Sisterhood, A Love Story

18.

I count 18 women in the circle.

I dig through my memory, searching for a time I successfully bonded with a group of females this big.

My mind is blank, and then suddenly, my heart is racing. In the wave of panic I feel my jaw and the back of my neck tighten. I focus my energy on appearing calm and content, but am notoriously incapable of concealing my reactions and especially terrible at maintaining a neutral look on my face.

We introduce ourselves, one by one. Before each of them speak, I make a commitment to clear my judgement.

“Stay open. Be present. You’re exactly where you need to be.”

Everything feels upside down, already. It’s been a week and three days since I walked out of a courtroom and the realness of it is just barely sinking in. I already have deep fears and anxiety about finances and career-pathing, and what-the-hell I’m going to tell my dad. I’m worried about the next three months, but also the next thirty years.

What seemed like the easy part: this new team, this new job, this brand new store with its empty walls and open floors, immediately feels like another layer of challenge I didn’t prepare for.

Relationships with women, my entire life, haven’t come easy.

One night when I was in first grade, a woman, the mother of a kid in my girl scout troop, called my house to talk to my mom about an incident she’d witnessed in the parking lot of my school that day. The details aren’t important. She accused me of treating one of my fellow troop members in a way I wouldn’t have at that age, or ever.

I watched my mom patiently listen, then heard her calmly insist that the behavior “didn’t sound like me,” but after repeating herself more than three times, my mom solemnly handed the phone to me.

I was six.

On the other line, I heard the then-unfamiliar high pitch and loud volume of a woman who doesn’t feel heard. Of desperation and anger and other ugly feelings, dredged up from some distance, dark place, and misdirected at a target that is mostly, or wholly, innocent in creating them. In my adult life, the sound became the theme music of my law practice,  an echo in my office, on my voicemail and written between the lines of many a hastily composed email from my clients.

Her accusatory tone shaped the words “bratty” “cliquey” and “exclusive.” I remember saying, over and over, “I’m sorry, but I don’t remember any of that.” When the relentless voice became increasingly more aggravated, I stopped defending myself and started to cry. When my mom finally took the phone back, my tears had become full-blown sobs.

And 24 years later, I remember it like it happened last night.

In fourth grade, two of my close girlfriends trapped me in our classroom during lunchtime so they could tell me all of the things they hated about me. One stood on the outside, blocking the doorway, poking her head through the narrow opening, made too small for even my 40 pounds to escape. The other girl was on the inside, doing most of the talking, her face right up to my face.

A year later, I found a stack of note cards stuffed in an old library book. As I read through them, I realized it was a conversation between two of my classmates, written in distinctly female handwriting.  They went back and forth about how I’m not as pretty as I think I am and how they hope I grow up and look like our homely, miserable, angry librarian, Mrs. Cox. This is how young women abused each other before text messages, twitter and snap chat.

I have other, smaller memories, too. Of birthday party invite lists I was deliberately left off and conversations with my mom where she insisted “it’s not about you.” The time when a girl in my seventh grade PE class dragged me into a group of girls and said “look, I found a lost dog” to her friends. Or when a fellow high school senior told me we couldn’t be friends because she still “has beef with me from third grade.”

As I got older, these and other incidents, experiences and feelings came together as a pretty powerful story about my relationship to women: “We just don’t get along.” and “I prefer to hang with the boys.” “Girls are catty, untrustworthy and mean.”  “Women are too competitive with each other, jealous and hopelessly insecure.” “Women can’t deal with my confidence, assertiveness or how aggressive I play on the soccer field.”

And, like most things we believe about ourselves, I moved through my life collecting evidence of its truth.

By the time I found my way to the future home of lululemon Roseville, I had a pile of it, deep and broad and full. I could categorize it by “type of woman” and cross-reference it by age-group, occupation and geographic location. I’d become so agile and adept at mentally cataloguing my experiences, I could leave any interaction with a female and immediately lock it into my imaginary vault, forever.

From my seat on the floor that day, a quick analysis of my invisible lady data told me out of these 18 women I’d be lucky if I connected with 2.

Over the next four days, team Roseville, as we quickly became known, spent close to 70 hours together. Early mornings became late dinners, time collapsing in on itself. We built an entire retail store in a day and a half, slicing through more cardboard boxes than I will likely ever see again in my life. We took countless trips to the mall dumpster and heard “Royals” so many times on Itunes shuffle, it took me six months to get it out of my head.

I remember a moment of complete overwhelm, sorting through a pile of running skirts, clear up to my knees.

From the chaos of printed pink, I made my first, real connection. Her name was Lauren, and even now, I think of our conversation as the beginning of my love story with lululemon.

She is tall and beautiful and a decade younger than me but as soon as she tells me that her dad is a lawyer and she wants to be surgeon, I think, “yeah, soul sister. we’re in this together.” Right away we have a pretty intense conversation. She reminds me of my college roommates and through the musk of packing tape and styrofoam, I can almost smell the comfort of the back bedroom in the apartment we all shared together. Lauren could’ve held her own in the feminist dialogue and shared experience of relationship dysfunction in the homes we grew up in. She is strong, and smart and by the time we break for lunch I feel attached to her friendship.

Finally, I feel the angst of the morning subsiding.

In the days, weeks and months that follow I relive that experience over and over again. On the retail floor on a Tuesday morning. After a sweaty yoga class in the slowly emptying parking lot when the conversation makes it impossible for us to part ways. At staff meetings and coffee dates and in the back room on our ten minute breaks. Moment by moment, in different ways with each of eighteen different women, I fall in love.

With their courage and compassion and sense of humor. With the way they love their families, or look out for their friends. I learn about who they are and where they came from and what they want out of life in the next ten years. They are humble, and creative and inspiring. They are all unique.

They make me laugh so hard I can’t believe this is what I do for a living. They listen to me tell my story and ask, almost every day, if I’ve been out on any dates. They stand for my greatness and celebrate my strength and they never once make me feel like I’m too smart or too loud or too intimidating. I feel like they love me not in spite of who, and how, I am, but because of it.

Life is unpredictable and messy and bad shit happens to all of them and they show up for each other with monstrous support and unconditional love. I see them rally behind every goal any one of them declares no matter how grand, or small or strange or inspiring. They are not cliquey and they don’t gossip about each other and when I tell people I work peacefully and functionally on a team of all women they refuse to believe it.

I want to call Bravo about a reality tv show that will re-frame the way the whole world perceives women.

They are that powerful.

And when I think about leaving them my heart hurts in a way it never has.

My team at lululemon Roseville healed so many parts of me, that before them, I didn’t even know were broken. They helped me navigate the unfamiliar, often treacherous, waters of learning who I was without a fancy job and impressive degree. They showed me how to be fearless, and vulnerable, at the same time. They reminded me that my greatest joy in life is to lead a group of exceptional, talented people. They worked their asses off for me. And each other.

They made me a better leader, and a better friend.

They forced, me, so gently, to cut the crap and just go on a date already. And they gave me the biggest hugs and most enthusiastic high-fives when I did.

What I will cherish most is the way they changed my relationship to women. They gave me both hope and confidence that the world, in the future, will be lead by women. And that we will all be better for it. They proved that the story I’ve been dwelling in was nothing more than a collection of experiences I gave meaning to along the way. They shredded a lifetime of evidence, and cleared the space for me to begin my research anew.
This time, with an eye for female collaboration and collective strength. For how we elevate each other, and hold each other up. For what we are capable of when we celebrate our special gifts and individual strengths. When we come together because we know we are better than we could possibly be alone.

We are a sisterhood. All of us.

And I will cherish my team in Roseville, most of all, for both being, and teaching me, that.

Hey, it’s your aunt.

Listen, Oak.

I don’t really do babies. I love dogs, and tiny animals and made a living for many years playing with little kids. But someone whose survival depends solely on the competence of the adults around him is terrifying to me. It’s too much pressure and you can’t communicate and what if I go to answer an important work email and drop you on your head?

When I heard you were coming, my excitement was mostly for the joy of my brother and sister-in-law, and my mom, we’ll get to her, who’s waited 64 years to fulfill her life’s purpose of being the best grandma(rf) on earth. You are lucky, you know that, right? She is going to spoil the shit out of you, claim she doesn’t, then spoil you even more. When, in your adolescence you act entitled and self-absorbed she’ll blame herself entirely, but continue to give you everything you want, and more, for the rest of your life.

Your dad and I will be there to remind her, it’s just a phase.

You were 13 hours old the first time I got my arms around you. The hospital had you bundled in what looked like a million soft, thin blankets, and I could barely feel your tiny body underneath. I touched my fingers on the fabric and imagined myself, in the future, dressing you in lululemon. You’ll have outrageously expensive taste and exquisite style and I’ll have core shorts altered by a talented seamstress so you can rip them to shreds on the youth soccer field.

I bet you’ll be a terror, like your dad.

He was small as a kid, but completely fearless. He’d take on 11 year old boys, with beards, who were three times his size. Shoulder first, no hesitation, his whole body in the play. Sometimes he’d disappear behind the big, gangly body in front of him, then emerge, triumphantly, with the ball. My dad would leap from his seat on the sideline and cheer, with both hands in the air. “Way to go GOBBLER,” I’d hear, then I’d look across the field and see my brother’s whole face light up. Nothing was more important to him than making his dad proud. His teammates called your dad, L.T., after a famous (badass) linebacker who played professional football, a sport I’m pretty sure will be outlawed by the time you’re my age. This won’t be the last time I tell you this, but, I wanted to be just like your dad growing up. Everything he did, and said and believed, looked, and sounded, and was, so much better, and cooler, than I’d ever be. Even now, when I go in for a tackle, I channel my inner “L.T.”

Your parents, by the way, are insanely hip. Your dad has a collection of shoes and hand-made leather bags that could put you through college, twice. Your mom is the best hairstylist west of the Mississippi and even when she’s in her lounge gear, she makes me feel like I’m wearing a garbage bag. You’ll never have to worry about not getting a date or playing tuba in your high school’s marching band or being a virgin when you’re 25. You are destined for social greatness. You’ll be charming and hilarious and the life of every party and it’ll be a total riot until you’re fifteen and my brother makes me talk to you about having safe sex. It’s all good though, I’m going to be awesome at it. I’ll struggle sometimes when you’re younger but once you hit puberty I’ll be your best friend. I have few boundaries and will let you ask me anything. I will unapologetically offer you details of my brother’s wild-child teenage escapades as a sort of emotional pay back for him being such a fuck-up that I could never do anything wrong myself. Your dad will beg me to be a better role model and partner in his parenting of you and I will tell him he should of thought about that when he was pawning my backstreet boys CDs for drug money, way-back-when.

Sorry, in advance, for hitting on your friends.

Do your best to stay out of any big-time trouble when you’re a teenager. We are not a family of under-achievers. My dad will have you in your first Cal Bears t-shirt before you can walk and we’ll be talking about colleges and career paths at your third birthday party. Try not to get overwhelmed, this is totally normal. There are a lot of doctors in your bloodline and your paternal grandpa will make sure you feel the pressure of it. Nothing can save you from the peril of high expectations, but I’ll do my best to talk you off the ledge when you’re having a test anxiety breakdown before you’re old enough to drive. I’ve been there, buddy. I get it.

Speaking of high expectations, we should talk about grandpa Little. He’s even more eccentric than you realize and it won’t be until you’re way older that you fully understand the depth of his genius, and ridiculousness. You’ll want him to toss the ball around in the back yard and carry you on his shoulders and give you cash out of his bulky wallet for no reason but it probably won’t be like that, most of the time. You’ll see movies and TV shows and maybe other real-life “Grandad” relationships and wonder what’s wrong with yours. It’s o.k. Really. Special, even. He’ll show you he loves you by building you elaborate contraptions you don’t really need but will seem awesome when he describes them to you. He will buy you your first car, and probably your second and take meticulous care of it for you even when you have no respect for it, yourself. On the holidays, he’ll write you a gigantic check and heart felt card. You’ll blow through the cash right away on condoms and comic books, but you should keep the cards forever. I have a stack of them in a bookcase that I look at when I feel like I’m not living up to my potential.

It’s a powerful thing to be reminded that people love you, no matter what.

Your grandma, on the other hand, is a dream come true. She has all of the classic Grandma characteristics but looks and acts like she’s 35. You’ll be chasing her up hiking trails when you’re 13, wondering how an almost- eighty year-old can possibly walk this fast. She will love you more than anyone in the world and make you feel like you’re the only person that matters. Then, you will look around and realize she’s loving everyone that way, and not understand how she does it. She bakes extraordinary desserts and makes hearty, homemade dinners. She spends the annual national income of the entire African continent on Christmas presents and you’ll be the beneficiary of it. Sometimes you’ll lie to your friends about what she gave you but they’ll know right away when they trip over three-thousand dollars worth of action figures when they enter your bedroom. She won’t care what grades you get or what you do with your life as long as you’re happy. If you decide you are an athlete she will be in the front row of every game. If you like to fish, or fence or fancy yourself a writer she’ll seek out a specialty summer camp and pay for you to attend, every year. She will witness every, major moment in your life. You might get student of the week or a minor speaking part in the school play or catch a particularly big lizard on a field trip. She will celebrate all of it. Like it’s the best thing that’s ever happened to you. Or her.

From me, you can expect straight talk and spectacular vacations. I will applaud all of your swagger and confidence and encourage you to live into your strengths. I will not tolerate sexism and will constantly remind you how much more money I make than your dad even though I am a woman. I will tell you to be humble but that you’ll have to look to someone else to learn how to do it. I will take you to the great pyramids and the Andes mountains and we will ski together in Whistler, every year. In return, I expect that you grow up to not be a douche bag, an attorney or an investment banker. That you vote democratic and that you try to recycle and that you take good care of your younger sister, if you have one. I’m sorry that I didn’t provide any cousins for you to play with, but it frees up some extra income for your birthday presents and my house is rad, and empty, because of it. You can come visit me whenever you like. Sometimes, when I’m making you breakfast in the morning, you’ll catch me looking at you and my eyes will well up and you’ll ask me what’s happening. I’ll be totally humiliated because I still hate crying in front of people but sometimes I can’t help myself when I’m with you.

Because I just love you so damn much and the truth is, I still can’t believe you made it here. To my home, to my life, to the world that almost took my brother away from me so many times. I used to dream about you when I was little. I could picture my brother with his son, running through a big, open field, teaching him to kick a soccer ball, with a golden retriever nipping at his heels.

But there were years where I gave up the hope, the image, of our future together. Where my imagination filled up with the words I would use to say goodbye to him at his funeral.

When I look at you, I see a small miracle. A reflection of resilience, and strength and courage and love. Of the best friend I grew up with. Of the future we have not yet lived.

My love for you, already, is more than I expected.

I will love you. forever.

No matter what.

20: Being Batman.

My college boyfriend broke up with me twelve or thirteen times. I am fiercely persistent and relentlessly committed to getting what I want. Ending our relationship must have felt like negotiating with a two-year old in the midst of a grocery store temper tantrum.

I was 20 years old when we met, and instantly captivated by his one-of-a-kind charisma and out-of-this-world intelligence. We were drawn together by the type of emotional magnetism that fills up the pages of trashy romance novels, but that I’ve experienced, just that one time, in real life. Our first date lasted 72 hours. I learned recently that racy, passionate love is my drug of choice. And Rak, was, intoxicating.

Even the thought of breaking-up with him sent me into a spiral of violent withdrawals and clinging desperation.

My most vivid breakup memory is of a 3 a.m. conversation on the hardwood floor of his cold, dusty bedroom after a long night out with our friends. Hours earlier, he’d snuck away from the crowded living room and disappeared behind a deliberately closed door. Not slammed. Just sealed. Forcefully, with intention.

When I squeaked it open, just wide enough to get my body through, I found him huddled at his desk, hunched over his computer with all the lights off. There was a single, red candle burning in the corner of the room and while he was trying his best to appear intently occupied, I knew he was just keeping his fingers moving to fight back the rage.

He looked up at me and as soon as our eyes met I gulped down a deep breath, instinctively bracing myself for the impending blow-out that had become a familiar routine between us.

“There’s only one batman.”

Rak was older than me, taught himself how to speak English watching sesame street and came up out of poverty to be the valedictorian of his high school. He was at UCLA on the biggest, fanciest academic scholarship you can get and got straight A’s with little effort. He knew I grew up privileged, and white and spoiled rotten and he took every opportunity to educate and enlighten me about the complicated ways of the world. He was constantly trying to challenge my youthful and naive perspective.

That night, I learned about superheroes.

On the off chance I can re-direct the war-path, I offer something light-hearted:

“you mean to tell me that you skipped out on the party with our closest friends to catch up on comic book history?”

“This is exactly what I’m talking about.”

I watch his initially calm, mildly dejected facial expression transform. His passive eyes became narrow with anger and his open lips closed quickly, and tightly, creasing the corners of his mouth.

“We can’t both be batman.”

I stuff down a snarky response about it being too early to consider my Halloween costume and try to stay focused.

The next few hours are blurred in my memory by tears, and screaming, and tears again. I accused him of being fraudulent and inauthentic, calling out his shameful, normative gender-role values that undermine his credibility as politically progressive.  He called me obnoxious, and entitled, and immature. I took a swing at his integrity, and masculinity. He came roaring back with my lack of personal awareness and tragically limited life experience.

I told him I wished we’d never met.

He suggested I leave his room, then his life, forever.

Around 5:30, I slumped into a tight, round, ball on the corner of his bed, in silence. When the sun came up an hour later, I picked up my things, and drove the half mile back to my own apartment. Exhausted, dehydrated and indescribably sad.

When we got back together three days later, I knew we were already over for good.

Two years of escalating arguments and roller-coaster emotions ended during a heated phone call the week before he left for grad school at Harvard. He begged me, one last time, to go with him and when I declined- pointing to our inconsistent relationship history and my fear of breaking up, yet again, 3,000 miles away from home- he told me, matter-of-factly, to “fuck off,” then hung up the phone.

Eight years passed before we spoke another word to each other.

In those eight years I had only one, real boyfriend. He emerged simultaneously with the above phone conversation, and for this, and other reasons, never stood a chance. I went on dates here and there, and, especially in my mid-twenties, developed a thing for casually sleeping with guys I was already good friends with. If you’ve read any other thing I’ve ever written you already know about the four year span where I refused to date anyone but my law-school best friend.

Eight years. Zero success in romantic relationships.

Most of the people who are close to me have a theory or two about how and why I remain so hopelessly inept at dating. I have such a natural (sometimes inexplicable) aptitude for almost everything I’ve ever attempted, that the stark contrast in my dating life is nothing short of comical.

and a little pathetic.

A year ago, I attended a three-day self-development conference wherein I was forced to examine the underlying cause(s) of my persistent, romantic failure.

I expected to uncover “issues” with my dad and nascent feelings of abandonment and betrayal from my relationship with my older brother.

Sure, there was some of that. But nothing came up more potent and obvious than an old, tattered comic book clipping I thought I’d buried, long ago, in the past.

There is only one Batman.

A story I’ve carried into every interaction I’ve ever had, with every man I’ve ever met since that night at Rak’s apartment when I was just barely an adult. An explanation for all the times the men I was attracted to didn’t like me back. The reason first dates always ended in a deep sigh of relief (and disappointment) on the inside of my car as soon as I could get the motor running. The subtext of my response to the next-day, hopeful message or email or phone call:

“I’m sorry, I have to be honest, I’m just not into you.”

My attraction to alpha-male, outgoing, assertive types never synced up with the passive, quiet boys who asked me out. In the rare times there was mutual affection, the relationship heated up quickly, and intensely only to erupt weeks later in a fire of incompatibility I always saw coming but never took action to avoid.

There can only be one Batman.

A couple of years ago, I decided that romantic partnership just wasn’t in the cards for me. Like an athletic college scholarship or Olympic gold medal or 36 inch in-seam pants.

Being alone seemed like a decent trade-off for all the abundance and success I had in all the other areas of my life.

“Women just can’t have it all, I guess.”

In the late fall (around the time I first started writing this post), I went to a workshop led by Suzanne Conrad, a female force-to-be-reckoned-with and one of the many extraordinary leaders I’ve had the privilege of knowing through my work at lululemon. She led us through a series of exercises I never expected to impact my romantic life. As usual, my butt was in the seat of self-development to improve my leadership and accelerate my career goals. If I can’t have it all, I want to have as much of it as I possibly can, as quickly as I can have it.

The details aren’t important because the result was simple. I cleared a space so many years occupied by the superhero mantra I’d learned a decade earlier, and decided I would open myself up to something new:

To previously unexplored possibilities, like that “batman” is not a fixed personality trait or singular way of being. That the list of characteristics I’ve been seeking in a partner were developed in the same era I decided I wanted to be a district attorney, right around the fifth grade. That the biggest reason it hasn’t worked out romantically is that I haven’t allowed it to, haven’t believed it would, and haven’t put down the baggage I was carrying that always got in the way.

It is not easy to undo three, fourteen, thirty-one years of habits and behaviors. It is not easy to let go of lifelong held beliefs that have shaped every aspect of my identity. It is not easy to give up what I know because fear of the unknown is crippling. Scary. An old, familiar nemesis I’ve been battling for as far back as I can remember.

What I’m learning, is that the un-doing and the letting go and the giving up are equal parts of a process. There are days when I am clear and confident that I can be who I am and be in a relationship. There are others where I’m convinced, again, that I’m destined to be alone. There are times when I want to retreat back into the comfort and security of having it all figured out.

But then, there are moments, increasing in number, where I experience progress.

Growth.

I am two months into dating someone and I am mostly terrible at it. Constantly looking for an exit strategy and preemptively living out our demise. He is not who I pictured and doesn’t match the detailed description of the partner I’ve been seeking, unsuccessfully, for two decades. I go over the “the list” that comprises “my type,” then remind myself that for all the listing and typing, so far, it hasn’t worked out.

I cling to the life of a single woman and barely clear enough space for another human being to squeeze in.

I picture the dark room and the red candle and feel the pang of heartbreak in the pit of my stomach.

I take a deep breath, shake off the memory and force myself back into the process.

Of being the me I know and the me I imagine and the me I haven’t uncovered yet.

Being batman. Not being batman.

Or giving up the idea that I have to be anything. And just being, instead.