Waiting

diving girl

By Ariana Pritchett My mom always says she could predict how my sister and I would approach new experiences in life by the way we entered the pool as children. My sister always started out on the stairs, taking them one step at a time, slowly getting used to the water before fully submerging. Me, well, I would take a running leap and dive head first into the deep end.

I am impulsive by nature.

If I get a hankering to do something, I want to do it now. I don’t want to ease into it. I don’t want to wait around and get prepared. I. WANT. IT. NOW.

This is why at 17 I ran off to San Francisco without thinking about needing money for gas or food. Why at 21 I flew to Spain by myself without a place to stay when I landed. This is why at 24 I got married, at 26 I bought a house, and at 27 I got pregnant. And it’s why three years ago I committed to adopting our second child without any information on what that really entailed. I was not going to wait around for anything. If there’s something I want in my life, my motto has always been, ‘Why wait? You’ll figure it out when you get there. No regrets.’

And so of course it’s only fitting that the universe would show up now with a big package of Waiting, my name written all over it.

Adoption for me has been all about the surrender of control . . . and waiting.

If I’d been given the green light I’d have jumped in head first to raising our second child three years ago. But adoption doesn’t work that way. First there was saving for the huge financial investment. Then there was the paperwork, which felt never-ending. Now I am waiting to be matched to a birthmom who chooses us to raise her child. We could get a call today. We could get a call in two years. And there’s still more waiting to come. Once we get matched we have to wait for the birth, and even then the adoption is not final until 6-12 months after the baby is home with us.

My family and friends question how I’m able to handle all this waiting. Tell me how difficult it must be. And it is, especially for me.

But after working my hardest to push through this wall of waiting, I’ve finally given in to it. And it’s amazing what I’ve found here sitting on the steps:

~ I’ve treasured my time with my son and husband all the more, because I know that soon it won’t be just the three of us anymore.

~ I’ve had more time to think and dream about this baby before s/he even comes into being. With each daydream I can feel my heart expanding in anticipation for this new life.

~ I’ve actually begun preparing for our child’s arrival without feeling rushed. This is new for me. We’re thinking through feeding, diapering, figuring out what is actually needed to prepare for a new addition to our family. I’ve spent quiet time mentally creating a nursery that will be a soft space of safety and comfort. Because I can take it slowly this time, activities that in the past would have caused me stress and worry are now relaxing and fun.

~ I’ve noticed all the opportunities that have presented themselves because the baby didn’t arrive in a hurry: work opportunities, travel opportunities, and time for personal growth.

But the learning that is the most tender to me is the build-up that comes from waiting, the love that continues to grow each day that we wait for our child. The knowledge that by the time we meet our son or daughter we will not be able to imagine it being anyone else.

Diving in is fast, furious and exhilarating. It has brought incredible experiences and countless blessings into my life, and I still do love to leap big. But lately I can’t help but wonder what might have been possible if I’d tried wading in slowly instead of jumping into the deep end of these huge life decisions. Because it is in the steady, gradual entry that I can really feel the water rising up over each inch of my body, until I finally immerse myself in the experience and just float. It is through this slow surrender that a deeper love and appreciation of each step of the journey is fostered and the space is created for something miraculous to be birthed.

If you want to know more about the Pritchett families adoption journey you can follow their facebook page (link to https://www.facebook.com/ThePritchettFamilyAdopts) or share their adoption website (www.thepritchettfamily.com) with your community as  50% of birthmother matches come from personal networking through the adoptive family.

[photo source]

xxxxiii. provence

postcards from france

Before I find the small side road that leads out to the vineyards and villas in the countryside, I run in the neighborhood to the west of Agnès’s apartment. Every day I head out in my shorts and tank top, which make me stick out among in the poor, mostly North African area. Maybe I should cover up more, but it is unbearably hot in Aix at the end of summer. Next to the women in full burkhas, I feel a kind of freedom that I’ve never before had to consider. As I pass by — me running, them herding their bands of overheated children — I can feel their dark, kohl-lined eyes following me, an indecent blur of sun-browned skin and dark tattoos.

Bridesmaids: Broke Edition

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

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

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

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

Sincerely,

The Penniless Pal

 

Dear Penny P,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Broke Solidarity,

Sibyl

What Are You Writing, Lisa Rubenson?

what are you writing lisa

Fitzgerald is remembered for his blockbuster-worthy works and the words within them, and while many are currently caught up in quoting (and misquoting) The Great Gatsby, one quote used among rhetoricians across this great nation is: “There are no second acts in American lives.” However you choose to interpret this, and there are many ways in which to do so, I believe at its most basic the quote implies that there are no second chances. Fortunately for the optimists of the world, this is not necessarily true. In Lisa Rubenson’s case, believing in second chances was the first step in good fortune, and good writing. Rubenson was recently the recipient of NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction” contest award, where her theme focused on second chances, a theme that also seems to be a part of her own life. When she is not being called “Julie” accidentally at her favorite coffee shop in Charlotte, NC, she spends time with her husband and two daughters, all the while writing with intention. I invite you to read her words on chance and how it changed not only her, but also how it can change all of us. I believe in second chances, and third and fourth and eleventh—whatever it takes to get it right. “Do overs” make things like hope, redemption, and games of mini-golf possible. Why else would we have put erasers on the end of pencils and invented that whole “command Z” business? The thought that we might be able to undo at least some of our mistakes helps us get up in the morning. Otherwise, and I’m speaking for myself here, I would’ve given up after wearing a “Dynasty”-inspired jumpsuit to prom.

When I heard that the author Mona Simpson would be judging round 10 of NPR’s “Three-Minute Fiction” contest, and that the prompt was to tell a story in the form of a voicemail, I decided to submit something. I’m famous for leaving “rambly” voicemails, and I liked the idea of playing with the form. Voicemails, and that grace-filled asterisk on the lower left of our phone keypads, are all about second chances. You can record, re-record, and then record again whatever you want to say. It’s not unlike the writing process, with its many drafts and the never-ending cut-and-paste dance.

For the contest, I wanted to create a story that told itself by accident, wherein the main character struggles—like many of us—with what needs saying and what doesn’t. I also wanted readers/listeners to know more than the intended recipient of the voicemail could know. When the main character attempts to call her old boyfriend and simply say, “I’m sorry about the loss of your mother,” she unravels the thread of their whole history together.

I had never submitted anything to the 3MF contest before, so I was very surprised to win. The chance to talk to Mona Simpson and NPR’s Guy Raz about writing, then receiving Simpson’s novels and being published in The Paris Review, were exciting outcomes of the win. An actress heard the story and felt a connection with the main character, so we’re developing a screenplay for a short film. I love the idea that my little story can live on and be interpreted through the eyes and experiences of others. Talk about second chances. It was also nice to hear from so many people I did and didn’t know who could relate to the story. Apparently, there are a lot of other prolific voicemail leaver-deleters out there.

I’m entering the world of fiction writing late in the game, which is another reason why the idea of second chances appeals to me. I’ve spent my whole career writing for other people, channeling their voices and helping them shape messages. Although copywriting is a kind of storytelling, the distance between the writer and the material is too far. I want to write my own stories, and bring to life the characters that have been hanging around in my head for way too long with nothing to do.

The writers that inspire me the most are the ones that march me up to the edge of the figurative cliff and either force me to look down or show me how to live in the tension of standing there with the wind in my face. They can be hard living, whisky swillers (Hemingway and Raymond Carver are favorites), or highbrow British ladies—Virginia Woolf and those Brontës could sucker-punch you with their characters’ desires. I like to be terrified by the beauty of an image and made dizzy by the genius of a writer’s prose, which is why I spend time reading Cormac McCarthy, Flannery O’Connor, Toni Morrison, Junot Díaz, Karen Russell. Next up for me is a trip to the Tin House summer writer’s workshop, where I’ll soak up some “writerly” wisdom from the great Benjamin Percy. I’m also working on my first collection of stories, which will include flash and longer pieces that share a common theme.

My favorite part about writing fiction, and also about re-inventing myself as a fiction writer, is not knowing where I’ll end up. It’s like getting on a train in a familiar place, falling asleep, and waking up in a foreign country. I start off thinking I know who my characters are, what they will do and say, and then they haul off and take me somewhere else—a place I was either afraid to go or never knew existed.

 

 

Trust No One

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

Okay, you asked for it . . . This question doesn’t appear to be about relationships, but then again, maybe it is!

Yesterday, one of my best friends was doing an energy healing when with no warning whatsoever, he started speaking (something he doesn’t normally do during a healing!) an unintelligible language and making a lot of weird clicking sounds. It was later revealed that he was bringing in Sirian and Pleiadean energy to prepare him for his next level of consciousness. As if this isn’t mind-blowing enough, my friend was told that he is an ET ‘in disguise’, that he’s only pretending to be human, and that he will reveal himself within the next couple of years. As you can imagine, my friend was a little shaken by this experience.

So here’s our question: Assuming that we are living in multiple dimensions simultaneously (see Brian Greene’s Cosmos series on PBS) or at the very least have lived many lives in many galaxies throughout the multiverse, aren’t we all ETs? Is it just a matter of semantics?

Thanks,

Cosmic C

 

Dear CC,

You have a pretty exciting social life.  Seriously, the best I can do these days when I get together with friends is try not to insult each other's politics by serving only sustainable agriculture.  I am obviously hanging out with the wrong crowd - no one reveals their true identity as an alien, no matter how many glitchy hip hop beats we listen to.

So, you are clearly doing something right, at least on the level of some cosmic shit happening on any old Tuesday.

Now, to your question.  I absolutely cannot claim to be an expert in human-Extra Terrestrial relations, as my experience with communicating with beings outside this earth is confined to whistling the theme from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and then feeling a little creepy thinking about who might be listening.

However, I suppose we are all E.T.s, to someone.  In many ways, we are all aliens to one another, our own little universe in our experience.  Sometimes communicating even with the members of my own family feels as complicated as mastering an intergalactic language.

And if it turns out that life does exist on other planets, it will be important to remember that to them, we are the aliens.  I suppose it is all a matter of perspective, and I commend you for widening yours.

I don't think I'd take that friend of yours to Las Vegas, though.  What if all the lights and sounds communicated something to him, and he turned into a creature from a Ridley Scott movie?  Then you'd really have a quandary on your hands.

With Roswellian love,

Sibyl

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.

 

 

Two Paths

Something happens when you become a mother; it’s easy to lose sight of who you were before. For some women this happens all at once, when they become pregnant or right after they have the baby. For others, myself included, it is more like a trickle. Everyday when I look in the mirror, my previous self seems farther and farther away. Right after Charley, this made me depressed. I would stare into my enormous closet full of size four silk dresses that weren’t even close to fitting. With tears in my eyes, I wondered when I would ever wear them again. I must have had forty pairs of heels, that sometimes for fun I would shove my foot into and walk around in our apartment. Slowly, throughout that first year of being a mom, I let go of all of that. I sold my dresses, one by one, on Ebay. Sometimes I would search for the addresses of the recipients on Google. I imagined that my prized pink wool tweed dress was going to another adventurous girl at 150 Oak Street, Chicago, Illinois. I bid it adieu and hoped she would wear it well. I pictured it going out to fancy dinners and to the opera. The shoes went next. They were narrowed down until one day I had only a few pairs, and they were all flats (or clogs). This editing infused every aspect of my life. I purged perfumes I didn’t use, jewelry I never wore, even books I would never have the time to read. I purchased ‘mom shorts’ and chopped all my hair off. I embraced motherhood. Or so I thought. Suddenly, sometime after my second son was born, I looked in the mirror and gasped. I couldn’t even recognize myself in pictures. I realized I had strayed too far down one path. In embracing motherhood, I had ignored my true self, the ‘me’ I had discovered before kids.

I set out to merge these two paths. I knew I didn’t want to be 100% ‘mom’ but I also knew I could no longer be 100% ‘me, me, me’ like I was before children. They needed me as their mom, but I also needed me as me. Part of merging these two paths was making decisions with both selves in mind. So much of parenthood is dealing with your previously suppressed notions of what it means to be a family and a mother. For some reason, I believed I had to buy those ‘mom shorts’. I felt they were my ticket to the club, to some hidden sisterhood that I desperately wanted to be a part of. Instead it just made me feel further from myself.

Part of combining my two selves is bringing my kids to experience the places I love. For the first time, we brought them both to Chicago last week. Charley was thrilled! He pointed out every tall building (there were many) and every type of truck he could see. We walked up State Street, where I had moved as a wide-eyed college student. It was a nostalgia trip, to say the least. But it felt like home for the first time in a very long time. I saw my two selves merge, I could be a mom and I could be my old self as well. It would just take time.

On Ashes: The Outtakes

memory and loss

This post is an add on to Katherine's piece, On Ashes, published on her blog Helping Friends Grieve.

After sharing the story of spreading my father’s ashes, other people’s stories have trickled into my life. Many more people than I had expected responded with their stories of the ashes they have spread and those that have yet to be spread. I should preface this piece by noting that there appear to be a variety of experiences that surround the process of spreading ashes and a multitude of ways that individuals interact with the process.

From what I have seen, we seem to strive for this seemingly magical moment where everyone finds peace with the death, the birds may sing, the sun rises above the mountains, and we know it is time. Of course, my description of the sun and birds, is a hyperbole, but it is meant to show that reality gets in the middle of our plans. The mishaps, planned and un-planned plans, and stories of carrying ashes around (for months or years) captivate me.

As always, many people have a story, and I am going to take the liberty in this piece to weave the narratives of others in with my own story of how I ended up on top of various mountains and rocks to spread my father’s ashes. Ultimately, I had my magic moments, the sun did rise above the mountains, the birds did sing, and I was overcome with a sense of peace---but not without the reality and hilarity of mishaps along the way.

Last summer, I had my first brush with what I call the re-personification of someone in the presence of their ashes. As we were walking into the small church in the center of town, a family friend asked me to grab her mom out of the back of the car and bring her in. Of course, I knew that her “mom” was the black box of ashes safely tucked in the back of her. This box, “her mom,” had accompanied her on her recent road trip, yet the banality of the request made me give her a double take. We joked that her last trip with her mom had been this road trip she had recently taken on the east coast. My family friend had visited her friends, accompanied by her mom, in the black box, in the back seat. In this moment, an uncle snapped a shot of me, in a cute blue dress, ready for the funeral, arms full of giant yellow sunflowers, with a small backpack, containing the black box, on my back. It is so mundane, yet, her mom, has such a huge presence.

I realize these stories may sound a bit crude, if you’ve never had ashes in your possession or reached in a box and physically touched someone you have missed for years. However, the thing about ashes is that they have to be transported (or at least stored somewhere) to wherever you plan to leave them, thus, you must interact with them. This moment of interacting, somehow forces the presence of the person who has died. Momentarily, the person takes a physical form or a presence in your journey, a journey they are no longer part of. Rarely, as living beings do we come so close to touching death. Rarely does it feel like something you can touch---something that can simply slip between your fingers if you open them just a crack. Yet, the presence of the ashes momentarily relieves the gaping hole experienced by someone’s absence. On the drive home from spreading part of the ashes, I was alone. I simply buckled my father, in his black box, into the passenger seat in the front seat. In a moment of unrelated frustration, I expressed to him a sentiment about wanting to be outside, running and climbing in the mountains---something only he a few others in my life understand. Perhaps I was able to have that thought pattern because my mind was attuned to his presence.

In my journey home to Colorado to spread my father’s ashes, I felt this sense of presence. I carried his ashes to Columbine Mountain outside of Winter Park, I carried them to the top of a peak at over 14,000, I climbed with them up a rock wall at my family’s cabin, and finally, I took them on a multi-pitch climb---testing my own climbing abilities. I felt invincible, as if the ashes could protect me, after all my dad had touched the ground in each of these locations, in his living life, so I imagined him guiding me there in his afterlife. I imagined, the natural world, making way for me to complete climbs, knowing that my father had to be returned to this very location. It all seemed clear as thunderstorms split, showing lightening on each side of our rock face, but leaving us safe and dry. The irony that I felt he needed to be returned to the natural world, the same world that had captivated his imagination and led to his early death, was not lost on me. But in that presence, it really felt right, and by right, I mean, that there was no other option---when someone is home it simply feels right.

 

 

As I wrote in reflection to spreading my father’s ashes, after eight years without touches or embraces, to suddenly touch his body, although reduced to ash, was astounding. Yet, I am embarrassed to say, a small part of me was disturbed at literally touching a dead body---after all, in spreading the ashes, you physically touch them. I had never really considered the consistency of ashes, but I imagined the fine ash left by a camp fire. I was surprised at the small remnants of bone that weighed down the ash when I spread it on my palm. Reaching my hand into the black box, only brought about more questions of how his body had become reduced in that manner. I teetered between loving the closeness I felt to my father and being concerned when suddenly the wind picked up and the ashes flew back at me---covering my jacket and black pants with white and grey dots. What do you do next---wash your hands? Wash your clothes? After all, those grey dots are still part of him. Or---as Coree---so appropriately notes after finding herself spooning her “dad” into an urn, what do you do with the spoon? You can’t just wash it off---after all, it has ashes on it.

Yet, you laugh with the process. After hours of climbing to recreate a picture of my dad on this specific rock in 1979 and to spread his ashes there, I reached the point---100 feet down on a free rappel. I managed to open the medicine container I had stored the ashes in with one hand (the other hand firmly on my rope---as I was still hundreds of feet in the air). As I prepared myself to spread them, the wind grabbed the ashes, whipping them up into my face. I was startled, but more than that, overcome with giggles at what a joyful hilarious moment this was. That picturesque moment became a hilarious struggle of me trying to rappel, laugh, and somehow get the ashes out of my eyes and mouth.

 

Like everything else, it wasn’t as planned. Yet it was a moment in which I felt closer to my dad and closer to his sense of home---which after all, really was the point.

Bloom

One summer I am watering a lavender plant, which, I suddenly realize, has begun to look rather like a twig than a plant. I had known all along that it wasn’t thriving, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly when the transformation had taken place. The plant had seemed mostly the same to me from one day to the next. On that particular day, I was certain that it looked much the same as it had the day before, but I was equally certain that it looked quite different from the lush lavender plant I’d picked up months before at the farmer’s market. I intercepted a wise roommate and asked for her opinion on the matter.

“Do you think it’s dead?”

“Oh, yes. Definitely.”

“Are your really sure, though? I mean, I don’t want to throw out a plant that’s still alive.” (Translation: I am not ready to let go of this plant.)

“Well,” she said, generously accommodating my denial, “try not watering it for a while and see if anything changes.”

I did, and it didn’t.

Since then, there have been a handful of plants, some of which passed quickly and mercifully and others which have persisted miraculously despite my neglect. In fact, I’ve just repotted an orchid that’s been with me for two years, and a peace lily of four is still hanging on for dear life.

There’s a little saying from the Talmud—I’m sure you’ve seen it on a greeting card somewhere—that every blade of grass has an angel that bends over it and whispers, “Grow, grow.” These two sturdy plants must have very attentive angels because their earthly guardian has no idea what she’s doing.

Still, I’m fascinated by the slow and quiet surprises of living with green things. Another summer, I remember watching with delight as the long-flowerless peace lily suddenly sprouted a few delicate white blooms. I couldn’t say what made the difference. To me, it was a summer just like any other summer, and the water was the same and the sunlight was too. It must have been something too subtle for me to notice, but in any case, there were flowers briefly and then they were gone.

So often we measure our lives in terms of how many paces it has been since the last milestone and how many more till the next. Lately, though, I’ve been learning to find joy in slow blooms and brief delights—the everyday wonders quietly awaiting our attention.

Why We Need Feminism, Reason #3849

Asking For It with Sibyl

Hi Sibyl,

I feel very lost.  Within the past 4 years, I've moved to another state, lost my job, gotten married, cheated on my domineering husband, gotten immediately divorced due to the shame of my actions, started my own business, moved 4 times within this city, and had the misfortune to fall in love with a wonderful man who turned out to be an alcoholic.

First and foremost, I struggle with the cheating and divorce.

My husband was a great guy, but treated me very much like a mother, being bratty until I fed him and coddled him, and took care of him -- and at other times, he treated me like I was a child.  After moving to his hometown, I made friends very slowly, but when I did, it upset him and he became jealous and would scorn me..  I felt trapped.  I lost my job as an architect, and went to work as a hostess at two restaurants, at my husband's immediate urging.  I also began working at starting my own business.  I had no access to our checking account or shared car, and he was grumpy whenever I needed rides.

I just snapped at some point, and began drinking, partying and had decided it was worth it to let a predatory co-worker have his way and we began a sexual relationship.  I've always been a good-hearted person, slightly bookish and nerdy, so when this co-worker cornered me at a work function and told me that I was beautiful, and sexy and basically proceeded to force himself on me, something in me felt amazing and energized, for once.

But it only made me ashamed of myself and unable to face my husband.  I pulled away, sure that our marriage had crumbled because of me.

That became a turning point in my life.  I ended the affair, moved out, got a new job, and ended up falling in love with a man that I felt immediately kindred to.  During my marriage, I had this feeling that things were happening TO ME, rather than me being in control of my life.  As soon as I made the decision to finally face what I had done, and began rebuilding my life, I felt for the first time in my life that I could see clearly what was important to me and how I had failed to have agency in my own life with my husband.

I remembered all the times when his dominant personality had prevailed, turning me into a submissive and scared person, at his mercy.  I have never been a fighter, always sensitive to the needs and wants of others, and can easily see their perspective.  However, this type of personality, without a sense of grounding in what I wanted, turned quickly into people pleasing, rather than being understanding.  I was an easy victim who fed right into the types of emotional manipulation that people like this rely upon to keep others under their control.  Being isolated from friends and family meant that I had fallen into the perfect situation for an emotionally abusive person to take hold of me.  It's taken me a few years of therapy and personal growth to understand this, and my role in the situation.  I vowed never to get into such a bad situation again.

Very shortly after leaving my husband, I met S, a very charming, handsome and successful entrepreneur.  He was everything my ex-husband wasn't: fun, super sexy and totally energetic.  Whereas my ex-husband never had many friends, S had a million.  He was adventurous, loved my cooking, and we'd talk for hours about life, design, and literature.  He felt like the adult I had been looking for.

We quickly moved in together, and began building a life of trust, health, adventure, and business-building. I had even quit my boring marketing job to begin my business full time, with S's new company as my largest client.  Things felt like they were falling into place.

After two years of our life together, I found out that he had been cheating on me with roughly 5 other women.   Of course I was devastated, but because I had committed similar acts of deception, and had known the healing effect forgiveness could provide, I decided to listen to him and give us a chance to reconcile.

That's when everything began to unravel.

It was right around this time I became aware of S's upbringing.  He was one of 7 children in a fundamentalist Christian household, and was celibate until age 23.  He had carried a Bible around with him every day, and was very fanatical about his religion.  Until he decided that he didn't want that life anymore, choosing the opposite.  He left the church, began drinking heavily, opened up a bar with his brother-in-law, and began sleeping with as many women as possible.  He would start fights about anything that resembled family values, like having children, getting married, being faithful, creating a home, etc.  Though, he also became extremely hard on women who might be like him, dating multiple guys, being expressive of their sexuality.  On one hand, he wanted to be near these "slants" as he termed them, yet also hated them.  I believe he also has a similar feeling about himself, which leads me to the drinking.  I believe he has such internal conflict about how he lives his life, that drinking and girls ease that pain for him.  From my experience as a cheater, the worst part is facing the other person that you hurt.  There are a few ways to get around that.  You find someone new, who has a good opinion of you, surround yourself with others who have low morals and wouldn't judge you anyway, and numb yourself with booze or drugs.  I fell into the "new people" and "drinking" categories.

I've never written this story, and I apologize that it's so long.  Basically, I learned from my own experience that people fall, they fail and deserve a chance to be forgiven.  So I honored this decision and began to work with S to understand him and be there to help him get past this.  I knew that forgiveness would have gone a long way for me.

Another reason that I'm attracted to S is that he is a creative, very successful entrepreneur.  That's something about him that I wish for myself, to be as successful and well-respected.  Being accepted by him somehow makes me feel less insecure about my own shortcomings, which stem from financial instability, building a small business, and taking responsibility for my life.  I also love him, and we truly have a wonderful connection---or so I thought.

As soon as I discovered exactly what S had been hiding from me-- the girls, the drinking, the deception-- he was never the same.  He turned from a loving and supportive partner into a combative, irrational, mean-spirited person.  He began to blame me for "finding out" and for expecting too much from him.  He cared less and less about falling short and hurting my feelings.  I found out that he had been in an on-again off-again relationship for 8 years (which went on during an engagement to another woman, and during my relationship).  I know all this yet, my main problem is giving up and moving on.

Our city is small enough that getting away from someone like this business-wise is extremely hard to do.  My clients are linked to him and his to me.  He constantly makes it seem, to these people, that we are a couple, or at the very least that we are on good terms.  This is what I've termed "emotional-business abuse".  He's mostly concerned with how the public sees him, because he runs 6 restaurants/bars and wants to be seen as a leader.  He threatens that if I tell someone who he really is, that he'll destroy my business.  He constantly tells me that he created my current success.  He represents us as a couple to whoever it seems like it might be fitting to do so (without my consent and without me being there).  Everyone loves him and is fooled by him.  It's kind of a mess.  And I end up feeling so overwhelmed and (again) not in control of my life.  I didn't want this to happen, I wanted to build a life with S, and focus on doing good work and building a great business.  It just seems that because he can't come to terms with who he is, and forgive himself, that he needs everyone to like him to combat the truth of his life.

I feel courageous for having gone through what I did, and to have emerged with a greater sense of who I am, but now I'm just baffled at how to create a life that I am happy with, because so much has been destroyed in the last few years.

The whole situation leaves me with these feelings:

1.  Did I make a mistake leaving my husband?  When it comes down to it, I would love a partner and a family and a home.

2.  Why does someone like S have this power over me and why is it so hard to not equate my self worth with what he thinks of me?

3.  How can I begin to feel happy again, to plan my life with excitement?  Right now, I tend to feel like a failure.

4. How can I let this go and pursue a life that I love?

Thank you so much for reading all of this.  Just writing it makes me seem like I'm spending too much of my time thinking about this.  Please help me gain a new perspective on this situation.

Thank you,

Baffled

 

Dear Baffled,

You are in what I like to call a Patriarchal Shit Spiral. What I would really like to do is plunk you down in a feminist re-training program, where you are not allowed to date a man for at least a year, but I am not sure that exists.

The current man in your life is really no different from the last, he's just a bit more interesting. Both of them see women as objects to get what they want, rather than whole people.

I'm going to directly address your questions rather than speak overarchingly, since there is a lot here.

1. You did not make a mistake leaving your husband. Divorce is a two person endeavour, and there are very real reasons that you cheated on him and left him. You felt it was your only recourse to get out of a marriage in which you were completely stifled as a person. Could you have done it more gracefully? Perhaps. But you needed to get out of there, and sometimes the only way out is to implode it all from the inside.

2. S has power over you because of what you find attractive. In order to stop dating men like S, the co-worker, and your ex-husband, you are going to have to radically change your idea of what is "hot". You'll have to take back a lot of the power you've been giving to men to run your life, and make choices for yourself. It is extremely scary to do this at first, but in the end you'll find yourself wondering what you ever saw in those kinds of overpowering male personalities. I really want you to ask yourself some deep questions, about why you are attracted to these kinds of men, which I think would be best done with your therapist. Have you ever been into a person who wasn’t a domineering personality? How did that relationship go?

3. In order to feel happy again, you need to be free. You are completely bound up in the expectations other people have of you, particularly what the men in your life think of you. You need to get in touch with who you really are internally, rather than whether or not you are a success in your relationships, career, and life trajectory.  I know you are reluctant to let go of S, because all you see down that path is loneliness and ruin, but believe me, this man is not as universally liked as he appears to be. You will have allies if you leave him, and you will rebuild both your business and your self-worth, on your own foundation, not someone else’s.

4. Self-forgiveness is tantamount to your ability to let go and build the life you want. In order to fully embrace that, you need to understand that your choices, and your subsequent shame about them, were a part of the patriarchal system designed to uphold the image of men as powerful beings that get to call the shots, and women as mercurial sprites who exist to support and serve them. It is a system that is hurting men as well as women, and you are seriously caught in its web right now. You’ve got to cut your way free, which will be painful, but incredibly worth it.

In closing, you are definitely not thinking about this too much. It is all you should be thinking about.

In Solidarity,

Sibyl

The Price of Fear

mind the gap

I first mentioned the lump to my boyfriend after it had been there for a month.  "I thought it was a pimple," I said.  "But it's not going away." "Go get it checked out," he said.  "We live in England, so why not?"  Why not, indeed?  In the four years since I graduated college, I'd spent more time than not uninsured.  I'd chosen the path of freelance work and enterprising startup jobs, which, while rewarding, came laden with different types of concerns then I'd ever been faced with before.  One Christmas, I stared at my pinky toe, which, after a run in with a table, had now grown to the size of an apricot.  Hospital visits were going to be several hundred dollars, at a minimum, I knew.  I decided that I could walk it off.   Another time, I fainted at a cafe, the back of my head absorbing the weight of my whole body on the concrete floor.  When my right pupil grew slightly but perceptibly larger than my left---a potential sign of a brain bleed, which can quickly turn fatal---I was told by my doctor friend that I needed an MRI, which would cost upwards of $1000.  I found myself playing the Russian roulette of What If games.  What if I spent over a grand that I didn't have and they found nothing?  What if I didn't spend that grand and it was something, and then I was nothing?  Eventually, fear won out and I got the MRI.  When they found nothing out of the ordinary on the scan, my relief was surpassed by anger, guilt, annoyance.

Now, though, I was in England, where the NHS ensures that all medical care is free.  Yes, you heard me---free doctors, free dentists, free prescription medications, free physical therapy, free surgeries, free outpatient care.  I scheduled an appointment with my primary care doctor, and I waited.  And I waited, and I waited and I waited some more.  Non-urgent cases are often given appointment weeks---if not months---out.  When I finally saw my doctor, he told me that his roll, essentially, was that of a gatekeeper.  "I think it's just a cyst," he said, "but that's just an opinion."  He couldn't diagnose my arm lump, but without him, I couldn't see a specialist.  "I've put into the system that you need an ultrasound," he said.

"Great." I nodded.  "When will I get that?"

"It's in the system," he repeated.  "You'll get a letter in the post once they book you an appointment."  Ah, the post.  The British are fond of the post, and use it almost exclusively for the scheduling of medical appointments.  Three to four weeks after you see your doctor, a letter arrives.  On it, is a single time on a single day.  Can't make it?  Only then can you call a hotline, where a slightly exasperated person (who are you, after all, to be too busy for their carefully arbitrarily scheduled appointments?) will offer you a different slot.  Maybe.  If there happens to be one open.

Six weeks after my initial doctor's appointment, I went to the hospital, where an ultrasound technician looked at my arm.  "This is definitely not a cyst," the man I'd never seen or met before said.

"What is it?"  My eyes were wide, fearful.  I would not cry in front of the businesslike ultrasound man.

He snapped his gloves off and shrugged.  "I don't know," he said.  "You've got to get it out.  I'll make an appointment for the surgery."  Seeing my wet cheeks---my attempts to hold back tears had clearly failed---he sighed.  "It's an in-office procedure," he said.  "It won't hurt."

He entered into the system and three weeks later, I got a slip of paper with my appointment time and not much else.  The appointment was still six weeks out, a month and a half I spent worrying over what the lump in my arm was and what the surgery entailed.  Did I have skin cancer?  Was I going to be under anesthesia?  Could I eat in the 24 hours before?  Would I have normal use of my arm immediately after?

The day of the procedure, I woke up early to make my way to the hospital across town.  I rode the elevator up to the sixth floor, and made my way to the dermatologist's office.  "Are we doing the procedure in here?" I asked, looking around.

"Procedure?"

"I didn't eat last night or this morning," I said.  "Just in case."

"Oh, honey.  This is just a consultation."

"But the ultrasound guy said---"

She shook her head.  "For this kind of thing, you don't even need an ultrasound.  Look: there are 350 dermatologists in the whole of the UK.  We're hard to get appointments with, so they like to put obstacles in the way."  She poked at my arm, and determined that it was, indeed, just a cyst.  "The ultrasound guys don't know what they're looking for," she said, and then: "Don't worry, we'll get this thing out of you."

The kind dermatologist walked me through what it will entail, finally filling in one of the many black holes that have surrounded this experience.  I haven't received my appointment yet for the final procedure, although I'm told it should be within the next four months, or approximately nine months from my initial appointment.

In the US, I likely could've had my cyst diagnosed and removed within a week, likely for a cost upwards of a thousand dollars.  In the UK, I'm receiving care free of financial worry but laden with every other kind: six months of not knowing what a strange lump in my arm was; months of back and forths to different doctors; a disconcerting lack of clarity from most parties; being at the beck and call of a scheduling system that likely hasn't seen any change in the last fifty years.

What is the value of fear?  What is the value of convenience?  I feel incredibly fortunate that I can even ask these questions; I realize the amount of people in the US who wouldn't have gotten the MRI ever, simply because the cost was completely prohibitive.  But as our health care system is changing in the US, I think these are questions worth considering.  While I remain in favor of free healthcare for all, I now know that free does, sometimes, come with it's own price.

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. 

Dream Job

Growing up, I imagined many dream jobs. Astronaut, architect, interior designer, novelist, journalist, professor, magazine editor, ballerina. I directed sustained and passionate efforts toward a few of these trajectories; others were brief but memorable blips on the dream job radar. In college, publishing caught my attention, and I began to distinguish between the various logos on the spines of my used paperbacks. One fall, I made a starry-eyed pilgrimage across campus with droves of other English majors to a Random House info session. I clutched my brochure and free pen with equal parts hope and anxiety. I remember every word.

After about two hundred runs through the brochure and a chat with a career counselor, I decided to let go of that trajectory too. From what I could tell, it seemed the only path toward making books went like this: move to New York, clamor for unpaid internship, starve. I decided I couldn’t afford the risk and let it go.

But a winding and unexpected journey took me through grad school, finding love, moving to Atlanta, creating my own hodgepodge internship of sorts, almost starving (how many different ways can you cook rice and beans, people? seriously.), and finally picking up that thread again, of helping to make books and sending them into the world. I couldn’t have planned it that way, and if I had, it would have seemed like a weird and crazy plan.

Of course, dreaming of a job is entirely different from actually doing it. A recent post by Lisa Congdon helps explain some of the unexpected challenges of making your dream job your real job, and I’ve been wondering lately about the whole concept of dream jobs in general.

Sometimes it seems as if the internet is full of people with dream jobs, people on their way to dream jobs, and people giving advice about how to get/find/create your dream job. Is anybody else overwhelmed by this? I am a little overwhelmed. Here’s why.

The most obvious path toward landing or creating a specific dream job is to work very hard over a long period of time acquiring a particular combination of skills, experience, education, and expertise. But here’s the catch: along the way, you will be changed by your experiences, and that dream job will be changing too.

Since I attended that fateful info session around 2007, publishing has undergone (and is still undergoing) massive changes. And the day-to-day work in any of my childhood dream jobs must be very different now from what it was when I first imagined it. (For one thing, everyone is on Twitter, including astronauts and ballerinas.) There are also plenty of brand new dream jobs to wish for: Content Strategist, Full-time Blogger, Etsy shop artist/entrepreneur, Social Media Maven, Ninja (this is a thing, I guess?).

A dream job, it seems, is a moving target. At any given moment, you, your dream job, and your perception of your dream job are changing. The idea of a dream job can offer inspiration to work hard and to meet goals, but, held too tightly, it can also be a recipe for disappointment and disillusionment.

How about you? Are you doing your dream job, or working towards one? Is the idea of a dream job inspiring you, or just getting in your way?

It's Not You, It's Me. And By Me I Mean My Job.

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

I am young and employed at the exact place that I said I would love to have a job at when I graduated with my undergraduate degree just over a year ago. I have a benefits package and vacation days. I rent a small home with a fenced-in yard and a small vegetable garden in the back. Every morning, when my alarm goes off, I seriously consider calling in sick to work. Some mornings I cry.

I have struggled, over the years, with chronic "mild" depression and anxiety issues. I have gone to therapy, tried medication, and have no issues with either of these things. They helped! It was great! I have been off of both for five years to no ill effects. But I have always been "moody" and "high strung," even when it wasn't bad enough to require medicine or therapy. Coping is not my biggest strength. But I'm trying to find a therapist in the area and maybe that will alleviate some of what is happening. I'm just not sure that is the entire problem here.

I loved my job at first. But staff has changed, and now the situation feels toxic. A new coworker is saying negative things to my boss about me. My boss is increasingly taking anger about mistakes made prior to my hiring out on me. I've become paralyzingly afraid of making even a single mistake.  My boss gets annoyed if I don't respond to emails they send after hours or if I leave before they do.  I miss interacting with (and helping, even in small ways) customers, as the nature of my tasks is devolving rapidly into standard unpaid intern-type tasks (and that's about the level of credit I get). Twice last week I came very, very close to having anxiety attacks while I sat at my desk. I've only been at this job for 6 months, although I've been with the organization for 3 years.

Sibyl, do I just need to get over myself? Is this job really not for me? Should I consider jumping back into the job search, even if it means leaving my current position after just a year (assuming I am able to find an alternative after a brief job search [I probably wouldn't be so lucky])? Are the issues with my job just a figment of my currently depressed and very stressed imagination? I should be happy right now---so why aren't I? And how do I get there?

Sincerely,

Sick Of It All

 

Dear Sick of it All,

Perhaps you are familiar with this quote, attributed to Steven Winterburn: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure that you are not, in fact, just surrounded by assholes.”

I think you may be finding yourself in the latter category, my dear.  You absolutely need to get out of that job.

I can understand your confusion.  It is noble to ask yourself first, "Is it me?  Am I the author of my own unhappiness?"  But I think that before you come to that conclusion, you've got to say, “Well, maybe it’s a little of both.  Let me rule out some external suckiness and see how I feel.”  If you want to find out whether depression is plaguing you once again, you need to get to a baseline of peace to see what your natural state is.

It's possible that you are getting hit with the solemn reality that, for most of the world, work really, really sucks.  It's dehumanizing and disempowering, and all the infographics about "doing what you really love" don't help when you're punching a clock to make payments on student loans that you'll never actually pay off in your lifetime.

However, it does not seem like your issues are normal work drama stuff.  Something in you is reacting strongly to this current environment, and I'm here to tell you, you can make those changes you want to make.  You must be willing for your life to look really different, but it is possible.

Having spent way too long in a job that went sour, I asked myself, once it had all blown up in my face, "Why didn't I get out sooner?  I saw the writing on the wall months ago - what kept me there?"  Everything I could think of: loyalty, security, false hope, all could be summarized by one thing: FEAR.

I feared I wouldn't find anything better, I was afraid of having less money, and I feared what people would think of me if I left.  So, eventually, I was forced out, and once the dust cleared I saw that not working there anymore, even though it meant I was out of the full-time workforce for a considerable amount of time, was the best thing that ever happened to me.

I came to the realization that no job, if you are miserable every time you’re there, is worth the paycheck, if you are paying in mind-body-spirit health.  We spend more time at our jobs than anything else we do.  I’m not saying we need to love every second - all jobs have their equivalent of “taking out the stinky garbage” - but yes, I think you should look for a different one.  And if the garbage still smells so bad that you are hyperventilating at your desk, follow up on those therapy referrals.

Be smart about it---don’t do your job searches while you’re on the clock, don’t burn your bridges (you never know when connections you made at a miserable job will pay off in the future---someone is watching your hard work, believe it!), and save as much money as you can, so you’ll be in the position to take a less-paying but more fulfilling job next, if that’s what happens.

The first step is opening your mind to the possibilities that await, and deciding that being so upset at your job that you are questioning your own sanity is not okay.  You need to break up with this bad job like it’s a really terrible partner that steals your money and crashes your car.  No looking back.

Love,

Sibyl

One Big Awesome Tide Pool.

diary of a filmmaker

Dear Diary, Last week I started working on my first podcast. It’s a new sub-project of my documentary film Stories From The Green Cabin. The podcast is a little silly, really. It asks people to talk about their work as if it were a wilderness. Say, for example, that someone is an essayist. The podcast asks them: What would essay writing look like as a physical place? Is it like a lush rain forrest, a freezing tundra, or a beautiful, peaceful field?

Then more questions along those lines: What is in an essayists backpack? Do you need a map, or is there a clearly marked path? Is it lonesome or are there lots of others like you?

What is the most dangerous animal to an essayist? (The Internet? An empty coffee cup? Self-doubt?)

What’s in your canteen? (Tea? Coffee? Whiskey?)

What’s your advice to a newly exploring essayist? How important is it to go to school or have a guide before venturing into this wilderness?

What would a Girl/Boy Scout style badge for your work look like?

I’ve had this podcast idea for a long time. I had been listening to shows online about writing, pop culture, science, international news, cooking , etc. Eventually I started using the Sticher app on my phone, which helped me burn through even more podcasts while walking my dog, sitting in traffic, or riding the train. Most of the shows were great. I loved them. Two of my favorites were The Dinner Party and Hash Hags. I liked the content and the hosting of Hash Hags, the theme and the structure of The Dinner Party. I wanted to listen to a show that combined the two, but couldn’t find one.

So I bought a bunch of audio equipment and told a few close friends about my idea.

Then I let the audio equipment sit unused on my bookshelf for almost six months.

Then I emailed Elisabeth and Miya and said “Hey, I have this idea for a podcast, can I share it on Equals?” They said yes.

Then the audio gear sat on my bookshelf for another month.

Something was wrong.

My desire to produce a podcast was there but wasn’t strong enough to justify a stand-alone project. The podcast didn’t have a home within Stories From the Green Cabin at that point. Would I really want to create a new website and media presence to support this podcast? I wondered. Would I really want to bother my friends about having them as guests on a silly little side project without knowing where it was all headed? There were so many people I wanted to talk to about their work but there was little reason for me to set aside the time in my schedule to record, edit, and promote this quirky program.  It seemed to me, at that point in time, that the podcast idea was just a distraction.

It wasn’t until recently, when I was halfway though an application for a summer media program*, that I realized how the film and podcast were linked. Applying for something always has this clarifying affect on my work. Regardless of whether or not I secure the grant or get accepted into the residency program, the structure of an application always demands a simple, straightforward explanation about the project in question.

The boundaries an application presents in format and word count always leave me with a better understanding of what I’m really up to. This time around I came to see how both the podcast and the film satisfy this intense curiosity I have about identity, creativity, and work. It seems so obvious now, but just months ago I couldn’t make that connection.

When I was little I was obsessed with tide pools. They felt like mini-oceans suddenly and perfectly contained for observation. Every once in a while a big wave would come and wash all of the little tide pools into one big awesome tide pool. I felt the same sense of wonder and excitement when connecting the film and podcast. For a long time I was just waiting for the next big idea wave, I guess, when all it really took was filling out that application to change the tide.

*The program I applied to (and have since enrolled in) is hosted by AIR (Association of Independents in Radio) and Uniondocs in Brooklyn. It’s called the Full Spectrum Storytelling Intensive. For any freelance radio or film producers out there, check it out---there are still a few spots available!

 

Saying Goodbye

This is the story of our first house. We bought it when we moved back from a failed attempt to live in Seattle. It was the house we bought out of defeat, when we truly just needed some place to live. But it was also the house we bought from the desire to dream big. We had big plans for the place. We were going to transform it from ‘barn’ to ‘beach barn’ to ‘modern cabin’. In two and a half years we did transform many things. We renovated four bedrooms and put two and a half new bathrooms in. We removed popcorn ceilings and installed laminate floors and repainted every room. But at the end of the day, there was still so much to do and we realized we weren’t the family to do it.

This is also the story of the first years of our marriage. Of the countless fights at Ikea about bathroom sinks and faucets. Of nights spent dreaming and deciding how large our family should be. I’ll never forget the orange tile we didn’t replace and how dark the living room was. I won’t miss the countless spiders and broken French doors. I already miss the perfect location though, at the end of a dead end street, just a short bike ride to the ocean.

In the end it felt like the house won. We tried to modernize it and change everything, and in the end we changed more about ourselves. Perhaps moving makes you introspective. We thought we wanted the big house with two big cars and a bunch of kids. Instead we realized more isn’t more. A big house meant more cleaning and more junk accumulated. Now I long for a simpler life, with a little house, or an apartment. (Apparently we are the worst with yard maintenance). Charming and older, where we can raise our two boys and dog and focus more on that than renovations. It’s amazing how much change two and half years can bring. When we moved into the house we thought we wanted several more kids, and then maybe only one, and then brought home our last and final baby to that front stoop. We learned much about ourselves and our marriage, where we wanted to go and what we wanted to accomplish. And now, are suitcases are packed, the house is almost empty and we are ready for our next great adventure. When people ask where we are going, we tell them we aren’t sure. But isn’t that kind of exciting?

You can follow my moving saga on Instagram @shannon_oertle

Note to Self

A full-time work schedule has recently plopped down into the middle of my life, sending everything else hurtling toward the edges. I’ve always wondered how anyone manages to tend to the stuff of life when business hours are reserved for, well, business. What I mean is, how do you get to the bank if you are working during all of the hours when the bank is open? The answer, as far as I can tell so far, is that you stop going to the bank. You start doing everything you possibly can online (if you weren’t doing it that way already), and you do it in the margins. It’s not that I haven’t worked long hours before. It’s just that I’ve generally been able to leave my work and tend to other tasks and thoughts as they arise. Lately, though, I can feel the various pieces of my life shaking loose from their cozy overlap and settling down into neat compartments.

While chipping away at a spreadsheet last week, an article I’d read over breakfast came back to mind. I pulled out a Post-It and stuck it to my phone, adding it to my post-5pm to-do list: “Follow Hillary Clinton on Twitter.”

I can’t say that the shift is necessarily good or bad—at this point, it’s just funny. On the one hand, I am probably increasing my productivity as I learn to interrupt myself less. On the other hand, my mind has not caught up with my newly compartmentalized schedule (will it ever?). This means that I end up sending myself a lot of emails for later and sticking Post-Its to my phone (am I the only one who does that?).

I’ve written before about how much I love the margins, so I’m watching closely now as they change. The margins have become the place where my home self sifts through notes from my work self, trying to decipher what she really meant or why on earth she was thinking about Hillary Clinton at 2:55pm.

Besides writing notes to my future self, I’ve been venturing into the past as well. A recent letter from Erin Anacker to her younger self prompted me to go poking around in the ancient archives of my blog. I had the funny realization that if I wanted to find out what my younger self was thinking and offer her some advice, I didn’t have to conjure her up. I could dig up her posts and shake my head at them, though I’d stop just short of leaving any “what were you thinking” comments.

I’ve been smiling just as much at the notes from three hours ago as I have at the posts from years past. We’re never entirely the same from one moment to the next, and I’m thankful for the breadcrumbs my yesterday self keeps leaving along the path toward today.

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.

Let Bravery Be Your Blanket

Asking For It with Sibyl

Dear Sibyl,

My father was abusive to me growing up. Not very frequently was the abuse physical (the verbal variety dominated), but it was enough to instill a fear of him into me that I've never been able to shake. When he got angry, he took it out on me, I assume because I was the only one who would ever speak up when he was being cruel to my mother or sisters.

As a young adult, he used physical violence against me once; that incident alone is etched onto my memory with crystalline precision, and I cringe every time I see a person in the throes of anger. I had thought that now, since I was an adult, he couldn't hurt me anymore, but that experience settled that false assumption. Since that particular episode, I have just zipped my lip around him and kept my opinions to myself.

We do, however, have a decent relationship now---especially given the circumstances---and I have forgiven him, though I never confronted him about it and I’m not sure I ever will.

Now, however, I am going through a period of rather extreme personal change brought about by recovering from addiction. Through all this healing, I've discovered I’m not the person I once was, with the same strictly conservative viewpoints I once shared with my parents. My father especially cares passionately for right-wing politics and strict religious doctrine---it’s a hot button issue for him, and I've gotten frightened just watching him talk about it. So far, I've hidden my new opinions from everyone so as not to make any waves, but I’m getting tired of stifling my thoughts just so they won’t “get back to them” and result in a confrontation. I want to finally be myself without shame or fear.

The thing is, though, I am still afraid. I’m afraid of my father finding out, trying to engage me on this, and me melting down. I’m not necessarily scared he will hit me, but I am afraid of not being able to defend myself against his anger.

Advice?

Confused and Scared but also Fed Up

 

Dear Confused and Scared but also Fed Up,

The experience of having the person who helped bring you into the world, the man who represents your origins in many ways, turn on you in violence is something that shakes you to the core of yourself.  So my first thought is: though you see yourself as scared, you are actually incredibly brave.  Cloak yourself in that bravery like a grown-up security blanket.  It's why superheroes wear capes.

You were so brave to stand up to him as a kid, you are so brave to work on yourself through recovery, you are so brave to move beyond the values he clings to and find your own, and you are so brave to want to want to be yourself fully, in front of him and the whole world.

You are fucking awesome.

I hope he knows that.  I think he does, and fears it.  That's why he attempted to reassert his power over you by being physically abusive to you as an adult, and with the loud tirades about his politics and religion, which I consider spiritual abuse.

People who pontificate about politics and fundamentalist religions in a hostile way that excludes all other viewpoints are really just trying to order their world.  They see the world as an out of control place, and all the structure and rules of that way of life help them to make sense in the chaos, and find their place in it.

The thing is, in that world that makes perfect sense, where there are such heavy rights and wrongs, what you lose is love.  Love is inherently risky, and folks who are stuck in judgmental worldviews can't risk the rigid walls they've put up to hold everything in place, to love someone who might act in ways they can't control.

Whenever I consider standing up to someone, especially someone with this kind of strict worldview who may not be able to hear me at all, I ask myself this question, "Do they have any real power over me?"  If they do, if they are my direct boss or my landlord or the person holding the papers that say whether I graduate or not, then I consider holding my tongue in their presence.  However, if they don't, then I feel that it is not only my right, but my duty to be a change agent in their lives.  We don't have to wag it in their faces, that we don't believe what they do, but simply and firmly being who we are will be enough.

In fact, it is probably going to enrage your father, to see you asserting yourself, expressing views that are different from his.  The whole cycle of abuse is about power and control, so to see you moving off of that wheel and onto your own path is going to rock his whole sense of self and relationship to you.

My question to you is, what have you got to lose?  It's not like you will be giving up too much if he turns on you.  You say you have a "decent" relationship with him, which sounds to me like you are still in the role of peacemaker in your family.  What would happen if you let that down?  Your mom and siblings might say, "Why are you stirring things up with Dad?" but you could answer, "Why aren't you?  Are we all going to wait until he dies to be our true selves?"

Listen, I'm not suggesting you directly confront your father, provoking his rage.  Where I think you should start is with a therapist whom you can practice expressing yourself.  Engage in some drama therapy exercises, in which you picture your dad in an empty chair, and tell him what you really think about what he's done to you and your family, and how you truly feel about the world.  Then move into the chair and embody him, playing out his rebuttal.  Then move back into your chair, and tell him, "You had no right to be violent with me.  You have no power over me anymore.  I'm going to be myself, and no amount of posturing can stop me."

Then, start simply being your bold self, even if that means you publicly express things that your dad disagrees with.  He'll yell, he'll send you crazy forwards, he'll give you the cold shoulder.  You'll scoff to yourself, "I've survived worse", and let your bravery blanket flap in the wind.  He can’t take anything away from you anymore, because you aren’t under his control, and you know who you are now.  And if he cuts you out of his life, that will indeed be very painful, but then again, you'll be free.

Love,

Sibyl

Submit your own quandary to Sibyl here.

Embarking on a new decade

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers to 30.