house-hunting lessons

As I mentioned in a previous post, Allyn and I have been planning to move into a larger space. For the past two years, our one-bedroom apartment has been the perfect cozy little home for our growing lives. But now, it is feeling cramped. We’ve known for a while that when our apartment lease is up this March 1, we want to move. So, aiming to give ourselves plenty of time, we began our house-hunting journey the last weekend of January.

We started out that Saturday full of energy, excitement and optimism. We were going to find Our Perfect Home in Our Perfect Location and we were going to Find it Immediately! Yet, by the end of that first day, we were both feeling a little disappointed. The first house we saw was in a lovely location, but the house itself was pretty run-down. The kitchen was tiny, and we’d have to buy a washer and dryer. The second house we saw was easy to cross off our list: not the best location, and in even worse condition than the first house. The third place was our favorite — we loved meeting the owner, and the house itself was cute and seemed well cared for, plus a washer and dryer was included. But the location was not ideal for us.

It was a classic case of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” No house was perfect. We joked, driving home, that all we needed to do was move House #3 to the location of House #1 and we’d be all set.

The next weekend, we made appointments to see more possibilities. The townhouse was less expensive, but we weren’t sure if we wanted shared walls — something that has been problematic at times about apartment living. Another house was very nice and had been recently renovated, but they wanted tenants to move in immediately, and we were hoping to move at the end of the month. Another place was on the corner of a busy, noisy street. The kitchen was gorgeous, but the bedrooms were tiny.

House-hunting revealed so much of how our brains work and the games they play with our emotions. First of all, we quickly realized that there is no One-and-Only Perfect Home out there waiting for us. {Or, if there is, we aren’t willing to put in months of house-hunting to find it. We need to move out in March.} Every place we saw had its positives and negatives. And our brains — my brain, at least — loved to go into comparison mode. Each house we saw, my brain would worry itself over the “flaws” and less-than-perfect components, comparing this Actual House with an Imagined Ideal House that existed nowhere other than my mind. My brain loved to insist,

But wait, what if Imagined Ideal House does exist somewhere in the real world? What if it is the next house around the corner, the one we will find next week, or the week after that? What if we give in and sign a lease, but then our true Perfect Home pops up on Zillow and it’s too late?

It was a prime example of Fear Of Missing Out. The lure to continue searching reminded me of gambling — always hoping to win bigger next time. Allyn and I could have kept house-hunting forever, searching for that elusive ideal. But, as the saying goes, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” We also didn’t want to hedge and hesitate on applying to rent a home we really liked, and miss out when someone else swooped in and rented it before we got our act together.

That happened to us with one property — which, looking back, I do not think would have been the best fit for us — but, when we found out it was no longer on the market, it was amazing how quickly all of those “flaws” disappeared and our FOMO was replaced by panic that we would never find any home to rent in time, that everything was being scooped up and we were too late. It is so easy to fall into a scarcity mindset. We had to remind ourselves to take deep breaths and have faith that we would end up in the right place for us. That the pie is big enough for everyone to get a slice.

My brain can contradict itself so fitfully. In the direct opposite of insisting that there was always a Better House Out There, waiting in the next Zillow email, my brain also loved to immediately get emotionally attached to each house we saw by imagining myself living there — only this was not Actual Me, this was Ideal Me. I would focus on how much I wanted the huge yard of House #1 so I could plant an enormous garden, because my Ideal Self is an avid gardener, even though in reality the only plants I seem able to keep alive are succulents. Or, my brain would fixate on how the townhouses had a pool, and we could go swimming there all the time, even though our current apartment has a pool and I have used it approximately three times in two years, because in reality swimming is not my favorite activity and the pool is always cold. Or, I would think about how House #4 was right by a nature trail, and I could go walking there every morning before I start my work. Which is a lovely idea, but not the most important factor in choosing where to live. Because what if there are a lot of bees on the nature trail, or I find a yoga class I love and decide I want to do that most mornings instead?

It is true that I can think about my Ideal Self and use this vision as inspiration. In her book about habits, Better Than Before, Gretchin Rubin writes about how a big life change — like moving — is the perfect time to start a new habit or let go of a habit that is not serving you. Moving is like pressing the “re-set” button on your habits because your environment is changing, so your daily routines are also ripe for change. Maybe I will begin with a small vegetable garden in our new backyard and see how it goes. Maybe I will try going for a walk in the morning, before I dive into my work. Maybe I will shop at the farmer’s market; quit processed sugar once and for all; meditate in the afternoons; banish the clutter.

Allyn and I made a list of the aspects for our new place that we find most important: in our price range; a safe neighborhood; close to public transit for his commute and close to the freeway for my commute; spacious enough for us to have a little room to grow. All the rest would be icing on the cake.

When we first toured the house that would end up being Our Next Home, we didn’t see fireworks the moment we stepped in the front door. We didn’t look at each other with knowing smiles that said, “Yes. This is The One.” We didn’t immediately tell the owner, “We’ll take it!” We followed the owner through the rooms, noting and nodding and smiling, asking questions and ticking off boxes in our heads. We talked about it on the way home. And the more we talked about it, the more we liked it. No, it is not a Perfect House. But it is pretty darn near perfect-for-us, right here and right now, in this chapter of our lives.

When I think about life in our new house, I imagine getting to know our neighbors in the cute, quiet cul-de-sac. I imagine dinners al fresco out on our back patio. I imagine cooking meals in the bright kitchen and writing in the back bedroom we’ll convert into an office and hanging our stockings on the fireplace mantel in the living room at Christmas time. I imagine hosting game nights with friends, hosting my parents and my brother in our spare bedroom, hosting dinner parties and birthday parties and summer barbecues and holiday gift-exchanges. I imagine a home filled with stories and laughter, good food and good company, warmth and comfort. I imagine a home filled with love — love in every room, love in every wall, love in every nook and cranny and crevice.

I guess that is the final, and most important, lesson I learned from house-hunting. It was actually something I already knew — something I said in my wedding vows — just something it can be easy to forget in the striving and dreaming and hustle and bustle of this life.

The truth is, I could be happy in pretty much any of the houses we looked at. Wherever we live, we will make it into our home with our care, our spit-shine and elbow grease, our personal touches — and, most important, with our love for each other. As excited as we are to have a bigger space, the reality is that we could stay another year in our small apartment and I would be content. As long as I’m with Allyn, I’m home.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

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

  • What are some lessons you have learned from the experience of searching for a new place to live, whether buying a home or renting your first college apartment?
  • Think about your “Ideal Self.” What are some differences between this ideal version of you, and your actual routines and behavior? Why are these traits “ideal” for you?
  • If you could magically adopt a new habit or drop an existing habit tomorrow, what would it be and why?

valentine’s day in six parts

I. Seventh grade.

I stand in a circle with my friends at snack break, laughing about some silly joke that no one else but us would find funny. I’m wearing my favorite red sweater and my white pedal-pushers. I scan the grassy quad, looking for The Boy I Have a Crush On, but I don’t see him anywhere. I’m hoping maybe he will give me a Valentine today. Maybe he will send me a Candy Graham. Maybe… maybe… My wishes don’t go much farther than that. Candy Grahams and smiles across the quad. To my seventh-grade self, holding hands seems the epitome of romance.

The Candy Grahams are school-sponsored Valentines. All week long, you could go to the ASB room during lunch and pay a quarter for a small square of paper, where you could write a note that will be taped to a Caramel Apple Pop and delivered during fifth period on Valentine’s Day. I bought Candy Grahams for my best friends, but I did not buy one for The Boy I Have a Crush On.

During fifth period, my heart thrums as the Candy Grahams are passed out. I receive one. When I see Erica’s familiar handwriting, my heart sinks just a little.

I receive Valentines from my parents and my Gramps. But all I can think about is the Valentine I didn’t receive. I wonder if a boy will ever ever ever want me to be his Valentine. The future seems so far away.

II. Ninth grade.

I make a Valentine’s card for The Boy I Have a Crush On {who is different from The Boy I Had a Crush On in seventh grade… um, hello, that was a lifetime ago.} Unlike in middle school, my high-school self actually talks to this boy. We are… friends? Sort of. We walk together from fourth period to lunch every day. I am hopeful that he will give me a Valentine. I decide to make him a Valentine so I will have something to give him, if he gives me one first.

During our walk from the classroom to the lunch tables, my heart pounds in my chest. I finger the Valentine in my jeans pocket. I’m wearing my favorite red tank-top and white cardigan. It is Valentine’s Day, but the magic fizzles out the closer we get to the lunch tables. As each minute ticks by, it is morphing into just a regular day. Then he says, “Bye,” heading off to join his friends, and I realize he is not going to give me a Valentine.

Erica tries to talk me out of it, but later I slip the Valentine into his locker anyway. I mean, I already made it. Why let it go to waste?

I receive Valentines from my parents and my Gramps. There is even a bouquet of cheerful sunflowers from my dad. But all I can think about is The Boy I Have a Crush On, and the Valentine I didn’t receive from him.

III. Freshman year of college.

High school seems so long ago. I am a brand-new woman. I have held hands with a boy in a darkened room while we all watched a movie. I have gone out on a date and kissed a boy. I have told a boy, plainly and clearly, my feelings for him. For the first time in my life, The Boy I Have a Crush On just might like-like me back.

This year, I receive a Valentine. It is a very sweet homemade card, accompanied by flowers and the board game Scrabble. Only it is not from The Boy I Have a Crush On. It is from A Boy I Like as Just a Friend. I have told him many times that my romantic feelings just aren’t there, but he continues his unabashed pursuit, and I am beginning to feel unsettled in addition to the sadness and guilt I already feel for hurting his feelings.

I realize that it is not only about being wanted. It is about being wanted by the person you want, too.

I put the flowers in a vase on my dresser, hoping The Boy I Have a Crush On will see them. Hoping he still might come by my room, before Valentine’s Day is over, and ask me to be his.

But, as the streetlights blink on outside the window, as evening steadily shifts into night, he does not come by my room. He does not see my flowers. On my bulletin board, I have pinned up Valentine’s cards from my mom and my dad and my brother, from Erica and Holly and Celine. Yet all I can think about is the Valentine he didn’t give me.

IV. Junior year of college.

Norwich, England. I’m studying abroad for a semester and I am in love for the first time ever. All those other Boys I Had Crushes On seem so insignificant compared to this overwhelming feeling. This is my first Valentine’s Day with a real Boyfriend. I could not be more excited. I take the bus into town and buy a giant card at Pound Land {like the Dollar Store in the U.S.} and some new tights to go with the dress I had already picked out weeks ago. Instead of chocolates, I buy my Boyfriend a case of Red Bull because it is his favorite drink.

The morning of Valentine’s Day, while he is in class, I sneak into his room and leave the card and Red Bull on his desk. A few hours later, he calls me, his voice filled with surprise at my gift. He thanks me for it, even though he says his flatmates are giving him a hard time. He always seems slightly embarrassed, around his flatmates, to be with me.

“I’ll come by at 6,” he says. “I’m taking you out to dinner. It’s a surprise.”

I am a little kid on Christmas Eve. I feel like I’ve finally found the person who loves me back, who appreciates me for who I am. Who wants to be my Valentine and wants everyone to know it. That evening, Boyfriend comes over and gives me a daffodil he picked from the fields. We ride the bus into town together. He still won’t tell me where we’re going for dinner. Walking together down the cobblestone streets, he pauses in front of a Pizza Hut. I laugh, certain he is joking.

He holds the door open. “After you, my lady.”

Heart sinking, I realize he is not joking. In the next thought, I chastise myself for being judgmental. He is taking me out to dinner! On Valentine’s Day! I should be grateful. It doesn’t matter where we go for dinner; what matters is that we are together.

Over slices of pepperoni and cheese, he confesses that he waited until the last minute to make dinner reservations and all the other restaurants in town were booked up. We laugh about it, but all I can think about is The Girl He Had a Crush On back home, the girl he told me about last week, the girl with the pretty smile and contagious laughter who occasionally sends him letters. I feel certain that, if he was celebrating Valentine’s Day with her, he wouldn’t have waited until the last minute to make dinner reservations. He would have treated the occasion as something special. He would have felt so lucky just to be out on a date with her. I feel certain that the reason we’re celebrating Valentine’s Day at a Pizza Hut is because I’m somehow not good enough.

This is the first time I’ve had this feeling, with him. It will not be the last.

V. Four years ago.

Valentine’s Day is a Saturday, and I have dinner plans with My New Boyfriend. We have only been dating for two weeks–can I even call him my boyfriend yet?– but it feels like it has been longer than that. This thing between us is bright and shiny and new, full of sparkling possibility. Yet, my feelings for him are already growing serious. He feels familiar and yet also different than any other Boy who has come before.

My New Boyfriend asks if he can make me dinner for Valentine’s Day. I tell him that would be delightful. Never before has a man other than my father made me dinner.

I am living with my grandparents, who are apprehensive about My New Boyfriend {who they have not yet met} because he is In His Thirties! {I am twenty-six. In their eyes, I am still approximately sixteen.} So I ask My New Boyfriend if he would mind picking me up for our date, saying hello to Grandma and Grandpap. I know that, as soon as they meet him, they will love him. My New Boyfriend says of course, even though this means he will have to drive forty minutes each way four separate times: to pick me up and take me to his apartment for dinner, then to drive me home and go back to his apartment at the end of the evening.

I wear a lacy pink dress and bake red velvet crinkle cookies. I write him a Valentine’s card, where I try to hold back and keep myself from gushing too much. If I have learned one thing from the Valentine’s Days in my past, it is to keep my expectations low.

My New Boyfriend picks me up, right on time, looking so handsome in a collared shirt and sweater. He has a box of toffees for my grandma, who is immediately smitten. Grandpap claps him on the back and offers him a drink. We chit-chat in the living room for a few minutes before I’m able to extricate us away from the conversation and out the front door.

Instead of taking me to his apartment, where I’ve been a couple times before, My New Boyfriend drives me to his mother’s house, which is quite possibly the most gorgeous home I have ever seen. He explains that his mother is spending the night with his sister a few towns over, and she offered up her beautiful kitchen for him to use to cook tonight’s meal. He has made a salad and roasted asparagus and salmon. It smells amazing.

Walking into the dining room to light the candles, my breath catches. He has set the table with the fancy china and silverware. At my place setting waits a box of chocolates and a card. Inside the card, he has made a word search for me–all of the words are terms and inside-jokes from our two-week courtship: my favorite yin yoga class, my dog Murray’s name, the place of our first date: Lottie’s Ice Cream Parlor.

My eyes fill with tears. I feel like I’m in a movie or a novel. I realize that I don’t have to hold myself back with this man. I don’t have to be afraid of being disappointed. He is the Valentine my seventh-grade self dreamed of: choosing me, putting in effort for me, trying to make me feel special. When he looks at me, his eyes light up. When I look at him, my heart breaks wide open.

Until now, I always thought this kind of thing happened for Other Girls in Other Lives. But now, it is happening for me.

Later, when he kisses me goodnight, all I can think about is how I hope he always wants to be my Valentine.

VI. Today.

My Husband is not making me a candlelit dinner this Valentine’s Day. It is a Wednesday, and we both won’t get home from work till after 7. Sometimes fancy homemade candlelit dinners simply aren’t practical if you have to get up for work the next morning and you want to get to bed at a decent hour. Instead, we are planning to go out to a new Thai restaurant we’ve been meaning to try.

We will exchange cards and hugs and kisses. I will remind My Husband of the crossword puzzle he made for me, our first Valentine’s Day. “Can you believe, we’d only been together for two weeks!” we’ll marvel.

“Can you believe, you drove all the way there and back, there and back, to pick me up and take me home?”

“Yeeesh. I must have really liked you,” he’ll say with a wink.

When I was in seventh grade, and ninth grade, and college, and all the years in between, I was so focused on the romantic aspect of Valentine’s Day. I dove full-force into the hearts and flowers and chocolates, the parade and performance of the day. It was almost like Valentine’s Day was a milestone when I felt pressured to prove to others — to myself? — that I was loved. And again and again, the day fell flat. But it wasn’t because I didn’t have enough love in my life. It was because I was focused in the wrong tiny sliver of the pie.

Even before I met My Husband, even when I was poking an unwanted Valentine through the slit of a locker or forcing a smile as I chewed my way through a slice of lukewarm pizza, those Valentine’s Days were not wasted. I think of that girl I was, so fully ensconced in love. I think of her and I want to tell her,

Take a step back, baby girl. Look around you. Look at your family and your friends. These are the people you are going to have with you down the road. You don’t have to be so scared. You don’t have to try to force things. The kind of love you dream about is going to come into your life soon enough. Trust in it. Trust in yourself. And don’t forget to be so grateful for all the other love around you. Don’t take those Valentines for granted.

Maybe it’s easy for me to say all of this now that I’ve found My Husband. I remember those lonely wrung-out days vividly–days when I was still searching, hoping to meet him in every busy café or grocery store aisle I wandered down. I remember feeling so anxious and unmoored, worried that I might never find my person. Wondering if I would ever have the easy comfort of a sure-and-solid Valentine love, like a worn-in pair of jeans–the comfort I feel today.

Maybe it’s because of My Husband that I’m able, now, to slough off the fear that used to eclipse the love within this holiday for me. Now, I can fully appreciate Valentine’s Day–not for its pomp and circumstance, but for its richness and depth. I love seeing the shy smiles on my students’ faces when I give them cards and candy. I love the rainbow crayon homemade Valentines they give me in return. I love bringing cookies to our across-the-hall neighbor Joyce and bringing chocolates to our 97-year-old Great Aunt Flo, seeing the pure surprised delight on their faces. I love mailing cards to my friends scattered around the country. I love reading and rereading the Valentines from my mom and my dad and my brother, displaying them on our kitchen table where I can see them throughout the day. I love buying myself flowers, if I want to, not needing to prove anything to anyone but simply because they are pretty and would brighten up the apartment.

This Valentine’s Day, I have everything my past self used to long for. The irony is that now, looking back, I realize that I had it all along.

Happy Valentine’s Day, dear reader. Please tell someone you love them. And please know that you are loved and you are enough, exactly as you are.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use the following questions as inspiration for some “free-writing”:

  • What is your favorite Valentine’s memory?
  • Make a list of all the love in your life–people, animals, places, activities, it all counts!
  • Write a love letter to yourself, describing in detail all the things you love about your amazing self.

be like the ducks

No, the title of this post is not referring to the Mighty Ducks. {But you can be like them, too.}

I’m talking about literal mallard ducks. Let me explain.

This afternoon, I went on a lovely walk at the lake by our apartment — we are so fortunate to live near an amazingly gorgeous recreation area and I am trying to take full advantage of it before we move! It was a beautiful, sunny, clear winter day. The lake was so still it looked like a sheet of blue-green glass.

As I gazed down at the lake, I noticed some ripples close to the shore. Floating in the water was a cluster of ducks. One was paddling around, looking just like a toy duck floating in the bathtub. But the other two were nothing more than little duck behinds–their entire heads and necks were submerged in the water as they scrounged around for lake grub. It was a pretty adorable sight. I smiled to myself and kept walking.

At first, I thought the ducks were nothing more than a peaceful sight. But, as I walked along, my thoughts kept coming back to them. Nature was reminding me of an important lesson.

Lately, I’ve been feeling more distracted than usual. I came into 2018 feeling a little bit “behind” — I wasn’t planning on undergoing surgery at the end of 2017, and instead of launching into the new year full-throttle I eased into it slowly, letting my body and spirit recover. That was soon followed by an emergency trip to Ventura to visit my Gramps in the hospital, and then a fun trip to NYC to visit my brother. When I returned to my everyday life at the end of January, I felt like I was in full-on “catch up” mode — responding to what felt like an avalanche of emails, unpacking my bags and finally taking down the Christmas decorations, scheduling students and clients, trying to get organized.

The result? Dizzying distraction. My mind has been spinning itself silly as it bounces around a list of tasks I “need” to do or “should” be doing; no matter what I’m working on, it feels like I should be working on something else. My attention zooms from responding to an email to drafting a blog post, but before I finish I jump over to prep for a student appointment I have later, and oh wait I should probably get dinner started…

Does this sound familiar to anyone else?

And when the day is done, I’m left feeling depleted — like I’ve spent all day with my butt in the chair in front of my computer, and I don’t quite know what I have to show for it.

Yesterday as I drove home from work, I listened to an episode of The Minimalists’ podcast where they answered questions from the audience at one of their speaking events. A woman asked for advice on how to make time for priorities. “It seems like I never have time for what I most want to do,” she said. I found myself nodding along.

Joshua and Ryan’s advice was simple yet profound. Their words were exactly what I needed to hear. {Why are the simplest things often the hardest to actually implement?} They advised her to schedule in FIRST — not last — the tasks that are most important to her, that speak to her core values, that relate to her passion projects. Then she can fill the rest of her calendar with other tasks and obligations and desires. But if she leaves her own priorities until the end, they will quite possibly get left out of her day. And then they’re not really priorities, are they?

This advice reminded me of the oft-evoked metaphor of the glass jar. Imagine your day as a glass jar: your important tasks are represented by big stones, while the less-important and niggling everyday tasks are represented by pebbles and sand. If you fill your jar with sand and pebbles first, there is no way you can fit the big stones inside — there’s not enough room. But if you put the big stones in first, and then fill the rest of the jar with tiny pebbles and sand, the smaller stones will fit in around the big ones and you will be able to fill the jar to its fullest.

I need to get back into my routine of doing this. The past couple of weeks, I’ve spent most of my time on the “urgent” tasks and I haven’t been able to nourish my most important projects. In The Minimalists podcast, Joshua gave an example from his life: “Every morning, I exercise, read and write.” My heart soared with recognition: That’s what I want to do, too! That’s important to me, too! So I made a schedule. I’ve found that often my brain likes the idea of an unscheduled day — it sounds so loose, so free! — but when I actually move through my day, not having a plan makes me feel unproductive and unmoored. When I could be doing anything, I feel like I should be doing everything.

So I am tweaking my morning plan to be like this:

  • Wake up and immediately write for thirty minutes.
  • Enjoy a healthy breakfast and read for pleasure.
  • Go through my favorite 15-minute yoga routine.
  • Meditate for 3-5 minutes.
  • Go to the gym or go for a walk.

Then, once I get home from exercising, I shower and dive into my emails, daily tasks, “urgent” business, etc. I am much more happy and productive, and feel less “behind” on my day, when I have already written, read, exercised, and gotten in some heart habits like yoga and meditation. BUT all of this is easier said than done! I often feel pulled towards my email inbox and my phone throughout this morning routine. I need to force myself to stay true to my plan and to commit to these tasks that are most important to me. Stones first, then pebbles!

I am also trying to get into the habit of “batching” my work instead of jumping around from task to task. For example, I’ll work on a blog post until it is finished. I’ll edit student work for an hour without interruption. I’ll answer email for thirty minutes straight and then take a break, rather than checking my inbox every two minutes. This makes me more productive because I am much more focused.

Which brings me back to the ducks. As I was walking around the lake, I thought of how silly it would look if ducks acted like distracted humans. Imagine a duck diving down under the water, then coming up a second later, then diving down under the water again. A duck would never get anything to eat if it behaved that way!

Just as nature has taught me the wisdom of the seasons — there is a time for harvesting and there is a time for sowing; there are seasons of abundance and seasons of scarcity — nature has also taught me the wisdom of focus. I want to be like the ducks, calmly contemplating the stillness of the lake. I want to be like the ducks, paddling around with my little legs when the weather is sunny and still paddling when the storms encroach. I want to be like the ducks, diving down under the surface to forage for food — not too brief, not too long — then popping back up again to float around with my buddies.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use these questions as a jumping-off point:

  • What lessons have you learned from nature?
  • Do you have a morning routine? What does it look like? If not, imagine what would be your dream way to start the day.
  • What are the “large stones” in your jar of life? What are your big passion projects? Are you making the time for these important tasks the way you would like to be? If not, what might you change in your day to put these priorities front-and-center?

word for the year

Hi everyone! It feels so good to be back in this space, getting back into my normal routine. The past month and a half have been a roller coaster and have brought the most important things in my life front-and-center: family, friends, love, health. After the devastating Thomas Fire, my grandfather being hospitalized with pneumonia {he is, blessedly, recovering well!} and a health scare of my own that I might write about sometime, December rocked my world like no other month has besides January 2015. {I can’t believe it has been three whole years since my beautiful friend died. Love you forever, C.}

It could be tempting to enter 2018 clutching a shawl around my shoulders sewn of fear, despair, scarcity and anger. Instead, I am embracing 2018 with wide-open eyes that are seeing love, gratitude, and healing all around. I am working each day to keep my heart wide open and to witness the small moments of compassion, grace and magic that comprise our daily lives and bind us closer to one another. I am reminding myself of phoenixes rising from the ashes. I am reminding myself of all the people and love in my life who give me strength. I am reminding myself of this quote I have always loved from Ernest Hemingway:

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places.”

We are all broken at times by senseless pain and sadness. But I believe that we are stronger for these broken places. And our compassion for others is strengthened, too.

Last year, Allyn and I had a weekly ritual of writing down something we were grateful for on a slip of paper and putting it into a jar. On New Year’s Eve, we emptied out the jar and read through all of our slips of paper. I was overwhelmed by the abundance of our blessings. It is my new favorite tradition, one we are continuing this year — and I hope all the years to come.

Another new tradition I believe in is setting an intention for the year. This could be one word or a short phrase. I think of it as a mantra, a touchstone, something to come back to again and again throughout the year. Something to inspire you on the slogging days and remind you of what’s important on the hectic days. Something to center you and focus the energy you put out into the world.

Last year, my word was FOUNDATION. I wrote, “I want to work on getting the foundation of my life in order. For me, that is broken down into four main areas: my health; my relationships; my writing; my home environment.”

Looking back now, I think that setting this intention really helped focus and motivate me throughout 2017. I do feel like I have a much stronger foundation now than I did at this point last year. I established more solid workout and writing routines; I now go to the gym twice a week, go for walks on many other days, and do at least 15 minutes of yoga most every morning. And I have settled into enjoying the process of writing more than being focused on the end result that I do not control. In 2017, I finished one novel manuscript and started a new one; wrote many blog posts and short stories; and overall feel much more at peace with the actual daily process of putting words down on paper. I feel more confident in my abilities to finish what I start rather than procrastinating on my most heart-vital projects. That is a huge gift that 2017 gave me!

Motivated by foundation, I invested time and money into my health this past year, and I think that is a big reason why I was able to recover from my recent surgery so quickly. I discovered some new plant-based recipes that I adore — lookin’ at you, roasted brussel sprouts & sweet potatoes & cabbage! — and now have a regular meal-planning routine. I also read books and learned a lot about my body, my cycle, nutrition, and intuitive eating. Health can be one of the slowest areas of change; with incremental change, it can be difficult to notice improvement. But looking back, it is strikingly clear that I feel much more empowered and energized now than I did at this time last year. Health is something that it is easy to take for granted, and I am also more grateful than ever for my body and mind.

In 2017, I took more trips than ever to visit family and friends: heading to NYC multiple times, hosting Greg and Holly in our little apartment for visits, having a girls weekend with Mom, going to the James Taylor concert in SF with Dad, celebrating my dear friends Mikey & Luana’s wedding, traveling to Nashville with the fam for Thanksgiving, celebrating my 30th birthday with so many people I love, visiting my grandparents every Friday, and making more of an effort to call and email far-flung friends to stay in touch. We also made friends with our neighbors and have so enjoyed hosting each other for dinner. I hope to continue this trend in 2018 — and it is looking like my travels will certainly continue, with many trips and weddings on the horizon! During April alone I have three trips on the agenda, plus a dear friend visiting who I haven’t seen in five years! In 2018 we’ll hopefully host even more get-togethers and game nights when Allyn and I move into a bigger home. 🙂 Right now our max capacity for dinner is 4 or 5 people, including us. It will be so exciting to be able to host larger gatherings and parties.

The word “foundation” also manifested itself in unexpectedly wonderful ways. I received new teaching opportunities and my business has grown and flourished. Allyn and I have been able to pay off almost all of our student loan debt, strengthening our financial foundation. After six years of rejections, I received a phone call from Yellow Flag Press informing me that my short-story collection Woman, Running Late, in a Dress won their Cypress & Pine Short Fiction Award — it will be published in March! I can’t wait to share it with all of you. Perhaps most importantly, my relationship with Allyn has grown even more solid and nurturing. He is my rock. This past year we have taken trips together to Boulder and Santa Cruz and Monterrey, plus a staycation weekend in San Jose, and started a new tradition of monthly surprise dates. The trials of the past couple months have brought us even closer together, and I am so beyond grateful for him.

Moving into 2018, I kept thinking about how I wanted to build upon this beautiful foundation of 2017. When December hit, and it felt like a lot of what I knew and loved had been razed to the ground, I thought more about what it means to build back up again. It means being resilient and compassionate; it means grieving and remembering; it means crying and smiling, too. I kept coming back to the image of tiny seeds. They may seem unimportant, but they are vital. Seeds possess a powerful life-force. Inside them is the possibility of springing forth out of the dark soil, bursting into the sunlight, growing into something new.

My intention for 2018 is PLANTING SEEDS. In other words, I want to be a SOWER. I want to plant seeds in my writing, in my teaching, in my relationships, in my health and in my home. I want to plant seeds of optimism, joy and hope. I want to keep planting seeds even when I feel discouraged, even when it feels like I am staring at a blank canvas of dark soil without any sprouts, or when some sprouts I had hoped for die out. I want to begin again, and to keep sowing. To focus on the process of sowing and find comfort in that process. None of us can know which seeds we plant will blossom. Some seeds we plant might not even grow during our lifetime. But that doesn’t mean they never grow at all. We might plant a seed today that burrows within our souls and brings something else to light months or years from now — in ourselves, or in someone else. I have always loved this quote:

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” — Nelson Henderson

I want to plant seeds that grow into solid, shade-giving trees one day. Yet I don’t want to focus on the trees themselves. I want to focus on the joy of planting.

One of my favorite artists is Vincent Van Gogh, and my brother shared this painting of his with me. I have made a print of it, which is taped above my writing desk, reminding me of my intention for the year.

I want to leave you with these photographs of an art exhibit at the Met Bruer in NYC. I did not see this exhibit in person, but that my dad saw it with Greg in 2017 and shared it with me. This piece takes up an ENTIRE huge wall and consists of 365 small individual square paintings that are combined to make a larger piece.

My dad wrote, “When I looked at it, I thought about how overwhelming it would be to imagine creating the whole thing at once. It would be a loooong few weeks or months of work! However… if the artist decided to paint just one per day, what an easy and not overwhelming — in fact, what an enjoyable — undertaking it would become!”

I think this is a great metaphor not just for art and creative endeavors, but for life as a whole. What are your big goals for 2018? What are some amazing projects, adventures, trips, and undertakings you dream about that perhaps seem overwhelming? How can you break them down, step by step and day by day, into smaller “paintings”?

Here’s to a year of planting seeds that sprout up from the soil into beautiful new life!

 

Your turn {if you want}:

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

  • If you could sum up your 2017 in one word or phrase, what would it be? Why?
  • Reflect on your highs & lows of 2017. What did you love? What do you want to do differently the next time around?
  • What word or phrase will you choose for your intention in 2018? What does this mean to you?
  • What are you grateful for, right here and now?

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?