19: Storytelling

“Before television and radio and modern technology we were all storytellers. We sat on living room floors and huddled around campfire flames and shared our talents and perspectives with each other. We were all poets and all writers and we all had something to share.”

On a June night, five years ago, Dave Stringer shared his love for chanting with a packed house at Zuda Yoga in Sacramento. It was the night I fell in love with the Sacramento yoga community. We sang and danced and sweated our asses off. We held hands and raised the roof and the next morning at teacher training, Bill Prysock reminded us that  “just in case you ever go to another one, Kirtans don’t typically go down like that.”

I felt deeply connected to every, single person in that yoga studio. My dear friends and soul-sister teacher trainees and the total strangers who were dancing inside those four walls for the first time. We shared a heartbeat. Every one of us. When I got out of bed the next morning I had the worst energetic hangover of my life. Like the spirit and beauty of all those people had run straight through me like a big, mac, truck.

Through the blur of moments and memories, it’s Dave’s words about storytelling that remain the most powerful, the most clear.

In eight years as a camp counselor, I told hundreds, maybe thousands of stories. I was the best version of myself, crouched low in the fresh-cut grass, with ten or twelve tiny, captivated faces staring up at me, locked into the world, the images, the characters I was creating. It came so easily to me. The adventures and identities and the plot-twists they never saw coming. Sometimes I’d team up with my best friend or my summer-camping soul-mate to add dimension, and detail to the story.

I could spin imagination into words all day long, but when it came to sharing my own, real-life stories, I tensed up, hesitated, and mostly held them in.

And I have a feeling, I’m not the only one.

Somewhere along the way, we all learn to censor ourselves. To edit out the heartbreaking details of struggle and failure and anger and hurt. To fill up the space with “I’m o.k.” and “things are great” and countless versions of what we think other people want to hear from us. When we do share, we choose a beautiful image or a shortened, spruced-up, well-practiced synthesis of what really happened or how we truly feel. We bury the truth in the comfort of politeness and casual conversation. When the story is a good one, we shy away from the fullness of its celebration. Inside we feel victorious and triumphant, but instinctively we limit our outward expression, trapped and constrained by the fear of judgement, or rejection, or a million other made up thoughts about how we’ll be perceived.

Last Thursday night, I stood in front of 300 people, mostly strangers, and told my story.

About fear and anxiety and saying no. About living my life in a tiny box of strict limits and well defined boundaries. About all the ways I was held back by an unwillingness to take even one small step outside my comfort zone. What I didn’t say, is that sharing myself with other people is the biggest, baddest, boldest boundary of them all. That to tell the truth about who I am and how I feel and what I’ve been through, is harder to do than anything else. To feel exposed and unmasked are, to me, the worst of the worst of uncomfortable feelings.

That night I heard eight other stories from eight, beautiful, brilliant, inspiring people. Each of them filled the room with tears and laughter and heart-bursting honesty. Genuineness. Vulnerability. Courage.

The whole place vibrated with connection. We shared a heartbeat. Every one of us.

My dear friend Lyndsey gracefully narrated the event, reminding us, over and over, that we are all the same. That the purpose, the value, the beauty of our sharing is in the opportunity for all of us to witness ourselves in the eyes of the storyteller. To hear our own hurt, our own triumph, our own struggle in the words from the brave mouth of the person speaking. We share to connect. We connect to remember our oneness, in our oneness we are reminded that we’re all this together.

We are all storytellers. We are all poets and writers. We all have something special, something important, to share.

18: For Life

I’ve had the same best friend since I was thirteen. Before we could drive, we ordered in pizza on Friday nights. We used disposable cameras to snap pictures with the delivery guy and giggled through the aftermath of his reaction. We played Mario Kart in the back bedroom and threatened to call the boys each other liked.

Almost two decades later, every Friday night, we meet for dinner at one of three restaurants in our hometown. We talk about grown-up jobs and our Facebook friends who are having their second baby. We end the night at my mom’s house, raiding the cupboards for homemade dessert and cracking each other up, sprawled across big, leather couches.

We look a little older and occasionally sound a little wiser but everything feels the same as it did 17 years ago.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

I mate for life.

With my friends and my summer camp family and what I eat for breakfast.  I’ve bought the same groceries every week since I was 22, and I have a meltdown every time Whole Foods stops selling my favorite peanut butter. I call my mom at the same time every day and we have, pretty much, the same conversation.

I hate change and I fear loss and when something feels right, I do everything I can to make it last forever.

I love the hell out of people, but only once I know they’re a keeper.

Three years ago, on a Friday night, I decided to marry my best friend. Not the lunatic from the pizza delivery photos, the handsome, funny, stylish law student I met in the lobby of the UCLA guest house, two weeks before the start of my second year. That morning, through a slurry of F-bombs and dismissive remarks about the legal profession, I made the worst first impression of my life. My mom, a witness to the disastrous interaction, scolded me for my lack of sophistication, and colorful vocabulary.

“If you want to get a boyfriend, you better clean up your act.”

Months later, Nick forgave me for my unruly mouth and unconventional social skills. We bonded quickly over the perils of growing up wealthy and our shared respect for the virtues of stay-at-home-moms. I made the marriage decision while  sitting cross-legged on his couch, watching him sing and dance through dinner preparation. When he wasn’t looking, I closed my eyes and pictured our life together. Our house was a little bigger, the music louder and there was a dog in my lap.

But it looked and felt just like it did, that night.

And it’s been hard to imagine anything else, ever since.

Year thirty is teaching me about change, flexibility and impermanence. About surrendering, and accepting and learning to “go with the flow.”

Like when I leave the most stagnant profession on earth to explore the wild world of possibility, mobility and a career path I can dream about, but can’t guarantee . Or when I make friends for life at lululemon, then, months later, watch them move across the country, and around the world.

Last week, I spent twenty-four hours with my would-be husband. Seated across from him, on a rustic, sophisticated arm-chair, I remembered the future I’d attached myself to, three years earlier. I looked around his open, neatly appointed, ultra-fancy loft and watched myself disappear from it. I felt myself get swept away in the changing tide of career aspirations and adult values. The life together I saw so clearly, was suddenly foggy, clouded by the people we’d become and the lives we were currently leading.

Tucked into a corner seat on the airport shuttle, I caught up on my work email and reflected on my brief adventure. An uneasiness came over me, like that feeling I get when I first dip my knife into an experimental jar of peanut butter. Newness and expectations and a terrifying sense of “who knows what happens next.”

I tilt my head back on the seat, take a deep breathe and make space for the unknown.

I sit uncomfortably in the emptiness and try to stay open.

For life.

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.

Body Talk

I first hated my body when I was eight years old. It wasn’t long enough, or strong enough. All I wanted was to be a little more muscular, with broader shoulders, and more powerful legs.

I am small and scrawny and struggling to stay at the top of my age group on my swim team. There’s a girl who keeps setting league records and getting the majority of the coach’s praise. We are the same age, but side by side, I look like her underfed, adopted little sister. There’s my friend Sara, who is already taller than my mom. As soon as we dive in the pool, she’s two body lengths ahead of everyone else. Especially me.

When I’m 13, I resent being short again. I’m angry at my parents for passing on the wrong genes. I watch Tara Crossbattle hit for the U.S. Olympic team and dream of playing volleyball like her some day. I stare across the net during my club games and see girls who are 6 foot 2 and 6 foot 3. In junior high.

I feel hopeless. and frustrated. Like I’ll never be good enough.

In high school, I experience a brief period of body confidence. “Skinny” is suddenly desirable, and highly revered. I still feel like an unworthy athlete, but my friends express envy about how my butt looks in my jeans. A boy, who relies on copying my homework to pass French 1, tells me one morning that, “my boobs are big for my size.”

I take it as a compliment, I think.

At 16, my body changes. There are curves in womanly places and my belly peeks out over the waistband of my pants. For a while, I appreciate feeling sturdier on the soccer field and barely notice the difference in how I look. Eventually, something somebody says, or does, or how I feel, or what’s going on in my life, or a combination of these and so many other things, trigger dissatisfaction.

And I resolve to be “skinny” again.

I stick to eating regular meals and a few, healthy snacks. I get a gym membership and occasionally run outside. My shape is narrower and my muscles are better defined. I observe the connection between my behavior and my body and feel fueled by the power of it.

The importance of my health is quickly overshadowed by the intoxicating sensation of controlling my weight. Suddenly, I feel stability and have leverage in a life that has otherwise been ruled by chaos, for the last three years.

I shrink around the middle and my collarbones are exposed. I can almost squeeze my fingers together when I place my hands on my hips. I run six or eight miles on the bike trail after school. When it’s too cold or too dark, I spend an hour and a half on the treadmill, trotting at my top speed.

I go to birthday parties and dinner dates prepared with an excuse about why I can’t eat. I am poised and believable. I limit myself to a single subway sandwich, then one bowl of cereal, then  just a single protein bar, for the whole day.

When I fall asleep at night I tell myself I’m not hungry, and I salivate thinking about the seven inches of “Kashi GOLEAN” that awaits me in the morning.

“I can make it until then.”

My mom is worried and takes me to the doctor, several times. I smile confidently and answer all of her questions, with lies. “I started running to get in shape for soccer.” “I eat ‘more than a salad’ for dinner.” “I got my period last week.”

At rock bottom I binge on five or six mini powdered donuts while my friends and I are hanging out in my kitchen. I disappear upstairs, turn on the faucet in my mom’s bathroom, and force myself to throw up.

Starving myself felt normal, compared to this.

My downward spiral comes to an unexpected, but life-saving halt when my mom and I watch “Behind the Music: Karen Carpenter.” The same week, I see a picture of myself from the most recent school dance. I look like a skeleton, or a ghost, or a bobble-head.

Like the walking dead.

The eating comes slowly and not without set-backs. I sometimes still stuff down a Luna bar before going out to dinner and claim “I already ate.”

In the twelve years since then, I am not anorexic. I am sometimes a binger, but only a regretter, not a purger, anymore. I stop running in college and find my way to a yoga mat. I feel my body strengthen and watch my arms and abs take shape. The more I can do, and the better I feel, the more gratitude and admiration I have for what my body can do for me. What it’s always done for me.

Yoga helps me learn to nourish my body with healthy, whole foods and be aware of the sensations of being too full or too hungry. My relationship to my body changes.

But it’s never perfect.

I’m still married to a size 26 in my fancy jeans and a J.Crew double zero. I still panic a little when the folds of my tummy look extra juicy when I come into plow pose, at the end of class. I still think “I better stay thin” because I’m almost thirty, and still single, and how I look on a first date still matters, maybe more than anything else.

This is my story, some of it at least. And if you’re a woman, you have a story, or many, about your body, too. You have hated it and loved it and resented it. You’ve starved it and shamed it and celebrated it. You’ve wanted it to look different, or like it used to, or like you know it never will again. You’ve looked at other women and compared theirs, to yours. You’ve wanted to be a size two or squeezed into a size six or desperately prayed for bigger boobs.

I typically don’t like to draw hard lines, but ours is a uniquely female struggle.

When the founder of lululemon tells an interviewer, among other things, that “the pants don’t work for some women’s bodies,” the media, and maybe some of you, react. There are interpretations and misquotations and evaluations. I read one article where Chip Wilson “blames women’s bodies for defective pants.”

The thing is, he’s right. Women all over the world take all shapes and sizes and certainly not all of them are compatible with lululemon pants, size two through twelve. It’s a technical brand and if you’ve ever worn an oversized wet-suit, or too-tight ski boots, you know technical gear needs to be a perfect fit to be effective, and comfortable. And the perfect fit across the spectrum of shapes and features in a woman’s figure is, I would imagine, a logistical impossibility. It’s gotta be.

The other thing is, the man who founded a company that makes pants that look sensational on almost any woman’s body is hardly a villain in our story. Because if we set aside the flashy headline and the cleverly edited soundbytes, he sparks a discussion, I think, is worth having.

About all of the other things that don’t work with every woman’s body.

Like not eating carbs, or only drinking juice or giving up eating altogether. Like muscular arms and chiseled abs and the same waistline you had when you were a teenager. Like not gaining baby weight or not going out in public until you lose it. Like baking in the sun, or in a tanning bed because you like yourself better with “a nice, even glow.” Like judging yourself when you don’t “work-out” or finally feeling worthy when you do. Like looking in the mirror with a scowl, or a fast, deep, exhale, that signals disapproval. Like a wedding diet or a 21-day cleanse. Like every time we push food away and say “I can’t” in front of our daughters. Like when we look at other women and mentally scold them for being whatever thing we don’t want to acknowledge in ourselves.

Like every, single, message, every, single, day, that tells us how we should look and act and feel and express ourselves. How we should dress and shave and raise our kids. How we should be in the world, without taking into account who we are, already.

lululemon isn’t spreading these messages. In my experience, both as a long time consumer and user of the products, and as a new employee of the company, the message is one women actually need to hear.

One of self-empowerment and a purpose-driven life. One of possibility and courage and community and love. One of get out and sweat because it makes you feel good, not because of the pressure related to how you look.

Put these clothes on your perfect body, no matter the shape, and go out and kick some ass in this world.

It’s a message that is already uplifting my experience of being a woman. And a human.

And even if the pants don’t work for every body, the message is a perfect fit.

“Sharing the deep stuff.”

Spring is beautiful in Southern California.

Even more so because it starts in January.

There are beach days and long bike rides; Ambitious hikes and lunchtime picnics; Occasionally, there’s a sweater, on the patio, during early brunch.

I am choosing between a beachfront cruise on a rented cycle, and playing soccer for the first time in 9 years.

I throw on some cotton shorts with a questionably small in-seam, and head to the field.

I play thirty seconds of intense defense at our makeshift goal line and feel like I’m going to pass out. When, after five minutes, I haven’t caught my breath, I wonder if I’m really going out like this. Because it doesn’t seem as epic, or heroic, as it should be.

I survive the near-death encounter and, by the ninth or tenth minute, I start to get the hang of it. I’m winded and my legs feel heavy but my body remembers the movements, the touch of the ball. I experience the familiar surge of adrenaline in a 50/50 tackle with someone twice my size. It’s hot. And sweaty. And awesome.

At halftime, I pass around a batch of my homemade granola and some fresh oranges I sliced before the game. On the walk back to my apartment, I describe the afternoon to my best friend.  I yell and wave my hands as if my gestures will enhance his understanding of my enthusiasm. With anyone else it wouldn’t, but with him, it does.

We make plans to cap off my perfect “Spring” day with dinner and “The Descendants.” I typically resist the local pressure to see deep, moving films, but agree to do just about anything if Nick suggests it. Early in our friendship, without protest or hesitation, I paid eighteen dollars to see Jackass 3D in the middle of the day.

Jackass. 3. D.

Dinner is airy and entertaining. Nick’s sister and her husband are visiting, they join us with two of their friends. We exchange perspectives on the virtues and vices of living in Los Angeles. The female friend announces, and elaborates on, her detest for Dyson hand dryers. She gives an impassioned speech entitled, “long live the paper towel.”

Later, she discloses that she works for a paper distribution company.

Nick and I are still giggling about the finer points of public restroom hand drying when the movie starts.

I proceed to cry for two hours straight.

I need a pile of paper towels to soak up the tears.

I manage to pull myself together just as we step into the light of the lobby. I wonder if the severity of my pink, swollen eyes is magnified by the reflection of fluorescent lights on red carpet.

Nick graciously guides me through the “good nights” and hurries me out to the car. He senses an impending emotional explosion, any minute.

Without a lot of dialogue he drives to the coast. We park ourselves on a bench in Northern Santa Monica, overlooking the Ocean. With little probing, it comes pouring out. At first, I don’t know why I’m impacted so much by a George Clooney performance, but as the words come,  they make sense when I hear them.

I talk about the pain in the movie and the pain in my life. How our pain connects us. It’s something deep we all share. Pain has the potential to bring understanding, and love and compassion, but we hide it and shame it away. We fear being vulnerable and exposing our darkness to others. We answer, “I’m fine” to the question, “how are you?” and put on a happy face. We do our best to make it invisible, and irrelevant, in our every day lives.

There’s that scene with George Clooney and the annoying teenage boyfriend of his daughter, in the middle of the night. The boyfriend shares that he lost his mother in a car accident. Even in the dim lighting, through a flat screen, you can feel the transformation. George Clooney looks down at this greasy, punkish kid, who he’s resented for half the movie, and realizes, their pain is the same.

That they are the same.

And the rest of us are too.

I tell Nick about all the times and ways and reasons I’ve hid my pain. How the tears I cried in the movie theater were some of the ones I saved up during six years of never crying. About anything. Certainly not during some stupid movie.

Definitely not in public.

There’s a moment, in the crying and sharing, where I witness my courage. My own transformation. I realize that my “unwillingness to be vulnerable” and my “inability to open up” are old stories that no longer rule my life. That it’s me, standing there, in the crisp night air, balling. Revealing my deepest, darkest stuff to someone who’s opinion of me I hold in high regard.

Maybe the highest.

For the last four years, I’d been battling pretty hard to escape the idea of myself as closed up and unemotional. To shed the self-imposed identity, I had a feeling, was holding me back.

I started teaching yoga when I was 25. I approached it like everything else in my life: A task to study, then master, then be the best at.  I studied my favorite teachers to identify what made them “good” at teaching. I practiced constantly and held myself to a rigid standard of perfection. The sequence, the music, my voice, the message. All perfect.

But my no-fail formula for success didn’t work as well as applied to yoga teaching as it did to everything else.

And over and over again I kept hearing, “I want to see more of you.” and “open up your heart.”

The truth is, at the time, I didn’t even know what that meant.

I struggled through it for a while and eventually quit teaching. With all of the achieving I was doing, I didn’t have time to tackle the seemingly unsolvable spiritual mysteries of my soul.

I made my yoga teaching comeback leading classes for high school kids in the San Fernando valley. It was the same month I saw “The Descendants.” In fact, it might have been the same week. Then, about a year later, I mustered the courage to teach adults again. At my home studio, in my home town.

Last weekend I stood in the back of the same studio where I taught my first class. Standing near the stereo, where I’d told so many light-hearted stories about other people’s lives, I watched a thin white guy struggle through a two-minute warrior two. He had a miserable look on his face, like he’d gone for a 10 mile run at sunrise and took my class as a way to unwind on a Sunday morning. His knees were wobbling and the space between his eyebrows steadily decreased as the tension in his face spread to his shoulders, and rippled down his spine.

“Oh god. he hates this.”

As my students hit the floor and land in a deep hip opener, I cringe as I watch the poor guy struggle to get “comfortable” hovering over his right shin.

I close my eyes, and feel my feet, and just like that night on the Ocean, my mouth is moving and my heart is speaking. And the words make sense when I hear them.

When the class is over I see the guy with the  well-defined calf muscles approach me. I squeeze my eyebrows together and prepare for the worst. I fear I’m too vulnerable right now to hear whatever scathing feedback is coming my way.

Before I can duck out of the studio, we’re face to face.

“I just wanted to thank you for sharing all that deep stuff.” “It hit me pretty hard and I really appreciate it.” “I know that’s not easy to do, but it means a lot.”

Pain is something we all share. A place where we can really connect. Where we find understanding. Compassion. And love. When we let go of fear and shame and resist the temptation to bury it, we give other people permission to do the same.

Thanks for sharing the deep stuff.

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.

Pick Me Up

My first car was a 1983 Toyota Station Wagon. It was turquoise on the outside. And the inside. I  took it over from my older brother in an uncontested transfer. The year I got my driver’s license, my brother lived at a therapeutic boarding school, three hundred miles north of our house. He had no place, or reason to drive. I was moderately grateful for the freedom, but deeply resentful of the vehicle that gave it to me.

My brother got his driver’s license the summer before his sophomore year of high school. Six months later, he was tasked with picking me up from middle school, while my mom was in the bay area, visiting her best friend.

Ten minutes after the bell rang, I gave him travel time from his high school parking lot. At the thirty minute mark, I assumed he got caught up talking to his friends. At forty minutes, I wrestled with the idea of disturbing my mom.

An hour and a half after it’s scheduled appearance, the turquoise Cressida rolled into the parking lot.

I was too sad to be angry. I climbed into the back seat behind my brother’s squirrely, teenage passenger. I don’t remember greeting anyone, or that anyone greeted me. My brother took recklessly to the road, and we all traveled home in silence.

That afternoon, my future first car had a particularly pungent odor. The thick, soft upholstery, smelled faintly of Hugo Boss cologne, but powerfully of something else. I was a high school senior, driving my passed-out boyfriend home from a party, before I could identify the smell.

My brother disappeared quickly into his bedroom and my mom returned later that night. I weighed the consequences of full disclosure against my desire to air my afternoon grievances and have my neglected, little sister voice heard.

I wasn’t up to the emotional challenge posed by another, fiery, family fight.

By December of that year, I was a high school freshman. I’d passed my written driver’s permit test, and my brother had been shipped out of state to the first of his many stints in rehab.

He left our house a week before my fifteenth birthday and we never lived together again.

I had my first kiss, went to my first prom, and on my first date, with my first boyfriend, all without my big brother around.

Growing up I pictured us together as teenagers. How I would come home after soccer practice and sit at the end of his bed. He’d struggle through calculus homework and listen to me complain about my friends. He’d have hilarious insight and infinite wisdom. He’d universally evaluate the boys in my life as immature losers who were good for nothing but wasting my time. We’d commiserate over the eccentricity  of our parents, and the plague of the performance pressure inflicted by my dad. We’d laugh and bond over an upbringing, and identity,  no one could understand but us.

We’d have favorite tv shows and weekend rituals. We’d shamelessly flirt with each other’s friends.

He’d be my classically overprotective older brother and we’d be life-long best friends.

Reality felt like an empty promise. Like high expectations left completely unfulfilled. Like abandonment. And Loneliness. And betrayal.

My brother missed many of my adolescent landmarks, but the heartbreak of missing him felt most powerful in my every day life. During Sunday morning football hype and on warm summer nights. Drinking Hansen’s soda on the trampoline in our backyard. Driving to school in the morning down the route we first commuted together on bikes. I was a Kindergartner and he was in second grade. One afternoon he triumphantly escorted our first pet home from school. A goldfish, named Ed, who died three days after we got him. My brother comforted and encouraged Ed through the bumps and turns of suburban sidewalks and our narrow, tree-lined street.

“Hang in there, Ed” “We’re almost home.”

Some nights I spread my whole body out flat on the floor of his empty bedroom. I let the woven carpet soak up my tears and filled myself with his memory: Christmas morning whispering in anticipation before dawn. Keeping each other entertained during 12 hour drives on family vacations, a decade before DVDs were playing in back seats. His laugh and the way he told jokes. How it felt when stood up for me, and rooted for me, and that with him, I was always safe.

Last Saturday night I was stranded in San Francisco. Poor planning and inattention to logistical details left me without a ride from a BART station in Berkeley, to my car, eight blocks away. The night was creeping past my bedtime and although I’m typically brave and bold in the face of solo-woman night walking, something felt eery and dangerous about the plan to make the trip alone. I spent several minutes agonizing, unable to shake the sensation of risk.

Then, it hit me.

Minutes later my brother is narrating my route to our rendez-vous point. I complete his instructions by climbing the steep concrete staircase out of the 19th street station and I see his hand wave out of the driver’s side window of his big, black sedan.

Right on time.

En route to my car we talk about my dad, and my new job, and the perils of crowded music festivals. He has hilarious insight, and infinite wisdom. He walks me to my car and watches me close the door as I buckle up.

My eyes get glassy and my heart bursts. A flood of old hurt and new gratitude rush through me. Forgiveness, and healing and love and hope.

The feeling that I’m never too old to be rescued by my big brother. And that it’s never too late for us to be who we’ve always been.

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.

Do the Right Thing

In my last quarter of college, I signed up for a four hour political film seminar on Monday nights. By the second meeting, I was deep in regret about my senior year enrollment strategy. Every week, I’d slink into the back row of a dark, windowless classroom in Kinsey hall, a building that didn’t even exist by the time I got to law school, three years later.

At the midway point, my professor screened Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing.” A year and a half earlier, I’d made my way through every Spike Lee joint, ever released. My mid-college discovery of “Critical Media Studies” led to a brief fascination with progressive film-making, and a related interest in becoming Spike’s young-white-lady contemporary. I studied his art on the weekends like my lifetime success depended on my mastery of the genre.

Mostly beyond my aspiring documentarian phase, I assumed my weekly position, flipped open my laptop, and set out to mindlessly pass the next two hours.

Between perusing articles on the New York Times home page and wondering why I didn’t eat more for dinner, my mind pulled me into a familiar anxiety.

“What the hell am I going to do with the rest of my life?”

I went to college, to study political science, to get to law school, to be an attorney. Back then, it was simple: I would effortlessly ace each of my college classes and make brilliant connections with influential professors and accomplished attorney alums. I would land the perfect internship, be a shining star of my academic department and the crown jewel of my national champion mock trial team. My post-college destiny would unfold as easily and obviously as everything else had for me, at every stage in my life.

But from the back row of the last class I needed to graduate, the future remained unclear.

I fell off the pre-law wagon during zero week of my first quarter. I was auditing information sessions for the fanciest  clubs and organizations on campus. Even on his best behavior, the President of Mock trial was transparently a douchebag. Although it would be years before I had the language to name it, the “energy” in the room that night was tense and competitive. I looked around a space filled with buttoned-down white kids, saw a reflection of the high school community I just escaped from, and wanted to run as fast and as far as I could to get away from it.

A year later I became a mentor for a 10 year old girl named Cindy. I took more education classes and did less of my political science reading. I dove head first into UCLA UniCamp Mentorship and discovered a community of young people that changed my life. I bathed in service, and teamwork, and social justice. Every Teach for America Rep on campus stalked my every move. I felt the joy of co-creating with selfless, dynamic leaders.

Every day I woke up more and more inspired to change the world.

And one morning, on a Malibu beach, a year before I graduated, I forgot I ever wanted to be an attorney. For good.

The more I knew what I loved, the harder it was to decide what “to do.” I was haunted by perceived expectations and limited by an idea I had about myself, my family, my teachers, my friends. I battled an identity of “over-achiever” and a set of characteristics and professional ambitions I believed to be associated with it.

In my life, I’d never done just anything.

I had to do the right thing.

And eventually, I did.

I graduated from a prestigious professional school. I earned a fancy degree. I had a work wardrobe sponsored by J.Crew and a job description that elicited wide eyes and approving nods, gestures I interpreted as approval, affirmation and “I’m impressed.” My dad bragged to his colleagues and my mom proudly posted pictures to Facebook from the night I was sworn in.

It was everything I envisioned before college, and everything I resisted by the end of it.

Initially, I framed my departure from the legal profession as wrong, and risky and rebellious. People like me don’t give up power and prestige and earning potential. People like me ascend to greatness, climb the corporate ladder and relentlessly pursue their next remarkable achievement. People like me are lawyers, for their entire careers.

Leaving my job felt nauseating and terrifying. In my last two weeks as an attorney, I woke up every other night with an accelerated heartbeat and racing mind. 29 years of avoiding the uncertain and the unconventional, left me without experience, or a frame of reference, for this tremendous leap of faith.

But two weeks into my new life, I sleep through every night. I wake up motivated, excited and open. I feel loving and connected. I climb all four flights of stairs to my apartment with renewed lightness. My whole body feels different. I smile and laugh and dance. I sing at the top of my lungs, in my car, on the way to work. In moments of financial anxiety, or ego-driven discomfort, I breathe in gratitude for the miracle of my life:

The support of my mom and every, single one of my friends. The blessing of my professional mentors, and the encouragement of my community. The freedom to be who I am, and to live my fullest life.

The courage to transcend the idea of doing right.

To re-discover how it feels to be happy.