Monthly Archives: April 2012

the watershed

I spent the day today making my little corner of the world just a little prettier.  Lillies and impatiens in the planter on my deck (with a pink flamingo, just for fun).  Herbs and strawberry plants in big pots on my kitchen patio.  Fresh water in the bird bath and fresh food in the bird feeder.  Patio furniture scrubbed, paths swept, and tiny lawn mowed.  A new rosebush planted outside my bedroom window in honor of my aunt, with pink blooms that perfectly match the lipstick shade she wore every day of her adult life.

My girls and I finished our spring cleaning yesterday by tackling Sabrina’s closet, which had become so unwieldy, it was like a scene from a film where you open the door and everything rains down on your head.  No exaggeration.  But our little home is all neat and tidy and sparkling clean now, inside and out.

A few weeks ago, these chores would have rested heavily and uncomfortably on my shoulders.  I would have felt dismal and overburdened by them.  Indeed, only a few weeks ago, I was feeling that life was a somewhat monotonous repetition of obligations, chores, and responsibilities.   I awoke in the mornings despairing of another busy day of nothing to look forward to, and climbed into bed each evening feeling frustrated, sad, and lonely in my life.   I plodded through everything quietly and determinedly, weighted down by a silent melancholy and pessimism born of a fear that I would always feel that way.   I wrote my previous post — cat in the bag —  nearly 2 1/2 weeks ago, in the midst of struggling with those emotions.

And then, my only aunt died last week.

And that changed everything.

When I received the news on Monday night that she was in the hospital, in debilitating pain, and not expected to survive the week, I was devastated.  Her death Tuesday afternoon contained as much relief (in freeing her from her suffering) as it did grief.  The text informing me of her passing came from my young cousin, her grandson.  It reached me just as I was convening a very important meeting at work.  It said, simply, “Grandma went to heaven at 12:45 PM.  I love you.”    I’ve no clear memory of the subsequent two-hour meeting, although I’m told by colleagues that it went well.  Thank God for auto-pilot.

I spent most of Tuesday evening talking to my cousins and my mom, allowing them to hurl themselves into their grief and find some solace in our shared memories of my aunt.   Then later, an ex-boyfriend provided the same sounding board for me:  letting me remember all the best of my aunt and celebrate her life by sharing her with someone who’d never met her.  All last week, friends checked in and provided support and love in beautiful, small ways.

Last weekend, before receiving the news of my aunt, I’d enjoyed a four-day weekend and an amazing, soul-drenching visit from a high school friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years.   My friend, “Kathryn,” is someone who truly sees life as a glass half-full.  Not in the annoying Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy! way that makes me want to smack some people, but in a quiet, consistent way that makes me ashamed of my own tendency to host pity parties.  Whether it’s a rocky divorce, a professional set-back, or a romantic relationship with some pretty daunting challenges, she tackles them all with a cheerfulness and gratitude toward her life that is inspiring.

We spent the whole weekend talking, eating, reconnecting and rediscovering all the things we have in common.  We played tourist and exchanged advice and walked my dog and just marinated in the comfort of female friendship.  It was wonderful.

When I dropped her at the airport, I was sad, but buoyed by our time together.  My head was spinning with all that had been said and I could feel something dormant in me re-awakening…   And then my mom called with the news of my aunt.

But rather than undermining those good feelings from Kathryn’s visit, my aunt’s death actually built upon them.  In fact, the cascade of tears that I cried for my aunt this past week washed away all the negativity and melancholy I’d been carrying around.  It is as if my grief broke through some emotional levee and allowed a torrent of frustration and sadness and fear unrelated to my aunt’s death to be carried away along with my grief over her passing.  To my great surprise, I have emerged from my utter sadness over losing her more contented and peaceful and optimistic than I have been in many, many months.

It is a watershed.

I have stopped looking backward.  I have accepted where I am at this moment and am embracing it with a joyful and hearty hug.  I am mindful and aware of all the small, perfect things in my life right now — the softness of my sheets, the sweetness of waking up to dogs licking my hands, the way the aspens are leafing out on my drive up the canyon each morning, the softly tanning skin of my daughters, the amazing people that are my friends.  Each of these things is perfect, and I had stopped seeing them.

The irony here is that my aunt was also a glass half-full kind of person.  She saw everyone and every situation in the most flattering light.  She genuinely believed and lived by the adage that if you don’t have something nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.   When life threw her a curve ball (and some of her curve balls were mind-blowingly unfair by any measure), she never asked “Why me?” but rather “Why not me?”  When offered sympathy, she would shrug and say “That’s life,” and typically recount some friend’s circumstance that was worse than her own to justify her sense of gratitude in the face of misfortune.  I’ll be honest, at times it was maddening to face her perpetual positivity, but this week I’ve remembered that she was the wiser of the two of us.  Cynicism and pessimism and anger and fear are greedy houseguests.  They leave no room or sustenance for contentment or optimism or happiness.  Being perpetually vigilant about what might next befall you or spending all your energy counting the ways that life is unfair will keep you busy, but not happy.  Definitely not happy.

Watershed moments are one of life’s small little miracles packaged as struggle or pain.  Sometimes they come in the form of job loss, or divorce, or hitting bottom with an addiction, or, as in my case, an actual death.  But regardless of the form they take, they have the capacity to shock us out of complacency or denial or fear and blow our world wide open. Sometimes the destruction is an opportunity to create something new and better; the watershed acts as a catalyst to gently resume the forward motion toward our dreams.  Other times we are incapable of seeing the opportunity before us, so busy we are staring at the closed door behind us.

I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that Kathryn visited right before my aunt passed away.  I believe that life was slapping me out of my melancholy and frustration.  I believe that it provided me with two very strong, very stark reminders of all I was missing.  I believe that each of us makes a choice how to see the world around us, and that sometimes we get lost and can’t figure out how to get back to equanimity.  And I believe that when we’re lost, life will always show us the way, if we let it.

And I believe that my aunt would agree that my new rose bush is simply perfect.

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Filed under general musings, happy endings, healing, personal growth, relationships, sadness

cat in the bag

When I was growing up, my mom and I would occasionally visit the cousins I thought of as our Dirt Poor Cousins.  This nomenclature came about not because I was mean-spirited, but because, at one point, they literally had a dirt floor in their little home.  There were a lot of kids, they all looked alike, and I was fascinated by their life.  Jimmer was the one closest in age to me.  I’m sure his name was actually some variation of James, but they all had hillbilly names and, until we ran into each other at college, I never heard him referred to as anything other than “Jimmer.”

(You’re beginning to get the picture, aren’t you?  And for those of you who know me, no, these were not my West Virginia cousins.  They were worse.  Trust me.)

Anyway.

I liked playing with Jimmer because his games were always fun and imaginative.  We’d scamper around the woods and the barn, pretending to be settlers, Indians, wild animals.  We’d pick strawberries, jump in the “swimming hole,” and chase frogs.  The kind of good, clean fun that you see on The Andy Griffith Show.  But there was one game that I didn’t like.  Jimmer called it “Cat in the Bag.”  In this game, he and his siblings would capture the ornery barn cat, toss it into one of the canvas feed bags, and tie a quick knot.  Predictably, the cat would screech and howl and thrash around inside the bag, as everyone laughed and I yelled at Jimmer to release him. “Aw, he deserves it!” Jimmer would counter.  “He’s a mean old cuss!” True enough, but it was hard for me to tell whether he got tossed in the bag because he was a mean old cuss or if he was a mean old cuss because he got tossed in the bag.

The barn cat would fight mightily against the bag, claws bared, scratching and heaving itself against the bag, until eventually it exhausted itself, and then it would lie quietly.  Jimmer would untie the bag and release the cat, usually receiving a good clawing for his trouble.

I hadn’t thought of that old barn cat in a long time, but the memory of it resurfaced the other day.  Because there are times in my life when I am like that old barn cat in the bag.  I heave and hurl myself against the constraints of my life, howling at the unfairness or sadness or sameness of my life, until eventually I tire and sink into it.  My life, like the bag, resists but doesn’t fight back.  It simply holds me, contains me, preventing both escape and mortal harm.

In the times I visited them, the barn cat never seemed to figure out that battling the bag was futile.  It never once escaped the bag.  It never once was released until it quieted and relaxed.  And it never once seemed to realize that the faster it surrendered, the faster it would be released from the bag.

I am, I think, at least smarter than that barn cat.  But perhaps not by much.

Because I am only now learning that when I have those feelings, those moments of thrashing around and screaming silently, the only way out of them is to surrender.  To sink quietly and calmly and peacefully into them.  To allow myself those emotions, being mindful of them so as not to inadvertently scratch anyone else with my bared claws and sharp teeth.  To simply sit quietly and observe myself and the circumstances around me and allow that time to pass, holding faith that the bag will eventually open. Only after I have sunk into the moment and the feelings does the sweet release appear.

Having this knowledge is one thing; putting words to screen is easier than putting them into action.  Sinking into it is hard.  Acceptance is grudging.  Acknowledging a lack of control is bitter.  But it is the only way.  We have to let go and relax and wait for some mystical hand to unknot the bag and let the sun shine on our face again.

It is the only way out of the bag.   An ornery barn cat taught me that.

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Filed under healing, personal growth, relationships, sadness

sunset

I was walking one of my dogs when the phone call came.  It was almost dusk.  A beautiful sunset after an unseasonably warm day.  Walking by the creek, I felt the damp coolness in the air that only comes from being near water derived from glaciers miles away.

I almost didn’t answer the phone, so sweet and still was the moment.  I was feeling peaceful for the first time a long, long time.  But it was my mom, and I hadn’t talked to her all week, so I took the call.

Isn’t it funny how you just know?  As soon as you hear the voice, you know.  Someone has died or is dying.

She is my mom, so she asked pleasantly after my daughters, how my weekend was, even how my dog was, before finally saying, with a catch in her words, that she had some bad news.  My aunt — her only sister and my only aunt in the world — was in the hospital and not expected to survive the week.

I’ve lost a lot of people in my life, and it’s always the same:  the words hang in the air and somehow I manage to say all the appropriate things.  I asked after my mom, then my cousins.  I listened while my mom cried and I made the sympathetic murmurs of reassurance that you make when someone’s grief is primary over your own.  During our conversation, I finished my walk, let myself into my house, hung up with my mom, and transferred a load of wet laundry into the dryer.   Then I stood in my foyer and tried to remember what I was supposed to do next.

Without thinking, I picked up the phone and dialed my old phone number.  My youngest daughter answered and I asked to speak to my ex.  As I explained to Bryce what was happening and how I might need to get on a plane on short notice to attend the funeral, I cracked.  Before I knew it, I was slumped against the wall, choking out the words through sobs.   He wasn’t the person I’d have chosen to lose my composure with but he handled it well and with compassion, thank God.

Since that phone call, I have pushed myself through my evening chores as if moving through molasses.  I had forgotten how heavy this kind of grief is.  How it settles on your heart like a rock.

And then the memories started.  My aunt, whom I just spoke to on Thursday, is not yet dead, but my mind is already combing the recesses of my memory for all the clips that include her.  And there are a lot of them.

In fact, my very first memory is of my aunt.  I was standing at her kitchen counter as she chopped some kind of vegetable — I want to say carrots — for dinner.  Her blonde hair was in a 1960’s style chignon, and a polyester dress with a large floral pattern hugged her perfect figure.  She talked to me while she chopped and handed me pieces of vegetables every once in a while.  I was so small that I couldn’t see over the counter… possibly age two?  Three at the most.

As a young child, I thought her impossibly glamorous and beautiful.  Her house in Southern California seemed like the coolest and most modern home imaginable.  They had a trampoline 30 years before doing so was fashionable.  My aunt was hipper than Mrs. Brady.

My aunt took me to Mexico for the first time when I was only about 7 and Ensenada was a yet-to-discovered tourist destination.  Twenty years later, she took me to Cancun after I passed the bar exam, and introduced me to the resort we still go to every year.

The summer I was 16, Katrina and I went to her house for a week.   I learned to drive a stick shift that week in a old Toyota Tercel whose transmission was, I’m sure, never the same again.  As I slid out of her driveway, gears grinding and car lurching, my aunt stood on the sidewalk, smiling and waving us off, as if such automotive behavior was perfectly expected and acceptable.

My aunt helped me pick out my prom dress — a dreadful Jessica McClintock lavender and white concoction that looked like it came off the wardrobe truck for Gone With The Wind, but was surprisingly stylish for 1985.  And it was while visiting her house a year later that I bought my first shockingly small bathing suit.

When my mom and I didn’t speak for several years, it was my aunt who tended to me, calling frequently, cheering me on, reminding me how much everyone loved me.  And when my marriage ended, it was my aunt who reminded me all the time that lots of great people end up with failed marriages.

I will remember her laugh and her love of children and her beautiful eyes.  I will remember how dogs delighted her and how she loved amusement parks and how good her cooking was.  I will remember that she used to make homemade greeting cards for every occasion and that she always made everyone feel welcome at her house and that I was her only niece and therefore always special.

Over the next week, as her body gives up and her soul makes other plans, I will be, I am sure, inundated with memories of her.   Her passing will remind me of my own mortality and how very soon it will be my generation that will be burying each other.  I will move through my grief and tears and goodbyes and emerge in a world slightly altered by her absence.

Death necessarily follows life, but it also intrudes on it, cleaving a canyon through the lives remaining behind in its wake.  And no matter how many times I wander through this particular canyon, the landscape never ceases to feel surreal, the air heavy, and the path rocky, my step all the less sure in the dimming light.

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Filed under sadness

elevator wisdom

My mother has a boyfriend.  It seems odd to say that of a 73-year-old woman, but what else do you call a man she’s dated for the last 10 years, but isn’t married to and doesn’t live with?  So, “boyfriend” it is.

But really, he’s a member of our family.  I’ll call him “Ted.”  Ted is a wonderful man:  kind, generous to a fault, patient, gentle, but also a “guy’s guy” who has slowed down athletically only because time has insisted upon it.  Ted is like a father to me and a grandfather to my children, and my ex-husband admitted that he was sad to lose Ted in the divorce.  I’d have been, too, if I were him.

Every year, my girls and I vacation in Cancun for a week with Ted and my mom.  It is Ted’s gift to my family, and we all look forward to all year long.  Coming from a land-locked state, my girls have grown up with those white sands and turquoise waters as their beach, and I have relished the giving them that experience.

Ted and I had an instant rapport.  We have some obvious commonalities — similar education, being an only child, same sense of humor — but, more importantly, we just seem to “get” each other.  There is an understanding there that has bound us together for many years now, facing my mother’s health crises, my divorce, his daughter’s addictions.  Despite our difference in age, we give each other advice, and respect it more than either of us does from most people.

One day when we were in Cancun a year and a half ago, I was struggling.  I’d awoken that morning from difficult dreams highlighting the hard choices I’d made recently with regard to my marriage, my children, my work… I felt lost and wondered if I was rushing headlong to disaster.

We were all sitting by the pool late that morning, when Ted announced that he was returning to his villa to retrieve his sun hat.  I took the opportunity to accompany him inside and check my email at my own villa.  As we stepped into the elevator, Ted turned to me, looked me squarely in the eye, and began speaking as if he were resuming a conversation we’d just paused in.  He said this:

Here’s the thing.  My dad wasn’t the smartest guy about some things, but every once in a while, he was pretty wise.  And he used to tell me that once a choice is made, there’s no going back, only forward.  Any choice can seem like a bad one in hindsight, and any choice can seem like a good one.  It depends on how you’re determined to see it.  The trick, he’d say, is to stop thinking of it as a choice once it’s made.  The guessing, the thinking, the analyzing, all that is over.  The choice isn’t a choice anymore; it’s a decision.  Treat it like a foregone conclusion or a mandate from God or however you have to think of it, but don’t look back, only forward.  Seek the opportunities hidden in it and remain open to the possibilities.  Second-guessing will only slow you down, and you’ll especially need the forward momentum if it really was a bad choice.  No matter.  It’s done.  Just look ahead and keep moving.  Okay, here’s my place.  See you down at the pool.

And then he exited the elevator, and I was left, mouth agape, wondering how in the world he’d known what I was struggling with that morning.

Ted was right, of course, and I’ve thought about his words often in the time since.  It’s so easy to play the “what if” game with the benefit of additional information and experience and wisdom, but where does it get us really?  Reflection from a distance can be useful, definitely, but not when it stalls our progress.  Not when it mires us in self-doubt and uncertainty that is likely borne more of fear and insecurity than of a truly rationale evaluation of our earlier decision.  If a decision was truly wrong, we usually know it immediately and can correct our course in that short timeframe.  Revisiting an old decision is usually nothing more than a way to give power to our fears.  Most of us make good decisions, for us, for that moment.  They may not take us where we’d thought they would, but they probably take us where we need to be.

Ted’s advice was exactly what I needed to hit my internal reset button and push past the moribund wallowing in which I was engaging.  Relinquishing the weight of self-doubt and second-guessing frees up so much energy and stamina and clarity to identify and tackle the good stuff that might be just around the corner.

Plus, it gives me time to try and figure out how Ted managed to frame and solve my emotional crisis in the span of a 5-floor elevator ride…..

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Filed under dating, divorce, healing, love, personal growth, relationships, sadness, single mom

i’d like to thank the academy…

I don’t usually play the blogger award game, but I’ve decided to be a good sport this time and simply appreciate the compliment and pay the compliment forward.

So, the rules are simple, apparently.  First, I have to fly the little “Liebster Blog” award banner.  Done.

Next, I am to link back to the  blogger who nominated me for this award.  That would be Cali Dreamer Girl, who writes a blog called “Odd Things in Cali Besides My Family” (is that a brilliant name or what? Or maybe that’s just me, since so much of my very odd family also lives in Cali…).  Anyway, I am particularly honored that Cali Dreamer Girl selected me because she represents one of my favorite reader segments — the women who find common ground with me, despite us leading very different lives.  I love, love, love how unifying the human experience is.  How similar our hopes and dreams and feelings are, no matter our hobbies or education or geographical location or age or interests…. this journey we’re all on has more similarities than differences and I am reminded of that time and again in the virtual world of blogs.  And I love it.  🙂

(Okay, sorry for the sappy interlude there, but aren’t you supposed to get all choked up and waffle on too long during your awards acceptance speech?  I kinda thought that was expected…)

Anyway, the last part of the award process is that I need to nominate five other bloggers to pass this award off to.  This is the step that usually puts me off doing these awards.  Having to pick just a few seems so cruel to me!  I love so many!  It’s the same itchy, uncomfortable feeling I get when someone asks me what my favorite color or flavor of ice cream is!  Ugh!  But I have decided to pick the five who from whom I am learning the most right at this moment in my life.  So, here are  my choices for today, in no particular order, along with my reasons:

1.  My Journey My Rules.  Over the last six months, I’ve watched Tiff navigate her life and make some major life changes that have opened the best of all doors for her.  She is genuine and strong and she inspires me with how clearly she seems to see and accept herself.  She just doesn’t seem to have the same barriers and denials that most of us do. She owns her crap more honestly than just about any blogger I follow, and I am in awe of that.  Tiff’s upbeat and down-to-earth prose grounds me everytime.

2.  Mother Interrupted.  Her sometimes shockingly frank writing amazes me.  She writes candidly and with humor about issues that many of us wouldn’t touch.  She’s bold, and articulate, and clever, and personal, without ever seeming to go for the shock value of any of it.  Abundantly real.  Absolutely wonderful.

3.  Bloom Anyway.  How can you not love the idea for this blog? Life is falling apart, but I’m going to find a way to bloom anyway.  Her blog, accompanied by some gorgeous photos that are her own, has inspired me.  Her name is Lisa and she writes of her husband’s infidelity, addiction, and their attempts to knit their marriage back together with an honesty so heart-wrenching, I sometimes I have to save her posts for when I’m alone, lest I get overcome.  I am routing for Lisa as she picks up the pieces of her shattered marriage and moves forward into the unknown.

4. Another Beautiful Day in Chaos.  Oddly enough, my old friend <insert sarcasm here> Thomas Murray, introduced me to Jenni’s blog about a year ago.  I came late to her party, and, to be honest, while her writing blew me away immediately, I did not immediately relate to her. She’s younger than me by many years and our lives are very different in many ways.  However, something kept me coming back and what I discovered (along with many thousands of other readers) is an authenticity and vulnerability that is both touching and inspiring.    Jenni holds almost nothing back from her readers and the ensuing intimacy she establishes with them is real and powerful.  It’s no wonder she has the massive following she does.

5.  The Edmonton Tourist.  The first thing I like about this blog is its premise — the idea of being a tourist in your life, taking more risks, being more aware and more stimulated and more curious, just like we are when we’re in a strange place or strange circumstances.  I love her dry humor and constant ability to reach for the silver lining, without being self-righteous about it.  E.T. has the kind of presence and poise about her — and her writing — that I suspect would draw me to her as a friend were we to ever meet.

So there you have it.  My five for now.

By the way, I recognize that this list is lacking in male bloggers and for that I sincerely apologize.  I do follow a handful of male writers, and enjoy them greatly, but these are the five I’m putting forward this time.  Maybe next time I’ll have a “male writers only” list!  🙂

In the meantime, happy reading!  Enjoy the literary buffet I’m offering.  And thank you again, Cali Dreamer Girl, for the compliment and kind words on your blog.  I’ll keep writing if you keep reading….  🙂

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Filed under awards, general musings

i’m sorry i put asians on your wall

My readers who are not also bloggers may not realize that WordPress, the web platform upon which this blog is built and maintained, provides blog authors with considerable information about how readers find our blogs, which posts they’re reading, and which parts of the world they are from. If you’re using your blog to market a service or business, this information can be very useful, indeed.  For the rest of us, it’s just interesting and, occasionally, amusing.

My personal favorite is the section that tells us which search terms, in Google or Bing or some other search engine, deposited readers on our metaphorical doorstep.  Sometimes these are logical — the search term “broken-hearted” keeps my post entitled “broken-hearted little girl” near the top of all my posts in terms of number of times read, although my “worst. sex. ever.” post is closing in fast, thanks to the searched phrase “worst sex ever”.  Apparently a lot of people out there are having really bad sex and turning to the internet for comfort….

Some more of my all-time  favorites, just for fun, along with my editorial comments:

1.  kitchen girls (Sounds like an all-girl band from the 1980’s, with teased hair and leopard-patterned mini-skirts.)

2.  sex with her was the worst ever,  and  guy I loved said I was the worst sex ever (Ya gotta wonder if these two Googlers are talking about the same experience… One word:   Ouch.)

3.  bad karma, small penis (Damn.  That’s a double whammy right there. My condolences.)

4.  gait boobs sex pic (Wow.  Sorry to disappoint, searcher.  I’m not sure what you were looking for, but I’m pretty sure it’s not on my blog.)

5.  joan rivers has an odd gait (True, perhaps, but is it precarious?)

6.  sexy kitchen (What exactly makes a kitchen sexy, anyway?  I used to be an interior designer and I never had a client ask for a sexy kitchen.  Hmmm….)

7.  love is messy any comment?  (Why yes, in fact, I have a whole blog post written on this topic.  Right this way….)

8.  woman for a day (Glad to know that I’m reaching the transgendered niche.  Welcome!)

9.  duct tape mouth (Three different people searched for this.  THREE.  Seriously?  Am I missing something?)

10.  dumb guy walking away from girl (That about sums up perhaps half of my posts.  Well done.)

11.  elvis birthday cake designs (Okay, the only valid excuse for this one is a White Trash theme party.  Honestly, people, in the name of all that is good and holy, doesn’t the man deserve to rest in peace without having “Happy Birthday Jolene” written in cheap gel frosting across his forehead? Enough already!)

12.  don’t trust a man with a suitcase (A suitcase?  Really?  This is a new one to me.  A wedding ring, sure.  A penis-compensation vehicle, absolutely.  But a suitcase?)

13.  women are my blessing and my curse (Yes, they are.  Get over it or date men.)

14.  bossy woman quotes (Excuse me?  I am not bossy! Okay, maybe a little.  Sometimes.  Oh, alright, I am.)

15.  what is meant by crickets and tumbleweeds in dis bitch (Tsk, tsk.  No need to resort to calling me names.  Besides, my blog post explains it, asshat.)

16. jolly good fellow marriage (For some reason, this one always makes me think of Dick Van Dyke tripping over that footrest and bouncing back up.  No idea why.)

17.  dear god protect my facebook friends  (Who needs a priest when you have Google?)

18.  couples therapy fake funeral (I’m not sure why you’d have a fake funeral.  Sounds painful and gut-wrenching.  Kinda like couples therapy.  Oh wait, I see the connection now…)

19.  ex wives are a nightmare (Maybe so, but a lot of ex-husbands aren’t exactly peaches, either.  And that’s why they’re exes….)

And finally, my absolute favorite:

20. i’m sorry i put asians on your wall (No problem.  I put Spaniards in your gas tank.)

I mean, really.  That’ s just plain awesome.

See, you should get a blog.  Just to see what kinds of crazy search terms people come up with.  It’s hours of entertainment.

Now, excuse me, but I have to go clean Asians off my wall.

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Filed under general musings, relationships

is your relationship worth fighting for?

I was talking to a friend the other night about his relationship.  Three months in and he and his new girlfriend have passed through the initial Honeymoon Phase.  You remember the Honeymoon Phase.  It’s the time when everything is perfect and easy and it’s hard to imagine what mythical troubles could ever possibly emerge over the horizon to muddy the shiny new relationship.

But, at some point, life with all its messy, complicated, annoying little realities eventually bursts the perfect little bubble and then the real work of building and maintaining a relationship begins.  And that’s if you’re lucky.

We all know that relationships aren’t supposed to be easy necessarily.  That some degree of effort is required to nurture them and protect them and fashion them into what works and fits for us as a couple.  But for the most part, we ignore what we know and hope that it will always be easy.

One of the common harbingers of the end of the Honeymoon Phase is the First Big Fight.  The First Big Fight can be pretty scary.  Your perfect relationship has been cracked open by a chasm so alarming and unexpected that it threatens the very existence of your status as a couple.  Yikes!  Sometimes this experience is, indeed, over something important and concerning and (when viewed from hindsight much later) an ultimate dealbreaker for the relationship.  But more often than not, it’s just a bump, a hurdle, a necessary correction to the direction of the relationship.

There’s plenty of research to demonstrate that productive arguments are actually good for a relationship.  As I was listening to my friend, I was reminded of a study I’d read about shortly after my separation.  I wish I’d saved it or bookmarked it, because it was really intriguing, but I didn’t and it’s gone now.  The nutshell version was the idea that researchers had finally drawn a link to a lack of arguing and subsequent divorce.  This was of special interest to me because my marriage’s placid surface was one of the primary indicators of health to our friends who thought we had such a strong marriage.  We just seemed to always get along.  And we did… while being miserable inside.  I realized from personal experience that a placid marriage makes other people comfortable — it reinforces their beliefs that a happy, healthy relationship is mostly free of conflict — but to the people in the relationship, that placid surface can conceal deep and troubling waters.

I remember the research specifically noting that those couples who argued most strenuously during the first two years of their relationship were found to have the strongest relationships years later, whereas those who did not particularly argue during the first two years were over or on wobbly ground many years later (I can’t remember how many years later… 10?  15?).  Of course, the group in question consisted of couples who had all survived many years together, so we’re not talking about couples who fight like cats and dogs for the first two years and then break up; these are couples who had enough substance to their relationships to keep working at it for some longer period of time.  The researchers had a very interesting — and sensible, I thought — hypothesis for the research results.  As I remember it, they explained it this way:  A relationship is about how two people fit –or don’t fit — together.  Each of them is bringing their personalities, their pasts, their interests, their obligations to the relationship and at some point, in order for the relationship to survive and thrive, they are going to need to reconcile all their individual “stuff” into a new organization.  They’re going to have develop new systems and some mutual (rather than purely individual) habits.   The longer a couple puts off negotiating those details within their relationship, the harder it is to effectively address them later because other, less productive patterns and habits have taken hold.  And, the researchers noted, the older we are when we couple, the more “stuff” we bring that needs reconciling and re-organizing (hopefully, we also bring better communication skills and maturity, too).   The researchers posited that couples could put it off, but eventually all of this would need to be hashed out, and since we’re humans, that hashing usually involves arguing.  They further noted earlier research that pointed to the fact that we tend to argue productively when we feel most secure in a relationship, which is why the First Big Fight usually doesn’t happen until everyone’s been feeling hunky dorey for a while.

A couple of caveats to understanding this are useful here, I believe.  First, it was clear to me at the time that the study wasn’t talking about arguments that are emotionally, physically, or sexually abusive.  It also wasn’t championing drama that is repetitive or attention-seeking.  The emphasis was on the productive nature of the arguments — did they resolve something or further a relationship goal?  So many of us are conflict averse when it comes to arguing with a loved one that we have difficulty discerning the difference — all arguments feel unhealthy.  But they simply aren’t.  Getting over that hump and accepting — or even embracing — arguing as a healthy component to a relationship can be difficult for a lot of people.

I used to be one of those people.  I grew up watching my mom throw verbally violent tantrums that left me emotionally wrought and exhausted for days afterward, even though she would be fine within hours of having exorcised her anger.  When she married my dad, I saw their dynamic — she would blow up, he would become stony and retreat, silence would ensue until — eventually — normalcy was restored.  Productive, it wasn’t.  And when I wasn’t at my house, I was usually at my friend Katrina’s, where her mom would get angry with her and deliver a silent treatment that sometimes lasted weeks, conveying messages to Katrina through her sister or father or even me, if no one else was around.  Again, not productive.  Learning that every argument does not have to result in a gaping hole in my chest has been a long and difficult struggle.  No wonder I ended up in a marriage with minimal conflict.

Which leads to another facet of this issue: Different couples are going to argue differently, based on their past experiences, their personalities, and their general tolerance for conflict.  Two emotional people are probably going to argue more frequently and with more fervor than two passive people. Both couples might resolve issues in their relationships (or not), but they’re going to do it differently.  Neither is necessarily better, because — as the study emphasized — the point is whether the arguing is productive for the couple, not whether it’s loud or not.

In the three years since my separation, I have rather reluctantly accepted the fact that I will probably argue quite a bit in my future relationships.  I am a passionate person and so are the men to whom I’m genuinely attracted.  I have met some very nice, passive men who couldn’t hold my interest, and I know that part of the reason is that I don’t actually want a man who will bend to my every whim.  And learning that about myself is just part of the journey.  What works for someone else doesn’t necessarily work for me, and vice versa.  How someone argues, I have found, is an important piece of the attraction and intimacy puzzle.  As with the other pieces, without the right fit, the relationship won’t be whole or healthy.

So, back to my friend.  His girlfriend seems to be worrying that they’ve hit a rough patch and this portends bad things for them and their relationship.  I can totally appreciate and relate to her feelings.  For all I’ve written above, most of us just want things to be perpetually smooth and happy.  We want it to feel good every day, all the time.  But, apparently, if what we truly want is a healthy, stable, forever relationship, we’d do better to hash it all out early on and get it over with.  It seems that there isn’t a shortcut through the messy stuff.  A good, clean fight is the only way through it.

And if you need further incentive to confront those issues that are quietly simmering in your relationship, just remember:  a good, clean fight is often followed by good,  dirty make-up sex.  Nothing unproductive about that…

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Filed under dating, divorce, love, marriage, personal growth, relationships

who said that? oh wait, that was me.

You’re so mean when you talk
about yourself, you are wrong.
Change the voices in your head.
Make them like you, instead.
— P!nk

I’ve been doing some reading lately about the power of negative self-talk.  We all know that when we run ourselves down in our own minds, it hurts our self-esteem and creates an environment for the manifestation of the negative outcomes we fear.  We know that it’s important to recognize and eradicate the self-bashing before we can really live our full potential.

Some of this is relatively easy to identify.  It’s the same stuff that’s haunted us for years, and I think of it as the low-hanging fruit because it’s the easiest to spot.  They’re the big, fat lies about ourselves that can dramatically alter who we become and who we are.  That we’re selfish or a bad parent or ugly or stupid.  That we’re never good enough or a bother to the people around us or a disappointment.  These kinds of negative self-talk are the making of clinical depression, suicide, and addiction.  They’re not easy to work through and past, and the longer we let them ferment, the more bitter and sour they — and we — become.  This is the stuff that life coaches and therapists tackle with a full arsenal of psychological weapons, and it’s the stuff that makes your dearest friends roll their eyes because it’s ridiculous and they can’t believe that you give it any power in your life.

But then there’s the other stuff.  The little stuff that hides in the corners.  The stuff that has been repeated so many times that it becomes accepted truth — not just by you, but by everyone around you.  These little, contemptuous criticisms that invade your psyche and convince you that you can’t do something, aren’t good at something, or don’t possess something.  It seems that this kind of self-criticism usually starts with someone else — a parent, a spouse, a bully on the playground — who declares something about us with such frequency or authority or conviction that we integrate it into our own self-belief set and repeat it to ourselves and others, perpetuating what began as a myth and evolves into a self-fulfilled truth.

Sound familiar?

Many years ago I hired and mentored a young woman who could only be described as “butch.”  In fact, when I first met her, I wondered about her sexual orientation because her physical appearance so strongly suggested that she was a lesbian, but my “gay-dar” said otherwise.  As we got to know each other, it turned out that she was the middle girl with two brothers.  Growing up on a ranch, her mother had always dismissed her as “a tomboy.”  And that became her truth.  Not because she choose it or loved it, but because she believed it and self-identified with it.  She was 30-years-old before she began experimenting with her feminine side and deciding what of it felt truly right to her and what didn’t.  The fact that she wasn’t pretty, wasn’t feminine, and wasn’t soft in anyway had become a truth for her.  An uncomfortable, itchy, cumbersome truth, but a truth nonetheless.  Later, when she really emerged from the box of labels that she’d lived in for so long, her life opened up in a myriad of other ways.  So, even a label that wasn’t negative per se, became so when it was applied to her and allowed to confine her sense of identity.

These  seemingly-less malicious blasphemies we tell ourselves and others about us gnaw at the edges of our self-esteem and deprive us of the joy of experiencing some of life’s smaller pleasures.  That we aren’t good at sports or can’t carry a tune or don’t have any sense of fashion.  That we’re too sensitive or not funny or a bad driver.  None of these is going to, on their own, send us to the corner for a good cry, but when we’re casting about for reasons that make us unlovable, a nice long list of these reasons will suffice when a bigger one isn’t around to offer the weight.  And the real harm of these so-called “harmless” criticisms is that they are small enough to frequently fly under the therapy radar, never receiving attention or facing protest, just gathering power as the years pass and they become part of our self-identity.

One example that I read recently — that certainly resonated with me — was the belief that one is a “bad cook.”  The author cited this example as a common form of negative self-talk.  The idea here is that we self-identify as a “bad cook,” based on the fact that perhaps we are not as good as we would like to be, but that is not precisely the same as being “bad” at something.  I sat with that a bit.  Chewed on it.  Thought about it.  I finally had to admit, with more than a small amount of surprise, that I’m not actually a bad cook.  In fact, I’m probably as good as or better a cook than most people I know.  The real truth is that I don’t particularly enjoy it, but that’s an entirely different thing from being bad at something.  I don’t particularly enjoy golf , either, but I’ve never declared that I’m bad at it.  Hmmm…

Next, the author asked us to try to remember the origin of the negative label or thought.  Who said it?  In what context?  If someone said something negative or nasty about a friend, we would certainly consider the source and the context, but we’re pretty quick to just accept the bad stuff about ourselves.  But isn’t that just backward-ass?  If we go back to my cooking example, I realized that my belief in my inability to cook was based on three things:  1) my ex-husband’s lack of enthusiasm for my cooking, 2) my mother’s insistence that I am a bad cook, and 3) the fact that I have nearly always had a knack for dating men who can really cook.

Okay.

Time to break those down:  I now understand my ex-husband’s lack of enthusiasm as part of his general reluctance to offer me compliments or credit, lest our power dynamic (with him firmly and permanently ensconced above me) be disrupted.  Okay.  Good.  Got it.  My mom is actually easier.  She doesn’t like the food I cook because the things I’m good at cooking aren’t the kinds of things she likes to eat (in fairness, I feel the same way about most of her cooking). So, it’s not really about my cooking.  It’s about what she likes to eat.  And as for the last part, if I’m staring truth in the face, the men that I’ve dated have been excellent cooks — at a few, select dishes.  They weren’t Jamie Oliver in the kitchen, throwing together amazing concoction after amazing concoction.  No, they were very good at a particular meal or a particular kind of food.  And they had such supreme confidence in their cooking skills that I — again! — drank the Truth Kool-Aid.

I could go on, but I think you get the point.

I can think of lots of things about myself that I have repeated and defended and clung to over the years that aren’t actually true.  I held them as true for a long time, just because someone else once said them and I accepted their truth.

I have always secretly, grudgingly admired those people who seemed completely unaware that they couldn’t carry a tune or had terrible decorating taste or a painful sense of humor.  I would watch them move along, oblivious to what was obvious to everyone around them, and I would think that they were lucky to live in a world in which they were so awesome.  I used to imagine that no one had ever told them the “truth,” but now I realize it’s more likely that they simply chose not to believe it.

One of my mantras to my daughters has always been “Just because they said it, it doesn’t make it true.”  We spend a lot of time talking about what that means and how it applies in various situations.  They look to me as a wise guru, guiding them in these discussions. Little do they know, that the master is also the student, and that sometimes the harshest, most brutal critic that we need to ignore is the one in our own head.

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Filed under general musings, healing, personal growth, relationships

the friendship salve

I am sitting on a bench in one of my favorite places in town, sipping a chai tea latte and people watching.  Tulips are in full bloom, the sky is the kind of blue that only happens in the West, and throngs of locals and tourists are milling about the pedestrian mall, pausing to watch the street performers and artists.  A man to my left is arranging his body into a small box, accompanied by a man playing a didgeridoo down the way to my right.  My iPhone says it’s 60F, but in the sunshine at this altitude, I’m certain it’s closer to 70F or more.  I am peeling off layers every few minutes.

On the bench next to me are two women, who appear to be in their 30’s.  They’ve been sitting there since before I sat down, and are completely absorbed in their conversation, the springtime activities around us completely forgotten, ignored.  They are speaking loudly enough for me to hear, 10 feet away, and so I am shamelessly eavesdropping.

One of the women is verbally processing the end of a relationship.  She is describing to her friend, in detail, the end of the relationship.  How she knew.  What she did.  The arguments.  The subsequent loneliness.  Her recent, furtive attempts at dating again.

Her friend is the more grounded one at the moment.  She listens and offers advice, validation, support.  She makes her friend laugh and, even at this distance, I can feel the comfort she is delivering.  Their body language speaks to a long and intimate friendship, although some of their exchange suggests otherwise.  Regardless, they are doing what women do so well for each other:  they are bonding, supporting, comforting.

What would we do without our friends?  What must it be like to have no female friends?  Mine have carried me through some monstrously difficult moments with grace and compassion.  I cannot imagine not having that in my life.

In my youth, I was never one of those girls who completely dropped her girlfriends when she got a boyfriend.  Typically what has happened during those times is that my “friend” list gets edited, those acquaintances with whom I do not have a deep connection are pruned back.  But my friendships — and that bonding time with other females — is far too important to me  to let go because of the man in my life.

My marriage was the exception.  For various reasons, I felt guilty for spending time with my friends, and slowly, gradually, they all but disappeared from my life.  Until one day, many years later, I woke up feeling barren and alone and void.

When James and I started dating, I wondered, briefly, if that pattern would repeat.  But I found that I still made time to see my friends, that I still needed that connection and didn’t feel the slightest bit guilty taking that time to indulge in the balm of female friendship.  James teased me, for “being such a girl,” but it was clear that he didn’t really mind, that he admired and valued my friendships.

I suppose, like most things, the need for face-to-face contact with our friends — for that intimate connection — varies with each of us.  This time after my divorce has taught me that I need it deeply.  Not just when things are difficult or stressful or sad, but always.  I need to talk and listen and share and connect.  I need afternoons in the sun like the women next to me are sharing.

I imagine that the two women on the bench one over will stay long after I depart in a few moments.  They are still catching up, exchanging stories and laughing.  I watch them and know, that when they leave each other today, it will be with lighter hearts and fuller souls than when they sat down.  They will smile more and rest easier for their time spent together.

And so will I, for having, just by proximity, soaked up some of the salve that is female friendship.

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Filed under friendships, general musings

moments

I started my morning today with a friend who told me the story of a man she’d recently met in a local photo shop.  They started talking cameras and ended up talking about friendship.  It was one of those simple moments in which we make a connection with a perfect stranger that stays with us, even days later.  Not a romantic connection, but the kind of connection in which there is a recognition of a similar way of thinking, of a similar wanting in this world, of a similar desire for human connectedness.  Some might call it a soul connection.

As I drove to work, my mind played with the kinds of moments I’ve shared with strangers.  Some are very simple, others life-changing.  In some of those moments, I am convinced that the other person shared the experience, but in others, I suspect that I passed through their life with little impression or impact.  That doesn’t, of course, make those moments any less special to me.

Hours later, driving home from work, a song cycled through my iPhone and I was reminded of one such moment that I shared with a man, 20 years ago.  At that time I was barely 23-years-old, working in the British music industry, promoting artists to radio and television outlets.  It was late afternoon on an early summer day, and I was backstage at a radio station-sponsored charity concert, supporting one of our acts.   They finished and filed off the stage, grumbling about their performance (and granted, it wasn’t their best).  I murmured words of encouragement and offered hugs, then turned to follow them out of the stage area.  As we moved, single-file, the next band was coming on, single-file next to us in the narrow, short hallway.  From a short distance, I made eye contact with the other band’s singer.  We locked eyes, holding the gaze as he walked past me, so close I could smell him and see the flecks in his eyes.  As I passed, I craned my neck to hold his gaze, and he managed to turn himself completely around in the tight space, guitar in hand, watching me move away from him until his bandmate shoved him onto the stage.  As he struck the first chords on his guitar, my colleagues and I stepped out the door, into the blinding sunlight, and away from him.  I’d never seen him before, and I never saw him again.  But 20 years later, I still remember that moment.

Now remember, I was a young American girl in the British music industry who favored body-hugging catsuits and thigh-high boots.  Turning heads backstage was not an uncommon occurrence in those days.  But that moment was different.  Deeper.  Special somehow. What was it about him that arrested me in that moment? It wasn’t his good looks; he actually wasn’t the physical type I went for back then, and I’d never given him a second thought, despite the fact that his band was splashed all over magazines and tv in Britain at that time.  No, as I looked into his eyes, I felt something different… a pull… a desire to sit and talk to and know this person.  Likewise, in his eyes, I saw not the simple, hot, predatory hunger of lust that I was used to, but a kind of…. recognition… surprise… attraction. Later, his band skyrocketed to fame and had two gigantic hits stateside after my return.  But to me, he’s always been a pair of hazel eyes in a dim hallway.

Life is made richest by those precious, unexpected moments of connection.  Some are shared with people we already love, when we discover a new intersection of understanding or shared passion.  Others — and in many ways these are the more delightful — are shared with people we barely know.  They are reminders of interconnectedness, of the fact that we are not alone in this universe, small islands merely bumping into each other as we navigate the physical world.

I have very few of these moments these days.  My life is so constructed as to limit the opportunities for me to meet new and dynamic people.   Sometimes when I think of how many of those moments I experienced in my 20’s, I want to go back and shake that young woman.  I want to tell her how much rarer those moments become as we age.  I want to yell at her to turn around and talk to that young man backstage, to wait for his set to end and him to come find her.  I want to inform her that those are the moments that change our lives.

Then again, my life in my 20’s was very different.  When I was living in England, I was surrounded by artists of all kinds — musicians, actors, painters.  Their way of looking at the world challenged me and pushed the limits of my creativity.  I spent most nights in nightclubs and recording studios, often not arriving home until noon the next day.  When I gave that up, I plunged myself headfirst into law school.  Again, I was surrounded by people who pushed me, scared me with their intellect, and forced me to debate and defend my beliefs.  Those two periods of my life were very different in so many ways, but shared a vital similarity:  I was open and curious and hungry for the world around me in my 20’s.

In some ways, I am still that young girl.  I am still emotionally and intellectually curious.  I am still intrigued and arrested by dynamic people who can blow me away in one fashion or another.  But age has bred caution, and knowledge, and a certain disappointment in human limitations.

Even so, every once in a while, I am still blessed with one of those perfect moments.  And now, the awareness of their rarity makes them all more sweeter.

Someone asked me today what I want most right now.

Moments.  I want moments.

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Filed under friendships, general musings, happy endings, love, personal growth, relationships, single mom