A Love Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The 88 Cent Tote Bag

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I am getting married in a few weeks, and my partner and I are trying to find something to give to people as favors, their prize for coming to our wedding. Our budget is approximately one dollar per person, which rules out the fancy vegan chocolates, the tiny succulents in little tin pails, and pretty much most things I’d want to buy or they’d want to own.

I finally came up with the idea of buying cheap blank tote bags and block printing an image on them. I knew how we would present them, rolled up and tied with twine and a little tag that would say “Thank you for coming.” I could picture their future lives, like so many given-away kittens, hanging out in pantries, in the kitchen, at picnics.

I searched the internet, ruthlessly turning down totes that cost $1.86, or $2.35, and finally found some for under a dollar. I started the purchasing process and got to the part where it totalled the shipping costs: $26.45. “Well I bet I can find a coupon for that!” I thought, proud of my thrifty nature, and opened a new tab to search for coupon codes. I found a couple of dead links, and a few wedding boards featuring former brides complaining about the low quality of the tote bags from this particular site. I looked at one woman’s sad photo comparing the actual quality of the bag she received with the image on the website, and I started to freak out.

This tote bag was almost certainly made by someone working in a sweatshop, I realized. Which is obvious, given that it costs 88 cents, but which I’d been avoiding until that moment. If I’m not willing to pay a fair price, who do I expect to make up the difference? The employer? The government?

The cognitive dissonance between my vision of sweet, hand-printed gifts lovingly tied in twine and the reality of the product I was about to buy made me feel dizzy. I want to give people something I made, but who made this tote bag? And how many other tote bags did they make that day, and how were they paid for it, and what was the ventilation like? What is their name and what is their life like and what were they thinking when they made it? One thing is for sure, they were not thinking about me or the guests at my wedding. Suddenly this "personal" gift started to seem extremely impersonal, and probably immoral.

I realize that it is somewhat ridiculous to fixate on the tote bags, when I have no idea where most of the things I purchase, for the wedding or otherwise, were made—or rather, I do have an idea, and I’m pretty sure it wasn’t in an intergenerational feminist craft collective made up of my friends and loved ones.

Sometimes I buy things that cost $1 because they’re a good deal even though they smell like plastic and sadness, and sometimes I buy locally-sourced, organic things for too much money. Either way I hate myself a little bit.

In my dream world, we would all make most of what we use, either buying or making the materials to do so. If we wanted to buy something, it would be for a fair price, and it would be because that thing was special or beautiful, not because we didn’t feel like taking the time to make it ourselves. Things wouldn’t be cheaper to throw away than to repair. We would value the time and labor it takes to make something.

I realize that I could make my life more like this if I tried. Instead, I live in a city and buy cheap crap quite regularly.  I am often extremely happy to walk down the street eating a 99 cent popsicle with 35 ingredients.

But aren’t weddings about trying to live out our romantic fantasies of how could be? Isn’t that the point of saying the nice words and wearing the special outfits and getting everyone you love together in one place? Some fantasies include riding in a limo and wearing a diamond ring. My fantasy includes not buying 88 cent tote bags. I know that I can figure something out that will be just as cheap but that won't make me freak out. For better or for worse, I'm going to live the tote-less dream.  

Dream vs. Reality

Dream vs Reality

By Erin R. Van Genderen I turned twenty-three in June, and in no such way did I ever imagine my life to have turned out the way it has.

When I was younger, I pictured my adult life as a whirlwind of jet-setting, cosmopolitan adventures. I would graduate from college at the top of my class and move somewhere new to work a prestigious job or get a doctorate and teach upper-lever literature theory. I would be professional, impressive, independent, a bombshell. I would make my own life for myself and escape the stigma of my small-town upbringing. Eventually, I’d find someone and settle down, but only after I accomplished everything I wanted to do and worked the wandering out of my bones. I would probably be Thirty.

Move into reality, where I’m newly married to a military man and the name of our game is impermanence. In our current assignment, I’m a stay-at-home wife with a few little jobs on the side, looking forward to a more permanent station where I can pursue a couple of Master’s degrees I have my eye on. As external self-worth goes, I have very little---there is no boss to praise me, no co-workers to compete with, no promotions or raises for which to struggle---and so I’ve learn to give my own self a pat on the back when I get all of the laundry finished or meet a deadline.

And although the first scenario certainly sounds glittering, I’m happier than I could have ever dreamed with the second.

Chalk it up to the honeymoon phase if you will, but I like to think that the life I live now is so much richer because it’s taking me in directions I could have never traveled by my own volition. As a planner and perfectionist, I’m constantly stretched by the nature of my husband’s job. We don’t know where we could be going next---overseas? D.C.?---but I have to be ready to adapt at a moment’s notice. We uproot and move on every few years, leaving behind little homes and orphaned potted plants, but the excitement of a new place is always just ahead.

It is hard. Sometimes it is sad. But this lifestyle is already exhilarating.

And that’s a lot of what marriage is, I’m finding---many of those everyday details transform into something thrilling, and many of the fluttery moments become the mundane. It is an adaptive state, never one of stasis, just as we are adaptive creatures.

The realities we dream up for ourselves are a little bit short of what we should really be expecting. But what a pleasant surprise it is when, if we are adaptive, we have the forethought to reach out and grab the good things flying by and hold on tight, leading us on to a brighter adventure than the one we had stashed away for the future.

There are so many different kinds of us

we are all people copy

By Layla Guest The tiniest Cambodian woman I’ve ever seen rang me up for two magazines and a bottle of water at I Love LA, the news and gift shop in LAX’s terminal 2. She smiled so wide at me, taking her time as she looked at both my debit card and my ID, “Lie-la. No, Kayla. No, Lie-la. Yes, that’s you. Lie-la.”

She hummed as she carefully checked and re-checked my purchase total before punching it into the credit card machine. One nod for each button pressed correctly. A giggle and a double wink when she pressed the wrong button. “Oh oh oh, that’s not the one.” She handed me my items one at a time. “Always be beautiful. Always be strong. Stay smiling and you will be wise. You are very brave. Stay beautiful.”

There’s a great scene in Up in the Air when George Clooney is describing which line to get in at airport security, “never get behind families with children.” I boarded my flight behind a young mother with her two children who had stopped to tie shoelaces, pull up pants and rearrange pony-tail holders. I passed them on the jet way and walked towards our plane.

From behind I heard, “excuse me, um, can I cut you?” I turned around. Nothing. Then I looked down. From a clear face with a half-toothless grin, “um, I just stopped to tie my shoe. I was in front of you. Can I cut you? Well, me and my sister and my mom. Can we cut you?” His mother rolled her eyes and took in a breath that signaled yet another impatient, “LUUUUUKE!” I said, “of course, it’s only fair.” He looked at me like I had just let him skip to the front of the line at Splash Mountain. In disbelief, he marched forward, head high.

We de-planed in Minneapolis/St. Paul to stretch our legs before boarding the exact same plane bound for Boston. Jordan, my partner, and I overheard a woman we had our eye on earlier. A man had been in her husband’s seat in LA when they boarded. The man seemed to have a pretty reasonable thought process behind wanting (needing) the window seat. In the window seat, he could sit slightly sideways, leaning against the plane to keep his frame from spilling over into the seat next to him. The couple, showing no patience, demanded he move out of the window seat to the aisle. I eavesdropped as the embarrassed passenger said, “I asked for a window seat, it’s best if I sit there. I’ll fit better that way. Do you have a window anywhere? I don’t want to be a burden. I asked for a window.”

The flight attendant said no, only in the emergency exit row, which is exactly where Jordan and I were sitting, with a roomy window seat directly to our left. He looked at it and us longingly. Jordan said, “just give him the damn seat.”

On this plane, we had to pay extra for the extra legroom, so it was not a seat that could just be given away, apparently. The gentleman proceeded to stuff himself into the aisle seat next to the impatient couple. “Can you just buckle the belt, sir?” “Yes, I’m not an imbecile.”

After the impatient woman recounted the story to a flight attendant at the gate she complained that people as fat as the man she was sitting next to should not be allowed to fly in a regular seat. “Isn’t there a way you can ask everyone how fat they are when they buy seats? We shouldn’t be subjected to his issues.” The flight attendant said simply, “Ma’am, he’s just a man.”

Yesterday was a big day. The Supreme Court’s rulings on DOMA and Proposition 8 make me incredibly hopeful. Hopeful that we are moving forward as global citizens---in understanding that, as evidenced in today’s interactions in and around the airport, there are so many different kinds of us. Us, being humans. We are old, young, unconditionally altruistic, innately cruel, deeply profound, struggling to get through our days, always searching for reciprocity. While some will consider yesterday’s rulings as a step back, an inconvenience and wrong, there are spirits that shine bright, like my sagely airport cashier, reminding us to be wise and stay brave.

Slippery words of another tongue

eternally nostalgic

Every so often an article catalogues untranslatable words from around the world. For example, as this Matador Network piece tells me, mamihlapinatapei means "the wordless, yet meaningful look shared by two people who desire to initiate something but are both reluctant to start" in Yagan, an indigenous language of the Tierra del Fuego. According to the same article, the word 'tartle' in Scottish refers to "the act of hesitating when introducing someone because you have forgotten their name." And then there is my personal favorite: saudade. Not quite nostalgia, not quite longing or yearning, not a blend of both. There is more to saudade---and perhaps its magical grip lies in that untranslatable space the other words do not quite capture. I grew up in a word-loving family, with Greek as my mother tongue. Tallying up the score of Scrabble games with my father exposed me to double-digit addition and to the perennial "is that a word?" any game of Scrabble inspires. Studying for the SATs as part of the process of admission to an English-speaking university in the United States exposed me to a whole other family of potential Scrabble words. While I excelled at the questions that required knowledge of words with a Greek root, I struggled with the ones that required test-takers to pair an animal and their young. What do you call a young lamb in English? What do you call many doves flying together? The kind of knowledge that one acquires in her childhood when English is her native tongue was foreign to me. And so at the age of 16, I scribbled on flashcards: "An ewe is a baby lamb." "A calf is a baby cow." "A constitution is a group of doves, a pride is a group of lions, a pack is a group of wolves."

The realization of my own English fluency sank in when I began to dream in English, when the English words started seeping into my subconscious, displacing the Greek ones. When I started learning Spanish, or German, or even fledgling Arabic and Hebrew, I noticed that there came a moment when the precious few words I had mustered would find their way into my dreams---or, indeed, my nightmares, as that one night in Bogotá when I dreamed that I could no longer speak a word of Spanish in front of a room of 750 ex-combatants would attest to. I still maintain my connection to my mother tongue and actively try to cultivate it, even when there are few people with whom I can speak Greek in my daily life at present. I read the Greek news, and I return to my favorite book of Greek poetry by Odysseas Elytis when I am homesick for Greece or hunting for inspiration. And still---I can feel the words slipping away as soon as the language of my dreams shifts away from Greek.

It is not just the words that slip; it is also the fundamental functionalities. For a long time, I spoke 'professional Spanish.' You could ask me to lead a conflict management training and I would produce polysyllables comfortably. Put me in a bar surrounded by Spanish speakers and I would be effectively mute. The casual rhythms of a language often lag for me. I long for familiarity with those words that break the stiffness. When I aspire to fluency in another language, I hope for those words of wit and smiles, the teasing words or casual words you only learn by living somewhere and listening closely for motifs and idioms. The more of those I accumulate in a language other than my mother tongue, be it in English or in Spanish or otherwise, the more the informal Greek slips away from me. Put me in a bar in the Greece of 2013 and I would struggle with not having the ease of conversing naturally like a young person who knows she can find the word that best describes what she wants to express---the perfect word for saudade or mamihlapinatapei.

When I first arrived in the United States as a college student, I felt the impact of words in Greek. "I'm sorry" was a concept I understood by relating it to its Greek iteration: συγνώμη. "I love you" was Σ' αγαπώ. It was as though I experienced the full weight of those words only if I uttered them in my mother tongue. "I love you" did not feel intimidating in the way that saying 'Σ' αγαπώ' for the first time did---because I associated the nerves of young, unuttered love with Σ' αγαπώ and not with "I love you." Saying 'I love you' in English initially felt like performing in that way that speaking a second language often does, thus robbing the words of their full power which only existed in Greek in my mind at the time. After living in Guatemala and Colombia, I became conscious of the many linguistic iterations of "I love you", of the difference between Te deseo and Te quiero and Te amo. Despite the beauty and benefits of multi-lingualism, I never quite want the impact of αγάπη to fade---I never want the Greek iteration of words to feel more foreign or distant to me than the English word 'love.'

Every time I arrive at a new country for my job, there are words I am immediately curious to learn how to say. Empathy is one such concept, as are the words that express gratitude or respect or compassion. English is the default language in which I think now; every new word learned in a foreign language gets translated in my head to English before it's fully comprehended. And much as I celebrate fluency and linguistic curiosity, a little part of me grieves for the Greek words that quietly slip away.

*If you have a moment, look up my favorite untranslatable Greek word: filotimo -- φιλότιμο, as telling of my mother tongue as it is of my people.

xxxxi. provence

postcards from france

My family takes a bus from Aix to Cassis, a small beach town not far from Aix. While my parents wander the streets and visit shops, my sister and I lay out our towels on the pebbly beach and soak in the Mediterranean sun with all the other bronzed bathers. I sit up, my arms wrapped around my knees, and stare out over the sea, imagining the Greeks who originally colonized this place looking at the same view thousands of years ago. It probably hasn’t changed very much since then.

Even though it’s June, the water is still freezing but I decide to go in anyway. I let the waves lap up to my waist, the goose flesh spreading over my skin, and then wade back out. I just wanted to touch the sea. I come back to Cassis almost three years later with my language partner from ACCP, a shy boy named Luc, whose English is nowhere near as good as my French. It is night and we are going to have dinner along the small marina and practice speaking to each other.

I still feel that same urge to touch the ancient Mediterranean water, to feel its history on my skin. And here I’ve come, just now, with ships and crew, I silently recite as I walk down to the shore to skim my palm over the lapping tide. I am Athena, Book One, lines 211 through 212, sailing the wine-dark sea to foreign ports of call. 

The Volume of Silence

In 2010 Marina Ambrovonic had a retrospective show at MoMa, as part of the retrospective she performed a new piece: The Artist is Present.  I don’t know why I was unaware of this show while it was occurring, but I only recently heard about it.  The Artist is Present invited attendees to sit across from Marina in the gallery and share a moment of silence.  Just sitting in silence.  The piece spawned facebook groups and blogs devoted to photos of the participants.  People smiled, people cried, people looked confused.  Marina was serene.  She was present.  It’s amazing and beautiful even to read about.

I wrote my final paper in my Modern Art class on one of Marina’s performance pieces.  I can’t honestly remember which one anymore, it was second semester of my senior year and I was more focused on my thesis than any other papers. But I remember parts of the research; I remember reading about her previous pieces, notably walking across the Great Wall of China to break up with her longtime boyfriend.  Marina and Ulay were/are both artists, they performed and worked together during the 70s and by all accounts were a passionate pair. When the relationship was no longer working, they decided to set off on a journey: they each started at a different end of The Great Wall and started walking.  In the middle the met, hugged, and said goodbye. The second half of the walk was the start of the next Journey.  After that moment in the middle of China, the said goodbye and didn’t make contact with the other again.  Until Marina’s retrospective, when Ulay came to participate in The Artist is Present.

This is one of the most beautiful, most touching things I have seen. It brings tears to my eyes every time I watch.  I’ve changed my desktop background to a still shot, to remind me.  Remind me of the beauty of passion and the importance of the journey.  Remind me to look into someone’s eye, to try to truly see. Remind me of the volume and multitude of things that can be expressed without speaking a word. It touches my heart.

 

xxxx. paris

postcards from france

I first lay eyes on the Eiffel Tower, that eternal symbol of France, in the summer when I am 15 years old. I haven’t even had my first kiss yet, but I am filled with romantic visions of Paris — ones that I’ve carefully cultivated during repeated viewings of Amélie and Before Midnight.

On a hot afternoon train back from Versailles, I quietly watch as a French girl a few rows in front of me is approached by a cute Spanish boy, both about my age if not a few years older. Their common language is English, so I listen as she points out places to go on a folded, faded paper map of the city that he’s pulled out of his pocket. Before their separate stops in the city, she writes her phone number somewhere around the sixth arrondissement. He flashes a heartbreaking smile back at her as he steps off the train.

If only I’d sat in that seat, I scowl.

For a long time, I think of travel in this way — a matter of happenstance and luck where something magical might happen only if I’m in the right place at the right time. To a certain extent, I still think this is true. But the most magical things I’ve experienced so far have happened when I make them happen — when I uncross my arms, get up, and move a few rows over.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading samantha

Samantha Marie Bohnert enjoys the snow, words, adventures, writing letters and finding something new to dream of daily. She has been a writer since she could put pen (or pencil) to paper, and is inspired by many things, from the way the light hits her toes in the morning to the sounds of her surroundings. She lives in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio; a city that has kept her heart safe and follows her wherever she goes. Her love for coveting what is beautiful—and sharing that beauty with those around her—brings her happiness, always. The other day I was at my father’s pool, and I handed him a library book­–the standard, crinkly plastic-covered kind that smells like books from decades past­­–and after barely looking at it, he asked, “Do you still read?” Now, to any innocent bystander, a question like that would imply that not only did I used to read, but that I had also forsaken it long ago. But I knew the true meaning behind his inquiry: he wanted to know if I read with the same ferocity, dedication, and irreverence to my surroundings as I did in my youth. I was never a social child, and one would assume I lacked a nose because it was buried amongst pages during all waking hours. This was the girl my father knew well; a girl who preferred the company of fabricated strangers, and who could tune out any cacophonous setting. But that behavior is now a faint memory, as is my ability to regain that type of unwavering focus.

No one would suspect a lack of reading in my life; I have two bookshelves packed to the brim in my home, and I recently checked out five books from the library. But I have a terrible secret . . . that aforementioned book my dad shied away from? I haven’t even cracked it open. And one of those bookshelves is reserved exclusively for authors whose words I have never read. Please accept my apology Dostoevsky, Eugenides, Rushdie, but not Proust; I am saving the first volume of In Search of Lost Time (Remembrance of Things Past) for my own, personal column: “What Are you NOT Reading, Probably Ever.” From what I’ve gathered the work is every avid reader’s kryptonite, mocking him or her from the bedside table. I’ll get there when I get there, okay? I have even dedicated a special section of my blog to that ominous bookshelf called “Shelf Life.” And before you ask, no I haven’t finished the book mentioned there, either. But I digress. I am not some hoarder collecting books uncontrollably. My intentions are pure and true, but if I am being completely honest with myself, I buy books and wear out my library card because that is what happens when you love something so deeply. You immerse yourself in it, let it envelope you, let it overtake whole areas of your life (and apartment.)

My entire life has been spent coveting words, yet there was a significant and somewhat detrimental lull in the time I spent with my paged companions. I was growing up, exploring other interests (gasp!), and somehow I strayed. The only books I read in my undergraduate program were literature of a certain century, and graduate school was an amalgamation of rhetoricians classic and contemporary. Needless to say, I was pigeonholed. Maybe it was self-inflicted, but that is not important, nor relevant at this time. What is important is that I pushed away that past love of mine for something else, but as my life settles and my mind regains clarity, all I crave is a book that allows for the rest of the world to just…fall away. So I buy and I borrow; I read reviews of any published work that have just one thing about them that grabs my attention. It is a slow process, and I have to tell myself that I am not that wide-eyed girl with a wealth of time and freedom. And I certainly cannot just read anything anymore. I want to read words that move me, that cause a reaction. I once vowed that any book I started I would always finish, no matter how abhorrent. However, there have been certain stories I have read recently that are difficult to stomach. I proceed with trepidation and hope always, always that I will feel what I used to. I think I am getting there through the briefest of moments that occur in between wading through less than desirable writing. So fret not, fellow bibliophiles, and please explore those moments from the past year. Also, thank your lucky stars that I am not writing as my 12-year-old self; at that age I read more than 100 books in a year. Nowadays, I am lucky to get through 100 pages, so my list is much shorter. Enjoy.

L’Etranger (The Stranger) — Albert Camus

The Fifty Year Sword — Mark Z. Danielewski

Hannah Coulter — Wendell Berry

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — Dave Eggers

A Map of Tulsa — Benjamin Lytal

On Beauty — Zadie Smith

Currently, I am reading Whole, a non-fiction work by Dr. T. Colin Campbell, and in a bold, yet silly move, I am simultaneously working my way through The Beautiful and Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Check in with me in a few months, where you will probably witness me crying amidst a circle of unread books. Like a champ.

Lessons from the workplace...(part two)

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, Last week, I started to think about the lessons and wisdoms that I have learned over the years from my mentors and colleagues when it comes to work and the workplace.  But soon I was also thinking of lessons I learned more broadly there as well.  These have served me well as I moved from one workplace to the next, and I have applied many of these same lessons from my work life to my non-work life:

  • People need to know what you’re about in 30 seconds or less: Be efficient.  Know yourself.  Know what you want.  Be able to communicate that to others.  I know it sounds simple, yet it is amazing how many people don’t know how to do it.  Sometimes when we spend a lot of time thinking to ourselves, we forget that others don’t necessarily know what we’re thinking unless we tell them.  And they’re likely not going to take a lot of time to hear us out---practice giving your “pitch”, that way it will be perfect when it matters.
  • The deal isn’t done unless there is ink on the paper:  This will happen to you.  At work . . . in real estate . . . with your local florist . . . doesn’t matter, it happens all the time.  When we get excited about a project or an offer or a possibility, it’s easy to assume lots of things just by talking about it.  When you’re on the receiving end of an offer, remember that the terms aren’t done and decided until the proverbial ink is dry.  Deals will fall through, offers get rescinded . . . until you are one hundred and ten percent sure and signed, always have a plan B. You’ll be less disappointed in the long run.  And if you’re the one doing the offering, try to keep your descriptions as flexible as possible for as long as possible.  That way, you’ll be disappointing others less in that same long run.
  • Some things will just "go away”: It’s not possible to get to everything that’s asked of us at work (or at home, or at school). Part of learning how to manage what’s on your plate is prioritizing what you know will be important and then taking your very best guess at what is less important.  As you get older and have more experience, that guess will become easier---but you will get it wrong sometimes.  This will result in some mistakes, and definitely in lots of effort as you make up for it, but overall, it should help keep workloads manageable.  Develop your radar for truly important and critical projects and requests that are priorities, and pay less attention to the stuff that will likely “go away”.
  • Check the headlines the morning of: It’s just good practice.  I don’t know if the news will still even be printed on paper by the time you are my age, but in school, in work, before big meetings, check the headlines.  You’ll be surprised how much you reference them because they are relevant or because they help make conversation while you wait for relevant things to start.
  • The best bosses aren’t necessarily the friendliest ones: As you start working , you’ll work for and with a variety of people, and you might not immediately like some of them.  That’s okay.  But there is a difference between liking someone and learning from someone, and in the end, I’ve learned the most from people who sometimes weren’t always the friendliest or the most approachable.  However, by doing good work and building up your credibility over time, you’ll gain access to them and lessons that they can teach from their experience that you will not easily get elsewhere.  Look for bosses and mentors that you can learn from.  Then one day, it will be your responsibility to teach it back to someone else.

All my love,

Mom

 

Even Vera Wang Can't Save Me Now

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm going wedding dress shopping with my mother tomorrow. I didn't really want to go and still feel ambivalent about it. My mother can be a loving, generous, supportive person.  However, her insecurities can easily and unexpectedly be triggered, turning her into the Witch of the West. She can be mean and offensive in the most passive of ways, making it difficult to call her out on it. I fear she'll hurt my feelings at some point and take the joy out of the moment.

I also realized recently that she's not a selfish woman but definitely self-centered: everything is about her. I’m uncomfortable with a lot of attention, and I don't ask for much from others, but I do feel the moment I try on wedding dresses for the first time should be about me.

This all makes me sad because I want a relationship with my mother and I want to share these special moments with her, but I've learned that she's so limited and I don't want to be too disappointed in the end.

I decided to bring a friend along for protection, (so sad that I need this) but I'm not sure it will be enough. And with 13 months left until my wedding, how do I continue to protect myself and set appropriate boundaries, while trying to connect with her through this experience?

Thanks,

The Naked Bride

 

Dear Naked Bride,

This is your homework, for the rest of your engagement: practice saying no.

Start small, with someone who wants you to give them money for some charity you’ve never heard of (“Not today, thanks”), or the person who asks, “can you watch my dog while I go in this store really quick?” (“No, I cannot, sorry”), or your co-worker who wants you to finish their work for them (“I can’t get to it, unfortunately”).  No, no, no, and, guess what?  No.

Then when you need to put up boundaries with people you really do care about, like your mom, you’ll be able to do it with a little more grace, because you have practiced.  It won’t come out in an adolescent rage fit in which you bring up every little way she’s hurt your self esteem since you were six.  You’ll just say, “No, I’m not wearing that hideous doily of a veil that’s been in your family for 6 generations.  I totally get it if that is disappointing to you.  But it’s not going to happen, so let’s talk about something fun we can do together.  What song do you want to dance to with me at the reception?”

It’s really sad, but true, that we have to manage our expectations quite a bit with our parents, once we are adults.  We get to this point where we can see them for who they really are, how far they’ve come, but also what their limitations are.  We want our parents to be superheroes, but they aren’t.  They’re just people.  Who had children.

Weddings are ritual events, and all good ritual is acts as a cauldron that brings out everything in people---all the ways we are transcendent beings striving to love one another in the face of impossible struggles, and all of the little wounds that are still festering, and cause us to react in unflattering ways.  They show us who we can be and also where we still need to work.  Rather than seeing this wedding as one day in which you pledge your love to your partner in front of your loved ones, start seeing it as a whole process of creation---you are actually going to become a different person through bonding yourself to another.

So yes, your mom is probably going to hurt your feelings in this transformation process.  But the ways in which she does will give you so many clues to where you are still growing, what sensitivities your partner can help you with.  The best thing to do, rather than protect yourself from all those barbs she’ll throw at you, is to catch them mid-stream, as they are flying at your face, and inspect them.  Ask yourself, “can I use this?  Can I bring this to my partner and let it draw us closer as we go through this together?  Or do I really just not need this shit right now, and need to say a hearty NO?”  Then decide whether you can take that on right then, and use it in your becoming, or not.  As the time draws nearer to the celebration, you’ll be saying “no” all over the place, as you’ll really have to focus all your energy on fighting your way out of the cocoon.

Weddings and marriage are not the smiling photo shoots we see.  They are deep transformative acts, and they unsit all of the important relationships in our lives, especially the ones with our parents.  In the end, however, hopefully it all helps us fly.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Lessons from the workplace...(part one)

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara, Late nights at the office have had me thinking about work recently.  This year actually marks ten years that I’ve been in the work force, and in many ways I feel like almost no time has passed by at all.  I feel that there is still so much learn, and there are so many jobs I’d like to have before I would feel that I truly have the experience to be considered qualified.  But then, I look at our incoming summer interns, or the candidates that will be starting with firms here in the fall, and I know that to some degree, I’ve also come a long way.  I was that young too at one point, starting out with nerves and anticipation.

With that in mind, I’ve thought of a few things I’ve learned from some of my best mentors along the way---things I definitely didn’t know when I first started:

  • Check, check, and double check: First lesson from my first boss and I still use it today.  Of all the things that we do at work, no matter what the field, when you are new at doing them, or do them a lot, or do them tired, or have others help you do them, the bottom line is that you have to check it . . . check it again . . . and then check it once more.  Just because you “thought” something got done, or got done right, doesn’t mean that it did.  And no matter what the reason, often times you’ll find yourself being the one to explain something that didn’t.  You’ll be tempted to skip these steps, and you’ll regret.  Just check, check, and double check.
  • Don’t turn down a job you haven’t been offered yet: Same job, different boss for this one . . . It can be easy to imagine ourselves doing lots of different things in life---and that’s a good thing.  But it’s also just as easy to picture yourself not doing a lot of things . . . you don’t want to live somewhere . . . the pay wouldn’t be right . . . your skills wouldn’t be right. But you’d be surprised at how much can change between initial conversations and then actual offers.  Don’t limit your own opportunities before someone has had a chance to offer them to you.
  • Always leave the door open: Workplaces and clients and colleagues will come and go.  Sometimes on good terms, and sometimes on ones much less so.  When you’re ending a work relationship, if you have things to get off your chest about how things weren’t how you thought they would be, be sure to think twice.  End the relationship as diplomatically as possible, since the chances that you will work with that person or organization or brand or chain are high, and only getting higher the more interconnected we become.  Don’t let things you say professionally (or personally for that matter) come back to haunt you.
  • You’re not above anything:  One of the best feelings at work is the one you get when you’re promoted.  Not only does it usually mean you a make a bit more, but it’s a huge validation of your efforts.  When that promotion comes, just remember that it doesn’t make you better than others who were passed over, or who haven’t yet had theirs.  A promotion is an earned acknowledgement of your work but it’s not a free pass for all the things you’d rather not do.  Sometimes, the best way  to lead your team is to work right in the trenches with them.  Don’t put yourself above any tasks, since you never know when you’ll have to start from the bottom up again.
  • Will you live to work or work to live? Work is a funny thing . . . you will end up in all likelihood spending more time at work than you do anywhere else, including home.  But work will likely always have trade-offs between you might be passionate about and what the job actually entails.  You’ll have to pick the right balance, but just remember than in addition to finding work a fulfilling way to spend our time, it is also what pays the rent, what puts food on the table, what buys us our leisure and hobbies, and what will do the same for your own children.  At some point, the lifestyle you want will also dictate the work you need to get.

All my love,

Mom

 

A Sibyl Without a Quandary

Asking For It with Sibyl

The last few weeks, my Sibyl inbox has been empty.  I was tempted to conclude, "My work here is done.  Everyone is fixed."  Then, I encountered a whole bunch of pretty flawed and twitchy humans who could use a good Sibylizing.

Therefore, I'm going to provide you all with a little encouragement to write in your quandary to Asking For It, for Sibyl to answer.

Six Reasons You Should Write In to Sibyl:

1.  You haven't got it all figured out.  I know you---you're not even trying to pretend you have it all together.  So write to me about the things you're grappling with, and I'll help you cut through the fog and see it all more clearly.

2. The act of writing out the quandary and sending it in has helped some of my readers find their own answers, simply by sitting with it in that conscious way.  I've received follow-up emails that say, "thank you for your answer to my question---it confirmed what I was thinking, even while I was still writing it to you!"

3. Interactive columns between strangers are pretty rad.  People who don't know each other, offering wisdom and care for no money exchanged is a powerful thing.  Be a part of this random act of artful kindness.

4. We're a dying breed.  Sugar is on hiatus.  In the last few months, we've lost Dear Abby and Dr. Joyce Brothers.  The advice columnist, once called the "agony aunt" colloquially by Brits, is a classic way for women to show up for one other publicly, with the cloak of anonymity protectively in place.

5. Your friends are tired of hearing about this issue you are obsessing about, and you can’t afford more therapy.

6. Don't you have to see your family this summer?  Yeah.  Write to me about that.  Aren't there weddings you need to attend that you feel weird about?  Write it in.  I don't care how long and rambling your letter about your ex may be.  I can take it.  And your story could really resonate with another person, and help them just by hearing that someone else is experiencing that situation, too.

It's a powerful thing, knowing you're not alone in this world.  Sibyl is listening.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading

Erin Riley was born in Los Angeles, spent some time living in Maine and Boston, and currently lives in the Scottsdale, Arizona.  She has four kids—two grown up boys (men, really) and two little girls.  Riley graduated from law school, but doesn’t work as a lawyer.  Her real training is in philosophy, but as everyone knows, the call for professional philosophers has really dropped off in the two hundred years or so.  She recently started a blog, Ordinary Good Fortune, as a forum for her musings about everyday life.  She loves to write—almost as much as she loves to read, which is a lot---and would someday like to achieve the goal outlined in her third grade career day essay and be “the authoress of many, many books and stuff.”  For the time being, she tries to squeeze in some writing between getting her little girls to eat their dinner and clipping money saving coupons.  She’d also like to let everyone know that she is the woman who is married to the best guy in the world. She sincerely hopes everyone else is very happy anyway, though.

Here's the thing you should know about me and books:  I read a lot.

I wasn't always a promiscuous reader.  At first, I was a serial monogamist, a dedicated lover of an author or series of books.  My first serious involvement was at six, when my mom introduced me to Nancy Drew.  This was after a brief, unsatisfying, encounter with the Bobbsey Twins.  I could never really get close to them though, because, honestly, two sets of fraternal twins (one blond, one brunette) solving the candy-coated mysteries they stumbled into at ski lodges and amusement parks?  It seemed pretty far-fetched to me.  I felt like I was being lied to.

So my first true literary love was old-school Nancy, the motherless daughter of a kindly lawyer. She was an independent lass out on her own much of the time in the surprisingly dark underbelly of her idyllic town, River Heights, where there were plenty of diverted inheritances to restore and missing treasures to recover.  Not only did each book keep me going from chapter to chapter (these were the first books I read by night-light glow after I was supposed to have gone to sleep) but the series kept me moving from book to book.  I hungered for the next time I could read Nancy again.  I didn't feel like I was fulfilled until I gone through every volume I could  wheedle my parents into buying.  When Nancy and I were through, I fell for Encyclopedia Brown.

I wasn't satisfied for long though.  I got my own library card and soon, the Mission Viejo main branch was knowingly facilitating my year-long liaison with Agatha Christie.  I met Poirot on the deadly, fast-moving Orient Express, and Miss Marple in a cozy yet dangerous vicarage in the English countryside.  I devoured book after book.  I even read the Tommy and Tuppence stories, mixing it up with the bright young things of London in the 1920's.  By the time the Babysitter's Club and the Sweet Valley High series were luring YA readers in my suburban neighborhood, I was already plowing my way through Harlequin Romances, and I had started to seek fresher, more adult thrills---Stephen King and Nora Roberts and other prolific authors cranking out book after book. Even though they didn't stick with the same characters, I could still be faithful.  I proved my devotion over and over as I moved on to classic literature, having it on with Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters, Edith Wharton, even Henry James, sipping tea in the drawing rooms of country homes and working in the sculleries of forbidding manors and setting off on European Grand Tours with the richest and poorest of relations.  Even when they didn't appear on my summer lists of required reading for high school.

But soon, even though I still went everywhere with a "good" novel tucked into my bag, my head was turned  by the new fiction that flowed freely in the Brat Pack era---Tama Janowitz, Jay McInerney, Brett Easton Ellis---you know the types. I worked in bookstores then, and before I knew it, I was heavily into Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie and Michael Chabon.  I cruised the reviews looking for something  hadn't seen before. Then, I began to really play the field. I read memoirs and literary nonfiction. I did what I hadn't thought possible:  if a book didn't really do it for me, I'd dump it for a new one.  I'd start several books at a time, lead some on and then shelve them for months or callously return them, unfinished, to the library from which I'd borrowed them.   I could still fall in love, of course, drawn in slowly by little details, then driven to stay up all night to feverishly finish a novel, work and kids be damned.  I'd witlessly sleepwalk through the next day just to reach the conclusion of my latest literary conquest.

As real life got more hectic, I found myself inescapably drawn to short stories and essays.  Maybe it's all the time I've spent in college and grad school.  When you always have something you're supposed to be reading, like tort cases or comparisons of the good life according to Plato and Aquinas, free reading is totally cheating on your required material. Reading a short story from a collection now and then is like flirting with that cute guy at the office, where you giggle and twist your hair and enjoy a flushed, provocative moment. It gets you in the mood for some real action with your steady, serious partner. But reading a novel is like having an affair, somehow leading a double life because you become so deeply involved, you neglect your main relationship. These things often end in tears.

So what am I reading now?  Short stories, baby.  And essays.  I still read novels of course, but it's always  the same:  I tell myself I'll go slowly, but I become involved to the exclusion of everything else, staying up late to finish and swearing that I won't do it again---for a while.  But I'm so easily drawn back in.  I just can't help myself.  I'm obsessed by good prose, in whatever form I find it.

A few story collections I'm currently enamored with:  What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank by Nathan Englander;  The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham; You Are Not a Stranger Here by Adam Haslett;  and Vampires in the Lemon Grove and St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, both by Karen Russell.  I've also recently loved Eat, Memory:  Great Writers at the Table: A Collection of Essays from the New York Times, edited by Amanda Hesser; Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford and Where'd You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple.

Right now, I'm in the middle of The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout, Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro and An Uncertain Inheritance: Writers on Caring for Family, edited by Nell Casey.  Yeah, I'm reading all of them at the same time.  Don't judge---like I said, I just can't help myself.

Lessons from Chicago...

lessons for clara

Dearest Clara,

Sometimes when I travel for work, I have that sensation of needing to get outside right then and there.  Often when I travel, the routine involves heading from airport to hotel to office, and then back in reverse again, that it seems like I can go days without fresh air.  It happened to me again most recently in Chicago.  Outside of the huge wall to wall windows in the hotel room, I felt that I had to get some sunshine and fresh air, even if it meant working on my project until late into the evening.

I hopped out and started heading down the street, and came across the boat tours that go up and down the river and out onto the lake.  I bought myself a ticket, catching one of the last available ones for the day and had a just an hour to myself to take in the architecture and the breezes of the city and I realized:

  • Water is our most precious resource: Most of what Chicago grew to be as a city is due to the remarkable possibilities of having both a major river and a major lake.  And it’s that same lake that provides the water that comes right out of every person’s faucet, drinkable at that.  So much of our fortunes are tied to water; when a city is blessed with this kind of resource twice, it’s absolutely our job to take care of it.
  • It’s always colder on the lake: No matter how  the weather of day, you can always find a breeze on Lake Michigan.  On hot days, it’s a welcoming cool down; on cold days, it chills to the bone.  If you’ll be going on the lake, dress for it.  You won’t regret the extra sweater.
  • A good city plan both endures and adapts: As a city, Chicago is fascinating.  But what’s most fascinating is how the city’s plan has expanded and contracted while keeping its core intact as times and needs have changed.  Every city should have a plan, and every plan should do the same.
  • Public art is a public treasure: For some, art means expensive paintings that hang in dark corners of homes and museums.  But Chicago does a fantastic job of putting art “out there”.  Right in the middle of downtown. . .right in the middle of a park. . .right next to the lake.  In Chicago, where you can find people is also where you can find some of the best works of art.  They fit so seamlessly into the cityscape that sometimes we don’t necessarily notice that they were likely a huge investment on the part of the city in order to put them there.  Appreciate the efforts that cities make to keep things interesting and beautiful for the public benefit.
  • Surround yourself with smart people: While on the boat, I was thinking of how different life would have been if I had chosen to go to school there versus elsewhere.  I remember when I visited a noted university there to make my final decision, that it was the first time I realized that I was surrounded by extremely smart people everywhere I looked.   I liked that feeling, and I knew I would be smarter because of it.  I ended up choosing another place for my education, because it was a better fit for the future, but ever since then I have never stopped looking for strong qualities in others to surround myself with.  Other people’s strengths shouldn’t be intimidating, they should be something to learn from.

All my love,

Mom

Meet the Local: Sydney, Australia

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, we meet Ben, a hometown enthusiast who has figured out the key to his happiness.

Meet the Local Sydney

What do you like about the place you live?

A million things.  Sydney is a terrific place.  It’s a very active place mainly because we have such a great climate, even in the winters.  You can always get out and about and be in the sun.  And there’s just tons to do---the bush isn’t far away, and the whole coastline is beach beach beach beach . . . It’s a really active lifestyle.  There are a ton of musical festivals every summer, there are pop up bars left right and center.  I quite like that Sydney is geographically quite disparate as well.  There are little valleys and basins and beachy areas that have different sorts of people so it’s not one flat lump; it’s a really interesting sort of tapestry.

What don’t you like so much?

A current gripe of mine is that Sydney and Australia as a whole is a very, very big nanny state.  There are rules and guidelines for everything.  As an example, I contribute so much money to the council coffers in the form of parking fines and speeding fines---it’s just silly little things.  They’re trying to make you behave a certain way---and it’s a terrific standard of living, don’t get me wrong---but you have to play within the rules.  It gets a bit stifling, a bit claustrophobic.  If you’re not of that mindset, if you’ve experienced different things, if you’ve been to third world countries, you just find it a little annoying.  It feels intensely civilized---a little too civilized, personally, for me.

What do you normally eat for breakfast?

Two pieces of toast with butter on them, and Earl Grey tea.  It used to be coffee, but I’m trying to stick to one coffee per day and I need to get over that 3 PM wall, so that’s my coffee time.

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

I’m called a Community Manager.  I work for a company called Yelp, and as a Community Manager for Yelp I do a couple of things.  I throw parties, I teach people to use the website, I write a newsletter that goes out every week (I particularly enjoy writing, so that part is really appealing to me).  They often refer to it as the unofficial mayor of the city.  You know the places that are opening, you get asked so many times: where’s the best place for tourists, or for dates, or to enjoy a summer’s day, or for a bush walk?

My job is very important to my sense of self.  I used to work in advertising agencies in the corporate world and then I got to the point where I was making ads for a living and I did everything I could outside my work life to avoid ads---I just hated them---so there was that weird disconnect there.  It was really good money, but everyone was polluted, was whinging about not having a life, and working too hard.  It was the same sort of record on repeat.  I’m a natural optimist but I heard myself getting into this really negative mindset.  So I quit my job and was looking for something else, and then Yelp came along.  I really like the idea of setting my own schedule, and try new ideas.  Being able to have that freedom is really nice.  It has a real people power, which is what I was looking for after the corporate world with everyone just chasing money.  There was a lot of talk among my friends at the time going back to when you’re young, when you have to go to school and get good grades.  Why?  To get into university.  And then you have to do well at university---why?  To get a good job.  And then you have to get a good job---why?  To earn money.  And then you’ve got to get promotions---why?  To earn more money.  Money is just the root of all evil.  What we’re doing at the moment, it’s not the antithesis of that, but it’s more about community, being hyper local.

What do you do for fun?

I like being in nature, so I play a ton of sport. Swim and surf and beaches are so close that every weekend I go for a swim.  I really like music; I go to a lot of music festivals.  I read a lot.  I really enjoy writing.

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

I’m trying to buy an apartment in the city right now, which is shockingly difficult.  I think we’re the second most expensive city in the world right now to buy real estate – a half a million gets you nothing.  So I moved back home with my mum to try and save, otherwise it’s just an untenable position to be renting and trying to buy.  So I see my mum a lot.  My twin sister lives in Denver, and my brother lives in London, so we’re quite spread out, but we Skype at least once a week, maybe twice.  And we try to have at least one family holiday a year, where we all meet up in some destination.

 What’s your biggest dream for your life?

I want to keep traveling and I want to write, whether it’s for my own amusement or professionally.  Other than that, it’s fairly simple.  I don’t want to invest in properties or anything like that – I just want a house I can live in and a life in the sun, a family at some point down the track, definitely a dog – a pug – and that’s it.  That’s pretty much it.  And to live somewhere I can be in touch with nature.

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

I really feel an affinity for second and third world countries, where the boundaries are a little bit looser and you can do more things.  You can go shoot a gun in the hills if you want, you can take a car and drive wherever you want, you can camp wherever you want, because the land is free – not everyone owns every single inch of land like they do here.  So somewhere like Mexico or Morocco would be incredible.

 What are you most proud of?

This might sound quite trite, but I’m quite proud of figuring out what makes me happy and adjusting my life to follow those lines.  I’ve figured out that the more simplistic life is, the easier it is to be happy.  If you have worries and stresses and bigger things to look after, you can’t focus and you can’t really get true happiness.  The people that have the least are the happiest.

 How happy would you say you are?  Why?

I’m a massive optimist, I can see the good in anything, so I think I’m probably a nine.  I was probably around a seven before.  The downside of being a natural optimist is that you tend to stay in situations longer than you should because you can always see the good in them, even if they’re crap.

The change happened over the course of a year.  I had a really shitty year a couple of years ago where my dad died.  He’d worked so hard to provide for the family and it was really, really sudden.  He was riding a motorbike in the Himalayas. He was a mild mannered accountant, and he went on this trip of a lifetime and didn’t come back.  That was when I sort of found myself at a crossroads, asking myself if the corporate life was right for me.  My dad was a self-made man, an immigrant from Pakistan.  He came here with nothing and built a whole life up and all of the sudden, things were taken away.  So it sort of gave me a bit of immediacy and made me value my time a bit more.  I realized you can work and be happy at the same time – so that was my epiphany.

Check out previous answers from locals in Lisbon, Sarajevo and London.  Want to participate in Meet the Local or know someone who does?  Email liz@thingsthatmakeus.com for more details.

 

Librarian Love

librarian love

I had an intimate relationship with my librarian as a child.  Now, before you get all sexy secretary on me,  I’m talking about the holding-books-for-me-she-thought-I’d-enjoy, not-telling-my-parents-when-I-check-out-Flowers-in-The-Attic-twice-in-a-row kind of relationship.  The stacks, the stacks, my childhood church, with the librarian as High Priestess, where I spent countless hours literally sticking my nose in books, drinking in the wood and verbena smells like a wine taster with a big sloshing glass of cabernet.

Nearly every day I would ride my bike to the library, run in, plop a stack of torn-through paperbacks on the librarian’s desk, and ask, “What cha got for me next?”  Often she had some held for me, other times she’d sigh and say, “I can’t keep up with you, kid, I got work to do!” all while smiling and pointing me to the fiction section, where I’d invariably pick up the next in Stephen King’s autour, receiving no judgment from said librarian that I was reading horror instead of Little House on the Prairie.

When I got to high school, and found the librarian a wacky, neglected lady, who would draw little aliens on my bathroom pass during Study Hall, and just yearned for someone to take her up on her offer to show them how to properly cite a reference in their term paper.  I started doing my homework in her office instead of at my desk, because she was one of the few faculty members who wasn’t afraid of my teen angst, manifesting itself those days in tangerine hair that fell over my scowling eyes in ways that made most shopkeepers in our suburban enclave follow me around their stores.  But the librarian, an outsider herself for being too quirky and well-read for acceptance at pep rallies and the local Ruby Tuesdays, could care less if I had painted my fingernails black and invited her to the Hatebreed show at the VFW.

When I reached college, I’d realized that a first name basis with a librarian was a shoo-in to your name at the top of the list for reference texts, which I needed desperately because I couldn’t afford to buy all the books on my syllabus.  I showed up with a plant for the librarian and was shortly sitting behind the desk, eating donuts and discussing C.S. Lewis versus J.R.R. Tolkien.  College was the place where I finally found “my people”, and could not consider myself an outcast anymore, in need of a lonely librarian for a friend.  It was then that my librarian relationship shifted from a Fairy Bookmother to a more utilitarian one, based on need for books rather than a place to land.  I started to realize that the reason I loved the library so much as a child was that it was one of the few places it was socially acceptable for a child to be alone in.  Now that I was grown, I had the freedom to go anywhere I wanted by myself, no longer needing the watchful eye of the librarian to guard me from the dangers of life outside the shelves.

These days, as a parent, I rely on the library for a place to take my child on rainy days, singing I’m A Little Tea Pot and exploring their selection of Sendak and Taro Gomi, introducing my child to every librarian we see.  It’s paying off.  My two-year-old recently saw the librarian at the farmer’s market, and it was like she had a celebrity sighting to the magnitude of a tween seeing Justin Beiber at Starbucks — “Look! Look!” she desperately pointed, her face a mixture of shock and delight.  The wizened librarian came over, patted her afro and said, “I’ve got those Charlie and Lola books waiting for you when you come in next.”  And I felt the circular nature of books, calling to me, calling to my daughter, calling to all of us, “come join our world of words!”

The Art of Uncertainty

process_header

Whenever a friend expresses doubt about moving forward with an art project, I tell them that the artist’s job is to feel that doubt and move forward anyway. It is our willingness to deal with uncertainty that makes us contributing members of society. Our job is to feel afraid that what we want to make is stupid or embarrassing and keep going anyway. That is hard work, and somebody has to do it. If we are sure that people are going to like what we make then we are probably doing something wrong—unless it’s a birthday card for our best friend, and then we should feel pretty confident that they’re gonna love it.

It’s easy for me to say all that when I’m talking to a friend who I’ve seen make excellent work in the past. I don’t have to deal with the fear, because I can look away during the process and just wait for the amazing art to come out at the end. But personally, when I feel that sense of uncertainty, a lot of the time I cave. I either quit what I’m working on, or I feel more excited about making something I think will go over well, because it looks like something I’ve seen/made before.

So this weekend I challenged myself to make something just for myself. The rules were that I wasn’t allowed to think, edit, or quit. I just had to draw exactly what came out, and then cut it out. I’ve spent so much time holding myself back and trying to plan out my art so that it will fit into the world—more specifically, my world. I want the art I make to match my personality. I try to be a nice, smart, comforting person, so I want the art I make to be those things too. When I draw without editing I feel like what I make is kind of weird. Maybe perverse. Repetitive. Crass.

But it felt so good, just to be in that space. Just to follow my rules and tell the judgements that came up, negative (“This is stupid! I still draw the same things I drew when I was 15. I was so depressed then. I don’t want to be depressed!”) and positive (“Maybe it’s not stupid, maybe I’ll show it to people and everyone will love it and I’ll get a gallery show because I let myself be freeeee!”) that they just didn’t matter. They were all judgements and so I wasn’t supposed to listen to them.

Part of me wants to say that letting myself make something without listening to my own judgements was giving myself a gift, but I think that oversimplifies it. Allowing/forcing oneself to make things without knowing how they’ll turn out, without listening to fear, is not simply a selfish pursuit. Art is a mirror. The lack of self-judgement comes out in the work, and when people see it, that openness is mirrored back to them. When I hear music that is really raw and strange and daring, when I read a book that is unabashedly honest, when I see art that is decidedly “uncool,” I feel happy. I feel like the world is more forgiving and has more of a place for me. I think we all have the capacity to contribute more of that forgiveness and freedom to the world. It’s funny how painful it can feel to do it.

What Are You Reading (offline, that is)?

what are you reading arianna

On a mission to manifest ease, Ariana Pritchett works with creative entrepreneurs and change agents to get out of the overwhelm and cut the excess that is keeping them stuck.  She believes that in order to do great work and make big impact one must reduce the busy and hone the area of genius unique to you.  In her latest project, Launch Sessions she pairs up with designer and friend, Katrina McHugh, to simplify solo-preneur start-up through a four-week business launch program.   You can find her attempting to quiet the crazy all while being a mom, wife, business owner, sister, friend, urban farmer and amateur interior stylist.  For more on her and her crazy crew check out her blog.

After grad school I made a commitment to only read material that satisfied my soul and made me itch to turn the next page. Alas juggling a new child and business start-up meant that I found most of these satisfying page-turners at the magazine stand of the local grocer.

This commercial consumption continued for a few years until my friends joined forces and started a book club. At first I assumed book club would be an excuse to have dinner and chat about our lives, little did I know it would keep me on my literary toes and stimulate my mind, heart, and spirit.

What I love most about book club is that I read books I would never have thought to pick up. Our eight member group rotates hosts once a month, giving each of us an opportunity to make a book selection of our choosing.

The books have run the spectrum from fiction and non-fiction to classics and contemporary.  There has been so much food for thought, but of the over 45 books we have read these are the top 4 that are still with me long after the last page is turned.

1. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – Storytelling at its finest. An intersection of characters on the streets of 1970s New York, reminding me that above all we just want to be seen and loved.

2. We the Animals by Justin Torres – A family of boys who push the Lord of the Flies envelope of what it means to be civilized.

3. Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – One of the classics following a quiet man of character as the protagonist with whom I couldn’t help but fall in love.

4. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers – Poetic and profound this is a war tale that reminded me once again the line between good and evil is not clear.

The five runners up are:

1. Olive Kitteridge

2. The Sense of an Ending

3. Zeitoun

4. Born to Run

5. Freedom

All Grown Up, Still Splitting Custody

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I'm in my late thirties and my parents have been divorced since I was 5 years old. Growing up I never wanted my parents to get back together because I knew they didn't get along well. They did a great job of never trash talking each other to us kids, but the awkwardness and unlove was palpable between them.

My problem is, the older I've gotten, the more I wish we were one, maybe crazy, but unified family.  I split the holidays, getting some time with each parent, but if I want to have a spontaneous BBQ, I have to choose between my parents because its just too uncomfortable for everyone to be together. Then, I feel guilt on top of this because I prefer my father's company over my mom's. We just relate better to each other.

I guess my question is, are there other grown ups yearning for an un-divorced family, and what is your advice on handling choosing sides?

Help!

Torn In Two

Dear Torn In Two,

We're all grieving the family we don't have.

I have a picture of my parents in my living room, which was taken before I was born, in which they look so happy that I've considered they might be high.  Their faces squished together, both grinning, beautiful, and shining with love.  The pictures I have of them in later years are stilted, posed, in which they look like strangers to one another.

Growing up, I always wished my parents would get a divorce, because their unhappiness together fell over our house like a pallor, making everything muted, even celebratory times.  But they stuck it out, for one reason or another, and as an adult I realized that you never really know what happens between two people, even if you are living in the same house with them.

My father died when I was in college, so I never got to see what it would be like to get together with them as adults.  I find myself jealous of the parents who have grandparents around all the time, and seeing the way that my child responds to older adults, I wish I could give that to her.

But there are trade-offs to everything.  I hear from my friends who have active grandparents that they are often quite stressful to have around.  Also, I think everyone has to navigate their parents' relationship, whether they stayed together, or not.

So, Torn In Two, I don't think you are alone on this.  I think we could all use some time to grieve the happy families we wish we could have, and find acceptance for the one we’ve got.

What I suggest for your dilemma of choosing which parent to spend time with is this: make a monthly date with your mom, and stick to it, no matter what, on your end.  If she's the one to drop the ball, just wait until the following month to see her.  Then, you can let your get-togethers with your dad be more spontaneous, and you won't feel bad, because you have your standing date with your mom.

As for the guilt you feel for preferring his company, you need to let that go, as I'm sure you can find real reasons your dad and you are closer.  Guilt is spiritual cancer.  Radiate that shit with love.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.