True Love Can Be a Crap in the Pants

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In the incomparable show “30 Rock,” the character Jenna Maroney describes love as such:

“It’s hiding who you are at all times. It’s wearing makeup to bed and going downstairs to the Burger King to poop!”

I remember sharing this sentiment as a younger woman. I carried my cosmetic bag everywhere I went. I brushed my hair hourly. My legs were always shaved. If I was eating in front of a man, I was eating salad or pecking at my dish with feigned disinterest. God, it’s so asinine, the pleasures I withheld from myself in order to acquiesce to the male gaze.

The night I met my husband, I was drinking a low calorie Michelob Ultra. That was my go-to drink, or a rum and diet. I don’t remember what he was drinking but it was much cooler than a domestic light beer. He’s a bona fide foodie, but he also despises words like “foodie,” which are honestly the best kind of foodies. He was a restaurant manager with a seasoned career in the food industry, and as our relationship took off, so did my immersion into the Chicago area culinary scene. Nothing was off limits: sashimi and quail eggs, wild game meat, Pakistani street food, Eastern European bohemian (where you get a cup of jello and a side of cottage cheese for dessert), and everything in between.

It may sound like our relationship was sponsored by “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown,” but the one hiccup is that I have a very sensitive stomach. We’re talking IBS, lactose intolerance, and fingers that swell to the proportions of a bloated pig intestine should my body have to process the slightest hint of salt. However, unlike the thousands of other women with precious stomachs who also have boundaries and discipline, I choose to just power through the pain.

I’ve sacrificed my body to good food, which is way better than sacrificing my body to Fleece Vest Chad.

You know how you know you’ve met your life partner? After you’ve collectively scooped brain from a duck skull during dim sum in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood. After you’ve eaten a questionable batch of cuttlefish, after you’ve said, “YES PLEASE” to every bit of meat and shell fish on a lopsided lazy susan.

It was mere weeks into dating that I joined my now-husband’s family for a celebratory Chinese brunch. My sister-in-law is from Shanghai and is a delightfully adventurous diner. Not only am I game for anything that hits my plate under normal circumstances, but I also served up some serious new girlfriend gusto, enthusiastically blurting out “YUM” for a cool 90 minutes.

For the entire drove home via Chicago’s westbound I-290 expressway, I felt untouchable. I had just won the Girlfriend Super Bowl. There was no conversation I couldn’t join, no 1980s pop culture reference I couldn’t glom onto, no Cantonese dish I wouldn’t toss down my esophagus with the enthusiasm of a thousand homecoming dates.

“That went great!” he said as he squeezed my thigh.

It sure did. IT SURE DID.

…until it didn’t.

His bathroom floor tile was so cold as it pressed up against my cheek. That damn cuttlefish. A mere two hours ago, I casually tossed that cursed animal into my mouth as I waxed poetic about Fleetwood Mac with my future father-in-law. It served its purpose that afternoon but punished my hubris that evening.

Like one of those wall-mounted singing bass fish, the cuttlefish taunted me and my delicate bowels to the tune of Talking Heads’ “Take Me to the River.”

KNOCK KNOCK

“Babe, are you okay?”

If there’s any place I wished I could have been at that moment, it was evacuating dim sum from both ends at the Burger King, not in my new boyfriend’s apartment. No amount of sultry eyeliner or potpourri spray could offset this nightmare.

I was mortified. Fleece Vest Chad would never abide. But Allen, future husband, did.

He rubbed my back. He kissed my head. He poured me a glass of club soda. He pretended not to smell the bioterrorism my body just unleashed through the 800 square foot apartment he called home.

My mouth muttered “DON’T TOUCH ME” but my eyes said, “I LOVE YOU.” I slept on his dilapidated green couch that night, clenching my orifices in humiliation. I knew in that moment I would hold his heart in my heart forever.

Ladies, if you want to find your one true love, don’t rely on astrology or Cosmo quizzes or the judgement of your friends. Eat a bad batch of seafood and let it ride. The man who holds your hand as you crap your pants is certainly the man with whom you want to grow old.

The Joy of the Eternal Rookie

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A silver haired, curmudgeonly man approached me under the fluorescent lights of a Publix grocery store, two decades ago. He asked me where he could find hearing aid batteries. I had no idea. I was only a week or two into my new job as a cashier and customer service associate. I only knew where baby diapers were, and that’s because we were standing right in front of them. He seemed irritated with my ignorance, which filled me with anxiety disproportionate to the situation.

I remember wanting to quit. I wanted to quit a dozen times, because I felt foolish not having the answer. Over time, I went on to master the entire product catalog of that store, learning to identify merchandise placement in every department, aisle, and shelf. At that point, I was ready to move to something new, and the learning curve pattern started over again. This stubborn pattern emerges with every single job, life stage, and hobby I take on. I wanted to quit at my first marketing job out of college, I wanted to quit at my first challenge as a people manager, I wanted to quit when new motherhood felt too painful, when my finances were disastrous. But the reality of the learning curve applies to all undertakings, no matter your age or station.

There’s nothing in the life that doesn’t have a learning curve. You’re not born with any skill set that doesn’t require at least some degree of effort, save for pooping and sleeping – and any honest adult will admit that there’s a new learning curve to both of those things starting at some point in your mid-30s.

Fortunately, I’m learning to relish the uphill trudge rather than use it as an excuse to flake out.

Today, I find no excitement or beauty in stories of coasting or ease of acclimation. I’m attracted to humans struggling along the learning curve, who are demonstrating sweaty effort and the emotions of intermittent failure. I love encouraging the new barista behind the Starbucks register, trying to figure out how to hit all the right buttons to process some dude’s half-caff, two-pump monstrosity. I love when my daughter collapses on my bed at 8:30 PM because she just can’t solve the math problem. I giddily adjust two sets of fluffy pillows on which will put our heads together to figure it out. I love to massage the shoulders of bloody nippled friends who have just birthed their babies, giving them the same rah-rah pep of a boxing coach in the corner of the ring.

Slogging through intellectual, emotional, or physical resistance is the kind of rich human experience that we have to embrace, because it’s a requirement of anything worth doing. Any endeavor that is too easy feels like a total cheat.

Parents are pressured to give their children a range of extracurricular experiences – you know, to see what sticks. Team sports, music, performance, visual arts… we plop these kids into a million park district and school-sponsored activities and prod them along their own learning curves. “You won’t be any good if you don’t practice!” “It’s important to commit for the good of the team!” “How do you know if you will be any good if you don’t give it a try?” We wipe away their tears when they don’t make the team, telling them that the fact that they made the effort is even more noble than becoming the captain.

Why do we act as if this vulnerable experimentation only applies to children? If anyone needs an extracurricular, it’s Carol in Accounting, who risks spending the next 20 years being defined by a single set of circumstances instead of the full spectrum of possibilities that she fails to pursue. Over the past 10 years since I’ve become a mom and a career woman, I’ve joined a recreational roller derby league, studied comedy writing, formed a comedy troupe, experimented with stand-up, done kickboxing, joined more than one book club, attempted ink sketching, put myself in front of cameras at work, and started a blog. In all of these moments, I felt like a fumbling rookie, just a few strides onto a steep learning curve that I had zero confidence I’d be able to surmount. This was true in a few cases, but a total underestimation in other cases.

We were not put on this earth to coast through the motions. We were put here to live. I’d rather be perpetually powering towards my aspirations as a member of the junior varsity than being bored at the top of varsity.

There’s satisfaction in being at the top of your game, but there’s exhilarating joy in being the eternal rookie. Here’s to trying new things, potential failure be damned. As far as I’m concerned, there’s more sexiness in the effort than the success.

In the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson:

“That which we persist in doing becomes easier to do, not that the nature of the thing has changed but that our power to do has increased.”

Tales of a Second Grade Spitfire

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It’s January. ‘Tis the season of motivation!

Gone are the days of trendy diets and “scientifically proven” workout regimens. A generation ago, January represented an uptick in gym memberships. Today, January is the time to read up on your Love Language, determine your Enneagram, and start practicing yoga – not to trim your thighs, of course, but rather to cleanse your chakras and recalibrate your mind’s eye.

The zeitgeist of today is dripping in New Age affirmations and I’m lapping it up like a kitten with her face in a saucer of organic nut-based milk.

“LOOK DEEP INSIDE YOURSELF!” the chorus cries out. “THE ONLY STRENGTH YOU NEED IS ALREADY INSIDE OF YOU!” The idea is here is that if you can bushwhack through the tangled jungles of past traumas and toxic cultural narratives, you will ultimately find a sparkling jewel of self-realization.

Unfortunately, this has been my sticking point.

Just look inside yourself!

Okay, bumper sticker on a Subaru. I’ll just go and do that, as if Maya Angelou and Joan of Arc are simply wading about in the deepest cavities of my soul, just waiting to be fished up and sic’d on whatever egregious stressor is ruining my day. Maybe if I cough hard enough, a hairball containing a collection of Brene Brown mantras will come tumbling out.

I’m irritated that as a 36-year-old woman living the 2020, I need to be encouraged to dig deep for strength in the first place. After all, I’ve felt the burn of not one but two human skulls tearing through my cervix in the last decade. I assembled an IKEA entertainment system all by myself with nothing but $3 Trader Joe pinot noir in my blood and Michael Buble’s 2005 seminal album “It’s Time” in my ears.

I’m a survivor! I’ve seen some shit!

In some ways, the misadventures of adulthood have added a layer or two of scaly protection atop my thickened skin. I’m usually adept at letting certain cruelties and injustices roll off me and I credit that to normal life experience. But in many ways, I’m softer now than I was as a little girl.

As I’ve discussed before, contrary to the popular belief that all little girls are conditioned to be docile, apologetic conformists who grow up to be shrinking violets who get passed up for promotions, I feel like I’ve long been running on the lingering fumes of my younger self.

Truth be told, 8-year-old Rachel was a stone cold broad. So, if I must dig deep to unearth the inner strength needed to power through this cruel world, then I’m digging a tunnel straight to 1991.

Second grade. My punk rock year.

They say well-behaved women seldom make history. Well, second grade was probably my worst year, behaviorally, and the closest I’ve ever been to a true, scorched earth renegade. I hate to admit it, but I may have peaked when I was 8.

Let me just start by explaining that in 1991, I looked a bit like George Costanza if he was an American Girl doll. I just think it’s important for you to have that visual as we dive into my salacious past.

It all started with a note that needed to be signed by my parents. I don’t remember if I didn’t want her to see it or if I had simply forgotten to get the signature and realized it was due that day, but either way, that day at school, I made the split-second decision to forge my mom’s signature.

I gripped that Lisa Frank pencil with a determination as fiery as a thousand suns and signed my mother’s name with these giant, sophisticated swooping loops never seen before that day and never seen since. It was a masterpiece. Did it look like my mom’s signature? No. Did it even look like a signature? Not really. I had not yet been taught cursive, so it was more like a sloppy sketch of a sideways snowman.

But I owned it. I believed in it when no one else did – namely my teacher, Mrs. Carter.

When she confronted me, I told her that my mother gave me verbal authorization to sign on her behalf while she was in the shower. This was just how we chose to manage business in our home, I explained. She relented. At the time, I thought she bought it. Now I just realize that she probably hated her job because of tyrants like me and had finite battles that she wanted to fight. Mrs. Carter had likely already given up on my entire generation.

No matter. I had already tasted the sweet, sweet nectar of rebellion and it was time to up the ante.

At first, I kept it small. When I was instructed to vacuum my room, I did so, but without actually turning the vacuum on. I made the vacuum lines on the carpeting but didn’t clean up any of the mess. The fact that I still did the manual labor of vacuuming was irrelevant. The dirt was still there and hence, I was sticking it to the man.

THAT’S RIGHT, MOM, LOOK UPON MY FILTH!

Other times, I would pretend to eat everything on my plate but I was actually spitting it into my napkin in small increments, disposing of those steamed vegetables with the stealthy precision of the world’s deadliest assassins.

YES, FATHER, MY CLEAN PLATE AWARD WAS BUT A SCATHING SYMBOL OF MY EVIL GENIUS!

But my boldest moment came after listening to an angry tirade about the war on Christianity by 90s conservative radio darling Rush Limbaugh while in the car with my dad. There was a war! What a revelation. And here I thought war was over. We were fresh on the heels of the Gulf War and many of my friends’ parents were just returning home from that. But according to Rush Limbaugh, there was still a war on Christianity. And, according to the sing-a-longs at Vacation Bible School, I was in the Lord’s army. As a young, moon faced Lutheran white girl wearing outlet mall Reeboks, I realized I was being oppressed and it was time to rise up and revolt.

I woke up the next morning, strapped on my armor – orange floral Oshkosh overalls, naturally – and headed out to the battlefield. The state of things proved confusing in the context of Mr. Limbaugh’s grave warnings. The world around me was still strangely Christian-friendly. People still said “bless you!” after a sneeze, church parking lots still appeared full, and at school we still enjoyed a 60-second prayer break before lunch. (I mean, it was the Deep South.)

Clearly the cowardly enemy had to be coaxed out of hiding!

Suddenly, what started as my earnest attempt to be a crusader for Christ became a concerted effort to wield religion as a weapon of power and shame.

As we stood in line in the cafeteria, the twisted stench of country fried steak and okra swelled. Satan and his minions were taunting me and it was time for a strategic counterstrike. I lifted my arms up and gave the entire student body the middle finger. Double middle fingers, in fact! The most egregious of hand gestures.

My classmates were beside themselves. “Mrs. Carterrrrrrrr! Rachel’s giving people the birrrrrrd!” What a bunch of little narcs, and they were playing right into my plan. Predictable.

Poor Mrs. Carter, who just wanted to eat her thermos of room temperature casserole, walked towards me. “Rachel…” she said. It was more of a breathy exhalation than a word spoken. She was sick of my crap.

“Mrs. Carter, where in the Bible does it say, ‘Thou shall not give people the bird,’” I interrupted.

That was it. That was my big play. She and I both knew there were no references to flipping people off in the Bible. The public school system was here to oppress me with man’s law, not God’s law, and I would not let them police my body and my freedom of expression with their secular strictures. And fortunately, she didn’t really have an answer to my badass hardball.

“Please just…stop.” She shuffled away dejectedly, back to her casserole and her dreams deferred.

Once empowered by the Holy Bird Flip of ’91, I proceeded to tote my Bible all over school, dramatically placing it over every textbook in the curriculum, eagerly waiting for someone to try to stop me, for the war to ignite. I treated every class like it was the Second Virginia Convention and I was Patrick Henry. “Give me liberty or give me death!”

I was like a little William F. Buckley, waiting for her Gore Vidal.

Of course, Gore Vidal would never come. The war I was anticipating never happened. Second grade ended and I’m pretty sure Mrs. Carter flew to the Maldives that summer and never returned. And I never listened to Rush Limbaugh again.

I grew up to become the woman I am today – relatively accomplished and extremely driven, but a lot less apt to take a stand on the matters that give me heartburn. I avoid confrontation at any cost and absorb any angst or discomfort in other people – pulling it from them and making it my own, all in the name of harmony.

And while I obviously have no interest in being the fundamentalist juggernaut I was for that short period nearly 30 years ago, I do yearn for that no holds barred attitude.

That little girl still lives inside of me. Ready to fight when the cause demands. A passionate spitfire who won’t be steamrolled and is more proactive than reactive.

And when the going gets tough, she knows that a couple well-timed middle fingers are just what the world needs.

A Short List of Super Specific New Year’s Resolutions

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1. Buy a new toothbrush before the plastic head beneath the frayed bristles shaves away my enamel.

2. Read the books and films that I hype on social media.

(It’s just that Toni Morrison’s The Source of Self-Regard looked so good with the Gingham filter on Instagram. And posting that Wes Anderson trailer was a lot easier than actually sitting through the whole movie. All that symmetry makes me sleepy.)

3. Recognize that the act of writing down who gave what gift during the birthday party is not the same as actually sending thank you cards. Get better at sending them.

4. Find out how often I’m supposed to be changing out these contacts, because I have a feeling it’s not every 8 months when they’re ripped and caked with bacteria.

5. Stop buying white shirts. White blouses are the privilege of women who don’t wear drugstore foundation and can get a meatball in their mouth without hitting the rim. Nothin’ but net. (Or, maybe they don’t eat meatballs? Whatever, I don’t want that life.)

6. Stop buying “tummy firming” undergarments. All they do is relocate the fat to a different spot. I’d rather have a round paunch than have my torso look like a chef’s hat.

7. Learn how to enjoy a nap without the guilt. Let the children fend for themselves. They know how to open a bag of chips, or turn on Netflix, or dial 911. The fire extinguisher is but a few frantic steps away.

8. Stop trying on shoes in an 8 ½. That ship has sailed. I’m a solid 9 now. Blame it on the pregnancies. Actually, stop blaming things on the pregnancies. My kids are 6 and 11. My big feet, wide hips, and weak bladder are just part of who I am as a woman.

9. Let overly aggressive drivers pass on the highway. We don’t have to race. This is not Tokyo Drift – it’s the suburbs and no place is worth dying in a fiery crash to get to. Except, apparently, Old Navy on annual $1 flip-flop day.

10. Even though the sight and sound of flip-flops make me want to fold up inside of myself like a Popple having a panic attack, stop giving people shit for wearing them. Live and let live! C’est la vie! Laissez-faire!

BONUS RESOLUTION: Brush the dust off the French Rosetta Stone kit I got for Christmas 10 years ago… then promptly put it back on the shelf, dust-free.

A Release for Peace

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In the new year, I will let go.

I will let go of the disappointment in the mirror.

Too much of my heart is wasted trying to convince my eyes that what they see is deficient

I will let go of the unrelenting drive to win.

Or, rather, the need to win over those whose approval is nothing but a wisp of vapor never to be grasped.

Even my quest for self-validation is a perpetual hamster wheel, because I compete only with myself – making me the winner only when I lose.

I will let go of the fear, for fear is the lone obstruction between me and peace. And I will let go of antiquated concepts of peace, the rules for which bear little resemblance to the life I wish to live.

So I’ll venture off-path to travel to the place I’m meant to be.

But only if I manage to let go.

Bad Hands, Good Heart

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As performed by Rachel Pokay at “The Women’s Christmas Celebration” in Oak Brook, IL in 2019

We’re less than a week away from Christmas. Let’s sit here together in silence to think about that.

Five days, seven hours, forty-three minutes and 52 seconds. I’m sweating. I’m sweating so much.

But if you think about it, here are only two actual days on the calendar that are explicitly designated for Christmas – December 24, Christmas Eve, and December 25, Christmas Day. So, in theory, you still have a few days before you’re required to do anything. Technically and legally, you could just wake up on December 25 and just be like, it’s Christmas. Here I am! 

But it’s not that easy. That’s like saying to your friends, “Sure, I can meet you guys for brunch but at some point I just need pop out for a colonoscopy.” You don’t just show up for a colonoscopy, just like you don’t just show up for Christmas. There’s this whole long, unavoidable process leading up to it. Like with a colonoscopy, you’ve got to drink like, ten gallons of water and this disgusting Pedialyte concoction, then you have to fast, then you stay up until 2AM Googling how many people have died from routine colonoscopies, and so then you show up for it tired and malnourished and cranky.

But no, I’m not saying the holidays are like a colonoscopy at all.

That’s not to disregard the beautiful season of Advent happening right now. I love Advent. It’s a time of pensive reflection and spiritual preparation. One of my favorite Advent traditions is when one special family gets picked to go up and read the Bible verse and light the candles in the wreath, and then one of the little kids says something cute and everyone laughs. I love it! I always wondered why my family and I never got picked to do that. But then again, I just opened with a colonoscopy-based holiday metaphor so…mystery solved.

But today’s Christmas seasons starts even earlier than Advent. It all starts with a slight nip in the air. Somewhere some dude is burning leaves and the temperature drops below 60 and you and your girlfriends are like “I LOVE THIS TIME OF YEEEEAAAAAR.” You know you do. You run home and light every candle in your house, you’ve got a different decorative fleece blanket for every chair, and you start slathering your body head to toe in sugar plum lotion. By the way, has anyone ever even seen a sugar plum? I think it was just invented by Bath and Body Works to sell body spray.

I love sweater weather. We live in the upper Midwest, so the best sweaters are the ones that are as thick as a sleeping bag but are slightly nipped at the waist so as to show off your girlish figure. Sometimes I like to just wrap myself in an actual queen-sized duvet cover and just cinch it with a cute little belt. You know what they say – just because it’s negative 40 degrees and your internal organs are freezing over, doesn’t mean you need to let yourself go, ladies.

***

Now there’s a lot of debate out there about the right time to start embracing all the bells and whistles of the Christmas season. You have the Thanksgiving purists who say not a drop of yuletide until after Thanksgiving. 

How many of you out there fall in this camp? No Christmas stuff until after Thanksgiving. No acknowledgement of the baby Jesus until that last piece of pumpkin pie has been scarfed down over the kitchen sink at 3AM on Black Friday.

That moment is sacred, right? Just shoveling cold mashed potatoes down your gullet with a set of salad tongs because all of your silverware is dirty and you’re too tired to clean them.

I’m with you. It’s important to get through one season of emotional eating before moving onto the next one.

Fun fact: there’s this German word, Kummerspeck. It refers to the extra weight you put on after a round of emotional eating. In English, Kummerspeck literally translates as “grief bacon.” Grief bacon. If that doesn’t effectively capture the mood of pre-holiday prep, I don’t know what does.

***

Your first impressions of what Christmas is supposed to be, of course, starts with your childhood.

At an early age, I learned from my mother what the beauty of Christmas can be. She is what I always refer to as extremely tactile. Not tactile in the sense that she touches people. No, we as a family are not tactile in a human relations sense. In fact, when my mom and I try to hug, we explode into a giant dust cloud. Every. Time. It’s super annoying.

I mean tactile in the way that she is very good with her hands and when you pair that with her inherent sense of style, beautiful things are created.

I remember one year, my mom handmade poinsettias made of white crepe paper to adorn our Christmas tree. It created this beautiful, white swan-like motif that was so uniquely different from everything else in the early 90s, when Coca-Cola ornaments were in vogue and everyone’s trees were draped in that shiny silver tinsel that looks like slime and shows up in your cat’s hairballs well into Epiphany. 

My mother created a festive environment that was chic, minimalistic, and impeccably coordinated with our home furnishings and all the carefully curated trinkets.

My mom taught me about the virtues of open-faced sandwiches. They are the only acceptable sandwich option for a high-end holiday soiree. Everyone knows that. If you put a slice of bread on top of the sandwich, you might as well have been raised in a barn.

Because what are you hiding under all that bread? Your mediocrity, that’s what.

So yeah, my mom has she has style, yes, she has taste. But a person can be tasteful and stylish while also destroying delicate materials with their giant sausage fingers. That person, by the way, is me.

My mom has good eyes and good hands. I have good eyes but very, very bad hands. 

I blame it all on being left handed. The world is cruel and hostile to the left-handed person. If you’re right-handed, you might think I’m being hyperbolic. But try being a six-year-old leftie at school trying to construct a culturally insensitive Thanksgiving headpiece before the invention of left-handed scissors. It’s traumatizing.

And so here I am, daughter of Julie, mentally and spiritually destined to excel at do-it-yourself craftsmanship, but just so genetically flawed.

You can imagine the pressure I feel in this modern world deliver a stylish, do-it-yourself Christmas atmosphere in my home. In today’s social media environment, you basically have to make your house look like a bed and breakfast in a Hallmark holiday movie or you get your suburban mom card revoked. And take it from me – it’s really hard to get that card back after you’ve had it taken away. I’ve spent the last two years volunteering at my town’s children’s theater just trying to rebound from one lousy fist fight at a PTA meeting.

And before there was Joanna Gaines or Lauren Conrad or Gwyneth Paltrow and her Goop empire… before Pinterest and Instagram and HGTV… before this multi-billion lifestyle industry blew up, there was Martha Stewart.

This is a woman who has good eyes, good hands, and a good bookkeeper. And a good lawyer. And a good dietitian and a good dermatologist. Honestly, any woman who comes out of the slammer with even better skin than when she went in has the best team in the business. She’s unreal. Martha Stewart’s vegetable garden is worth more than my entire 401k. 

And before Martha Stewart, there was another Martha. Martha of Bethany. She’s from a Bible story about an overextended, type-A woman and her lazy sister.

The Bible says in Luke 10: “As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

I’m going to pause here and just say that this sounds like a woman who was in the “cleaning the baseboards” phase of house cleaning. I don’t know about you all, but in my experience, the baseboards are usually the breaking point. That’s when the strongest of domestic goddesses buckle under the pressure.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, gently prying the Swiffer Wet Jet from her clenched fists. “Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only 42 or fewer things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Leave it to Jesus to get right down to the heart of things. Mary has chosen what is better. And in this season of unrelenting multitasking, it’s so important that we stay focused on what’s important. That’s why I love this story, I really do. I want to share it with every stressed out woman that I know.

But you know who I don’t want to share it with? My husband. Because what I don’t need is to ask him to pick his fifty million shoes up from the front hallway and have him remind me that Jesus said that I need to chill out. 

Also, did Jesus say that there are 42 things on her to-do list? Such a specific number. And also, I think he may have rounded down but okay.

***

But it’s hard to stay focused on what’s important when there’s so much peripheral noise and pressure. Amazing how easy it is to forget what Christmas actually is. Thankfully the small children in our lives are always quick to remind us.

It’s Baby Jesus’ birthday!

Can you imagine planning a birthday party for the savior of the world?

But Mary, mother of Jesus – she got it just right. First off, they had it in a barn. How many weddings, retirement parties, or craft bourbon social mixers have you had in a barn-inspired space? Oh, I’m sorry, RUSTIC CHIC. Admit it ladies, your Pinterest boards are full of Edison bulb lanterns and wood paneling and Mary had it all, plus oxen and sheep. She was ahead of her time.

Plus, she didn’t fret over evites and RSVPs. She was like, if you guys want to come to see my baby and be part of my rustic chic party, you’re just going to have to chart the heavens and follow the star and FIGURE IT OUT. And they did.

Three wise men came from the east, following the star. And they got there eventually. And once again, the Bible is telling us to just like, learn to let it go. Amazing what people figure out when you stop trying to control everything.

Three wise men showed up with gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Which kind of sound like gifts that they would have wanted for themselves. Do you know those kinds of gift givers? “Oh, honey, I saw this Chicago Cubs back scratcher and I just knew you’d love it.”

Mary’s like, “Ummm, thanks for these gold bricks that I now have to carry home in my donkey satchel.” Joseph was like, patting his robes, all “I don’t have anywhere to put it, babe.”  And into the purse it goes, just like everything else. And honestly, she probably would have liked some breastfeeding salve, or like, some dry shampoo, or they could have just picked up dinner on the way in.

What a journey that must have been for Mary, the whole thing. And done with such grace.

I remember my oldest child’s first birthday. It was polka dot themed. Seems harmless, right? Except I used my useless, mangled left handedness to cut cellophane polka dots to hang from fish wire from the ceiling. Except of course they looked like half-melted gum drops. And then I tried to cook homemade macaroni and cheese, which was so incredibly stupid because I don’t even know how to scramble an egg.

Can you imagine that being the Christmas story? “And she wrapped the baby up in swaddling clothes, and placed him in the manager, and then she cried into a pot of inedible half-burnt bechamel sauce.”

I’m telling you guys, bad hands. But that little baby, born in a manager, became the man who told Martha, and all the rest of us, to chill out. And choose what is better.

***

And I don’t share all this to insinuate for one moment that it’s wrong or a waste of time to create beautiful things. In fact, I believe there is inherent goodness in it, because it produces a ripple effect of happiness out into the world.

Like people who invest time and money into their homes’ exterior lights. I don’t think my husband knows how to operate a nail gun and we don’t even own a ladder, so it’s easy for me to resent other people’s homes. But there are people who put so much effort into making their homes sparkle and shine and some nights when I’m driving home after a horrible day at work, it’s those twinkling displays that ease me off the edge and restore my spirit.

In fact, just the other night, my sister, who just had a baby two months ago, piled her family into the minivan draped some string lights along the interior, and picked up milkshakes, and drove around to ooh and ahh over their neighbors’ displays.

Those people’s efforts gave my sister the opportunity create memories with her family.

My mom made those paper poinsettias 30 years ago and I still remember them clear as day. That’s not a small thing. And I’m betting my mom never thought I’d remember all the work she put into those flowers.

But I did, Mom. I remembered. And I know how much work it took you to bring all that beauty into the world.  And I know how much work you put into that immaculate holiday spread every Christmas Eve. Weeks of meticulous preparation – handmade lefsa, stacks of cookies, jars of preserves you started back over the summer –and then in a matter of hours, it’s over. The quietness of the house after the family leaves is deafening, and you’re just surrounded by stacks of dirty platters and strips of wrapping paper.

Mom, I know. And I know all the work, as thankless as it feels, is worth it to you. And it’s worth it to all of us too.

And it’s taken me years and years of frustration at my inability to live up to the standard you set. I wish I had your good hands. But I don’t. But what I do have is the gift of storytelling, and that’s why I feel blessed to have this platform, to do some small part in bringing joy to other people this time of year.

We all have something to bring to the proverbial potluck. What’s your thing?

Consider the story of the little drummer boy. The lyrics are so poignant:

Little baby, I am a poor boy too.

I have no gift to bring that’s fit to give the king.

Shall I play for you on my drum?

Mary nodded.

The ox and lamb kept time.

I played my drum for him.

I played my best for him.

Then He smiled at me, me and my drum.

The commonality of our own stories and that of the drummer boy is the goodness of heart and the pure intent. You can have good eyes and bad hands, bad hands and good eyes, bad breath, bad skin, or a bad back. But none of that matters when you have a good heart. And a good heart can’t be bought, baked, or draped. It comes from God, and no matter how it chooses to manifest itself, from the right hand, or the left hand, it’s the source of the beauty we feel every Christmas, no matter the packaging.

So this Christmas, I challenge all of us to put down the grief bacon, and focus on serving up our best selves. And maybe that’s microwavable bacon. They have it over by the dairy section. Just 30 seconds on a microwave safe plate – cover the strips with a couple paper towels and voila! The easiest way to show some effort at 6AM on Christmas morning.

And besides, I think that’s the kind of bacon Baby Jesus would have preferred anyway.

I Am Deciduous

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I am a deciduous tree. I am not an evergreen. My leaves are destined to float away. Today, I’m feeling the mounting chill of a fading autumn and I’m bracing myself for the moment when my branches become completely bare and exposed.

I love my leaves. They provide a soothing shade in the scorching heat, and a dazzling display of color and flamboyance in the fall. My leaves help passersby identify who I am. Isn’t it satisfying to glance at a tree and be able to immediately snap your fingers and say, “That’s a maple! That’s an oak! That’s a magnolia!” and feel that you know what its defining attribute is? Whether it’s sturdy or flowering or fruit bearing.

The falling of my leaves is not new. It happens cyclically and is a biological necessity. But when my leaves are on the ground, raked up in large piles for children to jump on or blown into the street by old men who find them a nuisance, my heart’s reaction is to weep.

Don’t shove my leaves into bags! Those are my leaves! I grew them and nourished them and now they are gone.

But deciduous trees lose their leaves to conserve water so they can survive the harshest of winters before growing fresh new foliage in the spring. A healthy tree must let go of what no longer serves a purpose, to preserve that which is needed to flourish in the new season. And in the current season, I am not here to be functional or entertaining. I am not here to provide shade, or produce fruit, or excite with my technicolor hues. And I must not worry about having convenient identifiers for casual onlookers.

Right now, I am conserving water. To survive these bitter elements, I am allowing myself to be temporarily indistinguishable in this tangled grove of trunks and twigs. And as quickly as the freezing winds swoop in from the west, they will exit to the east. The sun will rise, the soil will warm, and soon my empty branches will sprout again, more beautifully than ever before.

Some might herald the evergreen, with its consistency, its signature, its comforting predictability.

But I will never be evergreen.

I am deciduous. And my blooming season is just on the horizon.

The Silent Storm of Love Unspoken

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Sometimes, late at night, I feel a profound feeling of grief that grips me by shoulders, pushing me down into the murky depths of some sort of existential dread. I consider how both frighteningly short and unfathomably long the rest of my life feels, considering the complex burden of responsibility that comes with living life to its full potential – as a wife, mother, daughter, sister, friend, and neighbor.

Often it feels like I’m mourning a loss that I haven’t yet experienced. On those nights, like tonight, I soak my pillow with tears not meant for anyone in particular, except perhaps my children who are sleeping peacefully down the hall – children who I am terrified of losing.

I feel fear, love, grief, and guilt. Guilt for not routinely expressing my deepest love for them, for not saying right to their round little faces what I can so clearly articulate in my mind in the deep blue silence of the night. In the heaviness of the twilight, I yearn to wrap my arms around them and say what feels so grotesquely saccharine in the light of day. I wish I was wired for these words of affirmation. It can be torture to feel such warmth in my heart while lacking the ability to push the words out of my mouth, like a non-verbal toddler angrily banging her head against the wall because she can’t find a way to ask for more milk.

Processing these feelings can be a very lonely experience, and so I attempt to drown them out with my headphones. I can hear the low roar of a passing freight train floating above the music and for a moment, I confuse it as rolling thunder. When I realize that these cold winter nights do not produce the atmospheric electricity needed to drown out this emotional rollercoaster, I’m disappointed. It’s a little peculiar for me to crave thunder when under normal circumstances, I would feel a bit frightened by it.

What a strange person I am – fearful of the storms until I become one.

Identity on the Rocks

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At the bar

Intended to be a departure from the suburban mundane

But instead it substantiates the mundane

The faces symmetrical, mirror images of the retail banners that splash across my vanilla algorithm

Age, sex, location, all generating the toothy grins selling me a life designed

By marketing interns hired to sell tech vests and minimalistic twin sets

Perfectly suited for the coasts of Maine

I’ll never be that

I’m just the girl behind a whiskey on the rocks

Trying to reconcile my neurotic thoughts of trauma and discontent

With the expectations of this perfectly attractive population generating the national GDP

I work as twice as hard

My thoughts generating triple the effort of these plastic bodies

That diminish mine as I walk through the door

Who created the haves and have nots?

The lines of delineation tearing through my flesh as I strive to please them all

At work, at home

In the past, the present

God help the future as it hobbles through lessons never learned

We smile as we try to ignore our inevitable demise

The smile heals

At the same time that it hurts

And lies

And pushes the mess under the bed

Until the next time we all need a good old fashioned meltdown

As if we never saw it coming

Finding Peace in the Smallness

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There’s an inspirational quote that has made the rounds in my social media networks:

“You are bigger than what is making you anxious.”

The statement is painted in vibrant red and orange stencils against aged brick facades and emblazoned across oversized coffee mugs in chic metallic script. It is an uplifting statement, designed to help those of us plagued with daily stress and anxiety to rise above the seemingly trivial triggers that undermine peace.

But there’s an adjacent philosophy that makes this all a bit tricky.

Women in particular are constantly being urged to take up space, to pull up a seat at the table, to speak loudly and unabashedly, and to make no apologies. Aggressively squash the imposter syndrome, and where you have very real knowledge gaps, fake it ‘til you make it. LIVE LARGE.

Undoubtedly, employing these mantras are necessary to revolt against the social conditioning that has pushed so many of us to shrink away from the spotlight, to be talked over, passed over, and marginalized. 

But then, here I am, seemingly an outlier of these social norms. I assert myself. I take up space. I speak up. I cozy up to “the table.” I make the tough calls. And I’m anxious, sad, angry, and stressed precisely because of the boisterous assets that are propelling me forward.

“Your bigness is what is making you anxious” is what my cover image should say. Forget the cheeky brick wall stencils – instead, Banksy should spray paint a woman with a big mouth and sleep-deprived blood shot eyes, painfully stretched across three chairs at the proverbial table.

In the words of the young people: It me.

And I’ve been having trouble sleeping lately. The anxiety runs deep, coursing through every vein of my practical, middle America suburban existence. The stakes feel tremendously high, and every decision I make – from what to order from Uber Eats to what my 3-year strategic plan looks like at work – weighs on my shoulders in equal proportion.

Yes, I’m a 21st century Rosie the Riveter, the portrait of modern femininity (ordered off Etsy from the #Empowerment category, packaged in a shiplap frame). Maneuvering middle management. Navigating the pressures of breadwinning. Mothering a pre-adolescent daughter who wears “Girl Power” buttons on her jacket and just started wearing deodorant – Dove deodorant, which, incidentally, is the leading consumer packaged goods brand in fourth-wave feminist marketing spend.

“You can’t know everything,” I explained to her little angelic type-A face after getting a tire patched up at a local auto parts store. That’s what I said to the condescending little twerp behind the counter after he asked me some stupidly specific question about my vehicle that he, as a subject matter expert on automobile parts, should absolutely know but instead chose to attempt to knock me down a few pegs for not knowing the answer.

“I can’t know everything, okay?” I lobbed back at him. “Look it up.”

But despite that momentary surge of defiance, I’m routinely beating myself up for not immediately landing on The Answer to Everything in every facet of my life. In my preoccupation with stomping out my imposter syndrome and faking it ‘til I make it, I’m incapable of asking for help or accepting support or admitting failure. And to support these deficiencies, I’ve built a personal “brand” of wisecracking self-deprecation. Though I’ll let you in on a little secret: it’s mostly just repressed anxiety masquerading as self-assurance.

It’s a mode of self-preservation.

And sometimes, it hurts.

When Anthony Bourdain died, a tidal wave of quotes surged through the 24-hour news cycle, Instagram and Twitter, and celebrity tributes. (We sure love our inspirational quotes, don’t we?) One quote in particular jumped out from my newsfeed and to this day, I can’t shake its resonance in my own life:

“The more I become aware of, the more I realize how relatively little I know of it, how many places I have still to go, how much more there is to learn.

Maybe that’s enlightenment enough – to know that there is no final resting place of the mind, no moment of smug clarity.

Perhaps wisdom, at least for me, means realizing how small I am, and unwise, and how far I have yet to go.”

Such calmness these words have brought to me. In a world where you’re being pushed to be big, you need the strength to accept how very small you actually are.

Smallness can be a comfort, alleviating the pressure to have all the answers and halting the grind on all cylinders. And, most importantly, smallness frees up space for others to sidle up next to you – whether at “the table,” at the bar on a lonely Sunday afternoon, or in your bed during a sleepless night – where the demons can be unrelenting until a familiar arm pulls you towards a heart that recognizes your own.