Here’s my second finalist article for the Parent.co monthly writing contest. I don’t think either of them won, but it was fun to enter–and always nice to see something you wrote published!
Here’s my second finalist article for the Parent.co monthly writing contest. I don’t think either of them won, but it was fun to enter–and always nice to see something you wrote published!
Yes, it’s true. But there’s more to it than that. I’m not scared of all Boy Scouts. Just this one. And I’m not convinced that he was a Boy Scout at all. More like a Man Walkabout, without a uniform.
It wasn’t Halloween yet, so I wasn’t expecting anyone in a costume when the doorbell rang. Strange timing, I thought. About 8 pm, not terribly late but later than UPS usually delivers and it was already pitch dark.
Not knowing whether I wanted to answer, I peered through the living room window, where I could see the profile of a person standing on the front steps. Not a neighbor, not one of my kids’ friends, but also not someone with a clipboard or a stack of pamphlets. So I flicked on the overhead light and opened the door a few inches.
“Hello ma’am, I’m with the Boy Scouts,” this obviously grown man person without a costume or a Boy Scout-related chaperone said. Come to think of it, I didn’t even see a car, or bike, or any other mode of transportation. Did he walk here? And if so, from where?
“I visited yesterday and your husband said he was interested in buying popcorn, but he didn’t have the cash at the time.”
Then I saw the container of popcorn he was holding up. Yes, it had a picture of a Boy Scout on it. Ok, that’s promising. But wait. He walked here from wherever he came from, carrying only this one order for a single customer? That didn’t seem right.
“Um, ok.” I said. “How much is it?”
“Twelve dollars, ma’am.” Shut the front door! I mean, I didn’t actually shut the front door. At least not yet. Twelve dollars for what would cost a couple bucks at the grocery store? That’s crazy talk.
“Just a second,” I said. And then I did shut the front door, long enough to yell up the stairs to my husband:
“Hey, did you agree to pay twelve dollars for Boy Scout popcorn?”
A moment of silence.
“Oh yeah, but I didn’t have enough money.” Some rummaging ensued, and my husband came down the stairs with his wallet.
“Oh, I still only have two dollars. Do you have ten?”
“Hang on another second,” I told the Man Cub waiting on our steps, and got my wallet. Thank god, I had a ten dollar bill.
“Here you go!” I said cheerfully, shoving the money out the front door and grabbing the popcorn.
He said thank you very much, and I watched him walk away to . . . wherever he had come from. I almost expected him to disappear into the evening mist.
On one hand, I wanted to be annoyed that my husband had summoned this person back to our house with the sole intent to take my money. But then I remembered the time I ordered four years’ worth of magazines from an adorable young woman with a very sad back story and photos to prove it, only to find out a year later that I only had a year’s subscription.
Gullible, much? Or just afraid to say no? A little of both, I think.
It’s probably best if we just stop answering the door.
I wonder if the popcorn is any good?
I’ve always been an independent person. I don’t like to ask for help. I’m slightly on the introverted side, so I prefer to work by myself. Or with one or two people I really like. But most of all, I like to be creative. This was a good place to be, more than 20 years ago, when I started my career in corporate communications and was in a small team, managing a small publication on my own.
Then things started getting uncomfortable. There were promotions, there were children, there were projects and people to manage. All normal milestones in life, and of course there were many aspects of these changes that I enjoyed. And I was good at it. I could work 12 hours a day, take care of the kids, pay the bills, and all with a sunny disposition.
On one hand, I was proud of being able to accomplish so many things at once. But being good at getting things done is exhausting when the things you’re getting done are not ones you want to be doing. I’m talking about the work side of things, not kids or my home life. Those areas of my life I always cherished, but I never had enough time to really pay attention to them. To just enjoy them.
A slight buzzing had started in my head, a kind of background noise that crept in during times of stress and faded when things got quiet. Things were never quiet for long, and the moments of peace got to be few and far between.
The moment I knew I was in the wrong place, doing the wrong thing, was when I was at home, giving a presentation to our CEO on the phone, with my boss on the line to assess my performance, while holding a squirming, sick, screaming toddler. I thought: Ok, now is the time to start hatching my escape plan.
You would think that planning ahead to leave something you don’t enjoy would make “that thing” easier to deal with. It didn’t. It made it worse. Watching my nest egg grow much too slowly, doing the calculations to determine when it was “safe” to leave . . . And the guilt of knowing that I was making a conscious decision to go from supporting my family to potentially making no money for a long time. It was suffocating.
The buzzing got worse.
I was anxious all the time. My heart raced, my blood pressure rose. I sweated even when I was cold. In quiet moments I would sit and listen to my pulse pounding in my ears, and I could feel it in my nose. Sometimes I would get nosebleeds.
Eventually I got depressed. Nothing could make me happy. I withdrew from friends, family, activities, everything. I just wanted to be left alone.
One morning I found myself in my hotel room, pacing up and down the floor in my towel, gasping for breath. The reason? An event I was running later that day, one that I had run for 5 years in a row. In fact, one of many events and large meetings I ran throughout the year. Nothing major had ever gone wrong at any of them, and there was nothing special about this one.
But as I was getting ready to dry my hair and get dressed, I had a horrible thought: I couldn’t imagine the event happening. Usually before an event, I run through it in my mind, and I can see everything happening the way it should. That always gave me peace of mind, like I was just following a script that was already written. In this case, however, I couldn’t “see” the event. I took it as an omen that something was going to go terribly wrong, and my brain was protecting me by not letting me see it.
I panicked. I thought about packing my bag and running away. But I didn’t. I got through the event, it went well, and I got on the train and was happy to see my family when I got home. Fortunately that was only a few weeks before I walked out the door of my building for the last time, because I don’t think I would have survived another challenge.
I’ve been “free” for 9 months. Quitting wasn’t easy. I felt like . . . a quitter. And I still do.
If I had been a stronger person, I could have gone to therapy, taken antidepressants and continued on in my job for another 20 years. But even the thought of that depressed me. I don’t want to look back on my life and think “wow, I really hung in there, didn’t I?” There are no medals or rewards for suffering in silence.
So here I am, hustling to get freelance writing work every day, getting some here and there, writing personal things for my own amusement, and slowly adjusting to a life without constant stress. It sounds easy, but ironically, it’s a little . . . um, stressful. But there’s negative stress that eats at your mind and body, and then there’s constructive stress, which drives you to work hard at doing something you enjoy.
I can deal with constructive stress. So . . . Here I am. And here I go!
I just had my first paid web site article published. Woo hoo! I don’t have any more to say about that, so please check it out!
Planning a fantasy life on the road, someday
When I was a child, maybe 7 or 8 years old, I fantasized about having a “house within a house” that snaked its way through the hallways and living spaces of my home. Only I would have access to this house, but since it was located inside my real house, I could easily visit my parents and pets.
I would draw pictures of how this house could look—kind of a cross between a child-sized doll house and a hamster habitrail. I would draw it as if a house had been sliced in half, kind of like they do on that HGTV show I’ve forgotten the name of, where they show how the layout could look for the owner’s space and the renter’s space. This sliced cake house would be fully furnished, with family rooms, bathrooms, kitchens, closets and furniture. I never put any people in the drawings, because I would be the only one living there.
In this house within a house, I could have solitude, but still feel safe. Which made no sense, as I was an only child. All spaces were my solitary space!
I had forgotten all about my strange fantasy until a few years ago when Tiny Houses became the biggest thing since everything bagels. And there it was! An adult escape pod on wheels. I couldn’t stop thinking about the appeal of a Tiny House. But, you know, I’m a grownup. With the usual assortment of responsibilities and things that keep you in one spot.
If I were just starting out in life, I would surely be one half of a hipster couple, shopping for a tiny house with all the money I had saved since college, planning a mortgage-free life traveling all over the country, pulling up in camp sites and any open space we could find and calling it home for however long we wanted to stay. I’m not sure what all those hipster couples with tiny dogs do for a living that they can live on the road, but they sure do look happy.
Obviously that wasn’t going to be my story. But what if I flipped the timeline, and a tiny house isn’t the beginning of a lifelong adventure, but the end of one? I mean, in a happy way, not a depressing way. That’s when the cogs in my head started cranking.
I’m a planner. Not just a day-to-day planner. Yes, I keep a “to do” list that accounts for nearly every hour of the day. It makes me feel accomplished to see everything crossed of the list at the end of the day. Except most days there are a few things that have to be carried over, which drives me crazy.
I’m also a long-range planner. Even when I had a steady job and a salary, and I knew exactly how much my 401K and pension were going to pay out each month based on the year I decided to retire, I would run different scenarios in my head to see how my life might turn out if I were to make a small tweak here, a big change there. I would make calculations while driving, running errands, in the shower. Sometimes I would have to break out the calculator. (Not in the shower.)
“Running Scenarios” is what I call it. Is it weird that I have a name for it? Imagine one of those “If yes, then move here, if no then move here, if neither then go back to the beginning” charts. That’s the way my mind works. If I don’t like the outcome, I can go back and rearrange the blocks and arrows.
Whatever you call it, the process of running scenarios is calming. Kind of like telling myself that however this kooky life goes, it’s all going to work out in the end.
So back to the Tiny House Project. This appealed to my Running Scenarios mentality, so I started going through all the possibilities. Such as: If the value of the house were $X by the year I turn 60, and the cost of a tricked-out tiny house and the truck and all other accoutrements needed to pull it were $X, then the money leftover after the sale of our house would cover our monthly cost of living (including gas) for 20 years without having to touch our savings.
It sounded pretty damn good!
Of course there are few things to consider. Such as: Would we have a home base, or would we just travel all the time? I decided that would should have a home base either somewhere warm (with a tiny house, you would probably want or need to spend some time outside) or somewhere near wherever the kids end up. So factor the cost of a small plot of land into the scenario and recalculate.
Also: Where would we put all the stuff from our house that we couldn’t let go? That’s easy. Get a rental container near home base and store everything there. We could always go “visit” our stuff whenever needed. Factor monthly rental of container into the scenario.
There are other, more mundane things to sort through. Like, would I still be able to have a garden? At home base, sure. But on the road? I went back to my mental blueprint of the tiny house and added window boxes for flowers, and some larger boxes attached to the back of the house for herbs and vegetables—all of which would need to have a storage container inside the house for when we’re on the road.
Then there is the bathroom issue. Do I want to have to be hooked up to a water source, or could I live with a “mulching” toilet? I mean, a mulching toilet? Gross.
At that point I ran out of things to add to my mental schematic, so I decided that spending my older years traveling and writing from a tiny house was actually a viable option.
Except . . . my husband might not agree. I neglected to work him into the scenario. Damn it. Now I have to start over.
I have an empty photo frame that has been hanging on our stairway wall for three years. Every now and then, my daughter will ask why I haven’t put any photos in it. Until now, I could honestly say “I have no idea!”
It’s not like we don’t have photos in frames all over the house. We have tons of them. All happy, smiling faces of our family at different points in our lives—soon after J. was born, at the beach, us beaming and her peering out from her Baby Bjorn with an expression both concerned and nearsighted. A posed family Christmas photo when J. was about 6 and S. was a toddler, where only I noticed the slight yellowish bruise on her cheek from the latest episode of S.’s “enthusiastically throwing board books” phase. In front of the Eiffel Tower, the week after Princess Diana died, long before we had any idea how full and chaotic the next 20 years would be.
I kind of felt like, “been there, done that” in the hanging photos department. But the stairway wall was bare, and needed something. So up went the photo frame, and there it sat. Somehow filling it with more of the same types of photos didn’t seem right. This frame should have its own special type of photos.
Recently I was transferring photos from an old hard drive to my laptop, and it struck me: The photos that I found most poignant were the ones taken from the back. Photos that spoke to me not through the expressions on the subjects’ faces, but their poses, their posture, their surroundings. The photos where no one felt obligated to create a “hey we’re having fun” face, but were simply going about their business, thinking who knows what.
Here’s one of my favorites: A perfect late spring day, after coming home from a joint birthday party for both kids. He was three, she was seven. We had to explain to S. what a pinwheel was, but he was fascinated. He didn’t let go of that pinwheel the rest of the afternoon. Here he’s taking a breather and watching the rest of the kids running and doing cartwheels in the yard. Who knows what was going through his head? Not knowing, I’m free to make up stories about what could have been happening in the photo.
Here’s another one–walking to our first ride on the Tower of Terror (and many more to come):
And there are more:
Even though I know the back story (sorry, pun really wasn’t intended but I like it so I’m keeping it) for all these photos—after all, I was always the photographer—it makes me happy to think that they could have been telling any number of stories. I can make up new ones to match them if I want. There are no faces or expressions to prove me wrong.
Which reminds me of something I sometimes think about: What are the stories of the people who randomly appear in your family photos? What were they doing at that moment? I know what we were doing, but their narrative was completely different that day. And come to think of it, wouldn’t it be cool to be able to locate all the family photos that YOU have randomly appeared in? Those photos alone could tell the entire story of your life, in no particular order.
But that’s a whole separate line of musing that I’ll get into later.
J. and I finally took that empty photo frame off the wall and filled it with a crooked collage of our favorite photos. It took some wrestling (“Aw man, now there’s a HAIR between the two pieces of glass! Ok, take it apart again.”), but now it accurately represents us: Not perfect, a little askew, slightly messy, memories overlapping, mostly happy.
Sometimes the theme of the day just presents itself. This morning J. walked downstairs wearing her Alice in Wonderland long-sleeved t-shirt from our last trip to Disney, holding the Alice in Wonderland collection of stories I gave her almost exactly a year ago (which she had just rediscovered while cleaning her room), and sat down at the dining room table with her Alice in Wonderland tea cup to drink (coffee) and read before school. As we chatted, she showed me some of the vaguely creepy illustrations in the book, and I opened Facebook to see the prompt from this day last year, which was a quote from the Mad Hatter.
Well, duh. Today I’m going to be thinking about tea. But also Disney. Which reminded me that I need to arrange her flights to visit a friend in Florida this summer. But I’ll do that later. Now, for the tea.
It just happens that a couple weeks ago, we visited a tea house for an afternoon lunch/brunch. The Mulberry House in Westfield, a cute little place that, like so many of the businesses and doctor’s offices in the area, used to be an actual house. It still feels like you’re eating in someone’s front room, shoulder to shoulder with strangers who are, like you, pretending to be civilized and pick at their very small plates of food.
Upstairs where the bedrooms must have been, they host bridal showers, baby showers and other events that are primarily attended by women. Believe it or not, those events can get rowdy. Who would have thought that miniature cucumber sandwiches and scones would bring out the crazy? More likely it’s the BYO wine, which I wished I had thought to bring.
Downstairs in the main dining room, we choose our tea for the meal (passionfruit rose) and our food. None of the traditional teeny tea food for us. We’re ordering like we’re at the diner—an omelette and salad for me, an omelette, hash browns and a plate of bacon for her. At least the pink teapot makes us feel somewhat dainty.
It’s part 1 of a belated Mother’s Day “girls’ outing”, which ends with an evening trip to a nearby spa. The teen facial for her (75 minutes of scrubbing, masking, and extractions, ouch!) and a scalp/neck/shoulders/upper back massage for me. It was the only thing on the menu that I could handle. I won’t get any facial treatments because my skin is so sensitive and it’s embarrassing to leave the place with a face that resembles a ripe tomato. And I can’t book a massage because the thought of getting completely naked in front of a stranger makes me break out in hives. So, a neck massage it was.
We have a history of mother/daughter tea time. When she was little, like most little girls, she had several tea sets and I we would have mock tea dates. About that time, it became popular for girls to have actual tea parties for their birthdays, so we attended a few of those. We had our first very fancy tea at the American Girl store/restaurant in New York. At some point, going to tea became our mother/daughter bonding activity.
To be honest, looking back on the day, I’m not sure that we really enjoyed the tea, or the meal, or the spa, as much as we would have enjoyed anything else. But we had a wonderful day nonetheless.
There’s something about the ceremony of drinking tea in a place that’s dedicated only to the appreciation of tea that makes it a special experience. Like wandering around a museum, or sweating in identical short robes in the spa’s completely silent sauna, it forces you to focus on the thing that you are doing together at that very moment. Nothing else matters, and for that brief time, only the two of you exist.
So although I don’t especially love tea, we have an entire shelf full of exotic and store-bought tea at home. Here’s the shelf.
Choosing the tea, boiling the water, steeping the leaves, pouring the tea into our special mugs, drinking it together . . . It’s not really about the tea, it’s about quiet time spent together enjoying one, singular, solitary (yet bonding) thing.
Time for tea!
I’ve always approached challenges as if they are “succeed” or “fail”–no middle ground, no grey area, no shades of interpretation or even phases of development. There’s always “where I am now”, and “where I want to be”. And the difference between the two is a steep precipice that I can only overcome by flying.
The problem is, people can’t fly. For some reason I’ve have to learn this over and over, envisioning the end result and hurling myself off the cliff in the hopes that I’ll figure out how to become airborne. Usually I get somewhere close to where I was headed, but banged up, bruised and generally disillusioned about the whole affair.
Over the last few months I’ve had no choice but to learn how to be patient, and see each small daily (or weekly) development as slow, steady progress toward a goal that will be worth it. Each step creates a new foothold in a rock face that isn’t sheer, but only steep, and doesn’t really go in any direction. It doesn’t go up, it doesn’t go down, it just goes . . . there.
And here’s the thing I’ve had so much trouble resolving in my head: There is no end point. You’re never going to be finished. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. I mean, who wants to be finished? What do you do then? Alright, I’m done! Where’s my prize?
I’m ok with being a constant work in progress, shuffling across unsteady ground, looking for the next solid place to rest and take stock. I don’t have a carefully charted plan (gasp). Each step forward–or sometimes back–I’m learning new things and remaining open to anything else that might come along. Maybe that “something else” will lead me off the path I thought I was on, and that’s fine too.
As long as I keep navigating a trail that I’ve chosen, it will always lead me somewhere I would like to be.