Lessons From A Former Self

About two weeks ago I was talking to my neighbor, Tosh, about the weather.

“I am drowning in a multi-season heap of clothes,” I said. “Can I just put the damn shorts in a box and declare winter?”

“I wouldn’t, not yet,” she advised. “Remember that blog post when you went swimming with your clothes on? That was maybe late September or early October.”

And just like that, once I got over the ego boost that someone actually remembers one of my blog posts it occurred to me that this blog had a birthday. Two years ago I wrote the very first post.

It took me a few days to actually go back and read it. I am not a fan of reading my own writing. It’s awkward and uncomfortable, like hearing your own voice on an answering machine, (Do I really sound like that? No, seriously, when I talk, is that the voice you hear?) or reading a paper you wrote in college on something you knew nothing about, with a ridiculous title like:  Feminist or Femme Fatale? Sexism and Satire in Wycherley’s The Country Wife. You read it, shake your head, and say: “What the hell was I talking about? I’m an idiot.”

But nothing is more humiliating humbling than reading an old diary. I know this because on a recent attic purge my mom found this gem from 1990, which puts me at the ripe old age of 13.

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Here are some highlights:

Wednesday, August 22, 1990
“Well, I am going out with R. (I can’t reveal his name in case this falls into the wrong hands!!) I am glad I am going out with him and everything, but I’m not sure whether he likes me or not – you know? Well, we’ve been going out for about 4 or 5 weeks. I was away for 2 weeks and R was away for 2 weeks. So we haven’t had much time together. Mostly I called him, but he seemed happy to talk to me, but he never calls me. I can’t tell if he is going to dump me or not. Helen is having a party on Wednesday. I can’t wait! He better go!

Friday, August 24,1990
Today I babysat. It wuz boring! I watched 20/20 with Barbara Walters and it was really weird. It was about kids who were in comas and had near death experiences. They say they saw Jesus and dead relatives. Isn’t that cool? I would like to have that happen to me sometime. R is coming home tomorrow! I hope he can go to the party!

August 29,1990
Well the famous party is over. Maybe it wasn’t as great as I thought it would be. It was just ok.

September 3,1990
R dumped me. I am so depressed. He didn’t even do it himself! Geez. Maybe I’ll tell him off tomorrow. Yeah right no I won’t. I don’t really want to talk about it it’s making me feel worse.

I am not sure what I find most amusing/disturbing – the R saga, that I would like to have a near death experience “sometime,” or the fact that I am in 7th grade and watching Barbara Walters on a Friday night by myself.

In any case, going back and reading a blog from two years ago is kind of like reading that diary. It’s sort of funny, but also mortifying, like having a flashlight shone in the face of your most well-intentioned screw-ups.

I know, I know. Don’t think of it as failure, consider it an opportunity! A growth experience! I get that going back and dissecting the past will prevent me from re-creating it. Still, it makes me a little nauseous.

In her book Living Beautifully With Uncertainty and Change, Pema Chodron writes about our urge to bury the less graceful parts of ourselves:

It’s a tricky business – not rejecting any part of yourself at the same time that you’re becoming acutely aware of how embarrassing or painful some of those parts are.

Oh, Pema. Exactly.

When I read the blog from three years ago, I feel exhausted by the “me” I find there – by how hard I try at things even when clearly it is the wrong thing, how desperate I am to control things in my own stubborn but well-meaning way. I am frustrated by my default tendencies: to please, to assume that everyone’s happiness is somehow my responsibility, to falsely believe that if I can just do ______(get a job, have more sex, meditate, quit drinking wine during the week, create a budget, practice yoga, stop cursing, be Donna Reed, be Hillary Clinton, be someone other than me) suddenly it will all fall into place and the birds will sing and the sun will shine and I will have arrived.

Yet there was one nugget from that blog that didn’t make me want to stick my head in the oven spoke to me still:

In times of shared stress, you should order a pizza.  Use paper plates.  Kick the underwear under the bed. Create the space to be vulnerable -fragile, even- at the same time.  Then hold on to each other in this middle place.

I am still trying to find this middle place – how to be ambitious but not avaricious, loose but not lazy, free-spirited but not fool-hardy. And the one benefit to going back and rehashing the past is the realization that there is a learning curve to this whole process. I didn’t know that a boy not calling me was a super bad sign until he dumped me. I didn’t know that making monogramed pot pies would not alleviate marital tension until I made them.
We do the best we can with what we know at the time. And in the words of Maya Angelou, “when you know better, you do better.”

Tosh is right. After a few fleece and flannel mornings, Mother Nature gifts us with an almost-70 degree day. Phil’s breakfast meeting is cancelled so we take a morning walk after the kids go to school. We call these our “mobile executive meetings;” we discuss kids and schedule and the orthodontist’s payment plan. But there are periods of comfortable silence, because there is an ease with which we are together now. We decide to run down to the base of the cliff and then walk back on the rocks.

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He climbs up the rocks and then extends his hand to me. I hold my phone between my teeth as he pulls me up, shaking his head but smiling. You carry around too much stuff, he says. I laugh. Don’t I know it.

We haven’t walked these rocks in over a year; they have shifted and changed with the storms. The path is no longer contiguous – we need to climb down, trudge through the muck and climb back up. But the element of surprise keeps it interesting, the need to suddenly re-adjust our path keeps us on our toes.

We end on the beach and look for sea glass as we move toward home. There is no swimming on this walk, Phil doesn’t even suggest it. I worry that we have lost some of our passion, some of our go-big-or-go-home-ness. But then I decide that after a year of being pulled in by the tide and bashed up against the rocks, it feels good to have our feet firmly planted on the ground.

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Easter

Painted in Waterlogue If you live in the dark a long time and the sun comes out, you do not cross into it whistling. There’s an initial uprush of relief at first, then -for me anyway -a profound dislocation. My old assumptions about how the world work are buried, yet my new ones are not yet operational. There’s a death of sorts, but without a few days in hell, no resurrection is possible.

-Mary Karr, Lit

Easter has never been my favorite. The big creepy bunny breaking into your home, the Cadbury Eggs with their mystery yokes, the church filled with incense that inevitably makes someone pass out, Charlton Heston as Moses…I find it all a bit overwhelming.

My daughters go to a Catholic school. On the last day before spring break, the upper grades performed the Passion Play for the younger ones. Phoebe climbed into the car after school, buckled her seat belt and announced: “The Passion Play is very disturbing. I am so not into Resurrections.”

Apparently Easter is not her favorite, either.

This year, we spent spring break with my parents in Florida, which was a welcome change of scenery for all of us. It’s been a long year. It felt miraculous to get on a plane in a sea of grayness, and then three hours later step into the sunshine; a technicolor world filled with blue skies and palm trees, the warm air thick with the scent of hibiscus and honeysuckle. Like stepping out of Kansas into Oz.

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On Easter Sunday we go to church. Phoebe is antsy – climbing all over me, making funny faces at the people behind us trying to get a laugh. I can’t really blame her. I am antsy, too. I try to distract myself with people watching: little girls in pastel dresses and Easter hats, the choir of senior citizens dressed in Tommy Bahamas and golf pants, the ushers in white blazers tending to the poor guy who just passed out thanks to the incense.

Phoebe climbs in my lap and stage whispers into my ear: “How do you feel about Resurrections? Because I am SO NOT INTO THEM.” Then she goes back to stacking missalettes. I guess it is a rhetorical question. But I sit and think about it.

I believe in resurrection, in needing to die in order to live. I believe there is always an opportunity to begin again, if you are brave and curious. I believe in do-overs. I believe in second chances, third chances, 5,000 chances – however many chances you need, I will give them to you. Fool me once, fool me twice, fool me a hundred times…I don’t care. I would rather be foolish than unforgiving.

After church, we all pile into my dad’s car and inch our way through the sea of senior citizens in Cadillacs. Phil reads from the church bulletin: “Wow, two married couples renewed their vows in this church yesterday. Both have been married 75 years.”

The word Resurrection comes from the Latin resurgere: to rise again. I think of the couples married three quarters of a century and wonder how many times they had to die and rise again, to forgive, to create something new from the ashes, to find their way back to joy. Marriage is, in a way, it’s own easter. It is nails and crosses and suffering; it is betrayal and sacrifice and pain that can feel suffocating, almost unbearable.

But then, somehow, you both survive. You escape your tomb of anger and can breathe again. You share a laugh about something – a deep belly laugh that makes your eyes water. You can’t remember the last time you laughed like that; it feels like a lifetime ago. Then, as you both wipe away the tears, you stop and look at each other in disbelief. Holy shit. We are still here. We are going to make it. It is nothing short of miraculous.

After church we go to the pool. I watch Phil play for hours with the girls. He makes up crazy games with tennis balls and plastic cups; he lets them dive off his shoulders. I want to grow old with this man. The thought sneaks up on me, startles me even. I do not typically let myself think that way. I am hardwired for disappointment, for impending doom. Don’t count your chickens and all that. To imagine growing old with someone is a jinx, I have always reasoned. That kind of optimism will get you run over by a Septa bus.

Phil does a handstand in the pool. I decide to let go of my fatalistic superstitions. In the spirit of Easter, I will let that habit die. So I look around the pool, a veritable AARP convention, and wonder which old couple Phil and I will turn out to be.

Will we read silently in straight back chairs, me immersed in a large-print library book and Phil with his nose in the Wall Street Journal? Will he sit on the edge of my lounge chair while I rub sunscreen on his spotty, barnacled back? Will we share a chicken salad sandwich under the umbrella, or float around on pool noodles – Phil wearing cataract sunglasses and me in a visor the size of a toilet seat?

My fantasy is interrupted when a soaking wet Emma plops down in the chair next to me. I ask her, “What do you think I will look like when I am old?”

She tilts her head and shakes water out of her ear. “I don’t know,” she says. “But promise you won’t wear one of those visors.”

Noted.

The last morning of vacation, Phil and I wake up around 5:30 and drive to the beach for an early morning walk and swim. We walk to the edge of the fishing pier and people watch. An old man fishes off the corner of the pier patiently waiting for a bite; his wife sits at his side doing the crossword. I wonder if they do this everyday, if this is their routine.

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We leave the pier and comb the beach for treasures. Phil discovers a starfish tangled up in the seaweed.

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I find a lightening whelk whose inhabitant has fled it’s home. It is a sinistral shell, meaning the opening is on the left instead of the right. I know it is a lightening whelk because of the vibrant stripes that line the shell like bolts of lightening.

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I wonder if this bad luck, I think to myself, a shell opening to the left. The downward spirals probably symbolize death or your life going in the wrong direction or something. Phil and I are both left-handed. I used to think this was bad luck, too, that our kids were destined to be freaks. But they turned out ok (and right-handed), so I let that one go.

We strip down to our bathing suits and dive into the placid blue-green Gulf of Mexico.

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We float around for a while, I even indulge Phil in some ocean PDA, as the beach is mostly deserted at this early hour. I climb out of the water and notice an older couple sitting under an umbrella in beach chairs that face the sea. They sit side by side, sipping coffee from a red thermos. They keep their eyes on the horizon, but speak to each other in quiet morning voices.

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There we are, I think. That is us.

That is the couple we will be, because that is the couple we already are.

Maybe marriage is a lightening whelk. As you get old, saggy and wise together, you shed the baggage that requires too much energy to carry. Like the whelk, you spiral counterclockwise, descending, returning, back to who you really are, to who you were both born to be.

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

 

 

 

I Choose The Ducks

No exit

In the marriage book Getting The Love You Want, there is an exercise called “Closing Your Exits.”  An exit, according to author Harville Hendrix, is any way you avoid being fully present with your partner.

Oh, I don’t do that, I thought.  I don’t avoid Phil because then I would be drinking alone.

So, I amended the exercise from “How do you avoid being fully present with your partner,” to “How do you avoid being fully present?”  Because if you are avoiding the present moment, you are indirectly avoiding anyone who exists in the present moment, in addition to anything that is actually happening in the present moment.  More importantly, you are avoiding how you feel about what is happening in the present moment, which is most likely the reason you are escaping it in the first place.

This gave me much more material to work with.

The problem I encountered while compiling my list was that all my exits are pretty lame.  In the first year of our marriage, I was hospitalized with an eating disorder.  According to Hendrix, that’s a SERIOUS exit.  INSANITY.  That’s exactly how it appears in his book, in all caps: INSANITY IS A SERIOUS EXIT.  But now, my exits are just soft, garden-variety, small font exits.

And this is a problem…..why?

It is not a problem – it just makes the exits easier to rationalize and harder to eliminate. When your exits are not destroying your life or that of someone else, that little devil on your shoulder pops up and says, “Oh c’mon.  Is _________ really that bad? So what that you like to drink wine and cry to the Jackson Browne Pandora station?  Isn’t a girl allowed to relax around here?”  But the fact that you have to ask yourself that question is a little…suspect.

I’ll give you an example.

I am addicted to real estate websites: Trulia, Zillow, Realtor.com.  I know everything from the cost of a two-bedroom ranch in Austin, TX to an entire vineyard in the Napa Valley.  I know the Zestimate of your house, my house, and Ellen DeGeneres’s house.

Little Devil: “So what’s the big deal? You like houses – it’s just a hobby kind of like porn.”

Maybe that is true for some people.  And maybe that would be true for me if I was purely stalking celebrity real estate transactions.  But in quiet moments, usually at night when the kids are in bed, I look up my old house in Scituate.

The photos are still live – photos of the house I decorated for Christmas, of the wrap around porch with the hammock where we napped and cuddled and read books, of the electric fire place that warmed our dog’s tired bones in her final days.  And just like that, I am transported back to that house.  I can smell our neighbor’s wood burning fireplace.  I can see the salty sea air crystalized on my windshield in January.  I can hear the ocean buoy.  I am there.

But there is not here.

Here, where Phil is, where my girls are, where my life is now. And that is why it is, in fact, a big deal.

When I confessed all of this to Phil, he said: “This makes makes me feel terrible.  I want to fix it.  I think we need to sit down and strategize.  Hold on, let me just go get my white board…”

Strategizing-white-boarding-and-overall-fixing is in Phil’s Top Three Exits, right after beer and Peanut Butter Captain Crunch.  By brainstorming for the future -or as he calls it, Braunstroming – he gets to escape the painful moments happening in our life right now.

So…if I am escaping to the past and Phil is escaping into the future….who the hell is running this whole operation?  It’s a miracle the kids get bathed and fed.

We made a pact to close these exits and see what came of it: No rehashing the past, no Braunstorming for the future.  I deleted the Trulia App from my phone, and Phil shoved the whiteboard in the closet.

Then, we went for a run, together.

And we had absolutely nothing to talk about.

We ran the first mile in total silence.  I know this because when my running watch beeped at the 1 mile mark, I thought, Holy shit we have not talked for an entire mile.  I started to feel panicky – I wracked my brain for something to say that did not involve the past or future. Nothing.  I had nothing.

As we passed the duck pond at mile 2, Phil broke the silence:

“Interesting that the ducks and geese don’t intermingle,” he observed.

“Huh,” I replied.  “Weird.”

Then, back to running.

Around mile 3, an Olympic-type runner blew past us on the trail.

“Wow,” I said.  “He’s fast.”

“Yeah,” Phil replied. “Real fast.”

Back to running.

It wasn’t until the final mile that I stopped resisting the silence and just settled into it.  And just like that, the run went from awkward to pleasant.  Relaxing. My mind drifted.  I remembered a car ride with my cousin Megan and her husband David, when she turned to him, and said with such a sweet innocence that it squeezed my heart:

“Honey, do you think squirrels laugh?

To which he replied (lovingly), “Babe, you are so weird.”

Maybe this what well-adjusted couples talk about….the complex inner lives of squirrels, ducks and geese.  Maybe this is what you talk about when you aren’t busy lambasting yourselves for your last mistake or maniacally planning your next one.

If those are my choices, I choose the ducks.

I came home from the silent run feeling oddly recharged.  While it felt strange at first, in the end it was a relief to spend time with Phil minus any “big talks.”  It was refreshing to spend time together without our usual psychobabble: Am I projecting or are you projecting?  Are you being passive-aggressive because you are internalizing conflict?  Why don’t we draw a life map identifying all our mistakes and the upper limit problem that caused them?

Maybe labeling something as a mistake is the real mistake.

Maybe this whole thing is not as hard as we make it.

Maybe the seemingly innocent things we think help us relax, or connect, or feel in control do just the opposite.  Maybe the  escape – however harmless it may seem – causes more pain than that which we are escaping from.  Maybe that which we label as “pain in the present moment” is actually vulnerability and tenderness.  Maybe the present moment feels uncomfortable because we don’t stay there long enough to get comfortable.  Maybe, if we are patient, we might discover a whole world that exists beyond those first few miles of silence.

But we’ll never know unless we stay and find out.

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IMOK, You’re Ok

In last week’s post, I talked about my tendency to be hard on myself.

The thing is…Phil has the same problem.  And when you put two slightly self-punishing people together, things can get a little intense.  Not a good intense.  More like a Eugene O’Neill play kind of intense.

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Yesterday morning, Emma informed us that the 3rd grade was leading the school in prayer during their Community Gathering, with each student reading a sentence or two on stage. Phil and I scrambled to rearrange our morning plans so we both could be there.  Things typically never go well when we scramble which is almost all the time.

“What time does this thing start?” I asked Phil while making lunches and packing backpacks.

“8:30.  I’ll take them now and you can meet us there,” he suggested, as I had not showered in 2 days. 

Phil was waiting for me outside the gymnasium, finishing up a conference call.  As we walked through the doors at 8:25, the Community Gathering was in full swing.

Emma’s voice echoed in my ears: “I’m the 2nd person to read, so don’t be late!”

Shit.

We missed it.

I looked over at my friend Colleen, who’s sympathetic look confirmed what I already knew.

SHIT.

I looked over at Phil, who was staring straight ahead, his lips pursed, jaw clicking.

I gave him a look that said:  I thought you said 8:30??

Which he returned with a wordless: Well obviously I was WRONG!

For the rest of the service, we stood two feet apart like mannequins – not speaking, not touching, self loathing seeping out of our pores as our collective thoughts polluted the space between us:

We suck.  We are the worst.  I can’t believe we missed it.  WTF is wrong with us?

When it was over, we took the walk of shame over to Emma, prepared for her abandonment issues strong reaction and armed with an alibi about being in the far right corner of the room near the bleachers.  Turns out we didn’t need it.

“Hey, Em, you did great!”

“Whatever Mom.  I was totally congested and people were definitely laughing at me.”

“No way. I’m your mom and I didn’t notice you were congested because I was in the parking lot putting on my makeup.”

Phil and I walked to our cars in silence, our shoulders heavy with the weight of what felt like another parenting fail.  Phil is typically the one to let us off the hook, but this time, he didn’t.

As I drove home it occurred to me that I am also capable of letting us off the hook. So, I did:

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We need to lighten up; we are ok, I told myself as I pulled into the driveway.  My morning mantra of “Ok” brought back a distant memory that made me smile.

When I was a kid, there was a large bookcase in my bedroom that stood against the wall next to my bed.  The first three shelves were packed with the books of my youth – everything from hardcover Nancy Drews to Sweet Valley High to The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor.

But the bottom shelf had become a mishmash of random genres cast off by my parents – the Land For Misfit books they didn’t have the heart to toss, but didn’t necessarily want to display the coffee table: Improve Your Golf Game Through Hypnosis, Bridge for Dummies, Passion’s Promise by Danielle Steel.

There was one small paperback book sandwiched in the middle of the shelf. The tattered spine of the ’70’s yellowy-orange cover read, Imok, You’re Ok. 

I have never been one to fall asleep easily, and night after night, as my eyes rested on that book, I thought about Imok:  

Who the hell is Imok? Does he suffer from some type of affliction or handicap that would suggest he was something other than Ok?  And who is this other character, the one who has realized that Imok, was, in fact, Ok? Did Imok need to hear he was Ok, or was he actually secure in his Ok-ness all along, and was simply waiting patiently for the rest of the world to discover his dark horse charm?

I can’t tell you the exact moment that I looked at the book and said, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh…..it’s I’M OK, You’re Ok.”  It was a sad realization.  After all those nights of keeping me company, Imok was dead.

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This story still makes me laugh when I think of it.

Last night, after the prayer-service screw up, Phil looked like he could use some cheering up, so I shared the story with him.

It made him laugh the special laugh reserved specifically for my blonder moments – the laugh where he snorts and shakes his head, rubbing his eyes in mock exasperation even though I know he finds me adorable and endearing . 

Pema Chodron says:

Maybe the most important teaching is to lighten up and relax.  It’s such a huge help in working with our crazy mixed-up minds and to remember that what we are doing is unlocking a softness that is in us and letting it spread.

When we made the hard decision to move back to Philly from Scituate, my constant refrain to both Phil and the girls was, “All we need is each other – if we love and take care of each other, we will be Ok.”

With kids, this is easy – automatic, really.  Your role is clear: Make them feel safe and loved.

But with your spouse, the purity of this simple intention can get muddled and heavy; weighed down by the collective baggage you drag from one decision to the next.

It takes courage and vulnerability to say to each other, “Can we just surrender to our combined humanness….to my imperfections and yours?  Can we table any discussions of the past until we can look at it with curiosity instead of judgment? Can you sit with me quietly and calmly through the difficult moments, the way we do with the kids when they get stitches or a shot?”

Breathing in, Breathing out.

This is the quest – this job we must do alone, but together. It’s a tricky balance. We must encourage each other without taking responsibility for the other person’s happiness, or sense of peace, or capacity for compassion and forgiveness.

We can only try to be an example for each other – by choosing softness over rigidity, surrender over resistance.  We can choose to be light.  And when I forget that I chose to be light -which on average is about 246 times a day – I can just choose it again….

And again…

And again.

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Replace Judgement with Curiosity

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When I was a kid, I loved to lie in the grass and watch the planes fly overhead.

This activity filled me with curiosity: Who are the passengers?  Who is the man in 34C and where is he going?  Is it for business or pleasure?   A wedding or a funeral?  What about the woman in 26A?  Is she happy, or did tears stream down her cheeks at take-off; her face pressed against the window as the wheels of the plane curl up and disappear?  Who is flying to see a loved one, and who is leaving one behind?

I was just on a plane this week.  Phil and I spent a few days in San Francisco – he had some business meetings and I did a reading at Litcrawl from an anthology in which I was published. (That was me plugging myself – how did I do?  Smooth, right?)

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Then we headed up to the Russian River Valley for two nights in this awesome B&B surrounded by the California Redwoods.

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It was raining when we woke up.  We were grateful for the excuse to lay like lumps by the fire and read.

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But yet in the back of my mind, I was restless.  What are the kids doing?  Did Emma hand in her report on sea turtles? Did I tell my mom to pack Phoebe an extra snack in her lunchbox?  My eyes rested on my airplane carry-on bag, books spilling onto the floor. Should I be reading the book about marriage or the one about parenting?  Or writing?  Or spirituality?  I really need a Kindle.

When the rain let up, we borrowed some bikes and rode a few miles down the road to Armstrong Woods.

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At the base of the trail head, Phil -suddenly the size of a figurine amongst the towering Sequoias – straddled his bike and looked around.

“We’ve been here before,” he said.

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While the words “I think I’ve been here before” is the calling card of someone lost in the woods, I knew he was right.

Nine years ago, just after our first anniversary, we spent a week exploring California, from Santa Cruz to Mendocino.  We had no real plan at the time; just a map and rental car.  And here we were were, nine years later, standing under the canopy of these very same trees.  Phil was delighted by the serendipity of it all.  “What are the odds?” he said, shaking his head in disbelief as he locked the bikes.

But for some reason, this discovery made me overwhelmingly sad.

There are days when I can look back on our decade of marriage and see all that we have accomplished, but other days….I can only see the failures.  I become filled with harsh judgement, seeing only what is missing instead of what is there.

This was one of those moments.

Tears burned behind my eyes as I followed Phil up the trail.  I thought about him and I, accidentally finding ourselves in the same exact place nine years later…wandering around like wayward vagabonds, no itinerary, no well mapped out route. Are we perpetually lost? Is this a case of the blind leading the blind?

I can be tough on us.

But mostly, I am tough on myself.

That morning, while sampling my library of self-help, I read the following passage from Harville Hendrix’s Making Marriage Simple:

For years, it was believed that to become a strong individual you needed to focus on caring for yourself.  […] We disagree.  We believe that we discover who we are in relationship, not isolation.  We are wounded in relationship.  We are healed in relationship. We cannot know or become who we are except in relationships.  Essentially, we are our relationships.  And the most powerful relationship for self-discovery and transformation is our primary love relationship.

I respectfully disagree.

Is a primary love relationship a powerful thing?  Sure.  But so is your relationship with your dog. Or the man that gives you the thumbs up every morning as you pass each other on the running trail.  Or the waiter who just served you dinner.  And I can’t help but think that how you treat anyone – whether it be your spouse or the barista at Starbucks – is a direct reflection of how you treat yourself.

Hendrix says that negativity is toxic to a marriage; all negative communication with your spouse should be eliminated.

Fair enough – but who do you talk to more than anyone else?

Yourself.  Well, at least slightly crazy people I do.

I have always been a bit of a masochist – I chalked it up to genetics or some wonky wiring in my cranium.  Since taking on this Marriage Quest, however, I can’t ignore how the negative self-talk filters into my relationships.  If I am hard on myself, it is likely that I am hard on everyone.  Especially the person closest to me.

I agree with Harville that much healing can take place within the context of a marriage or relationship.  But it’s not Phil’s job to teach me to be kinder, softer, and more compassionate with myself.  Pumping me full of self worth was not in his job description.

He can’t love me into loving myself.  That’s on me, man.

On the plane ride home, we had an empty seat in our row. Phil took the aisle; I retreated to the window seat.  I watched the landscape change – mountain ranges morphing into farmland.  Other planes zipped by beneath me; I marveled at how we were moving so fast yet seemed to be suspended in time and space.

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The tears flowed for reasons I couldn’t name. But instead of judging myself for this, I decided to be curious instead. Not curious about the why, but the what:

What can I do for myself right now?  What would make me feel less alone?

I looked over at Phil: head down, headphones in, typing away on his computer with his signature “Phil Braun Look of Intensity.”  I hesitated for a moment….but then I tapped him on the arm.  He jumped, startled, and then saw my blotchy, boogery face.

He yanked out his ear buds: “Whhhattt? What’s wrong?? What…”

I took a deep breath and said: “I’m just feeling sad, and I don’t know why, and I don’t need you to help me figure it out or fix it or anything. I just wondered if you would sit next me in the middle seat so I could rest my head on your shoulder…while still being sad.  Is that ok?”

And without a word, he slid over, into the space between.

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This One Goes to Eleven

It was a weird summer.

In my last blog called “The Empty Your Bucket List,” I set the intention to slow down; to step away from the grinding pace and endless To-Do lists that ruled my life. I stayed true to my word.

We lazed about in the hammock,

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Collected shells on the beach,

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and watched a movie under the stars.

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I expected to feel peaceful and content. But I didn’t.  Because this summer I learned that when you empty your bucket, your are forced to see what is inside. Your life spills out onto the pavement and you examine the contents with a magnifying glass.

Nothing bad really happened. Ok, a little something happened. But it was far from catastrophic. It wasn’t even a big deal. But somehow this non-event caused the tectonic plates of my marriage to shift, and the walls of our new and shakily built life in PA to fall down around us.

July 4th was our 10th wedding anniversary.

Phil and I said no gifts. “Let’s save it for the money pit house,” we agreed. The dining room ceiling was buckling from water damage caused by an unidentified leak, and a dark, amoeba shaped water stain was spreading across the wall of the mud room.

I felt good about the decision to conserve; proud, even. This is what people married a decade do, I thought. They make responsible choices. Couples married for ten years forgo gifts and fancy dinners to save for a downstairs bathroom.

It was raining on July 4th.  I went for a run and then after my shower – wearing a robe and detox-face mask – curled back in bed with a book while the girls watched Lady and the Tramp. I couldn’t remember the last time I allowed myself this simple pleasure. I was relieved we had opted to keep the day low-key.

But Phil doesn’t follow the rules.

Typically, I love this about him – his refusal to conform, his resistance to being told what to do. But this summer was different. I needed us to be a united front, to show the girls that we can build a life anywhere as long as we work together. I needed us to say what we mean and mean what we say.

I was two pages into my book when he came into the bedroom and unceremoniously handed me a small box.

Inside was a ring. An expensive, sparkly ring that was much flashier than anything I would choose myself. I looked up and gave him what I intended to be a quizzical look, but my face was paralyzed by my blue detox mask.

“But,” I mumbled, the clay cracking on my face, “how can we afford this?”

“I know we said no gifts,” he said, his voice fast and nervous. “But then I felt bad and….anyway, try it on.”

I did. It was two sizes too big. “It’s just a loaner,” he assured me.

“They loaned you a ring? So I can wear it to the Oscars?” I was joking…but not really.

“I figured you could go back on your own and pick something you want.”

What I want?

What I want is a downstairs powder room so Phoebe will stop peeing on the steps. What I want is to understand how we don’t have the money for the soft toilet paper but we have money for diamonds. What I want is for my husband to know that I hate surprises, and that all I want is feel safe and settled. I want him to say, “Hey, this is all going to work out. The house, you, me, the girls….we are going to be ok.” What I want is to read my damn book.

But I couldn’t say these things. The words were caught somewhere deep inside, tangled up with a million other conflicting emotions. I wanted to love the ring, because I love the man that gave it to me.  Shouldn’t that be enough?

But all that ran through my mind was how can we afford this but not a powder room? Does he think I’m dumb? AM I dumb?

But I didn’t say this, because I don’t make money and he does. I didn’t say anything because my lack of involvement in our finances is embarrassing. I didn’t say anything, because I was stunned and am not quick on my feet when it comes to emotional processing. My typical strategy is push things down until they inevitably come back up. I call it Soul Puke.

I told him to take it back, that we couldn’t afford it. So, he did. Then we tried to let it go. Move on.

But we couldn’t move on. The ring went back to the jeweler, but it’s memory remained – a pink elephant that followed us around and slept in the center of our bed each night.

You, my dear reader, may be thinking: “What’s the big deal?”

An expensive -albeit poorly chosen – anniversary gift is a First World Problem at its finest, and that makes this hard to write, because I feel ridiculous giving it such weighty significance.

But the ring triggered something in me; it opened up some trap door in my soul and out came this flood of hurt and doubt: Does he see me as some Real Housewife? Was this some kind of consolation prize for moving? I said I wanted to save money for a writing retreat – was he not listening? Or is the money not mine because I don’t earn the paycheck? Does he not take me seriously? Does he see me as someone who can be appeased or distracted with something big and flashy? What will he give me for Christmas – new boobs?

All this – over a ring?? Ahhh…but it’s never about the ring, is it?

Maybe this is just how marriage works. Since our swift but bittersweet move from Scituate last February, Phil and I had been standing on the hairy edge of this marital canyon, and all it took was one misstep to send us plummeting into an abyss of fear.

Fear of what?

Fear of not knowing each other anymore. Fear of moving in different directions. Fear of having made a mistake, or a series of mistakes. Fear that we shouldn’t have gotten married when we did – that we weren’t ready. Fear that we wasted a lot of time and money on couples counseling.

But I think the deepest fear was that maybe the person we married was not the person we thought. Or that maybe we married the possibility of who the other person might become, rather than who they are actually are. And to cover this up we created roles to hide behind, roles that no longer fit.

And when we outgrow these roles, do we outgrow each other?

A few days after the Ring Incident, I was cleaning out the linen closet and found a package of old blue surgical pads, and I cried. In that moment I realized that – in addition to the ‘normal’ craziness of life – the first decade of our marriage was built around crisis: hospitalizations, surgeries, endless medical tests and appointments. After one of my surgeries about six years ago, Phil (who could have been a male nurse) had to straight catheterize me for TWO WEEKS. Not the kind of vag-action he was hoping for when we said our “I do’s.”

What if the constant crisis was the only thing keeping us together? Did we build a marriage based on changing houses and catheters? If you take those things away, is there nothing left?

This thought rocked me to the core. I went from emptying my bucket to wanting to drown myself in a bucket. Or drink wine from a bucket. I was not in a good place. I watched Katherine Heigel movies.

Last year, on our 9th anniversary, I had daydreamed about our 10th. I envisioned a magical summer, with us renewing our vows on the beach in Scituate. But instead I was hiding in my room under the guise of folding laundry, zoning out to reality TV, and over-identifying with the problems of Derek, the gay boyfriend character on Million Dollar Listing NYC. The well of sadness felt bottomless, like my feet would never find the ground.

But eventually, they did.

I read an essay called “For Better and Worse” by Lynn Darling. Her words shot through my heart like a cupid’s arrow, piercing the exact spot I had been trying so desperately to access. In the essay she describes the meltdown she has when her husband gave her towels for Valentine’s Day, and the perspective she has gained years later. She writes:

I smile now when I remember this story, set back in the phase of life when marriage is still a mirror, reflecting back only one’s carefully constructed, easily shattered conceit. Now my husband gives me bath towels every Valentine’s Day, and every Valentine’s Day I laugh. It has become part of our mythology. But the laughter is its own edgy commentary on how things have changed, how we have changed each other, how the two people who smile at this joke are indelibly stained with each other’s expectations and disappointments.

I love the concept of couples having their own “mythology.” Perhaps our marriage is like the movie Benjamin Button – the one when Brad Pitt ages in reverse. Phil and I have the geriatric stuff down cold. We are DOWN with bodily functions and post-op care.

Now we just have to figure out the stuff that typically comes first for couples – like romance and equality and making a budget. And if there is any truth to my Benjamin Button theory, the honeymoon is yet to come. Maybe 40 years from now, when other couples our age are changing each other’s diapers, Phil and I will be doing body shots at the Atlantis pool bar.

With this guy, anything is possible.

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So maybe our 10th year as a married couple was not what I had envisioned. I have the choice to look at that as a failure or as an opportunity. We can lament the decade spent in crisis, or celebrate all that we were able to survive together. But more importantly, we can choose to start the next decade with a sense of newness and possibility.

Phil and I went back to our couple’s counselor and set the intention to do just that.

“What’s the big deal about the number “10,” anyway?” I said to Phil as we left the counselor’s office.

“This one goes to eleven,” Phil said in a British accent, quoting a line from one of our favorite movies This is Spinal Tap.

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I laughed the kind of laugh I reserve strictly for Phil: half silent, half snort.

We are going to be ok.

Because This One Goes to Eleven.

Surrender Dorothy

I ran the Philadelphia marathon in 2010.  The long training runs are crucial to marathon training, but notoriously hard to squeeze into your schedule. Especially a schedule centered around children.  I had to bang out an 18 miler on a Friday at 3:00.  I had been running around all morning – from camp to the pool – and was not properly fed/hydrated. This because clear at mile 16 when I bonked on the Schuykill River Trail.

It started with my legs getting stiff and heavy.  My arms were noodles, my brain an overripe cantaloupe.  I started crunning (aka. Running + Crying = Crunning).  What the hell is happening?  How am I going to finish this? No one knows I’m here.  What if I lie down and die?  

My body had literally run out of gas.  I prayed to the patron saint of runners and poor planners: HELP ME.  I visualized a Gatorade and soft pretzel from Wawa. And then, the parking lot appeared over the hill like the Emerald City.  I’m almost there, at last, at last!

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But I can’t run anymore!  I’m so sleepy!

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Somehow, I made it to my car.  I drove to Wawa, where I staggered around like a mental patient, then stuffed my face with soft pretzel and Gatorade in the parking lot.  Someone was looking out for me.

Glinda-the-wizard-of-oz-5590466-600-400Why am I telling you this story?

Because staying home with children during summer vacation is a marathon.  It requires rest, hydration, (tip: Gatorade cancels out the vodka), and proper self care.  I discovered this yesterday morning while out for a run.  A short, easy 3 mile run.

Not so easy. My legs felt like cement. What is my problem?  Why am I so tired?  I started walking, a little disgusted with myself.  I walked by a little gift shop, and something made me go in.

I poked around for a minute, and my eyes landed on a little brown book with a red spine.  I opened it up to this page:

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Love the parts of you that need more loving. 

I got weepy when I read this page, which means -as we say in yoga – “there’s something in there.”  Something inside that needs attending to, that needs a little TLC.

In other words:

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We are four months into our move from Boston to Philly, and things are still….delicate.  I have been borderline obsessing about the girls: Why are they fighting so much?  Why is Emma not sleeping?  Should I put more on the schedule?  Less?  Why does Phoebe incorporate the word “vagina” into almost every conversation?   I am a snowball-worrier. One worry leads to another, culminating in an avalanche of fabricated scenarios.  This is very exhausting.

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And always, even when it is lots of work, love the parts of you that you would prefer to hide. 

I would love to be more like my husband, Phil.  He is spontaneous and cheery, at ease with new people and situations.  He is the ultimate extrovert; he gains energy from other people.  I, on the other hand, am introverted.  I become moody and anxious when deprived of solitude or quiet time, aka. Summer Vacation.

Moving, I am realizing, is basically hell for introverts, because everything is small talk.  I am a bumbling idiot when it comes to small talk.  No, really.  I MANGLE IT.  Where a normal person might say, “So, do you live around here?”  I say something like, “Have you ever had the feeling that you might have two tampons in?”

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Love yourself enough to give yourself the things you need. 

I need a good cry once a month.  I need Taza 87% Dark Stone Ground Chocolate in my freezer at all times. I need friends who have known me for 15+ years, because the fact that they still love me is a miracle.  But more than anything, I need time alone with Phil. He is my  soft pretzel and Gatorade.

When I got home from my “run,” I grabbed a water and studied the invite stuck on the fridge.  We recently joined a swim club, and the invitation was for a new member cocktail party that night.  We had the babysitter lined up and everything.  Phil loves these events. No, really.  He’s could be a professional cocktail partier.  I didn’t want to rain on his parade by being the emotionally fragile party foul.  But….

Love yourself enough to give yourself the things you need.

I took a deep breath and sent him an email: “Any chance you want to ditch tonight?  Just go to dinner somewhere?”

To which he replied, “Absolutely.”

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Sometimes, you need to be your own Glinda the Good Witch.