Archive | December, 2011

Giving up the Pursuit

30 Dec

Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy. -Robert Brault

It’s almost 2012 and I’m once again faced with my annual task of thinking about making resolutions for the New Year. “Thinking about” is the key phrase here, as I’m really adept at thinking about change and less apt to actually implement my list of resolutions in any concrete way.

So this year, I’ve decided to try something different. This year, I’m not falling into that same pattern of setting myself up for failure by trying to reach for goals that are unattainable. This year, I’m making only one decisive resolution:

I’m going to work hard to stop working so hard to be happy.

Sounds simple enough, right? Well, I can assure you, it will be a genuine challenge for me. I’ve spent a lifetime searching for happiness. I’ve carried around the ridiculous notion that if I could make other people happy, I’d be happy, too. Yeah—right! It’s only taken me almost half a century to realize that my hypothesis is completely unsound.

I also thought that if I could only get to point “A, B or C” everything would finally fall into place and I’d reach that state of bliss that has always eluded me. Yet no matter what I’ve accomplished, I’m still that little child, who after unwrapping dozens of birthday presents, looks around at all of the gifts and toys and thinks, “Is that all?”

Well, I’m almost fifty years old, and I’m tired of not being satisfied. I’m also exhausted from worrying about  other people’s moods and actions, as if I actually had some control over their behavior. I’ve come to the realization that it’s now or never– I’m running out of time! If I can’t learn to be happy by now, I probably never will be.

I hate that it always takes a cataclysmic event in my life for me to stop with all of this internal angst and nonsense and focus on what’s most important in life. You’d think I would’ve gotten the point by now. Almost ten years ago, I lost my niece, Gillian when she was six years old. Then, of course, my daughter Isa was diagnosed with leukemia. I’ve often talked about how these experiences, although thoroughly devastating, were also positive in many ways, and they allowed me and my family the chance to change and grow into the people we’re supposed to be. And although I’m grateful to have learned so many valuable life lessons from these experiences, I think that quite possibly I’ve had enough schooling to last me a lifetime. But I guess I’ve not listened attentively enough, because the universe still thinks I need educating and is handing me yet another lesson.

Three weeks ago, my husband’s sister Norma suffered a brain hemorrhage. Although we’ve known that Norma’s health has not been great these past few years, (she is diabetic and is on dialysis) it’s still a shock that at the young age of fifty-two, something this dire could happen to someone whom we love so much.

When I met Rene almost twenty-seven years ago, no one from his remote village in Oaxaca, Mexico had ever dated a white person, let alone married one. Let’s just say that they were not too pleased that one of their own fell in love with a girl whose skin was lighter than the maza they used to make their tortillas.

Back then, I was naive and idealistic and couldn’t understand their reluctance to accept me. Ignorance crosses all racial lines, though.  Because we we’re not always familiar with the way other people live and interact, so many of us negatively stereotype those from other cultures. I was dismayed to learn that my own mother was troubled by our impending marriage because of “the vast cultural differences” that Rene and I faced, and she tried to talk me out of it. And Rene’s family had the insane idea that because I was a white woman, I would use him, cheat on him, and ultimately break his heart. They told him they would not accept me.

Except, that is, for his sister Norma.

The first time I met Norma was on a hot July afternoon in the summer of 1986. Rene had rented a studio apartment with two of his brothers near downtown Los Angeles on Mariposa Street. Mariposa is Spanish for “butterfly” which was odd because I don’t recall ever seeing a butterfly anywhere in that neighborhood. In fact, there was hardly a plant or flower in sight among the grimy brick and stucco apartment buildings that stood crumbling with neglect.

It always seemed hotter on Mariposa Street because there were no trees around except for the towering palms that left only a hint of shadowy lines crisscrossing the street.  Against the backdrop of the smoggy L.A. skyline, their hairy fronds crackled like dried-out paintbrushes in the hot summer wind.

Norma had heard about me, and had insisted to Rene that he invite me over for an early dinner that afternoon. I was nervous as I entered their apartment, the smells of fried carne asada and onions saturating the stale afternoon air. I was so eager to make a good impression on his older sister, but there was no need to worry. Norma, upon seeing me reached out and gave me a tight hug. She smiled without judgment or criticism, and then fed me the best meal I ever ate.

Norma’s life has never been easy as she’s struggled with health issues since she was born. A life filled with poverty and loneliness can suck the hope and joy right out of a person and Norma is no exception. Yet faced with such difficult circumstances, Norma has always managed to be generous with what little she’s had to give.

At our wedding: Norma, me and Rene

Norma is now in a nursing home, paralyzed on the left side of her body, a feeding tube permanently attached to her stomach. She can barely talk, and is only able to move one hand to make slight gestures. Once in a while, she can offer a half smile. The wonderful thing is that she’s still Norma—she is cognizant of her surroundings and most importantly, she still has her feisty personality.

Rene’s family has rallied, as families often do in times of tragedy, and has grown even closer over these past few weeks; they trade-off spending time with Norma so she’s not left alone during the day. Their lesson, I believe, is that no matter what their differences are, they need each other for support and there’s no way any of them can do it alone. They’ve also realized that it could be one of them lying in that hospital bed the next time. I’ve realized that someday it could even be me.

Perhaps my lesson is to understand that I need to appreciate that I am blessed with the kind of life that others only dream about. I’m not saying I don’t have my struggles; life is difficult for all of us at one time or another, especially during these rough economic times. But I take comfort knowing that I’m not alone—that all of us share some form of pain and sorrow as we go through life. I also know that we share the same joy and laughter as well—and that love will always carry us through the dark times.

So I’m starting my New Year’s resolution right now: I’m going to take a break from trying to be happy and just be happy. It’s that simple. I encourage you all to stop trying, too.

“Happy” New Year to you all—this time I really mean it.

My Girls

18 Dec

For the first three weeks of seventh grade, I threw up every day in the girl’s bathroom. As I made the solitary ten minute walk to school in the cool morning air, I tried to fight the rising nausea, but the closer I got to the junior high school campus, the more nervous I became.

The minute I pushed open the heavy door into that stuffy, claustrophobic bathroom, I knew there was no turning back. The geometric pattern of the tiled walls was like a woozy trigger that made vomiting inevitable. My hands gripped the toilet seat as the scent of teenage B.O. and the noxious fumes of sewer gases swirling up from the floor drains literally pushed me over the edge. I would retch up my breakfast into that stained porcelain bowl like I was making an offering to the deity of junior high school popularity.

No, I wasn’t bulimic (we didn’t even know what an eating disorder was in 1974) nor was I pregnant (I fantasized about my first kiss, but sex? Gross!) I was just your typical, run of the mill, anxiety-ridden twelve-year old adolescent girl. I was so afraid of not fitting in that my nervous stomach would clench and gurgle and produce enough stomach acid for me to upchuck my Cheerios every morning in that lonely, isolated bathroom.

The transition from the safe confines of my elementary school to the junior high was not a smooth one for me. My grade school friends had formed their own clique—one that I didn’t feel a part of anymore. For the first time in my life, I was basically friendless.

For a while I was desperate enough to hang out with the “Loadies” as they were called—the pot-smoking, greasy haired kids who would sneak out onto the field during lunch and take furtive drags on the cigarettes they had pilfered from their parents. I even managed to swipe a pack of Maroboroughs from my dad’s top dresser drawer and hide them in the pocket of my oversized blue nylon windbreaker. Standing on that grassy field, the wind whipping my wavy hair, I self-consciously hiked up my bell-bottom hip huggers that were uncomfortably tight. I wanted so badly to be a part of this group—or any group for that matter. My hands shaking, I fingered the puka shells around my neck as I offered my pack of cigarettes to the group.

“You first,” one of the tougher girls said, eyeing me suspiciously, her contempt of me clearer than the Bonnie Belle lip gloss she wore on her full lips. “I bet you’ve never even smoked in your life—have you?”

“Yes I have—since last year,” I stammered, an obvious lie.

She struck a match, expertly cupping her hand around the flame and lit the cigarette dangling unsteadily in my mouth. I took a quick look around to see if any teachers were watching and took a puff without inhaling the smoke. My eyes watered as I fought off the urge to cough. It was foul.

She watched me, her thick lips stretching into a rubbery sneer. I held the burning cigarette awkwardly between my raw, nail-bitten fingers, pretending that I knew exactly what I was doing. Her face was pinched like she had just sucked on a lemon. I knew she hated me, but I didn’t know why.

“Yeah—right,” she sneered, the pimples on her forehead turning a deeper shade of magenta under her feathered bangs. “You’re a real pro—aren’t you?”

She knew I was a fraud. I couldn’t hide the fact that I was a good girl. Callous laughter spilled out from the rest of the group; their own relief apparent, for she had chosen to devour me with her acidic sarcasm instead of one of them.

The bell rang, signaling the end of lunch. She didn’t even try to hide her disgust with me as she flicked her still burning cigarette down on the grass and headed off the field.

“Later, chick,” she said, and with a flick of her head, permanently dismissed me. Her entourage trailed behind like her like a scraggly parade. I hung back, ashamed. How pathetic—I couldn’t even make friends with the reprobates.

But all hope was not lost, as the very next day, I found my girls. Or should I say—they found me. It happened so effortlessly that I couldn’t believe my good fortune. The girl I sat next to in English class invited me to eat lunch with her group. After class I followed her out into the sunlight to meet her friends. In front of the library, a continuously shifting circle of lovely girls flitted about, chattering excitedly like little yellow finches at the birdbath.

One of them was hosting a make-up party at her house the following evening and was inviting the others to attend. Oh, they were so beautiful—confident and stylish in their flowing hair, knit sweaters and fitted Ditto pants.  I thought they were perfect.

I stood back, mute with admiration, just waiting for someone to wonder what the heck this unlovable, awkward misfit was doing there, trying to break into their tight circle. One of them turned abruptly to me. I waited for her to ask me what I was doing there.

She gave me a genuine smile. “Do you wanna come to the party, too?”

I was so shocked that all I could do was nod up and down like my head was attached to a spring.

I had been accepted by the flock, and although I didn’t know it then, it was for life.

From the GVJH Yearbook: Front Row: Kathi, Michele, Me, Holly, Kay, Corrine, and Julie. Row 2: Pam, Row 3: second from left: Shelia. Last row: second from left: Lauri.

It’s been over thirty years since that fateful day at Goleta Valley Junior High. Through slumber parties and high school football games, school dances and trips to Hawaii, all of us have remained friends.  Months can go by without a word between us, and yet when we see each other again, time has been erased like we spoke just yesterday. We always pick up where we left off. We’ve been in each others’ weddings and rubbed each others’ swollen bellies at baby showers. We’ve cried together over the painful loss of a parent. We’ve cried even more after the unexpected death of a child.

Last week I had dinner with my girls. It’s Christmastime, and we’ve make a point to get together during the holidays no matter how busy are lives have become. As we gathered in the back booth of a downtown restaurant to eat, drink wine, and exchange gifts, the atmosphere around us began to expand, encasing us in a light of pure loveliness. In no time, we became those chatty, vivacious girls from seventh grade.

As we passed plates of decadent desserts around the table, we gossiped, hooted with laughter and shared the sweetness of our histories together. We’re all approaching fifty, and most of us are at a crossroads in our lives—looking back at where we’ve been and wondering what the heck we’re going to do with the next fifty years. We fiercely love our partners and our children, but admit to each other that sometimes it’s much more difficult to be a mother and a wife than we ever imagined. We openly reveal the pain we feel over the fact that our children have not followed the precise path that we’ve laid out for them—and about how challenging it is to push them out of our nests and release them into their own lives.

It’s true we’re aging. Every year we find more gray hairs. The crow’s feet around our eyes have deepened over time. Our skin has become a little less elastic and our hair a little less lustrous. But within ourselves, we feel as young as teenage girls. And if you look closely, you’ll see that our eyes still shine as brightly as they did back in seventh grade.

We may mourn the loss of our youth, but as we approach our fiftieth birthdays, the need to be something other than what we are right now melts away like the Christmas morning frost on the front lawn. We’re finally able to show each other our limitations and inadequacies without fear of judgment. We’ve made a myriad of mistakes throughout our lives and certainly haven’t lived up to our own expectations or fulfilled all of our dreams, but we understand that this is what life is about—making mistakes and learning from them. After all these years, we’ve grown up enough to realize that because of our imperfections, the deeper, more exquisite beauty within us has allowed itself to be revealed.

I keenly remember that shy, twelve year-old girl with the nervous stomach who stood in front of the junior high school library that day, hoping against hope to find a place to belong. I never imagined that a group of such pretty and spirited seventh grade girls would take me under their wings and make me part of their flock. But I guess they saw something in me that day—that in truth, I was really just like them, insecure and shy and afraid to spread my wings. I just wanted to be a part of something bigger than myself, as they did. They pulled me in, and through their acceptance and love, humor and grace, gave me the chance to fly.

Merry Christmas, Girls. God bless us everyone.