The All-Stars

“Basketball is an intricate, high-speed game filled with split-second, spontaneous decisions. But that spontaneity is possible only when everyone first engages in hours of highly repetitive and structured practice–perfecting their shooting, dribbling, and passing and running plays over and over again–and agrees to play a carefully defined role on the court. . . . spontaneity isn’t random.”
― Malcolm Gladwell

Emma wanted to play basketball this year, but the team of third graders from her school was already full. Allison, the mom of Emma’s friend Lola, called me back in October.

“If we put together a basketball team, do you think Phil would want to coach?”

“Hmm…probably. Hang on, let me ask.” I pressed the phone into my shirt, and turned to Phil, who was separating the recycling.

“Would you want to coach Emma in basketball if Allison can get a team together?”

He took a break from crushing seltzer cans for a moment, then shrugged. “Sure. Why not?”

And the All-Stars were born.

The team was comprised of thirteen girls, many of whom had never played basketball before. It’s possible some of them had never actually seen a basketball before. Phil came home from the first Sunday night practice gnawing on the back of his hand – his version of nail biting.

“How did it go? I asked as I served up pancakes dinner.

He cracked open an Amstel Light and took a long swallow. “I have my work cut out for me.”

That week, he spent hours printing out basketball drills. When he walked in the door from practice on Sunday night, I asked, “How did it go?”

Insert hand, begin gnawing. “Maybe they are not quite ready for drills yet.”

The All-Stars lost their first game. “Hey you win some, you lose some, right?” I said over hot dogs dinner. Emma glared. Phil gnawed.

Then they lost their second game. “Hey, you guys are new to this, you’re still meshing as team, you’ll get there!” I said over scrambled eggs dinner. Emma rolled her eyes. Phil gnawed.

They lost their third game. “Well, it’s official!” Emma announced when they walked in the door. “We stink.” She tried to toss her basketball shoes in the shoe basket but missed. She growled. Phil gnawed. I made cheese sandwiches dinner. Quietly.

But then something began to shift. Not the losing part- that remained consistent. It was the talking about the losing that went away. There was a shift in energy after Sunday night practices. We had lively conversations over hot dogs dinner about how they had improved that week. “No one even layed down on the court until the very end!” Emma reported with pride.

Phil ditched the drills and instead developed his own lessons based on what he was seeing in front of him. Each week they tackled a new skill:

  • How to Not Hide in the Corner
  • Shooting In Front of the Basket, Not Behind the Basket
  • Overcoming Your Fear of the Ball
  • Only Pass to Your Teammates
  • What Color Shirt Are You Wearing
  • Passing to People With the Same Color Shirt
  • How to Tie Your Shoe Mid-Game in Under Five Minutes

By their eighth loss, Phil had stopped gnawing on his hand, and Emma had become almost philosophical about the whole thing.

“You know Mom,” she said one day while eating her after school snack, “the other third grade team is undefeated. And we are like, totally defeated. But that team played together last year, so…it’s not a super fair comparison.”

I poured her a glass of milk. “Did Dad tell you that?”

“Uh-huh,” she said with a mouthful of Goldfish. She took a gulp of milk, then added, “Dad doesn’t talk much about winning. He just wants us to build our skills. He doesn’t care if we win, he just cares if we improve. Oh and I can’t call him Dad when we talk about basketball. It’s Coach Braun.”

I smiled. “Got it. Sounds like Coach Braun is pretty good at this.”

She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and pulled her books out of her backpack. “Yeah. The best thing about him is that he never says stuff like: ‘it’s not about winning it’s just about having fun’ or whatever. Because duh. Winning is kind of the point. He says we will win when we are ready to win.”

“Hmmm. And do you think you are ready to win?”

She paused, pencil case in hand. “Maybe. I mean, Lola scored last week. And most of us know the names of the positions now: Guard, Point Guard, Wing, Down Low…so…maybe.” And with that, she started her homework.

Sunday was the last game of the season for the All-Stars. The game started at 2:00, and by then the wintry mix that had been falling all morning had turned to ice. But the game was still on, so we bundled up and headed over the to gym. The parking lot was a skating rink.

“Do you think people will show up?” I asked, shuffling my feet across the ice.

“Let’s hope so,” Phil said. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw.

At 2:00, the other team had twelve players, the All-Stars only had four. Allison and I huddled by the door. One more person, one more person, please please please….

“It’s Sabine!” Allison shouted. “Sabine is here!”

With a burst of icy air the gym door swung open and in stumbled Sabine and family, a bundle of wet boots and flying scarves. Game on.

The girls played with an intensity I had never seen. Even though the other team was wearing shirts of a similar hue, no one passed to an opposing player. They hadn’t quite mastered the shoe tying thing, so Phil called a time-out for lace management.

Emma scored for the first time. I cried. Lola scored. Allison and I held hands. I couldn’t believe these were the same girls. No one huddled in the corner. No one covered her face when the ball was passed. No one took a nap. They ran, they passed, they shot, they scored. The All-Stars had risen from the dead. It was a freaking Easter miracle.

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The final buzzer sounded like Handel’s Messiah. 9-0, All-Stars.

What happened next is fuzzy. There was a lot of jumping. And hugging. Then some jumping together while hugging. Videos were taken of the jumping and hugging. I’m not sure what the kids were doing.

Slowly we collected ourselves and skated our way through the parking lot, high-fiving our way to our respective vehicles. When we got in the car Emma said, “Hey do you think we made the other team feel bad for cheering so loud? I feel kind of bad about that.”

Oh shit, I thought. She’s totally right.

But Phil was on it. “No worries, Buddy. I explained to their coach it was our first win. He totally understood. Besides they beat us earlier in the season, so they know what it’s like to win.”

Emma sat back in her seat, relieved. “Yeah, now I know why people like to win. It feels really good to win.”

I looked over at my husband in his Betterball t-shirt, his hair covered with ice, eyes fixed on the road. I reached over, rested my hand on his leg and thought, I know exactly what she means. 

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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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The Marriage Quest

I’ve been thinking a lot about adventure.

Last week, after learning that running a marathon was not in the cards for me, I decided to sit with that disappointment for a while and try to get underneath it.  Why was it so important to me?  Why would anyone want to run 26.2 miles in the first place?

I used to think I was “goal oriented.”  But that’s not it – the word “goal” actually makes me grind my teeth a bit.  I ran a marathon in 2010, and it’s not the finish line I remember.  In fact,  three days later when I could put my own underwear on again, I remember feeling a little bit sad that it was over.

Why?

Because I loved the training.  Well, except for that one 18 mile run when I bonked, cried, and sat down on the trail; praying to be magically transported to WaWa . I didn’t love that.

But I loved the process of transformation; the metamorphosis of a 5K’er into a marathoner. I loved that I had to dig deep to make it happen – push through any artificial barriers I had erected regarding my abilities or capacity for the hard stuff. I loved the juice of feeling alive. I loved becoming a better version of myself.

I loved the adventure of pushing the envelope.

I loved the quest.

Last week, I stumbled upon this book…

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…and it was just the kick in the ass pants I needed.

This book is about bringing meaning to your life by undertaking a quest.  The author, Chris Guillebeau, recently completed his quest of visiting every country in the world before the age of thirty-five.  In The Happiness of Pursuit: Finding the Quest That Will Bring Purpose to Your Life, he draws on interviews with hundreds of other questers: A man who ran 250 marathons in a year, another who bicycled around the world, a 14 year-old girl who circumnavigated the world’s oceans on a 38 foot sailboat…alone.

Of course, these tales of adventure are fun to read, but what about the rest of us…with kids…and jobs…and mortgages?  Living in a tree in Tasmania in protest of illegal logging is not really an option when you have to be in carline by 2:45, or coach Little League on Saturday.

Ah, but Guillebeau is sympathetic to this perceived roadblock, and speaks to the plight of the tethered quester in the chapter entitled “Everyday Adventure:”

Relax.  Or don’t relax, because a quest is rarely about taking it easy.  It’s about challenging yourself however you can, learning new things and expanding your horizons…even if you never leave home.

So how do you create your own quest?  

You could take a passion or hobby to the next level, like becoming a black belt in karate. An external event -like the loss of a job, divorce, or the death of a loved one – might trigger the desire for travel.  Some questers choose to expand their horizons by learning a new skill or language.

But according to Guillebeau, for many a quest rises out of the ashes of discontent. Dissatisfaction.  Restlessness.  The need for something more:

Properly examined, feelings of unease can lead to a new sense of purpose.

Hmmm.

I spent a few days marinating on this.  I could feel my quest taking shape as I pondered these questions:

What fascinates me?

What frustrates me?

What area of my life needs to grow and evolve?

Where in my life am I being a chicken shit holding back?

What is crying out for more of ME: my time, my commitment, my passion and creativity?

There are many answers to these questions, each one leading me down a different road. But regardless of the direction I take, all potential quests share one common denominator.

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My traveling partner.

Yes, Phil and I have been experiencing some marital turbulence.  There have been times when it feels like wings are falling off the plane.  But underneath my discontent runs a strong current of belief that Phil and I are better together than we are apart.  Anything I attempt in this life – from parenting to writing to circumventing the globe – will be better because of him.  And this is not to say that I am incapable of doing these things on my own.

I don’t need him to be involved. I want him to be involved.

But before we start chartering sailboats or enrolling in trapeze camp, Phil and I have decided to fully commit to what we see as the foundation for all future quests: The Marriage Quest.

When you are training for marathon, you need to be vigilant about your training:  nutrition, hydration, and long runs are just the tip of the iceberg. To be successful, you need to go deeper than that.  You have to be patient and resilient.  You need to block out all other distractions. You must prepare and anticipate. You need to pay attention.  In a marathon, cockiness + complacency = failure.

I see marriage as an Ultimate Marathon.

In the past year, the marriages of some very close friends ended. Couples we thought would be together forever. And it scared us.  Rattled us to our core.  But we tried mask that fear by acting cocky: Oh that could never happen to us.  And then we bonked.  Hard. We were lying on the trail, screaming for a Wawa.

Actually…after a “date night” this summer, we were screaming at each other IN the Wawa.

Not our proudest moment.

It’s time to take this bitch sacred union to a new and improved level.  And we will do so by adhering to the Quest Guidelines outlined in The Happiness of Pursuit:

  1. Goal: To strengthen and deepen our marriage. To go from 5K’ers to Marital Marathoners.
  2. Measurable Progress: One weekly blog post chronicling challenges/successes/marital topics.
  3. Duration:  37 weeks, ending on our 11th wedding anniversary
  4. Mission:  To eradicate judgment, criticism, shame and blame from our relationship.  To take responsibility for ourselves, to listen honestly, and to grow and heal together.

But shouldn’t a quest be a solo activity?  Not according to Guillebeau:

Must a dream have only one owner?  Not if two minds see the world from the same perspective.

Besides, life in a Tasmanian tree house could get pretty boring without Phil.  How could I not be fascinated by a guy who shows up for your first date with a stuffed moon strapped in the back seat…

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…and dances with a chair at Every. Single. Wedding.

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How could I be anything but intrigued by a man girly secure enough to sport sunshine face paint…

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…and dress like Bob Cratchit?

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We will go after our Marriage Quest wholeheartedly, with the commitment of a man willing to strip himself down to ill fitting shorts and green body paint.

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Because we are Brauns.  Our family motto is: You Gotta Want It.

Our quest may be a bit ambiguous – 37 weeks from now, what will “victory” look like? I don’t know, and I don’t really care. Like I said, I am a lover of the process. For me, the important thing is commitment to moving forward – together – even when we can only see a few feet in front of us…

…and see where the road leads.

I hope you come along for the ride.

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Gratitude for Pessimists, Masochists and Chronic Over-Thinkers

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One day this summer, I was having a particularly good run. My legs felt strong, my endorphins were kicking, and inspiration struck:

I am going to sign up for the marathon.

And so I did.  26.2 miles on November 23. Let’s do this.

When I dropped this bomb on Phil, he was cautiously supportive: “Maybe we should talk to Dr. K. first.”

“Why? I’ve run a marathon before.”

“Uhh, yeah but you had all your organs then.”

Dr. K. is my hematologist. One unfortunate side effect of having my colon removed is that now my body refuses to absorb iron.  So, I need to have iron infused into my arm intravenously.  I figure this is the cost of doing business in the field of major organ removal, and for the most part, it seems to work. So well, in fact, that when I am feeling good and all juiced up on ferric carboxymaltose, I kind of forget about it.

But Phil had not forgotten, so off to Dr K’s we went.  Phil was pretty confident we would get the answer he was after (NO. WAY. IN HELL), but I knew something he didn’t: Dr. K runs marathons.  Two a year, in fact.  She would have my back on this.  She gets that the decision to run 26.2 is not rooted in common sense.

But soon my bravado would shrivel like a deflated balloon.

As Dr K flipped through my chart, I asked, “So what do you think about me running the marathon in November?”

And she started to laugh.

Then she saw my face.

“Ohhh,” she said, sitting down.  “Oh, you are serious.”

I nodded.  My eyes felt hot.

We discussed all the ways you lose iron through distance running: foot strike hemolysis, sweat, microscopic GI bleeds, etc.  I knew all these things already.  I had just chosen to stick my fingers in my ears and sing “LALALALALALALALA!!!”

On the car ride home, I stared out the window.  The rational side of my brain was doing its best to talk me off the ledge: It’s not a big deal, Dr. K is right, just move on.  

But my inner crackpot control freak was not giving up without a fight: Maybe I should get a hysterectomy, because then I wouldn’t get my period and that would save iron!  As if removing your reproductive organs was equivalent to say, getting your eyebrows waxed.  I turned to Phil to share this potential plan, but he was in a quiet space, deep in thought, his eyes glued to the road.  I thought better of it.  Even the most tolerant man reaches his capacity for crazy.

This battle in my head raged on throughout the weekend – a mental boxing match between “Sad” vs. “Stop Being Sad.”  I played the game “Stop Bitching and Be Grateful Because How Can You Cry Over a Marathon When People are Starving and Homeless or Don’t Even Have Legs.”

But bullying myself into gratitude did not prove to be an effective strategy.

I remembered a book I had read half-heartedly early in the summer called Make Miracles in Forty Days: Turning What You Have into What You Want.  I dug it out of my secret drawer of shame self-help and gave it another try.

The book is basically a backwards approach to gratitude.  Author Melody Beattie explains:

A monkey can count his blessings. We’re going to practice being grateful for everything we don’t like about ourselves and our lives.  That includes people, places, and things that happen now or happened before.  It also includes our feelings, especially those we judge as being bad or wrong.

I admit, this exercise felt ridiculous to me at first.  But I figured I had nothing to lose, so I just rolled with it.  My first list looked something like this:

I am grateful:

1. That I can’t run the marathon and I am filled with all this  sadness and disappointment that I can’t explain

2. Being out of the good chocolate because then I can’t eat my feelings. Although I wish I had some.

3. Wine.  So I can drink my feelings instead

So right now you are saying, “What the….?”  But just hear me out, because this nonsensical bitch list had unexpected results.  I plowed through my resistance each morning and made my list, and after a few days something began to shift. I felt lighter.  The mental boxing matches subsided.  Why?

Because I stopped fighting the thoughts and feelings we label as “bad.”  Beattie writes:

When we surrender to and accept that which we judge as negative, we move into the light.  The reality is that negative and positive are different sides of the same coin.

I found myself trying to over-complicate the exercise (shocking) by searching for the silver lining of each item on my list.  But Beattie encourages the reader to resist that temptation:

It’s crucial that you’re honest about who you are and how you really feel, not who you think you should be and should feel.

There are times when it is appropriate and effortless to turn lemons into lemonade.  But other times, someone steals your sugar and all you have is a shit pile of lemons.

And it’s ok to say: “I’m just going to write it down and leave it alone until I figure out what to do with all these fucking lemons.”

And yesterday, while sitting in carline, it dawned on me that my sadness is not about the marathon.  It’s about wanting to feel in control of my life.  It’s about wanting to feel like I have direction, I have a plan, I know where I am going.  Running is a blessing in my life; it gives me structure and discipline.

But there is a difference between running and running away.

Beattie says that “feelings tend to come in trios….they come in layers.”  Underneath the marathon disappointment is fear and insecurity.   And knowing this gives me permission to be a bit kinder to myself – a bit more patient and compassionate.  I am learning to love myself through it.  You know, instead of mentally screaming: “AT LEAST YOU HAVE LEGS!”

And for that, I am grateful.

 

 

 

 

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.

these go to 11

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.