We Need Circle Breakers

Recently my daughter joined a new soccer team. We live in a different town than the rest of the young girls and are new to the club. We are outsiders.

At her first game, I walked onto the field and noticed small pockets of parents chatting with each other. Normally, I am fairly outgoing. I readily introduce myself to strangers, and I’m an expert at small talk. But something about the situation made me feel self-conscious. My husband was at my older daughter’s game, so I sat alone in my folding chair, head buried in my phone, I just couldn’t get up the nerve to approach the small circles of parents ten feet away from me.

Three games later, it was the same. I smiled and nodded at some of the parents who looked familiar as I lugged my chair over to my spot, but my husband and I sat off by ourselves.

Right before the game started, I noticed a man shaking hands with a mom about eight chairs down. Then he moved to the next set, and then the next. When he arrived at the family beside  me, I heard him say, “Hi there, I’m Joy’s dad. I just wanted to introduce myself since we don’t really know anyone on the team.  I know the games about to start, but who is your daughter again? What number?”

Finally, he approached me, and we exchanged pleasantries. He opened his chair next to mine and excitedly exclaimed, “I haven’t been able to get to any games before this, so I’m stoked. What school do you guys go to?”

We chatted intermittently for the rest of the game, and then afterwards, instead of every family immediately heading off to their individual cars, people mulled around a bit. One dad came up to our new friend, and then introduced himself to us. I saw a woman standing off to the side, and pulled her into our circle by mentioning I thought her daughter played a great game. Another mom joined to chat about an upcoming tournament. Before I knew it, the entire team’s parents stood in a group introducing themselves to each other.

That dad is a circle breaker. He changed the entire dynamic of the sidelines in two minutes. It was powerful.

I like to think of myself as a circle breaker. It’s easy for me. I will talk to anyone who will listen, I like to think I know a little about everything, and because I’ve moved around quite a bit, I’ve broken into mom circles in four states. I even have little circle-breaking children.

But we’ve all been there, been in that awkward situation where it just seems like the other person isn’t interested in you. Either their head is in their phones (guilty), they seem entrenched in another conversation, or their body language screams, “Stay away!”

But if there’s ever been a time for circle breaking, it’s now.

This weekend, we took a trip to Medieval Times for a belated birthday dinner outing for one of my daughters. Our minivan pulled to a stop about 11 rows from the building. The parking lot was well lit, and my husband jumped out of the minivan and started walking to the entrance. He called out over his shoulder, “You have the keys, right?”

I sighed. Keeping track of keys to a car with an automatic starter is exhausting. I stood by the side of my car rummaging through my purse, finding gum wrappers, pencils and store receipts, but no keys. Just as my hand wrapped around the metal key chain, I heard a frantic voice speaking to my three daughters and their friend who congregated just in front of our automobile.

“I am trying to get here,” she pointed to the screen on her phone. “But I can’t get the address right. Do you know the address here?”

The woman wore a hijab, and a small girl clung to her coat, peering up at the older girls with huge brown eyes.

I approached the woman and asked, “Do you need help?”

She responded, “Yes, please. I need to get here,” she pointed to a red dot on her phone. “And I am very lost. I have been waiting for someone to come out, but it has only been men or large groups and I did not feel comfortable. Two women said they could not help me.”

I told her the address of our location, and she breathed a sigh of relief as directions popped onto her screen.

We chatted for a moment longer, and then I asked, “Can I walk you to your car? Do you need anything else?”

“No thank you. I am okay now. Thank you for your kindness.” And with that she was gone, dragging her daughter behind her.

I wondered to myself how long she waited in the parking lot for the right woman to approach. I was happy my husband rushed ahead, and I was there for her. I felt for a brief moment, we were part of the same circle.

Our country is off its rocker right now. There is violence occurring in the name of hate and violence occurring in the name of love and violence for the sake of violence. Families are fractured by political divides and neighbors who were once friends now avoid each other’s eyes.

If there was ever a need for circle breakers, it is now.

I think about how awkward it felt for me to approach a group of parents, a group where we all shared a common interest in our daughters’ soccer team. And then I think of how difficult it must feel when there are true differences between you and other people, when the circles seem impenetrable because they are made of steel.

Now is the time to reach out. Now is the time to include. Now is the time to put our phones away and interact with the people in our kids’ schools, community and work places. If we don’t want to be a country divided, someone will have to break their circle open. It has to start somewhere.

I’m not saying every time you’re chatting with your friends you have to ask someone in; BUT be aware. When you see someone hanging off to the side nervously checking their phone, think about introducing yourself or even offering an inviting smile. When you see a new person at school, attempt to strike up a conversation, no matter how awkward you feel. And when you see someone who needs help, give it.

I hope more parents become circle breakers like the dad on my daughter’s soccer team. And I hope we become more approachable to people who may be fearful of prejudice, people unsure of the world right now. I hope we lead by example for our children on how to build relationships, build a community, build a positive life.

I forgot how easy it was to be a circle breaker. I forgot that most circles are tissue thin, if you just introduce yourself or make the first move.

More importantly, I forgot how easy it is to bust circles from the inside, just by being the one to let someone in. Most times when someone starts breaking the circle, everyone else follows happily along. I particularly like to show circle breaking off in front of my children. It seems to make their force even stronger.

Now is the time for circle breaking. Are you in?

A Choice of Wood

I am so proud to be up on The Manifest Station today with a piece that is near and dear to my heart. It’s been rejected four times by other sites. Yep, four times. But I loved it. It’s about my dad. It’s about one of the most absurd situations I have ever dealt with as an adult. It was literally writing my heart. And although I wanted to throw in the towel and just shelf the essay, I just kept sending it in.

My dad still teaches me life lessons from the grave.

A Choice of Wood

“I can’t do it. I can’t go into the room with all the caskets. I can’t do it again,” she told me.

“It’s okay, Mom. I’ll take care of everything,” I stated easily, as I knew that my father wanted to be cremated, which reduced the decision-making burden. Although I was the youngest in my family, the responsibility would be mine. My brother and sister had their children to manage, and I was the most involved when it came to my dad’s care.

“Just do what you think is right. I just need you to take care of it.”

My mom wasn’t much older than I was when she buried her own mother, along with three teenage siblings. They died in a fire started from bad electrical wiring in their dilapidated Ohio farm house. As the oldest of eight, she managed the burial arrangements, and selected the caskets for her teenage brothers and sister. The act of selecting small coffins for young people yet to reach their prime crushed her to the core. It was a weight she carried around with her each day.

She was the strongest woman I knew, but even she had her limits.

To read more, please click here.

 

Five Women, One Track

Five women looped around the indoor track.

“Ugh, I wish I wasn’t so tall,” the twenty-something says to herself, pointing her nose down to her iPhone. She is studying photos of herself on Instagram while trying to work off the Mocha Frappuccino she downed from Starbucks on the way home from class. An Adele anthem blares through the headphones, as the girl ticks through photo after photo of her friends and starlets in short dresses with tan legs. The young woman walks like she is on a treadmill, navigating the corners of the small indoor track without ever looking up. She scrolls to a picture that slows her pace. Posted the night before, the picture showcases five of her close friends posing happily at a local restaurant. Above 134 heart-shaped likes, the caption reads “Celebrating Ella’s acceptance into grad school!” She purses her lips and doesn’t recall anyone mentioning the dinner to her. As tears well up in her eyes, she keeps walking around and around with her head looking down.

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The thirties-something mom sprints around the corner breathing heavily. She slows to a walk to start her cool-down. She is exhausted from her workout, and from the one-year-old who woke up three times last night. She quickly checks her watch and then looks over the wall to the gym below, where she sees a group of four and five-year-olds playing Duck Duck Goose with their teacher. She waves at a cute little red head and calculates that she has 15 minutes before she needs to pick Emma up from her class, grab the baby from the gym daycare and then race home to get Charlie off the bus and start dinner. And get that report done for work tomorrow.

She is distracted by a young girl with a lengthy, blond ponytail swishing like a pendulum walking in front of her. She studies the her from behind, admiring her long, lean legs and tiny waist.

“I wish I could get rid of this flab,” she thinks to herself, lightly touching her middle as she passes her by on the track. She notices the younger woman’s cute, matching outfit, and suddenly feels frumpy in her t-shirt and Target yoga pants.

“I could never pull that off, but maybe some new workout clothes will make me feel better,” she thinks to herself. If she could only get some sleep.

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A petite woman jogs slowly around a straightaway, lost in a sea of thought. She is thinking of an argument she had earlier that morning with her teenage daughter about her curfew. It didn’t end well, and her strong-willed child left in a huff without saying goodbye. An Adele ballad comes through her iPod speakers, and she tries to distract herself by listing the errands she needs to accomplish before chauffeuring her kids to their various activities after school.

She sees a young mom in front of her waving to a child in the gym below. She hears squeals of laughter despite the music softly playing through her headphones, and a smile creeps onto her face. The young mother’s face lights up as she mouths the words, “Hi Baby,” and waves her hand. She is beautiful. The moment is beautiful.

She trots past the woman as waves of nostalgia, of simpler times, rush through the forty-something woman. She finds herself suddenly holding back tears. She decides to make her daughter’s favorite spaghetti and meatballs for dinner that night as a peace offering. And maybe let her borrow her new boots, like when she used to try on her shoes when she was four.

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The older woman in jeans and a nice sweater looks both ways before entering the track and starting to walk at a brisk pace. She took an early lunch from her job as an office manager at a doctors’ office to get more steps in on the FitBit her son gave her for Christmas. There never was enough time for exercising before, but the youngest of her four children is getting married later this year, and she wants to look her best, even for fifty-something years old.

A small, well-put-together woman prances by her, breathing steady like she does this regularly. She appears younger, but a second glance reveals laugh lines hidden below expensive, well placed make up. She has her hair styled in a bob that remains perfectly positioned despite her movement. As she sidles into the lane in front of her, the older woman sighs and thinks, “I wish I would have taken better care of myself before now. Maybe a new haircut, maybe one like hers, is what I need. And to drop twenty pounds.”

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The 78-year old woman ambles slowly around the track, one hand on the wall, the other hand holding a cane, a much-needed appendage after suffering a small stroke last year. As she does each weekday, she drives to her local community center to circle the track eleven times, just shy of one mile, as per her doctor’s orders. The event takes approximately an hour and a half to complete end to end, but she doesn’t mind. Her husband passed away three years ago, and her two children and their families live out of state. The routine gives her purpose, something to look forward to each day.

As she strolls around and around, she watches women of all ages, shapes and sizes pass her by. She sees her happiest self, her best self, in each of them, a beautiful living scrapbook of a well-lived life.

When she finishes her walk on the hamster-wheel, she meanders over to the coat rack, taking her time to maneuver first one arm, and then the other, into her coat while leaning on a chair. She smiles at the women who enter and exit the door at a frantic pace, the women with jobs, kids and responsibilities, and marvels at how lovely they all look despite their heavy burdens. Like she once looked, like she once was.

She turns to grab her scarf and checks herself in the mirror. Standing beside her is a beautiful, tall girl with a golden ponytail no more than 21 years old placing a knit cap on her head. In the mirror, they look nothing alike, yet they walk the same track every day.

The reflection startles them both for a moment, as one woman sees her past, and the other her future.

The young girl turns towards the elderly woman half a century her senior, and cheerily says, “Did you have a good walk today?”

“Best one yet,” she replies as she walks away from the track.

Ashes and Airport Security

“Alright, Dad. Let’s do this,” I muttered under my breath as I gingerly placed the heavy cardboard box in my carry-on bag.

I quickly checked underneath my childhood bed for anything I may have left behind, and then completed my standard mental checklist before departing for the airport.

Eyeglasses and wallet, check.

Cell phone and computer, check.

My father’s cremains, check.

Seven days passed since I received the phone call on New Year’s Day. “Dad died,” my brother’s said in a cracked voice. It was not a surprise, but hearing the words sent a shock through my body.

“Leave it to Dad to delay dying until the first of the year just to get that last tax break,” I responded, deflecting the pain I felt in my heart. My father spent the last three weeks in Hospice care, and finally succumbed to the grapefruit-sized tumor that infiltrated his nicotine-filled lungs.

The next week was a whirlwind of funeral arrangements, paperwork, and purging. My mother believed the best way to get through a difficult time was to stay busy, so she attacked the clutter accumulated after three years of tending to my cancer-stricken dad with the same determination she used caring for him. The days passed quickly planning for funeral services and visitors, returning hospital equipment, clearing out closets and wrapping up his estate.

In between, we reminisced and divvied up special items my dad held dear to his heart. My sister took the vintage records, my brother staked claim to the monster movie collection, and I scored the broken pinball machine. We met with the probate attorney and sold his car, a gigantic 1984 Grand Marquis that my mom couldn’t back out of the driveway. We accomplished so much each day that there was never a second alone, so there was never a moment to shed a tear.

My last task was to bring my father back to Connecticut to spread his ashes near the property of our childhood home. According to him, it was the place where he had the happiest memories. Although we had not lived there for 15 years, I promised my dad that I would make it happen, despite fearing the new owners would call the police thinking I was spreading Anthrax.

Before zipping my carry on, I placed a copy of my dad’s death certificate alongside the Taylor & Sons Funeral Home box. “Just show them this letter before you pass through security,” the funeral director solemnly told me. “You’ll need to run it through the X-ray and they may do special testing on it for security purposes. They’ll know what to do.”

“Well, we are in Florida. I imagine this happens all the time,” I joked as I thought again about the irony. A man who smoked for fifty years literally reduced to ashes.

I drove alone to the airport and for the first time felt the soggy weight of my heart as I tried to distract myself by creating a to-do list for the week’s work I missed. Stepping into the long security line, I struggled controlling the anxiety that suddenly crept into my body, causing my hands to tremble. “Deep breaths,” I chanted to myself as I watched the slew of elderly grandparents patiently wait for loved ones to walk through the Arrivals gate.

My heart beat in my ears as I stepped up to the conveyor belt. I kicked off my leather sandals and placed them in the gray bin. I lifted my laptop out, and then my quart sized Ziploc filled with trial-sized toothpaste, makeup, and eye drops.

The only thing remaining was the carton holding my dad. A man larger than life reduced to six pounds of dust.

I felt the panic rising in my chest as I stared into the depth of my luggage. A flood of memories rushed my brain, as I tried to wrap my head around a world without my father in it. There would be no more letters in the mail with a $10 bill and a newspaper clipping of a salmon recipe. No more phone calls filled with off-color jokes or political debates. No more advice about insurance premiums, fights with my husband or job decisions.

I jumped when a businessman placed his hand on my shoulder to let me know it was my turn.

As my denial went into over-drive, I deliberately closed my bag, placed it on the moving black belt and walked through the metal detector without a beep. As I hastily grabbed my items from the tray, I could see the security screener out of the corner of my eye staring at what must be my father in the X-ray machine.

The sweat was beading on my forehead when a large man in a royal blue shirt approached me. I envisioned him interrogating me about the dangerous materials in my Vera Bradley luggage, placing my name on the FBI’s “Watch List” of criminals no longer allowed to travel by plane. I briefly considered running out of the airport, anything to get away from discussing what was in that box.

“Miss, can you step over here please,” he said with his arm stretched out to the right. My face turned hot as I gathered up my things and followed him barefoot to behind the screening area.  He leaned in and whispered, “Are these cremains in the box?”

I hung my head down and for the first time since hearing those dreaded words, I wept. Somehow I landed on a hard plastic chair, and a wad of kleenex magically appeared in my hand as the tears stained my face. “Yes,” I told him in between heavy heaves. “Yes, my dad. My dad is gone.”

“I am going to take it right over there and test for any flammable materials per TSA regulations. You may watch from here as you catch your breath,” he said, ending with a close-lipped smile. It clearly was not his first time seeing someone ugly cry in the middle of the airport.

A few moments later, I tried to sniffle back the emotion that comes with losing a parent. As he handed my dad back to me, I met his eyes and said, “I’m sorry. I don’t know what came over me. I just couldn’t get the words out.”

“It will get easier,” he said as he touched a gloved hand to my arm.

I knew he wasn’t talking about getting through airport security.

A Different Kind of Father’s Day Gift

I had a craptastic Mother’s Day. Not because my husband didn’t buy me anything or my kids were climbing off the walls or the house was a mess. I spent the day (and the two following) in the hospital with gastritis due to an adverse reaction I had to pain medication. Nothing says Happy Mother’s Day like an endoscopy.

My husband, bless his heart, took my three daughters to my favorite store earlier that week to find the perfect gift, because you know if you can’t find me something I love at Tarjay, you don’t know me at all.

Unfortunately, in the whirl of holding my bed pan to catch projectile vomit,  transporting our kids to and from their activities, and trying to keep his job, somebody forgot to actually give me the  special gifts.

A few days later I returned from the hospital, feeling weak but ready to get back to the world of the living, or at least those not on a liquid diet. I noticed a Target bag sitting in our laundry room sink, but figured it was one of my kids’ dirty practice clothes. Because my mom is staying with us during my recovery, and had generously offered to do our laundry in my time of need, of course I left it there unchecked. If I looked and didn’t do anything with whatever disgustingness lie in there, then I’d really be a jerk.

What I did find later that night when I decided it was time to start eating again was a stash of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Three cardboard containers of Vermont’s finest just calling out to me from the freezer in the garage. The pint of Half-Baked seemed to shout “eat me”  the loudest, so my spoon and I nestled deep into my lazy-boy for some quality time.

A few days later, I saw the bag out of the corner of my eye again, this time with the gray slipper sticking its nose out of it. Of course I let it sit there again, thinking maybe my mom had bought something that needed to be returned.

Then one day, my mom finally yelled said to me, “Will you please take your freaking Mother’s Day present upstairs?”

And so I did. I unwrapped the bag to find pair of fancy pajamas and a sweet pair of coordinating slippers. As opposed to my normal boudoir attire of stained yoga pants and a t-shirt that usually has a hole in it, this was an outfit I could proudly wear to the mailbox  and not get heckled by the neighbors.

Now, one would think that being in the hospital would be the perfect time to give me those pajamas, right? Not so much.

It was only later that night when he saw me modeling them as I was brushing my teeth that he remembered. I thinks his exact words were, “Oh yeah, whoops!”

To rub his nose in my  gifting superiority, I asked if there was anything he wanted for Father’s Day.

“No, but you can leave my gift in the sink and then eat whatever else you get me that’s left in the freezer.”

That’s when I found out that he let each of my daughters pick out a Ben & Jerry’s flavor for me. And while I was a little bitter to find out he plowed through the entire carton of Stephen Colbert’s Americone Dream, I decided to forgive him, but only because there was some Boom Chocolatta left over.

Truth be told, my husband gets a pass on this one. I’ve been sick for the past three months and he takes care of me, my kids and our home without a complaint.  He stays up late every night catching up on work he missed because he left early to take my daughter to horseback, soccer try outs, a birthday party, haircuts or whatever else they need that I used to take care of regularly. The pajamas were a present, but the real gift is his love and commitment, about the only things you can’t get at Super Target.

Although I did find some great gifts that I plan on having the kids present him on Father’s Day, I think the real win is I am forever indebted to him. When a man takes care of you for three months, I mean really honoring that in sickness and in health part,  you can’t really needle him for forgetting some of the details. Plus he can never un-see some of the things I’ve gone through the past few months and he still wants to share a bed with me.

That means he leaves the toilet seat up…..I’ma gonna let it go. Wants to watch a marathon of Ultimate Fighting Ridiculousness? Letting it go. Leaves his wine glass in the sink every night even though the entire kitchen is clean and the dishwasher is four inches away?  I’m going to take several deep breaths, and it’s gone.

But eat my ice cream again…dude, then it’s on like Donkey Kong. Even love has its limits.

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Doing his favorite thing in the whole world, with his three favorite ladies.

Happy Father’s Day to my number one, and to all those men out there taking care of kids. It’s an important job you have!

 

 

To The Guy Who Bought That Last Round of Shots

To the guy who bought that last round of shots at Planet Fred’s about 20 years ago, I want to say thank you.

Because of you (and quite possibly the Lemon Drop), I asked a handsome young man to dance. He held his hands up in front of him and shook his head no, but pushed his friend towards me. We took off and boogied.

For the next few hours we shouted into each other’s ears as “This is How We Do It” and “Boom Boom Boom” rocked the dance floor. He was on spring break from Business School at Duke, I was a staff aide to a U.S. congressman. We may or may not have locked lips once or twice in between conversation.

As the lights came on in the bar signaling the night was over, he asked me for my phone number. “Maybe I could come up and take you out on a real date,” he said to me.

As a young 23-year-old in Washington, D.C., I wasn’t sure if I wanted a long-distance relationship. I wasn’t sure if I wanted a relationship at all; but he was cute, so I shamelessly handed him a card with all my digits. With a kiss on the cheek, he was gone.

I spent the cab ride home talking about that boy I met on the dance floor. I spent the next morning fighting off waves of nausea wondering what was I thinking the night before. I never could handle shots.

He waited the appropriate amount of time and called on Tuesday after properly vetting me through a mutual acquaintance. “She’s not an axe murderer if that’s what you’re worried about,” was the confirmation he received.

It was awkward when we met in the light of day. He was nervous, I was unsure. We shared a meal, some laughs and more details about who we were and what we wanted to do with our lives. It was not love at first sight, but we certainly enjoyed each other’s company.

For the next few months, we casually dated and spoke on the phone often. And then one Saturday, when navigating through a crowd, he reached back to grab my hand and the moment took my breath away. He had my heart.

Our big day, right before it poured on us. Thankfully we took our pictures before the ceremony.

Our big day, right before it poured on us. Thankfully we took our pictures before the ceremony.

A few years later, I conned the most decent man I have ever known into marrying me. Despite a record drought leading up to our big day, it rained in the middle of our outdoor wedding. I think it set the stage for our life together: always make the best out of every situation, surround yourself with people who make you laugh, even in the face of hurricane-strength winds, and always have an open bar and a dance floor.

Some would say that the combination of alcohol, loud music and crowds does not encourage serious relationships. I call this doubt and raise you three kids and two dogs. A full house always wins.

We’re celebrating our 15th wedding anniversary today.

I used to edit our love story, making it a little more family friendly or digestible to people I didn’t know well. No one wants to be judged, so “We met through mutual friends,” became my standard line.

But the truth is, how and where we met is just one tiny sliver of our story, just the first line in our full life.

It would be easy to chalk our relationship up to fate, Kismet or destiny, and sometimes it feels that way. Mostly, however, we have a successful partnership because we work hard and do a whole lot of forgiving of each other for our flaws.

15 years later.

15 years later.

So, to all those young men and women who go out for “Thirsty Thursdays” with the quest to find The One: you can find love —true, unbridled, like-a-scene-from The Notebook love — anywhere, including a bar.

Planet Fred’s is no longer around, but I’m thankful that cute boy is.

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