The Long Goodbye

A see-through heart floating in water.
I started applying to graduate schools in different cities last October. So for almost 8 months, people close to me have known that there was a good chance I’d be leaving Boston this summer.

There’s an advantage to a long goodbye. When you tell people you’re leaving, their love for you pours out. I’ve had people say that they wish they’d gotten to know me better, that our workplace will go to hell in a hand-basket without me, that I’m brave, that they’ll miss me, that it’s been good knowing me.

It’s been lovely to feel this outpouring of affection. But it’s made me wonder—why don’t we tell each other that stuff regularly?

Why don’t I tell my best friends at least once a week how much I love them, how important they are to me, how brave and sweet and impressive they are?

Emoting like that feels awkward, especially for us stoic New England types. Some of us need an excuse to tell our loved ones how much they mean to us.

We never know how much longer we have with anyone. With each goodbye, I’ve had to tangle with the fact that I may never see this particular person again. The reason that’s top of my mind is that I’m moving out of state for at least a couple of years. But honestly, it would be true even if I’d committed to living out the rest of my days here in Boston.

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My evangelical friends tend to be pretty good at telling each other how much they care. There’s a tradition of praying for one another in small groups, in which you ask God to help people with whatever their issues are, to strengthen them to meet those challenges.

This is normal in religious Christian circles, but not in agnostic ones. Usually it takes something climactic, like a wedding, a funeral, a graduation, or a departure from town, to draw expressions of love and good wishes.

If we know our friends love us, then why must it be stated aloud? Why can’t we just believe it silently, and assume that we all know it about each other?

There’s an element of risk in stating those feelings. Kind of like being the first one in a new romantic relationship to say “I love you.” You put yourself out there, risking rejection, risking being thought awkward and weird, risking mockery.

Our culture allows verbal expressions of love in romantic relationships, and to some extent in family relationships, but not so much in friendships. I do hear younger women telling their platonic friends “I love you” as they say goodbye at the end of the night. But that feels like a reflex, rather than something that carries emotional weight.

The higher the risk, the greater the potential reward. It is a holy thing to have someone express their love verbally, because they are making themselves vulnerable. They are taking their armor off.

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Not everyone is lucky enough to have close friends. For many years, I doubted that my friendships were as real or solid as those I saw around me. I used to hold myself back a lot, which made it harder for people to know me. I’m getting better at opening up, but it’s a skill I’m still learning.

Some people have been wounded so badly that they shield themselves from closeness. Others have pathologies that make it much easier for them to drive others away than to draw them in.

So if we have friends, we’re fortunate. And we should struggle daily not to take them for granted.

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Let’s make an agreement. Let’s start telling our friends that they’re the best, that we’re so happy to have them around, that we know how rare true friendship is, that they do it well.

If it feels weird, that’s cool. Life is weird. Humans are weird. Relationships of all stripes are weird.

If we put our hearts on the line, more and more often, it becomes easier to do, and we get more adept at it.

Anything that increases the amount of love in the world can only be a good thing. Verbalizing that love shows us how strong a foundation we have right under our feet—if only we’d look down to see it.

Image by seyed mostafa zamani via Creative Commons.

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Laughter at the Rape Crisis Center

Statues in a fountain depicting women laughingYou might think it would be a gloomy place: the office where survivors of sexual assault go for therapy appointments. The phrase “rape crisis center” conjures images of institutional, grim rooms, with people sitting in the scuffed-up waiting area weeping quietly.

The Boston Area Rape Crisis Center is the opposite of that. Its waiting area is a bright, colorful space where clients can drink tea and relax on a comfy chair before seeing their therapist. It’s nothing fancy, but it feels safe and welcoming.

I’ve been volunteering at BARCC for a couple months, checking people in for their appointments. It’s rare to see anyone in obvious distress or in crisis mode. Most are composed when they come in to the office. Some are cheerful, and some are straining to appear so. Others are quiet, and hesitate to make eye contact. I only have their initials in the calendar, not their names.

When people come out of their appointments, they appear physically lighter. They move more easily. Sometimes their therapist will walk them out, and they’ll be laughing together.

Isn’t that the essence of healing? To walk out of a therapy session with a brighter aura, cracking up about something?

I haven’t done a fundraising walk for many years, but this spring, I’m jumping on board BARCC’s Walk for Change. I’ll share more about it as the date gets closer.

Their 24-hour hotline is 800-841-8371.

Learn more about the work they do in Boston and beyond.

Image: Laughter, by sanpani, via Creative Commons.

Tea for Two

My parents have dueling tea kettles.

A stove with two kettles on the back burners.

Actually, the kettles don’t really duel. They just face off across the back burners.

It’s a somewhat long story, how the two kettles came to live on the same stove. My dad scorched one of them (the original kettle) when he put on water for tea and then got distracted and left the room.

Now he won’t use that one. He bought a replacement, which my mom won’t use because it’s annoying to fill up. She still uses the original one.

They also use different water for their tea: my mom has a Brita filter, and my dad buys water from the store. Neither trusts their tap water, which has a somewhat tainted history in their small NH town.

I asked them what the his-and-hers kettles symbolize about their marriage.

Mom: “We’re stubborn, and we let each other do our own thing.”

Dad: “We work well together.”

All of those statements are true. My parents give each other space and support. They are independent and connected.

They know that sometimes, compromise means giving up something. And sometimes, it means allowing something extra into your life that you might not have planned for.

As we head into the New Year, I’m thinking about the ebb and flow of relationships: the paradoxes of intimacy (both romantic and otherwise).

Everything that we give up, and everything we gain, when we intertwine our lives with those of others.

The Fine Art of Arguing

“My brother,” writes G.K. Chesterton in his autobiography, “was born when I was about five years old; and, after a brief pause, began to argue.”

The two brothers (Cecil and Gilbert) were both journalists and well-known writers in post-Victorian England. Chesterton is best known for his writings on Christianity, his Father Brown mystery series, and his strange and disturbing novel The Man Who Was Thursday.

I was touched by Chesterton’s description of his brother and their relationship. I was also impressed by the distinction Chesterton draws between arguing and quarreling.

GKC seems to see arguing as engaging in stimulating debate: the kind that makes your own thinking sharper, by honing it against someone else’s perceptions. Both people walk away feeling smarter.

Quarreling, on the other hand, means having a heated personal disagreement, where feelings get hurt and one person walks away feeling smaller.

As someone who is uncomfortable with conflict, it’s hard for me to appreciate how much other smart people enjoy verbally jousting. They take pleasure in it! For me, it always feels personal, like I’m peeling my own skin off by trying to state why I disagree with someone else.

GKC, from all accounts, was a genius at it. And it didn’t get in the way of his friendships. He was happy to dismantle a friend or brother’s faulty logic, without putting the relationship itself at risk.

Our political discourse today involves lots of quarreling. Lots of name-calling, cat-calling, and mud-slinging.

Let’s take a page from the Chesterton brothers’ book, and learn to argue better.

Here’s a terrific essay by Gracy Olmstead on G.K. Chesterton and why we need him today.


Photo by jon collier via Creative Commons.

A New Name and a New Theme

A classic car with its hood open to show the engine.

Let’s take a look under the hood!

This website has a new name: Curiosity Central.

The former name, Better Than a Baby, hasn’t been accurate for a while. When I launched the site, I was exploring my identity as a late-30s woman with no kids: the ups and downs of that, and the adventures it’s easier to enjoy when you don’t have children.

Since then, my life has shifted and turned. I’m 43 now, and I’m still content—mostly—at the prospect of never being a mom. However, I’m also open to becoming a parent, whether through marrying a guy who already has children, or through fostering or adopting a child.

Life with kids is incredibly rich and complicated. Life without kids is too. Right now, I’m in a good position to nurture others: my Little Sister, my friends, and my family members (parents and cousins).

Maybe there will be a new chapter where I get to nurture stepkids or adopted kids, too. We’ll see.

In any case, the whole “childfree” thing has been losing its pull on me. I’ve been writing about it less and less.

And it’s led me to question: What the heck is this website about, anyway?

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To answer that, I’ve been trying to find a unifying theme in my posts from the last year or so. And the prevailing one I’ve found is curiosity.

Curiosity and kindness are two key qualities I’m looking for in a man.

November’s election results sparked an immense curiosity in me about the divisions in our country: between Democrats and Republicans, progressives and conservatives, the coasts and the middle.

Lately, I’ve been attending a Baptist church, which has flooded me with curiosity about Christianity and how I understand God.

I’ve also been reading Barnabas Piper’s wonderful books about how doubt and questioning are essential for a robust religious faith. In his book The Curious Christian, he writes:

…curiosity is more than a mere trait. It is a discipline, a skill, a habit—one that will expand your life in magnificent, if subtle, ways.

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So, readers, please join me in expanding our mutual curiosity: about love, about politics, about faith, and about how we strange human creatures interact in our bizarre and dynamic world.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the new theme, and learn how curiosity plays out in your life. What have you been curious about lately?

Photo by the author, taken at the Bath, ME antique car show.

Facets of forgiveness

A rainy urban rooftop with a sign saying "Forgive"“Forgiveness” is one of those limp, floppy words that create resentment. It sounds vaguely Biblical: If thou art a good person, thou shalt forgive others. It’s not a fun or sexy concept.

But in practice, it can be powerful. Transforming.

Forgiveness is a weightlifter. It removes the burden of anger and resentment that’s weighing us down.

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In her new book The Fact of a Body, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich explores trauma and forgiveness from many different angles.

It’s hard to do true crime well. It can feel exploitative, especially when it involves the death and possible molestation of a child.

Where do we draw the line between taking a ghoulish interest, and striving to understand a deeply human pathology, such as pedophilia?

Marzano-Lesnevich spins out this crime in multiple dimensions. The criminal in question is Ricky Langley, who killed young Jeremy Guillory and confessed to molesting multiple kids. She looks at Ricky’s own childhood, and skillfully weaves in a parallel story of abuse from her own family history.

What saves the book from being cold-blooded is the writer’s compassion. Without excusing the multiple, overlapping crimes in the narrative, Marzano-Lesnevich finds new lights to shine on these dark areas.

She also understands the complexity of story: the deep intertwining of cause, effect, and other influences that are not so binary or linear.

One of the questions she keeps getting pulled back to is this: When is forgiveness a beautiful, healing, generous action?

And when is it a way to let someone off the hook, to avoid confronting someone about their destructive behavior?

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I watched a production of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure recently, which dealt with the same questions: How do we, as flawed humans, judge others? Do we even try?

We have to, for our society to function. But how do we balance justice with mercy?

Is there a value in offering forgiveness for something terrible?

Does taking that action excuse the wrong-doing?

Or, does it elevate both the victim and the perpetrator of the crime?

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At church last week, the pastor talked about a Bible chapter focused on forgiveness. In the passage (Philemon), the writer (Paul the Apostle) offers to take on someone else’s debt: to erase a robbery by paying off what was stolen.

We are all indebted to others, the pastor explained. And we all have chances to take on each other’s burden of debt–not just financially, but relationally.

For example, if two friends of mine are having discord, I can shoulder part of that burden by mediating between them.

But what if one of my friends injured the other, out of spite or fear? What then? How can I get beyond taking sides?

How can I broker forgiveness between others, if my own grasp on it is so tenuous?

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The larger and more inflamed our egos are, the lower our capacity for forgiveness. I like Roland Merullo’s metaphor of constantly, carefully sanding down the ego over time, so it gets smaller and smaller, and controls us less and less.

That’s a challenge in a culture that pumps up our egos, where pissing matches are the order of the day (from the playground to international politics).

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Will you join me in this exercise?

Think of someone who’s injured you. Think about what their intentions may have been. Think about their backstory, what brought them to that point.

Hold the pain of that injury in your heart. Pray about it if you pray. Meditate on it if you meditate. Sit with it if you sit.

Then picture that pain and anger filling a balloon you’re clutching, making it buoyant with the dark air of that injury.

And let go of the balloon.


Image by Adams Carroll via Creative Commons on Flickr.

One Question Never to Ask

A cat stretched out in the sunshine, exposing its bellyThe other day, an acquaintance asked me when my due date is.

I’m not pregnant.

Yeah. So that was less than good.

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Now, just to give some context, I was wearing a form-fitting outfit, and that form includes a substantial bust and a curved belly. I don’t look particularly pregnant, but I could see how, if boobs + belly = pregnancy is an equation in someone’s mind, they could jump to that conclusion.

When I informed my questioner that I’m not pregnant, she apologized, and I told her it was OK. Then I left the venue where we were and went home, feeling sick and weak, as if I’d been groped by a dirty old man.

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I was angry at my questioner. But I realized that my feeling of illness and violation didn’t come from her question. It came from my telling her that her question was OK.

My instant reaction—gut reaction, speaking of bellies—was to take away her discomfort and embarrassment, instead of voicing my hurt feelings.

I don’t like schooling people or calling them out, even when they’re wrong (or I think they’re wrong). I don’t enjoy debate or discord.

But I need to develop some game in those arenas, because the default of saying “It’s OK” when it’s not feels so toxic and nauseating.

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I still don’t know what the “right” response would have been. Maybe “I know you didn’t mean to, but your question hurt my feelings.”

But with a question like that, there is no correct response. How do you respond to a question that should never have been asked?

Humor would have been great, if I could have mustered any. I was about a million miles away from a quip to defuse the moment.

I’ve been trying to love my body extra hard since this ego-blow. And I’m reminding myself that this was one moment of thoughtlessness—hardly a ripple in the ocean of my human interactions this week or this month.

But damn. The power we have to start an earthquake under each other’s happiness.

Maybe the moral of this story is that I should take an improv class.

Readers, what would you have said?

Photo by liz west via Creative Commons on Flickr.