Easier & Harder…

Photo on 2013-08-25 at 13.29It’s both easier and harder than I imagined it would be.

I’ve been getting some cheery messages from friends in the US that say things like:  Love seeing you all so happy!  Glad everyone is settling in so well!  Seems like Singapore agrees with you!  I read these notes with confusion.  Where are people getting this information?

After the fifth email like this, it dawned on me:  Duh! I’ve only posted happy faces and upbeat statuses on Facebook!  That’s common FB etiquette, probably – keep it real, but not whiney or complain-y.  But it can give the impression that everything is super-duper when really it’s just fine.

All those posts and pictures are true; we’re not forcing smiles out of the kids or ourselves.  But in between those smiling moments, we’ve been living a lot of regular life too, the kind that sometimes feels like a grind.  Except here, it’s a brand new grind where everything is different, overwhelming and exhausting and although the language is supposedly the same, no one can understand me when I ask for help and I certainly cannot understand the answers they give as they are trying to help the poor, sweaty, befuddled woman.

So, for real, we’re all OK.  We laugh around the dinner table, tuck each other in with kisses at night and we’ve even gone to a movie and found a great steak frites restaurant.  But life here in Singapore is not exactly what I thought it would be.

The weather:  It’s easier because, as it turns out, I like the heat!  I’ve spent too many June nights at Off the Grid in my puffer coat, shivered through nearly every single Giants game I’ve been to, even with a wool blanket wrapped around my shoulders, and forced myself to go down to the nearby beach, bundled in a sweatshirt.  I am ready for warm weather!  Here, I sit and read by the pool in the late afternoons and marvel at how comfortable it is to be outside in a bathing suit as the sun goes down.  I never have to look outside or ask Brad – what’s the weather like today?  Do you think just this cardigan will be enough?  It’s always warm.  But it’s harder because it’s impossible for me to look pretty in this weather.  Imagine that you’d just gone to your favorite spin class or bikram yoga class for a solid ninety minutes, and then added an extra twenty minutes of high intensity cardio.  Afterwards, you’d skipped the shower and instead donned your favorite silk blouse.  Then, you’d walked next door to lunch with friends and noticed that everyone is non-sweaty, their hair is coiffed and their makeup is right where they put it.  This is me, everyday, except there is no workout involved.  I’ve just left my house and walked ten minutes to the American Club, down to the grocery store or to a coffee shop to meet new friends.  Brad and I almost had a fight one Sunday because I wouldn’t walk the two blocks to a better intersection to hail a taxi.  We were on our way to meet new friends who’d graciously invited us to lunch at their club and for once I wanted to appear cool and calm.  Looking pretty is much harder than I imagined.  On back-to-school-night for my 8th grader I accidentally exited the subway a stop early.  The ten-minute walk turned into a rushed thirty-five-minute one once I realized my mistake.  I entered the school theater a red-faced, splotchy, soppy mess with teensy bits of tissue sticking to my skin from my brief mop up in the ladies room en route.  Hi, I am Louis’s Mom and I’m looking for friends… It’s cool; we don’t have to hug hello.

The air-conditioning:  It’s easier because it’s everywhere and for the first minute after I enter a room it feels like heaven, but it’s harder because before the sheet of sweat even dries, I start to shiver.  I carry several cardigan options in my purse at all times for the quick added layer inside, but then I immediately strip off outside.  When I work in the business center of our apartment building, I have to bring a sweatshirt with a hood because it’s that cold and I cannot think with my ears stinging.  I have a constant sore throat and I think it has something to do with living in air-conditioning.

The bureaucracy:  It’s easier because I am not required to think.  There is a method and a way of doing everything.  But it’s harder because there’s only one way to do it, and the game is to figure out that right way.  I filled out an on-line form and entered my name as Joy Elizabeth Libby and it was rejected without stating a reason.  Days of research later I learned that it was because in that particular system, I am listed as Libby Joy Elizabeth.  Now I understand how corruption can flourish (not here!  Too much caning, I think) because I would gladly hand over $100 to anyone who could help me figure out why Brad’s local debit card from Citibank cannot be used to make government fee payments online, but my Citibank debit card from California, the one that will incur a foreign exchange fee with every transaction, works just fine.  Anyone?  Bueller?  We’re fortunate to have relocation experts helping us with various aspects of the move (handling paperwork for the employment and dependents’ passes, overseeing our container clearing customs etc.) and a fabulous realtor handling the reams of paperwork needed to rent a house, but in other areas we are on our own.  It took Brad three weeks and lots of frustrating phone calls with Citibank to open a local bank account and as I mentioned above, the card really only works to get cash from an ATM (and not just any ATM; it has to be a Citibank one.)  And apparently there is no way to connect us to our Citibank account in the US, even though Brad first opened an account with Citibank in 1986! (I know, right!  I was only 13 years old!)  I’ve been here for a month and we still haven’t had the wherewithal to add my name to the account; we are dreading the process.  So, Brad gives me cash and I dole it out to the kids.  If he travels, he leaves his debit card just in case we need more, and that means that while he is in India and needs cash himself, he has to take it from our US account which sets off a trip wire of potential fraud and then our US account is frozen and not even my US debit card will work for a simple $30 transaction.  These things are sort of wearying.

The relocation company has given me a deadline to move out of our serviced apartment but the same company cannot confirm a definite move-in date for us for our new house, and no one sees that this is unsettling.  I’ve asked them five different and creative ways why they’d secure an end to the temporary housing without first securing the date the container will arrive at the door of the new house, but this is the clearest answer I have been able to get:  Kindly be informed that the custom [sic] clearance & delivery of shipment will takes [sic] about 2 to 3 working days from the date of shipment arrival.  The earliest delivery date for the shipment would be 05 Sep 2013 if shipment arrive [sic] on schedule as [sic] 02 Sep 2013.  So, yeah, whatever you can make of that.

While we’re on the topic, communication is harder.  Though English is the official language, Singapore is a melting pot of cultures, so English is spoken in many accents and with different phrasing. Singlish, local colloquial English, is what’s spoken by many taxi drivers, shopkeepers, hawkers, security guards etc.  (Someday soon, when I comprehend more, I will write about Singlish). We’ve already discussed the bank people.  The housekeeping staff at the temporary apartment don’t speak much English at all – they come from all over Asia and are likely new arrivals. Then there are the expats:  the number of accents coming at me in a school meeting or at church is remarkable:  we have Kiwis, Aussies, South Africans, English, Scottish, Irish and Welsh, plus tons of non-native English speakers from all over Asia, India and Europe.  And of course there are American accents, from Texas to Maine.

The Expats:  It’s easy because they were all new to Singapore at some point, so they all understand what we are going through.  Any question I have, someone has asked it before me.  There are forums, associations, clubs and Facebook pages galore to help get me settled quickly.  One church we’ve visited even offers a class each fall for new families to Singapore.  It’s hard because, well, some of the ex-pat women are so … smugly settled and know-it-all-happyish here.  I heard before I left that the expat community would be very welcoming and warm.  Well… I dunno.  Jury’s out.

[Side note: One of the signs of culture shock is constantly making comparisons to your previous city.  God bless our realtor, Woon, who had to listen to me do this at every single house we viewed.  In San Francisco, the landlord would probably have done this, and oh boy this is what would happen in San Francisco.  Ha Ha (knee slap) let me tell you about this one time in San Francisco …”  Gag, I know, but she endured it all with a smile.]

I make (what I think to be) interesting and curious comparisons between Singapore and San Francisco and no one here is the slightest bit interested.  In my current state of adjustment, it feels as if some of the gals might be forcing themselves to like it here.  Like, methinks thou doth protest too much, pale blonde perfectly made-up dearies …  Frankly, there are moments of some days when I don’t like Singapore at all, especially when I am sweaty, late, using the subway system at rush hour, or staring in disbelief at the prices in the supermarket.  And I want to say, Nope, not gonna jump on your fake cheery band wagon sista, I’m digging my heels in.  But last week I met a room full of (mostly) British women and they were just as expats had been described to me.  They were vulnerable, genuine and generous with their time and stories.  They were clearly my people and I know as time goes by, more of my people will cross my path until I have a tribe of women around me again.  And then I will be telling the next gal who moves here, expat women are the best and life in Singapore is greaaaat!

Singapore American School:  It’s easy because it’s American and the accents are what we are used to hearing, the curriculum follows the same path my kids have been plodding, and it’s just a really great school with really fabulous teachers.  It’s harder because many of the American kids have never lived in America and there are significant cultural differences that are nuanced and difficult to name.  Some of the teachers got this gig because they want to see the world, not necessarily because they want to nurture the next generation, but for the most part the teachers are incredible.  At back-to-school-night it was unclear if we parents should stay to the right while walking (as we do in America) or to the left (as people kinda, but not really, do here). The stairwells and hallways were mosh pits of parents trying to get to the next class.  It’s easy because no matter where kids live on the island, the school will send a bus.  It’s harder because that bus might not take a direct route to school and kids can be on a bus for a really long time very early in the mornings and very late into the night.

Moving with teenagers is harder because they have opinions!  They want to have a say about where we live, where we go to church, what we do on the weekends and where we eat dinner.  They are super polite about what they like and dislike, but we are more like four adults re-settling in a foreign country than anything else.  My little kids just went along with my plan, but my teens help create a plan. It is easier because they’re mature enough to make a go of this huge and un-asked-for change in their lives.  They’re really our heroes at the moment (not least because the bus picks them up at 6:48 a.m. and Emma returns home after soccer at 7:15 p.m. and Louis returns home from football after a long walk from his bus stop, at 8:15 p.m.)  It turns out we’ve raised troopers!

Finding a church is harder; of course we were spoiled in San Francisco, so we have high standards.  We’ve visited two so far and Brad and I would be fine at either one.  During our visits, each of our kids found a church they like, but not the same one. Brad and I prefer the music at “Emma’s” church, but the sense of community at “Louis’s” church is stronger.  I prefer “Emma’s” church because it has air-conditioning; “Louis’s” church is literally open-air, with ceiling fans that don’t do much, but the place is strikingly beautiful.  The building has a roof and some walls, but no windows! Given that we are more like four adults now, having everyone choose a church on his or her own doesn’t seem like a bad idea.  It’s good practice for college when I won’t be around anyway to make that choice for them, and at both of these local churches, the teens go directly to a separate service, so they’re on their own anyway. After a Saturday night sleepover, text a taxi and get yourself to church.  We’ll meet you at lunch, kids.

The American Club:  It’s just easy.  Tacos, diet cokes, salad bars and lounge chairs by a pool.  Seriously, the only downside I’ve discovered is that it’s a bit of a teenage hangout on the weekends and I cramp my kids’ style when I go there for dinner on Friday nights.

I could go on, and I will soon, but for today I wanted to give you just a bit of the real deal of my life here so far.

Much love,

Singapore-Joy (this is the name my mom has entered into her phone with my new contact information.  I think it has a good ring to it.)


When your girl moves away…

IMG_1249 Consider this hypothetical situation:  While living your normal life – coffee in the mornings, sunset walks in the afternoons, backyard BBQs when the weather is nice – your bestie walks in and tells you she is moving to the other side of the world.  There are so many ways for you to deal with this information and whatever you feel; you gotta know it’s okay.  You might feel mad, deserted, jealous or simply sad.  Or maybe you will feel excited, hopeful or eager-to-go-visit.  Likely your feelings will bounce around a bit and you’ll experience a touch of mania: This is the best decision for your family and I am soooo happy for you! And depression: How could you leave me? Why don’t these opportunities come to me? When will I ever see you again? Rest assured that whatever you are feeling, your bestie is feeling that same thing, but on steroids.

For this column, we’ll agree that no matter how you feel, you definitely want to do what is most helpful to your bestie right now.  The good news is that there are so many ways you can make this massive life transition a little bit easier for her, and if she’s lucky to have lots of friends, you don’t need to do all of them.  You can pick the one that seems the most logical and know you are helping her more than you realize.

You might be the friend who lists with her….

IMG_1052Two months before my move, listing became my daily chore.  Shelly came over and saw my scribbled post it notes falling all over my couch, entry table and kitchen counter.  She opened a notebook and methodically copied all of them down in a central place.  Then she followed up with me about each item until they were all crossed off. If we were chatting on the phone and another action item revealed itself, she’d yell, Put that on the list!  She even taught me the secret thrill of writing down something I’d accomplished just to be able to cross it off.

You might be the friend who throws a goodbye party…

IMG_1017I read an article that shared how to make an international move easier on teenagers.  Overvalue what a goodbye party will mean to them, it suggested.  In response, I dutifully planned, executed and paid for some amazing events to mark the farewell between their friends and them.  But for some reason I didn’t feel comfortable doing that same thing for myself. So a few friends stepped up and offered their ideas.  They had to twist my arm for me to agree, but I am so glad I did.  The sustaining memories from those parties, surrounded by women who love me, made leaving so much easier.  One friend mentioned she might skip the party because I’d be surrounded by people and wouldn’t notice one who was missing. Hear this: Don’t skip the party!  And if you hear about a goodbye party and are sad you were not invited, just invite yourself.  It’s impossible for someone who is throwing a party for someone else to know everyone who should be invited.  And if you are sitting around assuming there is a party happening without you, there may very well be, but by golly your bestie could always use more than one so throw her a party yourself!  Thank you Lauren, Terely, Ti and Melissa for giving me awesome leaving memories.

You might be the friend who cries with her…

Yup, your bestie will need to cry.  And she’ll probably need to cry a few different times and about different things.  Just let her be the one to open that door if you can help it.  Cry on your own but do your best to pull it together when you see her.  But if in the middle of sipping her diet coke she chokes up and shares her mourning, worry, or sadness, you should feel very comfortable letting ‘er rip alongside her.  No need to placate her with It will be great!  You are making the best decision!  Just listen to her heart and cry too.

You might be the friend who refuses to ghost…

Do you know about ghosting?  It’s leaving a party without saying goodbye to the hostess.  Public opinion is divided on the topic: Some think it’s rude and others think it helps everyone avoid something no one likes to do.  Ghosting when your bestie is moving is the easy way out, but it will only feel good in the short run.  Your bestie needs a memory of that last hug with you and she will want to know when that hug is happening. We left in the summertime and some of my friends were still on vacation.  They didn’t ghost on purpose, but when I saw them for the last night neither of us knew at the time that it was the final goodbye.  And I wish I had a moment to look back on and remember we held each other and said what we meant to each other and then we wished each other well.  If you have a choice to ghost or give a final hug, go for the hug.  Thank you Linda for resisting the urge and joining the madness on packing day. Thank you Joyce for stopping by as I was handing the keys over to the agent.  Thank you Ti for meeting me for a hug on the side of the road and Nancy for coming down in your PJs when I woke you up.  These are my final moments in San Francisco and I cherish them.

You might be the friend who connects her to someone you know in her new town…

Forever, I will be indebted to the San Francisco people who thoughtfully connected me to the Singapore people.  You graciously shared your besties with me and they have helped me immensely.  Life is so much easier to navigate with friends who have already walked the path that is new to us. Julie, Annie, Ling, Roxanne, Kimberly and Dan: Your besties are taking good care of me!

You might be the friend who organizes thoughtful group expressions for her to cherish later…

Shelly asked many of my friends write me a letter and then she compiled them in a book.  I looked through it when she first gave it to me, but right now I can’t remember what many of the letters said or even who contributed.  But you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be grabbing it out of the movers’ hands as they unload the container and reliving those words as often as I can.  Jane bought a box of gorgeous metal fortune cookie Christmas decorations and had all my friends write wishes for me.  I have shown exemplary self-control by agreeing not to read them until December.  I will enjoy some emotional income on Christmas tree decoration day, for sure.

You might be the friend who shows up at the door and says What errands can I do for you right now?

IMG_1065Shelly, Craig, Nini, Karla, Kristin, Terely, Jackie, Meg, Linda… the list goes on.  Swing by a garage sale to say hi and work it for the rest of the day?  Drive around town looking for a light fixture the movers broke?  Take my cable boxes back to stupid Comcast? Buy and install a new toilet seat because the old one chooses this exact minute to crumble! Take my list of over the counter meds and travel from Walgreens to Walgreens until you find all that I need?  Hear that my kids haven’t had a home cooked meal in two weeks and show up with a shrimp boil? Come fix my thermostat and refill the picture holes with a mixture of toothpaste and cover-up?  I’ll never be able to thank everyone enough.

You might be the friend who takes the bestie’s kids on awesome timely outings…

IMG_0872Do you know what teenagers do all day while the movers pack a house?  Well, when the mother can think of no other ways for the teenagers to be helpful, they sit on the hardwood floor waiting for it all to be over.  But if Kristin will take him to the movies or Vanessa will take him to a water park, or Shelly will take her to lunch or Hilary will offer up a last minute trip to Mexico, life will get easier for your bestie and her teenagers will have another memory made with friends.

You might be the friend who agrees to exhausting, outlandish outings just so your departing friend can cherish the memory…

IMG_1297Seriously, it was just a regular Wednesday night. I was set to fly the following morning.  We were all exhausted from our own lives of work, constant moving, hosting my teens and me as houseguests, needing to pack for their own vacations etc…  And I insisted they take me to a fancy dinner, then to bi-rite ice cream in the mission because that’s the one that has salted caramel, and then because it was a clear, but freezing night, I made them take me up to Twin Peaks. One of them had to drive a motorcycle up there with my son on the back. And they agreed because they cared about their bestie and they wanted to send her off the way she wanted to go, with awesome memories of her city and the people she loves and with tears streaming down her cheeks afterward.  Dan, Kimberly, Gretchen, Shelly and Craig – thanks for the final hurrah.

You might be the friend who keeps in touch…

Yup, I know it’s easy to go with the out-of-sight-out-of-mind plan.  Seriously, I get it.  I’m the one who moved, after all.  You need to pick up your life and move on.  But if you reach out via skype, whatsapp, viber, facebook or even old-fashioned email, your bestie will appreciate it so much.

And finally….you might be the first friend she makes upon arrival! 

I keep reminding my kids (and myself!) that friendship building takes time.  You can’t know someone deeply right away. It will take a while before we have those belly laughs we shared on the final hurrah.  Give it time!  I’ve heard the advice: accept any invitation you receive, extend as many as you can, go on walks and coffee dates, learn to play Bunco and take up flower arranging.  Do whatever it takes to be around other people. I promise, I’m going to follow all that advice!  But sometimes you just get lucky!  Twiggs and Michelle Reed, thanks for being first besties for all of us.   We are so lucky you were sitting around in Singapore just waiting to know and love us!

You’re welcome, because now you’re prepared.  When your girl walks into your kitchen one day and shocks the predictability of your life, you’ll know what to do. Wrap her in a big hug and tell her how happy you are for the adventure she’s about to take and assure her you will be around to help make it easier.

The danger in naming names is that I might forget some.  Am sure I did.  Please forgive your girl. 


Moving on…

894_1_o1a7285_golden_gate_bridgeTony Bennett got it right when he sang, I left my heart in San Francisco.  This city, with its sweeping views, outlandish political and social antics and inspiring friends-who-are-more-like-family has become home to this East-Coaster.  Walking away feels more like tearing the fabric of my soul in half.

I remember my very first whiff of what would become my life here.  Between semesters of my junior year in college, I drove from Washington, DC to San Francisco.  I turned 21 years old mid-trip while in St. Louis, Missouri and crossed into California a few days later.  Cresting Highway 580 somewhere near Livermore, I saw the hulking, Cyclops-like, bright-white wind turbines covering green-like-I’d-never-seen-green rolling hills, and I burst into tears.

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I pulled over and leaned across my steering wheel and let the sobs come.  I could sense the change that was coming.  I was entering adulthood, about to experience the grown-up me and life was pregnant with opportunity.  My boyfriend (soon-to-be-husband), new friends, new food, new landscape, new classes and new jobs lay just on the other side of those hills.  What I couldn’t have know in that emotive moment, was that from my very first glimpse of this city my heart would break into a million little pieces of love for it and its inhabitants.

Brad and I married the following summer (yes, I married him before I even graduated from college – gasp!), and other than very short stints in Washington DC, New York and London, we’ve managed to plant ourselves here in the city where love is everywhere.

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Company transfers, better job opportunities and the recent financial crisis have all provided us chances to leave.  Heck, just paying private school tuition for so many years has led to many conversations about the golden, sun-drenched county just north of us.  But our hearts were inexplicably tethered to this place and what we wanted for our kids was to know and love this city like we did.  And they do.  This is home for all of us.  Though we have no close relatives anywhere near us, we have managed to fill our dining room on Thanksgiving, year after year, with thirty or so people we call family.  And that’s what makes this next chapter so heart-wrenching.

In case you haven’t heard, I’m moving to Singapore this summer.  My husband is already there working and building the beginning of our new lives.  The time difference makes it somewhat difficult to connect, but as he is waking up and I am picking up the kids from school, we video chat.  It’s hectic and chaotic on our end, but we’re happy to see his face and hear bits about his day.  He always mentions the heat in Singapore, and I talk about the fog in San Francisco.  We’re moving from a city that is too cold to one that will feel too hot for us.  We’ll deal with it, like we’ll deal with the new food (last night I asked him if he’d spotted any sort of taqueria – even something like a Chevy’s.  No.  Ugh.  Knife to the heart.), new friends (I’ve already have phone dates with friends of friends and a few people from Singapore will be in the states this summer and I’m going on blind dates with them) and a new environment full of tall buildings, crowded sidewalks and a blending of languages and cultures.  We’ll deal, and slowly our hearts will open up to that gateway into Asia.  We’ll meet interesting people, travel to places I never thought I’d see, expose ourselves and kids to cultures, needs, lives, sights, smells and sounds and we will fall in love with what’s next for us.

Singapore

But be clear:  pieces of our hearts will be planted here forever.  In Shelly and Craig’s backyard, on the fourth row and in the balcony of City Church, around the Pause circle, on the walk from downtown to the Marina, in the living rooms of women all over, at Gordos and Panchos, at the Bruce Mahoney, at AT&T Park, in a classroom at Herbst House, one across the street teaching Latin and another in the basement where math is made exciting, wherever flan is homemade or Diet Coke from a fountain is on offer, on the stoops of 7th Avenue, in the arms of hug-giving teenage girls, in pods-for-life and cabinet, in the heart of one Salvadorena wherever she goes, where the meatballs, roasted chickens and lemon bars are made, where the hearts beat huff, where children remember that nothin’, nothin’, absolutely nothing can separate,  in a hot tub in Mill Valley and another in Sea Cliff, and especially, especially at one house on Broadway.  A million little pieces is the only way to describe the heartbreak we feel right now.  Like maybe, this thing here (however to describe it?  Life?  Love?  Investment?  Work?  Time?), it’s just not finished.  Some relationships feel as if we’ve only just begun!  We’re spread too far and too deep here in this city to know how to begin to pull out.

Like with a band-aid, we just need to rip it and know we will sting and maybe even bleed, but time is on our side, as it always is.  What seems hard today will feel possible tomorrow.

So …we’re leaving.  Many of you have asked questions I will try to answer here.  I will keep the heartache and emotion out of the answers as best I can and just try to stick to the facts, ma’am.

When?  Brad is there already.  Kids and I fly August 1st.

Why?  The short answer is that Brad took a new (great!) job and the kids and I are so thrilled for him that we jumped up and down congratulating him and beaming with pride.  The longer answer involves his leaving a job not worthy – or welcoming – of his character and moral compass.  To say that he had been managing a stress level in code red would be an understatement.  So, yes, a new job in Singapore is a wild, big change, but one we are all embracing for him.

Why now?  Our kids are breaths away from being launched, so why inject all this change and transition into their lives, right?  Well, I guess because opportunity knocked in such a way that suggests there is work for us to do there.  As much as I wanted to give my kids a full childhood here in beautiful San Francisco (I’ve clung to this dream so hard, fingers clenched, knuckles white, holding on for dear life), I am choosing to believe that offering them this chance to see a different part of the world, to know a different life and to see their parents in action with new people, places and things is just what The Good Doctor is ordering.  So, we’ll board that flight full of hope and expectancy, searching for the stones signaling our path.

School?  Kids will be going to Singapore American School with loads of expats from around the world and some local kids.  Close friends of close friends run a Christian youth group organization there and have invited my kids to join a group at a camp in June.  Yes, literally thirty kids from the new school in Singapore are coming to Oregon for summer camp and we happen to know the adults chaperoning them and they extended an invitation to my kids.  Fer realz.  I can’t make this stuff up.  One of the stones laid for our path …

Housing?  We are not at all sure.  Brad is hotel living for now, and we’ll move into temporary housing when we arrive, then the housing search will begin.  Choices include high-rise modern, possibly smaller, apartments, a multiple-level “cluster house” (growing up on the East Coast we called these townhouses, but here in San Francisco this is just the way most houses look!) where we’d share walls with neighbors and common grounds, or a “landed house” which is free-standing, has a yard, etc.  I could be wrong about all of this.  I’m getting it from the interwebs.  I’ll figure it out when I get there.

How long will I be gone?  Lots of families moving to Singapore have a definitive amount of time they’ll be “stationed” overseas.  We don’t.  His new job is there.  Like, right there.  His region is vast and includes all of Asia, including India, and Australia.  He doesn’t have a contract to return to the States, but if there is one thing any of us can depend on, it’s that everything always changes.  We’ve agreed he’ll be in this role for 3- 5 years and I am hoping for five because that would get both kids through high school and launched (likely) back in the States.  (My heart just oozed a little with that reality.  In five years, both of my kids will be gone)

Language barrier?  Singaporeans speak English, often referred to as “Singlish” because of its unique lilt and vocabulary.  Most of them also speak Mandarin, Malay, or various Indian dialects.  We’ll stick to English and probably come back with a little Singlish as well.

Our Stuff?  This is by far the most frequently asked question.  After some massive purging efforts, we will bring everything we own.  The way we figure it, if we store it for five years and that becomes ten years, we probably won’t want it and don’t need it.  And seriously, why own something I can’t use?  So the furniture, the bedding, the china, the silver and the crystal are going to float at sea and make their way to us in a container.

Me?  How do I feel?  I’ve already covered that I am heartbroken, right?  Like torn in two, hung from the rafters, gnashing of teeth, devastated to leave my people.  Two hours after telling my 15-year-old that her life will radically change, she turned to me with sudden beyond-her-years insight and said. “Mom, Papi will have a new job, Louis and I will have a new school and friends, but I am worried about you.  You will have to give up Pause and CAbi and you will have nothing.”  Uh-huh, way to name it, sister.

Pause is my third child.  Literally my actual heartbeat can be traced to Wednesday mornings and the brave group of women who show up on my doorstep and work through all their questions, confusion, hurts and hopes.  Sometimes we sit in a circle and pray out loud to a God some aren’t even sure exists … it’s a slice of heaven right here in the Marina District.  The last Pause gathering was beYOND emotional.  Shelly called all the ladies who have gathered in my living room for the last eight years – some for a short time, some while they job-searched, some only when they could and some every single Wednesday – and together we had a two-hour sobfest.  I am still recovering because, Oh! the words that were spoken.  It was the closest I will ever come to witnessing my own eulogy and hearing, feeling and knowing what I mean to people.  It was wrenching and inspiring and none of us had any mascara left and our faces were swollen and red and I’ve never seen a room of women so stunningly beautiful, whole and connected in all my life.  I’ll miss them desperately and I will think of them each Wednesday, all off on their own paths, continuing the work we used to do together.

CAbi is encouraging me to keep my business thriving.  (If you are a client or hostess, you’ll get a note from me soon with all sorts of details.)  Because I won’t be able to sell CAbi in Singapore (yet), I’ll be making regular trips back to the US to hold shows in jam-packed days and nights.  (I get a thrill just thinking about those return trips!)  I met a client at a show last weekend and I explained my plan and she raised an eyebrow in confusion, Whaaattt?  You’re going to fly for 20 hours around the world to sell clothes to women who could just order them online?  Later in the evening, after hours of laughter and connection unique to CAbi shows, she sidled up to me and whispered, “Now I get it.  If I had this job, I’d fly back from Singapore to do it too.“  I’m doing it for myself and for all the women I get to love on at each show.

Finally, you know how I say I like to write, but it seems like what I really do is think about writing all the time while actually doing a whole bunch of other things.  After the initial hubbub of moving and settling in, and in between my CAbi trips, I really won’t have much to do.  Like a peeled onion, the obligations I carry now will be stripped away and I will be left with a big choice:  To write or not.  And I hope I choose to honor this passion and write the essays, book or manifesto that’s waiting to come from me.  It will take some courage to face down the fear, so Plan A is to be brave and show up for the stories that want to be written.

I’ve heard the kindest, most generous fare-thee-wells since we announced our imminent departure.  I hold each one in my heart and keep replaying them like a soundtrack stuck on repeat.  At one of the many goodbye gatherings we’ve been privileged to enjoy, my dear friend, Dan, gave a toast and offered up a challenge.  “You are leaving a crater sized hole in San Francisco.  Go make a crater in Singapore.”  We’re going to try, Dan, we can promise you that.

Dear God, please hold all of these loved ones here in San Francisco in your tender embrace.  And show us who needs love in Singapore.

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Golden Gate Bridge photo credit

Wind Turbine photo credit

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Grace for the Mean Girls

130215_DX_MEANGIRLS.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeRecently, I told my closest friend, “I don’t know why women have a reputation for back stabbing and competing with each other. I couldn’t survive without all the women in my life who love and support me. I know nothing about this female combat everyone refers to.” She thought my outlook indicated that I had been pretty blessed in life and that I probably send out a vibe letting women know that I won’t be participating in that kind of play.

But a few days later, I was listening to school-age girl friendship stories, and I was like, “Oh yeah, that. That, I do remember. And it hurts. ”

I’ve been tossing around ways to support my daughter (and her friends who have trusted me with their stories) through the crooked path and rough terrain of friendship. Should they grow a tough exterior and keep their guard up never trusting each other? Should they keep their heads down and focus on their work? You probably remember versions of these stories…

Anne: We were sixteen, best friends and at sleep away camp. She borrowed a dress, but when she tried to zip it up, it wouldn’t budge. It was too small. She got red in the face and sneered, “Well, I guess this settles the debate; I am bigger than you.” I froze. I had not been aware of our unspoken competition. She was cold to me for a few days. I heaped my plate full for her to see. I complimented her endlessly. I tried to make myself less pretty, less desirable. Eventually, we grew apart.

Kirsten: We were in college; I was a sophomore and she was a junior. We both were recommended for a leadership role and she hated that I was on the advisory committee with her. Before I came along, she’d been the star of department. She stared straight ahead when I took a seat next to her. When I spoke in front of the group, she rolled her eyes and looked at the ceiling. She refused to laugh when I made jokes during meetings. Later in the school year, overwhelmed by my full load, I missed a few meetings. She cornered me in the cafeteria to confront me in front of other committee members. “You think you’re entitled to do this any way you please?” she hissed. “Now it’s clear you are not who everyone thinks you are.“ I can still feel the sting of those words as I type them. Humiliated, I tried to explain that I wasn’t slacking; I was just a little under water. I mumbled apologies; I shuffled my feet. I promised to try harder. I still remember her smug smile as she saw me become smaller, less confident and dynamic.

Kathleen: I was working my first post-college job. She’d been at the company a year longer than me. She was sparkly, funny and the most likeable gal on the floor. I spied her on my first day, noticed our similar dispositions and thought we’d be great friends. She created distance between us. She belittled me in front of superiors, brushed me off in front of clients and was dismissive when we were alone. I was miserable around her. At some point we reorganized the department and I answered directly to her. I learned that if I acted dumb and confused she was kind to me. If I had a great idea or suggestion, she was mean to me.

Victoria: For my 35th birthday I had five celebrations. I had a widespread friend base, and several of them, unbeknownst to each other, hosted little somethings special for my big day. Everyone who threw me a party invited her. After the third one – two lunches and a dinner – she sniffed and loudly said to me, “We sure are doing a lot of celebrating of Joy these days, aren’t we?” I apologized for the attention. I joked about it and acted as if it were all such a bother, all of these parties, all of these moments about me…. A month later we had a small misunderstanding and she hasn’t spoken to me since.

Once I began to think about it, I came up with many stories of my own that show how tough we women are on each other and how tricky our relationships can be. No wonder a friend of mine recently wanted to keep her professional success quiet. “I just don’t want to give anyone a reason to hate me,” she said. Even Sheryl Sandberg once asked her friends to stop mentioning it when her name showed up on the Forbes’ list of the world’s most powerful women.

As I’ve grown, I’ve been lucky (or intentional enough) to find ways to navigate around these women and make room for the ones who love me – all of me. Now I can hardly remember the me who willingly made herself less-than so that others felt more secure. But I did, Lord knows even though it never really worked, I tried. When I think about those gals now, I still feel a little sting, but I also can muster up some compassion. Common threads in the stories of all those women are childhood pain and fearful outlooks. Deep down they just didn’t feel pretty enough, smart enough, or liked enough unless they put me down. Seeds of insecurity grow into large roots or even tree trunks of poor behavior. I happened upon them before they figured out the universal truth that brings peace to all women: I am enough. There are enough slices of pie in every area of life to go around.

How about those girls of all ages who are getting the first taste of the underbelly of female friendships? They are experiencing the this-is-a-two-person-game during recess, the gossip, the put-downs, the you-are-my-best-friend-today-but-tomorrow-i-will-inexplicably-shun-you, the friend-until-a-boy-is-around behavior. I dunno…. It’s so clear from a distance that those girls are sad, lonely and scared, but that doesn’t make it any less painful to be around them.

If I could speak to the girls on the confusing, receiving end of this treatment, I guess I would say that if you have a friend who needs you to be less than yourself in order for her to feel good about herself, tread lightly. Love her from whatever distance you need to create so that you can still feel comfortable being fully you. Know that somewhere deep within she feels wrecked and from her wounding comes all the dark, ugly stuff you see. With enough love and support, someday she’ll heal. For now, you can be a beacon of hope in the love you show her, but go forward knowing it’s probably not a two way street. Someday she’ll look back and recognize that you were true blue and maybe that will serve as a guide for her. But for now, pick your head up and look around, my darlings. There are so many other girls and women out there for you. Most all of us are broken in big and tiny ways – you are too – but that’s why we need each other especially more. There are girls who will inspire you and who will feel inspired by you; there are girls who will feel lifted up as you soar and who will drag you even higher. Run as fast as you can in their direction, wrap your arms around them and spread your wings together. I love how Paul F. Davis instructs us with such clarity, “If you don’t feel it, flee it. Go where you are celebrated, not merely tolerated.”

But look with compassion on the mean ones. Someday you will realize that in a particular relationship you are the mean one. Shocker, I know, but it’s likely to happen. Insecurity does not discriminate; it seeks us all out over time. If you see mean girls now through the eyes of grace, you will have an easier time showing it to yourself and changing your course later.

We girls are complicated and hold the capacity for a full spectrum of emotions and behaviors – love, hate, greed, passion, loyalty, honor and betrayal just to name a few. But we are all also yearning for the same things – grace, mercy and sanctuary. Sweetie Pies, do your part to offer these gifts to the world around you… even to the mean girls.

Photo credit

PS – What’s your friendship story? Tell me tell me tell me!

 


Parents and Teachers, why can’t we all just get along?

photoA few weeks ago I launched a spring clothing line to a rowdy crowd of women who love fashion, love each other and love any excuse to join in a party.  We had a loud, fun time, and later that night I fell face-first into bed, exhausted and happy.  In the wee hours of the following morning, I relived some of the funnier moments of the evening and began to count how many teachers – from different schools and various grades and specialty subjects – were in the room.  When I examined the guest list, most were teachers I count as friends.  Only some had taught my own children over the years.  There was a clutch of preschool teachers who get in the trenches of the sandbox and have a bottomless well of creativity and there were brave middle school teachers who face hormones and high-stakes social scenes while trying to teach algebra.  I love all of them but wouldn’t want to be any of them.  I am not made of tough enough stuff to face their days.

As I understand it, teaching is more of a calling than a vocation.  Exceptional teachers, who realize this and lean into the insanity of the job, show up each day ready to minister.  Here’s the understatement of the year – teachers make an actual, measurable difference in our world.

My child saw an enrichment teacher once a week for five years of elementary school.  When we realized her program wouldn’t be offered the following year, we both cried.  “Your class has been the only place I could be myself other than home,” said the final thank you note.   In a string of great homeroom teachers, one was a particular stand out.  All I needed to do was type “mayday, mayday” in the subject line of an email sent at midnight and she’d find my kid first thing in the morning and offer a hug, a chat…love.  This cycle went on for years, well after my child was no longer in that teacher’s class.

Of course I’ve been disappointed in teachers as well.  I was upset by the second-grade teacher who literally screamed in the ear of a crying boy on the very first morning of school as they were lining up to go into class, “You are in second grade now, dry up the tears!” as well as the clueless teacher who tsk-tsked, “I am disappointed in you,” to the perfectionist child who had mustered the courage to challenge a perceived unfair grade.  Then there was the tough teacher who spoke the word “hefty” into a sensitive (and beautifully curvy) girl’s soul.  Yes, teachers make a difference, and it’s not always for the good.

But in quiet conversations with my teaching pals, most of whom teach at private schools and see their work as inspiring and impactful, I hear one main obstacle that always floats to the surface.  This consistent problem keeps them from job satisfaction, from joyfully bettering students’ lives, and from creative educational experiments.  This hindrance makes them want to keep their heads down, their voices quiet and simply get through their days.  Drum roll, please:  it’s the parents!

Sadly, it appears that two really huge and helpful groups of people – parents and teachers – are both loving our next generation and resenting each other in the process.  Although I am technically only in the parent camp, I think my friendship with particular teachers has allowed me to comprehend both sides.  The truth is that everyone wants the same thing:  to support children as they grow and learn.  I offer here a few thoughts to chew on for both groups.

What teachers wish parents knew

Teachers are real people with real lives – they buy alcohol and sometimes they get cancer.  When the bell rings, teachers have other things going on.  At BevMo, I ran into a first-grade teacher with a cart filled to the brim with bottles.  She acted like a kid with her hand caught in the cookie jar and was red with embarrassment.  “I’m throwing an engagement party for my roommate,” she finally stammered.  I tried to put her at ease by saying I had assumed all the alcohol was for a purpose, and not for her to drink during the school day.  She laughed and told me how she always fears running into parents around town because they seem surprised that she has other parts to her life and make comments that make her feel ashamed of things like throwing a party!

One year, while a teacher friend faced diagnosis, chemotherapy, hair loss, nausea, tender skin, and reconstructive surgery, her biggest challenge by far was how the parents of her fourth-grade class treated her.  They made her feel that her illness showed a lack of consideration for her students, and was an inconvenience to the parents.  “Not on my tuition dime,” was the sentiment from a father who was mad the school hadn’t fired her for missing so many days. (What a self-centered piece of shizzle, huh?)  She was essentially asked to apologize for having cancer.  I asked a friend “If your single-mother, sole income-provider best friend or sister had cancer, can you imagine feeling anything but compassion for her?”

Teachers understand that parents comprehend on an intellectual level that they are real humans, but our treatment of them implies that we see them as one-dimensional and always at our disposal.

The pressure and tension you create when you call the dean instead of speaking directly to a teacher makes it much harder to partner with you.  It feels as if a quiet war is being waged between parents and teachers – a battle for power.  Parents are wearing down teachers, draining them of their confidence, grasping for the upper hand, creating burnout, and slowly sucking the joy out of their jobs.  Unfortunately, as parents win this battle, their children lose.  Imagine going to work every day in an environment where every move you make and comment you utter is scrutinized, filtered through the ears of children first and then reported to your supervisor.  How much personal fulfillment and joy can you imagine feeling at the end of six months? Teachers wish parents would stop talking to each other about their disappointments or questions about what’s happening in a classroom and stop firing off emails to the head of school or the dean.  How about just speaking directly to the teacher in question?  This simple change would replace a critical, nervous, fear-based atmosphere with one of openness and trust.  Parents can still have gripes and even disagree with a teacher’s course of action, but they’d stop treating the teacher as if he needs to be tattled on and involve him in the discussion.

Side Note:  One brilliant dean told a group of parents at back-to-school night, “This year we promise that we won’t believe everything your kids tell us about you, if you promise not to believe everything they tell you about us.”  Seriously, parents need to sift through the stories and realize a child is talking.  A possibility exists that even though your child truly believes what she is saying, she may have misinterpreted what actually happened.

Another Side Note:  This is nearly impossible for parents to do.  I am neck-deep into a scenario with a teacher right now and I believe in my truest heart that everything my child is telling me is 100% accurate.  I am desperately trying to conjure up another side to the story, but it’s not happening.  I wasn’t there to witness what went wrong, but I believe my kid over the teacher.  So there we are.

Parents, we wish you’d stop complaining to each other in front of your children.  Last year I met a woman who was in the process of transferring her son to the same school that my son attends, and I asked to which teacher he had been assigned.  She told me the name and then said, “I hear she has her favorites and only treats those kids with respect, so I sure hope my son can be one of them.”  This mother’s child had not even started classes, yet she already believed and passed on an unfounded rumor.  A few weeks later, I ran into a different mother from that same class.  She had her son in tow so I asked how his year was going and what he liked the best.  Sure enough, the 10-year-old repeated the same rumor with all the confidence of one who believes it to be true.  Perhaps an individual experience caused one parent to embrace and share this idea, but how many experiences of other parents and kids were colored by it?  I’ve watched children recount the deficiencies of their teachers while looking at their nodding parents for approval and affirmation.

I know every teacher can’t be a favorite, but unless the teacher is actively and purposefully hurting a child emotionally or physically, I just can’t see the upside of criticizing him in front of children.  Imagine you signed up for a class at your local community college and in your enthusiasm you told your friends about it.  If they only respond with negativity, it would be pretty hard for you to hang onto your enthusiasm for very long, and certainly hard for you to learn – especially if you were there to learn geometry or Latin conjugations, or anything really difficult.  If all a child can think of when her teacher speaks is how much all the other important people in her life hate that teacher, I am quite sure that you, dear parent, are a barrier to learning.

Parents, we wish you’d focus on what your kid really needs.  Teachers see the kid who routinely shows up tardy, without a jacket, forgetting to turn in the permission slip on time, tired from staying up too late, forgetting books left at the other parent’s house and with shoes that need new laces.  Teachers notice the kid who is excluded and needs to eat lunch with them in the classroom, who needs extra help in English or extra time for an assignment, who really needs an evening tutor, who has anxiety and who has stopped eating.  Teachers wish parents were open to hearing about these things.  Instead, parents tend to focus on the final letter grade given (and how it compares to the grades received by others), who was picked for the play or the first-string volleyball team, whether there is enough enrichment in Math, or if there is too much or too little homework.  Parents often focus on the 30,000-foot issues better left to the school, but miss the on-the-ground, day-to-day  real-life problems of their children.  Teachers are nervous about bringing these sorts of topics up because parents have sent a clear message. They’re happy to chaperone a field trip or send in cookies for a bake sale, heck they’ll even join a search committee for a new administrator, but don’t criticize their children or their parenting.  So the teachers quake and a teacher-parent partnership remains impossible.

What parents wish teachers knew

We are parenting in a fear-based culture.  Parents can’t choose to raise kids at a different time in history; now is what we’ve got.  Current culture constantly sends parents messages of worry and fear about their children, and indicates that every single moment, incident or encounter might break them permanently.  Parents have responded to this fear by hovering, owning, over-helping, and sometimes by accusing teachers of not doing enough for their kids.  They are scared that their children will not succeed in life, because success has been re-defined as Ivy League-only followed by million-dollar-a-year-salaries.  No longer are parents happy to let an eight-year-old enjoy second grade; they feel pressure to shape her into the next Steve Jobs.  Parents really need teachers to help counter these messages.  I know teachers yearn for the old days when parents handed their kids over and never questioned what happened at school – trusted the teachers to do their jobs – but those days are gone.  Instead of scoffing at or mocking current parenting trends, teachers can help by simply offering parents the assurance that they care deeply about kids, that they understand how much parents love them and that they’ll let us know when to worry.  It’s extremely hard to be the only parents not getting into a tizzy about the ERB scores, wondering why he didn’t place into the enrichment group, or verbalizing that our kid doesn’t have to be the best at everything.  Teachers should cut parents some slack by acknowledging the pressure they feel from society and then gently explain how parents can trust the system and know their child will be fine in the end.

Most parents are afraid to say anything to you in case you take it out on our kid.  Eek!  I know this will sound ludicrous to most teachers, but parents really do worry that teachers will seek retribution with children for mistakes parents make.  Guess what?  Kids are afraid of the same thing!  Some kids won’t vent or confide their challenges in the classroom, lest parents shoot off an email that will make their next day hard.  A teacher once told my child, “Every time you tell your parents that someone is mean to you they send a mean email to me.  So maybe you can stop telling them so much about it.”  Something is very broken in this system.  Because parents see their children as fragile and about to fail at every second, they will do anything to keep harm from coming their way.  Sometimes that means not speaking up when they really should, but instead they stew, the resentment builds when they hear comments like the one previously mentioned, and they find it harder to trust that teachers are in their jobs because they enjoy and care about kids.  Imaginations go wild and parents build massive cases against teachers, all without uttering a word.  When the parent finally can’t keep it all bottled up, it’s like a match has been dropped into a gas can and teachers and administrators are left wondering where all the explosive anger came from.  It comes from stewing and thinking kids will be treated unfairly if parents challenge anything, even in the most polite way.

You have the power to affect my kid’s life – foreverIn our worst and most critical moments, parents can be convinced that teachers have lost sight of this and they are just getting through each day.  Parents see them caught up in small little details – whether the kids line up quickly or talk too loudly.  They fear teachers are distracted and not clued into the social scene.  Parents want to be sure that teachers remember that their opinion means a lot to children, that one word of encouragement from them means more than a million from home, that when they do something exceptional their teachers notice.  Listening to a bunch of kids at a party in June recount the highlights and lowlights of a school year, I was amazed by what they remembered.  They talked about the day their teacher wore two different shoes by mistake, the week she had the flu and the substitute was awful and messed up the lesson plans and the day she brought in ice cream sandwiches for first period.  (I still remember the English teacher who taught me to write from my heart and the physics teacher who came to my wedding and whose most important advice was, “Patience is a virtue to be cultivated.”  He said it in every class – even tested us on it occasionally – and I never forgot it.)  Students are watching, listening and noticing. They are impressionable. When a teacher shuts a kid down because she is exhausted and tired of listening to the same recess scenario, or when she offers some extra guidance even though she is beat, she is leaving a legacy, for good or for not so good.  Teachers are powerful.

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Also, a new weird dynamic in education is creeping in that feels very corporate.  Especially in the private school arena, parents view the education of their child as a product to purchase and teachers as the service providers. Whenever I’ve been unhappy about a school-related scenario or problem (and disobeying my own advice about not engaging in chatter around the parent community), someone will say, “You are paying too much to have to deal with this.”  And on the other side, when teachers vent their stories to me, my instinct is to tell them, “You don’t get paid enough to have to deal with this.”  Money – with its sinister way of pied-pipering all of us – is there in the room with both camps at all times.

There is so much more to say, but I’ll end with this: When life has thrown curve balls at my kids, teachers have played the most significant roles in their recoveries.  With this in mind, I try to start each school year with an open mind about new teachers, figure out what communication style works best, say thank you for even the smallest things, and (it never hurts!) occasionally send in my husband’s amazing banana bread.  When I know a teacher has my kid’s back, feels comfortable telling me things I don’t really want to hear but need to know, I sleep better.  And if you are as lucky as me, you might find that your kid’s teacher not only strips to her panties to try on clothes in your living room, but also becomes a lifelong friend.

 

If you are a teacher or a parent (or both!), leave a comment in the comments section and tell us anything else you wish the other side would know. Keeping it anonymous is OK!

 

Some afterthoughts:

  • I know this post mostly reflects a private school experience.  If you are a public school parent or teacher, please share a different perspective.
  • I am guilty of all of the above behavior plus more.
  • Thank you to the special teachers who helped me with this post and confided in me.
  • Photo Creds go to ME!  I found this card in a cute paper shop on Fillmore Street.  It’s true: I really do teachers!

15 dating tips for fifteen-year-old girls.

photodune-2647054-holding-hands-sRecently I tried to strike up an awkward, dating advice-laden conversation with a 15-year-old girl who was not at all interested in hearing it.  Go figure!  Having been that age at one long-ago point myself, I get it. It’s uncomfortable at best, preachy at worst and regardless of its truth, advice is usually unwelcome.  I still have to grit my teeth if someone begins to tell me how I should be acting, thinking or feeling. I’d rather learn it all on my own, thank you.

But I also get how age begets pseudo-wisdom and I share with other old fogeys the desire to use my hard-earned knowledge to save someone from a particular pain or heartache I endured.

Though this specific 15-year-old girl needed no advice, I thought I might share with my readers what I may have said had I been given the chance. If you have a teenage girl in your life, feel free to cut and paste your favorite tip and pass it along to her as if it’s coming directly from you.  If she’ll hear you, of course.  If she won’t listen, just post it on her facebook wall.

  1. Only date guys your own age.  (At least until you graduate from college.)  I know that your male peers look and act horribly immature right now, and the older guys are so attractive, but stick with the same-agers.  Much about dating and relationships can accidentally turn into a power struggle and a battle for control.  Maintaining as equal a playing field as possible will only help you.  (Yes, I know that I mostly dated older guys, but my favorite ex-boyfriends are all very close to my age!)
  2. A truly platonic friendship is rare and special.  Treasure it if you come across it.  It’s rare because it’s likely that the relationship is platonic because one of you doesn’t want to make it romantic and the other does.  And I bet that you’ve each wanted it to be more at different times.  If you are lucky enough to be friends first, tread carefully before allowing it to become something else.  I always found it much harder to undo the damage of a break-up and get back to the business of being friends than to just experience a little unrequited crushing.
  3. When dressing for a date, ask yourself this one question:  Could anybody accidentally mistake this dress, this skirt or these shoes for a stripper costume?  If the answer is no, carry on and enjoy your night.
  4. Okay, this one is where the awkward part may have begun if I had been allowed to share my tips that night.  During my own teenage dating years, we used the timeworn “four bases” shorthand to describe any form of sexual relations.  (Yeah, I know that now it’s called “hooking up.”) First base was kissing, second base was a hand up, third base a hand down and by the time you crossed home plate for a homerun you were engaging in full intercourse.  (It sounds much swifter than it was, btw.)  We spoke about it so casually – “did you get to second base?”  “How far did you go with him?”  “Just to third base and then I stopped him.”  My tips on bases:  If you decide to kiss a boy, kiss him again the following week, again in the movie theater and one more time at the bus stop, this does not mean that by the fifth time you must go to second base.  If you decide to kiss him when you are both alone and have loads of time on your hands and nothing else to do, this does not mean you have agreed to go to the next base, though he may try to convince you differently.  If you agree to go to a base one day, this does not mean that you have automatically agreed to go to that base the following day.  If you break up with a boy that you went to a base with, you do not need to feel obligated to go to that base again with your next boyfriend.
  5. I hope you only go to any base because of love and not for any other reason than to express that love. Someday you will know a friend who will go to bases in hopes of gaining love, acceptance or popularity, to get attention, to numb a sadness inside her or because she feels obligated.  Please tell her she doesn’t need to, and bases won’t get her what she is looking for anyway.  (PS.  Just to be clear: notwithstanding that it’s 2013 and this will sound old-fashioned and out-of-touch, I hope you save most of those bases, and especially home plate, for the man you marry.)
  6. In my day we understood that emotions and feelings were attached to going to bases.  Today it looks like kids pretend differently and act cavalier and nonchalant about hooking up.  Take it from a sage, right now your heart is capable of profound affection and deep hurt.  Don’t stuff those feelings, listen to them.
  7. Know that he may kiss (bases!) and tell.  You should keep it quiet.
  8. Be kind to each boy you date.  He may act tough, be hard to read or hold himself aloof, but I bet that you turn him into a nervous wreck and he can’t figure out how to impress you.  Give him a break if he stutters, says the wrong thing or trips while opening a door for you.  He’s learning too.  (Yes, I know older guys have already mastered this stuff, but go back to tip #1!)
  9. If you are finished dating him, try to be as honest as possible without being cruel.
  10. Don’t be that girl who puts her friends down in that sarcastic jokey way when boys are around.  You are beautiful.  The kindness you show to your friends will make you more attractive to boys as you get older.  Catty = turn off.
  11. If you ever feel like you are trying to make yourself smaller, less smart, less funny, or less the center of attention to help your boyfriend or date feel better, bigger or smarter, move on from that boy right away.
  12. Your gut instinct is your friend.  If you get creeped-out at the thought of being alone with him, listen to that. (It doesn’t matter if he is the captain of the lacrosse team and the boy all the girls are swooning about and he is choosing you.  You don’t have to swoon unless you want to.)
  13. No matter how broke you are, always carry enough money to pay for your own meal and get yourself safely home. Yes, he should pay for your meal, provide transportation and hold the door for you.  If he doesn’t, that doesn’t mean he is a jerk, but it might mean the evening is not as special to him as you had imagined it to be.  Or it might mean he isn’t well trained.  Listen to your gut.
  14. I know you’ll disregard tip #1 at some point.  If you do date older boys or men, please make sure they are not your teacher or coach, your friend’s father, or anyone who is closer to my age than yours.  It will be obvious why they want to be near you, but seriously… yuck.
  15. My final tip (for now – I reserve the right to add to this list!) comes from my dear friend who has successfully parented loads of boys and girls.  Here’s what she whispered to her daughters as they were heading out the door for their first prom:  “When you are dancing, be careful not to rub up against his body because it will make his wee-wee hard.”  ‘Nuff said.

Go forth and have a blast in your non-stripper-costume-looking outfit.  I trust your judgment and I hope you will too.

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Good Lordy, She’s turning 40!

Screen shot 2013-01-05 at 1.45.06 PMTen years ago, my friend Judith leaned out of her car window and shouted, “Hey, I heard you turn thirty today!  You will love your thirties.  You finally get to enjoy who you are!”  I was standing on the curb at preschool pick-up with one child in a stroller awaiting another to come bounding from the building. I was overweight and worn out.  I resented my work-all-the-time husband and I awoke many mornings planning the bedtime routine for that night. The idea that something was going to change that would allow me to enjoy myself in this life of responsibly and exhaustion was hard to believe.  But, Judith was right! Although the last ten years have had hiccups, a little thyroid medicine corrected the constant tiredness, some therapy and a lot of work sorted out the resentment, and the kids turned out to be my greatest pleasure. Go figure! Here are a few other random things I know about myself now that I didn’t know ten years ago.

Bitterness looks ugly on me.

My husband has a few pet names for me, and one that hits close to home describes the ugly seeds of resentment I sometimes let take root in my soul.  He calls me Total Recall.  Trust me, if you wronged me twelve years ago I can describe what we were wearing when you said what you said that changed everything.  I can quote you verbatim, and I add emphasis when I repeat the story to show how wrong you were.  I wake up in the mornings and remember things that happened that I still have not made peace with and I feel the anger and hatred all over again before I even throw back the comforter.  But no more.

Now I welcome the amnesia that getting older brings.  When I see you, I want to see a fresh start.  This change from bitterness to grace was not (and still isn’t) easy for me, but one major habit change has made it possible: I’ve learned to forgive myself.  In the way that math of the soul never really makes sense, when I added A, let myself off the hook, to B, recount all the wrongs ever done to me, they equaled C, forgive everybody.  Sometimes when I realize I am still licking a wound and enough time has passed that I should have moved on, I have to force myself to examine my heart and find something to accept forgiveness for.  And then boom, it doesn’t seem so hard to forgive that thing I’ve been carrying around against another person. In Christian lingo I hear, He forgave me, so how can I not forgive her?   Another helpful tool is to realize that I have no idea what events or experiences led a person to that point when we had our misunderstanding.  Context is everything, and often it’s missing during confusing, hurtful situations.  Now I am trying to resist my knee-jerk go-bitter reaction, and choose forgiveness and grace instead.  And whaddaya know? I look younger and more well rested for it!

Get myself to church.

Here’s a video that best expresses my churchy advice.  (You’re welcome! I knew you’d like it!) I finally accepted that this side of death, I am unlikely to have all my faith-related issues sorted.   I will dance and spin through and around tough questions with regularity.  I will bang my head on the wall, throw my hands up and shout “I dunno!” and sometimes throw the Bible or concordance across the room in frustration.  But, now I see that gathering with other believers and seekers is the best thing I can do to sort through those things.  All the other good-for-Sundays kinds of things – brunch with friends, sports games for the kiddoes, sleeping in, biking with the family, cleaning out the garage, surfing the internet – will not challenge me to keep thinking, growing or engaging with the questions.  On a given Sunday in my forties, you can find my unsure-of-much-but-going-with-my-hunch-self warming a pew. Is it a perfect church with the exact theology I can sign on to?  Nope, not even close.

But each week I stand and let the words wash over me, I believe in God, the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.

I walk forward and take the manna of communion into my mouth, This is my body given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.

I stand and sing Here is love, vast as the ocean, and for a moment I can feel myself buoyed by all that is good, filled with hope and full of love to offer to those around me.

Strangers turn to me and say Peace be with you.  And peace enters in.

I have to love my body no matter its shape or size.

Here’s the dealio: It’s a must, and no one is going to do it for me.   In my profession I see all types of bodies in their underwear and after helping a thousand or so women find clothes, I can attest to an epidemic of self-loathing in our ranks.  The size sixteen wishes she were just a twelve and the size zero wishes she were better proportioned.  The small-chested woman goes on and on about how her friends can fill out a top better, and the endowed has hated her boobs since puberty.  The woman with “perfect” measurements looks in the mirror and obsesses about her hair and won’t try on anything else until she adds lipstick.  I’ve heard with my own ears, “I hate myself so much,” said quietly while gazing in the mirror.  It’s called “fat talk,” this female bonding ritual we do to connect. No stranger to this angst, I too can pick apart my body piece-by-piece and name what I wish were different.  After a fashion show a few years ago, five women were discussing the new clothing line we’d just seen.  Turned out those of us with big thighs had only stared at the models’ thighs the entire time, and the women who struggle with their waist lines had been obsessing over the flat tummies on the runway.  None of us had actually seen the clothes for what they were because we were too busy comparing ourselves and coming up short. But no more.

Girlfriends try to help, but I am a master at deflecting compliments.  “You look fabulous, Joy!”  “Ugh, I hate the way this shows my middle,” I’ll respond. Fat Talk.  But no more.

The husband makes attempts to be supportive and loving, but I am so suspicious that I discount anything he says. (Do I think he is lying?  That he just wants action? That he, too, wishes I were a leggy blonde? What keeps me from believing that he finds me beautiful?) When he compliments me I’ll roll my eyes with a you’ve got to be kidding signal. But no more.

Our culture is really lousy at helping me feel good. Seems no matter where I look – at magazines, movies or even in the school drop-off line – I encounter desperation to look younger and thinner.  A friend in her fifties told me recently, “It’s a scientific fact that a woman looks her best at thirty.”  What a defeating idea to believe!

So, it appears the job’s on me.  In addition to offering this body some nutritious meals and physical activity, I need to hear it being loved as well.

I look at my size nine feet and say thank you for holding me up all these years.  I know you hate high heels and I don’t blame you.  They hurt!  You’ve walked me wherever I’ve wanted to go and whether in ballet flats or doc martins you always keep me going.  Thank you.

I look at these thighs and calves and say it’s ok that you aren’t the best fit for skinny jeans or that the zippers of tall leather boots usually won’t go all the way up– you’ve moved and carried me around the world and I am grateful.

It’s gets harder, but now I can touch my soft torso and say thank you for carrying two babies and helping me bend and lift all of these years.  You’ve done a great job of keeping all the limbs connected and my whole body centered.  You let me know when you are full and when you are hungry. I apologize that I don’t do sit-ups often enough for you, but somehow you still maintain enough strength to keep me upright.

And these arms of mine are so useful at hugging my friends and pulling the husband close and also carrying groceries for my family, so I say thank you for all the lugging and hugging you do.

Finally I reach my head and I toss my graying hair out of my eyes and peer close into the mirror and whisper, You are beautiful.

That’s the job of loving myself.  Lather, rinse – and do it often.

I need to loosen my grip.

Yup, I’m a control freak and operate as if the more invested and engaged I get with something, the more I can turn it into what I want it to be.  These last ten years have taught me to take a step back and let the thing be what it is supposed to be and stop trying to dictate or invest in particular outcomes.

Health – I’ve seen yearned-for infants, twenty-year-olds on the brink of launching, active and involved fifty-year-old fathers, and ancient beloved grandparents all pass away.  None of those deaths came easily, and no amount of my wishing them away made any difference.  I will have my health and life for some amount of time and am determined to cherish and honor it.  I have no promises about tomorrow.

Money – I’ve lived in abundance and in worry.  No longer will either define my worth or my outlook on life.  I agree that money can make life easier, but it brings the possibility of a crapload of dysfunction along with it.  Beyond providing the basic necessities (for us this means housing, food and education) it doesn’t do much for self-confidence, family love, or identity building.  I say, Easy come, easy go, Miss Money.  I’ll enjoy you while you are with me, but I won’t grieve very long when you take a vacation from my bank account.

Friendship – I am wired to need girlfriends and I thrive on female energy flowing through me, helping me self-examine and guiding me toward my future-me.  I stand by the advice I heard many years ago: “Look for the best in a friend rather than a best friend.”  Though some women come close, I don’t need any single friend to be my perfect soul mate.  If I start measuring her by a standard in my head, she’ll certainly fail.  When women come into my life – and new ones appear all the time – I try to figure out what part of her is the best fit for what part of me.  Should we connect about mothering, wife-ing, walking, faith, books, travel, or will she challenge me to grow in a new direction?  While I am trying to discover what is a piece in her to fit with a piece in me, I am also trying to offer my best.   This approach guarantees that an amorphous cloud of friendship holds me at all times. I still struggle with rejection, though.  Even I can feel like a left-out middleschooler while scrolling through face book and looking at party shots that do not include me, or watching two women giggle in a way that neither does with me.  Those pangs of exclusion serve as a reminder to peel my fingers back again and recognize that for whatever reason – insecurity, mis-reading cues, rough patches of neediness – I’ve begun to cling too hard to that particular friendship.

My Children – Well, I wish I could add them to this list, but I am still learning to hold their sweet souls in an open palm.  I know they are on loan from God to me, I know their lives do not reflect my identity, and I know that if I do my job well, they will find their own path and it will be headed away from me.  I am still processing this one.

I can’t wait to see how life treats me now that I will be a lady in her forties.  I hear that all sorts of fun things will happen to my body.  I’ve already had the pleasure of experiencing a few personal summers, and I can see that the rumor about eyebrows disappearing and showing up on chins might have some truth to it. Over the next ten years I’ll be saying goodbye to two kids as they fly the coop and I hope I am able to do it with equipoise.  (Current trends indicate I might have a rough time with this, but I am betting on grace to reign when needed.)

Whatever heads my way, you can be sure I’ll be writing about it, because that’s another thing I discovered during the last decade.  I love to write!  Stick around; it’s going to be a fun ride.

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Got Vacancy?

San Francisco-20121209-00789No matter if we grew up in a secular home or a home where faith of a religion other than Christianity was taught, we are likely familiar with the basic elements of the story of the birth of Christ. The Crèche Scene: animals, angels, shepherds and wise men.  There are swaddling clothes, and a great big star, and sometimes in the re-telling of the story a little drummer boy is in the picture as well.

I could write for pages about the back story of that scene, starting with the prophecies that appear in the book of Isaiah about the Messiah who would save the people of God, or we could walk through Jesus’ lineage and hear the stories of all the colorful people listed who would be included in the house of David from which Jesus would emerge.  We could even spend a few hours just detailing how the conception, birth and ultimate death of John the Baptist was so intriguingly linked to Jesus every step of the way.

We might examine Jesus’ mother and discuss the courage and bravery she had to exhibit to bring him to life. If you are experiencing the unique tensions of a blended family you might enjoy focusing on Joseph, the stepfather.  We could step back further and see what was happening in the world around the stable on that night: oppression of entire swaths of classes and races and greedy, power-hungry world leaders looking out only for themselves.

The broader story of Jesus’ birth offers as many Christmas Eve homily ideas as there are priests to deliver them.  I hope each of us – no matter our faith – has time to find a place to listen to any clergy give a Christmas-related sermon. It’s always interesting to hear which perspective and entry point to the story is used.

I am stuck on one such entry point, recorded in the book of Luke.  Mary and Joseph have traveled to Bethlehem to be counted in the census, and then –

She brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

I used to be in charge of a Christmas Pageant and the youngest kids would dress as stable animals, and would say things like Moo and Baa on cue, and the next-to-the-youngest would often get the roles of Inn Keepers.  The seven and eight-year-old Mary and Joseph would approach several Inn Keepers who would hold up signs reading, No Vacancy and if the kids had the courage they would shout out “NO VACANCY!” And the audience always laughed.

I don’t know how many accommodations Joseph tried to find that night, only to be re-buffed.  Even the place that ultimately let them in could only offer them the animals’ stable. The town was overcrowded with the hustle and bustle of people coming home to register. Probably families were reuniting, and I bet there was a lot of cooking and housecleaning going on to prepare for all the guests that would descend on the town. I imagine the shop keepers were lining the shelves with extra goods to sell and maybe even increasing their prices a bit thinking, this would be the opportunity to cash in.  The streets would have been crowded – even parking the donkey may have been difficult.

The scene sounds like it could be 2012 here in my neighborhood just before any holiday.  And the message Joseph and Mary were hearing was, There is no room for you here.  We are all too busy preparing for and taking advantage of the census, reuniting with our families, dreading our families’ visit, preparing our homes, or dashing back out to the store. You are an unexpected visitor and we simply have no bandwidth to deal with you.

If you are friends with me on Facebook, you already know that my tree fell down last Sunday night.  One minute it was standing tall and stable in its stand and the next minute we heard a crash and ran in to find water flooding the floorboards, broken ornaments covering the carpet and the tree prone on the ground.  If my husband hadn’t been home I would have carefully picked off the unbroken ornaments, packed them away and dragged that tree to the curb.  But by Brad’s grace we managed to right the tree, dry the water, and re-hang what wasn’t broken – and the Christmas spirit lived on in the house on Baker Street.

Earlier in the weekend we had tooooootally overdone it. Brad landed late on Friday night and was flying out again first thing on Monday morning.  We were cramming in things like birthday party planning, Christmas photo shots, Christmas card ordering and gift buying and, of course, buying the tree from Home Depot at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning. Our children were exhausted, behind on homework and one of them was not being particularly nice to the other one.

To say that we had no room in our inn for the tree to fall down was evident in the way we handled it.  We yelled at each other.  As I dashed up the stairs to get towels he yelled from downstairs, “Would somebody puh-leeeaze get me a towel?”  I scrambled to put shoes on my bare feet and screamed down to him, “What do you think I am dooooooing?”  I dried the floor around the base and demanded that he lift up the tree – base and all – so I could dry under it.  “Just try harder,” I screamed into the bottom branches.  “There is no way I can do it,” He yelled into the middle branches his face was buried in.  Once we got the floor dry, we decided we needed some string to tie the tree to something – what, we still hadn’t figured out, but the kids and I went on a hunt for string.  And I tell you, it’s like we entered the twilight zone.

Brad stood waiting in the living room holding the tree upright. We were in the garage numbly looking around in random areas for string.  Perhaps we’d lost some brain cells on the way down the steps.  I fought the urge to suddenly straighten up and maybe even catalogue all the board games.  I saw one of my kids reach out for a ball and then catch himself.  We looked in all the dark corners, and on all the shelves and I even gave the ceiling a quick glance to see if by some sort of magic there might be a ball of string hanging from it.  But no… not a single length of string to be found.  Meanwhile he was upstairs bellowing, “I am waiting on some striiiiiinnnggg.”  Eventually – even in my stupor – I found the staircase up to the living room again, and switched places with him.  He reappeared in thirty seconds with a large bundle of twine and tied the tree to the window shade and then we began vacuuming up needles and glass.  We couldn’t leave it alone, though.  Even while cleaning up, we were at each other, the stress of this ‘most wonderful time of the year,’ nearly causing us to come to verbal blows.

Eventually we restored peace, the children finished enough homework to go to bed and he caught a few hours of sleep before he left for the airport.  Honestly, some weekends we just need to congratulate ourselves that they’re over. The trophy goes to anyone who makes it to Monday morning.

A few days later I was planning to spend the morning poring over seasonal poems, Scriptures and inspirational readings in preparation for a little talk I was facilitating about the meaning of Christmas.  I had put off planning for an entire week. (Those Law and Order episodes weren’t going to watch themselves, you know.)  And after the crazy weekend I needed to use Monday to get my nails done with a girlfriend, and so Tuesday was the day.

All I needed to do first was drop off a box at the post office, and then I could come home and plan, research and write and just relax into the spirit of Christmas.  But as I checked one and then another post office and found each not yet open and with lines forming outside ten people deep, I decided to drive into the Presidio and see if that post office was any better.  And that’s when my car broke down.  I got to sit in my car with the hazard lights blinking and cars honking at me for eighty minutes while waiting on a tow truck.

I couldn’t find pen or paper in the car to at least jot down my thoughts, but decided to use the time wisely in other ways.  I went through my phone and deleted or answered 262 unattended emails.  I called my Mom who jokingly said “Oh, now I see where I fit into your priorities. When you have nothing else to do but sit on the side of the road in a broken down car, then you call me.”  I returned the calls of three friends and heard all about what they are going through right now.  One is dealing with financial stress like you wouldn’t believe, another is frustrated and down about her job, and the other is worried about both of her kids for different reasons. None of them has any room in their inns for one more thing to go wrong.

I’ve heard all about the grand idea of Margin.  To me, “margin” means leaving some room around the edges of our lives – in our calendars, in our sleep schedules, or in the time we allot to get places.  We hear a lot about how we need to protect margin and how easily it can slip away from us.  Even though I need to embrace it, sometimes I just get so sick of hearing any sort of modern-day wisdom. I feel impatient and claustrophobic with mumbo-jumbo like just let go or remain open.  As much as I want to say Margin Smargin, I do realize that margin is what makes it ok when the tree falls and the power steering fails.  When the kid sends you that text that makes your heart break or your spine chill, or when you count the pennies and realize there is no way you will make it to the next month without missing some of the due dates on those utility bills.  Margin, space, room – extra – is what we need.

Even though we only have a limited amount of room, there is no end to all the things we can use to fill us.  Right now, there are amazing events to attend (I went to two fabulous holiday parties before the tree fell), sparkly clothes to wear and decorations to hang.  There is food to enjoy and as many obsessive thoughts as you’ll welcome about eating or not.  There are songs, music and concerts, and shopping, buying and spending and worrying about reactions to what we bought and worrying about how to pay the credit card bills we just ran up.  But what we don’t seem to have a lot of is extra room.

We’re not too different from the people in that crowded Bethlehem all those years ago, with all the busyness and distraction that envelops us.  We have to learn to say no and establish boundaries or we’ll get overrun with good things.

But I wonder, especially at this time of the year, what we might be missing by not leaving just a little room in the inn of our hearts?  Those people way back in Bethlehem, they’d been told from the time they were in the cradle that a savior would be born to their people.  They had been raised with hope in their hearts and expectation on their breath, yet there was no room for Him when He finally showed up.  They were too preoccupied.

When I have no room in my inn for things to go wrong, I let criticism, anger, blame and defensiveness take over.  Those are my knee-jerk reactions when I am stretched and tired.  I miss what could be a memory-making funny moment, or a moment to help a child or spouse and be a support.

When I am around extended family tension, something that is common and perhaps predictable around the holidays, there is no room in me for grace and forgiveness.  I allow judgment and superiority to reign instead of opening the door to humility and compassion.

Here is a kicker: Around this time of year we might come face-to-face with spiritual and faith-related crossroads.  Perhaps we will be on the tipping point of diving in, rejecting or cautiously dipping the tip of our big toe nail into the pool of faith.  If the opportunity presents itself, will there be room in the inn of our hearts?  Will there be too much suspicion, disappointment or general numbness to allow a quickening or movement in our souls?

What steps can we take when we are faced with so much pressure and work right now?

I wish I could give us a plan to follow. I would entitle it How to create Holy Margin during Christmastime.  But, because we are unique and on our own paths, each of us probably needs to take an inventory and feel the answer specific to our own lives. Where I might need to turn off the Law and Order and instead turn to my husband and ask about his day, you might need to stop cleaning the kitchen and come watch a football game with yours.  While I might need to invite my kids to take a walk and get away from their screens, you might need to allow yours some more screen time and stop being such a taskmaster.  Where I need to make and hold eye contact with family members and actually listen to their hearts, you might need to protect yourself from certain members of your extended family who do not have your best interests at heart.  Where I might need to reiterate my spiritual values to myself – actually note where I am and where I am headed, you might simply need to throw your hands up and shout out, I have no idea what I believe.

You may be alone this Christmas and your heart might be filled with sadness and loneliness.  Perhaps you need to leave room for hope and joy to return as well.

Thinking back to Bethlehem, I want to sneak in at night before Mary and Joseph trudge into town and knock on the doors to give a heads up.

I would whisper through the closed doors, He’s coming tomorrow. Be ready.  He’ll be here and He is not what you are expecting.  Be on the lookout for a total shocker.  Try not to plan how it will be and how you will react.  Guess what? The world will be changed forever tomorrow and I don’t want you to be too busy, too angry, too numb, too disappointed, too worried, too suspicious, or too distracted to notice.  Keep your door ajar and leave some room in your inn in case He comes here.  Tomorrow there will definitely be a Holy moment and I hope you don’t miss it.

I need to take time to sit quietly, breathe deeply, and imagine my margin growing bigger.  As thoughts creep in and worries return, I’ll no doubt notice them, but I won’t let them stay long enough to take root.  Instead, with however much margin I have built up in my heart, I ask, What Holy Moment is waiting for me?


Oh Ye of the Very Big Opinion

People won’t remember what you said or did; they will remember how you made them feel.    ~ Maya Angelou

I awoke on the morning of November 6th, 2012 feeling so relieved.  I turned to my husband and said “No matter what happens today, I deserve a trophy for staying married to you through one more election season.”  We shared a somewhat-forced chuckle and the day moved on.

He’s a political junkie.  More factoids float around in his brain than are useful and he can name all candidates in congressional and senatorial races at all times.  If you meet him at a cocktail party and happen to mention the small town in the Midwest from whence you hail, he’ll tell you the candidates he hopes you voted for in the last four elections, and he’s likely to know which issues were most at play during those races.   Most of the time his interest in politics is charming and I slot it into the category of a hobby.  He doesn’t golf; he follows politics.   But every four years, like clockwork, he switches his focus from just a hearty interest in the process, the system, the players, the pundits, and the websites, and he gets tunnel vision.  He changes his lingo and begins to use words like “our side, “ and “when we win” and makes disparaging remarks about people who disagree with him.  (And sometimes to people who disagree!  Upon meeting one of our daughter’s brand new friends and finding out she was of a different political persuasion – note, she is a fifteen-year-old and cannot actually vote – he said, “Somehow I thought you’d be smarter.”  So, yeah…. disparaging.)   He becomes obsessed with his own Very Big Opinion.  And that’s when it all ceases to be cute or clever.  It becomes suffocating and intolerable.  Every single conversation leads back to politics and there’s not a lot of space for other topics or personal discussions or projects.  It’s alllllllllll about the election, his VBO.

Now that election season is over, the instances of graceless conversations between us are getting less frequent.  We might go days between those tightlipped moments when his eyebrows are up around his hairline and he uses his incredulous tone.  Here’s the kicker:  We mostly agree on every single topic, yet, I still wanted to skirt the room and avoid him for most of September and October.  People who allow their interests and passions to become Very Big Opinions rarely notice the effect it has on those around them.

I have a girlfriend who has a VBO and it also happens to be about politics, but is polar opposite of my husband’s.  Most of the time we just gently laugh at the differences, but recently it became uncomfortable.  We had twenty minutes to meet for coffee and I tried to spend the time catching up about our children, our work, and various friends we have in common.  You know… girlfriend chat.  But she was like a dog after a bone.  “Ask your husband how he feels about this…”  “Oh, I already know how he feels about that,” I answered.  “And he’s still voting for him?”  Sigh, “Yep, he still is.”  “Ok, well then tell him this and see what he says.”  She totally missed my non-verbal cues to move the topic along.  Her own VBO was so huge and present that there was little room for anything else.

Thankfully, the political VBO in our home only reaches the intolerable threshold every four years.  But each time, it gets harder to deal with and I get more disappointed that we are right back where we started, with one spouse gritting her teeth and the other crazily ranting.  It only lasts eight or nine weeks and then we go back to being two people who share views most of the time, and one who has a much greater interest in following how those views play out in our country.  Though nothing seems quite as divisive and conversation stopping as political hot buttons, the idea of the Very Big Opinion is not unique to politics or even to my marriage.

I know a few people who live year-round this way.  It seems like they have a VBO about everything.  If you buy lawn furniture, they criticize the pieces you bought or the store from which you purchased it.  If you mention you like smoothies, they know the place to get the specific juicer, high-powered blender, single-serve bullet machine, or pulverizing appliance and how to get the discount code to get it.  It’s like being in a house of mirrors; everywhere you turn you bump into another one of their Very Big Opinions.

I used to be friends with a woman in between her VBOs.  During her down times she was always a gamer to try new things, a great cook and hostess, and a good add-on to any group.  She was relatively mild unless a VBO came her way.  At one point the news was filled with sad stories about a few cases of sickness and death in children caused by toxic items made in China.  We were all concerned about it and the stories raised lots of questions for all of us to ponder.  But she became obsessed about it. She harassed sales clerks by turning over items and showing them the made in China stamp.  She loudly criticized volunteers at school who had purchased decorations with a made in China stamp on the plastic bag.  She became super smug about her personal ban on it and very demeaning to others, like me, who didn’t join her in her absolute strike on all products.  The ban on China increased until it reached a VBO status and it’s all she’d talk about each time we were together.

Later our daughters were attending the same sports camp and I asked her daughter if she was enjoying it.  “My Mom likes it.” She replied.  I was confused for a moment.  Her mom wasn’t attending the camp, the child was.  “But what do you think of it?” I asked.  “I don’t really know; I just know that she thinks it’s really great.”  See, the “Fabulousness of This Amazing Camp” had become another VBO in their family and there was absolutely no room for this child to have an opinion – different or the same!  All of the opinion real estate was being taken up by the VBO.

Although I’m sure I’ve held a few VBO’s of my own over the years (don’t get me going about the culture of bullying in middle school!), going forward I hope I am able to keep them in a place where they don’t define me, or grow bigger than the amount of care I have for people around me.  I give a pass to anyone in her twenties and any new mothers.  Those are times when zealous belief and righteousness help us because we need something to combat the ever-present self-doubt lurking behind each corner.  This is the right path.  I do know better than everyone else.  I must trust my own instincts.

Everyone else – be warned.  It’s likely at some point you’ll need to choose between your VBO and your relationships. Usually, there’s not room for both.  And also, if you want to help change the world in an emotionally sensitive way (if you care about that kind of thing), you’re never going to do it with a VBO weighing you down.  People stop hearing you as soon as you start talking at them instead of listening to them.

I sometimes wonder if carrying around a VBO makes a person feel more secure. Maybe, she is afraid to lay it down for even one day.  Maybe he’s afraid if he doesn’t rise to each occasion – or, bite at every comment, instead of (gasp) letting it go – he won’t have my respect or I might not remember where he stands on a subject.  Who would she be if she didn’t assert her VBO?

I know that getting a VBO going, pumping the bellows and stoking the flames of my own self-righteousness feels good.  I mean… it feels reeeealllllllly good.   Oh the joys of being Right! And Loud! And Proud! And a Voice Of Reason!  And if I am particularly delusional about a VBO, it can almost feel Brave! too.  And here is a tricky part: the people in the forefront of the world usually have VBOs.  Leaders, Activists, Influencers, Stakeholders, Directors, Bosses… yeah, I bet they got there in part by holding on with all their might to a few VBOs.  (I wonder if there might be a trail of failed relationships on their heels, though.) So maybe a particular VBO is important enough to me to keep clenching my fists with all my might.  But before I decide, I need to look around at the faces in my inner circle and count the cost.

Here’s where my VBO has worked against me in the past:

When the VBO is prioritized above a relationship.

When it’s more important to me that people know where I stand on a topic than my knowing their story.

When I am willing to end a relationship if someone disagrees with my VBO.

When I won’t stop talking about it even when a person asks me to.

When I won’t share intimate vulnerable details of myself, but I’ll share rhetoric.

When I stop being a nuanced person and become a machine for “the cause.”

When I refer to my VBO as “the truth.”

When I’ve bullied those around me into remaining mute for fear of igniting my VBO.

When those who love me most are unable to communicate how they feel because there is simply no room in my heart to hear it.

Yeah, some of those do sound dramatic, but if you’ve ever been on the receiving end of a VBO you are probably cheering me on, right now.

Recently, I was at a memorial service.  Although the room was filled with grief, many people were standing and sharing happy memories and stories of this man’s wonderful contribution to life.  I’ll never forget his friend Brian’s words. “No matter your politics or your religion, he made sure hanging out with him was a relaxing and pleasant experience.”

Seems like a small thing, but in our world of self-absorption, aggression and clawing competition, it’s actually heroic.  Oh, that I will be blessed enough to have similar words spoken about me.

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It’s a new day, Mom…

Yesterday, I ran into an old friend who has much younger kids (Egads, one is still in preschool! Can you imagine how utterly exhausted she is?)  and she asked, “How is life as the mother of a high-schooler?”

Oh, there are so many ways I could answer that question…

Normally I would reply with a quick and breezy, “It’s great! She loves it!” This is 100% true.  My daughter has taken to high school like a fish to water.  After an initial pause of bewilderment that was over before I even had time to panic, I’ve seen weeks of smiles.

I could have said, “Oh, it’s so far away from our house!”  It’s true:  I leave at 7am each morning and after dropping everyone where they need to be I finally get home to begin my own day at 8:30am. I usually have a little bit of road rage by that point and am still wearing some version of a pajama outfit.  Sometimes, but not always, my teeth are brushed.

Occasionally I might say, “She loves it so much I have to keep reminding her that it’s school and not summer camp!”  But this is a little misleading.  She’s having as much fun as she’s ever had at a camp, but she’s remaining dedicated to her academic work as well.

Right now a lot of 8th grade Moms are calling to hear about her experience because they are in the midst of high school decision-making, and so sometimes I say “It was the right choice for her.  It’s been a great fit.”  And what I mean by that is she’s thriving in all the obvious ways:  Good grades so far, made the sports team she tried out for, has friends to eat lunch with and doesn’t dread the day.  As simple as it sounds, this is every parent’s dream for her kid.

[BTW, if you don’t live in San Francisco and you are wondering what in the world a “high school decision” is, well… I’ll give a shot at explaining.  Many kids in this city attend a K-8 school and then apply to a private or public high school during their 8th grade year.  The process seems to empower these 13-year-olds to make the decision themselves, but the parents are the ones who pay the tuition so we get a say as well.  The kids go and “shadow” for a day at each school they are interested in, and then fill out these intensive applications, each with different deadlines and then we wait.  On the same day in March, all the schools mail letters or post on-line their decisions and kids juggle waiting out their first choice and moving off a wait list or accepting immediately and plunking down a deposit. Yes, I know it sounds crazy and more like a college process, but that’s what it’s like here and I thought I would explain it.]

But back to yesterday… I had the feeling this gal was asking about me and her curiosity made me feel brave enough to be honest, so here is what I said:  “It’s very different and the change is one I didn’t see coming.”

And that’s the truth.  One day I was the active and awesome parent of two kids who needed so much from me and I had divvied my heart, time and energy up so that each got just enough and I still had some “me” left.  I kept a busy calendar filled with work and volunteer duties and a touch of social activities thrown in.  And then one day I awoke to realize that most of what I needed and wanted to do for her is already done.

And it doesn’t feel that great.  It feels a little like my invisible expiration date just showed itself and I didn’t know that it had passed. My shelf life was a much smaller number than I had imagined.

On Halloween her new, super-cool, high school canceled classes for the whole day so their students could attend the Welcome Home Giants parade. (No wonder it feels like summer camp around that place!)  At 8:30 in the morning she said goodbye and walked off to take the bus to meet up with her friends.  Hours later I sent a text: “Please just confirm you are safe and with people.”   “Yes!” she replied with no details.  Apparently they wandered the crowded city, most likely inhaling gallons of pot-filled air while smashed up against other San Franciscans, and eventually made their way to a friend’s house to change into Halloween costumes and make the rounds as trick-or-treaters.  It was pouring rain and freezing outside.  I sent a text at 8:30pm saying, “Surely you are wet, freezing and miserable and ready to come home, right?”  “No, we’re having a blast. Can I spend the night here?” was her response.

Here’s the thing.  This is what flourishing looks like in teenageland.  She’s happy, (and crossing my fingers in hope as I type this) safe and having a ball.  But back to me for a moment….I just felt desolate.  I hadn’t even seen her in her costume. I hadn’t walked up to houses with her and her friends and mentally recorded the excitement on their faces.  I hadn’t weighed her candy and decided when we’d finished enough blocks.  I didn’t even know if she’d used a bag or borrowed a pillowcase.  The plastic bag with a pumpkin painted on it that she’s used for years sat in our garage on that rainy night.  Who am I on Halloween if I am not with my kids trick-or-treating?  It’s been so long since I’ve even had the opportunity to be anything other than their ever-present-meeter-of-needs that there might be a vast void opening up where mothering her used to be.  And just so you know, I work a job I love, I have more loving female friends than I can count and am active in all sorts of community projects.  It’s just that I have always prioritized my kids’ needs and my job as their mother way above any of those other things.  So what does one do when her biggest priority takes itself off the list?

I was moping around the house mumbling things about how boarding school makes so much more sense on this side of the high school decision, when my husband looked at me and said in a very compassionate voice, “You are done.  You did a really good job parenting her, and that is why you can relax now.  It’s basically over.”

And you and I both know my work is far from over, but the job that I have been doing in that way I’ve been doing it… yeah, that one’s done.  And seriously, if one more well-meaning mom of an older kid patiently explains that I have simply moved from “manager to consultant” I think I might scream.  I get it; I just have no idea what that means or how it looks.

[BTW, It’s such a strange conflict to be rejoicing for your child and weeping for yourself.  Especially when you are trying to hide your weeping from your child lest she be confused about the direction she is supposed to be heading.   Like yea, you are doing such a great job separating from me in a healthy way.  And like, boo, I miss my best friend… manic/depressive much, Joy?]

This week I was pulling away from my house to attend a monthly women’s group meeting.  (You know, one of those things in my uber-full and rich life that’s not at all pathetic.) Bing, went my phone.  “I just got on the bus now, I’ll be home in 30 mins.”  I reply, “Don’t forget that I am going out tonight. Dinner’s on the stove.”  And I think for a minute and then say “ AND… how was your day.”  Bing: “It was actually an awful day, I’ll tell you about it later tonight.”

Because you know me so well, you must know that I wanted to veer right and drive out to the Sunset until I had tracked the bus down and carried her home myself.  But I didn’t. I sent an empathetic note back, offered to cancel my plans, and then went ahead with my evening.

When I got home I heard all about her Very First Bad Day In High School.  It included some stomach pain, a forgotten assignment, a lunch period full of volunteer obligations and no time to connect with friends, and finally the pervasive worry about a friend who is going through a rough patch.  Nothing I could do a single thing about.

As I rubbed her feet and offered a tissue, I heard, “I knew I’d be ok as soon as I got home.  I feel so much better now that I am with you. Thanks for listening, Mom.”

And one tiny block of understanding clicked into place.  It seems that this new-fangled consultant gig I’ve been hired for involves a lot of waiting around and keeping myself occupied and busy until I am needed.  And when I get that call or happen into an open conversation, then it means being the same consistently loving and listening mom I’ve always been.

My work is nearly done.  I just need to be available, never rushing in too quickly, always looking out for her best interests and relentlessly nurturing her independent but relational spirit.

N.B.D.  It’s the same job, just waaaaaaaaay less of it.

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