Monday, July 19, 2021

My Daughter Has Secrets and That's a Good Thing

When my daughter was little she didn’t keep secrets. She told me everything. Once when she was four, she told me that she and her friend snuck candy. She told me even though she knew she’d get in trouble for it. As she got older she began to sensor what she told me. She didn’t want to get in trouble and she didn’t want to hear my perspective on what she or a friend did, even if it wasn’t bad. 

Over the years my daughter has shared past-kept secrets with me. When she was fourteen she shared with me the true extent of the bullying she experienced a few years earlier. Sometimes she’ll share a memory from when she was really little — like how she thought her imaginary friends were actually real, just microscopic and only she could see them. She told me she kept this secret because she didn’t want anyone else to know they were actually real and try to see them.

My daughter is sixteen now and she has lots of secrets — big ones and little ones. She has a vibrant, active social life. She has a car and a driver’s license. She is independent and on her own most of the time. When she comes home I want her to tell me everything. But she rarely does. If the mood is right she might share a few details about a party or some other activity she did, but I know the big stuff, the important stuff she mostly keeps inside.

I’ve noticed that eventually, my daughter will share things about her life with me. She shares her secrets once enough time has passed that I will no longer have a strong reaction — negative or positive. I get it. She wants to preserve her secrets, to keep them precious, like sterling silver pieces wrapped in thin felt, in the dark, away from the ozone and hydrogen that will tarnish them. She is still processing the experience herself, figuring out what it means to her, how it feels in her own body. 

It’s smart. She knows that if she tells me I will have a feeling about it. It might just be the subtle reaction on my face. Or I might have a lecture to give or a personal experience of my own to share. Her secrets stay inside until she is ready to make them public, to hear the outside critique, the oohs and ahhs, the possible judgment and disappointment.

Recently my daughter shared a secret with me that surprised and shocked me. When she told me, I saw her from an angle I had not yet seen. In hearing her secret I felt like I knew her a little bit more but simultaneously realized that there is so much more that I do not know. There must be so many more secrets. 

In the moment after my daughter shared her secret, I felt closer to her. I felt happy and grateful that she had shared it with me. But I also felt the sense that I knew her a little bit less. With every secret my daughter holds onto, mulls over, churns around inside, with her friends, in her own mind, she is coming to know herself a little bit more. 

As my daughter’s sense of knowing herself grows, so too does my sense of unknowing her. I think this is the point. In the old days when my daughter told me everything, I was in charge of her life. I made all the decisions. I planned all the activities. I was always there to moderate playdates and meltdowns. 

But that’s not my role anymore. My daughter has to figure out most of that stuff on her own. She has to build her own interiority of wisdom that she can draw from to navigate her life. This begins with her secrets, the life experiences she holds, processes, deciphers on her own before she lets them out for review from me or anyone else.

When my daughter shares a secret it is like she is making a little crack in the armor — I can see inside just a tiny bit, a glimmer of light shining from inside out. I want to get a knife and wedge my way in, to make the crack bigger so I can see more, know more. 

This longing is familiar. It comes with being a parent of a teenager. Standing outside trying to look in, there is so much more I want to know. But I know that this is part of the process — my unknowing of my daughter becomes her knowing of herself. I know she will share her secrets when she is ready, but for now, they are all hers.

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Evolution vs. Devolution

Yesterday my partner and I had a fight. We’d just come off of eleven days of family houseguests and we were both live wires — frayed and ready to spark. We had a fight, a small explosion, recovered, and went on to have a lovely night taking our teenage daughter and her cousin out to dinner. 

As we drove to the restaurant I reflected on how much my relationship with my partner has evolved. We’ve grown into a more functional, resilient team. We are more complex. We are better than we once were. I’ve been in relationships where this hasn’t been the case, where we’ve devolved. The combination of energies and personalities created a reverse system of movement into something worse, something destructive and unsustainable. And the relationship died; it had to end. 

At dinner, the four of us sat outside and enjoyed a long, lazy dinner together. We talked about college, relationships, dreams, fears, possibilities, and obstacles. We laughed, tasted each other’s meals, and asked each other questions. I was keenly aware of how special this experience was. It’s not easy to tie two wildly social sixteen-year-olds down in the heat of the summer, much less engage in two hours of engaged, focused conversation. 

Later in the evening when the girls had gone off to do their own thing, my partner and I reflected on how much these two sixteen-year-olds have evolved in the last few years. They live on opposite sides of the country so only see each other once or twice a year but they hold each other up, they support each other and each makes the other better.

The root of evolution is “volv” which means “roll” or “turn around.” Being involved in a relationship — whether it is romantic, professional, friendship, or other — means you are rolling somewhere. You are moving in some direction.

In relationships that are evolving, you are rolling out or forth — expanding, growing, moving into a better state of being. In relationships that are devolving, you are unrolling or coming undone, falling apart, ready to break up. 

I’ve been in devolving relationships — both friendship and romantic — and they’ve had to end. In those relationships, I was involved — rolling into — a connection with someone with whom I was not able to grow or expand; I was unable to roll out or towards something more expansive and enriching. 

As I’ve aged more of my relationships feel like they are evolving. I have more life experience, a better sense of discernment. I am more in touch with the micro emotions that signify a need for change, a shift in the direction I am rolling. 

Relationships are the hardest thing in the world. We all know, we can feel, when our relationships are rolling in the wrong direction. We feel less buoyant, less resilient. We feel decreased energy, a weaker constitution. And we can feel when our relationships are rolling in the right direction. The air feels lighter. The sun shines brighter. There are possibilities in the present moment and a sense of excitement for what will come next. 

The beauty of relationships is that they are always in motion, always changing, going in one direction or another. What’s important is that we check in from time to time and make sure we’re rolling in the right direction. 

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

I'm Sorry: Parenting in the Time of Global Despair

“The lake feels like lotion!” the little boy shouted to his friends, treading water at the base of the ladder, “so smooth and refreshing.” I lay on the other side of the dock, my head propped up with a life jacket, reading my book, Love Becomes Us by Amy Bloom. It was hot, hotter than it had ever been in the Pacific Northwest where I live. 

My family had been lucky. We escaped to this mountain lake on a planned trip with my brother-in-law and his kids. Instead of 108 degrees, it was only 99 and we could hang out in this cold glacial lake all day long. 

The little boy shouting was eight or nine years old, skinny and tan, happy and energized. He jumped off the dock over and over, laughing with pleasure every time. I remember the days when my daughter had that kind of ease, that kind of access to simple pleasures. 

These days are complicated. The world feels like it is ending. There was the pandemic, over a year of lockdown seeped with fear and longing. And now this heat, record-breaking, devastating —to  people, animals and nature. This heat is preparing our region for fires that will destroy more land, more humans and wildlife, more homes, more trees. Like last summer, we will be stuffed into our homes, windows sealed, hiding from the smoke outside. 

When I was eight or nine I didn’t think about the earth. We never talked about it. I remember waiting in line for gas at the Shell station on 54th street with my mom. I remember her explaining that Jimmy Carter was rationing gas because there was an oil crisis. I lived a life, essentially into my twenties with the ignorant luxury of not worrying about our dying planet. Back then we didn’t talk about climate change or global warming. I wish we had. Maybe if we had things would be different now. The planet I am leaving my daughter wouldn’t be so hot and angry and scary.

My daughter is sixteen now. When she was eight she knew things about the earth. In third grade, she raised money to support people who lost everything in the Japanese Tsunami. She’s always known how to recycle and compost. She grew up with Hybrid cars and conversations about red meat at dinner. She is keenly aware of the crisis our Earth is experiencing.

And, she is becoming an adult during this crisis. Like Elizabeth, the protagonist in Bloom’s, Love Becomes Us, my daughter is traversing the complicated emotional landscape that comes with adolescence. Elizabeth is wise beyond her years. She can see the hypocrisy of her parents and the other adults around her. Like most teens, Elizabeth is struggling in her own way to just get through the painful, confusing adolescent years. 

As I read my book, I can remember what that felt like, how my emotions moved through me when I was that age. I have glimpses, flashes of memory. I remember when I was seventeen and all I did was cry. I cried on the road trip I took with my family. I cried in my room at night. I cried over gifts I got at Christmas. I cried and cried and I didn’t really understand why.

Yesterday I told my daughter that I was tired of her speaking to me like she was mad at me all the time. “I’m sorry,” replied, “I do feel angry all the time.” She said it so matter-of-factly, with such certainty that my vision blurred for a split-second. I scanned my brain for something to say but there was nothing. “Noooooo,” I cried to myself, “I don’t want this for her.”

I’ve been here before. It’s the heartbreak of motherhood, the moment when I know clearly that there is nothing I can do, no balm I can smooth over a scraped knee, no lullaby I can sing, no goodnight story I can tell to make everything feel better. 

I think about the earth all the time. I am terrified about where we’ve been in the last year, afraid of what is coming. When I talk about my worries, sometimes my daughter will say, “Please Mom. Please stop. I can’t hear this right now.” And I know she is frightened too. Unlike me at sixteen, she is aware. She knows things. 

While my daughter is living the emotional thunderstorm of hormonal adolescence, there is a blanket of disaster overlaying everything. How will she manage this? How will she find her way? 

The path we are on, the too-late feeling I have about our planet, is often too much for me so how do teenagers who are just waiting to get to the next phase manage it? What do they think when the next phase is filled with 108 degree days, fires in the rain forest, and global droughts? 

There are good times too, like yesterday when my daughter and her cousin sunbathed together for hours, took the kayak out, and loudly sang songs on the deck that echoed across the lake. I know that along with being angry, my daughter is happy too. Like all teenagers, her landscape is complicated and unpredictable. 

Adolescence is a global disaster in itself. It is an earthquake, tornado, tsunami, and hurricane wrapped into an eight to ten-year period. I know my daughter will get through this period. And as she ages, she will figure out how to move through all of the disasters in front of her. She will find moments of joy and celebration and excitement along the way. But I feel for her. I feel for all of the teenagers right now. Their burden is profound, beyond any that I could have imagined at that young age. 

There’s no balm, no simple fix for this. When the conversation about the environment comes up, as it so often does these days, all I can do is look at my daughter, and say, “I’m sorry” because I am. 

I really, really am.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Taking "Old" as a Compliment

Right now I am reading Justine Bateman’s book Face: One Square Foot of Skin. It’s about beauty expectations for older women with a particular emphasis on the pressure to get plastic surgery to stay young-looking. Young is the standard for beauty. Old is the standard for ugly, washed up, hard to look at. In her introduction, Bateman talks about how, as a young actress, she longed for the smile and worry lines she saw in older European actresses. Somehow, despite growing up in Hollywood, she saw beauty in these signs of aging. Throughout the book, she shares a series of vignettes she’s collected about other women’s experiences getting older.

I have great empathy for women in Hollywood. The pressure to stay young-looking is profoundly dysfunctional and incredibly destructive to the natural process of becoming older. Bateman is pushing back against this. In one chapter she sets a scene of “old” being beautiful. She depicts a handful of women hanging out on the golf course eschewing sunscreen, hats, or anything else that might hinder the natural process of developing wrinkles. In this vignette, wrinkles are beautiful. They are a roadmap of one’s life. As an aging woman myself, I recognized the absurdity of this scenario but still, I loved this chapter.

I recently started working at my friend’s consignment shop. We sell women’s clothing and accessories. The store is a friendly neighborhood destination — lots of regulars and occasionally some out-of-area stragglers.

Yesterday while I was working, an old man came in with an old woman. I am fifty-two so old to me means at least seventy-five, probably eighty. Very old means the high eighties or nineties.

As I approached the couple to tell them about our sale, the man came by and, standing way too close, said, “You remind me so much of my ex-wife.” I politely nodded and pointed to the area where everything was 30 percent off. He came up to me again and said, “I really can’t believe how much you remind me of my ex-wife.”

In my mind I was thinking his ex-wife looked must have looked like him — a white-haired, old-looking version of him. And I’m not proud of this feeling, but I was offended. I didn’t want to look like that.

A few hours later a very old woman came up to the counter to pay for a pinky-peach linen blouse. “I love this color,” I said to her as I rang in her item. Then, realizing that my blouse and pants were also that color, I laughed and said, “Ha Ha. I’m wearing that exact color from head to toe. I guess I really do like that color.”

“Peach is good for us as we get older, the very old woman responded, “it softens and flatters us.”

“I’m her,” I thought to myself as I folded her blouse into tissue paper and tucked her receipt into the package. My mind went into a slow panic — like the dishwasher being emptied into an anti-gravity chamber, forks and plates and coffee cups randomly floating around looking for a place to settle.

I felt confused. I wasn’t ready for this. “I’m only fifty-two,” I thought to myself. And then gravity returned. All the dishes and silverware clattered on the floor and I was back to reality. I saw the absurdity of my thinking. I am getting older. We all get older. I will be lucky and grateful if I get to be as old as this woman. Very old shopping at a cool consignment shop to boot!

I believe in the old adage, “beauty is skin deep.” I have tried to drill that belief into my daughter’s head for sixteen years. I tell her grandparents not to comment on her looks. If someone says what a beautiful young woman she’s growing into I quickly snap back, “and SMART!”

But I see my daughter focusing on her looks, garnering great self-esteem from the attention she gets. And I’m no different. These two moments in the store, where separate individuals commented on my age, went right to my ego. These two comments were telling me, “you’re old,” which I translated to mean, “you’re not beautiful.”

I am getting old. My hair is getting gray. I have smile and laugh and worry lines. The skin on my hands, arms, and legs is getting crepey. My kneecaps hurt when I garden. There are lots of signs that I am getting older.

Society has done a number on women. Instead of feeling accomplished for the forehead grooves that come from years of hard thinking, problem-solving, and accomplishing things in my life, like millions of other aging women, I’ve fallen prey to the dogma that I should try to hide or erase those markings.

I have friends who do Botox. And I have friends who’ve had other lifts and tucks. It makes them feel better. I get it. We’re all part of this bigger messed-up system that hates wrinkles and all things old. My reaction to those two comments in the store yesterday shone a light on my internalized disdain for aging, and thus for myself.

The woman with the pink blouse might have been beautiful had I looked at her long and hard enough to even really see her. But I hadn’t. Because she was very old I simply dismissed her and then, because we were alike, both older than younger, I dismissed myself.

That utopian scene in Bateman’s book where wrinkles and other signs of aging were revered seemed so farfetched when I read that chapter. It was like reading science fiction. But why? I’m grateful for the life experiences that have given me wrinkles — all of the summers playing in the lake, the years of walking I’ve done, playing soccer, riding my bike. My forehead creases come from years of reading and writing and parenting. I wouldn’t change any of that stuff so why would I change my face?

I’m on the young side of old and if I’m lucky, I’m going to keep getting older. The patriarchy is not going to suddenly change and proclaim, “older women are beautiful.” Victoria’s Secret will likely not start using menopausal women in their ad campaigns. Now that I’m older, I see clearly how these societal norms have influenced me adversely. When I first started reading Bateman’s book I thought to myself, “I’m not like these Hollywood women.” But I am. I may not be getting plastic surgery, but I believe the same things they do.

I don’t want to believe those things anymore. Those messages don’t serve me or any women, young or old. The next time someone comments to me about being an older woman I am going to smile broadly, feel the wrinkles around my eyes and mouth fire up, and say, “Thank you.”

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Tiny Moments: Gratitude for the Small Things

I remember when I was a new mother. I was consumed with my baby. Nursing, changing, soothing, adoring. Every moment was taken up with her presence. I went back to work when my daughter was six weeks old. I was lucky. I had my own business and was able to go to work in small doses — three or four hours at a time — so that I could come back home and be with my baby. I loved going to work. It gave me a place to connect to myself, to be social for a few hours, to remember who I was before I was a mother. But still, I hated leaving my daughter even for those short periods of time.

Having a baby is a lot of work. There is very little freedom. It’s like lock-down only you’re totally hormonal and in love so you don’t feel it as harshly. I remember moments of utter frustration when my daughter nursed for eighteen hours of the day. It was her only means of soothing whatever was troubling her tiny soul. In those days I wished for more freedom, for a break. I felt trapped by parental responsibility. I had a life — work to do, emails to respond to, friends to see — and I was tethered to this little being, unable to take care of the other aspects of my life.

Now my daughter is sixteen. She just left on her first road trip. It’s a small one, to a city just a few hours away, but it feels like she's traveled a thousand miles. At sixteen my daughter is wildly independent. She wants to be up, up, and away, gone from the clutches of her parents and her teachers, her coaches, and all that is familiar. She wants new and different and exciting. She’s got a list a mile long of things she wants to do in her life and most of them don’t include me.

These days I see my daughter in tiny moments — a short morning check-in over oatmeal and coffee before she hits the ground running. Maybe an afternoon shopping at Goodwill together. Often she comes home past my bedtime and I try to make myself stay up to welcome her home. Occasionally on these nights, we’ll have a spontaneous TikTok browsing session and I’m grateful for the chance to laugh together, to see what her life is about these days.

On the last day of my daughter’s sophomore year, I planned to have a family dinner but when she got home she’d already gone out to eat Bahn Mi with her friends. She wasn’t hungry so we sat on the back patio for a half hour and toasted the end of the year with a lemonade mocktail. It was short and sweet. It was all she had to give at that moment and I was grateful.

I got to watch her play soccer yesterday for the first time in over a year. I don’t go to games anymore because now my daughter is old enough to drive herself. And, she doesn’t really want me there. On the way home, she ranted about the heat and the lack of subs. It was familiar and strangely comforting to be in the car with her that way. The whole experience was only a few hours but I soaked it up like a long vacation after a hard year’s work. I’ve been driving carpool and watching her play soccer for over ten years and it’s always a delight.

We’ve switched, my daughter and I. Our roles have inverted. I understand how she feels. Now she is the independent one, the one with a bigger, more exciting life. She has business to attend to, parts of herself that cannot be nourished by me. Now I am the hungry one, longing for the familiar connection we once had. Our relationship has changed; our roles are different now. These days the connections come in small moments, tiny precious encounters.

I’ve heard older mothers talking about this change for years but I didn’t fully understand it. Yesterday my friend sent her sixteen-year-old off to backpacking camp. Her daughter would be in the mountains, unreachable for two weeks. A few hours after she put her daughter on the bus I asked my friend how she felt. “Sad,” she said, “I miss her.” I knew exactly how she felt. Even when my daughter is sleeping soundly in her room one floor below me I miss her. She’s here, but she’s far away. I know it’s a good thing. She’s moving on, living her life, becoming an adult. But the missing is still there.

It’s not unlike the feeling I had when my daughter was six weeks old. When I had to go to work, to be away from her, even for a few hours, I missed her. I relished the moment of coming back home, opening the front door and scooping her little body into my arms. It was such a clear, easy feeling. I was taking care of my baby, doing my job.

That baby is all grown up, but I still feel that desire to scoop her into my arms and squeeze her full of love, to know that I am doing my job. My job looks different now. It’s not as obvious or simple. My daughter doesn’t need me in those same ways. But she still needs me and I’m figuring out how, trying to follow her lead.

What I’ve learned is that the moments of connection are still here. They are smaller, more fleeting but if I look for them I can see they are here. The morning chat, the evening cell phone scroll, listening to a rant on the way home from a soccer game. The key is to be open, to watch for the opportunities to connect, and be present and grateful when they come.

Unresolved: That Uncomfortable In-Between Place

 I’m unresolved. Much like anger or elation, unresolved is an emotional state. It takes energy. It distracts me from being present. It is a niggling, uncomfortable state. It’s not there all the time, but when it shows up it is strong and clear.

Almost a year ago I lost a friend. She didn’t die or move away. She just became lost to me. We were friends for thirty years and then one day we weren’t. It’s like she went on a boat and never returned. She’s okay. She’s still friends with our other friends, but she’s lost to me. I don’t understand why she decided to stop being my friend and this confusion eats away at me. I have so many questions.

I am unresolved. What do I mean by unresolved? There is a sense of loss, the feeling of longing. And confusion. Because of the way our friendship so nebulously ended I have no clarity. Maybe I would feel resolved if I knew she was really gone. But she’s still here, just a few miles from my house. There’s a term in psychology — ambiguous loss. I think that’s what I’m experiencing here. I am in a confused, delayed state of grieving. There was no closure with this friend, no clarity and so I am unresolved.

Several times a week I think about calling my friend but I know she won’t respond. I’ve tried reaching out numerous times and she hasn’t reciprocated. So I don’t call or text. The impulse just sits there reminding me that I am unresolved. I haven’t let this friend go.

My unresolved feelings are like an in-between place, a bookmark between the comfort of our friendship and the sadness of its definite end. I’m frustrated because this lack of resolution is lasting a long time. It’s been months and I still dream regularly about seeing my friend. I still have her phone number in my head. I have so much anger about how she dropped me like a rotten banana in the compost. I’m unresolved.

Part of being unresolved is focusing on the other person. I wonder so many things: Is she happy?; Does she miss me too?; Is she unresolved? In focusing on what my former friend is thinking I am prolonging this state that I am in. I am wrapped up in my ego — worried about how she and other people see me —  instead of my own experience with the loss. 

To come to a resolution with this friendship, to actually grieve the loss, I have to throw all that other stuff out the window. I have to let go of what my former friend thinks about me, what she is telling our other friends about me. That’s the hard part. Once I let go of all that other stuff I will have to enter the true grief state of this loss and that makes me too sad.

Strangely, it helps to just have a name for this state that I’m in. I’m unresolved. I’m not happy, not sad, just somewhere in between. It feels comforting to define that. At least I know where I am. And it helps to remember the good things about our friendship. Too often I just feel anger when I think of my friend. Maybe that’s why she comes to me in my dreams. Maybe that is a subconscious invitation to remember the good things about our history. 

Being unresolved is uncomfortable. It’s like wearing shoes that rub your heel or a bra that rides up one armpit. But it’s also a form of self-preservation, a way of staving off the painful feelings of truly grieving. Ambiguous loss is often the experience people have when they lose their relationship with a parent because of dementia or a spouse because of addiction. The person is still there but not in the way you want them to be, not in the way you knew them to be. There’s a sense of waiting for a moment when things might change — when your mother recognizes you or your spouse finally enters treatment.

That’s where I am. Waiting for the moment when I’ll know for sure. I’m waiting for my friend to write me an email explaining why she ended the friendship. I’m waiting to know something for sure. I’m waiting for some kind of sign that there really is no hope, that our friendship is truly over. For whatever reason, I just can't face the loss yet. I'm unresolved.

Tuesday, June 15, 2021

Learning to Live with The Wolves

When my daughter was two, a friend of mine said, “our job as mothers is to prepare our children to live in the world.” I remember when I heard this my heart broke a little bit. I didn’t want to let my little girl go. And I still don’t. But now she’s sixteen and my job to ready her launch is more critical than ever.

Parenting a teenager through a pandemic and then watching them enter back into the big bad world is one of the most harrowing, unmooring experiences I’ve had as a parent. During the pandemic, my daughter was isolated, lonely, depressed, and unmotivated. I worried about her mental health on a daily basis. But I knew where she was all the time.

And now she is vaccinated. All of her friends are vaccinated. She is free. They are free. My daughter has a car and can drive wherever she wants. She went from having no options to infinite possibilities. And I am scared shitless.

Being a mother is like being a shepherd. I am charged with the responsibility of guiding my daughter safely through life until she is on her own. During the pandemic everyone was on the same path —  staying close to home, protecting ourselves and each other from the big bad wolf that was Coronavirus.

Now the wolf is not as strong, it is not an imminent threat and we can all roam the pastures without worry. But as the shepherd I know there are other predators to my little sheep. My daughter is not at risk of contracting and spreading COVID-19 like she was two months ago but there are other wolves. For a mother, there are always wolves — lechy men who look at my daughter when she fills her gas tank, parties with alcohol where kids lose their senses, drunk driving, peer pressure, social media, eating disorders. I could go on.

But the point is that these wolves, these fears, are mine, not my daughter’s. My daughter is alive with independence right now. She wants to be with her friends or she wants to be alone. The only place she does not want to be is standing by the shepherd who wants to keep her confined. But like any good shepherd, I am afraid of losing my sheep. My instinct is to pull out my staff, call my sheepdog and get my wandering sheep back into the field where I can see her.

But my instinct is not my job right now. I go back to what my friend said fifteen years ago. My job is to prepare my daughter to leave the safety of the pasture. She has to venture out where I cannot see her, beyond the protection of the fenced meadow. That is where she will ultimately live; now is her time to travel beyond the fence.

It’s agonizing — watching my daughter wander and not pulling her back to safety. As the shepherd, I worry about the wolves every day. That’s my job. But these are my fears, not hers. My daughter is on an important path of her own right now. She might wander into danger. She probably will. And if and when she does she will have to figure out how to manage. Sheep do it. They have instincts of their own — to run from predators or to stick with the flock when danger is afoot. 

My job now is to stand back and trust that my daughter can handle the wolves. It’s scary to watch her go. I worry that she’ll wander too far; that she’ll lose her way and never come back. But in these moments of panic, I tell myself that the fenced meadow will always be here for her. I will always be here for her. She needs to wander now, to explore beyond the fences. She has good instincts. She’s a smart, capable sheep and I know deep down that she’ll be okay. She’ll be back. 

Friday, June 4, 2021

The Energy of Worry


My daughter, a formerly straight-A student is getting a D in chemistry. A D. I find myself twisting into a knot of worry whenever I think about it. Does this D mean she will turn into a dropout? Does it mean that she won’t get into college? 

And part of me doesn’t give a fuck. The fact that my sixteen-year-old daughter has survived this year-and-a-half of pandemic stress without reverting to drugs, cutting, starving herself, or entering a deep depression is enough. I am grateful that she still comes into the kitchen for breakfast with an occasional smile. I am happy that we still eat dinner as a family. It gives me profound joy to see her driving off, finally safe and vaccinated, to hang out with her friends (finally!!!) instead of staying cooped up her dark room where she’s been for a year and change.

I worried throughout the whole crisis of the pandemic. I worried about the world, about my city, about my parents, but mostly I worried about my daughter. She is the receptacle of my worry. When my whole family and most of my community finally got vaccinated and the threat of COVID diminished my worry for my daughter fell away.

But then I just replaced my worry. Instead of worrying about her contracting and spreading COVID, I worry about her D in chemistry. This morning I asked myself what the point of this replacement worry was. At this point in the school year, there is nothing she can do to get her grade up. It’s a done deal. Instead of spending time being delighted that my daughter came out of this hideous school year mentally sound, I worry about one grade. Why?

At the same time that I worry about my daughter’s D in chemistry, I watch her engaging with friends, taking babysitting jobs, making cookies, getting decent grades in the rest of her classes. Worry is like fuel that keeps a fire raging. It serves some purpose for me, it keeps me engaged. Worry assures me that I am doing my job as a parent — that I am invested, aware, involved in my daughter’s wellbeing.

But what if I replaced worry with encouragement and excitement? What is I focused my energy on cheering my daughter on for scoring a great paying babysitting gig on Sundays? What if I applauded her tenacity to stick with a bizarre soccer season of socially distanced, mask-wearing bullshit? Wouldn’t that create the same fuel — the same feeling of being an active, engaged, supportive parent?

And wouldn’t it make me feel better? I think it would. But I have become dependent on, habituated to the feeling of worry. It is like an old, reliable friend, the one you always meet at the same time, in the same place for a cup of the same kind of tea. I’m bored with the worry. It’s not serving me and it’s not serving my daughter. By worrying so much I am missing out on all of the celebration, the good stuff. 

So what is my plan? Like all mental shifts, I have to be intentional. It’s like keeping a gratitude journal (which I do). Every night, no matter how hard or unpleasant my day was, I take time to write three things I am grateful for. It makes me happy. It sends me off to sleep with a feeling of contentment. It reminds me of all the good things in my life.

I could do the same thing with my worry. Every time I start to worry about my daughter’s D in chemistry I can turn on my mental heels and think about something I want to applaud her for. Last night my daughter and her friend were making cookies in our kitchen. They’ve been friends since they were babies and have a wonderful, comfortable rapport. They were laughing and joking, teasing each other; they were happy. 

I went to bed listening to their banter. While I ran a bath I wrote in my gratitude journal, just three things. One of them was the laughter downstairs. 

Wednesday, June 2, 2021

A Sign from Above: The Message of the Great Blue Heron


We are on the pregnant cusp of spring and summer where I live. All of the flowers and trees are full to bursting with color and fragrance. This morning as I sat on my deck drinking coffee I heard a cacophony of birdsong in layers. My mind was already on overdrive. I have a job interview today and I don’t know if I want the job. Is it right for me? How can I know? I wanted to simply enjoy this moment on the deck without the chatter of what-ifs that had taken hold of my morning solitude. 

I closed my eyes to quiet the thoughts. I could hear the robins and stellar jays in the background as the crows inserted their loud, rhymic caw-caw-caw like a trumpet on top of a gentle piano melody. 

The sun was warm on my face and the lake to the north and east of me was still and quiet. After I finished my coffee on the deck, I took my dog Freckles down to the lake for a walk. As I waited for Freckles to explore the grass at the edge of the lake I closed my eyes again to hear the birdsong. The red-winged blackbirds like to hang out at the edge of the lake with the waterfowl. The birdsong had changed; now the caws of the crows dropped into the background and the high-pitched trill of the blackbirds along with the slow heavy honk of loitering geese took center stage.

As Freckles and I walked, something drew my eye upwards to the top of a giant conifer across the road from the lake. High up in the branches I saw what I thought might be an eagle, but as my eyes focused more I could see it was a great blue heron. She was looking east towards the other side of the lake. Compared to all of the birds bustling around me, the heron was serene, perfectly still. She seemed to be at one with the lake. 

“Hello Heron,” I said out loud. I have a long relationship with Great Blue Herons. They have been my favorite bird for many years because they remind me, at always just the right time, that I need to be still. For all the years I’ve walked along the lake, the herons have been there, sometimes hiding in the reeds, occasionally flying slowly overhead like pre-historic creatures, reliably perched on the driftwood by the marina, and today, high up in the cedar tree.

I am in transition again — looking for the perfect job. I am happy right now and I fear that taking the wrong job will take me away from this happiness. The stress of it, the obligation, the pressure I put on myself, will drag me down into the chaotic trenches that I so desperately climbed out of just a few years ago. And, I want to work. Working fulfills me. It energizes me. Many days I long for the creative outlet that I get from creating projects, writing proposals, solving problems. But today I am worried. 

I watch the red-winged blackbirds perch on the shrubs on the shore of the lake for moments at a time before they reverse dive into the sky circling a few times and then coming back. They sing their high-pitched Spanish trill as they dive back down to their branches. And the geese meander back and forth across the grass, wandering dangerously into the road, stopping cars as they make their slow, choppy journey to the other side.

All the while the heron sits above, waiting, watching. She’s too far up to see the fish in the lake. Is she watching for her mate? Looking for a new place to fish? Maybe she is taking stock of the day ahead, quieting her mind before she enters the fray of life down at the water’s edge. 

As I watch the heron I am reminded why she always speaks to me. I want what she has. I want the presence and patience to settle, to step away from the hustle and bustle down at the lake’s edge. 

I turn on the path to take Freckles home and I feel peaceful. Like the wise sage she’s always been, the great blue heron reminded me that the quiet presence she possesses is also right here with me. It was with me earlier this morning on the deck when I closed my eyes to turn off the chatter. And it is with me right now as I look towards the future, unsure of what the perfect job is. 

I think of the heron in the tree, patiently waiting for the right time to come down. There will be a moment when that heron decides she is ready to join the others at the water’s edge. She will leave her peaceful perch and find her place among the geese and ducks and blackbirds. And I too will find that moment. The perfect job will come. I will step back into the chaos. And I will try to remember the lesson of the heron — the peaceful presence is always here with me. 

Thursday, May 27, 2021

Born with a Personality

Yesterday my sixteen-year-old daughter Lucia hit our neighbor’s car. We live on a steep street and she was parked nose up the hill. Our neighbor had pulled in behind her very close. Lucia was giving me a ride to a friend’s house so I was in the passenger seat. As we buckled in Lucia complained loudly about how close the neighbor had parked.

“How am I supposed to get out of here?!!!,” she half-whimpered, half-barked.

“Just take a deep breath and go step by step,” I said in my calmest voice. Nothing I say these days is right so I have to be judicious in any and all advice I give.

I watched Lucia put one foot on the brake and one foot on the gas. She slowly released the brake and pushed hard on the gas. But she was in reverse. Our car rammed loudly into our neighbor’s car behind us. Lucia looked at me with terror in her eyes. I instructed her to put the car in drive and go forward a few yards and then go check if there was any damage.

Our neighbor, hearing the crash, came outside and looked at her car with Lucia. Lucia was very apologetic, spoke directly to the neighbor and comported herself like a responsible adult. Miraculously there was no damage to our neighbor’s car. I got out of the car and joined Lucia and our neighbor. The three of us stood in the street discussing our ridiculous parking situation. Each of our households currently has three cars and our little part of the block is like musical cars, all the cars rotating into different spots, some spots more desirable than others. 

Our neighbor asked Lucia which spot she preferred. I know Lucia has a favorite. It’s the one she’d just crashed out of. But instead of telling our neighbor what her favorite was, Lucia just smiled and said, “I don’t care. Whatever is fine.”

I’ve been trying to encourage Lucia to say what she wants, to speak up for herself with her parents, in school, and with her friends. She only has two years left at home and I feel the pressure to equip her with self-advocacy skills before she’s off in the world on her own.

When we got back in the car we checked in. I asked Lucia if she was okay to drive? She said she was; it seemed like she’d put the fender bender behind her for now. I was surprised. I would have been in a semi-acute panic attack if I’d hit the neighbor’s car. I likely would not have been able to drive calmly after such an incident.

Before Lucia started the car I put my hand on her thigh and said, “Lucia, you just got asked which parking spot you preferred, a perfect opportunity to say what you want, and you didn’t take the opportunity. Why?”

“Mom,” she said sternly, “you wouldn’t have done that. You wouldn’t have said which parking spot you preferred.” And she was right. I would have done the exact thing she did. My years of being accommodating in the face of confrontation had taught her to respond the same way.

The experience got me thinking about how much our modeling as parents affects our kids. And how much it doesn’t. My friend Jamie always says, “Our kids are born with personalities.” And I think she’s right. There are elements of Lucia’s personality that have always been there. She’s radiantly calm in the face of many stressful situations — shots at the doctor, a cavity being filled at the dentist, getting her nose pierced, taking tests at school, singing a solo in front of three hundred people, and now I know, after hitting a neighbor’s car. She’s always been like that. She was born that way.

This may be my biggest lesson as a parent — that much of who my daughter is and who she will become is out of my control. I can teach her things like writing thank you cards, looking people in the eye when you make a toast, being thrifty, and making a delicious salad. And now I know I’ve also taught her to be a pleaser. But her essence, her true nature, is hers alone. It is something she was born with and will carry with her throughout her life. 

My greatest wish for my daughter is that she be happy and healthy, that she feel at home in the world and at peace with herself. As a parent, my job is to be a teacher and a guide. This car crash experience reminds me that I am also a student in this role as parent. 

From Lucia’s fender bender I understand that I have taught Lucia some good things and some not-so-good things. She’s learned to be responsible— to talk to the neighbor and apologize. And she’d learned to evade hard topics, like being direct about your preferred parking spot. 

I have always been a worrier, responding to stressful situations with an anxiety-filled panic response. Watching Lucia stay calm in the face of her mini-car-crash-crisis showed me that I haven’t taught Lucia everything I know. Thank god for that.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

The Symmetry of Aging


A few nights ago at dinner, my sixteen-year-old daughter Lucia embarked on an intellectual witch hunt with me. For almost an hour she challenged me to come up with a scientific basis for why I believe in energy. I believe that if someone performs an evil act their energy affects others. At the same time, when someone is kind, I believe that their energy spreads.

Lucia asked me how I thought that worked, “from a scientific perspective.” I bullshitted a little bit, talking about how we are all molecules, all connected. But she’s had physics in the last year and for me, it’s been almost forty years so she could throw out more science than I could.

I felt like I had shown up for a job interview in dirty sweats, bad breath, and greasy hair with no idea what the position was. I floundered and made up answers to her questions but the whole time I felt myself sinking deeper into a hole. In the end, I pulled myself together enough to offer a brief synopsis of my perspective. “I believe in universal consciousness and I can’t explain it beyond that. It’s not scientific. It’s spiritual.” And then I got up and cleared the table.

While the dinner table interrogation was happening, one part of my brain was observing the whole scene. I watched as my daughter sat in control and I attempted to claw my way out of this deepening hole. For Lucia’s entire life I have been the expert. But I realized as I watched her schooling me that this was changing before my very eyes. “She’s growing her confidence,” I thought to myself, “she’s more adult than child right now.” We’re closer to each other in our roles right now than we are far away. But that won’t always be the case.

Currently my partner Nancy is in the difficult position of moving her parents into an assisted living facility. Of course, they do not want to go. Who would? But it is imperative for their safety and well-being and Nancy is driving the entire process.

I watch Nancy, now in charge of her parents after so many years of them being in charge of her and I see that my experience with Lucia has tinges of the same shift. There is a symmetry between childhood and old age. Children grow towards adulthood as adults grow toward old age. And between these two endpoints, we all spend years in the middle.

It’s a natural process, the slow climb towards adulthood and slow descent into old age. But we don’t often see the shifts. So often we just move through life not noticing the subtle changes that move us more deeply into the different stages of our lives.

For Nancy now, with her parents, the need for change is drastic. The final shift has been made and she is standing strong in her adulthood as her parents fully transition into old age. She is in control now. She has been growing into this place for decades. She is prepared and capable.

And Lucia is just at the beginning of her adulthood, practicing skills and honing tools so that when the time comes she will be prepared to take on the role of being an adult to her parents in their old age. And if Lucia has children the cycle will continue.

The symmetry of this gives me comfort. Moving into the final stage of old age, we are in so many ways stepping back into childhood. We are letting our children become the parents, surrendering the control that we once had. I watch Nancy’s parents now — letting go of all the hard work they did as adults, all that holding onto the reigns and being in charge — and I see that it is painful.

I felt just a tiny pang of it at dinner the other night. I could see clearly that my role with my daughter was changing. It will continue to change until I too get to that final frontier. I have many years to go before I reach that point but it helps to see the path, to lay it out, and recognize that this is the natural cycle of life. We all start as children and, if we are lucky, end in old age.

Wednesday, May 19, 2021

The Golden Light


Last month I got rejected from a job that I really wanted. I had the opportunity to do a follow-up interview with the director afterward. The director said that they’d liked me a lot but were looking for someone who had more comfort and experience talking about race and social justice issues. This was a hard thing to hear, but important. Like many white people, I am self-conscious and insecure about how I talk about race. I have a lot to learn. My sister Kat has been working in the field of race and equity for decades. She has deeply committed herself to this work, both on a personal and professional level. 

I asked her if she would have a conversation with me about the feedback I got and she generously agreed. Another good friend of mine who is also working to deepen her knowledge and engagement in racial justice and equity issues joined me for the Zoom call with Kat. Over the course of two hours, I got to witness my twin sister enlightening us with information, questions, exercises that would help us begin a process of being more educated and accountable. As my friend and I listened to Kat sharing her wisdom and experience it was like she was standing in front of a golden light. I saw her differently. I was meeting her fully for the first time. 

For the next few days, I digested the information Kat shared. I was grateful and impressed. I kept thinking to myself, “Kat is so smart. She knows so much.” 

I’ve had the same feeling with my sister Amy. Amy is a humor writer (Amy Culberg) and she’s hilarious. When I read her writing I am in awe, “She is so clever and FUNNY,” I frequently say to my family as I am laughing out loud. “How does she think this stuff up?” And like Kat, as I read her brilliant writing it is like I am meeting Amy anew, seeing her in her golden light.

Last week my partner Nancy and I went to some neighbors' house for drinks. They needed legal advice and Nancy is a lawyer specializing in their specific area of need. I watched Nancy give input and offer guidance for three hours. When we left I said to her, “You are so smart and you know so much! You are incredibly good at what you do.” Seeing Nancy in that golden light ignited a spark. I fell in love with her all over again.

It’s not often that we get to see our close friends and family in a different light. Mostly, we are entrenched in our roles — as sister, partner, friend. Seeing people in their other roles is a gift and an opportunity to know them more fully. For me, it’s a way to fill in the pieces of a partially finished painting. These familiar people in my life become more colorful, more complete, more exciting. 

For twenty years I taught yoga. I owned a yoga studio. I trained yoga teachers. Yoga defined me in the eyes of many people. But I rarely taught yoga to my family. To them, I was just Laura — the annoying older sister, the stubborn daughter, the nagging mother, and the quirky, neurotic spouse. 

For the past month, I have been doing a morning yoga class with my twin sister Kat. She’s trying to heal her back after many years of deferred maintenance. After a hard stop break where I didn’t do any yoga for a few months, this lovely start-of-the-day ritual has been the perfect transition to a regular yoga practice for me. We practice together, chatting through the poses about what’s going on in our lives. But I’m also her teacher, helping her find ways to heal and support her aching body. I’m offering her  another part of who I am.

At first, I was self-conscious to share this part of myself with Kat. I worried she’d judge me or find me irritating. But I was wrong. It’s been a comfortable, natural process and I look forward to it every day. At the end of class, she sends me a thank you text and we confirm our start time for the following morning. 

We all have golden lights — the parts of ourselves that make us who we are. I can think of dozens more examples — seeing my friend Kate the elementary school teacher corral a group of people at a party for a game, watching my daughter Lucia play soccer, seeing my mother at her first art opening. The golden light of the ones we love is always there. We just have to remember to look for it. 

Tuesday, May 18, 2021

The Blessing and Curse of a To-Do List

I am in between right now. On a self-imposed sabbatical from a job. My whole life has been busy. I’m a task-master. I thrive on getting things done. I chose this path, this break, but some days I feel painfully unmoored, truly lost.

It is the most beautiful time of year in my typically rainy Pacific Northwest region. I am not struggling financially, professionally, or relationally. My family is healthy and I have a strong network of loyal and loving friends.

I should be floating on happiness, and some days I am. Other days the happiness cloud becomes too much. I drift in the unknown banging around my house like an old log in the river. I feel aimless and anxious to know where I’ll finally land. I’ve been here before. It happens when I am in between jobs or relationships; it happens when I am not busy with things to occupy my overly active mind.

On most days I work from an ongoing To-Do list. I use recycled paper from a stack on my desk and add to it all day long. The list grows throughout the week long and after each completed task, I make a satisfying pen scratch through the item. Each strikethrough on my list feels is a relief — like paying my taxes on time or remembering to send my mother’s birthday card on time. 

My To-Do list gives me the feeling that I am getting somewhere. In this in-between that I am in right now, I need that, or at least I think I do. My To-Do list is my way to know that I am moving from one place to another, that I will not be in the discomfort of this limbo forever. I don’t know where I will be in a month or in a year but it helps to feel like I am heading in some general direction. 

It feels like I am standing on the edge of a cliff. I can see across to another cliff but there is no way to get there. The space between the cliffs is treacherous — a thousand feet down; a freefall would surely result in death. Each item on my To-Do list is one rung in the slatted wooden bridge that will get me to the other side of the chasm between the cliffs. As long as I can keep checking through my list, I have the sense that I am getting to my destination.

Yesterday, my To-Do list was mostly done by 10 am. The few tasks I had left involved talking to my daughter who wouldn’t be home from school for several hours. I was listless. I wandered around, trying to find meaning in washing the dishes and folding the laundry. I tried to fabricate things for my list but nothing came. I stood hopeless; I’d never get across this divide.

My To-Do list is a crutch, a false sense of control, and a setup for a continued return to this feeling of listlessness. Every morning I take comfort at looking at my list, of adding to it and knowing that I’m building my bridge across …. I breathe deep sighs of contentment throughout the day as I scratch through my list. 

In my literal listlessness yesterday I became aware of my problem. My destination, this elusive other side, is not defined. I have no idea how many slats this bridge is going to need to get me across. My list is a delusion. It’s just keeping me busy, occupied until my next step becomes clear. I have convinced myself that by keeping the To-Do list alive I am moving myself along, and in some ways that’s true.

But I’m also holding myself back. I do want to get to another side but I don’t know where that is. Maybe it’s not actually the other cliff I want to reach. Maybe it’s the river a thousand feet below and I need to scale the wall or backtrack and find a way down. Or maybe it’s here, hanging out on a cliff for a while, getting comfortable with this view. 

Sunday, May 16, 2021

95 Friends and Counting: What Does it All Add Up To?


On Friday night I decided to make a list of all the friends in my life I could remember. I started in nursery school and logged up to the present day. I came up with 95 names. After I listed them I went back and wrote the approximate year that I started being friends with each person. A few people had multiple years. I cycled in and out of friendship with them. They entered my life first in childhood, again in high school or college, and again in adulthood but most of the friendships occupied just a short period, maybe 5–10 years, and they have not resurfaced.

Since making that list a few nights ago I’ve had flashes of other friends that I hadn’t put on the list but by the time I get to my list to write down their names I’ve already forgotten the name. I wonder if it’s possible to actually come up with a truly exhaustive list. Can my brain possibly remember every single person? Just now I remembered Lily Chang who I was good friends with in fourth grade. Does it count if we were only friends for one year? Who qualifies as a friend? And what about a friend who is no longer a friend? What do you call that person? 

I’m fifty-two years old and I have a current group of very good friends. I think they will be my friends into old age. They are my present friends, my front-on-mind, everyday friends. But people live long lives these days and maybe some of these people will fade into the distance, taking on different friendship positions as we age. 

Thinking about these different friendship levels, I decided that I needed some kind of system to classify my friendships. I created a letter code to organize my list. There are four categories:

A: All-Time Friends

A is the list of people who come in and out throughout your life. They are there all the time, even if only as a shadow for some years. They have been with you at at least a few milestone moments of your life — graduations, break-ups, childbirth, deaths, marriages, divorces. They know some of your deep secrets and probably know your parents. Even if the A friend disappears for a year or two, at some point they come back and it’s like no time has passed.

B-Best Friends 

B is for the people who were very good friends for a time, the people you thought would be lifelong friends, but somehow you drifted apart and now they are on the periphery. It would be possible to call and catch up but not like with your A Friends. You can’t recreate that deep, rich engagement that you had during the time you thought you’d be lifelong friends. People on this list might be childhood friends. Your parents might still be friends and you might have overlap in that way but time has diluted the intensity of the closeness of your early years. These friends likely know your parents.

C-Cohort Friends

C is the list of people who you hung out with a lot during a specific period of your history; they were part of your regular social scene but you never hung out one-on-one very much. You were friends en masse with other friends— in college or at work or as part of a sports team, maybe as part of a couple. You never had late night existential conversations with these friends. They don’t know your deep dark secrets and probably don’t know your parents.

D-Daily Friends

D is the list of current friends. These are the people that you see on the daily right now. They are the current dinner party friends, family vacation friends, holiday function friends. Some of these friends are also (or will become) A or B friends and some of these people are or will become C friends. We are all now our parents.

I went back through my list and added my letter codes to my list. As I did this I realized that I yearned to see a lot of people on my list. Many of the people on my B list could have become A list friends if I’d only stayed in touch. And I have a feeling that if I reached out maybe we could try to rekindle something, start anew. 

Maybe it’s my age, this middle-life passage, that’s inspiring this friendship inventory project. Maybe I’m more in touch with my own mortality and I want to create a record of the important people in my life. 

I think what I’ve learned from this list is that it’s stupid. Organizing my friends this way doesn’t make sense because friendships aren’t linear and life isn’t static. This list has helped me activate my memories of people in my history. It’s inspired me to reconnect with some of the people I’ve lost along the way. The letter I’ve given them isn’t the end of the story. It’s just the beginning. 

Saturday, May 15, 2021

Mermaid Dreams


The other day my friend Joni was telling me about a disagreement she had with her husband. Joni’s high school friend Denise wanted to bring her husband and kids to visit over the summer and stay with Joni’s family.

Joni’s husband, not a fan of Denise, formed an extensive argument. He made a case against Denise, against the actual request, against the logistics. Michelle just listened.

A few days after the disagreement Joni shared all of the details with me on the phone. “I just let him talk and talk until he had nothing left to spew,” she said, “to be honest, towards the end I really wasn’t even listening.” A few hours after the one-sided conversation, Joni’s husband approached her and apologized. He acknowledged that he wasn’t being fair or generous. “Of course your friends should come,” he conceded lovingly.

When Joni shared that story with me I was trying to sort out a marital conflict of my own. I’m a prizefighter. I grew up with two sisters close in age and we fought for everything — to be seen, heard, acknowledged. From those roots, I grew up to believe that being right is the most important thing. In conflict, I battle to the finish. But even when I win the war I never feel better. I feel bruised and broken. I feel like shit.

At first listening to Joni’s approach, I felt appalled. How could she just sit there and let him go on and on. But as she explained it further it started to make a lot of sense. So often conflicts with my spouse become bigger than they need to be because each of us insists on getting our side heard. The conflict grows when the two sides fight for air space.

I launch my side of the story like a rocket and she launches hers. The opposing sides either collide mid-air and create a giant explosion or they miss each other and we continue firing missiles until either we are out of weapons or have created devastation.

But what if I could just sit there and let her perspective pour out? What if I just listened? When Joni sat quietly and let her husband vomit his tirade out into their living room she wasn’t saying, “you’re right and I’m wrong.” She was simply listening, keeping her perspective to herself, waiting it out.

Instead of a cannon ready to launch, Joni sat like a mermaid basking in the sun. Mermaids are of both the land and the sea. In ancient Assyria, the goddess Atargatis transfigured herself into a mermaid because she accidentally killed her human lover and she wanted to escape the shame of this horrible deed.

Atargatis found a new home among the stingrays, tiger fish, blue marlins, and sea tortoises. She submerged herself into the quiet darkness of the ocean to cleanse away her shame and sorrow. I’ve never killed a lover but I’ve experienced deep shame and sorrow and escaping into another world seems like a wonderful reprieve.

I want to be a conflict mermaid. I want to retreat to the sea before the conflict, taking the baggage from my life on land into a dark, calm place, a place where the language of the land is not spoken or understood. A place of peace, no sides, just water all around. In my mermaid life, I would glide through great coral reefs, slither through curtains of kelp, and rest for the night in a dark, hidden cave, letting the stress and tension from life on land wash away.

I’ve tried the experiment of being a conflict mermaid with my partner once since my conversation with Joni. It was a tiny conflict but I stayed calm and let her say her piece. I held onto my perspective, but I kept it inside. Instead of firing back, I just let her words come. I listened. And it worked.

In not saying my side out loud, I didn’t lose my perspective, I simply gained a new one. As the conflict mermaid, instead of engaging in battle, I plunged into the underworld of the sea where I dove deeper into the silent darkness, a magical place where everything looks different.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Friendships are Like Plants

Friendships during COVID have changed a lot. Almost every day a friend who I haven’t seen in a really long time pops into my head and I think, “I should reach out to her.” And then either I don’t reach out or I start a text thread that peters out after a few exchanges. So much time has gone by. I can’t quite remember what friends do. Sometimes I can’t even remember why we were friends in the first place.

I wonder if these friends feel the same way about me. Do they feel self-conscious and out of practice reaching out to me and other friends? Do they have the same trepidations about reigniting forgotten friendships? 

Friendships are like plants. They need to be watered and they need sunlight. When they are deprived of either life force, they die. Some friendships are like orchids — sensitive, needing the perfect administration of water and the exact amount of indirect light. They need constant attention and communication. Other friendships are more like succulents. Almost anyone can grow a succulent. They seem to survive in any exposure, with erratic watering, or even neglect.

Last week at the exact moment I was thinking about one of my old friends who I haven’t seen in months, she texted me. “Thinking about you and wanted to say hi,” she wrote. Because there was magic in the synergy of our thoughts colliding at that exact moment, I wrote her back right away.

“I just quit my job. Do you want to go on a walk during your lunch break?” I bravely texted back, breaking through all of my built-up barriers like the Incredible Hulk crashing through a brick wall.

We made a plan for that Friday. It was pouring at my house when I got in the car to go downtown but I knew my friend would be prepared with a raincoat so I ran inside to get my rain jacket and threw it in the car. Miraculously the sun came out as soon as we started to walk and we didn’t need coats. 

We marched through downtown, up and down hills in the sunshine, non-stop talking for the entire hour. There was no rain, but as we walked and caught up with each other, we were watering each other’s leaves, feeding each other’s roots. It felt nourishing and restorative. I had one less friend in the sad basement room of struggling plants. 

I got in my car to go home and within five minutes it started hailing. The weather alone was telling me that this friendship date was surely meant to be. I was affirmed of my courageous social efforts and made a commitment to reconnect with more friends.

As I drove home in the hail I thought about how this particular friendship is like a succulent. It doesn’t need daily watering. A periodic infusion is enough for it to survive for many weeks, even months or a whole year.

But I worry that some of my friendships have needed more constant care — weekly or even daily conversations. They have needed attention and focus like orchids need ice cubes and warm, humid rooms. Too much time may have passed and I fear the roots may be dead. I fear that I might not be able to resurrect these friendships and so I hesitate to reach out and connect.

My partner has shared this experience as well. Many of her friendships have stagnated, drying on the vine. It’s unclear what will happen when she tries to reconnect with them. I imagine, like me, many of her long-time friendships will reveal themselves to be more succulent and less orchid, coming back to life with just a little bit of sustenance. 

It’s my daughter I worry about the most. She’s sixteen, at the heart of adolescent evolution. Teenage friendships are definitely orchids. They need constant attention. They are sensitive, temperamental, and moody. If too much time goes by without the right amount of water, some fertilizer, and the proper light, the petals of the orchid fall away and the lonely stem stands alone, dormant until ultimately it dies. 

The gas that fuels the motor of adolescent friendships is the reliable and constant back and forth — eating lunch together at school, trading gossip, trying on clothes, helping each other with homework, sneaking White Claws at the park on the weekends. But during COVID my poor daughter and her peers have missed this daily interaction. School has been at home. Social activities have been severely curtailed. They have been deprived of the nourishment needed to feed each other’s roots and grow each other’s leaves. 

Tonight my daughter finally had a social plan — to have a bonfire on the beach with a handful of friends. About two-thirds are fully vaccinated and they’ll be outdoors so their COVID risk is low to nil. I was so excited for my daughter to finally be having this opportunity, but a few hours before heading out, she collapsed in a dining room chair, lay her forehead on her stacked palms and rolled her forehead side to side as she dramatically whined, “I don’t want to goooooooo.” The coordination and anticipation of a social event — reuniting with friends in the way they used to gather — was overwhelming to her. I knew exactly how she felt. 

In the end, she did go. She’s there now, hopefully sitting around a raging fire with long-lost friends — roasting s’mores, maybe sneaking a White Claw, probably laughing hysterically — drinking up the nutrients she needs to enliven her sad, dried-out friendships. Hopefully, many of the relationships will bounce back like succulents, springing to life with just a little bit of attention. But she might notice that others have withered and died, deprived of their essential sustenance for too long.

The reality is that we will all experience friendship casualties as a result of COVID. We will face change and loss that we didn’t expect as we creep closer to the normal we left over a year ago. Our friendships will never be exactly like we left them because every one of us has grown in our own way. But I think if we’re all brave and start to step out a little bit at a time we’ll find our way to a beautiful garden full of all kinds of plants from succulents to orchids and everything in between. 

The Power of Money: Taking the Gold Chains off One at a Time


We live in a culture where what we earn is highly valued and what do for work is highly judged. I’ve always been independent, industrious, and innovative. I started a non-profit organization, I started a for-profit business. I bought my first house when I was twenty-six and I leveraged the profits from the sale of that house to buy a bigger house and then another and then another.

Though I’ve never been a high-wage earner, by taking financial risks I have created economic security for myself. Even with these investments and the financial security they offer me, I don’t feel proud and accomplished, I feel like I should be able to earn more, do better.

I don’t need more. I have enough. If I could live my dream it would be to write all day long — to teach writing, to share writing, to experiment with different kinds of writing. But instead, I waste precious time figuring out how I can make money, prove my worth.

When I was forty I started dating my current partner Nancy. I was a business owner, relatively successful. As the owner of a yoga studio, I was never going to enter the financial realm of Jeff Bezos, but I felt okay, balanced. Nancy was (and is) an attorney and like all private attorneys in this country, charges a ridiculous hourly rate. Even as the owner of a successful business I couldn’t hold a candle to Nancy’s earning capacity. In those early days of dating, I felt insecure, like I was a failure of some kind because I couldn’t reciprocate the fancy dinners and weekend trips she treated us to. 

Early on in our relationship when I was suffering a bout of loser-syndrome because of my comparatively low wage as a yoga teacher, Nancy said, “Your work is no less valuable than mine. I just happen to be in a profession that has an inflated value in our society.” She meant what she said. I believed her, but still the message that “money equals success” was like a neon tattoo on my brain. 

It’s twelve years later and I still feel the pangs of insecurity because of the financial disparity in our relationship. Unless I get TicTok famous, my annual salary will never come close to Nancy’s. My feelings of insecurity are not her fault. The feelings come from the constant and pervasive message that is promoted in this country. It’s why half of the population drooled over Donald Trump and practically took our democracy down. 

Last year I sold my yoga studio and netted a good profit which I socked away for the future. It’s a little nugget that I can put into another dream someday. I fantasize about creating another business, maybe a bed and breakfast or a tiny grocery store. The money sits in a high-yield savings account waiting for just the right moment. This modest profit is symbolic of twenty years of hard work and dedication. This nest egg is my backup. It’s the proof that I’ve done something, that I’m worthy. As long as it sits in that account and I can see it there, I am reminded that I have value, even if I’m not earning right now.

The message that “money equals success” is like Mr. T’s hundreds of gold chains around my neck. The chains are heavy and gaudy and I don’t want them. I am engaged in a committed battle to deprogram myself of this deeply entrenched belief. I take one chain off at a time but it’s a slow process.

I write this from a place of incredible privilege. My partner happened to choose a vocation that we throw money at. She lovingly and generously supports our family with her hard work. I have a golden nest egg in my back pocket that glows in the background of my consciousness reminding me that, though I’m not earning now, I did once and that makes me worthy, successful.

How do we break this cycle? How do I help my teenage daughter learn the feeling of real value when this message that “money equals success” is everywhere? I tell her to follow her heart, that if she does what she loves the money will follow. I tell her that she should choose a path that gives her a sense of emotional fulfillment. 

But even with sixteen years of these messages from me, my daughter regularly asks, “Does that pay a lot of money?” My hope is that when my daughter does enter her work life she will remember some of the messages I’ve tried to impart, that she will remember her value no matter how much money she earns. 

The misleading and destructive message that “money equals success” is a big problem, far bigger than I could ever imagine solving, but I want to deconstruct it for myself, for my daughter, for her children. I want to break free of this burden. I want the answer to be simple and I know it’s not. It’s an ongoing conversation, like the one I had with Nancy all those years ago about worth. I’ll just keep plugging away, taking one gold chain off at a time. 

Thursday, May 13, 2021

Coming Out Again. I'm vaccinated. Are you?

Yesterday I met a new friend. We connected through a mutual friend and immediately hit it off. For some reason, though she lives on the north end of town and I live in the south end, we decided to meet in the middle, in person instead of doing a phone call or Zoom. I’m so glad we did.

At the cafe where we met there was a sweet backyard patio where we plopped down in the shade, masked at first like we always are. Once we sat down at our tiny two-top we tentatively removed our masks.

“I’m fully vaccinated,” my new friend said with a little bit of a question mark. She was saying it and also wondering if that was enough for me. Was I okay without the masks if she was fully vaccinated? She was also asking me what my situation was?

“Me too,” I said, wrapping up the issue and sending the message that we were on the same team and all was well.

We proceeded to have a glorious, maskless, new friend celebration. My new friend was interesting, curious, attentive, funny, and genuine. We talked for almost two hours and then said goodbye, knowing we’d surely meet again.

It was a sunny day and I walked the five miles back to my house along the lake. I felt like a bunny who’d just found a bottomless patch of all-season carrots. It was warm and I was sweating. My shoes, not meant for walking, were giving me blisters and I had to pee. But I hopped along mile after mile. I found a public bathroom along the way and breathed through my blisters. Nothing could take away the joy I felt in that moment.

I thought about why that experience elicited such profound joy for me. My new friend was engaging and delightful and we had a definite connection but there was more to it.

This friendship date was my first social experience where I actually felt the possibility of a future without COVID being center stage. From the moment we decided to meet in person instead of from the safety of a device, we’d crossed an imaginary line. We silently affirmed to each other that we were ready to try this.

Then, once seated, we both “came out” with our vaccination status. That was the next step of acknowledgment that there were better days ahead, that we were safe with each other. We were on the same page about vaccinations and we were ready to be in community with other people who felt the same way.

I’ve come out as gay hundreds of times. The best feeling in the world is to come out to someone and then they come out too!!! This happened in my last job, a totally remote position where my team only met on our laptops. We never once came face to face with each other. On a phone call to one of my teammates, she mentioned her wife.

“Oh my god!” my heart leaped in my chest, “she’s gay!” A few minutes later in the conversation, feeling a deep sense of safety and camaraderie, I mentioned my wife. That sense of mutuality was like winning bonus bucks in Vegas. Not only had my colleague traversed a scary obstacle, but she had made space for me to do the same!

The confluence of factors yesterday — that this new friend had amazing energy and vitality, that we were sitting outside, that we had lots to talk about — combined with the jubilation of coming out as vaccinated made for an afternoon of pure gratitude, joy, and hope.

I remember when gay marriage passed in 2015, there was the flicker of possibility everywhere. I felt hope and support from everyone, even if I never spoke to them. Walking down the street felt different. It felt safer, like we were all on the same team. And I feel this sense now, with vaccinations. I don’t know who is pro-vaccination and who is con. But I know that there are people who believe in a different kind of future, a future beyond COVID. And that feels incredible.

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