There’s that moment, when your baby’s lungs fill with oxygen for the very first time and you’re overwhelmed with love and fear. Because even though you’ve been given nine months to prepare, there’s no preparing for this. This feeling of unbounded joy tinged with vulnerability and inadequacy. I remember wanting everyone else in the room to disappear because I felt like the two of us needed a moment to adjust to the fact that we weren’t sharing a body anymore.
And that’s where the fear comes from. We get nine months of ultimate control of their safety, and then, after hours of excruciating labor, the demise of our power begins. Slowly but surely, with every stage of life comes new wonder and excitement, new skills and talents, but more danger. We don’t ever stop trying, though. We pad corners, lock cabinets, buy child-safety packages, and install baby gates. We use gps trackers, lecture, and tell cautionary tales.
We’re the security detail who runs ahead to vet the world before they get there, trying desperately to head off potential danger. Trying desperately to calm that nagging, anxious feeling that creeps in on the edges of everything they do that is so necessary to them living their best life and knowing joy, but that might involve risk. We take deep breaths, smile, and talk ourselves down the first time they go to school, sleep over at a friend’s house, pull out of the driveway, go to a party, or move out on their own.
And in the course of their lifetimes they will bring us the greatest joy we ever know. They’ll fill our hearts with so much love we can feel it, physically, in our chest. A tiny voice whispering, “I love you, mama,” a hard-fought B in a particularly difficult class, or an act of compassion. They’ll achieve things we never imagined; take the first step, collect trophies and advanced degrees, raise beautiful families, and even save lives. They will make us angry in ways we would have never guessed that sweet baby could, by doing exactly what we (or the law) told them not to do; beating the snot out of their sibling, getting a speeding ticket, missing curfew or back-talking. They will disappoint us by not working up to their potential, choosing a lie instead of the truth, or leaving their chores undone.
Some of them will break our hearts through no fault of their own. The heavens will open up and take them back before we’re ready; despite all of our due diligence. Others will break our hearts, as well as their own, when they leave the perfectly drawn path we laid before them and veer off into the jungle where we aren’t even sure how to save them.
They’ll do these things because they’re not perfect, and neither are we.
We’re not perfect, but we don’t quit on our kids…ever. Mamas don’t quit. And when we feel anything other than earth-shattering, soul crushing love, it’s only temporary. We love them through the very worst they can dish out. No matter how old they get, we are their soft place to fall. See, we’re not perfect, we’re better than that. We’re extraordinary. Perfection isn’t relatable, it isn’t resilient, it doesn’t crawl down in the trenches when the dirty work has to be done. Perfection just sits back and points fingers. Extraordinary rises above the fray. Extraordinary stifles her fear and reassures in the most unsettling of circumstances. Extraordinary slays Goliath. And the very best of us are extraordinary for other people’s kids too.
Today, I celebrate all of the extraordinary moms. The ones who lost a child too soon, but fight through that pain every day for their siblings; the ones who are standing alongside a child who’s fighting addiction and are battling fear and exhaustion to face down a dragon; the ones who spend their money and their days traveling back and forth to see specialists in the hope of giving their child a life free of pain, whether emotional or physical; the ones who are sitting on their hands watching their child struggle, because they know that this time they need to find their own way; the ones whose kids are going through a painful breakup or divorce and are resisting the urge to retaliate; the ones who embrace their child’s lifestyle and tell society to “stuff it”; and the ones who appear to have it all together, whose kids never seem to do anything but the right thing, because they have their own battles we know nothing about.
There are so many of you who inspire me to be a better mom and you don’t even know it. I hope you recognize yourselves here. Thank you for your willingness to be real, and flawed, and transparent. Thank you for sharing your grace, determination, grit, laughter and tears. You have no idea how it gives the rest of us the freedom to be extraordinary.
February 18th, my birthday eve. There was a time I would have been planning an evening out, choosing just the right outfit, and jokingly reminding my friends they had exactly one shopping day and they had better scramble to make something happen.
This is 58, though, and while turning 50 was anti-climactic, this is just two short years from 60. Sixty is just five years away from retirement age, though my personal retirement age is tracking to be somewhere in my early 90’s if I’m VERY thrifty. I’m pretty sure I would be a really unproductive retired person, anyway. In my hands, unstructured time doesn’t result in a climb of Machu Picchu or a new money-generating hobby, it generally results in me reading 50 more books each year whose titles I won’t remember in six months.
At 57 and 9/10ths, I think a great deal about perspective and how life, time, and experience tell us so much about who we are and what aspects of life are worthy of our focus. It shifts, you know, or at least it has for me, from the superficial and material to valuing dependability, curiosity, kindness, and vulnerability. You begin to choose the old athletic shoe over the 3-inch heel because how long your legs look doesn’t top your list of concerns anymore. You want to arrive, but you want to arrive safely and comfortably. You’ve realized life doesn’t have to be lived on the edge to be relevant.
I wasn’t a good woman for many years. In fact, most of the time I felt slightly uncomfortable in any group of women. In social situations, I gravitated to men. Maybe because I grew up with a brother. We had no drama. We laughed often. And if we fought, we punched each other a few times and were back to laughing in minutes. Men were simple to navigate. I only needed to be quick-witted and funny. Their feelings weren’t easily hurt and they said what they meant. Women were borderline terrifying. They had the potential to smile when they greeted you, then hurl knives at your back as you walked away. With women my guard was up, always. I was incredibly insecure. No matter the false bravado, I was painfully aware I was far from the prettiest, the most engaging, or the smartest, and I was desperately afraid they would realize it too. You know how the herd culls the weakest member? I figured I would save them the work and cull myself. Female friendships required risk and vulnerability. I wanted my life to be unencumbered and easy. Navigating complicated emotions and sharing weren’t skills I wanted to gain. That was one of many errors in my judgment over the years. I know now, the deepest bonds are forged in the hottest fires.
At 57 and 9/10ths, I’m overdue a love letter to the women in my life. Only women would have the tenacity and perseverance it took to show me how much more joyful life could be if I dared to own my shortcomings. I never began to live in truth and acceptance of who I am, good and bad, strong and weak, until I surrounded myself with the right women. Are there still knife-hurling mean girls out there? You’re damn right there are but the good women are worth the risk of a couple of run-ins with the bad ones.
I was pretty damn dumb in my 20’s and 30’s, leading to some astoundingly stupid errors in judgment. The women who surrounded me in those years and beyond, reminded me to laugh when the days got too dark, showed up for my kids when they needed extra love and support, helped me decorate because they understood that I was not born with the gift of visualization, gently guided me away from an outfit or ten that might have made me an incredibly attractive target for the knife-wielding mean girls, and sent me flowers and restored my self-esteem when my heart had been shattered into a thousand pieces. They praised my talents and gave me confidence when I didn’t believe in myself and taught me how freeing it is to laugh at myself when I fall on my ass. More than once, they physically prevented me from taking an action they knew a more sober me would regret.
They never expected anything in return, never used their good deeds as leverage, never said, “I told you so.” Though the good lord in heaven knows that, unless they’re certifiable saints, they thought it often.
So, if you’re a young woman, throw caution to the wind. Put it all out there. The good women will make themselves known quickly and they will bring you joy and enrich your life in ways only women can. Women are intuitive and graceful, funny and encouraging. They are innate caregivers and will lift you up time and time again, no matter how heavy the problem. I know, I’ve tested this. Divorces, struggling kids, money woes, the loss of loved ones, health issues, and hard choices don’t even faze them.
Embrace the opportunity to surround yourself with beautiful women, women more accomplished than you, women wiser or stronger. Smart women. The smartest you can find. They will make you better than you were before they came into your life. Your light will shine brighter and in the darkest, hardest battles they will fight alongside you. Hell, the very best of them will charge ahead of you into the fray. Mine have.
They will remind you of all the wonderful you’ve accomplished and what still lies within you. They’ll help you rise to the top. When you are lost in the forest of life, they will get you to the other side.
There is a scene in the Sex and the City movie where Carrie has been left waiting at the altar by Big, who has a case of cold feet. As she is leaving the venue in the limo with her girls, they meet Big in his limo, rushing to right his wrong. Both climb out of their respective cars and as Big approaches the jilted Carrie apologizing, her girlfriends surround her, Charlotte grabbing her while simultaneously jabbing a finger at Big, and screaming, “No. No.” There is something about the raw emotion of that scene that makes me cry. Every damn time. And I’m not a crier. Maybe because we’ve all been abandoned at some point, if not at the altar, emotionally, and so it’s a feeling we all identify with, but I doubt it. It’s that in that moment, those women represent the purest, most ferocious kind of love in the most heartbreaking and vulnerable situation. That two and a half minute scene is a very real, very beautiful representation of the intense love and devotion at the heart of female friendship.
So, ladies don’t sit in the corner alone with your slice. Despite what you’ve been led to believe, there really is enough cake for everyone.
And if you’re one of my girls, raise your hand. Your fire, strength, humor, and love are part of the reason I’m still standing at 57 and 9/10ths. I hope I’ve been a fraction of the friend to each of you that you have been to me.
This past weekend I parked my dangerously pale, post-menopausally (yeah, I know that wasn’t a word until right now) plump body in a beach chair and began to read, the ocean generously drowning out the sound of any distractions.
The late 80’s brought me a lot of things, among them a devilishly elusive college degree and a pack of the world’s finest girlfriends. There are five of us women who have carried each other through the darkest valleys and toasted each other’s happiest moments. We have a vault stacked to the very tip top with the most delicious secrets and stories. I could whip a couple of those stories or secrets out and cause some eyebrow raising and pearl clutching, trust me on that. My chosen sisters laugh with me, cry with me, love me despite the many reasons I’m not loveable, and have this uncanny way of blessing me in the most unexpected ways. One of those blessings arrived this recent Mother’s Day when a member of the Fabulous Five sent me Viola Davis’ new book, “Finding Me.”
Only six pages in Viola Davis recounts a conversation she had with Will Smith on the set of Suicide Squad. He asked her who she was. She responded indignantly, questioning what he meant, and stated that she knew who she was. He pressed her, asking again, “No, who are you?” He elaborated by telling her that he would always be that fifteen-year-old boy whose girlfriend broke up with him. (Which opens up a whole other conversation, does it not? But let’s stay on topic.) He then asked again, “Who are you?’
I stopped reading. Stopped reading and dog-eared the page. I needed to think about that. I mean, who am I? It’s easy to list adjectives. I’m a mother and a rescuer. I love Charles Barkley, cellos, formal dresses, and the Dallas Cowboys. I’m baffled by people who pay money to make the muffler of a depreciating asset louder and I can’t sleep past 7 am. That’s information about me, but that’s not who I am.
There are events in life that define us. Sometimes it’s a series of events. In all likelihood, for most of us, it’s some kind of trauma. A careless label by a teacher or a loving parent, cruel words from a wounded classmate, or the loss of a friend or loved one. Maybe we grew up with limited resources, had a learning disability, or were raised by a single parent. Those moments crystallize and tell us a story about ourselves. We grab onto that new identity and drag it with us through childhood, pack it up and haul it off to college or to our first job as an adult, and let it silently and surreptitiously govern our lives. When that story is negative, we begin to expend precious energy to hide this part of ourselves that makes us feel unlovable or unworthy. It’s exhausting; mentally, physically and emotionally.
I didn’t have to do too much soul-searching. I knew pretty quickly who I was. I was the kid who never could excel. The one who lacked the drive and focus to make everyone proud. The underachiever. My parents endured an endless cycle of meetings with teachers and administrators who pointed to my standardized test scores and said, “She tests really well. She should be making better grades” or “She talks too much in class and instead of paying attention during math, she hides library books and reads.” I was the kid that makes a parent grit their teeth and say bad words. I had all of the ability and none of the focus. I sailed through elementary school and early middle school, but as the course work demanded more from me in the form of homework and projects, I balked. When I did turn assignments in, they were late and I rarely applied myself. Most of my work was, shall we say, half-assed.
Why? Even now, I don’t really know. I’m sure today I would have been diagnosed ADHD. All I know is that my brain was in 100 places all at once. I might start writing that paper on Hawaii but then realize South America is just east of Hawaii and, oh my, what about the Andes mountains? What animals live there? At bedtime, i was swimming in a sea of Encyclopedia Britannica, my paper wasn’t finished and I knew more about bespectacled bears and alpacas than a wildlife conservationist. Upside? I’m a delightful, sarcastic, fountain of useless information. You definitely want me on your Trivial Pursuit team. The downside? As a smart underachiever you realize pretty quickly that your parents are going to spend more than one school year gazing dreamily at those kids racking up all of the end-of-the-year awards. My testing placed me in advanced classes, but I couldn’t harness my brain power in a way that allowed me to deliver the goods. The guilt was overwhelming but the shame was worse. Shame, after all, is that awareness that you just don’t measure up. How did I cope? The way any kid does. I pretended not to care but my self-confidence plummeted. After a while I just settled into my underachiever role. I began to put my energy into things that didn’t require a great deal of mental focus. Things like parties, concerts, friendships, and boys…very cute ones. Upside? I’ve seen some great shows, collected some of the most talented, interesting, and accomplished friends, and attended parties of legend. Downside? I can list my notable achievements on the side of a nickel.
I went off to college and dragged my neon-flashing underachiever identity with me. Changed my major…many times. So many times, I could possibly have been a pretty impressive freshman advisor by year three. Made a .9 one semester because if I had gone to the trouble to withdraw and take a hard look at myself, it would appear that I cared. And if I cared and still couldn’t do it, then I would be a confirmed failure. I bartended, partied, drank tequila frequently, which shockingly didn’t seem to help anything, and took a break from school. Then, I re-enrolled with my declared major as Business. Go ahead, you can laugh. I can’t hear you. It was like eating sawdust and watching paint dry, simultaneously. Through sheer dumb luck, I enrolled in an Introduction to Poetry Writing class. The professor, who ended up being a favorite of mine, was feeling charitable and took the time to tell me, in the nicest way possible, I was a dumbass but I could write. The needle on my self-confidence meter moved up a little. Hey, I’m failing miserably at life, but I’m marginally good at stringing words together. It’s something, right?
Wherever you are, Dr. Pat Bizzaro, my parents thank you for your role in my final change of major and their brief moment in the sun, smiling broadly, while I accepted my degree. I thank you for seeing beyond my lackluster classroom attendance, as well as my complete absence of self-awareness, and pushing me to be more. In that experience, I fell in love with the pursuit of knowledge. Hell, I would spend the rest of my life enrolled in a university if I had an extra $70,000 lying around.
How did I get it together? I have no idea. Maturity, I’m sure, had something to do with it. I was far more immature than the people around me realized. Being a good communicator is polite language for being a good bullshitter. And we can’t discount the willingness of the wise professor to deliver a little kick in the ass and some encouraging words at just the right time. That was huge. Maybe those things coupled with the realization that there is no pause button for life was a winning combination.
Or maybe it was simply that I was able to stumble around cluelessly and without an audience, until the universe delivered a mentor, my pre-frontal cortex developed, and I found my footing. Most of my peers had moved on in different directions, they were saying “I do” and popping out babies, but I didn’t have a front row seat to all of their accomplishments. I wasn’t measuring myself against anyone else’s six-figure salary, 3500 square foot completely remodeled starter home, or impossibly perfect European vacation.
I had the luxury of bouncing off of (many…sharp) obstacles until I finally got it right. I wasn’t constantly reminded how far behind I was, didn’t feel the need for self-flagellation, or find myself drowning in my shortcomings. I was able to fall on my ass, learn a lesson, get up and dust off without an audience. That period in time allowed me to learn more about what I was made of, find direction, and meet some of the most influential people in my life. People I wouldn’t have met otherwise. It was hard then, but it scares me to think how I would have struggled to navigate that period of my life in today’s world.
Our kids don’t have the gift of failure without an audience. There’s no stepping back and figuring things out without feeling like the whole world is watching and, more importantly, judging. The pressure must be incredible. Social media, and the technology it employs, even with all of its downfalls and known negative impact on mental health, is incredibly hard for kids to abandon. To do so is to isolate themselves. They’re damned if they do and damned if they don’t. In many ways, every single day is a performance. Every day there’s an underlying concern about how the world perceives you. Am I good looking enough? Am I achieving enough? Does my home measure up? What about my career?
In the end, I moved on relatively unscathed, if you don’t count the compound-interest I missed out on due to the late start on my retirement account. Are there times I still see myself as the one who just doesn’t measure up? You bet there are, but having the time and grace to mature and the freedom to flounder meant that story didn’t end up derailing me. I didn’t find myself overwhelmed by anxiety and drowning in depression. Instead, I found friendships that lasted a lifetime and I found myself. I am still her, you know, the underachiever, but the lights have burned out on my flashing neon, underachiever sign and I love myself despite the imperfections. It’s a choice, love. It’s a decision, not a feeling. Choose love. Especially, when it comes to you. Because, how can you possibly give love if you can’t accept it from yourself?
I watch from 35 years down the road and I wonder, “What happens to the kids like me now?” The underachievers, the screwups, the kids who lack structure, the ones who struggle to follow the prescribed path. The ones who don’t just think outside the box but wonder what the box is made of and what kind of music the guy who assembled it at the plant likes to listen to. How will that kid who just can’t quite get their act together navigate the world now? Will they find tolerance, time, and a place to grow into themselves and out of their difficult beginnings?
How will they answer the question, “Who are you?”
While we’re on the subject, tell me, who are you? I would love to know.
This little list of hopes was born about a day after the previous post. I often make lists for myself (thank you Apple for making that so easy), and sometimes I share them. I shared this elsewhere but felt like it should be here as well. Thinking of something I forgot? Let me know!
1. I hope we make the leap towards seeing people as unique and complex individuals, instead of Liberals or Conservatives, men or women, Blacks or Whites, homosexual or heterosexual.
2. I hope someone has the good sense to make those loud mufflers illegal. The world is noisy enough, as it is.
3. I hope people begin to value their money again instead of letting slick marketing manipulate them into paying more for junk than it’s worth.
4. I hope people make a conscious choice to consider that maybe they don’t know all there is to know. Maybe, just maybe, a willingness to challenge their long-held beliefs will result in adaptability and growth rather than stagnation and extinction. I mean, who wants to be a fossil?
5. I hope we all start to realize that happy is now.
6. I hope we begin to spend 10 minutes of each school day teaching America’s children how to regulate their autonomic nervous system because, currently, we live in a country where a popular reaction to anger or frustration is to shoot someone.
7. I hope we find our way back to children enjoying sports and other activities for fun, instead of as a competitive side gig. And I hope that leads to more kids trying different stuff instead of gunning for a shoe deal before they’re 12. Damn, y’all, just play and laugh.
8. I hope people gain a better understanding of what an incredible, powerful, miracle their brain is and stop assaulting it with substances. Instead, discover it’s full potential. You are so much smarter than you may think.
9. I hope everyone makes time for live music/dance, art exhibits, theater, reading, long walks, hikes, sunrises and sunsets. The arts and nature give us everything that is truly beautiful and soul-stirring.
10. I hope you remember to tell your friends and family how they’ve impacted your life while they’re still around to hear it.
11. I hope each and every one of you realizes that you and your value in this world are so much greater than the sum of your mistakes.
12. I hope someone comes up with a calorie-less tortilla chip and calorie-burning cosmopolitan.13. I hope everyone considers that once we’re dead and gone, all that remains of us on this earth are the actions that we took. This year, find a way to leave your positive mark on the world.
14. I hope you love. With love comes joy, heartbreak, compassion, excitement, desire, compromise and sacrifice. Love is what makes life beautiful and meaningful. It drives back the darkness.
15. I hope people stop driving like selfish, reckless, jackasses. The goal is to arrive without killing anyone, least of all yourself.
May you approach the coming 365 days with a good support system, peace in your heart, and a calm soul that allows you to embrace whatever lies ahead.
As the sun dropped low in the sky this evening, I leashed the dogs and took them for a walk. The breeze a balmy 75 today, despite it being the 31st of December. And there, tugging at my mind were a cascade of memories: me, around 10 years old, riding my bike fast and furiously down the steepest hill in my neighborhood, a cool breeze rushing past my ears drowning out every sound but the push of my rubber tires against pavement; 17 years old, cheeks flush with the heat from a bonfire in the middle of nowhere, the breeze rustling the trees as I clutched a warm beer and laughed with the kind of joy reserved for the young; 21 and stepping out of the bar into a welcome breeze after four sweltering hours of trying to hear drink orders over the chatter of drunk college kids hoping to get lucky and Mick Jagger bellowing out “Shattered.”
Déjà vu. That feeling that we’ve done something before. Said something before. Been somewhere before. What it really is, is an experience that causes a sequence of previously fired neurons in the brain to fire again. And so, when it’s all said and done, what we really are is a collection of our experiences. The good, the bad, and the cringe-worthy. They are each (the important ones, anyway) stored in our hippocampus and contribute to who we are and who we’re becoming.
And so, as we close the door on 2021, I suppose it’s only natural to think about how the year and the memories that resulted from it changed me, what I learned, and what I anticipate for life in 2022.
2021 taught me that grief is just flat out brutal. In June, I lost my person. You know that friend that you tell stuff to that you would never write down because if you did and the wrong person read it, you could be ostracized from polite society for the rest of your life? Ok, maybe that’s just me. I trusted him when I didn’t even trust myself. He was one of the few who got to see behind the curtain. In those moments when I was being catty and petty, he laughed at me. And when I was wallowing in self-doubt and self-pity, he made me laugh at myself. There aren’t many of us who, in this lifetime, stumble across a person who meets us wherever we are, and with whatever we need. He was the person I measured other men against, which really wasn’t fair to other men. And, get this ladies, he was a unicorn. Yep, he was handsome, funny as hell, hard-working, a great dad, had a conscience, was fearless, big-hearted, fun-loving, dependable, and loyal to a fault. Oh, and he had overcome great obstacles in life with grace, so he knew what was important. When he died, he left behind a beautiful daughter he adored, a woman he loved and who loved him with all her being, a big family consisting of two married, exceptional, parents and five other loud, loving, larger-than-life siblings, an endless supply of friends, and me. I can compartmentalize like a boss, but this broke me down. I don’t think I’ll ever breathe again, the same way I once did.
2021 taught me that people are hell bent on staying mired down in their current ways of thinking. If we’re honest, most of what we think is just habit. You know that if people are so lazy they’ll pay someone $10.00 to deliver a $15.00 meal rather than fetch it themselves, they are not researching jack shit. These are the same people who say things like, “Well, they said that as long as you gargle with Clorox, you’ll be fine.” Who the hell is they? These people have no interest in straddling that gap in society or looking at topics through someone else’s life filter. There is power and freedom in knowledge. Accepting that there’s junk you don’t know shouldn’t be a stretch. Rethinking means letting go of who we think we are and being open-minded and objective. Maybe taking a minute to consider that if your great- grandparents weren’t slaves, you might just have gotten a leg up in life on the people whose great-grandparents were. Trust me, each generation benefits from what the generation before it had. How do you think generation after generation of rich people stay rich? You think they’re all just crafty business people? They aren’t. Some of them are dumb as dirt but the diligence, determination and, maybe even, luck of an ancestor, coupled with compound interest keeps them living fat. Anyway, I digress….back to rethinking. Reach down and pull your brain out of that box you’ve been keeping it in. Dinosaurs will tell you all you need to know. They are proof positive that adaptability and flexibility are key to surviving in this world. Consistency and an inability to change will lead you straight to spending eternity as a fossil. You know how they tell you to start worrying when your coach doesn’t correct you anymore, because it means he thinks you’re hopeless? When people start spouting off the nonsense they read on some unverified web page, I just nod. To present them with other points of view to consider would be like yelling at a deaf man. I’m just going to keep my mouth shut and smile while the archeologists are brushing the dirt off of them.
2021 taught me that while there are a lot of people out there willing to sacrifice for their fellow man, there’s a bunch of other ones who don’t give a rat’s ass if your boat sets sail with the plug pulled out. They’ll buy up more toilet paper and gasoline than they could use in 50 lifetimes before they’ll risk that they might go without for an hour or two. They don’t like to admit it, though. They say stuff like, “Oh, I always keep 230 12-pks of Charmin in my garage. I’ve done that forever. This has nothing to do with COVID.” They’re lying. They sat in the grocery store parking lot and waited for them to unlock the doors so they could buy every pack of toilet paper that would fit in their trunk. Y’all know who you are. Those same people filled up 110 gas cans when we had that 96-hour gas shortage. If somebody drops a match near their storage shed, it’s not going to be pretty. The thing about those people is they’ll die with a whole lot of stuff but they won’t die with a whole lot of love. Maybe I’m crazy, but I’ll take the love, wipe with leaves and ride my bike, before I’ll live with only myself in mind. I suppose you see what people are really made of when a crisis rolls around.
Over the last twelve months, I shed many a private tear which did not help me lose even one pound, worried about my kids which I’ve been doing for 22 years and closely resembles digging a hole in quicksand, held extended conversations with myself about making a big change in my life, i.e., new job, new house, new city, and done not a damn thing about any of it, and quit eating tortilla chips about 15 times. I’ve started writing books, then stopped, and read more instead. I’ve railed against life and how unfair it is, then reminded myself that a fair is a place you go to ride rides and eat cotton candy.
Who knows, maybe 2022 will be the year I make a big change. Shake things up a bit. Maybe not. Maybe I’ll just continue to work my way through the stack of books on my night table, roll my eyes when people say ignorant bullshit, worry about my kids, baby talk my parade of animals, and learn to navigate life with this vise grip around my chest. In the end, we’re all just trying to get by, right? Doing the best we can with what we have, trying to keep our fears in check, pay our bills, and not make fools of ourselves that can be captured on film and posted online later.
So, if you see me failing miserably at self-improvement in 2022, cut a girl a break. Or better yet, buy me a cosmopolitan. And no video, please.
Often, I think, “I should write more. Publish more.” Then I remember that I write pretty often, I just don’t publish that much. The Notes app on my phone is full ideas I’ve fleshed out, but the truth is I’m just in a headspace unwilling to deal with the division and the vitriol people so relentlessly spew at one another. Between those who are perched on the edge of their seat looking for an opportunity to be offended and the ones who become an expert eager for a fight an hour after procuring internet access, it just feels too heavy. I creep a little on social media now, but between politics and COVID, which somehow became political, it’s just not the little escape it used to be.
As we sit here on the doorstep of the 20th anniversary of 9/11, though, I’m reminded that there are some events that weigh heavily on me and the unburdening my soul begins to outweigh the burden of dealing with those who are always in search of a point of contention.
In the Fall of 1984 at ECU, I met a couple of guys from New Jersey in my microeconomics class. English was our instructor’s second language and we quickly developed a friendship as we worked together to decipher the lectures. Eventually, they invited me to a pre-game party, and that’s how I met Jimmy Straine. Jimmy was cute, with a sprinkling of freckles and a quick smile that let you know you were welcome, and well-loved. His nickname was Mookie, a moniker I believe he received in high school. I always attributed it to Mookie Wilson because he was from Jersey, no one ever said a bad word about either of them, and they both had naturally happy, upbeat personalities, but it could have been for 100 other reasons I know nothing about. Those Jersey boys worked hard but they played hard to even things up. It always felt like Jimmy was at the center of the fun. He was open and genuine, funny as hell, and I liked him immediately. He routinely used the word “kid” when referring to his peers. “Oh, yeah, he’s a great kid,” Jimmy would say, or “Yeah, I know that kid. He’s from my hometown.” As a Southerner whose exposure to northern colloquialisms was limited, I always got a kick out of that. He was, as my dad would say, “One helluva guy.”
Jimmy and I were friends for a few years in college. I last saw him in the mid-80’s. We didn’t exchange Christmas cards or dance at each other’s weddings, but Jimmy made an impression on me. You know those people that pop in and out of your mind, years after you part ways? Even now, if I hear Dire Straits, The Cars or, better yet, R.E.M, Jimmy is the first person who comes to mind. Although I had not seen him in many years, I knew through a mutual friend that he had married a great girl, was working for Cantor Fitzgerald, and that they were expecting their second child.
Jimmy died in the North Tower on September 11, 2001. Jimmy, his wife Trish, and their 3 year old son, Finn, had welcomed a new baby boy to the family on September 5th. He had taken one full day off and then worked a few half days. September 10th was his first full day back at work.
I was shocked, horrified, grief-stricken, frightened and overwhelmed. I was all of those things and I was blind with rage. I didn’t know the personal details of every victim, but I did know the details of one. The only thing I had ever done in NYC was change planes but meeting a funny, warm, guy from Jersey 37 years prior, put a face on the victims for me. How dare these 19 men come into the United States of America and steal Jimmy Straine from his wife and children, his friends and family. How dare they permanently alter the course of so many lives because they weren’t happy about the Persian Gulf War, our government’s support of Israel, or our presence in the Middle East. For me, Jimmy represented every innocent human being affected by the callous and sociopathic actions of Osama bin Laden and his deluded followers.
2,977 innocent people died in the attacks of September 11. 2001. Many of them died while doing extraordinary things trying to save others, instead of taking the necessary steps to save their own lives. I think about the people who made a conscious decision to go INTO those burning, compromised buildings and UP those stairs to lead people to safety, instead of hauling ass in the other direction. I think about the people on those planes, who even in their own terror, provided comfort to someone else or called home to let their people know they were loved. I think about the people on United Flight 93 who engaged the hijackers knowing they would save lives, but those lives wouldn’t be their own. I think about the first responders and volunteers who spent days digging through the smoldering rubble, breathing god knows what, and desperate to find those who might be buried alive. Many, people who never consciously intended to be on the frontlines but ended up there anyway.
We saw the very worst of humanity in motion. But in the chaos of the devastation, smoke and rubble, we saw the very best of what lies within us when we find ourselves in the most terrifying and inconceivable circumstances, rise. We came together as a nation in a way that I had not seen in my lifetime. The murderous and heartless attacks of Osama bin Laden and 19 hitmen, unintentionally caused us to focus on all the ways in which we, as Americans, are infinitely alike. We saw our similarities instead of how we differed. We were reminded that we all matter to someone, we all go to work each day with the expectation that we are going to arrive home safely, and we all take life for granted more often than not. We realized that many of us are capable of unprecedented acts of bravery that defy anything we could ever have imagined. We felt the pain of losing people we had never met and would never meet. In some cases, we felt the pain of losing people we had met. There will never come a time that those images, the rescues, and the lives lost don’t bring me to tears.
Our focus became survival and protection of our citizens, regardless of our differences. We mourned the loss of those 2,977 people as a nation. We celebrated the heroism of our citizens. We demanded, as a society, that survivors and families of those we lost be provided for. We re-evaluated our procedures and improved security as a nation.
We were, in the immediate aftermath, on the same team. That unity was, in the midst of all that death and destruction, incredibly beautiful. It reminded me why I love this country, for all it’s flaws and failings, unwaveringly. The burning, white hot anger I felt began to transform into pride and resilience.
Here we are though, a little more than two decades from one of our greatest showings of unity as a nation and we again have internal battle lines drawn from one side of the country to the other, and a growing intolerance for anyone whose beliefs don’t align with our own. We seem to have forgotten that we are all fallible and fight battles others know nothing of, while they do the same. We have forgotten the heroism, the strengths, and the weaknesses that lie within us. We most certainly have lost sight of the fact that we are all either showing love or crying out for it, and we are all one day closer to dying.
Our belief systems are complicated. They are the result of genetics, life experience, education, religious teachings, income level, and our unique nervous system. We are never all going to agree. We can, however, choose to look beyond our differences and value our similarities as human beings. We can elevate ourselves above needing to be right, focus on ways to have a positive impact on our community, and pursue knowledge. We can stop saving compassion, heroism, and unity for catastrophic events and make those character traits goals in our daily lives.
In the worst moment in U.S. history, we all found a connection; whether, like me, it was because of someone you hadn’t seen in decades, or because your neighbor is a first responder, or your cousin was a flight attendant.
It was the worst game of six degrees in history.
If there is anything positive that lives on from the events of 9/11, it’s the knowledge that we are a nation capable of unshakeable unity and strength. Let’s not wait for another cataclysmic event to practice loving our neighbors. Let’s make every effort to live our lives in a way that shows honor for this incredible life we have the privilege of living and benefits society as a whole. Keep an open mind, look for compromise, and when none can be found, search instead for a way to listen to an opposing opinion without prejudice and ask questions without judgment.
And next time you have the good fortune to be in NYC, visit The National 9/11 Memorial and Museum.
This is the first year that I’ve felt a bit ambivalent about getting older. Possibly because this is the first year I’ve felt old. I’ve never been one to expect the masses to fall at my feet and kiss my rings on my birthday, but I’ve never felt melancholy about it either. My fortieth didn’t scar me and, truthfully, I really started coming into my own in my mid-40’s. Prior to that, I was pretty much fumbling around in the dark. At 50, not much had changed. My son did point out that I had almost certainly lived half of my life already, but I shed not one tear because verbal harassment is our love language. At 55 I was feeling wiser than ever before and, despite the visible signs of aging, that felt like a good place to be.
This year was different. A couple of weeks ago, I went in for a bone density scan. As a non-smoker who exercises regularly, avoids soft drinks and lives a fairly healthy life, I considered it a formality. It was a surprise when I received a call telling me I have osteoporosis in both hips and osteopenia in my spine. Is it cancer? No. Not even close. It’s not any number of really serious things it could be and for that I am grateful. For the first time, though, I felt old. Right down to my bones…or what’s left of them. It was like this flashing neon sign that wouldn’t be ignored. A firm realization that no matter how I felt mentally, my body is a bunch of quantum particles whose DNA can only hold up under environmental attack for so long. I know I’m fortunate just to be here and healthy, but I still feel a little put out about being at the top of the sliding board headed straight for 60. I can’t swear to it because I’ve never been a man, but getting older is hard on women in a different way than it is men. It’s particularly tough for women in my age group. We were, after all, raised by a generation of women who never left home without full makeup. In fact, I know a woman who swears that within minutes of delivering her first child, her mother looked over at her and said with a gentle smile, “Honey, you look pale. You need a little lipstick.”
Those lists I mentioned previously were always pretty unisex. This year is a little different. This year is about why, despite the unique challenges of aging as a woman, I feel privileged to be one. This is a celebration of the women in my life and all of the ways we’re wonderful that haven’t a damn thing to do with the way we look. It’s a reflection upon the unique ways we approach life and our responsibilities. So, maybe this gives a woman around my age an opportunity to feel understood. Maybe it gives a younger woman a fast track to a new perspective, or an older woman a sense of recognition for the trail she blazed for all who followed her.
When it comes to upper body strength, men have us beat. I worked my ass off in my 20’s to be able to do ten pull ups. Can I do one now? Hell no. Half of one? Maybe, with the promise of a Cosmopolitan afterward. But I’ll tell you this, what we lack in upper body strength we make up for in emotional strength. When the worst tragedies of life take place, we are the ones who rise up. I have, over the course of my life, seen women deal with soul-crushing challenges like the loss of a child, addiction, infidelity, rape, both mental and physical illness, aging parents, divorce, and destitution, with grace and perseverance. We may wallow for a minute, but we always regain our footing. We are where life begins, after all, and there is something in that gift that enables us to rise when we really don’t think we can. Don’t know what I mean? Watch Steel Magnolias. Is it sappy? Yep. But every woman sees some of Mlynn’s character in herself and, if she’s lucky, recognizes her circle of friends in Ouiser, Truvy, Annelle, and Clairee. I don’t move to tears easily, but there are two movie scenes that get me every time. Sex and the City, when Big leaves Carrie at the altar and Charlotte defends her in the street and that Steel Magnolia’s scene at the graveside when M’Lynn loses it. The power of female friendship is the resounding theme here. I hope that each of you know that kind of fierce female love.
As women, we feel intrinsically responsible for our children. Children, despite our best efforts, sometimes stray from the trail we blazed for them. When it happens, we question every decision we made as a mother. Did I push too hard? Did I not push hard enough? Should they have had more responsibility? Should they have had less? You can do everything right as a parent and still have a kid who stumbles. You want to see the fight in a woman? Any female from any species? Endanger her offspring. Women never stop fighting for their kids. We love them in a way that’s reflexive, like breathing or blinking. We love them when they’re the least loveable. Sometimes we show that love by giving advice, financial support, or attention. Other times we show it by having the strength to say no, set difficult boundaries or withdraw financial support, despite the fear of losing them forever. Our love is built out of something otherworldly. Whatever your child may be going through, I hope you never give up. I hope you never stop talking. A mother’s love has saved more than one life.
Women take self-sacrifice to an art form. Really, we do it all. Should we? No, we really shouldn’t. The rub though, is that we are wired to step up and keep the world rotating on its axis. Imagine what your little corner of the world would look like if you just took a month’s hiatus. That’s how incredibly remarkable you are. You will feel overwhelmed. Often. Why? Because you are overwhelmed. Occasionally, you’ll drop a few of the 100 balls you’re juggling. That’s okay. I once forgot to pick my son up from first grade. Feel free to boost yourself up with that little nugget any time. I see you. I see what you do and I’m awed by it. There’s more than one of you out there that inspire me in ways you don’t even know about. I hope that any time you’re feeling the weight of it all, you’ll look in the mirror and remind yourself of all the good you put out into the world and how many people marvel at you from afar.
With all of that responsibility comes stress and maybe some anxiety. Take a walk. Yes, a walk. When we walk, our eyes (which are actually a part of our brain that extrudes from the skull) engage in a unique side-to-side movement which shuts down our amygdala and puts our brain in a state of relaxation. The benefits are endless. A walk reduces stress, encourages creativity, and helps prevent osteoporosis. Learned the brain stuff from my favorite neuroscience podcast. Dr. Andrew Huberman is a super smart human being who wants to make science accessible for everyone. You’re everyone. I hope you will do yourself a favor and check him out.
In my youth, I gravitated more towards men as friends. Mostly, because I was uncomfortable with emotion. They appreciated my wit and sarcasm, were impervious to my zingers, and things never got too heavy. I learned though, that when your world implodes, the people that come to your rescue will be the women in your life. They will care for your children, scrub your toilets, cook food, walk your dogs, pay your bills, give you permission to cry, cry with you, and find a way to give you hope. Don’t listen when a friend tells you she’s fine. Women always say they’re fine when they aren’t and I don’t think we’re going to learn how to ask for help anytime soon. If there’s a crisis and your friend is left to depend on just her husband, everyone is going to starve, none of the bills will get paid, and there will be no clean sheets on the bed. Thank you to each one of you who has come to my rescue when I most needed it. I hope that you will look for more opportunities, not only to help but to accept help.
You are beautiful. I don’t care what message you’re getting every time you see a 70- year-old woman who could pass for 30, you are beautiful! I say that, I think it when I run into people I haven’t seen in a while, and I mean it. I will be the first to admit, if I had a few thousand uncommitted dollars, I would find it hard to resist replacing all that youthful collagen that abandoned this ship over the last five years. It’s an unexplained phenomenon. When I look at other women, I notice everything that is beautiful and interesting and pass right over the very things I’m critical of when I look in my own mirror. This year, I’m going to work hard at giving myself the grace I extend to others. I hope you will too.
As women, we are often multi-tasking. Did someone tell you it isn’t possible to multi-task? They’re a damn liar. We do it all day, every day. Raise your hand if, in the 70’s or 80’s, you ever changed gears, drank coffee, smoked a cigarette and applied makeup while driving. I rest my case. As a result, we get a great deal done. Usually for other people. And hey, that’s okay! After all, it is believed that there are four independent brain circuits that influence our feelings of well-being. One of the four is generosity. We are wired for cooperation, compassion and generosity. I just hope you all remember to take a step back and do for you, as you do for everyone else.
For years I struggled with the idea of vulnerability. I was afraid it made me look weak. Eventually, I realized there’s more than one definition of vulnerability. It doesn’t have to just mean “open to attack.” It can also mean open to loving and being loved. It was other women that taught me the toughest people I knew were the most vulnerable ones. Crawling into your shell may protect you from ever feeling hurt or trusting the wrong person, but it also prevents you from meeting the people that could open your world up, possibly change your life for the better, and show you the care and love you deserve. It takes much more courage to be open than it does to just close yourself off from feeling. I hope that you will take that risk of vulnerability and reap the rewards that each of you so generously deserve. Just stay off of Twitter. Those people are miserable and vicious. We’re looking for openness, not a beat down.
I read somewhere, and firmly believe, that people are always in a constant state of either showing love or crying out for it. I don’t remember who said it but WOW. What a truth! Sometimes, the most undesirable behavior is just a person crying out for love. As women, we need to focus on judging each other less and do a better job of recognizing when we’re crying out to each other. Do you have a friend who you think is struggling but she’s withdrawn from you? It isn’t because she doesn’t need you, it’s because as women we fiercely protect the people we love. We avoid talking about the struggles of our kids or our spouses, because we never want others to focus on their failings and lose sight of all that’s still beautiful about them. That’s a lonely place to be. I hope that you recognize the opportunity to be someone’s non-judgmental sounding board. My friend Gina and I have “vaulted” conversations. When we’re at our wit’s end, we drive to Sonic, get a couple of slushies and begin by saying, “Okay, this is vaulted…” What a gift, to unload and know that you’re in a safe space. I hope you grab a cherry limeade slushie and a friend and fill your vault slam full.
Despite how the world is progressing, as women we still have great early influence on children. If you have young children or work as a teacher, you have a unique opportunity to introduce practices to enhance mental wellness. Mindfulness helps us manage our emotions, increase focus, and decrease stress, anxiety and depression. It teaches us to manage our emotions rather than our emotions managing us. I hope that you’ll learn more about how being in the moment, focus, and breathing can have a powerful impact on our lives. If you teach them nothing else related to mindfulness, teach them starfish breathing for when they’re feeling overwhelmed. Using their index finger, have them trace the outside of their other hand, beginning at the thumb and inhaling as they move up and exhaling as they trace down the other side. Focus on the movement and the breathing. Mindfulness has helped me in every aspect of my life. If you want to learn more, John Kabat Zinn wrote a great book called, “Where Ever You Go, There You Are.”
My 55th year brought more knowledge of self, especially as a woman. I learned that exercise, avoiding soft drinks and not smoking, is no match for genetics and bone structure, so I’m committed to taking the extra calcium. I realized I’m more intelligent than I thought I was as a young woman but not nearly as intelligent as I would like to be, so I’m embracing every opportunity to learn. I found that I need the company of my girlfriends more than ever before, so I’m committed to making more time for the women that have so graciously blessed me with their friendship. If you have great women in your life like I do, there’s nowhere you feel more supported and less judged.
I’m hopeful that during this year of 56, I stop looking in the mirror and feeling disappointed that my body isn’t 25, that I continue to gain a better understanding of myself and the people around me, and that I break my addiction to tortilla chips. I’ll continue to look for ways to grow intellectually and spiritually, and make contributions that help rather than hurt. I’ll resist the urge to curl up in a ball and coast.
And tonight, when I blow out my candles, I’ll wish to find myself awash in even more funny, gifted, kind, determined, fallible women and that the coming year presents endless opportunities to celebrate all that makes being a woman such a worthwhile journey.
*What follows is a birthday post from 2020 that I shared on my Facebook page but never posted here. I didn’t realize it until I began working on a piece for this year, so here you go. Forgive me for my disorganization. Often I think too much and then sometimes hardly at all.
55. Double nickels. When I was younger, birthdays were dressing up, collecting the people that made you laugh, and heading out to celebrate. Now, for whatever reason, they’re cause for reflection. Rumination begins about 6 months out and I jot down little bits of things I think about, so that I don’t forget them. It’s a habit that began in my 20’s. I routinely find parts of poems, paragraphs, or just words, scribbled on pieces of papers and stuck in books, old purses, or coat pockets. The end result is my birthday list that you can peruse or just quickly scroll past. The beauty of life is that you always have a choice. This year we have an eclectic collection of random thoughts.
1. Always, always open a bag of sugar over the sink.
2. One of my greatest regrets. When my kids were young, they were very involved in athletics. Our weekends became consumed with tournaments and competitions; the weekdays with practices. On the few weekends we were in town, I didn’t want to get up and get dressed. I just wanted to relax and enjoy them. I prioritized athletics over faith. Don’t do that. Life is hard. From the teen years until the end, we have times when we ride the wave and others when we swim for our lives. During those times when we’re struggling, a church family gives you a feeling of love and acceptance. Faith can help you take the next step on the days you don’t know how. It teaches you how to let go of things you can’t control. Strength of faith is a tremendous gift to give your children. Prioritize it.
3. You can’t have it all. I took several Econ classes. None of them were as interesting as Malcolm Gladwell’s books, and I understood very little that the nice Asian man said, but I did manage to retain one concept: Opportunity Cost. When you choose one thing, you forgo the potential gain from another thing. Imagine potential outcomes of the choices you make. Don’t just wing it.
4. Marry whomever you like, but be extraordinarily careful about who you have children with. I think I’ve told you that before, but it bears repeating.
5. When my children would be bothered about something someone said about them, I would say, “Why do you care what they think?” That’s a stupid thing to say. Of course, they care what people think. None of us want to be misjudged or misunderstood. The right response is, “I’m sorry, honey. I know that hurts and hurts badly. Let’s have a good cry about it, go for a walk, and then let it go. This will pass, you are loved, and the only thing you can control is yourself.”
6. There is no way to divorce and it not affect your children. No amount of money can fix it, no amount of love fills the void. Children of intact marriages have a sense of security that children of divorce never have. They will, at some point, struggle. Be ready for that. I was so naive.
7. Instead of relegating exercise to practice, learn to exercise for mental health and stress relief. Teach that to your kids when they’re very young. Add meditation to it. As little as 5 minutes a day can make a miraculous difference. There’s a free app called Headspace. Try it.
8. Long-term happiness is mostly determined by how we process the world we find ourselves in. Only about 10% is generated by our external environment. That’s why some of the happiest people you know don’t have squat. I didn’t make that up, either.
9. Stop beating your kids up psychologically for underperforming. I’ve never met a kid who wanted to make a D or strike out. I’ve never met an adult who wanted to let their family down. Behind every behavior there’s a feeling. Meet people where they are and ask questions from a place of love. Anxiety and depression make it nearly impossible to focus. And anxiety and depression in teens doesn’t look like it does in adults.
10. Plant stuff. The smell of dirt, sunshine, and sweat heals lots of stuff. Some of my best memories are being in the garden with my Daddy Steve.
11. I have learned over the course of the last year that I have very mixed feelings about social media. I see it do a tremendous amount of good, simply by presenting people with opportunities to rise up. I also think it is full of pitfalls, particularly for kids. When we were in school, there were a few people we felt woefully inadequate beside and they didn’t have the benefit of “filters.” Our kids are bombarded with fake stuff all the time and they don’t have the emotional maturity to process it. Until we tire of it, don’t type things to people that you wouldn’t say to them at a cocktail party. Would you walk up to a stranger at a cocktail party and tell them they’re an idiot because they think differently than you? If you answered “yes,” I bet you’ve had more than one real life, well-deserved, ass whoopin’.
12. I’m really starting to show my age and I’m surprisingly ok with it. I had my moment of cuteness and now it’s someone else’s turn. It’s freeing in a weird way. Make the most of every stage of life.
13. At 55, we lost my Uncle Mack. He was well-loved as a coach and a man. He taught me a great deal about what’s important in life. I was not a loveable teenager. I was hardheaded, unfocused, defiant, and generally exhausting. He never acknowledged that in me. He always made me feel loveable, even when I was excelling at being unlovable. He made a big difference in my life. Be someone’s Uncle Mack.
14. Interruption is the archnemesis of creativity. Carve out time for yourself. You have a gift, whether you’ve recognized it yet, or not, it’s there. Thanks to Scott Eagle for that reminder.
15. There is no substitute for hard work and sacrifice. I realize that more and more. Every single person who has done something extraordinary, worked their asses off for it. And there’s a difference between having money and doing something extraordinary.
Thanks for the birthday wishes. You all make a 55-year-old feel like a 25-year-old. As long as I don’t look in a mirror, I should be able to ride that wave for a good 24 hours. Cheers, love, and light ❤
New Year’s Eve, or as we called it in my bartending days, “Amateur Night,” has long been my least favorite of the holidays. Partly, because people seem to feel compelled to drink beyond their ability to speak, but mostly because we task ourselves with looking for ways to be better. It’s all about the resolutions. Well, after the booze, it is anyway.
This is it. This is the year we’re going to stop smoking, lose 10 lbs., read more, learn a foreign language, or save more money. It’s a time for reflection, which is a good thing. It also seems to be a time for taking stock in all the ways we fall short. And that, I think, is a bad thing.
So, what if this year, rather than make attempts to change ourselves in a way that pushes us closer to perfection, we let perfection go. Why? Because perfection alienates. We spend a great deal of time spit-shining our image. Never has that been more magnified than with the advent of social media and digital images. That photo didn’t capture your best side? Delete it and take another one. Looking a little “fluffy?” Download an app and whittle that waist down. There’s a mindset that we’re as fantastic as the edited images we upload. The problem is that we aren’t.
We’re messy and we’re hard to understand. Some days our spouse is the love of our life and some days we grit our teeth and roll our eyes. Our kids have times when they’re firing on all pistons and we’re thrilled….then they struggle. Sometimes they struggle for years. Sometimes we struggle for years with them. Sometimes we’re feeling great financially, and sometimes we can’t sleep at night. Some of us battle anxiety, depression, our weight, substance abuse, and demons we can’t even name. Life is a see-saw and when there’s a sudden shift and you land on your ass, the ground that rushes at you is hard and unmerciful.
In my younger years I knew exactly how I wanted to be seen. I needed to be thought of as always in control; competent, unflappable, fearless, confident, and tough. I embraced that role. Thought it made me someone people could depend on in tough times, someone friends could call on in a crisis. I was, I would eventually learn, the opposite. Years ago, a very good friend found herself on some rough seas. The world was closing in on her. She was struggling mightily, and ultimately made some decisions that landed her in the hospital. Did she really want to die? I don’t know. Maybe she was just tired. Sometimes, I think life can just make people really, really tired. Fortunately, she recovered completely and worked her way back to stability, peace, and happiness. She’s a truly exceptional person in a multitude of ways, so that’s been a blessing for me and for the world at large. When I asked her why she didn’t come to me when she was struggling, she told me that she was too embarrassed. She said I “seemed to have it all together.” If you know me now, you know that’s laughable. I was none of those things I had pretended to be. The cold, hard breakdown is this: I like control because I’m insecure, every day I worry that I’ve failed my children in a multitude of ways, I second guess every word I put on paper, and I used to feign toughness because my heart was perpetually in the process of breaking. We’ll be kind and call me a carefully coiffed hot mess. I cried when I left her. I’ve never disliked myself more than I did in that moment. Living a lie had caused me to fail someone I loved.
Perceived perfection alienates people. Remember that. Write it down. Know that there are three things never intended to be perfect: Music, art, and people.
The illusion of perfection makes people smile in your face and foster a superficial relationship with you, all the while running in the opposite direction. Why? Because no one wants to feel like a failure. When you seem to be lounging in your bubble bath in your castle at the top of the hill, anyone with any sense will walk away rather than render themselves bruised and battered trying to climb a mountain they know they’ll never summit.
So, this New Year’s Eve, why don’t we make a pact to let the pursuit of perfection go.
That’s right, let it go. In fact, kick it out on its ass where it belongs.
Maybe perfection is actually in the pursuit of life. Maybe it’s the experience of the struggling relationship, that less than perfect figure, the uncertain career path, the juggling act that is paying too many bills with too few dollars, and other imperfections that force us down rich paths and in fruitful directions we hadn’t planned on going. Maybe it’s those unplanned journeys that leave us with broken hearts, tear-stained faces, and skinned knees that push us along the path that leads to the development of character, determination, and grit. Nothing fills the soul like overcoming.
I know from personal experience that the best results in life are often born of restrictions. It’s brick walls and glass ceilings that force us to make creative decisions, leading us on expeditions we never would have planned. If life is perfect, if the world is your oyster, there is no growth, there’s just existing.
This year let’s make resolutions to live bigger and brighter. Reflect more, BE more. Carve out time to sit with someone and be vulnerable. Practice being genuine. Laugh at ourselves. Give more and take less. Love ourselves. Be inclusive. Celebrate imperfection and the unintentional art that is its result. Give love. Foster friendships with people who wax where we wane. Practice kindness. Grow.
This year, I’m telling you there’s nothing you need to fix. You’re fantastic just as you are. And I know what I’m talking about.
Warning: Read at your own risk. This is not a masterpiece, so if you’re looking for that, stop here. It’s a goodbye letter to my son’s friends, who have brought me so much joy over the years, and a thank you note to the women who raised them. They’re going off to college and we’re all a little sleep-deprived, a little crazy, and a whole lot poorer………
My boys are going off to college. I say “my boys,” because if you have even one son, you have about 50 “boys”. Girls are different. They travel in pairs and trios. Not boys. Boys travel in packs. The packs come in all sizes, shapes, and colors. Where there’s one, there are at least four more. I owe the mothers of my son’s friends a debt of gratitude for sharing their boys with me over the years.
Thanks to the women who raised “my boys” and raised them so well.
They’ve been handy for things like eating the food that’s been in the freezer too long, bringing in my groceries without me even asking, and moving heavy stuff. It’s no secret that I’m a mom with a sense of humor and not easily offended, so they’ve excelled at making me laugh so hard I lost my breath. They have reminded me what it feels like to be young and on the edge of something great. They’ve watched sports with me and kept an eye out for my teenage daughter like she’s their sister too, weighing in on who she can and can’t hang out with. They’ve made me hope that when my daughter does start dating, she’ll find a boy even half as wonderful as her brother and his friends.
Thanks for teaching them to say, “Yes, ma’am” and “thank you,” and for giving them permission to come to our house. Thank you for teaching them to pick up after themselves. They may not do it at home, but take comfort in knowing that at my house they make you look good.
Climbing in bed on Friday night, without even my own son at home yet, and waking up Saturday morning to a family room full of sleeping boys was a blessing to me. I’ve cooked for them and loved doing it, despite the fact that my kitchen skills are marginal, at best. I turned our backyard into a basketball court and allowed the living room to evolve into a “man cave”, with gaming systems, a mini-fridge and a giant TV, in hopes that they would come and stay.
Initially, that was my crafty way to keep Jake close so that I knew he was safe. It wasn’t long before I realized how much it mattered to me that your boys were safe too.
Thanks for sharing the love of your life with me. Your boys have been great friends to my boy and that is an invaluable gift. I promise you, I will walk through fire for any of them. Their presence grew my heart to triple its normal size and, for as long as I live, they can always seek refuge here if they need it.
I wish I had the resources to give them something more than the promise to walk through the proverbial fire for them, as they head off to change the world, but alas, Jake is going to be paying off college loans until he’s 102, so I’ve had to scale back my spending.
What I can do is send them off, armed with some advice. I’ve been told our attention spans have deteriorated to the point where most people won’t read a paragraph that’s more than four lines, so I’m going to put it in list form in hopes that they will accidentally read a little before a squirrel happens by.
Pearls of Wisdom for “My Boys”
If it needs to be a secret, you shouldn’t be doing it.
This is your chance to evolve into the person YOU want to be. Reinvent yourself. Don’t buy into the labels assigned to you in your youth. You don’t know it yet, but your mind and your life are about to expand in ways you can’t imagine.
GO. TO. CLASS. There is no substitute for your physical presence. Someone, maybe you or maybe your parents, is paying somewhere in the neighborhood of $70,000 for you to get an education. The least you can do is get to class.
Surround yourself with people who have similar goals and ambitions. Show me your friends and I’ll show you your future. I didn’t make that up, but I wish I had. No truer words have ever been spoken.
Avoid the girl who needs to be the center of attention. Why? Because the minute your focus is redirected to your studies or your job, she will go out and find someone else to feed her ego. Let her go off and break someone else’s heart. Otherwise, I’ve got to hunt her down, and well…..that’s not going to end nicely for anyone.
Forget your SAT scores and high school GPA. They’re irrelevant now. New ballgame. Prepare to work your ass off. Determination and perseverance will take you so much further than you realize.
Be bold. Meet new people. In addition to determination and perseverance, you need connections. When you graduate and begin looking for employment, connections are everything.
Professors are people too. Let them see that you’re serious about being successful. A wise man once told me, if you make a good first impression they’ll give you the benefit of the doubt when you most need it.
“O Captain! My Captain!” Yes, I’m talking to you. You are your own boss now. If you don’t have a great deal of self-discipline, you better find some. There are going to be distractions and opportunities to derail you, like you’ve never imagined. Your education has to be the priority. You need to be better qualified than the other applicant. If you flunk out and go home you won’t be.
Do not, under any circumstances, bring a strumpet home to meet your mother. You should all be able to recognize them on sight. I know your mamas and they’ve all worked hard to raise you right. Don’t make us act ugly, because we will.
Take care of yourselves, both physically and mentally. We’re not naïve, and we expect you to have some fun, but know when to say “when”. There is nothing attractive about a drunk guy. In one glance you are sloppy, stupid, uncoordinated, and helpless. Not a good look.
Take care of your friends. Partially developed frontal lobes sometimes lead to stupid decisions. If someone has too much to drink or is visibly impaired, do not leave them alone. You were raised better than that. Be the responsible one.
Get a job. It will greatly improve your time management skills, and you will meet some incredible people.
Step into this new experience with an open mind. You’re going to be surrounded by people from a multitude of regions, religions, backgrounds, ethnicities, and belief systems. Learn from them and appreciate the insight they’re able to give you. I promise, it will pay off in the real world.
Call your mama. We’re proud of you, we’re confident in your abilities, and we want to see you grab the world by the tail, but when we look at you, we still see a chubby little boy with fat cheeks and muddy shoes, who loves us more than oxygen. That will never change. Never.
There will be drugs. Don’t do them. Just don’t. Nothing good can come of it.
Embrace your mistakes and learn from them. If you don’t make some, you aren’t trying hard enough. It’s okay to fall down, as long as you get back up with renewed purpose.
Call your dad. He misses you too, but may not be as obnoxious about it as your mother and I are. He has knowledge that can benefit you; access it while he’s on this earth.
Be kind. It’s free and it changes lives. Yours, as well as someone else’s. Be a positive voice in this world of ours that is so fast, complicated, and at times, self-serving.
Don’t come home too much. This is your time to really discover YOU and practice adulting. If you’re home every weekend, you’re still absorbing the energy of who we want you to be and what we believe is best for you. Separate from us a little. We’ll hate it and it will hurt, but we will survive; and then we will marvel at this man you’ve become with your own identity, belief system, and ambitious plans for the future.
Make us proud, your mom and me, because we both love you to pieces. I know you will. And when you’re home, mi casa es su casa. Come by, give me a big hug, and tell me how great you’re doing. This old lady is going to miss looking out the back window while you play basketball, listening to your seriously awful music, and having free labor at my disposal.
Now get out there and kick ass. You owe us at least that.