Where My Heart Wants To Be

I like to listen to podcasts while I am getting ready for work in the mornings. Not only does it help break the monotony of my routine and primes my brain for another day in the classroom, but I often stumble upon a nugget of wisdom I didn’t even know that I needed.

I was sitting at a red light on my way home from work recently when the notion of going back to school entered my head, and I’m not talking about turning around and driving back from whence I came, rather going back to college… to get my PhD.

I had always said that I would never get my doctorate, just as I’d always said that I never aspired to end up in administration, but here I was wondering what if.

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The subconscious is funny in the way it works. This year, I had to reapply to my school district’s leadership pool—a pool that you get to swim in for three years and my three years were almost up. Having completed the essay tasks for requalification, I’d mostly forgotten about it. Somewhere an email had been sent saying when applicants should expect to hear of the results, but I never jotted it down on my calendar, and so while on my prep period the other day, I thought the time must be approaching soon. Searching through my deleted emails, I found the one that gave the date: it was that very day. And later in the afternoon, I received the news that I could continue to tread water.

Maybe it was the wake from this news, or maybe it was the interview I’d recently listened to with Lucy Calkins, literacy extraordinaire, that got me thinking about a PhD. Maybe it was the realization that I still have a good 15-20 years ahead of me in this career and I might want to branch out more than my current credentials allow me to (although I’m still certain that’s not in administration). Maybe it’s the little smile I get when I imagine being called Doctor—but suddenly I was entertaining an idea that I’d never really considered before.

A few days later, I listened to another episode of Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations. I landed on one with Steven Pressfield about unlocking your creative genius. I’d never heard of Pressfield and I didn’t exactly feel like my creativity was blocked, but something made me hit play.

A few minutes into the podcast, I heard about “Resistance’s Greatest Hits.” This wasn’t a music compilation by an indie rock band, but a list of all the activities in our lives that elicit resistance.

Oprah reads them off one by one: the launching of any entrepreneurial enterprise, any diet or health regimen, any program of spiritual advancement, any activity whose aim is tighter abdominals, any program designed to overcome an unwholesome habit or addiction, education of any kind, any act that entails a commitment of the heart (the decision to get married, to have a child, to weather a rocky patch in a relationship), and the taking of any principle stand in the face of adversity.

According to Pressfield, anybody who is trying to move to a higher level encounters resistance, and, “the more important an activity is to your soul’s evolution, the more resistance you will feel towards it.”

To combat resistance, Pressfield says you must get out of your “little head and into that larger identity.” And what came next was that morsel of wisdom I needed to hear.

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Pressfield tells listeners that if they want to paint, to put their body in front of an easel. If they want to write, sit down at a keyboard. And so, by extension, if I wanted to get a PhD, I needed to put myself in a testing room for the GRE, I needed to be ready to take on more student loans, and then I needed to get back on a college campus and sit down in a lecture hall. And if I’m being completely honest, it all sounded a bit nerve-wracking.

“The key thing about resistance is that it comes second…What happens first is the dream.”

Was going back to school a dream of mine? I wasn’t sure, so my quest for information continued as I tried to work out the answer.

I found myself chatting it over with a colleague and my husband and, of course, my mom. And then I met with a couple friends one night, one of whom had gotten her doctorate years ago, and we talked about it over a few glasses of wine.

She told me about her experience: staying up from nine to eleven after her kids went to bed to work on her dissertation. She reminded me that most of the classes would be  held on Saturdays or after my work day ended, going from 4 till 8 at night. I thought of the many occasions when I tucked my children into bed and then tucked myself in a few minutes later. Gone would be my 4:30 A.M. workouts. Gone would be the reading of bedtime stories and my presence at weekend soccer games where I cheered on my daughter from the sides. Was that where my heart wanted to be for the next three to five years? 

The answer was a resounding No.

But with the recent passing of poet Mary Oliver, I heard—more strongly than ever—her words echoing in my head.

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It’s a big question, and I don’t know that I have all the answers, but I do know this: I’m going to start simply by putting my ass where my heart wants to be, and luckily for me, that’s exactly where I am right now.

It’s where I am when I stay in my pajamas on a Sunday to work on a blog. It’s where I am when I crack open a new novel and burrow in my couch. It’s where I am when I play an intense round of Exploding Kittens with my daughters or binge watch Schitt’s Creek with the hubs.

Resistance doesn’t necessarily indicate a fear of moving towards higher ground; resistance can sometimes be our subconscious telling us to stay put, to appreciate the ground currently beneath our feet. After all, it won’t ever be exactly as it is right in this very moment, and that, as my father likes to say, is a beautiful thing.

Once again, I found myself returning to the wisdom of Mary Oliver’s poetry as I realized that, “Sometimes, I need only to stand wherever I am to be blessed.”

Just for fun though, perhaps I’ll have my kids start calling me Doctor Mom.

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{photo credit: Hunter Beadell}

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My Top 10 Reads of 2018

A couple of years ago, I decided to keep a list of all the books I read in a year. After recording the twenty-somewhat books of that year, my competitive nature showed itself and I decided I would read more the following year. I set a goal to read at least 25 books in 2018. I ended up reading 38. In addition to those titles I completed, I also abandoned a few. When I was younger, I wouldn’t have dared to not finish something I’d started, but I’ve come to that place in life where I no longer feel I’ve got something to prove. Life’s too short and there are far too many books out there to waste time on the ones that don’t thrill me.

This year, unlike last with My 18 Resolutions for 2018, I haven’t been able to decide what my goals for the new year will be yet. Sure, I want to get more fit and eat healthier, but that’s nothing new. I’d like to replace screen-time with face-time or even just me-time, but as for the big goals, this year I am going to have to wait to see what life unfolds. Whatever my intentions end up being, I know reading will be a part of it, so for those of you who also enjoy curling up with a good book, here (in no particular order) are the top 10 books from my year of reading.

  1. The Untethered Souby Michael A. Singer (Non-fiction/Self-Help)

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“You are capable of ceasing the absurdity of listening to the perpetual problems of your psyche. You can put an end to it. You can wake up in the morning, look forward to the day, and not worry about what will happen. Your daily life can be like a vacation. Work can be fun; family can be fun; you can just enjoy all of it.”

I’d first heard about this book when I listened to an episode of Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations; I’d written about that experience in To Forgive, Divine, but at that time, I hadn’t read the book yet. Well, as the second book read last year, this one deserves a place on the list; it’s actually a great choice for starting a new year. This is the type of book you will want to read with a pen in hand. You’ll underline a phrase here and a quote there, and then eventually half of the page will be highlighted. You’ll write “WOW” in the margin or you’ll bracket off whole paragraphs that speak to you. There’s a reason it is a #1 New York Times Bestseller with more than one million copies sold.

  1. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner (YA Fiction)

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“If you’re going to live, you might as well do painful, brave, and beautiful things.”

I’d had students who had read this book in the past and really enjoyed it, but I hadn’t read it myself until I planned to include it as a book club choice for my students last year. The story centers around three teens who are unlikely friends in a small, southern town, but it’s more than just a book about friendship. The protagonist’s father is a religious man who is in prison, but the story behind his imprisonment is disturbing, to say the least.

At one point, I had to put the book down, then pick it up and reread, then put it down again. “Did that just happen?” I asked my husband who wasn’t reading the book and therefore had no idea what I was talking about. “I can’t believe that just happened.” Later, when my students were reading it, they’d come into my classroom at lunch or in the morning to ask me, “Did that really happen?” While it is a YA book, it certainly doesn’t read like one.

  1. Educated by Tara Westover (Memoir)

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“I was an incurious student that semester. Curiosity is a luxury reserved for the financially secure; my mind was absorbed with more immediate concerns, such as the exact balance of my bank account, who I owed how much, and whether there was anything in my room I could sell for ten or twenty dollars.” 

 Every now and again, I read a memoir that depicts a life that is so incredibly different from my own and from anyone else’s with whom I am acquainted that I have to keep reminding myself that it isn’t a work of fiction. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs was one, The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls was another, and Tara Westover’s Educated was a third. Westover beautifully tells the story of her childhood growing up in the mountains of Idaho with a father who did not believe in public education. She was seventeen when she first entered a traditional classroom yet ends up with a PhD from Cambridge University– although it came a a cost.

The quote above is a great example of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and a good reminder that not all students have the “luxury” of being engaged in school. This book has garnered a lot of praise and publicity this year, and it is definitely one that is worth the read.

  1. The Book of the Unnamed Midwife by Meg Elison (Sci-Fi)

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“It does no good to tell a beautiful woman how beautiful she is. If she already knows, it gives her power over the fool who tells her. If she does not, there is nothing that can be said to make her believe it.” 

Sci-Fi is not usually my genre of choice, but a girl who I went to high school with (who is now a librarian) posted about this book on social media and I thought, if a librarian is posting about a book, then it’s worth a shot. It was. This was one of those picked-it-up-and-read-it-in-a-day kind of books. It’s a post-apocalyptic world where any woman who attempts to bear a child dies, as does that child. The protagonist, the midwife, is a fiercely independent woman determined to help save humanity.

This is Book 1 in The Road to Nowhere series, but despite liking this one a lot, I haven’t checked out any of the others.

  1. Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao (Fiction)

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“We girls. Afraid of the wrong things, at the wrong times. Afraid of a burned face, when outside, outside waiting for you are fires you cannot imagine. Men, holding matches up to your gasoline eyes. Flames, flames all around you, licking at your just-born breasts, your just-bled body. And infernos. Infernos as wide as the world. Waiting to impoverish you, make you ash, and even the wind, even the wind. Even the wind, my dear, she thought, watching you burn, willing it, passing over you, and through you. Scattering you, because you are a girl, and because you are ash.” 

If I had to pick ONE book that was my favorite read of the entire year, this would be it.

Girls Burn Brighter was not only beautifully written, but also told a story of friendship, love, and female empowerment unlike any other I’ve read. It was disturbing and heart-breaking, powerful and poignant. Every woman should add this book their list, then read it, then cry about it, then get together with friends and drink wine and talk about it together.

  1. There There by Tommy Orange (Fiction)

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“This is the thing: If you have the option to not think about or even consider history, whether you learned it right or not, or whether it even deserves consideration, that’s how you know you’re on board the ship that serves hors d’oeuvres and fluffs your pillows, while others are out at sea, swimming or drowning, or clinging to little inflatable rafts that they have to take turns keeping inflated, people short of breath, who’ve never even heard of the words hors d’oeuvres or fluff.” 

This book has harvested a lot of accolades this year. Told from the perspective of ten different characters whose stories come together in the end at the Big Oakland Powwow, Tommy Orange gives voice to the urban American Indian, a voice not heard nearly enough in modern literature. While I loved the Indian legends and lore peppered throughout this tale, it was quotes like the one above that made me stop and re-read entire passages and then just sit with it for a few minutes only to go back to the page and read it again.

  1. An American Marriage by Tayari Jones (Literary Fiction)

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“But home isn’t where you land; home is where you launch. You can’t pick your home any more than you can choose your family. In poker, you get five cards. Three of them you can swap out, but two are yours to keep: family and native land.” 

Years ago, I read Silver Sparrow by this same author and I friggin’ loved it, so when I realized this was also by her, I knew it would be a great read. It’s a story about love and marriage and race and family and everything in between. Reading the letters sent between Roy and Celeste felt deeply intimate and immediately drew me into this story that satisfied me all the way to the very end.

  1. What School Could Be by Ted Dintersmith (Non-fiction/Education)

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“We treasure the occasional story about a child who climbs out of poverty, graduates from a prestigious university, and goes on to success. Since it’s possible for a handful, we cling to the view that nothing is broken in America. But it is. Education has become the modern American caste system. We fuzz up the issue in a sea of statistics about test-score-gaps, suggesting that social inequity is a classroom issue. We bemoan the achievement gap but dwell on the wrong ‘achievement’ and the wrong ‘gap.’ Achievement should be based on challenging real-world problems, not standardized tests that amount to little more than timed performance on crossword puzzles and Sudoku. The gap we need to face is how much more we spend to educate our rich children than our poor. We can test until the cows come home, and we won’t begin to bring meaningful equity to our youth. As an educator in the Midwest noted, ‘If a cow is starving, we don’t weigh it. We feed it.’”

I already raved about this book on social media and wrote about it in Dear Fifth-Grade Teacher, but I had to include it in my top ten list too. I found the book to be inspirational and thought-provoking for anyone who is involved in education or policy-reform. The quote above is my favorite from the book. I considered getting it as a tattoo, but it’s a tad long.

  1. The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (Fiction/Drama)

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“In the silence, Leni wondered if one person could ever really save another, or if it was the kind of thing you had to do for yourself.”

 I still think Firefly Lane is my favorite Kristin Hannah book, but it was the first of hers I’d ever read, and I have a habit of latching on to firsts (i.e. My Sister’s Keeper is still my favorite Jodi Picoult and Looking for Alaska is still my favorite John Green). For some reason, I refused to buy this book since it was still in hardcover, and I had to wait ages for it at the library, which may be why I didn’t love it as much as I should have.

My mom read it first, and once I finally got it she kept asking me what I thought. It really was a great read, but it was also over 400 pages, and I really hated the protagonist’s father, Ernt. Somewhere in the middle of the book, I got sick of his shit and kind of lost momentum as a result. Still, it deserves a place on the list. It may not have been worth waiting months for, but it’s worth the eighteen bucks to not be cheap and buy it.

  1. The Light We Lost by Jill Santopolo (Fiction/Romance)

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“What I wanted to tell you is that there are lots of ways to love people and I know that you’ll love someone else again. Even if it’s not the same, some of it might be better.” 

Last, but not least. One of my favorite people told me about this book and I had the title written on a notes page in my phone for a few months, but then, I saw a former student post about it on social media and it reminded me to check it out from the library. It was another can’t-put-it-down book that I texted every reader in my life when I was done to tell them about. This is a book you can lose a day in, and even though I’m not a huge fan of romance novels, this book won my heart (and gave me a bit of a book-hangover too.)

Well, that’s it… for now. I’ve got The One Thing by Gary Keller and Michelle Obama’s Becoming to start off 2019.

What are you reading this year?

Note: ReadingWhileEating is not affiliated with Amazon.com. If you click on a link to purchase a book, I do not get anything, but you get a book, and books are awesome.

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In Defense of “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and Why Grandma is still invited to Christmas

Beep. Beep. Beep.

Winter has arrived and lately, I have been hitting that snooze button over and over and over again. The lyrics to “Baby It’s Cold Outside” are, quite frankly, my inner monologue each morning as I fight to leave the comfort of my bed.

I really can’t stay.

          Baby it’s cold outside.

I’ve got to go away.

            Baby it’s cold outside.

I got a text message from my friend the other day. A week had passed since her annual “Girls Night In” Christmas party and someone wanted the recipe for the Jell-O shots I brought.

Hey, What’s in this drink?

The answer: Fireball.

When “Baby It’s Cold Outside” comes on the radio, I don’t think about that one time in my twenties when someone actually did slip something in my drink, rather I think about my favorite scene from the movie Elf.

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That scene, much like the song, captures a moment.

We’ve all experienced moments like this—times when our good sense and reason gave way. When our hearts didn’t listen to our minds.

It’s every make-out session in a car that rubbed our lips raw. It’s every broken curfew of adolescence. It’s the too-expensive Christmas present you buy for a loved one. It’s the ladies at my friend’s Christmas party who put on their coats to leave but then stood around for another twenty minutes talking and laughing (and doing just one more Jell-O shot) before finally heading home.

Last year, I wrote about how I just couldn’t Christmas. This year, I’m thankful to say that isn’t the case. In fact, the one thing that has moved me this holiday season is the music.

I find myself humming a few bars from a traditional Christmas tune while I’m waiting for my students to settle down at the start of class. Like a musical meditation of sorts, it’s helped to calm the frayed nerves of a teacher in December and remind me that Winter Break is on the horizon.

I sing a few verses of Same Auld Lang Syne while blow-drying my hair till I can’t remember what comes next and start back at the beginning. “Met my old lover at the grocery store. The snow was falling Christmas Eeee-ee-eeve.”

I purposefully scan through the radio channels till I get to the one that plays non-stop Christmas music because this month, the cacophony of modern music annoys me.

There are a lot of things we do around the holidays that are antiquated. Mailing cards, chopping down trees, and baking cookies from scratch are just a few, but these things, like the Christmas songs and movies that we’ve grown to love, serve to remind us of simpler times.

The holidays are about traditions and traditions, like my Grandma, are old-fashioned. Grandma doesn’t always say the most appropriate things, but we still love her, just like we still love “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and all the other traditions that make up Christmas.

I don’t think it’s fair to apply the standards of today’s political correctness to the classics of yesteryear.

Rather than analyzing a single line from a song or a single scene from a movie, let’s take a step back and look at the bigger picture. If we criticize George Bailey for his attempted suicide and the way he verbally attacks his family (ugh, and that poor teacher), we’ll never enjoy the moment when he realizes that It’s a Wonderful Life.

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The last time I handed my grandma a family photo that we’d had professionally taken, she took one look at it and said, “Ooooh, you look like an old lady!” Rather than taking offense, I threw my head back and laughed. “I shouldn’t have said that,” she added. “I’m just not used to seeing you in a long dress.”

“It’s okay, Gram.” I chuckled. Secretly, I live for the shit my gram says. And seeing as how I don’t often get to visit with her anymore coupled with not knowing how many more Christmases she’ll have–or any of us for that matter– I want to cherish every moment.

“Baby It’s Cold Outside” is seventy-four years old. My gram is eighty-eight. Both are welcome in my home for Christmas. I love them just the way they are.

 

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On Giving Thanks

Confession: Our family does not go to church.

That’s not to say that we’ve never gone to church, it’s just that we aren’t regular church-goers. Heck, we aren’t even annual church-goers. To be completely honest, we’ve been to church together as a family once. It was Christmas Eve and my sister thought we should  “try it out” for something different to do. It was as though she were suggesting we prepare a roast beef for dinner as opposed to our usual glazed ham.

“Why not?” And since none of us had a good enough answer, we went.

Our church experience that evening was neither good nor bad, but with the lights and the stage, the cushioned chairs and the Christian rock band, it was nothing like the church we remembered.

We haven’t been back since.

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I mean, I don’t think our visit to St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City counts. Does it?

Fairly early in our marriage, I realized that my husband and I didn’t exactly share the same religious beliefs. I would say that I’m two-thirds spiritual and one-third Christian. My husband? I would call him agnostic, which is why I was a little surprised when not that long ago, I suggested we start saying grace at dinnertime, and he wholeheartedly agreed.

What I was proposing wasn’t necessarily religious. I’d been listening to this podcast with food writer Michael Pollan about conscious eating, and in it, he suggested that we take time to really think about where the food on our plates came from: Think about the farmer who grew that lettuce, the animal who provided the meat in your hamburger, the chicken who laid those eggs.

If I wanted our family to begin a practice of saying grace, this sounded like a good place to start, and it is how we initially introduced the idea to our kids. Still, the end goal wasn’t to raise children who were just more conscious of their plates, rather to raise children who were more conscious of their world.

I’ll admit, right from the start, my husband was better at remembering to say grace than I was. By the time I had prepared the meal, served it, and sat down, I was often on my second or third forkful when my husband would “a-hem” and begin, “I’m thankful for…”

Our girls quickly learned to give thanks for everything on the table. From slaughtered salmon to sacrificed broccoli, there was not a grain of rice nor a garnish of parsley that wasn’t included in the litany.

Still, if we wanted to encourage our children to move beyond just talking about their food (and we did), they were going to need some better modeling.

Giving thanks is an act of appreciation that needs to be practiced, but, according to Happiness Coach Andrea Reiser, “gratitude goes beyond good manners—it’s a mindset and a lifestyle.”

It was this mindset, this lifestyle, I wanted to foster.

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Studies have shown that cultivating gratitude results in living a happier, more satisfied life. It can also increase self-esteem, optimism, hope, and empathy.

I’d witnessed this empathy recently when I chaperoned a field trip with my daughter’s fifth-grade class. They were headed to the Reno municipal court to learn about the legal system, but first, we’d taken the children to a nearby park to eat their bagged lunches. It was here that they encountered several of the area’s homeless sitting by the river and napping in the sunshine. Unbeknownst to their teacher, some of the boys in the class had decided to give their lunches to them.

“Had they asked me first, I would have told them no.” Their teacher said. “That’s probably why they didn’t ask me,” he chuckled.

On our way to the courthouse, I ended up walking behind these same boys. As they passed by the people to whom they’d donated their food, the men called out their thanks. “God bless you. God bless you.”

The boys waved, and walked a ways in silence before one of them remarked, “That made me feel really good and warm inside.”

“Yeah, it made me feel good… but also, kind of sad.”

“I know what you mean. I’m glad we gave them our food, but I’m sad that they don’t have anywhere to live.”

I wondered if those boys would think differently about their dinners that night, or about their warm beds when they went to sleep. I imagined they would.

Fundamentally, gratitude is about being aware of who or what makes positive aspects of our lives possible, and acknowledging that.” Children especially have a hard time recognizing these things. I hoped that through the act of saying grace, my children might hone their awareness.

Because in some way or another, we’re all blessed, and it serves us well when we recognize that.

We’d been giving our thanks to pigs and chickens and cows for months, when finally, one night, right before we ate, my oldest daughter said, “I’m thankful for people like my mom who care about education, and I’m thankful for the nice people who write books for other people to read.”

This, I thought. This is what I had hoped would come from a ritual of saying grace.

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According to Brené Brown, “What separates privilege from entitlement is gratitude.” My children are certainly privileged—more than some, and less than others– but I don’t ever want them to grow up feeling entitled. Saying grace is one of the many ways we can combat that, but there are so many other benefits to living a conscious life.

We still don’t go to church, and we occasionally forget to say grace before we eat, but a few times each week, we remember to pause and reflect upon our blessings, and for that, I am thankful.

What are you grateful for today?

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There’s No Place Like Home

When you pack up all your belongings in a U-Haul and move to the other side of the country, everything changes. Your relationships with family and friends, the way you travel, and especially holidays.

Growing up with a mother who has six sisters, you end up having more cousins than you can count on both hands. There was only a slight age gap between my youngest aunt and my oldest cousin, and each year, our family grew.

From games of Yahtzee in my grandmother’s basement to Secret Santa gift exchanges at Christmastime, family parties were a regular occurrence. There was always lots of food and even more laughter. Family members would take turns hosting; warm homes would welcome us from the cold. Women would cluster around the kitchen table and gossip on sofas while men stood sentinel around the cooler, drinking beers and smoking cigars. Children would run and play games until the time when we’d all load our plates high with homemade favorites, vying for a place to sit. Whether it was Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Easter, there’d be a cake and we would gather round and sing, for someone always had a birthday nearby.

Moving to Nevada, perhaps the hardest adjustment to make was redefining the holidays, especially once my husband took a job where he didn’t always have them off.

I remember our daughter’s second Christmas, I sat on the floor in her nursery and rocked her in my lap while she sucked at a bottle. I felt the wetness of my cheeks and I felt the loneliness. I couldn’t put words to my sadness, but it was as heavy as my daughter’s little body on top of me. My husband was at work and we were at home alone. No one would know that we had stayed in our pajamas all day, but we hadn’t gotten dressed for there was nowhere to go. Santa had come the night before so that my husband could watch our little girl tear at the wrapping paper, but even that had felt wrong. That morning, I wasn’t quite sure what to do. I picked at the leftovers from the dinner I’d prepared the day before. Hours spent in the kitchen for a meal for three. There’d been no procession of tinfoil covered dishes, no hotplates plugged into every wall. There wasn’t a line of women with dishtowels ready to grab the next pot or pan as it had been washed. All day long, I talked to family on the phone, hearing the clatter and din of their company in the background, hearing the TV in mine.

Eleven years after moving, I’d like to say that I’ve adjusted. Most years we spend Christmas with my folks and Thanksgivings with my sister. Even when she moved to California, one of us would make the drive so that when we gave thanks, we were holding each other’s hands. Some years, the friends who have become our family have joined us, adding a few more place settings, making it almost feel like home.

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This year, however, things have changed. My sister lives in Florida now, making a Thanksgiving reunion not possible, my friends are traveling for the holiday, and while my husband will be off from work, it will just be the four of us.

Realizing this, I spent weeks musing about what we could do. I felt the need to make the holiday different somehow. I mean, it was already going to be different, but maybe if we did something so unlike our traditions, I wouldn’t feel the sadness I feared. Could we rent a cabin in the woods and get away? I pictured us playing a board game near a fireplace, snuggling into flannel sheets and waking in the morning to take a hike through pine-scented air. Yet I knew that renting a cabin wasn’t really in the budget so soon after our vacation to New York and one month before Christmas, and besides, we could do all those things from our own home. Still, I kept wracking my brain and asking my husband what we were going to do.

“What do you mean, what are we going to do? We’re going to have Thanksgiving.”

He didn’t understand, and I didn’t know how to tell him.

“Yeah, but it’s just us, so like, what are we going to do?”

This need to do was palpable.

If I could come up with a plan, if there was an itinerary, perhaps it would be enough to distract me from the fact that it was just us, perhaps it could thwart the sadness, because if I felt the sadness at Thanksgiving, I most certainly was going to feel it at Christmas when my husband would be at work and when it would, for the first time in a long time, be just me and my girls, because this year, my parents weren’t coming for Christmas, and this year, we weren’t going there either, and I wasn’t quite sure how I would handle that.

I wish I could say that I only wept that one Christmas when my daughter was two, but the Holiday Blues are something that I have felt each year. Sometimes, after Christmas has passed, I begin to cry and it’s days before I can stop. I’ll be standing in my kitchen with a cup of tea, steeped in sadness and shame. What’s wrong with me that I cannot feel happiness at what’s supposed to be the most joyful time of year? Despite combatting it every way I know how, sometimes it’s stronger.

A few weeks into my quest for what we would do on Thanksgiving, I was driving in my car, listening to Pico lyer speak about The Art of Stillness when I realized that I didn’t need to do anything for Thanksgiving, I needed to be. It didn’t matter if we decided to go cut down our Christmas tree or run the Turkey Trot. It didn’t matter if we stayed in our pajamas or got dressed up. It didn’t matter if we deep fried our turkey or went to KFC. Whether there were four of us at the table or twenty-four, unless I could be fully present with my family, there would be no hope of holiday cheer.

You can’t have your body in one place and your mind in another and feel anything but conflicted. The answer wasn’t in the doing, the answer was in the being.

Thanksgiving is a time to be full. Full of food, yes, but also emotionally full. We take time to reflect all that we’ve been blessed with. When I think of my family—both near and far—I know that I have so much to be thankful for.

I can’t say for sure that I won’t end up feeling the Holiday Blues this year. I know that I will miss my sister fiercely come Thanksgiving and that Christmas isn’t going to be the same, but I am going to try hard to remember this: “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again, I won’t look any further than my own back yard. Because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.”

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My Children Will Never Know

When I was in junior high, my mom saw a bunch of boys that I was friends with buying Trojans in the local grocery store. Even though many of those pimply faced teens would never get the chance to use those condoms until long after they had expired, my mother panicked.

Deductive reasoning told her that if the boys in my grade were purchasing rubbers, then…

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We hadn’t had “The Talk” yet, and so, like a mad woman, she raced home to find me, only I wasn’t there.

As any bored thirteen-year-old would do on a Saturday afternoon, I had hopped on my bike and pedaled to a friend’s house. I’m sure I left a note of some kind, albeit one that didn’t reveal my destination since I often didn’t have an exact end in mind, but these were the days before cell phones, the days when it wasn’t unusual for kids to spend whole afternoons in the fresh air. Yet seeing how I didn’t live in a neighborhood so much as in the middle of a potato farm, my boundaries were less-defined. My mother could yell for me till the cows came home, and cows might literally show up before I would.

In this instance, my mother had only two choices: to wait for me to return (mind racing, envisioning worst-case scenarios) or to track me down like a bounty hunter.

With the determination and paranormal instinct that only a mother can possess, she got in her car.

I was a whole town over when she pulled up alongside me. By the time she had stopped and rolled down the window, my mother had worked herself up from a low simmer to a full boil.

“Get. In. The. Car.”

I’d heard that tone many a time: I was in dangerous territory.

“But my bike.”

I didn’t know what I had done, but I reasoned if I could ride back home, I’d buy myself some time. Hopefully, it would allow for my mother to calm down enough to realize that killing me wouldn’t benefit either one of us; instead she popped the trunk.

I struggled to fit my ten-speed in the back while she waited inside the vehicle, and once I had buckled up, it didn’t take long before she broke the silence.

“I saw those boys you’re friends with buying condoms at the store today. Condoms! What were they buying condoms for, Sara?!”

“I don’t know.”

“Don’t lie to me.”

“Mom, I’m not having sex if that’s what you think.”

“I know you’re not having sex. You know how I know? Because I’m your mother. I know everything.”

“The Talk” ended up being fairly short– the gist of it being that I was never, EVER, to have sex with those boys. I was able to reassure my mother of my virtuous ways (“Ew, Mom, gross!”), and seeing as how she didn’t really want to have “The Talk” any more than I did, we dropped the whole conversation, that is, until my sister came home later that evening and I got to retell the story over dinner in a dramatic rendering that left us both laughing. (Mom did not find my reenactment all that funny.)

Still, this is more than just a story about my mother’s psychic abilities, which I still believe she possesses today. Rather, this is a story about an experience that defined my adolescence.

Last year, my oldest daughter began sex-Ed in school. She was traumatized by some of what she learned, refusing to play with the boys at afternoon recess that day because, as she put it, “It’s just weird now, it’s like, I know their secrets.”  After she came home, and in the weeks that followed, there were lots of questions. I guess, in many ways, we’ve already begun “The Talk.” Still, if they are fortunate enough, my children will never know what it is like to have me hunt them down and find them with only sheer will, maternal instinct, and a little bit of luck.

Lately, I’ve been thinking of all the experiences that today’s children will never have.

Fewer and fewer kids are making mud pies or playing outside till the streetlights come on. When my children start roaming farther from home and I want to know where they are, I’ll probably just send a text. And by tracking their phones, I could know exactly where they are, letting a GPS take me there turn by turn, a thought that terrifies the teenager I used to be.

On the flip side though, my children will also be able to text me when they need a ride. They won’t sit outside the dentist’s office for hours plucking at the grass and wondering when their mom will finally remember she was supposed to get them. They won’t wait outside after play rehearsal watching one by one as their friends leave, the occasional mom or dad calling out from a minivan, “Do you need a ride?” They won’t hoof it home after swimming at a friend’s house, walking for miles in damp jean shorts that chafe the inside of their thighs, turning them an angry red. No. With phones at everyone’s fingertips, my children will probably Uber before they’ll scrounge for a ride.

Technology has made it so my children will never know what it is like to go to 7-11 in order to find out where the party’s at. When the parking lot of Sevs was empty, we didn’t get FOMO. We got Big Gulps. Then, we got back in our cars and drove from beach to beach trying to find the party for ourselves.

When I was a teen, we didn’t have group messages, we had three-way calling. If you were lucky, your family had a portable phone. If you weren’t, you stretched the cord from the kitchen to the bathroom to talk in privacy until your mother picked up the other line and told you to hang up.

We weren’t drug dealers or doctors, but nevertheless, we carried beepers and sent our boyfriends the first numeric text message: 143. And when our best friend stayed home sick, we took a quarter to the pay phone in school and dialed one of the many numbers we knew by heart to find out how she was.

We waited all night for the radio to play the perfect song to record on the mixed tape we were making for our Boo, and waited all week for our pictures to get developed at Genovese Drug Store. Out of an entire roll, we were lucky to get two or three good ones, pictures that wouldn’t go on Instagram, but ended up in our scrapbook next to collages we had made from Seventeen magazine. That was our #aesthetic.

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My children will never spend the first week of school making covers for their textbooks from brown shopping bags. They’ll never know card catalogues or what it’s like to find information without Google. They’ll never peck out their first papers on a typewriter, feeling the agony of every mistake. While I would much rather write a research paper today than when I sat at a microfiche machine, there are some things I experienced growing up that I hope will remain the same.

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I hope my children will know what it’s like to have someone ask them out face-to-face. I hope they will know what it feels like to hold a sweaty hand in a darkened movie theater, wondering if tonight will be their first kiss.

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{via Gifer.com}

And even though I work in a public high school and vomit a little in my mouth each time I witness a make-out session in the halls, I hope they will have someone who waits at their locker and walks them to class someday. They don’t need an elaborate promposal, a grotesque gesture designed to get the most likes on social media, but a simple, heartfelt request that makes their cheeks blush and their heart flutter before they answer yes.

I want my children to see their friends’ faces illuminated by bonfires, not screens. I want them to know what it feels like to spend hours on the phone talking with a loved one. I want their relationships to take place in real life, but fewer and fewer these days do.

Still, when I recently chaperoned the homecoming dance at the high school where I teach, I realized, as more and more kids showed up to dance the night away, that it hasn’t all changed. As I watched the awkward encounters of boys and girls and listened to the shouts as the DJ played a favorite song, their movements becoming more frenetic, the gymnasium hotter, the air less sweet, my friend yelled over the music to me, “I’m glad they still do this. I’m glad that technology hasn’t taken away everything.”

Looking out at the sea of bodies on the dance floor, I thought about my oldest daughter who in four short years would be here, singing along with her friends to the song that marks the end of every dance. As the students swayed, belting out the lyrics of Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’, I couldn’t agree more.

 

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Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

When it comes to our neighbors, my nickname for my husband is Mr. Wilson. Even though the original Mr. Wilson was the cantankerous next-door-neighbor to Dennis the Menace, the Mr. Wilson my husband more accurately resembles is Wilson Wilson, the next-door-neighbor who peers over the top of the fence in episodes of Home Improvement offering advice to Tim Allen.

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Either Wilson, my husband is the “hidey-ho” neighbor who will venture into your garage if you are working in it, will help you shovel your driveway in winter after he’s finished with ours, and will deliver the homemade Christmas treats he asks me to bake for the half dozen neighbors whose homes surround ours. When watering the lawn, he waves at each car that he recognizes as belonging to one of our neighbors, one hand held in the air, a salute to our block. Mike’s the reason we get invited to Labor Day parties across the street where our children swim and I make small talk until it’s time to walk back home.

I, on the other hand, am not like Mike. While I like my neighbors very much, I also like fences.

Don’t get me wrong. You are more than welcome to borrow a cup of sugar from me and I too, will do the obligatory wave should I see you walking out to your mailbox, but whereas my husband thinks we should invite you to a BBQ, I prefer for you to just smell the hamburgers I’m grilling as the smoke wafts over the fence.

Some might call me stand-offish, but there are healthy boundaries to every relationship. My home is where I relax. Barefoot and braless, I experience a jolt of panic when my doorbell rings. Who is it? Why are they here? What do they want?

Not my husband. Ring our bell and he’ll stand on the stoop shooting the shit for a good half hour while I peer through the blinds.

In the decade that we have owned our home, there have been relatively few changes to our neighborhood. For a few years, we had one house to the left of us that was vacant after a foreclosure, and when we finally got new neighbors, they were less than ideal. Their dirt backyard grew weeds taller than the fence. Here, they kept their son’s two monstrous dogs after he moved out. Since they owned cats too, the dogs were not allowed in the house. Living in the junkyard that was their backyard, no one ever picked up the piles of dog poo or told them to stop barking. In the heat of the summer, and with the right wind, we’d suffer through the flies, the smell, and the dust. One time they put a couch in their backyard, right next to the (broken?) elliptical machine and the two dozen bikes, which became a giant chew-toy for the dogs. I always wondered whether they got the sofa for the intended purpose of letting the dogs destroy it, but soon enough, they put their house up for sale, and I wasn’t the least bit sad. We lucked out with the young couple that bought it. They immediately planted sod and neighborhood equilibrium was restored.

Recently, however, conditions on the right have changed. New neighbors have arrived and we are already mending the wall.

I was headed to my car when I first saw them standing in the road talking to our neighbors from across the street. I would have just said hello, but my neighbors waved me over to meet them. The first thing I noticed was the window decal on a very large pick-up truck: a picture of Donald Trump urinating on “LIBERALS.”

Great, I thought. He is all pine and I am apple orchard.

The wife, in a three-minute conversation, was able to overshare several tidbits of their life; from job layoffs to nasty custody battles, the largest red flag came when she mentioned their last house had burned down.

I tried to keep a smile on my face, but inside, my thoughts were spiraling. Was it arson? Did you leave the iron on? Were you running a meth lab in the basement?

They seemed nice enough, but one thing was for sure: I wasn’t going to wear my Obama tee-shirt to the block party lest I find them dropping trou on my front lawn. Also, I needed to pick up some extra fire extinguishers. Stat.

Mr. Wilson wasn’t home when I met the new neighbors, but I made sure to fill him in on all I had learned. A week later, he finally got his introduction when the new neighbor came over to thank my husband for returning his dog when earlier that day, it broke through a fence post and ventured into our back yard.

As the two stood talking on the front porch, I thought it might be neighborly of me to come say hello. I listened to my husband espouse how great our neighborhood is when the new neighbor told us the reason they purchased the home next to ours.

“When we came to look at it, it was just after the fourth of July and every house had an American flag flying. I knew then that this wasn’t going to be a neighborhood full of Liberals and Communists.”

Mike chuckled as I turned and walked back inside wishing that the Democratic Party would conveniently call for my husband at that very moment. If only it was dinner time. 

When Mike found me hiding in our bedroom, he took one look at me and laughed.  “So I guess Liberals don’t fly American flags?”

Since Trump’s election, I’ve witnessed a country divided in ways I have never seen before. I’ll be honest, I’ve clicked that button to hide the political posts of friends and family on social media, but I’m not sure how to hide my new neighbor except by building a taller fence.

Yet for as much as I believe that good fences make good neighbors, I know that for better or worse, he is my neighbor, and maybe, rather than mending walls or building walls, what we need to do is start taking them down.

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In an article published in the Los Angeles Times, Alexander Nazaryan writes, “To wall off is an ancient human impulse, and there is no use in pretending that we’ve transcended that desire. It’s what we do with that impulse that matters.”

As I settle into the different sounds coming from across the fence, perhaps it’s time I take a clue from Mr. Wilson and invite the new neighbors over for a BBQ.

After all, boundaries, like some window decals, only serve to alienate one another. After so much division, it’s time we started coming back together. Conservative or Liberal, we all fly the same flag.

“[S]ome do not love walls, but others do, and always have,” Nazaryan writes. “A demagogue like Donald Trump will use it to his own hateful ends. An artist like Robert Frost will take the same and, listening to the complex rhythms of the human heart, create a thing of beauty.”

It probably will do no good to write my new neighbor a poem. I’m not naive enough to wonder if I could put a notion in his head. But I bet a plate of homemade brownies wouldn’t hurt. After all, we’ve still got a few years till 2020, and I’m hoping we can make the best of them.

If you want to read “Mending Wall” by Robert Frost, click HERE

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A Kinder World

I was at the water park with my family when my step-mom called to tell me that my grandfather had just passed away. He was 94 years old when he died and had been ailing for some time, so the news didn’t come as a shock to me. There was relief in knowing that he was no longer suffering and was finally at rest.

Pop (as we called him) was always jocund, always smiling, and spent much of his life volunteering his time. Everyone would say that Pop was the nicest man, and he was. By being kind to others, he lived the way we all should—and in doing so, he’d had a happy life. 

In the wake of that news, I thought about my family. I especially thought about my own father who had just lost his dad and wondered what that must feel like. No matter the age, it can’t be easy to be without a parent. And even though I was sad, what I felt most was gratitude. I was grateful that Pop had lived a long and joyous life. And here I was. It was a beautiful day. My children were splashing in the lazy river under a cloudless sky. I watched them playing, and thought about how I would tuck them into bed later that night, kissing their cheeks made pink from the sun.

Just then, a woman on a blue tube floated by me. Tomorrow is never guaranteed was tattooed across her foot.

The day before my grandfather passed, Melania Trump boarded a plane to visit a migrant detention center wearing a coat that told the world that she really doesn’t care. I’ve had a hard time stomaching the political news this summer especially around issues of immigration. There’s been an ache in my heart unlike any I’ve known before, and I found myself unmoored by my emotions.

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{Photo: Andrew Harnik, AP, via TimesUnion}

As I struggled to make sense of it all, I realized that many people in America—myself included—cannot fathom living in a war-torn country or getting sick from a lack of clean water. Many people will never know what it is like to be denied access to doctors and medicine. We take for granted that our children will be afforded an education, that they’ll grow up in a country that is, for the most part, safe. We suffer our first world problems and falsely equate being better off to just being better.

Here in America, we are privileged.

Around the same time my newsfeed was flooded with the tear-stained faces of migrant children, I was reading Strength in What Remains. In it, Tracy Kidder narrates the story of an African boy, Deogratias Niyizonkiza, who barely survives a civil war in his home of Burundi. As his name suggests, with thanks to God, Deo escapes the genocide of his country. Arriving at JFK with two hundred dollars in his pocket, knowing not a single person nor the English language, in a matter of years, he goes from sleeping in Central Park as a homeless man to attending Columbia University as a pre-med student. His tale is remarkable and it is courageous.

The writing depicts gruesome scenes from his homeland that continue to haunt him long after he’s left—a baby crying at his dead mother’s breast; dogs running the dirt roads with severed heads in their mouths; an entire family murdered, the husband’s genitals cut off and shoved in the wife’s mouth. Still, this is no work of fiction. I kept reminding myself of that as I read.

“I know I have these unrealistic beliefs and thoughts, that the world can be peaceful, can be healthy, people can be humane. But is it feasible?”

This is a question that Deo asks as he returns to Burundi after the war to help build medical clinics for his people. This summer, it’s been a question I have struggled with too.

Regardless of one’s political beliefs, regardless of one’s religion, regardless of imaginary lines drawn in the sand—beneath everything, we are first all human.

“That shared humanity, like it or not, doesn’t end at our southern border, nor any border. It’s the same humanity that understands there is a risk in entering another country illegally—possible consequences, some severe and difficult to bear, though none as unbearable as knowing that your child and family are in certain danger …in many cases because a father or mother or child has already been killed,” Oscar Cásares writes in a piece titled, “A child doesn’t cry in Spanish or English. A child simply cries, and we respond.”

Warsan Shire addresses those same risks in her poem “Home.”

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.

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When I return to teaching in August, I will start off the school year reading To Kill a Mockingbird with my classes. Like Atticus, I will ask my students to stand in someone else’s shoes and walk around in them, and while we will finish Harper Lee’s book and move on to other works of literature, I will never stop trying to teach them to have empathy.

We may never come to a consensus on how to fix the problems of our world, but if we could start with our shared humanity, I believe we’d create a kinder world…the kind of world I wish for our children.

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{via Instagram @justinteodoro}

My grandfather cared. With his affection for cardigan sweaters and helping others, he reminded me of Mr. Rogers. He raised three sons and a daughter who each would hold up a torch and welcome a stranger to supper. They’d open their door and invite them in, especially when it seemed they had nothing to offer in return.

When I was younger, I was often surprised to see faces I didn’t recognize at our table come Christmas Eve. I didn’t understand why a person I’d never met was living in a camper on my uncle’s property. When a man who I deemed “crazy” approached my father in public, invading his personal space, I watched as my father looked him in the eyes, shook his hand, and asked him how he was doing with such sincerity that I immediately felt ashamed of the judgement I’d passed on him.

I believe what Pop showed us is that, “first and foremost, we meet as human beings who have much in common: a heart, a face; a voice; the presence of a soul, fears, hope, the ability to trust, the capacity for compassion and understanding, the kinship of being human.” (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel). It’s what I strive to teach my own children and the children that I teach.

As often happens in the wake of a loss, I regret that I didn’t spend more time with Pop when I had the chance. When I learned that there wasn’t an obituary for him, I desperately wanted to write one, but I realized, sadly, that I didn’t know enough about his life. If only I could sit by his side and ask him questions. If only I could listen to his stories and hold his hand.

Sometimes we need a reminder, like the passing of a great man or a tattoo on a foot, to remember that tomorrow is never guaranteed.

If we want to create a kinder world, we need to begin today.

Maybe I couldn’t write Pop an obituary, but I could write this. Like everything done with a giving heart, I know it would make him happy.

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In Loving Memory

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The Time to Enjoy the Ride is Now

There are some expressions that you never truly understand… Until you do.

It took me until I was 29 years old and a weekend spent at Lundy Canyon during a freakishly cold June to understand what “not a happy camper” meant. Dressed in every article of clothing I had packed, I climbed out of my tent to warm my numbed toes by the fire, putting my feet so close to the flames that I melted the soles of my Ugg boots. The expression that I’d long been acquainted with, and had probably used on occasion, finally made perfect sense. I’d shivered my way through most of the night, barely sleeping, and trying to climb inside my husband’s skin when it dawned on me: I was NOT a happy camper.

Eleven years later, I think I finally understand what it means to be Over the Hill.

For the past three years, I told my husband that for my 40th birthday we were taking a trip to The Grand Canyon. I had never struggled with any birthdays before– I mean, aside from being still slightly intoxicated during college finals the day after I turned 21. Yet something about turning 40 seemed downright ominous. There were all those stories: suddenly requiring readers after a lifetime of 20/20 vision, the way the scale creeps up…and up….and up despite working out harder than ever before, and let’s not forget (I shudder to even say the word) perimenopause.

I suppose I figured that if I had any reservations about turning the big 4-0, standing on the rim of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders, one that was millions of years old, could help put things in perspective.

And if I was wrong, I could always jump in.

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Visiting the canyon was a bucket list item for both my husband and me and it seemed like the perfect way to celebrate a milestone birthday. And it was. We got to take a road trip through the desert with our kids, spend some time hiking and taking in the sights, and catch up with close friends in Vegas on both ends of the trip.

Perhaps turning forty wasn’t a big deal.

That morning, I woke early and snuck out of our hotel room to watch the sun rise over the canyon. There were plenty of other tourists doing the same, but by walking a short way down the rim trail, I was able to find solitude as the sky was painted in breathtaking hues.

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I was officially forty.

That night we were back in Vegas. We met up with our friends at a Mexican restaurant to celebrate when I made the mistake of telling the waiter it was my birthday.

“And it’s a big one.” I joked. “Guess how old I am?”

He didn’t even really pause to think about it. He took one look at me and said, “45.”

That’s right. Cuarenta y cinco.

What. The. Actual. Fuck.

There was an awkward silence that fell on the table as I added more salt to my margarita with my tears.

My husband quickly rationalized how women in Vegas all have “work” done and so many look much younger than they are. When I glared at him, he proceeded to insult the man’s intelligence, which only made me feel slightly better.

From that moment on, I was headed downhill.

Since turning 40, ironically, my hearing and eyesight have both improved.

One morning, I woke and noticed that the bed sheets had left strange marks on my chest. Hours later, the marks remained. If these small creases in my skin weren’t from my linens then…

Oh—Shit.

Suddenly, I recalled all those times as a teenager that I’d slathered up in baby oil and laid in the sun, sucking down Slurpees and chain-smoking Parliament Lights.

I whispered a silent prayer: Dear God, Please bring back the turtle neck this winter. And the mock neck the year after that. And then the cowl neck. There’d be no more décolletage for me.

And that’s when I heard it:

Tick. Tick. Tick.

I assume it’s the sound of the clock counting down what’s left of my life. Everything will gain momentum now as I race towards a finish line I’d prefer not to cross. Within a month of turning 40, my youngest will partake in her graduation to the first grade, my oldest has started saving money for her first car, and I have scheduled my first mammogram. My closest friends ask me how it feels to be 40, which only serves to remind me that they are still 39, and no matter what I do, I can’t seem to shake these five pounds that showed up around my midsection just in time for summer.

Every anti-aging cream, wrinkle reducer, fine-line diminisher, and work-out regimen are appearing on my timeline, and I’m questioning why I didn’t invest in these things sooner…before it was too late.

But truth be told, I know why. It’s because I wasn’t 40 and when you’re still headed uphill it’s a slow climb that feels like you’ll never reach the top.

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The other night, my husband asked, “Do you think you might just be having a hard time with the idea that you’re getting older?”

I hollered at the younger man I married, “Me?! Me?!”

“No. Me too.” (He stopped reacting to my histrionics years ago.) “I’m surprised I don’t wake you up in the middle of the night when I try to straighten my leg and groan.”

Huh. Maybe my hearing is going after all.

But then, I hear it again:

Tick. Tick. Tick.

Still..When you’re headed downhill, there’s really only one thing to do.

It’s time to stop pedaling so hard, let the wind blow through your increasingly gray hair, let go of the handlebars, and learn to enjoy the ride. 

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Human Connection: The Life Hack We Can’t Live Without

The fifth episode in the third and final season of the Netflix series Love written by Judd Apatow is titled “Bertie’s Birthday.”

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As the episode begins, we find Bertie waking up in the dark to Facetime with her family in the land down under. Bertie presents them with the illusion that she’s going to be doing lots of fun things with her friends in L.A. for her birthday. They’ll go to trendy bars and probably see famous people, but we soon learn that both her roommate and her boyfriend already have plans and Bertie spends most of her birthday desperately seeking someone to hang out with. Even her coworkers make excuses for why they can’t get a drink with her after work, and it isn’t until Chris, a friend of a friend, writes on her Facebook wall that she can get a free piece of cake at the restaurant where he waits tables, that she finds something to do.

Still, it’s a fairly sad picture when Bertie walks into the restaurant alone, sits at a table alone, and looks down at her single slice of cake with a single candle in it.

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{via Netflix}

So when Chris gets off work and invites her to join him for an underground wrestling tournament, obviously, she agrees to go. But first, they need to stop for gas.

For me, it’s this small scene at the gas station, this brief dialogue exchange, that made the episode memorable.

Chris steps outside of the car and closes the door. Popping his head back in through the opened window, he asks Bertie if she needs anything from inside, to which she jokingly answers, “Chewing tobacco. Lots of it.”

“Is this weird?” Chris asks. “I like to pay inside. I try to find human interaction wherever I can in L.A.”

Bertie tells Chris that she likes that idea, in fact, she might do it herself next time, to which Chris replies, “Right? Life Hack, Bitch!”

A few days after watching the show, I walked into the library to pick up a book I’d placed on hold that had come in. My husband had reminded me that the library called, which meant that there was an automated message on our answering machine from them.

I found the shelves that housed the holds, then searched alphabetically for the first two letters of my last name. Spotting the book, I grabbed it and walked to the circulation counter to check out.

I scanned my library card, got the book checked out myself, printed my receipt, and then said, “Thank you” to the two librarians behind the counter; one was doing something on her phone, the other was leaning against the wall, staring blankly at nothing.

Upon hearing my voice, the woman looked up from her device.

“Isn’t that nice?” She asked the other. “We didn’t even do anything and she thanked us.”

I smiled at them both, and as I carried my book in hand, I felt like I was in The Twilight Zone.

Was it really that unusual for someone to say thank you? It’s not just good manners, but it’s a part of our culture to thank someone when they are providing a service. True, they didn’t really do any of the work, but does that mean that we shouldn’t acknowledge one another? In fact, why hadn’t either of them greeted me?

Through the convenience of our digitalized world, we have become so inhuman that we fail to adhere to the norms of human interaction even when we are in one another’s presence.

We have self-checkout stands everywhere from the Home Depot to the Post Office. We have apps to make our dinner reservations and then we text our babysitter to find out if she’s free. We post our greatest joys and deepest sorrows on social media, and rather than picking up the phone, we IM or PM or DM. I teach to a room full of students who stare at a screen they keep hidden in their laps, and though sitting in the same class, they would rather send one another funny memes than actually talk.

In “Buddhism 101,” an episode of Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations, Jack Kornfield, one of America’s leading Buddhist teachers, talks about what it means to live an awakened life, which according to Kornfield, means to be here in the reality of the present, in the now, which is really all we have. He says, “We can go through our lives kind of half asleep, or we can be more present for one another, for our life, for what matters in our heart.”

What matters? People matter. But the only way that people are going to know that they matter is if we tell them. So we have to start by seeing them. By acknowledging that they’re there, we communicate that they matter.

Kornfield says that, “Our Western culture has produced a society suffering from epidemic loneliness.” Sadly, I think he’s right. We’re all connected online, but we’ve stopped connecting IRL.

“When you look at our culture… you see one person in a car, big houses with one person in a room. Instead of having extended families, villages, communities where people are really engaged with one another, we’re engaged by texting one another…[Our] distance from one another has grown over the years…In some ways we’re much more prosperous, but in other ways, we’re really more lonely and isolated.”

A few weeks ago, we hosted Mary Latham, a former student of mine who is traveling the country collecting stories of human kindness. For the five days she stayed with us, we talked…and talked…and talked.

We talked while on a walk in a spring snow shower. We talked in the car as we drove to Lake Tahoe and Virginia City and home from dinner. And on Saturday night, we talked on my couch till one in the morning.

My husband, who had gone to sleep long before us, asked me the next morning what time I had come to bed.

“Wow. When was the last time you did that?”

It had been far too long.

I remember being in high school, attending a youth group ski trip for a church I didn’t belong to. All of us stayed up late into the night talking about things I thought at the time were deeply philosophical and profound. It was real conversation—without awkwardness, without judgement, without offense.

I remember spending hours upon hours on the phone with my high school boyfriend. I’d wake up with the receiver still cradled under my head without remembrance of the last thing either of us had said.

Growing up, I remember the playful banter between me and my girlfriends—over bonfires, in a college dorm room, at the beach.

Long before LOL and the emoji face with tears of joy, there was real laughter, real tears, real joy.

After Mary left us, she went on to talk to more people. In California. In Oregon. In Washington. Her entire mission revolves around connecting with people through talk. And while I hope that she got some good stories from visiting Reno, the person who really benefitted from her visit was me.

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Author Steve Almond said in one of his Dear Sugar podcasts that, “your purpose in life is to establish human connection with people who are important to you.” But I’d argue, that our purpose is just to establish human connection. Period.

The other day, I got a text from a friend I work with. Not a super close friend, but a friend nonetheless. I knew I shouldn’t text her back since I was already driving home, but I also knew that she’d recently experienced a loss, that she was going through a lot, and so, I did the unimaginable: I called her instead.

As may be expected these days, she didn’t answer, but I left her a voicemail and she eventually called back. The next day, she popped her head in my classroom and we chatted some more. Before she left, I told her we should get together one of these days. Take a walk. Talk.

“I’d like that,” she said.

A life hack can be a way to do things more efficiently, but it can also be a clever solution to a tricky problem. If, as Kornfield says, the problem is epidemic loneliness, then the solution—the life hack—is human interaction. Luckily, people are everywhere. All we really need to do is get them to look up. Sometimes, that’s as simple as going inside to pay for your gas, as simple as picking up the phone, as simple as saying Thank You.

at the end of the day all this
means nothing
this page
where you’re sitting
your degree
your job
the money
nothing even matters
except love and human connection

                                                                                        -Rupi Kaur, Milk and Honey

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