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.

Be Careful When You Pull the Thread

Anyone who has ever snagged a favorite sweater knows the literal and figurative unraveling that occurs if the displaced thread or piece of yarn is pulled and not cut. Sylvia pulled the thread though, and the unraveling began. And guess what?  As she pulled, she felt amazingly relieved and almost giddy with excitement. She never once had the desire to reach for scissors and stop the energetic dismantling of what she had long known as comfort. 

Sylvia pulls the thread and feels free.  On those rare occasions when I pull the thread, it feels like I’m losing control and shedding pieces of myself, the self that I’ve grown accustomed to that is. So too often now, I get the urge to pull the thread, and then a wave of fear sets in. It’s the fear that I’ll completely unravel and be unable to put myself back together or make a new and better version of myself- one who doesn’t require validation, one who doesn’t fear she’ll become unlovable as the unraveling occurs.

Hell, the reality is that I should be yanking every thread in sight. After all, like Sylvia, I’m bright and beautiful, and unlike Sylvia, I have Erma – actually, Ermas everywhere- who will kick my ass and help keep the pieces in one place until I decide what to do with them. And then, foolishly or out of fear, I pull out the sweater again; and like the good girl I’ve become, I follow all the written and unwritten rules and endure the looks, judgmental stares, reactions of disbelief and shame. And when I stop to see to whom those critical eyes belong, who owns those tsk-tsks, the shame-on-you looks, and the stern you’re-better-than-this gazes, I see clearly. Aha, there. Right there. She’s looking back at me in the mirror every morning and night and in every window I pass throughout the day. 

It’s painfully exhausting to be the keeper and mender of the sweater while wearing it! The girl who has always done the sensible thing, the right thing. However, there’s an obvious and growing problem now: the sweater is torn, tattered, and wearing thin in places. I can’t get rid of it; after all, who just throws things away, especially things which have been comfort, protection, and safe haven when needed? I’m not a girl without heart. One might say and many have, I have too much heart. I’m attached. I love weaving and connecting – memories to people and places, places to people and events, and memorabilia to just about everything. In the midst of that everything though, I also can’t bear to watch someone else’s sweater fall apart- anyone’s I love and care about.  So, I tend to others in various ways. Erma in her infinite wisdom would say, “Dear, you concentrate on others because it’s easier than having to face and clean up your own shit.” (Sylvia and I can always count on Erma for a dose of no-nonsense when it’s needed most. Thank God.)  And Erma is right, damn it. 

I do so many things- the creating, the assembling, the mending, the darning-all of those things for everyone else. I do all of those things because if I pull the string, I’m risking a mess – one I’ve created no less-and I just don’t need one more mess. Mess is,well, just so unattractive!  So, to my chagrin and Erma’s dismay on many occasions, I reach for scissors to cut the thread or pull it back through the other side so no one can see the imperfection. You see, I’ve got myself trained to hide the flaws- don’t show fear. Swallow what anyone dishes out. You’ll be happy if others are happy. But guess what? That’s not the case. I still know that the “sweater” has flaws, many of them now in fact. It’s still sufficient in that it covers me and keeps me somewhat protected, but admittedly, I do feel, see, and know exactly where it’s wearing. The pulls and imperfections – the worry, the fear, and the sadness- perhaps are even becoming too great to hide.

The voice in my head, the women and people in my life, the Ermas (and by the way, a few of the most important Ermas in my life are great men) – they all seem so much more put together than I am- they all know I’m unraveling. They say pull the string fully. They assure me that they won’t leave me in a heap on the floor. They’ll get down on the floor with me until I can figure out what to do, what to make, and who I want to be! 

Here’s what Sylvia has taught me about pulling the thread though. Her lesson is rich, spontaneous, and unedited. Sometimes, you’ve just got to yank the l’il fucker. If it leaves a hole, there remain several options: live with it; patch it; get rid of it.  Those that love you, those who truly care and want you to be happy will live with your remnants and your tangled threads while you figure it out. 

Oh, how I want to be Sylvia on some days, and I assure myself I can be. I’ll pull the thread, Erma, don’t worry. Honestly, don’t worry. I’ll unravel… it may be quick, it may be slow. One things for certain though-and despite my fears I know this to be true-it’s going to be damn colorful! 

Oh my! Sweaters, yarn, thread, unraveling…but first, please just indulge me and allow me to enjoy another steaming cup of coffee.

Photo credits: (above) wildharedaily.wordpress.com(bottom) kayymorgan

“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