Lightning Bolt

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My old next door neighbor—a handsome man in his early 30s who owned his own business but worked with his hands, who wore those surf shop t-shirts that were ubiquitous in the mid-late 1980s, even though we were on Long Island sound where the surf was anything but gnarly but status was everything—had a streak of white in his dark, wavy hair. Struck by lightning at Fenway Park—at least that’s the story he told us shortly after we all moved in, while flashing a smile that was equally bright. They were newlyweds, he and his wife, living on a cul-de-sac full of four-bedroom colonials filled with kids. The BMW parked in their driveway was a wedding gift from him to her. She drove it into the city five days a week where she’d shop at Filene’s Basement on her lunch break and bring me, the quiet teenage girl next door, items emblazoned with the Esprit logo. Soon enough they had kids—a girl then a boy—and I would be their go-to babysitter whom they’d pay in $20 increments. My parents would shake their heads and almost, but not quite, make me give them change. I swam in their in-ground pool and ate their Celeste frozen pizzas and wore her Guess jeans with the zippered ankles that she passed down to me one night with along with a $20 bill after an evening spent watching the two-hour block of Friday night sitcoms while their little ones slept.

He—with the shock of white in his hair, who, as the story goes, had been struck by lightning at Fenway Park—was a doting father and a charming neighbor, a stand-up man in a suburban fairytale who was left by his wife who traded in her city job and lunch break shopping sprees for a gig at the grocery store in the far end of town and a little condo all of her own. She was the first woman I’d ever known to just up and leave her previous existence behind.

On breaks home from college, I’d cruise downtown in my little sports car to go to the grocery store in the far end of town. Sometimes I’d spot her, sometimes not, dressed in jeans and flannel shirts instead of the high heels and shoulder-padded suits of which I was accustomed. From my vantage point as a supporting character in this suburban fairytale, I saw her grand detour as a character defect. I gawked like you gawk at a traffic accident, studying the carnage but unable to identify the root cause. I wanted to know: how did this happen? What if this happened to me? What if it didn’t just “happen;” what if she chose this path with clarity in her heart and soul? The family’s story has stayed with me for decades.

I’ve been studying my life—and the lives of others—for as long as I can remember. Sometimes I study too much and forget that experience is the best teacher. Sometimes I go about my life by portraying a seemingly pedestrian façade, but behind the scenes there are bolts of lightning touching down all around me. I absorb the shock until I am ready to put words to the experience, until the lesson becomes clear.

That’s what I was up to all last week as I read and reread—day after day after day—the first six pages of the book I picked up during a layover at O’Hare. The book, a collection of advice column letters, along with their responses penned by the no-longer-anonymous Cheryl Strayed, opened with this letter: Like an Iron Bell.

After the first reading, I put the book down, partly paralyzed and partly electrified and partially quite certain that I had just stumbled upon the crystal-clear diagnosis for the affliction that I’d wrestled with for the past decade-plus: how to authentically express love that may not be epic and may not be for the ages but that is no less awesome and deserves to be recognized and celebrated.

You simply must read it—whether the words “I love you” are effortless for you to speak or if you, too, have choked them back, waiting for more ideal conditions. I’ll wait. Here’s the link again: Like an Iron Bell.

I want everybody with whom my life orbits to read these words. I want us all to vow that we will never, ever hold back on the true expression of our feelings. That everything that means anything, really, is rooted in love and that—like those Esprit-emblazoned t-shirts my long-ago neighbor bought for me—there are infinite hues from which to choose.

Before I loved my current boyfriend—and before I overcame my fear of speaking these words to the object of my affection—my heart got tangled up with someone else’s. The experience was a little messy and a little unexpected for us both. I wasn’t ready to fall in love—but I did. In a flash of white light, we came together and, by the count of three, we were apart and rattled by it all. And while I don’t have a shock of white in my hair to show for the experience like my former neighbor , it changed me, inside and out.

If I had read Like an Iron Bell a few months ago, I would have had a framework upon which to cast my feelings and provide definition. I would have understood the varied hues of love enough to have ensured my use of those three electromagnetically charged words conveyed the just-right subcontext. But instead, I chickened out and continued to wait for an apex moment. A moment that, in hindsight, came and left much like the wild storm in the sky this morning.

I’ve always been one for using more words than necessary, and yet, in matters of love, I let the flow recede for years and years. No more. I, too, am hitting that iron bell like it’s dinnertime. Life’s too short to hold anything back.

Soundtrack: “Lightning Bolt” by Jake Bugg

Green Light

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Truth is, I blow through a lot of yellow lights. Logically, I know the difference between yellow and green; but in practice, they both mean “go” to me. More so figuratively than literally—but even when behind the wheel, my foot tends toward the accelerator not the brake. That’s me: constantly trying to squeeze the most life out of things. Relationships, conversations, experiences, a bag of potato chips. I want every last crumb—and then some.

“Where’s the fire?” my grandfather used to call out as I ran from one room to the next. “Go, go, go” was how my grandmother described the perpetual motion of my youth. The concept of “just being” was foreign to me back then. And while, these days, I’m much more in tune with what it means to be in the moment and just experience an experience for what it is, I sometimes catch myself—namely, the two-headed monster that is my head and my heart—speeding distractedly down the highway of my life (flipping through my music and applying lip gloss) and wanting to call out to her, “hey, what’s the rush?”

I signed myself up for a year of saying “yes”—a word that’s teeming with velocity. But when you’re talking about people and feelings and possibilities (as I am; I always am) it’s the quality of the yes—not the quantity or the speed—that is most important. And it’s not really possible to give an all-in “yes” when there’s a “maybe” tugging at your sleeve. Or your heart.

So, I did it. I heeded the yellow light’s warning. And in doing so, the green light ahead became that much clearer.

It feels both risky and overly cautious all at once to give a yellow light the “red light” treatment. Clear-cut decisions are a bit foreign to me and my analytical/emotional/never-shuts-off mind. I can’t help but volley around the pros and cons of that decision. It’s what I do. Or what I used to do—playing the “what if” game.

But in matters of the heart, it feels quite freeing—quite right, actually—not to have that yellow light looming, not to be constantly debating with myself how to proceed. Green means go—and I am on my way.

Soundtrack: “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Emm Gryner

Time to Believe in What You Know

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Back in high school, I had exactly one driving lesson with my father. It was a barren, bright morning in the vacant lot of a nearby state park. I learned quickly that I did not have a knack for making that big ol’ Buick smoothly stop and go. Apparently, despite there being two pedals on the floor–and us drivers (and wannabe drivers) having two feet–I wasn’t allowed to use them at the same time. This was a fact that boggled my 15-and-three-quarters-old brain.

Still, I drove around the parking lot that way–left foot stop, right foot go. It an unpleasant experience all around. Jerky and stressful and confusing for us both. Being that my feet were largely hidden in the wheel well, I continued with this approach, even after being told otherwise. Not only did two pedals and two feet seem like it should be a given, the stop-go-stop-go technique felt like the safer option to me.

Eventually, I enrolled in driver’s ed and learned the right way to get around. But it took me a while to shed that instinct to tap the brake at the littlest flicker of concern. Now I could retrace the last 30-plus years of my life and probably point out hundreds of instances of me tapping the metaphorical brakes. Or I could just fast-forward to the latest and most relevant one: moving forward in my personal life.

I’m all for minding the signs and paying attention to the signals–literally and metaphorically. But I can feel that old instinct to hover my foot over the brake, to insert little halts when unnecessary, creeping in–just as life starts to get a little more unexpected. A little more interesting. Riding the brake is a fear-based action. Sure, it may seem wise at first, but it’s no way to smoothly move forward.

There’s a time and a place for caution and there’s a time and a place for letting go of the restraints. I’ve decided to let go of the restraints.

In the days following my breakup, I replaced the family photo on my desk at work with this quote:

“Step into uncertainty–today and a little bit every day. That is how an epic life is lived.”

At first these words served a bit of a fake-it-’til-you-make-it purpose. But after a few weeks of reading and rereading these words, I believed them. I embodied them. I began to welcome the mystery that lay ahead. And now–that feeling of being smack-dab in the middle of a Choose Your Own Adventure book is the most alive I’ve felt in a long, long time.

I haven’t a clue what next turn of the page has in store for me, but I can tell you it’s an exhilarating way to be living my life right now. It reminds me of the long, winding road that led to my old neighborhood back where I lived in those early days of driving. It dipped and curved endlessly and erratically, like the scalloped edges of Valentine made by a child. Once I became comfortable behind the wheel, there was nothing I loved more than touring all of that road’s curves, never really knowing what lay around the next bend but trusting myself to handle it all with grace. Without obsessing over the brake.

In a moment today when my head and my heart were having a bit of a private debate over the brake metaphor, I came across this piece on the HBR blog: How to Have a Year That Counts. Its simple, elegant reminders to (1) start with your dreams, (2) walk toward the fire, (3) venture beyond certainty, and (4) let life happen were all the confirmation I needed that yes, it is time to get out of my head and experience life outside of my comfort zone. It’s time to take my foot off the brake. That’s where my story will start to get interesting . . .

Soundtrack: “Shine” by Alexi Murdoch

Strength in Kindness

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In packing for my move, I came across an old one-subject spiral notebook from high school. It was hot pink and tattered–a hodgepodge of dramatic and overly adverb-y short stories and sappy love poetry, all written between the ages of 14 and 16. Quality stuff, I assure you. But toward the back of the notebook was this list of goals that I wrote for myself the day before entering my senior year:

1991 goalsIn two separate instances, I told myself to (a) be a nicer person and (b) be friendlier. After coming across this gem of a list, I posted it on Facebook, which was met with a whole slew of “I remember you being very nice” responses. And I believe I was nice. Very nice. So, what gives?

My 39 year-old self chewed on these judgmental words from a 17 year-old for a bit. Knowing how quiet and shy I was, I think perhaps what I was trying to say was “be more outgoing.” I think “be a nicer person” was my way of expressing a desire to be more popular. More well liked. But, but . . . again thinking back to those days, I was well liked. Just not by myself. And therein lies the truth: I needed to be nicer to myself. And no rigid list of goals was–or is–going to make that happen. Just compassion. Just kindness. Just acceptance that who I am is wonderful and enough. As is.

Like those instructions from the flight attendant about fastening your own oxygen mask before helping others, sometimes you simply have to put yourself first. And that’s okay. Wise even. Human nature has us wanting to help others. To do things to make them happy. To do things that make them feel liked and loved, safe and secure. But I don’t think it’s possible to selflessly give your companionship to another person if you aren’t able to love yourself first. Otherwise, that companionship is a sneaky bartering tool. I gave you this . . . so you should give me that. (Insert hurt feelings here.)

I’ve been making lists for my entire adult life–some functional (return mirror, pay parking ticket, refill prescription, bake muffins), some more emotional. In fact, earlier this year, I did some work with a life coach and one of the goals I had set for myself was to “be more loving.” Again, if I can do something for another person, I think it will make me happier. And it may–for a minute. A day. A year. But then what? There’s always more to “do”–but what if, for once and for all, I decided to just “be more loving” toward myself?

“Don’t look for love in faces, places

It’s in you, that’s where you’ll find kindness.”

Soundtrack: “Be Here Now” by Ray Lamontagne



On Letter-Writing . . .

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letter writing

I love getting letters in the mail. Meandering thoughts, one-of-a-kind handwriting, heartfelt sentiments. It all makes me happy.

In the fourth grade, we had a year-long class assignment that centered around studying the United States. We paged through encyclopedias and stared up at wall-mounted maps, handwrote reports, memorized state capitals, tasted regional foods, and corresponded with fourth graders around the country. My pen pal was from Louisiana and she started all of her letters with “Hi, hay, hello.” (Yep, hay.) Our communications fizzled come fifth grade, but my love of sending (and receiving letters) had only just begun.

In high school, I had a slew of international pen pals. I remember spotting an ad in the back of one of those teen magazines. For a few bucks and a SASE, I could get a list of addresses of 12 teenagers living in other countries—all who were just as letter-hungry and world-curious as me. From that moment on, my universe opened wide up.

Fast-forward 20-plus years. I still love sending and receiving handwritten letters, but times have changed. Correspondence is a dying art. E-mail is vying to take its place. Even if the purpose remains the same, the intimate nature is being swept away. Arial 10 pt (or its likeness) has taken the place of penmanship. The suspense (on both ends) is stifled. Bam, it’s sent—and received. Game over. A drop-everything instant response has come to be expected. E-mail is distracting—and unglamorous—tucked in between messages about a Shutterfly sale and LinkedIn updates.

So I was excited when my workplace decided to buddy up with the Timilty Middle School’s Promising Pals program. The idea of corresponding with a 12 year old is sweet and all—but even more importantly, it’s teaching these kids the art of question-asking and fact retention and rapport building and patience. All awesome things—and all awesome reminders for us grown-ups, too.

The child I’ve been paired with seems totally charming. Her favorite colors are red and purple and she loves video games and animals. I look forward to her sweet handwritten letters. As these layers unfold, I am reminded of all those international pen pals that I stayed in touch with through much of high school. Getting to know someone without the face time, without interruption, and with no pretense, is a rare treat.

Note to self—and other letter-lovers out there: Get on board with the More Love Letters movement. Gorgeous idea! Check out Hannah Brencher’s TED talk and get inspired.


©2013 Good Karma Housekeeping. Because the joy of reciving something handwritten in the mail is undeniable. (Photo by mrchrisadams via Creative Commons.)


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