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Love

Thoughts

The first rule of Fight Club is we don’t talk

October 27, 2017

I can do it for hours. Days. Hell, I carried on a fight for more than a week one time. Until I couldn’t remember where it began.

Stone cold silence. That’s my weapon of choice.

When Hank and I fight, it almost always follows this simple, sophisticated 5-step process:

Step 1 – Someone says something insensitive, or shows up an hour later than they say they will, or doesn’t discipline the kids when they should, or drops a truth bomb that burns particularly bad when it detonates, leaving an unmistakable residue of resentment.

Step 2 – A somewhat heated exchange ensues. One in which each participant communicates in their version of “calm” and “effective” dialogue while the other pretends to listen but is really just crafting their own “calm” and “effective” retort.

Step 3 – Both of the opponents go silent.

Step 4 – Silence.

Step 5 – Something happens that makes the silence impossible and/or the anger erodes enough to quell the quiet. (Note: It can take anywhere from 1 hour to 1 week for this process to reach Step 5.)

This is how we fight. It’s the ugly way in which we throw down in this house.

My friends aren’t fond of our spat style. In fact, they’re quite critical of it. “How have you never just called him an asshole and moved on?” one of my lady loves asked. I guess I just don’t think he is an asshole. I just think he’s wrong in that instance. Or being unreasonable or insensitive or stubborn or any of the 5 million other adjectives that haunt nearly every marriage, lovely as it otherwise may be.

“But, how does that, like, work?” another friend inquired. We’ve been together for 16 years. Let’s say we fight, on average, four times a year. That’s 64 rounds of the silent treatment. You don’t withhold words from someone that many times without getting exceptionally good at it. I’ll have one of the chicks go tell Dad dinner’s ready, or talk about something I need him to know to someone else but in front of him so he hears it. But don’t worry guys, it’s all completely healthy and on the up and up as far as maturity.

This isn’t the only trick I carry around in my bag, but I’m no Mary Poppins, either. I handle disagreements with friends differently, as I do family squabbles. A difference of opinion at work is an entirely separate deal than a snarky acquaintance throwing shade on social media. But silence is my pocket knife; Handy, capable of inflicting a minimal amount of pain, but not sharp enough to do any real damage.

Turns out fighting is kind of like applying makeup or folding fitted sheets or making dinner in that everyone has their own approach. Their own brutal rituals.

“I yell at him, then he yells at me, then I yell back, turn, walk away and it’s over,” one friend from work said. So, for her, the booty is the last word. That’s what winning feels like.

“We just scream at each other and say all the things we need to. If I feel like I need to call him a mother trucker (except she didn’t say “trucker”), then I’ll call him that. But it doesn’t mean I really think he is a mother trucker. He’s just acting like a mother trucker.” Good, good …

I needed more.

I asked one gal who said that her and her husband don’t get up from the table until they’ve respectfully settled the disagreement. No yelling, no insults, no low blows. I imagine this approach is much like duck at a fancy restaurant; it sounds good and all but just isn’t appetizing to everybody. It’s what you order when you think someone’s watching.

Another buddy said that he and his wife fight via text. Or email. Almost every time. They have the disagreement, part ways and then let their fingertips duke it out. She’ll fire an opening shot from her phone. He’ll get it, fire something back, then eventually, when more needs to be said, they take it their inboxes and shit gets real. I could probably get behind that. But sometimes Hank is really bad at answering my texts.

It’s amazing when you think about it. We’ve crafted a thousand different ways to hurt each other, none of which result in healthy resolution. We do it, I think, to protect our hearts. We have to develop defense mechanisms that will shield the chambers that house our total devotion to our significant others from the petty arguments over finances and futile bullshit that doesn’t matter in the end. We have to establish processes that cue our brains into the severity of the confrontation. We have to streamline our daily showdowns to maintain the household and keep everything moving forward. This, we tell ourselves, is not a crisis. This is something else.

And really, a good fight could just be a sign that the flame is still there. If I don’t like you, I don’t give a loose stool what you think of me. Not my actions, not my appearance, not my opinions. If I don’t recognize your character and light, I’ll respect you, sure, but I’m not going to go out of my way to try and get you to pick up what I’m putting down. I’m not selling you on me. But if I care about you, I care about your opinion of me. I care enough to have the tough conversations with you. I’m all in, because I want you to be all in, too. There is no better example of that than marriage. What do they say? The opposite of love isn’t hate … it’s indifference. If you have indifference, you have trouble.

When I’m fighting with my husband, I’m coming from an honest place. I want to be heard. I want to be understood. And I want to fix it. I want it to be better when the dust settles, because forever is a long time. I’m so invested in this partnership that neither one of us is getting out without some battle wounds. It’s good and I’m going to fight for it. Every. Single. Day. In big and small ways.

I asked Hank what he thinks about how we fight. He hasn’t really given it much thought, he said. Apparently, I have a bit more time on my hands. I remember years and years ago, before we were married, he told me that I need to talk things out right away, but he needs to let things sit for a bit. He needs to just be with and sort through his thoughts. And then, eventually, he just resolves the issue he has with the situation on his own, and doesn’t feel compelled to circle back and address it verbally with me. I guess somewhere down the road we arrived at this ugly compromise. This fourth child neither of us acknowledge. A handful of times each year, he gets his silence and eventually, I always get my exhausting exchange. Not that I even want it by the time it rolls around.

Are there healthier ways to fight? Oh, 100 percent, I’m sure. I bet there are books on how to have a productive disagreement, and I bet the people who wrote those books order duck at fancy restaurants and don’t get up from the table until they’ve come to a place of shared understanding. And I bet that’s awesome.

Thoughts

Edward & Bella and Me & You

September 14, 2017

So, I’m just finishing up the Twilight saga. Why now? Why ever? You ask. I don’t have a good answer for you. I’m a page in my dayplanner away from 35 years old and the other night I literally said to my husband, “Bella had the baby, Edward had to make her a vampire to save her, and now her werewolf best friend is in love with her baby, whose name is Renesmee.” The sheer ridiculousness is not lost on me, and believe me when I say, I hate myself just a little bit for hanging in this long.

But I think this world has left me in need of a love story. Any love story. The more absurd, the better.

I’ve also been watching The Office like a junkie on Netflix, and I think my obsession with Jim and Pam kind of counterbalances the whole shape shifter/cold ones indulgence. Love is love is love, I guess.

But the big one is this: On September 15, it will have been 10 years since one of my all-time favorite love stories began, and more than 16 years since it really started taking root. Hank and I will celebrate a decade of domestic, wedded bliss and blunders this year. It feels impossible to be honest. Not that we made it this far, but that so much has happened so quickly, in the span of 25 to 35. Kids and houses and jobs and loss and laughter and so many memories.

I often think of this blog as a place to put all of the stories I know the waves of time will eventually wash away. And so, in honor of our anniversary, I’d like to add another to these pages. And this one is a goodie. This is a story about one of the many moments when I knew that Hank was my person … my ride or die … my Aiden Shaw (Mr. Big Mr. sucks, so in my mind, Carrie went a different way).

It was winter break of my freshman year of college (his sophomore year). We were at my parents’ house. Hank was on the couch watching TV, I was holding my baby niece. As I stood up to go change her, a piercing pain shot through my stomach like a red hot bullet. I tossed the infant to my boyfriend like a football in a trick pass.

“Ugh!” I moaned.
“What?” he pleaded. “What’s wrong?”
“Oh my God, my stomach!” I wailed, folded over on the floor.

I reached for the house phone and dialed my mom’s work number. She was home in minutes.

“Should we call an ambulance?” she asked, to no one in particular.
“I can get you there,” Hank said, confidently.

The pain was coming like sheets of furious rain in a thunderstorm. The calm moments weren’t necessarily calm, but just less excruciating. I was running through the options in my head … Ruptured appendix? Pancreatitis? Did I do something to my liver? Oh my gosh, my liver! Damn you, flippy cup!

We made it to the nearest ER fairly quickly. My mom had placed a bag of frozen vegetables on my stomach en route, peas I think. (A bag of frozen vegetables to my mom was like a bottle of Windex to the Portokalos family in my Big Fat Greek Wedding.)

After what felt like hours, they brought me back. They asked me some questions, and put me in a gown and eventually decided they would do an ultrasound.

With a wand.

Why did they need to go in there?

Oh … my … gosh. They thought there might be a baby in there?!

I was horrified. And confused. And paralyzed with anxiety. Could there really be a baby in there? And did all babies hurt like this when they got in there? But, really, how could a baby get in there? That’s just great. Ain’t no bag of peas gonna fix this, I thought.

After the most uncomfortable test of my life, they put me back in the exam room. My mom and I sat waiting, a pregnant pause between us. “Your boyfriend can come back in the room,” the physician said. “Right, so he can hear the news that he’s miraculously going to be a father, to a baby that’s trying to murder my intestines because it already hates me,” I thought. Hank came in and stood by my head.

The doctor put a smoky black and white image up on the light. She took the end of her pen and began circling a cloudy mass on the picture.

“Do you see this spot?”
“Yes,” we all said, sloppily, definitely not in unison.

Oh gosh, here it comes … It’s cancer. No, twins. No, cancer. No …

“Well, that’s gas.”
“OK …?” I said, not quite sure if “gas” was code for something else.
“See,” she continued, sensing my ignorance, “sometimes gas goes off track. It gets into places that can be rather uncomfortable, in this case, your ovary. It can definitely feel like something far worse, or even serious. The good news is, eventually, it will work it’s way out.”

She smiled kindly and moved onto a gunshot victim down the row a ways. It was quiet for a beat or two.

“So, did she just say I have a fart in my ovary?” I asked.
“That’s what it sounds like,” Hank said.
“A fart in my ovary …”
“The question is, how will you know which fart is the fart?” my mom asked, which was a totally valid question.

Mortified doesn’t cut it. Hank had been my boyfriend for all of maybe four months and he had just gallantly stood by as a doctor diagnosed me with a case of the travelin’ farts. Hurt as that bitch of a gas pain did, it couldn’t compare to the gaping wound that was my pride. Guys, can you imagine if we would have called an ambulance? On top of everything else, he took me to his house that night and I puked all over his parents’ bathroom. No clue why. Maybe it was an aftershock from the wand setting in. I was a gaseous, spewing trainwreck.

But he didn’t leave.

Not only did he not leave, he never made me feel stupid or gross. This scenario has repeated many times over the years, except under different titles. Replace “travelin’ fart” with “black boob from ignoring an infection” or “panic attack” or “extreme dental anxiety”. This man once sat in a chair for four hours – four hours! – while I got the root canal from hell. Only your mama and your person would do that.

Now, a decade in, I’m more certain than ever that I picked the right lobster out of the tank. I’ve never doubted this union for a second, and not just because I adore our babies and the life we’ve created, but because nothing has ever felt more natural, more organic, to me than standing beside this guy. Loving him is like breathing; I don’t have to think about it but I’m so thankful for the life it gives me.

I can’t say what 10 years of marriage is supposed to look like. I can only say what it looks like here. Here, in this stage of our lives, I’ll be honest and say there are days it looks like two people in the thick of the jungle using dull machetes to cut through the vines and make it out of the quicksand. But it also looks like teamwork and calendar consulting and granting ourselves permission to sneak away together sometimes. It looks like feet crossing at the end of the bed with Friends from College playing just above them and sharing the leg pillow since both of our backs hurt.

It looks like splitting and shifting the load so we can do things that make us happy outside of our roles as “Mom” and “Dad”, and petty fights because I’m hungry or tired or redirecting. It’s not a perfect marriage by someone else’s definition, but it is by ours, because we custom built it. We wove it together with the threads of trust and fabric of respect, and we work on it as often as we can, because we want it to be beautiful.

Similarly, I can’t describe a perfect home. I can only describe our home. A home with bedspreads inscribed by our children with permanent markers. A home with splashed, sticky walls and window screens with holes the size of tiny fingers. It’s filled with three little girls who yell “Daddy!” when he walks in at 6 o’clock every night, typically with pink hair ties around his wrist, leftover from that morning. It looks like stolen moments and locking eyes in the midst of meltdowns. It looks like stacks of photos that haven’t made it into books yet and dusty greeting cards with messages to each other we can’t bring ourselves to throw away.

It’s an open home, where our friends and family are always welcome, because that is what matters most to us. There are cobwebs in the corners I can’t reach and shoes caked with dried mud from Saturday hikes. I wouldn’t eat off the floor, but I’ll get down on it and tickle one of my girls without hesitation.

Our marriage, our home, our life, is my legacy. You wouldn’t be reading this blog if they didn’t exist. I wouldn’t be who I am if they didn’t exist. The light that lives inside me would be that much duller without each of these things we built together. Ten years seems like a significant milestone, but also still just the beginning.

Henry, I love sleeping in giant barn shelters along the Appalachian Trail with you (and 20 strangers), and getting lost down rivers in our kayaks with you, and sprinkling food and water over these little chicks and watching them grow with you, and getting drunk and going to Costco with you and exploring this miraculous world next to you. I can’t wait for all the adventures we can’t even imagine just yet. Edward and Bella. Jim and Pam. They ain’t got shit on us, babe. Happy Anniversary.

Bonus fact for those who hung on until the end:
My mom thought I seemed anxious the day before the wedding and gave me a Lexapro to “relax”. Then I drank wine and started tripping out. Thank God for good friends to bring you out of your Lexa-coma. (And the ones who take pictures of it.)

Mindfulness

Wake me up so I don’t miss it

July 26, 2017

“Promise you’ll wake us up,” JoJo and Spike say, their eyes burning into mine. “Even if we’re dead asleep and you think we’ll be mad. We don’t want to miss your hugs and kisses.”

Oh, these accidental, magnificent insights.

My chicks have made an art form out of changing my crooked, bleak perspectives. I think kids in general have this way of sifting through the litter box of life and coming up with golden turds of unabashed happiness. It’s just something they’re born with that erodes a tiny bit every time someone tells them the Tooth Fairy is creepy or they watch an episode of Hannah Montana or That’s So Raven, or whatever preadolescent dribble the Disney channel feels like shoving down their throats.

I’m definitely making a conscious effort to catch all of their organic amazement before it evaporates entirely. I find, when I forget what wonder looks like, I can just watch their little faces during a thunderstorm. How their eyes widen every time a hot shard of electricity pierces the racing clouds or a rib-shaking ripple of thunder cracks down from the heavens. “God got a strike!” I tell them. “And all the angels took His picture.” Their instinctive fears spread to smirks and we watch until it passes. In these moments, my own sense of wonder starts to whisper from under a pile of rubble in my soul. “Help me … I’m still in here.”

But I want more. Without waiting for a temperamental warm front.

I keep coming back to it … Wake me up! Even if you think it’s going to make me mad. I don’t want to miss the hugs and kisses.

There was this afternoon a few summers ago, when I went to pick JoJo up from preschool, and Spike gasped and pointed down at the ground. She would have been about 3 at the time. “What?” I inquired. “What’s wrong?” JoJo gasped then, too, meeting the object of her sister’s jubilation. My eyes darted back and forth across the asphalt. What was I missing? Finally, “It’s a rainbow river!” JoJo offered. And there it was: ROYGBIV floating right there in a common oil spill. I didn’t see it. I saw someone’s misfortune; a pool of malfunction. That’s what I saw.

Why didn’t I see the rainbow?

The question bothered me.

But it’s not hard to answer. It’s so easy, in this life, with its pace and its pitfalls, to focus on things like moldy strawberries straight from the store, and my constant view of the tops of the heads of my tech-tethered loved ones, and the fact that the bathroom at work always smells like AquaNet, diarrhea and orange tictacs, and fitted sheets that refuse to dutifully cover all four corners of the mattress the way their packaging promised they would. But focusing on all the bad fruit and the poop paradise and other crap certainly doesn’t make any of it go away. A few years back, when I took an honest inventory, I realized I was giving all of the bruises on the apple of my life way too much attention.

And once I noticed my pessimism – once I named it – then I could finally start shutting it down.

How did I start shutting it down? Well, I decided to say “yes” more than “no”. It’s my attempt at a more spontaneous existence. I’ve been taking the sweet seconds to smile at my babies’ white tushies striding on top of their brown summer legs. Not always, but more often than not, I look over my shoulder at the sunset on my runs. And (this is the hard one) I’ve been pausing before I begin spewing obscenities and cursing people’s small-minded bullshit, and instead, using these moments as opportunities for grace. All these podcasts about how unique every person’s walk on this earth is, and how we can Make America Kind Again, are really starting to sink in. Still, I’d say I’m only at about a 65% adoption rate on this last one.

It takes practice to push all the fat winter flies and ingrown toenails of life aside and offer a larger portion of the pie to the positive stuff. But it is possible. I mean, the reality is that, even on the darkest days, there’s always a blue sky right on the other side of the clouds. (That’s some cross stitch shit right there, but you can still quote me on it.) I think once you make that decision, once you commit to think about what’s on the other side of the gray haze, you’re one step closer to peace.

Let’s be real, rain is always going to come. If every day was sunny we’d just take it for granted, right? But when those drops start to fall, you have a choice. You can pout inside a smudged window pane or grab your polka dot umbrella, some charming galoshes and a better attitude. I’m really trying to invest in the galoshes. It makes me like myself better.

And everyone else, too. The older I get, the lower my tolerance becomes for the pouters on the other side of the pane. The world is hard and scary and diseased. I. GET. IT. But I don’t need to sulk and soak in that sad bath with you every single day. It’s exhausting and, quite frankly, draining. Awareness is healthy. But when the heaviness of it all becomes an obsession, you’ve really just given up your power and turned me off. I’m learning to nourish the space between myself and the people with toxic tendencies, so that it can organically grow and buffer my soul.

Like anything, some exceptions will apply. Life can’t be like a season of Gilmore Girls. Things are going to happen. But, from this sunnier shore, I’m finding that pain can be beautiful, even healing. Long talks with someone who really needs your ear can be life-changing, for both parties. And that the uncomfortable stuff can be a powerful vehicle for personal evolution.

Is it all rose bushes and marigolds in my own yard all the time? Ah, no. And I don’t ignore the great tragedies of this world either. I don’t dismiss the just causes, or devastating diagnosis, or disturbing headlines. I don’t pretend to be so apathetic I can turn away from the morally corrupt circus playing out before us all in real time. It’s all still there. I didn’t abandon it. You can’t abandon it. But I’m finding that the more I lean toward the bright side, the easier it is to find the light switch on the darker days. The more I focus on fostering joy and putting a tight bandage on the infectious carcinogens that strangle my heart to contain them, the better off I seem to be. And the more powerful I feel.

One of my favorite people to talk to on the planet, recently told me that 99.9% of the time, your body breathes you. It’s automatic and involuntary. But when you breathe your body – when you take a moment to feel your stomach rise and fall and notice how your hair tickles your shoulders, and feel your daughter’s soft cheek against your own – that’s when you tap into the good stuff.

So, I’m into all that. Breathing my body and my people. Detaining the toxic bullshit and its carriers. And jumping into the joy parade. It’s my 3-step process for obtaining eternal optimism.

If you see me looking away – from an adorable baby with a mouth full of spit bubbles, or my girls smelling flowers or a sunrise painted with angelic brush strokes – just give me a little nudge. And dear God, please wake me up. Even if you think I’ll be mad. Because I never want to miss the hugs and kisses. I never want to miss the love. Or this life.

Thoughts

As I am your witness

July 12, 2017

Today, my husband turns 36. He would tell you he’s growing more salt than pepper and essentially falling apart, but I’d argue he’s never been better.

Of those 36 years Hank’s been on this earth, I have been around to see 16 of them. I have been his witness.

I have been his witness.

The idea kind of blows my mind. The idea that a force greater than ourselves made the assignment, pulled us together, paired us off and now we are the primary spectators for every breath, every major decision, every step (both forward and backward) in each other’s daily existence.

I first started thinking about it a few weeks ago. Spike and I were brushing our teeth and she looked over and noticed a spot on my shoulder blade.

“What’s that dot, Mama?” she asked.
“What dot? Where, honey?”
“That dot. Up there.”
“It’s a mole. She’s always had it.” Hank chimed in, passing through the bathroom on his way to the closet.

Huh. A mole. On my shoulder blade. I had no idea I had a mole on my shoulder blade, but it was just a plain, vanilla fact to my husband. Something he sees probably twice a day, everyday. A fire hydrant on his street.

It’s like the whole when-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods-and-nobody-hears-it thing. If I’d never seen that mole, would it have really even existed? It exists because my life witness sees it, and therefore, it is.

I proposed the mind-blowing concept to my better half in the car one evening. (Spoiler: He wasn’t as enthused.)

“Babe, ya know what I was thinking about?”
“What?”
“How we’re witnesses to each other’s lives. Like, you know I have a mole on my shoulder, and I didn’t know that.”
“Right …”
“And like, I know that you do this thing every night when you take your contacts out.”
“What?”
“You do. As you unscrew your contact case, you turn to the right and look at your eye in the mirror, and then turn your head to the left and look at your eye in the mirror and then dip your chin down and then take the right contact out, and then the left contact out.”
“OK, but that’s not necessarily interesting. That I do that.”
“I mean, it kind of is to me. And it’s the fact that I know you do it, right? Like, if I didn’t see you do it, no one would know you do it. And I don’t even think you realize you do it. It’s such an awesome responsibility … being witness to someone’s life.”

Then he veered off the path and started talking about perceived reality and sounding really smart and the air made fart noises as it escaped rapidly from my mental tires.

But as the days went by, I just started thinking about it more. And how our parents are our witnesses for the beginning of our lives, and then our close friends kind of step into that role, and then our partner kind of takes over from there. How fascinating would it be to have these groups of people write the appropriate chapters of your life story, from their perspectives, when they were all up in there?

Right now, without consciously realizing it, I am documenting my daughters’ lives. I’m doing the same for their father. I know their habits, their mannerisms, their missteps, their victories, their sensitivities. I know the exact moment JoJo is going to put her fingers in her mouth to suck on them and can recount both of the evenings she got stitches, in her eyebrow and chin respectfully. I know that Spike has my hands and that her breath is super hot in the mornings. I know that Sloppy Joan’s Xiphoid process, the tiny bone between her ribs, sticks out freaky far and that she rode in the back of an ambulance on my lap, wearing nothing but a diaper, at 2 o’clock in the morning to be treated for RSV. If you had the time and the interest, I could tell you every tiny detail. It’s woven into the fabric of my soul.

Their bodies. Their voices. Their natural tendencies. I carry them all.

But I also know I won’t carry them forever. Pieces of them, sure, but not the bulk like I do now. Not all the good stuff.

Sometimes my parents tell stories about things I did as a little girl, and it feels fabricated. Or foggy at best. Like maybe it lives in my mind somewhere, but nowhere convenient or close enough to easily access the memory. But as they tell it, I can see it. I’m reliving part of my life through them. Through their eyes, their recollection. Those were moments they picked up and held onto so one day I could know they happened. They created the first scrapbook of my existence, and it’s fun to bring it out sometimes and flip through the pages.

When I get together with girlfriends and we carry on about all the stupid shit we did in high school or college, it’s often the same. I vaguely recall smoking cigarettes out of my bedroom window, listening to Celine Dion. I can kind of remember falling down a stack of stages at the youth dance club, coming to rest at the feet of a circle of guys, but it’s all spotty at best. As they offer up scraps of their own memories, I can typically piece it all together. The names. The places. The ridiculous outfits. They were the audience for the second scene in my play. And you bet your sweet ass we go right back there when the kids are in bed and the cocktails are cold.

And then there’s Hank. We thought we were such grownups when we met. We didn’t date very long before we pushed all the chips into the pot and decided this thing was probably going to stick. I immersed myself in his life in a way I’d never done with anyone before. Had I known all the time I would have to absorb every detail of him, I might not have been so insistent, so eager. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to commit this man to my memory. We’ve gone on beautiful trips, and had revealing conversations and laughed and cried. Often, it was just the two of us. The authors, actors and audience to our personal love story.

And now, 16 years later, on his 36th birthday, I find myself marveling at my permanent role as a witness to his life. And the gift of being witness to our three beautiful babies’ lives. And the gift of looking back on all the people – my parents, my girlfriends, my husband – who’ve been witness to my life. Ultimately, everyone needs someone who knows that they cough when they eat ice cream and yawn every time they say goodbye to their mom on the phone. And not just know those things. But actually give a shit, too.

This post is a little convoluted, I’ll admit. It reads a bit like a 3am shroom trip, but still, it amazes me. I guess you just never know where a mole is gonna take you.

Thoughts

Confession: I gave bad advice to bachelors

June 9, 2017

In 2003, Hank and I were just babies. I was a journalism student who smoked a pack of Camels a day and wore black stretchy pants with one-shoulder tank tops when I wanted to be fancy. He was a frat guy who drank Early Times with a splash of Coke and grew lawn grass in a pot as a conversation piece.

At the seasoned age of 20, through a series of events erased by Bacardi and time, I ended up connecting with the editor of the newspaper at Hank’s all-male school. It was a perfect storm, really. I was a card-carrying member of the cult of Sex and the City and they were thirsty for a female perspective. Thus, a weekly advice/editorial column, called From the Hip, was born.

I had the purest intentions, I swear. Hand over my heart, I believed I was giving them legit advice. I aspired to be a guiding light for their liaisons, both committed and casual. They were my Anthony Michael Halls, and I was their Carrie Bradshaw, and together we were going to revolutionize the way men and women – who drank a lot and hooked up – communicated with each other. I exposed all of the sores and issues on the underbelly of the twenty-something dating scene, often shoplifting stories from my roommates’ love lives, which were far more exciting than my own.

The men of the campus gradually started seeking me out. Once adequately liquored up, guys would come up to me at Tommy’s, the townie bar, and scream their questions in my ear over Sublime and Tom Petty. I’d walk by them at parties and they would point and sloppily gush as they realized, “Hey! You’re that girl in the paper!” Then they’d be on to a sweet piece of ass who wouldn’t exploit their misfortunes for a spot in the “Stuff” section. Professors and students debated my opinions in class and it didn’t always fall in my favor, which bewildered me. Until recently.

A few weeks ago, I was chatting with an old friend about writing aspirations and the good ole’ days and all the things you cover with the dear ones, and she mentioned my old column. I hadn’t thought of those articles in years. I hadn’t read them since college. So, I went home, did some Googling, and soon found myself sitting inside the mind of my 20-year-old self. And let me tell you, it was scary in there. Nothing was how I remembered it. It was like finding your childhood dollhouse and realizing just how tiny the furniture was. The writing was terrible, the perspective was all wrong and the topics were predictably tacky.

Aren’t these just the cutest things you’ve ever seen? I mean … precious. And naive AF. Sure, there might be some little nuggets that hold up, but overall, the work and the arguments are mediocre at best. My 34-year-old self realized I had done a massive disservice to the men at that college, and their partners. I took a platform primed with potential for enlightenment and healthy dialogue and squandered it on topics like strip clubs and clingy exes.

The view from the woman behind this keyboard – now 14 years of living, 10 years of marriage, and 3 children the wiser – is much different. It’s messier. Happier. More Claire Dunphy than Carrie.

Honestly, I’m confident the voice of Courtney 2017 wouldn’t have really resonated with the men of 2003, or the 20-something men of 2017 for that matter. But you know what, screw it! Here’s to trying to right what’s wrong …

FROM THE HIP
What real women really want

By Courtney Leach

First, gentlemen, I must apologize for casually disrespecting the complex expedition we endure to establish strong relationships in the unsophisticated fashion that I did. The idea that the intricacies of one person dedicating their mind, body and soul to another person for any period of time could be simplified or summarized in 800-word musings was an ignorant, albeit well-intentioned, endeavor.

It has taken me 16 years of being with the same man, decades of listening to my dear friends and a lot of great books and self reflection to realize that my opinions, or anyone else’s for that matter, are just that, opinions. They are beads representing other people’s experiences we string on a necklace and wear on the battlefield of our own relationships. They are tools in the shed, but each landscape is different. There is no magical salve for your relationship pain points, because each partnership is unique and requires its own set of care instructions. Instructions you come to on the other side of steep mountains and colorful emotional bruises.

But since this stage is meant for advice, I might have a little bit left in my back pocket. A few beads to string on your necklace.

You’re in college now, and what I offer you is a glimpse into your future. A telescope for the not-so-distant journey ahead. My sincere wish for each of you is that you find that person who pours into your heart and fills in every gap, every hole. When fate reveals your other half and truest equal, it’s an unimaginable gift. Recognize the beauty in that and celebrate it every day, with both minor and magnificent gestures. Everyone’s love language is acknowledgement. Everyone needs to feel appreciated. Including your partner. Don’t forget that when things get hectic.

I can tell you that, in my experience, the best unions are rooted in respect, fed with thoughtful exchanges and watered with laughter. There will be so many hard moments and gut-wrenching decisions to be made in the years ahead; Unfathomable losses and love so intense it frightens you to death. The sooner you learn to dance in the light and joyful reprieves, the fuller your heart will be. Don’t take life so seriously. There’s enough weight to carry between the two of you as it is.

Understand that the woman you love will feel like a stranger in her own skin at some, or many, points in your life together. Maybe it’s a result of pregnancy and the subsequent nursing and hormone changes that accompany that process. Maybe it’s a change in metabolism or motivation or her ability to cope with the suffocating stress of keeping a household running. Whatever the cause, the body she has now, will not be the body she has always. And she will wrestle with that. Be understanding of this gradual evolution. Remember what came with those curves; your son, your daughter, a warm meal at the family table, a soul standing and aching next to you in the hardest of times. You, too, will likely change. Just use it as an excuse to go for a walk together.

Contrary to what your current stage of life would have you believe, sometimes being the strongest man, means staying completely silent, unless your words can guarantee progress or healing. It requires you to hold your tongue when the sharp organ is dripping in toxic antagonism, and reserve your words for constructive conversation instead. Words can build bridges between torn hearts, but they burn them just as quickly. Be thoughtful with the woman and the people you love.

If you’re angry, go lift some weights. Move boxes around in the garage. Go for a run. Just go. The water tastes like shit when you draw from an indignant well. Just be sure to circle back when your mind has cleared. Progress is the pup born of honesty and communication.

Always have your partner’s back. Even when she is wrong. She probably knows deep down that she is. (If she is.)

Life is about to pull a big fast one on you and pick up its pace. It goes way too quickly to argue about who’s going to come to your wedding, or get the groceries, or fold the laundry, or take the car in for an oil change. Don’t burn these sweet minutes on such inconsequential disputes. With a full-time job and active kids and a thousand responsibilities you can’t even imagine right now, you’ll come to see your time together as an extravagance. Be an observer of your partner’s struggles and the load she carries. Watch for opportunities to pitch in and do it, unprompted. Make the ride a little easier so you can both enjoy the music on the radio and the sights as you speed along. She isn’t the only one who can pack the sandwiches. And, I’m tellin’ ya, a basket of folded laundry at the hands of her spouse, is a woman’s greatest aphrodisiac.

When in doubt, come back to the love. You will always think that you are right. And she will always think that she is right. And both of you will be accurate. But there is nothing more important than the magnetic, authentic admiration you feel for the soul that climbs in bed next to you at night. Lose that perspective, and you’re screwed.

To assume it will be perfect is to set yourself up for a life of disappointment. It’s a fool’s vision. You have to go all in. You have to do the work. You have to get into your bathing suit and embrace the heat when it all goes to hell in a handbasket. The bruises and bumps and hiccups are perfectly human, and they will subside with time and care. And, as you grow together, as a couple, you learn when to warn each other to duck and come out less scathed. In the end, 98 percent of your disagreements are trivial, and the best things often come from the brutal 2 percent that’s left over.

In the end, being a good man is a matter of character. It’s about supporting your partner’s dreams and setting some of your own as well. Hold onto who you want to be, and make a point to validate the goals of the person across the table, too. Put yourself in her shoes, even when that badass, exhausted woman is wearing those pointy uncomfortable ones. Pitch in so she doesn’t feel alone, always. Practice empathy, loyalty, compromise and humility.

Remember that you are not perfect. Neither is she. You are two flawed creatures trying to build a burrow where you can create a life of contentment. Don’t overthink it. Just bring it back to love. If you always come back to the love, you’ll do just fine, young man. (Well, that and pare your morning shit back from 45 minutes to a more acceptable 15, um kay?)

Kids

The woman who cares for my children

December 30, 2016

We sat outside on a sticky August evening – four tired mothers, spent from trying to keep all the plates spinning on our fingertips and tiptoes and the one woman who made it even close to possible, Kay. We raised salt-rimmed margaritas in celebration of our dear friend’s 59th birthday and looked lovingly upon her.

To know Kay is to know belief. She is proof that God walks among us; That He does some of His best work through others’ hands. She infuses everyone she meets with honesty and love and conviction. She has a peace that only comes with unwavering faith and firm truth and the understanding that you have found your calling. And the best part about all this? For five beautiful years, my girls have rubbed up against these rare qualities in Kay’s home, which is really their second home.

“You really need to do something nice and celebrate.” I said
“Well yeah, you know me.” Kay responded sarcastically.
“No, seriously … you do so much for everyone else.”
“Yeah, well, I have been thinking a lot about my kids and things I need to do and things I’d like to do and, well …” [pregnant pause] “… I do have a date.” [bigger pregnant pause] “I’ve decided to stop watching children around Christmas next year.”

Tears. So many tears.

And then congratulations.

And then more tears. This time with snot.

I knew this day was coming. I mean I practically promised to sell my kidneys to get JoJo in with Kay when we moved back from Indianapolis. I knew she was wonderful and I knew my children needed to be in her home and I was willing to stalk her, beg her and just start dropping my little girl and money off until she settled into the idea. But I didn’t have to do all that. After a good referral from a friend and a pleasant chat, Kay decided to take our then 2 year old. We, I was told, would be the last family she would care for before retiring.

When we had Spike she mentioned that when we were done having kids, she would soon be done as well. She told me the same after we had Sloppy Joan. She planted subtle reminders of her impending retirement along the way – pebbles for us to pick up and remember that her home, sweet as it was, would not be open to us forever.

But still on this suddenly unforgiving summer evening, with the bitter taste of the salt biting my tongue, I felt shocked. My heartbeats were thunderous in my eardrums and my eyes were drowning in hot tears. What would we do without Kay? What would any of us do?

I don’t call Kay a babysitter, a fact that has been pointed out to me by several different people on several different occasions. I’ll say, “Kay, who watches the girls,” or “Our friend, Kay” or “You know, Kay, the baby whisperer,” but never “babysitter”. It just feels so inadequate. A babysitter is a 15 year old who sneaks her boyfriend in the back door and gets gum stuck in her braces. Kay is a miracle worker. Kay speaks child. Kay is the captain and the wind and the vessel itself.

There have been so many times she’s told me something about one of the girls that should have been so obvious, but it took having her gently point it out for me to see it. She’s taught them all how to go up and down stairs. How to pray before meals. How to bump a volleyball and swing a bat. How to roll up their sleeves and get dirty and scoop up crayfish in the creek. She treats each one equally but sees the intricate nooks and folds of their little personalities perfectly.

In 27 years the woman has never taken a sick day. I’m not kidding. She doesn’t take vacations, she doesn’t get the stomach flu, she doesn’t get strep. She’s a machine. And it’s not like she just got good at connecting with kids in her veteran years, either. I rode up to Kay’s daughter’s lakehouse (because they actually want to spend time with all of us outside of the weekdays, proving she is, in fact, a saint) with two freshman in high school who grew up at Kay’s. Their stories were the best. Kay sent a snake home with them and it had 200 babies. Kay let them build a tepee in the ravine next to her house. Kay got them to do things their parents would only dream of. She was a main character in the beginning chapters of their lives, and they would never ever forget her.

And let’s talk about the food at Kay’s.

Kay shops at the exact same grocery store where we shop. Exact same. But for whatever reason (magic pixie dust one can assume) everything is tastier at her table. One of the teenagers I was with confirmed the hypothesis I’d had for years.

“So, you’re saying if I buy a gallon of Hawaiian Punch, and Kay buys the exact same gallon of juice, it will taste better at Kay’s house?”
“Yes.”
“But …”
“I know! I can’t explain it! It’s just better. The fruit snacks are chewier, too.”

Her cheese sandwich is one slice of white bread with a Kraft single on top microwaved for 22 seconds and folded over. The kids go nuts for it. I make it, and nothin’. No love. But the gleaming cherry on top of the sundae that is Kay’s, is the crumbs. Imagine if you will, the broken shards of fried potato that reside in the bottom of a grease-soaked bag of plain potato chips. You’d toss them away, right? Consider that a crime at Kay’s. At Kay’s, everyone has an assigned crumb day. When the bag gets down to potato pieces, she spoons one tablespoon of chip dip (a special Kay kind of chip dip that I have purchased but did not taste like Kay’s special chip dip) into the bottom half of the potato chip bag, which she has cut in half for convenience. She then uses her hands to push and massage and squeeze the dip/chip components together to form the ideal consistency. She hands the crumb day child the dip spoon and gives them the green light to shovel their prize into their watering mouth as the other children at the table look on in complete and utter jealousy. That, my friends, is the crumbs. And it is the holy grail of Kay’s.

Seasons passed. That summer gave way to this past summer and before we knew it, it was fall.

Every year over Fall Break Kay has a wienie roast and bonfire for the kiddos. They push leaves into giant piles and roll down her perfectly sloped hill and laugh and play and torch marshmallows. When I came to pick up the chicks on this special day, Kay called me over to show me pictures on her phone. The kids had found an owl sitting in a tree down in the ravine. How fitting, I thought. An owl, a universal symbol of learning, would preside over this, their final autumn gathering. The lessons learned in this yard, in this home, around that kitchen table, from this woman, are lifelong. She has been their greatest teacher in the years when the rules really matter and the instructions aren’t always clear for tired mothers and well-meaning fathers.

When you make the decision (or the decision makes itself) to be a working mom, you accept the sacrifices but they still keep you up at night. Agony is wrestling with all of the things you’re missing and the precious time you’re losing. Your greatest wish is that you can find a place to take your child where they will be safe and loved and understood. I know people who search and search and search for that kind of environment. We were lucky enough to have it for this short time and our girls will be better people because of it. Kay’s house is an extension of our home. It is warm and welcoming and her entire family has carried our children in their hearts.

Another season passed. And now, here we are at “Christmas time next year”.

It’s time for me to be an adult. (Let me go on record as saying I despise such occasions.) I’m so thrilled for this beautiful woman who’s dedicated so much of herself to other families. She deserves – more than anyone I know – a day off, a vacation, an impulsive decision. She deserves to sit with her grandbabies for hours and share her gifts with other people and to let others stand in her light. I tell the girls why it’s so important we support Kay and celebrate this time for her. Then I turn away from them and cry like the giant woman-baby I am.

I cry every time I think about Sloppy Joan missing those summers down in the ravine, when I pull up to find them sitting on the driveway barefoot with vanilla ice cream running down their sun-kissed arms to their elbows. Or the girls begging to go to “Kay-Kay’s” in footie pajamas with their blankies under their arms. Or Kay giving them kisses on their cheeks and telling them she loves them after they had a tough day. Or all of the 8 million things that only the families who went to Kay’s can appreciate, that won’t be part of our routine anymore. Our days will be a little less full without her.

A few weeks ago she had all of our families over for a Christmas dinner. Kay gathered the children around her dining room table, where they’d sat for so many meals, and she invited them to pray, just as she had so many times. As they folded their precious hands and followed her in making the sign of the cross, I felt those steamy tears I’d felt a year and a half ago rolling down my cheeks. No one could love our little tribe of misfits the way she had. What will we do without Kay? What will any of us do without Kay?

The night Kay told us she would be moving on, I went home and wrote this:

The woman who cares for my children is not a babysitter.
The woman who cares for my children is a maker of memories.
The woman who cares for my children is a friend to me and a light to all.
The woman who cares for my children is the wisdom through trivial tears.
The woman who cares for my children is a compass at the crossroads.
The woman who cares for my children carries them in her heart just as their mother does.
She is a light and a guiding force and a selfless soul whose role in this village will never be forgotten.

I feel it more today, on your last day with our babies, than I did on that August night.

We thank you Kay.
We love you Kay.

Thoughts

Paul’s Boots

November 12, 2016

screen-shot-2016-11-12-at-6-47-26-pm

I don’t know about you, but this week left me feeling chewed up, spit out and nauseous as hell. I’m not going to talk about politics here because quite frankly I’ve exhausted my arguments and understanding, but I’ve slept, stayed off social media, gone for a run, and all I will say is that the world better just prepare itself for the shit storm of love I’m about to unleash on it, starting with this amazing short film REI released this week. Live this life. Love these people. Spend time somewhere magical.

Thoughts

To Courtney, with love on her 34th birthday

November 3, 2016

birthday

Today I turn 34.

As an early gift from the universe, I had the best conversation with one of my oldest girlfriends last night. We talked about expectations and pressure and our dreams and stress and our shortcomings and all the other hangups I regularly write your eyes off about. It was one of the most honest conversations I’ve had with someone face-to-face in some time. I live for talks like that with people like her. We cruise along on canned exchanges – How are you? I’m great, and you? – but when you really dig in and expose all the sores and bruises and shared struggles, that’s when it gets really good. That’s when it changes us.

Then this fell into my lap, so I unwrapped it:

hola-beach-club

This pursuit I’m in. This journey I’m on. At the brink of my 34th year, it finally gets a name. I am a woman absolutely seeking wholeheartedness. And man, aren’t we all?

My friend said so many times, “I just want peace, ya know?” I do. I looked at her face and into her well-intentioned heart and I thought, I 100 percent know. Because I want peace, too. Not only for me, but for my children and my family and my friends and my neighbors and the gal who pumped gas next to me this morning.

Whether you call the monster scarcity, as Brené does, or guilt or shame or by some other ugly name, the feelings of inadequacy that we carry on our shoulders all weigh the same and all hurt the same. And what do they get us, really, other than a shared sense of “not enough”?

But I get a wish today. So, here it is … In my 34th year, I wish for freedom from the poisonous lies and bullshit that scarcity whispers in my ear every day. I wish for more contentment and peace and strength. I wish to become friends with the idea that I do enough. I give enough. I am enough. And I wish to reinforce those same feelings in every person I meet.

Here’s to wholehearted living! I’m comin’ for ya …

Kids

Being a mom is kind of scary

May 9, 2016

For an unhealthy span of time in my younger years I had a doll that I swore to everyone who would listen was real. I used an old wooden high chair (I want to say it was my dad’s when he was a baby) and sat Crystal at the table. I would airplane tiny spoonfuls of applesauce toward her sweet plastic lips and then whip it into my own mouth quickly, so everyone would assume it was consumed and now sustaining my real baby’s body. Over time, my little angel started to succumb to the wear of overuse. Her foam midsection would sometimes peek out from the back of her dress. Her supple scull popped off from her body on more than one occasion, revealing her artificial core, but still I held her close. I took my care for Crystal very seriously. Care when I swaddled her. Care when I rocked her and sang to her. And care when my older siblings and their friends came to torture her and me for the sake of their own jollies.

I can remember fragments of the scene on the day Crystal lost her magic forever. My sister and I had matching white wooden four post beds with spindles that screwed on and off. So many times those posts served for happy memories; mainly as our microphones for our private Wilson Phillips concerts or reenacting the opening sequence from Adventures in Babysitting. But on this particular afternoon, there was no singing. My brother, who was in high school at the time, had some of his buddies over. These guys were over a lot while our parents were at work and Matt was “watching us”. In the frenzy and noise of the typical annoying little sibling torture proceedings, one of my brother’s friends grabbed Crystal off my bed. He squeezed her head, which opened her mouth and gave him a perfect opening in which to impale her face on the spindle. I looked on helplessly as he hit her body, making my baby doll spin around the bed post, her head the axis and her manufactured limbs the propellers. And I remember feeling both emotionally demolished and relieved at the same time. As much as I loved Crystal, being her mom could be a real bitch sometimes. The charade had to stop. I just didn’t expect it to end so violently for her.

My time with Crystal, a.k.a. Baby Alive, was an adolescent teaser for the gravity of motherhood. Now that I have 3 real, living, breathing daughters – yes, they really are real this time – I feel a constant weight on my mind and my shoulders. One day they aren’t there and you’re just walking around making moronic decisions and eating Taco Bell at all hours of the damn night, and then, boom! these little humans are in your home, asking for water and screaming at you from the toilet seat. They come out bearing nothing but a buffet of messy fluids and loads of massive responsibility for you, and it’s overwhelming, I don’t care who you are.

Me and Spike

With girls, in particular, I find I place a lot of importance on how I raise them and the example I set. I don’t want much for them, just that they be independent, confident, strong, determined, direct yet receptive, resolute yet relaxed, wise and empathetic, compassionate, kind, respectful, noncompliant when it counts, forward-thinking, environmentally conscious, always driven by admirable motives, modest, unapologetic, ambitious, positive, adventurous and curious, noble and just a little bit gutsy. I want them to chase down their dreams like the succulent prey they are and be continuously reaching for more than what they’re given. I want them to explore every beautiful corner of this world, but always come home for Christmas. I want them to surprise themselves with what they can accomplish, but never at the expense of another person’s pride or joy. I want them to be aware of their character and the character of the people they surround themselves with. I want them to stand for what’s right and respect God’s will. I want them to investigate and question and refuse to settle. I want them to excel, to climb, to love big. That’s it. Just those things. And when I think about how I can help mold them into these people, or worse yet,the 8 million things I do a day that potentially steer them away from being these people, I suddenly get very, very tired.

I often try to salvage my sanity by parceling this list down into digestible, manageable goals. Some of these include, but are not limited to: Getting Spike to quit hitting and Sloppy Joan to quit biting, reduce the volume of fart noises at the dinner table, get Sloppy Joan to stop saying, “don’t like it!” about absolutely everything (even the things I know she likes), convince Spike that boogies are not a delicacy, and get JoJo to stop hoarding. If I think about how I can use my influence to just start chipping away at some of these habits, it seems a little less daunting.

MeandGirls

But all of these anxieties pale in comparison to the ones I have about just keeping them alive. These little creatures might not be very refined, but they are awesome and they are on loan to me. Sometimes that fact scares the shit out of me, I’m not going to lie. Right after I had JoJo, I would randomly just start crying on our way to the sitter. I think it was the fact that my hormones were on a Tilt-a-Whirl 24/7, but I also think it was the sheer terror that if someone crashed into our car something could happen to her. It was the heart-halting fear of loving something so much more than you love yourself, or anything else. I’d only felt love like that for one other person, and he pretty much took care of himself.

Suddenly I was forced to think about reactions to dairy and what the consistency and frequency of someone else’s poop means and if there’s a separate heaven for ants and goldfish. Being a parent is like a constant game of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and you start back at the bottom every morning. So, she wants to know if Sloppy Joan came out of my belly button. Should I phone a friend? Go 50/50? They need answers. Answers to questions that, quite honestly, I often haven’t even considered. The questions are just part of it, too. They fall and break open. They get violently ill. They wake up with rashes for no apparent reason. You aren’t just the teacher, you’re also the healer.

All of this being said, mothers are some badass multitasking fixers. We make up songs on the spot and kiss scrapes with magic lips and pull snacks out of our oversized purses and chase off the monsters and smooth everything over with our masterful body sway and face petting. Scary as it all is, I don’t know many moms who aren’t up for taking a baseball bat to the things that go bump in the night if that’s what the job calls for. The only feeling that’s greater than fear is love, and Lord knows we all have plenty of that.