CLICK Here for the link to my new nj.com piece on blame, grief, and compassion.
CLICK Here for the link to my new nj.com piece on blame, grief, and compassion.
In the wee hours of a cold, winter night well over a decade ago, in an encroached, wood-paneled living room in a Bayonne, New Jersey apartment, a wager was made.
After several bottles of wine, bits of laughter, the sparring of intellect, and a fiercely competitive round of Trivial Pursuit, two couples decided that the winning team would plan a trip where they all must travel to.
Following a fortunate guess about an American president, victory was ours. Tickets and lodging from New York to Shannon, Ireland were secured at dubiously low prices for the second week in February.
At the time, I was living alone in a humble apartment in Bayonne, New Jersey on the salary of a social worker employed by the county. Those modestly priced tickets nearly broke the bank. Somehow on a meager diet of Ramen noodles and tap water among a few other sacrifices, I made it happen.
For some curious reason, I recently have been thinking of that trip. Perhaps because they were some of the sweetest days.
I find myself returning to the same question: Why were they some of the best days?
While we planned our trip, the universe planned an epic snowstorm. We spent the first thirty-eight hours of our vacation sleeping atop of our luggage under the departure boards at John F. Kennedy International airport. After some pleading, conjuring, and self-determined ruckus at the counter combined with a miracle of sorts, we boarded the next plane over to Ireland.
We could have let the storm break our spirits but it didn’t. We were simply grateful to board the plane.
We landed in Dublin. Arriving in the city of our planned departure, our painstakingly planned itinerary was null. We decided to wing it. We secured two of the smallest rental cars in history. Long before international cellphones, we communicated via walkie-talkies as we drove on the wrong side of the road up and down the countryside stopping in villages and at Bed & Breakfasts.
It is true that many of the B&Bs had lumpy beds and showers with the water pressure of a leaky garden hose. It is also fair to say that what many of the pubs were lacking in cuisine, they made up for four-fold in live music, whiskey, beer, and authentic congeniality of a kind and strong people.
It is perhaps most essential to note that some of the most breathtaking hillsides, enchanted forests, ruins of castles, and herds of painted sheep were just there in the vast, open, blessed world waiting to be seen.
We stumbled upon remote shore villages, roadside farm stands and family-owned shops. We visited pubs full of genial, local gentlemen with a knack for the age-old art of storytelling, and stopped at centuries-old cemeteries that told different stories with their silence and peace.
But first, I’d like to return to the issue of the shower.
I imagine what it might be like now in my life if the water pressure was poor while on holiday. There would be phone calls downstairs to correct the problem, the scolding of staff, and discussions about “what we paid for” and “what was expected” not to mention what was “unacceptable”. There would be adamant requests to change rooms and then we would probably spend the next hour and a half at dinner discussing the poor water pressure and how it was adversely affecting our trip.
It is probably safe to say that I would have even missed those breathtaking hillsides and brilliant moments while complaining. Perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy the local fiddler at the pub because of my fixation on the bothersome shower trickle. He might just be background noise to a sob story of my own conception. I suspect those enchanted forests would have seemed a bit less extraordinary because of my dim perspective. I may have wholly missed the forest for the trees in my ranting.
In recent years, I have undoubtedly been on many more fanciful trips with five star accommodations and four diamond dining than my jaunt across the Emerald Isle. I’ve dined at establishments with fine, plush stools to place your purse atop of and ordered entrees with ingredients I couldn’t identify (and sometimes shamefully could not pronounce). There have been en-suite bathrooms I could have parked the entire contents of my Bayonne apartment in, with soaking tub jets that had the water pressure of a NYC fire hydrant.
My experience of Ireland had no fancy bathrooms, no purse stools, no tongue-twisting appetizers, and no attentive wait staff at my beck and call. Our concierge was often a widowed B&B keeper with the grit, wit and wisdom of a convivial, world-traveled sailor. Our accommodations were simply the authentic, unfettered results of a brave woman’s entrepreneurship in an uncertain global economy.
I realize why it was a great trip. It was a grand adventure simply because the water pressure did not matter. Life was not about what I expected and when I graciously accepted that, I was able to appreciate that life was even better.
Somewhere at some point since my Ireland trip, I lost sight of the most essential amenity of all: a liberating perspective.
It is peculiar how the modes of comfort we surround ourselves with – the amenities, the plans, and the fancy technology we possess, were intended to make life simpler yet often make it more complicated and bothersome. The more things we acquire to make our lives simpler and freer, the more they can begin to burden us. We build our own house of cards. The piles and piles of stuff we own starts to own us. The heaping bits of expectations that we build up begin to weigh us down.
The solution is simple yet so drastic it seems radical. I knew I needed to cut the ties of expectation and entitlement. Life doesn’t promise us fair weather, comfy accommodations, and steady water pressure. It is almost a guaranteed certainty that we all will have our share of trickles and amendments to the plan. It is a given.
Maybe life isn’t about the best laid plans but about letting go. I had to let go and let grace in.
I found that the moment I accepted the truth that I’m not owed anything by anyone in this life, things transformed. For me, this spiritual, swift kick in the ass, had had a sobering and instantly enlivening effect.
A return to a grateful and humble perspective transformed the world around me into a brighter place full of hope. Life certainly did not become perfect but who would really want it to be. It became wildly astonishing in the most humbling of ways.
In God’s unpretentious, dark sense of humor, we are repeatedly reminded that the spark of liveliness in spontaneity outshines our doleful, scheduled plans. In the universe’s thundering ironic undertone, we receive the same frequent lesson, that there are far better plans in store for us than those we could dream up. All we must do is resign ourselves to possibility.
A life resigned to possibility may look a bit scattered or messy from the outside but those inside that life know a secret: there is space and calm for the unscheduled and spontaneous to occur. There is room for mystery, magic, and evolving faith. The unplanned occurs whether we like it or not, friends get sick, new opportunities arise, loved ones pass on, and life constantly changes outside our control. The more we make peace with it, the more contentment we can find.
On that fateful trip overseas, my best friend and her boyfriend became engaged. Three days after the trip ended so did my relationship with the guy I had been dating. Not much of a loss, it was the worst type of relationship – those born out of convenience. Nonetheless, my best friend and I promised, no matter what or who may come and go, that this would be the first of many similar trips.
As tends to happen, something happened to our promise. A dozen years later, two husbands, five children, and three dogs between us, the trip never occurred. There have been many adventures yet no trip. Perhaps it was the demands of life, evolving careers, different social circles, raising children, or mere geography. Perhaps these are excuses on both our parts. Perhaps all of the above is true.
Although I am wise enough to know that these moments cannot be recreated, I know that so much of what we experience is within our control. We can tell a story of sub-par accommodations or we can tell a story of a stunning countryside with congenial, unforgettable people.
I also am certain that there are new moments waiting to be seen, heard, tasted, and felt. Life is springing with new, blessed possibilities all around us, underneath us, and beside us, if we are just willing to look past the water pressure.
And with all of this in mind, I plan to be more unplanned in 2015. May your New Year surpass your own expectations.
After dropping off our two oldest daughters at camp, my husband and I packed up our cooler and our two-year-old daughter and walked past the dunes out to the beach. That is what people do on vacation. They make an effort to relax.
Eight-hundred miles from home on a vast, vacant shore, we scooped up shells, built lopsided sandcastles, returned living sand dollars back into the sea, and swam with our daughter.
We floated in the calm seas under the balmy sun taking in the wild air. We were in paradise.
We were in paradise yet I was somewhere else. To the untrained observer, I was a mom peacefully floating along the Atlantic Ocean at low tide. Inside of myself though, there was a looming tempest swirling about.
I wasn’t floating in the calm, warm sea. I was re-living a week ago in my mind.
My husband and I recently had the experience of being deceived by someone we trusted – a person we trusted with our household, our rescue dogs, and our children. The feeling was awful.
I was angry. I do anger well. The letting go of anger part – not so well.
I was angry at being lied to. I was angry at being played for a fool. I was angry at myself for not trusting my gut and not confronting the lies earlier out of convenience or comfort. My head was bursting with shoulda-coulda-woulda’s. I replayed conversations in my mind and second-guessed events in my head. I was torturing myself.
Once the deceit was revealed, I had tried to take the high road. I just didn’t expect the high road to feel so low. I just couldn’t seem to let go of the anger and the hurt.
I then realized this: It is not about my response or the expected emotional outcomes of high and low roads. It is about forgiveness.
The thing about forgiveness is that it is noble in theory yet difficult in practice. In conceptualizing forgiveness and truly grasping what forgiveness is, it is perhaps best to acknowledge what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is not a free-pass. It does not mean we return to the same circumstances. Forgiveness does not mean we will trust that person again. We can learn from a moment and not return to it. We can forgive but not forget and that is acceptable. Forgiveness must not always accompany forgetfulness. Forgiveness, however, most always tends to precede forgetfulness. The memory, nonetheless, does not dissipate. We just must not wear our hurt around our necks, on our sleeves, and on our skin. We must acknowledge it and then tuck it away.
Forgiveness is not an eraser. It doesn’t wipe away the hurt. The practice of forgiveness doesn’t minimize what has happened.
Forgiveness is not a do-over. It doesn’t change the facts or alter the past but it does change every moment forward. It alters our future.
Forgiveness even alters our present. Forgiveness forces us to be present in the moment. Forgiveness releases us from reliving the past. It removes us from the future and our forethought into getting even or setting the matter straight. It returns us to the present which is the greatest and the only gift we have.
Forgiveness is not a one-time action. It is an attitude, a continual practice. Forgiveness is a state-of-mind. When you truly contemplate it, most all of our journeys in this life are adventures in forgiveness.
Forgiveness isn’t exclusively offered for those who are sorry. We must forgive others even when they aren’t remorseful – especially when they are not remorseful. Forgiveness isn’t about the other person’s acknowledgement of guilt or wrongdoing but about our ability to accept apologies we will never get and to move forward. In the words of Oprah Winfrey, “True forgiveness is when you can say, “Thank you for that experience.”
Perhaps experience is at the root of forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness. Forgiving oneself may be the hardest type. Although guilt is one of the most purposeless emotions, it remains one of the most paralyzing. Yet in the midst of our own tempest of regret, we must look to the anchor of experience. Experience sheds meaning. Although we are powerless over the past, we are not powerless over our perspective.
Failures can be our greatest teachers. Our missteps can be some of the most important steps on our life journey. If we allow the anger of others to teach us forgiveness, the apathy of others to spark compassion, the cruelty of others to give way to kindness, the deception of others to ignite flames of truth, and the violence of others to birth peace, a greater transformation has occurred only on the other side of a struggle whose summit was marked by unbridled forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not for the weak-minded. It is so easy for most anyone to uphold a grudge and to hold on to anger. Anger ulcerates the soul. Holding onto anger is corrosive. Holding onto the hurt is paralyzing.
Anger is a sneaky thief – robbing us of present joy and stealing our precious time. Anger slams the door to hope. Anger constricts the senses cutting off our ability to perceive, to connect, and ultimately, to thrive.
Forgiveness is indeed an attribute of the brave. It is releasing yourself from the chains of hurt and allowing all that the universe has to offer you at the present in.
Forgiveness is abandonment of a past that could not be any different. It is the act of ceasing to re-read a chapter that will not read any differently no matter how hard we try. Forgiveness is about moving onto the next, new, unwritten chapter illuminated by hope, by potential, and by an unburdened perspective to allow the opportunities of the present into your soul.
In the calm seas of that August morning, I floated along with my arms outstretched and earnestly prayed to a forgiving God and an all-knowing universe to release the burden of failing to forgive and witness me in offering up my forgiveness fully.
In that moment of transformation, there was no parting of the sea, no tidal wave, no dark storm clouds, no lightening bolt from the sky, or burning bush in the dunes but I had magnanimously returned to the humble sea. No longer was I living in the past but I was right there in the water. I could taste the salt air. I could see the pelican overhead flying underneath a brilliant, open sky. I could feel the coarse sand of the ocean floor beneath my feet. I could hear the laughter of my husband and daughter’s chuckles flutter through the air. I could see paradise for what it was – not necessarily an external place but a state of peace within.
There is all of this recent talk of women and how far we have come, how much we are entitled to, and what is fair. It is an age-old discussion with the same expected political twists and turns.It seems that our initial inclination is to segregate ourselves into categorical divisions. Who is a feminist? Who supports what political agenda? Who is on what side of each hot topic argument?
Undoubtedly, we all bring something different to the table. How old we are, what country we grew up in, who we had as parents, what religion we were born into, our education level, our race, our income level, and so many other personal criteria combined offers a unique melange. It is an bio-psycho-social DNA of sorts. This criteria makes each of us unequivocally unique but when dealing with overarching themes of justice, of equality, respect, and human decency, it seems necessary to search for common ground rather than where we divide. There are universal threads in all of our experiences.
Although the issue of women and our progress is not easily addressed, it is in the forefront of my mind. Now, I am not just a woman but a mother of three daughters. It is not just about me and my journey. It is about three more souls with kindness, grace, grit, and potential. I wonder how the world will treat them, and how they will treat the world as they grow thru this life.
For each women, their reasons for caring about women’s issues vary. I thought I would share a dozen of the reasons that come to my mind in the twelve photos I have come up with below:
What are your reasons?
For all my friends who read The Newark Star Ledger, my article on building trust will be in the paper tomorrow, Tuesday July 1, 2014. For the link to the digital version, please click here. Thanks as always for taking the time to read what I have to share.
For a full link to over 50 of my nj.com/parenting articles, please click here.
(above photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jfdervin)
I play the clam shell game. I am sure you have heard of it. It is that age-old carnival game where there’s a coin under one of three or four shells. The player guesses which shell it is under. By the time the shell is lifted, the dealer has slyly moved the coin. It is about illusion and confusion. It is chaos and excitement and the probability of being right all spun into one.
The problem is no one ever wins.
I am the mom of three daughters, three rescue dogs, wife of one, and work full-time. I work at our own family-operated company so that we can afford a life for our family. Working with a spouse can be challenging at best, rewarding every so often, and maddening most of the time. Despite the uphill climb, there are wonderful freedoms. The liberty of staying home with my child when she is sick, the ability to attend a school function mid-day, and the pleasure of working with a small group of committed, inspiring people. These are liberties I do not take for granted.
I also work as a writer. This is the job that I work at all hours of the day and night. I plod forward constantly and steadily working towards the moment that I will be able to write always all the time. This is who I am in the pit of my soul. I write at 3am, accept all sorts of interviews and assignments.
I do this knowing that each opportunity is a preparation for the future. I do this knowing that you never know exactly where an opportunity will take you. I do this knowing that opportunity only comes to those that sign up and show up.
My best job is being a parent. Being a mom of three girls makes me a better, more thoughtful, deliberate person. Knowing I am their roadmap for a parent and for a person makes me want to accomplish more, love more deeply, and be more enlightened. The rate at which my children grow serves as a bittersweet reminder that time moves so rapidly and there are no do-overs. It reminds me to be present in the moment.
I have a problem. I keep moving the coin under each shell. It gets tricky but don’t be fooled. When my kitchen is clean and all coats are hung up and toys put away, I may look like I’ve got it together. You might say, “well Ann is getting organized.” What you don’t know is I have two massive piles of work, eleven voicemails to respond to, and eighty-four new emails in my inbox.
When dinner is cooked, dishes are washed, teeth are brushed, stories are read, and we lie on the floor together looking up at the stars on the ceiling from their projector, you mights say “Ann is really taking this parenting thing to heart. She’s got it together.” What you do not know is that I have about four loads of laundry to do, haven’t blogged in four days, and have two letters for work to send out.
When I work until 8:30pm and the sitter has put them to bed, my voicemail is back to empty and all issues are resolved for today yet I haven’t spoken to my mom in three days, you might say “Ann is balancing work and home quite well”. What you are unaware of is that the playroom is a minefield of legos and every room in my home looks like a playroom. I feel like Lucy on the assembly line with the chocolates and I forgot to go the gym again for the last two weeks. I am up another six pounds on the scale.
When I post a picture to Facebook of myself down eleven pounds on the scale, you might think “Ann has really gotten healthy”. What you don’t know is that I went to the gym for the last hour and a half and fed my kids processed chicken nuggets, skipped baths, bypassed story time, and put them in bed. And my weight loss formula? Anxiety.
This is the truth. So many of us play the clam shell game. No one has ever had a perfect score. And sadly, the game is not what it is about. Playing the game merely makes us fools wasting time at life’s carnival.
All of those voices remarking on “Ann” aren’t really everyone’s ideas on what they observe. They are the voices in my own head that I have assigned to others. They are the voices of insecurity that if I do more, I am more worthy. If I do more I am better. If things look better, they are better. This is all part of the illusion and the missing coin.
We need to stop the games and start thriving. We need to stop tricking ourselves. We need to be kind to other moms and to ourselves. The reason I most often don’t take issue with my spouse, friends, or others isn’t because they are perfect. It is not because I can’t find a problem or a weak spot. It is that it doesn’t matter. We need to be more forgiving especially to ourselves.
The problem with the shell game is that there are no winners. There never will be. We need to quit being the player and the dealer. We need to walk away from the carnival. A win is possible but not in this way.
We need to redefine what winning is. Winning is not a matter of ‘busy’ or intensity but a matter of moments. Winning is not in appearances. Winning is not in other people’s opinions of us or our own opinion of ourselves as reflected back in their eyes.
Winning is about seizing moments. Winning is sometimes about losing and taking the lesson. Winning is sometimes about losing with dignity. We need to taste sour to know the sweet. We need darkness to see the stars.
Winning is about cracking open the hard shell of failure and extrapolating that lesson of truth from within and ingesting it. It is about taking a dose of brave and standing up for what you want. Winning involves championing your priorities.
Winning is about building resistance and strength from falling down. Winning is always about getting back up. Winning is about treading through the fear not walking around it.
Winning is about assessment. We need to recognize the amount of life we are exchanging for things and deciding if its really worth it.
Winning comes in silencing the naysayers not because they have ceased to be loud and incessant but because you have found the silence and calm within and that calm drowns out all of the other noise.
Winning is about mindfulness. We need to be present at each precise moment or we lose. If we are washing dishes and dreaming of a meeting in two weeks, we have lost that moment. If we talk to our spouse before bed and are on our IPad answering emails, we are not really in that conversation with our loved-one. That moment is lost for eternity. These moments will eventually add up to a lifetime of loss.
With that in mind, winners sometimes quit. I am not quitting the work, the family, or what I work for. I quit the game. I have decided to leave the carnival and ride a bike.
I have decided to go through life’s journey and all of its beaten paths, downhill coasts, and uphill climbs on a bicycle. I am riding a bike to keep moving and keep balance. I am riding a bike to enjoy the scenery.
I may get there slower but with a more meaningful ride. It is the closest I will get to flying. It is celebration in motion. It is movement without excess or waste of anything. It is movement of the being and stillness of the soul in unison. There is progress is each revolution of the wheel.
I have decided to quit the games, cut my loses, and enjoy the ride. As Rumi points out, “life is a balance of holding on and letting go”. I choose balance over madness, movement over judgment, and to enjoy the ride of life.
In advance I ask you to pardon the state of my home and my appearance. I have pardoned myself and that is perhaps all that matters. Sometime things need to fall apart to be put back together correctly. Sometimes, we need to seize the day, the sunshine, and the wind. We need to remember that life is not a sprint. It is not a marathon either. It is a series of small races. Sometimes we fall and pick ourselves up. Sometimes we pick up a fallen friend, drape their arm over our shoulder, and finish the race together.
My ride begins in faith that I am where I need to be. Nature is a testimony to this. As Tzu taught, “Nature doesn’t hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Slow down but keep moving. You will never enjoy the ride if you’re still at the carnival.
It was a year ago this week that I told a friend a secret. I told her that had been writing and I had written a novel. Looking back on it, it is seemingly strange to keep such a secret. At the same time, it is challenging to put ourselves out there. It requires grit and vulnerability to be transparent and real.
My friend and fellow author suggested I join the writing team at nj.com. She went to bat for me. Out of her suggestion a beautiful springboard appeared. It was a tremendous gift. A year later, I have authored fifty nj.com articles, started this site with another dozen posts, had a couple of articles published in The Star Ledger newspaper, and am a part of some extraordinary projects that will come to completion this year.
On all fronts it has been an amazing year not necessarily because of any accomplishment but rather because this journey has been transformative for my soul.
In pure writer’s irony, I am at a loss for words so I thought I would offer one big explanation and thank you in the words of famed poet Rumi:
I felt that there was something else calling me regarding my calling in life…
With three small children, three rescue dogs, a busy home, and a business to tend to, starting a new project did not make much sense on the outside. On the inside, not only did it make perfect sense, it resonated with who I am.
The most frightening part about setting forth on the journey is that failure suddenly became an option or so I reasoned.
I foolishly never realized that failure was the only option had I not stepped forward on this path.
With fortuitous opportunity presenting itself, it seemed like I owed it to the integrity of my soul to pursue what seemed to be calling me.
It seemed like what I had prayed for and secretly hoped for had found a way into my life.
It was now up to me to do the work.
I am eternally grateful for all of those who opened my wings a bit more…
I am grateful for my mom who has always emphasized the simple yet extraordinary fact that words change things. She has been a lifeboat, ladder, lamp, and shepherd.
I am blessed to have my sister, Mary, help me with hours upon hours of proof-reading. I recognize that the act of proof-reading is akin to withstanding the blistering heat of the netherworld. Mary, your work is not forgotten.
I am grateful for new inspirations and collaborations. Denise Constantino you are a talented soul and a gentle spirit. I have had such meaningful conversations and interactions with so many individuals, Senator Cory Booker, Maria Cuomo Cole, Stephen Powell, Paul Giampavolo, Mary Williams, and many others. These conversations have been so valuable in shaping perspective and affecting change.
I am thankful to my husband, Joe, a thousand times over that he supports my dreams which are not his dreams. Our individuality has brought greater appreciation for one another, our separateness has brought us closer together, and our gratefulness more appreciation for life.
I am grateful for my readers: new friends, old friends reconnected, cousins, relatives, coworkers, people in our community, and individuals seeking awareness and a brighter, more meaningful future. To my cousins, Noreen and Patrick, you never disappoint with your comments. To my extended family, Lisa, Cathy, Tricia, Diana, and Jay, you have always supported my writings and I am thankful for your positive vibes. To my friends, Dean, Marisa, Cathy, Fran, Judy, Heather, Joel, and Bob, I appreciate every time you share your thoughts and perspective. You inspire me to be a better writer.
The writing is not about being recognized but about being connected. In so many of our stories there is that common thread of bravery, of vulnerability, and respect. With this commonality, comes a flood of compassion, meaning, and action.
As an introvert, my writing has connected me to others in conversations I would never had had any other way. I am thankful for these exchanges, connections, and more meaningful relationships. In people knowing who I really am and what I think, it brings new connections closer and those who do not share any likemindedness to move on quicker without wasting time.
Whatever your own unique gift is, using our gifts shed light on darkness.
Using our talents empower us in a profound way.
It offers a deeper dimension of meaning and understanding to each moment.
It rids us of conventional nonsense that cluttered the way.
It forces us to put on our big girl pants, be brave, and act with grit.
It forces us to believe in ourselves and what we are saying while taking a risk immersed in faith.
It raises our expectations to higher, more extraordinary levels.
It excludes the unimportant.
It brings what is essential into focus.
And while we are not paying attention, it answers our questions.
It also reminds me that being a great writer is about listening long before it is about expression.
It is about observation before expression.
It is about understanding with humility and reverence both the temporal and timeless nature that exist within yourself and being able to feel both of those seemingly conflicting natures existing in harmonious unison.
I know the upcoming year holds mystery, challenge, and I hope to use those gifts to enlighten my journey and that of others. Thanks for the gift of attention and time and encouragement to get off of the ground. Best wishes to everyone who believes in the beauty of their dreams and has the courage to follow them.