The Midnight Library And The Lives We Left Unlived

I started reading (okay, fine, listening to) a new book today, now that I have finished The Gifts of Imperfection. This book is a novel by Matt Haig entitled The Midnight Library. My sister mentioned it in passing twice last week and seemed so taken by it I decided to go ahead and get on the bandwagon. I also jumped on the Wordle bandwagon yesterday, but that matters not at this point. In any case, I’m a few hours into this damn book, and my mind is in classic overthink mode. This means it is a meaty story.

The Midnight Library is about a woman named Nora Seed who, feeling lost and depressed about her life, decides she no longer wants to live. She takes some pills and washes them down with wine. She drifts off and ends up at a library. The librarian, a woman Nora knew from her childhood, shows her a book filled with Nora’s life regrets and tells her she can go to any of a million different iterations of places her life might have led had she made different choices. She simply needs to select a regret and she will be transported to that divergent life, already in progress. The books allow Nora to answer the age old question “what if.”

It has taken me a long time and a lot of therapy to land at a place where I no longer abuse myself over my “what if” regrets. I’ve discussed that here before. Your what ifs are impossible because in the past you made choices based on who you were at that time using information you had available to you at that time. Looking back now, with a different mind and different experiences, alters the light you shine on those past events, people, and opportunities you let slip away. It makes them either shinier and more attractive or duller and less attractive but, either way, your current consciousness transforms them into something they are not. All of this makes our regrets like our worries…thinking about them will give you something to do, but it won’t get you anywhere.

I am curious to see where Nora lands after exploring these alternate-ending lives. If she finds a better existence for herself or if she decides to go back to her old life or if she dies from her overdose as she had originally intended. But all this thinking about disparate endings to our one (as far as we know it) life has me stuck on one thought. We can’t go back and change our past, which has led us to our present. We are, for better or worse, here where we’ve arrived as the result of millions of small, insignificant choices and a few quite large ones. Our story, thus far, has already been written. It’s the future that has yet to be determined. In some cases, our what ifs might still be able to come to fruition if we take steps in that direction today. We just have to find the courage to believe we can change the outcome. If we couldn’t do it in our past, perhaps we can now.

And while I noodle on what I want my life outcome to appear, for as much control as I have over it, please don’t comment here about the book if you have finished it. I will likely finish it tomorrow, and we can talk about it then. I look forward to it.

The Reality Tree

I am not a fan of the holidays. I think I’ve made that clear. I do love one holiday tradition, though. Last year, after we bought our pandemic house, we bought a pandemic Christmas tree to match the new house. It’s not the 9 foot tree or the lights on the tree that make me happy. It’s the ornaments Steve and I have collected and curated over the past 26 and a half years. Some were gifts from friends. Some we bought to remember trips or events. Some the boys picked out.

My favorites are the ones we had personalized for our family members. Each of us have our own ornament on the tree. We have one too for each of the pets we have had. And each time I put those ornaments on the tree it’s a walk down memory lane. It makes our tree ours. And every night when I light the tree and sit and look at these ornaments, I see my life, not the life I was given, but the life I built for myself. Every ornament, from the wooden sea turtle we purchased in Kauai to the silver camper I gave Steve to represent our Airstream dreams to the ornament our friends had made that looks exactly like our Ruby dog, makes me happy. The tree as a whole is a representation of my life now, and as I look at it I feel proud and grateful.

The stress of the holidays, the over-the-top and unnecessary shopping, the gift wrapping, the obligations, all of it I could do without. But the tree, the tree I like because it is the antithesis of the holiday insanity. It is home and heart and love and history. It grounds me when everything else is swirling like December snow. It’s my anchor to what is real.

Life Isn’t Chess: You Can’t Go Back, So Just Go Forward

In April of 2006, just before our sons turned 4 and 6, we traveled to Captiva Island, Florida, to give them a taste of beach life. Because we are a landlocked, mile high family, we waited to make the long trip to a beautiful island until we were certain the boys would enjoy the experience (and we wouldn’t lose it on a four-hour flight with them). While we were there, we shuffled between the resort pool and the shell-strewn beach. The boys loved racing from the surf and building sand castles. We visited the famous Bubble Room for one dinner, and another night we ate ice cream for dinner and chased it with salt water taffy and all-day suckers. We saw a couple manatees near the boat docks. We took a sunset cruise to look for dolphins. And at the end of the trip, my husband took an epic photo of the boys and I, which became one of my all-time favorites.

April 2006

During the lockdowns and the time spent at home during 2020, I spent my some of my time dreaming of returning to Captiva with the boys. We were desperate for a beach trip after being stuck in our landlocked state for so long. I booked a 3-bedroom condo at the same resort we visited last time. We were in a different part of the resort this time around, closer to public restaurants and to the Starbucks just outside the resort entrance, but the rental was bigger and afforded the boys their own rooms. We spent a lot of time at the beach, but didn’t visit the pools because the boys were a bit too big for the kiddie waterslide now. Instead, we did some kayaking through mangroves on nearby Sanibel Island. We ate at the Bubble Room again and loved it. We wanted to repeat our ice cream dinner, but didn’t have the right resort card to gain access, which was a total bummer. Still, we discovered another restaurant that we loved so much we ate there twice. We saw more manatees this time than last time, including a momma and her baby off the docks outside our condo and another one that swam by us while we were in the surf in the Gulf. And on one clear evening, we went back to the spot where we took my favorite photo and attempted to recreate it as best we could. The palm trees were bigger, the boys were bigger, but the beauty of the moment was the same.

May 2021

When you have young kids, people love to tell you that you should cherish those moments because they go by so fast. They aren’t wrong. They fly by like they’re on a Japanese bullet train. But parenting is, from day one, a growth enterprise. There is no going backwards, as it’s meant to be a forward endeavor. So don’t let anyone convince you that watching your kids grow, change, and eventually move on into their own lives is somehow a negative, something to be depressed about. It’s the greatest gift a parent can receive. If you don’t believe me, ask a parent who has lost a child. As memorable as our trip was in 2006, it was better in 2021. I’m grateful we’ve made it this far together, and no matter what happens from here I will cherish ALL the memories, not just the ones from when the boys were small.

When Life Imitates Star Wars

While many Americans spent tonight eating Thanksgiving leftovers or turkey tetrazzini or turkey sandwiches or turkey soup, we decided to get take out. We defaulted to our favorite local Italian restaurant for pizza. When we got home with the order, we immediately noticed the number on the boxes.

Any Star Wars fan worth a dime remembers Order 66 from Revenge of the Sith, the order that Chancellor Palpatine enacts to kill off the Jedi. “Execute Order 66” is burned into our sons’ brains, and therefore into ours. I can’t tell you how many times the boys have seen that movie or how many times we have seen it as a result. Star Wars runs through our blood over here. So, of course, together we looked at those pizza boxes and registered Star Wars.

The best thing about being part of a family, or a member of any social circle, big or small, lies in the connections you make and share. I’m grateful to have shared the time I have with the family I created for myself. If life is about the small things, today I am grateful for the pizza boxes that all four of us noticed and photographed and laughed about tonight. A day after Thanksgiving, I find myself with a little extra gratitude and peace.

It’s Freshman Year Again

Since Joe went off and started college in January, I’ve worked very hard to figure out how not to miss him. I understand this is a process. When a child rightfully extricates himself from your home to pursue his own life, there’s going to be some sadness. I was pretty depressed for about a month back in January and February when we left him in Washington. There are some ups and downs that first semester at college, and it’s hard to be away from your child when you want to be there to hug them and let them know they’ve got this. But he and I both held it together and made it until mid-May when he came home for the summer. It was a little less sad dropping him back at school in late August because I knew he was going back to friends and had reason to believe he was getting the hang of the whole college life thing. We saw him for four days in October when he came home to see us and meet the new puppy. We had a great time during his visit and when he left, I was actually not sad at all. It felt like progress.

Thing One at home and being derpy…some things never change

Today he came home for Thanksgiving. Everything in his life is going well. He’s got a new girlfriend at school and he has decided on a major. He’s back in his room tonight. He played with his dog and went to In-n-Out with us and even went on our nightly dog walk. It feels a little weird having him here now because I know he isn’t staying. Even though he is still our kid, he’s not anymore. It’s like he’s on loan.

This kind of makes me sad, and I have to think that I would be broken as a parent if I didn’t find this separation process a little daunting. But, having him on loan is actually kind of amazing too. Like, I realized the other day that he does his own laundry and grocery shopping. He makes his bed. He runs errands. He makes his own appointments and fills his own prescriptions. He goes to classes and takes his tests. None of this is my problem anymore. It’s all off my plate.

Having kids is an odd thing. You’re your own person, living your own life, and then you get pregnant and there’s this new life you have full responsibility for. They need you for everything. It’s exhausting and frustrating. Some times you love it. Some times you want to get in your car and drive to Guam. Then they begin to become independent. They start driving. They get a job. They go out with friends. They get into college. Then they’re gone most of the year and you’re back to being on your own and living your own life. But now it’s like you’re relearning how to do those things because you haven’t paid much attention to them for eighteen years.

So, as it turns out, Joe is starting his life and figuring it out during his college freshman year in Washington. And I am in my freshman year of part two of my adult life. (There was the Pre Kids phase and now there’s a Post Kids phase.) It’s kind of exciting. Wonder what I will decide to major in this time?

Limitless

Let’s go back to the beginning when my identity was fluid and limitless

The best part about being where I am in my therapy journey is that many of the hardest moments of discovery and realization are behind me. I’ve faced that I was emotionally abused by people who I thought were looking out for me but who never were. I’ve digested the fact that I spent my entire life thus far trying to measure up to expectations that had nothing to do with me. I’ve mourned the loss of what might have been if the actors in this play were different. I’ve also grieved the loss of opportunities I was incapable of accepting in my past because of who I was at the time. I’ve accepted that it is unlikely that my relationships with these people will ever be anything other than what they have been or what they are now. I understand that many of the choices I made in my past were made to keep me safe rather than move me forward. I acknowledge that while I can’t go back and make anything different, the pressure of the sadness, isolation, and rejection I experienced hardened me into something stronger, more resilient, and better than I might have been otherwise. All of this is to say that I’ve done the work. And, while I’m sure I will continue to peel other layers from time to time, I think I finally have a pretty good handle on what triggers me and why it does, along with how I can do better for myself going forward. Progress!

My sister and I have been talking about this a lot. When you grow up being told who you are rather than being allowed to explore and follow your heart and interests, it’s a bit like arriving at adulthood wearing someone else’s cast-off, ill-fitting, moth-ball-scented coat. It’s as if you came into the world naked and instead of getting to choose your clothing, you got handed this ratty old coat and because it was all you were allowed to have you used it to cover your nakedness and protect you from the elements. Now, though, with so much work behind us, we understand that this coat is not ours. It was never meant to be. And even though we’ve been wearing it for years, we didn’t realize until recently that it never suited us and we didn’t like it in the least. It simply was what was, something we were forced to wear when we didn’t know any better and weren’t better equipped to advocate for ourselves.

Now, though, now we get to start over. We’ve arrived at the fun part. We’ve ditched the coats, throwing off the mantle of what we were supposed to be according to someone else, and we’re standing here asking ourselves what we would like to wear in its place. It’s both exciting and stressful. Like a puppy let loose in PetsMart, we’re overwhelmed by the options. There are so many aisles to explore, so many shiny things to distract us as we try to figure out what most appeals to us. The only thing I know for sure that I want is to be a better mother to myself. I want to give myself love and acceptance and to feel comfortable in my skin. I want to feel safe and unconditionally loved just as I am right now. And after I get comfortable with that reality, then I will start figuring out who I am, what I want, what I like, and what I am willing to put up with.

The other day after therapy, I was driving home and the word “limitless” popped into my head. Limitless. I started to think, for just a moment, that maybe this is where I am at. If you remove the obstacles that have kept you boxed and trapped and there’s nothing holding you back, maybe, just maybe you are limitless. I’m going to need to sit with this because this is big.

There’s More Than One Way To Win

We knew fairly early on that our sons might not be the most coordinated children ever. They had zero interest in riding bicycles at a time when most young children are asking for one. We enrolled them in t-ball, only to spend most of the games praying they would not be hit by balls given that Joe would be in the outfield staring off in another direction and Luke would be playing second base but would be chatting up the runner there rather than paying attention. We put them in occupational therapy about the time they were 6 because they struggled with both fine and gross motor skills. About that time, after failed attempts to get them interested in baseball, soccer, or swimming, we put away our thoughts that they might play team sports.

When they started at Denver Academy, a school for neurodiverse learners, we were surprised that the school suggested all students in 9th grade pursue a sport. Early on I thought, if our sons needed to participate in a sport, perhaps running would be a good way to go. The best part about cross-country and track meets is that your competition is yourself. Sure, you run with other runners and your times will be put up against the times of other runners, but your race time is yours to work on and improve. No one else is going to carry you over the finish line. In these running sports, each event provides an opportunity to achieve your personal best. Running is a measurable growth enterprise.

Both our sons rose to the occasion in cross-country and track. Both began to see that maybe they were more interested in athletics than they thought they were. These were amazing things to witness. Watching Joe go from finishing 8th out of 8 runners to moving up to 6th out of 8 and then eventually watching him finish in first place in a 400m event was unbelievable. Witnessing Luke plug along in cross-country and then decide to try his hand at discus in track and field was something else entirely. Running taught the boys a lot about what they are capable of and how far they can go. But what impressed us about watching our sons in these sports was seeing them engage with other runners, form friendships, and become cheerleaders for their teammates.

In the end, our sons grew as runners but, more than that, they evolved as teammates, leaders, and competitors. This cross-country season, I watched Luke in several races chatting as he ran alongside members of other teams. After one event in particular, I remember Luke approaching the guy he had been running with and congratulating him on his time, which was faster than Luke’s. Joe and Luke both became invested in their sports and their teammates. They ran along with the kids who were struggling towards the end of a race. They stayed long after their events ended to cheer on their friends on their team and others. Both became team leaders. Joe was awarded Runner of the Year for track his junior year (stupid Covid eliminated track his senior year). And tonight, at the award ceremony for fall sports, Luke was given the Mr. Mustang Award for leadership in cross-country.

All of this has given me reason to be proud. But what strikes me the most about our sons’ personal growth in sports is that I had been looking at their earlier struggles with athletics the wrong way. Our kids might not have been star athletes playing in championship games or qualifying for State in their events, but they excelled in ways far more valuable in the long term than that. Their struggles gave them different skills. You don’t have to be the fastest runner or strongest athlete to be important to your sport or your team. You can be gracious in defeat and kind to competitors. You can be positive and encouraging with teammates. You can be dedicated to improving your skills and sharing what have learned. Those traits might actually make a bigger impact on your world in the long run. Here I was, wanting them to be competitors to be reckoned with, and it never occurred to me that two kids who struggled with athleticism early in life might just have something compassionate to teach others about sportsmanship and the gifts to be found in working hard, doing the best you can, and being supportive of others, even when they best you.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. My sons have taught me far more than I ever taught them. I’m not sure they’ll ever be able to teach me to run though.

Let The Holiday Season Commence, I Guess

I don’t know how it is going where you live, but in our neighborhood the holidays begin now, apparently. Many homes have their holidays lights up, and they are turned on nightly. It’s a little early for me. I don’t want my holidays combined like a vanilla/chocolate swirl soft serve. I want to suck every last moment out of fall and savor every drop of pumpkin spice latte. I don’t even want to think about putting a tree up until the last of the pumpkin pie slices and bites of turkey have been consumed. What is the big rush, anyway? The Christmas season in our home exists for five, precious, ephemeral weeks, and I think that is what makes them more special. It appears I am in the minority, though, because here we are, all lit up like I am already behind on holiday shopping and wrapping.

There is only one holiday component that is allowed to begin before Thanksgiving, and that is the preparation for our yearly holiday card. The family holiday card is something we’ve done since Thing One arrived in 2001. We have not missed one year of this tradition. We know that in a couple years it’s likely that the photos on these cards will change as the boys move on into their own lives, but Steve and I will continue sending out holiday cards as long as the post office continues functioning. It may be old fashioned, but we enjoy it and there’s no stopping now.

Today I started the process for this year’s cards. I began looking online for outfits for the family photos. In the past, I have gone in person to Gap, Old Navy, or J Crew to try to piece together clothing that would coordinate but not be super matchy-matchy. But with a thirteen-week-old puppy in the house, I have too little time for those shenanigans so I opened my browser and got busy. It didn’t go as well as expected, so in the end today I decided to shop in our closets for suitable photo attire. Without too much digging, it was mission accomplished. Next up: location scouting.

We’ve never had a paid, professional photo taken for these cards. We do them ourselves, which makes them feel less polished and more, well, us, I think. We have had, on a few occasions, a family member or friend snap photos for us after Thanksgiving Day or after we cut down our Christmas tree. More recently, however, Steve has set up his fancy camera on a tripod at our chosen location. Capturing a decent photo has not always been easy. For starters, when the boys were younger, they seemed had an aversion to looking directly at camera. So, we would take 30-40 shots, sometimes pausing to run back into the car to warm up because it was so cold. Some years, we had to go with a photo that was not what we really wanted but was the best we could get. The process has not always been ideal. Often there are myriad complaints. Sometimes there are cross words. In the distant past, there may have been threats, bribes, or ultimatums in effect. I always have the final say over the photo we use because this tradition is my baby. I love putting together and sending out holidays cards, even as the number of them we receive has dwindled because others have given up on the expense, time suck, and frustration of this perhaps outdated holiday tradition.

I’m still not quite ready to let this go. I’ve kept a book containing our holiday photos over the years. It’s fun, if a bit sobering, to view these now. Each photo has a story or memory attached. There was the year that Joe insisted on having his shark, Bruce, in the photo. There was the year we took our holiday photos in Hawaii dressed like typical Hawaiian tourists. There was also the infamous year the boys had bowl cuts and were looking pretty spiffy. I am grateful, however, that we have persisted with this tradition because we will forever have these memories and photos of our time with our sons as they grew, no matter what the future holds.

Lessons From A Tequila Tuesday

A couple nights ago, Steve and I did something we haven’t done in a long time. We went to a party on a school night. And it wasn’t just any party. It was a tequila party for the Day of the Dead. Yes. The Day of the Dead was Monday, but everyone knows a party with tacos and tequila is definitely meant to be held on a Tuesday. So, the holiday got extended an extra day just for us. ¡Qué buena suerte!

Photo by ActionVance on Unsplash

We moved into our house in July of 2020, when most of the homes on our street hadn’t yet been completed and the pandemic kept us from spending much time with the few neighbors we did have. We had our first get together with some of the neighbors on our street early last month when we met outside for Happy Hour, which quickly became Happy Five Hours. When you buy a new home, you keep your fingers crossed that the people who live around you will be, at the very least, respectful neighbors. But it is a joy and blessing when you realize the people who live on your block are not only respectful but also helpful, kind, and the equivalent of a cavalcade-of-puppies worth of fun. On the evening of the happy hour at our next door neighbor’s house, the neighbors next to them on the other side said they would be hosting a Day of the Dead party with tequila on Taco Tuesday the day after the Day of the Dead. The hosts explicitly told me then that makeup was highly encouraged to go with the theme and we should not be lame and show up without. This, of course, was all said tongue-in-cheek, but I am a people-pleasing rule follower so I took it to heart.

At my next trip to Target I purchased Halloween face make up so it wouldn’t sell out before I was able to purchase it. I did not want to disappoint our hosts and I definitely didn’t want to be the lame one.

Makeup just finished

So, on Tuesday night about the time the party was set to get underway, Steve and I tried our level best to put on Day of the Dead faces. I applied my makeup in honor of my Grandma Charlotte. After a solid 30 minutes, we had subpar-but-finished Day of the Dead faces, so we walked over to the neighbor’s house. As soon as we walked in, we realized we were the only ones who had gone to such extensive lengths with our makeup. Although we felt like big dorks, we got right down to tequila tasting and that feeling dissipated.

Like me, this tequila is extra

After one rough night in my early twenties, I have traditionally only tolerated tequila in margaritas and had told myself I would not be drinking any tequila on a school night because, well, Wednesday responsibilities. That went out the window in the first five minutes, though. Our amazing hosts had many different tequilas for sampling and one bottle, appropriately named Los Vecinos (“the neighbors”) for a raffle. We learned the traditional Colombian toast (Arriba! Abajo! Al centro! Al dentro!) and we were off to the races. My favorite was the Cava de Oro Extra Anejo.

Makeup after some tequila shots

In addition to the tequila, the hosts had provided taco fixings and all the neighbors had shown up with tasty side dishes. Their home was tastefully decorated for the holiday. We met neighbors we didn’t meet last month. Everyone ate and drank and mingled and tried new things and laughed and enjoyed the evening. When Steve and I finally left and walked our next door neighbors to their front walk, it was after 11 on a school night. We had done it! We’d broken the streak of dull, pandemic weeknights at home. There we were, happily toasted on a Tuesday. Although our face makeup had long since dried up and was falling off onto our clothing, we were grateful for the opportunity to relax with some wonderful new friends who happen to live mere yards away.

I learned a few lessons on Tuesday night. First, putting on decent make up for a Day of the Dead fiesta is a lot harder than you would imagine. Second, there’s no not having tequila at a tequila tasting unless you want to be lame, and I never want to be lame again. Third, I like my tequila extra anejo, like me. Fourth, even at 53, you can totally party on a Tuesday night and function on Wednesday, although it might require a willingness to miss some sleep and to take an Advil for a teeny, tiny headache. And fifth, sometimes you buy a dream house and you get dream neighbors too.

I know what you’re thinking now and, sadly, we have no homes for sale on our block at this time. Sorry. For now, these premium vecinos are spoken for.

Los mejores vecinos

Not All Little Golden Books Were Golden

(Editor’s note: I’ve decided to do a little blog work on memories. I am hoping to tell one story from a past memory each week. This post begins that practice.)

No idea why these little girls are wearing Victorian clothing in 1972

When I was a young girl, my middle sister and I shared a full-size bed in one bedroom. At night, my mom would read us a Little Golden Book. One book that sticks in my mind more than any other was called Good Little, Bad Little Girl. The story was about one little girl who sometimes was well-behaved and other times was not, just like most humans. The “good” little girl was depicted as being neat, clean, calm, and polite, the very ideal of femininity. The “bad” little girl was messy, disheveled, emotional, stubborn, and rude, everything a little girl was not meant to be. As I look back at the book now, I find it appallingly sexist. At the time, however, that is not at all how I understood the story. 

The good little girl in the story looked a lot like the sister I shared that bedroom with. She had lovely, smooth, straight, blonde hair that was easy to comb through and was held neatly in barrettes. She was sweet with her baby doll toys, compliant with parents’ wishes, and not any trouble at all. The bad little girl in the story reminded me of myself. She was depicted with unruly hair, sticking her tongue out, pulling the good girl’s hair, and acting like a tomboy. She was not at all what she was “supposed” to be. The parallels between the good and bad girls in the story and my sister and I were uncanny in my young mind. This story was about us.

When my mother read that story to us, I was probably 5 or 6. I didn’t realize the tale was about one girl. I thought it really was about two girls, one good and one bad. At the end of the book, though, the narrator says (spoiler alert): “If you would be happy, if you would be wise, open your ears and open your eyes. Make the bad little girl grow smaller and smaller. Make the good little girl grow taller and taller.” My understanding of that passage at the time was that I, with my less than perfect hair, behavior, and demeanor, was so bad that perhaps I should simply disappear. I had no idea that the girl in the story was one young female child who simply had good days and bad days and was alternately sweet and ornery. I didn’t understand that the book was meant to be a cautionary (if outdated and sexist) tale for young girls about how to best behave. Because my sister looked and acted like the girl in the book, because my mother often held up my sister to me as an example of a good girl (look at how nicely she holds her baby doll), I understood that I simply was the “bad” girl. I realize that my mother was just reading a story book, but we never had any qualifying conversations about the meaning of the book. There was no objective talk to break down the notion that most of us are basically good people with bad days and that, if we strive to be the best versions of ourselves, our bad behaviors may dissipate with time. Without that conversation, my creative mind was left to run wild. And run wild it did. I did not like that book, but it came to be the one I most identified with. It has stuck with me for 48 years.

I’ve discussed this Little Golden Book book in therapy because it is one of the earliest memories I have about how I internalized the notion that I was not a good, acceptable person deserving of love exactly the way I am. There are many stories about myself that I accepted over the years without stopping to question their veracity. I will continue to work on growing my self-esteem through self-compassion until I can put this book (and other stories I was sold about myself) behind me as false narratives that were never true and that I no longer need to carry.

While I am, in nearly all cases, against banning or destroying books, maybe someday I will get my hands on a copy of this book. Then I will burn it for the symbolic and therapeutic relief it will provide. Don’t worry, though. I will leave The Poky Puppy, The Little Red Hen, Scruffy the Tugboat, and Tootle in tact.