Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Life on Another Planet: Lessons from a Year of Pandemic Living

Last night I dreamed that I was deported to another planet. The reason for my deportation was unclear, but I think it had something to do with protecting me from something bad that I’d done or a dangerous event that was forthcoming.

In my dream, I ended up in an all-white dorm room with several bunk beds. Everything was white — the walls, the ceiling, the bunk beds, the sheets. I was assigned to the bottom bunk and a woman named Lee who’d I’d met just briefly at my last job was tucked into the top slot.

Lee was the only familiar face in the room. The other “guests” were two teenage girls who scored the only two non-bunk beds and a very large multi-generational family who occupied the other three bunk beds. I wasn’t sure why the teenagers were there but somehow I knew that the family had been high up in a Mexican drug cartel and were on this planet for protection.

I was confused but not scared. In my dream, it was clear to me that this was my new reality. It was not a vacation or a time-limited prison sentence. It was where I would live for the rest of my life. A chronic worrier, it was strange to me that my dream self wasn’t panicking about having been transported to this strange new land. My dream self just accepted it and tried to work with what I knew.

I started to unpack my familiar burgundy carry-on. I hadn’t packed much — just a pair of pants and a few t-shirts. That was weird because I rarely wear t-shirts. I couldn’t find any underpants or bras and as I was digging around to see if maybe they were buried somewhere Lee yelled down, “You have eight million dollars cash in there. I know cuz I got it too.”

Sure enough, there was a ziplock baggie with eight million dollars. I knew that this currency was no good on the new planet and wondered briefly who’d stuffed it into our suitcases. I thought of all the things I could have used that money for a few short days before.

Two orderlies dressed in scrubs with light blue stars all over them brought in trays of food for the teenage girls. Leaning on one elbow and facing each other, the girls picked at their food with dead eyes and bitter smirks. Those girls scared me. I assumed they’d been here for a while and had given up hope. Maybe they knew something about this bizarre planet we were on. On the other hand, I thought to my dream self, maybe they’re just teenagers.

When I finished unpacking I realized that my glasses were broken, not just at the end piece where I could use a paperclip or safety pin to repair them, but further down the arm. I would need heavy-duty tape or a whole new arm to replace it. 

My alarm woke me up and I quickly jotted down the key points of the dream. What struck me the most was how unworried I was on this new planet. I just accepted all of the strange things. I’m usually the kind of person who would be FREAKING OUT, demanding to understand what is happening, to know all of the details. I would run from room to room looking out every window, in every drawer. Normally in stressful times, I’m like Shelly Duvall in The Shining —  smoking, eyes darting around, intermittently shrieking and playing possum.

But in this dream, I was just going with it. Everything was new and different and disorienting but it was okay. It was simply my new life. My dream self accepted that I would have eight million dollars that I could never use, that I would wear broken glasses and the same bra and underpants forever. My dream self accepted my new roommates and the fact that I’d never see my home or my family forever.

The person in this dream, I thought to myself, was not the version of me that I know. It was the reformed version, the kind of person who can let things go, accept change, and live in the unknown.

Reflecting back on the period of history we’re in — more than a year of living in a pandemic where everything is scary and disorienting and we know very little about what the hell is really happening — I realize that this past year has been a little bit like living on another planet.

I’ve learned a lot on this new planet. I’ve learned early on in the pandemic that if my inner Shelly Duvall ruled the roost I would be completely insane and permanently alienate all of the close friends and family members I love and care about. I’ve learned that happiness is possible even when I am living in the unknown. I’ve learned that I don’t actually need the number of clothes and shoes and accessories that crowd my closet and drawers. I’ve learned that the world can feel scary and weird and crazy and I’ll still be okay. I’ve learned that I can make do with broken glasses.

My dream was a prescient message to stay on this path. It was a sign that the lessons I’ve learned are good ones that will serve me on my journey no matter what planet I’m on. I’ll always be a worrier. I’ll still freak out from time to time. But I like to think that my dream revealed a little bit of the new me, the one who can still be happy when life is scary, unknown, and incredibly weird. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Proxy Mommy: It Really Does Take a Village

Last night my sixteen-year-old daughter Lucia went on a dinner date with one of my best friends Jamie, and I took Jamie’s fourteen-year-old daughter Maya out. It was Lucia’s idea. She’s been talking about it for months — how she wanted to go out to dinner with Jamie. So they made a plan and then because it seemed like such a good idea, I decided to take Maya.

It was a temporary mother-daughter swap. We’ve been family friends since our kids were infants. We’ve gone on family vacations together and celebrated holidays together. We’re all comfortable and relaxed around each other, as close to family as you can get.

Maya and I opted for dinner at a local taqueria. During our dinner of tacos and burritos, I asked Maya lots of questions and she shared what she’s doing in school, ways she’d like to spend more time with her own mom, and how she was feeling about her big move to high school next year.

After dinner, we walked to an ice cream shop and got scoops to go. We walked back to the car, much more comfortable than we had been at the beginning of dinner. It was so nice to spend this time together, like mother and daughter, but without the history, the expectations, the entrenched roles that so many mothers and daughters get locked into. When I dropped Maya off I hoped she’d enjoyed herself as much as I had.

Shortly before getting home myself, I got a few texts from Lucia, “Sorry, we’re tequila tasting right now and I’ll be home around 1 am” followed by, “Also, I love menthol cigarettes.”

Jamie is one of the funniest people I know and I could imagine her and Lucia sitting at a table in the different Mexican restaurant that they went to coming up with ways to freak me out.

When Lucia finally did get home a half-hour later she told me that she and Jamie had mostly talked about college. I’m sure that they did talk about college, but I imagined, based on the wide range of topics Maya and I covered, that they talked about a lot of other things too. But I understood Lucia’s clipped summary of her evening — it wasn’t my business what she and Jamie had talked about.

It’s an age-old truth — adolescents, especially girls, have to find a way to separate from their mothers. They have to devise tools to step out of the familiar, close-to-home image of their mothers. Unfortunately for the mothers, this is often painful and rejecting. But it’s not personal. It’s imperative to make this shift so that the daughter can make herself in her own image, not that of her mother.

I remember a few months ago Lucia came home from a shopping trip to the mall. “Mom, I saw the weirdest thing,” she recounted, “there was a mother and a daughter about my age. They looked exactly the same and they were holding hands.

When I probed Lucia a little bit more about why that was so weird, she explained that there must be something wrong there. The daughter must be keeping some dirty family secrets, some big problems that she wasn’t expressing because it’s just not normal to be that way with your mom.

My daughter is in a phase right now where she is compelled to be her own person. She is driven in every way to be unlike me. I see that as a good thing, a developmental process that will help her discover who she is becoming.

Last night Lucia got to try out being a different self with a mother, just not her own. How brilliant to devise that scheme. She’d envisioned a proxy mother in Jamie so that she could experiment with being someone else, still herself, but different. She could engage in a relationship with Jamie with the comfort of knowing that Jamie sees her with a different lens.

I remember when I was a teenager and young adult, I had an extended period of needing to be completely different from my own mother. I was surly, sullen, and downright unpleasant. My mother’s sister, my favorite aunt, was my proxy mother. I could be who I wanted to be instead of who I was expected to be. I could be cheerful and delightful and sweet, all things that I simply could not give my own mother at that time.

We throw around the term, “it takes a village” all the time, but to put it into play means actually giving up something to let someone else step in and help. For me, it means celebrating Lucia’s need for separation and letting her explore. I can’t say it didn’t smart a little bit when Lucia first started talking about wanting to go out to dinner with Jamie. Part of me still fantasized about holding hands with her at the mall. But that’s not who my daughter is and that’s not what she needs.

Lucia is all about becoming herself. She still needs guidance and support. She needs to be shepherded gently through this time, to try out different personalities with people she feels safe with. I’m here to do the heavy lifting, to be the punching bag at times, to hold down the fort, and enforce the rules. It’s all part of the job. But Lucia needs more than this. And she figured out how to get it by creating a Proxy Mommy in Jamie.

And I got to step out of my own familiar mother role by playing Maya’s Proxy Mommy. I had the luxury to just listen to her, to be curious and interested in a way Jamie can’t because she has to be the heavy in Maya’s life. I got to be Proxy Mommy and experience the joy of sharing time with a young woman who is growing up and finding her own way.

Being a mother is hard but it’s also the greatest joy of my life. It is like an endless day at the amusement park. There’s the merry-go-round, mellow and pleasant, the roller coaster, scary and vomit-inducing, and everything in between. It’s exhausting to walk all day in the hot sun but there’s always the water ride and a break under the umbrella with kettle corn when you need a break before going on the Tilt-A-Whirl.

When we planned it, the mother-daughter swap seemed like a small thing, just dinner out on a Monday night. But reflecting on it has helped me understand that it is so much more. Being Proxy Mommy to Maya let me see how incredibly complicated our daughters are. It reminded me to make space for that complexity every day and to expand the village to make sure our girls have room to experiment and grow. I can’t wait to do it again.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Bottomless Green Grapes and Pomegranate Seltzer

I quit my full-time job last week and today is my first Monday waking up with no work obligations. This last job, which I managed to stay with for almost a year, was my first traditional full-time job in over twenty-five years. Prior to this job, I’d always done my own gig — consulting, running a business, starting a non-profit. And while all of those jobs were challenging and often required me to work full-time and beyond, I never had a compulsory schedule where I had to work certain days and certain hours. So leaving this job where I was a 9–5er feels especially liberating. I feel so happy that I don’t have to log in and do the grind until I can log out.

But the list of other things I need to do has already snaked in through the space at the bottom of my office door. It’s not even 9 am and my inventory of tasks is piling up: mow the lawn, clean out the storage room in the basement, make a dentist appointment, pay the house bills, wipe the old computers so I can donate them, put away winter clothes, connect timer on the drip system, research summer programs for teens.

How do people actually keep a full-time job when there is so much to do? My mom tells a story of me at our family dinner table when I was about fourteen. “I’m never going to work full-time,” I said. Both of my parents and my step-parents worked full-time. I’m not sure where I got the idea that it was possible not to work full-time.

I’d bought into the other messages that were promoted in my youth — that boys were more capable, that adult women should always be dieting, and that most people with any gray hair also had chronic back pain. So why did I make the proclamation that I would not follow the full-time path at such an early age? 

After working full-time for the last year, I am affirmed that my adolescent proclamation was wise and true. Everyone is different. There are night owls and early birds. But the majority of us are expected to work the same shifts. Some people like to work twelve-hour days and get their workweek over with. Others would rather work short days and just do a moderate amount every day. 

Today, in addition to my list of jobs to do, I have challenged myself to envision my perfect job. 

In my perfect job, I would make my own schedule. 

In my perfect job, I’d have health insurance that actually covered my health care.

In my perfect job, I could l get all of the paperwork done before 7 am and be done with work by 3 pm when my creativity and energy start to fade. 

In my perfect job, if I wanted, I could work for seven-day stretches and take four days off for a family trip. 

In my perfect job, I could work at home.

In my perfect job, there would be a quiet room for nursing, napping, reading, or meditating.

In my perfect job, I would have wonderful colleagues who also crafted their perfect jobs. 

In my perfect job, I would have a boss who asked me and my colleagues lots of questions about what we thought about big company decisions.

In my perfect job, we’d have a room full of arts and crafts — watercolors, embroidery thread, clay, a sewing machine, collage materials — so that anyone could take a break to get inspired or just to do some parallel play in the middle of the workday.

In my perfect job, I would have a few projects that were really easy and intuitive for me and one big project that felt really hard, like a two thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle. 

In my perfect job, I could walk or bike to work and come home for lunch to walk my dog.

In my perfect job, the office would have lots of plants and a mini-fridge with bottomless green grapes and pomegranate seltzer.

In my perfect job, we’d have a weekly staff meeting where everyone felt excited to see each other, and someone new brought a different homemade bread or pastry to share each week.

In my perfect job, we’d all be trying to change the world in our own way. Everyone would get a chance to share their passions and invite others to join them at our monthly Heal the World afternoon retreat in the park by the lake.

In my perfect job if you just felt really tired someone would notice. They’d look at you and smile and say, “You look wiped. Why don’t you head home. Take some time, as much as you need, and come back when you’re ready.”

I’m looking for a new job and I’ve given myself a little time to find the perfect one. I just have a few important criteria. How hard can it be?

Life on Another Planet: Lessons from a Year of Pandemic Living

Last night I dreamed that I was deported to another planet. The reason for my deportation was unclear, but I think it had something to do wi...