the allure of the vending machines

Last week, I taught an all-day camp in writing and public speaking for fifth graders. The camp was held at a community center and there were a variety of summer camps going on at the same time—down the hall was Crafts, outside was Nature Explorers, and the next room over was a Dance Camp for adorable five-year-olds in pouffy dresses. {They danced to the theme song from Moana over and over and it became the soundtrack of my week, looping through my mind on repeat.} One thing that all the camps had in common was that the kids were obsessed—I mean, seriously obsessed—with the vending machines.

There were two vending machines in the narrow hallway next to the public bathrooms. One was filled with drinks and the other with snacks, but they might as well have been filled with gold for how they mesmerized all the kiddos who wandered past them en route to the restroom. The other teachers and I would share sympathetic smiles as we coaxed and herded our respective students away from the vending machines and back to class. Often this required physically positioning our bodies between the kids and the machines, blocking the view through the glass.

Sometimes, after camp ended for the day, I would leave the restroom and see a small child proudly showing off the vending machines to her mom or dad, pride in her voice as she named the various options. “But what did you do at camp today?” the parent would ask in confusion. I always sent home notes to the parents of my students, detailing what we did in class, urging them to look through the binder and see all the progress their child was making. I could envision, when asked what they did all day, a student answering, “We played on the playground and Steve got Hot Cheetos!” It was true: I always took them to the playground during our lunch break.

The same kids who announced, “I’m bored!” within seven minutes of a classroom writing activity could easily spend twenty minutes just staring up at the array of salty and sweet choices {perhaps, for some, forbidden choices}, their faces awash in the fluorescent glow, imagining ways to con the machine into giving them free food and chattering about what they would choose if their parents let them bring money the next day. I quickly learned not to let a student go alone to the restroom—that hallway would snag his attention and stop his legs like quicksand, and he would never return. Sending pairs of kids was not any more successful. Those vending machines were like the Vegas Strip to a gambler; they just could not help themselves. I pretty much always had to walk down the hall myself and drag them away from the colors and lights.

What is it about those vending machines? I wondered to myself, driving home midway through the week. Some of the kids bring Fritos in their lunch—why do the same Fritos have so much more appeal behind the glass?

I arrived home, exhausted, and sat down at my computer to answer a few emails before starting dinner. However, I soon found myself clicking over to Facebook. No news or notifications. Nothing to see here. Still, that didn’t stop me from checking again on my phone two or three times while making dinner. It was the allure of possibility—maybe the next time I checked, there would be a new notification and my brain would bask in that dopamine hit.

And, just like that, I realized—I was caught up in those same vending machine lights. So many of us are. We may not be standing in front of actual vending machines, giddily contemplating the choices, but metaphorically we are just like those kids staring up at the sodas and chips. We are sucked in by the possibility and the glamour of what we don’t have. Once we do get it, often the appeal melts away. The excitement of the Facebook notification disappears once we click on it. One of my students, who had been salivating all week over the beef jerky packages in the vending machine, was finally given money by his mother on Friday to buy something for a snack. I was shocked when he only ate a little bit of the beef jerky, then tossed the rest in the trash. “It tastes weird,” he said with a shrug when I asked him why he threw his prized snack away. All week long he’d been staring at the package through the glass. Then, when he got what he’d been dreaming about, it was no longer special but ordinary, and he was disappointed.

air hockey, guys, games, guys weekend

Teaching kids, I’m always struck by how much they remind me of adults. How much do we ever, truly, grow up beyond our child selves? Both kids and adults find creative ways to avoid discomfort as much as possible. And, guess what? Learning and growing and evolving are uncomfortable.

So many times, when teaching a new concept, I would watch a student make great progress: write an amazing hook for their essay; analyze the author’s purpose of an editorial; prepare a list of pro’s and con’s for a persuasive essay. But then, discomfort would hit. The student would feel tired. The student would want a distraction. The student would raise his or her hand. “Mrs. Woodburn, can I go to the bathroom?” Of course I would let them go—I never prevent students from going to the bathroom if needed—but, 9 times out of 10, what they would really be asking was: “Can I go look at the vending machines, and dream about the possibility of a snack I might get tomorrow, because that is so much easier than muscling through this sticky learning process right here, right now?” After a few minutes, I would walk down the hall to check on him. I would find him gazing up, awash in the fluorescent lights. I would gently prod him back to class, back to the discomfort, back to the growing.

That is what we need to do for ourselves, too. We need to be the teacher coming to check on ourselves. When you notice yourself craving a distraction—wanting to take a break from a project you’re working on and check your email, or browse Facebook, or scroll through Instagram, or even do something “productive” like wash those dirty dishes or organize your closet—ask yourself what the root of your desire truly is. Are you actually at a good stopping point, with that joyfully wrung-out feeling, when a break to recharge and rest your mind is needed? Or are you simply feeling uncomfortable or afraid, craving the “easy out” of a quick distraction, that will only leave you feeling restless or depleted when you eventually make your way back to your important work?

Of course, it is necessary and fun and important to daydream about the future. Sometimes we all need to take time to bask in the glow of the vending machines, and all the colorful options and choices that we might make tomorrow, or next month, or next year. Sometimes we need to celebrate the allure of possibility.

But we can’t spend all of our time there. We can’t live in our daydreams for the future. We need to do the tough, uncomfortable, sometimes boring, sometimes grinding, day-in and day-out work to get there. Only then will we turn our exciting dreams into reality.

And once we do reach those dreams? Once we do feed the quarters into the vending machine, make our selection, and watch the item fall from its perch and into our lives? We need to appreciate it. We need to look around at our lives and be grateful for what we do have—for all that we once coveted and now might take for granted. We need to savor every bite of that beef jerky. And then go run around on the playground with our friends. And then head back into the classroom to keep learning and growing, learning and growing, always.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

  • What are the “vending machines” in your life?
  • What is one daydream you have for the future?
  • What steps might you take—starting today, right now—to make that dream a reality?

a thank-you note to the universe

Dear Universe,

You really outdid yourself with my thirtieth birthday. It was one of the most special days weeks {I mean seriously, whose birthday celebration lasts multiple weeks??} of my life. It was filled with reminders of all the people who have made every day of my past thirty years on this planet such an incredible gift. I just wanted to write a little note to say thank you.

Thank you for my parents, who created me and raised me to be kind, curious, and confident in myself, to strive for my dreams and appreciate the present, to dive forward and dig in with both hands. They turned the story of my rocky premature birth into a story of strength and determination. Every single day of my entire life I have felt loved, because of them. I was so grateful to be able to celebrate my birthday, and my dad’s birthday two days before mine, with my family in my hometown over Memorial Day weekend. We ate so much delicious food and went mini-golfing and watched movies and relaxed together on the couch and took Mr. Murbur for long walks, and it was simply perfect.

Thank you for my brother, who has been my “twin” since the day he was born when I was two and a half. It is such a blessing to have someone in my life, for as long as I can remember, who shares my history and inside jokes and who just “gets” me. He may be my younger brother, but he is my role model. He is so wise, and I learn so much from him. It was such a gift that he flew out from NYC to be there for Memorial Day weekend, and he even ran the Mountains 2 Beach Marathon and totally kicked butt! It was his first-ever marathon, and he did it in 2 hours 52 minutes and creamed the Boston Qualifier time! I am unbelievably proud of him. Thank you, universe, for the gift of being able to cheer him on for the last mile of the race and hug him at the finish line. He inspires me all over!

Thank you for my amazing husband, who drove down to Ventura by himself on Saturday morning {with my flexible work schedule, I was able to fly down a few days earlier to squeeze in more family time} and was his sweet, thoughtful and generous self all weekend, even though he was probably exhausted from a long workweek and a long solo travel day. He fits in with my fam so naturally and I love seeing them share inside jokes and long conversations. He also was amazingly helpful to my mom–she has officially crowned him “Best Son-in-Law Ever”–washing off chairs and running to the grocery store and setting up tables for our big party on Sunday. {More about that later.} And, if all that wasn’t enough, he also made me the most wonderful personal birthday gift I could imagine, and he threw a party for me up in the Bay Area the weekend after my birthday, so I could celebrate with all my friends and family up here. He spent months planning it and even baked funfetti cupcakes with homemade cream-cheese frosting for the event! Universe, you were so generous to introduce me to this man three and a half years ago. He’s made me smile every day since. #luckiestgirl

{mini-golfing!}

Thank you for the gorgeous weather all weekend–especially on Sunday, when my parents threw a big party to celebrate my birthday, my dad’s birthday, and my brother’s epic marathon! My mom worked her booty off prepping for the party, as always without a hint of complaint. She gives to others with such joy. So many people from my childhood came by–old family friends, former teachers, my cousins and aunts and uncles, plus newer friends too! It was a whirlwind of chatting and visiting, eating and drinking and laughing. I love being able to introduce various people I adore to each other!

Thank you for bringing Erica into my life in seventh grade; she has been one of my best friends ever since. She has always loved me and accepted me for exactly who I am, which is such a gift in a friend. I was so happy to get to see her twice while I was home: for one of our marathon catch-up coffee dates, at our favorite spot Simone’s, and at the party on Sunday, where her parents came along too! It was wonderful to see them again, and they got to meet Allyn for the first time. It always warms my heart to see my hubby bond with my friends. Anyway, universe, I’m just so grateful for this girl!

Thank you for the dozens of sweet cards and thoughtful messages and phone calls I received from friends near and far on my birthday. From notes on Facebook to text messages to sunflower bouquets to birthday packages in the mail, I felt like the most loved lady on the planet. Now I have cards displayed all around our apartment that give me the warm fuzzies as I go through my day. I am so fortunate that my path has crossed with the paths of so many incredible people in the past 30 years!

Universe, thank you for blessing us with more gorgeous weather last Saturday for my second birthday party—a picnic at the Lake Chabot regional park, just down the street from our apartment. Allyn reserved our picnic area back in January, and it was absolutely perfect: up on a little hill, tucked away, our own private spot to BBQ and hang out with friends.

Thank you for my wonderful in-laws, who came early and schlepped coolers and grilling trays and drinks and food and camping chairs and propane up the hill, who helped us get the tablecloths and decorations all set up, who were grill masters and made sure everyone had enough to eat. Allyn’s mom saved the day by bringing along some metal tongs—Allyn and I realized when we started unloading things for the grill that, despite months of careful planning and triple-checking to-do lists, we had completely forgotten to bring any sort of implements to turn meat and veggies on the grill, like maybe a spatula?? Haha! After a few moments of panic, Barbara realized she had metal tongs, which she brought along to serve the delicious ribs she had made for everyone. Problem solved!

Thank you for all of our dear friends and family who took time out of their busy lives to come celebrate with me. It is so rare for all of us to be together in one place—it felt a bit like my wedding all over again, in the best way! Hours flew by in what felt like a blink. It was such a treat to spend time just relaxing, eating, sharing stories, laughing, piñata-ing, throwing around the football, and soaking up the sunlight together.

Finally, universe {coming around full-circle} thank you once again for my parents, who totally surprised me by driving 6+ hours to come to my picnic party! Allyn was the only one who knew their plan, and he was a master secret-keeper. I was completely blown away! I will always treasure the memory of seeing them walking up the hill to the party, a huge smile breaking across my face as I realized… “Hey, that’s my parents!!” I couldn’t believe they would travel all that way to celebrate my birthday all over again. {Actually, I could believe it. My parents are such generous people who always make me feel so special!} I absolutely loved having them there, getting to introduce them to my friends and showing them around the park where I love to go for walks during the week. Plus, we got to hang out with them for dinner that night and lunch the next day, before they hit the road to head back home. Even though I wish we lived just down the street from each other, I’m so grateful that we’re only a car ride away.

Universe, I can’t imagine a better 30th birthday. Thank you for my health, my people, and for all the love in my life. As everyone sang me “Happy Birthday” over funfetti cupcakes with divine homemade frosting, I looked around at all the smiling faces and my heart felt full-to-the-brim with pure gratitude. How beautiful this life is. How lucky I am to live it. I am savoring these moments as deeply as I can, even while I am so excited to see what my next trip around the sun brings!

Love,
Dallas

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer, and “freewrite” your thoughts on the following prompts:

  • Write your own letter to the universe. What are you grateful for?
  • Have you ever been surprised or been thrown a surprise party? Or, have you ever surprised someone else? Write about the experience.
  • What is one of your favorite birthday memories?

must be nice…

The other day, while waiting in line at the grocery store, I overheard a comment about a TV show host that caught my attention.

“Must be nice,” the person said. “Getting paid that much to just work a couple hours a day.”

I am obviously not a TV host, but still this comment made me bristle. Because I recognized the inherent criticism in these words: the idea that the value of one’s work is dependent on the amount of time one puts in, and furthermore that all the behind-the-scenes work somehow doesn’t “count.”

All of our jobs have behind-the-scenes work; but I think we as a society tend to recognize this work more in some jobs than we do others. When we watch a Broadway play, we understand that the actors don’t just come onstage and perform and that is their entire job—we know that there are many, many hours of rehearsal behind each glittery performance. When we hire someone to remodel our kitchen, we “count” the work it takes them to draw up the plans. When someone clocks into work, especially a 9-5 job with traditional hours, we generally think of their behind-the-scenes work—all the emails and meetings and billing and drudgery—as part of that work time. We measure it and count it and value it. All of it.

But what about when someone’s job has less clearly defined parameters? Someone whose “working hours” in the public eye might not include the entire scope of their job? One example that springs immediately to my mind are teachers. “Must be nice,” I have heard people say about the teaching profession. “Get off work at 3pm and then have the entire summer off.” I think statements like these are ludicrous. My friends who are teachers, including my aunt and my sister-in-law, are some of the hardest-working people I know who care immensely about their jobs. My sister-in-law might leave school property at 4pm, but more often than not she goes home and plans lessons until late at night. She is there for her students before school, after school, during lunch, and she regularly goes above-and-beyond planning field trips and interactive learning events for them.

Plus, beyond all the hours great teachers put in “behind the scenes,” they are such treasures because they make such a difference! I have been so fortunate that I can point to a dozen teachers who have had a profound impact on my life, who I still think of often to this day. Teachers are educating our future. Why do we, as a society, not value their work more? Why do we write them off with, “Must be nice…”?

Let’s stop doing this. Let’s stop writing each other off. 

Perhaps it’s a grass-is-always greener situation. Just as we should not compare our insides to other people’s outsides, we should be careful not to compare the insides of our jobs with the outsides of other people’s jobs. For example, my dad was a sports columnist for many years {he is now a general interest columnist and also writes books and magazine articles} and people often remarked to him how lucky he was to “get paid for watching sports.” While he was fortunate to have a job he was passionate about, watching a sports event in order to write about it for the newspaper is entirely different from watching a sports event as a fan. He was working. Taking notes, conducting interviews, shaping and writing his column during the game, having to go back and erase and change it based on the outcome, and then having to bang it out and file in time for the next day’s paper to be printed. Dad used to joke that the best type of game as a fan—the nail-biting, triple-overtime, down-to-the-wire thriller—was the worst type of game as a sports columnist, because you had no idea until the final buzzer what the outcome would be. You pretty much had to write TWO columns, one for each outcome, because there would never be enough time to write the entire thing after the game ended before your deadline. It would be easy for people to look at my dad’s career and think, “Must be nice…” But they had no idea all of the “behind the scenes” work his job entailed.

The reason that I think this “must be nice” mindset is dangerous is because it isn’t just fair to the people we are undervaluing: it also isn’t fair to ourselves. This mindset puts us in the realm of “victim” and ignores the drudgery and busywork and unglamorous parts that are present in pretty much every job. Susan Hyatt writes about this very eloquently in her blog post/podcast “The Parts You Don’t See.”

Furthermore, this mindset takes away our power rather than empowering us. It pretends that other people have it better than we do, easier than we do, cushier than we do. It does not acknowledge all the hard work they put in to get where they are, and also undermines our own efforts to work hard and advance in our careers. When you accomplish your big career goals, do you want someone looking at you and saying that you are so lucky to be where you are? No! It’s not darn luck—it took years of busting your butt!

When you feel yourself slipping into the defeatist perspective that other people have it easier than you do, I challenge you to take a step back and think about all the hard work it took for them to get where they are. Then challenge yourself to focus on your own hard work to accomplishing your own goals. Keep your eyes on your own paper. Cultivate a mindset of gratitude. Think about it. What makes you more motivated: feeling jealous of other people’s lives, or feeling grateful for all the beauty and blessings in your own life? I know for me, the answer is easy. Gratitude wins by a landslide every time.

 

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:

  • What are the “behind-the-scenes” aspects of your job that other people might not recognize?
  • Write about a time you felt valued, or undervalued. What was your reaction?
  • What is your “dream job”? Why?
  • Are there any professions you envy? What do you envy about them? What hard or unglamorous work might also be wrapped up in these jobs?
  • What do you love about your current job, right now, in this moment?

30 acts of kindness for my 30th birthday

This year, I’m ringing in a new decade! Yep—I’m joining my hubby in the 30’s club!

As when I turned 27, my birthday wish for this year is to create a “kindness chain” … I’ve spent the past few weeks doing 30 random acts of kindness, in honor of my 30th birthday. My birthday wish is for you to join me in an act of kindness. Please feel free to share your stories and acts of kindness in the comments section below!

my birthday wish

my 30 acts of kindness:

1. Bake goodies for a neighbor. One of our neighbors helped us Allyn carry a heavy desk up the stairs to our second-floor apartment when I was clearly struggling to hold up my end. He was just walking by and kindly came to our rescue! So I baked him some muffins with a thank-you note. I also gave some dried lavender in a small glass vase to our across-the-hall neighbor Joyce, who admired a vase of dried lavender in our apartment a few weeks ago.

thank you note

2. Donate stamps for The Letter Project. This organization was started by my blogging friend Whitney, and I love her mission to provide letters filled with comfort, hope and encouragement to women and girls. I have previously written letters for girls through The Letter Project, but I wanted to do a little bit more, so I donated some stamps too! Whitney works tirelessly to bring joy to others, and her efforts and genuine spirit inspire me so much.

3. Donate to a classroom on DonorsChoose in honor of all the teachers in my life. I chose this project to help bring a creative writing space to students in a Head Start program in Louisville, Kentucky. {Bonus: all donations are currently being doubled for this project!} This donation is also in honor of my brother Greg, who is a huge champion of Early Childhood Education and play-based learning, and who inspires me daily with his amazing work empowering administrators, educators and students through the nonprofit organization Right to Play.

4. Leave a kind note in a public place. I stuck this post-it note on the bathroom mirror at the airport!

5. Donate craft materials to the East Bay Depot for Creative Reuse. I learned about this really neat reuse center from my sweetheart, who has become a waste management expert due to all his environmental work. This organization welcomes donations of everything from used toilet paper rolls to old buttons to fabric, electronics, media and more! Everything at their center is available for teachers to come take to use in their classrooms, for free. It is a wonderful concept, and I was happy to go through our apartment and my grandma’s house and get some materials together to donate, including two fake plants! Allyn was sweet enough to drop the donation off for me when he went to the area to donate blood.

East Bay Depot Creative Reuse

6. Pay for someone else’s coffee. While visiting my hometown for my birthday weekend, I met up with my friend Erica for coffee at our favorite local spot, Simone’s. I gave the barista an extra $5 to pay forward to someone else’s coffee that day. I hope it gave a stranger a nice surprise!

{The two of us at Simone’s during a visit years ago!}

7. Reach out to a friend. I sent messages to a few friends I haven’t been in touch with in a while, and got wonderful responses in return!

8. Write a note of appreciation. I wrote a fan letter to one of my favorite bloggers, Alex Franzen, telling her how much her joyful spirit and empowering words mean to me. I also shared a video that Allyn took of me giving a talk as a Worship Associate, when I shared her words and a story from her blog. She wrote back to my email right away, and was so touched that she shared the video with all of her subscribers. I have long been a fan of Alex’s; now I feel like I made a new friend!

9. Pick up litter. When I walked my favorite loop around my parents’ neighborhood, I brought a plastic bag along with me and picked up any litter I saw. I was surprised how much I gathered in just twenty minutes!

10. Write glowing reviews of my doctorsI am so lucky to have wonderful doctors who truly make me feel cared about and safe. I wrote reviews of them on Yelp so that when prospective patients are searching for doctors, they will know that these people are amazing!

11. Deliver flowers to a nursing home. This is actually something I like to do every year on my birthday, in honor of my dear friend Jewell, who was also born in May—we used to always celebrate our birthdays together. This year, I bought a beautifully blooming orchid and delivered it to the Ventura Townhouse, where Jewell used to live. The woman working the front desk was delighted and surprised. I think Jewell was smiling! Love you and miss you, my sweet friend.

jewell

12. Plant trees. I donated to The Canopy Project through The Earth Day Network. Every dollar you donate equals a new tree planted! Earth Day Network works on the ground with organizations worldwide that strengthen communities through tree planting. Using sapling and seed distribution, urban forestry, agroforestry, and tree care training, this amazing and vital organization has empowered rural and urban people alike to conserve, repair, and restore tree cover to their lands. I donated $30 to plant 30 trees for my 30th birthday!

13. Corral shopping carts in a parking lot. Every time I went shopping, I took a few minutes to push a handful of stray carts into the designated areas.

14. Donate books and magazines to the library. I donated about half a dozen issues of The New Yorker magazine, some crossword puzzle books, and two novels to my local library.

15. Support indie musicians. I donated to two PledgeMusic campaigns for independent musicians I greatly admire, Amber Rubarth & Blind Pilot… their latest albums are such a treat that bring me so much joy every day! I listen to them on repeat. Amber’s album is “Wildflowers in the Graveyard” and Blind Pilot’s is “And Then Like Lions.”

me and amber rubarth 2

16. Review my favorite podcasts on iTunes. I wrote glowing reviews of two of my favorite go-to podcasts: Happier with Gretchen Rubin, and The Life Coach School with Brooke Castillo.

17. Buy a meal for a stranger. One time, when I was a little girl, my family was out at a restaurant for dinner, talking and laughing. We were having a great time, but as the evening progressed, my brother and I were getting a little antsy and ready to head home. I remember we were waiting and waiting and waiting for the check. Finally, our waiter came over and told us that someone at another table had paid for our meal because we seemed like such a nice family having a wonderful time together. It was such a gift — what a lovely surprise, and a memory that will always stay with me. So, every so often, when I am out at a restaurant and see a family or a couple or a member of our military, I try to “pay it forward” by secretly paying for their meal, the way that stranger did for my family two decades ago.

18. Give empowering notes and “inspiration gemstones” to my students. Since we are at the end of the school year, I thought it would be a fun time to give my students little notes of appreciation and pride over all their hard work and growth this year! I typically give them writing-related gifts like pencils and mini notebooks, but I wanted to do something different this time and ordered these cool gemstones on Etsy. I wrote them notes saying, You are a gem! and explained that these are lucky gemstones that will bring them inspiration when they are feeling writer’s block. My students seemed to really like them!

19. Scatter “lucky pennies” on a playground. I picked up a roll of pennies from the bank and drove to a playground close to my neighborhood. I scattered the pennies all over the playground and around on the sidewalks. I also left some pennies on the edge of a nearby fountain for people to use to make wishes.

20. Leave quarters on the laundry machine. I left a note and surprised one of our neighbors with a free load of laundry!

21. Let someone go ahead of me in line. At the grocery store, after I unloaded my full cart onto the conveyer belt, a woman came up behind me in line with just a small basket of items, so I let her go ahead. She was very grateful.

22. Donate clothes to charity. I went through my closet and found a dress and two shirts that are in great condition but that I never wear. Allyn also gave me some clothing that he wanted to donate, so I dropped everything off at Goodwill.

23. Take Murray for a walk and let him stop and sniff to his heart’s content. Love you so much, bubsy! Even though you can be a slow, stop-and-sniff walker!

24. Donate to a food pantry. A couple months ago, Allyn and I spent a morning volunteering at our county food bank. The manager told us that one of the most-requested items is peanut butter, since it lasts for so long and is filled with protein, and kids love it. So I went to the grocery store and bought four jars of peanut butter, and donated them to the bin for the food bank.

25. Donate my old pair of sneakers. I love these bright pink shoes! They were with me on my trip to Europe, all over town, and through countless workouts. They still have a lot of life in them, even though I have a new pair of sneaks now. So I did a bit of research and found a local donation center at Fleet Feet Sports. I hope they bring someone else joy and comfort!

26. Surprise someone with a visit. I took a book to my writing buddy Lari when I was home visiting my parents over Memorial Day weekend. Lari and I write each other letters throughout the year, but it is always so nice to visit in person. She has some health issues, so she isn’t able to get out of the house very much. We had a lovely time chatting and sipping on Starbucks iced lattes on her couch!

27. Thank our maintenance man. We are so lucky to have the best handyman at our apartment complex. Jose is friendly and fastidious—when we have a problem, he always wants to fix it for us in a hurry! Whether it is a squeaky door, a broken cabinet, or carpenter bees on our deck, he is our guy! I left a note for him in the front office, and also wrote a note to his supervisor about how wonderful he is.

28. Give money and a note to a street performer. At our local train station, there is nearly always a man playing the saxophone. It always brightens my day, but typically I am rushing past, anxious to make the train on time. This time, I made sure to head to the train station early so I could listen to him for a little bit. Then I dropped some money, along with a note, into his open saxophone case.

29. Answer a survey. Whenever I go to the post office, they always point out the survey at the bottom of the receipt, but I’m always too busy or forget to make the effort to go online and fill it out. This time, I went home and did the survey, giving our local post office rave reviews because they are awesome.

30. Surprise a child with a balloon at the grocery store. This is always one of my favorite things to do when I want to brighten my own day! I buy a balloon at the grocery store register and ask the checker if they will give it to a child who comes through the line. I love to think of the wonder on a little girl or little boy’s face to be surprised with a balloon for no reason!

 

Thanks so much to everyone who helped in my birthday acts of kindness; to everyone who sent me words of support and encouragement; and to everyone who joined the kindness chain and did acts of kindness! You have truly made my 30th birthday a masterpiece. Here’s to a sparkling new decade!

Lots of love and thanks,
❤ Dallas

* If you liked this post, you might want to check out the archives of my year of kindness challenge!

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and “free-write” about kindness.

  • What is an act of kindness you have done or would like to do for others?
  • Write about a time someone surprised you with an act of kindness.
  • What is a memory that warms your heart, perhaps even many years later?
  • What is your favorite way to celebrate your birthday?

mom to the rescue

I was a freshman in high school, playing in a weekend basketball tournament down in San Diego. It was the off-season and this was sort of like an extra-credit team, separate from the high school team. It was for those of us who wanted to improve and hone our skills before the real season started up again. My parents weren’t able to come to this tournament because my dad had to work and my younger brother had a track meet. My mom was president of the youth track club and had a million-and-one things to do at the meets—especially back then, in the days of dirt tracks and non-computer timing. Plans were made for me to drive down and stay in a hotel room with one of my new teammates and her mom. I didn’t know her very well, but she seemed nice. My parents made me promise to call between games and tell them how I did.

After the first two games, I felt close to tears. I had traveled all this way… just to sit on the bench. They weren’t even close games, but the coach didn’t put me in once. I felt embarrassed and unworthy. Like everyone was laughing at me behind my back. Why was I even on this team? I had busted my butt in practice, the same as everyone else. Why was I singled out as not good enough to get a chance in the game?

{Side note: at the time, I thought this was unfair, but I also felt to blame. Like there was something wrong with me and that was the reason I sat on the bench the whole game. Now that I’m older and can look back with some perspective, it makes me angry. This was a high school basketball summer league. This wasn’t even Varsity, but Junior Varsity. This was not the WNBA. These games were not life-and-death. If I was good enough to make the team, I should have been good enough to play in the games. Coaches of our youth need to remember the power and influence they hold. Sports are meant to build up the confidence and character of kids and teens—not tear them down. For a long time, basketball was something that tore me down and made me feel bad about myself. But that’s a post for another time…}

When I called during a break after our second game, my mom answered the phone. “Hi sweetie, how’d it go?” she asked.

“I didn’t play,” I reported numbly.

“What?” she said. “What do you mean?”

“I sat on the bench the whole time.” I bit my lip, trying to keep the shame from leaking out of my eyes. I wanted more than anything to teleport home, to my snuggly warm bed, where I could just pretend this weekend never happened.

“Sit tight,” my mom said. There was a firmness in her voice I recognized. My mom is the kindest woman I’ve ever met, yet she is also the fiercest. She has taught me, by example, that one should never mistake kindness for weakness. “Hang in there, Dal. I’m on my way.”

I’m on my way. When you are feeling sad and alone, are there any more beautiful words in the English language than those?

Never mind that my mom was exhausted from being on her feet, running around, leading the track meet all day. Never mind that it was a 3-hour drive to San Diego. Never mind that I would be home the next day. She knew I needed her right then. So she was coming, right then.

You know in books and movies, when a superhero will sweep down from the sky and save the day? That is how it felt in my little world when my mom arrived that evening. She swept me off to dinner, and suddenly I could breathe again. I was safe again. I could just be myself. I could cry if I wanted to. I could be angry if I wanted to. I could be anything I wanted to. My mom was there with me.

The tournament continued the next day, and even though a large part of me wanted to just quit and go home early, a larger part of me did not want to be a quitter. I wanted to stick it out. I was hopeful that maybe I would get game time the next day. Mom said not to worry, she would get a hotel room and I could stay with her. The next day, we would go to my games, and hopefully I would play. And then she would take me home.

Only… the hotel where our team was staying was booked up. “No problem,” Mom told me. “We’ll just go to a different hotel nearby.”

As we drove around, every hotel glared at us with NO VACANCY lit up in red fluorescent lights. Later, we would find out that there was a NASCAR event in the city that same weekend, and all the hotels were booked up for miles around.

We drove and drove and drove. Eventually, when we had almost given up hope, we found a motel with one room available. The person working the front desk excitedly informed us that it was the king-sized suite with the whirlpool jacuzzi tub. I don’t remember much about that room. I’m sure it was overpriced. I do remember we were both too scared to try the ancient jacuzzi tub. The bed was probably not very comfortable, but I slept like a baby because I was just so relieved to have my mom there with me.

That basketball tournament may not seem like a big deal, but it was for me then. I felt so lonely at the beginning of that weekend, but then my mom came and the rest of the weekend I felt so loved. Her presence turned everything around.

That was just one of many times my mom has come to my rescue. When I broke up with my first real boyfriend, I flew from Los Angeles to the Bay Area because we were long-distance and I wanted to do it in person. Then I had to fly back home. I am usually a nervous flyer, but I was not nervous on that flight because I was too overwhelmed and sad. My mom picked me up from the Burbank airport with a chai tea latte from Starbucks and a great big hug, and seeing her made me feel just a little bit better. Four years later, she would be the one boarding a plane, this time to Indiana, to come to my rescue in the aftermath of the second big break-up of my life. She helped me pack up my belongings, sell my car and all my furniture, and tie up all the loose ends of that chapter of my life. I remember eating cheese and crackers and drinking wine, binge-watching Friday Night Lights together. I remember her neat lists of tasks that brought order to the days and made me feel less unmoored. I remember laughing with her about some childhood memory, and feeling for the first time like I would be more than okay—that I would not just survive, but thrive, without him. My mom has always made me feel stronger than I feel by myself.

I know that Mother’s Day has come and gone, and this post might seem a little belated. But for some reason, the memory of that hotel with the whirlpool jacuzzi tub popped into my head this morning, and it made me think about my mom, and all the times she has dropped everything without a second thought to come to my aid. As a child, it is easy to take that sort of thing for granted. Now, as an adult, I feel suffused with gratitude that I somehow got so lucky to have her as my mother.

Sometimes, when I am feeling discouraged, I think of driving with my mom down that nighttime freeway towards the next exit, searching for a hotel room in the midst of all of those NO VACANCY signs. At times, that can feel like a metaphor for life. At times, it can seem like there will never be a room that is meant for you. But, I promise, there will be. You just need to keep driving long enough to find it.

When I get discouraged, I try to remind myself of that night. Because it was not an experience of despair. In fact, I don’t even remember feeling very worried. I felt sure that, eventually, we would find what we were looking for. And I was content, in the meantime, to be in the passenger seat, my mom behind the wheel, Bonnie Raitt singing on the radio. I looked out the window at the lights of San Diego, dotting the hillsides like fallen stars. I knew everything was going to be okay. After all, I had Mom by my side.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a new document on your computer and use these questions as jumping-off points for some “free-writing” of your own:

  • What are some memories your treasure with your mom?
  • When has someone come to your rescue? When have you come to the rescue of others?
  • If you ever feel lost or discouraged, what gentle words might inspire you to keep going?

dinner parties + new apartments

When Allyn and I decided to move into together, it was an exciting time in our lives. It was also a stressful time because of apartment-hunting. Housing in the Bay Area is notoriously expensive, and trying to find a nice apartment in a safe neighborhood that was also within our price range, while also fairly convenient for our varied work commutes, was a challenge. Housing is also very high in demand, so there was the sense that if you liked a place but weren’t sure about it, and waffled on your decision for too long, someone else would come along and snatch it up before you even turned in your application.

After a few weekends of open-houses and apartment-hunting, I was beginning to feel overwhelmed. I remember thinking, “All I want is a kitchen and a bathroom and a living room and a bedroom, and I’m sold.” I felt myself buying into that mentality of scarcity, of panic, of not-enough-to-go-around. Fortunately, Allyn was by my side, level-headed as always, bringing me back to a place of abundance. Logically, I knew that we would not be apartment-hunting forever. I knew that eventually we would find a place that was the right fit for us. But I daydreamed of baking muffins in a kitchen of my own, and filling the bookshelves with our shared book collection, and eating dinner together every night at our own dining table. I would look around at couples who lived together and think, “Do you realize how lucky you are? I can’t wait to be like you!”

It wasn’t too long before we did find an apartment we loved, and we turned in our application and signed the lease and before I knew it, it was moving day and then we were unpacking and running to Target for various items we hadn’t realized we needed until we needed them, like a plunger and oven mitts and surge protectors. Life spun onward. Soon, having dinner together every night became routine. Our bookshelf became crammed with books and mementos of our shared life together. I baked muffins in our kitchen feeling grumbly about all the dishes I had to wash, rather than feeling awash with gratitude to have my own kitchen that I had dreamed about.

{our apartment in the early days}

The other day, I arrived home from visiting my brother in NYC. It was late: past midnight, and I was still on east-coast time. I unlocked the door and stumbled in with my suitcase, flicking on the light. Home. I was home. Instead of looking around our apartment and seeing various chores I needed to do—vacuum the carpet and put away those dishes and mail those packages and and and… this time, I just saw the messy, comforting jumble of everyday life. My everyday life, and Allyn’s everyday life. Intertwined.

And I remembered all the hours I had spent, before we had this apartment, dreaming of it. How I had yearned for it and hoped for it and felt like it would never come. And then it did come, and in the daily hustle and bustle I don’t appreciate it as much as I should. Because the reality is more complicated and messy than it was in my daydreams, and because I’m already looking onward to the next thing on the horizon. There is something else that I am yearning for and hoping for now. It’s so easy to forget all the things I do have, all the landmarks I have reached, that I was once gazing longingly at from the opposite shore.

Like, I remember being a middle-schooler reading Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul, dreaming what seemed like an impossible dream of one day publishing a story of my own in Chicken Soup. These days, I publish stories in Chicken Soup frequently, and I forget to feel as excited as my middle-school self would want me to feel. She would celebrate every single acceptance.

I remember when being accepted to college was my Ultimate Dream; then being accepted to an MFA program was my Ultimate Dream; then signing with a literary agent was my Ultimate Dream. Now, my Ultimate Dream is publishing a novel. I try to remind myself to have patience and faith—just as I would remind my past selves of this, as I applied to college and grad school and queried literary agents. Don’t be so worried, I would go back and tell myself. It’s going to happen. And after it happens, it won’t even be something you think about all the time, it will just be another part of you, and you will have moved on to new dreams and goals. 

I think this is a beautiful part of life: how it is ever-changing, never static. We should keep growing and striving and dreaming throughout our lives. But I think it is also important to look back at how far we have come. To appreciate what we have, that once seemed so impossible. To give ourselves perspective and remind ourselves to be so thrillingly grateful.

In my wedding vows to Allyn, I told him how I spent a long time searching for him, and how I remember those lonely years vividly. Back then, I promised myself that when I finally did meet the man I was meant to be with, I would savor and appreciate him every day, and never take him for granted. These are hard vows to live up to, because life tilts into the familiar, and the familiar can so easily fade into the background… but every day, when I look at Allyn, I make a point to remind myself, just briefly, of what it was like when I was searching for him everywhere. When I worried that I would never find him. And this remembering makes me feel a strong rush of gratitude and joy for him, like falling in love all over again. How lucky I am, that I get to reach across the dinner table and squeeze his hand. Remembering where I’ve been makes the everyday now glitter with a touch of the miraculous.

A couple weekends ago, Allyn and I hosted our first real dinner party. We had entertained guests before, but our apartment is so small that we are limited to only two or three people at a time. Our chance for a bigger dinner party came when his mom went out of town, and we were cat-sitting in her beautiful home with a full dining table that seated eight. So, we invited three of our couple friends over for dinner. Two of them have children, who came along too. It was a full table!

In the days leading up to the event, I felt excited and nervous—planning the menu, shopping for groceries, then going back to the store at the last minute to pick up more food, worried we wouldn’t have enough. {Perhaps that is my grandma in me. Because we did. We had more than enough, and plenty of leftovers.} I made enchiladas, my mom’s recipe that has become one of my favorites. As I was chopping the onion and bell pepper and stirring the ground turkey and rolling up the tortillas, I thought about when I was in college. Back then, I would occasionally make enchiladas for my roommates and our other friends, everyone who wanted to stop by, an apartment full of people crammed on the couch and sprawled out on the floor, drinking homemade margaritas and watching the game. In college, we’d serve the enchiladas on our multicolored cheap plastic plates and eat them using our bent silverware with the plastic handles. My roommates and I would drool over Crate and Barrel, dreaming of the future when we’d have fancier dishes and would feel like real grown-ups.

Thankfully I did know, back then, that there was beauty in where we were. I loved that chapter of our lives as we lived it. I knew those days were fleeting. I’m so glad I savored them. Although, I never would have guessed that a future me, with beautiful dishes from Anthropologie and linen napkins in napkin rings, would still not quite feel like a grown-up. I never would have guessed that a part of me would feel a little nostalgic for those cheap plastic plates and bent silverware, as I stood in the middle of the gorgeous kitchen in my mother-in-law’s house, serving enchiladas onto china plates for our friends at our first real dinner party.

The dinner party was lively and chaotic and wonderful. We put tarps down so the kiddos wouldn’t make a mess on the carpet, and strapped their booster seats to the chairs so they could join us right at the table. We ate and laughed and talked and reminisced. The kids ate a gazillion slices of watermelon, juice dribbling down their chins. We celebrated a birthday, blew out the candles, and their adorable smiling faces were soon covered with chocolate frosting. It was perfect.

Later that night, after everyone had left and Allyn and I were stretched out, exhausted, on the couch, I thought about how there will likely—hopefully—be a time in our lives in the not-too-distant future when toddlers running around the house will be an everyday occurrence; a time in our lives when we will be able to fit more than four people at our very own dinner table; a time in our lives when hosting a dinner party will perhaps not be such an extraordinary event.

But I hope, when that time comes, that I can remember the magic of this dinner party, and how special it felt to host a meal that brought our friends together, and how joyful it was to hear toddler giggles at the table.

I hope I can always remember how precious this moment in time is, even as I look ahead to the bright and beautiful future.

 

Your turn {if you want}:

Grab your journal or open a document on your computer and do some free-writing, using these questions to get you going:

  • What is a goal or dream you used to have, that you accomplished and now seems normal? What advice might you give a previous version of yourself?
  • What is a goal or dream you are currently striving or wishing for? What advice might a future version of yourself give you now?
  • Write about the last time you moved to a new house or apartment.
  • Write about the last time you hosted a gathering or dinner party.

 

that time i shopped on black friday

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

“Wanna go?” my boyfriend asked.

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

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

“Sure,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Your turn {if you want}:

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

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

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

Dear Tree,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,
Dallas

 

Your turn {if you want}:

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

a letter to my 16-year-old self

Dear 16-year-old Dallas,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Love,
Your Future Self

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

Your turn {if you want}:

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

abundance + gratitude

Hello, my long-lost friends! It has officially been one month and one day since I married the love of my life. I can’t believe how time has flown! I am working on a humongous recap wedding post chock-full of photos for y’all. Here is a sneak-peek photo. 🙂

dal-and-al-just-married

In the meantime I wanted to pop in and talk about something that has been on my heart and mind a lot lately: the concept of abundance.

If you had talked to six-months-ago me or one-year-ago me about money, “abundance” would not have been a word on the tip of my tongue. I used to worry about money. Since childhood, I have always been a “saver” more than a “spender” — but I have also followed my passion to a nontraditional career with financial ebbs and flows. When we got engaged and began planning our wedding, everything seemed more expensive than I had anticipated and I remember thinking, “How are we going to afford this??” When we talked about the future, about having children and maybe buying a house one day, inwardly I started doing tabulations and felt myself panic a little. Not to mention the unplanned emergencies, the curveballs that life throws at everyone sooner or later.

When you’re in a mindset like this, it can seem like the only solution is to clench your fists and dig in. To count your nickels and dimes, scowl at every donation request you receive, and feel even the most necessary of expenses gnawing away at you. To worry yourself into a consciousness of scarcity. 

My parents generously offered to shoulder the financial burden of our wedding, and my gratitude was immense and boundless. But instead of seeing this as the pure blessing it was, I felt guilty with every plan we made — because even the simple wedding we wanted came with many expenses, many moving parts and things to consider. Even though my parents had told us, plainly and clearly, how thrilled they were to be able to help us in this way, I for some reason felt like I was letting them down by using the gift they had given us.

Everything changed when I remembered a story my father told me and my brother when we were kids. It is a story about two brothers who were also great friends. One brother’s passion in life led him to a career with a lot of money. The other brother’s passion led him to an equally worthy career, but one that was not compensated as highly. Both brothers eventually got married and had children of their own. The first brother lived in a beautiful, large home. The second brother had dreams of buying a home for his family, too. Eventually, he worked up his courage and asked his brother for a loan.

“No,” the first brother said. “I won’t loan you the money.”

The second brother felt surprised and hurt—but only for a moment. Because then his brother said, “I won’t loan you the money, but I would be overjoyed to give you the money.”

The second brother gratefully accepted the first brother’s generous gift, and both brothers felt richer in spirit because of it.

I think my father shared this story because he wanted to teach us that money gives us the most joy not when it is hoarded or spent thoughtlessly, but rather when we intentionally use our money as a means of helping those we care about. When I thought about the gift my parents were giving me and Allyn in this new light, everything shifted. And this shift carried over into not just the wedding, but into other parts of my life, too. I began to see the resources in my life not as limited, but instead as abundant. And I began to use gratitude every day to cultivate these feelings of abundance even more.

Thinking back on my life so far, one of my most treasured experiences was when my brother accepted a small financial gift from me to help him with his business school expenses. It was just a drop in the bucket compared to the cost of his degree, but it gave me such joy to feel like I was investing in him and his future. As author Gretchen Rubin writes in her “Secrets of Adulthood,” sometimes we can be generous by taking. Accepting that money was a gift that my brother gave to me.

me and greg graduation

Furthermore, “money” doesn’t have to literally mean money. It can be any type of resource — time, energy, relationships, activities. Sometimes we feel the urge to hoard these resources all to ourselves, to focus on all that we do not have and to worry that we will never have enough. But when we shift our perspective to thinking about how we can share what we have with others, it is amazing how what once felt like “not enough” can suddenly feel like an abundance of riches.

So I’ve got a question for you today, dear readers. Where do you notice and appreciate abundance in your own life — right here, right now? Small details matter just as much as the big things. Write down your list. Read it to yourself a few times today, breathing in deeply with a smile on your face.

It’s amazing how rich this can make you feel.

fall colors cleveland

 

Here are some things on my “abundance list” as I sit here at my desk on this sunshiney Wednesday afternoon:

:: abundant in love {never more true than on our wedding day… I am still basking in all the love we felt in that room!}

:: abundant in friendship

:: abundant in community

:: abundant in ideas {driving around in silence has really boosted my creative thinking… it is crazy how many more ideas I get now that I intentionally cleared away a bit of noise}

:: abundant in nourishing food {including these amazing pumpkin gingerbread muffins that I cannot get enough of… I’ve eaten three of these babies in the past five hours and I feel great about it because not only are they autumn in delicious muffin form, they are also ridiculously healthy}

:: abundant in inspiration {there are so many good people in this world, working to do so many good things!}

:: abundant in time*

 

* Okay, I’m still working on this one… maybe this one should more accurately read “MORE abundant in time than I used to feel”… while I still have a million projects I want to tackle and books I want to write and things I want to do in this one wild and precious life I have been blessed with, lately I’ve been feeling less crazy-frantic-rushed than I was feeling, say, a month ago. {This might be because I am no longer planning a wedding!} But I think it is also because I have really been thinking about how I want to structure my days and what it is truly important for me to make time for… and what it might be best to gently let go of. The important things include working on my novel for an hour every morning first thing; doing yoga for even just fifteen minutes every day; and breathing quietly/meditating for five minutes every day. Purposefully setting aside time to do these things makes me feel like more minutes have magically sprouted into my life as the day progresses.

Questions of the day:

  • Where do you feel abundant in your life?
  • What do you feel most grateful for in this season of your life?
  • Where in your life would you like to cultivate more abundance?