On Moments of Happiness and Hope

I drove home from Manhattan today, after a whirlwind day of visiting friends and familiar haunts in the city I once called home but in which I never truly felt at home. I sped west in my stepfather’s old Highlander along Route 78 in the bright sunshine, singing along to Ellie Goulding and Maroon 5 (as their songs are apparently the only ones currently in rotation on the radio). As I put more distance between myself and the city, the trees became denser and I breathed more deeply. Right around exit 41, everything in me paused, and I turned down the music. It was a moment when I needed to identify what I was feeling, because the sensation was so odd that it interrupted all other thoughts.

I felt happy.

And happiness was the singular emotion that existed in that moment.

Throughout most of this trip to New Jersey, I have been overwhelmed: by grief, by loss, by anger, by sadness, by dread, by unease, by shame. There were so many firsts without my sister and my dad in the course of a week that completely depleted—and often defeated—me. 

The first Easter

The first birthday (Kelly’s)

The first National Siblings Day (also my first knowledge that this day existed)

The other first birthday (my dad’s)

The dread before each occasion was almost as painful as the arrival of the actual date. My grandmother’s birthday, nestled in the middle of this crazy week, somehow felt like a relief, if only because it was not so terribly awful anymore after thirteen years.

I planned last week to drive my mom to the city yesterday, and to spend time with friends and stay overnight there. When yesterday arrived, I felt completely unprepared for anything past get out of bed, brush teeth. All of the steps beyond that were foreign, and I worried were beyond my capabilities.

How do you go back out into the world when it feels like your skin is on inside out?

I didn’t really figure that out, but I did get myself dressed and where I had committed to being. And it was hard, but nice. I was able to see places I once loved, but was also grateful to have left behind. I was able to see friends I feel safe with, and talk about my dad and Kelly without breaking down or shutting down. I was able to feel like an actual person again for the day. I never could have anticipated that simply interacting with the world would feel like an accomplishment, but such is life in this new “normal”.

I also never anticipated that feeling happy, with the absence of guilt or regret or any other accompaniment would be so alien a sensation.

There have been some wonderful moments on the inside of the sorrow of the past five months. Watching rays of sun bisect a room on a farm in Virginia; glimpsing the magical light bouncing off the water in Positano; sipping tea with koalas in Australia; the simple grace shared by friends every day; hearing and reading words of loss and comfort and love and grief from gifted writers; writing something true. And yet, also present in those special moments: guilt, and fear.

What if I’m not sad enough?

What if I deserve the sadness?

What if someone else dies? 

What if this is how it will always be?

Just last week, I drove that stretch of highway in sobs, because it is the same route that my dad always drove to bring me home from the airport, and how could I be driving on that road without him? The loss of him on that drive was as acute as it was the night he died.

There was nothing extraordinarily remarkable about the drive today. Except that within it existed a moment of such ease, such peace and such happiness that it became remarkable.

Because it allowed for hope; the hope that more of these moments might someday occur, when I least expect them and when I need them most.

*Thank you to Mom, Julie and Aidan (and the Rowlets!) for leading me to this moment today. Thank you to every person who has reached out to me at any time in the last five months. I will never forget the gestures of love and kindness that have been extended to me. 

Stillness and Sunset in Virginia

Stillness and Sunset in Virginia

These Are The Things I Have Forgotten

These Are The Things I Have Forgotten:

The way my Grandmother smelled

I remember the way my sister smelled, of menthol cigarettes and cheap, overpowering body spray that lingered in a room long after she left, and permeated the DNA of her green Camry.

I remember the way the cat smelled, like spilled tears and comfort and my mother’s house. I pick up the new cat who is not so new anymore, and bury my face in his soft fur. I want to force that smell on him, but he won’t cooperate; he barely tolerates me. He accepted Kelly’s scent when she held him—of course, he was her cat—but he won’t accept Hobbes’ no matter how much I wish it.

If I can remember how the cat smelled, shouldn’t I remember Grandma’s smell?

The taste of mustard

Or mayonnaise. Or pickles. Or all of the other things that I’m sure I hate, so much that I cringe or shudder when they are mentioned. 

What my recorded voice sounded like

The video of my senior recital was taped over, or lost, years ago. There is no footage from my college performances. The cassette tapes from high school concerts are useless—who has anything that plays a cassette tape? I kept a Walkman for years, just in case I wanted to listen to one of those archaic tapes, but eventually, it too went the way of the rest of our obsolete 80s electronics.

Kelly’s recordings were done on CDs, so we could easily transfer them to our laptops and phones, and play them at her memorial service or in our cars. It’s her voice that I hear now when I remember songs we both sang.

The books I have read

Including those I studied and referenced on my AP English test, the ones catalogued on the “Best 100 Books of All Time” lists (did I actually read 1984, or do I just think I did?) and almost every book I read on my iPad.

The first time I saw a sun set over the ocean

Maybe it was on our first family trip to California when I was fifteen. Did I notice it there, when Kelly and I walked by ourselves down to a wharf theatre to see You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, in a rare moment of camaraderie due to the freedom of being without our parents for the evening in an unfamiliar city?

Or maybe it was when we went to Bermuda the following year. There is a picture of us on a golf course at our resort, the two of us, with windblown hair and terrible 90s clothing. The sunset is behind us. Did we ever turn around to see it?

Maybe it was even later still, on our last trip together as a family, to Captiva Island. I have the fewest memories of this trip, beyond the sand whipping around on the beach in a weeklong windstorm, and the long, solitary drive across Alligator Alley from Miami. It feels that much more tragic since we would have no subsequent trips. I would travel again with my mom, with Kelly, with my dad, but never again as that original foursome.

When I had my first kiss

I think I used to lie about it, and now I can’t remember what is the lie and what is the truth. The same with when I lost my virginity, a night whose details I remember down to the perfume I wore (Estee Lauder Pleasures, which I hated but he gifted me) and the CD in my stereo (Toni Braxton, Secrets) but whose date I cannot confirm with any certainty. The lies I told other people became the lies I told myself.

What it felt like to hug my Nana

I was ten the last time I saw her, in a wheelchair at my uncle’s wedding. There must have been a fragile maneuvering around the medical equipment, gestures involving patting and kind words. We saw her less than we saw our other grandmother, whose embrace and fragile body and soft skin I can remember like she squeezed me just this morning, rather than over a dozen years ago. My dad’s mother was tall, and sturdy, before the cancer. I wonder if I would have grown taller than she was, had she lived longer. I wonder if I would have wrapped my own strong arms around her, if I would have been the sturdier one. I wonder if I will someday be the formerly tall, formerly sturdy woman in a wheelchair at my son’s wedding, who dies later that night having seen all of her children wed?

How to play the flute

How to play the piano (mostly). How to sing a harmonic minor scale. How to transcribe a melody. And likely every single thing I learned in my 4th semester of music theory.

What my grandfather’s poached eggs taste like

I know that they were the best we ever tasted. I know Kelly still wanted him to make one for her when she visited him last year. I know that I hate to order them in restaurants, certain they will never be as good as his (the way I know linguini with clam sauce cooked by anyone else will never match my mother’s). But I cannot conjure up the taste, only the recollection of the perfect amount of runniness in the yolk, the perfect firmness of the whites. I know that I will never again ask my grandfather to make one for me, because that was her thing.

My natural hair color

 

Why I hated the first day of school videos

My mom took them every year until we moved to Basking Ridge when I was in fifth grade. We started on our front stoop—Kelly, me, Michelle and Aimee from next door, sometimes some of the other neighbors—and walked down the long, rocky driveway and across the street to the bus stop. I was the only one who refused to play along when my mom asked us what we had in our lunchboxes that day, or if we were excited about the first day of school. I was the only one with the scowl, or walking too fast for the camera to follow. Kelly was just happy to be included, even though most years she would be left behind with my mom, at home, after the big kids got on that bus.

Where I left my first pair of earrings

The gold hearts with the diamond sparkle. The ones I’d been hanging onto since I got my ears pierced nearly thirty years ago. The ones I thought my future daughter might one day wear.

My last words to my sister

I know my last words via email: “Have a good Thanksgiving with Dad.”

I know my last words via voicemail, before she left for Arizona that August: “I love you, bye.” I’m not even sure I meant them at the time. I was angry, and only left the voicemail because my mom asked me to call her. I mean them now, but I don’t know if that matters.

I don’t remember the end of our last phone conversation. I don’t remember our last in- person conversation. I’m not even sure I remember the last time I saw her, some time in early 2013. Can that really be possible? Can I really not remember the last time I saw my sister?

Everything else I couldn’t bother to remember; everything else that I have forgotten.

My beloved Grandma (and Grandpa) on the 13th anniversary of her passing.

My beloved Grandma (and Grandpa); yesterday was the 13th anniversary of her passing.

Our last Christmas; my last clear memory of us together.

Our last Christmas at home in 2012; my last clear memory of us together.

The Year Of Us

While many people do their reflecting and goal-setting at the end of each calendar year, I typically wait until my birthday at the end of January to look back at the year that has passed and to make my plans for the year that is beginning for me.

The year that followed my turning thirty-six broke the mold of all years that came before. It broke me.

And now that my birthday is, once again, here, I find that I don’t want to do things as I have previously done them.

I don’t want to look back and reflect on the year I became an only child. I don’t want to examine all of the ways this year has changed me. I don’t want to make silly lists of all of the things I plan to do on this next trip around the sun (Get back in shape! Visit new countries! Find life’s purpose!!)

My windows of time now are shorter, more fragile. Long term reflecting and planning have both been abandoned out of necessity rather than any rational choice.

Instead of ruminating about all that has occurred since my last birthday, I can only reminisce about my most recent experience. Instead of formulating plans for the upcoming year, I can only arrange for today.

*

When I booked my trip to Guatemala, life looked a lot different. It was a new country to visit, and an opportunity to connect with friends, but it really didn’t extend past that for me. Once it came time to leave, however, the circumstances of my world had so drastically changed that I was now assigning a new weight to everything, counting on each trip to save me. I worried that Guatemala, or I, might crumble under this pressure.

I arrived in Quetzaltenango (Xela to locals) with three suitcases full of clothing and random belongings to distribute to the children and women at Education and Hope, an organization founded by my friend Julie Coyne that brings access to education to impoverished children in nearby areas of the Western Highlands. Specifically, they provide scholarships, bus tickets, school supplies, clothing, day care, food, and love to the Educación y Esperanza family.

What they actually do can only be encompassed in one word: miraculous.

I was intimidated by the closeness I witnessed, each person who walked through the doors of the Proyecto offering a hug and kiss to Julie, her husband Gordon, me. I was intimidated by my elementary grasp of Spanish, and what to say to people who spoke no English. I was intimidated by the enormity of what happens there. As the week went on, I tried to memorize all of the faces and names. I didn’t succeed but I managed with a few.

*

On my last night in Xela, Lorena walks with me to set up my ride out of town the next morning. I am taken care of here, never left to fend for myself, and Lorena takes over this duty happily tonight.

I ask her how long she has worked at Education and Hope, and she tells me she has been there for twelve years, first as a student and now working there. She loves it, and loves the people. They are my second family, she says. I ask her if she has children. She tells me she has nine siblings and that as the second oldest, that is enough work for her.

She asks me if I have brothers or sisters.

It’s the first time someone has asked me since my sister died. It’s the question I have been most dreading each time I meet someone new. I anticipated it coming up on a first date, or maybe even a job interview at home. Instead, it hits me in Spanish, with the force of a sledgehammer. Tienes hermanos?

I say no, only me. But that doesn’t feel right, so I think of how I can say this in Spanish. Mi hermana está muerta. Mi hermana murió. Mi hermana no está vivo.

Sometimes even when you don’t want to know the words, your body, your mind, your heart still knows them.

Lo siento, she says. I can feel how deeply she means it. She pauses for a moment while I blink back tears, before touching my arm and telling me, Now you have a second family here, too.

On my final morning in Xela, I spend thirty minutes with the smallest of the children, letting them climb all over me, playing peek-a-boo, pretending to sleep while they shriek with laughter above me. I don’t worry about the language barrier anymore. There is no language for their smiles, and no miscommunication in their fierce hugs. The love they offer me is simple and crosses all cultural divides. As it is happening, I think I have maybe never been this happy.

It’s nearly time for me to leave.

I make my way to the kitchen to begin saying goodbye to the ladies working there, who have fed me so lovingly all week. The little kids are napping, and the bigger kids are across the street in class. The kitchen is almost empty; I discover it is because all of the women are waiting in the main room, in a receiving line of sorts, to send me off.

They each hug me, and somehow I have no trouble understanding the things they say to me, my Spanish coming through in a way it hasn’t all week. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Please come back again to see us. We love you.

Rosenda is there, one of the younger women, hugging me intensely, before drawing back and putting her hand firmly on my heart while she looks straight into my eyes. Tu tienes un gran corazón.

I cry, because I can’t fathom how she can see this, especially with the big fault line running through its center. Until I realize that she sees the fissure too, and maybe loves me just a little more because of it. I cry harder. For Kelly, for my parents, for the women here, for all of our collective losses, for myself.

And a tiny piece of the crack fuses back together again. Not healed, not like before, but held together somehow from the purest form of love I have been shown in this special place. When I walk outside and find all of the students standing in the street yelling, Adios Katie, before running to hug and kiss me goodbye, I understand that this is the kind of day worthy of reflection. This is the kind of day worthy of planning. This is the kind of day you learn how to change someone’s life.

*

This is the year I turn 37.

This is the year that will remain largely unplanned.

This is the year that I turn the front facing camera in my mind around, and point it outwards.

This is the year of ordinary and extraordinary miracles.

This is the year of doing more, for others; of giving back that love I have received.

This is the year of sharing, nurturing, assisting, comforting, trusting, hugging, believing, smiling.

This is the year of love.

 

This is the Year of Us.

 

***To learn more about Education and Hope, or to make a donation (I can make this request, it’s my birthday), please visit http://educationandhope.org/. It is so easy to make a difference in the lives of these wonderful people. Thank you!

Mis nuevos amigos

Mis nuevos amigos

Confession: Why I Chose To Freeze My Eggs

*This post originally appeared on Role Reboot.

 

Last month, Facebook and Apple announced that they would begin covering the costs of egg freezing for their employees, setting off a firestorm of controversy across the country. Articles praising the benefits of this offering were quickly answered with articles that declared these measures just another way to get women to work harder and longer, or shaming these companies for their implied input into women’s reproductive decisions.

The story that I missed reading in this discussion was that of someone who wanted to freeze her eggs no matter what the cost or who was paying for it. The story of someone like me.

From a very young age, I wanted to be a mother. I wanted it more than fame (a recurrent childhood dream), more than getting married, and more than a successful career (not that I believe any of these are mutually exclusive). The desire for children has been a constant in my life that has never wavered. It was always the dream I reserved for “someday.”

“Someday” when I finally find the right partner. “Someday” after I’ve traveled and am ready to settle in one place. “Someday” when my career slows down and I have more time.

And then I turned 36, and suddenly it seemed like “someday” should have been here by now. I hadn’t been in a relationship in quite some time, and had never been in one that was pointed toward happily ever after, in any semblance. I had always bristled over questions about why I was still single, and deflected suggestions of egg freezing with the same response I reserved for recommendations about joining match.com: “It’s not for me.”

But approaching 36 felt different, like I was finally becoming a real adult. Many of my friends were on their second or third child, happily nesting, and for the first time, when I visited them and their adorable babies, only one thought remained after the visit: I want that, too.

I could no longer pretend that I didn’t hear my biological clock ticking. All of a sudden, there seemed to be articles everywhere about the challenges of getting pregnant after 35—or maybe I was just now reading them after years of careful abstention. When three separate people mentioned egg freezing to me within a week of each other this summer, I stopped my blanket “It’s not for me” sentiments and actually looked into the procedure and what it might offer me.

Click here to read the rest of the article on Role Reboot! I am so happy to be on their site for the first time today, and would love to read any feedback you care to share!

 

xx,

Katie

White. Blue. Brown.

I was supposed to be in Israel right now.

In Jerusalem, to be precise, in a beautiful hotel that costs way too much money, right outside the walls of the Old City. I might have been sipping tea on my terrace in the morning, planning my day, were things to have been different. I may have been different.

It was my fear of hot weather, not Hamas drones or teenage executions that caused my change in plans. Just the fear of being uncomfortably hot while walking around in a desert in July. It seems utterly ridiculous now, with what has transpired there in the last few weeks; a ridiculous reason to postpone a trip. But ridiculous is all I have, and it means that I’m not there.

I am here, instead, in Santorini, in another beautiful hotel that costs way too much money, having tea on my terrace, planning my day. Praying, as I might have also done in Israel; silent prayers for everyone who is where I was supposed to be, prayers of gratitude and relief for where I am.

I am surrounded by the colors of Greece: white and blue, contrasted only by the brown landscape of the unpopulated sections of the islands. White. Blue. Brown. To my left is a volcano that I see people climbing, perched high above as I am on my terrace. I don’t know when it last erupted, since I never read the travel guides. Before I left Italy last week, an Italian healer told me she does not like Santorini, because of the energy of the volcano. “Is bad,” she told me firmly, as fact. I can’t feel it though; rather, the island feels devoid of any energy at all, something to do with the absence of colors I think.

My eyes play tricks on me, adjusting to the beauty so that I am no longer sure if it’s real, or just something I imagined or something I once saw in a movie. The edges of my view soften, become hazy. I close my eyes periodically, longer than is necessary. When I reopen them, when I gaze back out on the white and blue and brown again, they re-focus like a camera lens, and separate the colors to once again form real things: church, ocean, volcano.

The stillness here is palpable. The ocean stretches in every direction with merely a few sun-reflecting ripples to indicate that it is moving at all. I know there is noise. There are people talking–German, French, Greek. There is a repeating loop of Lionel Richie and Hall & Oates songs playing at the pool bar. There are distant car horns beeping, and once or twice a day, a helicopter flies noisily overhead. But I stop hearing it as anything other than a white noise soundtrack to a tableau of stillness. The week stretches as endlessly as the ocean does. There is no Monday, or Tuesday here. There is just right now.

Can you be both wholly present, and completely lost in daydreams? Can you sit, with your chin in your hands, on a dock, waiting for a boat to arrive, and be both there and also very far away?

Maybe I am in Israel, too, after all.

I am writing stories in my head, stories that swirl around like the morning wind does here. Stories about beauty and color, and about life. I speak less, less than any other week in memory, so when I do speak, I don’t recognize the sound of my voice. It mimics the fragmented, accented English that I hear; it uses simple words designed to be understood when you only understand simple words; all verbs in the present tense. The benefit to using only simple words is that you say simply what you mean.

I am in Greece, and I want to speak Greek, and if I try hard enough, I can almost convince myself that I can.

I am somewhat disillusioned on my first visit to the small town of Oia, the northernmost tip of the island, to hear loud, American-accented English all around me. I crave the melodic sounds of Greek and Italian and Spanish melting together, not teenagers saying like and you know. I want to be an anonymous traveler of no origin, not someone who understands American teen. I want to be from wherever I have landed.

Sometimes it works. On our shared taxi ride to Oia, as we wind around the treacherous curves of the island road, the couple in the backseat speak haltingly to me, unsure if I can understand English. They don’t realize I know their accents. They don’t realize that I’ve been to their hometown in Long Island, that I lived less than an hour away from them for nearly a decade.

Sometimes it doesn’t work. I take a boat ride to some of the beaches only accessible by water. I am the only American, and the only one by myself. When we stop at one of the beaches, an older Greek man calls out to me as I walk alone along the shoreline. I think maybe he is afraid I cannot swim, and I can’t hear him, and I can’t understand him, but he gesticulates wildly enough to cause me to walk to where he is standing. He continues his sermon, his gestures getting bigger as I get closer. When I shake my head and say I don’t understand, he is puzzled. He asks, in Greek, don’t I speak or understand Greek? (I cannot say which he asks, since the only thing I did understand was the word Greek). I continue to shake my head and apologize until he stops me by gripping my shoulders firmly, looking directly into my eyes, and says about me, “Is nice. Is very nice.” I say thank you in Greek, one of my other known words, and continue my beach walk. Later he says, “Bye lady” as he helps me back into the boat, and waves at me as we drift away.

So I guess even when it doesn’t work, it still sort of works.

***

I want to write about all of my days here, because I want you to understand them.

I want to tell you a proper travel story about Santorini, so that you will know all about it. But I find that I don’t want to write about restaurants, or hotels, or hiking trails, or the list of all of the things you absolutely must do on your visit here. I don’t want to tell you all of my stories, the ones that have run through me for the past week.

Instead, I want to write, simply: White. Blue. Brown.

And I want you to just know what that means. What it feels like, what it looks like, what it is to be in Santorini.

I want you to write your own stories.

 ***

I was supposed to be in Israel.

I am meant to be here.

Caldera Views in Imerovigli

Caldera Views in Imerovigli

One of the many, many churches on the island; on the path from Imerovigli to Fira

One of the many, many churches on the island; on the path from Imerovigli to Fira

View of Oia from Imerovigli

View of Oia from Imerovigli

Entrance to the "white beach", only accessible by boat

Entrance to the “white beach”, only accessible by boat

The only other color, seen every evening in Santorini

The only other color, seen every evening in Santorini

A Letter of Closure: Part Two

(One Year Later)

It’s the same here, in that way that can make a place feel oddly frozen in time, despite a year having passed. The people I am with are different, but they’re somehow the same, with the same hearts.The roosters still crow us awake before dawn every morning, and the cacophony of the donkeys braying and the birds singing is as simultaneously melodious and discordant as I remember it. The dogs, the big sweet one and one who is aloof except during mealtime, where he might coax a small morsel of food from someone, still smell—of farm, of dirt, of manure and of some other intangible dog odor. The sweetness from my first donut peach this summer immediately sends me into a fit of bliss and nostalgia. The geraniums in their window boxes continue to bloom their same vibrant shades of red, and the sun still sinks behind a nearby mountain ridge every evening, beyond a lone cypress tree, enveloped in a hazy, orange veil.

The passage of time is marked only by the horses, grown from awkward foals to sleeker, more adult versions of themselves, and the children, who have done the same.  At Ebbio for the second time, in what has become my Tuscan home, I’m reminded of the magic I found here last summer, its energy humming all around me as loudly as the buzzing insects. I had worried it might not be the same.

But you can return to wonder, I learn, and I have.

(One Month Later)

It took half a year of planning, but it was over within seconds. Resigning from a career was surprisingly anti-climactic.

One minute you have a job, a career, an identity, and the very next minute you do not.  Poof! The person you have been announcing yourself as for the last fifteen years is gone. You’re no longer the character you were so proud of playing, parading around in it like a coat you never removed. You don’t get to use the slightly smug smile that you couldn’t help using when people seemed impressed with you. You leave yourself behind in an instant.

For six years, you answered the phone, “Katie from Allure.” As if you didn’t have a last name. As if you didn’t have anything else. As if nothing else mattered.

Not as much anyway.

This was your life. You thought it was what you wanted, until one day it wasn’t.

You stay. Play the part, dance the dance. Keep up appearances to hide the twisted insides. Focus on all of the things you’ve acquired, and steadfastly ignore the whispers that say, “there must be something more than this car, this bag, this life.” Build up that house of cards and climb so high you can’t see the bottom any longer. So high you can’t remember how you even got up there, or why you thought you might like the view; so high you don’t know how you are ever going to get down, or what the fall might feel like.

Because it will fall down. That’s what card houses do. They’re not built for forevers. And as soon as you start this interrogation of your heart from its apex, it quivers and buckles and threatens to collapse completely, and you’re left with the choice to jump off the top, from where you can no longer see the ground, or come crashing down with it, a jumble of cards and regrets.

So you jump.

And you immediately wonder, will I freeze now, without that well-worn coat? You wonder, should I have stayed? You wonder, am I crazy to have left? You wonder, what comes next?

You wonder, who will I be now?

(One Day Later)

The words echo around in my head, bouncing from one side to the other. I’m hearing them in the voice of the one who first uttered them to me; a prayer:

“You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves….”

 

The opening to Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, and I can hear it now. I hear it here in yoga, at Ebbio, where the voice that first told me I could have more asks me to write another letter of closure, one year later. I watch this girl, this Katie from Allure, as if from a distance, and I think about what she needs to hear.  So I write.

 

Dear Katie From Allure,
Everything is going to be ok.
 
You do not have to always have all of the answers.
You do not need to make money to make a difference.
You do not need to have valuable stuff to feel valued.
You do not need call yourself by a fancy title to feel proud.
You do not need to worry so much about what you won’t be anymore.
You do not need to know what you are meant to do before you start doing something.
You do not need to know where you will end up in order to take the first step.
You only have to take the first step.
 
Take the step.
Then take another.
And remember this: you are the only person who can pursue your happiness. You are the only person who can listen to your own heart. You are the only person who can nurture your soul.
You are the only person who can save your life.
 Do it. Save yourself.
 
Everything is going to be ok.
 
Love,
Katie

 

(One Minute Later)

A bug committed suicide in my bed.

I woke to find him dead, my body covered in bites, his engorged with my blood. I wonder if he knew where he was headed but was simply unable to stop. I wonder if, at some point, he had an inkling of his fate, but thought he could somehow outrun it. I wonder if he would make the same choice again. I wonder if I actually killed him, smothering him as I rolled over and tucked my right arm under my pillow so that only my hand stuck out, floating in the air.

I’m here with my dead bug, thinking about the last minute, the last hour, the last month, the last year, all from a Tuscan farmhouse that feels suspended between a dream and reality, with people who are both strangers and family. I think about how happy I am to be doing it. I am saving my own life. I think about how easy it would have been to not do so, to have stayed, and I’m so relieved that the pain of the jump begins to subside. This is my life now.

I’m not that dead bug, I’m not buried under a collapsed house of cards, I’m not Katie from Allure.

I’m just me, removing coats, taking steps, saving myself.

 

Under The Tuscan Sun

Under The Tuscan Sun

 

photo 2 (33)

Girasole=happiness

“How Old Is Too Old To Be Single?”

To change the conversation, we had to start the conversation. 

 

The wonderful HuffPost Live asked me to join their discussion earlier today titled “How Old Is Too Old To Be Single?”

I’ve written about turning 35, and not being where I had always planned to be. And I’ve written also about how complicated it can feel, being happy with the life you’ve created, but still yearning for something else.

What has resonated for me the most in publishing these pieces is the feedback from the people who have read them. Those in similar circumstances who saw their own yearnings reflected back, and those with completely opposite circumstances who saw those same reflections. There was no “perfect life”, married or single, it seemed.

It struck me how many people also shared that they hadn’t previously felt comfortable admitting to all of the feelings encompassed by not being who or where or what they thought they should be. The fear, the shame, the sadness, the freedom, the independence, the resignation…all of these feelings a reaction to expectations that age was a marker for something other than years spent on this planet.

One of the ways to start dissolving these stigmas about having to be anything at any specific age is to start talking about them. To start acknowledging that there are other paths, and that straying from the traditional one is not bad, not good, just different and equally acceptable. To start seeking to understand each other, rather than judge what we don’t know. To stop putting pressure on ourselves and on others to conform to a mold that is not one size fits all.

Today’s conversation is hopefully the first of many that will start to lift the veil on how to find happiness in life, regardless of being “a certain age”…or of any particular age at all.

HuffPost Live: How Old Is Too Old To Be Single

"How Old Is Too Old To Be Single"

“How Old Is Too Old To Be Single”

 

xx,

Katie

The Moment

It’s sunrise in Punta Mita, Mexico. I have been waiting for it for nearly thirty minutes already. The sun is rising slowly from behind the mountains, in what feels like it should be a big, climactic moment, but is instead just the casual repetition of what happens here everyday. It won’t be rushed to glory because we are here to watch it. The orange and pink colors gradually, painstakingly spread across the sky, illuminating the stand up paddle boarders in the ocean below, as they take deliberate and precise strokes away from the shore.

The roosters crow somewhere in the near distance, their calls immediately answered threefold by the seagulls flying over our heads. But otherwise, there is silence on this morning. Those who wake early seem to understand this sacred moment of the day beginning, respecting its quiet.

There is no smell here, surprising me, when smells are so often what ground me to a particular place, like the blooming tuberose we smelled each morning in Bali, or the unique earthy mixture of horses and dirt on a farm in Italy. No fishy saltwater smell wafts up from the bay, no floral aromas surround us and tell us that we are not at home. It is only when the coffee begins brewing that there is any scent recognition at all.

I’m sitting outside on our patio, sipping tea and writing while overlooking the waves on the shoreline below, the early morning mist still rising off the water. This outdoor area is partially covered by a wooden trellis, with vines hanging over the edge, framing our pictures with context, setting them apart from anywhere else we may have taken this sunrise photo over the sea. I sink deeper into the soft cushions on our wraparound couch, crossing my legs beneath me as if in meditation, as if I might close my eyes and begin a chant of OM to seal this moment in my memory forever.

 

I am 36.

 

There’s no birthday confession this year, no fighting against what my life is, or grappling for what it perhaps “should” be. There are no justifications of my choices, or resignations of what I must accept for myself. There is no fretting about the future, or tormenting myself about the past. Not this birthday morning, not right now, not in this moment.

 

There is just stillness.

 

For the next four days I am in Punta Mita, a tiny gated area situated on a bay north of Puerto Vallarta, with several girlfriends, to celebrate the passing of another year in my life. I asked them to join me, without worrying if it was too much to ask six women leave their jobs and their families and their lives to travel to another country with me. They simply asked what time to book their plane tickets and didn’t question it further. When we arrived at the airport in Mexico, we stepped into the arrivals area to find someone holding up a sign in front of her face, meant for me to read:

To Me, You Are Perfect

A tribute to my favorite movie, Love Actually, and to me, actually. One of my friends who had been unable to commit to the trip was suddenly there, surprising me outside of baggage claim in  what could have been a scene from a movie. The movie of my life.

 

It’s the scene in the movie where the soul-searching, fumbling-for-life’s-meaning girl finally feels how much she is loved.

 

And then, (I had almost forgotten it!), there it is! That moment of climax in our peaceful morning. The moment the sun finally emerges fully from behind the mountains. It shines brightly on our faces, heating them, and glistens in its reflection across the water below. The moment that feels like a reckoning, as if all of our sins are forgiven in the face of this beauty, as if we could do no wrong in this day. The moment that reaffirms our goodness, and our place in this world. The moment that reminds us who we truly are. The moment I have been waiting all morning to find.

 

The moment that is everything.

 

Early morning sun, Punta Mita

Early morning sun, Punta Mita

The sun finally emerges, an hour later

The sun emerges, an hour later…most definitely worth the wait

With love, and so, so much gratitude from Mexico,

Katie

My Christmas In Exile

harrodsgreen2

Harrods During Christmas. Photo courtesy of anee.baba via Flickr.

The undoing occurred at the gourmet cheese counter at Harrods.

It was Christmas Eve afternoon, not quite dark enough yet to see the elaborate lights display all around the exterior of the store, though that didn’t stop the throngs of tourists outside from taking picture after picture of the barely visible illuminations. Inside, in the cavernous Food Hall where the sound echoed at a deafening volume, I shuffled through the nearly solid mass of people, past the bakery, the charcuterie, the Middle Eastern prepared foods. I had also come to see the holiday decorations, and was wasting time until sundown, when I came upon the cheese counter.

A piece of Gouda with black truffle caught my eye, and then its scent filled my nose, so I took a number and made my way to the front to order a piece for the next evening’s dinner. Just enough for a single sandwich, I told the girl. “Is this for you, for Christmas?” she asked me.

It’s the simple question that stops you in your tracks, that causes your breath to hitch and your heart to clench. That undoes you.

Because if you have to admit to the British girl working at the cheese counter that this single piece of truffled Gouda is for the grilled cheese sandwich you will eat alone, for Christmas dinner, you have to admit it to yourself.

You completely screwed up.

******

I used to love Christmas.

The rituals, mostly.

Digging into the heap of presents beneath a huge, fragrant tree we had decorated as a family, my mom directing the placement of the lights (only white ones!) and the ornaments, the ones we had made over the years in school, and the glass ones my dad received annually from work. My grandparents, always sipping their coffee, smiling indulgently as I exclaimed, “Just what I always wanted” into the video camera in my dad’s hand. My mom, making waffles from scratch that we could smell from the living room, and heating the plates in the oven so the waffles stayed warm.

Later, in a new house, where I insisted earnestly that New Kids on the Block had the best Christmas album, and our new kitten ran crazily from the dining room to the living room any time the doorbell rang, sliding through the foyer and climbing up the decorated tree. My grandfather there to hear my big solo in O Holy Night in the winter choral concert, and my grandmother closing her eyes when we sang her favorite carol, A Welsh Lullaby. My mother, making the special chocolate Christmas cookies, that I could sometimes convince her to undercook just the way I liked them, and my father trying to put together a Barbie Dream house for my sister.

My family, together. My family, in love.  My family, happy.

Every year I’ve recalled these memories, these ghosts of Christmases past, these portraits of a family that I think once existed. The family in those home videos, forever immortalized on tapes too small for our VCR, that we could play back and watch through the camera’s viewfinder. I could make believe that all of our Christmases were perfect, that our family was perfect, as long as I could call up those images.

Until this year, when I finally couldn’t recognize those people any longer.

The splintering happened gradually, with little pieces of wood breaking off from the whole every year, until what remained was cracked and sharp-edged and just a fraction of what once was. Yelling. Hospitals. Criticism. Age. Dismissal. Death. Divorce. Lies. Addictions. Letdowns. Estrangement. The things that happen to families, I guess, over time. The things that, eventually, break them.

This year, I couldn’t bear it. The going through of motions, the pretending.

So I fled.

To London, and a friend I had met exactly once. To one I hadn’t seen in 20 years. To one I had worked with, sort of, at some point in time. To one I had loved once, who didn’t ask me to come. To one who was friends with my boss, a yoga teacher, who chastised me for “holding back”.

I fled to ones with whom I shared no past: no hurt, no pain, no guilt, no regret.

The trip began encouragingly, with cozy dinners in pubs and happy trips to the theatre. Kindness was the saving grace of those days, and I was met with it everywhere I turned, in everyone who tried to save me from myself. The friend who planned things she knew I would like, who listened and provided thoughtful guidance, and whose daughter climbed in my lap to brush my hair and asked me every morning to play with her. The friend who met me despite my scheduling changes, and the yoga classes that welcomed me into their fold, giving me comfort in something familiar. Even the taxi drivers, with their chirpy commentary and pointing out of sights, tried to keep me smiling.

It wasn’t enough to stave off the loneliness though, which crept in slowly. It tiptoed into the yoga class and rested in child’s pose next to my mat. It sat behind me at the theatre, kicking my seat and begging to be acknowledged. It hopped onto the train at Oxford Circus with me, covering my hand as I held onto a pole, although I lost it when switching to the Northern line at Stockwell. I thought I could outrun it, or outsmart it, or just outmaneuver it.

But it finally found me, forcing its way through the crowd at Harrods to catch me at the cheese counter, and it would not let me go. There was no more running, no more outsmarting, no more outmaneuvering.

It was the loneliest I’ve ever been, it seems. Sitting alone on a couch in my self-imposed exile, with a grilled cheese sandwich for Christmas dinner, 3,500 miles away from my family, the loneliness finally settled upon my shoulders and around my neck, like a cloak that threatened to choke me. So this is what it feels like to break your own heart, I thought. This was my punishment, I assumed, for leaving my family and ruining Christmas. I was meant to accept it gravely and stoically, while telling everyone I was having a jolly old time in England.

Except I found that I couldn’t. This time I couldn’t pretend that things were fine. I couldn’t continue to post pretty Instagram pictures and wrap up this trip with a bow and say, “Just what I always wanted”. I couldn’t act as though I was having the trip of a lifetime. I couldn’t get on yet another flight, to go to yet another city, alone. I couldn’t even leave the flat. I didn’t know how to rescue myself from this situation I had created.

I didn’t know how to undo what I had done.

Kindness, it turns out, saved me again. Kindness from the friends who said it was okay to simply give up on this trip, cut my losses and go home. Kindness from the father who answered his phone at 6am, and picked me up at the airport later that night without question. Kindness from the mother who changed the sheets to the ones I like, and tucked me in to sleep like I hadn’t abandoned her. Kindness from the grandfather who never mentioned my Christmas absence, and just hugged me a little longer instead.

Kindness taught me that you can go home again. Maybe not to that perfect family, or that perfect Christmas, frozen for all time in those old videotapes. But to the family that remains, who loved you through New Kids on the Block albums, and long holiday concerts in an overheated auditorium, and lies, and judgments and all of your other screw-ups. The family who plucks you from your loneliness and reminds you that you are never really alone.

They are your real Christmas.

Angels, Turtles and Magic: A Week in the Galápagos

My roommate sleeps with a smile on her face.

We are here, in the Galápagos Islands, for a weeklong retreat. The word “retreat” has never felt more fitting than it does here, where the main attractions are nature and animals and are so far removed from the constant traffic and smog and noise of Los Angeles. This is no City of Angels, but it seems to hold so many of them in the form of sea lions and blue-footed boobies and massive pre-historic looking turtles called tortugas.

My roommate, too. She is an angel. She sleeps in stillness while smiling, on her side, with her hands pressed together underneath her head as if in a silent prayer. She wakes languidly, smile still on her face, the physical embodiment of the lines from one of my favorite Mary Oliver poems:

“Good morning, good morning, good morning. Watch, now, how I wake in happiness, in kindness.”

I wake with the remnants of own night. Jaw sore from permanent clenching, teeth aching from grinding through a plastic mouth guard, muscles oddly tired from some unknown fight while I slept. I asked the dentist how I could stop grinding my teeth so badly, how I could sleep more peacefully. “Have less stress,” she tells me, as if stress were an object I could collect or discard at will, like souvenir t-shirts or expensive shoes. Just have less of them, and I will sleep better and my teeth won’t bite through plastic and my jaw will no longer lock. What if it were that easy? What if I could smile in my sleep too?

Or what if I was a tortuga?

We went to visit them, where they gather in ponds and roam across open land covered in landscaping scraps that looked like perfect little grass and twig houses. It was a surreal place, like we had stumbled upon the Galápagos-themed section of Epcot rather than real life. An amusement park attraction that couldn’t possibly exist in nature. Except that it somehow does.

I crouched down before one of the turtles who was submerged halfway in the mud, his shell making suction-y noises when he tried to lift himself to a new vantage point, detaching himself from the sludge momentarily before sinking back down again. I stared at him silently for what seemed an eternity, the wariness in his eyes never lessening. He opened his mouth as if to talk to me, but remained mute. Instead he kept his eyes trained on me as he slowly retracted his head back into his shell, connection to me lost for good.

I know this turtle. I am this turtle.

I know how to pull my head back into my shell. I know how to disengage. I know how to retreat.

But this retreat is actually not about retreating. It’s not about escaping at all here. It’s about finding yourself in a place, in nature, in animals.

Besides, as Chris Cleave put it his novel Little Bee, “life is not inclined to let us escape.” There is no retreating from the iguana who crosses my path, causing me to pause and admire his vivid yellow coloring. Or from the sea lion cub who stops to sniff my clothing before he flops down on the sand to dry himself, and to rest from the exertion of climbing up the rocks to dry land. Or yet another enormous tortuga, who walks boldly and deliberately towards me, eyes never leaving mine, an unspoken challenge to let him really see me.

The beauty here is both undeniable and inescapable.

At Semilla Verde, the picturesque retreat center where we are staying, the sunrise shines through the trees at 5am, illuminating them the way the brighten button on my camera means to enhance my pictures, but that I can now see fails miserably. Nothing could re-create this filter, this real light that dances across the treetops and peeks through the green.

The yoga studio, with its perfectly smooth wood floors, and dramatic wall of windows, looks out onto the tortoise pond. One night as we are practicing, in the dusk with just a few candles lit, a tortuga crosses the yard, moving slowly towards the setting sun in the distance. We pause in our practice to admire this completely natural, and completely surreal moment.

At that instant, we all believe in magic.

I am trying, desperately, to remember it all, now that it’s over. I’m writing it down and cataloguing pictures and studying our itinerary, because how tragic would it be to experience magic and not remember it?

I hope I never forget the color of the water here, and the multitude of shades of aqua and cerulean and cobalt that I’ve never before seen together. I hope I never forget the vibrant red grass that covers the desert land during the dry season, or the exact shade of the blue-footed boobies’ startlingly blue feet. I hope I never forget the intensity of the gaze of the tortugas, who seemed to see right into my soul.

I hope I never forget the smell of sea lion poop and iguana poop sealed together in the salty air, a smell so vile and distinct that it seems forever burned in my nostrils. I hope I never forget the smell of burning paper in the huge stone fireplace, where we tossed in pages of our journals, newspapers and candy wrappers; everything we hoped to leave behind in the Galápagos: our fears, our flaws and our trash. I hope I never forget the smell of the afternoon rain that fell on Semilla Verde almost daily—cool and earthy and cleansing.

I hope I never forget the sound of the frigate birds flying overhead during mating season, or the sea lion “bull” calling out from the water to his harem of females. I hope I never forget the sound of a little boy giggling as he ran through the house, or the raspy voice of our tour guide Cheche, as he shared his love of Galápagos with us. I hope I never forget our laughter as we recounted tales to each other with catch phrases like “clamp-down”, “wine-in-a-box” and “chef-on-a-boat”.

I hope I never forget the tartness of tamarind sorbet, or the chalkiness of Ecuadorian dark chocolate. I hope I never forget the amazing combination of rice and cheese and corn, fried together to make the perfect breakfast delicacy.

I hope I never forget the softness of the white sand on the beaches beneath our feet, the fine crystals feeling like something else entirely, almost like liquid even. I hope I never forget the rocky terrain we traversed, and the way it felt solid yet sometimes shifted under our slow steps.

I hope to never forget standing in the rain, barefoot in the wet grass, eyes and hearts lifted to the sky in a circle gratitude, feeling so perfectly in the right place at the right time.

I hope I never forget any of it.

Because if I can allow myself to dream of this beauty, to dream of this magic, I, too, may wake up with my hands pressed together under my head, saying a prayer of gratitude. I, too, may stop retreating into my shell. I, too, may awaken as a smiling angel. I may remember it all.

Gracias por los recuerdos Galápagos. Gracias por todo.

Tortuga

Tortuga

Sea Lion

Sea Lion Baby

Iguana

Iguana

Sea Turtle!

Sea Turtle!

View on South Plazas Island

View on South Plazas Island (sea lion and bird perched high above the water)

Sunset. Yoga. Tortuga. Bliss.

Sunset. Yoga. Tortuga. Bliss.

Katie