Category Archives: friendships

the spiritual book club

In the last years of my marriage, I was part of a very special book club.  We started out as a normal enough book club — four women who were acquainted with each other to varying degrees, but all connected through a local daycare center/preschool.  Two were teachers there and the other two of us had worked together at the county attorney’s office and now had children at the preschool. We were from different religious and geographical backgrounds, but we shared a love of books and discussion.

It started normally enough — a novel here, a biography there.  Long discussions of the books over coffee or brunch, with frequent detours discussing mothering, sex, or careers.  It was, in most ways, pretty much your run-of-the-mill book club.  But there were early signs that it was different, too.  Something in how we related to each other… trusted each other… made our book club meetings so much more than book discussions.  I can’t speak for the others, but they were my soul food during those years, and some of those conversations sincerely changed my life.  Most notably, we read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, and my friends’ comments in our discussion that autumn day unwittingly launched me on my stumbling path toward divorce.  It was, for me, the point of no return, but I’m sure they had no idea.

As I look back, the evolution of the book club was fateful… each progression carefully choreographed and occurring at precisely the right time; proof that the universe knows better than we when things should happen.  The big turning point occurred one day when my attorney friend, Michelle, brought a new book to the club.  It was Don’t Kiss Them Goodbye by Allison Dubois, the psychic on whom the television show “Medium” was based.  Michelle was a practicing Jew, and, in my experience, the most reserved, pragmatic, and practical of us all.  But following a death in her extended family, her son had begun asking difficult questions and life and death and the beyond, and so Michelle found herself stretching past the tenets of Judaism for answers for him. She had started reading the book and wanted desperately to talk to someone about it, but was concerned that her other friends would think her crazy.  So she brought it to us.  And it changed everything.

We read the book and discussed it, each of us taking small, tentative steps to reveal things that we’d experienced, thought about or believed in.  And we discovered a shared fascination with the spiritual world, and a surprisingly coherent understanding of God and our place in the universe, despite our divergent religious backgrounds.  I’m not exactly sure if or when we agreed to take the book club into a different direction, but after that first Allison Dubois book, I don’t think we read another “regular” book together.

For the next few years, we embarked on a journey of spiritual discovery together.  We read books about religion and ghosts, psychic phenomena and channeling, auras and spirit guides, reincarnation and past lives, God and death and angels.  Then, we began doing “field trips” — we had our auras cleansed and our past lives read and shelled out money to hear internationally-known psychics speak.  It was fascinating and expansive and left us all reeling from the possibilities we had never considered.  We approached all things with an open mind and a healthy dose of skepticism, but never cynicism.  Sometimes we debated, sometimes we agreed.  Some of our experiences and readings spoke to some of us and not so much to others.  We were honest and thoughtful and supportive of each others’ journey.  Occasionally, we would consider adding a new member to our little group, but we never actually did.  Somehow we knew that the dynamic of the 4 of us was just as it should be.

The book club broke apart right around the time of my separation.  I’ve never known if my separation was somehow the cause — did the others feel, as I did, that our work together had helped lead me to that place, and perhaps they felt uncomfortable with that knowledge? — but for whatever reason, one and then the other got too busy to meet anymore.  The bonds that had been formed quietly fell away.  Perhaps our work together was simply done.

The last thing my book club did together was a yoga retreat in the mountains.  It was beautiful and special, but I could feel the space between us.  At lunch that day, we sat in the sun on a deck and shared stories of the small miracles and wondrous things that had happened to us since our last meeting together; our meetings had mostly devolved into sharing those stories — the things you couldn’t tell anyone else without them looking at you sideways.  But I could sense the distance between us, too.  And it made me a little sad.

There are certain people and times in your life that leave indelible marks on your soul forever.  The book club was like that for me.  Those women provided a safe place for me to explore and examine aspects of myself that had been dormant for many years.  Our time together reminded me of the girl I had been and lost somewhere along the way, and the spiritual foundation I uncovered within myself gave me the strength and courage to make the scariest decision of my life.

The book club gave me one more thing — a dear friend that I see rarely but cherish very much.  Although she is several years younger than me, I admire her immensely and rely on her to ground me when I lose my way.  We understand each other in a way that goes beyond my feeble human comprehension.  The book club is over, but it’s impact on my life is felt every day.  Some of the books we read remain touchstones for me, dog-eared from multiple readings, and the things I learned about life and death and myself from those years inform everything I do now.

I’ve recently given thought to starting a new book club, with a different focus….  Maybe it’s time for another adventure…..

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be yourself. everyone else is taken.

At the end of my marriage, after Bryce and I had decided to divorce but before I had moved out of the house, we had a conversation standing in our sun-soaked kitchen that might prove to be the crowning achievement of our marriage.  We agreed that we had had a conventional marriage.  We had done everything we were “supposed” to do.  We had lived up to everyone’s expectations.  Except our own.  We vowed that our divorced relationship would be different.  We would make it what we wanted it to be, not what others thought was “right” or “appropriate” or, God forbid, “normal.”  We would craft something that worked for us and our children and everyone else could just deal with it — or not.  They weren’t our problem, and we’d spent too much of our lives living a relationship that had made everyone else comfortable and us eventually miserable.

To our credit — and my astonishment — we have kept that word to each other and ourselves.  Some people in our wide circle are uncomfortable with our situation.  How do we get along so well?  Why do we sit together — with our partners, even! — at school functions for our children?  Are we actually — gasp! — friends??? But fortunately those individuals are pretty rare.  Most of the people in our wide circle applaud us for fashioning something that is different from the standard divorced relationship paradigm.  I think they can see that it’s good for our children, but I also think that they can see that it’s good for us, too.  We are still, in many ways, a family, even though we are most definitely not a couple.  This makes us happy, and that’s really all that matters.

It has not always been an easy task — this concept of carving out a new relationship through the jungle of established habits, familial expectations, and emotional scars.  There have been times of post-divorce conflict, when one of us has had to remind the other of our shared vision for a healthy divorced relationship that works for all of us.  But those reminders have always successfully steered us back on course, which is, in and of itself, amazing.

It has been my experience that most of the dramatic change we experience in ourselves does not last.  We try on a new version of ourselves, wear it for a while, and then it loses its novelty and fades away.  And pretty soon we’re back to basically the same person we always were.  It’s as if our essential nature is some kind of homeostasis to which we return after a short disruption.  I am so very glad and very grateful that Bryce and I have remained strongly committed to that vision we shared that day in the kitchen.  And it has taught me that I am capable of making something different than what is the norm in our circle, and having that work for me. That lesson has been rolling around in my mind this week as I have unpacked the emotional shifts and “aha!” moments that occurred within me during my short visit back East.

And let’s just say, it’s been a busy week.

I’ve settled back into my Colorado life, but with some new understandings of what I want this life to look like and who I want to be in it.  I keep coming back around to the idea that the relationship model that works for so many around me is not going to work for me, and it is entirely likely that the romantic relationship that makes me the happiest might not make sense to other people.  And that’s okay.  Other people don’t have to be comfortable with it.  As long as I’m not hurting anyone else, I just need to be happy being me.

When I was much younger, I knew this about myself.  Katrina and  I used to half-jokingly say that she would be the school-teacher with 2.3 children and a house in suburbs, and I would be the cool “aunt” who would jet in from some far-flung end of the globe, bearing wonderful gifts and fun stories.  There was no judgment inherent in either path; we loved each other too much and too purely to have judged each other harshly.  It was simply an acknowledgment of our different approaches to life.

As it turns out, I did far more of the white-picket-fence experience than anyone ever expected or could have predicted, including me.  And I don’t regret a second of it.  Truly.  But I also see now that the choices that I have been making since my divorce were subconsciously guided by my need to create something different.  Those choices have made sense to some of my friends but not to others, who have offered well-intentioned advice shared with love.  I think I felt disapproval and internalized that in a way that left me confused about my vision for what I wanted my life and romantic relationships to be.  My friends wanted me to be happy, and so they encouraged me to be happy in the things that make them happy.  This is logical and kind and I treasure their good intentions.  But in my post-divorce state, I think it only served to confuse me.  Unlike in my endeavor with Bryce, I felt alone in my journey and I lost my clear vision of who and what I am and want to be as an individual.

But now I remember.

I have lately felt that I am my truest self again.  I feel at home with who I am and what I want and the understanding that it might be different from what others want from me or for me.  But the honest truth is, what they ultimately want is for me to be myself, whether they fully know it or not.  Because when I am most myself is also when I am most sought after by my friends.  We all naturally gravitate to people who are truly comfortable with themselves, who are real and present and open to the world. Whatever version of ourselves places us squarely in that description is truly our best version of ourselves.

Each of us must steer our own ship.  Only we command the helm.  The waves of opinion and expectation may buffet us, but if we hold a true course, we will reach our destination safely and triumphantly.  That is our challenge, every single day.

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finding myself, alongside a high school mascot

Joke:

What’s the difference between a hockey game and a high school reunion?

At a hockey game you see fast pucks.

Sometimes, I turn around and run smack into myself in the most unlikely of places. It is in those moments when I see myself clearly – the good and the bad – and make my best peace with who I am.

I am returning from four days in my hometown, having cashed in some frequent-flyer miles to make the journey back for my 25-year high school reunion. It was a two-day event, and during that time, I luxuriated in the warmth and acceptance of friendships nearly as old as me. I observed how quickly we all fell into the easy understanding that comes from spending a whole childhood together. I laughed when a classmate spilled her red wine on me and apologized profusely; I reminded her that it was hardly the first glass of wine she’d spilled on me, and hopefully would not be the last. She laughed, too.

Along with my high school reunion, I also spent many hours reconnecting with college friends and even bumped into a treasured friend who has known me since infancy. My weekend was rife with intimate moments – trading parenting challenges with a college sorority sister, sharing a quiet moment of giggles with the man to whom I’d lost my virginity, walking into a Starbucks and discovering a former neighbor who’d done everything from babysitting me to lecturing me on safe sex as a teenager. These are people from whom I could not have hidden myself, even had I wanted to. These are people who knew me long before I’d perfected any masks or defense mechanisms or means of deflecting the truth. I could see, in their faces and their dealing with me, the clearest reflection I’d seen of myself in a long time.

I also discovered, as I stood amidst my classmates, how very right and included I felt. In my adult life in Colorado, I frequently feel a bit out of place… different… odd. I am often very aware that my sensibilities and independent spirit separate me from many I know. I realized over this past weekend, as I watched my former classmates and their partners, that my particular form of independence is partly a function of where and how I grew up. In junior high school, my friends and I were hopping on the Metro to spend the day in DC without a chaperone. Classmates left and then reappeared after a parent’s assignment to an embassy in a country on the other side of the world. Nearly all my college friends studied and/or lived abroad. Most of them did not marry until their late 20’s. There was an expectation that one would explore and know the world to some degree before settling down. The couples I talked to this weekend all (literally all) had hobbies and interests of their own, as well as ones they shared with their partners. Girls’ weekends and guys’ weekends away were common, even expected. Lives were shared, not enmeshed. These conversations were vastly different from those I have with my friends in Colorado.

By the end of the weekend, I realized how starved for this I have been. I moved to Colorado as an engaged woman and nearly all the friends Bryce and I made as a couple followed in the paradigm I thought he preferred and seemed comfortable with: the couple did nearly everything together, all the time. Hobbies, including sports, were shared together. Most child-rearing responsibilities fell to the woman and financial support to the man, and family life revolved almost entirely around the children and their activities. And within a few years of living in this paradigm, I felt stifled, suffocated, and sad.

Well, no wonder.

That’s not to say, of course, that this particular marriage model is unique in any way to Colorado, nor that it is the only model present in our town. But, for whatever reason, this is the model that I found myself surrounded with and from which I rebelled when I left my husband and broke up my family. And, for whatever reason, it is still the primary model I see around me as a single woman now. But it is a model that still chafes at me, leaving a raw, red patch on my soul, requiring attention and adjustment, lest it fester and infect my sense of myself once again.

Half-way through my weekend, my friend Ryan asked me what I had discovered so far this weekend. With hardly a breath’s hesitation, I answered, “Me. I found myself again.” And I really meant it. After high school ended, and over the course of many, many years, I slowly lost sight of myself. I watched as the parts of me I liked best became obscured and diminished. At times I fought hard to secure those pieces, but other times I surrendered them with little protest. But this weekend, I felt fully and completely whole again. And what a beautiful feeling it is.

Annie and I have often noted that the people who seem happiest post-divorce are those who achieved whatever they left their marriages to pursue. In some cases, that might be a more robust career, or to escape a controlling or abusive spouse, or to find peace from a high-conflict relationship, or to find love beyond what they had in their marriage. This weekend has caused me to re-think why it is that I left and what it is that I am seeking. I am seeing more clearly how the choices that I have made since my divorce belie my true heart’s desire. How funny it is when we realize why we have been doing what we have been doing…

As I was leaving the reunion, my best friend from the 6th grade gave me a long hug and whispered in my ear as we both fought back tears, “You’ve been away for so long. I hope I see you again.”

I hope I see you, too, my old friend. And I hope you always see me.

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there’s no place like home

I am 30,000 feet above the Earth, somewhere over the American mid-west, hurtling toward my hometown of Washington DC. The premise for my trip is my 25th high school class reunion, but for me, it is much more than that.

I was born in DC, at Georgetown University Hospital, and raised just outside the city in a leafy Maryland suburb that was staunchly upper middle-class at the time. After my father died, my mom did everything she could to keep us in that neighborhood on her meager salary and a government check, because the schools were some of the best in the country and the neighbors were warm and supportive. I grew up in and out of the kitchens of various neighbors. The older kids were my babysitters, and the younger ones my surrogate siblings. I felt safe, and loved, and fully unaware that I was lacking anything.

For many of my friends, DC was a city they rarely ventured into, but not so for me. Despite our financial struggles (or maybe because of them), my mom and I spent quite a bit of time downtown. DC is a town that can be enjoyed on a shoe-string, if you know how to do it. Certainly you miss out on the fabeled eateries and extraordinary theater offerings, but I grew up knowing my way around the Smithsonian museums by the time I was in middle school. The National Zoo fed my love of animals, and every Fourth of July, we spread a blanket near the Washington monument and oohed and aahed as fireworks exploded over the Lincoln Memorial. I grew up biking and roller skating through Rock Creek Park, and every year my mom would squirrel away enough pennies to dress me up and take me to the Kennedy Center, usually around Christmas time. My friends and I used the Metro to venture into all parts of the city, even those that would have sent our parents reeling, had they known. We hiked into Georgetown (not served by the Metro because, at the time of its design, the snobby muckety-mucks thought the subway would bring in “the wrong element”), and we cried over the Vietnam War Memorial, returning to school and demanding of our teachers why we were not taught about that part of history (it wasn’t yet part of the standard curriculum in the mid-1980’s, beyond a short mention).

After living in several other places, I returned to life in the city when I attended law school in DC, and got to know my hometown in entirely new ways. I lived in a historical but tired part of town that was gradually gentrifying. During my last visit, I was astonished to see how upscale it had become, but relieved that its gentrification had saved the glorious old movie theater with the balcony where I’d gone on countless dates.

It was while I was in law school that I finally followed in my dad’s footsteps and headed to Capitol Hill. I stumbled into an amazing job as a lobbyist (ahem, “advocate,” since non-profits are not allowed to lobby) for a national child welfare non-profit. It was a heady time in DC, and for me personally, although my stint in the music business had fortunately insulated me from being star-struck by mere senators or chiefs of staff. I mean, what was a White House invitation when you’d been on tour with a major rock band? I loved my work and worked harder than I ever had before or since. Fourteen-hour workdays were frequent, and my friendships revolved around my work, as is common in our nation’s capital.

Leaving DC was not difficult for me. I was ready. I was tired of the hours, tired of the stress, tired of the status-seeking behavior of those around me. I longed for a better work-life balance and for people who didn’t ask me what I did for a living within the first 30 seconds of conversation. And I wanted to have and raise a family without having to move out to the cow pastures to find an affordable home. So, when I visited Colorado and fell in love with it, I didn’t look back. And 15 years later, I rarely have.

The last time I came to DC was almost exactly 4 years ago, over Thanksgiving. Under the partially-true pretense that my dearest friend from college, Caitlyn, needed my help with her infant daughter while her husband Caleb was out of the country, I escaped to her house for nearly a week, lost in my thoughts and confusion. We ran errands, drank wine, ate brownies for dinner, and delicately unraveled the giant ball of twine that my emotions around my marriage had become. It was to Caitlyn that I first uttered the word “divorce” in reference to my own life, and it was lying awake in her guest bedroom where I finally realized that I truly didn’t love my husband anymore. I returned home more sad than when I’d left, but also more clear about the gravity of the situation in front of me. This time I will be staying at Caitlyn’s house again — my life so changed and our friendship so the same.

Some people say that you can’t go home again, and I suppose in many ways that’s true. But I would argue that it depends on what you’re seeking there. My friends in the DC area know me in ways my friends out West simply can’t, because they know where I came from, and what made me who I am. They saw me grow fundamentally into the person I became and always will be. There is something intimate in having known each other before puberty, during braces and pimples, through countless fashion disasters and relationship crises. Many of my kindergarten class will be at my high school reunion this weekend, as will the boy I lost my virginity to, and my first “frenemy.” And wedged alongside the high school reunion festivities, I will be meeting up with two more college friends whose friendships have left indelible marks on my life. These people are my life’s context, the fabric that creates the texture of my history. Somewhere along the way, life mostly evens out, and the friends we make at that point, while no less important or valuable, know only the mostly-finished product; they never glimpse the raw materials.

When I was going through my divorce, I faced all sorts of judgment and criticism from supposed friends in my community. Their reactions left me feeling betrayed and deflated. One night, while chatting with a friend I grew up with but haven’t seen in 20 years, I asked her why none of my hometown friends had asked me why I was getting divorced. “I think it’s probably because we all know you,” she said simply. “And we know that you’re smart and a good person. And we figure if you chose to do this, then it was the right thing for you to do.” Her words sustained me for weeks afterward, as I muddled through the self-doubts and fears of those early month of separation.

Washington, DC will always be my hometown, even if it’s no longer my home. When I come back to DC now, it’s not to reclaim some distant past or slip into the persona of a former me. I love the life I have made in Colorado, and I feel secure in the decisions that carried me from hometown. But sometimes… just sometimes… it’s nice to go home again and sink into the familiar, the known, and the understood. Just for a little while.

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the deal.

My friend Annie got back from a short vacation last night, and before we even put our children into their respective beds, I had unloaded on her the detritus of a stressful week.  The expense and hassle of purchasing three new appliances, one of which has flooded my laundry room (twice!).  The predictable but still painful family arguments around the disposition of my aunt’s belongings.  A disagreement with James.  Essentially the stuff that is life, but a heavier burden when carried alone.

I remember once when I was a small child and my widowed mother had very little money, our dishwasher flooded the kitchen for the second or third time in as many weeks.  My mom sat on the kitchen floor, amidst the soapy mess, and sobbed.  Overwhelmed and lonely, she couldn’t move until there weren’t any tears left.  Then she fetched some towels and began the frustrating process of sopping up all that water, as I perched on the stairs and watched.

I have thought a lot about that day this week, as I’ve mopped up my own soapy messes.  Twice.

Nearly every marriage has some big parts that really work.  For me and Bryce, it was the rough times.  Unlike some couples, we were at our best when facing a challenge together, shoulder-to-shoulder.  Whether it was Sabrina’s serious health concerns or Bryce’s dual lay-offs in one year, we just braced ourselves and carried on, in sync.

One of the shames of divorce is that you have to divorce the whole person.   You don’t get to pick and choose which pieces of them you’d like to never see again.  The baby goes out with the bathwater, so to speak.

Since I left Bryce, I have not had another relationship that felt as reliable or solid as that one.  I miss that in my life.  I really do.  But in the absence of that particular kind of comfort, I have discovered a nearly-as-good substitute in my friends.

Sometime early in our friendship — before I’d even left Bryce — Annie and I fell into a certain unspoken deal with each other:  if one of us needs someone, no matter the time or inconvenience, the other is there.  We have each had moments in which we’ve dropped everything at work, or plopped our children in front of a movie, or told a date that it would “just be a minute” so that we could attend to whatever small or large crisis had exploded in the other’s world.  Sometimes there have been tears, sometimes curse words, sometimes desperation, and sometimes anguish.  Sometimes we have come through for each other better than at other times, but we have always been there.

A few years ago, I couldn’t have appreciated this in the same way, and I didn’t ask it of my friends then, either.  But when, after many, many years, you suddenly find yourself without someone solid to lean on in the dark or difficult times, friendships take on a different quality.

When I was in my 20’s and still believed that I was Superwoman, I had a therapist ask me where I unpacked my load.  I had no earthly idea what she meant, but it sounded vaguely sexual to me and I was embarrassed by the question.  What she meant, of course, was simply where was I safe enough to let it all out?  To allow all my deepest fears and hopes and dreams to get some air.  At that time, I had no answer for her.   Her question has stayed with me for all these years.

I realized this week that it is still a question I struggle with, but the closest I come to that safety is with my female friends.  With a few of them — like Annie — I don’t have to be always smart or always accomplished or always fun.  Sometimes I’m not any of those things.  Sometimes I’m frustrated and overwhelmed and sad.  And I thank God that I have people in my life who can handle me that way.

I am constantly amazed at how much better I feel after talking to a friend and unpacking my heavy load.  It’s enough to give me the strength to re-pack it and carry it for another day.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go meet the washing machine repairman.  Again.

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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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the release valve

I encountered a small problem at work recently that left me stumped.  The nutshell version is that I needed an accurate map of our town, showing town borders, property lines, street names, and address numbers, and only those things.  Without this map, a massive project that I’ve been working on for months could end up unraveling at a pivotal point.

Given that I work in town administration, you might think that obtaining such a map would be fairly easy.  But, no.  This is a very small town with very limited resources and we had no such map.  We had other maps, lots and lots of other maps, but not a map like this.  I was beginning to quietly panic. I had to have this map, and I had to have it by next Tuesday.

And then I was reminded that when we are kind to people, it usually comes back to us tenfold.

A colleague of mine, whom I’ll call “Todd,” arrived in the office a bit ago, with a big smile on his face.  “Hey, T,” he called out, “I have something for you!”  Now, there are only 7 of us working here (ten, actually, if you include my colleague’s adorable 3-month-old baby boy who comes to work with her every day and the 2 dogs that serve as “canine ambassadors” to members of the community who stop by).  Most of us crowded into the break room to see what had our normally recalcitrant Todd sounding so buoyant.

With a flourish, Todd handed me a large, rolled up paper.  I looked at him, with his shit-eating grin on his face, and frantically opened the bundle as if I were about to discover the Superstar Barbie I’d begged for at age 8.  And there it was.  In all it’s glory.

My simple, perfect map.

Me:  “How….?  Where…..?”

Todd:  “Will and I sat down yesterday and played with the software and figured it out.  I knew you needed it.  It took us a couple of hours, and it’s not been fully-proofed, but I feel pretty sure it’ll be accurate.  I went to Kinko’s this morning and got it enlarged for you.”

I honestly did not know what to say.  Todd is currently cramming to get things done so he can take off for a much-deserved vacation.  He absolutely did not have the time to do this for me.  And Will isn’t even employed by the town anymore.  I’d noticed that he was in the office yesterday, but hadn’t thought anything of it.  After thanking Todd profusely, I had to retreat to my office because I honestly thought I might cry.

Right now I am shouldering more stress and fear and moments of panic than I have in almost 20 years.  There are financial pressures that are weighing heavily on me, employment concerns that come with the territory when you work in a political job, and middle school looming for my overly-sensitive eldest daughter.  Add to that an ex-boyfriend who has showed up with no apparent intention other than to wreak further emotional havoc on my life, and you can probably understand that I’m feeling pretty lost and lonely and overwhelmed and unsupported right now.  It happens.  It’s life.  But it still sucks.

But it is also in those moments when we most realize our value to the people around us, the ways that we are connected and care for and about each other.  I drove to work this morning, reminding myself that I have friends I can turn to.  Annie will listen to me cry.  K.C. will give me or loan me any money I’d ever need.  Katrina will keep me company so I’m not lonely and panicked.  I don’t have to shoulder everything alone, always.  I don’t have to be a strong, together, poised woman every. single. minute.  I am allowed to be weak, and scared, and uncertain sometimes.  We all are.  None of us are superheroes.  Sometimes we have to ask for help, for friendship, for support.

I hadn’t asked Todd for his help, but he gave it anyway, and I know why.  Back in January, at a drunken going-away party for another colleague, Todd confided in me that he is in love with a woman 2,000 miles away and he is, frankly, heartsick over her.  Since then, I have listened when I didn’t have the time, and inquired how he’s doing when I could tell he needed to talk, and encouraged and supported their tentative steps to creating a relationship against the odds.  They are small things, to be sure, but when you’re in that space, is there anything better than knowing that someone cares, just a little bit?

That’s why he made me my map, I am sure of it.  To let me know that he appreciates me, too.

Sometimes a small, random act of kindness like that serves as a release valve for the pressure you’re feeling.  Locked in the crucible of a stressful situation, it’s easy to feel that something has to give — and fast — or you’re going to quietly explode.  But then a friend comes along and offers a hug or a favor or a word of encouragement and it’s just enough to release some of that force that’s pressing in on you.  And life goes on.  And somehow we muddle through.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go give Todd a big hug before he leaves on his vacation.

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was it worth it? (pt. 3)

Every once in a while, the universe delivers a message so powerful, so unambiguous, so affirming that it sends me spinning.  I got one of those loud-and-clear messages yesterday.

One of my first posts on this blog contemplated the question of whether my divorce was worth it.  Worth all the pain, all the disappointment, all the breaking down and rebuilding of the lives of the people I cared most about in the world.  Would I someday look back and know that I’d done what was truly best for all of us?

Last evening, I stopped at my ex-husband’s house on my way home from work to pick up some Girl Scout cookies I needed to deliver.  After hugs and kisses from my girls, I was just about to leave, when Sabrina told me that Bryce and his girlfriend, Debbie, had broken up after more than two years together.  I’m a caretaker, I can’t help it, so I headed to the kitchen, where I found Bryce opening the mail.  I asked him if he was okay and told him I was so sorry to hear about he and Debbie.  He offered the same condolences over my break-up with James, and the next thing I knew, we were engaged in a conversation that could only be described as surreal.

There we stood, in the kitchen I had designed and he had paid for when Sabrina was only a toddler, discussing the ends of our first loves after divorcing each other.  The children played in the living room as we traded, in broad brush strokes, the details of our break-ups.

I hesitated at first.  So used to his criticism, I braced myself for the possibility that he would insinuate that I was somehow to blame for James’ limitations.  But he didn’t.  He nodded sympathetically and agreed that I needed decent boundaries, and that I was teaching our girls the right thing by demonstrating those.  I told him how surprised I was at his relationship’s end; I had really thought that he and Debbie had staying power. He paused and then looked me in the eye and said, “You might be the only person that can actually appreciate this… but it was like dating me, the me before our divorce.  She was just like I used to be.  I could see it.  I could understand it.  But I couldn’t live with it.  I pulled the plug after two years.  I don’t know how you lasted 12.”

I didn’t know what to say.  I had liked Debbie, for sure, but I also know very well that it is impossible to know what people are like in a relationship until you are there with them, every single day.  And I also found myself feeling oddly loyal and protective of Bryce.  He is, after all, my daughters’ father.  I had his back, unequivocally, for more than a dozen years.  Funny how those old habits resurface.

More than anything, I was astounded at the ease and matter-of-fact delivery of his admission.  Where was the man who had almost never admitted he was wrong about anything?  Where was the man who had made me feel broken and crazy for even suggesting that he was flawed in any meaningful way?  Who was this self-effacing, authentic person in front of me, being vulnerable to his ex-wife??

In that moment, I was so proud of him.  I have known him long enough and well enough to know how much emotional work it must have taken him to get to such a place with me.  I know that he must have applied himself to his personal growth with the same intense focus he applies to his legal practice.  He is not perfect, but he is trying harder than I’ve ever seen him, and I can’t help but respect that.

I thanked him for sharing with me.  I told him I was proud of him for the strides in self-awareness he’d made since we divorced.  Then we laughed at our mutual inability to model even one really good, really healthy intimate relationship for our daughters.  But we agreed to keep trying.  I told him I was counting on him, and he laughed and warned me not to hold my breath.

Then I gathered my cookies, kissed my daughters, and departed my former home, knowing, again, that it was indeed worth it.

Absolutely worth it.

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withdrawals from the love bank

When I was going through my divorce, I heard about the concept of the “Love Bank,” and it really resonated with me.  The basic premise is that inside of us we each have a “love bank,” with accounts in the names of everyone we care about.  When someone treats us well, they are making a deposit into their account and we feel closer and more appreciative and more loving toward that person.  When someone treats us poorly or hurts us deeply, they make a withdrawal from their account and we feel less close to them, perhaps less trusting, less likely to try to connect with them at that moment.  If the withdrawals exceed the deposits, we ultimately fall out of love or stop caring for that person.  For the most part, once someone has overdrawn their account, there isn’t a whole lot that can be done to save the relationship.

It is an intriguing and thought-provoking concept that I wish I had been aware of at the beginning of my marriage.  I have watched it play out in romantic relationships, friendships, and familial relationships over and over again.  Just for the record, my personal belief is that only our children have overdraft protection.  Perhaps our parents, too, to a certain extent, but even then not to the same degree as our children.

I think love bank withdrawals may be the best explanation for marriages that “just grew apart” or ones that seemed fine until “suddenly” one partner was done and over it and not looking back.  I know that was definitely the case in my own marriage — it wasn’t one or two big hurts or betrayals that brought us down, but many, many years of small hurts and disappointments coupled with weak apologies and obligatory acts of kindness delivered grudgingly.  Some people think that small hurts are not reason enough for a love to die, but, just like your bank account, multiple small withdrawals add up just as quickly (or more so?) as large ones.

What I have noticed most is that a lot of people don’t want to have to make things right when they mess up.  They want to apologize and have it all go away.  To a certain extent, I can understand that:  admitting we’re wrong is uncomfortable, and it makes us uniquely vulnerable.  Add to that the fact that most of us have encountered people who will exploit our moment of guilt and vulnerability into an opportunity to emotionally blackmail us or gain a power dynamic advantage. Such behavior, in the face of a sincere and heartfelt effort to make things right, is horrible, plain and simple.  And it teaches the apologizer — very clearly and directly — not to bother next time.  No self-respecting person should be expected to grovel or otherwise self-mutilate, just to make up for a screw-up.  It’s mean and unfair to expect.

BUT if you make a $1,000 withdrawal from the love bank, a $200 deposit doesn’t bring you back into balance.  And that’s the part that I think a lot of people — especially otherwise smart, well-intentioned men — miss.  If I’m angry about something, a quick apology and some make-up sex will get me over it.  But if my feelings are hurt?  If I’m disappointed in you?  If I feel unspecial or taken for granted?  Then a simple “I’m really sorry” — no matter how sincere — on its own isn’t going to bring the love bank balance back up to pre-incident levels.  I’m going to need a little more reassurance than that.  Some tender TLC.  A little reminder that you hate the thought of me crying over you.  No groveling, no public humiliation, no expensive grand gestures.  No, I’m just talking about the simple, little things.  Call me a little more often the next day.  Hold my hand more.  Tell me, just once more when I least expect it, that you’re sorry for hurting my feelings.  Acknowledge, in some tiny way that I can’t miss, that hurting me was not what you meant to do and not what you’d ever want to do.

And watch your love bank account balance take off.

I think the most powerful thing, to me, about the love bank idea is how well it captures our capacity for forgiveness, alongside the plain fact that forgiveness does not come without a price of some sort.  A sincere, well-delivered apology can be a huge deposit in the love bank, as can some small thoughtful token given at just the right moment.   It is amazing to me how those gestures, those tenderhearted attempts to demonstrate our care and concern can bring a relationship back from the brink of eternal bankruptcy.

I have forgiven a lot in my life, and I have been forgiven a lot. I have had friends who slept with my boyfriends, a mother who ruined my wedding reception, and a boyfriend who threw me down a flight of stairs.  I have betrayed friends and let people down and been the worst version of myself.  And what I have learned is this:  sympathy is not the key to forgiveness, empathy is.

When I have hurt someone I genuinely care about, what I try to do is imagine how I would feel.  Sometimes this is really, really hard to do.  But when I do that, and I am filled with the same feelings that my hurt friend or lover or family member is likely feeling, then I am compelled to make it right.  I want to take that pain away and help them feel better.  That experience is empathy.

Likewise, when someone has hurt me, a sympathetic apology only goes so far.  What really touches my heart, what convinces me that they truly do care for me regardless of what error they have committed, what dissipates my sadness or resentment or sense of distrust faster than anything is a little empathy.

Take this example: Many months ago, my friend Annie and I had a really rough time in our friendship.  She was doing something that was hurting me, and she didn’t understand why I was hurt.  After some time and several difficult conversations, she apologized, sincerely and without reservation.  But there was still space between us…. mistrust on my part, resentment on hers.  Then one day, she experienced something similar and called to tell me about it.  At the end of that conversation, she said, “I’m really sorry.  Now I realize how it must have felt for you.”  And in that instant, we were okay again, love bank accounts restored to previous levels.

In my experience, the same is true for romantic relationships.  We all screw up.  We do things that hurt the people that we love.  But I honestly think that it’s what we do afterwards that matters most.  Do we diminish the other person and their feelings as ridiculous or unreasonable?  Or do we honor those feelings and try to help them let go of their hurt through empathy and caring?

I recognize, of course, that some people are truly unbalanced and so sensitive or over-reactive that there is no chance or possibility to make it right with them.  But I think those people are few and far between.  Most of us want to get over things.  We want to give people another chance.  We want to make our relationships better.

We want our love banks to be full.

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Filed under dating, divorce, friendships, general musings, healing, love, personal growth, relationships, single mom

discovering the “parallel relationship”

Today, I am pondering the surreal quality of discovering that you have been engaged in a “parallel relationship.”  A parallel relationship, for those of you fortunate enough to not have encountered this particular brand of pain, is when the two people in a relationship are having completely different relationships.  The easiest example of this is the girl who thinks her boyfriend is totally committed and in love, while he’s telling his homeboys that she’s nice enough and the sex is okay.  These two people are not having the same relationship experience.  They might both be enjoying the relationship in their own ways, but they are definitely not on the same page.  That example might be the clearest, but I actually don’t think it’s the most common.  At least not at my age.

I think the most common version of the parallel relationship at my age has to do with the person who is simply looking for someone to pass the time with.  In the post-divorce, middle-aged world, companionship and sex are valuable commodities.  The once-married are used to having those things, and miss them when they’re gone.  So they seek out someone to fill the role, usually temporarily, to meet those limited and specific needs.   It’s kind of like a friends-with-benefits (FWB) situation.  You spend quite a bit of time together, have sex, maybe even meet each other’s friends, but there is no expectation or desire of it going any deeper.  It’s a great system, when you’re on the same page.  When you’re not, frequently a parallel relationship will emerge:  one party is going along, happily thinking that this FWB thing is great and lots of fun; the other party is also going along happily, feeling good about things but unaware that the relationship isn’t really a relationship at all.  It’s more of a friendship.  With sex.  It has a short shelf-life and absolutely no future.  Minimal investment will be made in the relationship — usually just enough to keep it alive.  Certainly not enough to take it anywhere further.

The dangerous thing about the parallel relationship is that you may not even know you’re in one.  When you first start dating, things are always casual.  You gradually spend more time together, learn more about each other, have more fun.  You might start to rely on each other a little bit more, maybe get more comfortable with each other, talk every day, spend time hanging out without having sex.  But here’s the catch:  you still aren’t in a relationship.  This could just as easily be a long-term FWB situation.  And you might not know it until some little action or word clearly spells it out for you.

Which is what happened to me today.

I have been, against what should have been my better judgment, allowing myself to get close to a man who will never truly care about me.  It’s probably not his fault, to be fair.  We can’t control our feelings.  Whatever “that thing” is, he just doesn’t feel it for me, and if I’m being honest, I’ve known it all along.  He has never exactly lied to me.  He has never “led me on.”  But I liked him and I thought that maybe, just maybe, there was some real potential there.  I thought this despite ample evidence to the contrary.  I refused to see the obvious and instead applied my own standards for behavior and engaging to him. I was thinking that we were seriously interested in each other and exploring what might (or might not) exist between us, but I think now that he was simply having fun with me, enjoying his time with me, all the while knowing that it would never really be anything.  We were having parallel relationships.

So now I am in that awful place of having to sort through the reality of what is, versus the dashed hopes of what might have been.  The reality feels heavy and empty and cheap.  The dashed hopes feel like sharp shards of glass that slice me each time I touch them.  But touch them I will.  I will pick up each and every piece and place them in the prettily-wrapped box in which they came.  Then I will take out my metaphorical Sharpie and mark the box, in clear, firm letters, “Nothing.”

And then I will carefully, deliberately make my own way once again, a little less sure of myself, a little less trusting, and a little less open.

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Filed under dating, divorce, friendships, general musings, relationships, sex