Monday, April 29, 2013

On Being (Less Than) Unique

It seems like everywhere I look these days, there's another book or article or inspirational picture on FB encouraging us to "be ourselves." It's meant as an alternative to following the crowd (or feeling like a loser because you can't keep up).  That sounds so good, right? And yet when I read these calls to endless uniqueness, I get this twitchy feeling and feel like there's a gnat that won't stop buzzing in my ear.

Here's why: I think these articles are trying to shove us into a false dichotomy. They suggest that in life, we're either stomping around demanding to be recognized and appreciated for who we are, or wallowing in tearful pity as we lament over all that we're not. We're either the bold yellow M&M in this picture, letting our true colors show & smiling for the world to see, or we're flat and green and boring, just like everybody else.

But my life has more of a both/and quality.

For example:

This past weekend, we spent Saturday at the Newburyport Literary Festival. At one level, I was feeling great about myself as we rolled into the Newburyport Starbucks for a cup of coffee before the first event. Getting up and motivated on weekend mornings is not our strong suit, and I was thrilled that we were there with time to spare & a gift card to spend on lattes.  I was feeling like a yellow M&M. I'd even tried to dress a little bit cute that day because this was as close to a date as Steve and I have had in awhile (even though Princess Peach was with us and all the events we went to involved answering questions like, "What rhymes with rhinoceros?" & dancing to silly songs.)  But for all my trying, I failed to look cute. I grabbed the wrong pair of jeans and they were frumpy and so I felt frumpy which is a skid it's almost impossible to steer yourself out of.

Then, when we got to Starbucks, there was a Glamour Mom. She looked like Connie Britton: Her hair was
fully blown out at 10:00 in the morning, she was wearing an adorable, fitted top & a perfect little assortment of bracelets that made this pretty clinking noise as she drank her beverage. And of course, she had perfect jeans. Sigh.

It was a both/and moment: I felt great about myself for being out and about on a Saturday, taking advantage of this cool event so close to the city (because I love that that is who I am!), and horrible for not taking the nano-second to recognize the problem of the "these aren't date-night jeans...these are clean the bathroom jeans!" and change. (Because that's me, too.)

But there is another piece to this moment that I think is important: As I watched Newburyport Starbucks Connie, I took mental notes on why I liked her outfit so much. I sipped my latte, fished the straw out of Princess Peach's chocolate milk for the 19th time, and thought of items in my own closet that were similar, that might work for next Saturday. Of course, I can't magically grow five inches (did I mention that Newburyport Starbucks Connie was also statuesque?) But she's good at this looking-good-on-Saturday-morning thing, and I'm not. So why not learn from her?

I guess those "be yourself!" articles bug me so much because there are certain things I don't have strong opinions about, and I'd just as soon take a cue from someone else as I navigate life.  You can bet that next Saturday I'll be remembering both "pick the right jeans" and "it's been SO LONG since you wore bracelets, Trish...why not put some on?" thanks to Newburyport Starbucks Connie. And yes, if I take the time to blow out my hair, I'll look more like her than me (God willing). Is that such a bad thing? Underneath that fluffy hair will still be my brain, seeing the world and connecting dots my weird way, getting excited about things that seem mundane and scanning the world for the perfect orange purse.  Who knows what cool things are inside all those green M&Ms?

Today, if you have a free minute, consider: What things are unique & important to you, about you? And in what areas might you be perfectly happy to be a bit of a copy cat?

Friday, April 26, 2013

Escapism: My Quest for an Orange Purse

The past couple of weeks have been surreal, and here's what I've learned: When all hell is breaking loose around me, I escape by pondering things that don't matter.  I think them through deeply and thoroughly, considering every possibility, searching far and wide for answers.

The past few days have taken this to a new level, as I returned to a quest (read: obsession) from last

spring: my longing for an orange purse.  This began (read: can be blamed on) my friend Kristen, who had a gorgeous orange bag when we met for lunch. It was a bit of a rainy day, and her bag just looked so bright and happy and chic against the light blue cardigan she was wearing. Had I been a bit more forward-thinking, I'd have offered to buy it from her then, as I've been hunting for something similar ever since.

After the stress of last week's bombing and lock down (I still can't believe that's a viable sentence), I re-engaged my mission to find an orange purse. Not just ANY orange purse, mind you, but the rarest of all orange purse species: the one that looks good with an Irish complexion. (In other words, I'm looking for the unicorn of orange purses.)  I went to store after store, ignoring aisles stuffed with fabulous sales on things we actually need, in single-minded pursuit of this orange purse.  I held dozens of them up to my side, considering whether each one would hold my laptop, what outfits they might work with. I realized that I like structured bags better than floppy ones, and that even though I'd love to return to my days of tossing a lip gloss and keys into a cute little bag, I need something big enough to hold a book.  It was hours of searching and self-discovery.

In other words, it was a way to escape from real life.

Here's the thing: If this were an orange purse emergency, I have people who know orange purses. I'm friends with an entire family where every member went to either Princeton or UVA. They live in orange, whereas I barely considered orange a color prior to knowing them.

But this isn't an emergency, it's an escape mechanism. It's a way to channel my thoughts in a harmless direction for long enough to let my pulse stop racing and let the vitamin D from the sunshine (thank you, God, for this week's sunshine!) soak in.  I don't have an orange purse yet. I might not ever find one. But in some strange way, the hunt is good.

Do you have an escape mechanism?

(More importantly: Do you have a line on an orange purse that compliments a purplish-pale complexion and a nose that's slightly pink from allergy season? I'm asking for a friend...)

Thursday, April 25, 2013


I've been awake for two hours and forty-five minutes and already I've left behind half my keys (the half that lets me back into the house), spent an hour in traffic to get other keys from Steve, and spilled coffee in three different rooms thus redecorating a table, two rugs and a comforter.

As I was sitting in that traffic at the world's longest red light, trying to make lemons from my lemonade, I decided to listen to a talk. You know, to capture the moment for self-improvement! (Exclamation point mandatory for such attempts, yes?)

The talk was on frustration. Which you'd think would be helpful. As it turns out, not so much. Because as the speaker described how frustrated God gets sometimes with us as we thwart His plans and veer off on our own adventures, I sat there, squashed between a Sprinter van and a older model BMW (both gunning for my spot to dart through an impossibly fast stoplight) I thought, God you can't be frustrated with me right now, because I'm frustrated with YOU!"

Whoever calls it first, wins.

I don't have any deep conclusions to share with you about this frustration. I can't wrap this one up with a big "But isn't God awesome!" bow quite yet, at least not with any integrity.

But here's the thing: deep inside, under all the frustration, I believe a bow is coming. I have logged enough days with God that I know not to write one off based on the mid-morning report.  I don't know how things will get better--or that they won't get worse first. After all, there's still coffee in my mug and several rooms I haven't yet spilled in.

I know this isn't profound, but I think sometimes it's good to admit when we're trudging through the day thinking not, "Woo hoo, life is so awesome!!!" but rather, "Well, let's wait and see."

Because at some level, isn't wait and see the whole message of the Bible?

Wait, that's kind of a bow! Look at that!

I'm signing off now before I spill coffee on it :)

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

On trying to be Boston Strong

Hello Blog friends. I'm feeling better today. Yesterday was rough. It was my first chance to process all that happened last week--Monday's bombing. The mourning, the investigation. Having dinner with my friend Super-G Thursday night, listening to her story of being at the marathon during the bombing, hugging her as we headed home... and then learning that the suspects had killed an MIT police officer three blocks away shortly after we left.  Staying up most of that night watching the news, scanning Twitter, hearing the replay of the shootout, waiting and wondering and praying. And then Friday (when I was sure this would be over) waking up to a text from my brother about how I shouldn't take THAT DOG outside, turning on the news to learn that we were under lock-down. Listening to birds chirping outside--they city is so eerie when it's quiet. Our friends Emily and Gavin called: they knew the Tsarnaev brothers when they lived next door to them on Norfolk Street. The boys used to help them with their groceries and hang out with them in their courtyard. (You can hear Emily interviewed here.) Hours later, when the lockdown was called off, three Cambridge Police vehicles appeared on our street to search a three-story house that was boarded up after a fire last year. And then the air filled with echoes of gunfire and sirens and helicopters. We heard flash-bangs through our living room window as they found Dzhokhar Tsarnaev hiding, bleeding, in that boat one town away.

To sum it up bluntly: It really sucks to hear something Anderson Cooper is covering on the news live through your window.

It is surreal to discover that the suspects in this awful event were from here.  That all the Cantabridgian insistence on acceptance and diversity and political correctness hasn't created some magical atmosphere where everyone is free from evil. Good intentions just can't accomplish that.  I knew that, of course. I kind of loathe all the political correctness. But I guess at some level I'd bought into the lie that if you cover your world with enough nice, nothing really bad can grow there.  I was wrong.

But it wasn't all bad. Most of my tears were prompted by stunned relief: as I saw law enforcement officials streaming in from EVERYWHERE: A friend's husband is a State Trooper in CT; he was here. The SWAT team came from Quantico, VA. I lost track of all the different groups after awhile, and was just a soggy mess of gratitude that so many would do so much to help.

And there was much-needed help & hilarity online: Adam Sandler's Happy Gilmore tweet. And Glenn Fleishman, who pointed out to everyone who seemed baffled that the suspect was hiding in a boat...on a place called Watertown
: "People not from New England: Every house, even 500 miles from ocean, has tarped-over rotting boat in backyard in New England." (He's totally right.) And Seth Mnookin, a science writer from MIT who couldn't get to his car Thursday night because it was parked in the perimeter and so live-tweeted search updates for about 40 consecutive hours. Not to mention the texts, calls, tweets, FB posts & emails from friends (some of whom I've never met in person) who took a minute to check in to see if we were okay. Those meant more than I can say.

But here's a confession: I couldn't post about any of this yesterday because I was too angry. Not big-picture angry; I'm not there yet. Rather, at random things that don't usually get to me. 

I was mad at Christians who used these events as an opportunity to jump on their chosen soap-box, posting things that didn't make much sense, like this: "Blaming Muslims for terrorism is like blaming Catholics for the Latin drug cartels" (Um, hello? I've never heard a cartel leader claim that they pursued drug distribution out of passion for their Catholic faith or to please the Pope). Or this: "To say all Muslims are represented by these terrorists is like saying all Christians are represented by the members of Westboro Baptist Church" (Again...not really. As reprehensible as Westboro Baptist is, I don't think they've ever killed anyone to get their point across).  

I wasn't angry about any of this because I'm anti-Muslim. I'm all for NOT blaming entire swaths of humanity for the actions of extremists. I was angry because these were ridiculous attempts to jump on the bandwagon of this tragedy with an agenda, and I didn't have the bandwidth to filter out ridiculousness without getting angry. (In Star Wars terms, my deflector shields were low.)

But maybe I needed a day to be mad. Maybe I should give thanks for these silly statements because they helped me focus the anger. I'm not much for punching pillows, but a couple of walks (okay, stomps) around the block muttering about these things, along with a long vent with Steve when he got home from work, helped: as I said, I feel much better today.

Today, I'm able to celebrate with the law enforcement officials, and weep with the families whose lives will never be the same. I'm able to pray for the hundreds of unnamed victims of the bombings who are expected to live and ask God to help them move beyond mere survival...for the miracle that each of them thrive. And at the same time, to pray for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who really does seem like a kid who got caught up in something faster, stronger, and bigger than he could manage.

Today, as I walked THAT DOG around the block, I'm thinking about the lyrics to this song by our friend Andy Young:

God of all comfort

God of all peace
God of all hope and joy
Come rest on your people
Come move in our hearts
Give peace to the anxious ones
That we might see you
That we might hold your hand
That we might know you are God

May it be so.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Two days later

I'm struggling to write about the bombings here in Boston. That sentence sounds so bizarre that I want to backspace over it and write something different because this can't have happened. But of course it did, and life here is strange and sad in ways I'm not sure how to describe.

Yesterday I panicked every time I heard a siren. There were a lot of sirens. It seemed like they were everywhere and that each one of them represented some new tragedy changing someone's life forever. There are lots of sirens most days, I guess (I've heard three or four just while writing this post), but I don't hear them the same way.  Now I'm jumpy and there's a big lump in my throat and I don't exactly know how to be in the midst of this.  And yet life goes on, shooting right through my lumpy throat and tears.  Like this: We're having a new couch delivered today. That just seems absurd.

And so I, along with the rest of the city, cast about for ways to cope.

One of my life strategies this spring has been to focus on bright spots: places where, in the midst of a whole lot going really wrong, something goes right.  It's an idea I picked up from the book Switch, by Chip & Dan Heath. The gist is that when you're faced with an intractable problem or tough situation, there will always be a few things going right in the middle of all the wrong. So when you're tempted to feel overwhelmed by the hopelessness, focusing on the bright spots gives you something tangible to work with: you can look for what allowed the light in, so to speak, and work to replicate that.

The bright spots for me yesterday were ways in which this tragedy is bringing us together. This "United We Stand" banner over Yankee Stadium just blew me away. And when I think of them singing "Sweet Caroline" between innings (a longtime Red Sox tradition that is one of the sweet spots of games at Fenway) it makes me want to hug everyone in New York and say thank you. These gestures fill me with certainty that we're bigger, somehow, than the evil that attacks us. The Yankees didn't have to sing Sweet Caroline, or stand with us. But they did.

And this much needed humor from Stephen Colbert, about the toughness of people here. If we're going to cry this much, we need to laugh some, too.

Boston College students have organized a walk for Friday night called The Last Five Miles. It's such a tangible way to satisfy the need we have to do something, to respond to this horror with an outpouring of positive action.  Another bright spot.

Last week, a friend told me that when her boyfriend visited Boston for the first time, he said, "This might be the friendliest city I've ever been to!"  We laughed so hard we choked on our beverages. This is not Boston's reputation at all.  Friendly is not our thing. But taking care of each other in emergencies? We're all over that. And as we figure out what life looks like in the midst of FBI investigations and having Anderson Cooper reporting live from Copley Square, I'm grateful for the ways in which all those cliches about reaching out to help one another are true.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Bread & Wine by Shauna Niequist

I have been waiting for WEEKS to tell you about this book! It is beyond lovely, and you should go to your favorite bookstore and buy/order a copy right now. Trust me, you'll be glad you did.

I am not the target market for this book. It's giggle worthy that I felt so blessed by a collection of essays centered on cooking.  If you've read my second book (chapter three) you know that meal production is not my strong suit, and that Steve and I launched our marriage with a 40 pound weight gain, a borderline case of salt-poisoning, and this persistent a-hem sound we'd make from the backs of our throats due to my belief that "saute in butter" was the best way to prepare all food.  Things have improved since then, but I still don't collect recipes or wake up dreaming of dinner, and neither of us is what you'd call a foodie.

But here's the thing: Shauna Niequist writes in a way that suggests that even though she & I don't share this passion, we could still be friends. We might laugh about my lack of culinary curiosity, and perhaps we'd find something I love that she thinks is equally baffling (I'll just bet she can't twirl a baton! Oh wait, she's from the Midwest. I bet she can...)  She's a fun person to spend a few hundred pages with.

A favorite moment came on page 37, where she says:

"I believe every person should be able to make the simple foods that nourish them, that feel familiar and comforting, that tell the story of who they are."

I laughed out loud, imagining inviting her to my house for a baloney sandwich with mayonnaise, mustard, American cheese & four slices of cucumber.... my favorite food since I was nine years old. I'd pair it with a chocolate martini :) I don't think this is what she had in mind, and yet the idea of a baloney sandwich party sounds like so much fun, I'm inspired to give it a try. Thank you, Shauna.

The book is about more than food. It's also about friendship and marriage and parenting, and the hard times we all go through wondering if/how life will work out. She's candid about her struggles with shame and body image, and the temptation to believe that everyone's online persona is the truth about them and that you're the only one who hasn't yet mastered life.  So even though she talks about "dressing greens" like something everybody does, she makes me feel safe admitting that my greens tend to run naked across my plate.

And if you ARE a foodie? You will love this book even more. She includes recipes for everything you can imagine, and even has a chapter toward the end where she admits that not every night in her house is a gourmet extravaganza--that the weeknight stress of getting dinner on the table requires a plan and some easy go-to options.

For all my reluctant protests, I might try the risotto recipe (pray for me!) It involves the top of the stove (my comfort zone), a process that is sort of sauté-like, and wine.  If I pull it off and everyone survives the experience, I'll let you know.  In the meantime, I'll be giving this book to my foodie friends, with the chapter on Bacon-Wrapped Dates strategically highlighted.

Monday, April 01, 2013

No mo FOMO

I gave up social media for Holy Week. I got the idea from a book I was reading, although it's a fair depiction of how busy and distracted my head was that I can't remember which book, even after looking at my reading log. (I'm pretty sure it didn't come from here, or here.)

Anyway...the break was fabulous. I hadn't realized the extent to which I was escaping into my phone whenever life got dull or stressful. Or how hooked I'd gotten on having that little escape. Which is weird, because I don't think of my life as something I want to escape. I know this is a cliche, but now it's my cliche, so I'll share it: it felt good to focus on what was happening right here in front of me, rather than all of the articles and memes and political angst swirling around the World Wide Web.

Yesterday, celebrating Easter, our pastor talked about FOMO: Fear Of Missing Out. It made me think about how that plays out in my life. I get a little panicky when I realize that I'm not on the schedule I set for myself four years ago for book writing (although I have three books that are about 2/3 done, so 2015 could be a banner year! Or so I tell myself...)  I looked down this morning and realized that my favorite jeans have been through the laundry so many times that "acid washed" is the most apt description, so clearly I'm missing out on some key fashion cues. But overall, life is good. Simple in some ways,  complex in others, not at all what we expected. But full and good.

Then comes Facebook. That is the center of my FOMO.  I don't struggle with envy (except for those of you who live in climates where you're already wearing flip flops...I envy you a little). But I fear missing out on ideas and cool conversations: updates from people I love, new book recommendations, articles that make me think or laugh. I love the connections and sharing.  But I wish I could get all of that without scrolling through three dozen faux-post ads about eyelash growth or those motivational pictures that don't motivate me.

I'm not sure what to do with Facebook now that Holy Week is over. Any suggestions? How do you handle social media and still stay focused on the part of the world where you live your actual life?