Tag Archives: Kindness

When white privilege isn’t white: Confessions of a complacent Latina

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, there was a fire at a garment factory in New York City. Within less than 30 minutes, the fire had claimed the lives of 146 mostly young immigrant women. I’ve been so moved by this tragedy since first hearing about it, felt so connected to the personal stories of these women, that it inspired me to write my first novel. So on Friday, March 24 of this year, I was taking an early morning bus from DC to New York to attend the commemorative events.

Shirtwaists carried in honor of the victims.

I arrived at Union Station an hour before my bus and headed straight for the restroom, which was occupied almost entirely by homeless women, doing what we all do when we first wake up in the morning. Brushing teeth, fixing hair, looking in the mirror; some were putting on makeup. Bags with their few possessions sat open on the floor nearby.

Now, I know homeless people “live” in bus and train stations, and it’s obvious on the most basic level that they’d use those restrooms. Still, it was jarring to me. I didn’t feel like being confronted with an uncomfortable reality before six o’clock in the morning. And I wasn’t just confronted with it, I was sharing the bathroom with it, competing with it for space in front of the mirror before I’d even had my morning coffee.

Crowd gathered outside the historic factory building at the Corner of Greene Street and Washington Place to honor the memory of the fire.

Facing uncomfortable realities is a ubiquitous part of life. But it’s somehow become a daily occurrence in the nightmare shit show that’s descended on our country since last November. It’s constant, inescapable.

And I must confess, with due self-awareness, that I’d spent the past few years of my life in a state of relative complacency. Sure I’m Hispanic and have at times encountered some real doozies in prejudiced stupidity … you’d be surprised if I told you the source of it sometimes. But as a Puerto Rican, I’ve been a US citizen since birth. I am very assimilated, and my hometown for the past 20 years has been Washington DC, a known “coastal elite bubble.” My son attends a bilingual school among many other children of diverse ethnic, socioeconomic, cultural, and gender-identity backgrounds.

I knew these past several years that things are far from perfect. I’d just been sufficiently untouched by bad stuff that I didn’t (need to) sweat it too much. For all my education, travels, so-called sophistication, for all my pursuit of diversity and my righteous outrage over systems that oppress the underprivileged, even as a woman of color, I’d embraced the safety of a life where my privilege was hardly ever questioned, much less threatened. I liked things that way, took them for granted.  I didn’t ignore the undercurrents of egregious inequality everywhere, but I did, for all practical purposes, choose to remain silent about them.

A lot of folks have articulated well how the recent election has awoken a bunch of us out of our complacency. That it’s a good thing this is happening. Like the beautiful essay We were made for these times, which inspired the quote that appears at the top of this post. It’s all so true. If we all waited for injustice to affect us directly before we spoke out for what’s right, the wrongs we humans inflict on one another would never be righted.

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. … It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.
What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts, adding, adding to, adding more, continuing … One of the most calming and powerful actions you can do to intervene in a stormy world is to stand up and show your soul. Soul on deck shines like gold in dark times.”

It’s just so easy to get bogged down, too. By outrage, powerlessness, uncertainty about what to do next. Every single day —EVERY. DAY.— I alternate between feeling grateful and determined to stay woke, and longing for the familiar comfort zone of the harbor I had known.

Back in the ladies’ room at Union Station, I noticed the homeless women were getting themselves ready to look just like any of the other travelers waiting to board a train or bus. I saw some again outside the restroom, and it worked well, they completely blended in. Had I not seen them in a more private moment, I’d never have known they were homeless.

In fact, I realized I’d seen one of them before, on a previous trip. My train was delayed, she was sitting next to me at the gate, and thinking she was a fellow traveler, I’d asked her if she was also waiting for the same train. She snapped and yelled that no she wasn’t, then grabbed her bag and stormed off. I remember feeling rather stung by her unkindness.

But you know, I’d just spent the morning doing the same exact thing as those women, dressing for a part. In my case, the part of an educated, moderately sophisticated urban wife and mother, an Americanized Puerto Rican who teaches Spanish, who reads, writes and travels. And please-god let me look the part of someone who’s written a story worthy of being read by more than 20 people. Most of the time though, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing and I suffer from crippling impostor syndrome.

Every year, volunteers with street chalk visit the homes of the fire victims throughout the city, and write a commemorative message on the sidewalk. This was my first year participating. It was humbling, and an honor.

So, I could profess to feel a deep bond with women who perished in a fire over a hundred years ago, but bemoaned having to share a bathroom with homeless women on my way to honor the century-old tragedy? And this is what it boils down to. I’ve embraced, for decades, a sense of empathy in abstract, in theory, removed. Injustice hadn’t touched me in any real sense, so I could toot my own political correctness horn but remain generally silent about it. This is what we refer to when we talk about white privilege, or privilege in general, and why we need to keep talking about it. It’s something that I, even as a person of color, have been guilty of.

Something’s shifted, though, within me. It’s baby steps. One day at a time. But it’s true and irrevocable. Because our mutual destiny is inescapable and “tied in a single garment.” The homeless woman who yelled at me? I wasn’t exactly kind to her, either, on our second encounter. But she absolutely is my fellow traveler. So were the women in the restroom that morning. So are you. And remaining silent as though the plight of less fortunate sisters and brothers here and now isn’t mine and ours to bear is simply no longer an option. And so maybe I will look back on this time, and I will be grateful to my intolerant, unkind teachers after all.

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Back to School

My son Eric started first grade last week. You’ve all seen the funny memes, gifs, and videos of parents doing a gleeful happy dance when school resumes at the end of summer. For some reason though, I really don’t feel that way. So I thought I’d break it down a little to understand why.

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First  –and I know I’m speaking as an at-home parent–  I like going at least a few weeks with absolutely nothing structured to do. I loved lazy summers as a kid, loved them as an adult before parenthood, and love them still as a parent. We get to sleep in and take a long time eating breakfast, no lunchbox needs packing, no running out the door, we travel, go out for the day or stay home … we just get to hang out. (And yes, there’s also a lot more TV. So what? It’s summer!) Why would I be in a hurry to be in a hurry every morning again? For the most part, I’m really, really not.

There’s also the part where I miss him and feel nostalgic, plain and simple. I’m sure it’s not unique of me to feel occasionally sentimental about the passage of time. You’ve heard it before: It goes so fast. And the feeling tends to hit me the hardest at the start of a new school year. When we turn a year older or mark the beginning of a new calendar year, we do celebrate, but then we go back to our relatively unchanged routines. A lot more changes with each new school year.

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Kindergarten graduation in June.

For instance, Eric graduated kindergarten in June. But it’s not until I see the new crop of kindergartners and their parents at school now that it really sinks in. There are new teachers and new classmates. He has a locker now instead of a cubby. He’s literally moved up one floor in the school building. He knows he’s one of the bigger kids now and very proudly displays a lot more independence in many different areas.

So between laziness and nostalgia, I love summer and feel less than thrilled about back to school.

And yet …

If researchers were to conduct studies on when even the most well-meaning parents are most likely to lose their patience with their kids and, shall we say, speak to them in a slightly raised tone of voice, I suspect they’d find a correlation between this phenomenon and summer, particularly its final weeks. I think both kids and parents get stressed knowing school’s about to start. No matter how much we love our school, there’s anxiety over change and the unknown.

Obviously, it’s all the togetherness, too. Let’s face it, Eric’s used to not being with his parents 24/7. And that’s a good thing. An important thing. My kid honestly doesn’t want me around all the time, and by the end of a few weeks of that, he’s probably ready to spend several hours a day where I don’t see or mediate most of his actions.

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Hugging it out in Venice, Italy this summer.

From my end, the more we’re together at home in the context of a daily routine, the greater the danger of me believing the terrible delusion that I can control all the influences my kid is exposed to, and that in the degree to which I control that, I can rest assured that he’ll mirror back and validate me and my values. I think plenty of parents, stay-at-home moms especially, are vulnerable to this. In the first week of school alone, Eric has come home saying some things that make me want to ask him where he heard it, who said it and in what context, what he said in response, and what he thinks about it all. In other words I’d thoroughly dissect everything with him. Then I’d tell myself it’s so that he has a chance to discuss and process it. But I’d bet that a good eight times out of ten, I’m doing it just so that whatever he’s exposed to goes through the filter of Mom, and I once again have the illusion of control.

So with everything Eric says that comes from school, I try to stay aware, and check myself first. If it’s something that could compromise his safety or ethics, I pursue it. If it just threatens me and my delusions of control over my kid, I rein it in. His knowing I’m not a needy hovering parent is at least as important as knowing I’m there whenever he needs me.

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More summer fun!

So, do I celebrate back to school? Yes and no, I guess.

Parenting someone so young and sweet is so much more precious that I ever imagined. And the separation we experience every year at back to school, more so than at birthdays or New Year’s, reminds me all too keenly of how crazy fast these years are moving. My heart aches a little. The tug is real.

But there’s something to be said for making it through another school year and summer together. It’s not a flippant reveling in having him “out of my hair” again though. Yes, there’s relief that the end-of-summer jitters have passed and the year has started out well. Yes, I do better when I have some time to myself for a few hours five days a week, and he does better when a portion of his time and interactions with people and with information aren’t controlled by his mom. Most importantly though, my boy is slowly yet assertively making his own way in the world. I honor that. That, I celebrate.

 

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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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No more Miss Nice Girl (My turning 40 manifesto)

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It’s been a while since I’ve blogged. The summer felt both long and drawn out, and short and sweet. It’s Saturday of Labor Day Weekend as I start this post. On Tuesday I’ll be 40. Friday is the anniversary of 9/11. A week ago the world lost Wayne Dyer. That made me pretty sad. Then a few days later, our human family lost a young Syrian boy named Aylan, and I swear, my heart –like so many others’– turned to shards. I tucked my own little boy into bed the night after those wrenching haunting photos appeared, then cried tears of gratitude (for our safety), denial, shame, angry powerlessness…

All this hand-wringing on the eve of one’s fifth decade really gets a person thinking. I can’t take on the weight of the world. SO WHAT CAN I DO?  Well. In my own small way, one thing I’ve decided to do in honor of my 40th birthday is to stop being nice.

Listen, I’ve been nice long enough. Nice paired with judgmental. Nice while prone to comparisons and competitiveness. Nice and secretly angry. And you know what? No. I’ve also been on the receiving end of similar types of niceness. Nice plus condescending? Oh, yeah, always a doozy. And how many times has someone been perfectly nice while slapping me with a terrific underhanded insult? Like I can’t tell? Please. Stop it-just-STOP IT!

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It’s not that “nice” is bad. It’s just so ubiquitous and tired. It conjures (for me, at least) comfort zone complacency and stagnation. It is all too often used as a front for self-righteousness and passive-aggressive derision. Plus it’s on a steep slippery slope to inane flattery without substance. And I want off  the damn slope!

In the face of bad stuff happening in the world, what’s the stuff that matters? What have four decades of living and loving and wins and losses taught me? Nice doesn’t cut it anymore. I want to strive for depth, authenticity, empathy, love. I don’t want to compete with you. I want the light in me to see the freaking light in you. And I want to tell the TRUTH about it all.

The whole, “If you have nothing nice to say … ?” Meh. I’m not a big fan. My kid is being taught about kindness, love, intention, about saying what he means and meaning what he says, and owning it. I don’t want him to settle for inserting some prepackaged PC response on cue. I want him to give a genuine shit! About the planet, his place in it, and how he coexists with its fellow occupants.

Also? I’ve never been softer (and I don’t just mean in my midsection) or sappier. I’ve never felt a greater urgency to say “I love you,” usually with a hard squeeze, to the people I love. I cry a lot more easily. There’s a space somewhere in my heart that I’ve only just begun to uncover in the five years since becoming a mom. I have a feeling this space runs deep, and I want to both nurture it and draw from it. I often look at my boy and say, “If you could see what I see every time I look at you … !” And once, after hearing it enough times, he finally said, “What, Mom? What would happen?” I love that he made me finish the thought. So I did; I said, “You would always, always know that you are good enough, and worthy of love, exactly as you are.” I fret often over whether he knows he is precious and beloved. I mean, does he really, really know it? I want to plant as many kisses on his sweet, soft face as I possibly can before he decides it’s uncool to let his mom do that.

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I want to remember to thank my husband every single day for being my best friend and cheerleader and the best imaginable co-parent. Ever. I want to try to yell at idiot other drivers less. I want to keep smiling, hell I want to smile more. I’ll probably share more cheesy Facebook memes with positive messages and lighthearted silliness. Why? Because I refuse to give in to cynicism. These four decades have hardened me in some good places and softened me in other very important ones.

I will continue to assert my faith in the good in humankind and in the power of love. I resolve to align myself, as much as possible, with things that are good. Not perfect or (god(dess) help us) superior. Not PC or ceaselessly angrily militant for one cause or another. Just good. Loving. Authentic. It’s not likely that I’ll be housing refugees or marching in protest against this and that. But I do promise to cultivate truth and peace in my world. And I pray that for now, that will be enough.

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One new website – one “new” blog – one (very good) old friend

The “launch” of my author website compels me to ponder some hard questions –hard for  me, at least– regarding the pursuit of attention and popularity. The cold hard truth is I created this website, in part, for attention. Ew. Oh! I cringe to admit it. But it’s true. So let’s tell the truth and deal with it.

Attention is something I tolerate reasonably well, in the sense that I don’t have much fear of public speaking. I also don’t seek to be in the center of it, though. That’s just weird.

Popularity mystifies me to no freaking end. It obviously overlaps with attention, but I find it so much more elusive and foreign. My confusion goes all the way back to my first dance party in junior high, when I was stunned to realize that some girls got asked to dance, while others didn’t. I had no idea why, I still don’t, and I’ve been asking myself this question ever since. In my years of research*, I’ve concluded that highly popular people fall into two general categories.

1) Those who earn their popularity in their own, legitimate right. They are friendly, generous, gregarious people, and very easy to be around. I have had the good fortune of being friends with several such people, and would never begrudge them their popularity. Because they’ve got that special something that others –including me– gravitate to and so enjoy.

Then there’s category 2) The type who are prone to meanness, yet somehow manage to persuade others of their inherent superiority and charisma. Think about it, the schoolyard bullies were often also popular kids. Now they’re just grown up. I know a few such people, and goodness knows I steer clear of that snark as much as possible. Even with my 40th birthday around the corner, I still can’t see it coming sometimes.

But enough about the meanies.

I don’t know if I fall into either type, because I’ve always been somewhere in the middle on the popularity spectrum. Trust me, if I could speak the language that makes one “popular,” I’d be milking it to no end right now as I pursue the publication of my first novel. I wouldn’t say I’m reclusive, even if the writing life has made me more so. But I’ve never had a ton of friends either. I’m confounded and intimidated at the prospect of making new friends as a grownup, and in moments of weakness, I feel certain that everyone —everyone!— has more friends, and makes new ones more easily, than me. My point is, I have few, but they are good ones!

2Gorky1999

December 1999 – at one of the epic parties Gorky was known for during graduate school

The first friend I made when I moved DC was Gorky Cruz. It was late August 1997, our first day as graduate students in Spanish Linguistics at Georgetown University. Gorky is a solid type 1 popular guy. He has an enviable group of friends who are like his family. His easy, kind, generous disposition makes it easy to shrug my shoulders and say simply, “Of course he has all those good people around him.”

Gorky has been with me at countless birthdays. He was there the night I met my husband David, was at our wedding, and has come to at least one of my kid’s birthday parties. He continues to have wonderful gatherings at his home, where everyone feels welcome and happy. And when I asked if he could help with my website and migrating my blog from Blogger to WordPress –with nothing more than a homecooked dinner as pay– he did not hesitate to say yes.

25thbdaycropped

September 2000 – my 25th birthday

Gorky has been patient and knowledgeable with me. He hasn’t done the work for me, but has walked me through the nuts and bolts of this stuff so I gain the know-how to do it myself. He’s never talked down to me even though his knowledge of techie stuff makes me look like a preschooler –turns out that using Facebook and shopping on Amazon does not equip a person in knowing what to do with a website of their own. There is no way I could have done any of this without him.

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June 2015 – working on my website with Gorky

*When I say ‘years of research,’ I mean the thirty years since that first party in junior high. Thirty years later, I’ve come up short in seeking answers regarding the question of popularity. But I’m all grown up too now, so I know that more questions than answers is okay sometimes. It’s okay to not be surrounded by a gaggle of friends, and to even endure the occasional case of FOMO. I am grateful for the good people in my life, and hope to meet more. I’m honored to call Gorky Cruz my friend of 18 years. This first post on my new blog is for him! Gracias, Gorky!

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On Martin Luther King, and teaching kids right from wrong (spoiler alert: It’s hard)

MLK1-19-Martin-Luther-King-ftrMy four-year-old son was asking me a few days ago why school will be closed on Monday. He doesn’t care for school being closed, and asks to know the precise reason why he has to endure this. I told him it was in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, and asked him what he knew about Martin Luther King. Here’s what he said: “Martin Luther King was someone who used very big words when he grew up. And then he died.” Technically, what he said wasn’t inaccurate. Still …

My first reaction was to take issue with his school for not teaching him in better detail about MLK. Then I got over my momentary lapse into short-sighted self-righteousness, and remembered that I am the boy’s mother–oh, riiiight–and it is not, ultimately, the school’s responsibility if he hasn’t learned about Dr. King.

So I began to start to try to tell him. That’s when I realized he may not know, at this age, the difference between black and white, or any of the races, for that matter. I mean, it’s just not something we have talked about explicitly in our house. Apologies to anyone who feels that my husband and I have been negligent in this regard. The boy is four years old, and he gets along with everyone (with about two exceptions) of every race that he’s ever met. He knows he is half-Puerto Rican. His friends have been white, black, Hispanic, Asian, mixed like him, etc. I simply don’t think it’s ever occurred to him that these differences can cause people to act differently–more importantly, unfairly–toward each other. In a sense, the reason why my boy doesn’t have school on Monday is because of racism. To explain the holiday to him was to burst his bubble. And that made me kind of queasy.

But I started. It was Friday afternoon. We were driving to Baskin Robbins after I picked him up from school. (I highly recommend surprising your kid with an impromptu after-school ice cream run.) I told him Martin Luther King is an American Hero, on the hunch that using the term hero would hold an appeal for him. I was right. He perked up, and instantly became interested. I fumbled and stumbled my way through a summary of how once upon a time, black people were treated very, very unfairly in America. Fairness is another concept that I know resonates with him. Naturally, though, my mind was screaming in protest about the once-upon-a-time part. If recent events in our country have revealed anything, it’s the staggering, nauseating, deadly pervasiveness of prejudices and inequalities based on racial differences. But. MLK was the topic at hand, and I told myself there’s no reason to force dire nuances on the kid if he’s not asking to know them at this time. He will learn soon enough–and no, I do not and will not defer to school to do the work of teaching him about this.

So I continued. I told him that Martin Luther King thought that everyone should be treated the same, whether they were black or white, or of any color. I consciously choose to use black as the more accurate term. Extreme political correctness all too often comes off as trite and inauthentic, in my opinion. See the story about CNN’s Chris Cuomo just last week using African-American incorrectly. So I try to stick with more transparent language. I told my son that MLK suffered injustices for defending everyone’s right to fair and equal treatment. That he was very brave, and never gave up. So we honor his birthday on Monday, again, because he’s a hero. My son seemed satisfied enough with this explanation. Once we got to Baskin Robbins, the one item on the agenda was chocolate ice cream on a sugar cone.

The challenge One of the countless challenges in teaching a young child ethics happens when doing so entails him being aware that sometimes in life, it feels as though things really suck, with no rhyme or reason. It’s “easy” enough for him to grasp this concept when he is affected by it on a very personal level, like when the answer to something he wants has to be no, and he’s pissed about it. In those moments, my response tends to be something along the lines of, “I know you are disappointed, I’m sorry you’re upset, we all feel that way sometimes, I love you, the answer’s still no.”

For about a year when he started watching the movie Toy Story, we skipped the Sid scenes completely. Dude, Sid’s toys are flippin’ scary to a three-year-old. Then there’s the whole meanness issue. Over time, though, when we thought he could tolerate the scariness, we let him watch those scenes. We’ve used them to talk about kindness and unkindness. About consequences. About bullying and abuse. And about disabilities, how Sid’s toys might seem scary at first because they look different, but they aren’t “bad.” Some great conversations have come out of this. Ultimately, it’s a fact that there are mean people in the world, odds are good my son will encounter a few of them; why not discuss these topics at home, first?

When the world at large becomes involved, it obviously gets trickier. We see the entitlement in this generation of kids. And we don’t wish to contribute to it. But there’s a way of teaching kids about others who are less fortunate that can lead them to feel like wretched beings who are to blame for world hunger. To a degree, I was subjected to this type of morality growing up, and I really, really don’t want to do that to my child.

At Christmas, for instance, we make a shopping trip for non-perishables that we then take to a food bank. We also collect some of his old toys to give away. The idea, as we try to convey to him, is that if we want to receive gifts, we first make room in our hearts by giving and sharing. Again, though. I struggle finding the balance in teaching him that there are others less fortunate than ourselves, without feeling as though I’m guilt-tripping him. Nor do I like the idea of doing something like it’s an obligation you take care of and check off, then pat yourself on the back for it. “So be right(eous) for righteousness sake?” Uh, no thank you.

For now, I think he knows his actions have consequences for others, both good and bad. Beyond that, I strive to lead by example, and stay focused on one thing: that we are all the same. That–on the most basic, logical level–it makes no sense to do to someone else something we wouldn’t like being done to us. For what it’s worth, I think he has a sense of that. That’s what I tell myself, anyway.

You know, you have a baby, and you spend the early stages just trying to keep him alive, safe, fed, clean, and content enough. Then the realization dawns on you (or maybe it was just me being slow on the uptake) that you are responsible for delivering to the world a well-rounded human who’s not a pushover but who also gives a genuinely empathetic sh*t about others. Who knows he is worthy of love and joy, but doesn’t feel or act entitled. You know, all that fantastically easy stuff. No pressure. No big deal. And then … ? We all just do the best we can. How do you talk to your kids about (in)justice?

 

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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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Things I would say if I didn’t have a filter, Part 2.

I don’t know about you, but I sometimes daydream about saying certain things that, for one reason or another, I didn’t say in the moment, particularly when something made me mad. Makes sense, too. Filters kick in more frequently when something makes us mad, and there’s a danger of being unkind. Luckily, the first one in this installment is a happy one. (I first talked about things I would say without a filter a few months ago–the link is HERE.)

To parent-friends at my boy’s preschool.
Thank you! After I gave up my paying job 4 years ago to be home with my baby, I lost an important sense of community, and felt adrift for part of those first years. Post-partum depression in the early months didn’t help. At preschool, I have met working parents, stay-at-home parents, parents from Hispanic and many other heritage backgrounds, writer parents, parents who work part-time, and in every case, parents committed to raising children who are at least bilingual from a very early age. Several of you offered words of kindness and support during the first difficult weeks of adjustment to preschool for my little guy, our first real separation after he was home with me for his first 3 years. I will never forget that! Many of you have expressed excitement about my writing projects. Some of you have become dear friends. When I look back on this year and a half, the best memories I will have, in addition to the joy that school now brings to my boy, will be of the incredible, committed, smart, caring community of parents I’ve had to pleasure to know. Wow!



It’s early May in DC, and out come the shorts and flip-flops. Only the outside temperature is barely breaking the 50-degrees mark. To the person wearing shorts and flip flops outdoors.
Okay. I know you know I know that your feet must be freaking freezing. Get some socks! Put on a sweater! Here, I’ve got an extra one–I’m Puerto Rican, I frequently carry an extra sweater with me. You can have it. Just cover up those goose bumps, please.

To the parent who bemoaned to me that their 15-month-old had, sadly, outgrown all of the toys in their house.
Sorry, I’m still laughing at this one. That thing you hear? That’s me still laughing.
This was years ago, by the way…


To the man who said to my husband, “I know your wife has a lot of opinions…” (You know, with a tone, like it was a bad thing.)

Actually? You know nothing about me. But hey, thanks for reciprocating the benefit of the doubt that I had so generously extended to you, until I knew about this. And how’s this for an opinion? Oh yeah, here she goes again, won’t this housewife ever stop with the opinions?! In my opinion, it takes a weak man(A) to talk smack to another man(B), whom he barely knows, about man B’s wife, whom he knows even less. But of course, put-downs always say so much more about the put-downer than they say about the put-downee. My own husband would never do anything even remotely like that–one of many reasons why I have such a high opinion of the man. And by the way? It’s called having boundaries, and I happen to like that about me. Yes, that was me giving another opinion.

At writing conferences or classes, typically about two-thirds of the way in.
Stop! I’m done listening to advice.
“Grab the reader in the first two paragraphs, or else forget about it. Keep the points of view straight or lose the reader instantly.”
Seriously?! One of the last novels I tried to read (keyword here is tried)–not naming names, but it was Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin–started with the point of view of a freaking horse and was all over the place from that moment on. I thought I was going dumb, which usually annoys me. But I get it, authors like Helprin can pull it off. It’s just the rest of us beginner writers, who will never be the next J.K. Rowling (why do writing “experts” love to remind us of this? I don’t want to be the next J.K. Rowling, I just want to be Sandra Falcón, thanks), who shouldn’t dare try. Oh and I may scream if I hear the word niche–and its seemingly infinite possible pronunciations–one more time.
“Readers cannot spare the time or attention span or brain power for historical detail. But show them, don’t tell them. Make the characters come to life and pop out of the page, but for the love of Christ and Krishna, if you do nothing else, you must spare your busy, instant-gratification-seeking, electronic-device-addicted readers the drudgery of back story.
Print is dead. Don’t believe for a second that print is dead. Just kidding, it’s all about the e-book, didn’t you know?
Facebook is in. Facebook is out. Facebook is back in.
You must have a blog, but don’t presume that it will do you any good unless you write about topics very specifically related to your current book, and unless you have thousands and thousands of followers.
Hey, these are the current trends in publishing, we’re just telling you this to help you!”

Yeah, time to tune out, wake me when it’s over. I call it trend-fixation fatigue: when I get so wary of the the nonstop talk about “trends” that dominates things like writing (and parenting!) that I shut down. Advice is great, and usually welcomed. I want to know the trends. But then trend/advice fixation bugs the hell out of me, particularly when it’s used in the interest of an “expert’s” power trip.

To people looking at their cell phones while driving.
Please. Please. Put your damn phone down and drive! What makes you think that you are above being tragically distracted when you do this? No one is above this danger, no one. And it would bother me a lot less if it were only your own life you’re endangering. But it’s not, is it? It is just plain reckless and … well, the s-word that we try to never say in our house (it rhymes with Cupid when British people say it).

I’ve actually confronted people about this. One night months ago, I was driving home from writing class, and I saw a man who would not put down his phone. At a red light, I motioned something to him. He motioned, “What?” and rolled down his window. I rolled down my window, and said, “I’m really worried about you being on your phone! It’s dark, the road is wet, and there you are staring at the screen of your phone.” His response? “Oh, I’m not texting!”
Oh.
Okay then.
And my hair is naturally blond.
And straight.

In case you haven’t met me, this is my hair in its natural state.

My husband David later said to me, “You know, honey, I really wish you didn’t confront male strangers on the road at night.” David’s got a good point there.

Again, I think there is a good reason why most of these things I’d say without a filter are mini-diatribes. I try to actually say the good things, rather than keep them to myself. It’s the ones that I know could get me into trouble that tend to stay bottled up inside. But keeping them in is way too hard for me. That’s the other very good reason for these.

Here are a few final things I have been tempted to say–many times!
Are you going to finish those fries?
Are those shoes as comfortable as they look?
I think it’s awesome when you are intensely enthusiastic about things you know well; I find it less awesome when you are intensely aggressive about stuff you know.
Is having straight hair so easy that it sometimes gets boring?
Would it be weird if I asked to feel your hair right now?
I really think you and I could be great friends. No, really! What do you say?

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Just Say Hello

Last month’s issue of Oprah Magazine featured a piece called Just Say Hello. I loved discovering that many other people also experience loneliness, that it’s a natural phenomenon of the times in which we live. It’s not that I feel all alone in the world. Goodness knows I have plenty of love in this life; I know it too. Sometimes I just crave a little more than I’m getting, that’s all. I have visions sometimes (thank goodness, only sometimes) that everyone else but me is enveloped in vast circles of friends with whom, on a routine basis, they have fantastically fabulous coffee dates, dinner parties, and joint family vacations filled with depth and laughter in equal measure. When I recently learned of the term FOMO*, I thought, wait, I’m not the only one who feels this way? It’s been validating and reassuring to know–pun!–that I’m not alone in experiencing loneliness from time to time.
*In case you didn’t know, FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. Because now everything is expressed in acronyms and abbreviations.

I was instantly on board with the Just Say Hello campaign, and wanted to share a story about a time recently when saying hello made a difference for me. So I’m sharing three.

1. While my 4-year-old son is in preschool three mornings a week, I typically walk to the nearby Whole Foods, where I spend the morning writing in the mezzanine café area. One time I spotted the mother of one of the new boys at my son’s school, seated nearby. After a while, we made eye contact, said hello, and started talking. We already knew that each is an O Mag subscriber. Turns out she’s a writer–nonfiction–who has been employed by various magazines and now generally works freelance. I told her I am writing my first book, that writing had always been my dream. I did it in my not infrequent “but please don’t think I have delusions of grandeur!” manner. It’s something that plagues me, but which I am getting better at overcoming. She, in turn, became an instant supporter of my dream, and the two of us now get together every week for writing dates while our boys are at school. We write together and talk about our writing, but we also talk about parenting, family, life. She has become a dear friend. In fact, we both now have tickets to see Oprah at DC’s Verizon Center in September! This is all happening because one of us said hello.

There are at least two other women who are also regulars there, with whom I routinely take turns watching each other’s things while the other one uses the restroom. We haven’t become friends, and that’s okay. But one of them has referred to me as her Whole Foods work buddy.

2. During another one of my writing mornings, I sat next to an elderly gentleman. I’d never seen him before, but he reminded me an awful lot of my beloved paternal grandfather, who died in 1999. Most people who sit in the café area are either eating a meal, or they have a book, a laptop, their phone, something specific that’s keeping them occupied. This gentleman had a newspaper opened to the sports section, and was looking at it only halfheartedly. He started to look up at me the moment I approached. I said hello. Then I kind of plopped down in the seat next to him and proceeded to my ritual: find a couple of disinfectant wipes to clean up the area where I’m sitting (my family has had a few recent bouts of illness), take out my laptop, iPod, huge bottle of water, and snack, turn on the sound and vibrate on my phone (in case someone really needs to reach me), remove my coat and other things, and put in my earphones. Come to think of it, it must be a pretty ridiculous spectacle–I take a good several minutes to do it all.

I could see him looking up at me from time to time. I would smile back, eventually wondering whether I was bothering him. He then said, “If you need me to move, I can move to make more space for you.” I couldn’t quite tell at first whether that was sarcastic, but I was definitely starting to worry that I was irritating him. I told him no, thank you, that I had plenty of room. Then he pointed at his clothes, smiled at me, and said, “You know, I’m wearing this suit, which I first wore in 1948.” Irritated? No. Friendly? Yes–whew! I said, “Congratulations, sir, that’s quite impressive!” I then went back to my tasks, writing an email, drinking my water, though not without noticing that he kept glancing up at me from time to time. A few minutes later, he got up, and said this to me, “I’ll be leaving now. But I need to tell you this. You have a very beautiful smile.” This moved me intensely. All I could say was, “Wow, sir, thank you. That is so kind of you!” I was also reminded that this wasn’t the first time I was met with the kindness of an elderly stranger at a Whole Foods. The previous time happened when I broke my toe a couple of years ago, the story is HERE.

3. The final story happened in the waiting area of a local hospital. My 4-year-old had dropped “the weight of the world” (this was how my husband referred to his toy globe, in the photo below) on his big toe at an awkward angle. It happened on a Friday, and by Monday morning, he was in a lot of pain, and the bloodied swelling of the toe looked pretty scary. At the hospital, after my sweet little man’s injured toe was drained by three, yes, three orthopedic surgeons, we were sent to the X-Ray Department to determine whether it was broken. It was after 1PM. We had spent the entire morning there. I had exhausted the snacks for my son, and I could sense that he was starving and getting antsy about going home. He had been a trooper, to be sure. I just also knew that his trooperness was fading fast. The only place to sit in the waiting area was next to a woman who was doing needlepoint work. I said hello to her, and to myself said a silent prayer that she wouldn’t get on my case about my child’s behavior if he started to get fussy.

The woman immediately put down her needlepoint, and started talking to me. “What a beautiful, handsome boy you have.” “Thank you,” I said. He and I spoke a little more, in Spanish, and she added, “Oh and he’s bilingual. Good for you for raising him bilingual from such a young age!” “Thank you,” I said again. Then came, “Is he your only child?” Therrrre it is. Okay. It used to be that women asked me, “Is he yours?” They see a Hispanic woman out and about with a baby in the middle of a weekday, and they assume she must be the nanny. I was asked this countless times. These days, I’m most often asked whether he’s an only child.

“Yes, he is. He’s our one and only!” I responded. And then I waited for it. Here it comes. Now she’s going to tell me that children need a sibling, that it is selfish and unnatural to not give my son one. Ah yes, the footloose and fancy-free lifestyle of two parents who, after crunching numbers and considering health and other issues, decide that if they stop at one child, and live very strictly within their means, they can afford for the mother to give up gainful employment to stay home and parent their child full-time in the way that they envision parenting. It just screams selfishness, doesn’t it? Honestly? I have seen people who view the choice to have just one child even more harshly than the choice to remain childless. But I digress.

The woman now got out her bag to put away her needlepoint, and turned to me in earnest. She obviously meant business. I braced for impact. And here’s what she said. “Well, let me tell you something. I had an only child until I was 50. Then I adopted two children. I love them dearly, don’t get me wrong. But let me tell you, I am 84 years old now, and they are still giving me grief. I am exhausted. You’re smart to stick with the only child, honey.”

Whoa! Did not see that one coming. I love it when people surprise me. Can’t wait to keep saying hello!

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