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.

Put on the Skates & Brave It

I haven’t written on my site in months and while I’d like to say it’s because I’ve been doing mind-blowing things, admittedly, it’s not the case. One day crept into the next, and it just felt easier to skip it. After enough weeks passed, it actually felt a little scary to write again. It takes time and effort and felt like an “extra” when, in reality, writing is essential to my life. This website was meant to be an impetus to spend more time on writing and other creative endeavors.

As we drift into 2023, I’m going to hold myself accountable to prioritizing my interests and goals. I know it will be more rewarding than the humdrum, but it will mean I have to get comfortable being uncomfortable. Other than perhaps a model being discovered by an agent at the grocery store, most successful people had to pursue their dreams and the change they wanted to manifest with vigor and persistence. They had to muddle through self-doubt and insecurity, forge through setbacks and the worry of failure. They had to push past the discomfort, and I’m determined to do the same.

It “started” today, as it’s the first mild day since our arctic chill over the holidays. I drove over to Tenney Park and laced up my ice skates that I barely broke in with my two brief skating attempts last winter. Aside from coffeeshops and bookstores, I rarely venture places alone, but I went solo because it was the only way to make it happen. I was afraid to get out on the lumpy and snow-patched frozen lagoon–no Zamboni out smoothing things (yet?). But I did it, one foot and then the other. It was like starting over from scratch, fear overriding any remnants of muscle memory. I fell twice, nearly fell a few more times, but I had a few thrilling stretches of actual skating. I know next time will be better and the time after that better still.

While it’s supremely challenging learning skills as an adult we wish we would’ve learned as children, if we want to learn enough, we can keep trying despite the fear of failing and difficulty in functioning in the discomfort. I want to relearn rollerskating and ice skating, so I’ll keep lacing up. I want to learn to downhill and cross-country ski, so I’ll have to get comfortable with my worry of falling. I want to be financially stable, so I’ll have to get comfortable doing something other than shopping online when my restlessness strikes. I want to publish a book, so I’ll have to get comfortable writing and waiting for rejection rather than vegging with a show. I want to get in great shape, so I’ll have to get comfortable with choosing salads and hoofing it on the treadmill. I want to connect with people and effect change in the world, so I better get comfortable with tough conversations, the fear of rejection, and putting myself in positions of vulnerability. I will learn to be comfortable with discomfort.

I’m not waiting for 40 or a mid-life crisis to stake claim over my days. My time is now, which is all I have–which is all any of us have. To aid myself in moving in the direction of my ideal self and life (grateful but never complacent), I’ve set myself twelve intentions for the year. These intentions will guide my development, learning, and growth.

As January 2023 rolls in in, I’ll be in my birthday month, celebrating myself with pursuits of joy and self-care. February will be for “romancing the ordinary” as Sarah Ban Breathnach brilliantly coined, as well as showing love to others. I will focus on my goals and actions in march and physical wellness in April. May will be all about calm, meditation, and mindfulness. June will home in on leadership, July on creativity, and August on cultivating a connection to nature. When September beckons people back to school, I’ll focus on my own learning and then use October for reflections and owning my past. November will be about gratitude and savoring simple pleasures, and then I’ll end the year with a December of kindness and generosity of spirit.

There, I’ve broadcast it. I must hold myself to carrying out this quietly courageous mission. Even if it’s terrifying, confusing, or unsettling, I have to go for it anyway. The easier path doesn’t yield the impactful results I crave. No one else can do it for me. I have to put on the skates and brave it.

Tethered

It’s been months since I last wrote a post; an entire season has zipped by in a blur. I had hopes of veranda dreaming–getting lost in afternoons reading on the back deck or lying in the grass, long hikes and morning yoga. Somehow I thought I’d finally arrive at a place of control when, even now, that’s so far from where I’m at. My mother and my husband continually remind me this toddler-raising lifestyle is temporary, but it doesn’t feel temporary. It feels excruciatingly long, each day more about biding my time than enjoying the present. 

I’m tethered to obligations, endless responsibilities and chores, to work stress, to two children who depend on me, to the rest of my family, and all of the other things constantly calling my name, pushing down on my shoulders with such heaviness. I strain under the weight of it. Some days I contemplate driving in the opposite direction of home– foreign lands or a quiet cabin in the woods. But I know the fantasy is a lie because I would be missing the people who anchor me, support me, and give me a sense of belonging. Without them, I would never find true Home.

And so, the conundrum continues…How to reconcile my wish for a life that feels more my own with the reality that I have an 18-month-old and an 11-year-old who count on me? A husband who adores and needs me? How do I make more time for what brings me joy? How do I shake the guilt when I do carve out time for myself? I know I am a better mother and wife when I take the time for solitude and pleasure, but it always feels like an uphill battle to do so. 

The same questions, same desires arise again and again, still unanswered. Is it like this for everyone? Is anyone with children really feeling balanced and fully cared for as an individual person? How can we make peace with the weeks, the years, of slogging through and hoping we don’t collapse in a heap of sheets that need to be washed?

Today I am sitting at a coffee shop with my laptop. I made an intentional effort to write even though many other things are fighting for space in my mind. I am making an intentional effort to ignore the pangs of guilt that arise over work to-dos waiting on me and my husband watching our kiddo today while I’m flying solo. These intentional choices are seemingly small and insignificant, but they matter nonetheless. They will accumulate. I have to hope they will be frequent enough and meaningful enough to carry me through the much longer and more frequent stretches of humdrum living and obligations. It’s a form of flying my kite in this chilly fall wind, knowing I have fleeting moments of freedom while still connected to the family that grounds me. There can be joy in that, even if it’s battered by some unpredictable weather.

Sunlit Reflections

Days like this, as I sit and peer out the window, the Emily Dickinson line I read in my youth returns to me, “There’s a certain slant of light…” It’s the soft, warm yellow sun of spring and how it glints off surrounding objects, shimmering in shifting patterns of light that is heartbreakingly lovely. It’s so delightful as to make me feel nostalgic and a little melancholic because I remember how fleeting these moments are. 

I am overcome with Proustian remembrances of times past–the first warm days of spring at the park, swinging with my best friend; the sweetest day of exploration through sprawling daffodils when studying abroad in London; lemon pound cake and coffee at an outdoor cafe table in the weeks after leaving my ex-husband; strolls with my new husband around the pond by our former apartment; the cool breeze on my face when riding my bike for the first time each season. The memories commingle with transient fragments that have gone unnamed but remain lodged in my mind more as an overall feeling than anything else, much like the way deja vu hits you in the solar plexus, some ancient part of our being both foreign and familiar at the same time. The collision of joy and longing, of heavy grounding and lightness of being. 

Pushing through long, dark days of Wisconsin winters, holding out for the return of the birds and green buds on trees, tulip shoots, rabbits munching grass, means the start of spring is both the literal and figurative light at the end of the tunnel. It’s so beautiful I could cry. It’s so simple but balloons each sunlit moment with hope, a hope so desperately needed in a world that’s been gradually tearing itself to bits in uglier, crueler, and more shocking ways each year. 

We need to let the sunshine and hope surround us, let our skin absorb it into the core of our being where we can keep believing better days really are yet to come. On quiet April afternoons such as this, it’s not too hard to do, but knowing the light flickers, fades any minute, means I can’t cling too tightly. I must hold the joy delicately and for the shapeshifting and ephemeral gift it is. It reminds me: Be here now. Be present, bittersweet as it is.

Micro Changes

The past couple months have been a deep dive into what continued remote work can look like in my life. The past two years working from home mostly took place in the living room, dining room, even in the kitchen. I always felt scattered and pulled in too many directions. If I emptied the dishwasher between meetings, emails piled up. If I edited a communication at the end of meeting time, I felt guilty for not spending more time with my family. Most of my multi-tasking or quickly swapping between to-dos left me with overall internal chaos. Chats, meetings, nurse my baby, meetings, wolf down lunch and nurse again, tidy kitchen, meetings, couple work tasks, and repeat weekday after weekday. My stress levels felt consistently high.

Coming into 2022 and my 37th year, acknowledging this is likely to be the future of my job life, I determined it was time to figure out how to make this working at home work for me. I set out to make little tweaks that would hopefully snowball into bigger change. I relocated my “office” to a space in our basement near the treadmill and yoga mat I’ve started leaving permanently unrolled. I now hop on the treadmill for walking meetings, lift weights and do squats when listening to a webinar, and flow through sun salutations when I need a pick-me-up between lengthy sedentary intervals. I started lighting a candle on my desk as part of my morning routine in addition to taking 10-15 minutes to have a cup of coffee and read a few pages or an article or a professional or personal development.

I have been working in goal setting for each month and breaking them down for each week, along with daily to-do review to keep on track with achieving my objectives. I mix in some occasional jigsaw and crossword puzzles, chores or other personal tasks, and periodic coffee chats with colleagues now that life is trending back to something more “normal.” It’s still a daily combination of work and personal life activities, but I’m much more intentional about it. It’s a focused integration more than a balancing or juggling act. 

It’s not a perfect arrangement, of course, but I’m getting better at choosing and sticking with it. If I need to focus on work, I do. When I want to exercise while listening in on a meeting, I’m making the conscious decision that serves me rather than letting the demands of the day run right over me. I’m also making more of an effort to have more fun at work. Hence, the puzzles, reading, and coffee breaks, but I’m also giving myself permission to take time to chat in the team chats, send funny GIFs to my coworkers, organize virtual water cooler times for my team, and continue to work longer hours Monday-Thursday to have Friday afternoons off. 

Days can still feel a bit too full and work occasionally still too stressful, but I feel more in control and more productive. Simple tweaks are indeed making impactful differences–micro changes yield macro results. When we’re all so busy, a total overhaul can feel overwhelming and unfeasible to implement, but small changes feel possible. So let’s all make micro changes to make big improvements in our days.