paint fumes + a haircut

The other day around lunchtime, I wandered into the kitchen to wrangle together something to eat, and I noticed a funny smell. I couldn’t quite place it. It wasn’t a food-related smell. It was something more… chemical.

“Allyn?” I called. “Does something smell weird to you?”

He came into the kitchen and confirmed that, yes, our kitchen reeked. He also nailed the smell I was having trouble pinning down.

“It’s paint fumes,” he said. “They must be painting the apartment downstairs.”

Soon, the strong smell had wafted into our living room and bedroom. There was no escaping the paint fumes. I’ve always been sensitive to smell, and I started to get a headache. It was cold out, but we opened the windows and turned on the fan to blow in fresh air. It helped some. Eventually, either the smell dissipated or our noses became acclimated to it. My headache receded.

The next day, Allyn and I came home to our apartment after a long afternoon of running errands, and when we opened the door and stepped inside, we wrinkled our noses. The paint fumes were back!

“Do you think they’re painting again today?” I asked.

Allyn shook his head. “It doesn’t smell as strong as it did yesterday. It’s probably just lingering, and we noticed it more coming in from outside.”

Again, we opened the windows and turned on the fan. Eventually, the smell went away.

This pattern continued for another few days, until the paint fumes finally disappeared. It was such a glorious relief to feel like I could breathe again.

A few afternoons later, I laced on my shoes and walked a few blocks downtown to a local hair salon. I’d never been there before and I was a bit nervous, but I told myself it was no big deal. Just a little trim. I didn’t want anything drastic—just to get rid of my split ends. I didn’t think it would make that much of a difference in my appearance, but I figured it was time. My last haircut had been more than a year prior, when I cut off eight inches of my hair to donate in honor of Céline. That was the shortest I could ever remember cutting my hair, and since then I’d been growing my hair out. Now it was long again. Not just long–straggly. Limp. Flat.

I told the stylist what I wanted, and she quickly began to work her magic. She trimmed off my split ends and added some layers. Snip snip snip. Snip snip. Soon, she was blow-drying my hair and turning me to face the mirror. And I couldn’t believe it.

What a difference!

She had only cut off a couple inches. I looked at the scraps of hair littering the floor, and it really wasn’t that much. Yet, I looked so different. Fresher. Lighter. More vibrant.

Walking home, I felt free and energized. Like I’d had a total makeover, when in reality the only thing different about me was my hair and it was not that much different at all. {Real talk: Allyn likely would not have even noticed my haircut if I had not told him about it.} It had only been 45 minutes since I left my apartment, yet in my mind it felt like a Before/After transformation.

Such a little thing. And it had such a big impact on how I felt. A blow-out and some fresh layers, and I was a woman ready to take on the world!

On the surface, these may seem like two small things in an ordinary week. Paint fumes and a haircut. What’s the big deal?

I think they are symbols for other things—important things—in our lives.

The paint fumes are the pesky, lingering thoughts that are taking up space in your brain and are not serving you at all. You know what I mean. The toxic thoughts. The ones that say, You’re not good enough. You’re never going to accomplish that. You might as well just give up. Who do you think you are? And all of the other mean things we say to ourselves. So many of us talk to ourselves in words that we would be horrified to hear said to someone else.

What paint fumes are stinking up your mind? What paint fumes are giving you a headache?

It’s time to open the windows. It’s time to turn on the fan. It’s time to air things out and drink in the fresh cold breeze.

You might have to air out those paint fumes many times. As with our apartment, they did not disappear overnight. We had to air things out again and again and again, until finally the smell dissipated completely.

Air out your negative thoughts. Keep noticing when you are hard on yourself or get down on yourself. Keep opening windows and letting new, positive thoughts in. I promise—eventually, it will make a huge difference. You have no idea how lovely it will be without those paint fumes wearing you down.

My haircut was a symbol of a small act of self-care that can create huge ripples of goodness in how you feel. About yourself, about your relationships, about your life. It was just 45 minutes. It was not a big deal or a drastic change. But it made me feel so much better to let go of those straggly split ends. I felt so much lighter and freer and my hair is so much more buoyant without the weight of those extra couple inches dragging it down.

What “split ends” can you let go of in your life? What is dragging you down? What is making you feel tired or bored or listless? When you look over your calendar for the week or your schedule for the day, is there anything that you dread? If so, is there a way you can get rid of that thing? Can you say no? Can you delegate to someone else?

What if you replaced those split ends with buoyancy and energy? What is a small act of self-care you can take today that will make you feel nourished and restored? Self-care is an investment that pays huge dividends. It might be taking a walk, taking a bath, taking a nap… or something else that you love to do. Even twenty or thirty minutes are enough to boost your spirits and create positive ripple effects in your mental outlook and self-esteem.

This week, my challenge to you is to identify your own “paint fumes” and “split ends.” Air it out. Get a haircut. Your body, mind + spirit will think you!

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a document on your computer. Free-write about whatever these questions spark inside you.

  • What are the negative thoughts that drift in your mind? Write them down. This can help take away their power. Now, for each negative thought, write out a positive thought instead. What things do you like or love about yourself?
  • Write about something that is dragging you down in your life. What might it look like to cut this out of your life entirely? Write about how you would feel without this burden. If there isn’t a way to get away from it entirely, can you at least minimize it or delegate it?
  • What are some activities that make you feel rested, restored, energized or joyful? Make a list you can return to when you are craving a bit of self-care.

sautéing my way through grief

Hi everyone! I wanted to share with you a piece I have published on Modern Loss, about how cooking has been a helpful grieving process for me in the aftermath of my dear friend Céline’s death. You can read the piece on Modern Loss here, which also includes a few of my favorite recipes.

The first week after my friend Céline died in a car accident, I barely ate at all. I was too consumed by grief to even think about food.

The second week, my appetite was back and I craved junk. Potato chips, cookies, greasy burgers. You know, college food — which, in a way, made sense.

Ten years before she died, I met Céline on the very first day of college, as I was unpacking my clothes and trying to suppress my anxiety. Céline knocked on my door. She said she lived across the hall and asked if I wanted a popsicle. I chose cherry; she picked orange. Then we sat on my bed and chatted. With her stylish asymmetrical haircut and dangly earrings, she seemed way too cool to be my friend — I figured we would be dorm-acquaintances before drifting apart sophomore year. But that was okay. Céline had a wonderful warm presence that you were just grateful to bask in for as long as you could…

Read the rest of the piece here.

 

Here are some other posts I’ve written about grief:

that time i shopped on black friday

I remember the first and only time I went shopping on Black Friday. It was my final year of grad school and I was spending Thanksgiving with my boyfriend’s family in the Chicago suburbs. During the Thanksgiving meal, the topic of Black Friday came up. Before then, I never had any interest in shopping on Black Friday. In the past, after Thanksgiving dinner, my family and I would sink into the couch {momentarily ignoring the stacks of dirty dishes} and sigh that the last thing we could imagine wanting to do was wait in line to go shopping in a crowded superstore. Now, I listened to the people around me plan out the best routes and the best places and the best deals.

“Wanna go?” my boyfriend asked.

I didn’t want to go. Not at all. I wanted to change into my pajamas and curl up under a blanket with a good book. What did I need to shop for, anyway? What “doorbuster deals” did I need to take advantage of?

But I didn’t want to be a buzzkill. Everyone else was excited about Black Friday shopping. It was easier to go along with the current of consumption than to try to swim against it. Maybe it will be fun, I told myself. It will be a new experience that you can write about someday.

“Sure,” I said.

So, a couple hours before midnight, we caravanned to the nearest Walmart. The parking lot was jammed. The store was jammed. People were camped out in aisles, shopping carts claiming space. Everywhere, sale prices screamed at us in bold font under the bright florescent lights.

I couldn’t ignore an uncomfortable feeling in my stomach. I knew in a deep visceral place that I did not want to be there. I did not want to be part of this avalanche of greed, of consumption, of more more more. It sounds extreme, maybe—I know it was just one day of shopping, after all—but I felt sick inside. I knew that I was going against my values. This wasn’t what I believed in. This wasn’t what mattered to me. Yet, there I was, wandering the aisles along with everyone else. There I was, waiting in the enormous snaking check-out line. There I was, choosing to spend hours shopping for things I didn’t actually need, during a time of year that was supposedly devoted to gratitude. I think I bought some cupcake liners and a book of short stories. My boyfriend bought a laptop, and his parents bought a big-screen TV to replace the slightly-smaller big-screen TV they already had. “It was such an amazing deal, we just couldn’t pass it up!” his mom exclaimed.

Looking back now, that Black Friday shopping escapade was in many ways a symbol of that period of my life. Gradually, I let myself get swept away from the person I always thought I was, until I didn’t recognize the choices I was making anymore. I tried to cover up my doubts about my relationship with an avalanche of stuff. I made plans with my boyfriend based around consumption—TV shows we wanted to watch; kitchen gadgets we wanted to buy; that expensive exercise bike we were saving up for—as if those plans would make us feel more solid. As if the answer to our problems could be found in a trip to the mall. As if carting more stuff home in plastic shopping bags would reinforce our shaky foundation, patch up our recurring arguments, and hide our incompatibilities.

The truth was, I felt empty inside. So I gave into the culture of consumption around me, as if that would fill me up. It was so much easier to slap a band-aid over the pain than to do the hard work of diagnosing its source. It was so much more comfortable to listen to the constant advertisements around me and believe that I would feel better if only I had that top-rated mascara, those pretty napkin rings, that perfectly organized closet with the matching labeled baskets.

Up to this point, I had never placed much value in material possessions, and I never would have said that love was shown by material things—and yet, in my relationship, that was exactly how it was shown. I remember my boyfriend buying me so many books for Christmas one year that I actually felt embarrassed by the display. {I still haven’t read all of them.} I remember our bookshelf crammed with DVDs that we’d only watched once. I remember wandering the aisles of Target, filled with a panicked craving, certain that there was something else I desperately needed to make my life okay. And I was right—there was a desperate need aching inside of me—but it wasn’t for anything I could buy at Target. It was the need for honesty and authenticity in my own life. It was the need to live out my values. It was the need to unapologetically be—or at least, strive to be—my best and truest self.

When we broke up, I immediately felt relief and release. And I immediately began lightening my load of possessions. I donated boxes full of books to the library. I took bags of clothes to Goodwill. I gave away kitchen appliances to anyone who wanted them. I cleaned out my kitchen cabinet, using up the canned food I’d already bought instead of buying more. Rather than wandering the aisles of Target, I began going for walks. When I think back on that period, I remember the joy I felt in creating space in my life. I didn’t feel that panicked emptiness inside me anymore. I didn’t need to prove anything or cover up anything. Even though I was heartbroken, I felt content, and whole, and enough. To put it simply: I recognized myself again.

Now, all of this is not to say that Black Friday is evil or that shopping makes you a bad person. Some people are passionate about the fashion industry. Some people find true joy through shopping and socializing in this way. But, I have never been that person. And if you feel like I used to feel — shopping for more to try to fill up an empty hole inside you or cover up emotions you don’t want to feel — I’d like to challenge you to hit the pause button. Take a deep breath. Climb out from underneath all of your stuff and take an honest look at your life. What is that little voice inside trying to tell you?

When I began listening to that little voice, instead of listening to the advertisements around me and the fear in my heart that said I wasn’t enough… everything changed. I began making choices with intention rather than letting myself get swept here and there by other people’s currents. I now find value in the person I am, not what I own, and my relationships are built on a solid foundation of shared conversations rather than a wobbly foundation of shared consumption. Sure, I still go shopping sometimes. Of course, I still buy things. But I know that the latest fashion trend piece isn’t going to make me more beautiful. A fancy new tablecloth isn’t going to make my meals any more nourishing. A new piece of furniture isn’t going to make me into more of a grown-up and color-coordinated bath towels do not mean that my life is more “together” than it was before. My life — like all lives — is perfectly imperfect. And that’s normal. That’s nature. After all, look around — plants and trees are not precisely symmetrical. A flower consumes what it needs to bloom, but it will die with too much water. I believe the messy mishmash patchwork quilt of genuine, authentic living is what makes this life so beautiful.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and “free-write” about whatever comes to mind when you think about these questions.

  • Have you ever gone shopping on Black Friday? If not, why not? If so, what was the experience like for you?
  • Write about a time you made a decision that felt at odds with your values or the person you thought you were.
  • Are there any areas of your life that you are trying to fill with material things? What might it be like to instead believe that you are enough and have enough?

a letter to the tree they cut down outside our apartment window

Dear Tree,

I’m sorry I haven’t properly introduced myself before. I’m Dallas, and I live in this apartment with my husband Allyn, and I have loved you since the first day we moved in one year and two months ago. In fact, you were one of the first things I noticed about the apartment when we were looking at potential places to live around the city. I fell in love with your tall, thick-leaved, beautiful branches, stretching over the apartment balcony in a protective way. Your limbs waved slightly in the breeze — friendly, as if you were saying hello.

Over the next fourteen months, you gave us so much without ever asking for anything in return. During the extremely hot summer, you provided welcome shade from the harsh midday sun. Your pretty branches gave us some privacy from the neighbors all around us, making our apartment feel more secluded. When we dined al fresco on our little balcony, your lush leaves reminded me of the time we traveled to Spain and ate outdoors, and our home-cooked meal felt a tad bit fancier. My writing desk is situated right beside the window that looked out at you, and when I was feeling stuck I would gaze out at your greenery. You made me feel calm and inspired. If that wasn’t enough, birds perched on your branches and serenaded us. What more could we ask for in a companion, dear tree?

I wish I had told you all of this sooner. Sure, I appreciated you, but it was in the absent-minded way you appreciate things you take for granted. Things you think will be around forever.

{you provided such a lovely backdrop for our save-the-date photo}

A few weeks ago, the building manager knocked on our door and gave us the news. It was so unexpected. He said that you were old, and that with all of the storms lately you had become a danger. Trees fall over onto houses and apartments and sometimes they do damage and sometimes they hurt people. He said you were impeding on the apartment below us and next to us. He said you had to come down and that was that. There was nothing we could do. We don’t own the property — we are just renters — and so we don’t own you.

When the men came to cut you down, I couldn’t watch. I felt sick and sad and I kept thinking of this Jack Johnson song with lyrics about a tree that burns down. I promise, tree, that one day, Allyn and I will have a house of our own and we will plant lots of your brothers and sisters in our yard. Until then, I want you to know that I donated to The Nature Conservancy to plant a tree in honor of you.

We miss you, dear tree. We miss you a lot. We miss your shade and your beauty. We miss your quiet presence. We miss your wisdom that reminded us of the world that was here before we came onto the scene, and the world that will be here after we leave, and that maybe our problems aren’t so big after all, and maybe our lives are a little more precious than we make them out to be in the day-to-day tasks and busyness. When I think of you, tree, I think of how you were once a small seedling, and then a sapling, and how you just kept growing and growing and growing towards the sunlight. I want to be like you. I want to have your patience and your fortitude, your generosity and your grace.

Your final lesson to me was to focus even more of my energy on appreciating the lovely little details in my life. I loved you while you were alive, but I wish I had been even more present to your presence. I wish I had thanked you every day and marveled every day at the magic of having you in our lives, sheltering our little apartment and sharing your shade with us. You have reminded me of the fleeting nature of this life, and because of you I am hugging the things I love a little tighter, a little closer, a little fiercer. Because of you, I notice and appreciate all the other trees I come across {even though none of them are quite as beautiful as you} and because of you, I am saying prayers of gratitude for all the everyday riches in my imperfect, messy life.

Love,
Dallas

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • Write a letter to a tree that has been meaningful in your life.
  • Write a letter to a different object {natural or man-made} or a place that has mattered to you.
  • What is something small in your life that you can appreciate and be grateful for, right this very moment?

ordinary / extraordinary

I.

It is the morning of my high school graduation. I have just woken up and am still lying in bed in my pajamas. I slept in late, and my dog Gar is snoozing at the foot of my bed. My yellow graduation gown hangs on the back of my door, waiting and ready. My brother is at school—the last day of school before summer—but I don’t have to be on campus until the afternoon ceremony. My mom and dad both come into my room and sit on my bed with me. Mom has made breakfast, and soon I will go downstairs and eat scrambled eggs and toast. But, for now—for a few more minutes, at least—I stay in bed. I talk with Mom about last-minute plans for my graduation party this evening. I talk with Dad about the speech I’m giving at the graduation ceremony. The doorbell rings and Gar leaps off my bed, barking. Mom runs downstairs to see who it is, then calls up that I’ve received congratulations flowers from my aunt and uncle. In my stomach I feel a buzzing energy, an excited anticipation, for the day ahead. A day that feels like so much more than just a single day. It holds the weight of all the years leading up to this point, and also the promise of all the years to come. I am on the cusp of adulthood; in a few short months, I will unpack my suitcase into a Los Angeles dorm room and begin a new chapter of my life.

But, for now, I am a girl in her pajamas, in her childhood bedroom, chatting with her parents. It is an extraordinary day, but at the same time, I hold the comforting normalcy of it close to my heart. Somehow, this quiet ordinary time before the excitement of the day unfolds feels like the most special gift of all.

II.

It is four years later: the morning of my college graduation. I wake up in a crowded apartment after hardly sleeping the night before. I was too filled with emotion to sleep. I can’t believe this day is actually here. How did college pass by so quickly?

When I emerge from my bedroom, my roommates are already busy in the kitchen, making coffee and pouring cereal for breakfast. I share this two-bedroom apartment with three of my best friends, and all of us have graduation guests staying here, so our apartment is at max capacity, with people crashing on the couch and sprawled out in sleeping bags on the floor. It feels like a big sleepover, or like the morning after one of our parties—except that everyone is wide-eyed and chipper.

My roommates and I run in and out of each other’s bedrooms and bathrooms, slipping into our graduation dresses, asking for second and third and fourth opinions on shoes and makeup. Time is slipping away—soon, we will need to head out the door and walk the five blocks to campus for the ceremony. But not before we take one final roommate photo. We clump together in the kitchen, before we put our black graduation gowns on over our dresses, and one of our boyfriends snaps the photo. I feel like I am a balloon, floating up above the scene—like this day is too big for me to hold. It feels as if all the adventures and mistakes and laughter and victories and drama and love of the past four years is condensed into this moment, the four of us crowded into our cramped kitchen with our arms slung around each other and our cheeks round with smiles, posing like we’ve posed for countless other photos together.

Soon, we will break apart and scramble to collect our purses and pull our graduation gowns over our dresses. We will help each other zip up our gowns and pin our caps to our hair and then we will walk, arms linked, through a swamped campus to hear Governor Schwarzenegger give our commencement address, and then we will head to our separate satellite ceremonies and celebrate with our own families and loved ones. But, for now, I bask in this ordinary moment, in our ordinary messy apartment—what I think of as the last ordinary moment of our college years together. Here, now, we are not yet college graduates. We are simply four roommates dressed up in pretty dresses who love each other very much.

III.

It is the morning of my bachelorette party, three days before my wedding. In many ways, these morning hours are the final slice of calm before the manic energy of the weekend washes over us. Today, Friday, Allyn and I are heading off to our separate bachelor/bachelorette parties. Tomorrow is the rehearsal and rehearsal dinner. And Sunday is the wedding. Everything seems so real all of a sudden, so close. I feel like I am getting onto a roller coaster—all I will be able to do the next three days is hang on and enjoy the ride.

One of my best friends, Erica, takes an early morning flight to SFO for my bachelorette party. She catches the train to my city and I pick her up at the station. The parking lot is filled with commuters, heading into a routine day of work. I feel similar to how I used to feel as a child, when my parents would surprise my brother and me with a trip to Disneyland on an otherwise normal school day. I remember looking out the car window in wonder as we drove the three hours to Anaheim, amazed that the people in the cars around us were oblivious to the magic that was unfolding in my day.

Erica emerges from the station carrying a duffel bag, and I leap out of the car and wave to her. We hug hello maybe a little longer and tighter than normal. All of a sudden, I’m a volcano of words, telling her all about the frantic craziness of the past couple weeks and warning her how much of a disaster my apartment is. In my fantasies about this weekend, I was so incredibly calm and on top of wedding-related things that my apartment was perfectly clean and straightened up. Erica hasn’t seen my apartment yet, and I wanted her to see it at its best. But that was pure fantasy, unrealistic—and unnecessary. Erica has been my friend since seventh grade, and she doesn’t need my fantasy self. My real self is enough for her.

me and erica at her place

So, even though this is not how I imagined it, this feels like the right way for things to unfold: the two of us walking into my messy apartment, stepping over the wedding gifts and favors and decorations that have taken over every spare inch of floor space. I’ve baked muffins for the bachelorette party and they are cooling on the counter, still too hot to pack up into tupperware, and the bags of flour and sugar are out, and the batter-smeared bowl is unwashed in the sink.

Yesterday Erica injured her achilles tendon at the gym, and I move some papers off the couch so she can lay down, putting her foot up and nursing her sore achilles with a bag of iced peas. She exclaims encouragement and we laugh about old memories as I scurry around the apartment, gathering up various bags and items I’ll need over the next few days. Tonight we’re all staying at Dana’s for the bachelorette party, and tomorrow night I’m staying with my parents and brother in their hotel room. I’m not planning to come back to the apartment before the wedding.

Soon, it will be time to leave so we’re not late for the bachelorette festivities. Soon, Erica will climb off the couch and return the bag of peas to the freezer. Soon, I will pack the muffins into tupperware and she will help me carry my bags and veil and wedding dress down to my car.

But, for now, I savor this private little bubble of time with one of my best friends — one of the people who knows me best in the world — who makes me feel calm and centered simply with her presence. For a moment, I feel transported back to our seventh-grade selves. We are still those girls who sat in the grass on the quad eating our brown-bag lunches. We are still those girls, passing notes in class with stick-figure drawings of our dreams. We are still those girls, laughing about our misadventures, and cheering each other on as new adventures approach on the horizon.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and “free-write” without editing or censoring yourself. Here are some questions you can use as guidance:

  • Write about an ordinary moment from your life that has stuck in your memory.
  • Out of your everyday life, what moments do you treasure the most?
  • Where do you find your “calm in the storm”?

my slobbery, comforting shadow

Hi friends! Just wanted to let you know that my essay “My Slobbery, Comforting Shadow” — about how our beloved family dog Murray helped me during a difficult time of my life — was recently published on the website Sweatpants and Coffee. You can read it here.

“Welcome home, honey,” my mom said, ushering me inside the front door of my childhood house. My dad followed close behind with my suitcases. As soon as we stepped through the door, we were greeted by a wriggling 82-pound bundle of brown-furred energy: our family dog, a boxer named Murray. I hadn’t seen him in five months, not since I had been home for Christmas. He yelped and barked with joy, leaping up to kiss my face, then running around the living room—his own version of welcoming me home.

“It’s good to be back,” I said, petting Murray’s head. He slobbered all over my hand, but I didn’t mind.

“I’m going to make you a sandwich,” my mom said, heading into the kitchen. “I can tell you haven’t been eating enough.”

I didn’t argue—I hadn’t really been eating or sleeping much the past month and a half, not since my engagement had quite suddenly but irrevocably unraveled….

Read the rest of the piece here: http://sweatpantsandcoffee.com/personal-essays-slobbery-comforting-shadow/ 

a letter to my 16-year-old self

Dear 16-year-old Dallas,

Hi there. It’s me—well, you, from the future. Thirteen years in the future, to be exact. I just wanted to pop in and tell you that everything is going to be okay. I know you’re having a hard time right now. Two of your best friends have quite suddenly ditched you, and you’re feeling unmoored and wondering how everything could have unraveled so quickly. It wasn’t one big fight, but a lot of little things that drew the three of you apart—or, rather, that separated you from the two of them. I know that right now you feel confused and hurt and angry. School used to be filled with laughter and inside jokes, and now suddenly the social logistics of each day is a puzzle without an answer key. Where to sit at lunch? Who to talk to at cross-country practice? You’ve cried more over the loss of these two friends than you’ve ever cried over a boy. I know you are tempted to just turn your back and write them off forever. I know it’s hard to see this now, but listen to me: they’re not bad people. They do care about you, and your friendship with them was real. All those memories you shared together are not fake. It was good, until it wasn’t. High school is messy and confusing and full of changes, and the three of you are in different places, wanting different things. And that’s okay. It’s okay that you have no interest in going to parties and drinking—no matter if that means you aren’t “cool.” Even though this is painful, it is better for you to let go of your friendship with them now, rather than stick around and feel bad about yourself all the time, or turn into someone you don’t want to be.

Listen to me: in six years, you will go to the wedding of one of these friends, and all the angst and hurt you are writing about in your journal right now? It will all seem like a long time ago, I promise. It will seem like a novel you read about someone else. The other friend will get married around the same time you do {yes, you are in fact going to get married—I’ll get to that in a minute} and you will genuinely wish her well. You will wish both of these girls the utmost happiness.

I know you are feeling supremely uncool and unsure of yourself. Your self-confidence has taken a beating, and you feel so awkward all the time. But let me tell you something important, something true: you did nothing wrong and there is nothing wrong with you. You don’t need to be concerned about what the other kids at school think of you. {Besides, the other kids at school aren’t thinking bad things about you—that’s all in your head. The other kids, even the popular crowd, respect your straight-lacedness. Just wait and see what nice things they write in your senior yearbook.} Take a deep breath and lean into the parts of yourself that feel the most true and real and YOU. Those are the best parts of yourself. Those are the parts to cultivate, to nourish, to nurture. When you find sprouts of self-consciousness and comparison and shame? Yank those roots out of your soil. Don’t waste any time watering those weeds.

Want to know a secret? Want to know the silver lining to this painful period of time? When these two friends ditch you, it will open up your life for other friends to come in. You will become closer with people who love and accept you exactly as you are. Remember how close you and Erica were in middle school? Reach out to her again now. She is kind and steady and she truly cares about you. She is a lifelong friend. One day, she will be a bridesmaid in your wedding. Be grateful for her and soak up these everyday moments with her. Stay home from a school dance and have an old-fashioned sleepover with her instead. You never have much fun at those school dances, even though you try. You go because you feel like you’re supposed to go. But I’m giving you permission, right now, to stop doing things because of the opinions of other people. If you want to stay in on a Friday night and eat popcorn and watch Robin Hood: Men in Tights with Erica, do it. Do it with no regrets.

I want you to know that you are enough exactly as you are. Mom and Dad know what they are talking about. When they tell you that you are beautiful and kind and strong and worthy, when they tell you that you have no idea how loved you are, when they tell you that one day in the not-too-distant future you will indeed meet a boy who appreciates you for exactly the person you are—listen to them. They are right.

Sixteen-year-old Dallas, you don’t need to change anything about yourself. Your nose is not too big. Your hair is not frizzy. You are not—repeat after me—you are not the least bit overweight, and you never need to feel even the slightest twinge of guilt for eating two or three of Mom’s chocolate-chip cookies, still warm from the oven.  She makes the best cookies, doesn’t she? Thirteen years from now, her cookies will still be the best you’ve ever tasted.

And okay, I’m getting to it, I’m getting to it. You’ve probably skimmed the rest of this letter, eager to get to this part. The part about getting married one day. Right now, I know it feels like you’re never going to meet a boy who like-likes you, much less loves you. Right now, you haven’t even had your first kiss. All of your ideas about love are based on Sarah Dessen books, your weekly TV obsession The O.C., and your favorite rom-com Serendipity. Here’s what I want to tell you about love: it’s bigger and better, more complex and yet more simple, more consuming and yet more ordinary, than you imagine it to be. Love is going to break you apart and put you back together again, stronger and braver and more content in your own individual, lovely wholeness. Love is going to take you by surprise and take your breath away.

Right now you alternate between despair that you are never ever going to get your first kiss, and a desire to plan out every detail of your one-day, future relationship. But, dear one, love isn’t something you can map out. It’s not a short story you can revise and revise again. It’s not a physics problem you can solve. It will sweep into your heart without warning, announcing itself to you boldly, and even though you might feel a little bit scared or unready, you will not be able to ignore it. When love is right, it will continue to grow and grow inside of you, and you won’t have to make excuses for it, and you won’t have to twist yourself to fit into what doesn’t fit. The right love will become a part of you, like your breath, in and out, in and out, and like your breath it will give you life in little moments every single day, with you hardly even realizing it. Right now you think that love means grand gestures and passionate kissing in the rain, but real love is in the ordinary, everyday moments that connect you to another person. When you feel seen and understood and accepted and cared for, little by little, day by day. If you really want an example of the love that is waiting for you in the future, look at Mom and Dad. You will get married on their wedding anniversary, and they are the best blueprint out there for a beautiful, sturdy, lasting love.

To be honest, 16-year-old Dallas, your first kiss won’t come for another couple of years, and it isn’t going to be all that spectacular. But your first kiss with the guy who will become your
husband? Woah. It will be worth the wait, worth all the mess and tears and lonely nights and uncertainty it took to find him. Here’s what I can tell you about your husband: he is amazingly kind, and generous, and thoughtful, and compassionate. He makes you laugh every day, and he is a wonderful listener, and he supports you with all of his heart. He is so handsome, and he tells you that you are beautiful, and he loves every detail about you. {For the record, he thinks you have a great nose.} He is better than any of the loves you imagined for yourself before you met him. He is better than you could have dreamed.

I know, despite your heartbreak and pain, you do realize how fortunate you are, and you’re grateful for what you have right now. You’re grateful for your parents, and for Greg, and for Erica, and for your teachers and your Gramps and your books and your writing. Lean into that gratitude. Lean into those things that fill you up. Savor them. As Mr. Enfield, the drama teacher, will tell you next year before the curtain rises on the final production of the play you wrote {get excited—it’s going to be an awesome experience!}, life is ephemeral. It is always changing, and even those things that feel permanent about your life right now are fleeting. So soak it in, every day. Even the hard days. Be confident in the person you are now and the person you are becoming. Don’t get lost in self-doubt or worry. You have no idea how much you are going to grow, and stretch, and shine, and love, and explore, and how big and wide and incredible the world is. You have no idea of the wonders waiting in your future, in this life you are building. Trust in me, your 29-year-old-self. And trust in yourself, as you are here, now, at sixteen. Everything you need is already there, inside of you.

Love,
Your Future Self

p.s. Give Gar as many scratches and loves and doggy biscuits as you can. He’s a really great dog, isn’t he?

Your turn {if you want}:

  • Write a letter to your sixteen-year-old self. What advice would you give?
  • Write a letter from your sixteen-year-old self to your self today. What would that previous version of yourself want you to remember?
  • Sign up for The Letter Project to write a letter to a real girl or woman who could use a little extra encouragement. Your words can make a real difference in someone’s life!

when is the train going to come?

When I was in college, I studied abroad in England for a semester, and the school calendar included a whole glorious month off for spring break. Two of my best friends and I took the opportunity to backpack around Europe together, bopping around from Portugal to Spain to France to Germany. We traveled mostly by train, which was awesome. As someone born and raised in California, my experience with train travel was extremely limited; in Los Angeles at that time, our public transportation system was pretty much just buses that never ran on time. {The L.A. metro system has been wonderfully expanded since then, and now in the Bay Area I often take the BART train.} But back then it was a marvelously new experience for me to travel by train, much less travel from country to country that way! I loved gazing out the window as the changing landscapes rolled by.

Mostly, the trains were very impressively on time. But there was one day in particular that sticks out in my mind. It was about mid-way through our trip, mid-way through the day. We were grungy and tired and hungry, and our train was delayed. We were told it would be at least a couple hours. So we left the station and explored the little village a bit. It was a Sunday and most of the stores were closed. We ended up buying snacks from a mini-mart shop and eating them back at the station. We sat there on the train platform, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. We stood up. We paced around. We looked down the long, empty tracks.

Logically, I knew the train would eventually come. But emotionally? It felt, in that moment, like the train was never going to come.

 *

In the years since, I’ve come to think of waiting on that half-empty platform for that delayed-and-delayed-again train as a metaphor for life.

Yes, there are many things you can control. You can work hard. You can maintain a fierce curiosity about the world. You can consistently gain knowledge in your field. You can believe in yourself and in your abilities. You can set goals and take little steps, every day, to move forward towards your dreams.

But there is also a lot that you can’t control: luck, serendipity, chance. Timing and fate. The whimsies and opinions and subjectivities of other people.

You can buy your train ticket and stand on the platform, gazing down the track, ready and waiting. But you can’t control when the train is going to come.

More than fifteen years ago, when I was a freshman in high school, I wrote a personal essay titled “The Role of a Lifetime.” It was about my second-grade teacher who cast me in the lead role of our class play, even though I was painfully shy. How her confidence in me sparked a self-confidence that I still carry to this day. Mostly, I wrote the piece as a tribute to a phenomenal teacher who truly went above and beyond for her students.

I was proud of that essay. I worked hard on it. I edited and rewrote it, asked for feedback and rewrote it again. I submitted it to a Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology about teachers. But it was rejected.

A couple years later, I saw a call for submissions for another Chicken Soup anthology about teachers. Excited, I submitted the essay again. Again, it was not chosen for publication.

I was disappointed. I read the essay again with fresh eyes. I still liked it. I was still proud of it.

Over the years, I submitted that essay many other times to many other publication opportunities and contests. In return, I received nothing but rejection letters.

Last year—more than fifteen years after I wrote the essay—I saw a call for submissions for the upcoming Chicken Soup anthology Inspiration for Teachers. “What do you have to lose?” I thought. And I submitted my essay again.

Guess what? This time, after all this time, my essay was accepted. “The Role of a Lifetime” is going to be published later this year. My story about an amazing teacher is going to be shared. This particular train finally pulled into the station. I’m so glad I didn’t give up and leave the platform too soon.

*

Lately I’ve been listening to the most recent Blind Pilot album on repeat. One of my favorite songs is called “Don’t Doubt” and here are my favorite lyrics:

Don’t you doubt
Everybody’s seen some winter
Don’t you just take the dark way out

I think “the dark way out” means making excuses for yourself. Stacking up your reasons to quit and building those reasons into a prison around yourself. Letting yourself think that just because you sometimes doubt yourself, it means that you should give into those doubts. No. It just means that you’re human and you’re not an emotionless robot. But strength equals fighting against your moments of doubt with hope and grit and persistence. Remember — everybody’s seen some winter.

For the past three weeks, my sweetheart has been waiting on a phone call. At first, he felt very confident that the call was going to come. But as the days slipped by, he grew less and less certain. Eventually, he began using humor to deal with the situation—every day, he would joke with me about the various reasons he might not have received the phone call yet. Throughout the day, we would pretend to cheer on this person, as if picking up the phone was a physical task that required Herculean effort. I could tell that Allyn was doing all he could to fight off his doubts and to keep his faith in the potential of the situation.

And then, quite suddenly, the phone call did come. And it was exactly the outcome he had been waiting for, hoping for, and working towards for a very long time.

I know this might sound cliched, but it’s true—the success meant more to him because of the winding, difficult path it took to get there. The questions and doubts make the answers, when they finally come, that much richer.

I love this blog post Alex Franzen wrote about making excuses and making progress. She writes: “You can make excuses or you can make yourself proud. You can make excuses or you can make progress. You can make excuses or you can make art. Every day, it’s your choice.”

*

So what do you do? What do I do? What can any of us do?

You hold onto that patience and you nurture that faith inside of you. You keep working hard. You keep taking little daily steps towards your goals. You keep learning. You keep believing in yourself and believing in that train. Stare off down those tracks. Because it’s coming. It’s coming, and you want to be ready when it does.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • What is a doubt that you are currently holding in your heart? What would it feel like to let this doubt go?
  • Write about a time when you felt like “the train was never going to come.” What ended up happening? Looking back, what would you tell yourself in that situation?
  • What is an excuse you are making to yourself right now? How can you move past that excuse and take the first action step towards something you desire?

fred

One of my fondest friendship memories is from one of the hardest periods of my life. It was my final semester of grad school and I had broken up with my fiancé two weeks before. I was waiting outside the public library near campus, feeling alone and numb, watching for a familiar red car. Suddenly, there it was, turning the corner and pulling up to the curb. The woman driving was my beautiful friend Holly, with her dark curly hair and tan skin and colorful sunglasses. She smiled and waved, reaching over to open the passenger door. I grabbed my backpack and slid into the car. I couldn’t quite believe she was here, my dear sweet friend who I think of as my sister. She hugged me close and my numbness dissolved into hiccupy sobs.

“Oh, baby girl,” she said. “It’s okay. It’s okay.”

“I’m just so happy to see you,” I choked out. Which was the truth. Yes, I was crying with sadness, but mostly I was crying with gratitude and relief that Holly had driven all the way from Nashville to Indiana to spend the weekend with me. “I’m so happy you’re here.”

“There’s nowhere else I’d rather be,” she replied.

We drove to the apartment I was subletting until graduation. {I had moved out of the apartment I’d shared with my ex.} Holly set down her duffel bag and, without a word, we flung ourselves across my bed, lying on our backs and gazing up at the cottage-cheese ceiling. Holly and I lived together in college, and whenever we see each other it feels like we are living together again. She knows what brand of crackers and yogurt and cereal I buy at the grocery store; we use the same type of hair products; we both listen to Taylor Swift when we get ready in the morning. When other people visit, I often feel like I should plan out an itinerary of Fun Things To Do so they won’t get bored, but visits with Holly tend to include everyday activities like errands and coffeeshop work sessions and doing each other’s dishes. With Holly, it is not uncommon for us to put on a movie, pause it to talk about something, and never finish watching the movie because we’re still talking two hours later. Her friendship is like a comfortable pair of well-worn jeans that I can slip into and be exactly myself.

“Someone wants to say hi,” Holly said, rummaging in her duffel bag. She pulled out a small stuffed animal, a monkey with a well-loved fuzzy body and a wise stitched smile.

“Fred!” I exclaimed, hugging him to my chest. Back in college, Holly’s mom sent her Fred in a care package. Ever since then, Fred has been lent out to me in emergency situations, like when I broke up with my college boyfriend and wanted something to hold as I tried to fall asleep. After college graduation, whenever Holly and I visited each other, Fred was a part of our visits: Holly would bring him on trips, and when I visited her I would fall asleep holding his soft squishable body. For my birthday card one year, Holly took a picture of Fred wearing a birthday hat.

I smiled at Holly. “I can’t believe you brought him!”

“He insisted,” Holly said. “You’re his girl.”

{Fred and me circa blurry cell phone camera, 2013}

It was amazing how happy and comforted I felt holding Fred in my lap. He made me feel connected to earlier versions of myself. I thought of my college self, devastated over the breakup with my college boyfriend. I thought of all the other heartbreaks I’d been through along the way: the dates that never called again, the budding relationships that fizzled out, the guys who wanted too much too fast, the guys I liked but didn’t love. With every heartbreak, I always held out hope that it would be worth it in the long run; that the temporary pain and disappointment were actually stepping stones leading to the eventual joy and fulfillment of finding the person who was right for me. I realized that I owed it not just to my current self, but also to my past selves to keep looking, to keep hoping. Never to settle.

“One day,” Holly said, as if reading my thoughts, “Aunt Holly is going to tell your kids about how their mom was engaged once before she met their dad, and it’s going to be this mysterious tidbit about their mom’s life before she became their mom. And I’m going to tell them how brave their mom was for listening to her gut and her heart, and how it’s so good she did because then she met their dad.”

I squeezed her hand. “You really think so? I’m going to meet him one day?”

“I know so,” Holly said. “And you’re going to be so happy, and you’re going to have absolutely zero doubts, and you’re going to call me up and say, ‘Oh Holly, THIS is what it’s supposed to feel like!’ ” {Side note: When Allyn and I got engaged, I called Holly and that is exactly what I said.}

Over the years, Holly and I have often joked that we live “parallel lives” — it seems that things tend to happen to us simultaneously, whether big things like a new job or small things like a bad haircut. The same week I broke up with my fiancé, she ended things with her boyfriend at the time. We were both in deep pain, but there was also joy buried in there too because at least in the midst of such pain we got to be together. We spent the entire weekend talking and crying and processing and laughing and speculating and crying some more. We went out for dinner and ciders at an Irish pub. We went to the movies. We went to the grocery store because Holly wanted to make sure I had enough food, that I was eating enough. We went to the mall and each found perfect dresses: me, a white lace dress to wear to my thesis reading; Holly, a flouncy gold dress to wear to her school’s formal dance.

Then, all too soon, it was Sunday. Time for Holly to hit the road back to Nashville. We always do goodbyes quickly to keep from crying too much. Holly hoisted her duffel bag onto her shoulder… but she left Fred sitting on my pillow.

“Don’t forget Fred!” I said, grabbing him for her.

“I want you to keep him,” Holly said. “Just for these next few weeks, until I come back for your thesis reading.”

“Are you sure?” It was all I could say at the moment. I felt overwhelmed.

“Yep,” Holly said. “Fred wants to be here with you right now. I wish I could stay with you, but since I can’t, he is staying in my place.”

“Are you sure you’ll be able to come back for my thesis reading? It’s so much driving — I didn’t realize you were coming both weekends — I thought you were just coming this weekend instead —”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Holly said, pulling me in for a hug. I buried my face into her curly hair and let myself cry a little, wondering how it was possible that my heart could feel so broken and yet also so full.

{Holly and me at my thesis reading}

The other day, one of my students was writing a piece about a beloved stuffed animal they had received as a baby, and it made me think about Fred. About how, sometimes, an object can add up to more than its individual parts. Because Fred is not just stuffing and fabric and thread. He is more than that. He is imbued with the memories of my friendship with Holly.

His name has always suited him. He just seems like a Fred. Maybe because — as it struck me the other day — if you take FRED and add IN all the memories and laughter and tears and time you spend together, it adds up to FRIEND. FRED + IN = FRIEND.

When I think of Fred, I think of all the joys Holly and I have celebrated together, and also all the storms we have supported each other through. All the ways that Holly has been there for me and all the ways she has made me feel understood and loved. All of our meandering and silly and heartfelt conversations that Fred has been privy to. Fred, like Holly — and like all beloved stuffed animals and beloved friends — is an outstanding listener. He is patient, and he never judges. He is soft and warm, but he is also tough and durable: made to last. If I were to pick a symbol of true friendship, it wouldn’t be joined hands or friendship bracelets or hearts drawn in the sand. It would be a well-worn, well-loved, stuffed animal monkey with a wise stitched smile named Fred.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and “free-write” without any self-editing or judgment. Just see what flows out of you. Feel free to use one or more of the following questions as inspiration.

  • Write about a time that a friend was there for you when you needed them the most.
  • Do you have any memories that hold both sadness and joy? Write about them.
  • Describe a beloved stuffed animal and the memories and values they hold for you.
  • What is most important to you in a friend?

daffodils

The first time I remember noticing daffodils popping up in the springtime was my junior year of college. This might sound crazy to some of you—that I was into my second decade on this planet before I paid those bright yellow flowers any mind. But I grew up in a Southern California beach town and went to college in Los Angeles. We had warm weather and sunshine the whole year round. I don’t remember nature changing much with the seasons. Maybe the hills grew a little browner in the summer, a little greener in the spring. But palm trees don’t shed their fronds in the autumn, and I don’t remember any daffodils.

My junior year of college, during the spring semester, everything changed. My world expanded. I studied abroad in England in a small university town called Norwich. It was a truly magical season of my life, though of course I didn’t know that at the beginning. The truth? I was terrified. I was so homesick that I couldn’t even think about my homesickness because I was worried it would paralyze me. Instead, I told myself over and over again how excited I was. I stoked my excitement like it was the first sparks of a fire.

I had decided to study abroad because I loved the idea of living in England and traveling around a foreign country, and I wanted to push myself out of my comfort zone. Waaay out of my comfort zone. You see, I was the child who never made it through a sleepover without calling my parents to come pick me up. I was the high school senior who didn’t even apply to any colleges outside of California because I couldn’t imagine not being a short drive away from my hometown. I guess you might say that, for me, studying abroad was a sink-or-swim decision. I had a feeling I would always regret it if I didn’t study abroad. So I went to the info meeting. I filled out all the paperwork. I put down my deposit for a dorm room and registered for classes at the University of East Anglia. It didn’t seem quite real until the early morning, a week after New Year’s, when my parents drove me to LAX and I hugged them goodbye. Of course, I cried. It all felt surreal. But, I told myself, this was what I wanted.

When I arrived, it was early January and the sun sank at 4pm. I had never been so far from home. It was pre-smartphone days, though we did have Skype, so I could talk to my parents and my brother. But it was a twelve-hour time difference and it felt, for the first time in my life, like I was trying to navigate this world—this life—on my own. I arrived by bus with nothing more than one large suitcase and the tightly grasped knowledge, deep within me, that I could do this. This was an opportunity to be my best self, right from the get-go. No one here had any preconceptions about me. Which was lonely—but also liberating.

That first day when I arrived, I remember buying a frozen dinner from the on-campus grocery store. {Soon, I would learn that the better shops and restaurants and real grocery stores were in town, a short bus ride away.} I remember staring out the kitchen windows at the inky darkness as I microwaved the frozen chicken curry in my quiet dorm kitchen. That first day, jet-lagged, I ate dinner at 4:30 in the afternoon. My first friend, a British student in my dorm named Stevie, teased me for eating dinner at an old-person’s time. But he sat with me and gave me the low-down on campus life and answered my questions. I was immediately grateful for his friendliness, and for the other students in my dorm—or, my “flat” as the British kids called dorms—who trickled in over the rest of the weekend, returning to school from winter break. They were gregarious and fun and welcomed me beyond my wildest dreams. By the end of the first week, I felt like I had found “my people.”

The campus really was beautiful, and pretty much the exact opposite of my urban Los Angeles experience. My dorm-room window looked out onto a wide expanse of wild grass and a large pond surrounded by a dirt path, and a marshy area farther on that you could explore for hours. It reminded me of Wuthering Heights. It was exactly what I had dreamed England to be like. What I hadn’t expected were the wild bunny rabbits, hopping around everywhere. And I hadn’t expected the daffodils.

My first couple months in England were cold and rainy. I had brought along a big tan downy jacket that I affectionately dubbed “Poufy Coat” or “Poufy” for short. One weekend, it snowed, and everyone ran outside and spun around in the falling flakes, sticking out our tongues and laughing. Snow wasn’t very common—not like later, when I would live in Indiana—so I wasn’t the only one who was excited. By Monday morning, all the snow had melted.

Shortly after that snow, the daffodils began popping up. I remember looking out my bedroom window and seeing the grass studded with yellow. Walking to class, I’d smile at clutches of daffodils, nodding along the sidewalk like little surprise gifts. They seemed like special messengers, sent to remind us: Spring is coming. Spring is on its way. Don’t worry—this 4pm darkness isn’t going to last forever.

And before long, before we knew it, spring did come. The days grew longer, warmer. It was the longest semester of my life because so much was new, but it also passed by in an eye-blink. Soon, we found ourselves on the cusp of summer. We studied for final exams sprawled out in the sunshine on the grassy lawn. We picnicked on blankets and ate ice cream cones. We ordered another round of drinks at the pub, sitting outside to savor the late rays of sunlight. And then, suddenly—even though we’d been moving towards it all semester long—school was out for the summer. I hugged my friends goodbye, promising to always stay in touch. I packed up my large suitcase and took the bus into town for the last time, where I caught a train and then the Tube to the London airport. I flew back home, feeling like not quite a different person than I had been when I left six months prior—but not quite the same person, either. I felt… like me, only bigger. Braver. More whole somehow.

I think of my days in England often. I especially think of them during this time of year, when the daffodils spring up. Where I live now, in Northern California, we have a greater change of seasons than we did in Southern California. Here, I occasionally glimpse a row of cheerful daffodils.

Daffodils give me hope, and not just because of what they symbolize. Yes, they remind me spring is coming. Yes, they remind me that the darkness won’t always last. But even more than that, they make me think of change. Of what we are planting within us now, that will emerge to fruition much later.

We plant daffodils in the fall. They nestle there in the soil for months, under the cold and rain and snow. And then, just when maybe we’ve forgotten about them, or have started to worry they won’t come up after all—just then, they pop their green tips above the surface of the soil. They grow upwards towards the tentative sunlight. They open their yellow faces to smile at us.

A lot of seeds—or maybe you’d call them bulbs—were planted within me during my semester abroad in England. I planted daffodils during that semester that wouldn’t break through the soil until years later. I planted daffodils that I never knew I would depend upon until, years later, I wept to see them. Bulbs of courage, of open-heartedness, of faith. Of plunging forward into something new even though it was scary and even though I didn’t feel quite ready. Of embracing the unknown. Of surprising myself. Of pushing past my comfort zone, into the glorious blank slate of a new adventure.

I’m still planting daffodil bulbs. Each day, I plant something new, digging into the soil of my life with equal parts grit and faith, believing that one day in the future—maybe when I least expect it—a new sprig of green will burst up into my life and bloom.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open up a new document on your computer and free-write whatever comes to mind when you think of these questions.

  • What daffodils are you planting in your life right now?
  • What is an experience you have plunged into, even though you felt nervous or scared?
  • When have you stretched outside your comfort zone?
  • Write about a time you surprised yourself.