Thirty

I never understood the dread of birthdays. Weeks of eye rolling and “Please don’t remind me,” followed by a day of quiet revulsion at the number of candles on a birthday cake. Why not celebrate? I always thought. You get to be alive in this world, and aliveness carries with it every possibility of happiness.

Then a few months ago, I realized that I would be turning thirty soon. Please, I told myself, impatient and embarrassed by what I could only identify as feelings of depression. Your life is so good, and thirty is so young. You will never be younger than you are in this moment; why not enjoy that? That last line has long been my mantra for those who would dread their increasing age, and while I still recognized its logic, it wasn’t comforting the way I hoped it would be.

Thirty. I looked at myself mercilessly. At the crinkles by my eyes when I smile, how much deeper and longer they stretch in photos. At the scars on my cheeks, most visible in sunlight and which I’ve tried to diminish with four painful procedures. At my body, baffled at how I’ve been unable to lose the eight extra pounds I’ve gained this year despite exercise and a moderately healthy diet. I studied my belly and wondered if I should be wanting children more and if, when the time came, I would ever regret these years of carefree postponement. I looked at my bank accounts and then quickly looked away. I searched for an old journal, remembering an entry I wrote at seventeen that listed with earnest confidence what I intended to achieve in the next ten years, what I envisioned for my life. I thought of places I haven’t traveled, experiences I haven’t had. I looked back on the last five years, in particular, and crucified myself for mistakes I’ve made, people I’ve hurt. I recalled the different versions of myself, starting from my earliest self-awarenesses, and wondered if I was being true to the best of them or whether those mes, the purest of them, would be disappointed in who I had become.

I dove into a flurry of (in retrospect) egoistic attempts at self-improvement: I sent my book out to agents and those rare publishers that accept unsolicited manuscripts. I submitted a few stories to magazines. I registered for a half-marathon, telling my husband I was starting my “Best Body by 30” campaign. The self-examination (read: self-flagellation) continued. To-do lists, weigh-ins, spreadsheets keeping track of who sent which rejection letters.

It’s been exhausting.

With the exception of certain tough times, I’m generally kind to myself. The voice in my mind is mostly not a bullying one; it’s a happy, daydreaming one, all chatty and forgiving. I believe in treating myself to a nice lunch, a massage, a morning in bed, and I don’t feel shame in that self-care. Most of the time, I am not so self-involved that I forget to be grateful: for the family I have–the parents and brother and sister and husband I love with every part of myself; the friends who don’t stop texting or calling or wanting me in their lives despite the long stretches of time I am consumed with distraction and let days or weeks elapse before responding; the life-changing work I do, the stories I am deeply proud to help share. There are nights I fall asleep thinking Thank you. 

So where did that person disappear in the last several months? What about this birthday transformed my mind’s voice into a punishing taskmaster?

I don’t have an answer, except that perhaps it’s the first time getting older has felt like getting older, which reminds of my always highly felt mortality, which makes me want to do everything, be everything, and that is a debilitating amount of pressure for this thirty-year-old.

Let me tell you something. In the last several weeks, I have hugged both my parents. My sister has shoved a cupcake into my nose, and my brother has told me he loves me. I have sat around a table and drunk beer and eaten pizza, and I have stood sweating beneath the October sun, and I have pressed myself close to my husband as we fly on a motorcycle past a hunter green river, and   I have buried my face in the neck of my puppy, and my legs have carried my body for miles, and I have napped and worked and danced and slept, and I awoke this morning the way I do most mornings, smiling at my husband’s sleep-sweet face and stretching and feeling pretty damn happy to be alive in this world.

Thirty is good. Life is good. I very much hope for more birthdays.

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La Familia Es Todo: A Tribute to Josefina Arellano, Who Chose Us

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The things I will never know about Nanny break my heart. What were her parents’ names? Did she live with them until she got married? Did she have brothers or sisters? She was poor, I know; she told me a story once, standing at the kitchen sink, of how she had to pin a burlap sack to her bra straps as a dress. “Que vergüenza,” she said. How shameful. They could all see my bra. What did she do for work, then, early on? When did she first start cleaning houses, caring for other people’s children? How did she meet her husband? When did she fall in love?

My mind starts to make up answers. She begins to materialize on a farm or a ranch, a small, lithe, dust-covered girl who is surprisingly strong. Then I stop myself. I don’t want to remember an imagined woman. I want to remember the woman I knew, however incompletely.

* * *

In the earliest memory I can pull from dreamlike depths, we are sitting together at a child-sized table. I look at the two of us—me, tiny and dark-haired, and Nanny, gray waves and a housedress—and we are coloring, maybe, or molding play dough. There’s a sense of waiting, of anticipation. Then the front door opens, and I see the figures of my parents, silhouetted against a blazing spring sky. My mom holds a wrapped bundle in her arms—my sister, it must be, though in my memory it’s my brother, only eighteen months younger than I. Gleeful, I gasp and look at Nanny, and she laughs and tells me in Spanish, “Go!” And I run to meet this brand new human who is now a part of us.

Her real name was Josefina Arellano. Everyone called her Fina, but I called her Ñaña. My parents followed suit, the way they referred to each other as Mom and Dad in our presence, and so of course, my brother and sister, too, called her Ñaña.

Once I reached my full height of five feet four inches, I could stand behind her and rest my chin on her fine, baby-soft gray hair; that’s how small she was. As she got older, I hugged her more gingerly, but I can remember being a child and hurling myself at her the way I would my parents, seeing no difference between their able thirty-something bodies and hers, which had carried her for seventy-one years by the time I was born. She was as solid to me, as vital and eternal, as they were.

Nanny (a nickname upon a nickname one of us later gave her) was born in Durango, Mexico. She moved, at some point, to Nuevo Laredo, the Mexican sister city of my hometown. She and her husband had a tiny house there, my mother has told us. Back when a handful of children, hair windblown and wild, could walk across the bridge without fear, my mother and her siblings went to visit Nanny. The house was two rooms, maybe one; immaculately clean. Nanny procured glass-bottled Mexican Coke, the kind with real cane sugar, and gave it to the kids to help them cool off in the brutal heat. I imagine them, my mom and her siblings, rambunctious and sweaty, looking around Nanny’s space and realizing how much bigger their home was than hers.

Nanny had come to work for my grandparents when my mother was only a year old. She would stay at their house during the week, cooking and cleaning while my grandparents worked, and return home on weekends. She gave baths and spankings, made now-legendary tortillas, chased quick-footed, loud-mouthed boys around the house, rounded up all the kids for meals when they were playing barefoot on the unpaved streets outside, met girlfriends, boyfriends. She met my father when he and my mother were fourteen. His own family lived just across the street, and he and my mother became best friends. They played baseball together in the empty lot that is now my aunt’s house, ran to pizza joints where they’d each order a large and devour it, then run back home. I wonder if, in all the years Nanny lived with us and saw my dad in his crisp suits and ties, he was still that chaparrito, bright-eyed boy in her mind, the only one my mother has ever loved.

My mother was always the good one, the rule-follower, and she clung to Nanny when she was picked on or, for some reason, punished. She remembers sneaking into Nanny’s room at night, climbing into bed with her and staying there until Nanny rose at five to prepare for the day. Thirty-five years later, my younger sister would do the same, tracing a serpentine path toward Nanny’s room, pulling the comforter and sheets from the foot of the bed and crawling on knees and palms toward Nanny. We laugh, now, at what must have been a startling, absurd interruption from sleep: an invisible rustle, followed by a wild-haired child sneaking from toes to face. But I doubt if Nanny ever showed surprise. She probably just made sure Amanda was warm and comfortable before smoothing the covers over them both.

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* * *

Our best friends always knew who Nanny was to us, but classmates who came over for school projects sometimes referred to her as our housekeeper. “Your housekeeper is so cute!” they might say, or “Does your housekeeper live here?” Even now, the complete misidentification creates a squirming feeling in my chest, more so because there were times I didn’t correct them. “I know,” I might say, or “Yeah, ever since I was born.” I didn’t know how to explain her. As a good friend would say to me years later, “To say she was like your mother does a disservice to your mother. But to say she was like your grandmother does a disservice to her.” I nearly fell over with recognition. Because indeed, only my mother is my mother. But my grandmother, as much as I love her, is someone I saw once a week in my youth and far less now. Nanny was a fixture in my life from the day I was born, wet black hair standing up like a troll doll’s, nearly giving my father a heart attack because I was not, in fact, the son he was expecting.

My dad was an entrepreneur, and at the time, my mom was an English professor at the community college. Nanny’s husband had passed away by then, so they asked if she would like to move in with us and help care for me while they worked. They would pay her, they added, knowing she would never accept if she felt like a charity case. And so, growing up, her face was as familiar to me as my own.

Ñaña: top layer of gray hair covering stubborn black beneath it. Eyes of a mysterious shade, mostly slate gray, like a newborn’s, but sometimes seeming closer to toffee. Once, in the kitchen doorway of our childhood home, I asked her what color they were. “Déjame ver,” I said, opening my own eyes wide so that she would imitate the gesture. I told her that hers were gray and beautiful, and she smiled. It was a pleased, embarrassed, girlish smile. She asked, “Sí?” as though she wanted reassurance but secretly agreed. There was a mole between her eyebrows, also grayish, and a few black hairs sprouted above the corners of her lips and at the bottom of her chin. Her hands were soft and agelessly smooth, the fingertips a deep plummy color, as though already prepared for being touched to scalding pots, steaming water, my own warm scalp. I was always struck by the shape of her nail beds: elegant and oval, the kind of shape women envy but that she probably never noticed. Her shoulders: right one raised, twisted, several inches above the left in her faded floral housedresses. She wore either sandals or Velcro high-top Reeboks over her painful white-socked feet, and she walked carefully, deliberately, working the muscles in her wiry calves, calves the color of the coffee with milk she loved to drink in the morning. The right calf gave way to the ankle she broke when I was five or six, when she slipped on the wet bathroom floor after bathing my little sister. I remember the strangeness of seeing her crumpled on the floor; it was like seeing a totaled car on the highway. The mind shudders for a moment, trying to compute seeing a familiar thing in an unfamiliar way. Calmly, Nanny told me to call my mom at work, and I ran with purpose and adrenaline down the hallway to the kitchen. Meanwhile, Amanda, still a toddler, was saying, “Yo cah-wee, Ñaña”—I’ll carry you. A line we’ve all repeated to each other over the years, at various occasions: Yo cah-wee. She had several surgeries on that ankle, with metal bolts implanted to help strengthen the bone, but despite the pain, she refused to succumb to a wheelchair. Once, at the house my parents built when I was in college, I saw her labor through a twenty-minute trek from her bedroom to the kitchen, ten or twelve yards away. In the kitchen, breathing a little heavily, she pulled a plastic spoon and a jar of peanut butter from the bread cubby. She opened the jar, pressed the spoon inside, and lifted a little glistening hill of peanut butter. From the table where I was writing, I asked her in Spanish, “Do you want to sit down? Can I help you?” and she smiled and stuck the peanut butter filled spoon into a groove in her walker. With no little amount of pride, she said, “No. Yo tengo mis maneras, mamí.” I have my ways, baby.

 

* * *

Why didn’t she ever have kids of her own? As a child, what did she dream for her life? Was she curious about all the books I read? Did she ever wish one of us had taken the time to teach her? Did she still miss her husband? What did she do in those two weeks a year she returned to Mexico? When she sewed cash into her bra cups, wore an actual buttoned blouse and pants, and we took her to the Greyhound station downtown, crying in the gasoline-soaked air because two weeks seemed like a lifetime without her? Who was the Fina people knew before and apart from us?

* * *

Fifteen is a special birthday for girls in Mexican culture. Traditionally, it’s celebrated with a quinceañera, which in older times signified that the girl had transitioned into a woman; she was an active adult, ready to assume her share of responsibilities in the community, and she was of a marriageable age and status. Not so anymore, of course, but the milestone still made Nanny cry with joy.

“Gracias a Dios,” she said. She continued in Spanish, “This was all I wanted, to see this day. Now I can go in peace.”

I couldn’t understand her happiness at my turning this very ordinary, awkward age. I was more excited about the white TV/VCR combo my parents had set up on my bedroom dresser—a first for us three kids—and about signing up for my driver’s education class. I laughed and put my arms around her in the red-walled kitchen, but I was unnerved: Nanny was not a crier, not ever.

Her “I can go in peace” remark also jarred me, for while she was eighty-seven, she was in perfect health, besides the arthritis and osteoporosis that were slowly transforming her body; she was like origami paper, assuming new ridges and angles with the years.

“You’re not going anywhere,” I told her in Spanish. “Where do you think you’re going?”

I rested my chin on her hair and she squeezed me tightly, her face pressed against my collarbone. I could feel her tears against my skin, and the shaking of her shoulders no longer felt exuberant. It felt sad.

“Hey,” I told her, gently drawing her away. “You’re going to help me take care of my kids. Okay?”

She laughed, wiping her nose. Her eyes brightened at the thought of me, some day, with children. “Ay, mami,” she said. “Never will you all let me stop working.”

I laughed, too, but it was forced. I was shaken. I hadn’t known that she thought about death, about leaving us. And I knew that unless I had children very young, which I didn’t intend to do, she would likely never see them. That thought was as absurd as a hundred-and-five year old woman changing a newborn’s diapers. “Nope,” I said. “Never.”

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* * *

What was the place that felt most like home to her? What was she thinking when she sat at the glass top kitchen table, drinking coffee or sorting through beans to cook for dinner later? Which memories returned to her in quiet moments? Which did she reach for, reciting them in her mind, determined not to forget? Which did she wish to leave behind?

* * *

In 2008, I was twenty-three years old and living in Austin. I made as many trips home as possible because Nanny had recently been diagnosed with emphysema. Apparently she’d been a smoker, in the years before us. She weakened quickly, as the illness made breathing and eating difficult. Indeed, the only food she expressed interest in was ice cream. Miniature bowls of vanilla Bluebell, which she ate with her plastic spoon. She also still loved her coffee, so when I went down to visit, I often made us both a cup in the afternoon, and she gazed at me proudly, as though I’d made a gourmet meal.

Because of the weakness, she spent most of the day in bed. To her immense frustration and embarrassment, she was forced to wear Depends (what an awful name—the last thing people want to do is depend on anyone, anything) and finally inhabit that wheelchair anytime she left the room. She got bedsores, and the bedsores got infected. My mom, always strong and stoic, sounded terrible on the phone. Her voice was fissured, potholed. One day she told me that Ñaña was in the hospital. She wasn’t even talking anymore.

On Friday, September 5, 2008, I opened my eyes with none of the slowness that typically accompanies the shift from sleep to wakefulness. It was as though I had just closed them. I felt weary, heavy. I had class that day, a three-hour graduate literature session, and I covered my swollen eyes with my bangs as I heard nothing, trying not to cry.

A trail of relatives was walking out the kitchen door when I arrived, right as the brazen blue of the sky was beginning to soften. Their eyes were wet, and I gasped, instinctively turning to Nanny’s window as though it could tell me whether I was too late. But I wasn’t. Nanny was still stubbornly alive.

In the hospital, she’d reserved her words for the phrases that mattered. The day before, she had rasped to my dad, “Adolfo. Traéme mis chanclas. Llévame a la casa.” Adolfo. Bring me my sandals. Take me home. We’d all laughed when my parents relayed the story. I imagined her as some forties heroine, hoarsely demanding her Chanel handbag so she could get the hell off the island. But the laughter faded, because we all knew what she meant: If she was going to die, it was going to be on her terms. Like the boy he used to be, my dad obeyed.

In her room, Nanny’s twin bed with the lovely, dusky pink comforter had been pushed aside to make space for the ugly hospital bed with its raised plastic guardrails. A shiny green package of Depends rested on the small bench by the door. The room smelled like a hospital. No forties starlet, Nanny was tiny in bed. She weighed somewhere around seventy pounds, but her hands and feet were bulbous, fat with fluids. A mark covered her nose and mouth, and a machine helped to regulate her breaths. Most unnerving were those mysterious-colored eyes: wide open and staring unblinkingly at the ceiling. No hint of the humor and fierceness I’d always known in them.

“She hasn’t looked at anyone,” someone, my mom or dad, told me. “We don’t know if she’s really seeing anything.”

I sat with her for as long as the crushing tightness in my chest would allow. The hours passed. Then my dad was asking, soft and kind, “Have you said your goodbyes?”

“No!” I said. I was horrified, absurdly so. I felt as though saying goodbye was the equivalent of saying, “It’s been fun, but this shit’s getting old—you’re done, lady.”

“You’re the only one left who hasn’t.” My dad touched my shoulder. “I think you should tell her it’s okay if she goes.”

How often have we heard that line in movies, read it in mediocre death-stories? It’s become a bumbling cliché, humorous in its ineptitude, a symbol of the writer’s staggering lack of originality. But right then, coming from my dad, those were the only words left in the world, the only words language hadn’t abandoned. I knew that he was right, and I nodded as he gently closed the door.

The room was dim when I took my seat again on her left side. I reached for her swollen hand and massaged it gently between mine, which seemed suddenly too thin, too pale, too young. I did this for a few seconds and then stopped to clumsily decide what to say. “Can you hear me?” I asked her in Spanish. I could hardly speak through my own heartbeat. Then her hand wrapped around mine and put pressure, a heartbreaking rendition of what I had just done for her. After hours of no movement, no response, no sign she could hear anyone, she was telling me she was still there. I gave a choked laugh. “I knew it,” I said in Spanish, an attempt to be teasing. “I knew you could hear this whole time, you big liar.” Her eyes roved the ceiling, not coming any closer to the direction of my voice. Then I told her that I knew how much she hated all this— being helpless, taken care of. It was what she’d fought against her whole life with us, telling my mom at age eighty—fifteen years earlier!—to send her back to Mexico, that she’d die there and not be a burden to us. I told her I understood that she didn’t want this. I leaned over and kissed her sharp, dignified cheekbone above the mask, then her forehead. I paused over her ear and, after a hesitation, whispered, “Te veo in mis sueños.”

Her eyes closed.

Her eyes closed—they hadn’t closed in twelve hours. My breath came in short, terrified gasps and blackness invaded my vision. Was she telling me she’d heard me or—

She exhaled, a breath that seemed to last a very long time. It was as though she were pulling oxygen from every part of her body, every milliliter of her bloodstream, and then expelling it back out into the room, into the world. I thought I saw her spirit leaving her, thought I heard it in the rhythmic, long hiss of that breath, and I was terrified, otherworldly terrified, thinking, oh shit, what have I done, I killed her. When the breath was over, it was several eternal seconds before she breathed in again, seconds in which I leaned over her, shaking, about to vomit. When she took that breath, reclaimed life for a little longer, I ran out of the room.

My dad was just crossing the hall, and I crashed into his arms. I couldn’t stop shaking. I’d never shaken that violently before, nor have I since; my teeth were chattering. I could hardly speak.

“She heard me,” I rambled to my dad. “I know she heard me.”

He smiled. “Ay, baby,” he said sadly, and kissed me on the head.

I kept repeating, almost incoherently, “She heard me, I know she heard me.”

I finally fell asleep, but when I did, I was right back in that room. Not a detail was different. I was telling her how I knew she hated this, every part of it, how I understood. I was whispering that I’d see her in my dreams. She was exhaling that impossibly long breath, that spirit-breath, vapor-white in my mind, and I was leaning over her, heart screaming, only this time, she didn’t breathe back in.

“Katie.”

My mom was touching my shoulder, and I opened my eyes in the same way I had that morning—less than twenty-four hours ago?—effortlessly, no trace of sleep. Exhausted.

My mom pulled back and sat at my feet. Her face was pale, clean of makeup, dry of tears. “She’s gone,” she told me. I knew by the gentleness in her voice that she was holding back her own grief to be present for me. “Ñaña’s gone.”

“I know,” I said, sitting. “I just dreamed it.”

“She came to you.” My mom’s voice lifted, then broke, a question and statement at once. “I knew she’d come to you.”

* * *

I remember driving drunk on the very curving, hilly road by my old house in Austin. My grip on the steering wheel was tight, but I can’t believe, now, that I had good control over the road. Radio off, I wailed and shrieked. I heard my own voice. It came from a great distance and was hysterical, humiliatingly wild. I hated the sound of it, and yet my car—that tiny, private space—was one of the few places I could let myself go, let myself admit the extent of my grief.

Each time I did this (for, shamefully, there were many), pulling into the garage was like walking into a church. The silence surrounded me and I shuddered my last sobs, wiped my face, and regained my composure. I made myself into the version of me others believed I was: healthy, moving on. Then I grabbed my book bag and walked inside.

It was late when I’d get home, usually around one a.m. My twice-weekly night classes ended at nine, and I usually went to a dive bar with classmates, where I drank gin and soda and left when I knew I could no longer hold back my tears. The house was dark and quiet, and my bulldog would jump from his slumber on the couch to greet me. Sometimes I sat with him on the floor, arms wrapped tightly around his sturdy form, until I started to fall asleep. Other times I went upstairs and pulled out the exquisitely soft baby blue shawl I had given Nanny the previous Christmas. She had worn it several times—more than anything else I’d ever given her!—until one of its corners had dangled into the pan she was cooking in and my mom had scolded her, saying she was going to light herself on fire. But it still smelled like Nanny, powdery and sweet, clean and safe. I curled up on my closet floor and buried my face in the shawl and wept until my nose was so full that I couldn’t smell anymore. Then I recoiled, terrified that my tears had somehow tainted the shawl, removed its scent. I folded it back in my closet and curled up again, bereft.

* * *

On this sixth anniversary of her death, Nanny has been gone for twenty percent of my life. How is that possible?

Two nights ago, I found myself in tears because I couldn’t remember what her teeth looked like. She was proud of the ones she still had, but I can’t for the life of me call their shape or color to mind. I can hear her laugh but not the way she said my mother’s name. A new kind of grief seized me, the kind that accompanies the realization of time passing.

I stayed up for hours, making myself remember everything I could about her: how in my acne-prone teenage years, she would say innocently, “Come here, let me see your cheek. Did mosquitos bite you at night?” How when I got bangs, she took one look at me and said, “What is that ugly hairstyle?” How she stuffed peanuts into the pockets of her housedresses and unwittingly trailed shells all over the house. How cool her palm felt against my cheek when I had a fever. How she was convinced that I got ojo as a child and rolled an egg over my face and body, setting it under my bed that night, and how the next morning, the yolk was hard and gray. How she said my brother AJ’s name: “Eh-Sheh.” How she taught us the way to roll masa for tortillas and how when we were younger, she’d give us each a raw ball of dough to play with, and we’d squeeze them and throw them, leaving greasy little marks on the walls, and then we’d eat them, even if they were covered with lint. I remembered how she had breakfast at the table for us every morning—pancakes or chorizo con huevo or tortillas con baloney, the latter of which we often took to school wrapped in foil, and once we were sick of them, we’d give or throw them away, which still makes me feel guilty. I remembered how she cut my chili-dog so that I could eat it with a fork, all the way into adulthood. “This is how she likes it,” she’d say to my mother. I don’t remember ever stating that preference, but she was right: I liked it, because she did it just for me. I remembered how she made fresh tortillas and chorizo con frijoles on Sunday mornings, with one gigantic tortilla just for my dad, and he’d say to her, “Yeah! This one’s mine!” every time. How I asked her, once, if she could understand English; I suspected she could, more than she let on, and was probably privy to more of our personal lives than we knew. We were standing by the front door, and she said, “Nadamas poquito, mami. ‘Yes.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘Potato.’” I burst out laughing at the last word, and she giggled, too, walking away. I remembered the slow pad of her tennis-shoed footsteps down the hallway and how I would throw open my door and try to meet her halfway to save her the trip; sometimes she held laundry. Others, she wanted to know if I wanted a snack, sliced cucumber with chile powder, maybe. I would tell her I was fine, to go sit down, to relax, and she would laugh and shake her head as if such a thing were so inconceivable as to be funny. I remembered how she told me, often and seriously, “La familia es todo”—family is everything—and how, shortly before she got sick, she gave me relationship advice: “Be good to each other.” I thought: this is the only advice the world needs to be at peace.

I wrote all of this, almost, in my mind two nights ago, crying so helplessly at the deluge of memories that I’m dry-eyed and smiling now, typing them.

* * *

I wanted to spend the first anniversary of her death alone, with as much wine as I could drink. But I knew she would grunt at me disappointedly. Instead, I decided to cook what she would cook: rice, beans, picadillo, tortillas. I knew it wouldn’t taste like hers. I would most likely burn the bottom of the rice, my first attempt at beans would probably be plain, and the tortillas, I had no doubt, would be lumpy and misshapen, tasting like globs of wet flour. But she would approve of my effort. I invited friends over and spent hours in the kitchen, where I discovered something for which I will always be grateful: through food, I could resurrect her.

I could almost feel her beside me, watching as I chopped onions, wanting to tell me a more efficient way of doing it but keeping silent. And when all the pots were going and I perched on the counter to wait, I felt like a little girl again, being told to sit still, and I could see the ghost of her at the stove, preparing to make the smells and tastes of my childhood. My life.

Tomorrow morning, I will sit at the dining table sorting through a bag of pinto beans. I will throw away the ones that are too small or too dark, too ridged or misshapen, not caring if half the bag disappears into the trashcan. I will hunt for little black rocks. When the pads of my fingers darken with dirt, I’ll know I’m doing it right. Then I’ll drop the good beans into a pot of boiling water, adding strips of bacon, tomato, and salt. Slowly, the house will fill with her spirit.

I think cooking the foods she used to cook, trying to get them as right as possible, is the closest I’ll ever get to bringing her back. When I see an orange glow through the condensation-rich glass lid of the frying pan, she could be sitting at the kitchen table with that vast stare she had, as though there was no need for a television or book or magazine or newspaper. As though all the world she needed, all the world there was, her mind could behold. Or she could be around the corner, tucked into the clanging warmth of the laundry room, surrounded by piles of like-colored clothing. “La maleta de Konfu,” she always said brightly, playfully, when she saw me clutching an armful of jeans and tops and underwear. It was a reference to some show she used to watch. The character was a young boy, a wanderer, who carried a satchel with him throughout his travels. Our dirty laundry, sometimes wrapped up tightly and tidily in a sheet or towel, sometimes not, reminded her of Konfu and his satchel. His connection to whatever life he’d left behind.

Tomorrow, when these smells and sounds and memories rise, my past home will inhabit my present. The steam curling from the rice pan will carry with it the woman who was neither my mother nor grandmother but someone all her own, someone who chose us as her family for almost fifty years, whose picture I look at every day, whose name will be my daughter’s name, who will be remembered with fervor and gratitude and the sharpest kind of missing, the fiercest kind of love, always.

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I’m Not Going to Make Lofty Promises

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I’m simply going to post when I post.

In the last few weeks, as I (finally!) finished writing my book and re-entered my work world with a renewed sense of purpose, of self, I have been endlessly inspired. Challenging myself to walk outside without music in my ears, to fall asleep without the comforting, barely-audible lullaby of television detectives, to pause to reflect before answering questions,  to stay in a conversation when fear of unrecognized emotion spurs me to leave, to reimmerse myself in the craft of writing, to see people deeply and let them see me. This is not the result of a New Year’s resolution. It is the result of sensing change, of hearing, in the distance, a crack of ice and feeling the first shiver beneath my feet. What this change will bring, I’m not sure. But I find myself irresistibly compelled to prepare for it, though the preparation, too, is mysterious.

Georgia O'Keefe, Train at Night in the Desert

Georgia O’Keefe, Train at Night in the Desert

Yesterday, in a craft book called Handling The Truth: On the Writing of Memoir, Beth Kephart  asked me to write about the weather:

Look outside, go outside, write this right now: The quality of breeze. The evidence of dew. The pile of clouds on the horizon. Find the words. It doesn’t matter how tired you are. It doesn’t matter if you think there’s nothing new here, if weather has been done before, if weather isn’t (to you, at least) the story. An alive sky is is a whole soul; you must let it filter through you. Watermelon. Lilac. Gunmetal. Blue. Upticking fog. Rain as the sound. Sun as a caution sign. A moon that has gone fishing. A cranberry-colored landscape. Cold for August. Thunder like a jet just off the tarmac, hail the size of rock salt, the straight white nails of rain driving through, or just the gray pale pink before a storm, or, again, fog curl with a mind of its own (63).

So I took a phone call with one of my editors on a walk, and when we hung up, two miles in, I walked another three. I walked with the ulterior motive of observing, of “trying to be one of the people upon whom nothing is lost” (Henry James). I let myself experience the air, the cool clamminess I could feel against my palms as I moved forward, reminding me of a first nervous intertwining of fingers, the way Adrian took my hand in Melbourne that night, ostensibly to keep me beside him as we crossed darkened streets but really to start the crossing of a different border: after so many years of talk, how would our skin feel once merged? What conjoined shape might our fingers take together? What might be transferred with the daring stroke of a thumb to a knuckle? The air was like that, cool but wet, seemingly still if you didn’t look to the tops of trees–some with spindly branches to which reddened leaves still clung, some unchanged by the seasons, full of green–but if you did look, then you would see their lightest tips swaying in this unseen skin-stroking breeze.

I closed my eyes and smelled the air, inhaling the clean dampness of clothes not completely dried, the earthy scent of packed soil, the occasional and inexplicable burst of citrus, all mixed with the sharpness of car exhaust, the diesel belch of a Mack truck, the sneaky lingering of cigarette smoke in the wake of a passing sedan. Nature, the stiff marigold undersides of leaves, shouldered aside by industry.

I squinted toward the white sky, toward its heavy colorlessness that at first felt endlessly claustrophobic. But the more I stared (all the while listening to the delicate crunch of my tennis shoes on the sidewalk), the more I noticed variations–the illusion of blue in my periphery, a sense of cloud-movement that disappeared when I tried to hold it with my gaze. I thought of the large canvas at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, subtle, dreamy variations of white, with a smoky vertical line separating the left two-thirds of the piece from the right third. I thought maybe this was what the artist was trying to say: look harder. Sense the movement. Chase the color. Stop. Try again.

I looked down, my eyes adjusting, at the water-darkened streets, the dirt collected in the rounded scoop of curb reminding me of pouring seawater on sand when I was little, watching its color deepen from maple to oak, packing it into patties, with the exception that nestled in this dirt was broken glass, cobalt-blue and bottle-green; plastic wrappers; twine; lemon rinds–the refuse of forgotten moments.

I searched out the fiercely red cardinals hiding among the low brambles; startled at the foreboding hulk of a vulture perched silently atop a low fence; listened to the solitary calls of invisible birds and the unnerving rattle emerging from underbrush. I accepted the intrusion of car engines, the distant hollow bang of construction tools. I caught snippets of song, anticipated the rhythm of runners’  steps, and finally recognized that every instance of noticing was made possible not by the presence of many things but by the absence of one: human voices.

It’s Friday. In this sliver of space before the week ends and the weekend begins (how’s that for an arbitrary division of time?), consider taking some time to notice. To be silent. To pay attention. What do you notice?

Through Alien Eyes

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In eighth grade, I read a Ray Bradbury story with one image that is somehow never far from my mind. In it, a hovering extraterrestrial is observing the earth, and from that extraterrestrial’s vantage point, all of life that can be seen is cars snaking their way down a highway. To that being, who is not familiar with earth or its inhabitants, the cars are the life forms. Our world is comprised of strange metallic creatures, winding a meaningless way from one destination to another without ever actually connecting. To the being, the vision is foreign and incomprehensible and inexpressibly sad.

Now, in full disclosure, I remember nothing else about the story. I have no idea what the story is called. I’m not even entirely sure it was Ray Bradbury who wrote it . . . Hell, at this rate, I could have made it up. (And if I did, copyright.) But if someone wants to google it and get back to me, I’d love to (a) cite it correctly and (b) revisit it.

The point is, that image captured me because it pulled me from my own skin. It gave me new eyes with which to regard the familiar, the accepted, the ordinary. Sometimes, I look at my feet and marvel at how alien-like they are, these narrow curved shapes with five (why five?) appendages stretching, each capable of wriggling on its own, the nails a different color than the skin. I look at the physical qualities we find attractive in one another–eyes, nose, mouth, breasts, biceps, abs, hips, legs–and marvel that they mean anything at all. I look at the ways by which we are told to define success–owning a home, driving a nice car, wearing designer clothes, getting married, having children–and I wonder how it all started, why it all continues, and why breaking from it causes such paralyzing fear. From an alien’s eyes, nothing makes inherent sense. Nothing has inherent truth. 

I think about this as I fly back from Chicago and look out a window (which I always want to call a porthole) at the earth far below. I see a striated sky, brown rivers cutting through shadowy land. Though the edges of the earth are burning with sunset, it is not yet dark enough to distinguish lights. There are no buildings. I cannot yet see the cars gliding among one another with their glowing red eyes. If I were an extraterrestrial, this earth would look wide and mysterious and peaceful. It would teem with possibility. It would be free of the endless stories we impose on it.

 

Peace Among The Storm (Literally)

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The loud, all-around noise of thunderstorms dragged me from sleep around 3:30 this morning. At first it sounded like an airplane was hovering right overhead, and, still half-dreaming, I waited for the explosion of metal on earth as it crashed onto the lot adjacent to my house. My next, clearer thought, was: I can’t drive in that! 

I’m flying to Chicago today to meet with a couple of clients for an all-day brainstorming session tomorrow, and for reasons I can no longer recall, I booked my flight at 7:55 a.m., leaving from Austin. I live in San Antonio. That would mean waking up at 4:15 a.m. to be on the road by 5:00, making the hour and a half drive in pre-morning darkness. And, apparently, in torrential rain.

I wouldn’t call myself a worrier, especially about things I can’t control, but like anyone else, I contend with the occasional what-if daydream. I hadn’t gotten new tires in awhile; what if I hydroplaned and crashed on my way to Austin? What if the rain made the drive twice as long and I missed my flight? I hadn’t received a reminder to check in; what if I got to the airport and I had somehow gotten the day or time wrong, or they had given away my seat? As Gay Hendricks suggests in The Big Leap (a book we’ve made “required reading” at work), I let myself have the thoughts, acknowledged them, and then simply let them go, as if opening my hand to release a stone to the ground. Because the fact was that I could not control the weather. I could choose not to drive in it if it seemed legitimately dangerous and make alternate plans from there, or I could choose to drive very carefully. If I somehow missed my flight, oh, well. There would be other flights.

As it turned out, the storm was petering to a sprinkle by the time I eased onto the highway. And the drive I had been dreading turned out to be a strangely meditative start to the day.

I love driving by myself. It doesn’t even matter if it’s rush hour. If I’m behind the wheel, I can’t be responding to email or obsessing over my to-do list. My only responsibility is to navigate from one place to another, and I usually do it with windows down, sunroof open, and music loud (either country or hip hop, depending on my mood). I look forward to drives that are more than an hour, because that’s when I really relax and take notice of the world around me. What I don’t look forward to, at any time, ever, is being up at 4:15 a.m.

But the sky was opaque, and the empty mirrored roads reflected streetlights and stars, and with a second cup of coffee, I surrendered to the early morning stillness. The radio (country) slowly increased in volume, and the stark white lane markers became stitches my car was creating against the dark fabric of the interstate. More vehicles eventually merged beside me, and I wondered who those people were, where they were traveling so early and so purposefully.

I got to Austin as the sky was developing into a negative, the clouds dark against a lightening background. I worried briefly when I saw the lines to check in and at security, and then I dropped those worries, because I couldn’t control the lines. My gate was empty when I arrived, among the last to board, but an eleventh-hour seat change put me in a row by myself, and I curled up beneath my jacket and swiftly fell asleep.

For a couple of days, I’ve been lightly complaining about the long travel day this would be. But it actually feels like a bit of a gift: a long quiet drive, space to release daily worries, ample time to write for myself . . . it’s ironic that what I predicted as a day of hassle would bring me this sense of peace, but it’s also a reminder that peace can be found among the busyness.

It’s learning to hold onto it that is the practice.

The Breakthrough That Changed Nothing–And Also Maybe Everything

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Lately, it has struck me how greatly I won the family lottery. I never wondered whether or to what extent my parents loved me. I never questioned whether I was worthy of that love. I was never made, intentionally or subliminally, to doubt my abilities or, conversely, squelch my talent. I was never discouraged from pursuing my passions, nor criticized or condemned for what those passions were. I grew up in sweet unfragmented wholeness.

Once, when I was around five or six, I had to stand on stage and welcome a roomful of parents to my school’s Thanksgiving program. I probably didn’t have a microphone, because the first time I spoke, my teacher gently prompted me: “Louder, Katie.”

According to my parents, who were cringing with nerves for their first-born, I looked serenely out at the audience. Then I screamed, “THANK YOU FOR COMING TO OUR THANKSGIVING FEAST!”

Everyone laughed, endeared by the child with no volume control, and I walked off the stage. Afterwards my dad said, “Great job, Kate! Did you think you could do it?”

“Yeah,” I said brightly. “I thought I could do it.”

More than twenty years later, whenever I achieve some kind of milestone, my dad still asks, smiling, “Did you think you can do it?”

“Yeah,” I always grin back. “I thought I could do it.”

What my parents gave me is a gift I took for granted my entire life: unconditional and unwavering belief in me. I see now that their gift gave me permission to believe in myself just as unquestioningly. That, coupled with a natural tendency to see beauty over ugliness, good over bad, possibility over limitations, would eventually usher me into a beautiful cabin in North Carolina, with a group of once-strangers that I am now proud to call my family.

And yet, I can’t say I am exactly where I want to be. I can’t say I’ve achieved everything I could by this point in my life.

Wait. Let’s rephrase that.

It’s not really about “achievement.” It’s about living out the potential I’ve always felt in myself and that my parents always believed I would actualize. Always, there has been a part of me that believes I will do something great. I always believed that would be my writing, my books; that I would create something brilliant and beautiful and meaningful that would somehow change the world. Writing That Book has been my dream for as long as I can recall. Yet, time and time again, I have squandered the opportunity to actually finish it. The question I had to answer in that cabin was: why?

And in looking for that answer, I found something I didn’t expect: my purpose.

A lazy breeze made copper wind chimes sing outside the cabin as, inside, our RTC family  dared to investigate what held us back from living our biggest potential.

First, I looked at what brings me joy. Anytime I answer that question, writing is my first response. Once again, Elizabeth Bishop said it best: I write for the “self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration” that comes when I am creating. When I am pulling, from my own imagination, an entire world and then the precise words to bring that world to life. But another answer that emerged was the joy I feel when I can help one person understand another. The pause that comes when a friend or family member suddenly considers what their boss, their child, their sibling, or their spouse might be experiencing to lead them to behave in a certain way. I love the moment when I can help one person release their hard-drawn conclusions and contemplate alternatives–even the possibility of alternatives. Taking one person out of her own mind and body to, even briefly, imagine the experience of another is magical for me.

The next question was about my skills. What do I know I’m good at? Again, writing (capturing an experience in words so that it can be, in some way, lived) and editing (seeing the story beneath the surface and a clear path toward illuminating it) were the first two to come up. But I’m also a good listener. I can immerse myself in another person’s voice without needing to command the microphone. Along with that, I’m good at reserving judgment. I don’t need to categorize people or their actions, to slide them into clearly and mostly negatively labeled boxes; in fact, most of the time (for better or worse), I see people as the best versions of themselves. Even though that comes without effort, I recognize that it can be considered a skill.

When I looked at these things together and then asked a third question–how do I want to serve the world?–something happened. Without thinking, I wrote: I want to serve the world by helping people understand one another’s experience of living in hopes that they will reserve judgment and reach for love.

I set my pen down with a silent, “Huh!” Then I reread it. It was wildly earnest, wildly optimistic, somewhat clumsily phrased . . . and it was my purpose, in a way I’d never expressed before. I write for the self-forgetful, perfectly useless concentration of the act of creating, yes . . . and I write in hopes that I can represent a consciousness vividly enough that a reader will abscond from his own long enough to reconsider his view of the world.

I felt, in those moments of discovery, that I had stumbled across something vastly important for my life. My hands and voice shook as I read my line aloud to the room, feeling as vulnerable as you do when you are the first to say “I love you.” Then I had to return to the original question: what’s stopping me? How am I limiting myself?

Fear was the obvious answer. Fear of not being good enough, of not being “great,” after all. But, really, it was something deeper than that. I always felt that my life would change, just crack open and spill riches (metaphorically, of course), when I wrote That Book. That as soon as it was written and shared with the world, I would be automatically living that greatness-potential. But as I get closer and closer to finishing my book, I realize that my greatest fear is that nothing will change. That I will still be exactly who I am now, living the exact same life. That the waters won’t even ripple, let alone part.

And yet–why is that so scary? The fact is that I like who I am. Not always, but most of the time. And I love my life. Even if it never changed for the better (which is impossible; of course it will), I would be thrilled to be living it. So the great fear seems suddenly . . . silly. Just a white-sheet ghost ooohing from a corner.

I guess we all have one of those.

Alter egos

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Two days ago, my friend Christine took me to a place called Mamasita’s for lunch. As native Texans, we had both desperately missed Mexican food—real Mexican food—when we studied abroad here, and she insisted this place is the closest Melbourne has gotten. It was the place to be, she said, with a line snaking through a narrow staircase and into the street for dinner each night.

Naturally, we decided to go for lunch.

It was one of those restaurants with a doorway tucked so discreetly between Prada and Tiffany that you’d walk right by if you didn’t know it was there. We clambered up the tight stairway, relieved to escape the Melbourne cold, and were greeted by loud, festive Spanish music, a wooden bar lined with hundreds of bottles of 100% agave tequila, and the smells of roasting chicken and sharp green spices. The décor was understated, with beige, slightly scuffed tile floor, wooden tables set close together, high ceilings, and a scrolled black wrought iron gate acting as a surprisingly chic divider between parts of the restaurant. I immediately knew we were in the right place.

First things first: margaritas. (I’m trying to conquer my years-old aversion to tequila—a noble goal, I know—and Christine was embracing the rare opportunity to have a midday cocktail.) Then we ordered street corn glazed with mayo and chile, along with chips, guacamole, and salsa, followed by four chicken tostatitas, which I could have eaten till I died, chicken tacos, lamb quesadillas, and a sweet little ceviche dish. It was modern, fancy Mexican food, and it was delicious.

What I enjoyed most over lunch, though, was the conversation. At some point—I think into our second cocktail—we started talking about alter egos. Christine smiled wistfully as she thought of her trip to Rome last year with Dave. For her, the touristy parts of the city did not detract from the luster of its history and beauty. She fell in love.

“I’d have an apartment there and be very fashionable,” Christine said. “I’d ride a scooter in heels. What about you? What’s your alter ego?”

I thought carefully. About a thousand came to mind, the way I feel when I board a plane to somewhere new, electric with possibility.

“Well,” I said finally, “one of my alter egos lives in . . . Greece. Let’s say Mykonos. She lives in a little whitewashed flat by the sea, the furniture is sparse and mismatched, and life is simple.” I imagined myself collecting sea glass and lining it up on the windowsill, where it might catch the light and act as a prism, darting triangles of color on the walls and ceiling. I imagined (impractically) walking barefoot on sun-warmed cobblestone, carrying a cloth bag into the market that I’d load up with fragrant bread, cheese, and vegetables. I saw myself haggling over the price of fish with the gruff but kind—what, “fishmonger”?—and eventually befriending him and inviting him over for a simply prepared, delicious meal. (I’ve never made such a thing in my life.) I imagined spending cool mornings writing and long, baking afternoons swimming and exploring the shops lining dozens of small alleyways.

“One of my alter egos is corporate,” Christine said. “Marketing, maybe. I’d wear makeup and dress like the girls in ‘The Devil Wears Prada.’ Or maybe not marketing—maybe a graphic designer. I can imagine myself designing a logo and convincing someone it’s worth ten thousand dollars.” She paused, frowning. “I guess that’s not really me, though. I’d have to then give that ten thousand dollars to charity or something.”

“True,” I said. “That’s a good twist. None of my alter egos is corporate. Unless it’s as a high-powered editor at a big publishing house in New York. Then my apartment would be spacious and impeccably decorated—but still unique, you know?” Dreamily, I added, “And I’d wear Louboutins every day because what does it matter? I wouldn’t be walking.”

Christine nodded. “I can see that.” Then she said, “One of mine lives in an apartment that is entirely decorated in white.” 

“White?” I laughed. “But you just told me this morning you don’t wear white because it freaks you out.”

“Because I’m scared to get it dirty,” she explained. “My alter ego wouldn’t get things dirty. So the apartment would be minimalist, with simple but unique pieces, and very, very white. And,” she added, in a burst of inspiration, “I would only wear black!” 

We both laughed. “One of my alter egos is a total free spirit,” I said. Deeply, I’ve always wanted to be the girl who could close her eyes, point a vintage-ringed finger at a random spot on a map, pack a small backpack, and go. The thrill of uncertainty! Of anticipation and independence, inserting myself among strangers in a strange place, living there until everything becomes familiar, and then doing it again. Acting unapologetically on emotional instinct, a true experience of “here and now.” The people I’d meet, the stories I would amass, living perhaps parallel to but not within typical Western societal pressures and norms.

“And in all of those,” Christine said, “us.” 

I nodded, smiling. I often think of the fluidity of identities inside us all. Maybe that’s part of why I’m so drawn to writing, to telling stories. In them, I get to imagine, as fully and sometimes devastatingly as I can, the intricacies of being someone else, and in doing so, I get to live the ordinary surprises of other lives.

I think it’s important that we access our alter egos on a regular basis, acknowledge those seemingly divergent parts of ourselves that rarely get expressed. Because if we don’t, we don’t give ourselves a chance to fulfill them, which means that, as a whole, we may not be able to be completely happy. There will always be an unnamable missing. I don’t think this accessing has to be dramatic. A weekend alone at the beach, writing and reflecting, might suit my Greek alter ego. Turning randomly down a street I’ve never been before might be enough, momentarily, to satisfy my free spirit. Embracing my current editorial role lights up my inner New York publishing queen. And by doing these things, these ultimately small, ordinary things, I feel as though I am living for all of me.

What about you? Who are your alter egos? What gets your heart pumping when you see it in a movie or the news or read it in a book? If you could be somewhere, anywhere, right now, doing anything, what would it be?

A day in the life

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Christine and Arcadia

Let’s consider this (very long) post a tribute to all working moms—so, all moms.

On Friday I flew from Sydney to Melbourne to visit Christine, one of my best friends since we both studied abroad in Melbourne when we were juniors in college. (Which would be, let’s see, eight years ago . . . damn.) She met Dave during our time here and married him a year after we graduated. Now they have Arcadia, my gorgeous ten-month-old goddaughter with fine-spun gold hair and a pure-joy laugh that makes me laugh just as hard. Since my trip here is just as much work as vacation, we decided yesterday that I would go with Christine to her various job sites (she owns Connecting Minds, a brilliant company specializing in Autism Spectrum Disorder) and I’d plop down at nearby cafes to work.

This is how yesterday went.

Christine woke up, of course, long before I did in order to feed and dress Arcadia. By the time I was dressed, Christine had Arcadia expertly balanced on her hip while she squatted amid a pile of laundry, splitting clothes between the washer and dryer.

“Can you do me a favor?” she asked, slamming the washer door shut. “Can you entertain her while I pump?”

Because Arcadia cries if she can see Christine but isn’t being held by her, I took her upstairs to her room, where I tried to make her tiny socks captivating enough to hold her attention. So I made the socks talk to each other and kept my hands lightly around her as she tried pulling herself up by her crib, the computer chair, the humidifier—anything. I twisted the dial on her little mobile to play music, and I watched as her blue eyes intently studied the movements of my fingers, eventually seeming to associate the dial with the sound. (Super smart, this one. You can already tell.) After fifteen minutes or so, Christine came upstairs, frustrated.

“I didn’t get enough for a full bottle,” she said. “We’ll have to go to her care during lunch so I can feed her.”

“Okay,” I said, trying to be breezy and soothing. “That’s fine, no big deal.”

While Christine held her, I slipped two now-silent socks onto Arcadia’s tiny feet and blew kisses into her neck, making her giggle. Then we grabbed the backpack stuffed with ten cloth diapers Christine had washed the night before, along with about four different outfits, and hopped in the car. We drove to her daycare center, chatted with her daycare providers, and, after she was happily in one of the women’s arms, waved goodbye.

It was only eight-thirty, and I already felt exhausted. So did Christine, who hadn’t quite gotten the sleep I had the night before. So we stopped for coffee, which we drank in the car on the way across town to her first session. She dropped me off at a beachside café, where I ate breakfast, wrote an introduction to a book, and drank two more cappuccinos before she picked me up at almost noon. Then it was fighting traffic back to her house, where she dropped me off to send out emails (WiFi is not ubiquitous here the way it is in the States) while she fed Arcadia. Then she was back, grabbing a bag of corn cakes for the road, and we were again in the car.

Another forty-minute drive to another part of town, where she was meeting several new therapists for training before doing a session at a nearby school. I worked for several hours, until it hit three-thirty and I was starving. Nearly time to pick up Arcadia from daycare, we stopped off at a third café where I scarfed down a sandwich and read and Christine did business math on a scratch sheet of paper. Back in the car and to the center with the adorable crawling babies, where the care providers gave Christine an update and some photos from the day.

Right around then, I was thinking it was time for a nap.

“I’m so glad you’re here,” Christine said. “Usually I have to chop vegetables with one hand and try not to cut off any fingers.”

So, no nap. It was Arcadia’s dinnertime.

She had none of me trying to play with her in the living room while Christine cooked, so we switched places and I peeled carrots and gave Arcadia more of the blowy-neck-kisses that made her laugh. Over the next hour, while Christine fed, bathed, and put Arcadia to bed, I tidied up the living room and went back to my laptop. Then, after Arcadia was sleeping, or at least quiet, upstairs, Christine returned to her own computer to invoice clients and run credit card payments. Every so often, one of us told the other how tired we were and how much we wanted wine.

It was only six-thirty.

Dave got home a bit later and made us a beautiful steak dinner while we ran to the wine store (a.k.a. Heaven). I poured a healthy-sized glass, Christine pumped milk for the next day, and we popped in Arrested Development. Over dinner, we again talked about our tiredness and Christine finally got to have a glass of wine.

Some time later, Arcadia started crying. Dave bounded upstairs, and Christine and I tried to keep our attention on the television, but we kept exchanging glances as the wails became hiccupy and truly unhappy.

“I’m not comfortable with this,” Christine muttered before getting up and joining Dave upstairs. They returned with Arcadia, and Christine brought her and an enormous chocolate bar to the couch. She snapped off a few squares and offered me the bar. I snapped off a portion of my own. Sympathy chocolate.

By now we were closing in on eleven o’clock, and I was more than ready for sleep. We watched one more episode of Arrested Development after Christine again put Arcadia to bed, and then we said goodnight with deep exhaustion in our voices. A few times over the course of the night, I heard Arcadia cry. God, Christine’s day is still not done, I thought, slipping back into dreams about Arcadia and gas.

This morning, in a habit retained from waking me up for class, Christine knocked on my door. “Katie, it’s seven-thirty,” she said, coming inside. “Do you have any calls?”

“Not for a while,” I muttered, face against the mattress.

“Okay,” she said. “I’ll let you sleep.” She patted my head and added, “While Arcadia sings you sweet sweet songs.”

Arcadia was crying. We both laughed. I stayed in bed until the room lightened, and Christine left to do the day before all over again.

Moms, especially those of you who are currently totally overwhelmed with managing your kids’ early years: you are f*cking amazing. You are incomparable strength, selflessness, and love. Remind yourselves of that today, and ask somebody—spouse, friend, parent, sibling, neighbor, anyone whom you’re fairly certain isn’t a murderer (and even then, murderers can wash dishes)—to help you with some element of your day. Then take a moment, a minute, five to do something for you.

Because, holy crap, you deserve it.

Here and now

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 On a restless, last-minute shopping trip shortly before leaving to Australia, I found a thin silver bracelet with a blue charm that read simply “Here & Now.” To be honest, living “here and now” has always come easily for me—more so, at least, than planning the future—but the last year of my life has been one in which here and now has often felt desperately uncertain. And when even the present feels slippery, the future has nothing to hold onto. It is vastness spreading in all directions, and an imaginative mind can choose-your-own-adventure it into all sorts of ghastly scenarios that all feel more real than the current moment.

So I bought the bracelet.

This will seem like a subject change, but bear with me. This morning, I spent an hour on the phone with one of our new clients, a leader in functional medicine. (Don’t know what that is? I didn’t either.) It’s a field of medicine in which doctors do something pretty radical: they create space for a patient to feel heard. They collaborate with the patient to discover the story of when and how they became unwell and how they can regain ease (as opposed to “dis-ease”). They ask “Why?”—Why do you have chronic illness?—not “What?”—What chronic illness do you have? The illnesses are physical; there’s no doubt about that. But there’s a mental and spiritual life component that conventional medicine leaves out when treating disease.

According to Tom, there are three critical components to illness and wellness: diet, lifestyle, and relationships. I won’t go into the diet part—most of us eat like crap is the gist—or relationships, because that’s a whole other story. But lifestyle. According to Tom, lifestyle is anything not diet-related but particularly centered around movement. The phrase that stilled me was joyous movement.

“I can go skiing for two hours, and they fly by because I’m having a blast, or I can go down to the basement and run on the treadmill for twenty minutes and want to blow my fucking head off.” He paused. “You’ll learn I curse like a sailor.”

So he asks his patients how much joyous movement—walking their dogs, hiking in a park, swimming with their partner—they incorporate into their lives. Then the kicker: What do you do for fun?

“Most people,” he said, “don’t have an answer to that.”

He went on to explain that typically a patient’s illness or daily responsibilities or families or whatever have made them, slowly and largely imperceptibly, give up activities they once found fun—and they haven’t replaced them. Inevitably, this furthers a cycle that has often been spinning for years: illness, anxiety, depression, debilitation, medication, further illness, further anxiety, further depression, further illness. Not that “fun” is the cure, but it’s a piece of what it means to live wholly.

Naturally, I thought about these ideas in relation to my own life. Most of the time, I’m blessed to consider myself completely healthy. But sometimes I’m not. I have a condition I don’t talk about very often and that only my family and close friends know about. It’s called interstitial cystitis, and it sucks. When it flares up, the way it did last week, I get a glimpse of the kind of pain the human body is capable of bearing. There is a moment, if the flare-up goes long enough, when I hyperventilate with the purest form of fear I’ve ever experienced, and it’s the fear that this pain will last forever. So far, it hasn’t, and the moment when the pain starts to recede—the moment I feel hope—is the kind of bliss I can only imagine comes with shooting up on certain drugs. And then, when the pain fully disappears, there are a few hours when I’m still on this high and it’s better than anything I’ve ever felt and what it actually is is normalcy. My regular state of being. All I can think, as I lie in bed feeling as if I’m floating, is, Nothing hurts. I take mental inventory of my body, zeroing in on each toe and slowly working my way up, an intimate celebration each time I find another inch of me that feels just fine. In those moments, I chastise myself for not feeling this gratitude every day, every minute, for all my working parts that are capable of joyous movement, for my life that allows me the luxury of fun, for the beautiful, glorious, flawless here and now.

(Ah . . . the connection.) 

Here and now: take inventory. Just sit. Sit quietly and listen to the sounds of your house, your heart, your life. Sit long enough to take stock of who and where you are. What brought you joy today? Not contentment, not amusement, not distraction, not pleasure, but joy. What did you do for fun? What did you want to do for fun? What are you grateful for, here and now, and what do you want more of in your life?

No service

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Today is my fifth day in Sydney, and until yesterday, I had no phone service. When you’re used to constantly texting, Facebooking, checking e-mail, scheduling appointments, reading work and articles–as most of us are–it’s at first a strange and alienating feeling for the rectangular lump in your pocket to be just that: a lump. No connection to the outside world, no instant link to family or friends. But, just as quickly, it’s so liberating. As much as we feel technology helps us engage with the world, it completely disengages us from the current moment. Instead of looking where we’re walking, smiling at those we pass, admiring quiet beauty, we’re immersed in a tiny screen, high on feeling needed.

On my first full day here, I walked down Bondi Road–the main road connecting where I’m staying to the beach a mile away–for lunch and some exploring. One of my missions, ironically, was to buy a pre-paid sim card for my phone. The weather was gorgeous–sunny and sixty degrees, a refreshing change from the 110 degree Texas weather I’d just left, and the first glimpse of ocean was breathtaking.

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After unsuccessfully visiting a phone store, I stopped at a place called Niko’s for lunch. The restaurant had no more than ten tables enclosed in a plastic tent on the sidewalk, with heaters keeping the area warm. I ordered lamb linguini and a glass of wine. Then, habitually, I pulled out my phone. Useless. I set it down on the table and sat back in the tiny wooden booth, looking around. In front of me sat a mother with two teenaged daughters, drinking milkshakes (milkshakes! I couldn’t even take off my jacket), and another table held two twenty-somethings and one of their toddlers. “Say please!” the mother instructed the boy, laughingly rolling her eyes at her friend. Beside me, close enough for me to reach out and grab a bit of their hummus, were two young teachers on holiday, sharing their second pitcher of sangria.

Confession: I am a shameless eavesdropper of strangers’ conversations. Especially when my phone doesn’t work.

“One of your bad habits is to apologize for things you didn’t do wrong,” said one woman.

“I know,” said the other, who sat no more than a foot and a half to my left. She curled her fingers around the edge of her scarf. “I’ve done it my whole life.” Her tone was apologetic.

“I don’t mean ‘bad habit’ like BAD,” her friend rushed to say. “Just that people can take advantage of you.”

As someone who tends to do the same thing, I wanted to jump right into the conversation. I KNOW, right? At that point, the waitress came back to see how I liked my linguini. (I liked it a lot.) We got to chatting, and she told me she’s from Sweden, doing a working holiday here for six months. Our conversation must have caught the owner’s attention, because he soon came over to say hi, at which point the waitress excused herself. When I said I was from the States, he enthusiastically piped in with, “I’m from Jersey! I came here five years when I retired, and I bought this place.”

“So you must be Niko,” I said.

“No.” He shook his head, as though I’d made a grave error. “I’m from Turkey.”

Turkey explained his accent, if nothing else. And did I totally mishear “Jersey?”

We kept chatting, and he told he he’d been a lawyer for seven years in Turkey before becoming a custom tailor, then moving to Jersey and opening a restaurant there before retiring, moving here, and buying Niko’s.

“That’s quite a journey,” I said.

“Do you want a shot?” he responded brightly, inexplicably.

I laughed. It was one p.m., and I am not a shot-taker. “Oh–no thanks. I think I’m good.”

“I will bring you a shot.”

He hurried off, and the two women on holiday looked at me and laughed. “How’s that for dessert?” one of them said.

Soon, another waiter arrived with a neat shot of tequila and two thinly sliced lemons. “Oh, geez,” I said. “Tequila and I have a rough past.”

“Do you not want it?” he asked.

“No, no. I’ll take it.”

The women next to me laughed again. “Cheers,” they said. “Want a picture?” I said sure.

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After successfully not throwing up, I ordered a cappuccino to go. (They make the BEST cappuccinos in this country.) The waitress came back, and we talked for ten or fifteen more minutes in between her seating customers.

“We should get together while you’re here,” she said. “What’s your number?”

So we exchanged information with the idea that at some point I would have phone service, and I paid and wandered off with my cappuccino, pleasantly tipsy at two p.m. As I continued exploring, I wondered if lunch would have gone quite the same way if I had been engrossed in my phone. Somehow, I don’t think so. It makes me think I should set a rule for myself when back home: when out, supposedly living, and nothing urgent is expected, no using the phone.

Except, of course, to take pictures.