Grit and Pearl: Past Choices through a Both/and Lens

Most of my family is gathering at my parents’ house for Memorial Day weekend, including my youngest brother who’s visiting from New York City. I look forward to seeing him, of course, and hearing his twenty-something adventures amidst the pulse of a city as ever shifting as New York. At the same time, his stories serve as a mirror—reflecting back to me a parallel life I did not live.

When I first left for college, I thought I’d graduate into a life writing and editing from a sunlit, book-strewn studio in the city. I made other choices, one after the next carrying me further from that life, but the idea of that life— and the energy and excitement that life might’ve forged— never fully faded. A deep groove of what-if carved its way across my memory. The “memory” of what-if is triggered here and there because it’s never been covered over in my mental map the way other, lesser-desired paths not taken have been.

A handful of those what-ifs remain and, when triggered, rub a bit against the groove, reminding my neurons of this pathway’s existence and creating anew a tiny heartbreak for the choice I did not make, for that life I did not lead.

I keep hoping each instance of this will, instead of a deeper groove, smudge it out, so I’m not still sitting here wondering each May when I see high schoolers in shimmering ball gowns and up-dos why no one ever asked me to a single school dance.

Why isn’t it like the grit of sand to pearl or the river rock smoothed by the current? Is it just that gradual of a process that perhaps my what-ifs are shifting into something else so slowly that I won’t notice the change until it’s staring me right in the face?

I harbor the grit of sand for now, not because I’m sure I’m forming potential pearls of unknowable worth, but because the grit of sand found its way in and remains with me, a bittersweet abrasion that is the discomfort of growth, of transformation.

Maybe I have been looking at it all wrong. Maybe the unlived lives aren’t etched wounds in my memory but small grains of promise that I should cherish and hold delicately because they will at some point reveal themselves to be beautiful pearls gleaming in the sun just as brightly as any prom dress or city skyline.

Am I Another “Anti-hero”?

Since last writing, my family and I spent two weeks traveling through Portugal and Spain. I expected to return filled with a renewed zest for life the way traveling usually does for me, but instead I came home exhausted and ready for a solo vacation (that, of course, wasn’t possible due to the return to reality). 

I continue to find ways to hit refresh but then feel frustrated and let down when they don’t yield the effect I’m longing for. Even though I love to write, sometimes I shy away from writing a post because instead of typing an exciting “Top 10 Sites in Lisbon” or “The Best Beaches in the Algarve”, I surface the same stuck truths like a broken record. I continue to ask myself how it can be that I can appreciate beauty and simple pleasures in the everyday but then not have that add up to a satisfied life. I worry everyone is bored of hearing about my journey to joy and are thinking I need to suck it up, quit complaining, and appreciate my blessings, like it’s that easy.

Maybe it’s an instance where I’d like to pawn off the blame on my parents and teachers for convincing me at an impressionable, young age that I could be anything I want and achieve anything I set my mind to. That’s a load of pressure to haul up a mountain of expectations for a life. Most of it is my own fault for setting expectations that are unrealistic for a lack of financial flexibility and years with young children, especially a toddler. Or maybe I’m not applying myself with enough discipline and motivation. Am I another T. Swift “Anti-hero” sabotaging my own efforts to do more with my life in failed attempts to be happy in the present? What an annoyingly heartbreaking catch-22 to spin around in. 

I tread water in the eddy as the tide surges in with contentment and then ebbs back out again with restlessness. I’m stuck with this area because of split custody parenting, stuck with the house and car because interest rates spiked just enough to make a different purchase unaffordable, and I’m stuck with my job due to the hope of student loan forgiveness and job security. I’m stuck with my toddler, adorable as he is, because having a second child was a choice I made. As much as I struggle to recall how I got on board with it, I did. I actively chose it along with everything else I’ve chosen. 

Each choice has led me to this life I’ve built. It’s not one of bold, daring choices but safe ones that landed one after the next because they made sense at the time. I think we can’t help but make decisions this way because it’s so hard to see past the choice right at hand–losing sight of the horizon because the patch of sand ahead looks nice enough.

It hits in small ways, tugs at me, that ache for more. I took such care to decorate our house, but now that I want to rearrange, the furniture doesn’t seem like it’ll work in any other location than the one I planned for. I can only manipulate small details. Will reworking those accumulate like a magic trick that covers my perception in a rosy glow? When I become aware of the rosy filter, I worry I won’t remember how to see my beautiful life as beautiful. I need to level set my expectations, but I also don’t want to. I might be in my late 30s, but I feel young and full of dreams for myself and my future. How does one find their way through the dark, winding paths or move past the inertia of a settled life?

I started wearing lipstick again and have been writing in a gratitude journal at night. I practice yoga on Sundays and signed up for a dance class this summer. I cleared off the kitchen counters and opened the windows to circulate fresh air into the stagnant space. I can breathe in deeply and feel the early spring sun on my face even if the air is chilly and there are dust motes in the sunlight.

What I’ve Learned about Marriage—So Far

*Dedicated to my one & only in celebration of our anniversary

  1. Apologize sooner. Get comfortable with the uncomfortable feeling of saying “I’m sorry.”
  2. Also get comfortable saying, “I was wrong.” It gets easier and keeps defenses down.
  3. Learn your partner’s egg and toast preferences early on, so little annoyances about runny eggs or burnt toast don’t accumulate.
  4. Kiss goodbye like you mean it.
  5. Spoon in bed even if it makes the middle of your mattress sag prematurely.
  6. Keep household chores as balanced as possible so neither person finds themselves tallying their tasks against the other.
  7. Split tasks by who dislikes (maybe even likes?) them a little less, so they’re more likely to get done and be mildly more enjoyable.
  8. Make time for date nights, even if they’re at home after the kids are in bed. It’s important to spend time focusing on each other.
  9. Say “I love you” as often as possible. You really can’t say it too much.
  10. Sacrifice occasionally to compromise on food, movies, and shows. A couple boring hours or a bland meal is not worth an argument or the cold shoulder.
  11. Have sex often enough to remember why you want to but not so much that it feels like an obligation.
  12. Maintain a united front for the kids and the world. Resolve issues when there’s time to work through them in a private, productive way.
  13. Along those lines, work out issues as a couple rather than venting the small stuff to friends and family who might let it taint their perception of your partner.
  14. Dance in the kitchen whether a slow dance or a silly jig; it’s a pleasant reminder to keep the fun and romance alive.
  15. Hold hands and flirt like the relationship is still brand new. We do not grow tired of feeling adored.
  16. Talk through conflict when you’re still dealing with a single, identifiable issue instead of “letting things go” but actually fester beneath the surface until it’s an explosion of every grievance you’ve ever had.
  17. If you fight, keep it about the issues and not the person. Preserve their self-worth because everyone harbors insecurities and feels vulnerable. 
  18. Find out what lights up your partner and try to bring more of those joys into their life.
  19. Strive to build up your partner rather than tear them down. The unavoidable letdowns in life do enough of this already. Be each other’s cheerleader.
  20. Listen. Set aside what you’re doing, make eye contact, and really pay attention.
  21. If you fight in front of the kids, make sure they see you come back together to make up and apologize. This way they learn you can calm down from the heated emotions while you model what it looks like to come full circle through the conflict and forge an even stronger relationship.
  22. Leave surprise love notes or little gifts just because. They can be more meaningful than something given for an anniversary or birthday because they let the other know you were thinking of them even when it wasn’t expected.
  23. Also treat yourself to the book, flowers, or shoes, so you’re not putting all the pressure on your partner to meet every need and want.
  24. Fully commit. Every day. In moments of frustration, disappointment, anger, or apathy, recall your fondest couple memory to remind yourself why you’re blessed to still have the person by your side. If you’re fully committed, you’ll be a better partner, loving a little deeper and truer. And that makes all the difference.

Slowing the Spinning Helix

The sun dips lower behind the pine trees, no longer casting shimmering reflections on the snowy porch of the cabin I’ve rented for a personal retreat, a getaway I’ve needed more than I acknowledged.

The past two years of raising a baby/toddler and persisting through work drama and transitions have taken such a toll on my spirit. Each day is a hurtling through one rushed blur into distraction, worries swirling, relentlessly tired, chronically stressed, and resentful of the upswings that don’t seem to be coming. I have been restless, thinking of ways to rearrange furniture or the feasibility of selling the house and moving up north. Melancholia looms, and a deep longing seeps from the underside of my skin. Each day is a spinning helix of emotion and want, and only a fragile mental harness holds me from free fall.

My dreams have become so vivid and unsettling. I’ve dreamt of someone asking me if I want to write a poem, of sex in stolen moments, of Finn whining outside my door, of my husband looking at me like he needs more than I can give. My conscious and subconscious mingle in the fog.

All I wanted was to start 2023 full of joy and celebrating everything for which I have to be grateful, but heart has been too heavy. I’m so blessed and privileged, which I try not to take for granted, but I can’t shake the weight of it all. I need a way out of the bitchy, whiny, tired version of myself. I need to move the needle along the spectrum of change, and so at the expense, guilt, and sacrifice of my supportive husband, I’m in the woods for solitude and introspection.

I’m journaling through the murky depths inside to make sense of why I’ve carried insecurity, jealousy, envy, judgment, and an incessant need for reassurance and affection my whole life. I continue working to replace old thought patterns that no longer serve me with ones that reflect trust, security, confidence, abundance, and unconditional love.

As much as I want to jump right to the glowing pieces of my life and the simple pleasures of this solo weekend away from it all, I recognize that would be doing myself a disservice. I have to examine the dark bits and try to shine a light on everything that’s been holding me back, all that I need to unlearn.

I find myself remembering and churning up the hurt and disappointment of failed relationships, unrequited love, fading friendships, and the taut threads to my family that seem ready to snap, all the ways we’ve played roles but no longer know how (or want) to play. The ways we keep each other from growing and from understanding each other as we are today. My need for love and belonging hums through each thread of my life, but my need to pull people close plays tug of war with my need for solitude.

At what point will my husband and children resent my need for time alone or internalize it as a fault of their own? Where’s the line between what’s okay to give myself at the expense of what others expect of me or what they deserve? When does saving myself by reclaiming my rights to my days become overwhelmingly selfish?

So many questions lie before landing on a resolution. I reread Sabrina Ward Harrison’s books and realize how ingrained her voice is in me, how often her words surface in me, her experience a palimpsest over my own. It’s a comforting reminder that there are others out there feeling their way through it all, hoping for true connection by being authentic and vulnerable.

That’s all I’ve ever aimed to be, but it’s a tough ask in a world that begs only for the cheeriest, most polished and successful aspects of ourselves. Though we all have internal struggles, blah days (or years), and rollercoaster moods, for some reason we only want to see the beautiful, accomplished people with their curated versions of their lives shining brighter than our own.

I’d like to see more of the raw, bare facets of people, see where our angles intersect. I want to find where my own jagged edges align with others and how we might, together, form a puzzle where each odd-shaped piece is perfect and necessary to complete the whole.

The Messy Art of Lost Friendships

It’s my former friend Josh Campbell’s birthday. I still remember that, still think of him and how terribly abrupt the dissolution of our friendship was. I had no clue when he stormed out of my parents’ house that January day that he was storming out of my life forever. Here I am, sixteen years later, still searching for closure. I want to understand how a friendship like ours could just end in an instant.

We spent countless hours together talking at the library, in the car, at the park, in the halls. When he went to jail, I wrote him letters and even visited him. Before that I followed him into strangers’ apartments far outside my comfort zone because I trusted him that much. I trusted he had my back because that’s exactly the kind of thing he’d say to me. He also said things that provoked me and forced me to dig deeper for my whys and expand my sheltered white teen girl thinking. No one before or since has ever challenged me that way, and I know I’m a better person because of it.

I miss him and our conversations, even after all these years. I have hoped at some point we’d find each other in the same coffee shop line or in the same aisle at the store. Maybe he doesn’t live in Wisconsin anymore. Or worse, maybe he went back to jail, as our system is set up for recidivism rather than true rehabilitation (though that’s a whole topic for another day).

He was just a kid entering the system at a time when “neurodiverse” wasn’t coined, when mental health raised brows, not funds. He was smart and wrote beautiful poetry that was poignant and heartbreaking. He was so raw, so utterly, resolutely himself.

In a strange way, I envied him his mood swings, troubled past, and his rebel nature for all the story and emotional weight it carried at a time when my life was, of course, privileged and good, but felt to my teenage self bland and devoid of the grit I needed to be a real writer with worthwhile things to say. While I could speculate that based on surface level stereotypes, Josh likely envied my life, I don’t believe it. He owned everything that he was in a way I’m still learning to do.

Several years ago I wrote an essay about how Josh changed me, and now I guess I’m writing another one—because it’s true and because I’m still hoping somehow he’ll stumble upon my words and remember the incredible friendship we had, that maybe my words will bridge time and distance to carry him back to me.

Ski Lessons from My Middle Schooler

A couple days ago my eleven-year-old son wanted to spend his morning off of school, not sleeping in, not even playing video games, but coming along with me to a coffee shop to sip lattes, read, and chat. He prefers a plain latte in a mug with the only additive a design in the foam. He finished reading a prose poem book, which had me flashing back to age 13 or so reading Out of the Dust. He spoke to me of the merits of certain shows, saying phrases like, “There are some core aspects…”

He has always been precocious, and now his “old man” persona continues as a joke among his friends. I look at him with his shaggy hair that he refuses to cut, how it nearly hides his beautiful blue eyes and long eyelashes, and wonder how he is so self-possessed. He’s not so young as to be brazen and unaware of outside influence, but he’s so sure of all he loves and all he wants to dive into with curiosity (and a little too sure of all he thinks he knows). On the one hand, I see so much of myself reflected in him–an odd comfort–but there are the bolder, braver, and self-assured pieces in him that bewilder me as to how they’ve come to be.

We went skiing that afternoon off school, and as I was not-so-quietly grumbling about how afraid I was to go down the bunny hill, how nervous I was to injure myself, he was coaching me through it– how everyone falls, but you have to get back up and try again. He reminded me how scared he was when he was learning, too, and now if he falls, he just tries again. I wanted to scold him for throwing this semi-condescending advice in my terrified face, but why must directions only go from parent to child and not the reverse? Simply being younger doesn’t preclude one from an ability to offer instruction or advice if they’ve been through it themselves. It was humbling to hear the tough love from my middle schooler, but it did the trick. I proceeded down the hill…very slowly.

I admire my son’s fearlessness, or, more likely, ability to overcome his fears, and his confidence the way you might admire an elder, some sage who’s garnered the wisdom of years. Yet here I am, glowing with maternal pride that I must’ve done a thing or two right in this motherhood marathon to raise, support, and encourage him to grow more and more into his true self. He doesn’t seem limited by insecurity or anxiety the way I am and always have been. So, as silly as it seems, I’ll continue looking to him for cues about how to build my own confidence and face down my fears, like when I crested that snowy hill and felt immobilized but was able to forge ahead.

It’s important to notice this gift that we can find wisdom, inspiration, and guidance in unexpected places if we’re paying attention. We will only catch it if we’re present and receptive, like when I wanted to block out my son’s remarks but let them propel me down the hill instead. On this lifelong learning journey, I intend to remain open to advice and role modeling wherever I find it, even if it’s from the goofy kid smiling at me from beneath his bright orange knit cap.

38 Things I’d Say to My 18-year-old Self

Today is my 38th birthday. While not yet “old” according to my middle schooler, 38 is an age that holds substance, an age that denotes an expected accumulation of wisdom, grace, and experience. By now the missteps should’ve been examined, deemed to be worth something in the big picture.

I’m under no impression of having it all figured out because I know I have so much more life to live, so much room to grow. I don’t even know all the things I don’t know or how things will piece together as days and weeks turn into months and years. Who knows where I’ll be in my journey in another ten or twenty years? The abundance of possibility is thrilling.

I continue to swell with gratitude and hope. There is a satisfying relief and contentment that stems from knowing it all works out, that everything that’s happened to me was meant to be that way. Despite this, if I could dive through a time portal to twenty years ago to offer my 18-year-old self some guidance, I would say:

1. You are not as lost and alone as you feel as your high schools years come to a close and your college plans are upended. You will find your feet one step at a time.

2. The bleached blonde hair is not a good look, won’t look better later in pictures, and will be extremely hard to dye over.

3. Stay active. Don’t give up on the dancing and golfing; you will miss them dearly and find losing excess weight challenging.

4. Savor the late nights of parties, midnight movies, and Perkins runs. Early morning demands make late nights painful as an adult.

5. Thank your AP Physics partners that carried your tired ass to an A.

6. Appreciate your final semester of senior year for all its “glory day” fun and friendship. Sadly, adulthood isn’t teeming with gut-busting, knee-slapping laughter.

7. Don’t ride home in cars with drunk drivers. Period.

8. Tell your sister her late-night brownies were the perfect welcome home wind down.

9. Enjoy all the free movies while working at the theater. That cinema experience will be costly later.

10. The rejection of uninterested romantic pursuits will fade, and one day you will be happily married to your true love.

11. On that note, don’t settle for men who don’t prioritize you and aren’t a match for all your love and value.

12. Read more books. It’ll be hard to squeeze in time once you have kids.

13. Put that graduation money in an IRA and let it be.

14. Don’t take out so much in student loans. Interest rates and graduating in 2008 will make paying them off an insurmountable task.

15. Consider all your financial steps carefully; the debt will weigh on you in a big way.

16. Do not leave college out of fear of what you’re leaving behind. You’ll never know what could’ve been.

17. The boy who seemed all-consuming meant something real but doesn’t deserve all those thoughts and tears.

18. Keep smiling. It will be the secret to your charm.

19. Keep writing. It will take you years to find your way back to the page, but it’s part of your authentic self.

20. Continue sketching and painting. Those artistic hobbies are first to go when strapped for time but hold open the door to your creative soul.

21. Spend more time with your siblings. It will be rare to all be in the same house, and you will somehow miss the chaos.

22. Stroll through Rotary Gardens more before they start charging an entry fee. Time in nature is good for your spirit.

23. Start taking Vitamin D in fall and winter to keep SAD at bay.

24. Hold your close friends close. Once time and distance grows, it’s hard to restrengthen those ties, but they are anchors to your growing, dreaming self.

25. Revel in concerts with swaying lighter flames instead of cell phone flashlights.

26. Fall in love with yourself first. You can’t properly love another or allow yourself to be truly loved until you love yourself.

27. Cut the insecure comments. You look just fine in a bikini.

28. Say yes more often than you turn to the automatic no. Stay open to possibility.

29. Spend more time in bookstores and coffee shops. You’ll long for more time there when you’re older.

30. Be braver in trying new things and find ways to expand your horizons sooner, so you’re not learning to ski and ice skate at 38.

31. Travel more. Travel is the best education you’ll ever receive.

32. Believe in your beauty. Confidence looks good on you.

33. When you’re socially taxed, leave the party early or sneak some solo time. Your introverted self and all the people you would’ve been short with will appreciate it.

34. Take time to slow down and breathe. Very few things are worth the stress of rushing.

35. Hold onto your rickety, red 60s Schwinn bicycle. you won’t find another bike as comfortable or joyful to ride.

36. Stop worrying so much about what others think of you. Everyone is too busy on their own path to spend time focusing on you.

37. On a similar note, stop judging others. Give them more patience and grace. If you start now, maybe you won’t still be learning this twenty years from now.

38. Be fully present in your own moment. The future will be here before you know it.

With that, I’m off to enjoy the rest of my birthday. When I blow out my candles tonight, I’ll be wishing to renew my 18-year-old self’s magical youthfulness and lightness but also to grow my wisdom and understanding that only comes in the living.

Curating a Life (and a Tribute to London)

On this date in 2005 I departed O’Hare Airport for a semester abroad in London, a stretch of time that would alter my life with incredible magnitude. London isn’t a city that allows you to sleepwalk through your days. Its breadth of history, energy, beauty, and progress force you to take notice, to wake up to the world around you. For me, it was also a city that showed me what my ideal self and life could look like.

I walked everywhere, mostly to the rhythm of songs playing through my headphones. This kept me physically active, energized, and increasingly tuned in to my surroundings. I admired art by rotating weekly through many museums, perused books new and used at the plethora of bookstores, shopped boutiques and markets in various boroughs, and danced in bars and nightclubs until I was nearly too exhausted to walk my sweaty self home in the wee hours of the morning. I listened to live blues and jazz music, saw the ballet, absorbed gorgeous choral music, especially moving in Latin, in churches dotting the city. I learned to try new foods and approach strangers to initiate a chat, both exercises in pushing past my comfort zone. I ate brunch or had lattes with new friends and love interests, reminding me of the power of connecting with people in a genuine way. I read in parks and journaled in coffee shops. Each Friday I’d buy myself a bouquet of tulips or daffodils and a fancy dessert from the cake shop display to treat myself to simple pleasures. I still managed to fit in classes and school work, as well as Sunday evening yoga and a bubble bath because, despite the city’s novelty, I’m ultimately still one who thrives on routine. I felt radiant, content, and in love with my life.

All of this is to say I flew across an ocean to a country I’d never been to with people I’d never met but set about building a life that would serve as a paradigm for my ideal future. 

When I returned to the U.S., I felt deeply homesick for London, as it had felt more like home than my actual home ever had (so much so I returned the next year for another semester). However, what I realized years later is that, as fantastic of a city as London is and as wonderful as my new friends and romantic interests were, what made my time there life-changing was the way I filled my days with everything that brings me joy. I had curated a life that I truly loved.

Ever since this realization, I’ve been trying to bring more and more of those practices and activities into my current life, continuously reflecting on the state of things, cutting out what isn’t working and merging in what does. It’s a gradual, often slow, process, unlike how it all serendipitously came together in London. I remind myself that good things require time and attention but are certainly worth the wait.

37 Things That Bring Me Joy

I welcome you, 2023, with arms open to the possibility for more joy in my days. I am so ready to to put the heaviness, stress, tension, and fatigue behind me. No more days stuck on the worry wheel dwelling on what went wrong or what could go wrong.

I aim to live in graceful patience and lightness. I want energy and laughter coursing through my body. Joy and more joy and reasons to celebrate the magic of our (extra)ordinary lives.

While I’m eager for all to come, I also want to remind myself of all the goodness in my life already, and so I’m reflecting on 37 things that bring me joy.

  1. My sons’ giggles
  2. Soulful kisses
  3. Coffee in a great mug
  4. walks/hikes in nature
  5. Crossword puzzles, especially on a Sunday morning with my husband
  6. Exploring new places
  7. Creating playlists, music in general
  8. Cinnamon–the word, scent, & taste
  9. Snuggles in bed
  10. Sipping hot cocoa by the fire
  11. A bouquet of fresh flowers on the table
  12. Journaling in the morning
  13. Massages
  14. Velvet sofas
  15. Athleisure wear
  16. My husband’s eyes
  17. One-on-one conversation over brunch
  18. Yoga–calming & energizing at the same time
  19. Gut-aching laughter
  20. Lake views at sunrise
  21. Perusing books at the bookstore
  22. Seeing movies at the cinema
  23. Candleglow
  24. Scent of lilacs in the air in spring
  25. Dancing, especially with my husband
  26. Travel planning
  27. A delicious latte at a coffeeshop
  28. Vespas, especially zipping along a cobblestone street
  29. Mystery movie/TV show
  30. Cozy sweaters
  31. Flipping through home decor magazines
  32. Socks with fun designs
  33. Sunsets on the beach
  34. Fancy dresses & shoes
  35. Peonies in full bloom
  36. Reading an excellent book
  37. Listening to old crackling records

Here’s to a Happier New Year

Today marks the beginning of 2023 and another chance at a fresh start. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of a fresh start in that while I can surely be content in my life, I don’t want to be complacent. I aim to be satisfied in the present moment but striving for my best self. The start of a new year, and how closely it coincides with my birthday starting a new age, marks a hopeful and meaningful opportunity.

Despite this, everyone knows the disheartening stats about gym memberships unused by February and quickly forgotten resolutions. It’s a struggle to overhaul habits, especially at a designated time and coming down from holiday festivities. So I plan to tackle my intentions over the course of a year, one area of focus each month.

No bleak, frigid, seasonally-depressed outlook this January. I’m determined to chart a path of joy and celebration. I intend to relish all that brings me joy and sing the praises of all that is good in my life. While my inclination tends toward insecurity, in an effort to outgrow that small thinking, I also plan to celebrate myself in all my perfect imperfection.

I invite you, dear reader, to join me on the journey starting with this month’s intention to experience more joy. Let’s encourage each other to find more reasons to smile, to laugh easier, and to wake up in the morning actually excited to greet the day.