50 Stories, Week 7: In brief, my Mom

Short, raw, off the cuff…

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This is my Mom. She was a babe back in 1950, right? She’s 88 years old now and has no big health issues (except a bad cancer diagnosis last year, which she miraculously continues to keep at bay.) She’s been a mother to five, a grandmother to ten, and a great-grandmother to six. She’s had boyfriend the last eight years who treats her very well. She’s got incredible skin – thanks to no sunbathing, smoking, or drinking booze. She was a favorite mother of all my friends in high school, allowing for late nights, sleepovers, and making us fried dough on Sunday mornings. 

She showed me the importance of friendship and community. She and my Dad were always socializing and entertaining with friends and neighbors. And watching her lose the last of these relationships as she ages has been heartbreaking. But she keeps smiling. She is fiercely independent, to the point that she’ll snap at you if you try to help her. I’ve had to remind myself that isn’t about me but fearing the loss of being able to take care of oneself. I understand now the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

When my mother spoke of getting pregnant with me, after losing my brother a few months before and already having three more at home, she would say ‘babies are a blessing.’ We didn’t have a close relationship growing up. I spent most days trying to get her attention and she spent most days, well, trying to get through the day. I know that she did the best she could but I also know that her grief didn’t allow her to be present with me – how could it have? It wasn’t until I had a son of my own that I could fully comprehend what she might have experienced. 

My biggest lessons in mothering came from watching both my sister and sister-in-law raise their babies with love and boundaries. But what I learned from my own mother is that sometimes we have to mother ourselves, heal our own wounds privately, build our own resilience – before we can be present enough to do that for others. Sometimes that takes years, or a lifetime. I’m happy to report that I found a place of forgiveness – to myself – for all the crazy attention-seeking things I did trying to get her to love me. I found compassion for us both, knowing we’re doing the best we can and then doing better when we know better. It took fifty years but I really like my Mom now, for the person that she is, not the person I wanted her to be. And I think (hope?!) she likes me too. I like hanging out with her, I like listening to her tell me what she’s been up to, and occasionally she drops a random tidbit about her childhood that I can’t wait to tell in a story one day.

So, happy mother’s day, Mom. You are loved.

50 Stories, Week 6: My virginity, a break-up, and my BFF.

Over Christmas break in 1986, I was laying on my bedroom floor, listening to New Order’s “Shellshock,” and sobbing. Heaving melodramatic sobs. The kind that prompted my sister to yell from the kitchen, “Stop being so dramatic!” I felt my tears were warranted as my boyfriend Laurent* had just informed me that he was in love with someone else. I was bereft of all hope for future love in my life.

Laurent had come into my life about a year earlier, at a Mount Saint Mary dance. I went to the one public high school in Nashua, NH but there were two private parochial high schools, Mount Saint Mary for girls and Bishop Guertin for boys. They held monthly dances and opened them to us public kids. When I was in middle school, my father made up a fight song for the Mount and marched around the house, swinging his arms and singing it at the top of his lungs. He desperately wanted me at an all-girls school because he knew I was trouble and assumed an all-girls school would put me on the straight and narrow. We could never have afforded a private education but looking back, I see that he wanted more for me than I wanted for myself. In the least, he believed that attending the Mount might have slowed my inevitable trajectory toward equating self-worth with how many boys wanted to kiss me.

I’d seen Laurent once or twice before, at my friend Lisa’s house when her older brother threw parties. I recall her saying, “Don’t bother. He’s a senior and he’s got a girlfriend.” This information did not deter me. I fell in love with Laurent before ever talking to him. He looked like a mix between Bono and Simon LeBon and Sting. Basically hot all over. At the time, I was finishing ninth grade, about to start high school, and a virgin. The tainted kind. I’d done ‘everything but’ on a dare with a neighborhood boy and couldn’t wait to have sex, preferably with Mr. Hot All Over. I wore tight cropped shirts and supremely short shorts and used Jolen creme bleach to dye my incoming mustache Debbie Harry blonde.

The night we finally connected, I’d smoked too much pot at the adjoining park earlier in the evening, so was spending the last minutes of the dance in the girls’ bathroom, still riding waves of paranoia. 

What was actually in that bag of shake we smoked? Maybe it was laced with something. 

I think the cops are going to find me and test my THC level. 

Wow, I could really use an ice cream sundae

Lisa came in to tell me that she and her brother were leaving, and asked if I needed a ride. I’m not sure what bravery pushed me out of that stall but I power walked across the gym floor, fists moving in a hip-to-nip fashion, eyes darting across the landscape of awkward teenagers. When I spotted Laurent, his smile caught me off guard so I paused, mid-walk, and felt the clammy sweat I’d been holding in my hands. He walked toward me, while I stayed paralyzed, and asked me to dance. I unclenched and we held each other as closely as teenagers could while being hawk-eyed by chaperones through the last (and best) two minutes of “Stairway to Heaven.”

We spent that entire summer making out. Everywhere. Laurent had a little gold Toyota Tercel and we would drive from my house to the church a block away, park in the lot, and rub against each other until the windows fogged and our skin burned. Eventually, though, Laurent went off to college and we attempted a long-distance love affair. With no sex. I knew I had to up my game to compete with those girls in college. I believe I referred to them as skanks at the time. So, while he was home for a long weekend in October and his parents were away, we had a party and I lost my virginity. Up until it was over, I thought we were having the most romantic evening. Laurent and I were laying on the old, brown plaid, scratchy couch in the living room, watching MTV broadcast the Police’s Synchronicity concert. A box of Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler sat on the end table, along with a pack of cigarettes and a pack of Hubba Bubba. Our other friends had gone upstairs to explore empty bedrooms, so it felt like we had the place to ourselves. When it became clear we were going to have sex, ie the dry humping became too painful and was boring a hole in Laurent’s pants, there was no conversation around protection against STDs because I assumed we were both virgins. Yet another painfully naive moment in my existence along with the actual sex, which hurt like hell but I convinced myself it was supposed to feel that way. The pleasure with the pain. Turns out Laurent was very well-endowed, which I only know now that I’ve had a very fair share of partners. When it was over, I began removing a small leather strip I’d had tied around my wrist. It was a virgin bracelet that a few of my girlfriends and I were wearing. When we popped our cherry, we were to remove the string ceremoniously and breathe a sigh of relief. But Laurent wasn’t having it. He tied it back on my wrist and told me not to tell anyone, because he was 18 and I was 15. (Damn those barbaric age of consent laws.)

We spent the next few months seeing each in his dorm room an hour away or when he was home for a weekend. And we were madly in love. I have old phone bills with hours of long distance minutes and letters saying I love you to prove it. I trusted him. He called me Pookie, for god’s sake. And held my hand in public. And told me he missed me. But apparently, he was also sharing these feel-goods, in person, with a girl at school.

She was short and mousey, and had a pseudo-punk short haircut. I’d met her a few times when I visited and didn’t think much of her. She was just a girl at my boyfriend’s college and like I mentioned, I was extremely naive. She seemed boring where I was… well, I wasn’t cool per se, but at least I wasn’t like everyone else. My new fashion sense was more like a cross between Molly Ringwald in Pretty in Pink and Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan. I began wearing my father’s old trench coat (or his Army reserves jacket when he wasn’t home to yell at me for taking it,) white t-shirts with the neck cut out, a mini-skirt of some sort, a set of black nylons that I had ever so carefully nicked a thousand times so they would run in a somewhat random pattern, along with knock-off Doc Maartens. And black lipstick, of course. My friends, come to think of it, looked just like me, save for an occasional mohawk or bleached blond tail. We were so busy drowning our teenage sorrows with the likes of Morrissey that we didn’t care what anyone thought. That was the point, of course, not caring what anyone thinks. Don’t care, hard. But the truth was, I cared desperately. I wanted to be Siouxsie from the Banshees, Suzanne from the Bangles, and Suzanne as in Vega. I wanted to be a hot chick indie rock star as a teenager, but I was too busy wondering how to keep a boyfriend to actually open my mouth, sing a few notes, and be heard. And Laurent, well, eventually he decided it was better to be in a relationship with someone his own age, and zip code.

The night of the breakup, my best friend Sheelu came over to my house. After some niceties with my parents (who were always in love with her and would have traded us in a heartbeat,) she picked me up off the bedroom floor, dragged me to Rockit Records, and smoked Marlboro Lights with me until we were nauseous. Sheelu was the skate-Betty, Ska-Indian version of me – ripped jeans, big t-shirts, leather and chain bracelets, and a mouth on her that would make my sailor Uncle take pause. Though I’d had my heart broken and couldn’t see how I’d ever love again, Sheelu told me every truth and lie I needed to hear in that moment. That we were young, that we had enough time, that there was more love in the world, and jokingly (and uncannily prescient,) that Laurent was just one boy in a sea of men that would be my life. She knew what song to play to get us singing at the top of our lungs, what piece of juicy news to share about our friends, and always, always listened without judgement. When I think about my broken heart over the years, it’s less about the men who broke it and more about the friend who was there to help me mend it. One cigarette, and one song at a time.

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Sheelu + Me 1986

Sheelu + Me 1986 selfie

*Name has been changed to prevent any potential embarrassment

 

50 Stories, Week 2: Costa Rican Independence

Jason CR shoe wash

No one was listening when Vlad told us what to do if it started raining. My fight or flight instinct had kicked in and I ran with an urgency I hadn’t felt since I was a child being chased on the playground. Behind me, I could hear a combination of nervous laughter, cursing, and Vlad yelling instructions in his heavily accented, affable voice.

“You wan be careful in stream now. You don want tha snakes angry, ha!”

Poisonous snakes. In the water that I was running through.

The day before, when Jason had suggested we do a tour during our Costa Rican getaway, I thought it all sounded lame. I didn’t usually opt-in for tours. Our relationship was still new, though, and I didn’t want to seem like a snob, so I agreed.

Jason and I had met five months earlier on a blind date. I’d moved to NYC for a job after 20 years in California, raising my then 13-year-old son. I wanted to shake up my life, to have a fresh start. I hadn’t had a truly intimate relationship in almost ten years and I was ready to be vulnerable again. The challenge was that I’d been on my own for so long that I had a fiercely independent attitude that could come across as, well, prickly.

Jason was not who I imagined I’d fall in love with. Not because of his choice in restaurants on our first date (Dos Caminos) or what he was wearing (an oversized suit with shoulder pads, with a funny briefcase and granddad shoes.) It was the fact that he is a more conservative minded, practicing Catholic and moderate Republican, while I am a tree-hugging, hippie-liberal-spiritual Democrat. Despite those differences, we fell in love quickly and deeply. And after a few months, we were planning our first real getaway.

I was thinking somewhere in South America like Nicaragua. I’d been to Brazil and Mexico, and I wanted to show Jason that I was adventurous. I wanted him to know that I could take care of myself in a potentially crazy situation. Maybe I even wanted him to think that I was cool. Jason, however, was thinking of the well-known confines of tourist-safe Costa Rica. It seemed everyone I knew had already been there, as it was the safest of the Central American countries.

So I read up on Costa Rica and was pleasantly surprised to discover its history. According to my internet searches, Costa Rica developed independently, which resulted in an individualistic, egalitarian society. They decided their own fate. Apparently, there was even a point when the governor tended to his own farm, with his own hands! I felt this was a country I could get behind.

Jason found us a boutique resort on a cliff in Jaco. While there was a part of me that hoped to be roughing it with locals, I decided not to complain when I saw our very own infinity pool overlooking the ocean. I instinctively reached out to try and touch the ocean but was snapped back to reality by a squawking parrot. We were constantly surrounded by movement and noise… the ocean, monkeys, birds, frogs, and other critters I couldn’t identify. Yet amidst the environmental chaos, I felt a sense of calm that I hadn’t known before.

That being said, I was starting to feel a little blue about not experiencing the ‘real’ Costa Rica. We spent our time close to the resort and had all of our meals there.  I think Jason sensed my restlessness and told me about a flyer he’d seen at the concierge desk for a waterfall hike. It was a 30-minute mellow hike through the rainforest to a waterfall that you can jump into from the top. The brochure looked Disney-tame but I went along because Jason was excited to have a little adventure and I didn’t want to push him out of his comfort zone too quickly.

Our fellow tour-mates and resort-goers were four young women from the southeast U.S., sorority sisters a few years out of college, and another American, a big guy who we kindly referred to the whole time as Sad Jim. Not to his face, of course. Although, that was sad, too. Jim wasn’t sad for traveling alone or even for signing up for a tour. Jim was built for sad. We discovered only that he was from the Midwest and was single, but he didn’t say anything else for hours. He was about 6’ and 250 pounds, had short, thinning brown hair, and a few days worth of facial hair growth. What was most distinct about him was the weight of his unhappiness. That guy didn’t crack a smile. Jim’s polar opposite, our guide Vlad, had been born and raised in Costa Rica. He considered college, then began helping a family friend with his hiking/tour company. His love for all things pura vida, toothy grin, and warm personality made him a natural.

On our way to the waterfall, Vlad pulled the old Land Rover off to a dirt road lined with trees and low hanging fruit. We stopped and all hopped out. From a tree, he pulled off a piece of orange fruit that looked like a bell pepper.

 “You know nut? You like nut? E’rybody like nut! You take one.”

We all did as we were told and picked this mysterious nut fruit. Vlad took a big bite out of the fleshy fruit and everyone followed suit. I admit my anxious survival instinct prohibits me from fully embracing these types of scenarios so I only took a small bite. It was sweet and tangy.

 “Now, don touch tha thing dat look like a nut! Shape like a nut, on top. Watch. I do it first.”

He proceeded to rip off the stem of the fruit, rub it on his arm, and then peel it open to expose a cashew that he dropped into his mouth. A few seconds later, we all watched as Vlad’s arm developed a hive the circumference of the fruit itself. 

“Urushiol oil! Madre Naturaleza made cashew fruit like so – poison ‘round nut, grey, no good to eat! Orange flesh, a-ok!”

He calmly walked to the truck and got out some Costa Rican version of calamine lotion, dabbed it on his arm, and hollered at us to “Vamanos!” Jason stared at him like he was crazy, and possibly his new hero.

We drove south another 20 minutes or so on the single-lane paved highway, then pulled off on a bumpy red dirt road. We must have stayed on that, driving through farmland and low jungle, for another 15 minutes until we turned off at a tiny waterfall sign that could easily be missed. A few minutes further down a narrow road, passing a shack here and there, I began to ask Vlad why the dirt was so red. But as soon as he turned off the engine, he hopped out enthusiastically and told us to “Vamanos!” again.

It was a hot, sweaty 30-minute hike. Vlad said we were taking the long way, through farmland and forest, to avoid walking through the streams that ran parallel to us. Didn’t make much sense to me, since the water would have cooled us off, but he was the boss.

Once we arrived, I realized that the brochure did not do this waterfall justice. Jumping off into the pool meant climbing up a 25 foot rocky cliff.

“Oh, when you jump in, swim, kick your feet ‘round because tha fish, dey bite.”

Conveniently, I’d been blessed with my period that morning, so the idea of plunging rapidly into a pool of water with biting fish didn’t sound appealing. I was hot, crampy, and now that we were in the jungle, slightly nervous. 

Jason, however, joined the ladies in climbing to the top. It required hoisting themselves on a branch that acted like a bridge across the pool. Once on the other side, they began the climb by using the roots on the ground as ropes. The options were jump off the waterfall into the pool or slide down a cascade of rocks into the pool. Jason did both with enthusiasm, which left me surprised, and strangely proud of him. So cautious in his day to day, and then, there he was, jumping into a waterfall with a bunch of strangers, while Sad Jim and I took turns standing in the shade.

And then it came. It was violent and sudden and loud. Puddles enveloped my feet in seconds. If I think back now, I recall Vlad saying something about how it felt like it might rain, how we might have to cut our trip short, and then maybe something important about what to do in such a scenario. At the time, however, my instinct was to get out, pronto. 

As soon as I heard Vlad say we needed to move quickly, I was first in line and took off through the jungle, a steady run in the direction of the car. About twenty feet in, I looked down and saw that I had a passenger on my leg – one of the green and blue poisonous frogs we’d read about. I shook my leg like a mad woman and made a mental note not to touch that spot before taking a shower.

I heard Jason behind me, telling me to wait up, but I had a good clip going. My self-preservation was strong. And then I heard what sounded like cracking baseball bats that was actually breaking bamboo falling from the sky. I turned around in time to see a branch land on Jason’s forehead. I felt a wave of conflict within me – do I go back and check on him or keep high-tailing it for the car? I kept thinking of the airline safety videos where they tell you to put your oxygen mask on first. I looked back again and saw that the hollow bamboo only left a small scratch so I felt ok moving on. But I paused long enough to hear Vlad say something about not pissing off the snakes at which point I jumped into the twisted branches running alongside the rising stream.

When we got back to the Rover, we all jumped inside quickly as we were soaked to the bone. When Vlad stepped on the gas, the engine revved but we stood still. Apparently, Costa Rica’s red dirt turns to red clay when it’s raining and the Rover, well, she wasn’t going anywhere.

Vlad instructed us all to get out, gather the ropes in the trunk and help him tie them to a neighboring tree. We’d use the winch to pull while we pushed from behind. Vlad, Jason, the four girls, and I were all ready to push when we realized that Sad Jim hadn’t moved from his seat. We asked him if he was getting out to help and he just looked at us blankly before turning his head and casting his eyes down. The rain poured, a new bucket of water dropping directly on our heads every second. Irritation mounting, I leaned into the back seat next to Jim and asked him what he was doing. He looked at me and I could see that Jim had no intention, no ability to force himself out of his comfort zone. His idea of self-preservation was to stay in the car and let others bring him to safety. He was both motivated and crippled by his own fear. So we shared his weight and began pushing. After a few minutes of getting sprayed by chunks of red mud, the Rover began to move forward and Vlad directed her slightly off-road toward brush. We all hopped back in and kept quiet until Vlad pulled over in front of what looked like someone’s carport. 

“And now, we drink!” 

It was a bar owned by a nice lady named Priscilla, who graciously let us use her hose to spray off our coats of clay. We sat down with our bottles of Imperial and started to recount the day’s events, reimagining bits and pieces for dramatic effect, though the day certainly didn’t need any. Even Jim, who finally felt safe back in civilization, let himself smile at our survival tales.

I have a video from that day of Jason washing off his sneakers, recounting the falling bamboo incident, deliriously happy. He thanked me, then Vlad, then everyone. I decided right then that I would marry him. I didn’t need to prove anything to Jason. He didn’t need me to depend on him, he only wanted to be my witness, my partner, my equal. He wanted to run with me through the jungle, to get unstuck from the mud together. I realized that Jason had seen my independence and my fear, and still said OK, do what you have to do, I’m not going anywhere

And he hasn’t yet.

50 Stories, Week 1: A Fistful

Today is my 50th birthday. Many people reach this age and start thinking about their bucket-list. A sense of urgency creeps in with the realization that there are only so many vacations left, books to read, friendships to make, and adventures to have before it’s all over.

I’ve decided to share my reverse bucket-list, or things I’ve done. I’ll do so by way of stories but also a few ramblings. Maybe I’ll also write a poem or sing a song, who knows? Some will be polished and some will be off the cuff. I hope you forgive the format and enjoy the content. 

Every Sunday, for the next fifty (50) weeks, I’ll do my best and aim to get better as I go along.

My first story, A Fistful, goes like this…

When I was 12 years old, my father taught me how to throw a punch with a roll of quarters. We were living in suburban southern New Hampshire, on a cul-de-sac with a dozen families. The neighborhood kids all played together – games of hide-and-go-seek and tag, ice skating on the small creek behind the houses, riding bikes up and down the street all summer long, and also: football. While I played the game every weekend on my next-door neighbor’s lawn, the only thing I have ever known about football is that you want your team to have the ball, and you want to run as fast as you can to the other side of the field. Period. This wasn’t the NFL, it was basic neighborhood tackle football.

One Sunday afternoon, I’m heading out to play and I see all the boys already in a huddle. I run over to get in but they’re tight and laughing while one of them is telling a story. Turns out Tommy Nicholson heard from Eddie Sullivan* that I was ‘easy.’ For a brief moment, I thought this had something to do with the game but then he went on to say that Eddie had ‘felt me up’ and that I was ‘looking for it’ so any of the boys could ‘do it’ with me. My cheeks started to flush and I felt a weird pit in my stomach. I didn’t understand what this all meant but clearly, they must have, because they kept laughing when they turned and saw me there. I ran home with shameful tears and told my Dad what happened. He didn’t say a word but immediately put out his cigarette, put his shoes on, and walked out the front door. I realized too late that he was going to have a word with the boys, so I stood by the living room window and watched, holding my breath and feeling the urge to pee. When he came back inside, he walked toward his bedroom and yelled for me to meet him on the back porch. I thought he was angry at me because I wasn’t always an easy kid. I was super curious and that generally meant trouble. But when he came out with a roll of quarters in his hand, I was just confused. 

“Ok, pretend to hit me,” he said.

“Um, why?” I asked.

“Just throw a punch at me!”

So I did. He caught my fist mid-air and said “Good, now try it with this,” and handed me the quarters. My hand wasn’t big enough to conceal the full roll but I knew instinctively that I could deliver more hurt with this in my swing. 

“You have to protect yourself now. Understand?” 

I nodded. 

“Ok, try again.”

The added weight gave me confidence and I swung hard. He stepped back to miss me but my knuckles skimmed his beer belly and he let out a yelp. (This wasn’t the first time I’d accidentally hurt my Dad – when I was about four years old, I jumped up to kiss him goodnight and broke his nose. But that’s a story for another day.) Then he smiled and left me to go inside and light up a cigarette. 

The real problem with Eddie Sullivan spreading rumors about me was that my mother was friends with Eddie’s mom. She was a real scary lady who was in a perpetual state of sweating, and carried a tall glass of iced tea everywhere she went. They lived across the street from my best friend Laura, and Eddie was a few years older than us. While I thought it was cool that my Dad taught me that secret punch, I knew that I wasn’t going to be carrying around a roll of quarters all the time. So, later that week, when my friend Laura and I were sitting on her front lawn and Eddie was in his driveway greasing his bicycle chain, we had an idea.

“Hey Eddie,” we yelled. “Wanna see something?” We giggled and lifted up our shirts, just past our belly buttons. He looked at us with that pubescent boy face – awkward and excited – and put down his WD-40. 

“Lemme see again!” he hollered. So I took the bottom of my t-shirt and twisted it up to tuck between my non-existent breasts. Laura and I stood up and did a little dance. 

“Why don’t you come a little closer, Eddie?” I asked, more quietly. He crossed the street and approached us. Laura whispered in my ear, then disappeared inside. 

We stood there for a moment, Eddie and I. He wasn’t a bad looking guy, blond, kind of freckly.

“Come on, you gonna show me some more?” he asked while taking a step closer. 

“Maybe…” I put my hands on his shoulders. 

Then with all the might of a 12-year-old girl done wrong, I kneed him in the balls. He fell over instantly, crying and writhing. I’d never intentionally inflicted pain on someone and I felt awful, of course, but oddly satisfied at the same time. I wish Eddie was the last guy who ever said or did an unkind thing to me, but he was just the beginning. So I’m grateful my Dad taught me to protect myself, because no one else could – even if he wanted to.

After Eddie crawled his way home, his mother called my mother and there were words. I’m not sure what they consisted of but you can bet your ass I kept playing football after that (until I got boobs and then it was all over.) 

*names have been changed to protect the ego

 

Friendship, blendship

If you’re ever in a jam, here I am
If you’re ever in a mess, S.O.S.
It’s friendship, friendship
Just a perfect blendship

Perhaps its part of a midlife reflection but these last few months, my thoughts keep coming back to the topic of friendship.

During my trip to India, my BFF and I got on the phone and did a temperature check on our 30+ year friendship. We met back when we were 16, living in suburban New Hampshire, smoking cigarettes and being as punk as we could muster. On more than one occasion, she pulled me out of the depths of heartbreak and provided a judgement-free ear to listen and shoulder to cry on. During a senior year trip to Montreal, she saved us from a potentially hairy situation with the Mounties. When I moved 3,000 miles away, she wrote me funny, sappy cards for my birthday, and made time for me when I came back to visit. She was the best woman at my wedding. And still through the decades, I have moments when I doubt the strength and validity of our friendship. So what’s that all about?

Over time, we have all sorts of relationships and its inevitable that if you’re a seeker like me, you might occasionally reflect, compare or contrast. You may start to wonder – is it ok to have a consistent back and forth with one friend or family member, but with another, years can pass without speaking? Maybe. Is there enough give and take, sharing (aka being vulnerable) and listening (aka shutting up)? I don’t know. Is it ok to be the one primarily reaching out or asking to make plans? And if not, what can be done about it at this stage/age? I’ve had to be honest with myself about what kind of friend, wife, daughter, sister I’ve been in the past. It has been a bumpy evolution of stepping up, determining what I want from those around me, finding a willingness to ask, and then letting go. I might have another good 30-40 years here and I’ve been thinking about where I want to be spending my energy.

So, what’s a girl to do?

1. Find the why. I happen to enjoy my own company so I’d be perplexed if people were agreeing to spend time with me who didn’t feel the same. But people do! We feel guilty, or maybe we like the burden of having to tend to that one friend or family member (I mean, how many times can someone listen to ex-boyfriend or shitty work drama?) because we can pat ourselves on the back later for being a good person. Maybe we simply feel an obligation, especially when it comes to family. But trust, no one likes to be the center of a pity party. It does nothing to move the relationship forward, so if you’re guilty of doing this – or being on the receiving end – take a beat and reflect on your intention. Why continue? What are you getting out of it and giving into it?

2. Radical honesty. This is something my husband and I try to practice as often as is feasible, and something I’ve been acutely aware of most of my life as I have a poor filter between my brain and mouth. But my husband had a mini-panic attack when I said there was a kerfluffle between me and my bestie. “Do not rock the boat,” was basically his advice, because he loves me and her and us. I couldn’t just apologize for my poor behavior, though (I was passive aggressive in a text exchange,) and not address my fear about where our relationship stood. Our conversation was not fun or easy, but it was necessary to gather information and move forward.

3. Step up. I’ve taken some action lately – or more accurately, not taken any action – to set myself up for more successful relationships. After being brutally honest with a family member last month, I feel a weight has been lifted. I no longer feel the need to put energy into a relationship that isn’t rewarding. (I mean, unless I need a kidney or something and then I’ll be eating crow, as they say.) On the flip side, if I’m made aware that I haven’t been showing up and letting my loved ones know they are loved, I can decide to do more if it feels right. At the end of the day, most of us just want to be considered.

4. Know when to say no (more.) Despite our best intentions, through love and honesty and work, some relationships end. Lives split in different directions and we realize we cannot get our needs met. I had a girlfriend for many years whom I thought would be part of my life forever. We were as close as I thought we could be, and then one day in 2005, she wrote me a break-up letter. At the time, I was dumbfounded – I thought I’d been a good friend. It turns out though, that she wanted something more or different (but hadn’t let me know what, exactly, during the previous fifteen years,) so she dumped me. With love, of course. Now that I have perspective, I am grateful for the letter, that she had the courage to explain her actions – even if I was the source of her disappointment. It’s better than being ghosted.

I’m not a perfect person but I am a good person, capable of growth and change where desired. I am still learning how to be the best version of myself, and right now that means investigating my relationships – starting new ones, working on present ones, or ending those that aren’t serving me any longer.

To healthy relationships all around!

Sidenote: pity parties are, in fact, ok with me but only if I’m home alone, in my most comfy jammy bottoms, favorite tank top, massive soft wool cardigan, hours and hours of Lost and Alias episodes, and mini-peanut butter cups from Trader Joe’s. THAT is an acceptable pity party.

You feel me?

Before I get into my trip to Italy, I’ve had something else on my mind this past week, this trip, this lifetime.

Being understood.

I read a quote recently that “being loved is great, but being understood is profound.” I heard that and I thought YES! Of course we need love but we also need understanding and these don’t always (or often) go hand in hand. I want to be got. You feel me?

During this month away, I’ve had many moments where I’ve felt like someone just does not ‘get me.’ The language barrier, the cultural taboos, not to mention breaks in wifi or cell service. Travel can be rife with miscommunications and misunderstandings. Usually after a short round of charades or oversimplification of words, our needs can be met, but the feeling that goes along with not being understood leaves one feeling exposed.

Everyone has had these moments. You explain something to a friend or colleague and they look at you like… um, come again? Or a family member that knows you’re expressing something important and they are trying to get it but… no dice. As a writer, it can be crippling to know you’re leaving people confused by what you’re trying to convey. Part of the problem is that we are not taught to be good listeners. We are often crafting our response while the person speaking to us is mid-sentence. We don’t ask enough questions, to get clarity and even help move the conversation forward.

The other part of the problem, though, is that when we’re most in need of being understood, we are at our most vulnerable. And to feel heard, we can be emotional, over complicate, talk in a stream of consciousness, try to get everything out but end up missing the point.

This is where our actual, honest to goodness friends come in. You know the kind – compassionate but clear, loyal but won’t put up with any bullshit. People who will listen, truly listen to your process, and help you get clear on how you feel, what you mean to say. People who can say, “Listen, I love you but you are being a crazy person right now. Stop. Rewind. Start again.”

All of this is to say that while traveling can sometimes leave you raw, reconnecting with loved ones can heal you up. So thank you to the friends and family that have checked in on me during, or become part of, my journey.

And to clarify, in case sharing my experiences here have given anyone the wrong idea (like the anonymous commenter trying to invalidate my observations,) I did not hate India. I can be radically honest here and share my experiences but I can’t control how they are perceived. This was all true, for me. I’d be lying if I said the trip was easy, but I wasn’t looking for easy, I was looking for real. Beautiful, difficult, happy, terrified – it was all the things. As a friend of mine told me – Mother India will take you in, chew you up, and spit you out – hopefully with your soul a little bit cleaner. That’s all I could have asked for.

Truth.

So on to Rome, Modena, Florence… oh my! My sweet friend Jennifer met me in Rome where we had a much needed girls weekend. It felt like a real vacation for both of us. Then we came back to Modena (think chef Massimo Bottura and show Master of None fame,) where she and her man live. We took a quick day trip to Florence yesterday, and on Sunday I’ll head to London to visit my sweet niece and see three inspiring plays.

Some observations this past week:

  1. Food. What can be said that hasn’t already been said about food in Italy? Nothing. Just come here and eat your heart out.
  2. In Rome, we walked up the dome at St. Peter’s Basilica – 551 steps up. And it occurred to me that places like these are not accessible to everyone. I don’t mean the privilege of having the financial means to travel. Even if they got here, many people could not ascend the steps (or cobblestone roads of these ancient towns.) Inside the basilica, there is an elevator that gets you about halfway up but the other 200+ stairs are through narrow walkways. When I say narrow, I mean from the width of my shoulders with maybe an inch or two on each side to spare, with the dome wall curving inward. So, even if you are able bodied, if you are the size of an average American, you couldn’t do it. Maybe sideways. If you’re blind, someone could walk with you. If you’re not able to walk, you could hire people to carry you on their back. But what if you’re a larger human being? Then I thought, are we going to take all of these historical and architectural masterpieces, along with the towns they are in, and change their integrity and accuracy to accommodate absolutely everyone (#inclusivity)? I can’t help but think, though, that there are reasons we keep historical artifacts (and plain old facts) the way they were. That was my inner conflict for the week, when I wasn’t preoccupied thinking about how to change the completely insane shooting epidemic in my own country.
  3. Nobody wears helmets here either! Ok, on motorcycles, yes, but bicycles no. And while it may be a cultural thing and I’m the odd one out here to think people need them, I will never be cycling around without one. Jackson, his Dad, my husband and I have all had bike accidents and wearing helmets did us a world of good. I get it, the culture is different so car drivers don’t have mad road rage for cyclists like many parts of the U.S. But still, why take the chance with your one and only melon? It is very cute, though, to see old ladies and old men peddling around, especially when they throw their grandkids on the back.
  4. Winter comes to Modena, hardcore. It’s currently 35 degrees and snowing as of this moment! Yesterday in Florence it was 40 with whipping wind, but this has actually been good because every tourist attraction was a breeze to visit.
  5. Italy really does have super stylish people everywhere, young and old. Either very sleek wearing black head to toe or completely over the top with shiny sparkly silver or gold shoes and brocades and fur and bright red lipstick. Love.

Photos!

When navigating to find our restaurant one night, we literally walked into the Colosseum. Very cool during the day, yes, but beautiful and eerie even at night.

I found my people…

Typical Roman apartment balcony. Just sweetness and greenery.

Funny story about this photo below at Trevi Fountain. Back when I moved to NYC, a woman I’d briefly known 10 years earlier in SF sent me a Facebook message, asking if I wanted to be connected to her attractive, available brother. I said yes, of course, but the first photo I ever saw of my now-husband was him in front of Trevi Fountain from a recent trip. I remember thinking, damn, she was right, so handsome. Did I mention he’s half Italian? Here I am expressing that I won the jackpot.

Here is the view of Rome from the top of St. Peter’s Basilica dome. Insanely high, yes!

Probably a familiar painting, right? Touching the hand of god and all but you know what? It’s small. And it is one of dozens of other equally impressive ceiling paintings. Technically you’re not allowed to take photos but once I saw a group of Japanese tourists breaking the rule, I didn’t stop myself. Maybe they don’t want people to know how tiny his ‘charm’ is.

This, on the other hand, it huge. It feels even bigger than its 17 feet. It is awe some, beautiful, breathtaking even.

In a cafe in Modena, they have famous people and quotes on the wall, including the inspiration for the name of this blog… “No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Samuel Beckett

Cute girls freezing their tails off in Florence!

A view of Florence from the Uffizi Gallery. Bellissimo!

Forgive yourself

When I began learning meditation, about 20+ years ago, the school of thought was that you could force your brain to be silent – that is how enlightenment would come. Stare at the flame of a candle, think blank thoughts… when I hear this now, it seems preposterous. Through decades of research, we have a better understanding of the human brain. Learning to achieve a cessation of mind chatter, a silencing, is like training a puppy. Which, anyone who has had a puppy knows, can be frustrating, annoying, and requires patience and consistency. And now that mediation, yoga, mindfulness, and any activity that is supposed to bring about a greater sense of self is all the rage in the Western world, the pressure to do so – especially here in our United States of Competition, is great and inevitably linked to failure. In that mindset, if you’re unable to achieve a pretzel body and a quiet mind, its more likely you’ll give up and go eat a bagel. At least, that’s what I do. Along with some general beating up on one’s self. ‘It’s not for me, I’m not good enough, I can’t do it,’ yada yada. What we don’t learn, what we can’t learn until someone has brought us up this way or taught us, is that it’s alright to forgive yourself. It’s imperative, actually.

I read an article recently about the founder of Spanx. When she was growing up, at the dinner table her father would ask what she had done to fail that week. He’d high-five her if she had a failure to share, defining failure as ‘not trying’ instead of ‘not succeeding’. We can’t grow or learn without struggle, and failures. And so, I forgive myself – for not meditating the last couple of days, for not making a blog entry yesterday, for overreacting to something my stepdaughter said last week, for not communicating to my man about my needs, for making a social faux pas with a friend. I used to hang on to all of these failures. Each and every one, and they would pile up and I’d feel that I couldn’t possibly achieve anything – good relationships, self-care, progress in my writing, or ever truly realizing what good I am to the world. It is a work in progress to let these things go, to realize I was lazy – which is a quality I abhor in others – and that everything is still going to be all right. But I’m trying.