No Substitutions

Sylvia: Erma, it’s been awhile.  Come on over. I’m in the mood to whip something up in the kitchen and could use some company. 

Erma: Do you need me to pick up any ingredients on my way over? Cake mix? Slice’n Bake cookie dough? Take-Out?  

Sylvia:  Oh no, none of that, Erma.  It’s all about starting from scratch this time…and no substitutions.

Erma: Good girl, now you’re catching on.

Sylvia hung up the phone and hurriedly moved across the kitchen to get the coffee going. After all, that was the beverage of choice for these two ladies when they were about to engage in deep conversation to offset otherwise mundane midday activities.  As Sylvia reached into the cupboard to grab the canister of French roast, she hesitated. Without over thinking, she closed the cupboard door and instead picked up her pace ever so slightly as she ventured to the wine rack in the corner of the dining room and selected a red blend, one befitting their friendship, their past conversations, and the time of day: Dreaming Tree Crush. Yes, by all means, yes.  This is exactly what Sylvia and Erma would need to analyze life’s recent events and to contemplate the future with just the right amount of wisdom and whimsy.  They could only benefit by a a bit of the grape to get them through the cooking portion of the afternoon, lest they forget the actual motivation for their impromptu get-together.

Sylvia, bottle and corkscrew in hand, returned to the kitchen to retrieve the stemless wine glasses she had yet to use, and this occasion seemed more than perfect for them if she and Erma were going to be multi-tasking.  Rustling around counter-tops covered with everything from flour to eggs to spices, and an opened bottle of red of course, called for stemless, much like coffee with her friend necessitated the over-sized, earthenware mugs. Clad in her black yoga pants and a vintage college sweatshirt, Sylvia threw on an apron and used the wine key to uncork the bottle and pour herself a couple of sips (a taste-test, let’s say).  At the very instant the crimson potion touched her lips, Sylvia realized something that for some reason had never occurred to her until that moment- when you want something, you want it. And no matter what anyone tells you, including all of the well-intentioned admonitions you are offered, there is never an adequate substitute for something your palate wants, your stomach craves, or your heart desires. No substitutions. Your decisions, big and small, much like a choice between coffee and wine, are made either painstakingly or swiftly, for better or worse.  In either case, once a commitment has been made, anything and everything else just won’t do. It’s not simply coffee or wine, ice cream or chocolate.  It’s more, much more.   It’s the difference between surviving and living. It’s the difference between living life and loving the life you live.

Sylvia poured herself a few more swallows (yes, sticking with the red) and sat down with the recipe box her mother had passed down to her.  Yep. Going to definitely make something from scratch. “I’ve got all of the ingredients right here in front of me.”

As Sylvia waited for Erma and thumbed through recipes, she kept revisiting the revelation that those first tastes of Dreaming Tree brought to light.  She herself had long been trying to satisfy her cravings with everything except that which appealed to her most. And the exchanges were indeed ridiculous!  In fact, in retrospect, the substitutions she had made to appease herself were neither sufficient nor satisfying in the least. For a few minutes, she thought about what she had done especially in recent months and even about life choices she had made as recently as yesterday.  Sylvia, taking another sip and this time letting it rest on her tongue, came to an unsettling realization: the things, the experiences, and the people that she sought to replace, whether for a brief moment in time or for the rest of eternity, could not be switched out. And as many times as she had tried to rebuild herself, strengthen her resolve to live a happier life, and to allow herself to love, she concluded that somehow her dreams had been crushed.  Her hopes and desires weren’t extinguished by anything or anyone; they hadn’t even become a blend of her wants and the desires and needs of the important others who comprised her tribe. Looking into the bottom of the stemless wine tumbler, she finally comprehended the main source of her discontent. She had settled. She was still settling. Sylvia’s dreams, hopes, desires, cravings, and wants had always been substituted for something other than that which she truly yearned for. She never wanted to be the peacemaker. She never wanted to be the people-pleaser.  She never wanted to be an angst-ridden fifty-something who looked lovely on the outside but who was dying on the inside.  Sylvia realized that she had replaced all that she wanted with everything to make those around her like her, admire her, love her, and respect her.  And while her soul was being whittled away each time she conceded or retreated, she met disappointment head-on because there was no replacement for what she wanted. Sylvia. Sylvia wanted to love and be loved on her terms.  So, while her tribe had been content with her fulfilling their needs and helping them realize their dreams, she had failed to demand or ask of them the one thing that she had wanted from them. She yearned for them to know her and treat her with the respect that she had shown them. She had accepted less, much less. But no more. No substitutions.

The door bell rang, and as she opened the door widely to welcome her trusted friend and confidante, Sylvia smiled and declared, “I’m ready to start from scratch.  Come on in.”

The Best Gift Sylvia Ever Received

“Can being happy be this easy? Must I live outside of the life I’ve chosen in order to find myself again?”

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      It had been weeks since Sylvia returned from her life-changing adventure. And although there had been intervening holidays and requisite social engagements that such holidays demand, on a daily basis Sylvia replayed many of the luscious moments of the time she had enjoyed with Cam. Everything had been firsts with him- again and again- and yet there existed a natural and very familiar rhythm to their connection, a rhythm that seldom if ever one experiences after a chance meeting. She recalled that each time they touched and kissed in those seventy-two hours of unbridled passion and spontaneity, she was born again, not merely refreshed but seriously reinvented. With each kiss, caress, embrace, and thrust, Sylvia became the woman she had been longing to be. She evolved from weary wife and caregiver- a woman stunted by her own inability to choose her happiness above everyone else’s-to confident and carefree enchantress, the woman she had always imagined and deep down knew was lying just beneath the surface.
     That first week at home after Charlotte, and despite the many unanswered phone calls from Erma that needed to be returned, Sylvia kept everything to herself. She had mentally packaged up her time with Cam, carefully and covetously. Erma’s messages never begged for details and Sylvia never offered any.  In fact, like many close friends, the two did not require a play-by-play of events or an exchange of minutia. They just knew when the other was in trouble; out of sorts; in need of love, time or space; or at peace. After a week at home which demanded the simultaneous departure from cloud nine and re-entry into the tedium of everyday living, Sylvia called her friend and invited her over for conversation which at that given point in time was code for coffee and confession. Erma accepted the invitation without hesitation because she knew better than anyone that, although Sylvia needed that steamy daydream to become a reality in order to survive, she would also be ruminating on it to the point of destroying it and the happiness it had provided her. When Sylvia called, Erma was prepared. She was not going to let Sylvia lie in a pool of self-loathing, and she wasn’t going to let Sylvia forget that she was both deserving of happiness and worthy of love.
Erma: Why is it so hard for you to let yourself be happy? 
Sylvia: Is that what this is, Erma?  So, this is what happy feels like? 
     Erma’s friendly yet pointed interrogation gnawed at Sylvia every day since that afternoon when the two finally carved out time to catch up on life. Sylvia knew that she needed to respond to Erma’s question, if not at the moment it was posed then certainly at some point-even if only in her mind and for herself. Sylvia attempted to answer it. Many times. Quickly. As a matter of pure fact. Such a silly question and certainly one that warranted an immediate response. Is it hard to allow myself to be happy?  Yet each time that Sylvia revisited the question- at the kitchen sink while washing the breakfast dishes, at the dining table while sitting with drafts of stories that needed desperately to be assembled like jigsaw puzzles, or in the bath after the children had gone to bed, where she could hear her own thoughts and visit her hopes and dreams for the first time all day-she could not find the one word that both she and Erma knew should satisfy the question. No. Not at all. It’s not hard to be happy.  But after repeated stops and starts in producing that one little word, Sylvia startled herself.  It was a Thursday evening and as she began to add more hot water to the bath that she had let become lukewarm, actually cool to the touch, she heard herself say out loud, “YesQuite. It’s difficult to be happy.”  
     Since her unplanned rendezvous with Cam, her admission that happiness while supposedly within reach still seemed ever elusive, and subsequent chats with Erma, Sylvia had been writing. A great deal. About nothing. About everything. The sheer pleasure she felt after being left physically and emotionally satiated had oddly created a bit of mental chaos for her. She hadn’t been able to concentrate on anything completely since Cam; for each time she set out to perform even the most mundane task, her mind wandered. She was transported to the wine bar where the fingertip dance began, to the bedroom where every part of her body was explored, and to the airport where their departing kiss did not mean goodbye but rather “this is just the beginning.” So much time had passed since she had allowed herself to succumb to both yearning and contentment, letting them engulf her completely and unconsciously, that now that Sylvia had accepted her delightful transgression and even disclosed it to her closest friend, she didn’t want to return to normal. EverShe had been happily paralyzed by her newfound sense of self and sensuality. And in these last weeks while digesting every morsel of deliciousness and attempting to comprehend the meaning of every word, thought, and action she shared with the man who had come to life from a daydream and who had awakened her like only a rich, intensely caffeinated roast could, she kept reaching the same conclusions about their meeting. Satisfying, positive, lingering and naughty, surprisingly atypical of the woman she and certainly others thought she was and was expected to be. Each assessment led her to ask the same questions, those which were absolutely rhetorical but necessary nonetheless: “Can being happy be this easy? Must I live outside of the life I’ve chosen in order to find myself again?” This time and every single time thereafter, the reply came more quickly, more confidently, and more unapologetically. Yes. Yes, it can. Happiness can be this easy. If I allow it. 
Sylvia: Erma, come on over. I’ve unwrapped the best gift ever for the new year.
Erma: On my way.  Put the coffee on. 
     So, the gift that Sylvia received? It wasn’t that her dreams were coming true. It wasn’t that her passions and appetites had come to life with Cam. It wasn’t that she had learned that seizing an opportunity can be life-affirming. While those gifts were all recently validated and had been restorative to her body and soul, Sylvia’s greatest gift was so much easier to access than any of those realizations. She just had to allow it. She had to allow herself to accept happiness in order to give herself the very thing that she thought she had lost. Herself. Simply the best she could ever hope for.

Are you there, Sylvia? It’s me, Erma. Pick up.

Sylvia, Sylvia, for Christ’s sake, pick up the phone. Did you make it to your final destination? How was the layover in Charlotte? 

So, what do you think? Did she make it to her final destination?  Well, here’s the thing about going places. Each step that one takes, each stop along the way- no matter how big or small-each wrong turn or unexpected detour is by itself a destination. Part of one’s journey and perhaps even in the bigger picture part of one’s fate or destiny. So, yes, Sylvia made it. In fact, she made it to several destinations, o-ver and o-ver and o-ver again. 

Sylvia and Cam sat quietly at the bar, and as all of the extraneous noise dissipated around them and all of the onlookers, patrons, and passersby faded into the background, they remained there next to each other, fingertips now gently touching, gazing intensely and wantingly into one another’s eyes, and smiling so big that all that existed between them was warmth and desire. Heat. Pure heat. Palpable sexual tension. Tension if left leashed would surely suffocate them. 

Sylvia never realized that her fingertips were so sensitive, but with each gentle brushing of his against hers, a shiver traveled; her heart raced, and butterflies began to flutter. And just when the fingertip dance seemed as if it was waning, Cam laid his hand on the bar next to hers, palm up, all the while inviting her with his eyes to put her hand in his. In the very instant she obliged, their eyes met and then their lips. 

Her lips had not been kissed so fully, gently, and yearningly in forever. And although they had just met, their connection flowed naturally. No awkwardness. No apprehension. For the first time in a very long time, Sylvia thought of no one but herself.  Perhaps even thoughts of herself escaped her when Cam invited her into that instant. She wasn’t obsessing about anything or anyone. Her world, the one that Erma had encouraged her to take a break from, ceased to exist.  The only vision that Sylvia had was of that “steamy, hot cup of coffee” and at the moment, it was real. He was real. With the meeting of lips and seamless intertwining of tongues, Sylvia’s body and soul awakened. She and Cam were no longer sitting side by side, although exactly when their bodies had changed position she was not aware. They faced each other, and taking a momentary reprieve from the deliciousness of their soft, gentle kisses, they looked at one another and knew that something special-something so simply sensual and new yet inexplicably pleasing and familiar – was happening. 

Just as they stood hand in hand ready to set off and explore one another, the loud speaker beckoned, “American Airlines flight 136 to Chicago is now scheduled for departure. Anyone holding a boarding pass should proceed to Gate C15.” Sylvia,however, wasn’t hurrying for the flight. Intrigued by and eager to continue this adventure rather than what awaited her in Chicago, she made a bold move, one that was spontaneous and unlike her (or maybe this was the real Sylvia-champing at the bit to explore uncharted territory). As they held hands tightly and their energies fueled one another, she asked, “So, what’s your schedule?” His reply came quickly and unrehearsed, “I’m planning on taking a day or two to become well-acquainted with a new friend if she has the time.” Unable to resist the twinkle in his eye and the sincerity in his voice, Sylvia commented, “Perfect. Just perfect.” 

Flight 136 departed without Sylvia.  And in what seemed to be an instant, the layover in Charlotte became her destination. Their destination. 

“And if I didn’t think, I’d be much happier,” said Sylvia.* And lo and behold she was; and it was only the beginning. 

*The final quote in the above blog post is taken from Sylvia PlathThe Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath

“Try it on…live it…exhaust it…”

Sylvia: What the hell, Erma?  Really?  I’ve got a mountain of laundry, a sea of bills, a couple of screaming kids and a whining husband/partner. (Actually, just a husband since partner suggests some sort of sharing of responsibility, and well, not to complain, but well, yes, let me complain.) Anyway, understand that there is no time to try it on. I’m wearing it whether it’s clean or dirty at this point.  Live it?  Do I have a choice?  I have too many people depending on me to choose otherwise.  Exhaust it? Exhaust what?  It’s almost all gone- my energy, my concern, my motivation, desire of any kind, money– even me.  Yes, I’m exhausted but not in an “I’m tired so I’ll take a nap and feel rejuvenated” kind of way.  I’m exhausted as in spent, depleted, nearly vacant, used up, and nothing left to give.

Erma: Have you been heeding my earlier suggestion and pouring yourself that deliciously steamy and virile cup of coffee every now and again, dear girl?

Sylvia: Really, Erma, I don’t have time for such nonsense.  It’s not like a daydream will solve my problems or change my life.

Erma: That’s crap.  Complete and utter bullshit.  It’s time for coffee. It’s time for you. In fact, fuck it. Let’s forget coffee and go for something stronger.

And with that, Erma proceeded to tell Sylvia exactly what was required to get her through.

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All women need time to themselves.  All human beings do I would suspect, but for the purposes of helping to maintain the sanity of every Sylvia who reads this, Erma’s only talking about women here. Now, time to oneself may be alone time or it may be time with a dear friend or even a crazy and wildly raucous group of your most trusted allies.  It may be time doing nothing special- reading a torrid novel or emptying your email trash and spam folders.  Let’s just imagine that in this instance though, time to oneself means time doing whatever the hell strikes your fancy at any given point in time. It means taking whatever time is needed to turn a dream into a plan.  It’s the point in time when your real or imaginary Erma convinces you to throw caution to the wind and just do whatever you want.  (Some may call it wildly irresponsible and demonstrating flagrant disregard. Those are the individuals who should kindly exit stage left or any other way you must rid yourself of them from your theater. You don’t need fun-bashers, naysayers, or any of that ilk.) Erma’s appellation, however, for this much-needed “me” time is far more fitting: survival. Ah, yes, that’s it. “Try it on…live it…exhaust it.”  Survive IT!

Erma: Sylvia, here’s my advice, and yes, you will take it. After all, we cannot have you at your wit’s end sticking your head into an oven or doing something equally horrific and final. First, forget the coffee. It’s five o’clock somewhere, and while coffee will help on a daily basis and even in a pinch of soul-sucking desperation, there’s nothing that creates possibility as fast and fervently as an Old-fashioned. We’re past daydreaming, Sylvia.  You need time for you. You need a plan–a survival plan.

With pen in one hand and an Old-fashioned in the other, and with her older and wiser girlfriend by her side, Sylvia thought – out loud this time- about what she wanted to do for herself. As she jotted down possibilities that included everything from the mundane albeit therapeutic dinner-and-a-movie to the unimaginably dreamy vacation in Bali (yes,contemplate Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love), she devised a very doable, planned yet seemingly spontaneous getaway to the Windy City. And in an instant or however long it took for Erma and Sylvia to indulge in two cocktails and create an itinerary, Sylvia had set her plan for “me time” in motion.

Sylvia:  Okay, Erma, there, are you happy?  It’s done.  I’m going to try it.

Erma:  Sylvia, it’s so far from done.  It’s just beginning in fact.  The living part.  The living-for-you part, that is.

Sylvia awoke that morning with a knot in her stomach but a spring in her step. The living part, whatever Erma meant by that, was about to begin.  She managed to get everyone out of the house on time- in other words as quickly as possible-and have a minute to pour one last cup of coffee before heading out the door to the airport.  As she raised the pot to serve herself what remained of the morning’s sustenance, she saw a bit of steam rise.  Sylvia, anxious for her adventure, set the pot back on its burner and muttered quietly, “What are you thinking?  You don’t have time for a daydream right now, foolish woman.”

Announcement: American Flight 136 to Chicago has been delayed. The scheduled departure is now 2:30 pm.

At that moment, Sylvia’s plan didn’t look so good.  She had booked a cheap flight to Chicago from Boston with a stop in Charlotte.  What was the big deal?  Charlotte sounded quaint and manageable and completely unimposing. She had convinced herself that she could only afford “me-time” if she found ways to economize and be free from any more guilt than she was already feeling. Now, she was stuck in Charlotte for three hours with nothing to do but ruminate about her selfishness and play the mental ping-pong game that most mothers play when they leave their families behind to take care of themselves. Serve: Do I really need time to myself?  What have I done to deserve it?  Return: Yes, you deserve it. You do everything.  And with a couple of rounds over and the score tied, Sylvia decided to move forward to step two…live it.

There’s a cute little wine bar tucked away in between the gates of the American Airlines terminal in Charlotte. For once, Sylvia didn’t overthink her next move and headed in its direction. It wasn’t quite noon, but in Erma-fashion of it being five o’clock somewhere, she decided that a glass of something, perhaps a bit of bubbly, was definitely called for on this occasion. With her overnight bag on her shoulder and attempting not to wipe out any tables that she passed by, Sylvia made her way to the Mediterranean-inspired bar and tried to fit in, all the while noticing that only she and one other woman were either brave enough or naive enough to belly-up to the bar alongside stool after stool of men.

Sylvia managed to find a spot at the end of the bar closest to the exit and within earshot of any announcements from the loud speaker. She kept reminding herself that she was worldly, cosmopolitan even. She had traveled extensively in her youth and up until marriage and children, so sitting at a predominately male-occupied bar was no big deal. Her twenties were filled with such happenings- in Florence, Paris, London, DC, and LA. What the hell, this might just be as memorable and at least as enjoyable. She sat down, quietly and confidently, and politely ordered, “A glass of Moët, please.”

Within seconds, the flute of what Sylvia likes to call one of her most delicious tastes of survival arrived.  As she reached for its stem, her hand happened to graze the hand of the man next to her and a bit of his draft spilled on the bar. “Oops, so sorry,” she apologized without lifting her head.  In that instant, Sylvia was overcome by a strangely familiar scent that was both inexplicable and unexpected.  The intensely bold aroma of freshly brewed coffee was enveloping her.  She was drinking champagne. How could that be? She felt a rush.  She was oddly clammy and flush, as she once again reached for her glass remarking that the arm she had brushed seconds ago was tastefully tattooed and muscular. Surely, she was daydreaming.  Could this be real?  She lifted her head with every intention of making an apologetic comment, but she could not. As her eyes met his, she blurted, “Oh my, it really is you.” The attractively rugged man, he with the piercing, soulful, walnut-colored eyes from her very first coffee-inspired daydream, was looking back at her with a twinkle in his eye.

“Hello there. I’m Cam, uh, Cameron.  Do we know each other?” And without hesitation, Sylvia replied, “No, no, not yet, Cam, but I do owe you another beer- or at the very least a nice, hot cup of coffee.”

Erma: Try it…live it…exhaust it…

Sylvia: Oh, that’s the plan, Erma.  That’s the plan.

 

 

photo credit: Kobi Yamada