Isn't It Pretty To Think So?

Dispatches on life, love and the human condition by a wanderer and hopeful romantic


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In defense of emotional sensitivity and the beautiful lesson of ‘Call Me By Your Name’

callmebyyourname.jpgFor weeks I’ve had this blog post percolating in my mind. I had several false starts trying to find the right words and tone to the post, but I just couldn’t find a way to frame it or articulate.

Now I’ve found a way, and it comes in the form of one of the most beautiful films I’ve seen in a long time.

The film is called “Call Me By My Name,” and it’s about 17-year-old Elio, on the cusp of adulthood and discovering his own sexuality and identity, who falls in love with his father’s graduate student, Oliver, who’s come to spend the summer at his parents’ house in Northern Italy.

Neither of the two men identify as gay, and the story doesn’t even really address it—that’s totally not the point. The story is about two gorgeous young people falling in love so purely and authentically in one of those fated moments that comes along in a lifetime only if the two people are very, very lucky. It’s a moment that is meant to be brief and exist only in a certain time and place, but will have a heartbreaking and permanent effect on those involved.

At the end of the film (*spoiler alert*), Elio’s father delivers this great monologue about love and emotional loss. He’s sitting with an absolutely crushed Elio, who’s just said goodbye to Oliver, knowing he’ll probably never see him again.

While his father tells him that normally in this circumstance as a parent he’d want his son to just get over it, instead he encourages him to take as much time as he needs and just be grateful to have felt something.

“We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30 and have less to offer each time we start with someone new,” he says. “But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything—what a waste!”

Heart over head

I watched this scene–sobbing, of course, not just for the beauty and truth in it but due to something that happened recently in my own life—and realized what an important message it is especially in the time in which we’re living.

There’s a huge movement these days to live in the present and to let go of anything—particularly people and relationships—that cause us stress or pain or aren’t “serving” us right now. (Those “woke” people love to talk about how something isn’t “serving” them. Like life is one big long endless dinner out at a fucking restaurant and they are a VIP customer.)

This movement, in my view, presents life as a series of lessons to be learned and of moments that are meant to be fully enjoyed in the present but then let go of as soon as they are over. This “letting go” includes a rapid release of any feelings you might have had about the person or situation during that time.

These days the common spiritual guidance is that it’s all about the mind controlling the feelings that we have. It’s about having the right “reactions” to the things that happen to us and not getting carried away emotionally by any of it.

I understand how this is actually a really valuable and useful way to look at life, especially if you believe we have only one go-around on this planet and shouldn’t waste time over-analyzing or over-complicating the difficult situations that arise in our lives. And it’s actually super necessary to people who have truly horrible shit occur in their lives if they are ever to move on and continue living at their best potential.

I understand why we have reached this phase of the human condition—I suspect social media may have something to do with it–and while I do recognize some value in it, I also see it as a bit dangerous and sad in terms of human evolution.

I personally am a lover, a feeler, an empath, a “highly sensitive person” and probably, in the eyes of some people (ie, ex-boyfriends and my dear old dad, the latter of whom loves me anyway especially because my mom was similar), a complete emotional basket case.

To say it more politely, I’m not afraid to feel extreme emotions, both happy and sad. I can be the person who laughs the loudest and most authentically at the drop of a hat. On the flip side, I can also turn on the waterworks and cry like (in the words of an ex who witnessed it) “someone’s died” even if a situation in another person’s mind doesn’t warrant such full-blown melodrama.

The plight of the sensitive person

These days, there are a number of opinions about people like me. Some people are becoming more aware of sensitive people and trying to be more understanding of them. Part of this is to understand that sometimes what may come across as a “bad mood” or bitchiness is actually just a reaction to the energy or situation at hand, which can cause unnecessary stress to more sensitive people than it does to people with stronger minds than empathetic tendencies.

Others–and I find this more than case in a lot of the spiritual and psychological guidance out there–are trying to promote the age-old method of “mind over matter.” They encourage people to use their minds to control their emotions so as not to let them get out of control.

It might be an over-exaggeration to say that people in this camp see feelings as something to be squashed or buried, but to sensitive folks like me, this is exactly what it feels like.

So I mulled over for awhile how to write this post, and then I saw “Call Me By Your Name.” And here I am, with my flying my emotional freak flag, to put forth a grand defense of sensitivity.

Actually, I think this film–and the world’s embrace of it–comes as no accidental backlash to these current modes of thinking vs. feeling. That it involves love between two men in a world that also remains widely homophobic is also quite a triumph.

The use of men in the film (and the book from which it was adapted) also is interesting to me, as is the fact that it’s Elio’s father who encourages him to feel and not bury his emotions at the end of the film.

This is because in my experience as a deeply sensitive woman, usually the men I am in relationships with have a hard time understanding the depth to which I can feel. (Opposites attract, of course, and perhaps these relationships are meant to help me learn and grow.) I’m not saying this situation isn’t the opposite as well in many cases–with the man being more sensitive than the woman. I’m just speaking from my own experience.

Relationship and emotional patterns

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me in my relationships that I’m the kind of woman who makes all the mistakes the relationship coaches tell women (and some men) NOT to make–don’t give away too much about how you feel, don’t smother with attention or affection, don’t let your emotions get out of control, don’t show more emotional toward him than he has shown toward you.

I’m guilty of all of these things in my relationships, generally, and, since I also have that wonderful tendency to attract men who aren’t emotionally available or who tend to bury their feelings–which is a fair chunk of men in my age group due to the way people in their 40s were socialized as children, I reckon–I tend to eventually drive anyone who dares to get close to me away.

Here’s my typical pattern: Man is keenly interested because I appear to be a cool, independent woman (which I am, to an extent). Man shows interest and I act coy and “play the game.” Man shows more interest and I begin to get emotionally attached.

We seem to have a healthy and reciprocal level of attachment for awhile. He starts to lose a bit of interest when I return interest at the level he was showing me in the first place, thus losing my mysterious, cool-woman status. I panic, get super-emotional and proceed to act like a fucking barnacle and cling onto man for dear life, even if he starts acting like a shithead.

He begins to pull away more and tells me he “needs space” or wants to leave. I start to beg him not to leave and cry uncontrollably when I should just say, “That’s fine, honey, take all the time you need, I’m fine on my own.” He runs for the hills (in the last case, literally) as fast as he can.

The scenario ends with me left to lick my wounds for as long as it takes, watching films like “Call Me By Your Name,” listening to songs by Lorde (thanks to my friend Helen for this recommendation) and writing blog posts like this one.

Some things must change but some will stay the same

Yes, I know I need to get my shit together a bit in terms of this type of relationship and attachment style, and I’m working on it. (Maybe it will take 46 more years, but what better time than the present to start trying to make improvements to myself?)

Then again, as I look at the mistakes I’ve made in my relationships and own up to them, there is one thing I refuse to beat myself up for. I refuse to apologize for having deep feelings for someone and for being willing to love them fully and express them.

Yes, I do agree that I need to take better care of myself and love myself more so I don’t give all my love away so fully to someone else. I understand that no one is responsible for how I feel but me (even though that’s also no excuse for someone to treat me badly or act like an asshole–that’s on them), and I get how intense feelings can drive some people in my life–both men and women, both lovers and friends–to not want to be around me because of whatever shit is going on for them.

I understand all of this, I really do. At the same time, I don’t think I’m ever going to stop feeling things and stop loving so deeply and authentically. And damn it, I don’t think I should have to.

OK, so I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. I scare people with my intensity and ability to feel and to turn deep emotions on and off like a faucet when some people can’t even begin to process that level of emotion in a lifetime what I can do in an hour.

I also know that this ability to feel deeply also is responsible for a number of my most winning qualities. I’m funny, creative, intelligent, understanding, compassionate, empathetic, generous and willing to listen to or do favors for friends at the drop of a hat when they need me.

And while it always, of course, takes me some time to heal, I’m also someone who knows how to forgive–because no matter how much it seems that someone has “hurt” me, I can always eventually understand my own responsibility for feeling in that particular situation as well as his or her perspective.

I will always welcome someone who can meet me halfway or on the same level back into my life even after what seem to be irreparable blow-ups in our relationship. In fact, some of these reunions have in the past been the most beautiful to me.

Right now I’m going through a personal healing process, and I’m grateful to remarkable pieces of art like “Call Me By Your Name” for showing me that it’s OK for me to be exactly as I am.

And though it’s taking me some time to wrap my head around it in my current emotional state, I’m slowly becoming damn sure of this: There will eventually be someone in an intimate relationship who doesn’t run away from my deep ability to feel. Instead, he will understand it, embrace it, love it as part of the deep, authentic person I am–and maybe even decide to stay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Why It’s So Important to Be Your Own Pizza

pizzaI’ve been away from Portugal for a week now, currently sitting in my 84-year-old father’s new home in suburban Philadelphia after a week of helping move him (no easy task) from the last home he and my mother lived in before she died almost 14 years ago.

Dad’s doing well for his age but it was time to down-size, and my sister—who lives close by with her family of four kids, three of them teenagers—found him a nice, big townhouse in an over-55 housing development to live out the rest of years peacefully. It’s also a lot closer to her house so she can more easily pop by whenever he needs help.

Being with family—especially a dysfunctional one away from whom I had to move as far as I possibly could to be my authentic self—always makes me feel a bit reflective and, to be honest, a strange mixture of both secure and depressed.

I know these are the people who love me and to whom I can return no matter what, even at my worst–and they kind of have to take me back because, well, you know, that’s what family is for.

But in a strange way, these are the people who at once know me the best but also don’t know me at all. They don’t really know what I do day to day or for a living, or know my friends or my daily life. Hell, they have never even visited me where I live in Portugal even though I’ve been there for more than eight years.

They do, however, know the personality I formed when I was young and can relate easily to that person, and we can chat and bicker in a familiar way. Still, it’s a weird existential space to be in, even for a short time–the whole moving-house dynamic and going through old memorabilia of my parents’ life together adding an even more surreal vibe.

When I come to my father’s, I often take yoga classes at a studio in a nearby town—the one in which my mom was born and raised, in fact–to help keep my sanity and keep my yoga practice active.

The other day in the class, the teacher said something about how one of our greatest wishes as human beings is to be “known.”

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially away from the life I’ve built myself in Portugal—what I consider my home now—and immersed in the life that made me who I am today but which resembles very little the person I’ve become.

Who really knows us? How well do we really know ourselves? And really, is it true what they say–that the most important relationship we have is the one we have with ourselves?

The relationship mirror

Before I left Portugal for this two-week trip, I had another shake-up in my relationship–one that affected not only the relationship I have with my boyfriend, but also the one I have with myself.

During a frank, honest discussion we were having about the relationship and the state of things between us, my boyfriend said this to me: “You’re not happy. You’re one of those people who is looking for someone else, for a relationship, to make you happy.”

Of course I immediately and vehemently defended myself and told him I had been happily single for many years before he came along. But later, privately (and not-so privately), I had a bit of an existential breakdown that led to some intense crying and releasing a lot of apparently pent-up emotions for about a week.

I had to take a hard look at myself in that total mind-fuck of a mirror that an intimate relationship can be and realize, damn it, he was kind of right.

In the week that I turned this over and dealt with my own codependency and tendency to be more happy only when validated by a significant other, I also pondered whether this relationship and all the work that’s gone along with it was worth it.

A friend tried to make an analogy to food–something I can always understand–to help me decide, asking me what my favorite food was. Without hesitation, I said, “Pizza.” (Isn’t that everyone’s??)

So she asked me if I thought whether my boyfriend was a pizza or maybe just a really good sandwich. The idea here is that even if he was a really good sandwich—the best ever—it still wouldn’t make him a pizza, which is what I am really seeking in a long-term partner.

What this discussion led to and made me ultimately realize is this: no matter if you’re single, married or in a relationship, no matter if you’re with the right person or the wrong person, no matter who you are or what your relationship status is—ultimately, you have to be your own pizza.

In other words, you have to be the best version of yourself you can be–the ideal person with whom you yourself would actually like to be in a relationship. And that, I think, is what is going to make any and all relationships that you have in your life all the more satisfying.

Codependent no more?

My boyfriend—whether he’s my pizza or not—isn’t relevant to this particular discussion. But what my conversation about the state of our relationship did make me realize is that my whole life I’ve been one of those people thinking I was just going to find someone to be in a relationship with and then suddenly I wouldn’t be lonely anymore.

Suddenly I wouldn’t feel insecure or anxious or uncomfortable in my own skin anymore. Suddenly I would just be feel complete validation and confidence in the person I am and not have a worry in the world anymore.

Well, that’s complete bullshit. And it’s this erroneous belief that’s probably been sinking every intimate relationship I’ve had for the past 30 years or so.

But in relationship after relationship, I bought into this idea. I thought the other person and their love would make me happy.

You can guess what happened. After that first glow and rush and new relationship wore off, I started to get resentful when my anxiety and insecurity returned. Nothing they could say or do would ever convince me they loved me enough.

I started to blame them for not making me happy anymore and started to criticize them for the things I found annoying (like, everything) or that I felt they lacked instead of appreciating the lovely things they did for me or brought to the table in the relationship.

Of course none of these relationships worked out—who wants to be made to feel like nothing they do will ever satisfy the woman they are in a relationship with? I don’t blame any of those guys for no longer being in my life.

I see now that what my current boyfriend was reacting to in our conversation is that I’m starting to fall into this pattern again, constantly being unhappy and asking for more from him instead of just appreciating what he has to give.

To be fair, it does take two people in a relationship, and I know I have good reasons to want more from him sometimes. But the fact remains that there is a very definite pattern to my relationships and, whether I decide to stay with him or not, changing that to make all of my relationships more positive is on me.

The thing is, although I realized it in an intellectual way, I never really integrated it into my personality that a relationship is only a distraction from my own stuff for a little while. And then it brings all that stuff raging to the forefront again in a way that screams for it to be dealt with like only an inner child can throw a tantrum.

So what I’ve been working on and thinking about a lot on this trip is how to be my own pizza. How not to let whatever happens with my family or in my relationship—or whether or not I have one at all–affect my own sense of self-worth, peace of mind and happiness.

And this stuff is not easy. Not easy at all.

Human beings are wired for distraction—anyone with even a lazy eye for observation of the human condition can see that. It’s hard to focus on yourself and your stuff and not want to be diverted away from it by an activity, person, place, thing or alternative feeling.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

I don’t expect I’m going to learn this lesson in the two weeks I’m away from Portugal and in the middle of my usual black-sheep family dynamic. To be honest, I’ve struggled with anxiety, worry and a general sense of unease since I’ve been in Pennsylvania. These feelings always revisit me when I spend any amount of time around my family, even as it somehow also is really nice to be with them.

But instead of trying to distract myself from this feeling, I’ve been kind of embracing it. Instead of taking it out on my boyfriend for not writing me messages enough or being there every time I need to vent to him, I’ve been going for runs, or doing yoga, or accepting the feeling and continuing with routine activities until it passes.

I’ve also been trying to be more present and less distracted when I am with my family and engaging in the usual activities it takes to move a rather large house. I’m trying to focus on how I can be of service to my family, and to the positive aspects of having my father still alive and in good health. I’m also marveling at the wonderful people that my nephews and niece have become as they’re growing into teenagers and young adults.

What I’ve learned so far from this practice is this: the best thing about being your own pizza–no matter if you’re in a relationship or not–is that you are in control of your own destiny.

If you aren’t worrying about whether your current partner is a pizza or desperately trying to find a prospective new one, you aren’t dependent on anyone else for your own happiness. And if pizza you have in front of you doesn’t have all the toppings you usually like, you can just put those toppings on your own pizza and make it all the more tasty.

Even better, being your own pizza is the only way you can actually evaluate in any discerning way if the pizza in front of you is the right pizza, or if you should just go back to eating and enjoying your own for awhile before trying to find a new one to spend time with.

OK, maybe I’ve gone too far with the pizza analogy, but you get the idea. Being your own pizza—or essentially your own best friend—before investing too heavily in another person is probably the ideal situation for having healthy relationships in all areas of your life.

Unfortunately for me, it’s kind of too late for that, and I find myself navigating an intimate relationship as I’m also wrangling with long-time codependency and immersed in the family dynamic that created that codependency in the first place.

Still, it’s never too late to start loving yourself more and practicing self-care, and I’m hoping that this practice will be the key to solving any future relationship problems—or deciding with more clarity which type of relationship is the best one for me.


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What 2017 Taught Me About Surfing, Love and Life

happynewyear

We’re nearing the end of 2017, which naturally means it’s time for those obligatory “end of the year” posts looking back on the highlights and low-lights of another revolution around the sun.

My year wasn’t the best I ever had, nor was it the worst. There were challenges, to be sure, but I think I can honestly say that overall I spent the year happier than not, which is definitely something as you start to darken the corners of middle age.

It was definitely a year of much learning, about myself and others, as well as one in which I finally learned to trust in the process and the universe and realized that instead of worrying all the time about outcomes, maybe everything really will be alright even if I do absolutely nothing.

In fact, without any significant life event in particular teaching me this, I daresay that 2017 was the year that I learned, really, that we aren’t in control of anything.

It’s truly those moments of the most stress and confusion in life when it’s most important to stop thinking, stop talking, stop doing anything at all and just breathe through it. Usually, whatever is meant to be is going to happen anyway, so accepting it is the first step toward being happy about it.

Lots of stuff happened this year, and lots of stuff didn’t happen, but I’m still alive and kicking, as you are, too, if you’re reading this. So not to be outdone by end-of-year bloggers before me, I’d like to share with you a few of the most significant things I learned this year:

No 1: Surfing isn’t everything.

I gave up my entire life in New York and moved to Portugal in 2010 because I discovered surfing and wanted to live somewhere quiet, beautiful and close to the beach where I could do it almost every day. January 26, 2018, will be eight years to the day that I arrived here to stay and I can honestly say I’ve accomplished my goal and become a confident longboarder who still enjoys surfing more than any other sport.

However, as I also turned 46 this year, I realize that surfing—as a sport, daily practice or lifestyle—isn’t everything. Used to be I had to surf every day, or just about, to think I was getting a decent workout—for my head and my body. However, as they both slow down, so does my surf obsession.

Don’t get me wrong–I still go as often as I can, but I don’t religiously check the surf forecast before making any plans. I don’t go out when it’s complete shit just to get in the water—instead I wait more for days when I know it’s pretty decent and I have the best chance of enjoying my session.

Sure, there are still days when I just get in the water for fitness or because I need it to clear my head, but those days aren’t in expense of other meaningful things I can be doing, as they once were.

No. 2: Some people in your family will never understand or know you, nor will they want to. Others may surprise you with their depth of insight.

I had a situation with my sister this year in which we had a chance to repair our long-damaged relationship. I asked her to sit down with me and talk candidly about our polar-opposite views on the situation and she flat-out rejected the idea.

At the time it really stung (and it still does, as I fear that when my 84-year-old father passes away, things might get ugly), but I’ve since made peace with the situation in my own mind at least, and I continue to try to do the best by her and send her love because I know she has her own struggles.

That situation involved a blow-up that occurred in front of some family members, one of whom stepped up and showed me remarkable insight into a long-time family dynamic and revealed to me the challenges he’s faced over the years to try to deal with it. Another listened to me sympathetically and bore witness to my side of the story, as well as told me of a similar relationship and problem she had with her own sister.

It’s true that you don’t choose your family, and if you’re lucky enough to have great relationships with everyone, then I’m happy for you. I’m not one of the lucky ones, being as different from most of the people in my family as anyone can be.

This year I finally made peace with that fact and stopped trying to please everyone. Instead, I learned how to make myself happy.

No. 3: Your partner may not be exactly what you thought he/she would be like, but if you drop all expectations, your relationship can amaze and fulfill you in ways you might never have imagined.

I spent this entire year in a significant-other relationship—the first time in many, many years I can say that.

And it wasn’t always easy. Fuck, sometimes it was difficult and painful as hell, and I wanted to give up because I thought there was something better out there for me.

But mostly, it was great–as far as over-40 relationships between people who didn’t know each other before they embarked on one go–and we survived. And I learned a hell of a lot about myself, what it means to make a commitment to a relationship, and how to be a partner to someone.

The thing is, there can always be something “better” out there. It just depends on what you’re looking for. I realized this year that most of the flaws I’ve found in other men I’ve been with over the years (and the reasons I’ve made some really bad choices) are because I didn’t heal my own wounds. And that the reason I was single more or less for almost 10 years was that it took that long for me not only to realize this, but also to heal myself. (It’s a lifelong process and believe me, I’m still working on it.)

Our partners are our mirrors. If you don’t like what you see in the mirror, you’re going to struggle a lot with the person with whom you are in a relationship. I think this is pretty common knowledge, but you’d be surprised how difficult it is to learn this when you’re actually in something meaningful that brings out your shadow side and forces you to grow as a person.

My boyfriend is far from perfect, and he is far from the person I imagined myself with—in some ways. In others, he is a perfect match–funny, steady, kind, handsome, strong, practical and with integrity I admire more and more as our time together goes on.

But we haven’t had the type of romance you see in films, though we have done a lot of cool and super-fun things together. He hasn’t swept me off my feet with fancy, surprise presents or grand romantic gestures; instead he fixes my broken things, gives me freedom to be who I am and do what I choose, and gives me fruit from his garden.

Much of our time together is spent doing every-day things, like food shopping, hiking with his dogs, cooking dinner. We don’t have everything in common and we don’t spend hours contemplating the fate of the universe. We do, however, have meaningful conversations when we need to, and spend a fair amount of time cuddling and engaging in long hugs that make me feel safe and protected just when I need to.

What I’ve learned from this type of relationship: Not everyone gets the fairy-tale romance, and that’s OK. Not everyone is meant to. Sometimes you just get someone who supports you and the work you’ve done for yourself to make yourself happy, who complements you in ways that you need, and who is just an all-around decent human with integrity who makes you laugh more than he makes you cry.

If you learn to accept someone exactly as they are and love them for that, you give them the freedom and acceptance to grow from there. It’s a better kind of love than any romantic comedy will reveal to you.

No. 4 Loving yourself is really the most important act we can perform in this life. And it’s harder than it sounds.

More than anything else this year, I’ve learned that if I don’t love and accept myself exactly as I am, the rest of my life will pretty much be shit. Think about it: most of the time if you’re pissed off or annoyed or generally feeling dissatisfied with the world, it’s related to something you’re not happy with about yourself.

It’s so easy. It really is. Yet we all fuck it up over and over again and are generally harder on ourselves than we are on other people. And because we hold ourselves to such high standards sometimes, we’re not satisfied with what or who we get in this life.

So really, stop it. Stop hating yourself or blaming yourself or not loving yourself enough. Because I swear to you, every good, kind, generous, successful, sincere or genuinely positive thing you do in this life comes from self-love first. Once you’ve nailed that, the rest really is easy.

I wish everyone a happy and healthy transition into a new year and an amazing 2018. It’s time to smash the old to pieces and make something beautiful with the new. Peace to everyone and happy new year!


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Why Holidays Bring Out the Worst in Me–and Lots of Other People, Too

thanksgivingnothanksThursday is the annual Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. By now, any thinking person knows it’s a totally bullshit festivity based on a made-up story of how the white European interlopers who settled the Americas–and thereafter nearly completely annihilated the native people living on the land they wanted for themselves–initially fooled those native people into thinking they were mates and shared in a bountiful harvest.

Yet still, people of all sexes, races, sexual preferences and creeds across the United States on Thursday will celebrate Thanksgiving, which really just gives them an excuse to have a long weekend off from their day jobs and practice totally acceptable gluttony.

Though I don’t buy ideologically into the holidays I celebrated growing up as an American-Italian Catholic girl growing up in U.S. suburbia anymore, I’m steeped in a long tradition of family Thanksgivings with turkey and stuffing (on the table and of our faces), relatives and tryptophan comas, and pumpkin pie and good ol’ American football. As a result, I usually feel predictably sad and dislocated on the approach to Thanksgiving since I’ve been an expat living in southwest Portugal.

This year I’m feeling especially nervous about the upcoming holiday, although generally I’m feeling better about my life than I have in years. I have a beautiful house, great group of friends, mostly lovely boyfriend and live a peaceful life in which I don’t have to work too hard in one of the most beautiful places on earth.

I don’t know why, but lately these days I feel so fucking old. I’m only just-turned 46, and I feel ancient, like all my best years are behind me and nothing exciting or particularly interesting is going to happen anytime soon.

Some days in the morning before getting out of bed when I know I’m supposed to be chanting a mantra about what a great day I’m going to have, instead I lie there and think, “When did I get this old? How did I get this old? How did any of this happen that I’m middle-aged and living in a foreign country far away from my family? And why don’t I have kids and a family of my own?”

I thought I had my mid-life crisis eight years ago when I moved here, but now I’m thinking maybe this is it. Maybe this is exactly what people have been talking about all these years, minus the bitchin’ Camaro and the much-younger lover.

Or maybe I should go easy on myself and realize the fact that I’m spending another Thanksgiving away from the United States and my family may have something to do with why I’m starting to feel like a big heaping pile of emotional doo doo.

Let’s face it, everyone knows that no matter what you logically think in your head about holidays (ie, “holidays are for suckers,” “no one celebrates that trite crap,” “I’m an anti-establishment moron” etc.), it’s inevitable that they are usually pretty fucking emotional for anyone with a pulse and a sensitive heart. I daresay that few of us are at our best around holiday season, least of all me.

When I was young I noticed a pattern in my highly sensitive mother, who suffered from what I recognize now as severe and undiagnosed anxiety and depression. Whenever there was a holiday–family or otherwise–she would get extremely stressed and upset and somehow start a fight with the entire family over nothing. She would get angry and refuse to talk to each of us–my sister, father and I–in turn, and end up eventually reconciling with my sister and I but not speaking to my father for some time.

Holidays of course were stressful for all of us due to this, and now that I’m older and find that I generally end up crying on my birthday and other significant holidays, my mother’s volatility is probably at the root of my own holiday angst.

But I–and I’m sure many others–probably totally get why my mother became so upset and agitated around holidays. It is a hell of a lot of pressure for anyone, let alone the matriarch of the house expected to prepare the meals, get the kids dressed and ready, buy all the gifts and pack all the stuff–or whatever a specific holiday required.

Pair that with the general expectation most people have that holidays are supposed to be SO MUCH FUCKING FUN and if you’re not happy during holiday season, then there must be something seriously wrong with you–it seems fairly normal to want to crawl under a rock and hiss at anyone who comes near you come Christmas time.

So I’m going to be kind to myself this year. My boyfriend decided to pick this week to go to Lisbon to help his mom with some stuff (I opted not to go, not that I was really invited, but mostly because he has some commitments to her and it didn’t sound like a lot of fun), so I don’t need to factor him into any plans I have for sulking and emotionally blackmailing those close to me into feeling as shitty as I do.

This, I realize, is a very good thing. It means I can be as miserable as I want to be without worrying about how it affects anyone else, and, if I get my head out of my ass long enough, I can get some good self-care time and try to sort out why I’ve been so tired and anxious and worried about everything lately and, better yet, what I can do about it.

I also already have some tentative dinner plans on Thanksgiving itself (that involve pumpkin pie, natch!), so I count myself as winning the annual holiday battle already. Bring on the blues! I’m armed with enough downloads and distractions to smash the shit out of them and survive the first holiday emotional hurdle of the year.

 


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“You can judge the whole world for the sparkle that you think it lacks…”

IMG_9408I have to admit, boys and girls, that I’ve been struggling lately. The clocks have changed, and while the sun is still shining brightly here in southwest Portugal, it’s colder and the long, dark nights are setting in.

I’m less busy than I was during the summer months and have more time to spend with my boyfriend, which–after our brief estrangement–has been great. On the flip side, I also have more time to spend with my own thoughts, insecurities and anxieties, which, to be honest, hasn’t so been so awesome.

After spending a week nearly constantly with my boyfriend–distracted by fun things like kayaking, dinners out, hiking, surfing, sex, cuddling, watching films etc.–I had a few days on my own.

And during those days my brain became crammed full of more racing thoughts than passengers in a Moroccan taxi, stuffed to capacity with 46 years of doubts and fears and “I’m not good enough” and “what should I do with my life” and “is he the right guy for me” and “how can I make more money” and “where should I go travel to next”…you get the idea.

It was all too much and put me in that kind of paralytic state that comes when you know you have to change *something* in your life but you have no fucking clue exactly what.

In the past, whenever I’ve had the good fortune to find a guy who will put up with my schizo bullshit long enough to actually call it a relationship, I usually try to blame him whenever I’m feeling shitty about my life or generally depressed or unhappy.

I’m trying very hard in my current relationship not to do this, because–though we’ve certainly had our ups and downs and there are times when he could have reacted in a more mature way to situations–things are actually really good between us at the moment.

More importantly, I’m finally learning that no one makes you happy or unhappy–unless, of course, he or she is extremely abusive, which my boyfriend is not–some who know me and my mercurial ways might think he’s actually a fucking saint.

No, happiness–or at least a general feeling of contentment and acceptance of our lives, relationships and general existential situations–is that elusive thing we must find within ourselves. And that’s what I have really been struggling with lately when I spend more than five minutes on my own.

I’ve been thinking too long and too hard about why I feel this general unease, and I am pretty sure it has to do with my “job,” or lack thereof. OK, to be fair, I do have a job (in addition to managing a small guest apartment in the summer months), if not a full-time one–I write on a monthly basis (which means nearly daily) for an online website called Design News.

My area of coverage for my articles is cutting-edge technology that’s coming out of academic labs and think tanks, tackling stuff like alternative energies, 3D printing and materials science. While I find the topics I write about interesting, lately I’ve been feeling a distinct sense of ennui about the work, and am not feeling very fulfilled or satisfied by it.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been a writer, making up stories in notebooks about how I wanted my life to be when I was 6 and just learned how to write in complete sentences. When I was 11, my teacher would make me read the stories I submitted for my sixth-grade creative-writing exercises aloud to the class, much to my chagrin. Later in high school (and again to my chagrin), a teacher read a poem I wrote and praised my talents in front of my peers at the height of my adolescent awkward phase.

I survived–and one BA degree in English/communications and an MFA degree in creative writing later, it seems natural that I would become some type of writer as a professional career. But still the kind of work I do isn’t what I’ve imagined for myself.

I think it’s because not only am I so much as a writer as a communicator, not just on the written page (or computer screen, as the case may be now). I’ve also done stand-up comedy, performed in bands as a musician, worked with kids and young adults as a therapeutic writing facilitator, and given talks about various topics at conferences throughout my career.

But aside from professional and entertainment purposes, one of the reasons I’ve found myself communicating so much and so well is because of the human condition and existential situations that I and my friends find ourselves in. This is become I’m often the one friends come to when they want to know the straight-up, from-the-heart truth or to sort out a tricky personal situation in which they’ve become involved.

I’m also the one people tend to pour their souls out to not just in conversations, but sometimes also in writing some years after traumatic situation has happened. I’ve had this happen on more than one occasion in the form of e-mails from old friends who for some reason wanted to write me a long missive about their divorce, or the death of a loved one, or something to that effect–only to not respond to my return email of sympathy or advice. It’s almost as if they just wanted to tell *someone*–and that someone happened to be me.

I’m not sure why this happens, but if I had to venture to guess I would say I have this vibe about me that people feel like they can trust me enough to tell me things that they find difficult to talk about–and they value my opinion and ability to articulate it enough to confide in me and hear what I have to say about it.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how I can use these skills in a more meaningful way to earn a living beyond being a freelance writer. I’ve had several false starts in my attempts to branch out and use these skills before–studying and volunteering as a therapeutic writing therapist in both New York and San Francisco, and achieving my second-level Reiki training and giving some free treatments here in Portugal.

So far, however, I have never managed to translate these and other interpersonal communication, counseling and–for lack of a better term–life-coaching skills into a paying profession.

So I guess all of my recent internal struggle ties into the idea of doing some kind of *meaningful* work for me. I don’t find writing about science meaningful, even if people enjoy my work and it somehow affects them.

What I do find meaningful is realizing that I have actually made a difference in someone’s life by sharing my knowledge or talent with them, or giving them a piece of advice that actually changes how they view a difficult situation in their life or provides them with a way to change it for the better.

For example, one of the coolest things I feel like I’ve done in my life is when I spent two weeks on San Cristobal in the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador volunteering with school-aged children, helping to teach music and do other creative projects. It felt so good to see the immediate effect working with these kids had on them, and it felt satisfying to give them an experience that was different from those to which they’re generally exposed in their every-day lives.

Of course, I do also wonder sometimes how much of this need to have meaningful work (and get paid for it) is tied up in my ego–do I want to affect people because it’s good for them, or because it somehow validates in me that I’m a special and worthwhile person?

If I was really so pure of heart, would I need to be recognized for the gifts I have to offer to the world, or is it enough to just live a good, honest life, give good advice to my friends and loved ones, and never be praised or financially rewarded?

The other day all of this was ricocheting around my head and a friend suggested I stop thinking so much and take a walk (very good advice, that was). So I did–a long one–and on that walk I listened to a random Spotify playlist which includes a song by a band called Dawes entitled, “When My Time Comes.” In that song is a line that really stood out for me–“You can judge the whole world by the sparkle that you think it lacks.”

In that moment, that line was for me so reflective of the way I’ve been feeling–flat and listless and bored with my awesome life, like I have nothing to offer to the world and the world has nothing to offer me. I felt like everything had lost its sparkle, and I was looking at life through a dimmer and frantically trying to find someone or something to blame for why everything was going dark.

The truth is, I can’t blame my boyfriend or my friends or even my lack of meaningful work for this feeling–this is on me. Yes, it would be a good idea to have more money and to make that money from doing something that uses what I (and others) perceive as my communication skills and other genuine talents.

But what my walk helped me figure out by clearing my mind and shifting the energy in my body was this: That if I’m ever going to do anything of that nature, the first thing I have to do is accept that what I am now and the work I’m doing, and the money I’m making, and the girlfriend and friend and daughter and sister I’m being, and the person I’m showing to myself and the world every day of my awesome life are *enough.* Right now. As they are. As I am.

It sounds like the biggest cliche in the world, but the older I get, the more I find this to be true. I’ll put it another way: Nothing in my life nor I needs to be anything more than what we are right now in this moment.

And until I am comfortable with that idea–and stop blaming my boyfriend or my work or my laziness or my constant need to sleep since the fucking clocks were turned back one hour–for my sense of unease, and start realizing that everything is exactly as it should be and someone or something out there is looking after me, even winning a goddamned Nobel Peace Prize wouldn’t be enough for me to feel the kind of meaning I am seeking in my life.

So I’m just gonna sit back and sleep if I want to sleep. And cry if I want to cry. And walk until my legs ache and my head stops spinning. And spend lazy nights watching YouTube videos if I want to do that instead of crawl the Internet for jobs or blow out my brain trying to rethink how to brand myself as something different so I can create a new career for myself.

Because the world is fucking sparkling like crazy already. All I have to do is keep my eyes and my heart open to see the shine on everything.

 


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My Love-Hate Relationship with Surfing as a Wildly Popular Commercial Entity

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Gabriel Medina, preparing to do battle with the gnarly Supertubos Portuguese beach break at the Meo Rip Curl Pro 2017 in Peniche

People who know me know that I am a huge fan of competitive surfing, also known as the World Surf League Championship Tour. I guess that’s a bit strange for a cruise-y, middle-aged longboarder who didn’t start surfing until she was 38, since competitive surfing is full of young, hot-shit short-boarders who are generally are considered the old guard of the sport by the time they’re 35.

However, I’m not ashamed of the near-obsessiveness with which I watch the WSL webcasts of every event on the tour, which travels the globe to the most exotic locations to put the surfers in the best discovered waves on the planet. I’m sure there are plenty of non-surfers who are also WSL-viewing addicts like me.

I learn a lot from the competitions as well. Even though I ride a longboard–a completely different practice than shortboarding–it still takes place in the ocean, on waves and in consistently changing conditions. I glean much about how to read waves and where to place turns on them by watching the unbelievably limber and fearless young guns on the tour go crazy.

Last year on a whim, I drove up on my own in my VW van to the WSL surf contest that’s held in Peniche, Portugal–about four hours north of where I live–for the first time. My friend Sally–an Aussie-Dutch dual citizen with a well-stamped passport–already was there, and though I didn’t really have a plan other than to watch some surfing live and see what the weekend might hold.

It turned out to be one of the most fortuitous decisions of my life not just for me, but for my friend as well. She met her current boyfriend, Chris–with whom she has been traveling the world in a long-distance relationship as he works at the contest sites (he is on the WSL video production crew)–and I got to see some of the best waves I’ve ever seen in Portugal as well as witness backstage and from mere meters away my favorite surfer, John Florence, clinch his first and much-deserved world title.

Fast forward one year and I’m back in Peniche, watching the action from behind the scenes and hanging out with Sally and Chris and the WSL crew, occasionally taking advantage of the free dinners and drinks that are on offer when the WSL is picking up the tab.

I feel super-grateful and lucky, as a surfer and a surf fan, that I have such a great opportunity to not only live in such a beautiful place where I can engage in my favorite activity nearly every day, but also to come to another equally beautiful place in my adopted country and see the pros do it from such an up-close-and-personal perspective.

Being behind the scenes also affords a glimpse at how hard these people work–and I’m not just talking about the athletes.

Yes, the pros certainly train hard and eat well so they can withstand beatings like the one pounded on them by the quadruple-overhead conditions on Saturday’s first day of this year’s contest. And they have to make their sponsors happy and show up for the interviews and press conferences and schmooze events so someone will pay the astronomical price of sending them around the world and back every year with shit tons of surfboard luggage.

But the real heroes of those WSL pro-tour contest webcasts that are presented free online are the behind-the-scenes crew, who work tirelessly on the days of the contest from dawn until dusk (and sometimes before and after) to make sure the athletes show up on time, the cameras are ready for the shot, the commentators have their microphones on, the video is rolling, and that generally the show goes on smoothly so viewers at home (or on the go, as the WSL has a mobile app) miss not a single second of the action.

There is one aspect to the whole pro (and otherwise) surfing scene, however, that I find slightly less savory; that is, how fashionable it’s become. From California to Portugal to Indonesia you will find hordes of surfers with shiny new surfboards and GoPros but very little ocean knowledge or experience trying to catch waves in ever-more crowded and dangerous line-ups.

Of course the ocean is everyone’s to use and enjoy, and I came to surfing late in life myself so I can relate to finding my passion for it through its increased popularity.

However, the boom and through-the-roof interest in just the last several years in both surf as a practice and surf culture itself has made it a hell of a lot less fun for those of us who still see it not so much as a sport to be mastered, but a spiritual practice and lifestyle to be treasured and taken as seriously as some people take religion.

I’ve been surfing for about nine years now (which isn’t very long), but when I first discovered it in Portugal, the line-ups were far less crowded than they are today, and most of the people in them (including me) had either made big sacrifices to live their lives on the coast and make surfing a part of their every-day life, or had grown up doing it and with the sea in their blood.

Now with surf schools so prevalent and surf gear so accessible, even people who live nowhere near the coast nor plan to make it an every-day thing can go on holidays and learn how to “surf,” which is really just how to stand up on a foam board in the shore break. This is particularly true in Portugal, where surf entrepreneurship takes over the beaches in the holiday high season, making it almost impossible for anyone else to catch a decent wave.

This has resulted in so many more people who don’t have (nor have the desire for) the kind of time and ocean knowledge it takes to really have the proper respect, affinity and skill for the art of surfing to jam line-ups across the globe.

While it’s true people in poorer countries with good waves now have a business opportunity to earn money they never imagined possible through surfing–bolstering local economies and supporting families–it also has an uglier, dangerous side: more petty crime, more accidents in the water, and more pollution and litter, to name a few.

Of course, it also means people who have been referred to as “soul surfers”–people who do it not because it’s the latest cool thing to do, but because it heals their body and mind in a deep, profound way that no other activity has managed to achieve–also find it more difficult to find the peace and solace they are seeking in the water because of the chaos that line-ups have become.

I am not going to be so bold as to say I deserve to surf any more than the next person, but I do know in my heart I am doing it for the right reasons. When I first started surfing, I liked the sheer physical activity because it helped me–a chronic insomniac–sleep better.

I also loved the ocean–the smell, the break of the water over my head; the raw power and energy on a sizeable-swell day; the inconsistency and constant change in conditions; water texture, sound and light. Even before I discovered surfing, I loved ocean swimming, was a certified PADI diver, and took any opportunity I could to go on a boat just to be close to the sea.

I do believe–as many soul surfers do–that I am a better person coming out of the water than I was going in; in fact, I have a rule that if I go in the water in a bad mood, I can’t return to land until I feel better.

In fact, it’s on land that I feel I have the most problems (not that I have many, luckily enough); in the ocean they all seem to dissolve and instinct and a feeling of calm takes over, so long as I can enjoy my session in relative peace. Even that big set (for me that means overhead waves–I’m a middle-aged longboarder, remember!) on the head is less problematic than exhilarating. I’m sure any surfer-for-life will tell you something similar.

But when I am surrounded by a lot of other people–especially those who don’t know much about ocean behavior nor how to actually use their equipment–I can get grumpy fast. I don’t mind a busy line-up if everyone knows what they’re doing, but one in which there are a lot of newbies (the unfriendly word is “kooks”) who think they can surf just because they had a week of lessons on an expensive trip to Bali once is the quickest way for me to see red.

This is when accidents happen, when other people collide with you and your equipment, causing a dangerous situation not just for the parties involved, but for others around them in the line-up.

And yes, we’ve all been there. I joke that the only way to learn to surf–unless you are gifted with godly natural talent–is to look like an asshole for at least a year. (In my case, it was like three, maybe four!) God knows I was at one time the dangerous one in any given line-up, and certainly people told me so–I’ve left the water ashamed and in tears on more than one occasion, much angrier with myself for not obeying the rules than at the surfer who told me off in the water.

I still also slip up and drop in on people and unwittingly create dangerous situations in the water; I’m not proud of it nor happy about it, but it’s getting harder not to do this sometimes especially in shifty and crowded line-ups where everyone is fighting for waves.

So I’m conflicted. I’m happy for the pro surfers and the WSL and the surf companies that surfing has really taken off and gotten the recognition on a worldwide scale that it deserves. I’m happy that the athletes and the people who work so hard behind the scenes are living such rich and interesting lives traveling the world and enjoying the spoils of success.

I am genuinely so grateful I get to also bask in a little piece of this action when I come to Peniche to watch the pros do battle, and can live such an amazing life by the coast where I can surf nearly every day if I want to.

But I also detest the trendy, fashionable machine that surfing and surf culture has become, because I think as soon as something becomes too popular, people lose sight of the essence of what it’s about.

What can I say? I’m punk rock at heart. I want to enjoy the things I enjoy intensely, but get pissed off when everyone else starts to enjoy them, too, especially when there is so much ego involved.

And this, for me, is the problem with surfing having become so popular. Yes, on one hand it has led so many people to discover it who truly do it for sincere reasons and might have never had that experience if not for the popularity. (I count myself as one of those people.)

But there are still so many more who just jump on the bandwagon out of pure ego because they think it’s the cool thing to do and they want to be a part of the latest wave of fashion. That is what I truly despise about the popularity of surfing.

No matter what I think (and really, who cares about that?), the secret of surfing is out, WAY out–for better or worse. I’m happy that the circumstances in my life were such that I easily could make fundamental changes to live by a stunning coastline with consistent swell so I can surf nearly every day of my life if I want to.

I’m also grateful to the country of Portugal for letting me live here and my local community for embracing me–a foreigner who is one of the many that have crowded their pristine coastline merely for the sake of waves in the last 10-15 years–and making me feel at home. (Learning to speak passing Portuguese and now having a Portuguese boyfriend has also probably helped assimilate me.)

And even if it means more crowded line-ups and less waves for me, I wish the same joy in life for those who discover surfing and really feel like they need to integrate it into the fabric of their lives, not only because it’s necessary to become the people they truly are, but also because it makes them even better for themselves, for their community and for the greater world around them.

 

 


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Another Birthday–No Fanfare, No Regret

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Mom and Dad on their wedding day, June 24, 1967

Tomorrow is my birthday. It’s 9:40 pm and I’m sitting alone in my house, my favorite Philadelphia radio station streaming in the background, a citronella candle burning nearby to stave off the omnipresent mosquitoes, quietly and peacefully writing a blog post.

Did I mention that tomorrow is my birthday?

Now saying that may not seem like a big deal, but it kind of is for me. You see, birthdays in most of my adult life (ie, since I was old enough to legally drink) have been greeted with much anticipation and fanfare, with me not-so-subtly reminding my friends in the weeks before to save the date while also pretending that I couldn’t care less about doing anything on the day of.

In reality, what would actually happen is that I’d usually have weekend or week-long festivities with different friend groups–dinner with some, drinks with others, still Sunday brunch with another group. There also would usually be much ado about having some kind of celebration or at least an adult beverage with friends the midnight I turn whatever the next year of my life it happened to be. One ex-boyfriend and I passed two of my birthdays traveling in exotic locations–one in Italy, one in Hawaii. It was kind of a big deal.

So it’s pretty significant that I’m spending the night before this one alone. (Especially since I’m back with my recently estranged boyfriend, who you may remember from a previous post.)

But tonight although I don’t have to be, I am choosing to pass the evening in my own company. I mean, let’s be honest–birthdays in your 40s aren’t what they used to be, and it seems a bit uncouth to be celebrating bang on at midnight a birthday in which I will become closer to 50 than I am to 40. (You do the math.) I have some modest plans tomorrow for a mellow dinner out with friends after a day of going about my normal business (dance class, possibly a surf, a bit of work), and another year of life on earth will be done and dusted.

Birthdays also took on slightly less (or more, depending on how you look at it) significance 13 years ago today, the day on which my mother passed away at the age of 71 after a two-month battle with esophageal cancer.

I missed saying goodbye to my mother in person because I was celebrating my birthday at a karaoke bar in San Francisco while she lay dying in a hospital bed in Pennsylvania. There, I said it. I’m still ashamed of myself that this was the case, and over the years I tried not to blame myself for any number of reasons, but this is the truth, plain and simple.

My mother was diagnosed with cancer in August 2004–by October 16 of that year, she was gone, despite undergoing several rounds of chemotherapy that only served to make her last months on earth fairly miserable.

At the time I was living in San Francisco and working a full-time job as a technology journalist, and telecommuting was still a new thing, so I didn’t go across the country to see her straightaway. After the diagnosis, I think I knew very quickly that it was a death sentence. Esophageal cancer is one of the “bad ones,” and usually only surgery gives a patient a chance at any significant remission or recovery.

My mother–her body weakened and partially paralyzed from a stroke two and a half years before–was not a candidate for surgery. Although I knew in my heart she would die–I think my sister and father also knew, but we’ve never spoken about it–I didn’t realize how quickly it would happen, nor what impact it would have on me.

My mother and I were never particularly close–we were both too sensitive and tended to rub each other the wrong way. She also was very conservative in her mindset–a devout Catholic–and I was a liberal who’d moved 3,000 miles from home and was co-habitating with my boyfriend in a life far from where I grew up. This, among other things in my lifestyle, was basically unheard of in my Italian-American family in which everyone married, had children, and stayed more or less close to home.

Still, though we had our differences, she was the only mother I would ever have, and her relationship to me was a significant one. Though I felt closer to my father, my mother was the only one out of my parents who ever said “I love you,” and that meant more to me than I ever had a chance to tell her.

I only saw my mother for a week in the two months I knew she was dying, and it was three weeks before she passed away. I arranged with my company to work remotely from my parents’ house in Pennsylvania so I could spend some time with her–at the time she was undergoing chemotherapy–and help out around the house. We still we’re aware that she would pass as quickly as she did.

I wish I could remember more of that week, but only a few things stick out in my mind, mainly sad memories. The one thing that pains me the most to this day is I can’t remember the last time I actually saw my mother, or how I said goodbye to her in person.

The Monday before my birthday, which was on a Saturday that year, my father put me on the phone with my mother. I was at work back in San Francisco, and she was in the hospital because she wasn’t able to eat properly–and thus receive nourishment–because of the tumor in her throat, and so was being fed intravenously. (This is often how people with esophageal cancer die–basically by starving to death.)

“Happy birthday, Liz,” my mother said to me, sounding like the woman I’d come to know over the last two years, who had changed after her stroke but was still someone resembling the woman who raised me. She never forgot birthdays.

“My birthday isn’t until Saturday, Mom,” I said to her. “But thank you!”

“I know,” she said. “I just wanted to say happy birthday now.”

I guess I should have realized then she knew she wouldn’t live out the week, but it didn’t occur to me. When someone as close to you as a parent is dying, you’re pretty much in shock the whole time. Not recognizing significant things you should have known in the moment but don’t realize until much later is normal.

The weekend of my birthday that year I was meant to fly to southern California to appear on a panel at a business conference, but my sister called me Thursday evening and said she thought I should come home; that my mother–who’d slipped into a coma by then–wouldn’t last the weekend.

I found it difficult to believe (still in shock, obviously), but hastily arranged a last-minute replacement for my business trip and booked a one-way flight to Philadelphia for first-thing Saturday morning, not wanting to change my plans to celebrate my birthday with friends on Friday evening.

I feel a hot flash of shame even writing those lines right now. Let’s get this straight: My mother was dying, and I didn’t book a flight right then and there to rush home and see her–even in her incapacitated, unconscious state–because I wanted to celebrate my fucking birthday. In a bar. With my friends. Getting drunk. Singing fucking karaoke.

Again, I can make excuses for myself, and I have, and others have made them for me. “You didn’t know exactly when she was going to die.” “She wasn’t herself by then anymore so she wouldn’t have even known you were there.” “You were in shock; people do crazy things and don’t think straight when they are in shock.”

While these things are all true, it has taken me a long time to get over the fact that I was in a bar drinking vodka and singing “Me and Bobby McGee” in San Francisco only hours before my mother died around 11 a.m. Saturday morning in Norristown, Pennsylvania.

I cried at the bar that night–or rather, outside it, on the shoulder of a friend, standing on a dirty sidewalk while the busy city did its usual song and dance around me. Then I went home, crawled into bed with my most recent ex-boyfriend–who came over to hold me while I slept in the several hours I had before I was to leave for the airport.

The next morning, I boarded a flight from Oakland to Philadelphia, not knowing that as the plane lifted its nose and left the Bay Area behind, my mother was taking her last breath in a hospital bed, my father in a chair beside her, holding her hand and telling her how much he loved her.

13 years is a long time to get over something, I guess. Then again, it’s really no time at all when time is so fluid–when memories of things that happened so many years ago can appear in the same room with you and trick you into opening your mouth and speaking to people who aren’t here anymore, as clear and vivid as if no time has passed at all.

I wasn’t close to my mother the way I wanted to be, but I loved her, and she loved me, and she was my mother after all. I still miss her every day, especially every year the day before my birthday when pangs of regret I swear to myself I won’t feel surface anyway, despite my best efforts to tell myself after all these years that I didn’t do anything wrong.

So this year, instead of distracting myself with friends or drinks or some kind of ridiculous hedonistic birthday ritual celebrating the precise minute I turn another year older, I am going to let myself feel that regret. I may even wallow a bit. And finally forgive myself for my behavior 13 years ago once and for all.

I miss you, Mom. My birthday this year, for once, is not about me, but about you. Because no matter what I’ve tried to tell myself all these years–no matter how important I tried to make myself to drown my sorrow and convince myself I was someone worth celebrating–I know this now: It always has been.