Mother-in-law May I

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

My husband and I met our senior year of college and got married a few years later. We've now been together for almost a decade and I still feel lucky that we happened to meet and that circumstances allowed us to grow as people and build a life together. Our families, both immediate and extended, are an important part of our lives. We hang out with our siblings often and we're happy that our two-year-old daughter can experience the joys of a close family.

Here's the problem: From the earliest days of our relationship, my husband's mother wasn't warm or welcoming to me. Maybe it's her personality; maybe it's that my husband is the oldest of 5 and she didn't have experience with how to treat potential new members of the family; maybe it's that she and I just didn't click because we're incredibly different people with very different approaches to the world. At this point, I'm obviously part of the family, so I don't think she realizes that my perspective is colored by how she treated me for the first few years of our relationship, basically until we were married.

In many important ways my mother-in-law is a generous person who certainly has the best of intentions. I recognize that and I want to focus on it, especially since my daughter adores her. Unfortunately, when we're together for extended periods of time, like family trips, I find myself getting increasingly annoyed and frustrated. We're always going to do things differently. She's always going to correct me. She's always going to insist that she's right about everything. I can't change that, so I just need to accept her and not let all these little things bother me. Any tips?

Thank you,

Throw Grandma From the Train?

 

Dear Throw Grandma From the Train,

Recently, I went to a panel discussion of faith leaders who are seeking non-violent resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis in the West Bank.  The theme that kept coming up was forgiveness.  I rose my hand, and asked my burning question, the one I keep returning to in my life, “How do you love people that are hard to love?”  The answer I got was to try to find the humanity in that person, to separate their actions from who they are, someone worthy of love and in need of care.

I think that is what you've been trying to do with your mother-in-law.  You've been trying to see the bigger picture, be the bigger person, just enlarge everything until it all doesn't bother you anymore.  But it's not the big things that get us, with those people that are hard to love.  It's the little, petty, constant shit that wears on us until we just can't take it anymore.

I actually don’t think the key here is accepting your mother-in-law.  It sounds like some of the things she does to you are simply unacceptable.  It is not okay for her to just decide not to like her daughter-in-law, and to correct everything you’re doing in your home.  It’s okay for you to be really frustrated when she does those things to you.

But you’re right that you need to let go of them, after you feel your feelings around them.  Another thing I heard at this discussion is that holding onto resentment is like eating poison, and expecting the other person to die.

So my advice to you is: stop trying to accept your mother-in-law.  Put all of those acceptance efforts towards yourself.

Accept the way you love your husband.  Accept it so much that it can never be questioned, never be swayed even the tiniest bit by your mother-in-law.  Let it live in the swing of your hips and in your thoughts when the two of you are apart.  Love the shit out of the way you love your husband.

Accept the way you run your household.  Accept your habits, even the ones you secretly think are gross.  Accept your home just as it is.  Accept your choices for food and work and daily routine.  Meditate on your imperfections, embracing all the very things about you that she criticizes.

Accept your parenting.  Celebrate your relationship with your daughter.  Let your acceptance for how you are raising your child ooze out of you to the point that your mother-in-law’s comments about it are deflected, as if your love for your daughter is suit of armor, gleaming and true.

I say all of this as a person who has gone toe-to-toe with her own mother-in-law several times over 13 years.  Early on, I realized this woman was never going to understand me.  But she didn’t have to, because her son did.  I realized this woman was never going to agree with me about most of the choices I made.  But she didn’t have to, because I wasn’t asking her permission or even her opinion.  I brazenly made mistakes, apologized when necessary, kept my distance when I needed to, or called her every week when I felt the desire.  I know for a fact that she doesn’t accept me as I am.  But I am certain that she respects me, and even loves me.  And the reason for that is that she knows I’m not waiting for her approval, and I love her even without it.

So, you have to be your own existential detective.  What are you insecure about?  Is your mother-in-law putting her finger in some open wounds?  Then do more work in those areas, until you can shine out your acceptance of yourself so boldly that she’s blinded by it.

And for the rest, for the hurts she’s inflicted on you in the past, and the ones that she’s sure to incur in the future, forgiveness is the only sane option.  Not just acceptance, but deep, life-altering forgiveness, that does indeed bring your mother-in-law’s humanity to the fore so her actions lose their sting.

The way to love people that are hard to love, like so many mother-in-laws, might just be to love yourself harder.

Love,

Sibyl

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To be born over and over again

over and over

By Joy Netanya Thompson Remember the song “It’s Raining Men”? Well, I’ve never experienced such a phenomenon, but for the past year it’s definitely been raining babies around here. It’s like the windows of heaven have been opened and new little souls are falling into my life everywhere I look. I no longer have a newsfeed on Facebook; it’s now a baby feed.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. I’m 28, and most of my friends are my age and into their early thirties. It’s “time”—whatever that means. Since my husband Robert and I married a year ago, we’ve always laughed off the “so when are you having kids?” question with “oh, ten years or so” kind of answers. But the deluge of babies in my life are having an “everybody’s doing it” (literally—HA!) peer pressure about them, and I’m second-guessing the loose timeline we’ve created.

But the truth is, I am terrified of having a baby. I’m scared of losing the life Robert and I share, of losing freedom and fun and, yes, my halfway decent figure. I pop birth control pills with the determination and discipline of a soldier—no babies on my watch. All the while in the back of my mind I hear a little tap-tap-tap, the secret code the Holy Spirit uses to let me know fear is driving my actions. This isn’t the first time—it’s my MO to draw up the blueprints for my perfect life and present the plans to God, asking him to bless them.

My reluctance to experience one of the most life-changing events possible is not surprising—I’ve never liked change. In the past, though, God has had a way of preparing me for change long in advance so I’m not a total basket case when it arrives. Back in my post-college traveling days, marriage was a totally unappealing idea to me. I wondered if perhaps I would turn out to be a single missionary after all. But I knew that deep down, one day, I wanted to be married. The preparing of my heart came so slowly and gradually that the first time I actually admitted out loud I wanted to find someone and get married, it still surprised me.

I can’t say I’ve gotten the hang of marriage yet, but I do like the feeling of getting the hang of something, be it a job or a new city or a life stage. The very nature of life, however, never allows you to stay in that place for long—knowing what’s best and most effective, how to avoid mistakes and conflict. In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, one character says, “To live is to be marked. To live is to change, to die one hundred deaths.” And this, truly, is what I am resistant toward. I am resistant toward those hundred, those thousand deaths that make up a true, growing life, keeping us from stagnation and decay. The death of dependence as I walked into adulthood and learned to pay my own bills and manage my own affairs. The death of childhood friendships as we diverged into different life phases—marriage, children, singleness—and could not keep our ties tight enough. The death of dreams, of relationships, of innocence, of longtime habits and sins, of ideals and ignorance. We all die these deaths.

And yet if we have lived long enough to be marked by death, we know by now the great mystery that death brings life; all births require a kind of death. To live is to die a hundred deaths, but you might as well say to live is to be born over and over again. It is the approach to that birth that we fear and resist and see as death. But the pain of letting go of my girlish dependence made way for the birth of the woman Joy. One day, this fear and pain of giving up my independence will make way for myself to be born again as a mother—just as the literal pain I endure will bring forth my own baby. Frederick Buechner, speaking of Mary giving birth to Jesus as a metaphor for all of us, says we have every reason to be afraid of giving birth. “It is by all accounts a painful, bloody process at best…the wrenching and tearing of it; the risk that we will die in giving birth; more than the risk, the certainty, that if there is going to be a birth, there is first going to have to be a kind of death. One way or another, every new life born out of our old life . . . looks a little like raw beefsteak before it’s through. If we are not afraid of it, then we do not know what it involves.” 

And so for me, the labor pains have begun once again. It will be a long labor as I work through my fear and dread of becoming a mother, though I have no idea what that will look like. Perhaps a child from my own flesh, perhaps an adopted baby from somewhere and someone else. But the birthing process, and the first terrified and joyful weeks, will be raw, because that is an essential quality of new life. And I must labor again when I agonize over my children’s taking flight from our nest, and I must be reborn as another woman, another Joy, and learn to give birth to other ideas, relationships, and dreams. Oh God, let me never resist the deaths and the births that make up my life.

Do My Friends Even Like Me?

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I seem to have a penchant for attracting friends who are very ambivalent about me.  Or friendship.  I am not sure, but they are so difficult to be friends with, because they pursue me mightily, but then reschedule our date several times, and say any number of passive aggressive things to me when we finally do get together.  

In between hangouts, I get a lot of "I miss you so much, I really want to invest in our friendship more, you are so amazing" from them.  It's really confusing, and if this were a love relationship, I would obviously just break up with them.  Since it is a friendship, I am so uncomfortable telling them the truth—which is that they are sending me wildly mixed messages and at this point the friendship is not worth all the work it requires.  How do I deal with this friendly mind-fuck?

With Thanks,

Baffled Buddy

 

Dear BB,

Ambivalence is one of the hardest emotions to hold for another person.  When folks are straight up angry, sad, or in love, even when it's difficult to relate, you can just let them express themselves and move on.  But ambivalence, especially when it is directed at you, leaves a confusing sheen on every interaction, which can linger throughout a relationship.  It is easier when the person knows they are ambivalent, but awareness is rare.  Instead, you get something akin to manipulation, as the person is trying to get you to help them sort through their ambivalence with your reaction.

My advice is to get out of there.  Since it sounds like many of your friends are acting this way, that may leave you a little lonely, but being alone is better than being beset by conflicting emotions that belong to other people.  And here's the thing about ambivalence—whoever is feeling it absolutely has to work it out on their own.  No one can take them by the hand and solve their problem.  So it's best to just leave them to it.

You also seem to be wondering, "Why does this keep happening to me?"  Well, consider the fact that you could be a polarizing person, someone who provokes strong reactions in people.  If that is the case, if you are a bold figure who people either love or love to hate, then folks with ambivalence issues are naturally drawn to you, because they intuit you will help them work through their conflicting feelings just by being yourself.  In fact, by confronting them, drawing their consciousness to their own ambivalence, you would be affixing a target right to your chest for all of their wavering arrows.

Don't fall for it.  Not only is it pretty much impossible for you to solve this problem for them, but your self-worth could get all tied up in confusing relationships.  So, put up kind but firm boundaries with these friends, and don't let flattery sway you.  If they are colleagues, simply see them at work, and enjoy the time you have with them there, but politely rebuff their invitations.  Tell them you are busy, and it is true—you are busy being fabulous, trying to attract new friendships, ones in which you can truly be yourself, rather than some kind of magnet they can attach to or repel themselves from.

Love,

Sibyl

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Fifty Shades of Yay

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I have a wonderful husband of 10 years and we have a good sex life.  Often, I need a little help to get me in the mood, my choice is romance novels.  Is this normal?  Should my husband take offense?  He's never complained, but I just hope I'm not hurting his feelings.

Thank You,

Romance Reader

Dear Romance Reader,

You're in good company.  The Romance novel is the bestselling fiction genre, ever.  According to Romance Writers of America's 2011 Romance Book Consumer survey, slightly more than half of survey respondents live with a spouse or significant other.  Some studies say that women who read romance novels have sex twice as often as those who don't.  Others say that a high level of romance reading is correlated with happy monogamous relationships.  So, to answer your initial question, your penchant for a little erotica fantasy reading is not only normal, it may be even helping your marriage.

The fact that you are worried about your reading habits, despite the fact that you are one of the ladies having hot married sex after reading a chapter of your romance novel of choice, makes me think you have some shame around this predilection.  Well, head on over to smartbitchestrashybooks.com, where Sarah Wendell and Carly Tan, authors of Beyond Heaving Bosoms: The Smart Bitches’ Guide to Romance Novels, facilitate a thriving online community of fellow romance readers.  They’ll help you realize you’re not alone, and give you some great suggestions for new reads.

As for your second question, I have no idea if your husband’s feelings are hurt by your romance reading.  For that, you’ll have to ask him!  And I highly suggest that you do.  A conversation about how he feels about the paperbacks stacked on your nightstand could lead to a juicy discussion of the fantasies that most intrigue you.  You may find yourself living out a few of them, with your very own leading man!

My hope is that he does not feel threatened by your fantasies, and the fact that they are spurred by stories in romance novels, as it belies your thriving intellect and playful libido.  He should feel glad to have a partner that is inventive in her interest in all things sexual.

However, if he is threatened by it, it’s best the two of you are honest about those feelings, in order to work through them.  Perhaps you could spend a night reading him some of your favorite passages?  Next thing you know, he may be swapping books with you!  A whole world could open up for the two of you.  I hope it is one with lots of lace and fur-lined handcuffs.

Love,

Sibyl

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An Adopted Dad

adopted dad

By Cindy WaiteRead the first piece in Cindy's series here

I never planned out my wedding. I didn’t imagine the decorations, or the finger foods, or even my dress. I told my family, defiantly, that I’d wear jeans and a sweatshirt on my wedding day because, “Ew, dresses.” I made the sour milk face you’re envisioning. Then I did back flips on my mom’s bed, made mud cakes in the backyard, and fell asleep reading, a flashlight hidden under my covers. I was maybe a strange child.

I always said I wanted a chocolate cake on my wedding day.

“No, honey, that’s what the groom has. The bride’s cake is white,” My mom impatiently told me, again. I made my sour milk face so contorted I might have passed out from disgust.

I can see her now, my Mom, at our scratched wooden kitchen table, the plastic covering pulling over the edge, the kitchen garbage pail at her feet, a Russet potato in one hand and a peeler in the other. She would have looked up at me without missing a beat with the potato.

“Why can’t I have a chocolate cake, too? Who said only boys can have them? I’m going to have a chocolate cake.”

It made all the women around me laugh whenever I said things about my chocolate cake and jeans wedding, so untraditional was I, so my cake grew in brown, sugary divinity each time the conversation arose.

“It’ll be a BIG chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, covered in M&Ms, with chocolate sprinkles on top of that.”

Then I bested myself, “It’ll be a three layer chocolate cake with chocolate frosting, covered in M&Ms and sprinkles on top.”

I didn’t spend my young years daydreaming about my nuptials, but I did spend a lot of time wondering who would walk me down the aisle.

I call Rob, my mom’s best friend, “Adopted Dad.” He spoils me. He got me my first perfume, “Romance” by Ralph Lauren, for my birthday because I smelled it in a magazine and liked it. I liked the name as much as the scent.

I’m moderately more graceful than a baby giraffe, only slightly lighter on my feet than Shrek. I smelled Ralph Lauren’s newest scent when I peeled back the bulky page in Seventeen, and I saw myself transform from my not-quite-or-at-all-grown-into-myself body to a romantic heroine starring in my own meet-cute love story. I’d be sophisticated. I’d be urbane, a word so sophisticated, saying it put me in a new class.

Adopted Dad is divorced. He’ll be happily remarried in a few years, when I’m 17 or 18. He’ll stop being Adopted Dad then, but I’ll hold on to the title for keepsakes. Divorced Dad can be a Dad to me; he has room and time in his life to adopt me into it.

Adopted Dad lets me drive. He’s okay with me behind the wheel, guiding me from the passenger seat. He doesn’t grip the door handle and dashboard until his knuckles turn white---that’s Mom’s job, and she should get a pay raise she’s so excellent at it.

I’m driving out to Six Flags with Adopted Dad and his 10-year-old son, my babysitting charge. Adopted Dad took the day off, and he handed me the keys. I didn’t know my palms could produce sweat so fast, but those keys felt like they were dipped in oil they were so slippery. I drove through Newnan straight on to 85 North, headed for Atlanta.

I’m on the interstate, driving through Spaghetti Junction---six, eight, fifteen lanes twisted like noodles, my heart racing with nerves in the snaking, speeding traffic. This is my opportunity to prove my maturity.

I’m 16, but I swear it’s more like 20-something because that’s what everyone says. I’ve grown up in single parent years---that’s 1.5 for every 1 normal kid year. I sort of get how dogs feel, passing everyone by.

Rob tells me, “It’s okay to speed,” as matter-of-factly as though he’d said, “There are cars on the road right now.” I stare at him out of the corner of my eye, my peripheral vision stretched as I also try to keep both eyes straight ahead, my hands at 10:00 and 2:00 and my heart from fluttering straight out of my chest onto the console.

“If you have the money to pay for a ticket, then you can take your chances exceeding the speed limit,” he continues. “You can choose to break the rules if you know the consequences and accept them.”

I feel immensely loved in this moment.

This is real dad advice. This is a life lesson that seems absurd on the surface---one a Mom would yell about, eyes bulging out of her head, demanding to know what on earth he was thinking telling a 16-year-old something so irresponsible. But Dad would know that he has a smart daughter, one with a head on her shoulders that got it, that gets him, that will be a more responsible driver and person because now she’s empowered with choice and the weight of responsibility.

I’m choking up because he said this and I’m imagining that scene, and a car cuts in front of me, and my reflexes jerk the wheel enough for us all to notice, but Adopted Dad doesn’t critique. And I’m calming down now because I can do this.

Men bonded with Chris mostly, growing up. What’s a boy without a dad? They went fishing and hunting, and he learned to tie knots and change a car tire, all while I played beneath the towering oak tree in the front yard. Men lent me a lap to crawl on when I was little and reassuring, big hugs as I aged. Men taught Chris and comforted me.

But Rob took me on busy Atlanta interstates and taught me to trust my gut. He taught me the tools of the Dad trade---lecturing me on too much time spent online talking to boys and wondering if I’d like to learn how to change a tire, after all.

I still wear Ralph Lauren’s Romance. I still think of Adopted Dad when I spritz it, pushing my shoulders back and my head high and entering the mist as any urbane woman might do.

I put Adopted Dad in the “maybe” column to walk me down the aisle.

A Fatherless Girl

fatherless girl

By Cyndi Waite

My mom runs her hand softly along my cheek, like moms do with their babies. Maybe I asked the question, "Who is my dad?" or "Where is my dad?" or maybe she preempts it. She strokes my cheek again and smiles at me.

“My beautiful girl," I imagine her saying it in the wonder-filled way she still says it today. "My beautiful girl, your daddy was a good man, but he is very sick."

This refrain is so palpable and entwined in my childhood, I know the words like a nursery rhyme whose repetition tattooed it on my memory. But there’s not a nursery rhyme for my story.

I was born in Hollywood, a fact that fills me with undue glee. I was a kid who had "a lot of personality," a euphemism for having been histrionic. I wanted to be an actress, a screenwriter, but always, I dreamed of being a Los Angeles Resident.

Because what I leave out is the "Florida" part. I'm from Hollywood, Florida, home of the Cuban and land of the retirees. It’s a far cry from the iconic “Hollywood” sign and yet, it’s true, I’m from Hollywood.

We lived in an apartment building. I can see the outline of it, and I wonder if that's my earliest memory shining through or if I've re-created a memory from pictures. It had a giant, humongous, can't-see-the-end-of-it-can't-touch-the-bottom-of-it pool. We lived there until I was three.

Mom has always been a fish, happiest near the water and stressed, searching for air away from it. Mom's angry? Let's run her a bath. Mom has to get away from work? Let's pack a bag of towels and ham sandwiches and find the nearest lake. Water is Mom's Valium.

Mom's love of the water seeped into Chris and me in the womb; pregnancy didn't keep her from floating weekends away. We came out with our arms failing in freestyle. Outside her belly, we split our time the way she had done while we were in it: between the pool and the beach. I learned to walk in the sand.

***

Mom and Chris hold my hand as we walk to the water, waves lapping my feet and calves and thighs and stomach. I’m pink and round---a perfect Gerber baby, squealing with delight at the touch of the cool south Atlantic waters (that are somehow, someway perfect, while northern Atlantic beaches are drab, the water the color of the gray sand. It’s a mystery I’ve never solved).

Chris, four years older than me, maybe six or seven, swims his way away from Mom and me. He probably travels three feet, but I swear it’s 10 feet---half a football field, even. Mom holds me over her head, and teases me, “I’m going to do it! I’m going to throw you!” and her threats aren’t threats at all but promises. And she tosses me through the air, and I’m soaring what feels like stories above the water shimmering below, and I land, laughing, in my brother’s open arms. They throw me like a football, calling plays, “Go left!” I was a precursor to my brother’s glory days on the football field, a human ball. I wonder if that’s where he learned a perfect spiral.

***

We move from Hollywood that same year, when I’m three. I still suck on a pacifier, a fact that embarrasses and endears me now---a childhood in tact, still so innocent it maybe seemed stalled, in slow motion, behind. Precocious and clever, my brother knows my sun rises and shines with him. Where he goes, I go. What he does, I try to do. Sometimes he uses his powers for good, and sometimes he uses them for evil. The line is always blurry.

We pack up the family Chevy S-10 and move to Georgia.

We say goodbye to our family and friends, and Mom says it’s time for an adventure. She drives stick shift in the small three-seater pickup truck. My legs swing around it; it's hard for her to switch gears sometimes, and I talk nonstop, except when I'm sucking on my pacifier.

She got lost, often, on that long drive. I asked a dozen times if we were lost, and she always said, “We’re not lost, we’re finding a new way," just like she says today. Sometimes I ask her when we're standing still to hear those guiding words.

Hours into the drive, Chris pipes up. “I dare you to throw your pacifier out the window.”

I eye him cautiously; at three, going on four, I’m already stubborn and incapable of turning down a challenge.

“I double-dog dare you. I bet you won’t do it.” The taunts keep coming.

I pull my pacifier out of my mouth, and he rolls down the window, and Mom intervenes.

“If you throw it out the window, I won’t get you another one,” she warns.

Chris smirks. “I triple-dog dare you.”

I can’t take it anymore, and I throw it out, watch the wind whip it, bounce it off the side of the truck and fall onto the hot asphalt. It’s gone. It’s really gone.

I start to cry.

“I love you, but I told you if you threw it out, I wouldn’t get you another one,” Mom reminds me.

Chris looks at me, pride in his eyes. “You’re a big kid now.”

I cry all night, furious and unable to sleep. Mom doesn’t buy me a new pacifier.

The next morning, I’m calm and grown up when we pull into Carl’s driveway.

I Read The News Today, Oh Boy

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sybil,

What is twisting my gut is what is also twisting the gut of the nation. My issue is that I am so very, very sensitive to human-caused tragedies, so much so that even a headline can send me toward panic-attack-ville. I've dealt with this by avoiding the news in general (my husband keeps me up to date on disturbing events using gentler wording buffered on either end with a hug) but I still want to be in the know.

Also, avoiding Facebook is much more difficult than avoiding the news; and so I see articles that friends post that I shouldn't click but sometimes do. I am repulsed, deeply saddened and deeply scared by tragedy, but also curious about how terrible things happen (and how I can avoid raising a child that would act in those terrible ways.)

How can I honor my tender self but still stay informed and educated?  Maybe there are others in the same boat that would benefit from some words of wisdom!

Thank you,

Tender-oni

Dear Tender-oni,

When a tragedy of this magnitude rocks our nation, every sentient person feels it in some way.  It sounds like you have the beautiful yet difficult experience of being someone extra attuned to the fragility of life, which means you need to take even more care to be kind to yourself and others in the wake of the Boston bombings.

Hearing tragic news is really unsettling, and it takes us out of our bodies.  The most important thing to do is to get grounded, connect yourself to the earth, and back in your corporeal being.  Wherever you are right now, feel your feet on the floor beneath you.  Imagine there is a connection between the soles of your feet down to the core of the earth, and that a vibration of light is running up through you, lengthening your spine out through the crown of your head.  Put your hands on your thighs, and press.  Then place your hands on your belly and breathe deeply, in and out, until you can feel your breath steadying, and you feel connected to all your limbs from your center.

Now that you are grounded, go ahead and let yourself feel whatever you are feeling.  If you're sad and need to cry, let the tears roll down.  If you are angry and need to punch a pillow, or yell into a cup, do that.  If you are scared and need to call your loved ones, please do.  Let them know you love them and you need them right now.

It is okay to try to get the truth about what happened, to allow your brain to make as much sense as possible of such mind-boggling violence.  However, with all the ways of receiving news now available to us, choose wisely.  First of all, avoid visual and aural news.  Receive your facts in words, in the form of complete sentences.  It is impossible to un-see images of bodies mangled, and to un-hear screams and cries.  News that has already been filtered through the brains of professionals into sentences are designed to inform you in the least traumatizing way possible.  Therefore, if you must follow the news, read it in article form, and don’t sign up to be notified every time events unfold---be as in charge as possible of when/how you receive the latest updates.

Don’t be afraid to reach out for professional help if you are indeed having panic attack symptoms.  Call your therapist, or if you don’t have one, contact Disaster Distress, a program of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Support Administration: http://disasterdistress.samhsa.gov/  You can call 1-800-985-5990 toll-free to talk with a crisis counselor, who can help you deal with the normal reactions to such troubling events.  There is nothing wrong with you if you are having triggering responses to such horrifying acts---it just means you are human.

Being human sometimes means being scared, but it also means being able to love.  Do something today that makes you feel really alive, and connects you to the love in your life, and the kindness of humans.  You have to counterbalance the horror with reminders that we are all held together with heartstrings.  This may be as small as creating some art to immerse yourself in beauty, or as large as volunteering to help others even more in need than you are.

I don’t know how long it will take, or what will transpire before we get there, but love will win.  I have had too many wonderful experiences with humans to discount them in the face of tragedy and say “people are terrible.”  I don’t believe that.  Some people are sick and need help and love, so that they can see how alike we all really are, and that there is something of value in each of us.

There will come a day that we will all look in one another’s eyes and see our own spark staring back at us.  In order to make this vision a reality, to end violence everywhere, we have to let the love we hold in our hearts wash over all we come into contact with, until it is a tidal wave, consuming the fear and leaving us ashore at last.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Lessons on hitting a wall...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Some days won’t be great days---I’d be misleading you if I said otherwise.  Specifically, some days you’ll feel a little stuck, like you’re a small wind-up toy that has come up against the wall.  And because there is nowhere to go, you just keep hitting the same spot over and over again, despite the fact that this doesn’t help you actually move forward.

The work days have been long recently---it’s a confluence of deadlines and projects and trips and communications.  It just happened that everything has been hitting at once, and sometimes it’s easy to feel that because you’re trying to give answers to everything, you don’t end up with good answers to anything.  So here are the things that have helped me most on these kinds of days:

  • Prioritize what needs to get done: Make a list of the critical stuff, and then put the things that can wait on a separate list.  Or list them in order of due date.  Sometimes the first step in managing tasks so that we can actually move forward is to sort them out, so that you can move forward in small batches at a time.
  • Get up, walk around: When we get caught up in “doing”, the hours often go by without us noticing.  And pretty soon we’re writing the same sentence over and over again, or looking at the same spot on the computer screen for minutes at a time.  If you’re not getting anywhere, get up, take a walk around the house or the building, or better yet, go outside . . . even if it’s just for five minutes.  That visual break often times makes the space you need for a new idea to make its way through.
  • Look at something new and beautiful: A book of photographs, some flowers outside, an exhibit if you have time.  It doesn’t have to be related to what you’re working on, it just has to be completely different.  When we look at something new to us, it’s a bit like taking all the things that are already inside of our head and giving them a bit of a shake.  When everything lands again, the new order allows for new ways of thinking about the same problem.
  • Go to bed early: You’ll have phases when this feeling can go on for days, and it makes us exhausted.  My natural reaction is to keep working, but if the work coming out isn’t that good, then I know it’s time for a change.  When you go through busy and sometimes numbing phases, be kind to yourself.  Make the space for rest---you’ll feel better in the long run, and your work will be better on the first iteration around.
  • See you: When the daily grind becomes something I question, I try to make extra time to see you during the day.  There is something about your curiosity and laugh and willingness to play around with new things, that inspires me all over again.  And it reminds me what the daily grind is all for, as well as where it fits into the overall scheme of what’s important.  When you’re younger, I hope that you get the same feeling from your friends; when you’re a little older, from your love; and then when you’re even a little older from someone just like you.  That little person will be forever the light of your life, and a few extra minutes with them will always set you on the right path.

All my love,

Mom

Burmese Children

word traveler burma

Before leaving to Myanmar, I had read so much online about it. Mostly, I was concerned about traveling safely in a country where traditions are so different and the political situation quite unstable. We all have heard a lot about Myanmar lately, and not all of it is good news. It seems that Myanmar is heading toward a more democratic government, but still in the outer provinces, those areas that are out of reach for tourists and seem so forgotten, ethnic fighting is happening. While gathering handful information, I learned that Myanmar is quite a bit more conservative than other countries in Southeast Asia, which means I packed t-shirts with leaves and long pants for those days. Knowing that the medical system and the pharmacies are still underdeveloped, I stocked up all the medicines I thought I may need. I learned that banks don’t exist, not to mention ATMs, and that dollars should not be folded or crumpled, or they will not get accepted anywhere. Last but not least, a friend of mine told me that during a trip over there a few years ago he tried to discuss about politics with his Myanmar guide, but there was no way the guy would even start to express his opinion about anything, and he mainly remained silent and looked embarrassed. Therefore, I decided it was wiser not to get involved in a political discussion in public. These tips being absorbed, I considered myself quite prepared to live a nice trip in a mostly mysterious country.

But nobody, no blog, no article, no friend, had prepared me to the real experience and the feelings I would feel once there.

Some journeys leave you the same way you were before, they give you memories of fun things, wild landscapes, or even new recipes. You take tons of pictures, and maybe sometimes you know you will never look at them again. They are stored in your computer, and that’s enough.

But other journeys change you, for they are really meaningful–they touch your heart so deeply you instantly feel will never fully recover. It’s a weird and precious feeling, and this was the first time it happened to me. I started to think: Was this place waiting for me? Will I be the same person again when I go home? How can I tell my family all the details? Can I leave Myanmar and go back to my country like this was a regular fun vacation? Is there anything I can do to give back to these people what they are giving me?

Before leaving, I had also gathered information about orphanages and schools, and learned that Burmese kids are not even eligible for adoption. Myanmar isn’t the only country in the world with such rules, but still my heart skipped a beat when I read this. The only thought that adoption is not a possibility made me feel powerless, impotent. In Myanmar there are some orphanages, and sometimes international foundations are taking care of collecting donations or organizing volunteering experiences (for instance http://www.burmachildrensfund.org.uk/). They support the future of these children in various parts of Burma, and provide kids with shelters and education.

One day Husband and I visited a school at Inle Lake. These students were from two to six years of age, and they had families to go back to at the end of the day. They looked happy, they screamed and laughed all together while the teachers were quietly watching over them. We were strangers at first, but it took them a few minutes to show us how they would push each other on the swing.

And that’s when I started to wonder–those poor children who don’t have parents or don’t know who they come from, can they be this happy? Coming from a Western country, where human and natural rules are quite different, I realized I shouldn’t judge the situation with my old eyes. Instead, I should keep my eyes open while I was there, learn as much as possible about these people and maybe change my way to consider things. It didn’t take long to learn the most important and shocking lesson–Burmese are so welcoming to foreigners, and they are even more welcoming to their own people. There might be severe ethnic fighting going on in some areas, but to me that’s an unfortunate, huge mistake. I saw something inside them, something special I had never seen in others before. I saw families, made of mothers, fathers and children who may be quite unaware of what’s outside their country, but who are still happy, they KNOW how to be happy and enjoy the simple things in life, some authentic way of living that we think we have but in fact we have lost. I had never, ever seen and felt this peace inside myself. So, putting aside my initial reaction towards the adoption issue, I wondered. Would adoption be the best choice? Growing in a natural and beautiful and uncontaminated environment, where relationship bounds are tight and pure, growing in your own country and having the chance to know it and make it better in the very near future… isn’t this the better option? After all, there are so many other ways to help, if we really want to.

I’m not sure what the answer to my questions might be, but I’m sure of one thing–Myanmar is a country that can change you deeply. I changed over there. Like a snake, I left my skin behind, and soon was ready to get warmer under new sun rays, free from the past, eager for a new future and willing to learn how to make a day out of a single smile.

These are more links of interest, to support children in Burma, or just gather information.

The Burma Orphanage Project: http://burmaorphanageproject.org.uk/about/

Myanmar Orphanage: http://www.myanmarorphanage.com/

Stichting Care for Children: http://www.careforchildren.nu/en/

"For millennia women have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to the task of nurturing, protecting and caring for the young and the old, striving for the conditions of peace that favour life as a whole. To this can be added the fact that, to the best of my knowledge, no war was ever started by women. But it is women and children who have always suffered most in situations of conflict. Now that we are gaining control of the primary historical role imposed on us of sustaining life in the context of the home and family, it is time to apply in the arena of the world the wisdom and experience thus gained in activities of peace over so many thousands of years. The education and empowerment of women throughout the world cannot fail to result in a more caring, tolerant, just and peaceful life for all."

Aung San Suu KyiOpening Keynote Address at NGO Forum on Women, Beijing China (1991)

 

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

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.

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

Lessons of Loss

This week I had the unpleasant task of mailing a sympathy card.  It was destined for one of my dearest friends whose grandmother had recently passed away.  I addressed the envelope and signed my husband and my names beneath the pre-written message. That was the easy part. Writing a personal note was harder. What words could I write that would give comfort?  Were there any?  If not, what could I write? In the end I settled for a simple note of friendship and tried to convey the two messages that I felt were the most important: I love you & I’m thinking of you. I mailed the card, but kept thinking about loss. That’s normally a subject I avoid contemplating at all costs. I know most people don’t dwell on grief or death, but my avoidance is, I think, a little more profound and includes even abstract or philosophical consideration. Without sounding like I crawled out of a Victorian novel, I can at times be prone to melancholy. It’s easy for me to sink into the dark and grey and wallow there, hence the avoidance. But last week, I didn’t wallow or sink, even as my mind kept spinning back, touching on two stories and their accompanying lessons about loss. I figured the lessons wanted to be written.

When I was in junior high, my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. There were blessings hidden in the diagnosis and many moments of joy and laughter and memories that I would never trade. But there were also moments of pain, sadness, and confusion---especially for a kid like me with strong emotions and no experience with loss. I remember one such moment, sitting on my yellow canopy bed and crying out my sadness and confusion. My mom was there of course, consoling me as mother’s do and generally talking me down.  I don’t remember what I said, only her response.  I imagine my line was something inane about being sad that my grandmother was sick and might die, but I really don’t know for sure. What I remember with extreme clarity was the next moment as my mother said: I don’t want granny to be sick or die either, she’s my mom. I understood the working of our family tree, and I knew that my grandmother was my mother’s mom, but until that moment, I hadn’t considered anyone else’s grief. In the way that your world view can shift in an instant, I remember that moment as the clouds parting and a light bulb shining as well as a ton of bricks falling. I suddenly had a new understanding and a different way of seeing things beyond my own emotions or grief.  Almost 20 years later, that memory and the accompanying lesson as still so clear, as is the only response I could make in my stunned state: I never thought of it like that.

A decade later when my paternal grandfather passed away that earlier lesson was not forgotten.  I was an adult by that time, a college student in love with my boyfriend, a man who would later become the Mr. to my Mrs. Perhaps that’s why so many of my thoughts and a great deal of my empathy was focused on my grandmother. Throughout the days of preparation and then the visitation and funeral she was stoic, focusing on the next task and what needed to be done.  Her eyes were dry right up until the moment a soldier placed a folded American flag into her hands. Thinking of that moment still stings my eyes. I thought then, as I do now, the simple question: How?  How can you possibly say goodbye to someone like that, someone you spent so much time with? My grandparents were married for 59 years. How is it possible?  I know the platitudes ‘One day at a time’ and ‘You do what you have to do’, but I truly have no understanding of how.  In the moments as my grandmother held that flag in her lap and watched his casket descend into the earth, I can’t imagine she knew either.

As I sent off my sympathy card, I thought of these two stories, and the small lessons they taught me about loss.  No one really understands, there are no magic words, but there is empathy.

What it sounds like

I didn’t notice how quiet winter was until spring came along. Last night, I fell asleep to birds chirping, and this morning, I woke up to more of the same. Since the frenzy of our wedding came and went in October, a funny sort of quiet has settled over our lives. It is the quiet of two quiet people smiling at each other over steaming cups of tea. It is the quiet of a sleepy dog curled up in a pool of light beneath the window and the quiet of a corner apartment at the end of the street.

It is the quiet of working hard, mostly, or of searching and watching and waiting for work. You can count on the gentle clacking of keyboard keys and the clicking of mice at any point during the daylight hours. Sometimes the hum of the dishwasher or the rumble of the dryer kicks in with a sort of baseline, offering signs of domesticity.

It is the quiet of staying in on Saturday nights for any number of reasons, the foremost of which is that we like each other’s quiet company. It is the quiet of a few plants nearly dying every few weeks and then graciously coming back to life when I remember to water them. Much to my surprise, a certain hand-me-down orchid has been quietly sprouting tendrils right and left despite my careful neglect.

It’s the sort of quiet I’ve always wished for, and it’s even more lovely than I’d imagined. I grew up in a tiny, noisy house where the TV was always on and voices were always raised. I wanted nothing more than to shut out the constant tumult of lives lived stubbornly, passionately, and loudly, but the sounds always seeped in through the crack under my bedroom door and boomeranged off the walls. I hoped very much that one day, I would trade in all that noise for a quiet place to read and rest, to love and be loved. I might have even been convinced, until last weekend, that keeping quiet is the surest path to a life well lived.

But when we arrived in Baltimore last weekend for the wedding of friends, I was bowled over by the raucous, brilliant sound of joy. The singing and dancing and stomping and toasting and clapping and whooping and laughing kicked off on Friday night and didn’t stop until the lively mass of revelers reluctantly dispersed toward sundown on Sunday. I may or may not have enjoyed the expert plucking of both harp and ukulele strings in the very same weekend. And I can’t say I’ve ever witnessed so many blessings shouted from the tops of tables and chairs and anything else that would help the sound carry. I was exhausted as we drove away, but I left with a full heart and a certainty that love can, and should, be lived loudly too.

Lessons from My Dad

In 1950-something in Alabama, my grandmother gave birth to her second child.  Exactly thirty years and three months later in a town in Tennessee, that son, now grown and married, became a father to the most adorable baby ever born: Me.  This week is my dad’s birthday, and as I can think of only one other person (that would be my mom) who has helped me ‘Make My Way’ as much as he has, it seemed appropriate to dedicate this column to some lessons he taught me.

Ask Questions.  My dad is a scientist, so it’s probably no surprise that he encouraged questions.  Of course he also encouraged me to find the answers myself, like when I got a flat tire the first time and he suggested I read my car manual to learn how to fix it.  My dad taught me that knowing how things work was the key to fixing them.  As a kid I dissected telephones, radios, and once a camera---I think, all with my dad's permission. Our house always had a dictionary, at least one set of encyclopedias, and for many years was also home to Mona---a life size paper cut-out showing the bone and muscle systems of the human body.  Mona hung on our living room wall. It may seem odd, but Mona was just a part of the bigger picture. Education and knowledge were always prized.  In college when I finally declared my major as Art History, my dad never asked what I thought I was going to do with my degree or what the ‘real world’ applications might be. I could have studied business or communications or something else that might be more marketable, but I grew up believing that knowledge was the end goal, not a job title, so I chose to spend four years studying something I enjoyed and found interesting.  He never questioned it, and I never regretted it. Knowledge for Knowledge’s sake, my dad taught me that.

Carry an extra $20.  Growing up, if I was going out with friends to a movie or the mall, my dad always made sure I had a little more cash than what I thought I would need.  Just take it, just in case, he would say. You never know when you’re going to need $20. There were bigger financial lessons, but I think most of those stuck better on my little sister, at least so far, there’s still time for me. The other lesson in the $20 though is generosity. As an adult, there have been times I’ve gone to my parents to borrow money. It’s not a particularly grown-up thing to do, and if they had a different attitude about it I might be a little ashamed.  But I’m not, because we’re all here to help each other. Someday I might have a little extra in the bank and lend it to someone else who needs a hand, and when I do, I’ll adopt my father’s attitude: I have it, you need it, it’s fine. Both of my parents are generous with their time and their money. They give to charity and to causes they believe in. That spirit is the reason my sister and donate to NPR, just like our dad.

Have Fun. My dad used to toss me into the air when I was a toddler. Apparently it was great fun; scared the daylights out of my mom though. He’s the person I probably get my wit and sense of humor from. Both of my parents are hilarious, but my dad’s humor is more of a smart biting wit, like mine, while my mother’s is a gentler, kinder joke. He also has a loud laugh. Something I’m sure I picked up along the way. We’re not the folks who will chuckle quietly; we’re more of the L-O-L type. Beyond laughing, my dad taught me to have fun and do things that are interesting to me. Whether in work or at home, there’s no point in being bored. That’s a lesson that has influenced my adult life in profound ways and lead to great joy. I don’t particularly care what my job title is or if I have a fancy office. My life is what matters, as is my joy. If I’m having fun, then great, but if I’m not, then it’s time to move on, my dad taught me that.

Try New Things.  When I was about 9 or 10 my family went to Disney World. At an evening dinner my dad asked if I wanted to try his dinner, I asked what it was and after hearing a bland answer (Pasta), took a bite. But it didn't taste like normal pasta, so I asked again. Pasta with Calamari my dad told me. When kid-me finally figured out that calamari was a fancy word for squid, I was less than thrilled. But I tried it. And I'm still telling the story 20 years later. New experiences lead to great stories. My dad is a great story teller, even if he's telling embarrassing stories about me (like the time I tried to crawl through a rocking chair and got stuck), you can't help but listen and laugh along. Sometimes you have to lean in and go for it without knowing what the outcome will be. Even if its totally gross, chances are you'll still have a story to tell.

Take Care of those Around You. My dad is kind of a rock. He takes care of everyone in our family. When I came back from Bangladesh suddenly, and barely knew which way was up after 48+hrs of travel, I went home to my parent’s house. Both my parents gave me big hugs while I cried, my dad then gave me some chocolate and poured my wine into a plastic glass because I was afraid I’d “drop it and then step on the glass shards and die, because that’s the kind of day I’ve been having”. In a dramatic moment like that, it’s the little things, like wine in a plastic glass, that start to make it ok. My dad may be the most responsible person I know. Whether he’s answering questions about a weird sound someone’s car is making or doing my grandmother’s taxes, he's always a rock. I aspire to be that solid, where other’s know without question that they can count on me and I’ll step up without pause, just like my dad. 

There are many more lessons: Don’t ever decide what you want to be when you grow up; be open to change; create things; never stop learning; you can do anything you want if you set your mind to it, and more.  I could never write them all out.  So I’ll close by saying happy birthday to the guy who gave me my first stereo, let me stay up past my bedtime as long as I was reading, and, as he walked me down the aisle on my wedding day, said ‘Take your time. We’ve got all the time in the world’.

Love you, Kid 1

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talk to Me

I know that plenty of people talk to their mothers, at best, once a week, or even---and I start to stutter here---every few weeks. Now, I’m not passing any judgments, but this just did not fly with my mom. I remember her informing me years ago, as I was going through, shall we say, an “independent phase,” that she had talked to her mom every single day as an adult.  I thought of this often, on those week nights after a late dinner with my husband, when all I wanted to do was zone out to an awful episode of Gossip Girl. There were nights when Chuck Bass won out, but most nights I picked up the phone for a quick call. I woke her often, as she snoozed on the couch, my dad watching one of his endless sporting events or crime scene shows beside her. Sometimes our calls were brief---literally a hi and a bye---but on other nights, we talked and laughed until my husband's eye-rolling became impossible to ignore. I told her what I had made for dinner that night, we talked about my upcoming trips home to Rochester repeatedly, she asked about my husband and friends. There was not much we didn’t cover during those calls. The last time I talked to my mom was on February 13, 2012. It was late, and I remember the fleeting thought: I’ll just call her tomorrow. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to myself. I told her about the lamb chops I was making for Valentine’s Day dinner the following night, and I asked if she and my dad had any special plans. I distinctly remember her laugh in response.

I sat in the hospital just days after that phone call, while my mom lay in a coma next to me, incredulous that I couldn’t talk to her about it all. And last week, as we marked the 1 year anniversary of my mom’s death, I kept returning to the impossibility of not talking to her in a year. I think sometimes of those nights I didn’t call her, of the times I was too busy, or too tired, or just didn’t prioritize it, and wish for a do-over. I know exactly what I would say.

I would tell her, first and foremost, about the babies. I would update her on my nephew, about how he makes us laugh, about how naughty he can be, about how---even though he still sucks his thumb and takes his blanket everywhere---he’s no longer a baby. I would tell her that he points to the picture of her in his room, knowing that it’s Mimi. I would tell her about my niece, who is the spitting image of my mom at that age; about how beautiful she is, but how touch and go those first few months were for my sister and brother-in-law, what with a colicky newborn and an active 2 year-old. I would laugh, telling my mom that despite our best efforts to help my sister and her brood, we don’t come close to filling her shoes. I would tell her that “Mimi’s pool” is still Rachaels favorite, and about all the new babies who have joined our family---extended or otherwise---in the last year.

I would fill 3 days of conversation, telling her about the meaningless details of my life that no one but she ever really cared about.  About the new car my husband and I bought this past summer---and how I sat at the dealership with tears in my eyes as we traded in our old model, realizing once again that I couldn’t share my news with her; about the bed frame I’ve had my eye on at Pottery Barn and the new rug that looked great online, but sheds incessantly; about the movies I’ve seen and the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy; about new recipes I’ve tried and plants I’ve killed.

I would complain about every little annoyance from the past year. I would wait for her to tell me to shut up, and then complain some more.

I would tell her about the recent stresses of my job---a new manager and lots of travel---but how I really, really like what I do. I would also tell her of my husband’s new job, how his hard work has finally started to pay off. I know how proud she would be of us both.

I would tell her that I’m experimenting with acupuncture and a gluten-free diet, all the while expecting an immediate, gut-busting laugh and an exclamation of, “Are you nuts?!”

I would tell her that she was right about most things, but especially about how much we would miss her when she was gone.

And, finally, I would reassure her, that despite the heartache and the tears, that we were all ok. I would tell her that this is going to be the year of more laughs than tears, of my sister’s wedding, and maybe, even, more babies.

I don't quite know what I believe when it comes to life and death, but I suppose she might already know all of this. We're taking her with us on our new adventures, after all. But, my god, how I miss our talks.

 

Of Road Trips and Adulthood

From the passenger's side, I feed my handsome driver PB&J in bite-sized pieces as we sail along at 70 miles-per-hour from Atlanta to Baltimore. For my own part, I am a nervous and inexperienced highway driver. I am slightly more useful as a navigator and even more so as a DJ. We are on our way to the wedding of friends, and by the time you read this, we'll be on our way back from the whirlwind weekend. The excitement of these impending nuptials finally dawns on me when we get on the road, so I spend the first bit of the drive giving my companion a rundown of the schedule of festivities and the many people he will meet. He is a captive audience.

I run through the list of college classmates and friends from Boston and then brush off the rest with a wave of my hand. "Those are all the people our age. I can't tell you much about the grown-ups."

I am caught off-guard by the absurdity of my statement and add the caveat that perhaps we technically qualify as grown-ups too.

In one of Joy the Baker's recent posts, she lists off some of the commonly perceived barometers of adulthood: getting married, having kids, doing your own taxes. Of course, as she explains, none of these are particularly useful or accurate benchmarks of adulthood. They are significant milestones, certainly, if they happen to occur in one's life, but they don't have much to do with the definition of "grown-up."

I'm not sure there's a definition, really, or a destination we're trying to reach. As we count off the last few exits before our stop, I figure this whole marriage thing and the being-grown-up thing has a lot more to do with the journey than with the arrival. This may seem obvious, but it's not necessarily what I had expected. I used to imagine adulthood as a very serious state of being, in which you feel like you have some level of control over your life and then work really hard to maintain it.

Thankfully, this stage of life that I looked forward to for so long is a lot more fun, if also much more chaotic and unpredictable, than I ever let myself imagine. It is a series of small rituals and choreographies, punctuated occasionally by surprises, for better or worse. Some things are hard, but also funny. Some things are just hard, and the rest is just funny.

It helps to have a kind companion to cry and to laugh with as we sail along. I'm more grateful each day to be on this road together.

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.

Making Home

Our place is unfinished in a lot of ways. There’s the bed, for one thing, which, while perfectly cozy, is mostly just a mattress on a bare frame. Headboard, footboard, dust ruffle, duvet—who knew a bed would require so many different components in order to look like a real bed? The “decor” is simply a miscellaneous collection of our most essential and favorite possessions. The only common thread among the artwork on our walls is that most of it belonged to someone else before us.

Still, it hit me the other day that it really feels like home. Before we moved here last summer and made our little nest, I couldn’t have pinned down much about what “home” means, exactly, but I was certain it was possible and that we’d figure out a definition for ourselves, together.

I can’t say I ever really felt at home in the tiny house in the tiny town where I grew up. I used to think it was about finding something bigger one day—a bigger house or a bigger city or that feeling of being a part of “something big.”

In college, I felt like I was getting warmer. I felt more at home living with an endless selection of books at my disposal and among the kind and curious friends I grew to love so much. There’s something about an extra-long twin bed, though, that screams “temporary,” and even the greatest cafeteria on earth would be a far cry from a simple home kitchen.

As a desperate graduate student, I filled up pinboards with dreamy photos of whitewashed interiors, perfectly rumpled sheets, and artfully arranged craspedia. I felt buried beneath an impossible workload, and I directed a significant proportion of my frustration toward my hand-me-down Ikea furniture, drafty windows, and the beat-up wood floor I rarely swept. My space looked exactly the way I felt—wrecked.

You could learn a lot about us by poking around this little apartment we now call home. Considering the onion peels on the counter and the selection of knives in various states of sharpness, you could tell that we cook here, often. From the worn tabletop, you could tell that we eat here, and from the number of placemats, you could figure we are two.

From the state of the carpet, you could assume that a furry black pup lives here, but she’d make up for that by greeting you at the door and inviting you to rub her belly. You could tell, from the percentage of square footage devoted to bookshelves, that we like books, and from the condition of those books, that we read them too.

I am learning that home has a little bit to do with the things you put in your space and the things you keep out. But I think it has a lot more to do with intention. We care for each other in this space, and by extension, we care for our space too. We live here on purpose, and we are very protective of the cozy factor. This is why we once turned down a very lovely television but could never have too many teapots.