Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Piano Lessons

At the beginning of COVID my daughter Lucia quit piano. After two zoom lessons, she chucked it. Lucia was never a classical pianist. Her teacher taught her to play songs that she wanted to play. That meant that our house was filled with John Legend, Bruno Mars, Adele, Katy Perry, and leagues of other hip hop, pop and rock songs. Lucia would learn the music and then sing along. 

I’m completely biased but I think Lucia has an amazing singing voice. When she plays and sings our whole house takes on a magical vibration. The piano corner lights up and everything else fades into the background. Lucia is in conversation with the piano — singing along to what she plays — but she is also communicating with us. As we listen to Lucia sing, we can hear her as herself, that deep part of her being that only she knows, that only she can unleash. 

For years it’s been a running joke in our house that when Lucia plays, my partner Nancy, regardless of what she's doing at that moment, starts to cry with emotion.

When Lucia made the decision to stop lessons, I had to let her. She was fifteen at that time and ten years of lessons would have to sustain her. For the first year after she quit piano Lucia hardly played. The stand-up piano sat quietly in the corner decorated with the random assortment of beach treasures and plants, her marked-up music and yellow pencil resting, as if frozen in time, on the upper panel.

I was sad when Lucia stopped playing piano because I felt like her music was a good balance for the other parts of her life. It felt like something deeply internal, something that came from within her. It felt like she transported herself somewhere else when she played. I wanted that for her. And it transported me too. I had taken for granted all those years of hearing Lucia play and sing. During that music drought in our home, I’d occasionally ask Lucia to play, but she’s not that kind of person; she doesn’t play on demand. In fact, she actively won’t play on demand.

For a while, to fill the void of Lucia’s playing, I tried to learn piano myself. I had a few years of lessons growing up and Lucia helped me learn how to use the pedal as well as some strategies for positioning my fingers on the keys. With my ragtag collection of skills, I chose a favorite song, “Shallow” by Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper, and learned the piano part. Once I’d mastered that I added the voice. It took me over a month of practicing to produce a crude, condensed version of the song.

I couldn’t believe how hard it was to play and sing at the same time. It felt like rubbing my stomach and patting my head at the same time while balancing a spoon on my nose. Each time I got through the song I felt exhausted and accomplished. The experience gave me a new appreciation for this talent that Lucia has mastered. I envy her ability to find a song, learn it, play it, and sing. What a gift to be able to produce that combination of sounds.

A few months ago Lucia started playing again. At random times of the day, she’d sit down and scroll through her phone to find the list of songs she keeps, and look up the chords. Within minutes she’d be playing Beyonce, Amy Winehouse, or Brandi Carlile, singing along in her beautiful voice. Oh, how I’d missed this! And at the same time, it was like no time had passed. Lucia wasn’t rusty or frustrated. She played and sang beautifully. All those years of lessons were in her. She still had it!

These days Lucia plays more regularly. Last night when she was working through a list of chores I had given her she said, “Can I just play piano for a minute, and then I’ll finish?” 

“Of course,” I said, without hesitation. The answer is always yes to the piano. If she’d asked me if she could just put on mascara and then finish her chores I would have replied with a hard NO.

During her chore break, Lucia spent some time figuring out songs on the newest Adele album. I pretended to sweep the kitchen, holding onto this moment, absorbing it with the knowledge that this could go away again. 

Lucia is seventeen now. In a few years, she’ll be out of the house and our piano will become dormant, taking on the role of a glorified plant stand again. Maybe when she comes home for visits she’ll light up the piano corner again. I hope that’s the case, but I know my days of hearing Lucia play are limited.

I wonder if Lucia will find other pianos in her future — in the lounge of her college dorm, at a friend’s house in a city far away from here, in the quiet corner of a restaurant, in the home she creates for herself one day. For my sake, and for hers, I hope so.



Friday, December 24, 2021

All Kids Lie

Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@benwhitephotography?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Ben White</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/lying?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a>

I’m fortunate to have a close-knit group of friends who all have teenage kids. I call them my Mom-Friends. Yesterday I was talking to one of my mom-friends about her kid lying to her. “All kids lie,” I said.

One of the things I ask of my teenage daughter is that she always tell me the truth. I want to know everything, even the stuff that’s bad. I want to know the ins and outs of her life so I can support her, guide her, comfort her through whatever happens in her life. But I know my daughter lies to me. She has to. 

Kids lie because they have to.

When kids are little they are perfect. They are so perfectly molded by our perfect parenting that we look at them with adoration and see everything rainbows and fairies. My mother used to tease me because I’d send her photos of my daughter sleeping. She was perfectly perfect all the time, even when she slept, especially when she slept. She was a perfect sleeper.

But as kids grow into teens and young adults they begin to self-actualize, to become who they are and not a reflection of who their parents want them to be. 

I am not proud of this, but I can see where I’ve forced my own daughter into lying. When I’m completely honest with myself I can clearly see the judgment I have of my daughter. I’m not judging her for who she’s become but because she’s changed; she’s not who she used to be. She’s not who I knew so well. 

Because I am still looking for that person — the little one who was perfectly perfect according to all of my standards of perfection — my daughter has to lie to keep my image of her intact. 

Lying is my daughter’s way of preserving her process of individuation. It’s her way of keeping me content, giving me enough of the old her to hold onto while forging ahead with her independence and autonomy. 

Maybe lying isn’t such a bad thing after all.

When I look at lying as a means of self-preservation for kids and parents, I think maybe it’s a good thing. I know my daughter doesn’t tell me everything; that often she lies by omission. But would I really want to know everything? I think I do, but I wonder if maybe it would be too much for me.

Her friends now, the people she’s forming this newfound independence and young adulthood with, know her in a fundamentally different way than I do. These friends don’t know her as she was when she was my perfectly perfect little girl. And my daughter doesn’t want them to know her that way. She wants them to know her as she is now; as the young woman she is creating. 

Occasionally my daughter and I will have a spontaneous conversation where she’ll share a lot with me. She’ll come into my office and talk about a boy she likes. If I sit there quietly with a calm expression she’ll elaborate and share details that, while inside I am clamoring for, on the outside I am completely neutral. It’s important in those moments that I monitor my reaction, that I don’t have too much of an opinion. 

Sometimes after dinner while doing the dishes my daughter will share her feelings about one of her friends. I can feel my “there’s a lesson here” mother rearing her ugly head, wanting to give my poor daughter a lecture about fairness and patience and friendship, but I quell that pollyanna and quietly listen. 

I know in those moments of sharing my daughter is not telling me everything. She’s sharing just enough to connect with me and preserve her budding sense of self. And it works. Those moments of sharing are like gas in the tank. I feel like I know my daughter a little bit more. I have the sense that she’s okay because she’s still sharing who she is with me. 

But by lying, by sharing just what she wants to share, my daughter is taking care of herself too. She’s making sure that her new path forward isn’t burdened by judgment, by the baggage of who she once was. I respect that. I remember feeling the same way when I was her age.

This process that our teenagers are going through, the process of becoming adults and separating from their childhood image, is hard work. Teens are in a perpetual state of exploration and reinvention. They are discovering who they are and that’s why they don’t tell their parents the whole truth.

Lying has such a negative connotation. We think of liars as bad, even evil, conniving and manipulative. When we use the word “lying” to describe this behavior of individuation in our kids, we’re deepening the divide, assigning a negative element to something perfectly normal and natural. 

I’m going to rename this behavior. Instead of “lying” I’m going to call this teenage privacy and information-sensoring behavior “becoming.” All that action behind the scenes that parents know nothing about is our kids becoming who they are. We’re just a small part of that process and, as hard as it is, we have no place in their inner sanctum of evolution. 

For now, our job is to stand at the sidelines and watch. At some point, maybe in a few years, maybe longer, our kids will feel ready to bring us in again. And that will feel amazing!

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Up Your Ass with Christmas

Photo by <a href="https://unsplash.com/@markusspiske?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Markus Spiske</a> on <a href="https://unsplash.com/s/photos/middle-finger?utm_source=unsplash&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=creditCopyText">Unsplash</a>

I’m not sure when this happened to me. I didn’t always feel this way about Christmas. I used to love it — setting up the tree, keeping lists of gifts, making cookies and toffee. But this year I truly cannot wait for the holiday to be over. I just want to move on to next year, whatever that looks like. 

When I was a kid my stepfather Al used to sing an improvised Christmas carol he wrote around the house for most of December. “Up your aaaassss with Christ-mas,” he’d bellow as he rounded the corner from the dining room to the living room where the big tree took over the front windows.

When my mom started talking about a holiday event he’d close his eyes and softly sing his tune, as if to invite in a momentary respite from the constancy of Christmas conversation.

Al was Jewish and he grew up in the Bronx. He never celebrated Christmas until he met my mom. Mom grew up in the midwest with a rich Scandanavian culture filled with beautiful Christmas traditions. She shared them all in our household and growing up I loved it. As an adult, I carried many of them into my family culture. 

We always laughed when Al sang the “Up your ass” song, but I never really understood why he felt that way.

In my house now, Christmas isn’t actually that big a deal. I’m the one who gets most excited. I decorate the tree. I bake the cookies. I prepare the holiday treat boxes to deliver to friends and neighbors. And I like that stuff. I really do. I enjoy the community nature of this holiday — the fact that everyone decorates, that people send cards, and have gatherings. 

But this year I find myself singing Al’s song in my head. I bristle against the expectation that Christmas should feel a certain way, that we should be joyous and light; that we should be filled with cheer. 

Yesterday on the radio I heard a woman talking about how supply chain issues are making it really hard to get speedy delivery of sports equipment and makeup so people’s gift plans are really getting screwed up. Really? This, right after a segment on how New York had record numbers of COVID cases that same day?

There is something wrong with this picture. Maybe if I had an eight-year-old I could rally more, get behind this facade that Christmas truly is a special time of year. But I have a seventeen-year-old whose school has been shut down multiple times in the last month for bomb threats and actual shootings outside of her school. I don’t care about Christmas. I care about gun control. 

And even if I had a younger child and felt the pressure to put on all the bells and whistles for the holiday, wouldn’t I still be aware of the fact that Antarctica hit record high temperatures this year? Would it be expected that I just forget all of this for a week in December to make everything gay? 

I am writing this on the same table where I am making holiday cards for my neighbors. I can see our decorated tree in the living room and the line of Christmas cards from people I love along the window sill. I have boxes of cookies in the kitchen behind me ready to deliver. I like this part of Christmas. I love this part. 

So why am I singing “Up your ass with Christmas” this year? I think back to when Al used to sing it. He wasn’t telling my mom to stop all her Christmas activities. He wasn’t trying to quell anyone else’s holiday joy. He was just keeping it real for himself. Al had other things on his mind, things that were important to him, things not necessarily related to Christmas.

Yesterday, when my daughter and her friend were sitting on our couch feeling hungover from their COVID booster shot the day before, reporting to me on the different social media threats and lockdowns at their respective schools, I said to them, “You know, for your generation there’s really no choice. You all have to be activists. There’s so much to change and make better.”

They both nodded in quiet agreement, but later I thought about what a heavy burden that is to dump on two teenagers. It is a heavy burden, but it’s the truth. It’s real for them and for all of us. The truth is that it’s all of our burden — the new uptick in COVID, rampant violence in schools, the climate crisis, racism, housing and food insecurity — all of it.

The media hype and societal expectations of Christmas invite us to forget about all of that and put on a happy face. I just can't do it this year.  I’m the age now that Al was when he used to sing “Up your aaaassss with Christ-Mas.” Like Al, I don’t want to kill anyone’s Christmas buzz. I don’t want to scrooge anyone’s vibe, but the truth is, I really do have more important things on my mind.  

Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Last Little Leaf


I just spent several days with my family — my two adult sisters and my mother. My stepfather died and we gathered together to move through the first few days after his death together. We wanted to support Mom and be in each other’s orbits as much as possible.

My mom and my sisters and I are close and not close at the same time. There was no question that I would hop on a plane as soon as my mom told me that my stepfather died; my sisters and I would be there for her in whatever way she needed. But we have complicated relationships — between each of us and among all of us.

I stayed for four days and then I had to come home. I went to a holiday party last night. I was sleep-deprived, sad, and adjusting to being out of the family-of-origin dynamic that I always fall right back into. At the party, I was awkward, negative, and unfocused. I felt like I was a terrible listener and a really boring talker. The whole evening felt a little bit like being emotionally seasick. 

This morning while walking my dog I called one of my friends Molly to check in. This friend is no-frills, amazingly insightful, non-judgemental, and wise. When she picked up the phone she said, “Hi. I was just thinking about you. You didn’t seem yourself at the party. Are you okay?”

I apologized for being so weird at the party and explained that being with my family had unmoored me. My equilibrium was off. My story is an age-old tale, one that many people experience — great love for my family, that is almost always accompanied by a hangover of confusing, unprocessed emotions after seeing them.

Molly said, as she and so many others have said over the years, “Laura, you have to stop going there.” She didn’t mean physically going to my childhood home. She meant emotionally. She explained the idea of getting out of the car on the freeway and getting in another car, one going where I wanted to go. “You have a choice not to go there Laura.”

As we talked I came upon a tree. There was one beautiful red leaf holding onto a branch on an otherwise completely bare tree. I stopped, took a picture of it, and texted Molly. “Why is that tree holding onto the leaf?” We laughed and continued talking for a while. A few hours later Molly texted me in response to my text about the naked tree, “I mean why is the leaf holding onto something that no longer provides any sustenance?”

She’s so smart! In my interpretation of the tree, the tree was holding onto the leaf, not allowing it to let go. In my friend’s interpretation, the leaf was holding onto the tree. There’s a big difference between these two versions. 

In my version, I wasn’t giving the leaf the power to let go. In Molly’s, the leaf was choosing to hang on. I was, and am, making the choice to hold onto those old patterns, those habitual reactions. But it’s possible to not do that anymore, to let go and choose another path.

It’s the lesson I have to keep learning in different ways — from my friends, from different therapists over the years, from my meditation practice, from the galleys of self-help books I’ve read, and today, from Molly and a tree. I don’t have to hang on to those branches that are no longer offering me sustenance. I can let go. I can float down into the earth where I will be absorbed into the soil and transformed into fertilizer for new growth next spring.


Monday, November 29, 2021

Transitioning

My stepfather Al is dying. Like all humans, he’s been dying since he started living. But he’s truly at the end of his life now. In a week he’ll be 94. He’s got no cancer, no heart disease, no kidney or liver failure. He’s just very old and he’s dying.

I grew up without religion and never learned what happened after death. I wasn’t taught that there is a heaven or hell. I wasn’t taught about reincarnation. So I’ve made up my own belief system based on my personal life experiences.

As I sit on the sidelines watching Al moving into death, I find myself feeling a mix of emotions — a sadness at the thought of him no longer being here with us, but a sense of comfort knowing that he is going somewhere where I can still find him.

These past few weeks Al has moved more deeply into what is called “transitioning.” Transitioning — what a beautiful word. For transgender people, it means moving into a gender that feels more natural, more true to their being. For older women like me, it means moving from brown or blond or black or red hair to gray, the color that is meant for our older age.

For Al, transitioning means moving from this earthly realm to something different. He’s gone from active — eating, watching the news, talking to us — to a quieter space. Now he sleeps almost all the time. He’s moved inside of himself. I envision him gathering his energy, holding it close, wrapping it up, as his physical body slowly releases its grasp.

My father died 25 years ago at age 56. He was sick; filled with cancer. When he died he wasn’t ready. My brothers were still so young, just 12 and 14. They weren’t ready. I wasn’t ready. My father wasn’t ready. His transition was choppy, interrupted by the constant need to stay in this realm. I remember even the day before my father died I didn’t believe it would happen.

The further away from my father’s death I get, the stronger I feel his presence. As my sadness for my loss has taken up less space over time, my father’s spiritual presence has had more room to show up. I feel him all the time. I am not deep in grief at losing him anymore and so I can feel him come to me in other ways — memories, feelings, and unexplainable coincidences.

Al’s transition is very different from my father’s. In the stillness of Al’s body now there is a shift. The life force as we know it is slowing down, chugging along with minimal strength while a new energy moves its way through him , touching every part of his body like the stroke of a magic wand. Eventually, Al’s whole body will tingle with this new energy. He will have moved from alive to dead; he will have transitioned.

The dead part is just a stopping point, a place where we can say goodbye to the physical body, to clearly delineate the transition that’s been made. But I don’t believe it’s the endpoint. I never have. I will be sad when Al dies. When I imagine him gone I feel tiny cracks in my heart, little aches of missing his alive presence. But Al is ready to go, and I have faith that he’s transitioning into a good place.

I know so much more than I did those many years ago when my father died. I know that Al will come back to me in different, unexpected ways. I know that, like with my father, as my sadness of losing him becomes less potent, Al’s presence will grow stronger in my life. He won’t be here, on this earth with me. I won’t be able to hug him or hold his hand. I won’t be able to talk to him and hear his voice. But I’ll feel him. I’ll know he’s still here with me.

Postscript: Al died minutes after I finished writing this story.


Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Now That's My Idea of a Party


Last weekend my partner Nancy and I hosted a 109th birthday party. Between the two of us this year we turned 109. Nancy’s dream, when she was a kid, was to be a Harlem Globetrotter or a professional diver. For the last few decades, she’s turned her focus to becoming a master roller skater.

A few times a year Nancy resurrects her dream. We’ll go skate outside along the lake or at the park. This year we rented out a roller rink and invited all of our friends to join us for an evening of skating. 

The party was from 6–8 pm on a Sunday night. We made cupcakes, ordered pizzas, and packed a cooler full of seltzers. The folks at the rink would take care of the rest of it. I was excited about the party but, as always, I felt a slight pit of anxiety at the thought of being in a big social situation. 

I’m better in small settings — just a few close friends where everyone can hear what the other people are saying and settle into a conversation at a natural pace. In large groups, I always clam up and worry that I’m taking too much of someone’s time or that I’m too dull or annoying.

And hosting is always the worst for me — so much responsibility to make sure everyone is happy. Plus, I’ve been so busy lately with my new job that I hadn’t really had time to prepare for this skating party. Besides making cupcakes I hadn’t really done anything. At the last minute, I borrowed some bellbottoms and a cool polyester shirt from my teenage daughter and put on some sparkly eye shadow.

We got to the rink at 5:45 pm — just enough time to lay out the food and put on our skates before the guests arrived at 6 pm. The DJ pumped the jams as Nancy and I warmed up and got our skating legs going. By the time the first guests arrived at 6:05 pm we were comfortable and in the groove.

Because we had to wear masks at the rink I couldn’t wear my glasses so, as people checked in at the front, I couldn’t tell who was arriving. I could only greet people as they joined us on the skating floor and got close enough for me to see them. I’d wave as I passed them or as they passed me. It was perfect — there was no awkward hello, how are you, thanks for coming. There was no standing around navigating how to deepen or end the conversation.

It was amazing. People skated off and back onto the floor throughout the night. Some people just hung out on the sidelines and watched the skaters. But I stayed on the skate floor for almost the entire time. I was safe there, free from uncomfortable chit-chat. It was the perfect escape for my host anxiety syndrome.

My favorite part of the night was the limbo where the rink host invited everyone to the middle and we ducked under the pole as he lowered it one rung at a time. We all lined up and went one by one, trying to scrunch our bodies down so as not to knock the pole.

Kids almost always have organized birthday parties. The parents plan it and the kids follow the activity plan. But as adults, we rarely do that. We force ourselves to sit in little clusters making conversation. No wonder we have to ply ourselves with alcohol! It’s hard work and, at least for me, kind of stressful.

I love it when the host has a plan. A few years ago a friend hosted a mock Great British Baking Show for her fortieth. Another friend hosted a pentathlon for her fiftieth. One year at a family Thanksgiving we spent the weekend painting watercolors between rounds of Bananagrams. These structured group activities are my favorite. They are truly fun and relaxing for me. 

And the rollerskating party was too. It was fun. It was light. It was easy. It was joyful. And it was all of these things because we could just let go. We could NOT talk about work or parenting or caretaking our older parents. We could NOT talk about politics or COVID or climate change. My friend Megan texted me afterward, “There’s something about going around in circles to music and lights and puffs of smoke that make me forget all my worries!” Exactly!!!

As the evening wore on there was a natural exodus. Little group by little group, people got done skating. They turned their skates in for their street shoes. They put on their coats and waved goodbye. Nancy and I were the last ones off the skating floor. After two hours we felt done too. The goodbye was as unawkward as the hello. Now that’s my idea of a party.


Sunday, November 21, 2021

Be Like the Bird Watcher

 


For my partner’s birthday yesterday, I coordinated an Introduction to Bird Watching class with the two of us, two friends, and a guide. It was a cold sunny morning and we gathered at a local horticultural center to wander among the trees and ponds. 

The first step was a lesson in properly using binoculars. Though we have a few pairs of binoculars, it turns out I’ve never used them correctly. To focus the left eye you close the right eye and use the center dial. Then, to focus the right eye you close the left eye and adjust the lens with a moveable ring on the right side. Once each lens is separately adjusted the binoculars work as they are supposed to — bringing full focus into whatever you are trying to see.

The next step is finding the image you are trying to focus on with the binoculars. Before using the binoculars you have to detect the image itself with your natural eyes. You have to place it in space before you deepen your focus on it. 

This was a big lesson for me. In the past, I’ve tried to find the image — the bird, the boat, the bloom — just with my binoculars. That technique has left me feeling like I’m watching a video produced and directed by a baby. Our guide told us to find what we are trying to amplify first. Then, keeping our eyes on the image, bring the binoculars to our eyes. 

Yesterday we saw twenty-six bird species ranging from the Canada Goose to the Yellow-Rumped Warbler. I couldn’t capture the detail of every bird we saw, but I was able to bring into focus some things I’d never seen before. With the binoculars used properly, I could see the copper belt on the female Belted Kingfisher. I could see the distinctive flat bill on the Northern Shoveler. And when we got close to my favorite bird, the Great Blue Heron, I could see, as she stood still as a statue, the wispy white chest feathers like two tiny watercolor brush strokes. 

At one point our guide said, as a few of us struggled to find the Kingfisher who was calling to us but making herself hard to find, “Try just closing your eyes and listening for her. Sometimes if you can’t see the bird you can hear it.” I tried this technique a few times on our walk. My ears aren’t trained like hers (yet). I couldn’t find the specific bird we were searching for by her sound, but I was able to hear other birds in our midst by closing my visual senses. And in closing my eyes everything felt more peaceful. There was so much there, even in the absence of sight. 

Lately, my life has been busier than usual. I have three KanBan boards going — one for each job and one for my household. The number of tiny post-it notes I have moving from the “ToDo” to the “In Progress” to the “Done” columns is overwhelming. The point of the KanBan board is, of course, to help me move through multiple tasks, but the overall result is a sense of feeling out of focus. In the maelstrom of multiple to-dos, there is an absence of being present with myself. My focus is all over the place.

Bird watching yesterday felt like an invitation to come back into focus — an opportunity to close my eyes and imagine all those neon one-inch squares of to-dos being carried away by the wind while I brought tiny birds into focus, one by one.

The experience made me think of Anne Lammot’s book Bird by Bird. In her book she shared a story about her dad coaching her brother through a school project about which he felt overwhelmed. “Just take it bird by bird,” the father told the son. It’s an invitation to slow down and take one thing at a time. In this step by step approach big, seemingly insurmountable tasks become possible. 

This morning I took a walk along the lake in my own neighborhood. I spotted a Hooded Merganser and a Double-crested Cormorant. I didn’t have my binoculars but I was able to recognize the birds from afar and bring them into distant focus. In slowing down and bringing each of them into focus I was able to connect with that feeling in myself. 

While bird watching yesterday I saw lots of birds, one by one, over the course of a few hours. Each bird I looked at through my binoculars looked entirely different once I brought it fully into focus — more detailed, more beautiful, more complicated and alive. And though we saw twenty-six different birds, my mind didn’t feel harried or chaotic at the end of our time. I felt calm and peaceful, focused and clear. 

Tomorrow I’ll go back to work, back to my KanBan boards. The lists on my boards are important. They help me meet my responsibilities and feel a sense of mastery in my work. But they also overwhelm me. I’ve been looking at the boards the wrong way; I’ve been trying to see the whole board at once instead of focusing on one task at a time. Tomorrow I will look at those post-its differently. I’ll look at them one by one, taking my time to bring each one into focus. Bird by bird.

Wednesday, November 17, 2021

What's in a Gift?

 

When I was a kid I used to sit facing away from my twin sister when we got gifts. Sometimes we’d sit back to back as we opened the presents so neither of us would see the gift first. My twin and I are not identical. I am and have always been six inches taller than her. When we were kids I was very shy and she was radiantly outgoing. In our high school days, I was a swimmer and she was a star actress in the high school plays. Though genetically we were only as similar to each other as we were to our younger sister, our main identity was always “one of the twins.”

I’ve always loved giving gifts, but, because of my early twin years, I’ve never liked receiving them. I hate my birthday and every year I grit my teeth and wait until the day is over. When I meet someone on the street who has young twins and I tell them I’m a twin they usually ask if I have any advice. “Do not give them the same gifts,” I always say, “And, give them separate birthday parties if you can swing it.” 

Giving gifts is an opportunity to show another person that you are thinking about them, that you care about them. For the gift giver, it’s a chance to say, “I saw this and it made me think about you.” The gift tells the story of how the giver sees the recipient.

But for me, because I’m a twin, the receiving part of the experience got tainted early on. It was always tangled up — especially when we received the same gifts — in the confusion of what they saw in me and what they saw in her. 

Growing up, on holidays and birthdays when the time for gifts arrived I always choked up. What would I get? Would it be the same as my twin? And if it was, was it more suited to her than to me? I could never see clearly. I always read into it — that she was loved more; that they understood her better. 

I remember in seventh grade Tracy Latimore gave me two tiny glass animal figurines (one lion and one bunny) from the Hallmark store. I don’t remember what she gave my twin sister, but it was something completely different. I felt an overwhelming feeling of gratitude and connection with Tracy. She knew me. She could see that I was different from my twin sister. She gave me a gift that reflected me alone, not half of a whole.

The Christmas of my freshman year in college my mother gave me a pair of leggings and an oversized sweatshirt. It was 1991 and that was the style. But I’d misinterpreted the gift. I cried my eyes out and locked myself in the bathroom for an hour because all I could think was that she thought I was fat. No matter the gift, she really didn’t have a chance.

Another year, just after I’d bought my first house, my mom sent me a set of tea towels with mushrooms on them along with a bag of dried shitakes for my birthday. I have always hated mushrooms. I pick them out of my food and reject them from my pizza. But my twin sister loves mushrooms. Maybe Mom mixed us up. But that was a crappy birthday. It brought me back to the days as a young twin, being lumped into a duo instead of being seen as an individual with different preferences, interests, and feelings.

A few years ago I started a list in my household — first on our phones, then on the wall — for my partner and my daughter to write down things they want. It was mostly for me so that, at gift receiving time I wouldn’t have to face the anxiety of getting a gift that would spin me back into my childhood despair of being misunderstood and unknown. 

This year on my birthday my mom sent me a check. She’s learned, I guess, over all these years, that I can’t handle the gifts. And my daughter and partner gave me things from “the list.” I’d managed to manipulate my family into catering to my birthday drama, but the day was still riddled with confusing emotions. 

My favorite gifts to give and receive are homemade. When I get a gift that someone has made themselves — cookies, bath salts, a poem, a plant they grew from a start — I think about the time they gave, a little piece of themselves. And even if I don’t use bath salts or like the flavor of cookies, I love the feeling I get when I get the gift.

Last night, the day after my birthday, my daughter and I went to Goodwill. I am working on a homemade present that I’ll give for Christmas and I needed some notions. Wandering around the store I felt excited and happy planning this homemade project.

On the way home in the car, I told my daughter (again) how much I loved the poem she’d written for my birthday the day before. She told me how she wanted to save money for a car. “I don’t really need any gifts,” she said. 

“Why don’t you tell your grandparents, parents, and aunts and uncles that you don’t want a gift this year — that you are saving for a car?” and, I threw in strategically, “What if we just do homemade presents in our house this year?” 

“That sounds good,” she said. I breathed a huge sigh of relief and felt happier than I had all day.

Friday, November 12, 2021

You're Giving Me a Heart Attack


The other day the mother of my daughter Lucia’s friend Jane called me. I don’t know her. We’ve said hello at a soccer game and texted a few times to coordinate where the girls are sleeping over on the weekend, but we’re not really friends.

I miss the days when I knew the parents of Lucia’s friends. I miss dropping her off and picking her up; coming inside to say hello or goodbye. Once Lucia started high school the parental meet and greet fizzled out. The kids were more independent. They made plans on their own — more informing the parents than making a plan with our help.

I’m used to it now but often on the weekends when Lucia is sleeping at a friend’s house I worry. When Jane’s mother called me the other day, I was surprised. When I picked up the call, I asked right away, “Is everything okay?”

“Well, ah,” she said, “Jane isn’t answering my calls and Jane’s friend Mary called to tell me that Jane’s car broke down. I don’t know why Jane isn’t calling me herself. I keep trying her and she isn’t picking up.”

I wondered too. There was no school the next day and I knew the girls had gone to soccer practice and were then going to go to a party. They had been hanging out at my house just a few hours before the call.

“Let me call Lucia,” I said, “They were just here and maybe she’ll answer her phone.” 

After a few attempts, I reached Lucia. She breathlessly answered the phone, “Mom, did you hear?” and proceeded to detail a story about how Jane’s car had died in the middle of an intersection and they were stranded. She told me how a man stopped to help them, jumping Jane’s car long enough to get to their Mary’s house. But just as they were pulling in to park, Jane’s car died again and they’d had to push the car another block to get it into a parking spot.

They were okay. Lucia told me that Jane was, at that moment, also on the phone with her mother.

I called Jane’s mother back to check in. Her voice was distracted and far away. I felt for her. I’ve been where she was in that moment. She was in the aftermath of intense worry. Behind the frustration and anger of not being able to reach her daughter, she had been experiencing a crushing maternal fear.

A few years ago Lucia didn’t answer her phone for hours while she was at a Halloween party. The images that went through my head — abduction, date rape, drowning, car accident, passed out from a head injury, alcohol or drug overdose — overwhelmed me. The inside of my head was like a boxing match of terrible possibilities. 

These catastrophic visions were all taking up space in my brain, occupying the airwaves so the most terrible thought of all — that my daughter was gone — couldn’t get through. 

It is the greatest fear, the one that is always there. That my child will somehow no longer be my child. That something horrible will happen when she is away from me and I will never see her again. It’s extreme worry, intense anxiety, yet I feel like it is totally normal. It’s what I imagined Jane’s mother was experiencing when she couldn’t reach her daughter.

My daughter is a confident, competent, independent young woman, and most of the time I feel like she is okay. I trust that, in most situations, she is going to be fine. But every once in a while that deep fear of the worst emerges. In those moments, the possibility that everything could go horribly, dreadfully wrong takes over. It’s like a mini heart attack — fluttering in my gut, clenching in my chest, and pressure behind my eyes. 

When the moment of panic is over, after I’ve confirmed that all is well with my daughter, there is still the residue from the experience. I feel drained, exhausted, raw with the emotion of almost losing her. In less than two years Lucia will be away at college; she will be far more out of touch than she is now. I’ll have zero control over her whereabouts or whether she contacts me to check-in. This time right now is preparing me for that more profound letting go.

Lucia is very good about staying in touch and responding if I reach out to her by text. But I’m also way better and letting her go a little bit further, for a little bit longer. I am building my threshold for being out of touch with her and letting her life be a little bit more of a mystery to me. I’m excited about her future and I know that from here on out most of her adventures will be without me. She’s ready for this next chapter and I have to be ready too. 

I notice a difference in my level of worry from years past. I don’t suffer the parade of terrible possibilities like I used to when I didn’t know Lucia’s whereabouts. But I still have moments. I know when Lucia is away at college I’ll still have little mini-heart attacks or worry. I imagine even when she’s fully launched, maybe even with her own family, I’ll have periodic heart-stopping worries from time to time. I don’t expect that feeling will ever fully go away. It’s just part of being a mother. 



Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Welcoming Opposites

 

Last weekend I went on a retreat with nine amazing women. We spent the weekend in cozy cottages deep in the forest. We took a sauna, sat in the hot tub, ate amazing food, watercolored, did yoga, meditated, and wrote. And that’s just the big stuff. The tiny little moments of wonder, awe, and gratitude are too many to list. At one point we all witnessed, as if in slow motion, a coyote chasing a bunny. It was truly magical.

I came home on Sunday evening, unloaded my car, had dinner with my family, and went to bed so I could be well-rested for work the next day. Work. How could I ever go back there? After a weekend doing all the things I love with people who were also there to do things they love, how would I muster the energy to go back into the portal of bureaucracy and checklists? How would I sit through another Zoom meeting away from the trees and the coyotes and the bunnies?

How could I possibly find the energy and discipline necessary to do all of the tasks that don’t inspire me? I woke up heavy on Monday morning. I felt the percolating excitement of the weekend already fading. “Noooooooooooo…” I groaned inside my head. I wanted to hold onto it. How could I get that magic feeling back? I spent some time looking through photos of the weekend. I shared them with my family and, as I scrolled through the images, I felt the flicker of a smile shining from my heart. 

But the retreat was over. It was time to go to work, down to my basement office, to my screen. I took a deep breath, poured myself another cup of coffee, and walked down into my daily reality. I don’t hate my job. I just really loved the retreat. As I worked through my lists, sat through my meetings, moved tasks across my KanBan board, I realized that part of the reason the retreat was so magical was that life isn’t always that way. 

On Monday morning the heaviness of my job felt more intense because I was emerging from the lightness of the retreat. And the magic and lightness of the retreat were amplified because of the heaviness of my daily life. 

The truth is that I like working. I like feeling productive and being busy. I enjoy the sense of completion when I finish a task. Once I got started working on Monday, once I opened up to that reality instead of focusing on the retreat, I found my groove. I got going and it was okay. 

It is by welcoming these opposites that we experience the wholeness of life. On the last day of our retreat, I found a fern frond. Half of it was crispy brown and dead and the other half verdant and alive. Together they made up everything — the alive and the dead, the soft and the hard, the light and the dark. 

The frond made me think of both my relationship with my mother and my relationship with my daughter. There is so much that is good in both relationships and so much that is hard. And all the parts are necessary for an authentic relationship. Both conflict and connection are required for growth to happen. 

My relationship with both my mother and my daughter is stronger because we’ve been through hard things. And my experience with the retreat was richer because I work hard and do the grind. And so it is with so many things in life. The green is greener because when we welcome the brown. 


Thursday, November 4, 2021

COVID Calm


Yesterday I was taking a walk on the lake. It was a cloudy, misty day and there weren’t many of us out there. I was trying to cram a power walk in before a meeting so I was speeding along the lake. I passed a woman who was moseying, seemingly without a care in the world in the middle of the day on a rainy Wednesday.

As I passed the woman I instinctively turned to see who it was. She was wearing a mask and a hoodie. She looked a little bit like she was gearing up to rob a bank. But I knew her. “Hi!” I said, surprised to see her in the middle of a workday. 

“Hi,” she said, from behind her mask.

“How’s it going?” I asked.

“I have COVID,” she said. “It’s not bad,” she explained, “the vaccine really works! I’m tired but I just needed to get outside and get some fresh air.”

When she first told me she had COVID, I instinctively stepped away from her. But then, registering that she had a mask and we were outside, I righted my reaction and stepped forward again. 

We talked a little bit, normal chit-chat, not really about COVID. We didn’t talk about where she got it or who she might have exposed. We didn’t spend a lot of time on her symptoms. We talked mostly about her dog who’d recently died; about which neighborhood vet we liked the best.

We’ve turned a corner. There was a time when we all wore masks outside. We stepped away from each other all the time, assuming that COVID was everywhere. We talked about it constantly.

We’ve entered the era of COVID calm. The virus is out there. Some people get it. And, for the most part, those who are vaccinated seem to weather the virus well. But we’re not collectively freaking out anymore.

Ahhhh. Such a relief. Last week I went to a concert at a huge venue — thousands of people. Most were wearing masks, but many were not. They were drinking beer or eating snacks or just not wearing their masks.

For a moment, while at the concert, I thought to myself, “Holy shit, what the hell am I doing? This is crazy!” And then I calmed down. COVID is out there. I was certainly putting myself at greater risk by going to the concert. But it was a calculated risk. I am vaccinated. We have a vaccination requirement for public spaces in my state. I was aware, I am aware, that if I get COVID, I will likely be okay.

It is only in hindsight that I remember how crazy I was before. COVID was all I talked about. The other important things in the world — the climate, racial and economic injustice, sexism, homophobia — all that stuff took a back burner to COVID. 

I made my partner stay in an Air B & B after coming home from a funeral last year because I was convinced she had COVID. I was living in a state of constant fear and anxiety. And now I’m not. I’m calm about COVID. I’m still vigilant. I follow the rules. I weigh my risks. But overall I’m calm.

I’m grateful to be on this side of the COVID anxiety continuum. Yesterday when I saw my friend, my COVID positive friend, walking on the lake, I saw clearly how far I’ve come, how far we’ve come. COVID is not the monster it once was. It’s more like a persistent rodent, hanging around, feeding on loose scraps. If we put away all the food and plug up all the access points in the house, it won’t get in. 

People are getting boosters and the kids are going to be vaccinated soon. Things are only going to get better from here. It looks like maybe we getting to the other side of COVID. I still worry about the spread of COVID — about the many people who won’t get vaccinated. But I think even with those dumdums who leave the door open with old pizza and burgers on the counter, recklessly inviting the vermin in, we’re going to be okay. We’ve reached the era of COVID calm. 

COVID took us to the depths of fear and despair. It took us to a place none of us could have imagined. But we’re not there anymore. Maybe now we can focus on other things. We can put some energy into police reform and global warming, our education system, women’s reproductive freedom, and the insidious nature of social media. Maybe we can use this COVID calm, put it to good use and start to repair what is broken in the world. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2021

Why I Wake Early

 

This morning I woke up at 5:30 am. I hadn’t slept as well as I normally do, but it wasn’t worth going back to sleep. The night behind me had been restless and I didn’t want to go back there. I looked through my window to the pitch black outside and felt the chill in our bedroom. I would get up, I thought to myself, and enjoy the early morning. Our dog Freckles heard me rise and scurried to follow me so he could get an early breakfast.

I love the quiet of the early morning. I tread softly so as not to wake anyone in the house. I made coffee and fed Freckles. Then I lit a candle and brought the candle and my warm mug to the living room where I sat on the couch and closed my eyes to breathe and listen to the silence for a few minutes. 

As I sat, enjoying the still sleepy feeling in my body and my brain, I thought to myself, “this I why I wake early.” I remembered one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems.

Why I Wake Early
Hello, sun in my face.
Hello, you who make the morning
and spread it over the fields
and into the faces of the tulips
and the nodding morning glories,
and into the windows of, even, the
miserable and crotchety–
best preacher that ever was,
dear star, that just happens
to be where you are in the universe
to keep us from ever-darkness,
to ease us with warm touching,
to hold us in the great hands of light–
good morning, good morning, good morning.
Watch, now, how I start the day
in happiness, in kindness.

Normally I’m a famously sound sleeper and I don’t stir until my alarm goes off at 6:20 am. But I just started a new job and my head is full of lists and questions and shoulds and what-ifs. Getting out of a bed felt more like a relief than a chore this morning. Sitting in the dark with my candle and cup of coffee felt like, “the best preacher that ever was.” A few moments to settle into the stillness before the worries of the day began. It offered me a short time to connect with the magic of quiet and darkness, to simply, “be where I [am] in the universe”.

As I sat on the couch in the dark I could see the lights of cars far in the distance on the bridge crossing over the lake. I could hear a distant train whistle and periodic choppy voices of runners trotting down to the hill to the path along the lake. It was still too early to hear any birds. At this hour they were still sleeping.

Inside my house was utter silence. I felt such gratitude for this time of just being — no work, no parenting, no planning. Just being. The day ahead would be busy. I’ve put too much on my plate and I haven’t figured out yet how to manage these humungous servings. 

I know I’ll figure out this new job and the other commitments I’ve heaped onto my plate. I’ll learn that, instead of trying to ingest all the mounds of food at once, I can compost some and put some in the fridge to be saved for tomorrow or the next day. But I’m in a transition and I know the next few weeks, maybe months will be an adjustment. 

For right now though, I have these morning hours to keep me grounded. This is why I wake early. To step into the day slowly, to watch the sun come up and be held in “the great hands of light.” When my family wakes in an hour maybe I’ll be in the kitchen or my office or maybe I’ll still be sitting on the couch. But I’ll be ready for them, ready to start the day. “Good morning,” I’ll say. And I’ll really mean it. 

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

One Creative Thing a Day


Every few years I become aware of how dependent I am on my cell phone. Last week when we were changing cell phone plans I lost access to my phone for three days. I freaked out. My partner and my seventeen-year-old daughter watched with curiosity and disdain as I morphed into a hideous monster trying to convince innocent customer service agents to fix a problem that was clearly out of their reach.

After my six hours of outrage and still no phone, I had a moment of clarity. Maybe there was a reason that this happened to me. Maybe this was a sign that my relationship with my cell phone is out of control. Around the same time that my cell phone stopped working, I went to my first live concert since COVID. We went to see Frazey Ford, a female vocalist about my age. The concert was inspiring and fun and enlivening. 

I fell in love with Frazey Ford and her “backup singer” Caroline Ballhorn. Caroline wasn’t really wasn’t back up; her voice really made you want to rise up. Both of them had both voices and energy that lit up the stage, the room, and something inside of me. When I got home I googled them both on my laptop and went down a rabbit hole on each of their Instagrams. Both are wildly creative, not just in music but in other art forms.

“I used to be like that,” I thought to myself. I used to be way more creative than I am now. Maybe that’s why I was given a forced break from my cell phone — to remember my creative self. The next morning I vowed to do one creative thing every day.

I started by going to our piano and trying to play “In the Shallows” by Lady Gaga, a song my daughter taught me to play a few years ago. I am not good at piano and have forgotten how to read music. I can only play by memorizing chords and piecing them together into a song. It was a slow start. I needed to look up A-minor was a few times, but I did it. After a few days of practicing it got better. I’m improving every day.

Later that afternoon I went to a dance practice for a Halloween Thriller flash mob. The goal is to learn the six-plus minute Michael Jackson Thriller dance and flash mob it at a Halloween Parade. The dance crew is me, a few other adult women, and lots of teenage girls. Learning the moves is grueling and confusing. My body is out of practice and my brain moves much more slowly than it used to. In addition to the live practices, I practice at home by watching video tutorials on my laptop. Each practice counts as one creative thing. 

The morning after the Frazey Ford concert I got my watercolors out. “I need to leave these out on the dining room table,” I told my partner Nancy. “I’m doing one creative thing a day and I want to be able to just sit down and watercolor.” 

“Great,” she said, “that’s fun.”

My first watercolor was a landscape of the lake outside my window. The next day I took an online class on how to paint a flower. Later that week I took a walk and shot a photo of a sewer grate and painted that. Yesterday I collected a red leaf from our sidewalk and painted that.

For over a week I have done at least one creative thing a day, usually two or three. On Monday I started preparing for my new job at the University. I’m going to be managing a program for the elderly, creating programs for them that will curb and mitigate dementia and social isolation. It’s a serious job and I’ll have a lot less time to do things like practice piano and watercolor techniques.

As I sat on my couch reading research articles updating me on statistics about this population and best practices, I found myself jotting down notes about creative ways to engage these older people. I imagined pop-up lunches at local restaurants and a collaboration with the museum to do art projects. This was fun. I was creatively thinking about this new, serious job. My daily dose of creativity had seeped into this other realm of my life.

Most mornings I write, which is creative. But it’s something I do so regularly that I don’t have to try. I am not stepping out of my comfort zone to write. Playing the piano, dancing, and making art are activities I am not used to doing. And that’s why I have to do them. They push me to access a part of myself that lies dormant if I don’t. So as I begin this new chapter of new job, less time, I’m committed to keeping my daily dose of creativity.

I have my phone back and I’m grateful. I love the convenience of this device, but I can feel the benefits of using it less. Adding this new daily practice — one creative thing a day — makes me feel better. I feel more balanced, more like myself. When I play the piano or paint or do dance practice, even when I write, I can’t look at my phone. I have to focus elsewhere —  see different images, hear different sounds, feel different feelings. One creative thing a day. That’s all it takes. 




Thursday, October 21, 2021

Negotiating as a Woman

 I was recently offered a job at a large institution in my city. As a long-time entrepreneur, I had made the decision to stop struggling so hard and step into some stability. I was glad to be transitioning to a steady job with a regular paycheck and benefits. 

I was (and am) excited about my new role and this next chapter in my life. When I received the offer letter from the institution I was surprised by the package. It wasn’t what I had expected. I consulted with my partner who is an employment attorney and a good friend who works at the said institution about what to do.

Together we came up with a counter-proposal to the Human Resources department. I was nervous and scared to be pushing back against such an albatross of bureaucracy. I felt out of place — tiny me asking this behemoth of an organization for more money and better benefits. There was a part of me that felt like I should just take what they offered, that I was lucky to be getting a job at all after all of these years of running my own business and being my own boss.

But my ego, bolstered by my friend and partner, cheered me on. I pushed back to HR and asked for what I wanted, what I thought I deserved. And they said no. They said the offer was firm and it was all they had to give me. They said their offer was actually on the higher range of what they normally offer for a position such as mine. They’d won and I’d lost.

I felt so exposed. I felt like I had just walked into Nordstrom completely naked with dirty feet and greasy hair. Everyone around could see me. They were staring and snickering. The jig was up. There was no more discussion. If I wanted the job I would take their offer.

And I did (and do!) want the job. I am excited about it and can’t wait to get started. Now, naked and exposed, the ball was in my court. As I waited and worried about what to do, the director of the department where I would be working sent me an email saying that she wanted to have a phone conversation with me to talk things through before we went any further. 

I panicked. I had asked for too much. I was out of line. Out of touch. I was an egomaniac. A spoiled brat. An entitled asshole. I didn’t deserve what I had asked for. I had ruined my chances. Soiled the nest. As the time for our phone call approached I paced from my kitchen to my office twenty-nine times. I felt like I was going to throw up. I role-played with my partner. I read and re-read emails between me and HR. I felt desperate — one-inch tall, lost and afraid in a meadow of tall grass. At 3:00 pm my future boss called. 

“Listen,” she said in a strong, clear, experienced voice, “I am in full support of people advocating for a higher salary. As a woman, I am especially happy when I see other women doing it. You didn’t do anything wrong,” she stressed, “we just don’t have any more money to offer. But I want you to know that I will always do my best to get you and everyone on my team the best deal I can.”

We talked a bit more to clear up our understanding and expectations of our future working together. I no longer felt nauseous or one inch tall. I felt okay. I had gone to the edge of my vulnerability threshold and come out on the other side. 

When we hung up I understood how important this negotiation process had been for me. My ego had pole-vaulted to the front of my consciousness and made her point that I should push back loud and clear. I did. It was brutal and uncomfortable and unsuccessful. But it was a necessary step in my evolution as a woman and as an employee. 

Later that evening I took my daughter to dinner and told her about my day. “Do you think if you were a man you’d have had as much trouble asking for more money?” she asked me. “Probably not,” I replied. “Do you think if a man was in your position he would have gotten what he’d asked for?” she continued. “I don’t know,” I said back as I wondered the same thing myself, “I hope not.”

And it struck me that, at seventeen, my daughter is already too familiar with this struggle of stepping up and asking for more. We learn early, as girls, to accept what is offered and not push for more. That’s why I felt like such an imposter when I requested a better package. It was a grueling by essential process. Next time I’m in this position it won’t be nearly as difficult. In the end, I didn’t get more money or better benefits but at least I tried. And that in itself is a win.


Wednesday, October 6, 2021

My Daughter Can Save Herself

 

Last night I dreamed that I was on a beautiful island somewhere in Tahiti. I was down on the beach which somehow was a level below the area where the hotel was. I felt like it was odd but, like so many times in my life, I just accepted it and enjoyed the beach. A woman came out of the very clear water holding a gigantic frog and gathered the attention of people on the beach, myself included.

As we all walked towards the watermelon-sized slippery, brown, and yellow-spotted creature I noticed in my peripheral vision a fog of gray coming down from above. At first, I thought it was fog but then I realized it was a very light falling of sand. Before I could connect the dots, my intuition told me to run. I ran to the right, towards the water. I could hear screaming and feel the rumble of the sand crashing all around me. In my dream, I was with my daughter and a few friends; I hoped they were safe but I had no idea where they were or how they would manage this catastrophe.

The next segment of my dream had me on an electric bike riding on an island road somewhere away from the beach. At some point, I realized that I needed to find my daughter so I turned around. I expected to see people panicking around me but everyone seemed normal. There were bikers and drivers and walkers on the road with me and everyone seemed content. No one was panicking like me.

At some point on my electric bike ride, I realized that I could go much faster and I would be able to get back to the beach, and to my daughter, much faster. I don’t like speed. I don’t like feeling out of control, so when my bike got too fast I tried to break. My brakes didn’t work so I put my feet on the road which had turned into orange clay. I dug my heels into the earth to slow my bike down and as I did my wallet flew out of the bike basket into a water-filled ravine. Now I was really in trouble.

I spoke to a man sitting by the ravine and he pointed to my wallet. It was way down and there was no way for me to retrieve it. The man seemed happy though and, laughing, he assured me that no one else would be able to get my license and identification because my wallet was so far down.

I got back on my bike and rode in the direction of our hotel. Now I was really worried about my daughter. Even though she’s sixteen, nearly an adult, I still worry about her. I will always worry about her. In my dream, I worried as I do in my waking life. Was she buried in sand? Frightened? Lost? Dead?

As I rode my bike, I passed through a town and slowed down. I realized that somehow through the chaos I still had my phone. I stopped my bike and pulled it out to call my daughter. I dialed and, as I waited, I looked to my right. There, sitting on a bench in a navy blue sweatshirt with wet, sandy hair was my daughter. I watched her reach down into her bag to answer her phone.

At the moment that she answered her phone she looked at me. We were so surprised, relieved, and happy to see each other. My daughter was okay. She’d survived. In my dream, I was overwrought with emotion to see her alive. But also, in my dream state, as I looked at my daughter sitting on the bench, I saw a competent, capable almost-adult, not a helpless, lost, child on the beach. While I ran in one direction during the landslide, she had run in another, making her own decision that resulted in her safety and survival.

Being a mother is a lifetime of wonder and worry. This week my daughter will be seventeen, almost an adult. Last week when I was out of town she stayed by herself for two nights. I was so worried. I worried someone would break into the house. I worried she would have a party. I worried someone would take advantage of her being alone. But she was okay. She was great. She loved it!

My daughter has a job. She drives a car. She navigates a whole world of school, friends, relationships, and struggles that are completely outside of me.

My dream is telling me, reminding me, that my daughter is okay; that all signs point to the fact that she will continue to be okay. That long electric bike ride out of town and back again is a metaphor for my worry. It symbolizes my fear that my daughter will not be okay in the big, bad world.

In my dream, my daughter survived. And in reality, she is surviving too. She is thriving.

A friend of mine says that her mother’s love language is worry. I think it might be mine too. But I would like it not to be. In my dream, in that moment where I saw my daughter on the bench, okay and alive, plotting her next move — where to go, what to do — I experienced a sense of wonder and awe.

Last night at dinner, after a cold, wet, soccer game in the rain, my daughter rattled on about a new club she’d joined at school, about the birthday dinner she was planning with her friends, about her plans to get more hours at work. Then we all did a crossword puzzle together. Dinner doesn’t always happen like this. Often my daughter barely speaks and when dinner is over she goes to her room.

But last night was one of those rare nights where my daughter let us see her in all her glory. She’s okay. I don’t need to worry so much. If there is a landslide, or a car accident, or a heartbreak, or an earthquake, I am not going to be the one to save my daughter. She’s going to save herself.

Sunday, September 26, 2021

Slow Motion Memory Growth


It’s been almost two years since I sold my business, but it feels like two lifetimes. The timing of me selling my yoga studio of almost two decades was uncanny. I completed the sale and transition just a few months before COVID hit; four months before our world essentially shut down. It’s been a busy two years. Besides COVID, here’s what else has happened:

Three jobs. Ten interviews. Two grade levels. Three remodels. A death. Birth control. Driving. Fires.Another death. Protests. Hurricanes. Floods. Hospice. Knee Replacements. Dementia. Family. Friends. Sadness. Happiness. New job. Another new job. Hot tub. New plants. Outside dining. New driver’s license. Less meat. Four online classes. Electric bikes. Hulu. A vegetable garden. More baking. New habits. Fourty COVID tests. Outside heaters. Less drinking. Twenty-five COVID tests. More walking. HBO Max. Two volunteer gigs. Less yoga. Two road trips. Watercolors. Home office. One plane trip. Three vaccinations. Outdoor rituals. Honey cake. Holidays outside. Roller skating. Friday morning coffee. Raised beds. Outside heaters. Netflix.

As I’ve gotten older time seems to move faster, except for these past few years. When I look back at the last two years, I can actually remember stuff. COVID slowed the world down. As I reflect back on this time, it feels like there have been ten extra months crammed into the last two years. It seems impossible that so much has happened in just one-twenty-fifth of my life. 

When COVID first hit there was a collective adrenaline rush in my household and community. We all went on high alert. Details were everything. Who did you talk to? How close did you stand? Did you wear your mask? Use hand sanitizer? Do you feel okay? The details of our lives became common conversation in a way they never had before.

In my family, we all knew where we all were all the time because mostly we were home. If someone took a walk or went to the grocery, we knew. If there was a social event there was lots of planning and preparation— COVID testing, isolation, organizing outdoor space. 

The way we lived changed. During COVID we were no longer running in different directions. Before COVID my partner would be at her office and my daughter would be at school. I would be at the yoga studio. What each of us had for lunch or who we spoke to during the day was our own private story. At dinner each night we’d share a brief overview, but there were so many moments of each day that none of them was that precious, that memorable. 

When I ran my business I was gone a lot. I had classes to teach, employees to manage, meetings to attend. When I sold the business all of that busyness was gone. Combined with the great slowing of COVID, suddenly a vast amount of space opened up in my life. My interior world expanded and my external life contracted. 

When I contemplate how full my life has been in these last two years, years where our ability to travel, socialize and congregate has been severely curbed, I become acutely aware of how jam-packed my life was pre-COVID. I moved at warp speed. And I hardly remember it.

There is a joke among my family and friends that I have a terrible memory. It is why I rarely hold a grudge. I don’t remember the details of arguments or conflicts, probably because historically I have been too scatterbrained from an overly busy life. There were always too many other things going on to really focus on any one thing.

I benefited a lot from the great slowing that came with COVID. At first, like many people, I struggled to adapt to the changes. But in hindsight I can see that, through COVID, I learned to value the things in my life I took for granted in the past. My ability to remember significant, important moments is one of the things I notice. In the slowness, the relative emptiness of activity, my memory was able to retain more moments.

We’re getting back to normal now. My daughter is in school and she is able to socialize as she did before COVID. Her days and often evenings are a mystery to me. Last weekend my partner went away to see a friend for the weekend. Next week I will travel by plane to see my mother. We all engage in activities outside the nest of our home every day. The world is speeding up and I can feel myself losing track of many of the small moments. 

I know that next year my memory for the past will not be as clear as it is now at the edge of COVID. There will be too many things to sort out and keep track of. Like before COVID, my mind will be like a stuffed suitcase where I can’t find my running bra or iron pills. 

It’s a tradeoff. For me, the freedom that comes from moving beyond the imminent dangers of COVID is a super full life that moves really fast; a life where I get to see friends and family, work outside of my home, celebrate with others, and travel. What I lose is the experience of appreciating and remembering the preciousness of each moment. 

I am grateful for this return to a more abundant life but I also lament the loss of the slow presence I have felt these past few years.

I can say that I will try to keep it simple but I know deep down this will likely not happen. Already the dinner parties are starting. The travel plans and happening. The expectations are mounting. 

We are going back to a life more like the life we lived before COVID, but we will never be the same. The normal now is not the normal we lived before the pandemic. And for me, this is a good thing. I love the clarity of memory I have of the past two years of my life. 

I want to take some of what I learned from COVID into my future. I know it will be hard to impose a slowing down when there is no external mandate. But I can see now how important slowing down is, how doing it has helped me live a more memorable life. It won’t be easy to step away from the excitement and adventure of the world opening up again but I’m going to do my best. I’m going to try. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

My Butt Moved to My Belly


My Nana was one of my favorite people. She spent most of her time reading and doing crossword puzzles. She suffered from back pain as long as I knew her. She rubbed many people the wrong way, coming off as snobby and judgemental. But she loved me and I loved her. A black and white photo of her sits on my desk reminding me of that abiding feeling of unconditional love I experienced with Nana.

Nana had a beautifully chiseled jawline, a strong nose, and high cheekbones. She had a long neck and thin arms and legs which she accentuated by wearing solid colors, often black. I remember her most in black turtlenecks with a large artistic necklace hanging right at her sternum.

In addition to her long thin arms and legs, Nana had a hard, round stomach which got bigger as she got older. It was there in my first memory of her which meant that she was in her early fifties. I remember her little round belly growing over the years. Nana never wore loose clothes. She never donned moo-moos or loose blouses. She always wore close-fitting knits that showed her whole body.

I have many of the same characteristics that my Nana had — thin arms and legs, a long neck. Like Nana, I love to read. I’m in my early fifties now and I notice my body changing. Last night lying in bed I said to my partner, “I feel like my butt migrated to my stomach.” She laughed in agreement and understanding. She too is experiencing this physical shift in her body.

Whatever butt meat I had before has left the room, walked across the hall, and made itself comfortable in a circle right around my belly button. When I wear high-waisted pants now the waistband has a little platform to sit on. My belly isn’t that big yet, but if I follow Nana’s path, it will only get bigger.

I remember Nana’s belly. It seemed so out of place with the rest of her body. I have images of her in her black bathing suit — long arms and legs, strong, pronounced collar bones, and a little paunch right at the belly. I regularly accompanied Nana to the swimming pool on the top floor of their apartment building so she could do her physical therapy exercises. She’s put a volleyball under each armpit and float while she moved her legs to release the tension in her back. 

My belly isn’t always pronounced. Around my period it gets bigger. If I have gas it grows. But it’s always there, no matter how much weight I lose, the shape of my body doesn’t change — long, thin arms and legs and a little butt belly.

Nana’s belly is the one I remember most clearly but most of the female elders in my life have had the same progression of the butt rounding the corner to live at the belly. It’s easy to complain about this, to lament the fate of the aging body. But complaining is a waste of energy and completely unproductive. I could commit to doing more core work to try to get my butt to move back to its original position but I’m not sure I really care that much.

Mens’ bodies change too; their butts also move to their bellies. But men aren’t considered physically the way women are; they aren’t objectified from puberty through death. They aren’t socialized to keep up their looks as they get older. 

Why are women fighting this battle? Why am I? For whatever physicological reason, my butt has decided it would be happier on the front of my body than it was at the back. So what. When I think of Nana, sitting in her chair, reading Russian literature, one elbow resting on her belly as she puffed away at her True cigarette, I think of how much I loved her, not about how big her belly was.

It’s profound, to think that, with all that is going on in the world, that I, that millions of women, are focused on the changing nature of their bellies. Right now my belly feels a little like it did when I was very newly pregnant, not quite showing the world, but fully aware that my body was changing. I could feel the tightness of my jeans, the subtle discomfort of something shifting. 

Maybe that’s how to think of this aging body belly — there’s new life there, new possibilities, dreams, and hopes. Growing my daughter in my belly, giving birth, and raising her has been one of the greatest joys of my life. 

I’ve been lucky. Besides my butt moving around the bend to my belly and my hair going gray, I’ve not had many other physical changes with getting older. There is so much room for new life experiences and growth as we get older. Focusing on my belly is an unnecessary distraction, a pull away from all the good stuff that comes with aging. 

I wonder if Nana thought about her belly; if she tried to tame its growth. I have some of her jewelry, several of those ornate necklaces she used to wear. I’ve rarely worn them because I haven’t felt like they quite suit my style yet. Until now, they’ve felt too “old” for me. But my body is changing. I’m getting older. Maybe now is a good time to try on some of those necklaces. I bet they’d look great with my new belly.

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