Category Archives: Dare to dream big

Live every day like it’s your birthday

Everyone has a favorite version of the old adage: “Live every every moment (or every day) like it’s your last.” I get it, I do. Life is precious and fragile, and if we knew we were dying (which when you really think about it, we all basically are), what would our souls yearn to do with such urgency that we’d once and for all let go of the meaningless stuff that weighs us down? I absolutely get this, particularly when it comes to loving, and letting our beloveds know they are cherished. (I sit here writing this on the 15th anniversary of 9/11.)

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I also find the idea of death as a motivator kind of dark though. Some of us take urgency a little too seriously, and this sort of message makes us susceptible to feelings of anxiety and defeat. Because if it’s all about, “quick, you’re running out of time, go go go!” well shit, I just can’t take that kind of pressure.

This is how I felt on my forty-first birthday last week. For me it was a little harder than forty, actually. Forty felt special, a big milestone birthday. I used it to look at life on a grand scale, to ask big questions. In hindsight, that wasn’t such a great idea. So I didn’t ask big “life” questions this time. Instead, I decided to focus on how I would behave, what I would do differently, to mark this one birthday day as peacefully as possible.

1. The first thing I did in the morning, more consciously than usual, was to give thanks for being alive. Because it’s true that life is precious and fragile. I know how fortunate I’ve been, and I happen to like it here quite a lot. And each new day really is a gift.

2. As someone who doesn’t like being the center of attention and struggles with feelings of unworthiness, birthdays feel a little awkward. So in the morning, I also made a conscious decision to remain open to the love I’d receive during the day. To not try to minimize it with the tired deflective “oh I don’t deserve it!” reflex. But to receive it fully, because who am I to stop the flow of love, all because of some stupid (untrue) script stuck in my head since childhood? I read somewhere recently that any love we deny ourselves is love we deny the world. The older I get, the truer this feels.

So I let my husband David and our son Eric, and my parents, spoil me. And it was freaking awesome.

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Sweet surprises I got to wake up to.

3. I also tried to stay centered on what matters, again, not big-picture thinking, but in the small things that arose throughout the day. Eric got into a bit of trouble at school that day. Sometimes I get kind of fixated on these things. You know, like I can control them? I thought about it and asked a little bit about it. Then I was happy, very happy, to just let it go.

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A bouquet of my favorite flowers.

4. I deliberately commented with a thank-you message to each and every Facebook friend who wished me a happy birthday. Since I’m not super popular, it wasn’t a huge number of people, but it felt deeply special. And with responding to each of them, I remember each of them still, with enormous gratitude. I’d invite you to consciously write ‘thank you’ a few dozen times one day and see how you feel!

And finally, 5. This one’s connected to 2 because it’s all about love. In this case, self-love and truth-telling, and discerning when something is, and is not, about me. A loved one called and I missed their call. I was briefly tempted to worry this had made them mad, then I … didn’t. We spoke later, no one was mad, and that was the end of it.

Another loved one whom I’d have liked to hear from on the phone sent me only a text message. <Shrug.> I was disappointed; then I accepted it, very importantly, without reading into it any messages about me.

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Here comes the ice cream cake!

My family and I tried watching a movie we’d recently loaned to a friend, and the DVD was so badly damaged that half the movie was simply unwatchable. I reached out to the friend, part of me fearing she’d be insulted at the insinuation that she’d ruined our DVD. She didn’t recall anything happening to our movie while it was in her possession, which I wholly believe, but she still insisted on taking responsibility for it, and replaced it with a new one. I’ve always highly respected this friend; now I respect her even more. Obviously I needn’t have worried. And to think I almost didn’t ask!

Focusing on what matters. Gratitude. Knowing when something is about me and the enormous, glorious freedom that so much actually isn’t. LOVE. I had a perfect birthday. Not because every single circumstance of the day was perfect  –though it was pretty darn nice–  but because I remained conscious about how I responded to everything that arose.

Again, I didn’t set out to ask big life questions at my birthday this year. But in asking how I wanted to spend the one day, I actually stumbled on some practices that could serve me pretty well every day. And since we’ve established that I’m not a fan of undertaking each moment like I’m about to kick the proverbial bucket, I figure that using lessons from a day spent celebrating life is a good approach for me. I probably shouldn’t eat every day like I ate on my birthday though…

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Churros con chocolate happy dance.

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Hungry in Paris (Ask and it shall be given, part 5)

The following is a true story about one of the most randomly extraordinary things that’s ever happened to me. I want to share it with you here, to the best of my recollection.

I was 16 years old in 1992 when I went on a student trip from Puerto Rico to Oxford, England for a 3-week intensive English course followed by one week travelling in France and Spain. While I’d already been bitten by the travel bug years earlier, this was my first time away from home without my family or friends. That was its own big deal.

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The view from atop Carfax Tower in Oxford

The host family assigned to me in Oxford was an elderly couple living in a tiny house on a street almost identical to the Dursleys’ Privet Drive in Little Whinging.

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Left: the house I stayed in outside Oxford. Right: a photo I took of Privet Drive during a visit to the Harry Potter tour at Warner Brother Studios (London) this year.

The woman kept a padlock on the house phone, presumably to keep us student boarders from making long distance phone calls for hours and hours. She never hid her dismay when I turned down constant offers of tea throughout the day. “How can you not want a hot drink?!” (I lived in Puerto Rico where it’s 85 degrees year round!) And the sandwiches she gave me for my school lunches were either cheese and tomato, or tuna fish with butter and cucumbers. One time she asked me what I normally ate cheese sandwiches with, and turned her nose up when I answered ham.

But I digress.

When the three weeks in Oxford ended, my fellow students and I were revved for the upcoming week of straight vacation, starting in Paris. We grabbed our last packed lunches from our British host families, and hopped on a bus to London, where we boarded a train to one of England’s southern port cities (I think it was Plymouth) for the ferry boat crossing over the English Channel into France. I’m pretty sure I ate my sandwich (was it tuna and cucumbers or cheese and tomato? I can’t remember) well before I got on the ferry, and had basically no more food for the journey after that.

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Starting the journey

To say that the waters were choppy that day is an understatement. Though I was mercifully spared the miserable seasickness, I did witness a good number of my fellow travelers running to toilets with pale, drawn faces.

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The ferry boat ride

After that was over, we still had to take a train to Paris.

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Train ride to Paris … by this time in the day I would’ve given anything for a tuna and cucumber sandwich.

Finally, it was a drizzly early evening when we arrived at our Paris hotel. It was, in fact, dinner time, and just a few minutes too late to exchange money at a bank or at the hotel’s front desk. This was a time before you could go to any cash machine and withdraw money. Most people still traveled with travelers’ checks, the currency was francs, and none of us had any. We had a few British pounds left over, which did us no good whatsoever. Since most of us were high school students, we didn’t have credit cards, and I have a sense (my memory on this is a bit fuzzy) that some of the restaurants where we asked didn’t even take plastic.

What could we do? A group of about four other students and I started to walk around the city, trying to figure something out. We were wet, exhausted, and hungry. So we came up with a plan to approach someone who looked local, and ask them to withdraw cash for us using their bank card in exchange for pounds and travelers’ checks. It was a long shot, obviously, but we were starting to feel desperate. The first few people we asked –wait for it!– said no.

Right as we were about to give up, someone looked up and noticed the names of the cross streets where we were standing: they were Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance.

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So we figured, since we were literally standing on the corner of Hope and Providence, maybe we shouldn’t give up … surely someone would help us! That’s when we saw a pregnant woman exiting an apartment building. We approached her and quickly explained our situation.

To our shock and delight, she told us yes, she would withdraw francs for us in exchange for our travelers’ checks and pounds … on one condition: that we sit and have a drink with her before heading off to dinner. Starving as we were, we agreed. The woman went to an ATM, got out cash, and together we found a bar and sat down for a drink. I have only a very vague recollection of what she looked like, and she didn’t tell us much about herself. Funnily enough, we did learn that she was headed to the UK the following day, so she’d been on her way to the ATM machine anyway, and she was happy to take our British pounds.

She was also lonely. I got the strong sense that her baby’s father was not in the picture. Then she said something like this: “How funny that we met each other on the corner of Rue de la Providence and Rue de l’Espérance, and that we were able to help each other. See, it wasn’t just me helping you get your money, but you have also helped me by sitting with me these few minutes and talking to me, keeping me company. So in a sense, we needed each other.”

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Paris the next day

I think she declined to join us for dinner. Soon we completed our money transaction and parted ways, wishing each other all the best. Then my friends and I took the money to a Chinese restaurant where we had the grandest and finest Chinese feast I’ve ever had in my life. At least that’s what it seemed like in my 16-year-old mind, and who is my 40-year-old self to tell that girl otherwise? Mistaking our jadedness for wisdom is such a common blind spot among us grownup types.

This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered the kindness of strangers in France. In fact, I’ve shared the stories here, about the incident with a cash machine in Paris and the time a few years later when my husband and I were hungry in a tiny French village. Isn’t this trend kind of mysterious and amazing? But all these things really happened. And remembering them touches a place deep in my heart where my own pure goodness lives alongside my faith in the goodness of others. Call me crazy, but I think we could all stand to tap into that place more often.

This is my favorite one of these stories, though. I have no idea if the woman would remember the role she had in helping a group of hungry Puerto Rican students get money for food on a drizzly Parisian evening 23 years ago, or that the thought of her poignant generosity and vulnerability still moves me deeply and lifts my spirits every single time. I especially think about the power of asking. It’s not just that you might actually get what you’re asking for (which in itself is pretty awesome), but it’s how the act of asking for help opens the door to keep kindness flowing. And to think it happened on the corner of Hope and Providence!


 

Note: A new friend I made on this trip was a law school student, (I believe) at the University of Puerto Rico. By the time we made it to Seville, I had all but run out of money, and she lent me money so I could buy souvenirs for my family at the World Expo. I promised to pay her back, but then we lost touch completely after coming home from the trip. I don’t even remember her name! But I did circle her face in the only two photos I have of her. I would love to track her down, to thank her again and to pay her back. Please help me share this blog post, so we can keep up the spirit of pay it forward! (Or in my case, in the spirit of paying her back…)

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Grace (Ask and it shall be given, Part 4)

Confession: I, like roughly 9.9 out of 10 of you, suffer from feelings of unworthiness. Thankfully, I also believe in grace. It’s because of grace that I ultimately rarely let such feelings run the show. (There’s a reason why people always talk about saving graces.) I’ve had good reason to count the extraordinary blessings of my life in recent weeks, and I’d like to share some of them with you. Sorry if it sounds like bragging. I assure you, it’s nothing more than overwhelming gratitude. It’s a short (very short) list of some the past month’s gifts, and a story about how these gifts are helping me heal the feelings of unworthiness.

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I’ve spoken before about my love for Elizabeth Gilbert, and for my 40th birthday, I decided to try to see her again at an event. After a very quick search, I saw she was going to be one of the speakers at one of my favorite places ever (the Omega Institute), just ten days after my birthday. Done, and done!

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I also learned she’d be visiting DC one week after the Omega Institute retreat, to promote her new book Big Magic. Obviously, I bought a ticket for that, too, just for good measure.

The weekend of the retreat arrived, and two minutes after I checked in at Omega, I ran into one of its co-founders, a personal beloved hero, Elizabeth Lesser. I was tongue-tied and in hindsight feel silly and shallow (see how easily the self-berating happens?) that all I did was ask for this photo. Thank goodness I did also remember to tell her I love her and that it was an honor to be there.

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Saturday morning Liz Gilbert took the stage. It lived up to every expectation. One of my favorite quotes from her talk was, “No creative act can take place until you stand in the arrogance of your belonging … against the terrorist inside your head that says, ‘Who do you think you are?'”

Later on … can you believe it? I ran into her and got to give her a hug and snap this photo!

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It then seemed like an embarrassment of riches that I’d be seeing her again in DC just one week later. That week, my mother was coming into town, and I decided to try to take her with me. I felt that if I at least shared it with her, then I would feel more deserving. But the event was four days away, my husband was headed to Morocco, and we didn’t have a babysitter. It would have felt pretty lousy to go by myself and leave Mami behind, but even if I tried changing my ticket to her name, I doubted she’d go by herself. And by then I really wanted her to go. My first step was to go online and see if there were tickets left. There were, and I bought her one. (Later that same day I looked again out of curiosity: Sold out!) You know what else? I found a sitter just two days before! So, Mami and I went.

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And she was as inspired and energized by Liz Gilbert’s talk as I knew she would be. My heart swelled with gratitude that things had fallen into place so perfectly.

One of my two favorite quotes from that evening was, “You need magical, mystical thinking to do creative things because it’s an absolutely irrational thing to do.” That I possess such weird and irrational ways of thinking is without a doubt one my graces in this life.

The other one was, “When someone tells you they are brutally honest, it’s rarely about real honesty; they’re asking for permission to be brutal to you.” Holy crap. I’d never thought of that before, but it’s true. I can’t stand snark disguised as sophistication; you know … that person with a mean streak who tells you you can’t take a joke? Oof. Steer clear, folks, steer clear. I know I do!

But my favorite moment of the evening came when a cancer survivor got up to speak, and offered Elizabeth an engraved bracelet (sadly I forget what word(s) it was engraved with) as a gift. Elizabeth accepted the gift, and said something like this: “I used to say no to these types of things. Then I realized, they are grace, and I don’t want to stop the unfolding of grace.” Boom. Wow. A few minutes later, Elizabeth gave the bracelet to another cancer survivor who stood up to speak. I cried.

And there it is: Grace. If nothing else, grace is what definitively inspires me to overcome thoughts and feelings of unworthiness. Because it’s not about me. None of this is about me. It’s about something so much bigger than me.

I’m not really sure how to stop the cycle for myself. The script of unworthiness seems so deeply and irrevocably embedded in me, it’s like my constant annoying companion. It happened just a few nights ago when I visited a book club as the guest author. The awesome women who asked the read my manuscript described it with words like “page-turner … a great sense of place … deeply-developed characters … ” and most importantly said, “don’t give up, you’ve got something good here.” I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t spend most of the drive home telling myself they were just being nice. Two days later, the night after some details for a new family project in the works for 2016 (which will likely involve stamps on our passports and shedding a few lbs in preparation) began to fall into place –I’m not exaggerating– thoughts of undeserving ‘who-am-I’s kept me awake for hours.

But I have now amended my script from ‘who am I to receive such gifts?’ to ‘who am I to stop them?’ Who am I to stop grace? Who the hell is anyone to dare mess with the ever unfolding poetry and dance that is grace? That’s what your “friend” is doing when s/he wants to be brutally “honest” or tells you you can’t take a “joke.” It’s what I’m doing when I dwell on feeling undeserving. Why don’t we stop the cycle, or at least turn it around? It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about keeping grace in motion. Seeing Liz Gilbert for my 40th birthday taught me this. Grace begets grace. Love begets love. And what the world needs is love.

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A short to-do list, because YOLO (sort of)

It’s been a month of milestones in our little familia. My son started kindergarten at a new school that we’d been hoping to get into since before he was born. He’s been adjusting well and we are loving the community. I turned 40, and have returned to teaching (college Spanish) part-time. But I want to share with you two “smaller” parenting firsts that happened yesterday, and the things they made me think about.

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Yesterday was the first time since starting my new day job that my husband wasn’t home in the hectic final minutes before we have to be out the door in the morning. I had to get my son to school, and had to be at my job by 8:40. After being a stay-at-home mom for 5 years, this made me feel like quite the independent working parent: It was So Damn Stressful. And that’s with an only child and teaching just two mornings per week! More importantly? I believe with all my heart that single working parents who still manage to be present with their children are the greatest unsung heroes of our society. Hats. Freaking. Off. I bow to you. That’s all I will say about that for now, even as I acknowledge that no words can do justice to my deep and abiding awe for these superheroes.

Yesterday was also the first morning I dropped my boy off for school at the curbside, instead of parking the car and walking him in. The school’s driveway is a few feet away from the entrance, and there are adults lined up to help escort the kiddos from the parent’s car into the school. Full disclosure, I had trouble sleeping the night before. What if, in those few feet between my car and the school entrance, someone intercepted him? What if, once inside, he didn’t go straight where he was supposed to go? Are kindergartners really ready for curbside drop-off? What if it made him upset, and made me late for class?

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When we finally pulled into the school driveway in the morning, the school principal happened to be there. She walked over, opened his car door, and with a huge warm smile, offered her hand. He went so happily and proudly with her, I had to call him back just to give him a kiss goodbye and wish him a good day! (I also wanted to give her a hug.) I drove off to work basking in a soft wave of relief and of pride in my big boy, and only the slightest stirrings of “he did make inside, right … ?” It was a small milestone, but a milestone nonetheless.

As a fervent believer in reincarnation, I don’t subscribe to the old adage of You Only Live Once in a literal sense. That said, this lifetime is the one that matters to me now, and boy is it a precious one. After delving into deeper questions on the passage of time in my previous post, this time I got to thinking about more practical aspects of the question, what do I really, really, really want?

I prefer talking about to-do lists over the idea of one big bucket list. For example, I’ve started thinking about an empty nest to-do list. Oh sure, that’s roughly 13 years away. And you know what? I remember 13 years ago like it was earlier this morning. So I have a good sense of how fast the next 13 will go, and I want to at least have a plan when the time comes. Part of the plan is to travel more with my husband. Also, if I haven’t had the opportunity, to learn/perfect more foreign languages. I will research and write more books, hopefully (in theory at least) at a faster pace than now. I’m also looking forward to binge-watching all the TV shows I keep hearing about which I never have time to watch. (Was Mad Men really that good? What about Downton Abbey? No spoilers please!)

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Our little familia riding the London Underground from the Natural History Museum to the British Museum (April 2015)

But enough about stuff down the line. Assuming good health, what do I really, really, really want in the years ahead of me now? Here are some things, in no particular order.

  1. Research and write more stories (and be less scared about pursuing publication)
  2. See Ireland’s Cliffs of Moher
  3. Eat “freshly” smoked salmon in Alaska (and Norway)
  4. Learn to make handmade pasta … in Italy
  5. Have a Thai massage in Thailand
  6. See the Danube River separating Buda from Pest
  7. Shower my family with crazy wicked fierce lovin’
  8. Eat street food in Vietnam (my palate is more excited about this than my heartburn-prone gut is)
  9. Amsterdam: Pay my respects at Anne Frank’s hiding place, and ride a canal boat … and a bike
  10. Learn to knit?
  11. Eat a Belgian waffle purchased from a street vendor in Brussels
  12. Dance more
  13. Sydney Harbor
  14. African safari
  15. Learn more about wine
  16. Walk on the Great Wall
  17. Edinburgh …

Sensing a trend here? Yes, with me, it often comes down to travel. Beautiful, restless, put-a-stamp-on-my-passport-NOW-please, Wanderlust. By the way? I hope to do most of these things with my beloved husband and our sunshine boy. And I’m leaving a lot (like, all of the Americas) out. Not to mention the many places we want to take him where we’ve already been! It’s okay if we don’t do all these things. But I believe we can do some –even many– of them. What’s not okay is to not even dream them. I’ve never been shy about dreaming big, and it has never led me astray. Dreaming big and loving big, that’s the plan.

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This brochure for a trip to Thailand and Bali came in the mail recently. My son and I spent that afternoon poring over the details, and it was the best day-dreaming conversation we’ve had … so far!

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Ask and it shall be given. Part 3, Theater!

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(Here are Part 1 –Paris– and Part 2 –Alanis Morissette and Elizabeth Gilbert–  of Ask and it shall be given.)
Do I always believe this quote by Maya Angelou? Please. Does anyone, besides maybe Wayne Dyer? The truth is no one always gets what they want. It’s also true though–cliché alert!–that we never know unless we ask. Here are two stories I present to you as evidence.

London
The first time my husband David and I went to London together was in 2007, years before parenthood. For our next-to-last night there, we bought tickets to see Fiddler on the Roof in the Savoy Theater. He and I have always loved this musical, and were so excited for the opportunity to see it.

Geeking out in front of the Rosetta Stone. (My background is in historical linguistics.)

When the night of the show came, we first had dinner reservations at a famous restaurant nearby called Simpson’s-in-the-Strand. It’s one of the oldest continuously operating restaurants in Britain. And may I say, it’s quite the experience. (Can’t believe I couldn’t find photos from our dinner there, sorry!) A gentleman who I’m sure had been around since at least Shakespeare’s time pushed a silver domed trolley around. Under the dome was a huge piece of prime rib, to be carved with flawlessly executed olde English flair directly beside your table, and served with boiled potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. The man was as delightful as he was ancient. He only scoffed a small amount when I ordered fish instead of beef, and he happily posed for pictures with diners like a bonafide celebrity. The meal was so enjoyable in so many ways, it felt like an embarrassment of riches that the main event of the evening was yet to come when Fiddler on the Roof started at 7:30.

Shortly after this delightful dinner, we strode into the vestibule of the Savoy Theater, so excited, but surprised to find that we were the only people there. Hmm. David hurried to find someone we could ask what was going on, and returned with an usher, who very nicely escorted us into the theater, right after he told us the show had started at 7!! Oh … HELL no. To this day, we don’t know how we made that mistake.

The usher then assigned us temporary seats until intermission. Because the seats we’d bought were so good and close to the stage, it would have disrupted the production to let us take them right away. The song we entered to was To Life-L’Chaim. A favorite, to be sure, but what about Tradition?! Matchmaker?! If I Were a Rich Man?! I was close to tears. During intermission, when I saw just how wonderful our seats were, I shed a few. I told David we had to come back the next day and see it from the beginning. “Let’s at least ask!” I may have even suggested we buy a second pair of tickets for the next night, or that we propose standing somewhere in back. But the plan was, first, to explain what happened, and ask if they’d just let us sit through the first few numbers the following night in whatever seats they had. David was hesitant. It was embarrassing, of course. And why would they say yes? Finally though, he agreed that the worst that could happen was they’d say no.

The theater manager wrote down David’s name, and told us it could be arranged for us to attend the first half hour of the show the following evening–for free! She told us there would be a different manager on duty, and that she’d explain the situation to him, so he’d know what to do. David and I were excited … and skeptical. Show up and tell a different manager that someone had promised us the previous night to let us in for free? Um, no.

Picture from our last day, most of which we spent wondering if we’d get to see Fiddler on the Roof from the beginning…

Imagine our surprise when the manager on duty the following night sprung into action with what seemed like crystal clear recognition the instant David said his name. He didn’t wait for further explanation. Hell, he didn’t even ask for I.D. He just went to the ticket window, and produced an envelope with two tickets for us. They were for two pretty decent seats, together! Fiddler on the Roof became the definitive highlight of that entire trip for us. It’s a story I love, and love telling.

New York
I don’t have to tell most of you about my long-standing love affair with New York. Being a fan of Sex and the City as a single gal in the late nineties probably had a little bit to do with that. A couple of years ago, it was announced that Sarah Jessica Parker was starring in a play called The Commons of Pensacola with none other than Blythe Danner. I decided I just had to go.

As soon as the tickets went on sale, I tried to buy one online, but kept getting a message about no tickets available. Next, I called the theater, The New York City Center. The guy explained that theater “members” get first dibs on all shows. Once members have purchased their tickets, a limited selection of seats becomes available for “the rest of us.” They had no idea when that would happen, only that it was very close to performance dates, at which point they expected tickets to sell out pretty fast.

Through a series of circumstances that included family obligations at home and hotel reward points, I soon narrowed down the dates when I’d be in New York to one night. I’m not usually this brazen in my wishing and hoping, but at this point, I had to see the play on that very specific night. So I started to check Every. Single. Day. Sometimes more than once a day. Still nothing. Everything was in place for me to go see the play … I just didn’t have a ticket for it. Yet. The quest got to be a bit of a joke between David and me. Then one day, the heavens parted, and voilà. Tickets available for online purchase! I bought one on the spot. And when, out of curiosity, I checked back for a few consecutive days afterwards, I once again found nothing available. Lo and behold, it’s a tiny, intimate theater, and I had a seat very close to the stage.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, I know this type of wish-come-true seems pretty trivial, even shallow. I get it. Theater is a privilege. And with everything that’s going on in this world, life is about so much more than enjoying a performance from an awesome seat. But I think valuable lessons can also be learned from things going right, from something wonderful that you almost gave up on, but didn’t. I’m not always going to get what I wish for, and sometimes that’s where the blessing lies. Sometimes, though, if I pay attention and know what to tune into and keep at it, enough of the important factors can align perfectly. And the answer is yes. And it then occurs to me that if this can happen, what else can I dream into reality? May you have many such moments. Just remember, you’ll never know if you don’t ask!

Oh yeah, the following morning, I got to listen to Wayne Dyer talk about manifesting dreams. And did I mention I got to stay in New York for free that night? I’m telling you … !

I had one of the best pizzas of my life the night of the play.
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Wanderlust

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Of all the unexplained compulsions in human behavior, wanderlust has got to be my favorite. I blame my parents. In my early childhood in Puerto Rico, when my father was in medical school and my mother was the sole bread-winner for our family of five, they still managed to scrape together enough money to take us to Disney World a couple of times.

Orlando (1977 & 1979). I’m the youngest.

Later, in the three years we lived in Albany, NY while Dad was a resident in rehabilitation medicine, we’d pack the five of us into the family car, and set off for Manhattan, Toronto, DC, and many other places. There was never a lot of money, but my parents understood well the importance of expanding our horizons. So I learned early on, for example, that eating food from a grocery store–rather than a restaurant–for at least one meal a day is an excellent way to save money on a trip.

Roadtripping in the early 80’s

Upon completing his residency, my father moved our family back to Puerto Rico, and made a vow: That one day soon, he’d take the five of us to Europe. The year was 1985.

In summer 1987, la Familia Falcón embarked on a three-week tour of Europe. And that was it. THAT WAS IT! Before the trip, I thought historic sites in Europe were these boring, abandoned places, visited only by a handful of rich eccentric types. It was confusing that my parents wanted to take us there. But I quickly “got it.” There’s a whole world just beyond my own, awaiting exploration. There are people very different from me … and ultimately not that different. The world is terrifically big and wondrously small. It’s okay to see things differently, and to think and be different from my previous beliefs. Magic is real, and wealth isn’t a pre-requisite for it. It’s possible to be many miles away from home and still experience a powerful sense of belonging. These were just a few of the lessons learned.

The Falcón’s at the Roman Colosseum (1987)
My parents have made good on that 1985 promise many more times than their children or grandchildren could have dreamed.
Madrid (2006)
And they sent each of us on plenty of solo adventures, too.
Clockwise: A summer in England (top two on the left -1992); semester abroad in Spain (1994); camel ride in Egypt (1999); eating pizza sold by weight in Verona (1999); Santorini (2000).
Imagine my delight when I met my husband David, and learned that he suffers from the same travel restlessness as me. Soon, we were engaged, and the adventures continued. Which brings me to the present(-ish), and to my point. Mark Twain said it best.
Oh please, please-please, SEE the world as much as possible. It’s one of the best things you could ever do. And with enough planning and flexibility, it can also be done on a budget.
After we had our son Eric five years ago, our travels definitely slowed down. We are now a very frugal single-income household. Last year we had hopes of visiting Spain on the 20th anniversary of my semester abroad there. Alas, the expense would have been unwise; we didn’t go. Yet David and I continue to agree that any extra money is set aside so we can see our country and the world as a family. Both he and I count travel–and a love of reading books–as the most profoundly enriching experiences of our formative years. This is precisely what we dream for Eric during his childhood. Not surprisingly, he is a natural little wanderer like his parents.
This world map with color-coded pins for places dreamed, planned, and visited is one of the best Christmas presents David has ever given me. (2013)
When we returned from a 12-day roadtrip to Canada and New England last summer, the moment Eric realized we were done travelling, he sat down on the family room floor, and cried, “But where are we going tomorrow?!” Here’s a picture from our trip to London when he was a year old.
Did you know you can fit your stroller–opened, with your baby strapped in–into the backseat of London’s famous black taxis? He loved that! (2011)
Guess what? We’re thinking of taking him again in just a few weeks. David has a work trip. Eric and I could tag along. This trip has been over a year in the making, and we have never thought longer or harder over a travel decision. Among the factors to consider? 1-I’d be alone with Eric in London, not seeing David until the very end of the day. On the other hand? 2-I could be alone with Eric in DC, doing our routine stuff, not seeing David for an entire week. Only one of these options gets me eating scones with clotted cream and jam … in friggin’ England. Yeah, I like what’s behind door #1 better. Do I still wonder if it’s the 100% sensible thing to do? All the time. Our finances are a far cry from when we had two incomes and no kids. Just in case, don’t tell Suze Orman on us, alright? Not to mention my anxiety-prone self is coming out full force, conjuring fantastically awful mental scenarios about things that could go wrong. (I am a superior catastrophizer.)
But we’re still seriously considering it. With David’s expenses covered, the trip would be a fraction of what it would cost for the three of us. There’s this wonderful phenomenon called tax refund. The curiosity and wonder of a five-year-old child are like lightning in a bottle. For me, besides the chance to give my boy an invaluable experience, it’s also an opportunity to overcome an anxiety. And a priceless reminder that the world is still within reach and a relatively safe place, no matter what dire news stories tell us; that it is ours to experience and love; that I can go on travel adventures long after my carefree “younger” years, this time, as the mom. I still don’t know how my parents took their three kids on all those trips. Sometimes, it occurs to me, they must have decided to just go for it. Life is short. There’s a time for prudence … and a time for scones. This time I want the scones. I hope you will find whatever your metaphorical “scone” is, and go after it. Dream it, map it, plan it, and go. I’m telling you, it can be done, and it is WORTH IT.
You see, I’m not kidding when I say we love to travel. Here’s a sampling of some of our pre-parenthood trips. Clockwise from top left: Toledo (2003); Grand Canyon (2003); Paris (2004); Ireland (2007); Innsbruck (2008); and Maine (2008).
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Coming to Manhattan

teaching-in-the-dark-learning-to-love-what-we-fear-23-638Tomorrow I’m going on a two-day trip to New York City, as I have done every February since 2012. I like to call it Mama’s Annual Pilgrimage (previously documented here, and here). My plan for this year is to attend a tour at the Tenement Museum, called Exploring 97 Orchard Street. This is like a dream for me. Besides that, I’m going to find a nice café (or a few different ones), and work on my whittling.
Whittling tools. If only they could help me in this situation!

Turns out the novel I’ve spent the past three years writing is too long. “Debut novels” in my genre are supposed to be no longer than 100,000 words. My first draft was–wait for it–147,000. Stephen King says the second draft is the first draft, minus ten percent. That, I can do. On draft five now, I’ve so far hacked off 10,000 words; ten percent looks well within reach. Will I get all the way down to below 100,000? Not sure. And if I can’t, odds are pretty good no agent will even look at the manuscript. Don’t think I haven’t thought about giving these pseudo-dogmatic standards this treatment. But I’ve had them explained to me recently in a way I understand (almost) better; and so, I hack away. Hacking doesn’t sound very artistic though, hence the term whittling.

In a recent Google search on book word counts, I found that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is approximately 150,000 words, similar to my original word count. I like to look at it and think it’s what my novel will look like once it’s published.

Momentum has admittedly slowed down. It’s partly due to feeling disheartened. Also, though, recent family needs compel me to re-evaluate things. No, I’m not pregnant. But there could be change on the horizon, which will be felt on many levels within my family. The meme posted by my hero Elizabeth Gilbert on her Facebook page today couldn’t be more timely.

For the past three years, I’ve been going strong–creativity-wise–fueled to a significant degree by this sort of feel-good inspiration. I tend to dislike gratuitous cynicism. I find it so one-dimensional, and we can do so much better. Lately, though … ? How do I distinguish between good old reality check and caving to cynicism? Here’s another recent meme.

A few months ago, I would have shared this, lived by it, maybe even written a blog post about it. The thing is, though, I also think that people who think they’re above paying their dues are idiots. Was that unkind? I’m sorry. The message about being born for something greater and more profound still resonates with me deeply. I’m not trying to be unkind. I swear I have a point.
My point–aside from having fun with social media memes–is that I strive to not be an idiot. And I know that, at age 39 and a half, I’m nowhere near done paying my dues. My own practical form of dues-paying will likely–hopefully, and for very happy reasons–mean finding gainful employment again, and soon. We just can’t continue the sponsoring at this time. I’m excited about it. I’m also panicked: That if I can’t get my book down to the desired word count by the time I start a new job, I’ll have to give up on writing. Dramatic? Please. This is nothing.
Because I work well with to-do lists, here’s the plan for now.
1. Keep whittling.
2. Pack vitamins and cold meds for NYC. (I caught my son’s recent cold, because sharing is caring.)
3. Attend some super-fun writers conferences this year–yeah!
4. Find new job and start it. Resume getting up at 5AM to write/research for an hour before the rest of the day starts, and again after boy goes to bed. It’s been done before, it can be done again.
5. Love my family. Love hard, in general.
6. Write down ideas (coming fast and furious lately) for second book. Give myself permission to be excited about it.
7. Remember that life is good, very.
8. Reread the article about 12 historical women, as needed.
9. Enjoy New York.
10. Write blog post about the trip.
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Honestly? I think you’re crazy. That’s okay–so am I.

(https://www.facebook.com/MarkTwainAuthor)
Since last fall, I have spent most weekday mornings in the cafe section of a Whole Foods store near my 4-year-old son’s preschool, writing or reading while he’s in school. This is his last week at this school before starting PreK at a new school in a different neighborhood. That makes it my last week working in this setting on a regular basis. The cast of characters I have met there these many months includes two individuals, fellow “regulars,” who have given me a lot to think about. (Okay, I do a fair amount of staring. But that’s what makes me a noticer, and being a noticer is part of what makes me a writer. Right?)

First, there’s a gentleman who works somewhere in the neighborhood. He routinely comes in around mid-morning, buys a pastry with a pint of whole milk, and eats it in the cafe area. He likes to say hello. When we were still in the phase of simply nodding a greeting at one another, I thought he was Middle Eastern. Then one time, he stopped to talk to me, and spoke Spanish. Ah, so not Middle Eastern, then–things aren’t always as they seem. In hindsight, I thought that time that he’d gotten a little too close for my comfort zone when he talked to me. You could say that was a red flag.

Second, there’s the woman with the crossing guard vest. From where I sit at a bar-type space on a second-story mezzanine overlooking the store, I see people in the aisles, browsing and shopping. One day, months ago, I saw a blond woman wearing a crossing guard vest much like this one.
I thought, aw, must be a mom who just finished volunteering at drop-off at her child’s school–how nice! The woman bought her food, brought it up to the cafe area, and sat down just a few feet away from me. She got out one or two electronic devices, got on her phone, and proceeded to get into an argument with someone. Loudly. Even though I had my earphones in, I could see her gesturing pretty angrily, and she was being loud enough that I couldn’t help looking up from time to time. One time when I looked, she held her hand up to my face, the way I’ve seen celebrities do with paparazzi, and started waving it and blocking her face from my sight. She was saying things I couldn’t quite hear over my music, but she definitely wasn’t keen on me looking at her. I did one of those deals where you look over your shoulder to make sure the person is “talking” to you, you know? She definitely meant me. It startled me. I did my best to look away apologetically, while also feeling the burn of being unjustly scolded. I wasn’t the one making a scene! The image I’d created of her then shifted to, mom who just finished volunteering at her kid’s school, and who is likely going through a very bitter divorce. Her belligerence was jarring, but I decided to try compassion–we’ve all had rough times. A few minutes later, she’d turned her anger on different folks sitting near us, at which time I took her attack on me a bit less personally.
Meanwhile, the Hispanic (not Middle Eastern) man who likes to say hello to me continues to get a little too close each time. A few times, he has sneaked up behind me, and touched me in the middle of my back. It causes me to jump in my seat. I reeeeally don’t like that. Exchanging a few hellos doesn’t mean a person gets to touch me–maybe that’s just me–and certainly not in that way.Thank goodness the perch where I sit allows me to see who’s coming most of the time. I’ve recently taken to looking over my shoulder when he is paying for his food and approaching the cafe. Now I don’t even remove my earphones to say hello. I simply nod my head and mouth the word hola. Because boundaries. Yeah, back off, amigo.
The poor “angry” woman has continued to be a regular as well. She is impossible to miss, on account of the bright yellow vest, which she never removes. I’ve joked to myself–in moments when my kindness instinct is low–that she must even sleep in that vest. She makes her way up and down the aisles, confronting and berating strangers left and right. Is she a volunteer mom? I’m not so sure anymore. I’ve also realized, after seeing the way she’s laid into other people, that holding her hand up to my face the way she did that time was letting me off easy. In fact, she’s never bothered with me again, but of course, I’ve gotten good at avoiding eye contact. And she continues to be on her phone often, having some kind of agitated discussion with someone on the other end of the line …
A few Saturdays ago, I was at Washington’s Union Station, waiting to board a train to New York City. I bought a bagel and coffee at Au Bon Pain for breakfast, and hurried to my gate. As I passed the Au Bon Pain window, something caught my eye. Bright, neon yellow … The woman in the vest! She was sitting in a chair, surrounded by several bags very full of things (they did not look like the luggage of a typical traveler…), looking disheveled. Sleeping, in her vest. It stopped me in my tracks, took my breath away, broke my heart. She’s homeless?! But she shops at Whole Foods! Her hair looks well groomed! She sits with an ipad (or is it a laptop?) and talks on her cell phone for hours, and they always seem like very important conversations!
Nothing–nothing–is as it seems.You want to know what I think? I think we are all a little bit crazy. I think there is a “crazy” continuum, and we’re all on it. And just like there are functional alcoholics and addicts of different types, most of us are simply functional crazies.
From the beloved Disney movie Up. (Quotesandmovies.com)
In fact, most of the time I revel in my quirks. I mean, normal is boring, right? Who wants to be normal?And then, I remember my post partum depression four years ago. That wasn’t quirky. In fact, it put me much further along the continuum than I care to admit. And so do moments of anxiety and irrational fears, both of which are exacerbated by me being the type of mom who fiercely embraces worrying like it’s a measure of the caring. I know that worrying doesn’t equal caring. But hey, I only remember to know it on good days. Mercifully, good days far outnumber the not-so-awesome ones. But then I have lousy ones, too. And you know what those teach me? Patience, with myself and with others. Tolerance. Fewer instances of such self-absorption that I believe my woes are somehow more unique than someone else’s. Because I remember that everyone else struggles, too. Everyone experiences loneliness, fear, feelings of inadequacy.I talk about my depression all the time now, as though to prove that I am one hundred percent over it. The truth? Even four years later, I feel ashamed of it; even though I know better, I feel as though it was something I did wrong. That is the terrible power of the stigma.I think that the line separating me from someone who’s gone over the deep end is not only very thin and blurry, but it also moves all the damn time. There but for the grace of God go I–there but for the grace of God goes any one of us.
As sobering as the above statistic is, I wonder how many studies take mental health into account in this reality. I haven’t done any research, but I suspect that a lot of people–people we know–are not just one paycheck away, but possibly one deeply traumatic experience away from reaching a devastating point of emotional instability that is very difficult to come back from. One tragic illness or loss, and there’s no telling who could easily snap from functional to dysfunctional.
I’ve continued to see the woman in the vest–always in her vest–at Whole Foods after I saw her sleeping in the train station. She’s looked well put together, doesn’t have a bunch of ambiguously-homeless-looking bags with her, and is walking the aisles, shopping and confronting as she goes. So, is she homeless? No idea.
I do know she’s troubled. I’ve been troubled, too. Everyone has. So who are we to judge anyone, no matter how worse off they seem compared to us? It’s all an illusion.These days, I find myself in a bit of a(n internal) tizzy over my little boy starting a new school next month, and the sadness over saying goodbye to his first preschool and a teacher he loves. I know it’s only PreK, but it will be the first time that he’s in school all day, five days a week. And it feels a little bit as though he might as well be moving out of the house. I mean, it seems like only yesterday I found out I was pregnant! I look at him and still see my baby! Have I raised him properly enough to “release” him to the world on a full-time schedule? Without our afternoon quiet time, will I still get to cuddle with him? Oh God–PANIC–is this The End of the Cuddling?!See? This is me being over anxious. I bet some of you will think, “Tsk-tsk, the kid probably picks up on her anxiety; she shouldn’t feel this way!” That’s fine. I’m okay at not externalizing it when he’s around. And I would go insane right this minute if I had to control every damn thought I have, lest my child pick up on some of the bad ones. The best I can do is be aware and keep trying. Humor helps, too.

Change is a big deal, man, and an anxiety factor for many of us. I tend to experience many of life’s milestones through the filter of very, very raw emotion. And I believe firmly that this can be a great strength, not just a weakness. (As I bragged told about in a previous blog post, I was taught this personally at a workshop with none other than Alanis Morissette!) The good news is, for all my griping and over-analyzing, I rarely stay stuck. Common sense, growth; they win most of the times. Thank God(dess).

So I’m not at my strongest right now. So what? I’ve been worse. I’ve also seen worse. Being hung up on the past … ? Geesh! Yes, I’ve seen much worse. See what else I just did there? I judged. Am I exempt from the impulse to judge? Pfft, hell no. And because I’m pretty much taking everyone else down with me in this blog post, I’m going to venture to say that neither are you. Listen, we can’t all be Wayne freaking Dyer.

I embrace my crazy self. I work through my anxieties with exercise, meditation and prayer, healthy eating, gratitude, love. I’ve been in therapy, and could be again one day. And did I mention humor? I try to educate my judgmental self. The good news about moments of weakness is they afford me the sort of compassion that keeps my judgy side in check. But make no mistake about it. If the the gentleman in question at Whole Foods manages to sneak up on me and touch my back again, I am not going to hesitate to channel the troubled mystery woman in the vest and let him have it, thus, in the course of one action, enforcing an important boundary with one individual while eliminating the illusion of separation from another. And the thin blurry line is on the move once again. I think that’s kind of interesting, don’t you?

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Why am I doing this again? Aspiring author journeys back to New York, NY.

“Don’t buy the fuckin’ hot dogs. Don’t … Don’t buy the fuckin’ hot dogs!” The woman stood a few feet away from the hot dog cart. With the unmistakable rasp of a heavy smoker, she warned frazzled-looking tourists as they walked up to it to buy lunch outside a subway entrance near Manhattan’s Herald Square. “Big fuckin’ cockroaches all over the fuckin’ hot dogs.” And yet folks kept buying their hot dogs from the vendor, who looked disgruntled but otherwise unfazed. The woman recoiled and turned her head in dismay, as though there was someone beside her in support of her crusade. “Ugh!” Her face conveyed the distress of someone whose sincere concern for the greater good of another goes unheeded. “Can you believe this? They’re buyin’ the fuckin’ hot dogs!” she lamented to no one in particular, before taking a long drag from her cigarette.

This was last Saturday at lunch time. I was in the City on another one of my research trips for my first historical novel, set in New York City in 1911. My train from DC had pulled into Penn Station less than an hour earlier. New items on the agenda this time were seeing some of the buildings where workers at the Triangle Waist Company once lived, visiting the Brooklyn gravesite of the six victims of the fire who remained unidentified for nearly a hundred years, and hoping to meet with Triangle historian Michael Hirsch.

I had made an inquiry about the victims of the Triangle fire on Facebook, when I heard from someone named Michael Hirsch. Where had I heard that name before? Oh, right, I’d seen his name here:

And here, as one of the producers of this HBO film:

And oh yeah, he was the researcher who single-handedly uncovered and confirmed the names of the six once-unidentified victims. You could say I was pretty excited at the prospect of meeting him.

Nevertheless, this time I was significantly less exuberant than I’d been on previous trips. Gone was my I’m-writing-a-novel! cockiness enthusiasm, ironic given that this was my first trip after actually completing the first draft. The enthusiasm had given way to a raging why-am-I-doing-this-again? funk. The past weeks had been spent waist-deep in novel revisions, and at least elbow-deep in the funk.

More and more people asking me if I have a publisher (no), an agent (no), or if I have “workshopped” my novel (no) or am “working with someone” on it (um … no). Then I talk about self-publication with enough people to realize that the stigma around it is still very prevalent. Don’t think I haven’t thought that these beloved, passionate projects of mine may never really see the light of day, let alone earn enough money that I can be a writer full-time while also affording to take my kid on a few trips during his growing-up years, then send him to college one day. Besides (whines the funk), does the world really need another novel about the Triangle fire? What makes me think I have anything to add to the stories that have already been told? Finally, I was bogged down, as I often am, by the knowledge that while I am not earning a paycheck, each one of these trips costs my family money, and I–still!–feel a degree of guilt about leaving my 4-year-old son for a couple of nights away.

I slept less and less in the nights leading up to the trip, until I barely slept the night before. This was the state in which I was confronted with the woman and her anti-hot dogs tirade. It bothered me. I hurried past her and down the stairs into the subway. Two minutes later, I got stuck in one of these damn things.

(Photo from http.nybydzine.tumblr.com)

This time I didn’t even have luggage!* After swiping my MetroPass twice (and feeling a little ripped off), I was finally in. It was after 1PM, breakfast had been in DC around 7AM, and I was lightheaded from lack of sleep and the train. The wait felt endless, and the ride was cramped and sweaty. I’d forgotten how uncomfortable my beloved City can be during summer. And I was starting to fear that it was my beloved City no more, that I was turning into one of those people who find it to be too much.

Lemme tell you about a glistening, sweaty subway ride.
I was on my way to historic Seward Park Library in the Lower East Side. It was a place where immigrant women (men, too) living in New York one hundred years ago had access to books, and I’ve set a scene in my novel there. But first, I needed lunch. And finally it came, at a place called Cafe Petisco, across the street from the library.
Falafel pita with fries: Extraordinary in both flavors and textures. The pink dipping sauce was especially inspired. And when the check came for a whopping $8, I knew I’d found a new favorite place in the City.

And it came with a side of interesting conversation. Cafe Petisco is the sort of place where you sit thisclose to the person at the next table. The woman next to me was an Australian living a couple of blocks west from where we were, apparently, in the heart of Chinatown. “I am the only English-speaking round eyes on the entire block.” Her words. For the past two years, she has rented a room in a 5-room apartment full of Chinese people, including entire families. I wasn’t certain of the number of people in her apartment. But she did tell me that when her flat mates stock the fridge up with fresh groceries, she has opened the door to find seafood so fresh it’s still moving, and has been startled by chicken feet falling out of one of the refrigerator shelves. I wanted to hear more, while also wanting to reserve the right to hit the Undo button if it got too weird. I asked whether she can have friends over–mostly, my curiosity had to do with a specific kind of guest … the type that might be inclined to spend the night, tú sabes. She said she probably could, but hasn’t felt the need to these two years. All she knows is she pays less than $700/month (utilities included) to live in Manhattan and she is saving loads of money.

In the 30 minutes we sat together, my new friend drank two Bloody Mary’s and a coffee. I paid my check and headed across the street to the library in a bit of a haste, realizing only too late that, at least in the context of my mildly weary state, I had indeed crossed into too-weird territory in my conversation with the friendly woman, who was now probably tipsy (if caffeinated).

Left, Seward Park Library at the turn of the 20th century (photos courtesy of New York Public Library). Right, the library as it looks today.

From the library, I made my way up to the East Village on foot to meet Michael Hirsch. No tequila was involved, and I had plenty of cold water to keep me hydrated. (*See previous blog post for a bit of context on the topics of subway with luggage, and tequila.)

My meeting with Michael Hirsch at Veniero’s Pasticceria, and our stroll around the East Village, did not disappoint. Talking to him is like getting the inside scoop on the garment workers’ strike, Triangle, and the fire, with plenty of nuance and countless poignant details about the lives of the workers.

Piragüero outside the site of the Clinton Street building where a 35-year-old widow from Russia named Julia Rosen lived with her children in 1911. She and her son, Israel, worked at the Triangle Company. Both perished in the fire.

An after-dinner stroll around Bryant Park and the New York Public Library brought the day to a close on a decent note.

But when it came time to leave the hotel Sunday morning, I suddenly didn’t want to. There was a Harry Potter movie marathon on TV, and I thought, how often (not counting illness) do I get to just lie in bed and watch TV? I could take a mini-vacation! I just didn’t feel like dealing with the City. Could New York’s energy, which I’ve always so proudly reveled in, be getting the best of me? And what if I got lost on my trip to Evergreens Cemetery in Brooklyn ?

Still, I couldn’t not go to Evergreens. If I did nothing else, I would go to the cemetery and pay my respects, then I’d spend the rest of the day in the hotel if I still felt like it. So I got over my boo-hooing self, and hopped on the L train to Bushwick Avenue and Aberdeen Street. The cemetery was deserted. It was beautiful, sprawling, old … I got lost about 5 minutes in. It was also very overcast and windy. I tried my best to keep various points of reference in sight so that I wouldn’t become deeply scary-lost.

I also tried flagging down the lone security guard making rounds in a large white sedan; no joy. A small voice inside my head taunted that I should never have left my hotel. Yet I knew even then that I was exactly where I needed to be. I felt at peace, and I knew I’d find the gravesite. After several more minutes (with my husband on the phone reading from Google Maps), I did.

It had started to rain; this brought to mind accounts I’ve read of the burial of the victims in 1911. Countless stones sat atop the base of the monument, placed by previous visitors, and I instantly felt less alone, even though there was no one else there. The only sound, aside from the rain drops, was the subway rumbling in the distance every few minutes. It was a powerful, unforgettable moment. I said a prayer, and felt duly ashamed of my self-pity earlier in the morning. As more people began to arrive to visit other graves, I made my way back to the subway for the ride back to Manhattan with a very full heart. The rain cleared, and the Manhattan skyline came into view.

The rest of the day was spent in the West Village. I stood at Greene Street and Washington Place a good long while, making notes of different details I hadn’t noticed before about the building that once housed Triangle.
I like to think that talking to myself while pacing back and forth and taking notes on this street corner confirmed my place among New York’s eccentrics.
Afterwards, I visited Our Lady of Pompeii Church, where I’ve also written a scene–and where I took the chance to say a quick thank you. The final stop was the Merchant’s House Museum, taking more notes for my novel, in addition to snapping photos of mirrors throughout the home. Why? Read my book!  🙂

Crossing Broadway that afternoon, I overheard a man say to his friend, “My mom always says you can have comfort or courage, not both.” I knew I’d heard that phrase before; two minutes later, Google told me where. Of course it was Brené Brown! The quick search revealed another really good one.

I only headed back to my hotel to get showered and dressed for dinner. Along the way, I noticed a disheveled woman on the subway fighting with an MTA attendant about her MetroPass. It seemed she had swiped it, but hadn’t been able to enter. “It’s unlimited!” she insisted. Then, to no one in particular, she loudly decried, “They’re trying to stop me because I’m bringing people to Christ!” I smiled to myself. Not in the spirit of mocking the poor woman. One thing I love about the Big Apple is the keen reminder it offers that we are all the same. I may not be bringing people to Christ, but I have plenty of experience getting stuck entering a subway station. I did not hurry uncomfortably past this woman. That’s when I knew I got it again, that we’re all the same. I was back on track. At dinner, I treated myself to an outstanding mofongo at a Puerto Rican restaurant called Sazón.
Tried so hard to finish it …
Upon returning to my hotel room at the very end of the day, I got really comfortable, and watched the final installment in the Harry Potter movies. Afterwards, I had my first real night’s sleep in several days. It had been a good day. A very full, fast-paced New York day. I no longer felt ashamed of the discomfort I’d had previously. After all, one of my fears was realized; I did get lost by myself in the big old cemetery on a gloomy day. And yet, I was okay. So instead, I blessed my vulnerability and the realization that it hadn’t been the end of the story. I had walked through that vulnerability and come out stronger on the other side. Noted. I still have no publisher, no agent, etc., but I’m going to keep walking through it…!
An ad on the subway … Really?! Ah, I love this City.
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Ask and it shall be given. Part 2, Oprah and Alanis.

In 2012 and 2013, my sister Laura and I attended a conference in DC hosted by the publisher Hay House, called I Can Do It. It is an annual event in different cities worldwide that features authors like Brian Weiss, Christiane Northrup, and Gregg Braden. It has been a fantastic time, not to mention an awesome opportunity for Laura and me to have girl time together, away from our husbands and kids for an entire weekend! We’ve resolved to make this, or at least something like it, an annual tradition.
Laura and I. My first photo with Brian Weiss. One of my favorite Power Point slides, by Gregg Braden.

A few weeks after last year’s I Can Do ItI learned that there had been another conference–which I had just missed–in which Alanis Morissette and Elizabeth Gilbert had both been among the speakers. Hang on, what do you mean I could go somewhere and listen to Alanis Morissette and Elizabeth Gilbert speak? Don’t ask me why this thought had never occurred to me before, but it hadn’t.

Now I was on a mission. And I said to my husband, “Next year, I will not go to I Can Do It. I am saving our money … I need to go to this other conference!” I started checking in regularly, but neither Alanis nor Elizabeth appeared as one of the confirmed speakers this year.

This didn’t faze me. And I somehow knew that if seeing these fabulous women in person was a possibility, 2014 was the year when that would happen. Was this rational thinking? Perhaps not. Listen, some somedays don’t need to happen this year. Some day I will go to Paris again–not this year, and that’s okay. But the distant unknown future is not the place for all of my somedays. Where’s the point in that? I don’t dream in abstract wouldn’t-it-be-nice terms. Uh-uh. So I kept my eyes open for something–anything.

Then in January, a brochure from the Omega Institute arrived at our house, announcing the following workshop.

Shut the front door. My heart started racing; it seemed too good to be true! My husband was in Indonesia for work that entire week, and I emailed him immediately. “Honey, we need to talk!” Within 24 hours, I had booked the weekend.

In the weeks leading up, I wasn’t certain what to expect. James Van Praagh appeared as the lead teacher, and I started to wonder whether Alanis would be there the entire weekend, or maybe just for one of the sessions. (I like James, but my love for Alanis runs deep, and has done for years–I dedicated a blog post to her a few months ago.)

Friday night arrives, and there they both were!

There she is! And there’s James!

And so it was, a weekend with James and Alanis. She wasn’t just physically there for the entire workshop. She was present, warm, funny, real. James was humble, emotional, very available and easy to talk to, and also funny. Together, their chemistry was fantastic. And the group in attendance was made up of individuals who were all kinds of awesome.

We talked about creativity and art. Harnessing the lousy feelings in life and redirecting them creatively. Meditation and prayer. Children and parenting. Finding strength rather than weakness in our unique sensitivities. Giving ourselves permission to truly exercise our self-expression. Getting over what other people think of us. There was also dancing both Saturday and Sunday…I danced with Alanis Morissette.

You know when the reality is even better than anything you could have dreamed? That. The words that best capture what it felt like for me are, “May I always remember what this feels like!” I thought that over and over again during the weekend. I’d wanted a lecture with Alanis Morissette. What I got was an entire weekend, in an intimate setting, discussing art, love, spirituality, and healing, along with the incredible James Van Praagh, too. And it had only been six months since I dreamed it!

When my husband asked me as I came home Sunday night, “So how was it?!” I burst into tears. For days, I cried happy tears every time I talked about it. I honestly still can’t believe it all really happened, and I sit in awe as I write this blog post.

James and Alanis created a Facebook page for the event, and these photos were posted on there. I’ve circled myself in red.

It was kind of like my Oprah Show moment, back in 2009. I had dialed the number you were supposed to call for getting seats at a taping of an Oprah Show countless times. Late one night, I submitted a form for last minute tickets online, thinking, “What the hell, it’s worth a shot.” It only took a few days…

Now, here’s something that only Oprah fans will likely get: When you come home one day and see Harpo Studios among the missed calls on your caller i.d., you know something special is happening. They left a message, with a number for me to call back! This was a Monday, and they had tickets available for a taping that Thursday. I can’t remember exactly what I said. It was probably something like, “yes, God yes, hell yes!” And get this. I was able to use frequent flyer miles, and only paid around $25 for the round-trip ticket. Also? My classes that semester were Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays; I flew to Chicago Wednesday evening, sat at a taping of the Oprah Show Thursday morning, flew back, and was back in class Friday morning. Never missed a minute of work!

Holy mother of all clichés. Wait for it, ’cause you know it’s coming: Dreams come true, man. This sh*t is real! And I don’t think I am any better or prettier or more interesting or deserving than anyone. I do, however, dare to dream big, like my parents taught me.
These are my go-to moments. Whenever I feel lousy, I think of the miracle that all my loved ones are well and healthy, and I revisit the wonder of what’s possible when I give myself permission to really dream it.
So instead of the I Can Do It conference, guess where Laura and I are spending our sisters’ weekend this year? See photo below. One of the speakers scheduled to be there? Elizabeth Gilbert. I’m telling you … !
(You can read Part 1 of Ask and it shall be given here.)
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