Tag Archives: Dreams come true

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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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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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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You won’t know if you never ask. Part 1, Paris.

I hate being told no as much as anyone, and sometimes I’ve chosen to play it safe and haven’t bothered asking for something. But I’ve realized I regret not asking more than I lament being told no, and some good stories have come from the times I’ve been brave enough to ask. One of these times was ten years ago–this week!–when my boyfriend David and I were on vacation in Paris. It was Easter weekend. David and I had been dating about a year and half.

We took a red-eye flight from DC to Paris and arrived in the late morning. After a long taxi ride and a good nap and shower in the hotel, we headed out to dinner, stopping at the nearest ATM to withdraw Euros. The bank was already closed for the day, but with a machine right on the sidewalk, that was fine. David got cash first, then I swiped my card, entered my PIN and desired amount of Euros (300), and waited. The machine gave me 200 Euros. Then the receipt printed, indicating that the machine had given me all 300 Euros, and that the transaction was complete.
Well … !
Shit!
Right?
Obviously we’d have to come back the next morning and try to get the rest of my money. It felt like a long shot and I was already feeling self-conscious about it, but 100 Euros, then and now, is a lot of money. What was the worst they could do? Say no, right? But I also had this bizarre fear that they’d arrest me and throw me in a French prison like Jean Valjean. (I have weird fears like that.)

Breakfast the next morning consisted of a baguette each for David and me. This was the thinnest, daintiest baguette I’ve ever seen in my life, and it had about an inch’s worth of perfectly softened salted butter spread along the inside. It was easily the simplest meal we had that entire trip, and anything I write ten years later couldn’t do justice to the beauty and comfort of that perfectly fresh crusty bread and butter with piping hot café au lait for me and hot chocolate for David. The non-English-speaking waitress was also a delight. We spent our time with her shrugging and chuckling at our mutual incomprehension, even as we still managed to understand each other on a level that we knew counted for something. Encouraged by such a breakfast, and “armed” with my ATM card, the receipt from the previous evening’s transaction, and my passport, we were ready to face the bank.

“Parlez-vous anglais?” we asked.

“No,” they answered.

I knew only a little bit of French, and the situation wasn’t super easy to explain. But once English was ruled out, we knew that our only hope for communication lay in my multi-lingual abilities. My German in college was decent so I tried that. No dice. And I’d studied Portuguese in grad school.

“Pas de portugais.”

I should say that this entire time and despite our linguistic limitations, the folks at the bank seemed genuinely interested in helping. In my anxiety, I looked at David and said something to him in English that included a Spanish word or two, probably Dios mío.

Then I hear, “Espagnol? Oui. Un peu.”

So what’s French for “Duh!” No, it had not occurred to me to ask about Spanish. But there it was, one male employee who spoke very limited Spanish.

I explained what had happened to him as slowly and carefully as I could, and watched as he translated for his colleagues. A female colleague then got up and left the room with a large key ring. The keys to the vault? Do banks still have vaults? Anyway, I assumed she was in charge. While she was away, the rest of the employees kept talking amongst themselves in French. After enough time had passed, I grew nervous and said to David something along the lines of, “Either she can’t get the vault to open, or this is the part where they confiscate my passport, cut up my ATM card, and have us arrested for trying to rob the bank, you know, go all Interpol/Bourne Identity on our asses.”

A few minutes later, the woman with the keys reemerged. She was looking at a newly-printed receipt she had in one hand. In her other hand? My 100 Euros!  Honestly, for all the misgivings we’d had, it all seemed rather easy once it was over. Something in their system probably confirmed the truth of my story. We’d been so nervous, yet all we’d had to do was ask. To celebrate, I went out and bought this hat which I’ve never worn since.

Pont Neuf with new Parisian hat.
Know what else? After dinner at a tiny, ridiculously charming restaurant on Île Saint-Louis that night, David and I got engaged! Ah, Paris in the springtime. It was a very good trip.
 
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Valentine’s Days Past and Present

This Valentine’s Day marked the 10th anniversary
of me not being proposed to. I’d been
dating this man for just over a year and all signs pointed to marriage. A
dinner reservation was made at The Melting Pot, the place we had gone to months
earlier the night before we first exchanged I love yous. I was already a
little nervous as we were taken to our table. Then the woman who seated us said,
“You should know this is a lucky table. The couple who sat here right before
you got engaged! Isn’t that exciting?! Other diners were taking pictures; it
was oh so romantic.” Cue stomach ache. I’m afraid I don’t even remember much about
the meal that night. But no, our “lucky” table did not bear witness to a second
marriage proposal that particular evening. And the disappointment did feel
pretty crushing at the time.

 

This year’s Valentine’s Day flowers

Timing really is everything. My date that night was already
researching engagement rings and planning a phone call to my father—I
come from an old school family. A proposal did come that same year. Less than
two months after Valentine’s Day. In Paris. And yes, it was very romantic, so much more so than it
would have been amidst bubbling pots of melted cheese. There was no view of
a lit up Notre-Dame de Paris as backdrop at The Melting Pot in DC, thank you
very much. Not that it’s a competition between the woman who was proposed to
at The Melting Pot and me. But I win! (Kidding, sort of.) I made sure this year to say
to my husband, “Hey, happy 10th anniversary of the night we did not
get engaged!” To which he responded, rolling his eyes, “You say that like it
didn’t work out in the end!” We laughed. And we both still–sort of–want to
smack the seating hostess who put a damper on that Valentine’s Day for us. She couldn’t have known, of course. That’s okay.

It just took a little more time, and patience
Fast forward six years. Valentine’s Day 2010, I was pregnant
out to *there*, and watching the
Vancouver Winter Olympics from my couch in DC was the closest I got to physical fitness of any kind.
That’s unless you count bicep curls, chugging the chocolate milk by the
gallons. Hey, I was pregnant and needed the calcium. And I needed something to
wash down the Nutella-smothered croissants (yes, plural) that were my nighttime
snack about 30 minutes before bed every night.
Two other things stand out about that one. That Valentine’s Day came a few days after the
record-breaking East Coast blizzard that became known as Snowmaggedon. If you looked out
onto our street after snow had been falling for two days, every single car was
still buried in snow for hours and hours … except for our little SUV. It was
all pristine whiteness as far as the eye could see, with this shock of bright,
shiny red (the color of our car) outside our house. The wonderful man who didn’t
propose 10 Valentine’s Days ago had diligently dug out our car and cleared several
yards’ worth of street in the event that his wife went into labor. This was
also the weekend that the women in my Puerto Rican family—my mother, sister,
sister-in-law, and nieces, the women I love best and most fiercely in this life—flew
up to DC to throw a baby shower for us. My nieces played in snow for the first
time in their life. We had amazing food and great laughs. Anytime we went out,
we’d walk hand-in-hand or linking elbows to keep from slipping on the snow and
ice. It was one of the happiest, most unforgettable Valentine’s Days of my
entire life. I felt so loved!

 

Snowmageddon 2010. My husband was getting geared up to start digging …
In February of 2013, our son started preschool two mornings
a week. It was his and my first real separation since he was born. And it was
tough. He cried for his mama quite a lot. And Mama did her share of crying when
he wasn’t looking. Valentine’s Day fell on his second week of school. Somehow, I
(literally) missed the memo that each child was asked to bring Valentine’s
cards and treats for the entire class. I was the only parent there with a child
who wouldn’t stop crying, and who hadn’t brought anything for the other kids.
Basically I spent it apologizing to all the other parents. “Hi, yes, I’m the
mother of the new—screaming—boy over there. We didn’t bring anything for
Valentine’s Day, sorry. But nice to meet you! How about a play date…?” It wasn’t
the happiest.

One year later, the boy adores school and would go every day
if he could. “Bye, Mama! … Go, Mama!” He says at drop-off. “Okay, I’m going, I’m
going …” I respond.

I spent this Valentine’s Day enjoying snow day #2 this week,
as well as all the fruits of my cooking and baking from the previous day. It
was also spent packing for my trip to New York City. I am writing this blog on
the Amtrak train with snow blowing outside the window! I have developed a tradition
of traveling to Manhattan by myself every year in February. It is by far the
most affordable month (wonder why that is) and it allows me to continue research for my first
novel (now 114,000 words-, 390 pages- strong) in this “concrete jungle where dreams
are made of…”
13 Feb 2014 cooking and baking. And I couldn’t resist a food shot.
I hope you had a very happy Valentine’s Day. Who cares if it’s
cheesy and commercialized! It’s a day for celebrating love and chocolate. And I
hope you had plenty of both wherever you were.
And if something you deem important didn’t happen to come true for you this time, maybe be
patient, give it time …
View from the window of my DC-NYC train

 

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Extreme novelist: Living the dream!

The eight-week class called Extreme Novelist has ended! Before I can say anything about it, I need to share with you a little bit about the journey before that.

I wanted to write books since I first started reading books by Roald Dahl, Beverly Cleary, Judy Blume, etc. in the early eighties. Another favorite book back then was called Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days! by Stephen Manes. Spoiler alert. After the initial scenes where the main character does a bunch of funny things in pursuit of perfection, the instruction for the third and final day is this: do nothing. Because if you do nothing, you don’t risk getting it wrong. This sums up how I dealt with my dream of writing for 30 years.

 

Wordoverpixels.com

In graduate school—late nineties—I started to buy books about creative writing. I kept them hidden at the bottom of a drawer in my apartment, where I lived alone. Ten more years went by and nothing. Okay, not nothing. I did write several academic papers and one doctoral dissertation. Once that was done, I still wanted more. Stephen King, in his book called On Writing, says this, “to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” I certainly was doing a lot of both, only it was all academic stuff. My heart and soul weren’t fully in it, and I was so burned out that I couldn’t see beyond it.

Aside from academic fatigue, if I even thought of saying that I wanted to write fiction, I felt that I might as well be saying, “I want to be a Hollywood movie star.” I had the paralyzing fear that others would think: delusions of grandeur. Honestly? I myself thought I had to be some kind of superior being to feel worthy of saying it, let alone pursuing it.

I had been married over four years before I told my husband, the person I share my bed with, that I wanted to write fiction. It was summer of 2009 when I “came out.” Finally! I’d also had an idea for a book that very summer, after a trip to the Tenement Museum and the Merchant’s House Museum, both in New York City.

urbanspiritual.org page by Terence Stone

Emboldened by the fact that I had shared my dream with my husband and my mother, and neither had laughed or balked, I signed up for a creative writing class that summer. And another sickening fear I’d held about “writing types” seemed to come true. I got the impression that the folks were spending an absurd amount of time and energy engaging in a deep-high-brow-interestingness competition. Nooooo! Ugh. I never even finished the class. It was so disheartening. Plus, by then I had learned I was pregnant. Soon
after, I resumed my teaching job and was thoroughly absorbed by the work of my day job and planning for baby.

 

Funny how things work out. Because it was motherhood that had the effect
nothing else had. Simply going back to my old self was no longer an option to feel fully like me. And in order to encourage my son to always be himself and follow his bliss, I  knew I had to teach him by example. That’s when I knew I had no choice but to face my dream head on. This was it, man. And the assault of fear, doubt, and embarrassment made its appearance, right on cue. The difference now was, I didn’t have a choice. What I had was an urgency to get over myself and just do it.

I began the research for my book and started to write. Trips to New York followed. I met the fabulous Merchant’s House Museum historian, Mary
Knapp, whose book on the history of the home has been an invaluable resource.

Slowly, soooo slowly, I began to tell people, “I’m writing a book.” It’s one of the most vulnerable things I have ever, ever declared in my life. It makes me feel naked. I am not a very naked person. In fact, I sometimes still follow
up the statement with body language that conveys a timid dismissiveness, “I’m
writing a book but it will probably suck anyway and please, please don’t think I am an arrogant a-hole!”

Week 8 milestone: 70,000 words

I also signed up for the eight-week class this fall, taught by the novelist Kathryn Johnson. It involved a commitment to write 90 minutes a day, six days a week. Amid the countless gifts I’ve received since I began this journey in earnest, forming a rigorous writing habit is a huge one. I no longer get hung up on perfecting (please … trying to perfect) a scene, the language, the structure, or waiting to be enraptured by an otherworldly fit of inspiration. I make the time, sit my butt down wherever I can, and I work, work, work. By the end of week 8, I had written 70,000 words. The finish line for the first draft of my first novel is within sight. And the dream to have it finished by my 40th birthday looks well within reach! Very importantly, I have also maintained a steadfast writing schedule, even writing every day of our family trip for Thanksgiving. Now, I don’t mean to speak in clichés, but maybe I’m about to. Wanting to do this has been like a like allowing a major part of me to breathe. Either I stayed in the safety of my comfort zone, or I finally let that part of me breathe. Freeing myself of my comfort zone, I discovered one of the weirdest and truest clichés: That regardless of the outcome, the process is in itself its own reward. Just another one of the countless gifts … living the life I always dreamed, and breathing easier!

My husband took this photo and captioned it “Extreme attitude.” This is me: 1) Wearing the t-shirt my writing teacher made for her super-popular class, 2) Feeling a little naked (in the figurative sense) but with some sass to show that I’m proud of it, 3) Doing an awesome duck face
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Report: Week One of Writing “Boot Camp”

 

So.
Yes.
My new novel-writing schedule of ninety minutes a day, six
days a week has been kicking my Puerto Rican behind. There are many, many
logistical issues, which are not to be underestimated.
But one concept that has really been at the forefront for me
this week has been what I am going to refer to as tolerance of ambiguity. I first became formally familiar with this
concept in my first year of graduate school. I was in a class about teaching
Spanish as a second/foreign language, and tolerance of ambiguity was discussed
as a powerful indicator of a successful foreign language learner. Though I
wasn’t consciously aware of it in my first experience as this type of learner, I
know I must have used tolerance of ambiguity very successfully in some form or
another when I learned English as a young child when Spanish was my first
language. Basically, you know you are occupying one room at a time in a large building
full of many other rooms, most of which remain dark and closed off to you. But
you push through, putting in the time and
plenty of elbow grease, until eventually all the rooms have been opened and lit up brilliantly for you, and you have been
granted the power to move in and out of them with complete freedom. As a
bilingual who also happens to speak a few other languages with varying degrees
of ability, I can tell you, there is a very real sense of transcendence when this
happens.
Since learning to apply the concept of tolerance of
ambiguity to language learning, I have also applied it in many other areas of my
life. You accept the unknown, bide your time, and continue to work through it.
I often deployed it when I was dating. And I still do anytime I read a novel, a
suspenseful story where every chapter is a cliffhanger. Or when I meet
a new person that I can’t read and what I would really like is to be able to
“figure them out.” Going on a trip to a brand new place. Starting anything new. Parenthood! Parenthood and
accepting the unknown: Subject for another time.
Writing my first novel is challenging my tolerance of
ambiguity in many new fun—and annoying—ways. And it’s different from
cliffhanger chapters in a book I am reading. Because that is a finished product
where the resolution to the ambiguity has been built in already. By someone
else, thank you. My only investment is in turning the pages. And it’s an easy
one ultimately, because in those cases, generally speaking, I know the unknowns have been resolved,
the loose ends nicely woven together.
But now that it is my
work to do the weaving? My mystery “building”
where most rooms are still closed off and in the dark? These are just some of
the questions/issues I have confronted this week:
Where will one particular story line go?
How, exactly, do the different story lines come together
toward the end? Right now they are like hoses that are flailing around waiting
for me to tame them, to tie them together, perhaps not in one perfectly
straight line, but in something that at least resembles a cohesive whole.
Am I going to end up getting rid of this entire scene anyway?
So why am I focusing on it this long?
When should this or that issue be introduced? How much does this character know/see?
For the characters that need to die, how, exactly, will they
die? (I’m like Emma Thompson in the movie Stranger
Than Fiction
, only she is a chain-smoking Brit and I am a nonsmoking Puerto
Rican. Yes, because that’s the only difference.)
How much am I willing to piss off my would-be readers by
hinting at things that don’t get spelled out for several chapters? Do I even
have it in me to build this kind of tension like this?
Will this ever be a finished product that I will hold in my
hands? Will anyone else, besides my husband, my parents, and my siblings, ever hold
it in their hands?
One day I wrote 1800 words. One day I wrote just over 900.
Some days I stare at the computer with the beginnings of a stomachache because nothing! is coming to me. Other times my
fingers on the keyboard can’t keep up with what I am thinking, and I start getting antsy and making
notes in different places and wondering when I am going to have time to get
back to these notes, how I am going to find them all, and maybe if I spent more
time WRITING and less time thinking and making notes I wouldn’t have to wonder
this in the first place.
Again, these are just some of the questions. But I accept
them because I have seen the payoff, time and again, of embracing the unknown
and tolerating moments—or years—of ambiguity. And the truth is I feel so alive
as I do this that that is enough. This
is its own payoff in this moment of uncertainty. Not simply because it has to
be, but because, actually, it is!

Photo quote from http://www.stephenking.com/community/showthread.php/21675-Best-Stephen-King-Quotes/page5

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