I Was Perfect, And Other Lies My Father Believed

Image uploaded from iOS (27)My earliest memory involves my dad.

In the memory, I am standing outside of my house in Cleveland, Ohio, on our lawn. I’m hurt and petulant about a dust-up with my across-the-street neighbor that ended in mutual bite marks.

My father gently encourages me to mend the fence when my playmate offers me an orange creamsicle as a peace offering.

I remember his kind assurances, and warm arm around my waist.

I refuse the peace offering – as my mouth waters and I imagine the golden creamy taste in my mouth.

But my father does not push me. He does not laugh, either.

He just accepts my stand and, probably, smiles sweetly.

* * * *

My dad recently told a dear friend of mine, in a conversation they were having about parenting, that he always thought I was a perfect child.

I was not a perfect child.

But I tried very hard to be.

I tried very hard to be sweet and quiet and peace-loving and encouraging and diligent and a great student and a good athlete. I was persistent and dedicated about my role in my family and I even gave thoughtful effort to holding my own space in my family. I wanted my presence and perspective as the only girl to be seen, to be understood, and to impact the men around me.

I did mess all that up at times, of course: Mostly by being very emotional and too tender and by allowing my temper to get the best of me.

I did bad things, too. Normal stuff and mild stuff. Stuff that made my Dad mad, and things he had to come to the rescue on.

Yet, some 22 years since my most rebellious times, my dad still holds to the idea I was perfect.

* * * *

It’s a miracle of life that when you have children, you have had no experience being a parent and you have no idea what you are doing.

The miracle part is that you do it anyway. You manage to learn on the job, and become better and better at it.

Even though I had great parents myself, the idea of becoming a parent terrified me.

Until I held 6 pounds and 8 ounces of my firstborn daughter in my arms, I was really, really scared of being a parent. Always slow to make a decision, it was the biggest, most irreversible thing I had ever done.

My husband didn’t seem a lick scared.

If he was, he never let on.

Even before our baby girl was born, his parenting energy was all confidence and excitement.

He has been the best father since before that day, and from that day, on.

Whenever I have been at a loss for what to do as the official source of parental guidance for these incredible humans entrusted to us, I tune into his instinct, into his love for them, and dive into his insight and huge heart, to determine the way.

In the last few years, I’ve witnessed such a beautiful evolution in his parenting of our children. He’s gone from the protective and possessive father of young children to a dad as comfortable joking with them as he is laying down the law on the things that matter.

In return, they have an abundant tenderness for him, and a trust in his love and strength that melts my heart and reminds me deeply of how I feel about my own father.

Isn’t that something? Another surprise gift of parenting.

The gift that sometimes, the halcyon, never-ending chain of love that began in the hearts of two lovers, two parents, can pass down in the love of a father to a child, who grows nurtured by perfect love, and one day finds love of her own, with a husband, a whole man, and then has a child, who is loved and adored as she was – in a way her father once did.

There are not many cycles in life that illustrate as much complete and pure beauty, as much smoothly realized potential as that.

This is the highest blessing of fatherhood. This is the fruit of men who dare to show the gentle and powerful among them, alike, the strongest and most vulnerable versions of themselves.

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Are You A Not Enough Time Person?

Not Enough TimeWhen was the last time you could not wait to leave the presence of another person?

Do you remember when? Do you remember who? Do you recall that feeling of, ‘I cannot wait to get out of here and I don’t really care if I ever spent time with this person again’?

I do.

Now what’s important here is not really who that human was. That, dear reader, would undoubtedly lead us down a path devoid of positivity.

And I have another path in mind for us today.

So go back now, and grab on to that feeling of being done, of wanting to leave this person.

Be there. Feel it. Watch yourself retract. See how your heart leaves the room? How your spirit drifts and your mind begins planning your escape, then your next move, then how you’ll recover from it all?

Okay.

Now.

What I want you to do today is to consider its opposite.

Consider the feeling evoked by a recent email from my dad, marking the sixth anniversary of my mother’s untimely death at age 62.

“Six years without my Soulmate. Six years without your Mother. Even though she was in our lives from 32 to 48 years, it was not quite enough.”

Those words pierced me with the sharpest edge of their truth.

My time with my mom was not quite enough. Not for me, not for her. Not for my younger brother, who had 32 years with her, not for my oldest brother, who had 38. And not, heartbreakingly for my dad, who knew her almost his whole life, dated her off and on for six years, and who was married to her for 42 years.

Nope, it wasn’t enough. Not even close.

Wow. How lucky were we to have a mom and wife we could not get enough of.

This idea placed me into a whirl of awareness of the relationships in my life. How would they stack up to the idea of having enough time?

I examined.

From a full glass perspective, I could count seven people in less than a beat of my heart I could never have enough time with. Then another seven more, just as quickly, who I felt the same about. And on, and on.

There will never be enough time with my Dad. Never enough with my brothers.

I’m still charting my map of my husband of 15 years — the deep lakes of his soul, the valleys of his heart, the jagged terrain of his brain, the twisting canyon of his behavior and the winding ways of his peccadilloes, and I’ve known him for 19 years.

It’s fascinating work of which I am deeply and fervently engaged.

And that’s it. That’s the crazy thing.

Despite all we “know” as humans — about science, about the universe, about medicine, about disease, about the planets, about our solar system, about our ecosystem, about animals, about technology, about economics, about business, about art, and about history and about thermal dynamics and nanotechnology — we seem to be endlessly fascinated with one thing above all else: one another.

To the extent that spending a lifetime in a chosen person’s presence — is not enough for us.

And there’s ugliness in that time, too. There’s depression. There’s frustration, and hurt, and anger, and ineptitude and selfishness and meanness. In any relationship of depth, in moments, there are all those things.

I think I used a type of this Not Enough Time idea as a rubric when I was a young woman: I suddenly began to realize that if I didn’t really see the guy I was falling for as “boyfriend material” or — in my later years — as “husband material,” it was sort of a waste of my time to continue.

My challenge to you: how many of your relationships would fall into the Not Enough Time category?

How many people in your daily arm’s length can you say, confidently, you would not have enough time with? How many are the Not Enough Time types?

And are the people on your Not Enough Time list actually in your arm’s length on a regular basis?

It’s not a question designed to compel you to judge yourself, just to give you a new lens for how you are using your energy, how you are giving your heart, in what relationships and with what people.

And here’s a final one for you: Consider if you are the type of person who others assign that Not Enough Time label to.

I can say, in my time considering this one, it’s a big, deep, jarring question. It’s kicked my life, and the investment of my energy, into perspective.

Here’s hope.

My mom, a regular person with her faults and foibles, who suffered from deep states of melancholy at times, and experienced a rough home life as a child, and who came from a small town and a middle class upbringing with not a lot, and who occasionally yelled at us as kids and admitted to screwing up here and there as a parent, is on a lot of other people’s N.E.T. lists.

I know because these people, her Not Enough Time people, contact me.

They call me on the anniversary of her death and tell me how dearly they miss her, voices cracking. They visit me in my hometown when they come through. They tell me, openly, how being around me connects them somehow, to her, and thus feeds the part of them that misses her daily. They bless me with the compliment that being around me feels a bit like being around her, that I resemble her, that I echo her at times.

They write me notes and emails and cards and call me on my birthday all with the clear desire or expressed intention of having vicarious more time with Judy.

Not a few people, but at least a dozen — the ones who reach out regularly. And I know there are probably a least a dozen more who don’t reach out.

So, if my perfectly broken mother could inspire that connection to others, so can you. And so can I.

And we can do it with the time we have.

Life & Death in a Movie Theater: What Beauty & the Beast Shook Loose In Me

In 1991, I turned thirteen.

I was well past cartoon years and yet when Beauty & the Beast hit the theaters, I saw it and fell absolutely in love with it. I’m not exactly sure why. I wasn’t then and am not now obsessed with Disney.

This is going to sound silly, but at the time it was pretty groundbreaking that the heroine of the Beauty & the Beast story was a brunette. I think it was Disney’s first animated major heroine since Snow White to sport dark locks. And Belle was a bookworm, and she was brainy and a little weird and creative (I could relate), and she refused to marry the most obviously available and interested guy. Instead, she fell for the tall, mysterious, desperate beast, who was gruff but well-educated and rich, and hidden away unjustly by a curse meant to teach him a lesson (oh, the dark romance of it!).

Also, he had an amazing library.

So, wow. It got me.

It got me to the extent that that Christmas, my older brother bought me a copy of the storybook. Remember, now, I’m 13. A freshman in high school, and desperately crushing on one of his friends who was a senior and who spent loads of time at our house but who never asked me out, despite hints and hours of flirting and acres of pining.

In the storybook inscription, my brother in all his 16 year-old-wisdom wrote that he thought I was too young to be pursuing love, and that most often it doesn’t work out anyway. But that sometimes it does, like in the case of he and his girlfriend. Barf. And that if it ever didn’t work out for me I could read the storybook and be comforted. It was sweet.

The 40-year-old me thinks it’s all rather interesting.

In fact, I can’t get the whole Beauty & the Beast thing out of my mind.

It’s just a weird loop.

The night after the latest Disney version of Beauty & the Beast came out, I took my two daughters, one of whom is now 13, to see Disney’s latest rendition of Beauty & the Beast in the theater.

Since my girls had put on a production of the show at their theater this year, they were positively giddy over it. They’d been counting down the days until the premier for weeks. They’d been asking when we would go. They had been swapping stories about how much they missed their production, how the Hollywood actors would play the characters, how it would all come across.

We bought Reese’s Pieces and gummy worms at the drugstore before we went. We shared an extra large popcorn and got to the theater in plenty of time to get properly settled.

As the movie started, I looked down the aisle at my daughters’ screen silvery faces. Their glee, their pleasure at being immersed in the story, the moment they leaned together to whisper a something to one another instantly sparked a river of joy in me.

Time slowed, I heard my breath in my brain and felt my heart beating in my mouth. It shook something loose in me.

And I saw something. A flicker.

I am a mother of two daughters. One of who is as old now as I was when I first saw this movie. How is this possible?

It was more than a bit stunning.

But it wasn’t just the passage of time that threw me.

It’s the fact that I am still the same person — but not at all — as when I was that 13-year-old girl watching Beauty & the Beast the first time.

I remember being 13 because I remember pining after my brother’s good friend and waiting for him to ask me to the homecoming dance, which he never did. I remember wondering why. I also remember my best friend. How we started high school together and took almost all the same classes and felt so stressed and overwhelmed and made all the same friends and how we tried out for the basketball team together. I remember being 13 because I remember loving Beauty & the Beast and relating to Belle, and memorizing all the words to all the songs.

The 13-year-old me had high hopes for love, but no vision at all that 27 years later, I would be married to my own version of “Beast” for 15 years and sitting in a movie theater with a 13 year-old of my own.

And yet, there I sat, the very same person. Or not.

I’ve been reading Deepak Chopra’s The Book of Secrets: Unlocking the Hidden Dimensions of Your Life for the last few weeks.

The last chapter I read was entitled, Death Makes Life Possible. It reads, “Each of us is dying every day, and the moment known as death is really just an extension of this process. … The person you are today isn’t the same person you were when you were ten years old. Certainly your body has changed completely from that of the ten-year-old. None of your molecules in your cells are the same, and neither is your mind. … In essence, the ten-year-old you once were is dead. … The reason that life seems continuous is that you have memories and desires that tie you to the past, but these too are ever-shifting. … You are dying at every moment so that you can keep creating yourself.”

I love this concept, because it feels so real and right to me.

Life is death. Death is life.

We are all dying and being born anew at every moment. Literally and figuratively.

And it’s in the moments when a talisman from the past becomes part of the present again that time seems to slow down.

Flickering.

In that space, we are suddenly an observer to the surreal passing of these two selves, reflections in opposing mirrors, a momentary glimpse of a face in a car traveling in an opposite direction, with perhaps just time enough for half a wave of recognition.

In that space, we are given a disappearing glance down the hallway of our lives/deaths, of the moments of joyous rebirth and of devouring mourning, the decay of past selves and the vibrant aliveness of living now.

All in a moment, sitting in the movie theater, as I stared at my 13-year-old, a perfect profile in flickers of silver light.

Why I Gave Up Coffee: Mind Hacks + Memories

35mm_12302_ 023I recently gave up something I loved. It was something I thought I needed to function. It was something I was subtly and happily routinely dependent on.

 

I didn’t give it up for a religious reason or because someone confronted me about it.

 

I did it, as I do many things that I ponder long and hard, as a temporary experiment only.

 

I take this approach, I think, to trick my ego into releasing an established habit on a short-term, no commitment basis only. This little mind hack is super helpful for me because once I am committed to something I am, like, moon-landing committed. So I tend to tiptoe around commitment for a good long while, hemming and hawing, until I know either I am totally ready or I am terrified that I might not be. Either way, it’s that time when I jump.

 

Back to the regularly scheduled confession: For a few important reasons, about a month ago, I gave up drinking coffee.

 

Full disclosure: I still drink a cup of coffee once in awhile. Maybe once a week. Maybe.

 

But that’s it.

 

I used to be a 1-cup-before-I-leave-the-house, then espresso, then maybe an afternoon iced coffee sort of lady.

 

So it wasn’t obscene or gallon-ic level intake. It was probably modest caffeine-ism at best.

 

Honestly, it was the routine of this brown-eyed beverage that I loved the most. I loved the filters, the scooping, the brewing, the miracle of water into coffee dripping, the first pour, and, like many pleasures of mine – the smells. Coffee has the best roasted, earthy, rooted, caramel, smoky, tucked in scent possible.

 

One inhale brings me the full-bodied ideas of mornings of possibility, of standing espresso bars in Italy’s early light, of the care of another for me, of in-depth post-dinner conversations around crammed tables mostly cleared of food, of moments of reassuring sound, when all you hear is a sip and swallow and sigh.

 

I remember as a child, lying half asleep in my grandparent’s cool, dark basement on the sheet-covered sofa as my grandmother, up at 5 or 6 a.m., would put on the stovetop percolator coffee maker, just up the stairs. I would listen to her day beginning and feel intensely comforted. The shuffle of her slippered feet on the orange and cream-colored linoleum tile in the kitchen, the whooshing of cabinets opening and their soft close. The front door creaking as she went to fetch the paper, the tinkling of the cups being set out as the soft pop-pop-blop of the coffee perked on the stove and I drifted back off to sleep.

 

Coffee meant safety, home.

 

I recall watching my mother measuring out the coffee in the maker before guests arrived for dinner, so that all she had to do was hit the button as she cleared plates and – voila! – fresh coffee would pair with her homemade pavlova or pumpkin roll or angel food cake, to her guest’s delight and comfort. When my mother entertained, which she did regularly, her focus was always on her guests’ delight and comfort. My job in this coffee caravan was to fill and set out the cream and sugar in the delicate ceramic coffee service with the painted roses and dessert teaspoons with enamel handles. If she was totally on her game, I served sugar cubes out of a clear crimson glass sugar vase with vintage miniature silver tongs she found at an antique housewares boutique.

 

Coffee meant care, comfort.

 

I tried to like coffee on my own terms in high school and college, but I only pretended to. I drank it to stay awake to study for my AP exams, or to finish a paper. I masked my dislike of the way it hit my stomach and turned it a bit sour. I pretended being shaky after one cup was a fun feeling. I took the gateway cups and fancied them up with flavored creamers, flavored coffees, with cinnamon and raw sugars.

 

Then, I slowly drifted away from my consumption.

 

It was a secret relief.

 

Until 2003, when my daughter was born and coffee became pretty much the only way I was going to survive being a sleep loving, yet sleep deprived, mom of a child who only slept in 4-hour increments until she was 4. Not an exaggeration.

 

From then on, and throughout my time as a mom who works and raises kids full-time, coffee has been my wingman.

 

So why did I give it up?

 

There were health reasons I could have ignored. There were also the memories of shaky hands and sour stomachs that had been so keenly present when I first started drinking it.

 

There was the sense that I wasn’t even feeling those things anymore. Then, there was the notion, needling ever deeper into my heart, that I might not be feeling them because my mind was no longer taking my body’s phone call that coffee and I didn’t really get along. That perhaps all those symptoms were still going on, but that my mind was blocking them.

 

I began to wonder what it would feel like not to drink coffee. How would my body, my blood stream, my temperament respond? What if I could stop that phone from ringing from my body to my brain?

 

I had worked so hard to convince myself over the last 13 years that I needed it, but maybe, when it was all said and done, I didn’t.

 

Ultimately, that’s what made the experiment permanent.

 

Because the notion I couldn’t shake turned out to be right. I felt much clearer, calmer and less sour stomached without coffee. Without it, my hands didn’t shake. I felt less dizzy.

 

I didn’t get as snappy around mid-morning.

 

And I was just as alert, just as on, without it.

 

It was a welcome discovery.

 

It felt right – for me.

 

As I reflected on all of this, I acknowledged we were raised, more than anything else, on tea.

 

My mother was an avid tea drinker before my older brother married a Brit. Every single night when dinner was cleared up, she would put a kettle to boil on the stove. Warming water in the microwave for tea was always out of the question. A piping hot cuppa would accompany her to bed, perching on her stack of books, or would settle her down at the dinner table as she sewed loose buttons or reviewed someone’s final essay or sat you down to talk about your grade in math.

 

Tea greeted us on cold mornings beside bowls of grits or oatmeal or cream of wheat with brown sugar.

 

For my 8th birthday, a formal tea party was held and all the attendees wore gloves. For real.

 

For my mother’s 50th birthday, friends threw her a surprise birthday tea party. I was roped into bringing her to the cute cottage-like tea place for the surprise. She had no idea and was tickled to see her closest friends gathered for her. Surprising the best hostess in the group was never an easy task.

 

For her 61st birthday, we held a tea party for her once again.

 

She had just found out her cancer was on the march again. And I mean crying-in-the-car-all-the-way-there – just. None of her adoring guests, those who came in fancy dresses and ridiculous hats, knew yet that she’d just received her death sentence.

 

She wore one of her mother’s vintage pillbox hats with faux wild roses in pink and orange around the brim. Her hair was thin, her skin was yellowish and she was gauntly thin. But she would not cancel.

 

What I remember of her on that day were her wide smiles, her tears of joy, the sound of her throaty laugh, the one where she clapped her hands together in delight as she tipped back her chin and bellowed.

 

I remember giving her my gift — the ham-handed “MOM” child’s level cross-stitch I had made for her over the last two months – an attempt to be more of the handy daughter I thought she really wanted when I was a kid. I remember how she welled up then and I felt so deeply in my bones that this $5 token was successful at expressing something of the total devotion of love I felt for her.

 

I remember how all her friends fawned over her, showered her with gifts and generally made her feel as if she was the queen herself.

 

She loved tea. And she loved tea parties.

 

It was the last party we had for her that really mattered.

 

We all have to learn to let go of the things we think we need in this life.

 

When we don’t want to, when we can’t imagine ever doing it, and when we choose to and when we can.

 

Whether it’s coffee or tea, or a bad habit or a good friend who’s done you wrong.

 

Whether it’s something you use to cope with life or the someone who gave you life.

 

At 40, I think I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter how we let go – if we use mind hacks, denial, dextox or heart-pouring mourning.

 

It’s only in the letting that we go.

 

 

 

Why I Love Reading the Obits

Reading paper

One thing I inherited from my parents and grandparents is a love and respect of the newspaper. Like, the actual printed one. (Yes, I still get the local printed paper, delivered to our door, two days per week.)

One thing I inherited directly from my mother was a love of the obituaries.

During her 62 years, she read them religiously. Especially the Sunday obits. Those she would pour over.

Yes, it was sad. Yes, she would cry.

When I moved out and eventually got married and took the paper at my house a few miles away, she would call me on Sunday morning, in tears.

“Have you read the paper yet? You must read this obituary,” she’d manage between tear-cracked tones.

So I would. Sometimes I would read it as she waited on the phone. Sometimes I’d read it and call her back, in tears. We’d swap highlights and pine, together, over it all.

Since she’s been gone, two things.

First, I took extreme care in writing her obituary. I felt it was a masterpiece and a ridiculously incomplete sliver of a tribute to a woman so much richer, fuller and more complex than those thin lines of ink and newsprint could bear. I think it was decent, though, because I received several letters from complete strangers who were moved enough to send me a note of their condolences.

Second: I still read the obituaries whenever I get a chance.

I cry to myself, inevitably tearing up and shedding saltwater over long lives, short ones, loves lost, details missing and those present. I trace the life lines of each individual’s path through the world, via careers, moves, re-inventions, second and third careers, pre-deceased children, rich relationships and charitable pursuits. You see so much in these concise pieces: meaning and measure, risk and failure, secrets and scars, and love, and love, and love.

It always overcomes me.

My husband asks me why I do it to myself, as my teenage daughter turns on her heel and storms out, embarrassed, and my youngest cuddles up with comforting hugs.

So imagine my delight when coming upon this Ted talk by Lux Narayan, CEO of Unmetric, who shares our devotion to the obituaries and who used his company’s technology to analyze 2,000 New York Times obituaries to see what the data would reveal about the achievements of those featured – famous and common.

You should watch the Ted talk, it’s only 6 minutes.

Here are three things about what Lux and Unmetric found that jumped out at me.

First, the average age people made their first major accomplishments. There was only one age in the late 20s (sports), just one in the mid-30s (art, film, literature) – and the rest of the first major accomplishments (business, medicine, engineering, law, academics, science, politics) were made in the early to mid-40s.

For a lady about to turn the big 4-0, who has lots more she wants to accomplish, this was welcome news.

Second, of all 2,000 obituaries analyzed, the most significant words tended to be creative ones: Artist, Singer, Director, Writer, Pioneer. Also among the top: Leader, Led, Founder, Reporter, Advocate, Activist, Survived, Transform, Creator, Music, Author, Fight, Fought, and my person favorite, Voice.

How sweet it is that the artists, the rebels, the transformers are those we revere once they leave us.

(Spoiler alert: Here’s what wasn’t on the list: spreadsheets, timesheet, hours worked, stable, safe, corporate, retirement, insurance, follower, accept, allow, same.)

Here’s the last of my many takeaways: Narayan also did a side-by-side comparison of the famous obits and the normal people obits, looking at the significant and most frequent words.

Here are the top 7 for each:

Famous

Year

Art

One

World

Help

American

John

 

Not Famous

Help

Year

Time

One

John

Music

First

 

Three words are common between the two lists: Help, Year, One and, oddly, John.

(If you’re named John, good on you. If not, you won’t be offended that I don’t comment on that interesting tidbit.)

Help. Year. One.

What do these three words tell us about people who make enough of an impact to be featured on the New York Times obituary page?

Here’s my take:

They were compassionate doers.

They used their time wisely.

They exercised their courage enough to do something different, something that made them stand out.

That’s it.

As I approach my fourth decade, I am characteristically reflecting on my four decades. I’m sifting through my accomplishments and cross-referencing goals. I’m paying homage to the difficulties I’ve experienced and for the chances they gave me to grow. I’m getting a bit anxious over the pending “to do” list.

Since my mom died unexpectedly at 62, I realize time is short.

But this is welcome navigation.

Care.

Do – now.

Be the one.

Oh, and, keep reading the obits.