you take home with you

I’m sure you’ve heard on the news about the wildfires sweeping through southern California. The Thomas Fire has ravaged my beautiful hometown of Ventura. It is hard to even wrap my mind around the horrific destruction of so many homes and neighborhoods. I may be physically in the Bay Area, but my mind and heart are in Ventura right now. One inspiring thing has been the way my hometown community has rallied together to support each other. Ventura has always possessed wonderful qualities of inclusion, generosity, optimism and resilience, and never have these virtues been in such strong display as they are right now. I am so proud of my hometown. #venturastrong

Please send your prayers — for our community, the people who call it home now and for those like me who may live far away but still think of it as home, for the firefighters and first responders and s/heroes working round the clock to defeat these vicious, horrendous fires.

The most important thing is that everyone is safe. Thank God for that.

But the personally devastating news, for my family, is that my 91-year-old grandfather’s home burned entirely to the ground. It is gone. This was the home that my dad, his sister, and his two older brothers grew up in. The home my grandmother picked out after the family moved cross-country, from Ohio to California, in the 1970s. The home she decorated and hosted parties in. The home she died in, twenty-five years ago, of a heart attack. The home my Gramps has lived in for 44 years.

2017052995181704

The house is gone, just a pile of rubble and ash. But also, the house lives on in our memories. So many memories. I can close my eyes any time I want to and I can drive up to that house, which has always reminded me of a grand mansion out of an old movie, and I can park at the bottom of the driveway. In my mind, I can open the white wrought-iron mailbox to check the mail for my Gramps so he doesn’t have to walk down the narrow brick steps that evening to check it himself. I can walk up the steps, under the huge trees, across the cracked and rutted concrete driveway, past the American flag hanging from his porch banister, and up the four steps onto his front porch. I can ring the doorbell or use the iron knocker shaped like a lion’s head — knock, knock, knock! That particular sound that was only made by that one knocker on that one specific front door. In my mind, I can hear Gramps shout, “Com-ing!” and I can peer in the window alongside the door and watch him slowly climb up the steps from the family room, into the marble-floored entryway. Above him are the chandeliers that turn on with automatic timers, suffusing the hallway with golden light, and he flicks on the porch lights, which are blue. He has always had blue porch lights — the only house I’ve known with blue porch lights. In my mind, he unlocks the front door and it squeaks that particular squeak as it opens. I step inside, into his arms for a big hug. The house smells like his cinnamon bread, if he’s baked it that day. Or maybe it smells like the cleaning products the housekeeper used if she came recently. But, underneath all of that, it smells like Gramps’ house. There is no other place in the world that has this exact smell — Gramps, childhood, nostalgia, the past. My grandma. My family. It’s all here, in the air.

Screen Shot 2017-12-10 at 9.34.13 PM

If I walk inside the house in my memory and keep going straight, I’ll enter the kitchen, with the round table and yellow-padded kitchen chairs, the table piled high with newspaper crosswords and papers and photos and cards. I remember sitting down at this table with Gramps on mornings before I left Ventura, heading off for college or grad school, when I would stop by to visit him one more time to say goodbye before I left. It was rare for me to visit him in the morning — normally it was my aunt Kay who would visit him then, walking the neighborhood with her dog Troy, and they would stop by for a cup of coffee (Kay) and a peanut-butter dog biscuit (Troy) and mostly, for a chat and a visit. I remember the soft morning light through the sliding glass door, the scent of Gramps’ coffee in the air, his reading glasses on his nose as he worked on the newspaper’s crossword puzzle. In my mind, I can sit at that table with him still. I can look at the bookshelf piled with my grandma’s cookbooks. The built-in shelves housing figurines and mugs and delicate plates that my great-grandmother painted with beautiful flower patterns. I can stand up and walk across the kitchen, take one of the plastic blue glasses down from the cupboard, and get myself some water from the fridge. I can see the fridge, covered with photos of his grandchildren, a collage of holiday cards sent over the past decade. I can see, still taped to the side, a watercolor I made in eighth grade for him of an Audrey Rose, after my grandma. Taped to one of the cupboards is a drawing of Gramps’s house that my brother did in second grade, the teacher’s handwriting proclaiming “Good job, Greggie!” On the wall, I can see a framed recipe that my cousin Rhett wrote out in elementary school, decorated with glitter glue, for Grampie’s Bread — a favorite of all of us, an Amish recipe that took ten days to make, spiced with cinnamon, dense and cakey. The version Gramps made for us was more of a cake than a bread, studded with chocolate chips. He would make the bread with craisins during the holidays. The starter living in his fridge, ready and waiting for the next batch.

DSC06809

In my mind, the past can come back to life again. I can stand beside the fridge with my grandma as she laughs and laughs, the freezer dispenser brokenly spewing crushed ice onto the floor. I can follow her out the sliding glass door and down the back steps into the yard, joining the rest of my cousins in the annual Easter egg hunt — hardboiled eggs outside, plastic eggs inside, Gramps dressed as the Easter Bunny. I can follow my cousins up the stairs and into the first room on the right, my dad’s old room — wood-paneled, with hundreds of tennis ball cans lined up on a shelf that trails around the room, still there from his tennis-playing days in junior high and high school — and make my way to the wooden chest at the foot of the bed. I can throw it open, sifting with my cousins through the “dress up clothes” and old Halloween costumes. The one I remember best is the Peter Pan hat. And I can follow my cousins down the blue-carpeted stairs, marching in our costumes in a giggly, giddy parade for the adults. Even though the costumes never changed, opening up that wooden chest always felt magical, filled with possibilities. I can follow Gramps through the attic up onto the roof, where my brother and I help him string up Christmas lights onto the iron latticework. I can laugh with my brother and Gramps at our puppy Gar as he makes a huge mess on the kitchen floor, splashing water as he drinks from his plastic Snoopy dog bowl. We always said that Gramps’ water must taste the best because Gar could never get enough. Even though Gar died eleven years ago, I can close my eyes and see him there still, tail wagging in Gramps’ kitchen.

20141127_133646

I can stand beside Gramps as he chops lettuce for salad at the butcher block kitchen island covered with his Ohio State Buckeyes red towel. I can watch him stir the rice and water in his covered dish, sliding it in the microwave. I always loved his Minute rice and he always laughed and told me how easy I was to please. I can smell the popcorn he used to make when my brother and I would come over on Mondays after school, pouring the popcorn from the bag into the big plastic yellow bowl, shaking Molly McButter over the whole thing. We would sit on the couch with him in the family room and watch cooking shows — Great Chefs of America came on at 4, followed immediately by Great Chefs around the World. Often we would fall asleep curled against Gramps’ belly, my brother on one side, me on the other. Then Mom would come by and pick us up on her way home from work; on Mondays, my dad worked nights at the newspaper. Sometimes she would bring pizza or Chinese takeout and we would stay for dinner, sitting around the table in the family room, the table with the wicker base that was hollow inside, that we used to hide in as small children, all of us grandkids, before we grew too big to fit.

Now that we’re down in the family room, I can wander around a little bit. There’s the closet where Gramps & Auden used to keep toys for us grandkids when we were little. I remember the tiny books I would pick out and read with my grandma on the couch. I remember the teddy bear that talked when you pressed his paw. I remember watching Flipper the Dolphin and Yogi Bear on TV. On the wall, the clock my dad and my Uncle Doug made as teenagers out of a wooden tennis racket. The big fireplace with the painting hanging above it that my brother made, an oil painting of him and his namesake, my Gramps’ dad Ansel. In the corner, Gramps’ ancient exercise bike that he used to ride in the mornings as he watched the news. The wooden coffee table, covered so completely with framed photos of Gramps’s children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that it looked like it might collapse at any moment from the weight. And the photo of my grandma on her wedding day. That beautiful hoop-skirted princess dress; her radiant smile. I can close my eyes and see it all. And a funny memory: long ago, before the coffee table was covered with framed photos, coming over to see Gramps after a family vacation when we had been away for a week or so. Our dog Gar was so excited to see Gramps that he raced down the stairs into the den, leaped over the couch, skidded across the coffee table, and landed in the fireplace. Gramps, who is infamous in our family for getting quite grouchy if you accidentally pressed the wrong button and messed up his TV remote or flicked the wrong light switch and messed up the automatic timers on his lights, said, “Oh Gar, are you okay honey?” Not mad in the least as Gar licked his face in jubilant greeting.

DSC07854

Off the family room is the bathroom where, in shock, I changed out of my grubby jeans and tennis shoes into the skirt and sandals my mom brought for me, when Aunt Kymmie threw a surprise bridal shower for me two summers ago at Gramps’ house. Mom drove me up there right after Summer Writing Camp, ostensibly to say hi to Gramps, and I was totally floored when I opened the front door and my friends and family jumped up from the living room and shouted, “SURPRISE!!!” That was the same living room where we hosted my cousin Amanda’s bridal shower, and where we used to have huge Christmas Eve gatherings when my grandma was alive, with a white-flocked tree and an ocean of wrapping paper, and where as kids we loved to pick at the keys of the white grand piano. That was the hushed room, the fancy room, with my grandma’s Waterford and Wedgewood, the trinkets and treasures and figurines. I remember going around the room like it was a museum, my brother and I “helping” Gramps as he cleaned and dusted everything one spring, telling us the story of each object as he placed it back in its spot. I remember the fancy Christmas dinners at the large formal dining room table, and also the meal we had there the day I came back from studying abroad for a summer in Cambridge, England, so jet-lagged I almost fell asleep right at the table. And I remember setting up the big screen and the noisy machine and sitting in chairs with Gramps in the living room, as he clicked though slides from his and Auden’s honeymoon trip to Mt. Rushmore and the early days of their marriage in NYC.

I can walk into the warm, sunlit study filled with dusty hardcover books and papers and mementos. Gramps taking the ancient family Bible down off the shelf, carefully turning the thin pages for us, showing us the family records of births and marriages and deaths stretching back through the generations. I remember the delicate script handwriting, the awed sense of history I felt as I looked at those lists, the lives pared down to columns of names and dates. The comfort, to be part of that line. It made me feel small in a good way.

20150730_194639

Memories spill into each other– too many to record them all here. Memories stretch into memories into more memories. One of my earliest memories: climbing the stairs as a little girl up to Gramps and Auden’s bedroom. Sitting with them on their bed, facing backwards– looking out the window, watching the tree branches sway in the wind.

There were countless childhood afternoons that I took the bus home from school to Gramps’ neighborhood, trudging up the steep steep hill Via Pasito with the other neighborhood kids, our backpacks heavy on our shoulders, thumping against our backs. As we walked up the hill different kids would turn off when they reached their houses. I was always the last one left at the end. Gramps’ house was at the top of the hill. His backyard had an unbelievably gorgeous view of our town, laid out below like a quilted blanket, with the glittering ocean stretching out to the Channel Islands in the distance.

Now, so many of those homes are gone. Destroyed by fickle winds and savage flames.

But also, not destroyed completely. Maya Angelou said, “When you leave home, you take home with you.” These houses live on in all of our hearts. Our love is what made them homes– and what continues to make them so.

anticipation and remembering

When I was in college, I lived in an apartment with three of my best friends. Every year, we threw a big holiday party the weekend before winter break. Our anticipation was born right after Thanksgiving. We spent hours planning the party: sending out invitations, shopping for refreshments, deciding on party favors and music. We cut out paper snowflakes and hung them from our ceiling; we strung up twinkle-lights; one year we even managed to get a “Charlie Brown” Christmas tree on super discount at a tree lot, and we decorated it until it was more tinsel than tree. I would be so excited for our party that time seemed to drag on as I tracked its glacier-slow approach on my calendar.

And then, suddenly, it was the day of the party. There was always a flurry of last-minute preparations: baking cookies, making peppermint hot chocolate, wrapping presents. Every year, the party itself passed in a blur of friends and laughter, dancing and singing, photos and hugs. Within three or four hours—the blink of an eye, it seemed—our party was over. We’d wave goodbye as our last guests headed out the door, and then my three best friends and I would be left standing in our empty apartment with a mess to clean up.

It’s hard not to feel a little sad in those moments, when all the anticipation is over, and life resumes to normal. It can feel like the magic is gone. But, looking back, my favorite memories from those holiday parties are not the parties themselves, or even all the anticipation and preparation. The memories I cherish the most are from the mornings after the parties, when my roommates and I would eat scrambled eggs—ignoring the dirty dishes and overflowing trash can for a little while longer—and talk all about the amazingly fun event we had just hosted.

Because, yes, there is joy in the anticipation. There is joy in the savoring. But there is also joy in the telling, the retelling, and the remembering.

“The world is shaped by two things: stories told and the memories they leave behind.” — Vera Nazarian

for mikey

There were a few years in my life before I met my friend Mikey, but I don’t remember them. In my memory, Mikey was always there, just as my brother Greg was always there. Greg was born when I was two and a half years old, and I met Mikey around the same time, when I began going to daycare at Jeannie’s house. Jeannie was a warm grandmotherly woman with big glasses and bright lipstick, who made us oatmeal in the mornings and shooed us outside on sunny days to ride around the backyard pavement on tricycles. In the autumn, Jeannie had a scarecrow decoration that for some reason terrified me, so she took it down and put it away in the back of the hall closet. That was the type of person she was. The only thing I remember ever being upset at her about was that she would insist I wasn’t allowed to marry my brother Greg. At four years old, I was convinced that I was going to marry him one day, only Jeannie said I couldn’t. My mom finally told her, “Jeannie, don’t worry about it. If she still wants to marry her brother when she’s sixteen, then we’ll have a problem.”

Mikey and his younger sister Morgan also went to daycare at Jeannie’s, and we became fast friends. Mikey is three months older than I am, and as a kid he had a bowl haircut, round cheeks, and an ever-present grin. Jeannie watched other kids, too—there were maybe six or eight of us in total—but Mikey and I were a unit. We went to preschool together, too, and spent many mornings playing “house” together in the play kitchen. I might have thought I would one day marry Greg, but Mikey was my pretend-husband. When it came time to enroll in kindergarten, I couldn’t imagine being separated from him. My parents somehow finagled permission to enroll me at Poinsettia Elementary, even though we didn’t live in the district, because that’s where my best friend Mikey was going to school.

The timeline is unclear to me, but around this time, Jeannie got sick. Her cancer had come back. I don’t remember how the grown-ups broke the news to us that Jeannie was gone. I just remember we didn’t go to Jeannie’s anymore. It was around the same time as our transition to kindergarten and full days of school. It was like Jeannie was a magical person—a magical genie—and when we outgrew her, she disappeared. I like to think of her magically reappearing in the lives of some other little boys and girls, greeting them with a lipsticked kiss and a big hug. My memories of that early time in my life are hazy, but they are suffused with a feeling of comfort, safety and love.

Elementary school presented new problems: namely, other little boys our age. Mikey and I still played together at recess, but now I had competition. And it was hard to compete with these boys. I was a shy, soft little kid, and the boys had a secret code language of humor and teasing that I didn’t understand. I remember, in first grade, playing on the basketball court with Mikey and his new best friend Alan, who I was supremely jealous of. Mikey would throw Alan’s basketball down the grass hill so he had to run after it and then trudge back up to the court. The boys seemed to think this was hilarious. I didn’t think it was very nice.

In elementary school, Mikey and I started to grow apart. I made friends with girls in our class, and before long I had BFF necklaces with Kelly, and play dates where we would make up stories with our American girl dolls and paint our nails. By fourth grade, Mikey and I weren’t inviting each other to our birthday parties anymore. We were still friends, but it was different now. It was harder, somehow.

Middle school made things even harder, even more awkward. Boys and girls were not really friends at my middle school. There were big groups of boys and big groups of girls, and sometimes they would collide in giggly flirtation and then bounce away from each other again. Many of my friends from elementary school were in the district for a different middle school across town, so the transition had been a rough one—almost like starting over. Mikey and I did go to the same middle school, and it was nice to know he was still with me. Our joined past seemed almost like another life—like a secret that only we knew. We were in many of the same classes, and his presence was comforting to me, even though we didn’t interact much. Eventually I met Erica, and became part of her friendship group.

High school was much of the same. We ran in separate circles. I remember our sophomore year, Mikey—who was going by Michael or Mike now—had a crush on one of my friends, who treated him scornfully. That was the first inkling in my gut that maybe she and I weren’t going to be friends for much longer. And we weren’t. Junior year, that friendship exploded in a painful flurry. I felt so betrayed, so lost and alone. I remember navigating through the crowds of students to the quad at lunch, passing by the picnic table where Mikey and his friends always sat. Part of me yearned to just walk over and plop down beside him. That’s what my preschool self would have done. She wouldn’t have been able to imagine a time when Mikey and I weren’t a unit. Even though it had been years since we’d had an actual conversation, I sensed that I still would have been welcome there. But things were too complicated now. So I didn’t say anything to Mikey. I walked right on past.

Senior year is when Mikey and I found our way back to our friendship. We were in the same physics class, and were paired up together for many labs. He was still goofy, still nice, still unabashedly himself. This grown-up version of my old friend loved historical reenactments and World War Two. He played classical music on the piano and watched foreign films. He read more widely than anyone else I knew at our school. I was surprised, but also not surprised, when I began to think of him as one of “my people” again. Then, a few of us formed a study group and we’d meet up on weekends to cram for tests together, and sometimes we’d have movie nights at Mikey’s house. He and I slipped back into our friendship like it was a well-worn jacket that we had set down for a moment and forgotten, like it had been waiting patiently for us all this time. I imagined Jeannie looking down at us, smiling, nodding her head in approval.

Soon, it was as if Mikey and I had never had that break in our friendship at all—as if we had always remained close. When we talk about our friendship now, when we introduce each other to someone else, it is always as if we became best friends at the age of three and remained that way throughout school. In a deep, quiet way, maybe that is true. I think I always knew that Mikey was someone I could count on if I needed him. I hope he knew that about me, too. He is one of the few people in my life who has always accepted me exactly as I am. Around him, I have always felt comfortable being nothing other than myself. I have always felt like enough. Even during the challenges of high school, when my self-esteem was sometimes like a gas gauge on Empty, when I felt achingly different from everyone else, when I worried about what people thought about me—I never worried about what Mikey thought about me. I could just relax around him and be myself.

As senior year sped by, we hung out all the time. Mikey swept me into his friendship group; I called them “the boys.” We would crowd onto the sofa and watch movies at his house; old movies I never would have watched on my own, like Dr. Strangelove. Mikey played songs from Phantom of the Opera on the piano. We went together to Alan’s baseball games and cheered him on from the bleachers. One Sunday, I was stranded in a parking lot when my car wouldn’t start, and my parents were away somewhere. My brother couldn’t drive yet. It was Mikey I called, Mikey who came to rescue me without hesitation. He came to the school play I wrote, bringing along the rest of “the boys” with him, applauding loudly from the front row. He came to my reading and book signing when I published my collection of short stories 3 a.m., talking with me beforehand about normal things—he could probably tell I was nervous. We went to Prom in the same big group of friends. In my yearbook, he wrote, This isn’t really goodbye. Don’t worry—I will always be with you!

{high school graduation, with two of our favorite teachers from elementary school}

During college, we talked on the phone sometimes, and he came to visit occasionally. He and Celine bonded over their mutual Lebanese heritage. Years later, he would travel to Paris with his family, and Celine was living there, and they hung out together and Skyped me from her apartment. I remember the strange joy bubbling up inside me as I laughed with them via a computer screen about some random story. How small and precious and wondrous the world seemed—my oldest friend, and my dear college friend, calling me together from halfway around the world. I wasn’t there physically, but I felt like I was. When Celine died, Mikey was one of the few people in my life who I felt not only understood my grief, but shared in it. He was grieving her, too. It comforted me that the two of them had shared their own adventures. That she still lives on in Mikey’s memories, too.

Celine and Mikey were the same in their blind faith and unfettered support of my writing. They both made me feel like I had nothing at all to prove; like all of the things I was hoping for and dreaming for and striving for already existed in the future, moments just waiting for me to reach them. I didn’t have to worry at all. I didn’t have to doubt myself. I could take a deep breath and just relax, and take pleasure in my writing. Mikey still makes me feel this way. He has always been my fan.

Whenever I have a book event anywhere near Ventura, Mikey is there. He always gives a little shrug, like it is no big deal, like, Of course I’m here. Why wouldn’t I be? Whenever I see his familiar stride loping through the audience, I feel a little less nervous, a little more calm. Deep breath. Mikey’s here. Over all these years, his pride in me has helped me feel more proud of myself.

I vividly remember the first time I met Luana, who was then Mikey’s new girlfriend. I was home for a visit, and the three of us went out for ice cream. I loved her immediately—she is warm, and funny, and welcoming—the kind of person who makes you feel right at ease. Within fifteen minutes of meeting her, I felt as if I had known her for a long time. Luana is a fiery, vibrant, beautiful woman from Brazil, and she draws Mikey out of his shell. I remember the way he looked at her like he couldn’t quite believe she was there sitting next to him, stealing bites of his ice cream. I remember the way they teased each other, and how she made him laugh, and how he seemed a little more open, a little less guarded, a little more himself than I had ever seen him before. At least, I hadn’t seen him this way for a very long time. Perhaps Luana helped him find his way back to that little round-cheeked, goofy-grinned boy I had known at Jeannie’s. Mikey has seemed… freer, ever since he met her.

Please, I remember hoping that night as I drove home. Please don’t break his heart.

She didn’t break his heart. She filled it. They got married a couple weeks ago, on October 6, and my eyes brimmed with tears when they read their beautiful and heartfelt vows to each other. I’ve never seen Mikey as happy as he was that day. They were both radiant. Witnessing their marriage, I felt like I was a balloon swelling with happiness because my dear sweet friend found this incredible woman who loves him so deeply. I couldn’t stop smiling the whole weekend.

Traveling back up to the Bay Area after Mikey and Luana’s wedding, I thought a lot about friendship, and how grateful and lucky I feel that Mikey and I held onto ours. After all, it takes work to keep a friendship going, even when you have a lifetime of history together. But the work is always worth it. More than worth it. Mikey’s sturdy and unwavering friendship has taught me the power of the little things, that are actually the big things. The power of showing up, and keeping promises, and supporting each other without reservation. The power of loving your friends for the people they were and the people they are still becoming. When I look at Mikey, I can see the little kid he was reflected in the man he is now. I can also see the little girl I was, reflected in the way I am around him—a little sillier, a little lighter, a little more playful than I am in my grown-up life. Friendships let us hold onto these past versions of ourselves, incorporating them into our present. Old friends, good friends, true friends—they are depositories, helping us hold our memories closer and keep our dreams alive.

One of my favorite photos of me and Mikey is this one. We are five years old, side by side, squinting into the sun. It looks almost as if we are trying to glimpse a future we can’t see. We don’t know what is coming next. But we do know we’ll have each other. We know our friendship will last.

Your turn:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and “freewrite” about one of more of these questions:

  • Write about one of your oldest, dearest friends. What are your favorite memories from your years together?
  • What do you think are the most important qualities of a true friend?
  • Have you ever grown apart from a friend, and then reconnected? Write about that experience. Or, is there a friend you would like to reconnect with?

red-rimmed, clear eyes + broken, full hearts {part 2}

{If you missed Part 1, you can read it here!}

My mom flew out the final week to help me move on and wrap up my Indiana life. Three years before, she had driven out to West Lafayette with me and helped me move into my first solo apartment. There was a kind of poetry to her presence, at the end of my time there, just as she had been there with me for the beginning. So much had changed, and yet the important things were still the same. There she was, my mom, still helping me arrange the pieces, still helping make the mess manageable.

When things need to get done, my mom goes into hyper-drive. She made lists and made phone calls. With kindness and gentleness, she listened to me and dried my tears, and she also kept me moving forward, checking things off the to-do list. We dropped carloads of items off at Goodwill. We sold my furniture. We sold my car. We packed and shipped home two huge boxes of my possessions.

{At the Indianapolis airport, ready to fly home}

When the late spring sun would plunge down below the horizon, it was our signal that our work was done for the day. I would throw together something random for dinner out of the remaining ingredients in my pantry. We would open a bottle of wine. Then we’d collapse on the couch, exhausted, and select the “Play All” option on the disk of Friday Night Lights. We binge-watched the entirety of season five together over a couple days. At the end of the last episode, we both got a little teary. To be honest, that was a time in my life when I cried easily; after so long of holding my emotions in, it was like I had no control anymore and tears came storming out of my eyes at every opportunity. I remember sobbing as I watched the Katy Perry biography on HBO later that summer, during the part when she and Russell Brand broke up, and she sang, “Hey Jude.”

But I digress.

I think there were a lot of reasons I got teary during the final episode of Friday Night Lights. I think, when Allyn and I watch it soon, I will probably get teary again. There’s something about the end of a story that makes us want to grasp on tighter, that makes us sad to let go. Even when we know it is time for us to move on. We’re like little kids riding our bikes around the neighborhood cul-de-sac at dusk, begging the sunlight to linger for a few more minutes. We lean towards the TV screen, soaking in the familiar settings and faces, wanting to sit with the characters for just a little while longer. The final music swells, and our hearts break a little. We just can’t believe that it’s over already. It all went by so fast! So many episodes we took for granted, and now all of a sudden it’s done.

TV shows are like life that way. I think we could live for a thousand years and we’d still never be quite ready to let go of this gorgeous, impossible, imperfectly perfect humanness.

{photo from Chagall’s America Windows at the Art Institute of Chicago: http://www.artic.edu/exhibition/Chagall}

 

Watching that final season of Friday Night Lights with my mom on the lumpy couch of that temporary subleased apartment, I smiled to myself. I realized that the show had been shouting out a message to me all along. For all of those weeks and months when I was studying the episodes, searching for meaning in the characters’ whispers and confessions and relationships, there was a line of recurring wisdom that I kept missing and missing. It’s a line that Coach Taylor says to his players throughout all five seasons. His motto. His way of life.

CLEAR EYES, FULL HEARTS, CAN’T LOSE.

For so long, my eyes had been clouded. For so long, my heart had been empty. Sitting on that couch beside my mom, my belongings packed up to move back to California, my Facebook status newly changed to “Single,” I didn’t know what the future would hold. But my vision was clear, for the first time in a long time. My life was mine again. And even though my heart was breaking, and even though it was hard to imagine ever being strong enough to be vulnerable enough to fall in love again, I knew that my heart was also more full than it had been in a long time. Ending my unhealthy relationship had been a radical act of love for myself.

It would be a while yet before I met Allyn, but I like to think that the day I ended my unhealthy relationship was the day I stepped onto the path that would lead me to him. I chose him—and our amazing, wonderful, beautiful partnership—when I chose the pain of listening to my gut. I remember thinking, “This is for you, Future Dallas. This sucks for me right now, but I’m doing it for you. Please don’t waste this. Please never settle.”

If I could reach back through time and talk to Past Dallas, that terrified and terribly brave young woman who stepped into her truth, this is what I would tell her:

Thank you for doing what you knew was right. Thank you for taking the hard path. Thank you for believing in me, your future self. Thank you for planting the seeds of this life. Hang in there. It’s going to be so worth it. More than worth it. I can’t wait for you to see what happens next.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer, and use the following questions as jumping-off points for some freewriting:

  • What are your all-time favorite TV shows? What lessons or impacts have they had on your life?
  • Write about a time in your life that was both terrible and beautiful.
  • When have you listened to that clear inner voice and stepped into your truth, even when it was painful? Write about what that experience was like for you.
  • What would you tell your Past Self if you could reach back through time?

red-rimmed, clear eyes + full, broken hearts {part 1}

For the past couple years, Allyn and I have been slowly working our way through all five seasons of Friday Night Lights, which is perhaps my all-time favorite TV show. We are on the last disk of the fifth and final season, drawing out these remaining episodes slowly, like savoring the final bites of a rich dessert. I love Friday Night Lights because of the nuanced, complicated characters; the vivid small-town setting; the dramas of high school and relationships and football. I also love Friday Night Lights because it makes me think of my mom.

My mom is a huge sports fan, particularly football, and she is the one in our house who first started watching Friday Night Lights. When I was living at home with my parents for a year, after I graduated college and before I moved to Indiana for grad school, she watched the show religiously. That was the fourth season. I started watching it with her and, before I knew it, I was hooked too.

When I moved away, I bought the first three seasons on DVD and, throughout those lonely and cold months when I missed my parents with a breathless ache, I methodically worked my way through the episodes. Even though I have never lived in Texas, I felt a bit closer to my hometown as I watched the familiar characters move around onscreen against the flat, dusty land and big blue sky. Eventually, I bought season four on DVD, and then season five. By the time I watched the fifth season, I was combing the plotlines and analyzing the characters, searching and searching. As if the episodes of this TV show could give me answers. As if it could help me smooth and mend the tangled mess of my own life.

In the fifth season of Friday Night Lights, I remember a particular scene when two of the characters got ready to go out to dinner, the guy holding the door open for the girl, the two of them heading outside together, smiling, an ordinary everyday happiness, an easy comfort that seemed so elusive to me at the time. I remember the quiet desperation that settled within my ribcage. I was jealous of these fictional people and this fictional relationship. I wanted to jump inside the television screen and escape my life.

During that time, I was ensnared in a deeply unhealthy relationship. Somewhere within my gut, I knew that it wasn’t right. I knew I had to get out. But I was scared. I kept searching outside of myself for answers, when really the answer was in my heart, beating right there inside my chest for every moment of every day. The answer wasn’t really elusive. It was effusive; it was everywhere. Still, for a while, I ignored it. I thrust my head into the sand. Until one day I realized I was choking, and I yanked my neck up, gasping for air, blinking the grit out of my eyes, staring at the world like it was an entirely new place. Which, in many ways, it was. When I found the courage to leave that relationship, my world opened up again.

There are some seasons in your life that are shockingly terrible and shockingly beautiful at once. This was one of those seasons for me. It has crystalized in my mind as a period when I was living purely. My emotions were raw and my needs boiled down to the bare essentials: eat, drink, sleep. Teach my classes. Honor my commitments. Finish my graduate degree. In some ways, I was learning to live all over again. Uncoupled, I was learning to live for myself again. It was painful and it was cleansing.

When I think back on that time, the days seemed so long—so empty and so full at the same time. I remember walking up the big hill to campus from my friend’s apartment, where I was subleasing a room for the remaining six weeks of the school year. I remember soaking in the early spring sunshine and the cold breeze on my face. I remember long evenings, binge-watching the Hulu show “Battleground” and reading until I felt tired enough that I could maybe fall asleep. I read so many books in that period—nearly a novel a day. I remember sorting through my accumulation of papers and possessions, trying to create something out of the scraps: making baby blankets for some friends; writing cards and mailing them; donating bags of clothing to Goodwill; cooking strange recipes out of the random assortment of nonperishables in my pantry.

It is a strange time of my life to look back on with fondness. But I do. I was a butterfly emerging from my chrysalis; a phoenix emerging from the ashes of my previous life. I was my whole self, and nothing but myself. After a long time of ignoring that deep inner voice, after a long time of lying to myself, I was finally living my truth.

 

This story will be continued on Friday. See you then!

why surprise dates are my new favorite thing

Back in the spring, I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts–Happier With Gretchen Rubin & Elizabeth Craft–and one of their tips was to plan “surprise dates” with your significant other. I immediately loved this idea. I get a huge kick out of surprises, both planning them for others  and being surprised myself. Also, Allyn and I had a long list of “someday” date ideas–activities and restaurants and places that would be “fun for a date someday”–and, while we have always gone on a lot of fun dates together, I thought having a clear structure would be motivation to tackle even more of the creative things on our list. One thing I highly agree with Gretchen Rubin about is that more often than not, when something can be done anytime, it is not done at all.

I proposed the “surprise date” idea to Allyn, and he was game to give it a try. {One of the countless amazing things about my husband is that he is always open to trying new things, whether that is a new recipe I have invented or some activity I hear about on a podcast. I love you, honey!}

We decided to alternate months planning surprises dates for each other, and set parameters to keep things from getting too crazy–the last thing we wanted was for these surprise dates to seem stressful or like a huge event. {To be honest, I think Allyn was probably trying to reign me in because he knows I tend to get a little too enthusiastic or go a tad overboard sometimes. See: planning a huge surprise party for his birthday at a restaurant with all of his family and friends, when we had only been dating for six months. What can I say? I love birthdays and I love surprises and I love him!}

Now, five months into our surprise date experiment, Allyn and I both agree that it is one of our favorite traditions, and definitely something we hope to continue throughout our marriage. It is such a kick to plan the dates for each other and, on the receiving end, the dates just have an extra bit of special magic because they are surprises. It reminds me of when we first started dating. Surprise dates are an easy way to keep the romance alive!

And they don’t even have to be that original. For our very first surprise date, which I planned, we went out to dinner and a movie. But it was more special than our average dinner-and-a-movie date because I found a new-to-us restaurant to try out, and also took Allyn to a cool boutique candy shop to get movie treats before heading to the theater. {No lie: the way to my man’s heart is sour gummy candy.}

Here are some other surprise dates we’ve gone on together:

  • Lunch at a cute little Mexican restaurant and a walk along the Hayward Shoreline, which is quite a lovely hidden gem.

  • Lunch and beignets at a New Orleans-themed restaurant, then a matinee showing of the musical Monsoon Wedding.
  • Fireworks night at an Oakland A’s game.

  • An afternoon at the Exploratorium, a super cool science museum in San Francisco, plus a drive to Twin Peaks to take in the incredible views of the city.

  • Dessert at a French bakery that Holly introduced me to during her recent visit {she and her boyfriend discovered it when they were out here for our wedding!} followed by an indoor rock-climbing class.

Anyway, I just wanted to share this idea with you guys in case any of you find it intriguing! Let me know if you try it out yourselves, or if you do something similar. What are some of the most fun dates you’ve been on? Anything we should add to our list of dates to try in the San Francisco Bay Area?

mental snapshots from our wedding, one year later

This past Monday, Allyn and I celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary! It is crazy that an entire year has already flown by. We took a wonderful, relaxing weekend getaway to Santa Cruz where we splurged on a couples massage, savored a beautiful dinner at a fancy restaurant, stayed up late watching Dirty Dancing on TV {“Nobody puts Baby in the corner!”}, and cooled off with plenty of beach time strolling by the water. It was absolutely perfect.

September 4, 2016 is still so clear in my mind. Before our wedding, many people told me that the big day would be a whirlwind and that I wouldn’t remember a thing. So I made a conscious effort to take mental snapshots throughout the day and really soak in every moment as best as I could. Now, a year later, I thought it would be fun to share some moments that really stick out in my memory.

That morning, I woke up and felt this immediate flurry of excitement in my belly.  Since Allyn and I live together, we thought it would be more special to stay apart the night before the wedding, so we saw each other at the rehearsal dinner and then not again until the ceremony. I was staying in a hotel room with my parents and brother, and we went to the continental breakfast together at the hotel, just like so many family vacations throughout my life. It was so nice to have that “calm before the storm” with my family. I remember thinking that it was my last “normal” slice of time as a single woman, before the roller coaster of the day truly began.

Mom and I went to the salon to get our hair done, meeting Allyson and Dana there. Everyone kept saying how calm I was acting; the woman styling my hair couldn’t believe I was the bride. I wasn’t trying to be calm. I was just acting like myself. I felt a little nervous, but mostly excited. The day felt both normal and surreal. Both ordinary and extraordinary.

We headed to Dana’s house, where her mom had thoughtfully picked up a bunch of sandwiches and snacks for us to eat while we all got our make-up done and visited. Holly and Erica joined us there, and we sat around the table and chatted while rotating through the make-up chair. I remember trying to eat a turkey croissant sandwich {for as calm as I felt, I wasn’t really hungry} and writing out some last-minute placards for our memory table, feeling like I was at some magical sleepover with my best friends all together in one place. Time compressed and expanded; it seemed to pass so slowly, and then all of a sudden it was almost time to leave. I remember toasting each other with champagne, feeling like the day had already been so special, and knowing that this was just the beginning.

We drove to the church. I drove my mom and Holly in my little Charley car, navigating the same roads I had taken countless times before on my way to church on so many routine Sundays. On the way there, we stopped and picked up my mom’s best friend and my “honorary aunt” Alicia, who has always been a special part of my life. She used to come over and have epic Christmas cookie baking extravaganzas with us, and she let me bring her pet tortoise to show-and-tell in kindergarten, and she made me feel beautiful even during my awkward pimply middle-school years. It made me giddy to be driving my Alicia and my mom and my Holly to my wedding. I kept thinking, This is real life. This is happening for real!

When we parked at the church, a complex string of phone calls and texts ensued to make sure that Allyn was definitely NOT on the church grounds and would definitely NOT see me as we made our way into the bride’s get-ready room. {I later learned that Allyn was arriving at the same time and had to wait outside the parking lot on the street for a few minutes. Sorry, hon!} At the church, I marveled at how amazing everything looked. It was just like we had talked about and planned! Everyone was doing exactly what they had promised they would do, and it was all coming together perfectly. I felt like I was buzzing with light. It was really sinking in now. I was getting married! In just a few hours!

Time kept compressing and expanding. On your wedding day, there is a lot of waiting around and then hurrying up, feeling like you have all the time in the world and worrying you won’t have enough time. My bridesmaids wandered in and wandered out and asked if I needed anything and refilled my water and reported that they saw Allyn, he looked happy, he looked handsome. Our photographer took photos.

One of my favorite moments was opening Allyn’s gift: a collection of reasons why he couldn’t wait to marry me.

Another favorite moment was when my mom helped put on my veil–the same veil she had worn 34 years before to marry my father on the exact same day, September 4.

Another mental snapshot: I was all dressed and ready to go, and my dad and brother came in to see me, and they were simply beaming.

I remember taking photos with my bridesmaids outside before the wedding, watching some of our guests arrive. It felt REAL real, seeing all of these people from various parts of our lives all coming together. I remember waving to my Gramps across the parking lot as he entered the church. I remember my cousin Arianna running over in her bright yellow dress. I remember holding Allyn’s hand, our eyes squeezed shut, as we stood on separate sides of a corner wall and the photographer snapped this picture.

Then it was time. My bridesmaids and I were lining up in the hallway. I decided I had to pee again and Dana came with me and held my dress. Back in line, we could hear the piano music swell up. My dad asked me one last time if I was happy, if I was sure. I told him I had never been more sure of anything in my life. He smiled and said, “I know.”

Walking down the aisle is one of those vivid mental snapshots I will treasure for the rest of my life. I can’t even put into words the love and joy and excitement and gratitude that flooded my spirit, surrounded by the smiling faces of so many people I love, as I walked towards my favorite smile in the universe.

{Thank you so much to Ngan for capturing those special moments on video!}

The ceremony flew by. I remember squeezing Allyn’s hands. I remember smiling so fully my cheeks hurt. I remember surprising myself when I broke down in tears reading my vows. I remember my friend Ben and my cousin Arianna singing heartrendingly beautiful solos. And then Allyn drew me towards him, leaned in, and kissed me. Our minister announced us as officially husband and wife!

After everyone cheered and we walked back up the aisle together; after the flurry of photos with our wedding party, photos with our parents and grandparents, and photos with each other; Allyn and I found ourselves back in the peaceful church sanctuary. All of our guests were inside the reception hall, waiting for our grand entrance. We savored a couple minutes of quiet, sitting there together, just soaking it in. That is one of my favorite mental snapshots of the entire day. That little slice of time, just the two of us, newly husband and wife.

Soon, it was time for dinner to begin. We walked together into the reception hall, weaving our way hand-in-hand through the tables filled with people we love.

My dad’s toast made me cry. The meal was even was more delicious than our tasting had been, and I was hungrier than I had expected to be. Allyn and I walked around to all the tables, chatting with our guests and hugging everyone. I remember it was so hard to tear ourselves away from each table, from each conversation. I wished I had hours upon hours to talk with every single person there!

But soon, it was time for more toasts. My brother gleaned inspiration from the movie “Wedding Crashers” — one of our family’s favorite movies that we have watched countless times together — and he made everyone laugh.

Allyson mentioned Celine in her toast. I remember reaching down across the table and grabbing Holly’s hand as we both started to cry. I felt Celine with us all day, and it was really beautiful to have her acknowledged. She was with us in spirit and Allyson brought her to life again in her words.

More snapshots:

My first dance with Allyn, to the song he played on the guitar when he proposed to me, swaying around the dance floor just like we had practiced so many times in our dance lessons and in our living room and on the beach in Hawaii during our summer vacation, and it was the sweetest dance of my life.

Dancing with my dad to Tim McGraw’s “My Little Girl”–a moment I had expected to be bittersweet or teary, but was only joyful. We talked and remembered and laughed about everything, the past 29 years condensed into 3 minutes.

Cutting a cupcake in half and feeding it to each other. Feeling, for the first time I can remember, that I was already so hyped up on excitement that I didn’t even want any more dessert, not even a heavenly chocolate cupcake.

Changing into my tennis shoes and compression socks for dancing. Realizing, minutes before the garter toss, that I hadn’t put my garter on! Running to the bride’s room and pulling it up over my tennis shoes.

Dancing to “The Y-M-C-A” and “Sweet Caroline” and T.Swift and Michael Jackson. The dance floor crowded with people waving their arms, laughing, dancing goofily. Cracking up at my brother’s silly dance move “The Raging Bull”– a relic from childhood. My mom’s cousin Diane doing the “Elaine Benes dance” from Seinfeld. My great-aunt Elaine out there with her cane and Allyn’s great-aunt Flo swaying from side to side with a huge smile on her face. My grandma dancing to “Brick House” and exclaiming, “Oh, I just love this song!”

And then, all of a sudden, it was the last dance. And then it was time for us to go. Allyn and I held hands as our friends and family lined up with tiny containers of bubbles to send us on our way. They blew bubbles as we walked together down the aisle they created for us. I remember grabbing my dad’s hand and squeezing it as I walked past him. And then my new husband and I walked out into the cool, star-winking night.

Driving home, I felt both jazzed up and wrung-out in the absolute best way. That drive was the epitome of ordinary/extraordinary moments. Everything was the same–and yet, also, everything had changed.

That night, I couldn’t dim the brightness inside myself enough to fall asleep. Every time I closed my eyes, memories from the day flashed through my mind and my heart overflowed. I remember thinking, utterly serious: “I’m never going to be able to sleep again. I’m too happy to ever sleep again.”

Thankfully, I have been able to sleep again.

But the happiness from that day has remained and deepened with time.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • Write about an ordinary/extraordinary day in your life.
  • Looking back at your wedding, or another important day, what moments do you remember most vividly?
  • Write about a time you felt overflowing with happiness.

why i don’t want to be “the one that got away” {part 2}

{If you missed Part One, you can read it here!}

When we left off in our story, I had finally gotten over my crush on M and felt like we had a real friendship. In fact, he was one of my best friends. But then one night he came over and said exactly what I had wished for the previous year…

It felt like something out of a movie, or like a big joke. I kept waiting for him to laugh and say he was just messing with me, but I had never seen him more serious. He said that he really liked me, as more than just a friend. That he wanted to give us a shot. And I thought about how much I had hoped for this—that he would wake up and realize that, despite all evidence to the contrary and despite turning down countless opportunities to date me, he had actually been in love with me the whole time. If I had written this in a story for my Creative Writing workshop, my classmates would have lampooned the plot for being wholly unbelievable and contrived. Yet, here he was, earnestness in his eyes as he gently took my hand. I told him yes, of course, let’s give us a shot. There was a knot in my stomach, but I pushed it away.

M and I only dated for a couple weeks. I had thought my feelings for him would be like a faucet that I could turn on again, but in reality they were the embers of a fire that had gone out. I simply didn’t think of him that way anymore. My wish had come true—I was completely over him. What had I written in my journal? Someday, M is going to look back and regret that he treated me like this, and by then I’ll have moved on. It will be too late. That is exactly what had happened. I got exactly what I wished for.

And it was awful.

M seemed to take things well at first, and I thought we could still be friends. But when I started dating someone else, he became mopey and awkward. Our friendship withered away. I only saw him occasionally, at group hang-outs and parties, and I never knew what to say to him. Our other friends grew annoyed, complaining that he talked incessantly about how to win me back. In truth, he didn’t even know me anymore. I wasn’t a real person to him; I was a prize atop a pedestal. I was “the one that got away.” I have a memory of one party towards the end of senior year, when I spent a while talking to him, listing out all of my bad habits, trying to convince him of all the reasons why he didn’t want to date me. That seems like it should be a symbol for something.

I haven’t talked to M in a long time. I hope he is doing well. I hope he has fallen madly in love and is exceedingly happy.

I think about M whenever the topic of revenge comes up. I think revenge is a deeply human emotion. It seems only natural to be hurting and to want someone else to hurt too. To feel unappreciated, and to want someone else to appreciate you too late. To feel unseen, and to want someone else to feel regret for what they missed. I believe that revenge is tied to vulnerability. We open ourselves up to someone and it goes badly—we feel too deeply and messily and hungrily—and we want to regain our sense of control. We want someone else to be vulnerable instead. I think that is at the root of revenge. It certainly was for me. I wouldn’t have called it “revenge” but in essence that’s what it was: I wanted to punish M for breaking my heart. I wanted him to always regret not loving me back, not opening up to me when I was vulnerable with him. At the time, it felt like I would always be hurting. It felt like I would never be enough for someone else. Looking back, that all seems so silly now. He was just doing his best, same as I was. We are all bumbling through life without an answer key. We are all just doing the best we can.

If I had a time machine, I would go back to freshman year of college and tell myself not to waste wishes on regret. I would tell myself not to yearn to be anybody’s “one who got away.” I would tell myself that I would end up with an amazing man who never plays any games, who loves and appreciates me and tells me so every day, and that is the ultimate prize. That it doesn’t cheapen my happiness to wish the same for everyone else, including everyone who has hurt me or broken my heart. Because I have hurt people, too. No one gets out of this life with their heart unscarred.

I read somewhere once that loving someone wholeheartedly—even when your heart gets broken—just means that you have built the capacity to love wholeheartedly again. I don’t want to be “the one that got away.” I want to be the small love who was preparation for the big love that lasts, the big love that was meant to be.

My mom always says, “The best revenge is to live a happy life.” I agree. Instead of plotting ways to “get back” at someone else, put that energy into making your own life as vibrant and joyful and beautiful as it can be. Build up your own happiness, rather than wanting to tear down someone else’s happiness. Yes, the best revenge is to live a happy life… and, I would add, to genuinely wish the best for the person who hurt you.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Open your journal or a new document on your computer and use the following questions as jumping-off points for some heart-writing:

  • Write about a time someone broke your heart. How did you heal? What did you learn from that experience, painful as it might have been?
  • Write about a time you broke someone else’s heart. What did you learn from that experience?
  • Have you ever gotten exactly what you wished for?
  • Write about a time you wanted revenge or experienced regret.

why i don’t want to be “the one that got away” {part 1}

My freshman year of college, I had a huge crush on a boy who lived in my dorm. Let’s call him M. He was friendly and witty, with a crinkle-eyed smile, and talked about world issues and politics like no one I had met before. These were the days before wireless Internet and smartphones, back when you could only watch TV on actual televisions, and not everyone had TVs in their dorm rooms. The girls across the hall from me had a TV, and their room became the “hang-out spot” on our wing, and M would often come upstairs from the boys’ floor to watch sports games in the afternoons. Our dorm rooms were shoeboxes, and we kept our doors open for the illusion of more space. I’d be working on a homework assignment at my desk and I could hear his shouts and groans and cheers from across the hall. We started talking. We became friends; to my surprise, he became one of my best friends. And I quickly developed a crush on him. This was no secret to anyone in our friendship group.

Looking back, I smile at how naïve I was. I went away to college without my first kiss. Everything I knew about romance and relationships had been culled from YA books, rom coms, and the Disney channel. I whole-heartedly believed that when two people liked each other, they would start dating. Simple and easy as that. One night, when we were all piled in the room across the hall watching a movie, I was sitting next to M and he held my hand. I went to bed that night with shooting stars in my belly, certain that this meant we were now dating.

But it meant no such thing. The next day, when M sauntered into the room across the hall to watch a baseball game, his perfunctory greeting made it clear he was going to act like nothing had happened. I felt silly and embarrassed. Maybe it didn’t mean anything. This was college, after all. People probably went around holding hands all the time. I told myself to get over it; he obviously just thought of me as a friend.

Time marched on. We had long conversations about random things. We laughed about inside jokes. Every time I would feel sure that this was it, we were friends and nothing more, and I was okay with that—something would happen that would make my heart flutter anew with hope. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer. I marched down to his dorm room, knocked on the door, and unequivocally stated that I liked him as more than just a friend. I remember how he stared at me, his expression unreadable. “I have to think about things,” he told me. “I’ll get back to you.” Like I had invited him to a birthday party and he had to check his calendar.

But he never did get back to me. We didn’t talk about it again. The turning point came after the Handholding Incident 2.0, when he kissed me after a party and then acted like nothing had happened when I saw him the next day. I decided that I couldn’t keep doing this to myself, ballooning with hope and then breaking my own heart over and over again.

I’m done, I wrote in my diary. I’m over him, once and for all. And I compiled a list of all the reasons why we would never work.

“I’m done,” I told my friends. I remember this moment vividly—a Sunday evening in my dorm room, the streetlights blinking on outside my window, the door closed for once so no one walking by would hear our conversation. “I’m going to find a guy who actually wants to be with me and doesn’t play these stupid games. And someday, M is going to look back and regret that he treated me like this, and by then I’ll have moved on. It will be too late.” My friends braided my hair and handed me cookies they’d snuck out from the dining hall and assured me that one day he would grow up and realize how dumb he had been to let me go.

In that moment, I desperately wanted to be “the one that got away.” I wanted him to yearn for me the way I was yearning for him; to hurt the way my heart was hurting. Looking back now, it almost feels like I cast a spell that day. If my life were a novel, our narrator would step in right now and warn, Be careful what you wish for…

The rest of freshman year carried on. I forced my feelings to ebb away, and gradually they listened. I dated a few other guys. By the time we moved out of the dorms, I genuinely felt nothing more than friendship for M. It only stung a little to hear him talk about the beautiful girl he had a crush on in one of his classes; I even helped him pick out a gift to give her on the last day of class. Whenever those voices in the back of my head would pop up, sneering that he didn’t like me because I wasn’t pretty enough, cool enough, smart enough, I would look back at my diary entry and say the words like a promise: One day, he’ll look back and regret it. I’ll be “the one who got away”…

Summer waned and we returned to school for our sophomore year, excited to be living in off-campus apartments with balconies and kitchens. {By this time, I had developed an entirely new huge crush on another guy who would alternately woo and shatter my hopeful heart, but that’s a whole ’nother story.} I was so happy that I had finally let go of my pointless feelings for M, because it felt like we were legit friends now. He was the guy friend who insisted on walking me the couple blocks from his apartment to mine late at night; who came over and made me soup that time I got a really bad case of the flu; who gave me a guy’s honest opinion when I was trying to pick out an outfit for a date. He laughed at my silly stories and listened to my ideas. Now that I no longer cared about trying to make him fall in love with me, I was just myself around him. It was freeing to hang out without over-analyzing every little thing he said and did, searching for clues about his “real feelings” for me.

Then, one night, he came over and said exactly the words I had wanted to hear from him the year before…

 

This story will be continued on Friday. See you then!

what james taylor means to me

I.

I am eleven years old, dancing around the kitchen with my mom, listening to my parents’ old CDs. It is a Sunday afternoon and I am helping her make banana bread from scratch. My mom is a terrific baker, and I have inherited a love of baking from her. We have turned our giant three-CD stereo onto “shuffle” mode. There is one singer that I especially like. His voice is smooth and filled with emotion, and his lyrics sound like poetry, and the acoustic guitar makes me feel peaceful. “Who is that?” I ask my mom, as the man sings a lullaby about a sweet baby.

“That’s James Taylor,” she says.

“I like his music,” I declare. Up to this point, my musical tastes have existed on a decidedly separate plane from my parents’ music. My CD collection includes Mandy Moore, The Spice Girls, and N’SYNC. Now, I add James Taylor to the list.

The smell of banana bread baking in the oven mingles with the sound of James’ crooning. I come to associate his songs with the warm feelings of childhood and family and comfort. In a word: home.

II.

I am fifteen years old, on the bus to an away game with my basketball team. I always get supremely nervous before games, worried that I’m going to screw up, make a mistake, get yelled at by my coach. The entire day at school, I have been dreading this afternoon’s game. To calm myself down, I pull my portable CD player out of my backpack, slip on the headphones, and press PLAY.

James Taylor’s rich voice fills my ears, reminding me that I’ve got a friend, no matter what happens.

I don’t know anyone else at my school who likes James Taylor’s music. He feels like my own special secret. When I feel lost or self-conscious or alone, his music reminds me that this period of my life won’t last forever. Listening to his music reminds me of the wider, richer world out there beyond the confines of high school—and certainly beyond high school basketball games.

My favorite part of away basketball games is listening to his CD on the bus ride there and back home again.

{source}

III.

I am sixteen years old. James Taylor releases a new album at the same time I am going through a tough time with some friends at school. New music from him feels like a gift from the universe. Even better, many of his songs are about autumn—my favorite season. The magic of autumn is amplified by the beauty of his voice. I listen to “September Grass” and “October Road” on repeat. I imagine one day meeting a boy who loves and appreciates James Taylor as much as I do—who, in turn, recognizes my beauty and uniqueness the way none of the boys at school seem to.

Dad surprises me with tickets to see James Taylor in concert at the Santa Barbara Bowl. I am the youngest one there by at least a decade, maybe two. But I don’t care. I feel like James is singing directly to me. He plays for more than two hours and his voice sounds even better and richer than it does on the CDs I’ve memorized by heart.

It has been one of the hardest and saddest seasons of my life up to this point, but sitting at that concert next to my dad, feeling the breeze on my face and watching my favorite musician light up the night with his beautiful music, I feel hope burgeoning inside me. I am going to be okay. I am going to move on and find new friends. Life is going to expand and keep getting better. I feel sure of it.

IV.

I am a freshman in college, and life has expanded greatly. My world has gotten wider and fuller and more exciting. I have made many new friends and every day, I am soaking up new knowledge and new experiences.

Still, sometimes I feel lonely or stressed or homesick. So much newness can be overwhelming. Whenever that happens, I click over to my James Taylor iTunes playlist. His music makes me feel like I can close my eyes and be transported back to the kitchen with my mom, baking banana bread, dancing around with my silly dog Gar—like I can be my child-self again, even for just the span of a song.

 

V.

I am in graduate school now, living halfway across the country from everything I have known. Here in Indiana, the autumn is more beautiful than any I have experienced. The reds and oranges and yellows explode from the trees, and the sky is crisp and blue. My favorite season should feel more magical than ever.

But it doesn’t. I am lonelier than I have ever been. Most people in my program are married or coupled-up, and I am the youngest one. I feel so single and so naive. As hard as I try to make friends, the close bonds I forged easily in college seem elusive here. I try throwing a party, but it is only mildly successful. The weekends stretch out interminably; the highlight is going shopping at the grocery store.

I get a lot of writing and reading done. The leaves begin to fall from the trees. The weather turns grayer and colder.

I turn on the heater in my little apartment. I bake banana bread. I play James Taylor’s music and feel a teeny bit more at home, a teeny bit less alone. His songs are my touchstone.

VI.

I am twenty-six years old, living back in California. Northern California this time, the Bay Area. I am living with my grandparents and I make friends and I am not lonely. But I am still searching for a partner to share my life with. I listen to James Taylor’s songs—“Something in the Way She Moves” and “Your Smiling Face“—and I feel hopeful that I will find the person I am meant to be with. I think back to high school, when I felt like the only person my age who liked James Taylor. Now, I’ve met quite a few people from my generation who enjoy his music—Taylor Swift {who, I’ve learned, was named for James Taylor} even has a line about his records in one of her songs!

I join an online dating website. On a blustery February evening, I meet up with “Oaktown A’s Fan” at an ice cream shop. He is even more handsome in person than in his profile picture. He has kind eyes and listens to me intently, asks questions and makes me laugh. Quite suddenly, and easily, and wonderfully, we fall in love. Before long, I know that he is the one I want to spend my life with.

Allyn is a very agreeable and open person. When it comes to food or movies or music, he likes pretty much anything.

Almost anything.

“James Taylor?” he says. “I’m not a fan.”

I think at first that he’s joking—teasing me, pulling my leg. But he is completely serious. James Taylor’s music… annoys him.

“I don’t know, something about his voice gets on my nerves,” Allyn explains when I ask, in wide-mouthed astonishment, how he possibly can dislike my favorite musician of all time. “His music puts me to sleep.”

I guess nobody—not even my perfect guy—is perfect. 😉

When Allyn lets me listen to James Taylor on our road trips, I know he truly loves me.

 

VII.

Céline, one of my best friends, dies in a car accident. I never really understood “Fire and Rain” until now.

Even two and a half years later, I still can’t believe I’m not going to see her again.

VIII.

Dad flies into Oakland and we take BART together into San Francisco. James Taylor is playing a concert at AT&T Park and we bought tickets for our birthday presents to each other. I can’t think of a better way to ring in my third decade on this planet.

We spend the day wandering around the city: exploring the market at the Ferry Building, taking the trolley down to Fisherman’s Wharf for lunch, finding a hole-in-the-wall Irish pub for drinks. As the sun begins to set, we walk down to the concert. My whole being is filled with anticipation.

The stadium is packed, yet somehow his music makes it feel intimate. He tells stories between the songs and plays video footage of his adorable dog. He plays many of his old classics, and some of his new songs, including my favorite off his latest album: “Montana.” Tears come to my eyes when he plays “Fire and Rain.” He saves my favorite, “You’ve Got a Friend,” for the encore.

After the concert, walking back to our hotel, Dad and I are still reveling in the joy and grace of James Taylor’s music. I think about the last time I saw James Taylor play, when I was sixteen. How much has changed since then. And also how much has remained the same.

“The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time.” — James Taylor, “Secret O’Life

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and “free-write” about the following questions:

  • Who is a musician that has impacted your life? How so?
  • Turn on one of your favorite albums. Write about various memories each song brings up.
  • What is the last concert you went to? Write about the experience.
  • What musicians or songs have been a comfort to you during hard times?