community, Love, spirit

Welcoming September

The Sun will rise and set regardless. What we choose to do with the light while it’s here is up to us.

Alexandra Elle

peg green flaming chalice

Barely a month has passed since the Board of Directors at my UU church welcomed me into my new role as the Lay Minister for Membership and Outreach. I could just as easily say they approved or endorsed or just plain voted. Yet none of those words capture the experience of stepping into this world of Unitarian Universalist leadership as much as “welcome.”

My family only began attending the local church in July 2015. Many of my fellow congregants carry much more history and knowledge about the workings of the community. I have to admit, when the Reverend suggested I consider lay ministry, I laughed out loud. Little old me? Newcomer? Someone who should rightfully still use a green mug during coffee hour?

Continue reading “Welcoming September”

community, Love, neighborhood

This Can Happen Here

chagall dreams

This can still happen anywhere. Not everything is lost.

– Naomi Shihab Nye, “Gate A-4

Someone vandalizes a church and a Jewish community center in Northern Virginia. They paint swastikas on buildings and dark words over a sign supporting Muslims. This happens on the first night of Passover, at the start of the Christian holy week. The story is here.

Then the police track down a suspect. Dylan Mahone is a 20-year-old man who has found his way into white supremacist and neo-Nazi circles. A student at the community college. A neighbor who lives just blocks from the house my former partner shares with his two kids. A young man whose Facebook page drips with racism and hate and noxious fantasies of violence.

White. Christian. Educated. Male.

One of ours. One of us.

Continue reading “This Can Happen Here”

Adventure, body, Relationships

Injured and Alone

paredes 2

The injury aligns with the breakup, a window sash in its jamb.  One smooth slide to a perfect seal.  In stays the still air.  Out there, bees and dew and all the fecund detritus of summer.

This forced meditation is only welcome because it came in with its trunk and has evaded any attempt to pin down its schedule for moving on.  All I can do is make it feel at home.  I fold myself in beside it and listen to it breathe. Continue reading “Injured and Alone”

community, Friends, Home, Mindfulness

It’s Marvelous to Be Alive in This Time and Place


It’s worth fighting through the inertia.

True as that may be, my self-pity disagrees. In its defense of digging a deeper rabbit hole, it would rather filibuster than concede. Its zealotry twists the mere suggestion of celebration into an offense against reason.

Birthday? Bah. What would you be celebrating anyway? Your troubled finances? The end of your relationship? The last dozen fights with Bug, an anemic field of job prospects, your dearest friends in crisis?

The silk-throated devil reminds me that I’m stretched too thin as it is. “Tired” is no longer an adequate descriptor for the perpetual state in which I exist. Wouldn’t you rather just rest, read, heal? Wouldn’t your time be better spent re-tooling your resume?


Once you’ve had 40-something of them, birthdays just become days. Throwing yourself a party at this stage is both tacky and desperate.

No parties. No people. No no no.

But also yes. Because every reason to skip out on pleasure is a dolled-up version of submission. In fact, the more convincing the justification for staying low, the more I should suspect — and upend — its dominance. A toxic mood relishes its alpha dog position, growing in power unless I subvert it.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy has a simple and ingenious approach to this. Just choose the opposite.

To break this feedback loop, we need to engage in a behavior inconsistent to the emotion we’re trying to manage. This is a technique called opposite-to-emotion behavior. To do this, identify the emotion (sadness), identify the mood-dependent behavior (inaction/isolation), then do the opposite of that.

Opposite to Emotion Behavior from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

A snap, right? Take the stairs. Don the cape. Put a friggin foot on the gas and go. Even when it seems like the most useless act in the world. Especially then.

So, snarling and irate and certain the endeavor will fail, I hurl a few names at Evite.

Fixing a time and place leads to tidying, menus, asking for help. I cobble together activities. I send personal invitations to a new neighbor and to old family friends going through a tough time. My mother gets on board — bless that lady — and then I am dashing around, slapping on lipstick and jamming in earrings as the first guests knock on the door.


As with so many actions, motion generates momentum. It’s almost irrelevant the direction of travel. Any push will do.

The friends arrive. More follow. They hug and meet and hoot and gossip. They bring wine, sweets, kids, dogs. A few play along with my contrived icebreaker activity, milling around five zones of the house where markers and paper on the wall invite joyful thinking about our community and our time together here.

As with so many choices, intention determines outcome. It’s almost irrelevant the details of the text. Any welcome will do.

Earlier in the day, Tee whisked Bug off to a college basketball game. Halfway through the party, he’s dropping the kiddo off. When half-ass planning this whole shindig, I’d been wearing armor of thorns and stink. My invite list failed to catch half the people I love. I’d also been too tight-hearted to ask Tee if he’d like to come. If I have to throw this stupid party, I don’t want my ex husband here. My birthday. My party.

Mine mine mine.

Then my son walks through the door and the room erupts in a cheer. Bug’s face lights up and he skips into the Studio 54 buzz and music and sparkle. Tee is already backing out, saying good night. “Come in,” I say. “Eat. Have a beer.”

“I’ve got a lot of school work still to do. . .”

I gesture wide. “There’s hot cider, Moroccan veggie stew.”

“Okay, just for a minute.” He steps inside and stays for an hour.

Tee is still there when my loved ones gather in a circle around the room. Everyone speaks out loud their wishes for the year ahead as well as their thanks for the right-here-and-now. My mom. The junior-high pals. The Zumba instructors who’ve become sisters. The new neighbor, the writing group fellow, all these the people who just happen to be my people. Even Tee shares how happy he is that we are parenting together as friends and that our son is thriving. Words upon words brushed with almost-tears and lots of chuckles weave their light web around the room.

Bug and the neighbor’s son, chasing down dogs who are chasing down crumbs, dart through the throng decked out in sunglasses and bandit masks, mercifully demolishing our grownup drift towards solemnity.


It’s an extraordinary and dizzying experience to stand inside the metaphor of a circle of love manifesting in real life.

That incessant need to be on, to get things right and be just so, has slunk off into some forgotten corner. In my home with these dear ones, I feel at ease. It is as if I really am — for the moment — okay as me. Clumsy, gushing, nerdy, cutting, tempestuous, so-very-lucky me. . . just a gal entering her 43rd year in the happy company of her tribe.


(And, as I remind several perplexed friends and my son: Yes, a 42nd birthday is the beginning of a 43rd year, because math, people).

As the music starts up again, the circle dissolves and takes on new shapes. Small pockets of conversation dot the room. People who just met giggle like old friends, a baby is passed to a new set of arms, men talk coaching and gals talk travel. Folks who haven’t seen each other in years cover lost ground. The first roots take hold under nascent relationships.

Orientation determines truth. I tilt my head and the whole thing resolves into sharp-edged clarity. Throwing oneself a party is also giving a party. A birthday is just another day, yes. It is also a gift, a perfect excuse to open a door and invite a fledgling community to weave itself into being. This circle is so much more than mine. It holds my son, parents, neighbors, and all the friends who show up with attention, voice, and story.

My girlfriend says that each year is “a free vacation around the sun.” Even so, it can also feel like an extended solo trip. It can take a few revolutions (or a few dozen) before it becomes clear that we have always been in this together.

This time I can see how many are at the helm, how strong the crew, how wide open the skies.


Friends, Home, Things I Can

4. Things I Can Organize: A Social Life on a Budget

Staying connected to other humans is a necessity. This is especially so for a working single mom with a taste for the blues. Yet the rules of the Financial Fast forbid dining out and spending money on entertainment.

Catching up with folks for free is harder than it seems. After dispensing with restaurants, shows, coffee shops, bars, karaoke, ice rinks, shopping, and all the other cold-weather activities out there, what’s left?  Three weeks of January without seeing loved ones = emotional suicide (I tell myself). When schedules are tight and the nights are long, grabbing a bite out seems like the only option (I tell myself).

Is it any wonder so many Americans are looking up from the bottom of the financial pit, wondering how the hell to climb out? It’s sometimes the case that a person’s money struggles come on the heels of a single seismic life event. Most folks, however, work their way there one small seemingly inconsequential decision at a time. It’s possible to rationalize any expense, no matter how big, no matter how frivolous. Wants morph into needs, and the same old habits keep playing out.

The point of this fast is to figure out ways to stick to the rules, not ways to sneak around them. For those of us living close to the bone, the tradeoff between money and time is as near even as you can get. Make your own bread from scratch, and you’ll save about as much money as you could earn with the time spent elsewhere. Take on a little extra work, and the money ends up paying for the additional gas and childcare. It all comes out in the wash. How can a person really tend to these necessities on limited means — both financial and otherwise?

These 21 days lean towards the Save Money/Spend Time side of the equation. This is why it’s important to consider a broader definition of “spending habits.” A few extra minutes making lunch for work is important, but where else might resourcefulness and creativity be useful? After all, we all have certain essential activities that keep us thrumming. It may be dancing or sports, learning or art, travel or food — whatever it is, chances are, doing it the familiar way is too expensive. The problem is that self-discipline smacks of self-denial. When limits become suffocating, either the old ways return or the person inside wilts.

There has to be a third way.

For our little family, I believe there is. Inside this labyrinthine universe of Us, maintaining relationships is as essential as exercise, work, and a good night’s sleep. That said, our schedules stretch us so thin, friends feel like another “thing to do,” which is exactly why we have to keep them in the front of our minds. Community feeds us. We have to feed it in turn.

This weekend, we let the Financial Fast force ingenuity and forethought. Instead of going out on Saturday night, we extended a dinner invitation to my folks and a few family friends. We spent the day cleaning and making our little condo fancy with the baubles on hand. The meal was bare bones — dull, in fact — but no one seemed to care. My mother contributed pie and appetizers, and another guest brought a salad. Bug was crazy proud to host. All day and evening, he pitched it. As guests arrived, he donned an apron and took drink orders. Our little group was a warm light in the dead of winter.

It was work and it was exhausting, but also, it was so very simple.

And we managed it all on the grocery budget.

If not for the fast, we probably would have just gone to a movie. Or I might have plopped Bug in front of a DVD while I focused on one of the countless unfinished projects from work. Instead, Bug and I worked together to welcome friends into our home. We planned a menu, decorated, baked and tidied, and shared time with the people we care about. Here we are the next morning with a beautifully organized space, feeling connected and happy.

Maybe the trick is to take the long view. We have to dare to imagine the composition — career, home, relationships, art, and overall well-being — we most want for ourselves and our families. The question then becomes: What can we cultivate here and now with what we have on hand?

For these weeks as in the year ahead, a Saturday night can be exercise in frugality, but it doesn’t have to just be that. It can also be an opportunity for creativity and celebration, and a chance to build towards a life both balanced and vibrant.


Family, Home

Good Stay

It’s our first day back at work and the neighbors are complaining. Out on the balcony, the lady from next door smokes as she watches the snow. She greets me with a friendly “Good morning.”

Then, “Oh, by the way…”

First comes an excruciating description of the 8-hour howling marathon. Then her recommendations: bitter apple, a towel with my scent, a plastic crate, a muzzle. She and her husband work from home. They listened to it all day, she tells me. ALL DAY. “Hours,” she says. “We could hear her all the way outside. She didn’t stop.”

I apologize and thank her. Then I stand there listening. I need to stay on her good side, if that’s even possible. Nodding, agreeing, I’m not sure what to say. Finally, I tell her I just don’t want to give Noodle up, which is the same as giving up on her.

Most of the neighborhood has heard about Noodle’s history. What we know is bad enough. What we don’t know is probably worse. From initial snatching by the smugglers through her arrival in our home, she’s endured at least six separations. Those are just the ones we can count. Add a measure of abuse followed by an overseas migration, and anxiety is a given. Aggression would not be a surprise. Even so, after all she’s been through, this tormented creature has managed to hold on to all the traits that most endear dogs to humans: groveling, nuzzling, cuddling, sitting. She gazes through glimmering eyes when we read on the couch and quivers with joy when we return from the store. She has not so much as nipped at Bug despite the horseplay he requires of her (“Mom, look! Conga, conga, conGA!”)

The codes run deep. They work. Bug is madly in love with her.

Also, she has crippling anxiety.

My finances are limited, and what little I have comes from a job at an office. I had foolishly assumed that the two-week winter break would be a sufficient adjustment period. Unlike my work-from-home neighbors, I can’t stay all day to train this pooch through months of desensitization. I live in a condominium instead of the country cottage, so ignoring the problem isn’t an option.

As ever, life is generous with its opportunities for growth. This is yet another reminder that I’m not all alone in a world on the brink of crashing down around me. The neighbors are, thanks to all things holy, dog lovers. Also, my superhero mother has offered to stop in for a mid-day walk. Being a member of Noodle’s pack, her presence is a comfort and a godsend for one hour of the day.

Even so, it doesn’t erase the four hours of howling on either side of her visit. I’m no fool. Neighbor-dog-love has its limits. Somehow I’ve got to hold down my job, take care of my son, and placate the neighbors all while keeping this dog from impaling herself on the busted bars of her crate.

I’m trying hard to La-La-La plug my ears against the little voice telling me this one of the the top five worst decisions of my life.

Is there a convincing argument for putting so much at risk and for this neurotic, sweet girl?

Why does anyone make these sacrifices? No one gives out awards for adopting abused dogs. Accolades are similarly nonexistent for all other do-gooders, from library volunteers to vegetarians. Maybe some folks trust the promise of delayed rewards. While the Flying Spaghetti Monster may be reserving a place at the head table for me, faith is generally missing from my list of motivators. Beyond that, altruism is irrational at best. It rarely leads to financial payoff, professional success, fame, leisure, an advanced degree or a smaller dress size. In fact, of the many ways to squander personal resources for some greater good, dog ownership is a guaranteed drain. The costs of food and care are just the beginning. Sleep takes a hit. Those extra hours at work needed to get ahead? Lost, along with evening classes and weekend conferences. And forget about tagging along for happy hour.

So why do it?

Because ___________________. Pick your platitude. Because you care. Because if you don’t, who will? Maybe because maybe you want to add to the sum total of kindness in the world, or because you hope someone would do the same for you.

Because duty. Because love.

Maybe all altruism is selfish. Being good feels good. A little hit of dopamine accompanies an action in sync with a value, especially when it leads to some small improvement. Or a big, sloppy kiss.

In my rather cold calculation, sticking by this dog is service to my son. After all, his status as an only child confers benefits and costs that a pet can complement and correct, respectively. My boy is king of the castle here. He chooses a great many of our activities and habits. His preferences certainly aren’t equal to mine, otherwise there would be no school, broccoli, or bedtime. That said, his vote counts more than it might if a sibling or second parent weighed in. This superior position may seem grand, but it costs him in social skills. My son has a long way to go to master compassion and consideration. A dog — especially one with a troubled history — is a good teacher. No quantity of playdates comes close to the humbling experience of sharing a home with a fellow being. Having a dog means more than sharing the back seat when running errands. It means waking every day to the awareness of someone else who matters.

Bug’s elevated rank also leaves him as his own and only best companion. At eight years old, he still tells me he’d rather live at his other house because there, he shares a room with his dad. He doesn’t like sleeping alone. On those mellow weekends when we spend more time at home than running all over creation, Bug sometimes wanders aimlessly, at a loss for how to entertain himself. He’s tired of Mama but he wants to engage with someone or something. This kind of quiet, TV-free existence is good for him, true. It’s on-the-job training in resourcefulness, creativity, and the innovative potential of boredom.

Also, it makes loneliness routine.

Not so great a norm to set for a kid who’s been handed two genetic suitcases packed with depression.

Noodle is Bug’s guide. She is also his buddy. Bug adores and curses her in much the same way a sibling might. He plays with her, gets irritated with her, wants her close, wants her gone. He always comes back to her though, learning all the while to temper his reactions and be a good companion. He’ll screw up (as will I), but she’ll probably survive. Noodle nudges Bug — and me, if I’m honest — up and out of ourselves. More than just waking us to the world, she engages us in a lasting and full relationship with a fellow earthling.

I’m sure the crazy dog people will skin me alive when they find out my motives for adopting are anything other than pure love. Alas, I’ve never been known for purity except in contrast, so Noodle and all her champions will just have to put up with my labyrinthine rationale.

Anyway, she’s home now. She can make do with this imperfect family.

Tomorrow, I’ll move the crate to my bedroom and shut all the doors, hoping the extra layer of drywall will muffle her cries. I’ll give the bitter apple and towel a try. I’m not sold on the muzzle. If we’re lucky, the neighbors will indulge us as Noodle’s little brain works out that there’s nothing on the other side of that door she needs.

This is it. She’s not going anywhere.

Neither are we.