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.

*

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.

*

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.

*

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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Bad Medicine Cabinet

I’ll be living here in my condo for another month and a half, and I’m feeling sentimental. So I identified a little home improvement project: cleaning up my medicine cabinet. It was gross and rusty. Check it out.

A rusty shelf in a medicine cabinet.

Gnarly!

A rusty shelf in a medicine cabinet.

I found a couple great sources online for how to fix it up, and added in some tips from my building superintendent, John, who knows everything about home repair.

Here’s how I took my cabinet from nasty to nice.

I wanted to take off the doors, but they were screwed on so tightly I wasn’t able to. This was a bummer, as it would have given me easier access to the cabinet’s innards. But I plastered painter’s tape all over everything and hoped for the best.

Blue painter's tape on medicine cabinet.

Next, I had to get the rough rusty bits off. You can buy a Rustoleum product for that, but I decided to use the natural approach: mixing up some salt with some white vinegar, and making it into a gentle abrasive paste.

Salt scrub in a bowl.

I applied that to the rust stains with an old toothbrush, and let it stand for about 2 hours.

Toothbrush on rust stains in medicine cabinet.

Then I scrubbed the salt and rust off, first with the toothbrush, and then with an even stronger abrasive cleaning pad.

Scotch Brite scrub pads.

That left a surface that was still discolored, but smooth and ready for painting once I’d dried it off.

Smooth rusty shelf in medicine cabinet.

Next, I painted on a coat of Kilz. This was John’s suggestion: He said that without Kilz, the rust would eventually re-emerge, even from under a coat of primer and a topcoat of paint.

A quart of Kilz on a mat over a sink.

I painted on the Kilz with a 2-inch brush, and left it for 12 hours to dry.

Medicine cabinet shelf with layer of Kilz.

Then I painted on a coat of Rustoleum Protective Enamel Oil-based Paint in gloss white. This also took at least 12 hours to dry.

And this is the finished result.

Clean, repainted medicine cabinet.

Doesn’t it look nice?

Clean, repainted medicine cabinet.

If I were to do the same project again, I’d use foam brushes instead of paintbrushes, to get that super smooth finish.

And I would paint a thicker layer of Kilz on, to make it more of a primer.

Also, a word of warning: the salt scrub leaves little grains everywhere after it dries. Be careful to wipe your work area off completely so they don’t get embedded in the layers of paint.

Here’s my playlist for this project.

Have you done a project like this lately? If so, how did it go?

Two Choices

Two large trees leaning away from one anotherI’ve narrowed my grad school choices down to two.

Two schools. Two cities. Two different states, both in the Midwest. Equal scholarships. (Equal amounts of student debt looming. But let’s cruise right on by that for now.)

I know it’s an illusion that my life will now divide neatly, one way or the other. It’s not like one choice will be bad, and the other good. Both will be complex and challenging and fascinating and rewarding.

Both will test me. I’m hoping that both will unfreeze a part of me that’s been iced in for many years.

This is a huge turning point. And it’s also absolutely routine.

*

Every moment, our lives divide in this way.

As immortalized in the pre-goopy Gwyneth movie Sliding Doors, the difference between missing a train and catching a train can yield two completely distinct life paths.

Not that it’s ever really that binary. It’s just easier for our minds to grasp an idea broken into two neat chunks.

I’m trying not to get hung up on making “the right choice.” I’m relishing the opportunity to visit both cities, and to see which one gives me that live-wire feeling–the feeling that zapped me when I decided to apply to grad schools in the first place.

You know. That feeling of, “I’m about to blow up my whole life…But I think it might be OK.”

Photo by Gillie Rhodes via Creative Commons.

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.

Large Loss Specialists

A lost stuffed animal sits among plants.On a walk today, I saw a truck labeled “Large Loss Specialists.” If your home gets destroyed or flooded or burned, this company will help you get it rebuilt, cleaned up, and looking right again.

Their slogan, similar to others in that field, is this: “Like it never even happened.”

Like most people who’ve survived into their 40s, I’ve experienced loss. I’ve had loved ones die. I’ve been dumped. I’ve dismantled loving relationships that were no longer healthy.

The “large” part of “large loss” is relative. I have not experienced the death of a child, for example. Or the destruction of my home.

My losses have been peanut-sized compared to those of many other people. But to me, those losses were real and painful. They set me back. They hurt.

The truck’s slogan made me think twice about loss. If we do go through a large loss, isn’t our objective to learn from it, rather than pretend it didn’t occur?

*

In the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, people can use a service that erases their memories of a particular person. One of the film’s messages is that deleting pain is impossible without erasing ourselves. Our hurtful memories are intertwined with our joyful ones, and cannot be disentangled.

To lose our pain is to lose our humanity, to stay shallow rather than diving deep.

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t clean up and repair our damaged homes, or move on from broken relationships. Dwelling in the past is just as unhealthy as pretending it never happened.

But large loss is a great teacher. We learn what’s essential. We learn who our friends are. We learn how tough we are.

Afterwards, if all goes well, we are NOT the same as before. We are no longer unblemished and smooth.

We proudly bear the scars of loss, and we can hold our breath a little longer when we go under again.

Image: Lost!, by brockxx, via Creative Commons.

A Poem for Harold Lloyd

Silent film star Harold Lloyd hangs from a clock several stories up on the outside of a tall building.Harold on the Clock

Keep climbing, Harold, even though
it was supposed to be your buddy
and not you
seven stories up
the outside of the department store.

Los Angeles tilts around you
and you cling
to the façade.

Your fiancée runs up the stairs inside
Taking the sane route, you the mad one.
Later, you’ll meet on the roof
Press your pursed lips together
The only kind of screen kiss
chaste enough for 1923.

Moviegoers swooned
to see you stagger on the window ledge,
to see the fragile minute hand of the clock
support your flailing body weight.

Did they have to look away,
as you once did
when you saw another stuntman
make this same scramble?

Did they know
you were climbing the building
with only one hand, the other
half blown off
years before
when a prop grenade
turned out
not to be
a prop?

Almost 100 years later,
my own palms are sweaty
as you face danger after
danger: vicious attack pigeons!
A falling badminton net!

Your glasses had no glass in them.
Your eyes, though also damaged by the blast,
were sharp and clear.

You scaled the building,
almost literally knocking
yourself out.

And then you got the girl.
Onscreen and off.

And she got you.


Inspired by the movie Safety Last (1923). Watch it on Kanopy!
Image from the same film, retrieved from the Music House Museum.

The Terror of Not Logging In

A computer keyboard showing the keys "Control" and "Option"

What about when control isn’t an option?

One morning last week, I couldn’t login to my work computer.

On the one hand, this was a total champagne problem. I was not in danger of losing my job, of physical violence, or of anything else truly disturbing.

But it almost sent me into a panic attack.

If I can’t login, I can’t do my work. Stuff will be happening without my knowledge, people will be asking for my help, and I can’t do anything about it.

I can’t write, I can’t edit. I’m a writer, I’m an editor.

I’m rendered useless.

*

My email was behind a firewall. So were my files. So was the internet (though I could have accessed that from my phone).

What was frustrating wasn’t so much any terrifying consequence of my lack of access. It was more the loss of control. If I’m locked out of my home, I can call a locksmith. But the walls of technology are a lot less climbable.

I wonder if there’s a spiritual equivalent of being unable to login. We long for access to truth, to a sense of order in the universe. And we can tell it’s there.

We just don’t have the password.

*

After about two hours, David from the IT Service Desk liberated my computer. He reassured me that the lockout wasn’t my fault: “Sometimes bad things happen to good people.” He was pleased when he saw me typing in a new long passphrase, instead of a puny password.

And I have access again.

For now.

Until the system goes down, until my computer dies, until I accidentally delete all the documents that populate my digital kingdom and that I’ve forgotten to back up.

For now, I can get in where I need to go.

My soul, though? That’s still pressed up against a sheet of colored glass, looking at the lights on the other side, wondering how to break through.


Photo by Frederico Cintra via Creative Commons.

Born-Again Buddhist?

A statue of a person with an arm raised up overhead, outside, with an open gate nearby.I’ve been getting to know God lately. And it’s been kind of weird.

I’ve labeled my faith in many ways over the years. For a while, I was calling myself a “semi-practicing Buddhist Pagan with strong Jewish and Unitarian influences.” (There’s one in every town, right?)

Sometimes I’ve called myself “agnostic.” But that’s never felt right. More recently, on dating sites, I’d been going for “spiritual but not religious.” That seemed to encompass my feeling that there’s a higher power, compared to which we humans are just tiny blips of ego and emotion and desire.

Lately, I’ve been calling that higher power God, and it feels natural and correct to do so.

A black church against a blue cloudy sky.
There are so many angles from which to approach this, and I don’t know where to begin. I could tell you about how I read a book about neopaganism while living in China, and then had a dream in which The Goddess visited me. She took the form of a gigantic, benevolent silver spider spinning a protective web outside my window.

I could talk about how I have relatives who are Unitarian, Buddhist, Presbyterian, Episcopalian, Jewish, and Atheist (yes, with a capital “A”), as well as one who’s a minister in the United Church of Christ. And how I was raised to see equal value in all belief systems, since at their best they create community and spur humans toward greater acts of love and courage.

But the bottom line is that, earlier this year, I took a tour of a mosque, and walked out of there with a strong desire for a spiritual community, and in particular, for a Christian community.

So now I’m going to this conservative Baptist church where I feel more at home than in any other church I’ve ever visited.

It’s very odd.The wall of a house spangled with the shadows of tree leavesI was never told directly, growing up, that I should run like the wind away from evangelicals. I just never knew any (or maybe the ones I did meet were closeted).

It was always implied to me that it was OK to be religious, but not too religious. You wouldn’t want to become a fanatic. (And indeed, I don’t.)

But I’ve blundered into this community that hit me with a wave of love and joy from the moment I set foot in their door. It’s dismantling my stereotypes about Christians. It’s making my heart expand.

Part of what I love about this particular church is the openness everyone has shown to my questions. More than openness: the delight they take in answering my questions, or in telling me how and why they don’t know a particular answer.

Perhaps that’s one of the traits that separates the healthy communities of faith from the unhealthy ones, from the cults: The cults don’t want you to ask inconvenient questions.A mural of a huge bee on the side of a building.There are many moments when I’m out of my element. The vocabulary is new. Being “convicted” is a good thing: it means you believe something strongly. (Where I come from, you get “convicted” only of a crime.)

At times I feel like I’m looking at one of those Magic Eye posters from the 1990s, where if you could cross your eyes just slightly, you could see the 3-D picture, but until you mastered that eye-crossing, it was just a chaos of lines.

Other times, I’m scared about what’s going to happen when the unstoppable force of my attraction to this church collides with the immovable object of what I believe, versus what this community believes. There is a lot of overlap. But there are chasms between us, too.A lagoon with water lilies
I have no idea what blue lagoon of belief this Christianity water slide is going to dump me out into. But along the way, my soul is getting watered for the first time, and a lifetime of seeds sleeping in its soil are beginning to sprout.

If you have thoughts on all this strangeness, let me know. I love to hear other people’s stories of belief, unbelief, and the burning question marks of faith.


All photos by Anya Weber, except for:
Second photo: Blue hour at the Nineteenth century black church at Budir, Snaefellsnes Peninsula, Iceland, by Diana Robinson, via Creative Commons
Last photo: lagoon, by feryswheel, via Creative Commons