F*** Nice. Be Brave and Amazing.

I have an addiction to young adult novels.  I pretend to be “screening” them for Emma, but really I just love to read them.  I find the no-bullshit voice of a a young person refreshing: the sparse language, the honest observations, the raw self-reflection and poignant realizations about life. Or maybe I just like books that I can read in one day.

Which is what I did with this one:


Wonder is the fictional story of 10-year-old August “Auggie” Pullman. Born with several genetic abnormalities, Auggie’s face is so disfigured that he announces on the first page: “I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you are thinking, it’s probably worse.”

When the previously home-schooled Auggie enters the fifth grade at a mainstream school, a story of bravery, adversity and transcendence unfolds.  The book starts with Auggie’s point of view, but soon switches to include that of his classmates, his sister, etc. The voices are different but the core questions are the same: Who am I, really?  What do I believe in? What does it mean to be brave?

If you managed to survive middle school, you can only imagine what it’s like for Auggie. “Like a lamb to the slaughter,” is how he overhears his dad describe it.  But the desire to live his life outweighs the fear of kids “looking away” when he walks down the hall.

The pure “wonder” of Auggie is astounding; his bravery undeniable.  But the reality is, he didn’t have much of a choice. Humans need to connect to thrive. Auggie takes a huge risk when he goes to school in pursuit of this connection. But he knows if he never leaves his comfort zone, he will never grow.

It’s the other characters – and how they choose to either embrace or reject Auggie – that fascinates me.  Because they do have a choice.  A few choices, in fact. They can:

  1. Choose to be an asshole.
  2. Choose to be nice but distant. Be nice but not necessarily do anything nice.
  3. Choose to be brave. To see beyond Auggie’s exterior and discover what lies beneath the surface.

I would love to say I fall in Category #3, and once and a while, I do.  But mostly I am a #2. Which may be worse than #1.  An asshole is an asshole.  Even when an asshole pretends to be otherwise, everyone still knows what’s up.


But choosing to be a #2 is like not choosing at all.  Nice is neutral.  Nice is beige. The trap is, no one argues with beige.  No one is going to come into your house and say, “Holy crap, you painted your living room Practical Beige?  Were you high??”  But they also aren’t going to say, “Wow, dude.  Practical Beige was a ballsy move.”

My point is, it’s easy to not move beyond nice.  You’re not hurting anyone by being nice. You just aren’t helping anyone either.  You’re not going to the places that scare you.  You stay in the place that feels….nice.  Your comfort zone. Which is painted Practical Beige.

I am going somewhere with this.  Eventually.

I started reading Wonder early last Saturday morning, and I thought of my friend Margie.  I met her through Phil on a weekend handicapped retreat (the HEC) we used to go on before we had kids.  Margie is in her late 60’s, lives alone in a house near Villanova and has advanced Cerebral Palsy.  We haven’t seen her in years, and now that we are back in the area, I think of her every time I drive past her street.

So later that day, I decided to go for a run to Margie’s house.

It was a little farther than my out of shape legs remembered, and my snail’s pace gave me a little bit too much time to think.  What if she doesn’t remember me?  What if I scare her, just barging in?  What if I can’t understand what she is saying?  Maybe this is a bad idea.  Maybe I should have called first.

And when I finally reached her house…I kept running.

Yeah, not a proud moment.

When I confessed to Phil, he said, “Don’t feel bad, it was a really nice idea.”

Sidebar: How Phil originally met Margie. When he was a sophomore at Villanova, Phil saw an ad in the campus paper: “Morning volunteer needed to help disabled woman put on leg braces.” So everyday before his 8:30 class, he ran from his dorm to Margie’s house and put on her leg braces.

That’s brave.

Running 3+ miles to someone’s house and then chickening out at the last minute?  Not so much.

That night, I finished reading Wonder, and Auggie’s words hit me hard:

It’s like people you see sometimes, and you can’t imagine what it would be like to be that person, whether it’s someone in a wheelchair or somebody who can’t talk.  I know I am that person to other people.  To me, though, I’m just me.  An ordinary kid.

I didn’t run past Margie’s house because I was scared of what I might see in her. Margie is Margie. She’s funny and loving and fiercely loyal.  I ran past because I was scared of what she would see in me.  The awkward and nervous prodigal friend who is not nearly as brave and amazing as she is.

To which Margie would reply, “That’s stupid.”

To choose to be brave is to stop wallowing in your own inadequacy and just freaking shut up and show up.  Choosing to be brave is not having “nice ideas” or hiding behind a safe email after you ran down the street like a chicken shit.  It’s choosing to not look away from the stuff inside that makes you look away, which is exactly the stuff that keeps you from being brave and amazing. 

For me, I think bravery will come when I stop being nice and start being real.  So this weekend, I am running to Margie’s. For real, this time.

What keeps you from being brave and amazing?







The Occupational Hazards of Being A Mary

Ok, so I am not trying to make this a Biblical blog, but I felt it was only fair to pick up where I left off in my last post.  It wouldn’t be honest to drop it, letting you believe that over the past week I was transformed from a harried Martha into a Zen master Mary.  Because -shockingly – that’s not how things shook out.  You are already laughing at me, I know you are.

I began with good intentions. One afternoon while the kids were at school, I chose to put aside my to-do list for a home yoga practice.  I have practiced yoga for over ten years and even taught for a while, but amidst our string of moves from PA to MA back to PA, my mat has been rolling around the back of my car caked with rock salt and smashed up Cheddar Bunnies.

So it seemed like a very Mary thing to do, to forgo the organization of the linen closet for a little self-care.  I rolled out my mat in Phoebe’s bedroom and moved through some Sun Salutes and the Warrior series – a little stiff and distracted by the naked Barbies under the bed, but there nonetheless.

Then I got to Eka Pada Rajakapotasana, or Pigeon Pose.

Jessie_yoga (7 of 7)

I. Started. Bawling.  No, no.  I mean it.  I totally flipping lost my mind, like Full-frontal-Oprah-ugly-cry-nervous-breakdown-Beaches-Wind-Beneath-My-Wings-Put Me On-Paxil-STAT kind of lost it.

One of the “benefits” of hip-openers is the release of emotional….gunk you have been carrying around in your body. I have gotten weepy in Pigeon before, but this was like cleaning the gutters for the first time in two years – gutters packed with leaves and sticks and mud that I just didn’t have time to deal with amidst the packing and unpacking and repacking of houses.

When inward tenderness finds the secret hurt, pain itself will crack the rock and Ah! Let the soul emerge! -Rumi

I am all for a good cry, but this was intense. And when I realized how long I had been there, and that the kids would be home soon, I started to panic.

Occupational Hazard #1 of Being a Mary:  Feel your feelings but be sure to leave enough time to pull yourself together so you don’t look like a meth mom in the car line.

After I scraped myself off the floor, I felt defeated and ashamed.  I tried to do something positive, yet somehow managed to dissolve into a puddle of sweat, tears and boogers.   I suck at stillness, I thought.  Stillness just reminds me that I have the happiness set-point of Droopy Dog.

Droopy Dog

The next day while driving home from school, Emma says: “There is no room at the lunch table I want to sit at, and no one plays with me at recess so I just sit by myself and watch basketball.”

Phoebe chimes in: “I play by myself at recess.”

This doesn’t surprise me. “Really Pheebs?  Does it bother you?”

“Nope.  I just run in circles”.

With a slight eye roll Emma says, “Well Phoebe, I am sure that is ok for a preschooler but I am pretty sure my chances of making friends will not be improved by running in circles.”

Phoebe shrugs her shoulders. Don’t knock it ’till you try it.

Occupational Hazard #2 of Being a Mary: Trying to listen to your kids’ problems without fixing them and/or offering helpful suggestions but not solutions.  Basically, fighting the urge to march into the cafeteria and say, “What’s wrong with you people??”

But I held my tongue, and listened to Emma vent about the playground politics.  Then, just as I was about to chime in with my 2 cents, she says:  “But you know Mom, despite all these issues, I still have the nerve to be happy.  After recess when the teacher puts on dance music, I dance.  Because I’m not going to be the girl that won’t dance.”

I mean, what do you say to that?  Nothing.  It’s why God invented the High Five.

We are the night ocean filled with glints of light.  We are the space between the fish and the moon, while we sit here together.  -Rumi

Duality is not my bag, baby.  I grew up in a black and white world where things were good or bad, sinner or a saint, feast or famine.  It may take me a lifetime to really embrace the paradox of this existence, to accept that life is an ever-changing kaleidoscope of light and dark.  Why the hell is it so hard for me to grasp?  Dolly Parton gets it:


Maybe it’s not about being a Martha OR a Mary; being the one who works OR the one who prays.  Maybe we can be both.  The one who works and the one who prays.  The one who struggles, and the one who dances.  The one who cries, and the one who still has the nerve to be happy.   All at the same time.


Martha, Martha, Martha

During this season of Lent, I have been trying failing trying to start each morning with a short Bible reading and reflection.  One that really hit me was  Luke 10: 38-42, when Jesus Visits Mary and Martha.

The story (as I see it) goes something like this: Jesus and his friends are invited into the home of two sisters, Martha and Mary.  Jesus takes a load off and Mary sits at his feet, waiting to hear what he has to say.  Martha, on the other hand, is flying around the house, frantically cleaning and cooking and most likely muttering expletives under her breath.

The fact that Mary isn’t lifting a finger really starts to piss her off, and Martha says to Jesus: “Umm, excuse me Jesus, can you please light a fire under my sister, because this is crap. I still need to WetSwift the bathroom, and the taco dip isn’t going to make itself.”

Jesus says, “Martha, Girl, you need to RE-LAX.  Sit down, open the wine and the bag of Tostitos and let’s get this party started.”

Ok, what he really said:

Martha, Martha you are worried and troubled over so many things, but just one is needed.  Mary has chosen the good part, and that will not be taken away.

Can’t you just see Mary smirking?  Jesus likes me more than you, Nanana-poo-poo!

Since our move a few weeks ago, I have turned into a major Martha.  My brain feels jacked up on Coke and Pixie Stix while my body bounces around the house, frenetically “doing” but accomplishing nothing.

I wonder what was behind Martha’s “doing,” why she felt the need for everything to be perfect.  For me, it’s Mommy Guilt.  I feel guilty for putting the girls in a new house and school mid-year, so I am going to do WHATEVER IT TAKES TO HELP THEM FORGET ITS ACTUALLY HAPPENING.  I stood for hours on Emma’s bed sticking glow in the dark constellations on her ceiling. When they climb into the car after school looking sullen and sad, my heart breaks.  So I try and fix it (aka. stuff their feelings) with fro yo or cupcakes or a new book.  I decorated their bathroom with a tulip border mural, and bought Phoebe a matching duvet cover that I will take out of the package as soon as I find the damn iron.  As if maybe an ironed duvet cover will make her say, ‘Well alright!  Who cares that I am in a new school with no friends?  I have an ironed duvet cover.  I have ARRIVED.”

But just as Coke-Pixie Stix bender always ends in a crash, so does a Control Bender.  The I Can Fix Everything and Make Everyone Happy routine usually ends when everything falls apart.  At once.  And then catches on fire.

The unraveling began on Tuesday at midnight, when, 4 hours before Phil had to be on a plane to Boston, our ancient radiator in our 110 year old house decided it had worked hard enough.  Water, water, everywhere.  Sometimes, there are just not enough towels.

After dropping the kids off at school and getting honked at by 50 cars for screwing up in the car line again, I waited for the plumber and the Peapod grocery order Phil had placed to “help out.”  I was so engrossed in my radiator water management that I didn’t even look in the grocery bags until the delivery guy had left.


We don’t drink milk.

While I contemplated buying an extra dairy fridge off Craigslist, my sister-in-law Trisha stopped by.  We chatted for a few and then, after complimenting her new car, I sent her on her way with two gallons of milk and some coffee creamer.  When I returned 30 minutes later with my sullen children, the plumber was in the driveway and Trisha was walking down the street.  Her new car had broken down around the corner.  My first thought was, Oh man that milk is gonna stink.

While Trisha called a tow truck and the girls ran around me in circles shrieking, the plumber -let’s call him Frank- explained my radiator situation.  In detail.  Lots of detail.  My brain was starting to short circuit.  In an attempt to demonstrate how a valve works, Frank kept squeezing my bicep.

For the record, I am a “this is my box” personal space kinda girl.  I could see Frank’s mouth moving, but I could barely hear his voice over the one in my head:

“The valve of a radiator blah blah blah: EXPAND, CONTRACT” (Bicep squeeze).

You just touched my arm.

“So the water flow depends on blah blah valve blah EXPAND, CONTRACT” (Bicep squeeze)

You touched it again.

“So the valve is what determines if you have FLOW or NO FLOW” (Bicep squeeze).

Three times now. 

While I retained nothing about radiators, I got through the interaction without cold cocking Frank.  Trisha returned to her car of rotting dairy products, and the kids and I went to the park.  Jesus should have told Martha to take a walk.  Nature helps get your head out of your ass.


While putting the kids to bed after a nutritious dinner of bagels and apple sauce, I sat down on Emma’s bed: “Hey Em, you know how you said you were nervous about the Terra Nova test?  Well I emailed your teacher and she said that you are doing great and that…”

“Mom! Why are you bringing that up NOW?  I wasn’t even thinking about it and now I AM.”

“Oh…I’m sorry….I just thought that…”

“Parents just don’t get it.”

That stung, I’ll admit.  But I didn’t get it…she was right. She didn’t need me to fix it.  She just needed me to listen.

Lying in bed that night, I thought about Martha and felt compassion for her.  She thinks she’s doing the right thing, that caring for others is how she shows her love. Someone has to vacuum the dog hair off the couch and make sure the grill has propane.  But when you become, as the reading says, “distracted with all the serving,” you start to miss the point.  You can’t really be with the people you love if you are always in your head.

Jesus didn’t want Martha to be The Perfect Hostess – he just wanted Martha.  And my kids don’t want The Perfect Mom – they just want me.  Which I think for many of us is a hard concept to grasp.  That we are exactly what our kids need just as we are.  No bells, no whistles, no magic cape or fairy wand necessary.  Just us.

As I put away all the towels used in the Great Radiator Flood of 2014, I found the iron in the closet.


And for now, that’s where it will stay.

The Magic Bridge

The house we moved into two weeks ago borders Haverford College, on the “Main Line” of Philadelphia.  On the other side of the campus,  about 300 yards from our new home, stands our first apartment.  Phil and I could walk there easily by crossing the small footbridge that connects our neighborhood to the campus.

We used to call it The Magic Bridge.


When we lived in the apartment over a decade ago, our favorite summer evening activity was to walk to Marita’s Cantina for chicken tacos and Tecates.  On the walk home, we had a Magic Bridge ritual.  Standing in the middle of the bridge with our eyes closed, we breathed in the heavy summer air, thick with the heady scent of wisteria.  The hum of the cicadas got louder with every passing second until it became a thunderous symphony pulsating in our ears.  Phil always knew the right moment to say what I knew was coming:

“Close your eyes and make a wish.  This is the magic transformer bridge, and wherever you want to go, it will take you there.  Whatever you want to be, you can become it.”

Disclaimer: When I say “we drank Tecates,” I mean like five six Tecates.  Each.

This is a bittersweet memory for me, because there was a desperation to this tradition. Two very scared people clinging to each other, wanting so desperately to believe that their love is bigger than their problems.  And there were problems.  Oh boy, were there problems.  But the moments on the Magic Bridge made us believe in transcendence. Standing on the bridge, suspended in time and space, I believed in the possibility of another way.  That there was hope for me/us yet.

After living in Boston, you would think that moving back to Philly would be easy. Like slipping on a glove.  Simple.  And in many ways, it is.  Family and old friends are close by. We can walk to WaWa. We drive around with the kids and point out our old college hangouts:

“OMG, that used to be Manhattan Bagel!  My roommates and I went there every Saturday morning but used to split the cream cheese because they charged like $1.50 for-

All Phoebe hears is bagel: “I’m hungry.  Do you have snacks?”

They have no idea what I am talking about, nor do they care.  To my daughters, I am not the hungover college kid with exactly $1.26 in her pocket after a night out at the bar.  I am the lady with the snacks.  Memories of my life before them have no context.  In their eyes, my life began at age 28, when I had Emma.

And in some ways, I wish it had.  Having kids anchored me.  The name Emma means healer, and she is just that. She healed me of my selfishness, my crippling neuroses, the helplessness borne out of my paralyzing fear of….everything.  And then came Phoebe.  Her name means light, and that is exactly what she brought into my life. She has taught me how to be present and joyful.  How to be free….free of the past.

Or so I thought.

Memories can be sneaky.  Familiar smells – hot dogs on a grill, burning leaves, Blistex Medicated lip balm – can bring me right back to a different time and place, as if it happened only yesterday.

For Phil, this is typically a good thing, as he relives his glory days as the Party Mayor of the Main Line, and his brief stint as a cable TV star on TLC’s The Dating Story.  Rumor is that he still has a fan base in Canada: “Aren’t you that guy from The Dating Story?? The Camden Riversharks guy?  Dude, that foam finger was HILARIOUS!”

Had my life on the Main Line been featured on cable television, it would be a Lifetime Movie:  psychiatric hospitalizations, eating disorders, social anxiety, etc.  Oh, and there was the removal of my entire colon due to a rare genetic defect found exclusively (before me) in Japanese cadavers.   My fan base includes the med students at Hahnemann University Hospital – although they may not recognize me with pants on.

Writer Madeline L’Engle said, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”  Exactly.  Because believe me, I’ve tried to lose a bunch of them.  To be reminded of a time when I was so weak emotionally fragile was too painful. Too scary.  

In her memoir Magical Journey, Katrina Kenison writes:

For me, the big surprise of growing older is this: Fear never actually goes away.  But I’ve had a lot of practice by now in confronting it.

Maybe my reason for coming back here was not to re-open those wounds, but to finally heal them once and for all.

I went for a run yesterday past the old apartment.  I stopped for a minute and let myself go back to that place when life felt too overwhelming; when I felt so undeserving of everything I had.  I stood with my feet firmly planted and just let those memories wash over me.  Then, when it felt right, I ran home.  And I felt lighter.

A bridge cannot stand without two ends.

-Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I still believe in the Magic Bridge.  But, like The Giving Tree, I think the Magic Bridge meets us where we are.  The type of magic it gives changes as we change.  Now, the magic I need is not to be transported to another place, but to really be exactly where I am. To be present to my life.  And celebrate it.  Because it’s good.  Really good.

As I cross the bridge now, I try to be grateful for the life I had, and for the lessons that led me to back to this place, as a truer, less encumbered version of myself.

Then I run to meet the life that waits for me on the other side.