bridget and I head out on the group bus early in the morning and when we arrive the base of the mountain is still enveloped in fog. Our guide assures us it will be gone by the time we reach the top. So up we go. We climb on a mix of paths for unathletic tourists and the older, more treacherous routes, those used by goat herders when goat herding was still a thing that people did. The climb grows steeper and steeper until we are scrambling up the slope on all fours and the gravel under my shoes — made for running, not climbing — slips out from under me with every step.

I can’t see the top until we are suddenly there, and then the fog clears as the sun finally breaks through the clouds. The whole of Provence lies before me, all the vineyards and hamlets, the restaurants and the roads and the people I have and haven’t met.

The fierce wind from the north, le mistral, sweeps around me as I cling to the edge of the mountain, and for a second I imagine myself leaping off the cliff and being carried over the entire country, laughing and crying from the sheer force of it all.

What About Your Friends?

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sybil,

A little over a year ago my husband and I moved to a new city. We both value community and relationships and digging into a place in an attempt to give it all we've got. Unfortunately, especially as a couple, we have not been able to find "our people". The few friends we have made fit into these categories:

1. We have connected as a foursome but one is moving away this week.

2. We have reached out (they are really interesting and like-minded) but they are so busy that they never seem to be free.

3. I have connected with one, but he hasn't connected with them.

and lastly (the question is coming, I promise)...

4. We were connected by mutual friends- I can find ways of tolerating and enjoying them, and he is (rightly) at the end of his rope.

So, I want to talk about the last couple. They are not bad people, just one of those couples who are difficult. She, as an individual and one on one is kind and sweet- as well as negative, critical, and needs to be right. They, as a couple, are extra hard. They are much more spendy than we are, constantly needing to be at the best or most popular restaurants. She talks down to him and regularly brings up her ex in weird ways which is super awkward. Recently they offered to sell me tickets to a festival, and when I couldn't afford it at the price they offered- he proceeded to offer them on facebook for half the price without telling me he was willing to do that.

This last thing sent my husband over the edge. He is over it. He feels they are rude, difficult, and obnoxious. I sometimes feel the same, but also have had some sweet interactions- and I want to be careful because we really love the mutual friends who connected us, and whom go really far back with this couple.

This couple is trying to get pregnant and the way that is unfolding is also annoying to me. That sounds weird, but too much to bother going into. She is a lot of work.

I am aware that if we end up having a kid here, that others with children will be valuable and especially other women will be important to me. I am also aware that sometimes I am too tolerant. I would like to keep a connection but even if I do, I will at some point have to confront that my partner pretty much never wants to hang out with them again and if he had to he'd probably stick it to them. I have this sneaking suspicion that the more forward and clear I am the better she will take it, and that she can actually take it. It's possible things could grow with her.

Is it worth the slow (possibly unfruitful) effort? Should I accept being lonely over tolerating an exhausting friendship? I sense it's not time to let go completely.

HELP!

Yours,

Exhausted but hopeful

Dear EBH,

Moving to a new city is a chance to reinvent yourself, but isn’t it interesting that people are difficult, everywhere you go?  People are difficult, and worth it, but at what cost?

My father always told me, “Be careful who you hang out with.”  He was worried that my friends would get me into trouble, but also was trying to impart to me that human nature is that you are influenced by the people you spend time with.  It has taken me a long time to listen to my dad’s advice, and, to be honest, sometimes I still ignore it and dive into friendships with people who are very dodgy and could get me into some situations I’ll later regret.  But I’m starting to be more and more careful to only hang out with people who I actually admire, not just enjoy.  I’m spending time and effort on those folks who really enrich my life in some way, who have things in their life I want to grow in myself, and that simply make me feel more alive when I’m with them.

Friends are not charity cases.  Someone who is “a lot of work” is work, not friendship.  That’s a client.  Friendships should never be “tolerated”, and leave you at the point of exhaustion.  This relationship is the equivalent of you wearing a terrible dress that feels itchy and looks awful, even though you have other ones in your closet, because you like the person that gave you the dress.  Take that ugly dress off, and give it away - it could be someone else’s favorite garment!  But honey, it’s not doing you any favors.

The nature of friendship should be a mutual affection, and desire to get to know one another, rather than any kind of duty, especially to a third party, like the friends who introduced you.  You have a duty to your family (and even that is negotiable), but friendships have to be free of “shoulds” to thrive.  So, to answer your most pressing question, yes, you must stop hanging out with people who consistently make you and your husband uncomfortable.

The unpleasantness of slowly having less contact, declining invites and not adding them to your evening plans will be undercut by the space this will leave for you to make a different friendship.  Believe me, it will come, but you have to create time for it.

This couple might be perfect friends for someone else, but for you and your husband, they are crazymakers.  Stop trying to be someone you’re not by continuing to invest in these relationships.  Listen to your husband’s judgment here, and just stop calling those people.

If your mutual friends ask about it, be honest.  Say, “We didn’t click with them.”  I have a suspicion that your friends will know why.

The main message I want you to hear is TRUST.  You have to trust yourself, your gut, your desires.  So, the people you really do like but your husband doesn’t?  Hang out with them when he’s busy, and enjoy them thoroughly.  The people who never have time for you?  Let them go, pursue someone whose energy flows back to you.  And believe me, when it is time to have kids, your friendships will go through another overhaul, so there’s no use stockpiling people who could be parent-friends in the future.  Your people will come to you at that time, in weird and wonderful ways.

Friendships go through ups and downs, and what holds them together is love.  And love cannot be forced.  Love can bloom in loneliness but not in resentment.  Create space in your life for the relationships you really want, and trust yourself to know who to dig deeper with. If you keep digging with your current options, you’re just going to keep hitting stone.

Love,

Sibyl

Bridesmaids: Broke Edition

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm honored to be a bridesmaid in my dear friend's wedding later this summer. The only problem is that being a bridesmaid costs approximately one million dollars and I'm a starving grad student.

My friend isn't a wedding-crazy bridezilla who expects us to pony up for hair extensions and matching "bridesmaid" bikinis for pre-wedding pool time (that's totally a thing---I saw it on television). She's been so thoughtful that she's even arranged for family members to host us in her hometown since she knows we all have to pay for plane tickets to get there. The expenses that go along with traditional weddings just add up -- for everyone involved.

At this point I've adequately scrimped to get the dress, the shoes, the plane tickets, and the wedding gift. Unfortunately, her bachelorette party is coming up in a couple weeks and it's a weekend trip to her family's vacation house. Between the plane tickets, the dinners out, etc, I don't see how I can swing it. This is one of my very best friends and I hate the thought of not being there for a big event in her life though. How do I handle this?

Sincerely,

The Penniless Pal

 

Dear Penny P,

It appears to be a trend that, instead of a night out of debauchery, bachelorette parties are now days-long events.  Should we blame The Hangover?  Perhaps not---in general, it is pretty great that women are asking themselves, "How do I really want to usher in this new phase in my life?" and what they are coming up with is having their closest friends around them for a weekend, soaking up support and relaxation before all the bustle of the wedding begins.  It's sort of a last hurrah before joint couple vacations happen.

But that's what this is: a vacation.  You stated you are sad not to be there for a big event in your friend's life, but the event is the wedding. This is a vacation, that your friend has invited you on, that will be totally centered on her.  I hope I can adequately explain that I have zero judgment about this practice.  I have been invited on many such weekends in the past few years, as ladies getting hitched have decided they'd prefer a fun time away with their friends rather than a sure-to-be-slightly-embarrassing "bachelorette party".

Many of us cannot afford vacation, however.  We simply don't take them.  A "weekend away" is not a reality for us, or if it is, it is rare and hard-won.  People from income brackets and lifestyles that give them actual time to take vacations and the funds to do so take week (or month) long vacations, and then consider these little weekends away to be just something you do with your Saturdays and Sundays.

Which must be nice.  But those of us without that kind of life spend our weekends at the laundromat, planning meticulous weekly meals that fit our tiny budget and shopping for them, and, often, working our second job.  Most of the time, it feels okay to do this.  This is the life we either chose because we believed in it, or are willing to accept, at least for now.  However, it goes from feeling fine to feeling like shite when all your friends are on a weekend vacation while you are wondering if you have enough pennies to splurge on the tiny box of fabric softener this week.

So, where does that leave you?  You have two choices.  The first one is: you stay home, sit with your disappointment, and work hard at not turning it into resentment.  Perhaps you can offer a special night later in the month with your friend that is just the two of you---you can cook her dinner at your place, present her with a thoughtful homemade gift, and talk about the coming changes for both of you as she embarks on marriage.

You'll have to work together on managing the fact that you can't show up for your friend in the way that you want to, because of your different lifestyles.  This is going to keep happening.  We always want to give more to our friends than we can, and often it is because it is impossible to be at the same place at the same time in our lives every step of the way.  She sounds very thoughtful and understanding, so forgiving yourself for not going on the weekend will be tantamount.

The second choice is you ask for help.  If this is just too important to miss, you must lay it all out for your friend.  You tell her you can't afford the dinners out, so can you all cook dinner at the place where you are staying?  Ask her if she has some frequent flyer miles you can use to get out there.  Let her know how much you want to be there, but you simply can't do it on your own at this time in your life.  If she can help you, I'm sure she will, and it will bring you closer to work on raising the funds together.

Either way, you have to be really vulnerable and truthful with your friend about your financial situation, and your desire to be there for her.  I really believe she is going to be understanding either way, so the hard realities will be all your own.  Your love for your friend is non-monetized.  This is only one weekend, and it sounds like you are a friend who will be with her in the grander sense, for much longer than that.

In Broke Solidarity,

Sibyl

Taking the Leap

taking the leap

By Ellia Guy I've sifted through, pondered, analyzed and assimilated innumerable lessons since I left my vast dry continent a year ago. Picking up your life, extricating yourself from relationships and lugging a heavy backpack to the other side of the world is perhaps not the easiest path to polishing life skills and finding direction. However (and here’s the first lesson), the advantage of challenging conditions is that they beget fervent and lasting messages.

Living in Paris was never a childhood dream or a long lusted-after notion. The thought casually snuck its way into our (best friend and my) heads on a two-week holiday in the City of Light, and stuck.  We whispered notions of packing up and setting off; running away to Paris was fabulously irresponsible and freeing and it felt like something that needed to be done, before too many ties reached out and tightened their hold, before we were required to be doing things that were expected of us and before we were corralled into forgetting that there was a whole world out there, waiting to be lived in.

Somehow, we muddled our way through the pile of papers French bureaucracy required of us and triumphantly received our ‘vacances travaille’ (working holiday) visas in the mail. One year later after that fateful holiday we found ourselves flying into Charles de Gaulle, lives carefully arranged into 23kg luggage limit suitcases and hearts full of possibility. We wandered around the cobblestone streets and swirling Seine in the first two weeks, eyes shining, continually looking at each other in amazement---‘we’re really going to live here!’ Of course, as is needed in any relocation to a foreign country in which you are referred to as an ‘alien’ in official government language, naivety and enthusiasm were our greatest allies (second lesson---never think anything is too big).

Now I have two clocks on my dashboard---one for warm, sunny Brisbane (a must have for skyping) and one for my current home, the ever-confounding but mesmerizing Paris. I have a job, an apartment and this city finally feels like home. Living in France is not all pastries, cheese and joie de vivre (though, of course, all are enjoyed in copious quantities). Banks can be mean, customer service is non-existent, I get lectured daily that I should speak more French and the petite living spaces require a cosmic shift in living standards. But (third lesson coming up), I have learned it is possible to live in a different culture, outside your comfort zone and prosper. My bank account is no indication of this, but my spirit certainly is!

Perhaps most encouraging is when you are joined on the tumultuous 'taking the leap' path by others. I recently caught up with a friend, at the beginning of her three-year career move to Germany. She’d packed up her life into two suitcases and 5m cubed and was in Paris for the weekend before starting her new job. Excited but feeling slightly overwhelmed, she said to me, ‘if I had known what a massive thing this was going to be when I said yes, I never would have been able to take the leap.’ When making decisions that take you down a new, untrodden paths away from loved ones and comfort, and that force you to navigate uncharted waters, never think too much about it. If it feels right and you want it enough, it will work out---and then you'll learn an essential lesson about yourself when you look back on it all and think ‘I don’t know how I did it, but I did!’

The art of staying

eternally nostalgic

For Kate and Erhardt

In what is perhaps a twist of irony, I am writing these words as I sit on the floor next to a packed suitcase and a printed boarding pass. By the time you read them, I will be in Colombia,  where I will be spending this summer conducting the kind of field work and research that has made 'leaving' so rewarding for me in the past.

On August 5, 2012, I landed in the United States after four years of near-constant motion. From Sudan to Guatemala, from Egypt to Uganda, from Colombia to Jerusalem, from the Jordan-Iraq border to the Lebanon-Syria border, I cherished the many lessons that stemmed from conflict management, gender analysis in conflict-affected settings, and mindful presence with a generous side of faith in humanity. The past year required that I put the suitcase and boarding passes away and learn lessons of groundedness, emerging from libraries and owning a permanent mailing address alike.

My friend Kate has been an invaluable companion on this journey. Hers was the home I would always visit between stints of field work. My every transition was marked by sitting at her breakfast table, with each of us in the same seat every time, as though they were assigned. There were crepes and endless cups of coffee and whispered daydreams of living a mere walk away from each other. It was through glimpsing into Kate's life that I first realized that some of the images of permanence began to resonate. I loved her pantry---never mind that I do not cook unless there is an emergency. I loved the idea that one can be rooted long enough in a place to fill a pantry. I loved her shelves, carrying all the books she had read. Even though I have always been an avid reader, my books would either nest in my Kindle or would be gifted in paperback form to other traveling professionals I'd meet along the way. Permanence allows one to own books and anchor them in bookshelves.

On August 5, 2012, Kate and I did get our wish, as Elijah and I moved a mere 15-minute walk away from Kate and Erhardt's apartment. The breakfast table became a fixture in my new Boston routine. It held pistachio muffins and macadamia nut coffee, red wine after a particularly bad day and ice cream once the healing had started. We gathered there to share our anxiety and fear, our anticipation and hope. We gathered at Kate's place to recover from the Boston bombing, to cheer the Boston Bruins on, to eat popcorn 'just because' on a Sunday evening. I have had a lot of practice in the art of leaving, the art of transition, and---recently---the art of returning. It is through Kate that I have slowly learned that staying is, indeed, an art.

On the weekend before my departure for Colombia, friends came together to celebrate Kate and E's engagement party. In many senses, for me, this was not only an ode to love, but also an ode to Boston and to staying. There was lobster, which all but one of us had no clue how to eat, thus flinging it clumsily on hair and fishing pieces of it out of our bibs. There was clam chowder---or, as Elijah corrected me, chowda. You can't live in Boston and not be tempted to pronounce it like that. There was wind in hair. Courtesy of said wind and my own clumsiness, I spilled red wine at least twice and nobody cared. More giggles. The evening capped off with a walk through the North End, Boston's famous Italian neighborhood. There was a table of rotating desserts. The table could hold no more than 4, but we managed to park all seven of us there, as well as our gelato, tiramisu, limoncello, and array of cakes.

Thanks to Kate and Erhardt, and their love, I now know this: The art of staying tastes like rotating desserts, dug into with the same spoon, with your friends affectionately shoving bites of gelato in your mouth.

By the time you read this, Roxanne is in Colombia. Follow her journey there on Stories of Conflict and Love. She promises she'll be back in Boston in the fall, as she feels accountable to her friends, to love, and---naturally---to chowda.

xxxxii. normandie

postcards from france

I am in a café in Bernay with Clémence and her friends. It is comforting to have these people around me, but it doesn’t always mean that we understand each other.

They keep saying this word, autruche, over and over, as part of a joke. Autruche. Autruche. I don’t know what autruche means, and no answers lie in my pocket dictionary whose blue cover is so bent from constant use these past three weeks. Fréd tries to explain to me what an autruche is, but I just can’t grasp it. My frustrated brain has turned off. I can’t take any more of the incomprehensible, nasal gibberish that is coming out of their mouths.

The next day, Pauline drives Clémence and me to walk around a nearby chateau. As I climb out of the car in the bright morning sun, I blink to read the billboard just ahead. On it is a picture of an ostrich advertising for a zoo in the next town over. Venez voir les autruches! Come see the ostriches!

Oh, I smile, laughing at the absurdity of the whole thing. So that’s what it is. 

A Love Story

When your best friend is falling in love, you want to hear every sweet, sappy thing. You want to know that the object of her affection values her as much as you do and understands how lucky he is to be dating such a girl. Every little gesture, told through email, text or phone, about how he sent her flowers, or paid for her drink, about how she cooked for him, or they spent a quiet evening on the couch watching a movie, each little story begins to illustrate the relationship. I’m not sure I remember the exact email when she said she had met someone new, but I remember the anticipation of their first official date.  I remember talking on the phone as she described him.  I remember how her eyes had a twinkle by New Years and how the corners of her lips turned up ever so slightly every time she said his name when we skyped. I remember hearing about how they texted each other every night when they were separated during the holidays, visiting friends.

I remember remembering the start of my own love affair ten years ago.  The late night phone calls, the silly New Year’s jokes as we talked when the clock struck midnight on the east coast, and again in central time. I remember the lightness inside me that I didn’t know if anyone else could see.

My friend and object of her affection didn’t jump right to boyfriend and girlfriend.  They waited awhile, preferring to stretch out that early period of bliss.  They didn’t throw around L words before they wanted to, preferring to use cutesy terms like ‘puppy luv’ and the incredibly accurate ‘smitten’.   My friend was the first to say "I love you." As her friends squealed like school girls she shrugged and in her perfect way explained her decision to use the three biggest words in the English Language:  “It’s true.”

By the time I visited in March and we met the man who swept our friend off her feet, it was clear that this was something special.  We were seeing something beautiful and important unfold in front of our eyes.

Not everyone falls in Love.  Not everyone is smitten with their partner. In the world at large, I believe these things to be a rarity.  More precious than gold or oil and more rare than the gemstones buried beneath our feet. I believe love is a gift to be treasured.  To see such a gift, to watch my friend falling in love, to be a witness to the wonder, reminded me to treasure the special guy in my own life.

When I fell in Love, I fell fast, it was puzzle pieces clicking together, and we’ve been together ever since.  After ten years, it’s easy to feel the routine.  I still dwell in bliss, and I’m still grateful every day for my husband, but I forgot the miracle.  I forgot how incredible it is that we found each other.  I forgot the wonder.  Luckily, my friend was there to remind me.

In June my best friends and I sat at a small town bar, raising our voices over the jukebox as we sipped from our bottles of beer and talked about relationships. We talked about how quickly things sometimes move, and how they don’t seem quick at all.  We talked about steps and future conversations.  We talked about all the things you talk to your girlfriends about.  And my friend sat there and told us how happy she was, how in love she was, and then she turned to me and said “Are you really going to cry right now?” But when your best friend is in love, when you’re reminded of all the wonder and beauty in the world, when the joy rises in your chest, really, what else can you do but shed a tear in joy and thankfulness.

 

 

Embarking on a new decade

This week I'm celebrating a birthday, my 30th birthday in fact.  I long ago discarded the idea that I should be at a certain pinnacle or milestone by a particular age; I remember vividly watching the Olympics, and seeing teenager after teenager accomplishing ‘what they had worked their entire lives’ for, and a little voice in my head reasoned ‘screw it’. But starting a new decade has brought a sense of introspection as I consider the years before, those to come, and particularly, myself. A lot of great stuff happened during my 20s.  I lived with my two best friends for a year, graduated college, moved away from home, got engaged, moved back towards home, got married, visited 5 countries, moved out of the country, moved to the middle of nowhere, started writing, and most recently, put pink highlights in my hair.

But then there’s a lot that hasn’t changed, my family is still as awesome as ever, I have the same best friends, I’m still ridiculously in love with the same boy, I still email my sister random things I found on the internet, and I still have more shoes than most people I know. These are things that are not likely to change with birthdays.  And in many ways, neither am I. I’ll be the 30 year old rocking plaid together with polka dots because they make me happy.  I'll be the 30 year old who gets excited about stickers and never misses a chance to dance in the rain.  I’ll be the 30 year old who thinks making the bed is a waste of time and photo booths are the best thing since sliced bread.  None of that changes when the calendar ticks over.  So I’m good with 30.

I’ve never had hang ups about the number of candles on a cake.  Maybe it’s because I have great role models, women who age with gusto and grace; maybe it’s because each year seems better than the one before; maybe it’s my natural optimism.  Whatever the case, while 30 is just a number, it’s also a step into a new decade; a new period, one that I’m terribly excited about.  As the anniversary of my birth draws closer and closer I’ve been thinking more and more about the woman I want to be.  For the most part she looks pretty much identical to the gal in the mirror, but there’s little things I’d like to get better at, more habits I want to develop to really become the best version of myself.  And I’m excited for that.  I’m excited to push myself, to learn more, to keep growing while I keep laughing.

A few years ago one of my friends told me about something she had seen on the internet---a blogger made a list of 30 things she wanted to do before she turned 30.  It seemed like a lovely idea, so I started making a list. Now, days away from the deadline, most of the items remain undone.  I never learned how to tie a bow tie or brushed up on my Italian.  I didn’t visit a national park or bake a pie from scratch.  I haven’t read Shakespeare and I haven’t learned all the dance moves to my favorite Blues Brothers song. But that’s ok, because there’s a lot of things that I’ve done in the last couple of years that weren’t on that list- things like writing this column and finding a job I love.  And the most important thing, regardless of what’s written on any list, I’m headed into a new decade happier than I’ve ever been.  So maybe next year I’ll bake a pie.

Thirty is, of course, not old, but then I don’t know of a number that is, unless you choose it to be. My grandmother is 90 years ‘old’, but she’s got quite of bit of youthful spirit.  For me, age is a number, and a blessing.  Not everyone has the opportunity to age, so I’ll always be thankful for another candle on my metaphorical cake.  Who knows, if I’m lucky enough to get to 90, maybe I’ll celebrate the same way as 30, with silly hats, silly straws, cupcakes and champagne, and the most important---with people I love.

Cheers to 30.

xxxix. provence

postcards from france

There is an opportunity to take cooking classes in traditional provençal cuisine with a local, professional chef, and I jump at the chance along with many of my ACCP classmates. The chef is an aixois named Didier, sleepy-eyed and flirtatious in his 50s, who owns the most expensive restaurant in the city. Supposedly there is an interior garden courtyard where you can eat your 60 Euro a bowl bouillabaisse. For this class we are making ratatouille, my favorite dish, but I am distracted by the way Didier is hovering over Alice, touching her hip lightly and leading her hands to chop the vegetables. She is obviously uncomfortable, but he doesn’t move away. He is so close that his breath stirs Alice’s light hair.

With much urging from the rest of us, Alice tells Helen what happened during class. Helen tells her that in southern France, men are just more forward, and that there is nothing wrong with what Didier, dear, sweet Didier, was doing. The next time he comes to the center, she hangs on to his arm as well as his every word.

Alice doesn’t go back to the last class, and I wouldn’t have, either.

xxxviii. états-unis

postcards from france

From time to time, Fréd sends stories that he’s written in French for me to translate into English. In his third year of university, he’s working to become a French literature professor, and the course of study requires a few classes in translation. Though his spoken English isn’t bad, Fréd doesn’t see the point in not taking advantage of a bilingual friend. And I'm all to eager to work on my translation skills. I’m working on one of Fréd's stories when I hear the soft pop of a Facebook chat. It’s the author himself. After clearing up the meaning of one of the more idiomatic phrases on page seven, Fréd asks me what my plans are for next year. You’re done with school soon, right?

I tell him yes, that I’m looking for a job, that I want to be a journalist. It looks like I’ll eventually be moving out west — San Francisco, Portland, Seattle, Santa Fe. I’ve never really explored the United States that much.

Are you done with us? he asks, half-joking, adding a winky face. Fréd loves emoticons. Are you done with France?

I laugh at the absurdity of the notion. God, no, I write. Not done with France. Never done. And even though I’m a bit miffed when Fréd’s professor gives him a 92% percent on the translation, I know this is still true.

Lessons from Philadelphia...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

I don’t know Philadelphia well, but your father does.  He studied for his Master’s degree there. Yet when we visit, we always seem to discover together something that’s still new to him, and this time with you with us, it was an entirely different perspective. I’m so happy that we were able to spend the day there together as a family, and as we took in the sights of the city, I hope you remember the following:

  • Principles and ideas are important: Philadelphia was home to our Declaration of Independence, and to the Constitution, and physically home to many of the men that made those two historic documents possible.  The ideas that they stand for, and the words chosen to represent those ideas were carefully chosen.  In fact, so carefully, the documents still stand today as meaningful, governing foundations.  Every generation has the opportunity to make that kind of lasting, revolutionary impact if they choose their principles, ideas, actions and words carefully.
  • Remember brotherly love: Philadelphia is known as the city of brotherly love because the greek roots of the city’s name mean just that.  But the idea that the name stands for should be part of any city.  A city is always home to many, and in that sense, we’re always a sort of family for each other.  And we need to look out for our fellow residents in the same way that we would for a younger brother or sister, an aging parent, or any family member.  Similarly, we need to look out for and celebrate the success of others in the city as well---like a cousin that wins a race or an uncle who's finally built his house.  A city can never work well if it only feels like home for a few.  It has to feel like home for everyone.
  • Bringing your own is usually better: We love to eat in restaurants in Philadelphia because of the many places that allow you to bring your own wine.  For many places, it has to do with the way the licensing for alcohol is structured, but it’s become part of the cultural experience of eating out in the city.  We go out for the experience of going out, but some experiences just turn out better if we’re able to bring part of our own choosing into it with us.
  • Be prepared to always be an outsider: In a famous stand in Philadelphia, known for some of the best cheesesteaks in town, there is a sign that displays---“You’re in America, Please order in English”.  No surprise, it caused controversy and still does.  People either strongly support it, or they are vehemently against it.  Where you stand is for you to decide---but given how much our iterant lifestyle has us move, the sign was a bi tof a reminder that you will constantly know what is like to be an outsider.  Even though we speak the language here, eventually we will go places where we don't.  So those signs will also be for us.  Because we don’t speak the language . . . because we don’ t know the options . . . because we get the process wrong.  It will happen, and you’ll feel left out.  Some things will always be easier, and frankly, more appropriate, if you do things “their way”.  Some things, if we stick to our core, will be more important to do “our way”.  You’ll have to figure out where the balance is for yourself, but the balance is easier if you are prepared for that feeling.  And when you’re visiting somewhere new, at least make an effort to meet people as close to their way as possible.  Hopefully, as good hosts, they are trying to do the same for you---but remember, the only that's in your control is your own.
  • Not everyone is lucky enough to be grateful for their freedom: Here in the US, we take our freedom, and the liberties and responsibilities that come with it for granted.  For many people, they haven’t known another way.  But visits to the many historic places around Philadelphia will remind you that those liberties are in fact very special, and continually come at a cost.  Not everyone has the luxury of such sound governing principles---be grateful for them, and improve upon them.  No one said that the work of implementing freedoms, rights and liberties is ever done, or that the work belongs to just a few.  It belongs to everyone.

All my love,

Mom

XXXVII. Provence

postcards from france

A group of us out for an all-night downtown street party Aix. If you’re energetic enough to stay out late, this city reveals its international side in its student nightlife; French is mixed in with English, Spanish, Italian, Arabic, German, and various Eastern European languages. In spite of the melting pot, we American women always seem to attract the most attention---half of it based on the idea that we’re easy to sleep with, half for other reasons. In a country known for its stick-thin women, my friend Anna often stands out for her big-boned Iowan frame. Tonight, she finds herself the target of a 20-something Frenchman, spurred on by booze and his friends’ laughter as he makes slurred, belligerent remarks about the size of Anna’s shirt. She doesn’t look at him or reply and we all try to ignore it at first, continuing to talk to each other more loudly than before. But something snaps for me.

You can fuck right off, I turn and hiss at him in French. His eyes widen and he takes a stumbled step backward. My angry defense is just as much for me as for Anna. Five years of silent frustration for being treated like an idiotic piece of meat on account of a set of ovaries and a foreign accent pours out in a string of acidic, vulgar phrases that I’ve known for years but never actually said to anyone. Whether it’s the ferocity in my voice or the surprise of being talked back to, the guy stops speaking and quickly walks away.

Amidst a chorus of OOH’s from my friends, none of us so sober ourselves, the memory of writing down swear words flickers through my mind---sitting in the small kitchen in Normandy with Madeleine spelling the sentences out for me, word for word. I’m glad her teaching didn’t go to waste.

xxxvi. normandie

postcards from france

I used to have these fantasies of Fréd and I falling in love and living in Paris in a tiny apartment in the quartier latin. We would survive off of cigarettes and coffee and sex. I would take classes at the Sorbonne, and he would write stories and novels. We would walk along the Seine and frequent dark, smoky bars at night. It was the kind of romantic ideal that I spent the first 20 years or so of my life carefully cultivating, a fantasy that I’d pieced together from reading too many books and watching too many movies set in Paris. For years, though, I thought that maybe, maybe there was a chance that it could come true.

Fréd is still one of my best French friends. He is one of those people I can go years without seeing in person and, when we do meet again, pick right back up with where we left off. I’m fairly certain now that he is gay, but the fantasy was still nice while it lasted.

___

[You can read all of the Postcards from France here.] 

May.

memory and loss

Just the word makes me anxious, or rather, I should say anxious-excited. May.

I can’t remember May without a major life transition. In May of 2009, I said a tearful airport goodbye as I moved to Honduras. The same situation repeated itself in May of 2010, although with different people and a different country. In May of 2011, I took my first cross-country solo road trip. Although terrified of spending 2,000 miles alone with just an atlas, I found a sense of peace-in-transition accompanied by Country Roads and Wagon Wheel. I arrived in Boston, stored my belongings, and moved to Peru for the summer. In May of 2007, I left my college campus and transitioned into the working world. In May of 2006, I moved to France for the summer. The list goes on and on, but always, there is May 2005, when I transitioned to being fatherless.

Here we are again---nearing the middle of May.

May 2013. The giant pink flowers blossoming across campus signal the period of transition, the beginning of summer. Like each May before it, this May will also be full of goodbyes and life transitions. May 19th will mark the last time I will transition from school to the next step. Even as a child, May required a transition from school to endless summer days. Although at that age---the longer days meant more time for make-believe worlds to unfold between the trees and gardens in my family’s backyard. Perhaps this feeling of a sense of freedom from childhood should be re-kindled, as this summer appears to expand in a timeless manner.

In-transition.

I cherish the space that opens up when we are in transition. With one foot in the life I had been living and one foot in the next life, nostalgia mixes with excitement and hope in a way that makes me feel alive. Moments feel more colorful, last minutes with friends more meaningful, decisions to jump on a plane to who-knows-where more daring, and even, our communities seem more forgiving---allowing us to leave, grow, and love them from a distance. In the past my “in transition” times have included one backpack, adventure, and plane tickets. However, this May is different.

As I take one step out of my current life and community, I am not sure where I will be taking the next step. This May requires a new comfort with a lack of a plan, an attempt at finding comfort in standing still. It is a new type of transition, changing life phases without changing location, quite yet. How do you lean into a transition without physically packing all your belongings? Or knowing what you will be moving next?  I hope the endless summer days will allow the space for this period of “in-transition” to settle and for quiet moments to unfold in which some of the bigger questions can be answered.

In celebration.

May 20th is the yearly marker of the passing of my father and the years of healing that have taken place since then. This year will mark eight years since he died, and in some ways, eight years of feeling like I am in-transition. Hopefully this year’s transition, though standing still, will allow for a new, peaceful form of celebration.

On Taking Responsibility for our Young Girls and Women

In the Balance

Like many of you, I was riveted this past week watching the story coming out of Cleveland unfold.  The rescue of three young women who had been held hostage for ten years by a brutal perpetrator is both utterly surreal and devastatingly sad.  It is virtually impossible to integrate the details of this story.  The facts of the case continue to emerge but we do know that these women were kidnapped, held for a decade against their will, starved, beaten and raped.  We know that they were bound with ropes and chains.  We know that they were not permitted to leave the decrepit house in which they were imprisoned. There is no way for any of us to comprehend the terror that they have suffered or the trauma that they have endured.  How were they able to maintain sanity or hope?  Perhaps they didn’t. I find it unbearable to even imagine their lives over the past ten years.  Denial is such a powerful buffer that I am desperate for them to tell us it wasn’t as bad as it sounds.  I want them to say that they were able to at least bond with each other and never felt totally alone.  I want to fast-forward to three years from now where one of them has written a memoir in which she describes her miraculous new life where all her wounds have been healed.  But achingly, these women---girls at the time of their capture---may never find peace.

The person responsible for this unspeakable horror is Ariel Castro, a marginal being with (at a minimum) mental illness and masochistic sexual deviance.  I suspect there will be months of speculation by FBI profilers and mental health professionals around what factors contributed to his executing this nightmare.  We will feverishly seek to understand “what to look for” when it comes to identifying potential future offenders.  Possibly some of the post facto analysis will make us feel like we are learning something valuable from this tragedy about the human condition.  But what kind of lessons can we glean from the behavior of an obvious sociopath?  Perhaps energy would be better spent on evaluating the routine, daily and casual attacks that are committed against women and girls.

Consider for example, that every two minutes, a woman in the U.S. is sexually assaulted. Forty-four percent of all victims are under the age of 18.  Fifty four percent of sexual assaults are never reported and by one estimate, 97 percent of rapists will never spend one day in jail.  Learn more about sexual assault statistics here.  What can we do with this information?

And what about the more subtle ways in which women are put at risk? Women continue to be regularly objectified in mass media. Such portrayals range from thoughtless characterizations of women as weak and dependent to victims of explicit and excessive violence in horror movies.  The message seems to be that women are not worthy of protection when we have ineffectual domestic violence laws on the books and inadequate community resources with which to respond to their urgent needs.  It appears that women cannot be responsible for their own bodies and must be subject to controls when we chip away at access to safe and legal abortion, Plan B, contraception and sex education (all the while, a 15-year old boy can buy condoms without restriction or consequence).  We demonstrate disregard for women’s humanity when we hold up unrealistic standards of beauty and encourage them to destroy their own bodies in the name of fashion.   We have normalized and mainstreamed pornography and disturbing video games in which women and female characters are often humiliated and treated viciously.

All of these realities are absorbed by our young boys and men.  All of these realities condition our young girls and women.  All of these realities imprint strongly on the broken mind of a potential perpetrator.

It is obviously critical that we acknowledge, investigate and unpack the horrific events experienced by these three women in Cleveland, Ohio.  Although it feels voyeuristic, I, too, feel a frantic need to understand what happened and how it might have been prevented.  What may be even more important to the larger cause of safeguarding girls and women is to address some of the more mundane ways in which we subvert and dehumanize them.  We might never be able to prevent the rare psychopath from kidnapping women, but we certainly have the power to improve social norms and strengthen legal protections.  We can teach our young girls and boys about equals rights and more generally how to treat one another.  We can empower young girls to learn about and appreciate their bodies and develop clear emotional and physical boundaries.  We can remind young women to maintain an acute awareness of danger and never accept assistance or a ride from a stranger.  The lessons coming out of Cleveland are not new---they are prompts to re-engage with bolstering the status of girls and women in this country.