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.”

Sylvia Learns the Sweetness of Infinity

Sylvia: Erma, nothing lasts forever, right?  
Erma: Oh, there’s something that lasts longer than forever, Sylvia. Look into the eyes of a child- your child-that love, that hope, that sweetness, that lasts long past forever, my friend. 

I was often judged- and not always favorably- when I invited my parents to live with us in California after Mom’s diagnosis. Occasionally some would wonder aloud what effect having a terminally ill person in my home would have on an impressionable and growing young boy. Those who knew our relationships- the closeness that was much more than mother and daughter and the unconditional connection of love between grandmother and grandson- were extremely supportive. And perhaps if we had disclosed what we knew was happening with my father, others would have been more understanding and less critical, but that element was not mine to share at the time. The reality is though that none of what others think or thought at the time has any value.  The value of how my mother chose to live her remaining years and the final outcome of our decision to help her with her battle, however and wherever she wanted, is seen here.  

The boy who sat on Nana’s bed after he came home from school and shared his day with her (and likely shared more secrets than I’ll ever know) became this young man.  He lives freely as his own person; he welcomes the world’s differences and the adventures that come along with them; he engages those around him with his bright eyes, contagious smile and compassionate heart.  I am blessed, and God knows, that I learn far more from him than from any other about letting go and living.  He has bad days and pushes through.  He has self-made predicaments and doesn’t let them defeat him.  I am so proud to be his mother and I sure hope that we are friends.  I still have much to teach him, but deep down I know what my mother probably knew all along– our children are OUR greatest teachers.

Through him and my mother, I know infinity.

“Only in the eyes of love you can find infinity.”~Sorin Cerin, Wisdom Collection: The Book of Wisdom

photo credit: csamuel&afortin

(The above post is an excerpt from the author’s upcoming book.)

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.

Would Sylvia & Erma Have Met On Facebook?

Surely they would have. When they would have met and under what circumstances are the two bigger questions and maybe even more intriguing speculations. There is honestly no better, easier, or more comfortable environment on social media for women – in my opinion- than Facebook. 

Don’t get me wrong. You have to get past all of the bullshit that people throw out there. We are all capable of slinging it every now and again, but there’s a vast difference between allowing yourself to wade incessantly in others’ crap and occasionally throwing a little handful of it yourself –or merely stepping in it and getting it on the bottom of your shoe. The latter two are rid of easily and can be overlooked, even forgiven in the worst cases. The former,well, it can be so cumbersome that it’ll weigh you down.  It depends on how thick your skin is, how insecure you are, and if you’ve mastered the expression, “Are you fucking kidding me?” 

Here’s the difference for women though, I think, as it relates to the FB dynamic. Again, just a few random thoughts, so please hear me out. Women put themselves on Facebook for myriad reasons.  Women in their teens and twenties usually do it to self-promote and even garner attention about their looks, their loves, their lives, good or bad. Many of them “collect” friends. I’ve actually seen some with over a thousand in their collections. Really. Seriously? Come on, really?  So, that’s FB on Starbucks and with a membership at 24-hour Fitness. In other words, FB on steroids.

Women in their thirties and forties, however, seem to use it more for personal shared experiences and professional purposes. Their posts are evenly distributed between the two for the most part. Perhaps they are not the LinkedIn types.  Maybe they just want to take a few minutes in their day to escape- to connect with old high school friends or college friends with whom they’ve yet to lose touch fully (they are hanging on). Maybe they are even hoping that they’ll prove to everyone that life is great when we form those even deeper and more public connections with the friends and family they saw over the weekend or even last night. They may employ FB as a calendar of sorts for journaling or scheduling purposes; collaboration on childrearing, weight loss and body image issues as a result of childbearing and childrearing; marriage, work, and social engagements (namely vacations, date nights, PTA meetings, etc.); showing one another that they too can have it all and do so without giving a fuck. Here’s the thing though. They do give a fuck.  After all, they are on FB. That’s Facebook on Ritalin.

Women in their fifties- actually from probably late 40s on- utilize FB differently. I’m convinced it depends on where they/we are emotionally and physically. If they still have children at home or who are nearly ready to go off to college (or embark on their first adult living adventure), FB is a great tool to share helpful hints and soul-sustaining suggestions. What you’ll often hear from this generation of women is how quickly those years with their children have passed. Women begin to get more sentimental but also a bit more matter-of-fact. You’ll see either a lot more about their partners/ spouses/ SOs – or a whole lot less. (Admittedly, that’s where I fall to the extent that people wonder if I’m actually married. My husband isn’t on FB, and I’m glad. I like that it’s my realm in our marriage.)  Nothing against you guys, but as many of my FB friends well know, women in this age group don’t need to make everything about men or partners.  Actually, we may use FB as an escape. You can read into that or not because frankly this age group is beginning to master the art of not giving a shit. These women haven’t fine tuned it yet, but they are on their way. With the help of their FB friends, luncheons, dinners, movie nights, and girls’getaways; and coffee, wine, and/or chocolate, these women are becoming comfortable in their own skin.  It’s funny how that happens just as the skin is losing elasticity and lacks collagen from the hormonal imbalances inflicted by the onset and throes of menopause. One of life’s ironies, for sure. We share tips on healthy, easily prepared meals.  We commiserate and eventually find communal comic relief in topics like hot flashes, insomnia, and abnormal hair growth. We are trying to become a bit more egocentric without apology.  FB on hormone replacement for some. FB on anti-depressants for others.

Now, I’ve yet to reach my sixties, but I can pretty well say that women on FB at this age are beginning to achieve a balance. Most seem to have accepted their lots in life. These women post heavily about grandchildren and health issues, but they also demonstrate a certain level of acceptance in terms of self-image. They don’t seem to outwardly obsess about their looks or the physical appearance of others. In fact, they are beginning to see only the good. “I have really unsightly spider veins, FB friends.” Comments on such an admission will range anywhere from “Dot, at least you are still walking on your own steam” to “Be thankful they are only spider veins and not varicose veins making green-blue tributaries on your legs like mine.” They always see a bright side. Perhaps it’s because they also believe in the power of the FB share.  They tend to be more superstitious and will almost always share the posts and prayers that strongly urge “copy and paste” or else the wrath of Zeus will be thrust upon them and their loved ones. These are the women we can count on to save our collective soul. FB on 1,000 units of Vitamin D, increased calcium, and perhaps a glass or two of newly discovered Pinot Grigio, Chardonnay, or Merlot. (Malbecs are too exotic; champagne is only for special occasions.)

Women in their 70s,80s, and 90s?  Not much to complain about. They are the role models for the rest of us. They are who they are, and they are just extremely happy to be alive.  They post prayers. They share funny animal and baby videos. They don’t complain. They are looking back at the rest of us and saying, “Are you fucking kidding us, girls? Life is short and getting shorter. Get over whatever or whoever is eating away at you and move on. Eat the cake. Drink the wine. Spoil the children. Buy the shoes. Take the trip.” FB on pure oxygen.

I won’t begin to fathom when Sylvia and Erma would have met on FB, but this I know. They found each other. They read each other’s posts. They laughed and cried. They discovered that they were not going through anything alone.

Facebook. Solidarity for sisters of all ages.  Hit the like button. Get through life with a thumbs-up.

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All I Needed to Know I Learned from My Mother

So, I envisioned posting this last week and then the week got away from me as most weeks and days usually do. For better or worse.  And there it is: for better or worse. That’s been the rumination of late, especially as I’ve attempted to get a look at myself through a toothpaste-covered mirror.

When we marry, there’s this “little” part of the traditional ceremony that says, “for better or worse, richer or poorer, etc.”  The toothpaste-covered mirror is definitely not indicative of the better part.  Don’t get me wrong; it’s far from the worst part either.  Let’s just say that these days the spit-covered mirror and the toothpaste-crusted sink represent ambivalence that is slowly becoming indifference. Indifference in this case isn’t a bad thing either.

I used to curse and scowl as I walked past that first sink of the double vanity, the one unknowingly claimed by him upon moving in to this house. And in all honesty, I still mutter and complain each morning and evening as I make my way to my side of the vanity.  How can someone not see the remnants of what is left behind?  My gosh, it’s so clear to me. And that’s when it hit me: as I ambled past that mirror last week for the millionth time and saw what has been there for quite a while- my war-torn reflection- a vision of a woman who has gone from caring and complaining about the mess to one who has thrown in the towel, literally and figuratively, and decided not to care.  Not to care about the small stuff.  Because as my mother said repeatedly, and reiterated almost ad nauseum, especially as she lay dying the last four months of her life (the only time in her life when she put her needs, wants, and thoughts first), no one ever gets a medal for keeping a clean house. It’s a thankless job. Necessary but without reward. And above all – both Sylvia and Erma would concur- it’s the least for which you’ll be remembered when all is said and done.

Yes, I get the “pride in appearance” part of it, but really?  I’ll take the word of a great lady who cleaned many toothpaste-covered mirrors in her lifetime, that in the end, it just doesn’t matter. All that matters is that you paid attention to that woman staring back at you in the mirror; you paid attention to and cared for yourself. After decades of wiping up around the sink, scrubbing the hardened toothpaste from the porcelain, and windexing the mirror last to find that the woman who took pride in and did the jobs that no else would without prodding, coaxing, or begging, lost herself.  When she allowed herself to be relegated to the person in the house who would deal with everyone else’s mess (physical, emotional, financial, and spiritual), she conceded defeat in a way. Mom didn’t realize that the war would take its toll, not until the battle scars of being a wife, mother, grandmother, and fixer-of-all-things were deep and permanent. It was then that she would admonish, “Show them you matter by putting yourself first, Kay. Trust me, if you don’t treat yourself well, you’ll let others think that you are okay with being last, disrespected and dismissed.”

So, that’s what this Sylvia has been thinking about lately. She’s been reflecting on her mother’s words — on Erma’s words. Sometimes it’s okay to say no. I just don’t feel like dealing with your shit or anyone else’s right now. At this moment, here and now, however fleeting, it’s all about me. The spit-covered mirror and the toothpaste-crusted sink will still be there tomorrow. I’m going to grab a cup of coffee and sit for a moment and do nothing. For better or worse.

Grab a mug, pull up a chair, and we’ll watch the sunrise.

When your mother asks, ‘Do you want a piece of advice?’ it is a mere formality. It doesn’t matter if you answer yes or no. You’re going to get it anyway.

~Erma Bombeck