The Long Way Home

Dateline: March 9, 1997. Twenty years ago today. A Sunday. I remember sitting in my then boyfriend's first grown-up apartment on the Allston-Brighton line and reading the Boston Globe. On the front page was this profile piece about the socio-economic hardships of several families in a rural and unfamiliar-to-me part of the state. That story stood out to me, so much so that I read it twice in one sitting. In part, it was memorable because of the 11-year-old's name—Chevy Van Pickup--but more so it was because I wanted to believe that, beyond the drama and the tragedy and the bad influences and bad decisions, there was a shred of hope for this kid. His story stayed with me for years.

Fast forward seven years: February 2004. I'm in grad school at Boston University studying investigative journalism with two ace reporters from the Globe. My semester-long assignment: investigate. And so I do. My mind goes right to the story about Chevy. I do some quick math and realize he's nearly 18. Close to aging out of the foster care system. I'm hopeful. I visit the town hall and district courthouse. I speak with social workers, bailiffs, and football coaches. I pour through archives of the small-town newspaper and feed dimes to an ancient photocopier. Eventually, I find him. Locked up for stealing a pickup truck. A Chevy, of course. I write him a letter and explain my position. He writes me back. We meet during visiting hours and I scribble notes. He’s polite and open. We exchange more letters throughout the semester and I'm thisclose to submitting a front-page follow-up story to the Globe--and then he asks me not to. To spare his family's name, even though nobody else has. I oblige, but still the story stays with me.

Fast forward 10 more years: March 9, 2014. A Sunday. I'm having brunch on a first date and it's going well. We exchange all the usual questions. When he mentions his hometown name and jokes, "They let a few of us out," I mention that I've been there and tell him about Chevy (or "Truck" as he’d taken to being called). I tell him about my visits to the courthouse and the correctional facility, the good foster mom and the bad foster mom, his promising athleticism, the bite that landed him in the hospital before jail. He fills in other details on the family that predate the Globe story. News travels fast in small towns. My date tells me how he and his stepfather used to joke about the frequency with which the Pickup family's name would make it into the police log. I recall a quote from the story, "I will try not to get in trouble, but I know I will."

And today, three years after that quirky first date conversation: I'm married that man who invited me out for omelets and mimosas. The one who once called this area of the state home. The journalist in me still thinks about the Chevy Van Pickup story as "the one that got away." But the more introspective side of me that believes in (and swears by, and has more evidence than she knows what to do with) the law of attraction, knows there was a bigger reason why that particular story on that particular day in that particular town reeled me in like no other. Coincidence or cosmic intervention, everything really is connected.

Soundtrack: "Long Way Home" by Norah Jones

Set Alight

I mean . . . I just . . . My life. This past year. How far I’ve come. How much I’ve grown. How much still lies ahead.

None of this happened overnight—or just in the last 12 months. I’ve been charting my course forward and upward long before then. Before the split. Observing. Experiencing. Feeling. Processing. On the surface, all of that looks passive. But so much has been going on inside. So much. I did my damndest to hide my struggles for far too long. Hiding was the hardest part.

“A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.”

When I felt like my words were failing me a few years ago, it was this quote that helped turn me around. The songbird necklace that rests on my collarbone reminds me of this every day. My words need not be right—or even in response to anything; but what’s inside is, indeed, worthy of being shared.

This past year has been all about sharing. Twenty-eight heartfelt blog posts. A hundred conversations with dear friends and kind acquaintances. A face no longer hesitant to showing a range of emotion. This lack of resistance in my head and my heart is all the proof I need to realize that I’m doing something right.

“The birds they sang at the break of day Start again I heard them say Don’t dwell on what has passed away or what is yet to be . . . There is a crack in everything That’s how the light gets in ”  —Anthem, Leonard Cohen

I stopped aiming for perfection and started embracing uncertainty after my life cracked open last year. I finally got out of my own way and let in a whoosh of light. Airing out my “broken-ness” was way out of my comfort zone, but I knew, somehow, that this willingness to expose my vulnerability also held the key to my transformation. The opportunity to share my stumbles has made me feel more alive, more connected, more a part of something than ever before.

I’m so grateful for it all.

My life. This past year. I’ve zig-zagged all over the country, explored a new continent, and summited mountains. I learned a little more about heartbreak and a lot more about love. I debunked old beliefs. I found support. I’ve been transfixed by live music. I’ve sailed away on beautiful boats. I twirled around a museum in a floor-length evening gown. I’ve made new friends. I’ve strengthened existing friendships. I painted tulips with a two-year-old and whispered my hopes to a newborn. I’ve laughed, I’ve cried, I’ve surprised myself. And I’ve only just begun . . .

Soundtrack: “Sea Legs” by the Shins

Patience, She Said

This poem. I came across it two Augusts ago, as summer began to give way to fall, as the clock ticked down the remaining moments of my relationship. Its message has stayed with me ever since: that an active form of patience is the key to achieving something splendid.

Here it is:

watch me open this egg! the first woman said cracking the pearly skin against a cold metal tin
a swift separation a dead yellow gem there, it’s open she said
watch me open this egg! the second woman said placing the orb in the encircling arms of a nest
holding it to her chest for ten thousand breaths patience, she said
and said and said and said
… and the egg opened itself.
                                   --Alexandra Franzen

Stay with me here now, as I transition from eggs to peaches . . .

Only once that I can recall have I eaten an exquisite peach. Only once have I encased a peach in the palm of my hand, bitten down, and met with that perfect not-too-soft/not-too-firm texture and felt that trademark dribble of nectar run down my chin. I was 10, give or take, and swinging on a tire in my grandparents back yard. I remember the umbrella of verdant maple leaves above my head, the sunbeams poking their way through, the way my grandmother passed that peach to me and said, “Here, try this,” as if I was somebody else’s grandchild, a grandchild with a voracious, healthy, and adventurous appetite—none of which I possessed.

Like the chapter books I devoured on those lazy summers, I imbibed every sweet speck of flesh and juice from that warm, succulent peach. No peach since has ever compared. But that doesn’t stop me from trying.

And stay with me here, as I draw a comparison between our exes (mine and perhaps yours, too) and peaches . . . and transitioning into friendships.

Even when the timing—according to the calendar or to instinct—seems right, even when the exterior looks to be ideal, what lies beneath the surface will remain a mystery until you take that first bite. Summer stone fruit or sweetheart of the past, there’s just no telling. Not to mention our own influence—what other flavors we’ve recently encountered, what experiences we’ve been through since that last taste of what once pleased us so. There is a whole host of circumstances that need to conspire, to work in unison, for that friendship to take form. For that peach to taste like the perfection you remember it once to be.

And when it fails to live up to expectations, to memory, to desire? Without question, there is a void. A disappointment. But you remain patient. You take yourself out of the equation. You don’t blame your taste buds or last month’s dry spell or the timing of that pluck on the orchard. You simply call up the sweetness in the recess of your mind and trust that, at another time and on another day, you will hold another peach in your palm, feel the flood of anticipation, and take that first bite. But for now, all you can do is carry on and stay open to what other small splendors may await.

Soundtrack: "Here Nor There" by Sarah Jarosz

Sounds Like Hallelujah

My fingers were immediately drawn to the pink eraser that a St. Mark’s school girl had carefully stood up in the corner of the pencil tray in the hollow of her desk. It wasn’t one of those rectangular salmon-colored erasers with the sloped ends that felt grainy to the touch; no, this one was oval, ballet slipper colored, and powdery smooth like my Cabbage Patch Kid’s cheek. And while my CCD teacher stood at the front of the room telling us third-graders a story about the Tower of Babel, I slipped that eraser into my hand—and then into the arch of my Top-Sider shoe. From first through eleventh grade, I sat through these weekly religious ed classes—distracted, bored, and tuned out. All those stories of fear, of wrath, of shame and helplessness sat uneasily within me.  Nothing about it felt good—or believable—to me. While the formality and the top-down belief system of organized religion doesn’t work for me, you can’t stand on a yoga mat and bring your palms together time and again without feeling something come over (and overcome) you. What 20 years on the mat has taught me is this: I believe in me.

It has taken me decades to get to this place. Decades. For much of my life, I compared myself—my trajectory, my possessions, and my talents—to you. The “yous” I know and the ones I don’t. Those old feelings of fear and shame still sat uneasily within me. I tried shake off this pattern by telling myself to “fake it ’til I make it” or to “just do it,” but none of that worked. I couldn’t believe in the artificial me, nor could I continue believing that my life was in any way inferior—just because I hadn’t followed certain conventions. Doing so felt toxic, inside and out.

I don’t believe in placing blame. Not on my lineage. Not on my ex. Not on society. And not on me. All of life is just a learning opportunity. There is no arrival. There is no “making it”—even now, living with my boyfriend. Some might see this milestone as a “hooray, we made it.” And, indeed, it is good. So good. But I have to keep reminding myself that this, too, is a lesson. It’s just that not all lessons need to come with tears or heartache or feeling lost or second-rate. It is possible to vulnerable and emotionally wide open with a big, authentic smile across your face. So, that’s what I’m doing—because I believe in me.

All along, I’ve had a vision of what I wanted my “happily ever after” to look like. But I hit the off switch on that vision ages ago—and had thought that I’d come to peace with that decision. No so. Now, here I am playing that vision over and over again in my head and my heart, treating it like a coming attraction to a blockbuster movie. I’m waking up to my own dreams.

Letting go of expectations has been a big part of my journey these last 10.5 months—and gathering the courage embrace uncertainty is the outcome of years of introspection, both on the yoga mat and with a notebook and pen in hand. But in the process of letting go of expectations, I’ve remained steadfast to my vision.

I believe we should all have a dream for ourselves. A big and beautiful dream. Let it play out like a scene in a breathtaking movie. Play it a million times over, until you memorize every word, bat of an eyelash, and knowing smile. Smell it, taste it, feel it. Let it lull you to sleep. Let it greet you in the morning. Let it get you through those quiet, lonely moments and accompany you when times are good. Let it because you have nothing left to lose. Let it because you have everything to gain. Let it because this is your one, precious life and making it epic is your soul’s mission.

Let your life be everything you’ve ever dreamed of—and surprise yourself when it’s even more than you imagined. Trust it will happen, even when reality seems to be telling you otherwise. And don’t take any part of it for granted as that vision comes to life.

That's what I choose to believe.

Soundtrack: “Sounds Like Hallelujah” by the Head and the Heart

Lightning Bolt

My old next door neighbor—a handsome man in his early 30s who owned his own business but worked with his hands, who wore those surf shop t-shirts that were ubiquitous in the mid-late 1980s, even though we were on Long Island sound where the surf was anything but gnarly but status was everything—had a streak of white in his dark, wavy hair. Struck by lightning at Fenway Park—at least that’s the story he told us shortly after we all moved in, while flashing a smile that was equally bright. They were newlyweds, he and his wife, living on a cul-de-sac full of four-bedroom colonials filled with kids. The BMW parked in their driveway was a wedding gift from him to her. She drove it into the city five days a week where she’d shop at Filene’s Basement on her lunch break and bring me, the quiet teenage girl next door, items emblazoned with the Esprit logo. Soon enough they had kids—a girl then a boy—and I would be their go-to babysitter whom they’d pay in $20 increments. My parents would shake their heads and almost, but not quite, make me give them change. I swam in their in-ground pool and ate their Celeste frozen pizzas and wore her Guess jeans with the zippered ankles that she passed down to me one night with along with a $20 bill after an evening spent watching the two-hour block of Friday night sitcoms while their little ones slept. He—with the shock of white in his hair, who, as the story goes, had been struck by lightning at Fenway Park—was a doting father and a charming neighbor, a stand-up man in a suburban fairytale who was left by his wife who traded in her city job and lunch break shopping sprees for a gig at the grocery store in the far end of town and a little condo all of her own. She was the first woman I’d ever known to just up and leave her previous existence behind.

On breaks home from college, I’d cruise downtown in my little sports car to go to the grocery store in the far end of town. Sometimes I’d spot her, sometimes not, dressed in jeans and flannel shirts instead of the high heels and shoulder-padded suits of which I was accustomed. From my vantage point as a supporting character in this suburban fairytale, I saw her grand detour as a character defect. I gawked like you gawk at a traffic accident, studying the carnage but unable to identify the root cause. I wanted to know: how did this happen? What if this happened to me? What if it didn’t just “happen;” what if she chose this path with clarity in her heart and soul? The family’s story has stayed with me for decades.

I’ve been studying my life—and the lives of others—for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I study too much and forget that experience is the best teacher. Sometimes I go about my life by portraying a seemingly pedestrian façade, but behind the scenes there are bolts of lightning touching down all around me. I absorb the shock until I am ready to put words to the experience, until the lesson becomes clear.

That’s what I was up to all last week as I read and reread—day after day after day—the first six pages of the book I picked up during a layover at O’Hare. The book, a collection of advice column letters, along with their responses penned by the no-longer-anonymous Cheryl Strayed, opened with this letter: Like an Iron Bell.

After the first reading, I put the book down, partly paralyzed and partly electrified and partially quite certain that I had just stumbled upon the crystal-clear diagnosis for the affliction that I’d wrestled with for the past decade-plus: how to authentically express love that may not be epic and may not be for the ages but that is no less awesome and deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

You simply must read it—whether the words “I love you” are effortless for you to speak or if you, too, have choked them back, waiting for more ideal conditions. I’ll wait. Here’s the link again: Like an Iron Bell.

I want everybody with whom my life orbits to read these words. I want us all to vow that we will never, ever hold back on the true expression of our feelings. That everything that means anything, really, is rooted in love and that—like those Esprit-emblazoned t-shirts my long-ago neighbor bought for me—there are infinite hues from which to choose.

Before I loved my current boyfriend—and before I overcame my fear of speaking these words to the object of my affection—my heart got tangled up with someone else’s. The experience was a little messy and a little unexpected for us both. I wasn’t ready to fall in love—but I did. In a flash of white light, we came together and, by the count of three, we were apart and rattled by it all. And while I don’t have a shock of white in my hair to show for the experience like my former neighbor , it changed me, inside and out.

If I had read Like an Iron Bell a few months ago, I would have had a framework upon which to cast my feelings and provide definition. I would have understood the varied hues of love enough to have ensured my use of those three electromagnetically charged words conveyed the just-right subcontext. But instead, I chickened out and continued to wait for an apex moment. A moment that, in hindsight, came and left much like the wild storm in the sky this morning.

I’ve always been one for using more words than necessary, and yet, in matters of love, I let the flow recede for years and years. No more. I, too, am hitting that iron bell like it’s dinnertime. Life’s too short to hold anything back.

Soundtrack: “Lightning Bolt” by Jake Bugg

Kinda Nervous to Say So

It happened one Sunday, a month or so after our first date. We had fallen asleep and I was the first to wake. I rolled over and he stirred. “Hey, you,” I said in a whispery voice. He smiled and replied, “I love you, too.”

I felt myself gasp.

No, no, no, no, no, no, no. OMG, no! He thinks I said “I love you.” Hey you. I love you. Okay, I can see that. Crap! And while I do feel things are moving in that direction, it’s too soon. Plus, I’ve still got all these hang-ups around the L word that I’m trying to shake. My confidence is fast growing, but when it comes to saying it first, I hereby declare NOT IT.

I needed to handle this blunder fast. I couldn’t leave those three words—words my soul had been craving for so long—hanging. I didn’t want to embarrass him, nor did I want to pretend that’s what I had said.

So I smiled and I spoke. “I do love you.” The words came out feeling heavy on my tongue; I hoped all of my hopes that they felt breezy to his ear. “But what I actually said was, ‘hey, you.’”

We laughed, both feeling a little embarrassed and a little relieved. I further lightened the moment with a “Well, then!”

He responded with “I guess it is a little soon for that, right?” Then we swept it aside and carried on with simply being smitten.

That day, I finally learned there doesn’t need to be a dramatic build-up to get to the point where you are comfortable saying “I love you” to one another. In my last long relationship, after a few months in, I said it first. His response (which was not the one that ends with “too”) scared me—and scarred me—from using it ever again. The words he spoke in that moment were indeed heartfelt. But they were also a form of rejection. Rejection that I willfully accepted.

Loving someone, as we all know, is about so much more than saying I love you. And just to be clear, my ex and I showed love to one another in countless ways. But at the end of the day, I’m all about the classic gestures.

Over the years with him, I kept waiting for an apex moment, for an “I love you” to be spoken. That moment never happened—yet there it sat at the forefront of my mind, on the tip of my tongue, and on the surface of my flesh. I waited and waited. Finally, when I could wait no more for our relationship to be what it couldn’t, we broke apart.

That awfully long silence has come to an end. It started in the new year with my resolution to say more yeses in my life. Yes to myself. Yes to letting others in. Yes to possibility—and to potential. Yes to letting go of old haunts. Yes to living an epic life. Yes to being the master of my destiny and the pilot of my soul. Yes to love.

Now, still in the dawn of a new relationship, I express myself and my affections freely—and so does he. It took us a little more time to get there, but now it just feels right. As it should. As it is meant to. As I had forgotten it could be . . .

Soundtrack: “I Think I’m in Love” by Beck

Smile Like You Mean It

Smiling used to feel like pulling on a pair of jeans fresh out of the wash. It was physical and occasionally uncomfortable. Necessary for assimilation. Prone to fading. If I went about my day without a smile on my face, I felt naked in the eyes of others. So, putting on a smile came to be as much of a normal part of my routine as getting dressed every morning. I look at pictures of me over the years and I can tell when my smile was genuine and when it was not. Lift corners of mouth, expose teeth, turn on the light switch behind my eyes . . . and hold. My conjured smile was easier than reflecting what was percolating in the depths of my mind. My conjured smile was a shield.

Then, one day, things started to change. The process of smiling began to feel natural (and not, in fact, a process at all). The fit was just right, the fabric felt softer than I remembered, and the desire to flaunt it felt genuine. My smile was no longer a dress-up accessory; it was a reflection of my outlook on life. And life was good. Even when it was hard. Even when it was hazy. Even when I had more questions than answers.

I look at current pictures of me and I love what I see. My face is relaxed. My eyes sparkle with sincerity and joy. I look—and I feel—happy, healthy, alive. That feeling swells tenfold when friends and acquaintances tell me how they’ve noticed the shift in me. The ripple effect of an honest-go-goodness smile is profound.

Happiness is an inside job. The company I keep, the hobbies and activities I tend to, the career I pursue—these are all external influences. Lovely ones, mind you—but the smile on my face these days is illuminated by something much deeper. It’s illuminated by the knowledge and understanding that, ultimately, I am the keeper of the flame.

The smile on my face these days is, first and foremost, for me. And because it comes from a place of authenticity, it is effortless to share.

Soundtrack: “Smile Like You Mean It” by the Killers

Fast and Forward

With my new boyfriend, the conversation about his past relationships took all of three minutes. Not because he doesn’t have deep experiences and stories and lessons learned; but because he is living in the present moment. No self-help book, green juice, or meditation practice needed. He’s that good. He’s that unencumbered. I’m not.

Now, I’m not saying that I’m not good. We’re just different in the ways we regard our past loves and life experiences—and differences of all sorts can be quite good. They stretch the bounds of our comfort zones. They give depth and vibrancy to our everyday lives.

I mine my past for the lessons so that I can move forward in a totally rockin’ way. But I don’t just stop to smell the roses; I reflect on the sender and the sentiment and the color of the sky and the conversations that followed. I reflect on my feelings—the good, the not-so-good, and the truly mundane. I process it all until there’s a shiny souvenir for me to hold on to for evermore. There’s no knick-knack shelf long enough or sturdy enough to support this collection of mine.

I enjoy sharing my collection (i.e., my life experiences) with others. Hence this blog. Hence all the brunches, glasses of wine, cups of tea, hallway conversations, e-mails, phone calls, text messages and Facebook threads I’ve been party to over the years—especially over these last eight months. To know the path I’ve traveled is to know me. I wouldn’t change this part of me—even if I could. Even if it’s a bit unconventional. Even if it means that I count my exes among my dearest friends. I know that’s a rare thing.

As different as my boyfriend and I may be in the ways we hold onto our pasts, our goals in moving forward and living life are the same:

Make today awesome.

Do good, be kind, and have fun.

Build bridges, foster connections.

Laugh. Love. Be a little (or a whole lot) silly.

So, like today’s kale is destined to become yesterday’s Snackwell cookie, there’s something to be said for living a present-moment life by—simply—being present. No new-age-y stuff needed.

Damn, I love when a seemingly progressive idea, like mindfulness, can be factored down to zero.  Just. Like. That.

Bam. Life. There you go.

Soundtrack: "Fisherman's Blues" by the Waterboys

Green Light

Truth is, I blow through a lot of yellow lights. Logically, I know the difference between yellow and green; but in practice, they both mean “go” to me. More so figuratively than literally—but even when behind the wheel, my foot tends toward the accelerator not the brake. That’s me: constantly trying to squeeze the most life out of things. Relationships, conversations, experiences, a bag of potato chips. I want every last crumb—and then some. “Where’s the fire?” my grandfather used to call out as I ran from one room to the next. “Go, go, go” was how my grandmother described the perpetual motion of my youth. The concept of “just being” was foreign to me back then. And while, these days, I’m much more in tune with what it means to be in the moment and just experience an experience for what it is, I sometimes catch myself—namely, the two-headed monster that is my head and my heart—speeding distractedly down the highway of my life (flipping through my music and applying lip gloss) and wanting to call out to her, “hey, what’s the rush?”

I signed myself up for a year of saying “yes”—a word that’s teeming with velocity. But when you’re talking about people and feelings and possibilities (as I am; I always am) it’s the quality of the yes—not the quantity or the speed—that is most important. And it’s not really possible to give an all-in “yes” when there’s a “maybe” tugging at your sleeve. Or your heart.

So, I did it. I heeded the yellow light’s warning. And in doing so, the green light ahead became that much clearer.

It feels both risky and overly cautious all at once to give a yellow light the “red light” treatment. Clear-cut decisions are a bit foreign to me and my analytical/emotional/never-shuts-off mind. I can’t help but volley around the pros and cons of that decision. It’s what I do. Or what I used to do—playing the “what if” game.

But in matters of the heart, it feels quite freeing—quite right, actually—not to have that yellow light looming, not to be constantly debating with myself how to proceed. Green means go—and I am on my way.

Soundtrack: “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Emm Gryner