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Breathe

12 Feb

I recently read the inspiring book—When Breath Becomes Air by Dr. Paul Kalanithi. It’s the story of a highly educated man with degrees in English literature and biology who becomes a renowned neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. A lover of literature and philosophy, Kalanithi writes eloquently about his family, his education, and being diagnosed with stage four lung cancer at age thirty-six.

Here’s a doctor who treats terminally ill patients suddenly facing his own mortality. Before he dies, he’s able to write this poignant book about the true meaning of life.

I guess what really resonated with me about his story was that for years Kalanithi put life on hold while working diligently to become the best possible neurosurgeon—spending hours and hours studying, researching and performing surgeries to leave his mark on the world. Yet in the end what really mattered was not his career, but his wife, baby daughter and extended family.

Why does it take something so devastating to wake us up to what’s really important? When my own daughter was diagnosed with cancer, I thought I had learned my lesson. Yet after almost ten years it’s still a struggle for me to consistently take pleasure in the little things. That darn “if only” pattern of thinking seeps into my subconscious, constantly diluting all the precious joy.

Fortunately, I have found a way to break free from these negative thought patterns—by practicing gratitude. Every day as I go about my daily tasks, I try to consciously think about how very lucky I am.

Today was full of the little things: Sleeping in because of a school holiday; breakfast out with Rene and Isa followed by a glorious walk to our local butterfly preserve. Watching the dogs romp happily through the grass, soft and green from the recent rains. Running into neighbors at the local pizza parlor and joining them for lunch and delightful conversation. A trip to the library. Little things, really—but oh, so very big.

Life is short. Be kind and show gratitude. Nurture relationships.

Revel in the beauty around you. LOVE. I will die someday and so will you.

Breathe deeply before that breath becomes air. It’s that simple.

Spilling Over

21 Apr

spilling overFor a very long time  I carried a feeling of wanting inside me, like I was a hollowed out tree trunk and if I could just fill up that space with proof of my extraordinary accomplishments, I’d be fulfilled. As a young girl, I chose to spend endless hours practicing the piano thinking that my talent and musical endeavors would be enough to fill that void inside of me. I gave concerts, won competitions and went on to major in piano performance at a prestigious music school, only to find that the accolades from the outside world wasn’t enough—the space inside of me still felt cavernous.

Through my twenties, thirties and most of my forties, I couldn’t see that all I had in my life—my happy marriage, my four beautiful children, my successful piano teaching career—were more than enough to fill up that hollow space, but I’d been in the habit of feeling empty for so long that even having it all wasn’t sufficient to fill that void.

Looking back on all the time I wasted feeling dissatisfied and empty, all I can say now is thank goodness for old age. I finally understand that old adage, “Youth is wasted on the young” is absolutely true. It’s unfortunate that we don’t live in reverse as  I’d like to enjoy a youthful body to go along with the wisdom, patience and understanding I have now that I’m middle aged.

I’m wise enough now to realize that the center of my universe is right there within me, and my reality is only what I create in my mind and what I see through my own eyes. What I choose to think and feel is ultimately what will fill up that empty space inside of me—the approval or admiration I get from others means nothing if I don’t believe it myself.

But old habits always die hard and I realize that finding the joy and goodness in the little things in life is always going to be a struggle for me, but at least I realize that all the accolades in the world are meaningless if I don’t first feel them within me.

Yesterday our extended family came over for a barbecue. We did the usual things—ate delicious food, talked, joked around and shrieked with laughter for most of the afternoon. Years ago I would have thought of it as just another stressful family get-together—I would have fretted and worried and been angry  that I had to do all the work. I would have been too resentful to enjoy myself.

But I’m different now. Now I’m able to see that  it was a perfect chance for me to spend time with the people I love most in the world and all during the afternoon I felt my universe expanding with the love they feel for me.

My once hollow tree trunk spilled over with joy and gratitude and I realized that life couldn’t get any better.

 

Taking a walk with Rene and Isa at dusk on Easter Sunday.

Taking a walk with Rene and Isa after the party.

Hey, Girl, Hey!

11 Dec

beach viewIn most areas of my life I don’t take good very care of myself. I don’t exercise enough; I eat too many sweets and not enough green vegetables; I don’t spend money on new clothes for myself because deep down I believe I don’t deserve nice things (that, coupled with the fact that I hate the way my body looks in a dressing room mirror.) I spend a lot of time primarily taking care of the people I love while neglecting my own needs or wants.

Then I go and do something HUGE for myself: I agree to spend a couple of days in a rented beach house with ten of my best girlfriends whom I’ve known since our days together in junior high school.  Somehow, against all odds, we’ve managed to remain close friends for almost forty years. Every so often we plan a getaway together without husbands or partners, without children or pets. Just us.

The beach house at Mussel Shoals was stunning—right on the water between Santa Barbara and Ventura with the most spectacular views of the ocean imaginable. Everyone brought a ton of food and we all pitched in together, cooking up gourmet meals and then cleaning up afterward. As the wine flowed and the coconut cake was passed around, we talked for hours and hours about our lives; our families, our joys and sorrows.

We laughed—actually, we hooted, we guffawed—we pretty much shrieked like uninhibited second graders running around on the playground during recess. We were vulgar and crass and stayed up until two a.m. talking trash, (Hey, Girl, Hey!) laughing so hard our stomachs hurt the next morning—or maybe it was just the red wine and chocolate.Hey girl hey

After a brunch which included juevos rancheros and mimosas, we took a long walk on the beach and with the cold December wind whipping at our faces we shared our stories with each other. Some of our tales were joyful, filled with newly found love or excitement over a new creative project in the works. Other stories were filled with sorrow and devastation. And then we cried. We cried because we were in a place where we felt safe to open up and reveal our pain to each other without judgment or criticism—a place where love, concern and support for each other decanted faster than the bottles of red wine on the kitchen counter.beach walk

After spending only two days with these women, I became funnier, prettier, and more talented than I was when I first arrived. These women, who’ve only become more beautiful as they age, allowed my capacity for love to expand like a hot air balloon—and not just the love I feel for them, but more importantly, the love I feel for myself. They brought out my best—that special part inside of me that sometimes gets lost in the messiness of life.

As I drove toward home, I felt lighter and more emotionally buoyant than I have in a very long time. I was full up again, satiated with the unconditional love and acceptance that these women offered up so freely to me. As I headed back to my ordinary life, I realized that what I had just experienced over the past two days was indeed extraordinary and I felt blessed.

Off to my left, as the Pacific Ocean unfurled like a sparkling blue comforter laid down just for me, my spirit soared with gratitude.sunset at mussel shoals

Whaddya Need?

23 Mar

I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve suffered from a serious personality defect most of my life. This condition probably stemmed from me playing the leading role of anxious pleaser daughter of an alcoholic father/ middle girl child between two boys in my own personal After School Special that ran for most of my childhood. As I grew up, I completely bypassed any opportunity to be a part of the “me” generation in order to focus all of my energy on making everyone else happy. In a nutshell, I’ve been incapable of putting my own needs in front of others since I was about ten years old.

I’ve only just discovered (thanks to a good therapist) that I did this so that I wouldn’t have to face my own painful feelings relating to the experience of living in the chaos of an alcoholic household. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, it’s always been easier for me not to deal with painful emotions. And it’s worked pretty well for about forty years. But as I face the second half of my life, I’m realizing that it’s just not working for me anymore. I want to feel—even if it hurts!

It’s utterly exhausting trying to please everyone all the time, and truthfully, it just can’t be done. This is the year of turning fifty, and I’ve finally realized it’s time for me to pay attention to me. Thanks to some life-altering experiences that have taken place in the past few years (the pivotal one being my daughter being diagnosed with cancer) I’ve begun to do just that—I’m finally starting to try to figure out what I want, whether it be writing again after thirty years of self-imposed literary exile, or even just choosing what I want to cook for dinner.  I’m finally seeing that taking care of my needs and doing what I want to do is not only best for me, but it’s best for those who love me.

Let me give you an example of the struggle I face when thinking about doing something for myself. First of all, I need to let you know that I’m the least spontaneous woman on the face of the planet. I’m a complete homebody and rarely go anywhere, preferring to stay home and putter about the house and garden. But this past weekend, I did something totally out of character. I left the kids and husband, got in my car alone and drove five hours north to Bass Lake (near Yosemite, California) to spend three days in a spectacular lake-front cabin with nine of my junior high school girlfriends (you can read how we met here https://allegronontanto.wordpress.com/2011/12/18/my-girls/) to celebrate that we’re all turning fifty this year.

Now most of you wouldn’t have thought twice about going, but I, on the other hand was my usual pathetic worry-wart and worked myself into a tizzy about whether or not I should cancel my Friday and Saturday piano lessons. I fretted about not showing up to play piano during the church service on Sunday, and I got anxious about leaving my youngest daughter for the first time. I knew I couldn’t miss this reunion for the world, but I wondered 1) how in the world my family would get along without me, and 2) who was I to think that I deserved to do something enjoyable just for me?

But the thought of missing out on this reunion weekend for any reason was just too unbearable, so I rescheduled lessons and managed to figure it all out. Friday morning, I dropped the kids off at school and hit the road.

It was a soothing and quiet drive to the lake—it was incredibly peaceful with no one asking me for anything, no one telling me what to do—I was free to stop and get coffee and listen to whatever I wanted on the radio. Yet I still couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong—that I didn’t deserve to be so blissfully happy. Why in the world did I feel guilty?

I arrived at the lake house to a clamor of squealing teenage girls masquerading as fifty year-old women and almost burst into tears of gratitude that I was actually there with all of them. The house, with its view of the lake and surrounding pine trees was more beautiful than I could have even imagined. I took a deep breath and decided to let it all go—all the useless worry and guilt and angst that I’ve held onto for so long and just be. If this house on the lake wasn’t the perfect setting to relax and regroup, well then, I might as well give up the dream right then and there.

“Whaddya need, Jessie?”                                    

I had been rifling through the kitchen cupboards of the lake house, looking for a loaf of sourdough bread on which to make a sandwich, when my friend, Corrine yelled those foreign-sounding words at me from across the dining room.

At first my girlfriends and I all cracked up, because it was so hilarious at the time—the way Corrine said it so loud and fast, like she was an impatient New Yorker and it was her job in life to figure out what I needed at that precise moment and then tell me where to find it. It became our pseudo-mantra for the weekend— when anyone was looking for something, or even if they looked contemplative or distant, we’d all shout, “WHADDYA NEED?” in a gruff, nasally voice. It was actually quite funny.

It may seem like a silly thing—having someone ask you what you need—but as women with families and relationships and responsibilities, we aren’t often asked what it is we need. How truly magnificent it was to hear someone ask me what I needed! And for me to ask my friends the same question back, over and over, even if it had become somewhat of a running joke, meant something to them, too.

As the weekend went on and the conversations became more personal and intimate, all of our hurts and secrets began to spill one by one like little droplets of red wine onto the spotless white tablecloth. It was useless to try to wipe up the stains—it’s nearly impossible to clean up all of life’s messes, no matter how hard we scour and scrub.

There was some deep and serious stuff revealed around that table—painful and devastating tales of sadness and loss were told involving our husbands, our children, our siblings.  As we talked and laughed and cried, I suddenly felt less alone. I began to understand that every single one of us was dealing with some sort of pain. Every woman at that table was still just a little girl inside, worrying about the mess they had in front of them, and how in the world they were going to clean it all up.

This is why I love turning fifty. Our differences have become less defined. All of us are getting older and our bodies are not what they once were—wrinkles and gray hair are our common denominators. But it no longer matters now—superficiality and vanity has flown the coop like a couple of squawking chickens. We’re at the point where we can truthfully admit to each other that our lives are not perfect and that we’re vulnerable and scared and often sad, but that’s okay. We can lay it all out on the table and feel safe in the knowledge that we’re not going to be judged or criticized. We recognize our own fragility and imperfections in each other and that’s what makes our love for one another even stronger.

A storm blew in on Saturday night and the rain pounded the roof like an arsenal exploding above us. It suddenly stopped in the middle of the night and I thought the tumult had finally passed. The next morning it was eerily quiet as I awoke to a soft cotton blanket of snow wrapped around the lake and mounds of creamy whipped frosting on the trees. A late spring storm had dumped over a foot of snow on the lake.

The snow sparkled like quartz rock in the early morning sunlight. I went out on the deck and breathed in that cold clear air and thought about how the worry and anxiety that I carry around on my back and in my heart were gone for the moment. My pain had been covered up by the blanket of love and support offered so freely by my friends.

“Whaddya need, Jessie?”

I know that the snow will melt eventually and reveal the dirt and dust underneath it—I know that there will be many more of life’s messes to clean up.  But at that moment, staring at the beauty of that uncontaminated white snow, I know I’m part of something so miraculous I can barely put it into words. I’m part of a group of women who love me for me, and that’s just what I need.

And I don’t have to think about anything else except that the love we share is like the newly fallen snow—glorious and pure and full of grace.

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’ swelled 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.