Turn Around

That summer, Michael Phelps swam for nine gold medals. We watched every race, screaming our heads off, in Amy’s living room.

“We” are me, my best friend Amy, two of our summer camp counselors, and one under-achieving junior counselor who is the only person ever to crack into the Camp Have-a-lot-of-Fun inner-circle without being an extraordinary stand out of skill and motivation at work.

We spend our days chasing tiny kids around the world’s best summer camp. At night we turn “Footloose” on high volume and dance like we’re Kevin Bacon, alone in an abandoned warehouse, in 1984.

In between, we drive around Sacramento blasting this cover of Total Eclipse of the Heart. It’s the theme song of the summer: passionate, epic, completely ridiculous. We sing with the windows down, even when it’s one hundred degrees outside. We play air drums and pound on the dashboard. When the chorus comes up, we close our eyes, tilt our heads back and belt it out like it’s the last time we’ll ever sing it.

We are an unlikely group of inseparable friends. We range in age from 14 to 25. Out in public, we look like a throw-back family singing group or mixed bag of step siblings with varying degrees of babysitting responsibility.

We make each other laugh and hold each other up. We throw a slumber party, almost every night.

Some nights we are just the three of us. Me, Amy, and Jaimie. Jaimie is fifteen. Amy and I have been best friends since junior high school and are notoriously incapable of sharing our relationship with anyone else. We are college graduates moving towards demanding, professional careers. Jaimie is barely a junior in high school. Amy and I are agonizing over “who are we?” and “what is the purpose of this?” Jaimie wonders who she’ll have algebra with and if that boy she likes will text her back.

We are drawn together by a sisterhood that transcends time and age. By issues with our dads and striving for perfection. By being “good girls” and independent women. By discovering how those two identities intersect. By our love for puffy paint and elaborate costumes. By working with kids and our awesomeness at camp counseling.

By the type of strong friendship that’s rooted in unconditional love.

When the summer of 2009 begins, our family is reunited. Amy and I make space in our lives, and the backseat of our cars, for when Jaimie finishes her high school finals and we pick up where we left off. We all look forward to late night talks sharing a single, king size bed. To chocolate milkshakes at Jack in the Box after nighttime events. To feeling complete, again.

Two weeks later I’m in the most challenging conversation of my professional life. Amy and I are seated next to each other in the almost empty conference room at Mission North Park. We’re face-to-face with the first Camp Have a Lot of Fun employee we’ve ever had to fire.

I speak first because Amy cries just thinking about it. We all know what’s about to take place, but even up to the moment it happens, we hope, somehow, it won’t.

When Jaimie leaves, Amy and I burst into tears. We hug each other and take deep, cleansing breaths. The pain is raw and sharp. My face is hot and my shoulders are heavy. The tightness in my stomach becomes sharp and stinging, right around my heart.

There were so many ways, and reasons, to feel sad.

Amy and I had two more magical summers at camp. More special kids, of all ages, became forever a part of our beautiful, growing family. There were other theme songs and new dance-moves. There were sleepovers, and milkshakes, and puffy-painted clothes.

But we never replaced what we lost, with Jaimie.

We watched Jaimie walk across the stage at her high school graduation, but didn’t participate in her celebration. Each year we brought together every generation of camp counselors for Thanksgiving, but could never convince Jaimie to come. Our friendship became a distant memory and she became someone we followed on social media, a girl we used to know in real life.

This summer, we recruited the best of the best of our alumni camp counselors to compete with the current staff at Camp Have a lot of Fun. The brainstorming stages generated so much excitement we got overly ambitious with the invitations. We immediately dismissed the idea that Jaimie would participate, but couldn’t resist the urge to include her.

Minutes after Amy presses the send button in Sacramento, I get a call on my cell phone in Tahoe.

“Jaimie is in.”

I’m wandering frantically around the Southshore Raley’s looking for a private place to yell through the phone. Amy and I spend 15 to 20 minutes exchanging expressions of disbelief, intermittently interrupted by declarations of triumph, and excitement, and happiness, and relief.

We meet Jaimie in person, for the first time, outside of the conference room where we all thought it ended forever, four years before. We hug, cautiously, still wondering if the romance of this reunion is real.

The next five weeks are filled with friendship flashbacks, and fast-forwarding through updates from four, transformative years of our lives. Jaimie is twenty-one now and lives on her own. She bought a car and pays her bills. She’s survived more personal tragedy than she can share with us in a single sitting. She is a confident, strong woman, changed by the passage of time and the demands of maturity and life lessons. She has the same light, and humor, and spirit. And connection to us.

Over plates of Nachos at Dos Coyotes, we finally cry the tears, we’ve all been holding back.

We cry because we haven’t been there for Jaimie when she’s struggled so much. We cry for the time we’ve lost and the memories we could have made together. We cry for judgements, and mistakes and assumptions. We cry with gratitude for the chance to be together again. For the sisterhood that shaped us all, that’s survived so much. The love that lives on, that endures, that remains unconditional, no matter what.

When my phone makes the text message noise, I look down and see the names of my two best friends, side by side. I feel complete joy, all over my body. I think about the rarity of the miracle that brought us back together, the gift of forgiveness and the healing power of love. I reflect on the many stories in my life that ended differently than this one.

The ones where I lost track of someone I love and wondered how their life turned out. The times when my ego overshadowed my compassion, or completely got in the way. The relationships where I’ve refused to forgive, or let go, or move on. The places where I store resentment and anger. The hesitation to make amends and the refusal to take responsibility. An uneasiness in squaring up to the uncomfortable, when it’s so much easier to run away.

Back in 2009 we were all a part of it coming undone. We were all wrong, and all right, and all responsible. We were all hurt, and sad and angry.

And in 2013, none of it mattered.

All that mattered was our second chance: To hug and cry and sing out loud. To talk about boys, and our careers and drink chocolate milkshakes. To do all the things we’d always done, and all the things we thought we’d never do again.

I Brought My Mom

I am a fiercely independent sixth grader. Two months before my elementary school graduation, I am relentlessly determined to prove my autonomy to my mom.

My mom, who has been waiting in the parking lot to pick me up, before the bell rings, every, single, day of my entire school career. My mom, who has been to every dance recital, soccer game, swim meet, and activity in between. My mom, who has attended every parent-teacher conference, driven every carpool and pre-quizzed me for every vocab test I’ve ever taken.

My mom who has chaperoned every field trip. Every, single, one.

She never hovers, interferes or gets overly involved. I am confident and outgoing and popular. I don’t need her support, or assistance. Besides, she is preoccupied with the overwhelming needs of the saddest, most pathetic kids in my class: The girl with terrible hygiene and a complete inability to make friends; the one with the chronic motion sickness, seated at the back of the school bus, on a windy road; The kid who misses home, or his dog, or wets his pants. The kid who rips his sweatpants during a team-building exercise or burst into tears at the top of the trust fall.

In every crisis, my mom swoops in to hug them, soothe them and parent them. They attach to her immediately, and refuse to let her go.

I am facing a transition to junior high school and in the market for a badge of maturity. I convince my mom to set aside her permanent chaperone invitation, so I can spend my last week-long field trip, alone.

She loves the multi-day trips the most. She hikes and plays all day, and eats unlimited dessert at night. She gets to show off the acting skills she always talks about, and enthusiastically respond to every request of her thirty, adopted kids.

But in the name of honoring my burgeoning adulthood, she sacrifices her unpaid vacation, and agrees to let me experience my first field-trip ever, without her.

We arrive on Monday. I feel uneasy, but excited. I feel brave like Caddie Woodlawn, and sophisticated like Anne of Green Gables. I am the inspirational heroine protagonist in the historical fiction novel of my own creation. Simultaneously, I feel a rare sensation of ordinary. Suddenly, I’m just like the other kids. I have no back-up plan, or safety net, or personal medicine cabinet, in case I get sick.

On Wednesday morning my hiking group is crossing the peanut butter river on a narrow, wooden plank. I am thoughtfully gazing across the horizon when I see a one-of-a-kind vehicle pull up. My mom’s minivan is the most recognizable family car in all of northern California, maybe the world.

When we meet-up at lunchtime, I pretend to be miffed. I dig into my arsenal of inherited acting skills and express a convincing feeling of betrayal.

Deep down I feel grateful, and relieved.

She sees right through it, but indulges me in an explanation, just the same.

Her mid-week appearance is a compromise. When my mom broke the news of my epic-solo-heroe’s-journey to my sixth grade teachers, protests ensued. Apparently, my commitment to self-sufficiency is equaled in intensity only by my teachers’ obsession with my mom. The success of the week, their school-year satisfaction, possibly the outcome of their entire careers, hinges on my mom’s presence in Marin Headlands, this week.

I can’t blame them. She lives up to the hype.

My mom is vibrant and fun and loving. She laughs openly and loves deeply and makes everyone around her feel special. Even at a young age, I see the way people light up around her. My classmates tease me because the male chaperones have schoolboy-crush googly eyes, whenever she’s around. She is the most loved human around the campfire, on the trail and especially in the dining hall. The teachers love her, the kids love her, even the on-site instructors favorite her obviously and immediately, every time.

And so it was, on that trip, just like the others.

What was supposed to be my first one alone, became our last field trip together.

A year later, as a gawfky, self-determined seventh grader, I spend a week in Ashland Oregon, by myself. During bus rides, and down time, and especially dinner, I feel sadness and emptiness, and longing for the past. I stare hopelessly with envy at a stranger who would some day be my best friend of fifteen years. A girl who had the courage to bring her mom.

My mom and I revive our spirited mother-daughter traveling antics during the summers between my years in high school. We spend multiple five day trips park hopping in Anaheim, CA, luxuriating at the Disneyland hotel. We conquer every attraction on the map, become experts in line movement and crowd management, and eat more main street ice cream sundaes than most people consume in a lifetime.

Even many years and travel miles later, our days together in Disneyland are some of my best.

My mom moved me in to my first dorm room and my first adult apartment. When I got sick my first quarter of college, she spent three days in a Westwood hotel. My first year as director of Mentorship, she left Sacramento before sunrise to share the most memorable sunset of my life.

During law school, and twice as much while I was studying for the bar exam, my mom talked me off the ledge, and out of a personal crisis, multiple times per week. For countless hours, she waited patiently on the other end of a phone call, when the only thing coming through the microphone, were tears.

My mom is my best friend, and my inspiration. She is a daily reminder that the value of life is measured in laughter, and hugs and kindness towards other people. She is as silly and fun and spontaneous as she was two decades ago, serving as the greatest field-trip chaperone, that ever lived.

Two months ago, after a 14 hour work day, I landed in the emergency room on a Wednesday night. I felt pain, and fear, and panic and dread. My mom remained calm and comforting as I spiraled into the emotional space of the neediest kid at the back of the school bus.

When the doctor, with whom I undoubtedly share a birth year, comes in to check on me, confusion is evident across his face. I watch him piece together the why behind the wrinkles in the creases of my eyelids, and the adult chaperone in my room.

To ease the mounting tension, I point out the obvious.

“I brought my mom.”

He nervously shrugs his shoulders and sympathetically narrows his eyes.

When it’s all over, I wouldn’t change a thing.

My mom is my sanity, more than my rock.

At thirty, I need her as much, or more, than I did at thirteen, or twenty, or eight, or five.

I bring her with me when I can, and call her when I can’t. When separated by long distances, we exchange doggie paper cards, and heart shaped emojis. When I can’t see her, or reach her, I close my eyes and feel how she would hug me. Soothe me. Parent me, in person.

I can sense her arms around me, and hear what she has to say.

Things People Say

“Be sure to read the rules about alcohol consumption on the back.”

The sophomore working the sales booth hands me my first high school dance ticket.

“Oh yeah, you know me,” I quip back, assuming we’re in on the same joke about what an exceptionally well-behaved teenager I am.

“I know your brother.”

I turn away quickly, before the tears I can feel forming in the pit of my stomach, reach my eyeballs, and come pouring out.

I make it to the parking lot, and the shelter of my mom’s minivan, just in time.

“What happened to you?” My mom wants to know, as soon as I close the door.

“Just something somebody said.”

I reluctantly share the story. Immediately, she joins me. Fear, sadness, anger, shame.

It was the first of many experiences stirring a similar emotional reaction. It was my first recognition of my vulnerability to other people’s perceptions and opinions. It was my first realization that my private family crisis was a topic of public conversation. For the first time, home felt like a claustrophobic, unforgiving, small town.

At the local grocery store, women in our community dodge my mom. They duck into aisles and avoid eye contact. Maybe they want to give her privacy, or they don’t know what to say. Maybe they don’t want to look into her desperate, tired eyes without comfort, or a solution, to provide. Maybe they judge her. Or shun her. Whatever the intention, or motivation, the feeling is the same. It feels like judgement and isolation. Like failure as a mother. Like a vacuum of support when she needs it the most.

Friends and acquaintances, even our extended family, have ideas about where we all went wrong. We mostly come to know about them, second or third hand. Rumors and gossip swirl around us. Every time I leave my house ,I fear an unexpected encounter with someone I know. A surprise attack of exposure before I can get my armor on, my story straight, my smile right.

It is a painful period that leaves me increasingly guarded, and self-aware.

I learn to keep everything close to my chest. To spin a pretty good story about my normal, suburban life. When my best friend reads my college application essay about my high school home-life, she can’t believe her eyes. In my house, I feel frightened and restless. At school, I appear confident and collected. On my hardest days, I am funny and sarcastic. In moments of self-doubt and sadness, I showcase my easy-going personality and carefree laugh.

I keep a strong commitment to stay on my best behavior. My family needs me to be the perfect kid, everyone expects.

I make sure people only have good things to say, about me.

Many years later, I still hear tid-bits about myself and my peers in the hot spots of my home town. The entire world is connected by Facebook, but all of us who grew up here are linked by coffee driven conversations between our moms.

My reputation, and its reflection on my parents, is relevant to my decision-making, even now.

Thoughts of my fifteen-year-old self crept into every moment I considered quitting my job.

The night I pull the trigger on my resignation, I bump into a friend at a yoga class. A woman from my high school graduating class. She hugs me and asks how work is going. “Is it still overwhelming?”

I pause to create space, to stuff down the truth.

I dig into my teenage toolkit. I say something vague and non-committal, then do my best to change the subject, right away.

“Phew, that was a close one.”

Later, alone in my apartment, I relive the conversation with the integrity I should have brought to it the first time. The courage to answer honestly, without expectation of how she will respond. To set aside old hurt. To stand in my decision. To know it’s right.

The first person I tell is a friend who works the front desk at my yoga studio. She is sweet and open. I remember she told me she left a lucrative career in fashion to enhance her quality of life. I blurt out my news while frantically signing in for a noon class, standing in a khaki suit, wrinkled from my court appearance, earlier that morning.

She lights up with surprise and excitement. “I’m so happy for you.”

“Yes, I can do this.”

At first, I limit the scope of the announcement to the four walls of Zuda yoga. In every exchange, I am met with an abundance of affirmation. Soon, people initiate the conversation with me. “Hey, I heard that…” “Is it true you’re…?”

I marvel at their sincerity, support and positivity.

Fueled by the energy of my yoga community, I take it to the streets. My anxiety peaks while nervously reviewing the menu at a trendy midtown lunch spot, seated at an intimate two-person table, face-to-face with my family law mentor.

“This is worse than telling my dad.”

We’ve shared a few good-vibes text messages, but I remain skeptical, braced for the storm. Over the last six months, this man has dedicated countless hours to teaching me how to be a lawyer, run a law firm, interview clients and enhance my professional network. Hours he could have spent billing clients, or hanging out with his wife. He put his full faith in my ability, handed me the keys to a kingdom, and asked simply that I do my best to not screw it up.

“So.” He breaks the silence. “What’s going on with you?”

I breathe in an “oh shit” and bravely begin to explain myself.

With wisdom, compassion, and his trademark humor, he offers his unconditional support. He does little to question my maturity, or sanity. He does just enough to assure me that our relationship will endure, and the kingdom will survive.

When lunch is over, I’m ready to tell everyone I know.

My co-workers, my clients, my former classmates. People who never pictured me as a lawyer, and others who only know me as one.

One, bold, moment, at a time, I reveal my truth.

Where I expect skepticism and judgement, I experience validation and love. Where I fear rejection and dismissal, I feel embraced, and lifted up. Where I struggle to be witnessed, I feel seen and heard.

The emotional residue is so potent, my fifteen year old self feels it. She learns that people can’t offer support if you don’t tell them why, or how, you need it. She sees that people only know your story, if you choose to tell it. She discovers that when you engage in an act of personal bravery, you give people the opportunity to accept you, just the way you are.

It becomes clear that if you know what to listen for, there are beautiful expressions of love, in things people say.

Black Pumps

Last night I wrote an entire blog while sweating and pretending to breathe in a yoga class.

Not my proudest 75 minutes of attention and awareness.

Blogging is not yoga.

The story in my mind went like this:

I’m devastated. Yesterday I left my favorite black pumps at the yoga studio and this afternoon they were donated to the Salvation Army.

I don’t know how to recover.

I find a mantra and keep repeating it: “It’s just a pair of shoes. Just an ordinary, everyday, totally replaceable, pair of black pumps.”

It’s not working.

I fight the new mantra creeping in: “It’s not just a pair of shoes. It’s my favorite pair of shoes. Not just ordinary black pumps. The perfect, most exquisite pair of heeled footwear I’ve ever owned. My go-to pumps. My run with the grace of a gazelle up the courthouse stairs pumps. My look sophisticated in a suit but feel like I’m wearing sweatpants pumps. My ‘damn it, I’ll never find another pair like them,’ pumps.”

It’s still not working.

My mind says, “let them go.” But I all over my body I can feel myself clinging. Tight.

I try a different approach.

I make a list of all my other well-loved shoes. The ones I didn’t absent-mindedly abandon in the Zuda lobby. The brave foot soldiers who will take up the battle of lady lawyer wardrobing without their humble, fearless leader.

The red patent leather pumps. The ones I always put on with my slim-fitting black dress pants. The ones I always take off before I make it out the door in them. “Red patent, leather? Most of my clients still poop their pants for god’s sake!”

The purple stilletos. The most recent purchase in a long line of vibrant wardrobe additions I’ve acquired since losing Heather. Damn could she rock a hot pair of shoes!

The snake skin peep-toes my dad bought me. I’m pretty sure my underwear is still stained from the moment he picked them out.

The five inch black ones. The ones I put on to experience what it feels like to be tall and beautiful. The ones that make it hard to feel grateful for the body I was born with. The ones I take off or risk serious bodily injury after my second drink.

My new black flats with the big bow, the shoes I danced in at Barrister’s Ball the night Whitney Houston died, the cream colored Mona Pumps and their natural leather counterparts.

It becomes clear the list is practically endless. Immediately I feel greedy, spoiled, and humiliated.

My frustrated edginess starts to soften into gratitude and a sense of abundance.

The softness brings acceptance.

“Goodbye my loyal servants, I wish you a long and prosperous second life of stylish comfort and killer job interviews.”

When I emerge triumphant from the studio, my black pumps are staring at me from the front desk. My incredible yoga friends rescued them from the back of a mini-van en route to the donation center.

So many lessons in a single night.

I grab them between my fingers and kiss the top of the pointy, leather toes.

I make one, final, mental note:

I owe myself a yoga class.

 

Gratitude: My brother’s monologue

When we were kids, I was mesmerized by my brother. He could talk to anyone. He made everyone laugh.

My older cousins would hang on his every word when we’d gather in the back bedroom of my grandparents’ house.

I’d watch him talk my parents into all sorts of things. He reminded me of a charming t.v. lawyer. He was part salesman, part comedian, pure charm. I wanted to be just like him.

My brother is the funniest person I know. He could easily have a stand-up career or his own show in late night. He has the type of dry sense of humor that makes people famous, the type I could only dream about.

Last night, my mom’s living room vibrated with laughter. The kind where you haven’t recovered from the last funny thing you heard when your body reacts to something even funnier.

Where you laugh for 20 minutes straight without taking a deep breath.

I feel grateful for the ability to laugh that hard, and to be in my brother’s presence when he delivers a real-life monologue.

Gratitude: The Buddha

One of my favorite people on the planet is a high school senior named Mitchell Rosenberg. Mitchell first broke my heart wide open as a ten year old junior leader at my summer camp. When he was 15, I nicknamed him The Buddha. I have no explanation for how a Sacramento-raised Jewish teenager becomes enlightened, but he is.

Today, over lunch and a discussion of his college application essay, Mitchell reminded me why he is one of my most important teachers.

He is inexplicably humble, generous, loving and compassionate. He sees only the good in everyone. He has the wisdom and insight of someone 60 years older than him, and the wide open heart of someone 15 years younger.

Just being around him makes me better. More humble, more generous, more loving and compassionate. Words can’t describe his aura. It’s a feeling thing.

He is remarkable. And I feel grateful.

Grateful to know him, to learn from him, and to live in a world he is constantly making better.

Gratitude: Peet’s Coffee

My morning coffee is sacred.

During my trip to Southeast Asia, I drank a lot of questionable caffeinated beverages. In Sri Lanka, the coffee was grainy and thick. I’d drink eight or nine cups and barely feel a buzz.

In Thailand, I drank cold nescafe out of an eight oz. can from 7/11. The whole ritual would be over in 45 seconds and I’d immediately feel unsatisfied and homesick.

In Vietnam, I took one sip of coffee and felt like my heart was going to explode.

This morning, I got a medium, three shot, soy caramel latte from Peet’s coffee.

Damn was it good.