Goat Rodeo: about the most polite term used by aviation people (and others in higher risk situations) to describe a scenario that requires about 100 things to go right at once if you intend to walk away from it. http://www.urbandictionary.com

Most mornings with Kiko feel like I’m at a Goat Rodeo. Today was no exception and unfortunately, no one walked away from it completely unscathed. She stormed out of the house to wait in the misty rain for her carpool; I went to check my computer. This is what I saw on Facebook:

Oh, if I had only known! But wait a minute. I did know. Though I hadn’t seen her midnight post (I go to bed around ten), I could tell from the moment she woke up that today was not a good day. It was her father who didn’t know and who brought this morning to such an unhappy conclusion.

Kiko has never been a morning person; adolescence has done nothing to improve the situation. The challenging curriculum at her all-girls prep school has only made it worse. She does homework until eleven or so and then takes an hour or two to unwind. Her alarm goes off (for the first of several times) at 6:30 AM.

Though I am a morning person, I’ve learned to adjust my expectations. I speak to her minimally. I am helpful when possible. I appreciate her good mornings, using those days to sneak in an extra hug, or kiss and chat about life. On bad days, I avoid her. I pack her lunch, pat her on the head and try to never, under any circumstances, overreact to her snide comments, deep sighs and tragicomical complaints.

Tim has no such compunction. I don’t know what got into him this morning, but as Keara lay on the couch, soaking up her last moments in a horizontal position before the incessant verticality of her day, he would not leave her alone. As the youngest child in his family, his internal switch is permanently set to “tease.” As the father in this home, he has a reasonable expectation for respect and response. While neither of these things are bad in and of themselves, (I appreciate them most of the time), they are not great in combination with an overly tired, teenage girl. I didn’t hear the details of their exchange, but he made one crack after another, which she either ignored, or “cracked” back, until she stormed out of the house.

Exasperated, I looked at him and he said, “I don’t know how you don’t engage when she is acting like that.” I started straightening couch cushions. “Don’t you think she’s being unreasonable?” I folded throw blankets. “Seriously, when someone is being such a donkey, how do you not try to get them to stop?” I began to rearrange the trinkets on the entryway table. He finally got it. “Oh, you do it just like you are doing it to me right now,” he said as he turned and stalked up the stairs.

Ugh. He caught me and I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I was frustrated at him for messing with Kiko, but I didn’t have to ignore him as if he were a cranky, petulant teen. I could have engaged in conversation with him about his concerns. I could have empathized with his pain and his desire to connect with her. I could have recognized that he only wanted to be a good dad, to make her laugh, to start her day on a better note.

But instead of acknowledging any of that, I was smug and if there is one thing I hate being, that’s it. Cathleen Falsani wrote one of my favorite blogs of 2012, called “Deliver Us From Smugness.” If you have time, you should read the whole thing, but one line in particular has stayed with me on an almost daily basis. She writes,

“The opposite of love is smug.”

She goes on to explain that “To be smug is to be excessively proud of your achievements and successes. Conceited. Arrogant. Complacently self-satisfied.”

This morning I was smug with the man I love. I was excessively proud of how I wrangle the Goat Rodeo that is Kiko and her morning routine, instead of humbly grateful that I have crashed and burned enough times to know when and how to walk away.

So Tim, I hope you’ll forgive my smugness. It is the opposite of Love and Love is the one thing I want to be, every day, in every way possible.

 

As per our family agreement, this blog was read and approved by both parties involved in this morning’s Goat Rodeo. 

Today is my 19th wedding anniversary and I thought it was high time to share the story of how Tim and I met. I’m not talking about the standard one we tell at cocktail parties. That one sounds like the set-up to an old joke, “So this guy walks into a bar…” In our version, “This girl walks into a surf shop…” and the punch line is that we fell in love and lived happily ever after.  It’s a good story and there’s an element of truth to it. But it leaves out everything important, everything that explains why I fell in love with Tim in the first place. In the standard version, guy meets girl; in the real version, guy meets pregnant girl.

In the summer of 1991, I was a pregnant teenager, living in San Diego with family friends, going to summer school at UCSD and preparing to give my child up for adoption. I was doing my best to correct a mistake I made on a night where I had a fake ID and a lot of alcohol. I won’t lie to you. That summer was sad and hard and lonely. Everyone was very kind, but ultimately, I was the one carrying this child, loving her, wanting what was best for her and knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that it wasn’t me. I was pretty sure that I wasn’t going to be what was “best” for anyone, ever again. Deeply steeped in my Catholic tradition and my favorite Victorian-era literature, I carried my scarlet letter with me like a badge. I was convinced that even if I did the “right thing,” I would never be “right” again, never be who or what a young man wanted, or deserved.

All that changed the day I walked in to Clairemont Surf Shop and met the man who would become my husband. I had stopped by to see my neighbor, the one friend I had made who was close to my own age. Jimmy introduced me to Tim, the manager of the store, who was busy putting grip tape on a skateboard. Tim came around the counter, cleared his throat, nodded his head and said, “Hey, what’s up?” It’s still his standard greeting when meeting someone for the first time. I smiled and thought, “Wow, he might be nice – IF I WEREN’T PREGNANT!” We chatted for a few minutes and that was that.

But that wasn’t that. Though I had never seen Tim on my street before, suddenly my neighbor’s house became his second home. They played basketball, went swimming, watched movies and I would wave at them from my driveway. And when my neighbor was out one evening, Tim showed up at my house with his favorite book, The Catcher in the Rye.We talked books; we told stories; we laughed. Two days later, we went bodysurfing at the beach together; I was 8 months pregnant in a ratty, two-piece bikini.

Demi Moore, in all her pregnant glory.

This was the very month that Demi Moore made pregnancy sexy on the cover of Vanity Fair, but let me be clear here, I did not look sexy; I was just being me, incapable of being anyone else, and I was falling in love. But I was certain that it was one-sided. I dreamed of coming back to San Diego six months later, with my body, mind and soul healed. I thought that maybe, then, Tim might fall in love with me too.

Tim, however, had other plans. Tim, at 23-years-old, saw past the big, white belly. He saw past the fear and the pain and the struggles that I carried inside of me, along with my unborn child. He saw the girl I had been and the girl I wanted to be and he thought she was worth it. For some reason, he thought I was worth seeing through the heartbreak and the tears and the long struggle with grief and loss I had ahead of me.

And so one evening as we walked together, just a few weeks before I delivered my first-born daughter, he took my hand in his and he kissed me. He still loves to tease me that my belly touched his, before our lips even got close. After 21 years, he has never let go of my hand. He was there when I went into labor. He was there 15 minutes after Sarah Moses was born. He was there when I signed the adoption papers, letting her go. He was there as my mother drove me away from San Diego and all the painful memories it held.

September 18, 1991

Tim thought I might never come back. He was afraid that he had been a crutch, someone to lean on during a difficult time. He was afraid that he had been a distraction, something to keep me occupied when I had too much time on my hands, like a human IPad, or a hangman game. I was going home to a place where no one knew what I had been through and I could pretend like it never happened. My scarlet letter was gone.

But anyone who has ever carried grief and shame and loss knows that it is never gone. You carry the scars with you forever. You heal; you laugh; you love and you hope again, but you are never the same, which is why Tim never had anything to fear at all. He saw me at my best and my worst in the first eight weeks of meeting me and what he saw, he loved. And what I saw, I loved and love to this day. I saw a man of vision, of hope, of integrity. I saw a man with the courage of his convictions and a desire to overcome everything for me and with me. I saw a man who could see the truth of a person, beyond present circumstances and the masks he, or she might wear. I saw all that 21 years ago in a 23-year-old boy and I still see it each and every day. No one has ever earned my respect so quickly, nor worked so earnestly to keep it.

That is what gets left out every time we tell the standard story of how we met. We omit the part that embarrasses me, even though it’s also the part that makes him look good. But he doesn’t need anyone else to think he’s a hero. He just wants to actually be mine. He was my hero then and he still is to this day. Tim doesn’t rescue me from anything, but he steps up time after time to be strong, to face challenges, to stand for what he values and to love me, for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, not even in death will we part. I am pretty sure we will find each other on the other side.

So on this day, 19 years after we said, “I do,” I wanted to tell the real story of how we met, so you could know the kind of man I have the privilege of being married to.

Happy Anniversary!

Just as I was sitting down to write this blog, I happened to check Facebook and find a post by one of my favorite bloggers in the world, Glennon Melton, and I almost stopped writing RIGHT THERE, as in RIGHT NOW, as in FOREVER, because Glennon has a way of writing that makes me think, “Why do I even bother? Glennon says everything I want to say, but she says it so much better!” Now, if you go to Glennon’s post from today, you might possibly wonder why I would want to say that and today, I don’t, but there are lots of other times when she does, like here and here.

But then I remembered something that Glennon said last month as she was reading a book by Cheryl Strayed,

Dear God, she’s amazing. And I felt myself start to panic a little. OH MY GOD. SHE’S SAYING ALL THE THINGS I WANT TO SAY, BUT BETTER.  I actually thought about CLOSING her book and NOT reading anymore because my heart was panicking and shriveling a bit.

Sometimes, that’s honestly how I feel when I read Glennon, or Anne Lamott, or Paula D’Arcy, but then they go on and on about grace and abundance and then I breathe deeply, and then G (the Big G upstairs) reminds me that I am enough and that I believe in Love and then I can finally try to write again.

So I’m back and ready to tell you a story about my weekend.

It was a hot weekend here in San Diego, like hot hot, like “Texas-hot,” as my kids like to say. They’ve only been there a handful of times, but boy, do they remember. We are also in the midst of soccer season, which means our family had four games in two days. Tim is the manager of The Lad’s team, so we got to set up goals once, take down goals twice, pay the refs, and turn in the scores. Along with all the other parents, we also got to cheer on the sidelines.

Those sidelines were a mass of brightly-colored umbrellas, beach chairs, water bottles and spray fans. There were canopies and sunshades and baseball hats – anything and everything that could provide some relief for the humanity that was slow-roasting in the heat. A friend of mine turned to me and said, “Surely, there is a blog in here somewhere.” And so I looked around to see what I could see.

I saw kids, and I saw parents. I saw players running, kicking and heading. I saw goalies diving, missing, and saving. I saw coaches coaching, cheering and scolding. I saw it all, but nothing that you wouldn’t expect on any given “Soccer Saturday in the Suburbs,” as Tim likes to call it.

So I kept watching Finn’s game, until I was distracted by a commotion happening behind my chair.

As you can imagine, making shade on a weekend like this is serious business. The fans want to be comfortable, but we also want to provide some protection for our players as well. I’m not talking about the players on the field, who were out competing in the sun; I’m talking about the guys on the sidelines, the subs who were resting up to get into, or back into the game.

These 13 and 14 year old young men WOULD NOT STAY IN THE SHADE and it was comical to watch the parents do everything they could to make them, without actually making them.

When the boys were smaller, keeping them in the shade was an easy thing to do. Someone would bring a pop-up tent and someone else would bring a blanket and the team mom would tell them to sit on it and they would. Job done. But as they got older, they wanted to be up on their feet, standing by their coach, or sitting on a chair, and our job got a little harder, but we could shoo them back under the canopy and there they would stay.

But now these boys are young men and we can’t shoo them anywhere. They stand where they want to stand, where their coach asks them, tells them, or allows them to stand. It is no longer our place to tell them where to stay anymore. Their autonomy certainly doesn’t keep us from wanting to protect, however and that is where it gets comical. Each time the subs would move, a parent would move an umbrella with them. It is no easy task to get an umbrella stake into hard-packed dirt, so a mom, or dad would spend a couple minutes twisting, stomping and pushing the sun-protection into the ground. The players would stay put for about 30 seconds and then move on. Parents would wait a minute or two, hoping the players would realize their mistake and come back to the shade. They rarely did, but if they came back, it was instinctively, or by accident, never by conscious choice. Eventually, another parent would jump up and move the umbrella to the new spot and get it settled and then the boys would move on again. This went on for a good 30 minutes, or so before we finally just gave up and followed them up and down the field, like little rajas, holding the shade over them, because really, WE JUST COULDN’T LET GO.

This was the life lesson I was waiting for.

As parents, we want to protect our children. When they’re small, we know what’s best for them, and we can provide it, whether it’s shade on the soccer field, or restrictions on the television. We put a jacket on them when it’s cold, and sunscreen when it’s hot. But as they get older, we think we know what’s best for them and we struggle to provide it, whether they want it or not. The older they get, the more often they are going to step out of the shade we provide. We can twist and push and stomp all we want, but that doesn’t mean they are going to stay put. Our wisdom and support only serve a purpose when our children choose to stand under it.

I cannot follow my almost-grown children up and down the sidelines of their lives, trying to “protect” them from every element that might sap their strength, or burn them a little bit. (Thank goodness I still have Molly to shoo back under the canopy.) Keara and Finn need to be able to move freely, mix it up, and hear what’s happening on the field. They don’t need to be hampered by their well-intentioned mother, telling them to back up, sit down and take it easy. Champions are made in the full light of sun and I need to be brave enough to let them take their place in it.

P.S. We saw a lot of soccer this weekend and a lot of parents, who took great pains to keep their children cool and hydrated on a hot day. Kudos to you. I am not speaking of any one team, or parent. The only parent I am calling out is myself!

When something comes up repeatedly in my life, especially if it comes from a variety of sources, I know it’s something I need to pay attention to. Usually it is not a pleasant something. If it were something I wanted to think about, I would have done so already. I would have seen it, embraced the lesson, and possibly even written about it. It’s very unpleasantness is why the universe has to force me to look upon it. I hope you’re with me on this one. It seems to me that we don’t look at what we don’t want to see, even if it’s as obvious as the nose on our face.

Recently, I can’t seem to get away from the fact that I am aging and that with each passing year, I look less and less like the woman I am in my mind and more and more like the middle-aged woman I am becoming.

Now before every one who was born prior to 1960 starts screaming at my use of the term “middle-aged” to describe my 40 –year-old self, statistically, the word bears out. The average life expectancy for a woman in the US is currently 80.8 years. I am no math genius, but it seems to me that ‘middle-aged’ is generously from 30-50 years old. Correct me in the comments section if you so desire.

No matter where I turn, I am confronted with the fact that my skin is not what it once was. Years of smiling have etched grooves from the corners of my nose to my jaw line. My eyes have begun to settle more deeply into their sockets. My hands look like my mother’s (whose age shall remain unnamed) and my knees look like an elephant’s, all saggy and baggy and heavily lined.

It’s one thing to see myself in a mirror on a daily basis. I know how to deal with that: I look at the parts I like and glaze over the rest. However, I’ve had some experiences recently that have made it harder for me to ignore what the rest of the world must be seeing.

A few months back, I asked a colleague to take a few photographs of me for my website. Bobby takes some of the most stunning nature photographs I have ever seen. Here is some of his work so you will know I am not exaggerating.

Zion, Angel’s Landing, Bobby Lee
Zion Subway, Bobby Lee
Montanadeoro, Bobby Lee

Isn’t he amazing? I thought (mistakenly it turns out), “If he can make dirt and sky and water and air look so beautiful, surely he make me look good too.” We set a day and went on a little photo safari and he took a lot of pictures, and he sent them to me and I thought, “Wow. These would be really gorgeous pictures, if I weren’t in them.”

I learned my lesson about “natural” photography.

I love Bobby’s photographs for their precision, for the way they capture every nook and cranny in the distant mountains and every grain of sand in the sweeping desert and he makes them look beautiful, otherwordly. It’s for that very reason I have a hard time loving Bobby’s photographs of me. They capture every  line on my face and crevice in my hands, but what looks so gorgeous on Mount Zion looks so unattractive on me.  It took me a few weeks, but I reluctantly put the images on my website, convincing myself that an honest portrait was better than none at all. Here are a couple examples.

Enjoying a book by the fire in Laguna Beach
Writing at a sidewalk cafe

A few months later, my sister-in-law recommended a photographer who was trying to build up her portfolio by doing inexpensive sittings. It had been years since we had taken a family photo, so I thought, “Why not? Maybe she can snap a couple of me as well that I’ll like a little better.” And boy did I!

After Stephanie got done editing her images, I realized that Photoshop is my best friend! I loved these photographs. They came infinitely closer to how I see myself. They may not accurately reflect how others see me, but it’s how I want them to see me. I put a couple of those images up on my website right away.

Our family, courtesy of Stephanie Anderson

“Whew,” I thought, “This is who I am. Maybe not young, but youngish, definitely.”

I was so pleased with the results that I thought I’d get a jump-start on our Christmas cards by ordering a couple hundred copies immediately. We don’t actually send out Christmas cards, but since we had such a great picture (of me), I thought I’d make an exception.

But a funny thing happened on the way to my Shutterfly account.

At that very moment, the mail arrived and I had a letter from my sweet sister-in-law. She sent me an article called, “Aged to Perfection,” with a sticky note that said, “I read this and thought of the pledge you and your friends made to never have any ‘work’ done. :)”

Gulp. Her note reminded me of a time when I was confident that I would grow old gracefully, that I would cherish every line as a badge of honor, of a life well-lived, or as the author of the essay wrote about her aging body as, “a repository of soul and experience… mellowed by love and time to a rosy luster.”

Oh, I thought with a pang of regret. That’s how I used to feel about aging? Really?

When I read that article, I felt a prompting to find that truth deep down inside myself again. It wasn’t gone entirely, just laid by the wayside some time in the last 10 years. But then I looked at Stephanie’s pictures again and liked them so much that I buried the truth somewhere deeper inside me, where hopefully it wouldn’t emerge for another twenty years. In the meantime, I could Photoshop and facialize and maybe even use Botox to help my outside perception match my inside imagination.

But the universe wasn’t going to let me off that easy. A couple of weeks ago at a breakfast conference, I met a woman who works for the San Diego Museum of Art and I mentioned the last exhibit I had attended there, Annie Lebovitz’s “A Photographer’s Life” in 2007. Ugh, it was embarrassing enough that it had been so long since I had been there, but then the nice woman gave me a knowing nod, saying Yes, that had been a very popular show, with the celebrity photographs and all. I was obviously an artistic light weight in her mind (and I am in actuality, so I don’t fault her for her comment) and although the celebrity photographs were what I had gone to see, I also remembered (and was able to tell her) that what I had most enjoyed were the personal photographs Lebovitz shared, especially the ones of her mother, most especially the ones of her mother at the beach.

Of the many photographs taken at the shore, this is the one I imagine most people remember.

Mikhail Baryshnikov in all his glorious perfection.

This was the photograph I fell in love with.

And another one like it. Though I can’t find a copy of it for the life of me, Lebovitz also captures her mother, playing in the waves with her young granddaughter, pirouetting on the shore, with one leg splayed out in a high kick of joy.

This is what I wrote in my journal at the time….

That is who I want to be. At 70, I want to be the woman who still wears her swimsuit to the beach and plays in the waves with the children she loves. I want to live life and not give a damn about my cellulite jiggling in the sunshine. That is real beauty.

I came home from my morning meeting and took a good long look in the mirror. Then I went back and looked at Bobby’s photographs again. I saw something different this time. This time I saw that I look a little bit like Annie Lebovitz’s mom. I look happy. I look like I am enjoying my life and when I am truly enjoying life, I never once stop to think about what I look while I am doing it.

So after this final reminder, the universe finally succeeded in making me stop and reconsider the truth I knew when the knowing came too easy. (And isn’t that always the case?)

I think the love of my life says it best. He reminds me that I can’t get what I have if I still look like a twenty-year old woman, because then I would still be a twenty-year-old woman. I can’t have a marriage of almost twenty years and the confidence and security that brings to my life. I can’t have my kids hug and kiss me and feel my heart melt.  I can’t get the wisdom and perspective and friendships and faith that all the ups and downs of the last twenty years have brought me, if Ihave never lived those twenty years. I know it’s true, and really, I wouldn’t trade those things for anything, not even an unlined face and bright eyelids and perky knees.

At least I don’t think so, but it’s off the table anyways. We can’t turn back time, despite the billion dollar beauty industry’s insistence that we can with their help. For now, I think I’ll pass. I will put the image of Annie Lebovitz’s mom on my mirror to remind me who I want to be today and every day: confident, laughing, joyfully dancing, cellulite, wrinkles, saggy knees and all.

A couple of you have seen me since I posted my last blog about fear and loathing in the afternoon. You kindly gave me an extra long hug and asked with raised eyebrows how I was doing, an obvious indication that you are fully aware how not fine I was doing a couple days ago. I’m not complaining; compassion is a beautiful thing. But it did make me think that a follow up post might be helpful. I often want to go back and add a post-script to the stories I tell. The lessons are never over, at least not for me.

So this week, I had planned to publish a blog about the first fear I mentioned – growing older, but then I came across a passage from one of my favorite authors, Anne Lamott. She recently published a book with her son Sam, called Some Assembly Required about his first year of fatherhood. While reflecting on her days, she said

Life is mostly okay right now, sometimes lovely and peaceful and when it’s not, it’s hard and weird… and the scary parts feel like they could break you, but then those parts pass against all odds and then things are mostly okay again, temporarily, until they get hard and weird again and break your heart. It’s not a great system. If I were God’s West Coast rep, I’d come up with something easier, something you could bank on.

I read Anne’s words and I smiled, because that is exactly how I feel. One day last week, things were really hard and weird, and I sat and cried because it felt like it was breaking my heart, but by morning, things were okay again and by the weekend, they were really, really lovely. I checked out of reality and went to the beach with my kids for about 7 days straight. We surfed and swam, played with our little primos (cousins) and ate ice cream every day. If I had my own personal dictionary, that would be the definition of lovely and a whole host of synonyms, like bliss, and awesomeness and joy.

But school started for Kiko today; the others follow in a week and then I start a new teaching job. (Did I mention that I am going back into the classroom to teach at a university again? That’s a post-script for my blog on vocation I might need to write.) Everyone will be experiencing busyness and stress and the pressure to perform, so I can almost guarantee that after last week’s loveliness, hard and weird are just around the corner. But I want to do what I can to not get to the heartbreak stage too quickly again.

Instead of going in blind and coming up shocked like I seem to every fall, I am working on a strategy to keep me from going down the rabbit hole of fear and all that entails. I am going to start by being extra diligent about getting up early to walk. The rest of the day is dedicated to going really, really fast, so G (my personal endearment for the Big One upstairs) and I are going to go really, really slow. (God is an old soul after all and doesn’t like to be rushed.)

And what I am going to feel is this (I know that sounds awkward but thinking does me no good at all. My “thinking” is what gets me in trouble in the first place.) For those 20 or 30 minutes, I am going to feel loved. I am going to be God’s beloved. I am going to forget all the ways I fall short of the idea I have in my head of who I am ‘supposed to be.’  I am going to repeat the mantra I learned from Thich Nhat Hahn, the Buddhist monk and child of God, “Dear One, I am here for you.” I am going to say it for myself; I am going to say it for my children; I am going to say it for my students, my family and friends. If I can bring it to bear in my life, it encompasses all that true Love is – a kind, compassionate, joyful presence that brings freedom, not fear to all who experience it.

Now, that’s my plan, but we all know how plans work. We make them and then life breaks them, which was Fear #2 on my list – The Unknown. The only thing I really know is that things fall apart, sometimes in big ways and sometimes in small. I can count on the fact that things are going to be hard and weird and then okay and then lovely again. Saint Anne may not think it’s a great system, but I do think it’s something we can bank on. Even just knowing that’s how it works can help a little bit.

I also know that the more I can believe in Love, stay in Love, allow myself to experience true Love from the Love that never leaves, the more lovely things will be and that sounds pretty good to me.

So to all my readers and friends who are wondering if I’m okay, I am. I am breathing deeply, trying to be present in this moment, fearless and free and in Love.

 

I’ve sat down to write this blog many times over the last weeks. I still don’t know if I’ll get it right, or not, but I thought I’d try again.  I’ve been struggling with writer’s block lately. Half-formed ideas haunt me, but the words won’t come. I’ve been hard pressed to complete a single thought, much less string together a series of intelligent ones. There have been saving graces – an episode of Project Runway, the death of a beloved author, a strange request from my husband – but those happy (?) accidents seems to have slowed.

Last week I thought I had finally created that perfect writing storm in the midst of my busy summer day: a few hours alone in my cool, quiet house, my work completed, the chores done. There was nothing to distract me. Surely, I would be able to write now. But I couldn’t focus. I fidgeted; I got up and down; I checked email; I about to jump out of my skin. Ultimately, I knew what I needed to do. Despite the 100-degree heat, I went out on a walk to reacquaint my head with my heart and soul. When my head is in charge, there are things my heart finds it impossible to say.

By the time, I got to the end of my street, the truth had already bubbled up to the surface and I was able to admit what had been bothering me. In hindsight, it seems obvious, but sometimes it’s difficult to see what’s right in front of us.

For the past several months, I have been writing about Love: the power of love, the joy of love, the signs of Love – all the things that keep me going, but what I haven’t written about is the shadow side of Love.

Fear.

I have been trying (with some success) to keep things positive. There is nothing wrong with ‘positivity,’ except when I use it to mask other truths. If “perfect love casts out all fear” as Bono and the Bible like to say, why mess around with anything else? The Love I have been writing about is that perfect Love. If I know that Love, as I have been claiming to, then it shouldn’t leave room for anything else in my life.

Except that it does. There is plenty of room for the flip side of love. My fears are still here. I am utterly and completely human, so even perfect Love has to go through my filter. I process it imperfectly and end up with something infinitely less than I began with. Somehow, I fooled myself into believing that this perfect, cosmic Love would leave me fearless. I discovered on my walk that it hasn’t, which is why I found myself sitting at the end of my street in the middle of the afternoon, crying my eyes out.

Quite simply, I’m afraid.

Andy Rooney once said, “A writer’s job is to tell the truth” and as I sat there, I realized that I can’t write, because I’m not telling the truth. I’m telling some of the truth – the truth about Love and what it can do. I’ve been holding something back too – the truth about what happens when Love doesn’t win, because let’s face it, sometimes our humanity simply won’t let it. Bono never mentioned that our fears could cast out that perfect Love as well. I kind of wish he would have warned me.

We embrace our fears just as often, if not more so, than we accept the Love that is available to us. It doesn’t mean that Love gives up, or that Love isn’t there. It just means that fear has the upper hand for a while. Fear doesn’t give up either. My life is a dance between Love and fear. Love has been on center-stage and fear wants to have it’s day too.

So for the sake of transparency and to get over my writer’s block, I thought I would share some of my fears with you.  It’s a short list. I only included three of the biggies.

I am afraid of growing old.

I am afraid of the unknown.

I am afraid of failing God in some critical way.

There they are.

Whew.

No, wait, not whew.

More like Aaaahhh! What did I just do?

I thought I would feel better, laying them all out there, but I don’t, not really. Unlike Love, fear doesn’t bring freedom. Basking in fear diminishes us and the possibilities for our lives, but maybe you already knew that. Deep down, I know it too, but sometimes fear just gets the upper hand.

My dear friend Joyce said to me recently, “Don’t make a decision based on fear. What would you do if you were fearless?” Maybe her question is just another way of asking, “What would you do if you were in Love?”

What would you do if you were in Love and it made you fearless?

I don’t think I can answer that question today. Fear is hogging the dance floor. However, Love is waiting  patiently in the wings. She knows her turn will come again soon and I know she will leave me breathless with beauty and wonder. Personally, I can’t wait for our song to come on. Fear is not my favorite partner.

There are not many programs on television that I like to watch and even fewer that I’ll watch with my children. With a wide range of interests and maturity levels, finding common ground is difficult, but there is one program we never miss: Project Runway.

(If you aren’t familiar with the show, you can check it out here, but it’s basically a cross between Survivor and American Idol for up-and-coming fashion designers.)

My mother has always been a little concerned about our Project Runway viewing. To her dismay, it’s inspired Keara, her eldest granddaughter, to dream of a career in fashion. To her dismay, her eldest grandson, Finn, has watched it religiously since he was 6 years old, (To be honest, at 13, Finn has backed away from claiming it’s one of his favorite shows.) To her great dismay, little Molly does killer imitations of any and all of the most flamboyant contestants.

My mother has had all this dismay and has never once seen the show. She just saw the impact it had on our family culture and wasn’t so keen on it. And then, Season 10 began and somehow my mother saw it and then the real dismay began. She couldn’t believe I let my children watch. It was chaotic and cruel and the people were crazy and no one was nice. What in the world was I thinking? (Tim has given up asking that question, but he thinks it all the time as well. He is not a fan of Project Runway.)

But Episode 3 of this season gave me the perfect way to explain “what I’m thinking” by allowing my kids to watch the show.

In that week’s challenge, designers were randomly paired up to create a red carpet, runway ‘look.’ Enter Elena and Buffy, two of the most unlikely partners you will ever find. Elena is angry and high-strung. Buffy is a friendly, jovial sort. Elena wears her dark hair in severe French braids and scowls at the camera, while Buffy flashes one smile after another. Buffy even has pink hair, accented with a multi-colored, cheetah patch shaved into the side. Elena designs would fit in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo collection. Buffy could design for the Girls Just Wanna Have Fun boutique.

Their time together went about as well as you can imagine, with Elena bossing, criticizing, and sniping at her partner and Buffy keeping her head down, too afraid to say anything for fear of having her head bitten off. As I watched it with Molly, I thought how we might cover the basic Project Runway Life Lessons – again.

What kind of person do you want to be? A nice one.

How should you treat people? With respect.

Who do we root for? The good guy with the most talent, of course.

Those are the standard conversations Project Runway delivers to our home on a weekly basis.

But then it happened, that little moment where a whole new conversation unfolds.

In a cutaway interview, Elena defended her actions,

“Being from where I am, you need a toughness to survive. If you go to Ukraine, no one is going to say please and thank you and blah, blah, blah. To just survive and eat every day, people really have to hustle. You have to be very strong. The weak ones don’t survive.”

Suddenly her strident behavior made sense. She comes from a place of scarcity and even though she has lived in the States for almost 20 years, the fear of not having enough has never subsided. I imagine that fear gives rise to the aggression and arrogance that Elena displays, not just toward Buffy, but also toward everyone on the show, from contestants to judges to the grandfatherly host.

I recently read a passage from a book and I immediately thought of Elena. The author said, “Where does arrogance come from? The answer, I think, is fear. The more insecure I feel, the more arrogant I tend to become and the most arrogant people I know are also the most insecure. The arrogant ego… is fearful of losing its status if it loses the battle at hand.” In a world of scarcity, to lose a single battle is to risk losing everything.

In contrast to Elena, it’s clear that Buffy comes from a place of abundance, a place where it’s easy to say “Please” and “Thank you” and wait your turn, because there is always enough. (We thought she was from England, but it turns out she was raised in Dubai.) When you are assured of your place in life and in line, you can sacrifice your ego once in a while for the sake of peace and the well-being of the other. You know there is always another opportunity around the corner.

After Elena’s comments, I paused the show and Molly and I talked about scarcity and abundance, about communism and capitalism, and about how our childhood experiences shape us. Was Elena really talking just about food? What else might have been scarce? Maybe kindness and compassion, love, or respect? Even if they were present in her home life, they obviously weren’t abundant in her culture. To this day, their lack affects her perception of the world and therefore the audience’s perception of her.

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that Elena is currently listed as the “Fan Favorite” on the official website by a wide margin. What does that say about the typical viewer of the show? Nothing good I’m afraid, but clearly, we are not the typical viewer. Buffy is Molly’s favorite contestant and I asked her to think about what Buffy had in abundance as a child. Probably everything, we agreed. When you think of Buffy as a girl, you think of art supplies, dance lessons, and face painting, but Molly thought she probably had lots of love and patience, hugs and kisses too and maybe even a really funny dad. When you have an abundance of joy, it’s easy to share with others. I guess the same goes for pain too.

Molly and I wrapped up our “talking timeout” by naming some of the “abundance” people we know and how much we enjoy their company, but we also thought about the “Elenas” in our life, who might need a little more empathy the next time we encounter them on the playground, or in life. Scarcity is no fun and it’s scars run deep.

I never imagined I would be having this conversation with my 10 year old on a Saturday morning, but that’s the magic of Project Runway. Under the guise of fun and fashion, it allows me to talk with my kids about everything from politics to economics, morality to spirituality. You aren’t going to get that in 60-minutes or less anywhere else.

Humbled. Chastened. Abashed.

I’m not quite sure what to call it, but I think that is what I felt as I sat at my computer this morning.

It started out simply enough, a quiet cup of coffee together before Tim headed off to work and the kids woke up. We’d been on a family vacation for a few days. The house was a mess and the pantry was bare.

There was work to be done.

I knew I would be busy this day, with home and office work, with emails to answer and send, calls to make and return, pages to read and write. But I thought of how Tim was leaving for work before 7, shaved, showered and dressed – with shoes and socks on even – and how he wouldn’t be back for at least 10 hours. I thought about how most my work could be done in my pajamas and slippers, without ever leaving the comfort of my own home, or car, or neighborhood. In gratitude, I wanted to go the extra mile. As I looked up at him to say goodbye, I said, “Is there anything special I can do for you today, babe?”

I thought he might mention a favorite meal for dinner tonight, something he needed from the market, or a chore he wanted me to do.

Instead he took my hands in his, looked me in the eye and said, “Could you be happy when I get home tonight?”

Gulp.

I laughed and said, “Of course, I’ll do my best!”

And he laughed and kissed me goodbye and left. Within an hour, I had the kids up and all the breakfasts and lunches made and packed. I collected the swimsuits and towels and water bottles and hats and backpacks and fins and got them to their right owners. I applied sunscreen and hugged and kissed and sent my little lifeguards off to their 10th consecutive day at the beach.

And then I stopped and thought, “What did he mean by that?” and then I sat down to write.

Last year, my friend Nanette took me to a two-day seminar called, The Extraordinary Value of a Man. Go ahead and laugh. I know I did when I heard what it was called, but I adore Nanette and would go anywhere and listen to anything just to spend two days with her. I heard many things that weekend that made me uncomfortable as a middle-of-the-road feminist. I hate to hear traditional gender roles and stereotypes discussed as facts. I understand the danger of essentializing genders, of saying, “This is how men are…”, or “This is what women want…” As an academic, I understand how powerful and therefore how damaging those cultural messages can be. But as a woman and a wife, I heard many other things that were true of my husband and myself and the way we relate to each other. So although I think the seminar might have been more appropriately called The Value of an Extraordinary Man (because there is a big difference), one particular line helped me to understand better where this morning’s strange request came from. I had scribbled in the margins of a handout from the weekend,

“When you’re happy, he’s winning.

Let me clarify; I don’t think it’s strange that Tim wants me to be happy. I do think it’s a little strange that he asked to me to be happy. Generally, I’m a happy person. If you ask people to describe me, my smiley demeanor is one of the first things they will mention. Happiness, at least on the surface, is my default setting.

What I think Tim was really telling me when he left for work today was that he needed a win. When he comes home tonight, what he really wants to know is that what he did all day matters, that I have benefitted from his hard work and effort, from the sacrifices he makes to provide for our family, not just financially, but across the board in every way. He doesn’t want more accolades, or appreciation, or even fawning servitude. He just wants to see me smile. If the kids are smiling as well, that’s even better.

So what about those emotions I mentioned when I sat down to write about this? How could such a simple request bring about such a strong reaction? It certainly wasn’t his intention to make me feel that way and if I know my husband, he’ll apologize as soon as he reads this, even though he simply answered my question.

Tim didn’t call me out. He didn’t criticize me, or admonish me to do more. He simply asked me to be the one thing I claim to be  – happy. When I look at my life and the many things I am fortunate enough to have, I don’t know how I could be anything else. We have everything we need, and many things we want. We have health, home, family and friends. We have each other. Are there stresses and worries and things that go wrong? Absolutely. Is there pressure to succeed and perform at ever higher levels? Of course. Are there fights and parenting dilemmas and tension every day? You bet.

Can I still be happy at a certain time (around 5pm), on a certain day (Monday, July 30, 2012), in a certain place (our home)? I am certainly going to try. Depending on what happens at 4:59, making his favorite dinner might have been a whole lot easier. It doesn’t change the fact that my happiness is one of the things he is most proud of.  It’s chastening to think that the gift I share so freely with others has not been so freely given in my own home.  However, a little humble pie might be just the motivation I need to make it happen tonight and any other night I might forget to be grateful for all that I have.

Recently, the Lad and I watched the film Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. We hadn’t planned on it being just the two of us, but one by one other family members dropped out, citing work, sleep, or just something more generally FUN. In hindsight, I don’t blame them, but Finn and I were compelled – me because I loved the book. Him because, well, I don’t really know.

It was a strange movie to watch with my son, because it is so much about the power of a good father-son relationship. Thomas Schell, played by Tom Hanks, sends his quirky son on elaborate adventures, designed to teach Oskar how to be brave and to experience more of the world than he would have chosen for himself. With patience and creativity, Thomas Schell embraces his son for who he is: intelligent and curious, but also compulsive and fearful.

That dynamic alone made it an interesting movie for me to watch with my son. I kept sneaking peeks at him to see what he thought. My husband Tim only has fuzzy memories of his own father, who died when he was 10. I know that a large part of Tim’s “fathering” is a result of the absence, not the presence of, a loving and involved father. While Thomas and Oskar interacted on screen, I would look at Finn and wonder, “How will he remember his dad? Is Tim making him brave? Is he making him kind? What kinds of things is Finn learning, beyond a killer ping pong serve and a sweet jump shot?” Deep down, I know the answers to those questions. Tim and Finn interact very much like Thomas and Oskar. They are cut from the same cloth, from broad shoulders to tender hearts and a wicked sense of humor.

But while I got lost in my reverie, the movie was passing me by. When I tuned back in, it was 9/11 and Thomas Schell is in the World Trade Center and then he is gone and it is Oskar and his mother who are left to pick up the pieces. In the beginning of the story, the mother is the observer in the family who admires and appreciates the connection between father and son, without needing to be a part of it. She knew her husband had Oskar, in all his weirdness, covered.

And then he doesn’t.

And although she does her best, it is nowhere near good enough for Oskar, who in his grief and anger and guilt screams, “I wish it were you that day,” to which she sadly replies, “I know. I do too, buddy.”

She knows her husband would have done it better. She knows she is failing Oskar in some crucial way and yet in that moment, in her own grief, it is beyond her ability to do better.

Again, I had to look at my son, who made sure he never looked at me during that scene.

What would he say, I wondered, if he had to choose? I know it’s a morbid question, but I am glad that it wasn’t immediately obvious to me who he prefers. I don’t actually know what any of our children would say.

I am the caretaker. Of that, there is no doubt. They love my cooking and the way clean clothes land miraculously on their bed every few days. They count on me to help them with their homework and projects and I am the only one who can rub their backs just right before they go to bed at night.

Tim is the player of all sports and card games, the Dairy Queen-on-a-school-night kind of parent. Grades don’t matter much to him; it’s all about whether they learned something, or not. He may feed them cereal every night when I am gone, but at least they get fed.

Between the two of us, we make a home and though it is unimaginable that we could do it alone, this movie gives me hope.

I don’t want to give away too many details here, but ultimately, the mother moves past her own grief and discovers a way to help Oskar heal. When he recognizes the sacrifices his mother has made for him, the love she has shown, he says through cathartic tears, “I thought only Dad could think like me.” (Which for a head person like Oskar – and myself – is the ultimate compliment.)

Linda Schell had thought so too, until she actually tried. Her willingness to embrace Oskar for who he is allowed him to reframe his story – the one he’d been telling himself his whole life, and especially since his father’s death – that his dad was the only one who loved him, the only who could love him. It turns out, that wasn’t true at all.

I immediately thought, Look, Finn, Love Wins.

It isn’t easy. It’s bound to be messy. It certainly requires more of us than we think we’re capable of, and frequently more than we want to give. But if we don’t give up, if we open our hearts, if we keep doing what Love asks of us, even when it seems impossible, then we can change our lives. We can change the lives of those we love. Heck, we just might be able to change the world. In the midst of tragedy, Linda Schell did it, and although she is a fictional character, there are thousands of people like her in real life that do it all the time.

And as the film ended and Linda held her son close, I gathered my own little man, who is growing quite big, in my arms as well. I kissed his forehead and rubbed the top of his ¼” crew cut and hoped I could remember forever how his freckled face looked as it turned towards my own. He is 13-years-old and before I know it, he may not be compelled for any reason to watch movies with his mom on a Saturday morning. Very soon, the Lad may have other plans, thank you very much.

But until that day, I will savor these moments. I will cherish each and every time I get to curl up on a couch with him, share a blanket and a bowl of popcorn. I will stand watch as he processes the vagaries of life on the silver screen, the pages of a novel, the columns of the morning sports page, and especially in his daily routine. And I will remind him every chance I get that Love Wins if we have the courage to choose it.

Dear Readers,

Don’t worry! It’s still me, still Ali! Still writing, and hoping that you are still reading!

Yes, my blog has a new look and a new name, but in all the important ways, it’s the same old story.

I read something, hear something, see something, or feel something and it turns my world upside down just a little bit and I immediately think, I have to write this down. And so many of you generously take the time to read it. Thank you. I can’t tell you how much it means to me.

I decided to rename my blog #Signs of Love to reflect my growing understanding that Love is everywhere. Eight months ago when I started to write these stories, I didn’t know that, not the way I know it now.

I knew that Love could be anywhere, in theory. I knew for a fact that Love lived in my heart, in my home, in my relationship with Tim and the kids, my family and friends. I knew that Love was found in hugs and kisses, laughter and loyalty, and sometimes even in loss, pain and tears.

The rest of it, I took on faith. I had been taught well that God is Love, but when I look at where I thought Love lived and what I thought it looked like, it was a pretty limited image of the Divine Spirit. Love looked like a Happy Days rerun.

Alas, even the best shows have to end someday and so did my personal fantasy of Love. Don’t get me wrong; I still get to watch it in syndication every day. My home is still full of Love and so is my life, but I’ve also expanded my viewing repertoire.

A few months ago, I shared the story of the first Sign of Love I sawwritten in the stone beneath my feet. You can check it out here, if you forgot what it looked like.

When I wrote about my friend M, I shared a few more Signs of Love that I had found on my early morning walks.

Just last week, while meditating in the canyon, I saw another Sign of Love, reminding me that in Love, we are always enough.

But those are just a few of the Signs of Love that I see on an almost daily basis. They really are everywhere and almost every one of them has a story.

 

This one showed up when I consciously asked Jesus to join me on my morning walk. Yes, it was a little awkward, but I thought he would surely be better company than my “friend” Patty.

 

 

This one showed up when I thought of my friend who has cancer, the one I wrote about in “This Isn’t Hard.” I prayed extra hard for her to feel Love that day. Her heart looked a little skimpy.

 

 

This one was in the parking lot of Trader Joe’s after a disastrous trip to the market. I was stomping out of there, late and huffy and there it was. How can I stay mad when a Sign of Love literally shows up at my feet in the cracks of parking lot sealant?

 

No matter where I turn these days, Love is there.

think God is trying to teach me to let go of my preconceived notions of what Love looks like and how it behaves. I think God is trying to teach me that even when I am not “in Love,” It’s still there. I think God is trying to teach me that even when I am convinced that Love has abandoned me, that Love is not living up to Love’s side of the bargain, I am wrong.

Signs of Love are everywhere.

Or maybe, as Tim has suggested, I’ve just gotten in touch with my inner-hippie, and that if I don’t stop this nonsense soon, I will lose all credibility as a thinker and writer. I’ll simply be lost in my own cosmic world.

But I hope you’ll stick with me. I promise I won’t be posting all the Signs of Love that I see, but if you see any, I hope you’ll share them with me. That’s what the # sign is for at the start of the blog. You can put post them on Twitter, using #signsoflove and I will see them. Put them in a comment, or friend me on Facebook and show me there.

Your Signs of Love don’t even have to be in nature – I’d just love to know where you find Love when you aren’t really looking. I am coming to see that sometimes, it really is the best place.