on daily gratitude

Earlier this year, I tried to make identifying five things I’m grateful for part of my pre get-out-of-bed routine. I hummed along for a few weeks, but mornings with two teenage boys can easily grow from smooth to chaotic, and a few rough starts cut into my practice.

I shifted to keeping a gratitude journal; before turning out my light for bed, I jotted down what I was grateful for that day. That notebook sits basically empty in a drawer of my bedside table. And not because I didn’t have any person or thing to be appreciative of, but the medium didn’t work for me.

Then in May I read an article in an old magazine suggesting as a new year’s resolution (I said it was old) to commit to writing a note of gratitude every day, 365 days. That idea appealed to me.

I know what you’re thinking: Chelsea, you couldn’t take time to think of five things from the comfort of your own bed. You couldn’t write down a name, accomplishment, happening, in a notebook next to your bed. How could you take on a year-long letter writing challenge?

But guess what? I did. Starting June 1st (because why wait for January 2018) I began writing a note of gratitude, appreciation, thanks every day. I have kept up that practice for almost six full months with no intention to quit. Some days it’s hard; I work from home and don’t always encounter people. On those days, I might reach out to an old friend or acquaintance. To date, I’ve sent notes to friends, colleagues, customer service providers, doctors, my sons’ teachers, and family. I’ve sent notes to people I haven’t met in person. Lawmakers who took a tough vote. My sons.

Three people have written back; not that I’m looking for reciprocity, but those cards made me smile big. Many send a text; often that text details how reading my note capped an otherwise rough day. My heart warms knowing I brought even a moment of joy in a time of stress.

Why does this system of expressing gratitude work for me whereas others failed? Well, for starters, I now have a great excuse to buy cute stationery (my favorites are BeesKneesPaperGoods and CurioPress). Also, I am a writer. So sitting down at my desk, with a box of notecards next to the computer and a journal perpetually opened to the page where I record to whom I’ve sent gratitude (yes, I keep track), the task is kind of hard to ignore. Plus, now that I’m in the habit, I look forward to writing these notes.

So if I request your snail mail address, fret not; I don’t plan to drop by unexpectedly. But do remember to check your mailbox. Oh, and in case you didn’t get such a text from me but received a note, guess what? The internet provides all sorts of personal information, including addresses. If you’re wondering, why haven’t I received a note? I did xyz nice thing for Chelsea, don’t worry. I have six and a half months of note writing ahead of me. (But I’m already feeling the tug of what next? Do I really stop?)

This morning, fortunate Americans are busily sending texts to loved ones expressing gratitude and later, we’ll give thanks for the abundance of food on our tables. Tomorrow, we’ll groan at overindulgence and curse leftovers. And both days, I’ll sit at my desk and revel in the abundance of people around me this holiday season for whom I am grateful.

 

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then and now

One year ago, I woke up eager to get out of the house after being snowed in for a week. Being “snowed in” in the DC metro area means something different than it does in farther northern reaches. Whereas in Maine, the snow falls and the plows steadily carve a reliable passage for cars and pedestrians so that people can quickly return to business as usual, here a few inches of snow can paralyze the region for days. The 36 inches of snow we received in one fell swoopy storm shut down roads, schools, work, the metro system, and the federal government. 

But on January 28, 2016, I was breaking out of confinement for a few hours. I tightened the sling that held my healing (and aching) shoulder and draped a jacket around me, excited for, of all things, physical therapy.

I didn’t return home for five days. 

The slip on the ice (frozen melted snow) that led to a shattered ankle, surgery, and three months in a wheelchair left a mark, but one that fades a little each day. I’m still not perfect, but I can tell when rain is imminent. I probably won’t wear heels again. I don’t know if I could flee from an attacker, but in a hurry the other day I tried jogging down the walkway to the car and that didn’t really work so well. The one-legged balance poses in yoga that I used to love now challenge my balance and strength to the core. Some days I forget the break happened; others, the pressure from my blankets and comforter alone are enough to make my ankle throb. 

But I grew closer to even my dearest friends. I got to spend three weeks living with my sister, the longest time we’d spent together since her childhood. I’ve shed all scraps of modesty. (I don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing.) I’ve learned to accept help and even ask for it. And finally, I’m writing again. 

But the next snow storm – and the one after that and the one after that? I’m staying inside until every snowbank melts. 

When the time comes, send books and wine. 

what locker room banter enables

Labor Day weekend, I got off an airplane and followed signs to the train. I had a bounce to my step; a glass of wine and reunion with a dear friend awaited me at my final destination.

“Excuse me,” a stranger stopped me short. “Do you know which way to the train?”

“No, but I can read.” I pointed to a bank of signs.

“Oh, are you going that way too?” he asked.

“Yep,” I said.

“Maybe we can walk together.”

“Sure,” I responded curtly. I don’t like to talk to strangers, but I figured I should be nice. He introduced himself. A little voice in my head said “give a fake name” but I stumbled over what alias to use and ended up offering the real deal. He told me he’d just landed from LA and expressed frustration that time on the tarmac exceeded time in the air.

“Where you coming from?” he asked.  When I said DC, he exclaimed over the length of the flight.

“Actually, I like having five consecutive hours when no one can bother me,” I said.

“Oh, am I bothering you?” he asked.

Yes, I thought. “No,” I said.

“Well, I imagine a beautiful woman like you is used to being bothered.”

Inward cringe. Outward smile.

Train in sight, I walked a little faster. He picked up his pace too. We boarded, and I grabbed a spot on a bench next to other riders, ignoring his effort to steer me toward abutting seats.

“So, I have a hotel at the airport,” he said nonchalantly. “You should stay with me tonight.”

A thousand voices screamed in my head while the people around me remained silent, lost under the influence of headphones or desire remain uninvolved.

“Oh, that’s okay. I’m staying with my friend I haven’t seen in a long time,” I said, eyes glued to the transit map, willing my stop to come faster, but also scared he’d exit the train with me.

“I’m just saying, it’s a nice hotel and you’re welcome to join me,” he offered a few more times. He insisted I take his number in case I changed my mind. Three minutes felt like a lifetime. Mercifully, my stop arrived. He didn’t follow me but called out, “I’m in town ’til Monday” as I bolted off the train. While the car carrying him pulled away, I deleted his number and moved on with my weekend. But a nagging dread plagues me still. Why was I polite to a sexual predator? Why didn’t I scream? Cry for help?

As women, we are sadly accustomed to unwanted sexual advances and too often resign ourselves to abuse rather than fight off the abusers. We mostly endure the agony of our experiences alone, but this past weekend, social media witnessed an explosion of women sharing stories of their first sexual assault. Emphasis on first, because most of us have sustained multiple. These accounts were heartbreaking to read, but oddly refreshing to write. For too long I swallowed back pain, asked what I did wrong, hid incidents from loved ones, and let shame silence me.

My silence ends now.

These assaults were embarrassing, like when I was nine and my babysitter’s boyfriend’s uncle tried to put his hand up my skirt. These assaults confused me, like my freshman year of college when my dorm crush sweet-talked me into my first sexual experience, then refused to see me again, rendering my first time a one-night stand. These assaults were incomprehensible, like sophomore year when I was raped by a man who found me passed out in bed and senior year when I was raped by a guy who laughed at no. Verbal assaults, so-called “lewd” comments by “boys being boys,” number too many to recount. Trust me; “banter” is not harmless.

My experiences aren’t unique. They contribute to the sad “locker room” narrative of a society that enables assault and often blames the victim while asking her to smile, act nice and hug on demand. We must rewrite the script, and we can start by not putting a sexual predator in the White House.

 

 

the new normal

Two months ago, I stepped out of the car and onto an icy path of change, humility and, to be honest, pain. In one sense, the days between walking and not passed quickly. But when I consider it’s been two months since I saw the upstairs of my house or took a shower or stood in the kitchen to prepare a meal, time feels like a slowly torturing enemy with no real firm date in sight of when life will return to normal.

Normal? What is normal these days? Persistent shoulder pain when I sleep? Jagged ankle scars that for the most part look uglier than they feel until they burn like a force of evil is pressing a branding iron to them? Having to ask, constantly ask, for favors from my lovely, patient, giving friends? (Drive me to PT? Empty my potty? Pick up groceries? Throw a load of dirty laundry in the washing machine? Wheel me outside for some fresh air?)

But normal is also friends offering to visit, make meals, take the kids. Normal is friends bringing/sending me books (reading is my new cardio) and flowers. Normal is friends sharing tips from their own injuries. This part of normal feels like being wrapped in a warm blanket, even when I want to shed the blanket, stand up and manage my life independently.

I have a long path ahead before I reach independence. The shoulder surgeon says in six weeks he’d like me to be able to lift my arm over my head and make jazz hands. (Okay, he didn’t specify the latter half of that milestone; jazz hands is my own flourish.) I see the ankle surgeon next week and hope he approves weight-bearing exercises. My PT constantly reminds me that being weight-bearing doesn’t mean I hop, skip and jump my way from examination room to car to normal life. Recovery takes patience. I have to regain physical strength and flexibility, even if I honed those qualities mentally during this time.

As two months spill into three to four to a lifetime of lessons, I continue to redefine normal. And in many ways, that practice is more painful than any physical injury.

we all once were refugees

Close the borders.

Build a wall.

Halt resettlement.

As a first generation American on my mom’s side of the family, the anti-immigration sentiment sweeping this country disturbs me. What claim do any of us have on the land of freedom and opportunity except family members of past generations managed to get (or push their way) through the queue?

I understand fear of the unknown. But in the present moment, fear is fueling hatred, which ultimately begets violence. As a nation, we continually exacerbate this cycle with our knee-jerk, isolationist reactions.

I get it. The threat of terrorism is ever present, scary and real. You don’t have to school me on the dangers. I was working in the U.S. Senate on September 11th. If not for the heroes of United Flight 93, the baby I gave birth to four days after the attack, his father and I would probably have our names etched into memorial stone in the vicinity of where the Capitol currently stands.

Bad people are going to cross our borders. But is everyone seeking refuge a terrorist? Let’s remember many Syrian refugees are fleeing the same terror we have waged this unwinnable war against. In my view, their plight is not so very different from my grandfather fleeing both Nazi detainment and Soviet incarceration. He spoke no English and even wore a mustache reminiscent of a certain dictator, but no one denied him entry in his time of need.

I acknowledge the potential for those who mean us harm to take advantage of an unstable situation to immigrate here. Or they could already be within our borders, perhaps legally.

Is the threat posed by a few compelling enough to deny refuge to the many?

And what if we close the borders, build walls, halt resettlement efforts? Are we any safer? Let’s think about that for a hot minute. America has cultivated a culture where a gunman armed to the teeth can slaughter a school full of children or a theater of moviegoers without changes to the laws permitting the carrying of a calibre of weapons that far exceeds the intent of a hallowed amendment. We are willing to take the risk of adhering to the second amendment because the majority of gun owners are responsible. But God forbid we open our arms to desperate people escaping tyrannical governments because of the radical actions of a few.

Fear fuels hatred begets violence. America, you can do better.

 

 

 

on quitting online dating

“You should get on Tinder,” a well-intentioned friend instructed me over lunch. I made a face at him.

“No,” he continued. “It’s not a hookup site for singles in their 40s. That’s just how the younger kids use it.”

I was dubious, but he added stories about two friends who’d found significant others through the app. Why not try it?

You’ve seen the pictorial evidence of the manliness awaiting me. Men with bloodied faces cuddling dogs smaller than my cats. Men in costume, men in the nude, car selfies, gym shots. And the written part of the test wasn’t much better. “Looking for my partner in crime” was maybe the most-used cliche.  Married dudes were rampant. Open marriages more common than I knew.

When I “connected” six weeks ago with a tall, built man of European descent who liked to travel, surf and do triathlons, I was mildly interested. Our initial conversation focused around our favorite beaches: Costa Rica for him, Hawaii for me. We talked about wines, old world versus new.

“Perhaps I can take you out for a drink,” he suggested over Tinder text. I canceled the initial plans because my work load was too heavy. He was persistent and followed up. We had our first date on Wednesday last week.

I’ve been more excited about doctor’s appointments, honestly. Our date was capping off a busy day. I put two seconds of thought into my outfit. But when he walked in the door of the restaurant, we had immediate chemistry. We didn’t stop talking all night. It was refreshing. He asked to see me again, so we went out Friday. Saw each other the next night. Had dinner again on Wednesday, one week after the first date. I will admit there was a sleepover.

Then Friday morning I received this text message: Chelsea, you are smart and sexy but not who I’m looking for right now.

Hmm. Something didn’t feel right. My thoughts drifted back to the night before when my best friend had asked to see a picture of him. I was loathe to log on to Tinder, so we did a google search. He had zero online footprint. I was too deep in afterglow to be concerned at the time, but with greater thought after his dismissive text, I clearly recalled a conversation he initiated about how annoying it is when strangers “link in” with you. I mentioned I rarely use Facebook, but he said it’s good for communicating with friends abroad. Yet, the name he’d given me had no LinkedIn profile, no Facebook page. No “our team” presence for the software company he said he worked for. I wish my spidey senses had kicked in when I noticed a piece of mail on his counter addressed to a name that wasn’t his. I even glanced at it a few times, but hey, I accidentally get mail for my neighbors sometimes. Now I wonder if the sparsely furnished and undecorated apartment he brought me too is even his. The name he shared obviously is not.

I dodged a bullet. I thought I was protecting myself by texting my friends his full name and address, but he still could have been a serial killer or a rapist. Luckily, he was just a jerk, out for one thing. I deleted my Tinder profile.

I had thought nothing was harder than being set up on a date by a mutual friend with a vested interest in the outcome, but I’m reconsidering that position. From this day forward, I’m only dating men who come with a personal reference.

the family renaissance man

All I wanted my first 12 years of life was a baby sister. Granted I had my brother Nathan, a virtual mini me who didn’t eat unless I was hungry and who hung on my every word and command. But he grew tired of my dressing him up in my clothes. In an assertion of independence, he got a haircut. I could no longer play with his golden locks. My brother refused to pretend he was my sister.

Then when I was 12 years old my mom got pregnant. This was it! The baby sister I’d longed for. I was sure she was carrying a girl. Life would not be so cruel as to saddle me with a second brother.

I took Lamaze classes with my mom, intent on being present in the delivery room. I wanted to buy pink baby linens and clothes but Mom would only consent to gender neutral yellow and green. It was a torturous nine months waiting for her to arrive.

When my mom went into labor, I was in bed with a fever of 101. There was no way the doctor was going to let me greet my baby sister into the world. Those many hours when my mom was at the hospital, in the dark days before text, cell phones the Internet, my brother and I waited patiently. Time dragged. Which flavor sibling would we get?

Alas, I didn’t get what I wanted. Really? Another boy? But then my mom brought him home, and he was pretty darn cute. I quickly forgave him his Y chromosome. Early on he had a killer sense of humor. We gave him a nickname I won’t publicize. He was a favorite among my friends, making a cameo appearance in my Senior project, a film on the Children’s Crusade. Did I give him the acting bug? Maybe.

He followed his dream, majored in drama and after college made a name for himself in the Seattle theater scene. Once he mastered the stage, he picked up the banjo and a few months later was touring with an alt-rock band. He forges iron. (I have a nice fire tool to prove it.) He recently discovered a hidden talent: math. My little brother is a calculus genius. It didn’t surprise me. He excels at everything he tries.

I don’t get to see our family renaissance man nearly often enough and mostly catch glimpses of his life on Facebook. (His updates are hilarious.) I’m only disappointed that he doesn’t live closer. I wish Jack and Collin had more regular interactions with their sarcastic, smart, sensitive Uncle Banty, who just completed another turn around the sun.