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.

Among Women

I spent last night at a country show in one of Sacramento’s affluent suburbs. The bar was serving thirty-two ounce beers in mason jars and the Giants won game 1 of the world series.

People were having a good time.

20 minutes before the show starts, there’s a drunk twenty-something female being obnoxious, three rows back from the stage. She’s yelling about everything. She’s got that “one-too-many” sway on. Her glassy eyes tell the story of an over-indulgent happy hour.

Next to me, there are three beautiful twenty-something women with giant wedding rings. They have pretty hair and cute J.Crew style.

Every word coming out of their mouths is something mean about someone else.

When the music comes on, the drunk girl positions herself behind the young women with the impressive hand jewelry. Minutes later, the drama begins.

For half an hour, the women are getting into it, back and forth. I catch words like “Bitch.” and “Whore.” Any time I look back between songs I catch eyes rolling and passive aggressive giggles exchanged between friends.

During a break in the action on stage, the low-level cattiness erupts into a full-fledged lady brawl. Hair pulling, obscenity screaming. One girl put another girl in a headlock.

“Is this really happening right now?”

The artist on stage strums kum-ba-yah on his guitar and waits for the intensity in the crowd to die down.

The ladies are eventually separated. The show goes on.

I feel one part disbelief, one part sadness.

I feel disbelief that adult women want to spend any time or energy being cruel to each other. It seems inconceivable that with all women are up against, we can’t just be kind and loving and supportive.

I feel sadness for my own lifetime participation in the ugliness that underlies the drunk girl-fight at the country music bar. It’s the same ugliness that made my high school students cry in my office at my last job. It’s the same ugliness that made me say and do terrible things to my female high school classmates. It’s the same ugliness we face every day when we look in the mirror and decide we’re not thin enough. Not pretty enough. That our hair and our face and our makeup doesn’t look quite right.

We feel angry and bitter inside so we lash out at the female reflections around us. We perceive a scarcity of success, attention, and eligible men, so we make enemies out of perfect strangers just because they are women.

We judge, and gossip and roll our eyes.

We call each other bitches. We compete and contend and put each other down.

This morning, I’m reminded of the importance of female solidarity. Of having strong, honest relationships with other women. The type of relationships where we can tell-it-how-it-is without telling each other how to be. The type of relationships that lift us up, that nurture our self-esteem. The type of relationships that feel safe and supportive. The type of relationships that teach us how to treat each other so we can practice how to treat ourselves.

Love among women is a powerful thing.

Get some and spread it around.

Ladies Leave Your Man at Home

I hate to interrupt all of the exotic Asia talk, but this is important.

On Saturday morning I feel exhausted. In a revolutionary act of Friday night bravery, I’d stayed out at a bar until 2 a.m. My friend and I lost track of time giggling at tales of childhood dysfunction told with hilarious charm and full-body animation by a tall, dark stranger.

I’m still wiping the crust from my eyes when our dance teacher skips through the studio door. She’s as radiant and energetic as I’d remembered from two weeks ago when we accidentally took her “Diva Hip Hop” class at Your Neighborhood Studio in Culver City, CA.

I briefly consider sneaking away and waiting out the class at the nearest Peet’s coffee.

I look over at the white-haired woman in a black mesh tank top and decide to stay.

Thirty minutes later I’m sweaty and re-energized. I’m watching a middle-aged Asian woman in a pink cotton V neck shake it like it’s a Beyonce Grammy performance. She’s chunky in a real-woman kind of way. Her hair is pulled off her face in the type of ponytail a busy Mom makes while she’s buckling her kid into a car seat and texting her gym buddy that she’s running late. I watch this woman get completely lost in the rhythm of her own body. Her face is soft and sassy. From fifteen feet away I can feel her release the heavy weight of everything else in her life.

Then it’s my turn. My group spreads the length of the wood floor. Each of us finds a space where our face meets our reflection in the mirror. Then the music comes on and we stop looking.

In the all-female dance class there are women of many ages. And races. And sizes. And experiences.

Some of us are terribly uncoordinated and others look like this morning is a warm-up for their gig on the sidelines of the Dallas Cowboys’ game tomorrow.

All of us are rocking it out like we were born to do it.

Here, our bodies are perfect, our minds are clear.

Right now our spirits are soaring.

I’m reminded that womanhood is a powerful thing. That sometimes it is hard for us to love each other, celebrate each other and accept each other. Because it is hard to love, celebrate and accept ourselves.

I’m reminded that when we stop competing and comparing, when we stop being self-conscious and self-critical, we find freedom. The freedom to sweat. The freedom to express ourselves. The freedom to be and act and look exactly the way we are:

Beautiful.

Do you Bake?

I spent 7 hours alone in my apartment. I washed my sheets. I watched a four hour lecture on torts. I made an elaborate lunch. I looked at 72 cookie recipes.

I day-dreamed about what it felt like in the sunshine.

When I finally made it out in public I felt quiet and disoriented. It felt like emerging from a three month hibernation.

I wandered around Wholefoods aimlessly for twenty minutes. I was sweaty, and hungry and reluctant to go home. I was barely conscious, staring at gluten-free cookie mixes when a young woman interrupted my zone-out.

“Do you bake?”

I froze. I couldn’t remember. I’d been out of body and not present since early this morning. It took at least thirty seconds to feel my feet, breathe in, and respond, “YES!”

I looked up and saw a young woman with a bright smile. She was carrying a gluten-free yellow cake mix box and was clearly on a mission. She needed to know how to make Funfetti cupcakes. She had inadvertently stumbled upon an unofficial expert. I’ve probably made four thousand Funfetti cupcakes in my lifetime. Maybe more.

Without hesitation, she told me the whole plan. There’s a boy. It’s his birthday. He eats healthy and “likes confetti.” Immediately I can tell she wants to marry the guy. Later she admits, “I obviously have a crush.”

I give her the five-minute rundown on the art of rainbow sprinkles. I hit the finer points of brand preference and color balance. I recommended she add a little at a time, get an even distribution, then repeat the process until she looks down and thinks, “yes. it’s perfect.” Then, in an unexpected moment of complete, twenty-eight year old woman honesty, I laid it down for her.

“Girl. Lemme tell you. I spent years trying to get boys attention by being pretty and skinny and giggly and well dressed. The truth is, none of it ever worked even close to as well as giving them food I made with enthusiasm and love. You’re on the right track. Keep up the good work.”

She grabbed my arm and screeched with delight. “I’m going to top them with fondant and make them extra pretty. I think he’s going to love it!”

We shared a few more moments of uncensored womanhood before I wished her good luck and proceeded purposefully to the check out line. I loaded two packs of strawberries and a bag of pretzels on to the conveyer belt, paused and felt a warmth of love come over me. I felt deep gratitude for human connection. For sharing myself. For connecting to another woman in a uniquely feminine space.

Not so many years ago I would have never connected with anyone in the baking aisle. If another woman approached me she would have been met immediately and abruptly with sarcasm and dismissal. I would have never encouraged anyone to bake their way into a man’s heart.

Today I feel grateful for growth, perspective and my love for cooking. I feel grateful for that young woman’s wide open heart and determined spirit. I feel grateful for Funfetti cupcakes and all the boys who have ignored my flirtation, but eaten what I’ve baked.

Gets Me

I’ve had the same best friend since I was 13. 15 years, spanning early adolescence to our late twenties.

It feels like eight different lifetimes.

When we were freshman in high school we shut ourselves in my bedroom and recorded songs about imaginary homecoming dates on the karaoke feature of my stereo system.

When we were juniors, I held her hair back as she threw up peach flavored Boone’s and slurred through an apology about being so drunk. Later, she squeezed my hand in the seat next to me at my brother’s graduation from therapeutic boarding school.

When we were in college, we shared feminism, progressive politics and ten or twelve Oprah book club books. We became strong, assertive women.

When we grew up, we lived together, in my favorite apartment, on the tree-shaded corner of 16th and O, in midtown Sacramento. We wore spandex and danced up and down the hallways of our building. We watched all ten seasons of the original 90210

In the stages between, I dabbled as a lesbian and she had her heart broken by the man she thought she would marry. I cut my hair into a mohawk. She had adult braces. Together we transformed a summer camp and built a beautiful community of young people. We fought, we cried, we struggled, we grew, we triumphed. We laughed. So. Hard.

Life is change. In fifteen years, I’ve changed my hair, my politics, my career path, my diet, my fitness regiment, my spiritual beliefs, my taste in men, my values, my attitude, my goals, my dreams, probably five hundred times. Amy got all of it. “I feel you.” “That’s awesome.” “You should definitely drop out of law school and move to a mud hut in Bali, why not?”

I can’t think of anything more important in my life than having someone who gets me. Someone who shows up with affirmative and unconditional love in the face of every: bizarre decision, bad behavior, sexual misadventure, fear, sadness, loss, excitement, celebration.

A dear friend of mine is dying of cancer and I can’t stop crying about it. Last night I called Amy. I was hysterical and incoherent, rambling in fits of sniffles and sobs. On the other end of the phone she held the space. Heard my voice. Felt my pain. And got me. She understood every word, every feeling, every thing I was trying to express, spoken and unspoken. All of it. And as soon as I got off the phone, I took a deep breath in, a long exhale, and stopped crying. I felt safe. I felt understood.

I feel deep gratitude that my life is witnessed by someone who sees me as my fullest self. She reminds me that I’m perfectly awesome just being who I am, or changing, or whatever works for me. She’ll see me, love me and support me, no matter what.

Lady Love

Two things I know for sure:

1) I have the most incredible mom on the planet. She mothers with deep love compassion and sacrifice. She is unconditional. She is brave and strong.

2) My twenties have been blessed by the emergence of many beautiful female role models. They are powerful, soft, intelligent, funny and unique. Each of them teaches me in her own way about womanhood, femininity, being a parent, a spouse, a partner.

One thing I struggle with: Embracing in myself all of the exquisite feminine strength I see in my mom and other women.

Late in high school I got this idea of myself that I was a strong, sassy woman. To me that meant being assertive. outspoken. not taking shit from anyone. The older I got the more I felt like this idea of myself was myself. It became my entire identity. I felt powerful and accomplished. I liked that people respected my authority. People told me I was intimidating and I took it as a compliment.

My voice is always heard. I speak my mind, talk over other people and demand that people take notice of what I have to say. In large groups of boisterous men I can hang tough with sarcasm and insults.

For years this felt like both a personal and feminist victory. I felt empowered. I told the young women in my life whom I mentored that it was important to be strong. Be assertive. outspoken. don’t take shit from anyone.

But about five years deep in a spiritual practice and many incredible female influences later, it started to feel like an obstacle. I felt lonely and isolated. I wanted to know what it meant to open up my heart but all I could ever do was open up my mouth. I was desperate to understand what wasn’t working.

Slowly, I opened myself up to softness. It started with a simple commitment to “be nice.” With every person I knew, in every public encounter, I focused on this one thing. I noticed almost immediately the positive effects of this practice in my life. In turns out, people like when you’re nice to them. Shit, who would have thought?

The more I acted nice, the better I felt. And sooner than I ever would have expected, I didn’t have to try so hard. It became how I was rather than just something I did.

Being nice unlocked other traits I hadn’t seen in myself since I was a little girl. I cried more in two months than I had in five years. I cried in movies, commercials and books. I couldn’t watch a single thing on the Oprah Network without puddling into a pool of tears.

I started to help people. I helped strangers: open doors, pick up dropped produce in the grocery store and find places when they were lost.

I wanted people to feel loved and cared for by me. I wanted to connect and listen to them. I started to bake and cook for anyone who would eat it.

It all felt incredible.

The behaviors and attitudes I observed in myself were the feminine qualities I had been denying and rejecting (mostly out of fear) for years. I feared that if I loved¬† people, they would hurt and betray me. I feared that if took care of people, they would walk all over me. I feared that if I connected to people, I would feel vulnerable and exposed. I thought if I cooked for people I would fail at it. I couldn’t stand the idea of anyone witnessing my failure.

Today, in the midst of what feels like a phase of emotional and spiritual transition, all of those fears remain intact. What I’m learning, is fear is a barrier to my happiness. Fear is a barrier to me living my fullest life. Fear prevents me from letting my whole self show up in the world. When I soften, embrace my femininity and allow others to do the same, I chip away at my fears. The more I accept that I just might be a caretaker, a mother, a gentle and kind woman, the more I feel acceptance in the world.

I still feel powerful. My voice is heard. I command respect. But in moments of softness I find my strength and my voice by allowing people to see me instead of demanding their attention. I can still be outspoken but conscious of what I say. And, one of my greatest lessons to date, is that the best way to “not take shit from anyone” is to not give it out.

Womanhood is beautiful. Femininity is luminous and powerful. To love, be compassionate, caring, open and soft are lessons I learned from my mom and the gifts of a vibrant life. I do not have to sacrifice my strength to be a woman, I just have to give up the fear that I do.

I feel gratitude for all of my many female mentors and inspirations. This particular reflection was inspired by two brave women telling their own stories of struggling with the balance of softness and strength:


http://www.peachfriedman.com/2012/03/02/thing-1-and-thing-2/

¬†http://www.elephantjournal.com/2012/03/starving-for-approval-anorexia-and-the-mother-shadow–candice-holdorf/