Category Archives: Reflection

How Does Your Garden Grow?

All little kids know that crashing your parents’ bedroom first thing in the morning is inexplicably awesome. When I was that age, I couldn’t wait to invade my parents’ room to get my first hugs of the morning and snuggle. My mom set up a password system for me, though: she’d say, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” And my response: “With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row” — this in a certain half-singing way. If it wasn’t just right, I had to re-do it in order to get my pass to enter.

Of course, gardens are an all too familiar part of my reading life, starting with Adam and Eve, moving to The Secret Garden, and most recently in Standing at the Crossroads. But up until recently, how actual gardens grow in my life is not well; my black thumbs have killed successfully just about anything that comes from a seed, including one or two cacti (!).  The only green item that survived my care was some lucky bamboo purchased for my first apartment, and it lived on for at least seven years before our move to Alaska.  (Maybe the bamboo and I had a special Asian connection?) Continue reading

Me Dyson You Jane

The Dyson Animal

A little over a year ago, Husband and I bit the bullet and bought a Dyson vacuum cleaner. After living with Sounder’s dog hair in our little apartment and too many blow-ups (from each of us) over the inability of our old vacuum to, you know, vacuum, we decided to see if this whole Dyson thing was really worth all the dollars. Being a prudent gal, I went to Overstock and found a refurbished model for way less than the price of a brand new one at the store. With practically a shiny tear in his eye when the carpet literally changed color with one sweep of the Dyson, Husband said we had made the right decision. I concurred.

We moved into our current home two weeks ago, and the Dyson has gotten great use, as expected. But the one thing that has been bugging me since we’ve been here is the incredibly-difficult-to-reach dog hair from the former owners’ pets that manages to get into the crack between the carpet and the wall. For anyone who has ever owned a pet and has carpet, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Last week I had taken a butter knife and worked to scrape it out so then I could vacuum it up. When I was explaining this to someone the other day, she nodded knowingly and said, “Oh, yes, you need the slim attachment thing.”

How could I have forgotten about the attachments? I have memories of my dad lugging around this crazy olive-green box masquerading as a vacuum, and all of the attachments sat on top of the box, fit in there like a jigsaw puzzle.

The right color, but not exactly the same model as we had.

It was so heavy, it was really cumbersome, and yet somehow it managed to fit just inside the narrow floor space of the upstairs laundry closet along with the washer and dryer. What a monster.

Anyway, this woman’s comment about “attachment thing” stuck in my head, so I started inspecting the Dyson more closely today. I found the attachments in a plastic bag, where I had once upon a time wisely kept them together. I pulled out the manual to see how to draw more magic out of this instrument. I realized — oh, if only I had known sooner — that our Animal is really two vacuums in one: the main one that does the floors, and then this amazing other extension piece with its own handle that reaches and takes on all the different attachment parts. Armed with this new knowledge, with the Dyson in hand, I patiently attacked the stairs.

Oddly, I found myself feeling reflective as the Dyson did its thing and the stairs started changing colors, as when we first used it in our old apartment. A few realizations came to mind:

1. Worthwhile things are expensive. I don’t mean always in a dollars and cents way, but in a time and effort kind of way. Whether the “thing” is your education, quality relationships with your family and loved ones, a job you care about, your health — these “things” demand that you spend time and attention on them and with them. But it’s worth it.

2. Quality products are durable. At first, I didn’t believe that the Dyson broke in half, essentially, because I was certain that I was going to snap something and feel remorse for ruining it. But when I jerked hard on the extension piece, it came out easily and was ready for use. The “things” I referred to up above? Part of the reason why they are so price-y is because they are built to last. The imitation, lower grade products work for a while, but then they break and need to be replaced with something better anyway. Healthy, nurturing relationships with ourselves, with our best friends, and with spouses and significant others are meant to endure anything and everything. That doesn’t excuse us from taking good care of them, but they withstand a lot more than we realize they can (if we’ve invested wisely, of course).

3. Good products have unexpected dimensions. I read all the reviews. I could write my own testimonial about the Dyson. I knew it was worth every penny. But today, even after using it happily for a while now, I learned there was more to it than meets the eye. In real life, I think we often underestimate other people and what their real potential may be… and then they surprise us with a new achievement, a new career path, a new life plateau. Worse, I think we too often underestimate ourselves and forget that with one simple shift in the way we think or one change of habit, we can discover new dimensions of ourselves.

Vacuuming has to be one of my least favorite chores because it never seems like I can do it often enough to keep the floor satisfactorily clean, especially with having a dog. However, this afternoon it turned out to be one of the most random meditation sessions of my life. I’ll never look at our Dyson — or any of our other useful household appliances — the same way again.

Real Talk

Where have two weeks gone? Since Memorial Day weekend, summer has arrived; we finally became first-time homeowners (hurrah!); I took my first writing class since college days; my parents bought their ticket to visit over the Fourth of July (hurrah again!); we made our inaugural visit to Sam’s Club… the list goes on and on. While I actually have a gazillion things to write about and think about lately, the practical part of me has been focused on the need to organize as much as is humanly possible. Thus writing quickly gets pushed to the bottom of my to-do list, ironically when I need to process the most.

Of all things to inspire me, it had to be watching an episode of The Next Food Network Star last night. This season they modified the format: the finalists are broken up into teams being coached by Alton Brown, Giada de Laurentiis, and Bobby Flay, respectively. Every week, they are faced with two-part challenges, because they are expected to cook well and be able to be themselves (budding stars) on camera, too — obviously, the latter tends to be the far more difficult part. So I’m watching this episode, and by now the finalists are expected to have a very clear sense of their individual points of view, food-wise and personality-wise. Listening to the coaches, they all had the same message for each person: Be yourself. Be authentically you and no one else. Be confident in you and the stories you have to tell. It will translate positively on camera, we promise, because people want to connect to Who You Really Are.

Last week in my 5-day writing class, we all walked in on Monday as strangers. The first sharing we had to do was read aloud an informal piece of writing that we had to bring with us: metaphors for our writing process. What floored me — and maybe what I should have expected, having been in writing workshops before — was how much we revealed about ourselves through our writing as the week went on. On Wednesday our instructors put us into workshop groups based on our chosen genres (we had three non-fiction pieces and one poem in mine). My personal essay was about three different writing experiences at various points in my life. Immediately after reading my work, the poet in our group said, “This piece is about the narrator reclaiming joy in her life that she used to feel when she was a child.” What?! That’s what I wrote about? I thought I had been taking a walk down memory lane with myself. But there I was, naked like a baby in the words on the paper, and this semi-stranger called it out.

So it was as we workshopped everyone’s piece – the “cheapest therapy” available, our instructors called it. Each of us — in our small groups and in our class overall — uncovered (re-discovered?) parts of ourselves that we didn’t realize were there. It’s a very disconcerting and simultaneously liberating experience to meet yourself on a piece of paper. Even when you want to or try to lie to yourself (or about yourself), people who are paying close attention will recognize what’s going on below the surface. Real talk. No hiding from that. By the end of the week we couldn’t help but be engaged authentically with each other, as was made apparent in the notes people shared after reading portfolios and the meaningful, no-cost gifts we exchanged (including the priceless gifts of honesty and actively listening to each other throughout the week).

If you’ve never had a Moleskine journal, I promise it’s inspiring.

The other best part of class for me was doing free writes in my  (unlined) journal for the class. I truly love seeing people’s handwriting — including my own — because there is energy and emotion there, and I like to imagine the person doing the action of writing. Again, there is an individuality and concrete-ness to ink on paper that doesn’t exist on a computer, where I can cut/paste/delete at will, even dictate words to a smart computer, and everyone turns into Times New Roman. Now, by my own hand, I have this small collection of beginnings of things, some attempts at poetry, and some reflections all in one place. I can’t say specifically why it’s more special to me to have it handwritten (it would be more practical to have them typed already); it just is.

Last week I also thought often of why we need things like art and music and writing in the world: it teaches us empathy and reminds us that we all have our human imperfection in common. For the entire week I kept thinking about the stories behind the people at the grocery store, or why the checkout girl had a certain tattoo on her arm. I was mindful in a way that I forget to be sometimes when I’m with people I love the most, like Husband and family. I want to be that way more often — to be more aware that I am living my own story and in the stories of countless other people’s lives. What will we remember about each other when we meet again in the next life?

I find that when I really need guidance, God has this way of being super didactic in my life. But I’ll remind myself one more time to be sure: Be yourself. Be authentically you and no one else. Be confident in you and the stories you have to tell.

Yes. I will.


This word and I have been getting to know each other very well over the past few years. Transition: n. The process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another. The Latin prefix trans- means “across,” “beyond,” or “on the opposite side.” When I was teaching English, one huge marker of writing maturity to note was when students were able to transition smoothly between ideas within and among paragraphs. At school right now we talk all the time about how we are helping students transition from 6th to 7th grade, or from 8th grade to high school. In classrooms, experienced educators are aware of a need to budget transition time into lessons and plan how to transition from one activity to the next.

The transition from California to Alaska has been nothing short of an adventure. Last June, when I arrived, my only goal was to get here in one piece and try to stay in one piece while I adjusted mentally to leaving life in California behind. That turned out to be about as hard as I expected it to be, as it became very clear exactly how many miles I was from my best friends (excepting Husband, of course) and my family. We had the support of Husband’s parents as we crashed on one side of their house, but last summer still felt like limbo. Going into town regularly to work out at Crossfit Fairbanks was one of the few things that kept me grounded.

As summer faded (transitioned?) into fall, I could feel myself starting to get antsy. Because I hadn’t wanted to job hunt seriously when I initially showed up in Alaska, I started to worry that I had set myself up for a miserably dark, purpose-less first winter. Over time, thankfully, things fell into place, as they have a way of doing. All it took was for me to say to Husband, “I’m afraid I’m going to be bored,” and in a matter of weeks, seemingly, I was back to being in a normal state of busy-ness (which is sometimes better known as being over-committed). Working, coaching, curling, consulting, and more.

In mid-November I thought that I might attempt to harm Husband for bringing me to a place that is so physically demanding. This seasonal transition was abrupt: from a lovely extended fall season, we fell off into a week of 40-below temperatures and rapidly extending darkness. Were it not for curling and a real reason to get out of the house and socialize in the evenings, who knows how we would have survived the looooooong winter season. By early March I thought I was going to lose my mind and promptly planned to take a vacation to see friends in California late in April.

At last it is starting to be summer. They said on the radio yesterday that the official temperature in town was above 70 — yahoo! Today was the last day of this school year, and in about ten days we should be homeowners, barring any unforeseen complications. One would think that I should be relieved and overjoyed about getting closer to this elusive idea of “home” and being more settled. Somewhere under the layers of stress, I do feel those feelings. I am proud of myself for toughing it out this past year, at times very gracefully, and at times in tears. I get that all of those moments are a part of who I am and that they just are — neither good nor bad.

When I contemplate this Next Step, there is the exhilaration of finally renewing our independence and getting to fill a space with our energy, our love, our style. Along with that comes a reality check that we are investing in this location for a little while — who knows for exactly how long — and that is an idea that is still settling with me. I always thought that I’d grow up one day and have a house of my own, though I never pictured it way up here in the 49th state. But here’s what I have come to understand in the past 11 months: me being uncomfortable does not equate to me being unhappy. Being uncomfortable, being pushed outside of the box (whether it’s imagined or real) is often a necessary part of growth. Being unhappy usually has something to do with being afraid (of making a decision, of dealing with something, of not knowing what will come next, of what others think, etc, etc.)

This current time of transition is not easy, and I am working on giving myself the space to think about why. In the meantime, I will keep the following thought in mind, from another quote from Neale Donald Walsch in Conversations with God:

“Know and understand that there will be challenges and difficult times. Don’t try to avoid them. Welcome them. Gratefully. Cultivate the technique of seeing all problems as opportunities. Opportunities to…be, and decide, Who You Really Are.”

I’m Starting to Hate Lists

In general, I am a list maker. It gives me a fleeting sense of organization and control, whether that’s making a grocery list before heading to the store, writing out an errands list to spare myself making separate mini-excursions, or even working up a to-do list for the day as soon as I get to work. To me, these lists have immediate use for a few hours, maybe a day, and then they get tossed.

The reason why I am starting to hate lists (“hate” being a relative term, of course) is because I’m starting to feel insulted that a huge percentage of writers (journalists, bloggers, you name it) continue to bombard me, a reader, with lists. 5 Ways to Be a Nice Blogger. 10 Movies That You Should Go See. 7 Reasons Why This Team Will Beat That Team in the Playoffs. 6 Things I Learned When I Went to This Conference. 50 Things You Should Never Say to a Guy. (Cosmo, of course, is one of the worst offenders of The List, though the frivolity of their lists is obvious to most… I think.) As I mentioned up above, I use lists briefly, and toss them; thus, when I read a List that is supposed to be an Article, that’s what I do to that info — toss it. It’s like throw-away writing, except it’s published. Sad.

Don’t get me wrong. In the land of creative non-fiction, list-making has its place, and I understand that. I even appreciate it. It’s the ever-growing mass of public list-making acts that are seen as articles that are starting to stress me out unnecessarily. I actually like to read things that are written out in lovely paragraphs full of solid grammar and often deliciously delightful adjectives. I appreciate the art of a writer working hard to make a transition from one idea into the next one smoothly. Lists-turned-articles are a bit of a killjoy for me… As they are being presented in my universe lately, they seem to take the thinking out of thinking; to me this underestimates the abilities of literate folks altogether.

Yes, I also understand that people have limited time these days — limited time to write and limited time to read, especially if they’re reading from a 3.5-inch diagonal screen. Lists have a way of squeezing themselves neatly into that space, and maybe that’s what lots of people want/need in their day of digesting way way too much information in the first place. I get it. Even if I had some kind of smartphone (I don’t — it’s sort of fun to be a pseudo-Luddite), that’s not my ideal means of getting any sort of reading — even casually — accomplished.

For this girl, this English major at heart, I’m going to have to have to opt for other forms of written creativity. I don’t need to read daily treatises or Bible-length articles all the time (that’s what The New Yorker is for sometimes), but I need something greater than a list to generate my interest these days. To quote the timeless sarcasm of John Bender in The Breakfast Club: “Moe-Lay really pumps my nads.” That’s how I feel about lists right now. Maybe not forever, but definitely for the time being. In the future, I will signal a change of heart when I post a list of Reasons Why I Now Like Lists Again.

Packing & Unpacking

Anyone who has ever gone anywhere on a trip — even a little kid who goes to a sleepover for the first time — knows how difficult it is to pack a suitcase. Personally, I am a notorious over-packer because I’d rather have too many choices of things to wear than not enough, which includes having shoe options as well. I find unpacking to be equally unpleasant upon returning home, because it’s the final sign that whatever trip is over, and usually there’s laundry to be done, clothes to be rehung, etc. Not to mention staring at my suitcase sitting somewhere inconvenient (in the hall, next to the bed, by the door) until the unpacking is finished.

Last week, Husband and I — with the help of his parents — semi-frantically packed up all the belongings we had brought to our winter house-sitting gig in the span of under 48 hours. Earlier in the week it had started out fine as we slowly began staging boxes in the garage, but when our timeline was compressed unexpectedly, it quickly became painful.

Painful because the packing up process reminded me of doing the exact same thing less than a year ago. A year ago the majority of the packing up of our apartment in California was a solo gig, and Husband physically couldn’t be there to help because he was already working in Alaska. In my mind I kept thinking, “How many more times will we have to do this?”

Painful because I know in the end that it’s all just stuff… that all I really “need” is Husband and Wonderpup and probably the computer, too. But my clothes and shoes and accessories and other girly stuff — all the things that are possible to do without —  actually help me feel good on the outside. Most of the time that outside dressing simply matches me on the inside, and sometimes feeling good externally can change my mood internally.   It was hard to lose track of seemingly everything last week and worry about how I was even going to find something to wear  — even pajamas. Part of me feeling like myself is getting to choose how I present myself to the world each day.

Painful because I have a strong need to control my environment when things are happening that are beyond my control. This explains, in part, my typical level of organization. Lacking control around the packing process because of its speediness led to multiple meltdowns in the space of one afternoon.

Thankfully, the packing part is over for now. With any luck, in a few weeks we’ll be moving into a home of our own and be able to savor the process of unpacking and settling in. It just never ceases to be an emotional experience for me to see life wrapped and packed into stacks and stacks of cardboard and paper or thrown into baskets and crates. The visual mini-inventory of life in this form does not even begin to capture who we are as people or how much we grow and change in the time of living in a certain place.

But this is part of the process of being a grown-up, yes? Every once in a while, to take stock of the homes we’ve created, pack up the important stuff to take with us, and purge the things that have outgrown their use or no longer matter. To prioritize — sometimes re-prioritize — how we will value the people and things that populate our lives.

While it is not likely that I will ever enjoy the process of packing or unpacking, I will try to remember that it is  the act of traveling to new places and spaces — both physical and emotional, and however temporarily — that allows me to gain perspective.

Pain in the Neck

This is not an idiom that I have thought about very much since childhood, but recently it has been on my radar. It’s a very useful phrase in May inside a school building, because I can look at most of the faculty and staff and see on their faces that singular thought: “Right now my kids are a pain in the neck.” It’s a natural part of the struggle to get to the finish line of any school year.

Witness the universal gesture for feeling a pain in the neck.

Last Friday I went in to the box early to make up a shoulder press workout before teaching the usual 6am crew. I probably should have warmed up more, but I wanted to be finished with my session prior to the arrival of the morning class folks. On my second-to-last effort, I was straining a bit to make the 5th rep in working toward a 5-rep-max, broke down in form a bit… and almost immediately afterward felt a pain. A pain in the neck. That extended over the top of my right shoulder a bit. I wasn’t happy about it, but I knew it wasn’t an injury and that I would mobilize it and recover accordingly. (That’s why I carry a lacrosse ball in my purse, as the Oakland Airport learned when I traveled.)

That same day, I was working on the computer when Husband asked me to feel around Sounder puppy’s neck. “Feel that bump, or that lump?” he asked. No, actually, I didn’t want to feel it because Sounder is a crucial part of our small family unit and I didn’t want to think about even the remote possibility of him being sick. He kept rubbing and searching until he found it, near the upper part of Sounder’s right shoulder and near his neck area. “There, right there. Feel that.” I was able to feel it then, and I wondered, fleetingly, if Sounder puppy had a cancerous lump? My gut said no, but all weekend he was lethargic and sometimes even throwing up. Apparently, I was not the only one in the family who had a pain in the neck. Literally.

Yesterday Husband took the Wonder Bassett to the vet so she could examine his lump. She drew some fluid, seemed unfazed by the appearance of the lump, and prescribed antibiotics for it accordingly. She said his lethargy and upset stomach were probably related to his body coping with the lump, but it was not a cause for concern overall. Have him take his meds this week, she said, and bring him back on Friday. We’ll sedate him to clean his teeth, do the super toenail maintenance, and deal with his bump all in one fell swoop. Whew. Sigh of relief.

As of this afternoon, Sounder has had exactly three doses of his pill, which we give him with peanut butter (does that work with humans, too?), since he’s supposed to take one pill every twelve hours. Upon entering the house today, Sounder came bounding down the stairs with his tail in high gear, as if to say, “Mommommom! I’m better! I feel better!” Even this morning before work, Husband reported that the lump felt significantly smaller than yesterday. High five to effective antibiotics.

While he cruises along the road to recovery, at this exact moment in time, I have a metaphorical pain in my neck. This week we are packing up and cleaning up to move out of our house-sitting gig — my 3rd relocation in less than a year. One of my essay benchmarking consulting gigs has become… annoying, at least to me. We are anxiously and excitedly awaiting to find out if we will close on a home here within the next few weeks. Husband and I both are working on different new work opportunities that could lead us into completely different, unexplored territory in our respective professional lives. Even though it is clear to me that these changes are slanted heavily toward the positive, they still create stress. Thus the pain in the you know what.

Seeing Sounder bounce back, however, has renewed my hope that all will be well sooner rather than later. I imagine my “antibiotics” are going to have to come in the form of some good eats (hallelujah that it’s warm enough to grill at last!), good rest, and lots of room for deep breaths and silence to clear my mind. With an extra pinch of luck, and if taken in regular doses, my antibiotics should make the pain ball shrink just as speedily as Sounder’s did.

Sounder “perching” on the deck rail last summer.

Talent Show!

Last year I heard an educational speaker explain why the American phenomenon of school talent shows is incredibly important. While across the oceans other countries and cultures demand perfection and precision in all things, we here in the U.S. try to encourage kids’ creativity. It is not a prerequisite to be the best of the very best if you want to perform; you simply have to be brave and try.

When I was in second grade and fourth grade, I participated in the school talent show with my childhood best friend. We used to love to sing together on the school bus, and one of our favorite play games was “traveling” around her backyard to make it to our singing gigs. The stage, of course, was none other than the green electric box in her front yard, where we sang to our adoring imaginary fans. In second grade we delivered the well-known hit “Talk to Me,” as performed by Justine Bateman in the movie Satisfaction. (If you’ve never seen that movie or heard that song… don’t worry about it.) I can’t actually remember what we sang in fourth grade, and then maybe our school stopped having talent shows?? I can’t imagine why I would have stopped trying out.

Today the school where I work had its Talent Show 2012, an every-other-year event. It opened with a 3rd grader’s performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” as sung in a key that got close to the octaves only dogs can hear but remained perfectly on pitch throughout. Demonstrations of gymnastics and taekwondo followed, along with more musical performances — even another 3rd grader’s cover of Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot.” Preceded a few acts earlier by a rousing rendition of “Little Bunny Foo Foo,” sung by a kindergarten student in a lavender leotard. Awesome.

One of my favorite acts was the pre-school kiddo who did his gymnastics demo with the first verse of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” playing in the background. When he jumped and landed in the splits during the intro guitar solo, I was hooked.  I also loved the little first grader who demonstrated her ability to make a paper airplane. A little bit of physics for the masses, if you will.

Watching all of the students give the performers their full attention and seeing all of the parents and family members who showed up in the middle of the day was kind of incredible. Sure there were kids who sang off key and couldn’t sing on the beat. Yes the highlight of the sixth grade dance routine was watching the two girls crawl through the other’s bridge-up. And when it was all over, a sweet 3rd grader looked at me with her eyes shining and said, “There were some really awesome acts today.”

Even though the sometimes sarcastic and critical type-A part of me wanted to laugh a little at her earnest comment, I knew she was right. There were some extremely talented kids who performed, no doubt. And there were some average kids who performed. The “incredible” part for me was thinking about how much courage it takes to get up in front of one’s peers and perform, regardless of skill level. Public speaking, after all, still ranks as people’s #1 fear (at least in 2011), so I imagine that dancing, singing a solo, or doing anything else alone on a stage provokes a similar level of fear in most folks. All of the kids who performed today chose to share some other part of themselves that isn’t always highlighted in a classroom setting. I bet the singers — though nervous — were totally excited to sing in front of an audience. (I know from experience: I used to love to sing in front of my mirror at home with a hairbrush microphone. A jump rope also worked, as it imitated having to deal with a microphone cord.)

For all its varied level of “talent,” I absolutely loved the hour of my day spent watching the students perform. I’m also going to have to agree with the ed school professor who believes in talent shows. The band teacher/Talent Show MC summed it up best during his closing remarks: he encouraged all of the kids to explore all of their talents, to find out what they may like or be good at beyond academics because, he said, “you never know.” I think that we all want students to be original, to be open to new ideas, to feel like they have the permission to try anything at least once.

In this digital age, YouTube is like one huge international talent show; post a video and have an instant world-wide audience. But nothing quite compares to being live in front of your school, your classmates, and your parents all at once, because there are no edits or re-dos then.

So bring on the talent shows, I say. We’ve got some creativity to foster.

Cookie Cutter Life

I had a simple epiphany during this experience of future home shopping in this past month: I do not want a cookie cutter house. That is to say, I do not want to live in a newly-constructed house or condo that looks exactly (or close to exactly) like the next-door neighbor’s place. Would it be amazing to be the first owners of  a place? Certainly. But in searching for homes, I found myself more intrigued by all of the houses that had been lived in, the ones that had been personalized and loved already — even if it was sometimes hard to look past funky and/or odd decor choices.

I was explaining this to my friend last week when I was visiting California, and she fully agreed. Just like people, she said, who don’t want to have a cookie cutter kind of life. I translate that to mean that there is no neat, orderly path to a person’s life, nor should there have to be one. There are choices that lead to more choices; there are moments that feel like setbacks; there are lessons hammered into us by life until they are internalized and learned. And we are in charge of being creators and shape-shifters instead of cut-outs.

This idea of a call to change and evolve has been presented to me again and again in the past few months. Most recently this occurred at 10:30 am Mass last Sunday at Stanford — my only parish since leaving Cincinnati. Right now is the Easter season, and the priest talked about this in his homily. Lent is its own thing, he explained, a time of self-examination, preparation, cleansing. Easter, on the other hand, is a time of a renewal, a time to ask ourselves if we are going to remain exactly as we are (or were), or if we are going to allow our hearts and minds to be moved in new directions. In a moment of being touched by his words, my inner nerd couldn’t resist taking a few notes (there is, apparently, a first time for everything) on a scrap of paper. He went on to relate this to the idea of the two forms of “to be” in Spanish: ser and estar. One implies that something is permanent (i.e. Yo soy una mujer) and one can be changed (i.e. Estoy cansada hoy). He probed us further to reflect: What parts of you are fixed? And in what parts of your life will you allow yourself to be changed?

I was convinced that this man had somehow been spying on my life since last June when we moved to Alaska. Did he know how much I needed to and was ready to hear this message? The entirety of these past ten months has been nothing but change and adjustment… and I know there is more to come. But if I am grounded in my own sense of self, with the support of Husband and loved ones, then I can embrace change even when it creates discomfort or growing pains. If I never experienced those feelings, then I’d likely be stuck and/or too cozy in the cookie cutter zone.

In the homily, he also talked about falling in love. How in the midst of falling in love, we don’t even realize how much the other person is filling us up with light and energy (and vice versa), and how — together — we are changing the other person’s ways of being. And by the same token, when we grieve for something we’ve lost, we experience emptiness and literal pain in our hearts and bodies. Funny thing is, he said, a broken heart is an open heart. This was the part when I felt tears spring to my eyes… because I thought of myself and the people I love and the times our hearts have been broken. And more importantly, how each time we have been strengthened and able to take on a new challenge or a new relationship. The state of broken-ness is temporary, never fixed.

It took a week away from Husband and life in Alaska to recognize how much progress we have made, in our lives and our relationship, since we moved. Just as I know that we are not going to purchase a cookie cutter house, I also know that we are quite far from having a cookie cutter life. And we wouldn’t be ourselves if it were any other way.

A Tale of Two Birthdays

That's my dog - another essential part of my family, of course.

On my birthday last April 15, I was in a convention center-turned-ocean of volleyball courts at an away tournament in Reno. I was coaching the girls’ club team I had been with for the previous five years, and somehow I had been saddled with carrying in the ball carts and ball bags. Some accident of the way our carpools had shaken out, I think. There were about a bajillion volleyball teams there, plus the coaches of those teams, plus the parents and families of the players, plus the officials and tournament staff.

Husband was in Alaska starting his new job. My best friends were mostly in California or Ohio, living their regular lives. My immediate family was in Cincinnati and Philadelphia, respectively.

In spite of all of the people who were physically around me at the tournament itself, I felt so terribly alone. Now I’m not a huge birthday person — I don’t need to be showered with presents and feel the need to have big parties. But at the time I remember thinking to myself and telling Husband on the phone, “All I want right now is for someone who really loves me to hug me today.” I found myself crying and wishing to be anywhere else in the world near a loved one. (For the record, the day ended well and memorably, thanks to my fellow coaches, who insisted on birthday fun — I am grateful to them for that, more than they know.)

I wasn’t then, nor am I now, concerned at all about adding years to my life. With age comes wisdom that I cannot have any other way, and I appreciate that fact. But at the time and on that day, I was slightly petrified of the unknown future: how was I going to make it through 2.5 more months living apart from Husband? And finish packing up our apartment essentially by myself? And figure out where to live and what to do in Alaska once we did move? Thinking about all of that was overwhelming, and having a birthday only emphasized that feeling of inevitable, uncontrollable change.

Fast forward to this past Sunday, another April 15 in a new year. Husband and I were down in Anchorage, and we were curling together in a bonspiel (read: curling tournament) with family friends. After two victories and one loss, we lost our last game, but that was completely overshadowed by how much fun it was to do something together, to laugh and joke with our teammates and opponents alike at both the great and not-so-great shots. The drive home was beautiful, given the advent of Alaska spring and our 12+ hours of daylight that are continuing to increase each day. Plus we jammed to some of our old CD mixes in the car — does anyone even do that anymore? A simple day with my most favorite person — no gifts required.

We still have lots to figure out going forward, but right now I’m not petrified the way I was a year ago. I have had a year to learn the virtue of “surrender,” as my great friend just wrote to me, even while facing a whole plethora of new challenges and uncertainties. I actually have a better sense of myself now and an ever-growing appreciation for the gift that is my family community, made by blood and by bonds of love & friendship that time and distance apart only strengthen. I understand better that making crazy, unexpected leaps sometimes is just part of the process of living a full life. I remember telling my friends that my plan before moving to Alaska was to just “flow with the Universe,” and so far the results have been solid. What a difference a year can make.

Every birthday I am more certain that the present I always want and wish for is time with my family and friends. Sometimes that time comes on un-birthday days, and they are no less special then. Reading the cards that arrived in the mail today reminded me yet again that I already have everything I need: Love in its best forms. And that holds true no matter where I might be in the world on April 15.