I recently read Alan Brennert’s novel Moloka’i and enjoyed it thoroughly. It is set around the turn of the century in the leper colony of Kalaupapa on the Hawaiian island of Molokai. To control the leprosy epidemic, everyone found infected with the bacteria, was sent to live in isolation there. For many patients, that isolation lasted their whole lives.  Historical fiction like this is my favorite genre, because it appeals to me on two levels. The reader in me gets lost in the story, while the scholar in me absorbs all sorts of new historical facts and trivia to bore my friends and family with later. In my nerdy opinion, historical fiction is the perfect combination of fact and fiction, research and escapism, a fabulous two-for-one deal.

However, reading the novel reminded me of an experience I had a couple months back. It made me think about historical fiction in a more personal way, because it wasn’t in a book anymore. At a cocktail party in my neighborhood, I saw all too clearly how our own personal historical fictions influence the stories we tell ourselves each and every day. While the fiction is probably harmless most of the time, it may actually cost us something valuable in the long run: our ability to see ourselves as we are today.

As Tim and I walked up to our hosts’ front door, he reminded me that I was his wingman. I wasn’t allowed to go mingle, if he didn’t find a buddy to talk to. He doesn’t usually worry about that happening, but this wasn’t our normal social circle, so I acquiesced. For my part, I straightened my skirt and checked my make up one more time. I was as ready as I would ever be. I knew we were both responding to some personal insecurities, but figured our secrets were safe with each other.

So imagine my surprise when our hostess asked us to put on a nametag, complete with three adjectives that described us in high school. It was, after all, a fundraiser for a youth organization. Oh boy, I thought, but honesty was probably the best policy here as anywhere else. Tim jotted down Lone Wolf, figuring that pretty much said it all, while I scrawled geek, klutz and swimmer under my name. We looked at what the other had written and shrugged. We’ve been together for so long and shared so many stories from our childhoods that we knew exactly where the adjectives had come from and accepted them as some approximation of the truth. I knew that after several moves, Tim had only a few friends at any given time growing up. He frequently ate alone in the cafeteria, and spent many of his afternoons, kicking a soccer ball at the backyard fence, scoring goal after game-winning goal for an audience of one. He knew how awkward I had felt as a child, skinny and freckle-faced, more at home in water than on land. He’d counted the scars I still have on my body that testify to the face-first, flat out falls I took on the black top, off bikes and into thorn bushes. He has also tried to heal the scars on my psyche from years of feeling inferior to so many of my peers.

So we stuck on the wounded egos of our teenage selves and started to mingle. I couldn’t believe all the casual friends and acquaintances we met, who were apparently all popular, smart, beautiful and athletic. Honestly, the ratio of class presidents, cheerleaders and homecoming queens to the rest of us was a little ridiculous. But what was even funnier was how they responded to our nametags. They thought we were kidding, or at least really exaggerating who we used to be. I assured them we were not. They thought we were “one of them,” and until that night, I had thought so too.

Not a single person at that party would have pegged Tim for a lone wolf. At this point in his life, my husband is known as “Coach Tim” to a large swathe of the under-15 population in our community and their parents. He’s spent years coaching our kids’ sports teams, from softball to soccer. He is sarcastic and funny, hangs out with the guys, but prefers to chat with the ladies. And as for me, I haven’t tripped over my own feet (much) since my second child was born, and I have become a fairly self-confident and capable woman, athletic even, since discovering Pilates.

The night was fun, but I didn’t love reliving my past. I put those words down, thinking they were harmless, that I had moved beyond those labels and memories, that they were “history” and I know Tim did the same. But when we reflected on the last things we had done before we walked into that party, we saw the evidence that our past is hardly history at all. He was making sure that he wouldn’t be the lone wolf, and by adding another layer of lipstick, I was re-arming myself against the superficial judgments of other girls. Despite twenty years of love and success, our historical fiction is still a palpable presence in our lives.

Does anyone ever get over who they once were, and thought they might always be? Is it worse for the class presidents, valedictorians, or homecoming queens, who perhaps never lived up to the promise of those early days? I don’t know the answer to that. My story runs the other way and they aren’t exactly the kind of questions you’d ask a casual acquaintance over a glass of wine at a cocktail party.

By the end of the novel Moloka’i, a cure for leprosy is found and the patients are free to move back into society, leaving their “shameful” past behind them. But virtually no matter where they go, they face prejudice, scorn and outright discrimination. There are no jobs for them, no places to live, and frequently no family willing to love them. They are technically “free,” but they are bound by their past and the evidence is written all over their bodies and souls. A few of them find the freedom they seek, but many of them return to the leper colony, Kalaupapa, where they are known and loved for who and what they are.

As I read this book, I was taken back to that cocktail party and the way our histories can continue to haunt us. Thankfully, for the most part, I am free. I laughed with everyone at what my nametag said. I am no longer that geeky girl, who lacks the self-confidence, courage and grace to be fully herself. However, when I went home that night, done socializing with the world at large, I was glad to be alone with Tim, my own personal Kalaupapa, where I am known and loved for who I was and who I try to be today.

January 1, 2012

As this day approached, I began to pore over my thoughts and memories about January “Ones” from the past – events, people, resolutions, and if I am honest, the occasional hangover. But no matter how hard I thought about it, nothing significant was coming to mind.

I might have written about my lukewarm feelings towards New Year’s Resolutions, which might be due to my seeming inability to keep them. I decided that would be a subject better kept until late February or March, when I typically get around to turning over any new leaves that might want to sprout.

I could have written about my most memorable New Year’s Eve nights, but that would have been embarrassing, since most of them involve a bunch of little girls, banging our mother’s pots and pans with wooden spoons just before we passed out at 12:01. Fun? Yes. Engaging in print? Probably not.

Perhaps I should have written about the neighborhood party we attended last night, where middle-aged mothers rocked out to Just Dance 3 on the Wii system, thinking we were still in our prime, but that might have just sounded like déjà vu to many of you.

So I gave up and let it go, hoping that next year, I would have something insightful to say about the cosmic passing of one year into another.

But after our late night out, Tim, Molly and I had an early morning drive to Huntington Beach ahead of us today. As you can imagine, the roads were fairly quiet, as the sun rose on this New Year’s morning. The fog rolled in and out as we crossed the lagoons in Del Mar and hugged the rocky coast for most of our 90-mile drive. Molly, still in her feety jammies, had buried her head in her pillow with her pink blanky protecting her from the unwanted morning sun. Tim reclined his seat back and vetoed any music with too much bass, or vocals.  Left to my own devices, I turned on my favorite NPR station and listened to an interview with singer-songwriter Ryan Adams.

After a long period of non-productivity, Adams shared how hard he worked at completing his most recent album, including an exercise he called “Stacks.” Alone in his office, he would sit between two stacks of books, one on his right and one on his left. On any given day, he would go back and forth between the two stacks of books, randomly reading lines, trying to make a connection between one side and another, with himself as the conduit.

Tim scoffed at the idea, thinking it sounded contrived, but I was intrigued. What kind of books were in those stacks? How were they organized? How often did he get ‘lucky’ and actually find an idea for a song, a line, or a melody by that seemingly random method? The interviewer laughed at Adams description of his creative process and moved on to her next question, but I wasn’t able to get the image out of my mind.

Adams creative exercise sounded like a perfect metaphor for a way to live a more meaningful life. We compartmentalize things; we put them in stacks and think they don’t touch each other, or hope that they don’t. We stack up our feelings, hopes and fears about our work, spouse, friends, family, kids, money, spirituality (or lack thereof), health, self, security, etc… in these little ivory towers. I have plenty of stacks and some are grouped roughly on the right, and some on the left, but they have no conduit except me. Unless, like Adams, I am willing to sit down and open up to the possibility for overlap, connection and meaning, those towers stay solid but compartmentalized, and almost surely unable to contribute to personal growth, or a greater outcome. I might know what is in each stack, but I won’t know what they might inspire in me, if I don’t look at them in total, in relationship to each other.

So although I won’t call it an official New Year’s Resolution, I am going to try to live my life a little more like “Stacks” for the next few months and see what happens. By opening up the different towers of my life to each other, I hope  to find new connections, be inspired and generate some original thoughts. That last one is my main goal. Psychologists have said that 98% of our thoughts are repetitive, the same ones we had yesterday. I don’t know about you, but I’m a little tired of those. As I begin 2012, I am ready for some new material and I hope you’ll join me.

 

 

 

I wrote last month about my addiction to sweeping, but if you didn’t get to read my confessional, you can check it out in my November archives. But sweeping isn’t my only addiction. I have an even better fix when it comes to facing the challenges the world throws at me. Maybe I shouldn’t call this one an addiction, though I think of it as such. It’s not a behavior that I could get rid of, even if I wanted to, which I don’t, but it is something worth confessing.

I am addicted to joy.big be joyous

I am addicted to seeing the bright side of things, the silver lining, the best in a bad situation. Somewhere deep in my DNA, the cosmos embedded a gene that made me an eternal optimist. While other people might say, “You can’t put lipstick on a pig,” I say “Watch me,” but don’t blame me if you end up wanting to kiss it. I am sure that my intractable tendency to joy is both endearing and frustrating to the people I know, especially my pessimistic husband, Tim. It may be one of the traits that he fell in love with, but it is also one of the things that has caused the most arguments in our household as well. I think his realistic point of view can be depressing, but sometimes he feels like he’s married to Mary Poppins. I have to admit that I agree with her theory. If a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, then I say, “Bottoms up!”

I think optimism and joy need to be defended sometimes. They are too often seen as naïve, or immature emotions. But they are not the same as being oblivious to the sorrows of world, or mere shallowness. A true optimist is fully aware of the painful realities of life, but they are equally aware of the potential within each of those realities for growth, for transformation, for a positive outcome. If you trust in the existence of goodness within each person, or each problem, you call it forth by that your very belief in its presence. You can’t see something that you don’t believe in, so I think it’s a loss when we focus too much on reality, or what we think we know about life. We might lose our ability to affect the very outcome we most desire.

As you can imagine, Christmas is a wonderful time of year for people like me. It’s as if everyone finally catches on to what we’ve been saying all along. It may take you eleven months out of twelve every year, but we don’t get discouraged. We know it’s possible. We know that eventually we’ll all get on the same page. Peace! Hope! Joy! Love! We aren’t picky about what holiday you celebrate: Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or even just New Years Day! Give yourself some time and space to believe it’s all going to be okay and it just might work out that way.

I’ve taken some heat over the years for my Pollyanna way of looking at the world, but I hope it’s something I never lose, not just because it makes my life better, but because I’ve been told it does the same for the lives of those around me. Henri Nouwen had this to say about joy, “ Real joy always wants to share. It belongs to the nature of joy to communicate itself to others and to invite others to take part in the gifts we have received.”

I hope over the next two weeks, as we head into the home stretch of the holiday season, that you find yourself in the company of someone joyful and that the joyful person is you. I hope that true optimism fills your heart and soul, not ignoring the truth of the past year’s struggles, or losses, nor the challenges of the months ahead, but believing in the possibility of goodness, love, joy and peace. Making space for those realities can make the best of any bad situation.

I’ve had a crazy last week and with the Christmas holidays rapidly approaching, it doesn’t feel like things will be getting better any time soon. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we had a nine-hour drive home from the San Francisco Bay area. On Sunday, I hit the ground running with a pre-dawn trip to the market, so we would have milk and bagels for breakfast. From there, I was on to laundry, creating an African tribal mask for Finn’s 7th grade history class, and following up on all of the homework that had ‘accidentally’ gotten left at home over vacation. After working from home on Monday and Tuesday, I headed out of town for three nights to work at my company’s Orange County office, leaving my sick husband and three kids in the care of my mother-in-law, who was thankfully visiting us from Montana.

I screeched into the driveway on Friday morning in enough time to drive carpool, and to shop and prep for a special event we were hosting at our own business on Friday night. Drinks, desserts and door prizes at “Ladies Night Out” at Wavelines! Come one and come all to shop for Christmas. Life was all good, all fine, all (mostly) under control, but as Tim and I got ready Saturday morning to head out to Molly’s soccer game in San Ysidro, just a ½ mile from the Mexican border, I leaned into him and sighed.

“Do you know what I want for Christmas?” I asked him.

“Do you know what I can afford?” he countered.

“Perfect,” I said, “ It won’t cost you a thing. I just want a button I can push that will stop the world and everyone in it for about 1 month…”

“You mean, like a vacation?” He interrupted, “A sabbatical, where you disappear for a month? I could maybe give you two or three days, but…”

“No, honey, like magic. Like everything in the world stops, except for me, like a bad episode of “Bewitched.” No one else moves and I can just scurry around and get caught up on everything, more than caught up, ahead even!” I pictured myself baking dozens and dozens of Christmas cookies, cleaning the house from top to bottom, including the closets, writing 50 pages for the book I’m dreaming of, having time to go to the gym, the movies and the beach for a surf, guilt-free.

He’s such a man. He suggested that I skip Molly’s soccer game and get some work done. Three hours versus thirty days…

Close enough, right?

But the thing is that I really wanted to go to Molly’s soccer game. Going to a soccer game, especially after being out of town for work that week, felt like the most important thing I could do that day, even though there was not a single Christmas present bought, or card sent.  I wanted to be fully present to my daughter for that hour, to share in her triumph or defeat, her grin when she made a good play, or the slump of her shoulders if she felt like she let her team down. I wanted to drive away from my chores, my laptop, the big box of work under my desk. I wanted to be out in the winter sunshine, cheering like a maniac with my phone nowhere in sight.

So I did. And it was glorious.

And when I got home, it was back to the drawing board. Laundry, dinner, sweeping, writing, life. Finally, I pulled myself away and got in a hot bath around 7, with the promise of a movie with Tim at 8. The kids were happily watching TV downstairs, and I was content. Tim hadn’t been able to get me that magic button I asked for (yet), but somehow I had found the button inside, the one that paused me. I already have access to the button that makes me stop, and I know it’s the only one I am ever going to get. I curled up next to him and we started to watch our film, but after 10 minutes, he thought it was too depressing and went downstairs. Oh well, it was time to get the kids into bed anyway.

So I walked downstairs and back into the firestorm of my life. I thought of the 6:30 am wake up call that was coming for Molly’s game on the border the next day and knew I’d better gather all the bits of her uniform right now. And I thought of the orange slices I had better cut and the socks I had better Febreeze. I thought of the pile of laundry that was still sitting in the dryer waiting to be folded. I reminded Keara, my 14-year-old, to practice her piano, which led to a tense conversation about the rights and responsibilities of parents’ to direct their children’s lives. I was so keyed up by the time that 30 minutes were through that I had to clean off my desk just to get my emotions under control. Have I mentioned before that I soothe myself by cleaning?

By the time I rejoined Tim upstairs where he had escaped to after he kissed the kids goodnight, another hour had passed and he felt badly that he had ever let me go back downstairs at all. I think he was googling “How to stop the world for a busy mom,” but he wasn’t having any luck. I shook my head at him, and sat down to write.

I am the only one who can choose to get off this merry-go-round, because I know it won’t stop. Things will get done, or they won’t, by my choice and my limitations. And that’s okay. As I write this, late on Saturday night, I plan on pushing the button again tomorrow. I am leaving my house at 8 and won’t be back until 2pm. Christmas lights be damned! I am going to watch my little girl run up and down the sidelines, defending her goal with all her might. I’ll invite Tim to lay his head in my lap and take a nap between games on the sideline grass. I hope to challenge a passel of nine-year-old girls to a game of BS and lose on purpose, just to hear them giggle. Those are the kinds of experiences I gain when I lose sight of what I should be doing. I may not be able to do it all the time, but after tonight, I realize how important it is that I do it at all.

I had breakfast with an old friend yesterday, and by old, I mean my age. She was a college roommate at Santa Clara, the first university I went to straight out of high school.She became known as Big Meg, which was unfortunate, because there was and is nothing big about her. She is 5”5’, slim and athletic, but we had to distinguish her somehow from Little Meg, who was maybe 5” and might have weighed more than Big Meg herself. She was in town, visiting from Seattle and got in touch. Out of the 4 days, between our family and work commitments, we found 90 minutes to see each other, early on a Monday morning.

"Big Meg" and me at a party, circa 1990

I would like to say that we hadn’t changed a bit. Isn’t that what you are supposed to say about a woman you haven’t seen in 15 years? But the truth of the matter is that we have. We might look youngish for our 40 years, but the restaurant was flooded with early morning sunshine and every line on our faces was highlighted, along with our crows feet and the sunspots on the backs of our hands. A darker café would have been more forgiving, but I was glad to be where we were. I think it made it easier to pick up where we left off, with the vulnerable honesty that came naturally when we were 19 years old. The bright light of day seemed to say, “Here you go; there’s no room to hide; just let it out.”

So we jumped right in and I asked her to tell me her story, the roads she’s taken since she left college, where she’s been and what she’s done. And I told her a little bit about mine as well. After our initial start, we spent very little time reminiscing, which I was so grateful for and in some ways, surprised by. We didn’t rehash the past, gossip about old friends, or relive our ‘glory days,’ because they weren’t. No matter what is going on in our lives now, the present moment is our greatest gift.

Not dwelling on our past allowed us to move right on to our presents and futures. Although our life circumstances are very different, it looks like we are both headed in the same direction – to find greater purpose and significance in the work that we do. We’ve both come to the edge of a cliff. But whereas Meg is leaping, because she wants to fly, I am hanging on to the edge, hoping that the universe hands me a parachute. I think our two approaches have everything to do with the stories we’ve been telling ourselves our whole lives. Meg shared that she always thought she was destined to do something significant, that she would make an impact on the world somehow, while I have never imagined that my influence would extend beyond the boundaries of my own home. But apparently, like it our not, we are both destined to go into freefall here in our 4oth years. It’s comforting to know that I am not the only one in flight.

And in that moment across that sun-drenched breakfast table, I did see the girl I used to know and she hadn’t changed a bit. She was still the kind, warm, authentic person I met and fell in love with all those years ago on the 11th floor of a freshman dorm. She still has the quick smile, the easy laugh and the self-confidence to be honest within the space of a few minutes. That kind of vulnerability is rare. Most people won’t be that intimate with you over the course of two years, much less a two-course meal.

We hugged as we left each other and made all the usual promises to keep in better touch, but the funny thing is, I think we actually meant them. After more than 20 years, we found ourselves meeting again in the same place we did the first time, emotionally if not geographically. We are leaving the security of a warm nest to discover our place in the larger world, to find out who and what we are meant to be, to bring our dreams to life.