find someone who is kind

My grandma likes to tell a story about the first time she met my dad. At this point, my parents had been dating for almost two years and were engaged to be married in a matter of months. Shortly after my mom went off to college, my grandpap got transferred from California to Delaware for his job. Rather than being a few hours’ drive away, my grandparents were now living across the country. They knew about my dad, of course. Grandpap had met him once when he was out in California for work and visited UCSB. But my grandma had never met my dad when my mom called with the big news that she was engaged.

Grandma had never met my dad… but she discovered that she did know his parents. In an incredible small-world coincidence, all four of my grandparents attended the same small college of Wittenburg in Springfield, Ohio right after WWII. Grandma, Grandpap, and Grandma Auden were all in the same class; Gramps was a few years older. They were in different fraternities and sororities, but they were acquaintances who had some close friends in common. Then they graduated, got married, lost touch, and had children. Both families separately moved from Ohio to Southern California in the early 1970’s. My parents grew up just a couple hours away from each other, in Ventura and Northridge. Then my parents each chose to attend UCSB, and met each other at a party around Christmastime through mutual friends.

My grandma was comforted to realize that the man her daughter had fallen in love with was Jim & Audrey’s son. When the two sets of parents were reunited before the wedding, Auden pulled Grandma aside and said, “Don’t worry, Mary Lou. He is very kind.”

Kind is definitely one of the first words I would use to describe my father. He is gentle, thoughtful, compassionate, and loving. This past Easter, when I was visiting my parents and had to get my blood drawn {which is always an ordeal for me with my tiny veins} he sat beside me and held my hand. He slips cards into my purse just as he used to slip notes into my lunchbox. He and my mom have shown me that kindness is a source of strength.

So it is perhaps not a surprise that when I was looking for the person I would share my life with, the first word at the top of my list was kind. I wanted to find a partner who was kind, gentle, and compassionate. Who made me feel understood and loved, even when I didn’t understand or love myself. Who would be a beacon of comfort in a world that can, at times, be a very harsh place.

{photo credit Allyson McAuley}

When I came across Allyn’s photo on an online dating website, I was immediately drawn to his kind smile. I felt that quiet kindness emanating through his spirit on our first date, when he looked at me with his smiling eyes and listened attentively to all my stories. Kindness was the first quality that drew me to him. And, years later, it remains the quality of his that I am most grateful for.

I don’t think kindness gets much attention in the language we use to discuss romance. We talk about mystery and intrigue; sex appeal and beauty; passion and attraction. And all of those things are important. But I do think that, as a society, we focus too much on the “flashier” traits that are on the surface. Those traits that lessen over time as you build a life together, as you grow older together, as you let each other in on the secret intricacies and intimacies of your true selves. Allyn is less of a mystery to me now than when we met, and I am surely less of a mystery to him. Instead of meeting up for a dinner date all gussied up, he sees me when I am sick and when I am tired and when I have just woken up in the morning with crusty eyes and messy hair. When that whirlwind of initial romance ebbs into a steady partnership, and that newness melts away into the familiar, what you’re left with is the bedrock of your connection with each other.

To me, it is most important that it be a foundation built on kindness.

I am witness to my husband’s kindness every single day. When he comes up behind me and gives me a hug for no reason. When he opens the car door for me or insists on carrying in most of the groceries. When he traps the spider and carries it outside rather than killing it. The way he sends thank-you notes and mails birthday cards. The sweet way he hugs my grandma whenever we see her. I hear the kindness in his voice on the phone — not just when he talks to me, but also when he’s on the phone with his mom or his sister. When we go visit his great-aunt Flo and take her grocery shopping, and Allyn holds her purse so she won’t lose it, gently guiding the cart through the aisles to find her oranges and graham crackers and milk. I feel the warmth of his kindness every time he holds my hand when we walk down the street, or pauses to say hello to a neighbor, or picks up a piece of litter that had blown out of someone’s trash can.

I am so proud of his kindness. So proud to be married to him.

 

When Allyn and I first moved in together, I was concerned about keeping our “spark” alive. I didn’t want us to descend into roommates, losing any semblance of mystery or romance. I refrained from doing certain grooming tasks like plucking my eyebrows or trimming my fingernails around him. We never left the door open while peeing. When we dressed up to go on date nights, I would get dressed by myself in our bedroom so I could open the door and make my entrance. {I still like to do this — it’s just more fun that way!}

We made it through almost our first two years of living together, and the first year and a half of our marriage, before we broke these rules. Or, should I say, transcended them. When I underwent emergency surgery due to an ectopic pregnancy, suddenly I needed my husband in a way I never had before. I woke up in the hospital bed after my surgery, and I glimpsed a new layer of love in Allyn’s eyes. He kept telling me, “All that matters is that you’re okay.” That evening, before I was able to go home, the nurses wanted me to use the restroom. I felt too unsteady to walk across the hall by myself, plus I was attached to an IV pole with cumbersome wires. So Allyn held my hand and helped me slowly shuffle into the restroom. He held my arms and helped me sit down on the toilet. He stood right there as I peed. I realized I was breaking that cardinal rule I had set when we moved in together. I had believed that peeing in front of each other would be the furthest thing from romance. But, in that cold hospital bathroom, as my husband bent down to help me pull my panties back up, I felt more connected to him than I ever had before. It was a beautifully romantic moment in an ocean of grief.

In the following days and weeks, my husband’s steady kindness became my well of comfort. He helped me out of bed in the middle of the night to take my pills, then gently helped me lie back down into bed. He dried my legs off after I showered because I wasn’t supposed to bend down yet. He brought me saltine crackers and popsicles and refilled my water glass. He stroked my hair and told me how beautiful I was and how amazed he was by my strength. In those days and weeks of healing, I felt stripped down to my barest self. And my husband gazed with awe at that raw, vulnerable part of me and said, “I have never loved you more than I do right now.”

It was not the stuff of romance novels. It was not the scenes I dreamed about on those lonely nights when I was single, imagining my future husband. But since going through that trying and intimate experience together, our attraction to each other has only grown and deepened. Allyn’s kindness makes me fall more and more in love with him every day.

 

I still close the bathroom door when I pluck my eyebrows and trim my nails and pee. I still hope that I retain a bit of mysterious intrigue in my husband’s eyes. But, one of the sweetest moments of our nightly routine comes right before we turn out the bedroom light, when Allyn says, “Ready for me to do your eyes?” I have dry eyes, so my doctor recommended putting in these nighttime eye drops. It is more like an eye gel, much harder than putting in normal eye drops, and I am terribly unsuccessful at doing it to myself. After witnessing me poking myself in the eye and squeezing eye gel onto the bridge of my nose, Allyn said, “Would you like me to help you with that?” So now, every night, I hold open my eyelids while he carefully puts the gel into each of my eyes.

My sweet, thoughtful, kind husband. I feel so lucky to have him. I am so glad I picked him, and he picked me.

Every night, I blink my wet eyes, put the tube of eye drops back down on my bedside table, and turn onto my side. Allyn flips off the light and kisses me goodnight. His hand finds mine under the covers as we drift off to sleep together.

To me, it doesn’t get much more romantic than that.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

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

  • What traits are most important to you in a partner? Why?
  • Write about a time someone has shown you kindness. What happened? What did it mean to you?
  • Write about an experience when you were forced to be vulnerable around someone else. What happened? What did you learn from the experience?
  • Think about some of the most romantic experiences in your life. Would they be considered conventionally romantic? Did any of them surprise you?

a virtual coffee date

Last week, one of my favorite bloggers — Whitney at sometimes.always.never — wrote a post about what she would talk about if you sat down for a cup of coffee together. I loved getting a peek into her thoughts and life at the moment. I’ve been feeling a bit scatterbrained this week, with lots of projects and ideas competing for space inside my head, so this type of post was calling to me. I wish I could sit down and have a real coffee date with all of you! I guess a virtual one will have to do for now.

So, brew a mug of your favorite coffee or tea {I’m currently obsessed with the Harney & Sons hot cinnamon spice black tea that my mom got me for Christmas}, get cozy, and let’s chat.

I would probably suggest a coffee date at my new house so I could show you around. There are still plenty of boxes to unpack and pictures to hung up, but the “bones” of our new home are settled in and the space is feeling more and more cozy and familiar. I’d give you a little tour and then we’d sprawl out together on the couch in the living room, which is perhaps my favorite room of the whole house and the perfect place to curl up with a book. I love the fireplace and the natural light!

I would tell you about how my mom came to visit last weekend and how spending time with her nourishes my soul. One of the joys of growing up is feeling more on a “peer-to-peer” or “friend-to-friend” level with your parents. I love talking with my mom about marriage, running a household, work-life balance… basically I try to pick her brain as to how she manages to be so dang amazing. I feel incredibly lucky to have her as my mom! She booked her trip to coincide with our move and she was a HUGE help in getting things organized and moving in some new-to-us family furniture. {Even though she was sick with a cold — she’s such a champ.} My aunt Annie is moving soon and she generously gave us a bunch of pieces, including some beautiful rugs, a coffee table, and a professional wooden desk that I still can’t quite believe is mine!

Speaking of the desk, I would tell you about how my incredible husband does.not.give.up. The desk is BIG and at first, it seemed like it would just  b a r e l y  not fit through the doorjamb into the room we’ve designated as an office. We tried turning it around various ways and tried fitting it through the doorway at various angles, but nothing was working. The desk kept getting stuck partway through the doorway. Mom and I were ready to throw in the towel. “I’ll be fine with the old desk,” I said, even though my heart felt disappointed.

But no. Allyn was convinced that there was a way it would work. Eventually, he turned the desk vertically and was able to wiggle it through the doorjamb. Success! Mom and I could not believe it. All it took was some clever thinking and rethinking, determination not to give up too soon… and a screwdriver take the door off its hinges! There is definitely a life lesson in that experience.

{Right about now I would take a sip of my tea and confess to you that I was pretty dang nervous about detaching and reattaching the office door. But it worked out great! The door is good as new and my new desk is happily in place under the window.}

I would tell you how wonderful it was to see my mom, but that it highlighted how much I miss my dad and brother, and how I can’t wait to see them both in April to cheer on Greg as he runs the Boston Marathon! He just amazes me and makes me so proud. April is going to be an incredibly busy month, filled with exciting travel plans and lots of friend + family time. I am gearing up!

I would tell you how my new collection of short stories WOMAN, RUNNING LATE, IN A DRESS has officially been released into the world and it is surreal and scary and thrilling and hopeful to think of people reading my words and feeling transported into these characters’ lives. Holding the book in my hands still gives me goosebumps. People have already said some really nice things about it, which also gives me goosebumps. If you’d like a copy, you can snag one here! I would be delighted to sign it for you, too. 🙂

I would tell you how I’m developing a new program for people who want to grow more confident in their writing skills, work on writing projects that are important to them, and generally become better, happier, more productive writers! If we were drinking coffee together in person, I would ask you a bunch of questions. Virtually, if you have 5 minutes to share your insights with me on this survey, I would be SO grateful! https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/Z9LMJ8P

I would tell you how I’m loving the longer daylight hours, even though it has been a bit tougher to get up in the morning this week. I would rave about this recipe and this song and I would let you borrow this book, which I devoured in two days. We would eat some homemade pumpkin muffins and I would tell you about my ongoing quest to quit sugar and how it’s going fairly well. I’ve definitely scaled back, and there’s no more mindless sugar-snacking going on, but sometimes a girl just needs a square or two of dark chocolate. And that’s okay.

I would ask you about your family and your circle of friends, about what you’re loving and what you’re craving, about your dreams big and small, in this precious season of life you are journeying through.

And then we’d pour some more coffee or tea, and keep talking. Because nothing warms the heart like some good conversation.

Happy Wednesday, everyone! I’m raising my mug of warm cinnamon spice in a toast to you right now. Sending you so much love and a great big hug. Let me know what you’re up to in the comments below!

 

Your turn {if you want}:

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

  • What is something you are really excited about in your life right now? What are you looking forward to in the future?
  • What books/songs/movies/recipes are you currently obsessed with?
  • What is one thing you have discovered lately — about yourself, about others, about the wider world?
  • Is anything lying heavy on your heart right now? Write it down. Let it out.

packing {and unpacking} boxes

The past few weeks, my life has smelled like cardboard and permanent marker. My ears have filled with the loud riiiiip of packing tape, the crinkle of bubble wrap and paper. My hands have gotten so practiced at unfolding and putting together boxes that I could sleepwalk and wake up in the middle of the living room, cardboard box before me, assembled and waiting to be filled.

I don’t think of myself as much of a consumer. I don’t really enjoy shopping, either in physical stores or online, and I hate waste. I try to use up what I have before I buy a replacement. For Christmas and birthdays, Allyn and I like to give each other experience gifts rather than material items.

And yet… as we were packing our entire life together into boxes, we kept looking at each other and asking the same question: How do we have so much stuff??

Our river of possessions seemed never-ending. Right after we signed the lease on our new place and had set our moving date, I began to pack. I was excited about our move and wanted to get a jump on things. I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but I severely underestimated how much work — how many boxes — it would take to get us out of our apartment and into our house. I began with the bookshelf and linen closet, packing up items we wouldn’t need for a few weeks. After a couple days, I was floored at the number of boxes that were already piled up around our living room. And I hadn’t even finished clearing out the entire bookshelf yet! It looked as if I had hardly packed anything.

When you are packing up to move, an amazing thing happens. You are forced to sort through the cobwebbed corners of your life — your junk drawer, the back of your closet, under your bed. You rediscover things you had completely forgotten about. You find things you thought you had lost. {My lonely sock now has a pair! My favorite strapless bra is back in rotation!} You need to go through every single item in your life and evaluate: is this something I need? Is this something I use? Is this something that, as Marie Kondo writes in her lovely book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, sparks joy?

Ordinarily, it might be easy to lie to yourself. To say, “Oh yes, I use that thing. Or I might use it. One day. Sometime. Maybe.” And to put it back inside the junk drawer, wedge it back under the bed, to wait for some indeterminate future that probably will never come. But when you are packing up to move, the stakes are higher. Each item takes up space in a box that you will lug out of this life and into the next. It is much easier to be honest with yourself. It is much easier to let things go.

Allyn and I try to make it a habit to let go of things in our normal routine. We keep a “to donate” bag in our closet and every other month or so, we fill it up and take it to Goodwill. If you had asked me before we began packing, I would have told you that I didn’t really have any items that I didn’t love and use on a regular basis.

And yet. Somehow, in the process of packing, I managed to fill up three paper grocery bags with clothing I realized I hadn’t worn in ages and likely would not wear again, plus a dozen kitchen items that we hardly ever use and will not miss. There were at least two-dozen books from our bookshelf that found themselves inside the library’s donation bin rather than inside our moving boxes. And even more stuff got recycled or thrown away — random bits and bobs that we couldn’t remember the purpose of, expired bottles in our medicine cabinet, papers that I’d saved for no reason I could now discern.

Packing up all of these boxes made me think of the metaphorical boxes in our lives, the ones that live inside ourselves. The ones we have been filling up, quietly and steadily, throughout our entire lives. Boxes of memories and ideas. Boxes of priorities and dreams. Boxes and boxes of beliefs — about ourselves and about others, about what we can and cannot do, about what we are capable of and what we are made of, about what we love and hate and need and fear.

How often do we sift through these boxes? How often do we examine all the things we have packed away inside ourselves? How often do we unwrap each thought or memory or belief, hold it up to the light, and ask ourselves if it is still serving us? If we want to pack it back up and carry it with us? Or if perhaps it might be time to let it go?

For many of us, I think the answer is never. Or rarely. Or perhaps once or twice, a long time ago.

I think far too often, we hold all of these heavy boxes inside ourselves without even thinking about them. We don’t even remember what is inside of them. And yet, their contents impact our lives so deeply. We feel tired or bored or frustrated or angry. We feel like we’re not good enough or worry that we’re never going to “measure up” or compare ourselves to the highlight reels of others and feel discouraged. We look to the outside for answers when really the answers have been inside of us all along, sealed in bubble-wrap, nestled against our hearts.

We need to be very careful about what we pack into those boxes. We need to be vigilant about what we hold in our most vulnerable places.

I’ve realized that this process isn’t just something to be done when I’m moving. Both for my material possessions, and for my inner thoughts and beliefs, this needs to be something I do routinely. Look around at my surroundings, study the items on my shelves and in my cabinets, and ask myself,

Is this something so valuable to me that I would pack up into one of my boxes and schlep it with me into the future?

If no, then I need to let it go. Not tomorrow, or next week, or sometime in the indeterminate future. But right now. There is no reason to carry that extra weight for any longer than necessary.

I’ve noticed a crazy thing when I ask this question in regards to my internal boxes. When my answer is no, and I let go of something that is limiting me, then I immediately feel lighter. Which makes sense. When I let go of something, my box is less heavy. So I feel lighter. Just like real-life boxes.

However, when I answer this question with a resounding YES — yes, this belief or memory or idea or thought-pattern is serving me, is nurturing me, is helping me show up in this life as my best self — and I pack it back up into my heart space, something miraculous happens. Yes, I am filling up my internal boxes, but I do not feel heavier at all. I feel lighter.

 

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 free-writing:

  • When was the last time you moved? Were you surprised about anything you found when you were packing?
  • Unpack your heart space a little. What thoughts, beliefs, ideas do you find? Which ones are serving you? Which ones are not?
  • Looking around at your physical space, is there anything that does not “spark joy”? What do you think would happen if you let it go?

saying goodbye to our apartment

For the past two years, Allyn and I have lived in a one-bedroom apartment. I can still vividly remember the day we signed the lease and got the keys and unlocked the front door for the first time, stepping across the threshold like we were venturing into a bright new future.

Our new apartment was small, but to us it seemed like a castle. It was our very own home — a home we would build together. I can remember how excited I was at the idea of regular, everyday life with my sweetheart: unloading groceries in our fridge, cooking dinner in our kitchen, snuggling up together on our couch to watch a movie on a Saturday night {never mind that, when we first moved in, we did not yet have a couch.} All of those everyday-life couple-y things seemed, to me, like miracles. Like gold. Up to that point, our everyday routine meant juggling our lives and our schedules between his place and mine — which wasn’t even really “my” place, as I was living with my grandparents. We drove forty minutes to see each other for date nights and felt lucky to get two days in a row with each other. I treasured the weekends, when I could wake up to his sleepy smile.

Now, I get to wake up to his sleepy smile every day and fall asleep to his arms around me every night. I do my best to remember what it was like before I had this gift. I do my best to treasure it and treat it like the gold it is.

I remember leaving my grandparents’ house on the morning of Moving Day, feeling revved up as I climbed into my packed-up car. I was sad to say goodbye to my grandparents, even though I was so excited to be moving in with Allyn, and even though I knew I could come back and visit anytime. I always get sad at goodbyes, even when they are good goodbyes. My new apartment was only half an hour away, but I felt like I was driving across space-time as I navigated the two-lane canyon road from my old town to my new town. It was a sunny day, a perfect fresh beginning. Rarely in life do we have such clean-cut new chapters, but this was one of mine.

Moving Day was more of an ordeal than I expected it to be. How did we get so much stuff? The movers kept unloading boxes and unloading more boxes. Allyn’s mom and sister came to help, and I remember looking around our new living room crammed with Jenga towers of boxes, feeling overwhelmed yet also thrilled. It was real! It was happening! That first day, we focused on the important things: making the bed, getting our Internet and cable up and running, unpacking our new dishes in the kitchen. Allyson thoughtfully brought us toilet paper and paper towels. I remember scurrying around from room to room, thinking, Our kitchen! Our bathroom! Our bedroom! Our balcony!

That night, we celebrated with Mexican food. Then Allyn and I made the first of many Target runs to get essentials we had forgotten about: trash cans, a dish rack, hooks to hang our towels in the bathroom. That night, falling asleep together in our not-yet-familiar bedroom, listening to the new sounds of our fridge humming and our neighbors shifting the floorboards, I made a wish that this new chapter would be everything I hoped it to be, and more.

As excited as I was to move in with my sweetheart, I was also a little nervous. I knew from past experience that this was the make-it-or-break-it time of a relationship. This was where you truly got to know each other’s earthy roots and tangled messes, quirky annoyances and stubbled shadows. Previously, I had made a promise to myself that I would never again get engaged without living with the person first. When you live together, you can’t hide from each other. I was pretty sure that Allyn wasn’t hiding anything from me — that I knew him as well as I thought I did — and yet, I kept thinking of my ex, whose anger issues only emerged when we moved in together and he began to fully relax into himself around me. Of course, I wanted Allyn to be his full self around me, just as I was my full self around him. But I hoped that would still be the sweet, kind, and gentle man that I had fallen in love with.

Also, I hoped that I didn’t have any annoying habits that would make him stop loving me.

I clearly remember waking up that first morning in our new apartment, buzzing with energy about all of the clear-cut tasks before us: boxes waiting for us to unpack them, drawers and shelves waiting to be filled. Allyn used our new kettle to boil water for coffee and tea. We didn’t yet have a couch so we set up two camping chairs and sat in them as we ate our cereal out of bowls. The sun shone brightly through our new windows. There was such a sweet simplicity to our new life together. It almost felt like we were on vacation. Playing house. I wondered when it would sink in, when it would feel truly real.

It was only a couple weeks later that we went away to the Russian River together to celebrate our two-year dating anniversary, and Allyn got down on one knee and asked me to live with him forever. By that time, our new apartment already felt like home and our new life together already felt solid and stable and ours. I was not worried anymore that some secret part of him would emerge out of the shadows. I knew him, really knew him — in truth I always had, from our very first date. Allyn has this beautiful open-heartedness, this authentic spirit, that I trusted immediately. He had never been anything other than himself. We had only been living together for a couple weeks, yet I knew all that I needed to know. I said, “Yes!” with tears streaming down my face and pure joy filling my heart. Already, we were entering into another brand new chapter together.

In the past two years, I have indeed learned some quirks about my sweetie… that have only made me love him more. For dessert, he eats sour gummy candy out of a giant zip-lock bag like a twelve-year-old. He gets flustered when the dishwasher is only half-full and feels like there is no more room to put any dishes. He always hangs his towel up right away; hums when he is getting ready in the morning; always cuts food on the cutting board, never on a plate. We have an ongoing debate about the merits of the ice-cream scooper. {I believe it is perfectly acceptable to use a regular spoon to scoop ice cream from the carton; Allyn believes the spoon will get bent and insists on the scooper.} He is the sweetest and most attentive plant-waterer I could imagine.

This little apartment has been the perfect home for us in this season of life. It is crazy to think of how much has changed since we first moved here. In this cozy little apartment, we’ve woven our lives and dreams together. We put together a bookshelf and put up shelving and hung pictures. We planned our perfect-for-us wedding and celebrated our one-year wedding anniversary. We helped each other through career ups-and-downs, holding hands through the uncertainties and uncorking the Martinelli’s when Allyn got his full-time job working in the environmental department of the City of San Jose, and when I learned that my collection of short stories is going to be published. We fed friends around the dinner table and baked birthday cakes and even, at the last minute, hosted this past Christmas dinner {I wasn’t strong enough post-surgery to go anywhere else, so the meal & the people came to me!} Inside these walls, we have cuddled and talked and argued and laughed and loved each other through it all. In short, this apartment has been the sacred space where we have grown from two people into two roommates into one family.

We will be sad to leave this apartment. But also, we are ready. I remember, in first grade, reading a picture book about a hermit crab who outgrew his shell. He looked and looked and eventually found a new shell, which he decorated and made into his own. Then, a little while later, he outgrew that one too. It was time to move on and find his next-bigger shell. I think of that hermit crab, and he reminds me not to give into my resistance to change. That we need to let go of the shells we have outgrown, or else we will stop growing. That we can say goodbye to our cramped, too-small shells with love and gratitude in our hearts. That stepping forward into the next chapter of our lives does not mean that we will forget the chapters that came before.

Allyn and I are ready to live in our own home, with a yard and a guest bedroom and no shared walls with neighbors. As much as I love my little writing corner currently wedged in between the TV and the sliding glass door to our balcony, and as nice as it is to be steps away from the kitchen and bathroom throughout my workday, I am looking forward to having “a room of one’s own” — an office of my own that is not part of our living room space. Perhaps most of all, we are excited to move closer to Allyn’s work, shortening his long daily commute by an hour a day! It will be such a gift to have him home earlier each evening.

So we find ourselves circling back to the beginning. Our apartment is once again filled up with Jenga towers of boxes. We are once again preparing to step across the threshold into a bright future, with hope in our hearts that our new home will be filled with tenderness and grace, beautiful dreams and lovely surprises, new learning and growth.

At the end of Eric Carle’s A House for Hermit Crab, the hermit crab leaves his too-small shell in search of a new home:

The ocean floor looked wider than he had remembered, but Hermit Crab wasn’t afraid. Soon, he spied the perfect house–a big, empty shell. It looked, well, a little plain, but…

“Sponges!” he thought. “Barnacles! Clown fish! Sand dollars! Electric eels! Oh, there are so many possibilities! I can’t wait to get started!”

Goodbye, sweet apartment. Thank you for holding us, for shaping us, for bearing witness to our lives these past two years.

Hello, new house. We can’t wait to get started.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

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

  • Write about a home that has meant a lot to you. What memories did you make there? What did you learn while living there–about yourself, about your relationship, about other people?
  • Do you embrace change, or avoid change? Why do you think you feel this way about change? What are some changes in your life you have faced? Did they turn out the way you expected?
  • Imagine unpacking a box from your childhood bedroom. What are some items you would unpack? What would those items mean to you now, in your present life?

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?

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?

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!