Monday, April 15, 2013

Glutton for Punishment - Sometimes

I think I've mentioned here before that I'm some sort of an addict. Or, rather, maybe a glutton? (PS: Every time I say/hear "glutton" I think of Steel Magnolias: "You know, I used to think you were crazy for marrying that man. Then for a few years I thought you were a glutton for punishment. Now I know you must be on some mission from God." Anyone else? OK then.) I have a tendency to overdo things, but don't be alarmed. I don't shoot up too much heroin (or any heroin, at that) or even drink too much (well, not often, at least), instead I have a tendency to obsess over things to unhealthy extremes.

Example 1: If there are jellybeans in my home (especially of the Starburst variety) I will go out of my way to walk by those damned beans and grab a handful at least 20 times a day until they are gone. Or until I am sick - literally sick - and even then I might just chomp four or five more.

Example 2: If Sex & the City comes on TV, even if I've already seen that episode 20,453 times (note: I have seen them all 20,453 times), I will watch it anyway, and much to David's misfortune, I will quote every line and make the same sweeping proclamations I always make (to no one in particular): "I mean HOW do you decide between Big and Aidan - HOW? They're both flawed and perfect. Gush. I mean, don't get me wrong, I'm Team Big for life, but..." (Poor David).

Example 3: If there are chips of any kind in my home, see Example 1.

But it's not all bad, rot-your-brain/teeth stuff. Sometimes I get hooked on good things, too. Reading great books is a good example of this. As an editor who spends 70% of the work day squinting at a manuscript or article, I often struggle to read on week nights without feeling like my eyes are going to bleed. (Ouch.) So I strive for weekend reading after my eyes have gotten a bit of rest, and once I'm hooked on a good story, I tell my ole' eyes to man up, and just completely let go, loosing myself in the lives of the characters, the worlds created and enhanced with every turning page.

I cry a lot in books, does this happen to you? Sometimes it even happens when nothing sad or moving took place - I just "come to" and find myself clutching the edges of the book, tears streaming, lost in avenues of the story. Sometimes I cry because I love a character so much, or because I can relate to something someone is going through so strongly it takes my breath away. Then there is the "Oh shit, there are only 10 pages left," realization cry. The toddler-style stomping tantrum, "But I don't waaaaaaaa-aant it to end! WAH!" I'm just that bratty (and proud of it).

Of course the reading thing gives way to getting hooked on one specific author. My most extreme obsessions over the past few years have been Jhumpa Lahiri and Jonathan Franzen. My love for Jhumpa was sparked back in college when David sent me one of her short stories "A Temporary Matter," and things got extreme when I finally got my hands on Interpreter of Maladies, her first collection of short stories. My appetite grew more intense with every bite. Unaccustomed Earth. I was completely submerged in this collection; I never came up for air. OK, maybe once. Then, after seeing the movie, I read The Namesake, and surprised myself with how much I connected to this story of place, belonging, responsibility, tradition, family, and love. Impossibly, my best friend invited me to hear Jhumpa read several ago at an event in Washington, DC. I was so nervous that I refused to get my book signed, and David had to drag me in line and basically hold me up and tell me to breathe. (Poor David again.) I am anxiously awaiting her next piece, and I strongly encourage you to check out her stuff!

I also discovered my old friend (I wish) Jonathan Franzen while in college. (I've written about this very much loved/not-loved man and my obsession with him previously.) He was a guest at a yearly creative writing event and he read an excerpt from "My Bird Problem." I was immediately dead. I searched for it for years. I thought about it all the time, but I couldn't figure out what the essay was and how to get a copy. It wasn't until Freedom came out that I was finally able to track it down. I re-read the article, printed it out, saved it in a file, read Freedom (wept), reread my favorite essay from How to Be Alone, read The Corrections, read Freedom again (wept again), and now I'm reading Strong Motion, a novel set in Boston that makes me miss my friend Emily Brown. From here, I think I'll check out The Twenty-Seventh City then sit and pray for another book to come out - and maaaaybe read Freedom again. I honestly cannot get enough of this man. So many people don't like him and can't relate to his writing, but I feel like every line was written for me - isn't it magical how that can happen?

So I might eat too much, whine too much, and expect too much from people, but at least here, in this reading space, I know I am exempt from judgment or criticism. I am free to lose myself in these moments of throat-pinching, head-nodding, soul-stirring understanding. That feeling - knowing that you can be seen in the truest sense, that you are loved, and - despite the moments of darkness and uncertainty - that you are not alone.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Forward Motion

I don't know if I've ever mentioned it in this space, but growing up we moved a lot. My two older sisters were born in Alexandria, Va, my little sister Whitney and I were born in Beverly, Mass., and the next four siblings were born in the Berryville/Winchester, Va area. In all, I moved nine times when I was still living under my parents' roof(s).

Given the sheer size of our family and the frequent moves, the ability to "roll with it" was ingrained in each of us from an early age. We learned to share, look out for one another, make our own fun, step up for responsibility, play our part, and have good attitudes no matter the circumstances. If mom was out of town on a business trip, we stepped up to help dad brave the weekend. If plans changed at the last minute, we got creative to preserve our fun. If we got to church and someone forgot underwear, one of us was wearing an extra pair over ours "just in case." (This actually happened once.) We learned to be prepared, and sometimes not ask questions, and other times to hop up and hold on when we were needed. We learned that change - like a move, cancelled plan, divorce - is inevitable, so make the best of it.

As I've grown into a woman, my ability to act in accordance with this statement has dissolved and reappeared and then dissolved again from time to time. I wouldn't say I am always someone who has "a cooler head," or takes a step back from a stressful situation to process things, or even breathes deeply in and out before speaking. Frankly, I would say I'm hardly ever that person, because struggle, by nature, isn't easy. Facing uncertainty or the guarantee of hard times ahead causes all of us to falter once in a while. Change is scary, and as much as you might be someone who loves that nomad lifestyle, of that shiny something new just around the corner, we all have that degree or level of change, of flux, that sets us into free fall.
Maybe you love the idea of moving from rental to rental every year - new rooms to paint and decorate, a new route to work, new neighbors. Or maybe it's work - you don't like staying anywhere too long for fear of getting soft and out of touch. Maybe it's your hair. But the likelihood that you enjoy all of those things constantly is probably pretty small.

Because, to me, constant change can equal a lack of stability. A missing element in the equation of a life. Of course there are exceptions; there always are. There are perfectly balanced and happy nomads out there, and we love them. They inspire us to let go of routine just a bit more, they represent a quest for personal freedom within all of us.

But still we face this problem of change in an area that we're not so comfortable. As the course of life redirects - sometimes abruptly, sometimes slowly over time - we feel ourselves losing control and therein faith in ourselves. I could do THAT even though it was hard, but I CANNOT do this. There is just no way. As the rope of control slips more quickly through our fingers, we cling to every fiber even harder, just hoping to retain a bit of the "way it was," the comfort of that well-worn daily routine.

In the abrupt switch, the without-a-choice switch, it's more like waking up at the end of that dangling rope - perhaps it's even drenched in oil - and before you can muster the strength to heave upward, its already out of your hands. Its gone. A not-so-distant memory. You're falling - it's a fact. You can accept it or flail until unconsciousness. I think the pain of accepting it is part of the process - of the sometimes sadistic beauty of change. You have to believe that eventually you're going to land somewhere - pavement, water, a mountainside, jagged rocks. Something is going to break your fall - and maybe even your back - but the fall will eventually stop, and in this metaphor there is no death, so you will live to see another day. I know it sounds so basic, but I think truly embracing your situation is one of the hardest things we humans go through.

It might take you years to get back to that place, that peak where you once stood - and even if you make it back, you might wake up on the end of that rope all over again, but you have to believe the journey is worth it. That forward motion is growth - be it struggle, change, heartache, uncertainty - and if you're standing still, you're wasting time, talent, creativity, skill, faith. So what's better - to hang in stasis or fall with the chance to climb again - this time with the knowledge of a seasoned climber?

We can't control what happens to us, but we can control how we deal with those things. Facing great adversity, we can give up or we can choose to dig in our heels, cry out to the heavens, brace ourselves for the worst of it, and hang on for dear life.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Rah-Rah-Rah OR The Cheerleading Act

Do you know me a little bit? Have you had a drink with me once or sat in a class with me, worked alongside me, played sports (what?) with me, or ever laid eyes on me?

Then you know I'm not the cheerleading type. I don't have the stamina for it - especially when it comes to the "RAH factor" and the flexibility. Also the body type. (Let's not go there.)
The RAH factor
But, guess what? Sometimes, as they say, life happens and you're stuck holding the baton (do cheerleaders have batons? Yes, I am THAT out of touch) - or the pom-poms (there we go) - charged with cheering your heart out, at the top of your lungs, waving your arms, anything to drown out the defeaning cry of the negativity gremlins on the side lines:







They're loud and they never tire. And they're always ready at a moment's notice to knock your door down and bring you to tears.

Screw the gremlins, I say in my best high-pitched voice. It sounds almost peppy. Almost.

I don't belong here on the sidelines - even in high school, I was the girl in the top left corner of the stands, or way back in the back behind the snack bar (typical). The closest I got to the "action" was sneaking a quick hello to my marching band boyfriend who sat in the stands (again, typical). I have never been an up-close-and-in-your-face kind of girl. I wasn't born with the RAH factor. I was born with the "roll with it" middle child factor.The impossibly-tall-and-yet-shy-and-introverted factor. The walk softly and carry a big notebook sort of quiet observer. Seeking peace, not battle. Never very good at competition.

Peaceful girls play the flute
I made a habit of turning everything into a joke from an early age. My grandfather used to call me "JK" because I was constantly picking on my little sister as he drove us to and from elementary and middle school. I developed a fondness for the nickname and went with it. I learned to hide behind humor, sarcasm, cynicism to cope with things that made me feel threatened, or scared, or alone. I became the anti-RAH girl. I silently hated the RAH girls - and maybe a part of me still does. There's always been something unauthentic about it to me. The fact is, there isn't always something to be RAH about.

This is part of my personal code - in the words of Rocky "this world ain't all sunshine and rainbows" and while I love a sunny day and a sweet rainbow as much as the next gal, I also know part of life is accepting the stormy weather, too. Perhaps that gives context to my one and only tattoo - Donne-Moi La Verite - "Give Me Truth," in my beloved French. It was an uncharacteristically rash decision on my 21st birthday, and I'll admit there was a bit of liquid courage involved, but I've never regretted it. It's true. I want the truth - with all of its cracks and ugliness - hard and fast. Doesn't matter how bad it is. I only like sugar coating on frosted mini wheats (bumper sticker, anyone?).

And this is why I'm not the best at cheerleading. But - listen up - sister has her spanky shorts on, folks. Sister is warming up the old vocal chords and twirling the baton at lightening speeds. And by the time I'm finished, this team will have WON the game, the finals, STATE, and, hell, maybe we'll be the first imaginary team to make it to the gosh-darn Super Bowl. 

V-I-C-T-O-R-Y Vince Lombardi wrote our battle cry: "I firmly believe that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle - victorious."

Now THAT is something I can get behind.

Because sometimes you have no other choice. Sometimes you're the only one in the stands and you're facing great loss. Victory seems impossible with seconds left on the clock. The team - your team, your everything - is looking to you for reassurance, for support, for encouragement. Sometimes, magically, life finds a way of drawing the RAH out of you. Sometimes the RAH is the only way to get through it - despite all of your own worries, and fears, and struggles, despite your trembling hands. You feel yourself beginning to lean into the pain of it all, finding that buried belief you knew was always there. With each RAH, you feel your words sparking movement, forward motion, and - before you know it - your speed is picking up. You've taken the hits and made your way back to your feet - you're moving again.

So, go team, etc. And in the immortal words of best-ever Friday Night Lights: Clear eyes - Full hearts - Can't lose.

Take 'em to church, Coach.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Operation: Love This House

Lately I'm overwhelmed by just how much I quietly compare within the confines of my own mind. I scroll through Instagram, through Pinterest, and think Wouldn't that be nice? Even before I get a chance to think, Wow, how relaxing, I jump in with the gimme-gimmes.

Growing up, my mother was constantly saying Don't compare. Don't compare your shoes. Don't compare your hair. Don't compare your family. Don't compare your clothing. Don't compare your looks.

Sorry mom and everyone else: I've never been good at it. I'd like to think I have been an OK sister and daughter. A decent friend. And eventually, a considerate girl friend, classmate, coworker, you name it. I have found the time to speak my mind, or bite my tongue. To work hard with my head down, flexible to jump in when needed. To offer a kind word in comfort, a much-needed hug. But I've always been a compare-er. Sometimes silently, sometimes - as D can attest - not so silently.

Why is it so easy for her? Must be nice. All she has to do is blink and look perfect. I wish I had that life. Why do I have to stand next to her? Why do I always look tired? Why can't I keep my house clean like she can?!

I know it's wrong and that makes it worse. I dive in with negativity and then beat myself up for my automatic reaction. But that's beside the point - sort of.

The house was never ideal.

I found it in a rush, a moment of panicked flight, and would have signed the lease before I even got to see it. It was a house - clean enough - and I could afford it (sort of). I moved in in May of 2009 and have lived there ever since. I spent the first night alone in the house, scrubbing down the filthy cabinets and floors. I was so nervous that first night that I drank a few glasses of wine (read: the bottle) and passed out clutching Marlee with Sex and the City blaring from my TV on the floor.

Again, not ideal.

But engagements, wedding planning, the first few days of marriage, the frightening "What were we thinking?!" hours of a new doggie addition, the first days of new jobs, the long and hard days going to and from a job we hated, very tight financial times, better times, sad times, and hysterical late night dance party times - all have been housed in our little pale blue townhouse on Lancaster Square.

So why do I resent it so much? Why do I look at the small kitchen and pinpoint every flaw: the floors are old and scratched, the cabinets are dull and dingy, the appliances are older than I am, there isn't enough natural light, the faux-wood counters are starting to chip, it's drafty. Why don't I look at that house that I've built myself in - that I've built a family in - and feel a twinge of love in my heart?

Because I compare.

I see the back yard - void of sunlight - and kick clumps of mud and mulch with disdain. I crush the plastic bottle between my fingers as I pick up pieces of trash that have fallen out of recycling bins and trash cans and litter the space. Why can't you be a sprawling green lawn that is perfectly mowed and overflowing with dense vegetation and flowers for which I have the perfect green thumb to maintain?

I stare at my knees - jutting out like soft, round sand dunes - as I slump in a too-small tub. I stare at the chipped walls, inhale the musty smell and try to clear my mind - embrace stillness. I light a candle.

But all I can think of is a jacuzzi tub overlooking a lush, scenic green valley. The sparkle of candles dancing all around the edge as the jets pulse into my skin. The way that life would feel on my skin.

If you know me at all - or if you've ever read this blog before - you probably know I'm "one of those self-improvement kick" people. I can't really speak to whether or not any of the things I try ever actually work, but hey, at least I'm trying, right?

Well here goes another. Due to some indefinite circumstances, we won't be moving away from Lancaster Square for a while as we had hoped. We started a house search a few months ago, but that's been put on hold for a while.

Cue the title of this post - Operation: Love this House. Now, if I compare, I must act - instead of wallowing, I must get to work to improve myself and my situation.

I'm going to do it, dammit. I'm going to shut my comparing mind up and get to work. I'm going to do everything in my power - mind, body, and soul - to love this little 800-square-foot house with a blue door. This house that never did anything to hurt anybody, except just being a little shabby and regular. I don't know what I've been waiting for.

 “Home is home, though it be homely.-English Proverb

Already this year I've been consumed by the notion that "we can do hard things," and in order to live a life of meaning and purpose, we must strive to dare greatly - in the big things and the little things, too. So, in the words of Kelle Hampton, I'm going to rock this out and see where it takes me.



 Wish me luck.