10: Find Your People

There’s a three year-old at my summer camp whose favorite color is black. Faith is tiny, and fair-skinned, and looks to be the type who insists on wearing a pink, sparkly tutu, every time she leaves the house. The first time I ask her about it, I barely pause to hear the response. I assume it’s “glitter,” because the girls that look like her are saying that, every time.

It’s 2003 and I just finished my first year of college. I’m the second-oldest person on staff, but it’s the first job I’ve had where someone’s mom doesn’t hand me a wad of cash when I’m done with it. Some days, when my insecurity is talking, I wonder if I still don’t have a career at thirty because I got such a late start at nineteen.

Determined to fly under the “first-job” radar, I’m doing my best to fake ease and maturity, especially when other people are watching. Pretty quickly it’s clear that no one is paying attention. The other kids grew up here and have been working together for multiple, consecutive summers. Four weeks have passed and I’m still struggling to shake the outsider persona. Anything even slightly left or right of “center of attention” is far outside my comfort zone and I’m desperate to sneak into the cool group.

This week, I’m assigned a thirteen year-old junior counselor to “help” me out with my kids. So far my relationship to the junior counselors feels like babysitting a gawky, needy adolescent while chasing and entertaining 10 three year olds, all by myself.

I have no hope for this one. He’s short and keeps his curly dark hair poking out under a dirty, navy blue baseball cap. He wears tall, white, socks and long, black shorts and I decide, right away, he’s one of those dark, brooding, angsty boys who listens to punk rock and loves the color black. I already can’t relate to him, and it’s clear he’s out place at a children’s summer camp.

“It’s going to be a long week.”

By Tuesday, I’ve gleefully determined he’s the least annoying and most competent of the junior counselors. I still hope we don’t end up alone in conversation together because I don’t know anything about angry music or what it feels like to be tortured and deep.  Also, I don’t trust what I might say about his pre-pubescent mustache, if we end up face to face.

I step right into the fire of my anxiety when I see him standing alone at the craft table, twenty minutes after our campers were sent to lunch. I approach him with caution, and remind myself to stay focused on his eyeballs to avoid landing my gaze on his upper lip.

I see him carefully pasting grey and black strips of paper on a sturdy, homemade hat. He is intent on creating smooth creases and straight lines. Our craft that day was “Cat in the Hat” Hats, an unthinkably ambitious project for kids who can barely remember their own names.

Peter is finishing the last of our hats for Faith. He tells me, matter-of-factly, “I figured she’d only wear it like this.”

My heart melts and I vow never to judge another person again. I barely keep my promise through the end of the day, but Peter is embedded in my heart, forever.

In the next three days, we laugh and joke and mess with our kids, like we’ve been best friends for three lifetimes. I discover that Peter is smart and hilarious and weirder than anyone I’d ever met who wasn’t related to me. I’ve suddenly lost interest in breaking through the inner circle because I’m preoccupied with spending more time with my new friend.

Peter has a summer birthday and turns fourteen. He’s talking to me about starting high school and I remind him I’m already in college. We talk about school and romance and other kids at the summer camp. We share stories about our parents and siblings, and once in a while, I listen as he educates me about all the music he’s “into” right now.

Peter is my first friend that doesn’t look or act like the rest of them. He’s not the right age or the right image and it’s clear we’ll never go to a concert together. But for seven more summers, we are what we’ve always been to each other.

In 2004, my real-life best friend comes to work with us and is immediately sad and jealous. She’s been my partner in crime since we were thirteen and she’s not settling for someone else interfering. She throws three fits per week until, eventually, she senses the specialness of our bond and surrenders to unexpected truth of it.

In 2005, I decide I’m too old to sing songs and play tag for eight weeks and accept a serious, world-saving internship for the summer. Two and a half weeks later I’m on the bumper boats at Scandia Family Fun Center, taunting Peter about his loss in miniature golf.

The next morning I call my supervisor to tell her I’m moving home for “personal reasons.”

Peter graduated from high school and went away to college and things never changed between us. He was still my soulmate and my best friend and the boundary of age and experience continued to not matter to either of us. He grew up and confessed how awesome it was to have the attention of a nineteen year old woman when he was barely a high school freshman. I felt humiliated and naive as I admitted it was something I never considered.

It’s been over a decade since I met Peter, and three years since I left Camp Have a lot of Fun. In the time between, there have been other, unconventional friendships. Most of them were born out of the unique and beautiful family at summer camp, but some of them blossomed organically at the yoga studio or the high school where I used to work.

My friendship with Peter opened me to the possibility that “my people” could be something other than who they’d always been. It taught me that the people we belong to, and belong with, are out there for us to find and connect to. Our job is to seek them. Our “tribe”, our “community”, “our people”, are the ones who were always meant for us.  The ones with whom we never had to fake it. The people who see us, and get us, and accept us as we are, no matter what. The people we spark with, and the ones who make us feel safe. The people we show our weirdest and deepest and ugliest to, right away.

I cherish the thirteen year-old boy who loved me unconditionally, because I’ve been able to spot the ones who were capable of it, ever since.

9: Learning to Cook

“Something’s wrong.”

Forty five minutes into my first night-time baby sitting gig and I’m already seeking help from my mom. The cordless phone is cradled between my left ear and the top of my left shoulder and I’m hovering over a suspicious-looking pot of macaroni and cheese.

My simmering concoction is soupier than the version I’ve eaten more than 200 times in my life, signaling me to consult an expert. While we’re talking through it, I pick up the pace of my wooden-spoon stir stroke, trying to blend away the extra liquid. When my wrist fatigues, I wonder what it is about this process that seems easy enough to leave a fourteen year-old babysitter alone to execute. I describe what I see to my mom, and she’s convinced my failure is not for my lack of effort, but “maybe something else.”

She asks me to repeat back to her what I’ve done.

When I get to the part about the four cups of milk, she identifies the root cause of my disaster.

Apparently I have a rare learning disability that presents as mathematical dyslexia, but only when I’m reading recipes, to make food, to feed to starving kids.

Now the kids are hungry and  fresh out of fun things to do without me and my mom is resisting my request to come over. I feel panicky and inadequate and like my whole life has led up to this moment and with the game on the line I fumble in the end zone.

I decide to stop cooking forever.

And for fourteen years, it’s easy to keep my word.

My mom gets hopeful during my last year of high school when I pick up her addiction to Food Network. Back then the programming was mostly “how-tos” performed by young cooks who are now aging stars, with considerably more fame, and just a little extra weight. I learn how to season both sides of a steak and avoid over-mixing brownie batter. I learn about searing and roasting and the balancing flavors. I could whip cream and food process and create a white-wine reduction.

If only I hadn’t vowed I never would.

In college, I didn’t have time for Food Network and lived in such a frenzy of activity, I forgot I ever did. I spent countless days on campus where eight or ten hours would pass with only the consumption of a Wetzel’s pretzel, and a diet coke. I ate strawberry sour straws to stay awake in class and returned home every night to find my area of the refrigerator empty, again.

I stashed sleeves of Oreos in our freezer for nights when I hadn’t eaten anything at all.

When my best friend Alice became my roommate, she insisted on making me plates and plates of potstickers because “if I don’t feed you, I know you’ll only eat M&Ms.”

Post-college life looked essentially the same except I moved back to my home town where my mom could make me dinner, at least once a week.

On my twenty-fifth birthday, I still didn’t own my own set of plates, or a single pot or pan.

I don’t remember how everything shifted, or when it was exactly. But sometime during my third year of law school, I decided to learn to cook. It felt like a new, hip hobby. Something I could talk to people about in public when they looked bored with, or disinterested in yoga. I thought it might be fun and was certain it was a more valuable use of the internet than my current, less-hip hobby: trolling Facebook.

I mostly cooked vegetables and experimented with wholesome baked goodies. Vegetables were tasty but less-than-challenging and wholesome baked goodies never tasted as delicious as the not-wholesome ones. I stayed on it, though, allowing myself to grow in small spurts, if never long strides. I got hooked on food blogs and reunited with my friends from the Food Network. With a ball of knotty anxiety in my stomach, I started to share my food with the friends I’d made in real life.

People were openly accepting and universally supportive, no matter the quality of food I delivered. One afternoon, I poisoned my friend Parker with a faulty batch of questionable deviled eggs, and later that night he requested something else home-made from my kitchen.

There were mediocre outcomes and outright failures. Sometimes the catastrophe was equal to my inaugural episode, and occasionally it was even worse.

Sometimes I’d make something I was so proud of, I’d send my mom pictures, and the recipe, to prove it.

When I’d get really deep in it, I’d call my mom three or four times to clarify tricks and tips and memories I’d internalized over so many years of watching, but not cooking.

For me, learning to cook is a practice of patience, and courage and vulnerability. It is the only thing I’ve ever loved, that I’m not particularly good at. Cooking is where my ego surrenders to my heart, and where I live in the pure joy and spirit of the experience. Cooking is how I tell people I care for them and where I go for meditation.

It is hard, and frustrating and rewarding and changing, and awesome and peaceful, every time I do it.

8: Sometimes it’s o.k. if

My parents separated when I was in high school. One morning, I think it was July,  my mom and I woke up in the house we’d lived in for over a decade, and went to bed in our new apartment, two miles away. There was little fanfare, or warning or justification. When my friend Molly came home from her trip to Israel, she drove to visit me at the wrong house. I didn’t provide a direct explanation, but, by then, my friends knew better than to ask me for one.

For two years before I left for college my mom and I lived together with our dog, in our new home. It was a loosened up lifestyle, mostly missing the consistency and predictability I’d always known. Everything before that had been governed by strict routines and non-negotiable timelines: There were three, square meals per day and age-appropriate bedtimes. Carpools planned three months in advance and homework neatly organized in brightly colored folders, then the pages of crisp, white planners, for every day of the week.

A combination of my mom’s pure, emotional, exhaustion, my dad’s absence, and the freedom afforded me by a driver’s license and a (new) car created a perfect storm for a revolution in the character and patterns of our daily life. I can look back now and name the experience of those two years as a hybrid of my first year in an apartment in college, and my first year in an apartment on my own.

The rigid structure of my childhood gave way to the fluidity that evolves from chaos. My relationship with my mom permanently shifted and it was during this period that I first called her my best friend. And, after so many years of devotedly following them, I learned to break the rules.

A little at a time.

My mom taught me that sometimes it’s o.k. to buy a bag of Mother’s chocolate chip cookies, and split it between two people, for dinner. That sometimes it’s o.k. if we eat Samoas ice cream, straight out of the carton, as long as we don’t do it every night. That sometimes it’s o.k. if my drunk friends sleep on our living room couch or in the back of my SUV to avoid facing their own parents who have yet to lighten up.

I didn’t have a curfew and never had to tell my mom where I was going or when I was coming back. My friends blasted music, sat on the countertops in the kitchen and talked to my mom openly about how they smoked pot.

One time, before I graduated, I threw a party while I was home alone. Because sometimes it’s o.k. to let twenty of your friends and fifty random strangers trash your mom’s condo on a Friday night.

When I talk to her now, my mom denies most of this. She claims she had strict boundaries and concrete rules and I couldn’t have possibly thrown a party without her permission.

What she does admit, though, is by the time I was old enough to drive, the rules and control and prescriptions had failed her. My brother was raised on scheduled bedtimes and regimented after school hours and high standards for homework and test performance. He had a curfew and driving restrictions and all the responsible parenting impositions suggested for teenagers in books.

None of it worked.

He broke his curfew and disregarded his homework and cut school and failed all of his tests. He drove my parents cars when they let him and stole them when they didn’t. He got drunk, all day long. He threatened my mom and he lied to my dad and there was nothing either of them could do to stop it.

So, by the time her marriage is over, and our house in the suburbs is just a place she used to live, and her oldest child is an alcoholic, my mom, is ready to let the rules slide.

A little at a time.

And it’s a powerful lesson, for both of us.

About letting go and giving in and occasionally eating ice cream for dinner. About acknowledging the importance of structure, but allowing it to bend, and change, once in a while.

Tonight, I’m reminded that sometimes it’s o.k. if I skip yoga to make brownies and hang out with my friends. To eat cupcakes and drink wine on a work night and stay out too late for how much I have to do when I get home.

To publish a blog without re-reading it, or remembering in the morning what it says.

Sometimes it’s o.k. to be messy and unedited and all-over the place.

As long as you don’t do it every night.

7: Until You Do It

Two years before I stepped on a yoga mat I had my first, major transformation. At a sushi restaurant, sitting across from my college boyfriend, staring suspiciously at an “Oyster shooter,” a plate of baked muscles and an array of raw fish.

“I don’t eat this stuff.”

I’ve been repeating the phrase since the menus arrived, but he appears impervious to the message.

It’s not going well.

My boyfriend, Rak, is Cambodian. He grew up in the United States because his parents fled a Genocide that ravaged their home country. A bloody, horrific event killed most of their family and friends. Rak’s older was born in the middle of a jungle in Indonesia, while they were all on the run.

Right now he’s unsympathetic to the idea that “I’ll die if I eat ‘this’.”

I love Rak more than I thought I could love anyone, and, at this point, I’m pretty sure we’re in it together for life. I contemplate the worst case scenario and figure everything will be easier if I give in to him, just this once. I’m certain that when, not if, I have a violently-ill-nearly-hospitalized-attract-the-attention-of-the-entire-restaurant-sick-in-bed-for-three-days reaction he’ll relax a little on the hard-line, I’ll go back to ordering from the kids menu, and all will be right in the universe.

Without another word, I swallow the oyster, and, in my next breath, scrape my teeth against the hot, mollusc shell.

Rak doesn’t so much look pleased as a little less annoyed.

I am nothing short of triumphant.

I pause for the nausea, seizures and foaming at the mouth to overshadow my moment of victory.

But minutes, even hours later, I’m totally fine.

That night marked the beginning of the end of 20 years of perceived limitations with food.

Much later, I learned that “how you do anything is how you do everything,” and, as it turns out, my perceived limitations didn’t begin, or end, with food.

I’ve  said no and don’t and can’t, a lot in my life.

I’ve clung to narrow definitions and specific sets of rules and done my best to control the outcome, of everything. My tiny world always felt more manageable than the giant one I was avoiding. I stuck to the things I knew and the places I’d been and the hard stuff I was already good at.

And for many years, even after I started practicing yoga, the food thing was my only significant progress.

Then, one night in 2011, my beautiful, loving, inspiring friend Heather was diagnosed with Pancreatic Cancer, at 52, and I was tired of being afraid.

At first, small acts of bravery like being nice to everyone I encountered and saying “yes” to more invitations to hang out. Like trusting my instincts and taking more risks and then making the commitment to live, every day, with an intention to “make it happen.” Whatever “it” was.

Eventually, bigger and scarier accomplishments, like sharing my stories and writing this blog and finally leaving the country.

Like showing people who I am and telling people what I want and not letting old stories and even older behaviors, get in the way of going after it.

Like being brave, and bold, and without limitations.

Last summer, I landed at the airport in Siem Reap, Cambodia after three weeks of travel, and one, turbulent, sixty-minute flight in a vicious electrical storm. Cambodia is the number one place I wanted to visit, but knew I never would. I try to explain the emotional and spiritual significance of our arrival to Parker. What it means for me to have made it here, to this place I would never see on a trip I would never take on seventeen airplanes I couldn’t fly on.

But he’s been a yes-man, his whole life, and he can’t possibly understand.

Then, while we’re standing at the baggage claim, being oggled by a group of Korean kids with matching t-shirts who think I’m traveling with Justin Bieber, with an intention of practicality but an outcome of profundity, he says:

“That’s the thing about your whole life, Katie. You can’t do anything, until you do it”

6: Dance it Out

I am personally responsible for the choreography of no fewer than five hundred dance routines.

In the early nineties, I was the foremost creative force behind countless memorable productions, set to the iconic music of the “Dirty Dancing” and “Top Gun” soundtracks, showcased at 1633 Gary Way. While my brother was doing all that reading, I was behind the closed door of my parents’ bedroom, planning and executing a series of breathtaking performances for an imaginary audience of critics and friends.

I preferred sound tracks over single-artist albums because of their musical variety. To think what I might have been capable of with access to an ipod. Or Spotify.

I offered my fans an up-tempo jazz performance, followed by a slow, melancholy solo, danced gracefully by a dramatic ballerina. The excitement always climaxed during the show-stopping-rock-anthem-ensemble number, right at the end.

When I felt deep and emotional, I chose “Dirty Dancing,” and focused on my technique. I’d make beautiful, sweeping movements with my arms and big, impressive leaps with my legs. I always imagined sharing my routine with a strong, confident partner. He’d lift me effortlessly to the ceiling and twirl me, with one hand, high above his head. On days where I wanted to go hard, bust it out and kick some ass, I’d throw on Top Gun and spend twenty minutes with “Danger Zone” on repeat. I’d always start off stage and burst through the invisible curtains to the pounding beat of the introduction. It was epic, every time.

Occasionally I’d feel nostalgic,and reflective, and throw on “Beaches” to shake things up.

It’s funny how our behavior patterns change in expression.

It’s funny how  in all other ways, they stay the same.

One of my spiritual teachers, Martha Beck, insists the key to unlocking our adult happiness is re-discovering the activities and experiences that filled us with joy as kids.

Dancing my ass of is that, for me.

It is a no-fail solution to all of my, many, spiritual ailments.

When my best friend and I lived together, we’d unwind on a Friday night. After a long-week of public school atrocities, idiotic district-wide emails and multiple failures to save the world, we’d turn up the volume on my “dance party” playlist, open the door to our apartment, then glide, spin and shake, up and down the second floor.

Once in a while, in the early morning, if our summer camp staff felt sluggish and stale, we’d take them out to the parking lot, open up the doors of my mini cooper and teach a new generation of young people the important lesson of moving bad energy out and away.

During my third year of law school I lived alone in an old apartment with a giant living room. One, entire wall had floor-to-ceiling mirrors. The view from my couch looked like the dance studios I’d grown up in. Three or four times a week, I’d turn down the lights, burn a few candles and play out the lead role in “Flashdance,” the musical.

One time a neighbor knocked on the door to ask me a question about the “parking garage” and, as he was leaving, slipped in, “Is someone singing in there?”

He sounded humiliated for me.

“No,” I lied.

Unphased, and undeterred, I resumed “what a feeeeellinnng,” before the door even clicked shut.

My friend Parker used to complain about the absence of a coffee table, and felt particularly inconvenienced when trying to both watch the Nuggets and consume a meal. I can’t remember whether I ever fessed up to why I needed the extra space.

I knew my career as an attorney was doomed when I couldn’t even shake my hips to Rihanna while cleaning the kitchen sink. I dug out “Hey, Mr. DJ,”  by the Backstreet Boys and “I Want You Back” by NSYNC. I’d manage to press my feet to the floor but didn’t have the energy, or inspiration, to do anything with them after that.

The nail dropped squarely in the coffin the night I couldn’t help myself off my bedroom floor for Whitney Houston’s Greatest Hits.

As a karmic reward for the years of  hard-work and dedication spent honing my craft, I found a job where I can perform a new routine, on a beautifully polished wood-floor, any time I want.

Each time is still just as satisfying as the last.

Damn, it feels good, to dance it out.

5: Magic

The local news can’t stop reporting about El Nino, an alleged, rare, extreme weather pattern that is supposedly responsible for three straight weeks of storms in Northern California.

My soccer team is preparing for our first visit to the association cup championship, the highest level of tournament play in our league. All season, we are unstoppable. Undefeated. No one can touch us.

But heading into the most anticipated, high-stakes weekend of competition in any of our young athletic careers, everyone is worried.

The fields are hopelessly muddy and every night, the forecast is for more and more rain. The altered terrain changes the movement of the ball and the speed of play. The bitter cold and relentless drops of water, in our eyes, and on our backs, make us more vulnerable to mistakes, and aggravates the plague of fatigue.

We are an unconventional powerhouse.

We are not exceptionally fast, or big, or otherwise spectacularly talented. Less than five percent of us will go on to play in college. Most of us maintain straight A’s and juggle a host of other extra-curricular activities. We are swimmers and volleyball players and school and community leaders. As grown-ups, we are career-minded professionals, with high-paying jobs and impressive degrees.

We joke about not having matching warm-up suits or fancy, embroidered bags.

We are full of heart and determination and because our coach believes in our greatness, we work incredibly hard in practice, and never let up during games.

Our chemistry and team work is like nothing I’d ever experienced, and nothing I’ve been a part of since.

When the morning of our first game arrives, it’s still raining. Our parents, who have only ever had to endure an entire weekend of soccer games through November, are faithfully huddled on the sidelines, after the first of the year. They are clad in REI ponchos and squeezed together under four or five umbrellas. Looking on through a blurry sheet of rain, they can barely tell us apart.

Before halftime, we are caked, head-to-toe in mud. It’s the kind of cold outside that makes your fingers tingle and your skin sting. The intense sensation seeps into your bones, lingers, then unexpectedly evaporates as your whole body goes numb. Our legs are burning, constantly. With each stride our feet sink into the deep, unforgiving muck.  The ball is sticky, our shoes are sticky, everything is a sticky, wet, mess.

Each moment is a battle, each play is a battle, each game feels like another war we barely survived.

In the end, we win the whole, damn, thing. The final whistle blows and we are, suddenly, light on our feet. We sprint towards the center line and triumphantly dive, head-first, through a gigantic mud puddle, four games in the making.

We hug and holler and celebrate. We are giddy, and teary-eyed and so, so, proud.

My coach is beaming.

The moment is instantly an eternal memory in my mind

During eight years on the River City Magic, I learned more lessons than, maybe, the rest of my life, combined. I learned about leadership and work ethic.  Straight talk and disappointment. I learn to stand up for myself, stand behind my teammates, and stand back, eventually, when I got out of line.

Where I lacked natural talent, I learned to struggle, and persist, and succeed.

My greatest lesson, though, is in the miracle of our collective achievements. Our three year winning record. Two state championships. More trophies than my parents could find space to store in my childhood bedroom. All of it came in the brilliance of how we operated, together. I used to think someone like John Wooden should write a book about us called “Teamwork over talent.” We were, as they say, so much greater than the sum of our parts.

It’s a mild winter and my adult soccer team is undefeated, for the first time. These days, I play with less fear and more muscle. I play defense, not midfield, now, and do my best to channel my inner Heather Hall. We called her, “the animal.” She was a tough kid from a tough neighborhood and on our team, was the only person we could say that about. She could have easily felt out of place and totally alone and quit after just one season of it.

But she didn’t.

She played every season, and started every game. She shared in our hugs and sleepovers and trips to Hometown buffet.

Because who we were and where we came from never mattered.

All of us, were a lot of things, without each other.

But together, we were Magic.

4: Freak flags and crazy capes

Before I went to law school, I worked as an intervention counselor at a public high school. It was hilarious and heart breaking and endlessly entertaining. My favorite student was an edgy sophomore who reminded me of myself, in college. She was smart and sophisticated and mostly had her act together. She was an outlier in the distribution of my blatant favoritism.

Because I’ve always had a soft spot for a complete mess.

For months, I’d been hearing about a girl with a rolling backpack. She wears a floor-length black cape with white clouds on it.  At the end of each period, as soon as the bell rings, she busts through the classroom door and sprints, at top speed, to her next class.

She’s infamous. A campus legend.

One day I get a referral for a freshman named “Sarah,” I recognize her last name because her older brother is already one of my most-loved disasters.

Promptly at 11:15, a tiny, curly-haired girl in a giant black robe stands in my doorway.

“My teacher says I’m here now,” she tells me, then abruptly takes a seat. She insists I call her “tight” because that’s her name, today.

I ask a few preliminary questions to make sure she’s comfortable, but her demeanor and facial expression is unchanging, so I switch to a direct approach.

“So, tight, do you feel like you’re making friends at school this year?”

“Not really,” she responds casually. “Most people think I’m totally weird,” she continues.”I carry a rolling backpack and I wear this big cape and I sprint from class to class. People just point and laugh about it, they think I’m a freak.”

I’m stammering. Completely caught off guard and unable to handle her pure honesty, her genuine and precise insight.

“Does it bother you that they think you’re a freak?”

“Of course not. This is just who I am. If they don’t get it, they probably wouldn’t be a good friend for me anyway.”

Now, I’m speechless.

She is some sort of adolescent outcast guru. She’s pure wisdom and no ego. The most self-aware person I’ve ever met.

Eventually, I get to know Sarah pretty well. She joins one of my support groups that the pretty, popular girls take to get out of class once a week. One morning  their ring leader plugs in her straightener in the corner of the room. We get to talking about some pretty deep stuff. She gives her well-adjusted, socially appropriate opinion while she carefully styles Sarah’s characteristically unruly hair. She’s calm and focused, like she’s been doing it at a sleepover for the last ten Friday nights. When the bell rings, they all pose for a picture together, then exchange phone numbers and authentic, girl-friendy hugs.

Sarah says “peace out” and darts for the door. She disappears into a sea of teenagers, before the other girls take a single step outside.

Later in the year, Sarah repeatedly gets in trouble with her grandmother for bringing her scary, stuffed doll to school. It has a bloody face and black x where each of the eyes should be. Grandma is concerned the doll is alienating the other students, but Sarah keeps sneaking it in her backpack each morning.

When, at Grandma’s request, I try to intervene, Sarah tells me simply, that she doesn’t get it. “He’s a part of me. I’m not myself without him. I have to be myself, especially at school.”

I want to tell Sarah that she’s a revolutionary. That, especially in high school, her unrelenting adherence to “being herself” is nothing short of extraordinary. That I talk to a hundred kids each week and they’re all trying desperately to be exactly like everyone else. They all wear neon hoodies and skinny jeans and fix their hair the same way. They all walk at the same pace, from place to place.   I want to invite her to my yoga studio where I practice, every night, in a room of sixty grown-ups who are there, at least in part, to learn how to be themselves.

I want her to know she is teaching me a powerful, important lesson, every time she runs through the halls.

I was never a social outcast and have always made friends with ease. I only use a rolling bag at the airport and save my cape collection for special occasions. But when I question whether my eccentricity is holding me back, I need a reminder to celebrate my uniqueness. To silence the voice that wonders whether I’d be happier or better off, if I fit in better with everyone else. If I wore a sexy witch costume instead of a muscly ninja turtle, out on Halloween. If I spent more time with my peers and less time with my mom. If I drank modern, fancy cocktails or listened to hip, indie bands. If I wanted pretty engagement photos, a big wedding and a house I owned in the suburbs with a manicured front lawn.

Maybe I could even land a boyfriend, if I’d just stash the freak flag away, for a while.

But then again, “it’s so important to be myself.”

And anyone who can’t understand why I am the way I am,

“probably isn’t a good friend for me, anyway.”

 

 

 

*I changed “Sarah’s” name, because, well, you never know.

3: “I am enough.” A work in progress

I watched Tina Fey accept an award once by thanking her parents “for giving me disproportionately high self esteem for my looks and talent.”

“Damn, sister” I thought, “preach.”

I am the kid that people are writing all those books and blogs about, lately. The poster child for the “me” generation, a woman in her twenties who sincerely believes I am awesome. Exceptional. Unique.

Destined for greatness.

Entitled to: a fabulous, creative, challenging job where I make loads of money and travel for three months a year; immense personal and global responsibility, a personal voice in local decision-making and a seat in Congress; a book deal, a talk show, and eventually, a movie, of course.

My mom taught me I could be anyone and do anything. No exceptions, no limitations. Begin, excel, master, End.

The first time I heard the phrase “I am enough” in a yoga class, I thought, “Damn right I am.”

“Where’s the work in that?”

Like everything else in my yoga-life, and not like everything else in my other-than-yoga-life, the learning came slowly. With difficulty, and resistance.

At first, I paid attention to the whispers of self-judgment that play on repeat in the back of my mind, each day:I don’t date enough and I don’t eat healthy enough and I don’t brush my hair enough, either. I don’t make enough money and I don’t have enough travel miles, and someone my age should have a bigger retirement account than I do, right now. I haven’t been to Europe and I still hate airplanes and I’ve never driven a car my dad didn’t buy me.

I’m likely the biggest failure among the high achievers in my graduating class.

Then, the bigger stories seeped in: Like straight A’s on all of my report cards or a week of nausea and years of shame as a consequence. Like the experience of feeling paralyzed by even the thought of failure, and playing it safe to avoid messing it up. Like no matter how good I was at everything, for my dad, it was never enough.

Quitting my job as an attorney was a gigantic spiritual leap towards “I am enough.”

Who will I be without the fancy degree and the impressive job and the ability to showcase how brilliant and special I am by casually slipping in what I do for a living? Who will I be when I give up my sophisticated apartment with the granite counters and stainless steel? What will I tell the people who expect more from me, who know I’m better than this?

How will I make it clear to them, to myself, that “I am enough.”

Some days when people ask me what I do for a living I tell them “I used to be an attorney.”

It sounds better than refusing to answer the question.

Other days, I wake up completely satisfied with my income and occupation and relationship status and the contents of my Roth IRA. I beam with pride and love for myself, standing in the truth of what I know is real for me.

I thank my mom for my confidence and swagger, and my yoga practice for “I am enough.”

2: Dog Love

It’s my ninth birthday. I’m in the back seat of our station wagon clutching a fluffy, stuffed dog. I have a collection of them. I’m an anxious kid and they provide comfort and security. I bring at least one of them, everywhere I go.

We pull up to a ranch style house with dark, shaded windows. The front yard is overgrown with trees and bushes. The backyard is big, and the landscaping is limited. It reminds me of the backyard at the house where I’m growing up.

We follow a narrow dirt trail to an enclosed area in the back corner of the yard. There is a pile of black and white and brown and white puppies, climbing all over each other.

I am instantly in love.

Steps away from the pile, there’s one wobbly on her feet, getting the hang of walking, all by herself. Sniffing the ground near a collection of silver bowls, she appears to be frantically looking for food, even though it’s clear, she’s had enough. It’s one of the black and white ones, rounder and squishier than the others.

Two weeks later, we bring her home and name her Sallie. We picked the name on our family trip to Gettysburg, two years earlier. From the front-passenger seat of our rental car, an enthusiastic, middle- aged man points us toward a small monument, with a statue of a tiny dog. He tells us the story of “Sally” the Union army dog. Sally made her away through rows of soldiers and across battlefields, sometimes at the height of conflict. Sally searched out wounded soldiers and stayed with them until help arrived. She was loyal and brave and devoted, even in a war zone.

Our Sallie would prove to be the same way.

My belated, surprise ninth birthday present came not without effort. I dedicated many hours, of many days, over several months, to acting like a dog with my family. My aim was to demonstrate the pleasure and delight of having a dog around the house. I’d wag my tail when my mom entered the room and bark, quietly, to show my affection. I’d nuzzle up next to my brother when he watched TV.

Apparently, I was convincing.

Sallie fit right in. She was smart and eccentric and sensitive, with bursts of hyperactivity and playful madness.
For the next eleven years, she was the glue that held our family together, just barely.

She laid at my feet the night my parents left me in an empty house, during a power outage, so they could rush my brother to the hospital. We watched in horror as my dad carried my brother’s lifeless body down the front porch, then we huddled inside by the only working phone, waiting for the worst call of our lives.

She was five years old then, and I was 14. It was my first awareness of the specialness of dogs and the uniqueness of their relationship to humans. For the first time that night she saved me. And she’d come to the rescue of each of us, many times after that.

Sallie lived through the hell of my brother’s alcoholism and died two months after he finally got sober for good. She survived the screaming and threatening and hysterical crying. She endured moments of insanity and unimaginable conflict. She witnessed the worst of us, and loved us through it, just the same.

She stayed faithfully at our side on the battlefield, waiting for help to arrive.

Sallie was my first dog, and my first love and my first teacher of how it looks and feels to love without condition. She taught all of us how to be loyal, and patient, even when things got hard. She showed us how to forgive and let go. She never let old pain interfere with a new chance to be loving.

Every dog I’ve met since then reminds me of her lessons. Every dog I’ve ever met, shows me how to love.

1: Connection

For thirty days, before my thirtieth birthday, I am sharing thirty lessons from my life.

It is mostly a challenge to myself.

To avoid marinating in the story of “not enough” and “not what I expected,” and, instead, celebrating and appreciating the growth and depth and wisdom of thirty years.

To write every, single, day. Not Just a sentence or an edit of something I’ve already written, but a complete thought, a new idea, an entire blog.

To move into the next decade of my life from a place of abundance and gratitude. Gratitude for everything I already am, for everyone who is someone to me, for the chance, every day, to experience being myself.

Lesson 1: Connection

My older brother was a kid-genius-reading-prodigy. His third grade teacher refused to let him do a book report on “Shogun” because she’d never read it herself. He tore through John Grisham and Tolkien and everything in between. As a second grader, he tried to explain the plot of “Silence of the Lambs” to me during our bike rides to school. At some point, my parents confiscated his copy but I think he had a second one, stashed secretly under his bed.

One time, when we were really little, he read a Time Magazine article about evolution in the front pew at church, on Christmas Eve.

I, on the other hand, hated to read.

I always sensed my parents discomfort with the disparity in behavior between my brother charging through three to eight full-length novels on family road trips and me, sitting next to him, idle in the back seat.

My best friend jokes that my “most over-told” story from childhood is about the “Book It” program sponsored by Pizza Hut, in the early nineties. Each time you read a book, you got a sticker on a special poster at school. When you reached a certain number of books, you got a free personal pizza and drink and a super cool, giant button from Pizza Hut.

For months we ate pizza hut pizza, every Tuesday night. My brother collected a pile of beautiful buttons, and my mom reluctantly paid for my personal pepperoni, every time.

I loved the Babysitter’s Club and occasionally struggled through an American Girl book. But, in my family, Babysitter’s club wasn’t really considered reading, and I preferred to play with my American Girls, not read about them.

It all worked out though. After faking my way to A-pluses in high school English, I picked up reading in college. I have grown-up subscriptions to the Atlantic and the New Yorker. And as if that isn’t impressive enough, I earned a professional degree that required reading approximately 400, mind-numbing pages, per week.

My parents finally seem satisfied that I don’t have a learning disability.

Even as far back as my brother introducing me to Hannibal Lecter, I loved to write. My favorite project at my first elementary school was creating laminated, bound books that I wrote and illustrated myself. I loved storytelling, and using my imagination. Even with the limited vocabulary and still-evolving language and grammer of a first grader, I loved to edit, too. I never shined with so much pride as I did when I brought home a new book I’d “published.” My mom would graciously read all eight pages and thoughtfully give me feedback about my unique, literary gifts.

Beginning in third grade, I regularly kept a journal. I wrote pages and pages of prose for reports on books I barely finished. I dreamed of being famous like Roald Dahl or William Shakespeare, or that french guy who wrote “The Little Prince.”

In college, I started my first blog. It was mostly “feminism in real-life,” reflections on my every-day experiences through the lens of my progressive education. I didn’t share my blog electronically, or personally, even with my closest friends. Sometimes, when I wrote something I really liked, I’d send a link to my mom so she could reflect my feelings of pride and satisfaction. I wrote in a blog because it felt important. The issues and ideas I took on had weight and merit, and I never felt like my illegible handwriting scribbled on the pages of my thirtieth hard-bound notebook were worthy of the cause.

In the years before I went to law school, I wrote on and off. I’d churn out a couple of good blogs while my students were taking the high school exit exam, then fall off the wagon for a month and half.

My mom remained my only reader, and I never considered expanding my audience.

During law school, I briefly tried to be a yoga-blogger, but it quickly got repetitive and stale. I felt uninspired and uninteresting and judgmental of all the people on elephant journal who seemed to write about yoga for a living.

“How do they have so much to write about? Isn’t it pretty much the same lesson, new day?”

Because my third year of law school was easily the most laid-back, fun, spiritually enriching period of my adult-life, I picked up writing again. I gave myself the freedom to write about anything. I let go of narrow expectations. I didn’t have a purpose, or a message, or a theme. I’d sit down at my computer and allow myself to put whatever I was feeling on the page.

I shared my first blog on social media the day my dear friend Heather Redford died. It’s clear to me now that Heather helped me do it. She used her courage, and spirit, and no-nonsense way of revealing life’s most important lessons.  She told me to cut through the fear, and the bullshit, and show myself to the world. At the time though, it felt like an act of survival. The pain was so deep and so raw, and I was so far away from everyone I wanted to be close to, it was the only thing I could think to do to ease the sting.

All sorts of people responded. My local friends and my Sacramento friends and friends I hadn’t seen, or heard from, in years. Expressions of love and sympathy and compassion came pouring through email and text messages from every piece of my life.

My friend Anne told me my blog “hit her like a ton of bricks.”

She could relate, and others said they could, too.

Over the next couple of months, I shared more of my writing. The more I shared, the more people reached out to me. To tell me how much they identified with my feelings and experiences and perspective. I connected with my childhood best friends and my elementary school classmates. Girls I fought with in high school and the older lady friends of my mom. Kids that used to work for me, and alumni bruins I volunteered with, way-back-when. My brother’s wife and his girlfriend from boarding school. My yoga teaching friends, my law school friends, people I never considered friends at all.

They wrote with praise and support and their own stories. They thanked me for my honesty, and courage, and willingness to share. Each time, each of them, in a new way, reminded me, of the same thing.

We are all connected.

Writing, for me, is a practice. Of meeting the world, head-on, as my most authentic self. When I write, I reveal the pieces of myself that, in person, can easily hide behind my sarcastic wit and self-confidence and articulate speech. I’ve written things on this blog that I’ve never even said out loud. To anyone. Not even myself.

And it is those things, always, that people respond to most.

I write because I love to.

I share because connection is the root of a beautiful life.