A Family

family

By Erin R. Van Genderen Photo by Judy Pak

My husband and I will have been married for nine months this month. That’s enough time to grow a baby, to start a family in a real, grown-up sense of the phrase. And I get that question a lot as a stay-at-home military wife.

“When are you going to start a family?”

A few days out of the week I help out an elderly couple in town who have experienced several medical mishaps in the last few years. Mr. and Mrs. Bond are still mentally sharp and living in their own home despite their declining health, and I’m only there to make sure a meal is cooked, things are tidy, pills get taken and blood pressure gets measured, and everyone gets into bed without issue.

They are frail, with Bible-page skin and fingers like bird bones. They have matching armchairs next to one another in their sitting room. They have family photographs on every wall and covering the refrigerator.

And even though Lillie’s voice is more of a whisper now and often too faint to register through Kendall’s hearing aids, she still calls him “honey.” They clasp hands at mealtime and offer up a prayer asking for blessing over the food and claiming thankfulness for all the many gifts they have received.

As tempting as it is to consider them fragile and naïve, childlike in their near-helpless old age, I can remember that they were once like me when I see these things. When Kendall lets go of his walker long enough to lift Lillie’s legs and swivel her onto her side of the bed, then tucks her in and kisses her cheek, I see a love that comes from more than fifty-seven years of life together. When he gets down on his knees to pull her chair, with her in it, closer to the dinner table, then struggles back to his seat with both hands on the tabletop, I see years of sacrifice, for better or worse.

Their marriage, more than half a century old, retains the respect and care of a relationship that many my age have still yet to taste.

So when I am asked when my husband and I will get around to “starting a family,” I get a little ruffled. Even though it’s just the two of us, in the end it will be just the two of us — and for now, just the two of us is all of the family that we need.

Desperately Seeking Susan (and Ramon, and Seymour, and Chloe)

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

Throughout my life, I have been blessed with some beautiful friendships. They are the kinds of relationships in which I get to be more of who I am, make life feel more like a funny fun weird road trip, help me see, laugh, grow and play.  

However, with the exception of two arenas, I haven't felt truly at home and at ease in a group of friends. I have watched solid groups of friends, so I feel like I know what they look like, but I have a hard time speaking the language.

The two exceptions: one was an arts summer camp I went to as a teenager; there were only 25 of us, we did arts stuff all day and the same semi-weirdos came back year after year. The other was in a school environment where it was also a fixed group. I feel like neither are the way life is -- full of busy schedules, Facebook-like stuff (which I feel completely awkward with), and tons of different communities.

My friends are scattered from being around the corner, to the other side of the world. I have dipped my toes into groups but feel like I generally have to pretend a little bit. Can you help? I want my team to eat with, to shake things up with, to dance with, to cry with, to feel at ease with.

Love,

Lone Wolf in Search of a Pack

Dear Lone Wolf,

Let me take a moment to commend you for being intentional about your friendships.  In a culture obsessed with coupling off, with achieving the “goal” of marriage and kids, the fact that you are willing to develop these other, vitally important relationships in your life is a sign of depth.  Brava.  As C.S. Lewis wrote, “Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art. . . It has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival.”

On to your question.  I struggled between telling you that what you seek is a myth, a cultural creation à la Friends and Sex and the City, and simply telling you exactly how to create a meaningful group of friends.  Here is why: it is attainable---you can make yourself your very own Seinfeld, but---the more you set it up and carefully curate it, the less it will thrive.  The center will not hold.  I'm going to tell you why that is, but I'm also going to tell you how to do it anyway, and let you make your own decision about whether or not to dive in to the jungle of having a circle of friends.

There are so many amazing humans on this earth, but what fuses us together and creates a real bond between a few of them is a precarious balance of common interests, personality traits, and proximity.  Then there's that extra "oomph", that jolt of electricity when you get together, what we might call the "x factor".  Here are a few suggestions for how to gather a group of friends around you, to see if that “x factor” is there between you.

DIT: Dig In Together:  I'm sure you know several people that would vibe each other a lot, who all care about horseback riding or street art or environmentalism.  (Or perhaps all three---sounds like a fascinating group already!)  Start with a dinner party---get all these folks together at your house, bring up the latest news in the common interest they all share, and watch the magic happen.  Then, you'll need to do that very thing, consistently, for months on end, to see if it will stick.  Have the gathering rotate houses, and, hopefully, it will take on a life of its own.  People will start hanging out spontaneously, outside of the sanctioned dinners, and you will have to do less of the planning.  For your next birthday party, all you’ll have to do is show up.

Become a Regular:  Let's say you don't already have people pegged to be your very own Bloomsbury Group.  What you need to do is show up, with an incredible amount of regularity, at a place that you enjoy, and has the kind of people you want to get to know better.  This could be a Zumba class, a dive bar, a Karaokae night, a Mommy-and-Me playgroup, or even a church.  Listen, this is going to take AWHILE.  You need to be willing to stay, and to commit.  But it is the slightly less micro-managed version, since everyone has a reason to see each other every week.

Enlist:  Have you considered sneaking in to something already created?  Granted, this would work better with a loosely-formed group of friends, one that is just coming together and needs a bit of "glue" in the form of your awesome community-building skills, rather than people who have known each other since elementary, but it can work well.  Have a picnic with all those guys, ask one of them out for a drink and then suggest inviting the rest, tell them all about the pop-up store you are checking out after work---anything fun, spontaneous, and not insanely obvious.  Next thing you know, if this is the right group for you, they'll be inviting you along to Game Night or into their poetry-writing club.

Here’s the part that will be harder to hear.  These kinds of groups are ephemeral---even the Beatles broke up, even Golden Girls went off the air.  Your tight-knit, hard-won circle of buds will change over time, and probably will not last your entire life.  The most important thing to remember will be to let it go when the time is right, and appreciate the blessing of it while it lasts.

The most beautiful thing about friendship is that it is chosen.  Many times people try to subvert this, call their friends "family", and seek to guilt their friends into staying in their lives long after the time has come for them to go their separate ways.  That's the wonderful and terrible thing about friendships---as they are not family, we have no bond further than what the heart lends.  And the heart is a wily creature, rarely accepting bribes or following expected paths.

Friendship is about free choice, mutual attraction without even the bonding agent of sex to keep the intimacy level high.  It’s a bit like gardening---we can plant the seeds, water them, and prune their leaves, but we can’t make the sun shine on them, and we can’t stop them from one day drooping their little heads down, to return to the soil, fertilizing new plants in their stead.

So, Lone Wolf, I want to encourage you to cultivate this fledgling group of friends for yourself.  Watch it grow, and tend it carefully.  But also, be prepared for some hard rain, and write back to me when it’s time to till the soil.  We’ll discuss letting changes in friend groups happen with grace and grief.  I happen to know a lot about that.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here

Lessons from Springtime...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

We thought it would never come but sunnier days, warmer breezes and little shoots of green are finally on their way.  After winter seemed to return again and again this year, I think springtime has finally arrived.

When I notice the days finally getting longer, I become a happier person.  It’s a gift to see the seasons renew right before our eyes and here are a few things that help celebrate the coming spring season:

  • Go outside on that first really gorgeous day: Drop what your doing. . . sneak out of work early. . . cancel that evening you planned to spend inside cooking or studying or cleaning.  This is the time to enjoy the fresh air, to grab sandwiches and enjoy lunch in the park, to walk the long way home. Inevitably, the winter chills always pop back once or twice after we see the first signs of spring but if you make the time to enjoy it, it will stay springtime in your heart.  Don’t let those first warm rays of the season pass you by.
  • Clean out your closet: Go through and assess what doesn’t work for you with the change of the year, and figure out what won’t work for you at all anymore.  If it’s too old, needs too many repairs or needs too many pounds one way or the other, lose it.  You’ll feel better going into spring when you look at items you actually wear in your closet---somehow with less things, we often have more options.
  • Buy something in color: Now that you have all that room in your closet, you can afford a little treat.  We spend so much of winter in practical blacks, browns, greys. . . at least I do.  Celebrate spring by buying something in color---it might be a shirt, or a scarf or a necklace. . . it doesn’t have to be big, but just a small thing that helps you celebrate the fresh start of spring.
  • Take a walk in the rain: While what we often appreciate most about spring is the sunshine, the thing that really makes spring possible is the rain.  When living in Normandy, I couldn’t wait for the rains to stop until someone reminded me that if it didn’t rain so much, we wouldn’t have so much greenery to enjoy.  Make the time to enjoy a rainy walk and just look around to see how much it feeds the colors and growth around you.  Take that same walk in the sunshine afterwards and you’ll appreciate a whole new world around you.
  • Have a happy new year: Your Christian roots will teach you to celebrate this time of year as a renewal in the church calendar; your Persian roots will teach you to celebrate spring as a new year of new beginnings.  Like January for calendar years, and September for school years, use this variation of a new year to wipe the slate clean and reset yourself for a fresh start.  If you made New Year’s resolutions, check in with them to see how you’re doing---where you need to refocus, and where you need to reframe.  The beautiful thing about new years of any kind is that they are full of new beginnings, take advantage of that.

All my love,

Mom

From Higher Learning to Simply Earning

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I've been teaching upper elementary school for over a decade.  I usually love teaching, although I have gone through some tough situations that have shifted my view from teaching as a calling, to teaching as a job. My question is: my enthusiasm for teaching upper grades is waning, and I'm wondering if a grade change is what I need to bring back my passion for teaching, or is it just gone? What do you think?

From,

On The Fence

 

Dear On the Fence,

You’ve hit on a central question to many people in the workforce today: “Does my job need to be my calling?  If not, then how do I get through it?  If so, how the hell do I get out of this job?”

Let’s set that huge question aside for a minute and just talk about your circumstances.  It sounds like, even though you no longer feel jazzed about teaching, you are currently looking for ways to bring the magic back.  You’ve been burned by some bad experiences, and are wanting to turn things around before you get too jaded.

This is completely possible.  It will require a good amount of change, but if you can be open to the changes, it could be beautiful.  You can still be a teacher and not do exactly what you are doing now.  I encourage you to consider ALL the options: a grade change, a school change, an entire genre change---you are a teacher, but do you need to teach in schools?  What do you love to teach, and is there a market of people who would be interested in learning that from you?

Take your career to couple’s therapy.  Sit down with a pad of paper and a pen (not a computer---the brain works differently long hand), set your watch for a 50 minute session, and write, stream-of-consciousness, a conversation between your Teacher Self and your On The Fence Self.  Go ahead, ask TS all your hardest questions, answer “Yeah, but what about the time. . .”, and hash it all out.  Notice what voice Teacher Self takes on.  Is it a tone you recognize from another part of your life?  Are there action steps you can take to salvage the relationship?  Can you seek out training, a teacher support group, or go to some of the galvanizing events groups like Yes World provide to support people doing good in the world?

Let’s say, at the end of all this soul searching, you and Teacher Self decide to break up.  You want to discover your true/new calling.  You won’t be alone.  More and more people are spending their nights and weekends working on the things they are passionate about, either to eventually make their living off of those things, or just because it feeds their everyday experience that much more.

You can’t stay on the fence forever.  At some point, you’ll have to jump one way or another, and my advice to you is to do so with both feet, whatever direction you choose.  You might find yourself dismantling the fence, slat by slat, despite the splinters incurred, in order to find a new, less polarizing way to live.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here

Marriage Equality

equality

This week, the Supreme Court is hearing cases that will determine the constitutionality of DOMA and the legality of Prop 8. It saddens us that we have to even write this, but we believe in the fundamental equality of all human beings. Love is love is love. Here are three pieces from our archives on the subject: Renee explores the difference between Civil Unions and Marriages: The Same, But Not Equal

Nora ponders what she and her wife will tell their son about marriage inequality: On Inequality

Miya argues that marriage equality is about families, and has ideas about what laws should come from this battle. Family Equality and the Legacy of the Struggle

Please read, enjoy, discuss, and share.

Meet the Local: Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a series designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  Over the upcoming months, I’ll ask locals from places all over the world the same set of getting-to-know-you questions.  This week, meet Neno, who was born in Sarajevo and has lived there ever since, including four years spent largely underground during the siege.

What do you like about the place you live?

I like, first of all, the people.  The people and the size of the city.  Sarajevo is a quite good city to live because it’s quite a small city---it’s only 400,000 people---so you know everyone.  It’s like one big family.  And also the history, the culture.  But mainly the people.  The people are very friendly in this city, so you can always count on someone helping you in the city.  I like that feeling.

 What don’t you like so much?

I don’t like politics in the city, and the politicians.  It’s affecting the every day life---we could have better public transport, we could have more investments, we could improve many things in this city.  But unfortunately we have a lot of bureaucracy.  We have three governments, and three presidents.  It’s a small country---only four million people---so to make one decision when you have three presidents. . . it’s quite impossible.  Nothing gets done.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I drink tea, or sometimes coffee.  Then scrambled eggs, with cheese.  No pies!  Because people think we are eating the pies for the breakfast.  The pies are more for the lunch or for the dinner.  People think we are eating pies every day, but it’s very, very heavy on your stomach.  It’s more like a fast food things.  I eat pies only maybe two times in a week.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your job to your sense of self?

I’m a student of political sciences and diplomacy and international relations, getting my masters.  I lead walking tours when I have free time from my studies.  I think I will stay in tourism.  I’m studying political sciences, so people always think I will be involved in political life but I think I like history, I like the political philosophy, but I don’t see myself in a political life.  I want to send a message from this city, this country.  I think we have more to offer than just the recent history.  That’s the reason I started doing walking tours.  Unfortunately, this country still has a reputation as a war torn country.  When you say Bosnia, the first image people have is the war in Bosnia, Sarajevo under siege, but I truly believe this country is a country with a long and rich history, friendly people---I think we have a lot to offer.

My job is very important to my sense of self.  It’s very difficult life in this country.  You know, I’m 27 years old and I’m still living with my parents.  But in some ways, I have freedom because I earn all of my money.  So for my self-confidence, it’s very important that I also earn something.  Most people live with their parents till they are married, because they are close with their family, but also because of the economy.  It’s a very high unemployment rate---43% at the moment.  So unfortunately people can’t afford to have their own flat.  And also Sarajevo is a very small city, so even if I rented a flat, I would go every day to my mother’s to eat something.  So at the moment, I think it’s better to stay with my family.

What do you do for fun?

I like to hike, when it’s sunny weather, in the [1984 Sarajevo Winter] Olympic mountains.  I also like photography---I like to walk around and take photos.  I like to bicycle---there’s one part of the city that has bicycle infrastructure, so I go there and I bicycle.  I also like bowling, so I go there with my friends for bowling very often.  I also like to read, and to travel.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I live with my family.  We are very close, because I was here during the siege so we were always together then.  The sense of community in this country is very strong.  The people are close to each other; the neighbors are close to each other.  The siege made us closer, because we survived together the most horrible moments. I think the siege of the city affected people in a positive but also negative way.  I think that people in this country appreciate small things more.  Maybe like some other countries or the younger generations in this country, one small thing is nothing.  For example, I like to eat everything.  I’m not choosy, but I have a niece, and she was born after the war.  And we all have a Sunday lunch together and she is so picky---I don’t like that, I don’t like that---and I get so frustrated, like, you need to eat everything, because you don’t know the feeling of when you have nothing to eat at all.  I appreciate the food.  I try to enjoy small things.  But also the war had negative effects---like, I never celebrate New Year’s Eve on open squares.  I don’t like fireworks.  Whenever I hear fireworks, I get flashbacks, because it’s the same sound as the shells exploding.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

To travel around the world.  Now, I’ve traveled almost all of Europe, except the UK and Ireland.  Personally, I think that’s the best spent money.  When you learn about other cultures, you start to appreciate more about your own culture, and your own life.  But after traveling, to again always return to this country.  No place like home, no place like home.  I experienced the worst things in this country, so why not stay?  I think this country deserves a better future with smart and educated people.  We will not have a bright future if all the smart and educated people leave the country.  So we need to stay, and we need to fight for the changes.

 If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I like Spain and Portugal.  The people are very similar to us here---they’re also very friendly, very open.  They also have not very good economy, like this country, but they’re like, let’s enjoy life!  Things will improve!  I can imagine myself living in Lisbon for one or two years, but like I told you, I then want to come back to Sarajevo.

What are you most proud of?

I’m proud of my family.  I’m proud of my mother, my father.  Because I think they directed me in a good way, they raised me to be a good guy.  My mother for me is like a big hero because I was with her during all of the wartime.  She was also working every single day, walking back and forth through the snipers, because she needed to do something, to occupy her mind, to not be in a basement all the time.  She was working not to lose her mind, and a little bit to keep her job position. She was working for free.  Sometimes she got paid in cigarettes.

How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I am very happy because I have a good family.  I have my mother, my father, my sister, my niece.  It’s a very small family, but we are very close to each other.  That’s my biggest happiness.  Also, I’m happy because I live in Sarajevo.

To read the answers of a local Londoner, click here to meet Carleen.

Swept Away

Asking For It with Sibyl

Hello Sibyl,

Last summer while at the Paris airport on a layover, I met a guy who was also there on a layover.  We emailed and texted and he came to visit me in Amsterdam in November, and again in December (he lives in Venezuela). During these first visits, he opened up and told me that since meeting me he was thinking about a future with me and that he has never done that before.  We fell in love, discussed marriage and where we could both live together (he has a 5 year old son, so cannot move here, and after a recent visit, I know I could never live in Venezuela).

Once he was home (in January), I mentioned something about the future, and he said he could not talk about it.  I wrote him a long email explaining that HE was the one who brought up the future and talked about plans, etc.  He said he was sorry, but just needs more time, and for me to please be patient.  

I do understand we need to be patient and get to know each other better, but it seems like he has changed.  He used to be very open about sharing feelings and affections, but now seems to have pulled back (I visited him 2 weeks ago in Venezuela).  Plus i wonder if there is a future between us given the distance and the fact that it would be difficult to find someplace to live together.

I wonder if I should end it now or just enjoy the times when we see each other?

Thank you very much and kind regards,

Futuretripper

Dear Futuretripper,

In the short time since I started this column, I have received several quandaries like yours.  They are from women who are disappointed by the men in their lives, but claiming that they love them, and hoping for a future with them still.  Here is what is missing in these letters: any indication of what there is to be loved about these men, why they are worthy of such undying love, and what makes them eligible to be a good life partner.

From your letter, it's clear that the two of you had an immediate connection that went very deep, and made both of you want to hang on it to forever, by planning a future together.  However, other than the fact that he's a father, and he lives far away from you in a place that you never want to live in, what have you told me about this man?

Paraphrasing The Little Prince, I want to know what his voice sounds like, what games he loves best, and if he collects butterflies.  I want to know why he is worth the struggle of a long-distance romance.  Just the fact that he changed his mind and no longer wants to talk about the future with you is not enough to end the relationship, as most people have trouble with commitment.  However, it does seem like there is some denial of the reality of the issues the two of you are facing, if you chose to go forward with this relationship long-term.

You had a lovely Before-Sunrise-esque connection with this man.  However, not every connection one makes with another person needs to be followed to the fullest extent.  Some people, no matter how deeply we feel we are cosmically drawn to them, are meant to just be brief interludes in our lives.  It's hard to make meaning of those experiences and let them go, but otherwise, it is like trying to hold the ocean in your hands.

Of course, there is a chance that you do indeed have a future with your cross-continent lover.  However, my advice to you is to hang back, and give the relationship room to grow.  You need to let it breathe, and see what transpires in the space between the two of you---which for you, is a lot of space!  Just let that be the reality.  Don't force anything, and use the time you used to spend planning the future reflecting instead on why this man is so special, and what he can really offer to your life.

And then write back and tell me of all his stunning substance, and how it resonates with who you are and what you need.  But please, if you find that you only like this man for nebulous reasons, and if he doesn't seem to really want all that you are willing to give him, release your hands, and let him float on.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here

Farewell Manhattan

farewell manhattan header

by Amy Ferguson I’ve lived on the island of Manhattan for eight and a half years. It still amazes me that it’s been that long. You see I was an unlikely New Yorker. When I was younger and I visited here I didn’t have that magical New York City movie moment that so many people have. The moment when the light changes and everything moves in slow motion and you get this epiphany, this “I have to live here” feeling in your bones. That never happened for me. Instead, I reluctantly moved here for a depressingly low paying internship when I was 25. My plan was to stick around for a couple of years, have a quintessential New York experience and then get the hell out. But that’s not what happened. No, somehow when I wasn’t looking this place became my home.

In a few weeks I’ll be leaving Manhattan and moving to Brooklyn. I know it doesn’t sound like much of a move, only about five miles away, and I’m certainly not the first person to make it. But it marks the end of an era for me, the end of my time as a Manhattanite.

The island of Manhattan is relatively small when you think about it. But so much has happened to me in those 23.7 square miles that no matter where I find myself, I find memories. Around every corner, tucked in every neighborhood are places that mean something. Places where things happened to me.

The tiny studio I rented on Carmine with the awkward floor plan and the closet in the kitchen. Or the garden apartment on West 85th with the exposed brick and the to-die-for backyard. The way West 11th Street looked blanketed in white during my first New York snowstorm. The view of Midtown from the Reservoir, still my favorite place to go for a run, where I huffed and puffed through my first ever mile. The cozy candlelit restaurant on Greenwhich Ave where a relationship began. A shady park bench at the corner of Sixth and Bleecker where another one ended.

Everywhere I look I see little snippets of my past. Moments captured. Because in Manhattan your life doesn’t happen here or there, it kind of just happens everywhere.  This entire island was my home.

So I bid you farewell, dear Manhattan. I’ll miss you. But Brooklyn measures in at whopping 81.8 square miles and like any good New Yorker I’m always craving more space.

Meet the Local: London

mind the gap

Meet the Local is a new series, designed to uncover the differences (and similarities) in how we think and live in different parts of the world.  In the next few months, I'll be traveling to Zagreb, Sarajevo, Spain, Portugal, Ghana, Morocco, and Scandinavia.  In each place, I'll interview someone who lives locally (although they may have originally come from somewhere else, as you'll see in today's post; I find that to discount people who have immigrated is to deny a core part of a city's makeup, especially in places like London).  I'll ask the same set of questions everywhere.  This week, meet Carleen Macdermid, from London, England: Carleen Macdermid, Meet the Local: London

What do you like about the place you live?

First of all, I love that it’s London, because I’m Australian---I moved here about eleven years ago.  I love how central it is.  I walk everywhere nowadays. I almost never get in the Tube.  It’s a 40 minute walk home, but I’ll still walk, because you see so much more of London.  I’m right by the river.  I’m in the middle of everything.  I love it.

What don’t you like so much?

It’s made me harder as a person. Australians are notoriously chilled out and easy going.  I’ve not become more English because to an Australian it’s very important not to be English but I’ve definitely become a Londoner.  I’m hard.  People get in the way in the Tube.  I’m always in a hurry.  When I first moved here, I would see celebrities all the time and now I just see idiots that are in my way and I don’t like that about myself.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

I almost never eat breakfast.  I’m terrible at it.  I’m fully aware that it’s the most important meal of the day but I so enjoy my sleep that breakfast gets sacrificed every morning and has done since I was about fourteen.

What do you do for a living?  How important is your career to your sense of self?

I currently don’t really do anything, because I’m in the process of being made redundant.  I did get kids into apprenticeships for four years, and I was a teacher for seven years, and now I’m on the cusp, so if anyone thinks I’ll be useful to them, they’re welcome to contact me.

I worked really hard over the last six months to get that balance back.  For a long time there, my work was absolutely everything, it took all my free time, it took all my focus, and I kind of think if you’re working with young people, that’s important. Now, I like the fact that my focus is more on myself.  A better social life, a better work/life balance.

What do you do for fun?

I was a drama teacher for years, and for a long time I didn’t do any of that at all.  Now, I do improv, I rehearse with groups, and I’m just in the process of trying to write, to attempt for the very first time, stand up comedy.

How often do you see your family?  Tell me what you did the last time you saw them.

I see them very rarely---they’re on the other side of the globe, so the last time I saw them was three and a half years ago, and I helped them pack up and move out of the house I was raised in and move to the other side of the country.  My sister and my niece get here in two weeks, and it’ll be the first time they’ve ever visited me over here.  After that, I’ll be redundant, so I’m going to pop home to see mum and dad, and it will be the first time in three and a half years.

What’s your biggest dream for your life?

To find something that really satisfies me.  I’ve always had jobs that I’ve enjoyed elements of, I liked working with young people, but I’ve never really had anything in my life where I’ve kinda sat there and gone: yeah, I do that, and I’m really happy about it and really proud of it.  So I’m determined to track that down, be it in my work or be it in something creative.  It’s out there, and I’m gonna find it before I get too old.

If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?  Why?

I would invent a magical place that was similar to London and had the lifestyle and the get up and go but had my parents a lot closer than 24 hours away by airplane, and had some of the warmth of Australia without turning into the awful, shabby parts of Spain where people go and conglomerate and do awful things.

What are you most proud of?

I am most proud of the fact that my job has always contributed to young people.  I spent my entire career in education and training and I can point to literally hundreds and thousands of kids that I’ve helped.  I’ve got young people now who are teachers like I was, and other young people that have really good professions because they did apprenticeships with me, and I’ll always have that to be proud of.

How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I’m gonna go with 85%.  Even at my most unhappy, I never manage to drop below about 65 or 70%, I’m just naturally an upbeat person, but I like the fact that I’m starting to do more for me for the first time in a long time.

Celebrating International Women's Day by Respecting my Girl's 'No'

equals iwd

By Rhea St. Julien “Can you hold my hand to cross the street?” I implored, my arm stretched back behind me to my two year old, Olive.

Her hands were crammed in her peacoat like a mini Bob Dylan. “Not today.” she said, not looking up.

My husband and I cracked up in laughter, at how serious of a refusal she gave me, and since street safety is important, I grabbed one of her little hands out of her pocket to skip to the other side.

We retold the story several times that day, of how adorably earnest she was about not holding hands at that time. But I felt a ping of guilt, as all the feminist texts I read about raising a strong daughter tell me not to laugh at my girl’s “no”s, but to respect them.

It’s good advice. In my life, I have had people be shocked, offended, and outright dismissive of my no. I had my share of experiences in the young days of burgeoning sexuality in which boys did not listen to my no. But in many ways, I was able to get through those body manipulations less scarred than the times my no has been rebuffed in educational, professional, and personal settings. The power of a woman’s no. What is it worth?

I know the world Olive will grow up in is not much different than the one I did. And despite the fact that people are often appalled when I say no, I keep doing it. My parents can attest to the fact that I was born with a certain strain of defiance, a gene from my father, a steely commitment to protection, of myself and my loved ones, when that is needed. I want to impart this to my daughter as well, though I think all I’ll need to do is nurture what is already within her.

“Mama, can you not sing that right now?” She looks up at me, a concerned look on her face. I was grooving, but she’s asking me, seriously and politely, to stop. I let out a chuckle, at how much it means to her that I stop singing my silly little song in that moment, but I say, “Okay.”

I’m trying to cut out the laughter, and skip right to either telling her, “I hear that you don’t want to wear your coat, but you have to, it’s cold out!” or saying “Alright, you don’t have to go upstairs yet. We can wait here until you’re ready.” It’s hard, since she’s so flipping cute, her eyes big and imploring, her unibrow knitted into an expression of concern, or determination.

"No Mama, I don't want to smile right now." "Oh, alright.  No smiles."
“No Mama, I don’t want to smile right now.” “Oh, alright. No smiles.”

Today, that meant not getting a kiss goodbye when she left for preschool. I wanted one, and asked for one, but when she said no, I decided, in honor of International Women’s Day, I wouldn’t steal one. I’d let her no be no. And off she went.

This piece is also running on Rhea's blog Thirty Threadbare Mercies today.

How To Train Your Dragon: Letting Doubt Into Marriage

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, I am writing because I feel afraid. I got married in August to a man I adore and feel such a comfort with, but we are so different in every way (not the least of which being that I am a minister/chaplain and he is not a person of faith, and our cultural differences). We have had conflicts over the last four years that I would call "normal" for most couples but this weekend was one of those conflicts that left me wracked with doubts.

Doubts like "with this divorce rate what am I thinking?? Are we going to make it?? Is this rocky adjustment period a horrible sign or is it just the reality of marriage?"

He is a genuinely good man. My family loves him. I can be myself around him---except on nights like this when I am super defensive and analytical and miss my parents like a two year old does and cry nonstop. Then we have to go to separate corners.

Anyway, I thought that better than blogging about this would be writing to someone who seems to find the beauty and depth precisely in the imperfections of life and relationships. So I am wondering if you are someone who has somehow made all this work, against all odds.

I hope against hope that we can too.

Sincerely,

Newlywedded but Doubting Bride

Dear Newlywedded,

It's beautiful that you are allowing doubt into your relationship.  Doubt is the creature that lurks at the door, and you fear it, imagining a dragon, when really you should let it in and set a place for it at the table.  Once it's been well fed and seen in the light, you'll see its scales will fall off and transform into something more human.

My husband and I have been married for nearly a decade.  We have had our share of bitter heartbreaking periods in that ten year span, but are now in a place that is so good, that we often joke that we should produce some "It Gets Better" videos for young couples who are starting out and wondering why on earth they should stick with something so tragically difficult.  The fact that it is hard is the very reason it turns out to be so rewarding, as time goes on.

Everything gets better if you stick with it: the sex, the communication, the spiritual connection.  Just this past weekend we lay in each other's arms, totally naked, wrapped around each other like ribbons on a May Pole.  Our time together was brief---soon we'd have to hit the grocery store to get food for dinner, pick up our child from the babysitter, and be back to the grind of life.  But that moment felt infinite, as we bared our hearts and bodies to each other.

So, what advice would I give to a newlywed, especially one with some big differences to overcome?

1. Let each other grow and change, even if it looks like you are growing in different ways.  Lets go back to the ivy branch image from last week, as a metaphor for a relationship.  As you grow, you branch out in different directions, but you also twine together in places, always coming back to the same root and source, which is your love for one another.  Don't be afraid of his interests that are different from yours---encourage them.  Give him time and space to explore those very things that you don't enjoy---but also take an interest in them, at the very least asking him to explain to you why they are so meaningful to him.

2. Learn to fight.  One of the first lessons my husband taught me, when we were first dating, was that I couldn't curse at him and lose my mind in our arguments.  It took some practice, but rather than saying, "Aw, forget it, I just won't talk about this stuff with you", I worked on it, and we found a way to talk about the hard stuff with respect.  The biggest mistake I see couples make is avoiding difficult topics.  I have seen that ruin marriages more than anything else.  Marriage is all about getting in to those sticky places in life that you were hoping to just skate by, together.  Try to have a sense of humor in the midst of it---my husband and I have found that being able to make each other laugh is the best way to defuse an argument and get to the bottom of what's really bothering us, without our defenses up.

3. Keep having sex.  Just keep doing it.  Sex is a huge bonding agent.  Have you ever noticed that if your communication is just off, and you are snapping at each other more often, that just getting laid really helps?  Yeah, that's because when you meet each other nakedly in the bedroom, you can see each other in kinder light. My husband and I have had major dry spells with sex, but in those times, we have never been okay with it.  It's never been "Oh well, I guess I'm not such a sexual person".  Sex is the glue of the relationship.  So, even when it was infrequent, we were talking about it all the time, trying different things to get it going again.  You have an entire lifetime to figure out each other's bodies, so enjoy.

4. Ask for help when needed.  The early years of marriage are like resistance training workouts---you build the muscles of finding a way to heal what seems totally broken, again and again. You live in hope. And when things seem just too foggy for either of you to see the way through, you get help. I know a couple that goes to a therapist when they feel they need a "tune-up" or have a conflict they can't settle on their own, OR every five years, whatever comes first.  I love this perspective, because it takes the stigma off of the desire to have someone help you with your issues, and creates space for you to allow things to arise between you that are unexpected.  And please don't tell me you can't afford it.  If you invest in making your home nice to live in, your car run well, or your body to feel good, you can spend money on your relationship.

It sounds like you have a good partner at your side, one willing to do the difficult work and share in the spoils of love and creating a life together.  Hold on to one another, for when the really hard times come, you’ll remember that you sailed through stormy waters in the beginning, and came out afloat, doubts and all.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Does Being an Adult Totally Suck?

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, I finally feel like a real grown-up and I find it horribly disappointing. I can't imagine a better husband, my two-year-old daughter is awesome, and I love my work. Unfortunately, there's a big but. I was prepared to have a big, important career and I don't think that's possible as a mother of a small child (without being independently wealthy).

My parents told me I could be anything I wanted to be and my husband regularly says he's waiting for me to strike it big, so he can retire. Unfortunately, my career options are high in intellectual, social, and personal rewards, but not so much in financial rewards. My husband isn't going to be retiring on my salary anytime soon, which means his job needs to be the priority.

The part that really gets me is that I will never fully realize my potential career. If there are two working parents, one parent always has to be the one who will figure it out if the babysitter is sick. One parent has to make sure there is food in the fridge and favorite pajamas are washed in time for bed. One parent has to sign on as parent #1 (at least to provide the kind of support that I envision providing to my child). Maybe there is a system where both parents share all child-related responsibilities, but I'm not sure I can imagine it. After all, one of the major tenets of management in a professional context is maintaining individual responsibility: if everyone is responsible no one is.

Most big, important careers demand to be the priority. And I think the realization that made me a grown-up is that you don't get to have two priorities at once in life. I want my child, and eventually children, to be my first priority, but I also want to know what I could have done with my professional life had I been able to give it my all.

Sincerely, Two Paths, One Life

Dear Two Paths, One Life,

Are you sitting down?  Okay, because I’m about to deliver a series of blows that may hurt at first, but hopefully will settle in as the best kind of truth.

First of all, no wonder you are disappointed in adulthood, since you are completely missing the point.  The goal of life is not to be a big, important person who is responsible for everyone and amasses wealth for retirement.  I totally understand why you believe this, as this is our culture’s greatest falsehood, one we shout and whisper and slip into the food we serve.

But, Honey.  Oh, Honey, no.

The choice is not between being a mother and being a big shot.  It’s about being a person of substance, no matter what tasks you find yourself doing.

First of all, we need to address your sign off name.  There are three lives you are talking about here, and three paths, but you have submerged them all into one life---yours.  Of course there's no space to spread your wings!  You have both your husband and your child on your back, and you're stumbling around blindly.

A better metaphor for what should be going on is: One root, three vines.  Your husband and yourself formed the roots of your family tree when you bonded yourselves to one another.  Your lives climb like an ivy plant, branching off in some places, intertwining and holding one another up in others.  Your daughter's is an offshoot, that right now gets all of its nourishment from the roots of your marriage.  However, she'll branch off on her own more and more, and eventually she'll start her own vine, on some other wall.  The way things are now, both of their branches are choking yours, and no one can grow.

I think the problem is that you need to redefine success.  What is “making it” as an adult?  Is it a life of growth, or one you read about in the newspapers?  Because the people making headlines, especially ones with big, important careers, are always falling from grace, in big, important ways.  Just this month: Jesse Jackson Jr., Oscar Pistorius, THE POPE.

You don’t need a big, important career to be a happy adult, you need to be a big, important you.  Be the biggest star of your life.  Be the most important person in your child's life.

Do you want to make something happen?  Then follow your passion and do it!  But if you just want to feel important, then I don't think you will find that kind of validation in a high-paying, high stakes job.  That kind of validation only comes from within.

I want you to let this dream of being this powerful figure die so you can see what rises from the ashes.  I want what rises to be you.

In order to do this, you cannot use management tenets to run your family---your family should be be run on love, and love means everyone pitches in.  So, let go of some of the responsibility for being “Parent #1”, and let your husband plan back-up childcare for once.  And tell him to stop putting pressure on you to strike it big so he never has to work again!  What the hell?

So, perhaps you are not going to be on the cover of TIME magazine.  But, I doubt very seriously that that is because you are devoting your energy towards being a mother, instead.  I believe that you can still have what you want---have a feeling of being a successful adult who makes waves in the world, while still showing up for your children---but it is going to require a worldview shift.

Being an adult means we get to weave together the life we actually want, which, yes, is really difficult, but has the potential to create something totally unique and beautiful.

You are not missing out on fully realizing your potential career, if you are fully realizing your potential self.  You will need to give up the goals of prestige and leisure and take up the goal of love, but I promise you, it’s a better investment.

Love, Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Lessons from a Valentine's Day...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Happy Valentine’s Day! I know it seems a little corny to be wishing you a happy valentine’s day, but this is one of my favorite holidays. While some people see it as sappy and romantic, or commercial and forced, and granted, it can feel that way sometimes, I prefer to see it as a celebration of love among family and friends.  It’s an opportunity to recognize people who are important to us openly, and also an opportunity to recognize people sometimes a bit more secretly.  After all, who isn’t flattered by secret admirers?

My fondest Valentine’s memory though was a gift from my mother.  I was 12, and she woke me up early before her call shift at the hospital to give my gift: 3 pink Bic razors with a small can of shaving cream, all wrapped up in red tissue and in a small gift bag with hearts on it.  It couldn’t have cost more than a few dollars and I remember it like it was yesterday.  I had been begging to shave my legs, like all the other girls at school, for months, and I thought she would never say yes.  Turns out, my mom was more progressive (or perhaps more understanding of the need of junior high vanity) than I thought. . . It meant the world to me, and every year, I think of how excited I felt that she really took to heart what I had been wanting.

Here is the way I try to celebrate an extra touch of love on this day:

  • Give valentines to everyone: When you’re young, hopefully in school they’ll get you in the habit of including everyone in Valentines.  Want to know why? Because it’s such a nice feeling when you’re included; and it’s such a sad feeling when you’re not.  Try to make room for as many people as you can in your Valentine’s day heart.
  • Wear at least a little bit of red: Nothing over the top, but having a little touch of red, even if it’s somewhere not everyone can see, will put you in the holiday spirit and remind you to be extra loving towards those around you.
  • Be weary of set Valentine’s menus at restaurants: In my experience, these never turn out for the best, neither in food, nor in your enjoyment of the evening.  If you go out, find a restaurant that treats this as a normal day, or prepare a celebration with a group in a non-traditional spot.
  • Leave a surprise for someone you admire: Valentines are about relationships, but not everything has to be defined as a couple.  You can feel admiration for someone and not necessarily feel it in a romantic way—just don’t confuse the two for them.
  • Be extra mindful of anyone you care about in “that way”: No matter how much people say they might not like or not care or not endorse Valentine’s day, I think everyone ends up holding out a little hope for it in the end.  So if you are with someone, make the effort to do something a bit more meaningful.  It doesn’t have to be serious, and it doesn’t have to be heart shaped boxes full of chocolates (unless they like it)—but do something that shows that you’re thinking about them and appreciate them in your life.

Wishing all my love to my darling Valentine,

Mom

On learning new things

Of all the courses I took in college and graduate school, beginning language courses were my favorites. They were often scheduled first thing in the morning, and with a terrifying list of intimidating lectures and seminars stretching before me throughout the week, I loved starting each day with a heaping dose of humility. When you are struggling through your alphabet at 9am, all bets are off. The first days and weeks of a beginning language course are disorienting, frustrating, overwhelming. It is impossible not to make a mistake. In fact, you have to make mistakes in order to learn to converse. And it is impossible not to embarrass yourself. For the longest time, you sound completely ridiculous as you try to pronounce unfamiliar sounds and string them together, inching toward coherency. You write at a kindergarten level.

But the learning curve is steep, and there are moments of sheer delight as you discover new ways of seeing and describing your world. The results are measurable. You started out knowing three words, and eventually you know ten, then a hundred. Soon enough, you’re making up your own sentences with those words. And one day, perhaps months or years into your study, you realize that you’re finally saying what really you want to say, rather than only what you know how to say.

Last week, my friend Diana gave a Berkman Center talk on Coding as a Liberal Art. She’s been chronicling her experience learning how to code, and in her talk, she offers up reflections on being a beginner and ideas for how coding could be taught in a liberal arts setting.

In a world overflowing with experts and specialists and wannabe experts and specialists, what I love most about Diana’s effort is her open and honest embrace of beginner status. There are so many emotional barriers to learning new things—vulnerability, embarrassment, fear of failing, fear of making mistakes, fear of the unknown—it’s a wonder any of us ever takes on the challenge, especially in adulthood, of being a novice.

Some believe it’s futile to try to learn a new language in adulthood, since it’s nearly impossible to achieve fluency. And I’ll be the first to admit that after years of language study, my conversational ability is generally pathetic. I’ll also be the first to advocate for learning new things, including impossible things, like languages.

Achieving perfection, or expertise, or fluency may be next to impossible, but perfection need not be the goal of a beginner. In fact, if perfection is the goal of a beginner, it’ll probably just get in her way.

One of the most important things I learned from being a beginner is how much I don’t know. A few words offered up in someone else’s native language or professional language doesn’t mean you totally understand a culture or field or perspective that’s different from your own. But it does mean you’re trying. It’s a step in the right direction. It means that perhaps you know enough to realize how much you don’t know.

Hungry Hungry Humans

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, Is it me, or does everyone and their uncle have a food allergy/aversion/snobbish avoidance these days? I've found it increasingly difficult to share meals and prepare food for others without objections from gluten-free, only-eat-local-everything, on-a-cleanse, vegan, paleo-diet friends and family members.  I used to crave the communal intimacy of a shared meal, but now it seems "what I'm not eating" dominates the conversation (and makes my allergy-free, trying-to-stay-sane self question if I really should be eating that dairy/gluten/egg-rich muffin). Am I being insensitive?

Signed,

Eating the Damn Muffin Already

Dear Eating The Damn Muffin Already,

I wish you were my dinner guest.

Recently, we had a couple we were getting to know over for dinner.  I had baked a delicious dessert, since they were bringing the food.  The meal was saucy take out, rich in butter and spices.  When I brought out the salted caramel cake I had made from scratch, I was shocked that neither one of my guests were willing to try it.  They demurred, saying that "Sugar is poison, you know", and that they are cutting it out of their diet completely.

Stunned, I set my cake back on the stove, and, due to the calls of my toddler, who had been promised a special treat in honor of our guests and had even helped to bake it, I cut the members of my family slices and passed them out, leaving our guests to watch us consume a whole bunch of homemade poison.

Their choice to eat greasy take out and then refuse cake baffled me, but everyone deserves to do whatever they want with their body.  Really what bugged me were their terrible manners.

We live in a time of shifting ethics about food.  There used to be a cuisine that was considered "American", that everyone was expected to eat.  In an age of growing education about where our food comes from, who benefits from our consumption of it, and how to best feed our bodies, people are making more informed decisions about food than ever.

This is a really positive thing.  I would like nothing better than to use only local ingredients, from companies that respect the land and pay their workers a living wage.  I want to serve my family healthy food that will help our bodies grow strong.  However, I am not willing to give up the common decencies of community to do so.  My motto is "People are more important than things."  And that includes my current food philosophy.

So, what to do, if you have been invited over for dinner, and you know your hosts do not eat the same way as you?  First of all, ask what's on the menu, and what you can bring.  If you are a strict vegetarian, tell them so ahead of time.  If you have no food allergies, but would like to eat a certain way, offer to bring a salad or special gluten-free bread, and make that the focal point of your meal, eating sparingly what your hosts have provided for you.

Sharing food is such an important part of community building.  Another vital aspect of community is truth telling.  So, if you're on a diet, say you're on a damn diet.  Don't couch it in New Age terms, and definitely don't judge other people's food choices, especially not in their home.

So, to answer your question, are you being insensitive by not loving all the new diets people are trying?  Well, unless you are placing a pig on a spit in front of your vegan friend or inviting your gluten-free buddy over for Bread Fest 2013, nope.

If you find yourself irked by Macrobiotic Mary on your friend list, why not do something with her that is not centered around food?  I'm sure you can agree on an indulgent movie to watch together, to make up for the decadence missing in her diet.  Just make sure you order exactly what you want at the concession stand, and stand by your choice.  But get the small popcorn---she’s not going to share.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

All we need to know about dinner and divinity

Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal is one of those favorite books of mine that I haven’t finished yet. I’d like to make it to the end one day, but I’m certainly not in a hurry. I’m savoring it bit by bit, with full confidence that the author herself would approve of my slow read. It’s a book I know I’ll keep returning to even after I’ve finished it, much like the simple, beautiful thought at the heart of the book itself---that the end of every meal is the beginning of another. It’s a book that deserves, in my opinion, a genre of its own. I’ve never read anything like it. It’s not a cookbook or an instruction manual or a food memoir. I’d say it’s a sort of philosophy of food.

A browse through the table of contents is enough to make you cry: “How to Catch Your Tail,” “How to Paint Without Brushes,” “How to Light a Room,” “How to Make Peace,” “How to Build a Ship,” “How to Be Tender,” “How to Weather a Storm,” “How to End.”

You’d think it’s a book about food, and it is, but it is also a book about everything. Adler will start you off with an egg, then catapult you into the heavens, and finally bring you back down decidedly onto the earth. For example: “A gently but sincerely cooked egg tells us all we need to know about divinity. It hinges not on the question of how the egg began, but how the egg will end. A good egg, cooked deliberately, gives us a glimpse of the greater forces at play.”

I have a tendency to favor beginnings over middles and endings, but the opposite is true when it comes to food. I love the eating and drinking and savoring and lingering. I love a kitchen in action, with peels and cores strewn about the counters and several pots simmering on the stove. In the case of food, it is the beginning that catches me off guard. Why is it that dinner so often feels like a challenge to reinvent the wheel?

Some very wise friends sent us off with this book as an engagement gift, as we set out to establish a life---and a kitchen---together. From the very first pages, it has cut right through any anxieties I may have had about how we would feed ourselves. It’s the idea that eating well has nothing to do with extravagance, that cooking well has nothing to do with fancy tools, and that dinner has everything to do with where you left off in the last meal, or in all the meals that have come before.

I’ve never been much of a planner when it comes to meals, and as far as I can tell, thank goodness, An Everlasting Meal lets me off the hook. In practice, this means that the first inkling of dinner begins with the simple practice of getting a pot of water on the stove to boil and an onion in a skillet to soften. Then, and only then, is it time to start rummaging around considering what’s for dinner.

What comforts me most about this approach is that it begins with doing, rather than thinking. It’s one of those rituals buried in the everyday that, once you’ve realized it’s there, offers both a steady anchor and a comfortable stretch of rope for creative drifting.

Are You My Mother?

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, Recently my grandmother got ill, and my mom went across the country to care for her.  I know this is the right thing for my mom to do, but I'm feeling abandoned and upset.  My mom recently retired and was so excited about all the ways she could spend time with her grandkids (my children) and help us out.  I know this sounds incredibly selfish, but my mom also has 5 siblings that live near my grandmother, and I'm just dumbfounded that she dropped us.  Any words of wisdom?

Distraught Daughter

Dear DD,

We never know when our mothers will leave us.  For some it is early, from a death or an emotional detachment.  For others, it is much later, unfortunately often at the time we feel we need them most.  Either way, it is always painful, and always a reason to mourn and find a way to move on.

So many of the problems in relationships, particularly with family, stem from expectations.  You expected that your mom would be there for you, to help you raise her grandchildren.  This was not an unreasonable expectation, since she has been helping you thus far, but now that you are having to shift your way of thinking about her role, it's leaving you feeling abandoned.

Your mother has her own life.  She's an adult, and she can do anything she wants with her retirement---she's earned it.  So, I'm wondering, how did she tell you that she was leaving town, and letting go of her commitments to you?  If she left without notice, and without you getting a chance to tell her how much you'll miss her, and how sad it is that your kids will lose their close relationship with her, then what you need to do is tell her how you're feeling, and that she could have handled the communication of the change differently.

The other piece that stands out to me from your letter is that you feel that her siblings could be stepping up to the plate and helping your grandmother so your mother could stay with you.  Well, that's an awkward situation to be in.  I'm not sure you want to take on your entire family system, and get involved in their complicated maneuvering of this caregiving issue.  So, you'll have to adjust your expectations for them as well as your mom.

Here's the tricky part.  You need to change what role you are giving your mother in your life (and your kids' lives), without losing the emotional connection to her.  This means you can't just totally detach and say, "Well, I guess she doesn't care about me or her grandchildren!"  You prevent this by being honest about your feelings (stop judging them as selfish and let yourself have them), with yourself and with her, and by accepting what offers she can give at this time.  That way, you're keeping the door open for a closer connection with your mom when she has the space and energy for it again.

You might find this change in roles means you are able to support your mom a bit, too.  I bet it is hard taking care of your grandmother, and perhaps you will get closer to her in this time by offering your ear to her, to listen to her struggles.  In order to do that, you'll have to forgive her for bailing on you.  It won't be easy, but if what you ultimately desire is more closeness with your mother, you'll find it a beautifully strange process.

Love, Sibyl

The Vanishing Man

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, This summer, one of my best friends from childhood contacted me.  Actually, he was the first person I ever Loved.  As a teen, I hid my feelings from him for five years.  Finally, I told him how I felt in a letter, and said that if he didn't feel the same we shouldn’t continue to be friends.  I didn't hear from him again until this summer---fifteen years later.

When I heard from him, I was both excited and wary.  It was great to have him back!  At the same time, he was newly divorced after being separated for a year and clearly looking for something.  He said that he had a crush on me all those many years ago too, and that he had thought about me many times.  He started to talk about wanting to come visit.  I live over 600 miles away.  His tone became more and more romantic, and it was around this time I decided to do a reality check.

I didn't say I wasn't interested.  On the contrary, I was very interested, but I said that if he was going to keep talking romance, I needed to see him.  I told him that I really want children and a family, and that if he wanted to get together I would need him to be open to exploring that possibility with me if things went well.  

He responded that he cared about me, but that his relationships usually happen more 'organically'.  I said I understood and was sincerely grateful for his honesty.  We both said we were still very much interested in maintaining the friendship.

I didn't hear from him after our conversation for four months.

On Christmas, he reached out.  Although my feelings were mixed, I was mostly happy to finally be hearing from him again.

He dated someone briefly in the intervening time but is once again alone.  A few months ago, he was checked out by a doctor and learned he is sterile.  He bought a house in order to move toward a place where he can have a wife and children.  He knew he was sterile when he bought it, but he hopes to have a family through non-traditional means.  He was not in a good place on Christmas, because he had just spent the whole day around family with lots of little children.  He was feeling lonely and sad.  I doubted when I hung up the phone that I would ever hear from him again.

Since then, he has apologized several times for being a bad friend to me, and the two of us have been communicating almost every day, texting or emailing.  It has felt good to have him back in my life.

My love life has been complicated recently, and I let him know that the first time we talked.  For the first time ever, I’ve had a Friend with Benefits.  My FwB is great, but I always knew he was moving away. In fact, FwB just left this morning.  

The longer my old crush and I talk the more I realize I have major unresolved feelings for him.  In fact, I have been unable to climax since our initial Christmas conversation.  The one time I successfully came, it was because I was concentrating really hard on pretending I was with Old Flame instead of with my lovely FwB.  This has never been a problem for me in the past.  

Mostly, boundaries with Old Flame have stayed platonic this time around, but last night, on the eve of my FwB's departure, I texted that I was considering spending the next six months in celibacy.  Old Flame texted back ('jokingly") that I should visit him so he could “knock the bottom out for me instead”.  We flirted with each other and with the idea of me visiting.

I know this situation is emotionally precarious.  I really do want a family and a partnership, but after years of searching, I’m also feeling exhausted.  I want to have fun.  I want to have sex, hence the FwB.  I want romance to just happen for me the way it seems to be happening for ALL of my friends without having to work to meet that someone special.  

Even more powerful than these needs for sex and fun is the feeling that this man still has lessons to teach me.  Maybe he's just going to teach me more about heartbreak, but there's only one way to know for certain.  I want to find out.

I want to visit.  I want have sex with him, but I don't know if the flirting is genuine.  If it's not, I definitely need to ask him to stop.  At the same time, I'm tired of being the boundary police, the one who has to bring up all the serious stuff.  I’m also dreading bringing it up since the last two times I brought it up he completely disappeared.  If it happens again, do I keep letting him back into my life?  Our relationship has meant so much to me over the years, I don’t want to cut him out.  How do I even start this conversation?  Again?

Sincerely, Deja Vu

Dear Deja Vu,

Sweet baby jesus, you have a LOT going on here, girl.

The first thing I need to point out here is that you have not seen this person in fifteen years.  Fifteen years.  I know he seems quite attractive and interesting over text, email, and the phone, but things can be very different in person: is he comfortable in his own skin?  Does he tip waitstaff well?  Is he a road rage driver?  Can he dance?  These are things you'll never know on g-chat, and could be deal breakers.

The thing is, I am getting the sense from your letter that nothing would be a deal breaker for you.  You want to correct this past hurt that you’ve held onto for all these years, and you’ll jump at any chance to do so.  It was not too much that when you expressed your desire for kids, he disappeared, or that he came back saying that he's sterile, then vanished again.  So far, this "relationship" is completely on his terms, and you are hanging on his every whim, like. . . well, like a teen with their first love.

It's like you took a snapshot of him at that time, over a decade ago, and you're in love with a photograph, not the real guy.  You're dying to get back that hormone fueled fusion the two of you shared, which, even then, was rooted in you pursuing and him distancing.

I understand your strong desire for a relationship -- the part of your letter that was about your longing for love, fun, and sex was the most relatable piece.  However, I have to be the un-fun boundaries holder that you no longer wish to be.

Reality is, none of your friends' loves are as easy as they seem from the outside.  Love is always messy, fraught with doubt, and everyone eventually has to do massive amounts of work to come to a good place with the other person.

To sum up, dear Deja Vu, Step One is to meet this guy.  Go ahead, have sex with him, get all your curiosity and teenage dreams fulfilled.  However, if there is even a glimmer of the pursuer-distancer pattern between you in person that you've established across the miles these past few months, run, Lola, run.  You don't want to spend your life offering him things just so he can turn them down.

I know you want a relationship with a long-term partner.  However, don’t settle for Old Flame if it turns out he’s really just looking for a flash in the pan.

Love,

Sibyl

Blowing in the Wind

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl, I was recently left by a guy that I thought was going to be a long-term boyfriend with a future.  We had only been together for five months but we had been chasing each other for half a year before then and I know he had been interested but thinking he had no chance for way more than that. When we finally got together, we were the dream couple to all our friends and the times we spent were most often in mutual genuine bliss.

Then one day, he invited friends over on a Friday at 1.30 am when I had said that I was tired from a long week. So I was a bit pissed off and went home. He broke up at 4 am with a text and confirmed that in a conversation the next day saying: 'We have nothing in common, he can't see his friends (far from true), I'm reactive--he's proactive, it won't work out so he'd rather end it and it's better for me as well.'

I was devastated. Most friends said it's just gonna be a few days. So I took it with dignity, kept my public appearance, including Facebook, happy and optimistic and left him alone for about 5 weeks. But believe me, I was devastated. I had no idea what was going on and friends told me he wasn't being himself either. So I had hope he'd come to his senses.

Then I saw him at a festival. Snorting mountains of cocaine. Everything became a bit clearer to me. Throughout the weekend I learned that he had re-started cocaine the night before he broke up, been doing loads of drugs since then and that he had lost his job. He did continue to want this breakup but deliberately stood next to me very often and started crying during songs. I have told him now that I don't want any contact for a few months. That included that I didn't want a 'Happy New Year' email either. I thanked him but told him again no-contact.

But now I don't know what I will do after that. I can't avoid him forever. Will he come to his senses? Would it be a good thing if he came to his senses? Should I try and stay friends? Should I avoid him in my life---tricky because we have zillions of mutual friends that I don't want to lose. I think that it's not a lack of love but a fear of failure and of commitment that he's suffering from. I know the cocaine phase is temporary. So is the unemployment. Part of me wants him back after that. Another part thinks that he can't be trusted ever again.

What do you think?

Yours,

Brokenhearted in the U.S.A.

Dearest Brokenhearted,

There are so many ways to cheat on one's partner.  You can disengage emotionally and start up an internet friendship with a long lost fling.  You can sleep with a member of their family, their best friend, or a random person you meet out dancing.  In your case, Brokenhearted, the cheating wasn't sexual at all.  His mistress was cocaine.

When I was a teenager, my best friend lost his mother to cancer, and I, to my great surprise, lost them both.  I adored his mother, and had fully believed that my fervent prayers to save her would turn her illness around, right up to the very end.  By the time she died, however, I was not surprised, having visited her several times in her final days.  But I was completely shocked how my friend reverted into himself, eschewing my friendship for people who never knew his mother, and would not bring up his pain.

I wouldn't take no for an answer.  I wrote him long letters, parked outside his house and waited for him to come home from school, and, when he did let me in, sat with him for hours in silence while we inexplicably watched tennis on his tiny television.  It was all he wanted to do.  Or so I thought---I slowly learned that all the times I couldn't find him, he was off with his new friends, consuming as many drugs as was humanly possible in the provincial area we lived in.

Since that experience, I've learned to look for the presence of mind-and-mood altering substances any time a person has suddenly disengaged in a primary relationship, especially when there is a precipitating loss of some kind.  For whatever reason, your boyfriend's unemployment was more than a temporary career setback---it was a huge loss to his sense of self.  Instead of being able to let you in to that pain, he turned to something to shut it off, in this case, cocaine.

The only bright side is that he broke it off with you the moment he chose drugs over connection with you, even if he wasn't truthful about what he was doing.  This is actually sort of admirable, because most people in the throes of an addiction just take down whoever is closest along with them.  You dodged a bullet, and when you realized the kind of dangerous behavior he was engaged in, you wisely instituted a no-contact policy.

The piece I have to gently warn you about, Brokenhearted, is your assertion that his cocaine use is a "phase".   Drug use is not like body piercing or thinking you're an evangelical Christian.  It's not a phase, it's an addiction, especially if it's been caused by depression because of his unemployment, caused him to do something so drastic as break off a healthy relationship, and if he is truly snorting "mountains" of it at festivals.

I know that in your pain of losing him, you wish he could come back to you, untouched by your time apart.  But he will not be the same person then, even if he does.  He has started down a long road that will take him a good while to return from, and in fact, he should be a different person, if he really digs in to the recovery process.

So, my suggestion to you is to only invite him back into your life if he is a) in some kind of recovery program, and/or therapy, b) willing to discuss why he sought out drugs instead of connection at that time in his life, and c) interested and able to hear from you how it hurt you to lose him in such a way, and what boundaries you need going forward.  Finally, he should agree to never break up with anyone ever again via text message.

In the meantime, tend to your own broken heart.  Think less about him and his choices, and mend your own wounds, sewing them up with the support of your friends, with new experiences that bring you joy, and comforting practices like staying in to intricately braid your hair and read your favorite book over again.

Your boyfriend made a sad mistake, choosing cocaine over you.  Don't follow him down the rabbit hole.  I have seen many people throw away their dignity for the lure of the seductive drug user.  There's something desperate in those hollowed-out eyes, and we are sure that if we can just harness that desperation, we can turn it into passion---for us, rather than the substances.  Instead of chasing that dragon, stay close to yourself, on your own side, in the realm of human, rather than chemical, connection.

Soberly,

Sibyl

More or Less Like Family, Part II

the gambian

By Molly Bradley Read Part I of this series here

For whatever reason, my sister Khady took a strong liking to me. She was thirteen, small and skinny, and startlingly sassy---around me, anyway, and with the little ones who paid no attention either way. Around her older siblings she barely opened her mouth. That was the far more startling shift.

In the family room after breakfast the first morning, she took a handful of my hair and lifted it from my face.

“Je vais te tresser,” she said. She wanted to braid my hair.

“Non. . .non, ça va,” I said, dismissive, smiling. Thanks, but no thanks. Already I’d seen a few other girls from my program pass by my house, flanked and flaunted by their sisters, newly tressées. Their hair was tight against their scalps in what can only be called cornrows. The skin underneath strained with white and red.

“Mais si,” she insisted. “Il faut augmenter ta beauté!” We had to “augment” my beauty.

I was fairly certain that method of augmentation didn’t really do the trick for white girls.

But I was plopped down on a low, unsteady stool that sunk into the sand beneath the shade of a tree. The sun was just past its peak, and it was still hot as ever.

The little girls gathered around my ankles and stared. Khady set herself up behind me on her own stool. She pulled out a comb and began to move my hair this way and that, parting pieces, pinching them together.

Binta came out to watch with another girl. I thought at first she was another sister of mine, but I realized later that this girl just hung out in their compound all day long. At one point while we were watching TV, the ever-hanging girl---Hangout Girl, I called her in my head, because I never quite caught her name---made a snide comment in response to something that happened onscreen. Without missing a beat, without even turning her head, Binta said in French, “Don’t you have a home or family?”

Hangout Girl was still smirking, but no one laughed and no one apologized. No one kicked her out, either. Either Binta and Hangout Girl were friends, or they’d just given up on getting rid of her.

Binta and Hangout Girl ambled over and away continually throughout my braiding. Khady pulled my hair in a confident way that bordered on callous---every now and then I made a soft sound to remind her that there was a person under all that hair---and talked to me, hummed to me, berated my hair for being so uncooperative. It felt peculiarly motherly. Odd, for this thirteen-year-old girl to seem so in control. Around me, anyway. Despite my age, I was the baby of the family now.

An hour and a half into the process, a new shadow fell over me. When Khady allowed me to lift my head and my eyes I saw it was Mamadou.

“Very nice,” he said.

I smirked. “Thanks. You’re next.”

“No, not me,” he said. He raised a hand and patted his too-short hair that was already winding into stubby dreads. “Beauty is for the women. They are making you like them.” He walked away, slowly. Everything was a just a little slower in the sand.

I felt content, accepted. This wasn’t so bad. My homestay family seemed to like me---and even if they didn’t, they were working on making me something they’d like. Khady was on it.

She pulled abruptly on my hair, forcing my head up a little. “What did he say?” she asked.

For a second I was puzzled before I remembered no one else spoke English.

“He said he liked it,” I told her. I lifted a hand to my head to feel the progress. The right side was almost done, and almost numb. Khady was pulling the braids tight. It occurred to me, with a tinge of dread, that she was probably modeling my braids after her own, which were microscopically thin and innumerable.

“Could you make them a little thicker?” I asked, but she’d already yanked my head back down by means of my hair.

“Quoi?”

“Plus épais?” I pleaded.

She let out a little hmph and said no more. From somewhere outside the curtain of my remaining loose hair I heard Binta snicker.

 ***

The English was jarring the first night. It was still jarring the second. Khady would turn and ask me something in Wolof; I’d reply in broken Wolof and amend my meaning in French; the TV blared a mix of both; then suddenly in my right ear I’d hear a question in a language only my brain used now. It felt forward. Too familiar. Oddly intimate.

Still, with Wolof flung at me like a test of character from everyone else I encountered, the English was wholly welcome.

The regular soap was on. I was still a little fuzzy on specifics, but there was one duncelike man who kept procuring the anger of two other men. They argued in an endless stream of Wolof until finally they all broke grins and sat down for ataaya together. This was how the women would then find them and berate them for doing nothing but drinking ataaya all day. They had no idea.

As for the very well-dressed women, they sat in their living room and extensive conversations would take place at too fast a pace for me to understand. I stuck to paying attention to the clothes: the elaborate boubous, outfits, in bright colors and patterns; the jewelry---heavy gold, or intricate silver filigree---that made me feel shameful and shabby. I pulled at the thin grey yoga pants enveloping my thighs. When I’d come out in them this morning Khady had told me they were si si beau---so so beautiful---so many times I really couldn’t tell whether or not she was being sarcastic. But she herself wore more Westernized clothes, spaghetti-straps and jeans and rhinestone-studded sweaters.

Mamadou murmured something about the scene onscreen.

“What?”

“They’re cruel,” Mamadou said. “You see? Africans, we Africans, we are always cruel to each other.”

I looked to the screen. The two men in the show had hidden something from the other man, sending him into an overblown frenzy. To his face they were cold and unyielding; when the fool went off in search of his possession, the men laughed and held each other’s shoulders and slapped their knees.

“We do that in America, too,” I said. “TV is crazy in America.” I thought of action movies, crime shows, movies about high school---hell, I thought of the Marx brothers. “We’re always tripping people, or lying to them, or stealing from them, or shooting them . . .”

“Alright, but we are like this really. Not just on television,” Mamadou said.

“What do you mean?”

“We are cruel,” he said again. “Africans are bad, bad men.”

He said it simply, like it didn’t need explanation. I’d never heard anyone talk about where they came from that way. Talk about themselves that way.

“I don’t think that’s true,” I said. Immediately I wished I had phrased it differently---wished there were a better way to phrase it. I didn’t mean to challenge him, since he was African and I was not; I meant to emphasize the I: that in my experience, I hadn’t found that to be the case at all.

“Alright, alright, it is true,” he said. For a second I wondered who was arguing what, but then I realized he used his “alright”s as acknowledgment as well as dissent.

“Alright---you see,” he said, “an African man who is in the street---who is injured, maybe, or who does not have a home to be inside---no one will help that man. That is the best.”

I didn’t follow.

“Alright,” he says, “you see---in the best, at his best, another African man will leave him be. But usually another man will kick him, hurt him, or steal from him.”

“You really think everyone---every African---would do that?” I asked.

“I know this,” he said.

“But it’s the same in America,” I tried again. “No one looks at homeless people in the street. Everyone just walks by. And there are even some people who take advantage of them. Who hurt them.”

“Yes, alright, but American man, he will feel sorry,” Mamadou said. “He will say to himself, Oh, I wish I could help that man. Even if he cannot help that man he will feel sad. He will want to help. The African man, no. The African man only helps himself.”

This was bizarre. Not only had I never heard as much from anyone else---African or otherwise---I hadn’t seen evidence of it at all. Almost all I’d encountered was warmth, generosity, willingness to teach, et cetera, ad nauseum: all the stereotypes of West African hospitality that are stereotypical for a good reason. The worst anyone had done to me was laugh at my feeble attempts at communication in a language that was clumsy on my tongue.

Then again, I wasn’t African.

“How do you know,” I asked, again, “that any African would behave that way?”

“I know this,” he said.

We fell silent.

The men laughed. The dunce searched.

 ***

Before I went to bed that night, Mamadou asked how much longer I was staying in the village. I told him I had one more night before our group of students left for Saint Louis.

“That’s good,” he murmured, more to himself than to me. He nodded a little. I’d learned his nods meant he was making the sentence he’d say next.

People are unpredictable. It’s always gnawed at me, the way there is no way to ever get inside someone’s head. Mamadou wasn’t much more predictable than anyone else, but his nodding was one thing I could identify. It was a reassuring habit to be able to look for and interpret. It was small, but it was something. That, and there was the comfort of English. At the time, in that place, those seemed like two very concrete things to know about someone.

So after his nodding he said, “If you want I can take you to the fields tomorrow, before you go.”

I was eager to see the fields, to talk with him some more, and to participate in a helpful activity---but mostly I was eager to get out of the village. Aside from sawing fish into brow-raisingly sloppy pieces for meals, and failing to persuade any dirt out of the laundry I scrubbed with my sisters, I’d done very little but sit and watch soaps. (The one soap, really.) And I still didn’t understand the conversations in the living room. I felt like a child listening to adults talk about Things They’ll Understand When They’re Older.

He said he’d ask my host father to walk me there the following morning, when I was awake and ready. We said goodnight and I stepped out of the room.

“Mama!”

The older girls had followed me out: Khady, Binta, and the Hangout Girl. I turned and waited. Binta stood squarely before me. I thought maybe I was in trouble for something. Not that I had done much of anything to get in trouble for.

“Don’t talk to the Gambian,” Binta said.

There was no curve in her lips this time.

“Why not?” I asked.

“You’re not supposed to.”

I opened my mouth, paused. Asked again: “Why?”

Hangout Girl shifted her weight. Khady looked nervous. She was stiff except for her eyes moving between Binta and me.

“It’s not good,” Binta said. “It’s not good for you to talk to him.”

I had so many questions. Was it not good for me to talk to him as a tubaab? Was it just because I was new to the family? Was it because I was a woman? Was it because I was American---or, worse, considered somewhat French?

But I didn’t ask. I didn’t think she’d tell me. I didn’t think she knew. What I did think was that she’d been told to tell me not to talk to him. I thought this because, I saw suddenly, my host mother was standing just outside the family room, watching us. To my surprise, the look on her face resembled worry.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “But he’s nice.”

Khady and Hangout Girl shuffled their feet.

Finally Binta shrugged and broke eye contact. She murmured a goodnight, and the three shuffled off to their bedroom.

I looked to the family room. My host mother was already gone.