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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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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To Forgive, Divine

I picked up my copy of Rising Strong in the airport while we waited for the first leg of our flight that would take us to Mexico. As my children browsed the souvenirs, I perused the titles of paperbacks with no intention of buying anything. After all, I had a book I needed to finish for my book club and I’d packed my Kindle with a memoir I’d downloaded that I was prepared to start as well, but by the time I boarded the plane, I also had Brené Brown’s latest title in hand.

Mexico was the vacation that we had hoped it would be. Instead of visiting family in Florida or New York, we took our children to a place where we knew no one, where we were tourists. We lounged by pools while waiters offered us happy hour drinks all day long. They brought our children cheesy nachos and brought us salted margaritas all while the sun turned our skin different shades of pink.

For one whole week, I turned my cell phone off and never once checked email or social media. We watched baby sea turtles make their way to the ocean, and despite the birds that circled overhead threatening to pluck them from the sand, we didn’t interfere. Later, I watched my own children playing together in the brackish waves; I felt extremely blessed to have witnessed both in the same day, knowing these were memories I would cherish forever.

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We didn’t realize when we booked our trip that we were headed to Mexico during their rainy season, but we didn’t mind the few afternoons when the thunderstorms cracked open the sky. We watched from the balcony as sheets of rain danced from the sea towards the mountains and lightening sizzled through the humid air. These interruptions in paradise were just another part of our experience, but there was a darker storm approaching.

While returning from the pool one afternoon, I sat next to my oldest daughter on the golf cart that would shuttle us back to our hotel when she turned to me and said, “Your stomach is really soft and jiggly.”

Of all the ways I could have responded, I settled on, “That doesn’t make me feel good.”

And it didn’t.

And it didn’t and it didn’t.

You see, from that moment on, I scrutinized my cellulite in the mirrors of the elevator, I ordered the salad instead, I declined dessert.

I was still on vacation. I was still stifling my laughter as my husband attempted to speak the language. I was still holding hands with my children, jumping into the pool together. The sun kept trying to peek through, but that squall was inside me.

I thought about my own mother, a woman whom I had only ever seen as beautiful. As a child, I don’t remember ever intentionally saying anything critical of her looks because I never thought there was anything to criticize. Why did my own children not see me the same way?

“Maybe she just has a different perception of beauty.” My husband’s words, meant to console me, offered no solace. Maybe I’m not a good mother.

Each night, as I dressed for dinner, my husband showered me with compliments, but they couldn’t permeate my own belief that I wasn’t beautiful enough.

She’s right, I told myself. My stomach is soft and jiggly. I am not the best version of myself. I have failed. I am a failure.

Brown writes, “The most dangerous stories we make up are the narratives that diminish our inherent worthiness.” Yet here I was in Mexico, with this story stuck on repeat. I had fallen into this narrative and despite having finished the book, I was not rising strong.

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Had I been home, I likely would have taken to the gym. I would have sat down to write or meditate. I would have engaged in some retail therapy, a little time by myself till those clouds rolled away. Here in Mexico, the maid left chocolate every night by the side of my bed. Every morning I needed to don a bikini again; I hadn’t even packed a cover-up! And the drinks were TWO for ONE for crying out loud.

I could escape neither storm nor story.

Back in the states, I woke the next morning and headed straight to yoga. The following day, I hit the treadmill. Popping in my ear-buds, I scrolled through my podcasts. Knowing I could benefit from something inspirational, I decided on Oprah’s Super Soul Conversations. Two episodes was all it took.

The first episode I listened to was a conversation with Don Miguel Ruiz, author of The Four Agreements, a book I had read ages ago. Oprah and Ruiz discuss how 95 percent of what we believe is not true, they are stories we tell ourselves, and behind those stories lie our fears—fears that we are not good enough, are not beautiful enough, are not worthy. This sounded familiar—it sounded like Brené Brown.

Don Miguel Ruiz says, “The human is the only animal on earth that pays 1000 times for the same mistake.”

How many times had I beaten myself up over this same story? How many times had I questioned my self-worth because of what I thought I, or someone else, saw in me?

The second episode was a conversation with Michael Singer, author of The Untethered Soul. I haven’t read this book (yet), but here I found the answer to the bigger question: How do I break this cycle?

Singer uses the analogy of a thorn embedded deep in one’s skin, touching a nerve. He says we have two choices: We can live with the thorn and try to avoid all those things in life that disturb it, or we can grab our tweezers and take that thorn out.

In keeping the thorn in, we not only alter how we live our lives, we also train everyone around us so they don’t ever touch that thorn. That’s what I was doing, wasn’t I? Through my reaction and my behavior, I was training my family that this was a thorn not to be touched.

On the contrary, if we remove the thorn, we don’t ever have to deal with it again. We can start to enjoy life, and that, Singer says, is spirituality.

Whoa.

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Oprah asks, “How do you know what your thorn is?”

Singer’s answer: “Disturbance tells you. Just like pain happens outside, disturbance happens inside.”

Singer claims that the moment something disturbs you, if you don’t let it pass right through you, the energy of it will drag you down. “When a problem shows up with that chitter-chatter in your mind, the first reaction must be to lean away from it.”

Ruiz believes, “forgiveness is the most important thing.” Oprah explains that by forgiveness, he means to “let it go; do not be tied to the past.” While my daughter had apologized, I didn’t need to forgive her, I needed to forgive myself.

My daughter’s words to me were not what hurt me, nor did she intend to hurt me. My daughter’s words disturbed my thorn, a thorn that I have carried around with me for a long, long time. But in that moment, I had a choice, and I chose to take it personally when I should have chosen forgiveness.

The second of the four agreements is Don’t Take Anything Personally. When we take something personally, it “is the maximum expression of selfishness because we make the assumption that everything then is about me.” Mexico wasn’t supposed to be about me. Mexico was supposed to be about us. I was making it about me.

If I could go back to that moment when my daughter turned to me and said, “Your stomach is really soft and jiggly,” I would lean far, far away from my discomfort—even if that meant falling off the damn golf cart. I don’t want another internal storm to cloud an otherwise amazing family vacation. Yet maybe this storm was necessary in realizing what needed to be washed clean.

I’ve since ordered a copy of The Untethered Soul. I plan to turn the pages with my tweezers in hand.

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