Monday, August 3, 2009

Chapter 17: It Takes a Village

For the past eight weeks, I have been neglecting my poor little blog. When I was writing about my past, the words came easily because I’d had time to reflect. Unlike some blogs, my posts are not pithy quip-filled anecdotes, but rather lengthy missives about significant aspects of my life. My life over the last two months has been really good and pretty calm, so it seems comparatively uninteresting to write about what I had for dinner the night before when my prior entries were filled with much more drama.

So what have I been up to?

Ramón and I are still going full steam ahead and are settling in to somewhat of a routine. Awhile back he asked his daughter if it was okay if I stay over at their apartment, and she said yes. This meant that I could come over before she went to bed and stay until after she woke up in the morning. Therefore, to the dismay of my two cats, I’ve been spending about five nights a week in Hoboken with Ramón (and the rest of his family, of course). This makes him happy because he gets to spend time with both his daughter and me and not worry about neglecting either. It also means that he doesn’t have to come up to my apartment, which to be honest is not nearly as nice as his (though better decorated!) and doesn’t have air conditioning. We commute home together after work, watch television, have dinner, go to bed, wake up and commute back to Manhattan together. Wash, rinse, repeat. He jokes that according to tax law, I am a New Jersey resident now, since the majority of my time is spent there. On the weekends we relax and try to find something fun to do.

I like spending time at Ramón's apartment and am getting more comfortable as the weeks pass. I am slowly sneaking my possessions over to his place. First some clothes and shoes, then some cook books, and now even my slow cooker. Given that I spend so much time there, it comforts me and makes my life easier to have some of my things around me. For now I feel like I am biding my time until December when my lease is up. I am already fantasizing about how our two lives will merge. In general, he has better electronics and major furniture pieces; I have better accessories and kitchen gadgets. The prospect of moving in with someone who has their own place set up is a little scary as it means that it if things didn’t work out I would pretty much have to furnish my next place from scratch. But that possibility doesn’t really hinder my excitement. Eventually, I would hope we could move to a new place that becomes distinctly “ours.”

I think the fact that we talk about our future means that what we respectively want is more likely to be actualized. It certainly helps that we are on the same page about most things, but simply knowing that is so makes it so much easier to put my trust in someone after having it shattered a year ago.

Through his actions, Ramón has made it especially easy for me to have confidence in him and our relationship, principally because he has put his faith in me. He trusts me alone with his child and his car, is working on getting me a key to his apartment, and doesn’t mind if I hang out there by myself. Another big act of confidence was giving me a copy of his credit card in my name to use for things like groceries for his apartment. I think he was motivated to do so after I cooked up a huge meal for a picnic in the park for him, his daughter, her mother and myself. It didn’t feel right to him for me to pay to feed everyone when he knows my budget is tight right now.

This bequeath is not without self-motivation for him as it means I can pitch in by running errands and keep his fridge stocked and his life running smoothly (and not have to pester him for cash anytime I need to go run to the store). This is an act of trust because he knows my spending habits have been historically questionable, and I accepted the card knowing my charge (ha!) was to treat it with respect.

As a result of his acts of faith, he has essentially made it easy for me to take care of him. Chores that I historically detested (such as laundry or dishes) I do without complaint. Heck, with a dishwasher and washer/dryer in the apartment it is almost a fun novelty. Almost. If he says he’s hungry, I cheerfully cook him a late night snack. Almost every day I make the bed and straighten up the coffee table. In my marriage such efforts went unnoticed or worse, were criticized. With Ramón, I always get a thank you. In return I make a conscious effort to verbally thank him for the back rubs he gives me or our nice dinners out. I am honestly thankful he is in my life, and I want to be sure he knows I take nothing he does for granted.

I have always sought reciprocity in relationships, and in this case it is not literally, “I scratch your back, you scratch mine,” but rather, “you scratch my back, I do the laundry.” In the past it was hard for me to figure out the exchange rate of this currency. My marriage dissolved into a tit-for-tat debate in which we nearly had a chart of stickers like a child would for their chores to see who was contributing more to the relationship. My feeling with Ramón is more one of, “you just pitch in.” This is how Ramón has structured his relationship with his daughter and her mother, and I am now working to find my position on that team. The team is one, however, that you’d find at one of those “progressive” hippy schools where you don’t keep score. I can’t tell you how refreshing that idea is, and yet how foreign.

As I try to figure out my place on the team, I also contemplate how the team will evolve if Ramón and I were to have children or if his baby mama were to start her own family. Ramón and I both want to have a couple of kids, and we can see having them with each other. How that new family takes shape will remain to be seen. For his daughter’s entire life it has been the three of them looking out for each other, without interlopers. Now I’m in the picture, and I can only hope I am a positive addition who one day begets more positive additions.

It’s a strange situation because Ramón has a daughter who I am just getting to know. Her mother is very present in her life, so right now I get to be her dad’s fun girlfriend who takes her to the park, watches iCarly with her or accompanies her and Daddy to paint pottery and go out to eat. I don’t tell her when to go to bed or discipline her (not that she requires much discipline, being the sweet thing she is). I think because having a kid around is a novelty for me, she takes full advantage. I’ll hand her the remote when we are watching television, play games with her when she asks, do arts and crafts and listen to the stories her friends and family have already heard. To me (and probably to her), all of this is fun. I can imagine if I had to do it 24/7 for nine years it might get a little tiresome and I’d be ready to tell her to knock it off. On the other hand part of why I want to be a mother in the first place is to open up the world to a child and in turn to see it through their eyes.

For example, the four of us went to The Cloisters for a picnic and to tour the museum. I have wanted to go for years, and since having moved mere blocks away, felt the tug even stronger. I adore museums and could spend hours reading every placard by every piece of art. Going with others in tow is always a precarious situation. Finding a good museum-going companion is like finding someone who is a good travel buddy or someone whose opinions about movies you trust. I wasn’t sure what the day had in store, but I was excited.

So anyhow, here there we were, sitting having a Burger King picnic outside the cloisters building when the curious little nine year-old spots an inchworm climbing a blade of grass. She points it out, but only I get down eye-level with her on the lawn to check it out. To me, that sort of self-discovery and curiosity should be celebrated and encouraged, so that’s what I did. It is in sharing these little moments that I feel motherly, even if she might never call me “Mom.”

Later, as we wandered the museum and Fort Tryon Park, I tried to point out things that I had some knowledge of, hoping to make it the educational experience it could be. I mean, I’ve lived in Europe and seen this type of stuff before. This was my neighborhood, and I’d wandered this park for hours. I certainly should know something on the subject. On the other hand, I also was hyper-aware that her mother and father, both teachers themselves, might want to lead the tour. So I offered up my little tidbits cautiously, and in the end I think we all had a good day.

I don’t know that I will ever be an authority figure with Ramón’s daughter. Luckily they’ve done such a good job raising her that for now it doesn’t matter. I just wonder what it would be like if she is a rebellious thirteen year-old and there is a toddler in the house calling me mommy who she is asked to look after. I just don’t ever want to hear the words “Oh yeah, well you’re not my mom!”

So the big picture is everything is going well. But that is not to say Ramón and I don’t have our moments. Or more to the point - that I have my moments. It is probably fair to say that any disagreements we have are instigated by me. When confronted with something that doesn’t sit well with me, I tend to make a snippy remark or grow huffy. I get upset when confronted with something unexpected that I disagree with. I realize some things (like the weather) are beyond my control. But I am a planner, and when what I anticipate or imagine doesn’t come to fruition because of an extraneous source, I tend to get PISSED! This is true in all aspects of my life (work, travel, traffic, whatever), but when it comes to romantic relationships, things get a bit more hairy. We can read each other pretty well at this point, and he even knows when I have something boiling under the surface. Even when I know it’s not a big deal I tend to make reactionary comments or faces that cause Ramón to react defensively. The problem is, once the bomb has been triggered, it is hard for me to figure our which wire I need to clip to defuse it.

In conflicts throughout much of my life I would retaliate with a raised voice, cutting words, or (in the case of my little brother) mutual assault. I see where that has gotten me in the past, and as a result now try to remain calm and explain what I’m thinking.

The problem is, I don’t always immediately know why I reacted the way I did to a certain situation. My writing, in part, has helped me take a step back and analyze my thoughts and actions in an effort to modify the ones that cause me undue pain. However, in the heat of conflict, I can’t always take that step back and figure out just why I got upset. So my response is to remain quiet. I feel like not saying anything will prevent me from saying something stupid that I will later regret, or asserting something to which I will later be proven wrong. Ramón grows increasingly frustrated with the bombs I drop and my subsequent silence. The obvious solution is to let things slide and go with the flow, but part of me always wonders where does the line between being easy-going blur with the one of being taken advantage of?

I try to learn from the experiences in my life. I know that I am prone to sarcasm, which in inter-personal situations is not something anyone (myself included) appreciates. I think I have been pretty good about checking that. I know I am quick to anger, but I am also quick to forgive. I know that even if I thought I’d forgiven and forgotten those old wounds, like with a boxer, open up quickly when the punches start flying. So I am trying, and I think Ramón knows that. I am sure if he thought otherwise, I’d be kicked to the curb by now.

But I’ve not been, and so life carries on in this new usual way. I realize that going from nerdy to thirty does not just entail finding the man who will make me happy for the rest of my life, and I for the rest of his. It is about me and making my self a better, whole, happy person. The feeling of being in a bit of limbo with the living situation has not helped my bigger goals. I’ve not started the exercise regime I’d hoped. As a baseline I am a demotivated person and the idea of going home to a man who loves me as I am does little to motivate me to change that. But he does have me thinking about the future and where my career path might lead.

My boss has been travelling for the last two weeks, and returns tomorrow. While he was away I was running the show, which included overseeing subcontractors doing work at a showhouse we are doing. This particular showhouse will be published in Town & Country Magazine with a coordinating television show on the Fine Living Network. The theme of the townhouse we are decorating is the movie “Dinner at Eight.” I have been on-site directing electricians, painters, wallpaper hangers, faux finishers and delivery people without oversight from my boss. I can only hope that the executive decisions I made when certain questions came up are made with his approval.

It was gratifying to be the one in charge. I think the people working with me appreciate my level head in a time of crisis. My boss is the kind of person who thinks raising your voice and insulting people is the way to effectively solve a problem, but I prefer to catch flies with honey. Figuring out whose fault a problem is or why something went wrong seems like a waste of time. I find it much more efficient to just look for a solution.

For example, a wall’s worth of wallpaper did not arrive on site as scheduled just two weeks before our deadline. It is a hand-painted product from China that normally has a twelve to fourteen week lead time. Despite my emails with attached drawings and dimensions, the salesman missed the fact that we needed that paper. When I realized the mistake, I explained the situation to the salesman and the owner of the wallpaper company, who were both mortified. My boss had said not to worry about the paper and just paint the wall instead. In the end, I had the wall painted just in case the additional paper do not arrive on-time, the missing wallpaper panels should arrive with several days to spare, and hopefully in the end the way I dealt with the situation will help make the project look better in the end.

Being on my own in the office the last two weeks has made me realize how much I want to have my own company one day. I have some ideas for businesses I would like to start. Ideally, when I settle down and have a family I would like a flexible career that allows me to spend time with my children. When my brother and I were little, my mom worked from home. When we went off to grade school, she began working part time and so was home in the mornings and afternoons with us. I can’t imagine myself not having a career of some kind, but I also can’t imagine letting someone else raise my children.

I would love the opportunity to start a flexible, home-based business, which I think being an interior designer allows. Alternately, I would love to set up a restaurant/shop that would have a manager and thus not require me to be there all day (or where my children could hang out with me). I wonder if I have the connections, drive and business acumen to make such an endeavor succeed, but I sure think working for my self would be exciting.

In talking about these ambitions with Ramón, he told me that if we end up married, my ambitions would not just be pipe dreams, and that he will help make them a reality. If past successes are any indicator, he will always be more financially successful than I. However, my own measure of success has always been more motivated by personal triumphs and my ability to contribute something intangible to a community or an individual. Even as a waitress, if I could recommend a wine to a customer that they loved so much they wrote it down – that was a good day on the job for me. This is not dissimilar to the satisfaction I get as an interior designer, showing a client a beautiful chair that they just can’t imagine living without. Or, as I mentioned before, imparting some bit of wisdom to a child. You never know when those little moments, like the proverbial flapping of the butterfly’s wings, will impact the world.

I went to a party recently at my cousin’s apartment in Brooklyn. He had lived in the city for about a year, but we’d never actually gotten together. He moved here from Illinois to work for a record label, signing new bands. When I was chatting with him at his party, I told him I was accountable for all his success. He gave me an inquisitive look. I said, “Well, when I was your nanny in Michigan, when you were about twelve, I taught you what a signature was. Now getting people to sign their names is your job!”

He laughed and said, “Oh that was you? When I went back to school that fall I taught all my friends what a signature was and worked really hard to make mine cool.”

I then asked him to sign the printed-out hopstop directions to his party. Just in case he really makes it big one day, I could say, “I taught him that, even if he hadn’t remember himself.”

So, I am happy. Contented. Definitely optimistic. I took Ramón home with me for the Fourth of July, the anniversary of my husband telling me he was leaving. He made an effort whilst there, which was all I cared about. He chatted with my grandmother about finance, my uncle about photography, and my cousin about law school. He put himself out there. Despite whatever trepidations he may have had, I deem the weekend a success. He, in turn, has invited me into his family’s life. They visited the city (Dad twice, Mom once) and we hung out when they were here. I like to think that our families recognize what we do: that what we have is special, that we are a good match, and that the love and laughter we share now is real and will endure. And I think it will.

Monday, June 22, 2009

We have a winner!

Congratulations to Jonathan Sheffi who won the Rug Giveaway!

Stay tuned for a new post, hopefully this week!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Amazing Rug Giveaway!

I am so excited to announce that I have a giveaway for all my loyal readers! I was contacted last week by CSN Rugs to see if I would be interested in offering one of their products as a giveaway on my blog... I am so excited to participate, not only because you all have a chance to get something free, but because they are a great on-line interior furnishings retailer I use in my work.

I searched through their wide selection of rugs and decided on a hand woven, natural fiber area rug. It's good for the environment (natural fiber = less plastics used) and good for your indoor air quality (no VOCs). Plus, because there is no pile to it, it retains less of those pesky allergens and dirt! On top of all that, the rug is offered in a range of trim colors, so the winner will be able to select the color that best suits their decor.

The specifics:
Construction: Handmade
Technique: Woven
Material: 100% Jute
Origin: India
Size: 3' x 5'
Color: Available in Blue, Green, Brown, Black, Terra Cotta and Wheat & Ivory.
~ The full size rug, in blue ~
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~ Black ~ ~ Brown ~
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~ Green ~ ~Khaki ~
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~Terra Cotta ~ ~ Wheat & Ivory ~

So what's the catch? To enter, simply become a fan of my blog on Facebook. If you are already a fan (thank you!), simply post a shout-out on the fan page wall to enter. The winner will be selected at 5pm on Friday, June 18, 2009.

The fine print:
Shipping is included in this prize, and the giveaway is only open to US residents.

Good Luck!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Table of Contents

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Chapter 16: Please Curb Your God

My writing up to this point has been a catharsis or a purge. I wrote about my past as a way to explain who I was as I approached my thirtieth birthday. Now, my past has been transcribed and I am writing in more-or-less the present tense. In the months since I began this blog I have shared few of my reflections on how I plan to improve my life going forward. That change for the better is the ultimate goal of this project, so I may as well get to it!

In looking at my life, I often feel like something is missing, but I am not sure what exactly. I am filled with an emptiness I cannot identify: Is it hunger? Thirst? Loneliness? Boredom? Or maybe it is that I lack a profound spirituality. In the past I ate, drank, cuddled and played without finding true happiness, so I figure it couldn’t hurt to think about “The Big Picture.” While making my life better will in part be about concrete actions like exercising or budgeting, what good will any of those tasks do if my overall Self feels out of balance with the world? I think I need to recalibrate my life in a way, and I need to take a holistic approach to do so.

The first things that fill my mind when trying to think about my spirituality are only questions. What should be my role in the universe and how do I succeed in fulfilling it? Or is that even the right way to approach these things? How exactly do I perceive the world and my role in it presently? If I don’t know my current orientation I will never be able to chart a better course. To establish my point of reference, I have to go back to the past as a way of explaining what I have come to believe today. I think only then will I be able to identify the pieces of the quilt that make up the fabric of my existence and decide which scraps to salvage and which to fashion, along with many new pieces, into a fresh, much cozier, quilt.

When thinking of spirituality, most people’s minds immediately jump to religion. When I told Ramon the topic of this entry was spirituality he groaned and said, “Oh no, are you a Christian now? I thought you were an Atheist!” My response was that I am, in fact, neither (and that I hoped he would read this to understand what I meant by that).

I was not raised with religion. My family is ostensibly Christian (Protestant/Lutheran I think), but I was never Baptized or Christened and I my parents never once brought us to a church service. Church was a place for weddings and, for our more religious kin, Christenings. On one occasion, when I spent the night with my Gram, she took me to the Sunday School at her church while she attended the service. All I remember from that experience is that I didn’t understand what was going on and that we made placemats. Religious holidays (limited to Christmas and Easter) were not a time of celebrating Jesus, but rather gift-giving, candy, secular cartoon characters and family get-togethers.

I didn’t even realize we had any religious texts in the house until one day my brother decided he wanted to practice Satanism and my dad chucked a massive King James Bible at his head. Up until that point, my dad had always proclaimed that my brother and I could choose any religion we wanted. While he would have been perfectly happy with us, say, following in our Druid ancestors’ footsteps, apparently Satanism was not on the list of acceptable world religions.

My hometown has a large Jewish population, so when junior high rolled around my mailbox was awash with B'nei Mitzvah invitations. Before long, I had spent more time in a Jewish temple than I ever had in a church. My best friends from grade school through high school were primarily Jewish, and I was often a guest at their traditional Friday Shabbat and Passover Seder dinners. I enjoyed the ritual of prayer, candle-lighting and the ceremonial hand-washing and breaking of bread (or, alternately, matzo). In time I began to recognize the Hebrew prayers: “Baruch atah Adonai Eloheinu Melech ha-olam…” While I did not know their meaning, I could recite those few words along with my Jewish hosts.

My knowledge of Christian prayer, at the time, was equally limited to the first line of the Lord’s Prayer: “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Over the years, I attended various church services, primarily to appease first Joey’s and then James’ devoutly Catholic mothers. I learned to stand, sit and kneel at the appropriate times. I bowed my head low when it came time to pray to hide the fact that I did not know the words to the prayers. And I never took Communion. As my friends began to get married, I enjoyed witnessing the ceremonies associated with their varied faiths. In the cases of three of my girlfriends and their fiancés, one member of the couple converted to the other’s religion (Christian, Catholic and Muslim) before their weddings. I enjoyed learning about religion with an outsider’s perspective, but generally referred to myself as Agnostic.

When James and I began planning our own wedding ceremony, I simply could not see myself converting to Catholicism or having the ceremony under the roof of a Catholic Church. If I had my way, I would have been married by a justice of the peace, but was willing to compromise on a non-denominational pastor. I didn’t think James would be upset about not having a Catholic wedding, as he did not attend services himself, but he was in fact angered by my refusal to be married in the Church. I thought at great length about how to reconcile my religious beliefs (or lack thereof) with those of my future husband. It came down to two distinct aspects: my views on God and my views on religion.

I’ve never in my life said, or even thought, “I believe in God.” On the other hand, I have never said, “There is definitely no God.” Frankly, over the course of my lifetime I have probably spent more time considering the contents of my refrigerator than the existence of the Almighty. Calling myself an Agnostic was a bit of a cop-out in this respect because it meant I could say “If you haven’t proven it to me, it doesn’t exist,” but I never sought the proof either.

Because I did not definitively believe in God, I frankly did not want the name invoked in the wedding ceremony at all. If I proclaimed in front of all my friends and family some sort of faith in God, it seemed like my marriage would be founded on a lie. I found out later that I needn’t convert to Catholicism to be married in the church but express a commitment to raising Catholic children. Even that seemed like a lie on which to found a marriage as I didn’t see myself (or James for that matter) taking our offspring to Church.

My desire to get married in my parents' backyard began to take on significance beyond aesthetics. Man built the church (both the edifice and the institution), but God created the grass and the trees. I asked James, “When is one closer to God than in Nature?” He had no answers for me and shared nothing with me about the basis of his faith, so I took it to be blind. And while my parent’s backyard is a cultivated suburban version of Nature, it felt more appropriate to have the wedding there than at a church selected at random (or for me any church at all).

To me, matrimony is matrimony, whether it is holy or not. The thing that makes a couple into a husband and wife (or husband and husband or wife and wife) is the profession, in front of all those who they’ve invited to bear witness, that they are committed to sharing the remainder of their lives together. If God happens to be one of those caring witnesses you invite, great, but his presence should not be required to bless a union. In the case of my wedding, If God was in attendance, he was definitely sitting on the groom’s side.

My parents had given me the freedom to choose my religious path, but I had been provided with precious little information about what my choices actually were. If there is “A God” I don’t know if he (or she?) is benevolent or fearsome, Jewish or Muslim, distant or internalized. I enjoyed seeing how my friends of various faiths practiced their religions, but no one devotion seemed to call out to me, and I hadn’t put forth the effort to study the world’s less prominent faiths. Ultimately, any organized religions seemed outdated and corrupt to me, with Catholicism being the worst. It is to me an establishment filled with middlemen and diddlemen, neither of whom would help me find or reach God.

So rather than choose to take my husband’s religion, I chose to do nothing. I finally learned the Lord’s Prayer, and recited it to James’ surprise, during the ceremony. I wonder now: if we had been married in the church, would he have held our vows to be sacred? Would saying “I do” in God’s house prevented him from cheating on me? Somehow I doubt it. Nonetheless, James’ claim of faith to his religion followed by his unfaithfulness to me made me doubt even more that religion was for me.

In New York, religion is in your face all the time. From the garb of the more conservative sects to the beautiful religious buildings lining the city street, all the world’s religions are on display. You need only enter a subway car to find a Muslim, Hasidic Jew and Mormon all holding on to the same pole for balance to see just how peacefully they coexist in this metropolis. Yet on that same subway car you are likely to see a seated man so deeply absorbed in his religious texts that he does not offer his perch to the visibly pregnant woman standing uncomfortably in front of him. To her, the piety implied by the man’s religious fervor is no more than hypocrisy. And on the next car, where the air conditioning is not working, a woman is preaching about eternal damnation without the salvation of Jesus Christ. Her hollering only serves to agitate and alienate the tired businessman, trying to catch a quick nap before going home to his family. To him, that train car became the Hell the preacher warned him about.

I see these people who claim devotion to a system of beliefs but literally do not practice what they preach (or what is preached to them). I know deep down that while I may be able to find spirituality, or, who knows, maybe even a God, I don’t think I will ever find a home amongst the world’s major religions. I may find lessons from one or another, but I don’t think I will be able to fully accept the tenets of an entire faith.

I have talked so far at length about what I don’t believe, but my focus going forward is determining what exactly I do believe. I have always claimed to be a spiritual person, but have only scratched the surface in internally examining what I actually believe when I say that. In the last few weeks I have begun reading books that I hope will help me on my path to spiritual enlightenment, and ultimately a happy, productive, successful, and love-filled life.

The first book I read was of the “self-help” genre, The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck, M.D. It was recommended to me last fall by a recently divorced friend. As I take all recommendations seriously, I purchased it which went against my commitment to never buy a self-help type book. I could not connect with it at the time because I was barely coping with my day-to-day life, let alone in a place where I could find this type of book beneficial. Recently, with spring’s promise of renewal spurring me on, I picked it up again. I found the volume contained many valuable insights, and read it with the attention of a textbook.

One section of the book discusses religion, and I began reading that portion with some trepidation. My mind was pretty made up when it came to my view on the institution of religion, but the author threw me for a loop when he presented his take on the matter. All religions, he said, present their followers with a way of seeing themselves in the universe. Conversely, since everyone has a world view, everyone has a religion. The opening paragraphs of the section on religion even touched on my feelings of hypocrisy in organized religions and the notion that you don’t necessarily need to believe in God to be religious or spiritual. “Right on!” I thought.

So what is my world view right now and how, by exploring my spirituality, will that view change? I want to preface this by saying that I am in no way preaching. My outlook on things is mine alone, and I have a feeling that there are few people out there who have established the same set of beliefs that I possess. And, I am aware that I will come off as a bit of a kook in part because what I believe is not derived from the world’s main religions. However these religions ask you to put faith in something you have not experienced, and I am not comfortable with that. Instead I have formulated my world view on the experiences I’ve had, which I would like to share with you now.

I have already said that I do not believe or disbelieve in a God, which is the basis of Agnosticism. I certainly don’t believe that some mystical being created the world in seven days or has control over out fates and destinies. Rather, I feel that there is a certain life force that exists, but what exactly that is I have not yet been able to pinpoint. Aliens on Star Trek described humans as simply “ugly bags of mostly water,” but I think there is something (electricity, a spirit, a soul, I don’t know) that makes us more than that. Maybe it is simply chemical reactions and synapses firing, but I think there is something else going on that makes me different from you and both of us different from, say, a cat.

I think in part this realization that we are more than just flesh helped influence me to become a vegetarian. At sixteen I sat down to a dinner of medium rare filet mignon and had an epiphany that it was not just “meat” but tissue and blood from a formerly breathing creature, and I didn’t see how that was any different from the flesh that made up my body. I read a theory once that more women are vegetarians because they are more exposed to blood through their monthly cycles, so to consume something that is part of the process of creating life seems counter-intuitive and off-putting. This certainly didn’t cross my mind when I decided to stop eating meat cold-tofurkey, but it may a subconscious truism.

I am not a huge animal rights activist or vehemently proclaim that every creature has a soul (and I’ve heard every snarky comment about the undeveloped nervous systems of sea creatures and how plants breathe too). However, there are days when I look into my pet cat Duke’s eyes and think there must sentience in that feline brain of his. Somehow Duke knows when I am sad, and reaches out a paw to rest it reassuringly on my thigh. This happens with such regularity (I’ve been sad quite a bit in the past year) that I feel it is more than mere coincidence. Perhaps it is just anthropomorphism on my part, but I’ve noticed he does not make the same gesture when I am happy. In part because of this, I do feel a connectedness to the living things of the world and I feel better knowing that another creature did not have to die for me to live.

During the time of slavery, it was believed that blacks were not sentient beings so it was acceptable to subjugate them. We would scoff at such a notion today because we are a more enlightened civilization. Just as people back then would have argued “Oh, I like having slaves because they make my life better,” today I hear “Oh, I could never give up meat because it is so delicious.” Mankind (especially in America) today does not need animal protein to survive, but savors it as part of an archaic cultural heritage. Our lifestyles are much more sedentary than generations past, meaning our dietary needs have changed and can be adequately met with our ample supply of plant-based foods. One day more people will come to see that their gratification comes at the unnecessary cost of another being’s suffering. I understand that most people consider animals to be lesser creatures than humans, so I want to clarify my intent when making this comparison. I am in no way saying that black people are no different than animals, but quite the reverse: I believe fully that animals are no different than humans.

While I am confident in defending my belief of the equality of man and beast as valuable on this earth, other convictions of mine are either a bit more undefined or unsubstantiated. For example, I wonder if the same life force that I see in my self and my cat may exist also in what we call inanimate objects.

That which grows from the earth eventually becomes the man, who then returns to the earth when he dies. It is a cycle of ashes to ashes and dust to dust, even according to the Bible. We are physically made up of no more than the earth upon which we walk, and it in turn is made up of no more than our ancestors. So if we have a life force it would follow that those entities that do not perambulate, because they are made up of the same stuff as us, would also have a life force. The spirit, soul or energy that occupies my body is here only for my lifetime, and had a previous home and will find another (be it plant, animal or mineral) after I am gone. This notion of reincarnation (or metempsychosis or transmigration) is one held by my Druid ancestors and Buddhists, thought I do not know much more about it than what I’ve just written.

What then of the spirits that do not find a home in another entity after the one they’ve been occupying has perished – that which we call ghosts? I believe that these, too, exist. Even as a child I had the sense that there was something else amongst us. If that which makes us “alive” is no more than an electrical charge, I felt that there were these wanton charges of those no longer alive existing on a parallel plane. I never had any concrete reason to believe this, I just did.

That is until something strange started happening to me around 2006. When I moved into my Harlem apartment in 2003, I sensed that the previous tenant had passed away in the apartment. When I cleaned my new home for the first time, I noticed that there was soot around the top of the windows, as if the person who had lived there previously had been a smoker. I wondered if the apartment was haunted by this person, who I felt was a man who had died as a result of his nicotine addiction. The New York spiritual guide and psychic Rock Kenyon said “I think there are more ghosts in the City than almost anywhere else… more people were attached to the City in life,” and I thought maybe that were true of the person who had formerly inhabited my dwelling. I waited to see if he would visit me.

One night after several years of living in that apartment, I finally had what I felt was a paranormal encounter; although it bore no resemblance to the old man I was expecting to haunt me. It was around the Fourth of July, and I was in my bed with the window open. I was lying on my back, and as I dozed off I began to feel my entire body start to vibrate and heard a buzzing in my ears. I could look around my room, but could not move my limbs. Suddenly, I saw flashes of light, like fireworks, out in the street.

Then these things, looking like black handkerchiefs (which I can now describe as looking like the Dementors from Harry Potter, thought I hadn’t heard of such a thing at the time), flew in the window. The shadowy forms swirled into the room and right into my gut. I felt like they were trying to pull me up from my bed by the stomach, as if trying to take my soul from its vessel. I shook myself awake and after the vibrations and paralysis subsided looked over at the clock on the nightstand. Only five minutes had passed since I had clicked off the light, which seemed far too short of a period to have entered the dream state.

The experience frightened me. I wondered, “If I hadn’t woken myself up, would I have had an out-of-body experience? Would I have died if they took my soul?” I was so shocked by the experience that I painted my vision from that night in part to always be able to remember it and in part to not have to always remember it.


The phenomenon continued over the coming months, always as I was just nodding off to sleep. When it happened, my eyes always felt open (though I have no confirmation if they were or not) and I could see my room around me. Sometimes there was a visible entity associated with the experience, and sometimes it was just the sensation itself. If I were lying on my side, I might feel the force pulling me from the small of my back. I would feel like I was moving my arms or legs to reach out, but when I awoke they would be securely tucked by my side. In time I was able to rouse myself before I grew frightened, just as the vibrations would begin. This physical component led me to think these were not just dreams, but something else entirely.

As the occurrences became more commonplace, I began to analyze what might be causing them. I noticed if I had even one glass of wine with dinner, it would not happen. I also noticed that on nights when I would do logic puzzles in bed to put me to sleep, the sensation was more likely to occur. I began to wonder if the puzzles were tapping in to a certain unused part of my brain, and the alcohol only served to dull that area of the brain. I also noticed that the sensation only occurred when I was alone in my bed, and did not occur when another person or even my cats were sharing the bed with me.

Most people I told about my evening happenings probably thought I was nuts. I would have too, if it weren’t happening to me. Because I wasn’t seeing women in white nightgowns or whatever else may be considered typical ghost-like specters, I began to refer to my visions as “ghosties.” However this seemed to be a childish misnomer for whatever it was I was going through. I needed to know more so I typed my “symptoms” in a search engine.

I found information on lucid dreams, out-of-body experiences and something called astral projection. The latter phenomenon is a sort of out-of-body experience that people try to achieve through meditation. This desire to seek out the experiences I was having did not seem to jive with the terror with which I faced when having them. However the fact that other people could describe the exact same sensations as I was having was both reassuring and frightening. I was not alone; however the philosophies of the people who embraced their encounters were far beyond the reaches of my spiritual comfort zone.

After I moved out of Harlem, the phenomenon seemed to subside. Perhaps it was my husband’s nightly presence in bed with me, but over the next year I only had the experience once in Queens and once when I took a nap on the sofa at work. That experience was particularly alarming because for the first time I actually heard speech associated with the sensation. I heard a woman’s voice, coming from very close to my ear, telling me that my boss’ mother and sister were going to die. The fact that this premonition has not come true is again reassuring and confusing. Maybe it was just a dream, and not something to read too much into.

When I moved back to Manhattan, my nighttime visitors returned. Maybe there are more ghosts in New York after all! This time however I was seeing actual people, not just shadows. Perhaps just as notable was that these apparitions seemed benevolent whereas my prior experiences had been frightening.

The first time it happened in my new apartment, I was caught a bit by surprise as I’d not had one of these experiences in quite a while. I was lying on my back, with my right leg extended and my left leg tucked up (like a flamingo), with my left hand resting on my thigh. As I was falling asleep, I felt a caress on my left thigh, and then I felt a scratch on my right ankle. I felt fully cognizant and wondered if I was feeling the ghosties again, when all the sudden I began vibrating just as before, but for the first time I was seeing actual people.

I saw a series of semi-transparent faces in front of me, morphing from one to the next as if they were all trying to present or introduce themselves. It was like a flipbook of individuals: an old man, a black lady, someone with glasses. And finally it was just one man, whose face was very close to mine. He took both my hands in his and I could feel their warmth enveloping mine. After a moment, he let go and reached over his shoulder to scratch his back.

I heard myself say to him, “Ghosts get itches?”

He laughed and said “All the time!”

He then pointed to his left eye and said “I just have to be careful not to scratch this,” at which point I realized there was a big gaping hole where his eye should have been. The side of his face was in shadows, so I could not clearly make out the wound. It did not seem gory to me, but appeared like a gunshot wound might look.

He then whispered, “Shhhh…” and faded into the shadows.

I felt very at peace and went to sleep, knowing that benevolent ghosties would be my nighttime companions in this new apartment.

Since that night, I have had several other incidences of feeling the vibration and pulling sensations, but only one other with associated imagery. In that instance, as the vibrations began, I felt a sharp pain on the top of my head, as if I’d been hit with a blunt object. The visions I saw next were of a pretty blonde woman and two men who were on a boat. I felt as if I were viewing the scene through the eyes of one of the men. Everyone was smiling and laughing, when the next thing I knew I had the sensation of falling, followed by the sound of a splash. I felt like I was disoriented in space, and as I realized I was experiencing drowning, I forced myself to wake up.

When my breathing returned to normal from its accelerated panicked state, I began to ponder what that vision (or dream) meant. If there are in fact unsettled spirits roaming the earth, and this was one of them, what was he trying to tell me?

“So what then,” I thought, “am I to make of this incredibly vivid incident?” The feelings that were imparted to me were not of anger or bitterness, so I don’t think I am meant to set out on a crusade to find some vengeful baseball bat-wielding sea captain. I felt like the events I witnessed happened in the past, so I was not shown that to prevent some future incident. And everyone I saw seemed so happy, and until the horrible sensation of drowning took over, so did I. The thought sprung to my mind as I lied in bed that night that I was meant to find that blonde woman and let her know it was just an accident, and that she was meant to be happy again, like she was that day.

After these thoughts finished their quick romp through my tired brain, I laughed at myself for thinking I was some sort of psychic heroine. I enjoy watching television shows about the paranormal such as Medium and Ghost Whisperer. Medium, after all, is based on the experiences of a real person, Allison DuBois, who helps solves crimes using her dreams. But I am no Allison DuBois, right? The only thing that prevented me from scoffing at myself for my farfetched claims to myself came in the following days when the persistent, dull, throbbing pain on the top of my head would not subside.

So maybe I am psychic. According to the believers, we are all born with the ability to tap in to the paranormal but often lose the ability as we age and become more attached to “reality.” Maybe I have a secret desire to be blessed with this “gift” and so seek out coincidences or embrace experiences such as my dreams. Maybe I am simply observant, or absorb facts without realizing it only to recall them later and take them as psychic insights.

For example, in high school I was talking to a classmate and said something about his two much-older siblings who had the same father as him but a different mother. I had only just met this kid, and did not recall him ever telling me that information, but it was in fact true. He was amazed that I could read him like that. All those maybes, and yet these things like that keep happening to make me think there is something else going on.

One evening after James moved out, I was on the bus going home to my Queens apartment. A young thug napping on the seat next to where I stood suddenly opened his eyes, looked at me and blurted out “Excuse me, are you psychic?”

I must have had a puzzled look on my face because he explained further: “I can sense these things about people. Do you sometimes think you are psychic?”

I didn’t know how to respond, but replied with a whispered affirmation and a smile. I had to laugh a little because what the kid didn’t know was in my tote bag was a bottle of wine I’d consciously picked up as an antidote to my frightening dreams. My fragile psyche following James’ departure could not handle those experiences, so I self-medicated to prevent them. Just like everything else, I could write that exchange off as the ramblings of some crazy guy on the bus, but I simply can’t.

Ultimately my beliefs are founded on my experiences, and I have in fact created my own religion based on those experiences just as Dr. Peck pointed out in his book. Mine is a religion in which the existence of a defined God does not matter one way or the other, and the institutions known as Churches are inherently bad. The universe is made up of a physical component and a yet-undefined “other” (spirit / electrical / life force) component. This “other”ness cycles in the universe along with the physical matter, and if its progress in the cycle is stunted in some way, it manifests itself in what we would call ghosts.

This is the first time I have written any of this out, and the first time I have addressed all of these topics under one umbrella. I have not shared my feelings about much of this because I know my outlook includes many views that the world’s major religions would deem taboo, wacky, “New Age,” or any number of other negative words. Yet the religions to which I have been exposed seem just as made up to me as anything I’ve decided to believe may seem to you.

I feel uncomfortable also because I have no basis for my beliefs other than what I’ve personally experienced, and sharing those experiences has often led to raised eyebrows. For example, some of my friends mock me for subscribing in the least bit to Astrology. While I don’t live my life by what is in the stars, I have in my writing, attributed the same characteristics to Joey, James and myself because we all Aries. I do so because our three personalities were not only similar, they were similar in the way that astrology would dictate them to be (stubbornly butting heads like the ram that represents the sign).

Astrology might be silly, but as I began to delve into my spirituality as a pre-teen, I found comfort in discovering labels to apply to my beliefs and experiences. Going forward, I realize that to expand my understanding of my role in the universe I will have to reach outside the personal religion I have crafted for myself and absorb the experiences and wisdom of others. After all, if the universe is just an endless cycle of matter and energy, it means that whatever makes up another’s being also makes up mine, from our collective unconscious on up.

So I’ve started off on this journey by reading, with a critical mind, several different books which I hope to reflect upon in the future. Just as I have cherry picked my beliefs up to this point, I hope to read a wide range of philosophies, speak to many different people, and try many different techniques to see what strikes a chord with me and provides me with some fulfillment of the emptiness I’ve been feeling. I would love to learn to meditate, for example, or visit a sleep center to figure out what is going on in my dreams. Heck, maybe I’ll go to church all on my own one day (My aunt Crystal, a vocal atheist, went to church one day after her divorce and had an epiphany that has her returning every week now). I’m sure that some text I’ll read will say that to actively seek out spiritual enlightenment prevents it from finding you, but thirty years of not looking hasn’t resulted in any epiphanies, so what’s the harm in trying something new? And, if at the end of it if I have not found what I am looking for, I will at least know it was not for lack of trying.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Chapter 15: On Butterflies and Fireworks

I have been thirty for well over a month now, and if the remainder of the year goes as well as the last seven weeks have, my quest to go “From Nerdy To Thirty” will likely be deemed a success. I have seen myself go from the depths of depression a mere six months ago to a font of optimism today. And how could I not be optimistic? I am in love, and someone is in love with me!

When last I wrote, I was proclaiming that out of the blue I have a boyfriend, and now suddenly I’m in love? I guess for Ramón and me to realize what we almost missed out on makes us appreciate all the more what we have. That awareness fostered an overall openness that endeared us to each other quickly and our mutual endearment in turn begat love and its proclamation. And the best part is: he said it first. I know I am historically the type to fall too hard, too fast, so when those three little words started tempting my vocal chords, I stifled them.

I didn’t want to complicate the good thing we had going by professing my love, only to have it unreciprocated. The moments of free-fall while skydiving are far less intimidating that the ones in which the words “I love you” float unanswered in the air. Ramón is a particular mix of sensitive and sensible and I couldn’t be sure how he’d respond to the L-word, and didn’t think I could handle a negative response to my effusions. Besides, I was pretty certain that he knew how I felt about him because I felt pretty certain I knew how he felt about me, so it could safely be left unsaid.

One day we were lounging on my bed, just staring into each other’s eyes like in some Bryan Adams or Peter Gabriel song. I was enveloped by a warm and peaceful sense of contentment. As we lay there, Ramón repetitively opened his mouth and inhaled, as if starting to say something. After a few minutes of him behaving like a grouper out of water, and of me suspecting what might be on his mind, I said, “You seem like you want to say something.” He mumbled a reply to the contrary, so I left it at that.

A few moments later, my intuition was confirmed when he said, in a voice barely audible, those oh-so-sweet three little words. Even though I saw it coming, the way my body reacted was something I’ve never experienced. I am a girl who enjoys the feeling of butterflies in my stomach. They can be induced by seeing a guy I am falling for, nerves, or going over a hill in the road or apex of a roller coaster. While Wikipedia has the entry for “Butterflies in the Stomach” filed under its “Disease” category, it is something I couldn't live without.

When I was a child, my brother and I would seek out the thrill of those butterflies like junkies seeking a fix. The road behind my grandfather’s house, aptly named Hillside, was a rolling thoroughfare. At family get-togethers we would beg our Auntie Betsy to take us for a drive on that road. When you hit the crest of the hills just right, butterflies would follow. As a young woman, I found great joy in the butterflies induced by a newfound romantic infatuation. I realized one day that the only time I’d felt butterflies with James was when he intentionally sped up before the small rise in the West Side Highway near 96th Street. While this was a sweet gesture, its artificial induction was no replacement for the real thing. It was an instance when I truly should have listened to my gut.

With Ramón, my gut is telling me a different story. When I walked up to the café to meet him for our reunion in April, my stomach was all a-flutter. From that point on a simple glance or touch from him (or even a wanton thought of him while sitting at my desk) could send my stomach somersaulting. None of those errant butterflies compared to the bevy that was released upon hearing him profess his love for me. In chorus with the butterflies, my heart leapt into my throat. It was a jolt I can only compare to the time I accidentally laid my hand on the electric fence wire surrounding the paddock housing my Grandmothers horses, albeit entirely more pleasant. Oh, and in case it isn’t obvious: Once my internal organs realigned themselves, I told Ramon I loved him too.

As if in some reverse-Lenten fever, over the last forty days we have seen each other almost daily – spending well over three hundred hours in each other’s company (yes, I counted). Working a block from each other means we can meet up for a quick coffee and a kiss, lunch, or an after-work rendezvous. Our outings are varied, but generally standard date material: dinner and a movie, a hike through the woods, hanging at friends’ houses, an overnight trip to the North Fork of Long Island, brunch, and a museum visit. Ramón has been spending some weekend evenings at my house, and I have been spending an increasing number of weeknights at his place.

Throughout our adventures Ramón continues to give me reasons to fall for him. Ever the gentleman, he is quick to open the car door for me. One day I was alone in the office and could not leave for lunch, so he brought me over a sandwich. He reaches for my hand any time we are walking somewhere. He gave me the CD containing the lovely song he had set as my ringtone so I could listen to it. When he says he will call me, he always calls. The dirty clothes I leave in the drawer he emptied for my use are magically returned freshly laundered. And in a particularly charming gesture, en route to my first visit to his apartment, and in an effort to encourage future visits, he presented me with a gift. It was a “SmartLink” card that is automatically replenished with fares for the PATH train that goes to New Jersey from Manhattan. I sometimes wonder how I came to be so lucky and try to figure out ways to reciprocate.

So while I am falling head-over-heels for this man, the wounded pragmatist inside me, having been once bitten, is now sadly twice shy. I want to navigate this relationship with my eyes open and to know that, while it may be rainbows and unicorns right now, ultimately it takes work to make any relationship succeed. I recognize that “falling in love” is the easy, fully enjoyable part. It is dictated in the subconscious by a mix loneliness, lust, readiness and hormones. It is building a love-filled and loving relationship that requires the effort, and that is what I hope Ramón and I are cultivating with our exchange of affectionate gestures.

In building our relationship, Ramón and I have independently and jointly envisioned our future together. While we cannot be certain what exactly that future holds, we both enjoy relishing the possibilities. We talk about it in “ifs” not “whens,” but the mere fact that our future is an accessible topic of conversation gives me great relief. Being able to discuss what we want out of life and finding that in general we are on the same page only solidifies my feeling that this is a much different relationship than my marriage was. I wouldn’t say I am learning from my mistakes but rather learning to appreciate what a true relationship – and the actual relating that creates it – can be.

To our disservice, James and I rarely talked about the important issues that create a strong foundation for a marriage. We each filled out a brief questionnaire before meeting with the pastor who was to marry us, but beyond that we never broached subjects such as finances, children or our grand life plan. Many things that should have been hashed out well before our engagement were never discussed. Those that were brought up more often than not resulted in a disagreement. To prevent further altercations, I refrained from mentioning the difficult subjects on which I knew we had disparate viewpoints. I decided somewhere along the way that in time James would grow to be a responsible family man, and all I had to do was stick by his side until that time came. I only hoped it was sooner rather than later. One example of the different pages we were on was our views about starting a family together.

I think around high school I began harboring the desire to have my first child by the time I was thirty. My mom and dad were young parents, twenty-five and thirty respectively when I was born. Granted, it’s not prom night childbirth young, but they were always active and energetic with my brother and me. I wanted, as a parent, to have the energy to chase a toddler around; to stay up sewing the child’s Halloween costume long after she went to sleep but not be bleary eyed in the morning to feed her breakfast; to not embarrass the poor kid with my out-of-touch fashion or music preferences; and to ultimately be around when my grandkids and great-grandkids were born.

My twenty-fifth birthday came and went, along with one boyfriend after another. At twenty-seven I realized that if I were going to have a baby before I turned thirty-one, I would have to meet the father of my unborn child that year. It would leave me one year to date, one year to be engaged and one year of newlywed bliss before conceiving. Simultaneously I realized that I was in no position to be raising a child at that point. A broke waitress living in Manhattan is not exactly set up to become Mother of the Year. But I figured if the balls were in motion at least I could set my eyes on motherhood at thirty-one, thirty-two, or thirty-three.

When I met James it felt like he was the right guy coming in to my life at the right time. In retrospect, if the life plan I’d concocted was a square hole, James was the round peg I was trying to force in it. Certainly my resolve to make the relationship work, if only to fulfill some great scheme I’d concocted, did nothing to further its cause.

However, James was wary to reproduce again. Jamie was such a perfect child, he said, that he didn’t want to risk having another who turned out to be a lemon. In my eyes, I knew that having a child with James in the near future was inconceivable (excuse the pun) as he was barely a father to the one he already had. I was willing to wait until the time was right for us, when he (and I) had matured enough. Rule number one of relationships is you can’t change a man (or a woman, for that matter). Why I thought James would change on his own or under my coaxing is unclear. It wasn’t until we were in couples counseling that I was bitch-slapped with the realization of just how ridiculous my “if onlies” were.

“If only we moved in together(I pepper my entries with links, and even if you don't click on any other , I beg you to click this one)

“If only he didn’t go out with his friends so often.”

“If only he became a better father and let me be a step-mother to his son.”

If only I hadn’t expected him to change. Just as the discussion of children was shelved, so were all others of any significance. I avoided the confrontations and therefore avoided the reality of my situation. I honestly don’t think reflecting on our future was a priority with James as, in his own words during the dissolution of our marriage, he never saw us growing old together in the first place.

In stark contrast, when Ramón and I discuss our future together, it comes very naturally as part of our everyday conversations. Nothing is forced and nothing is a battle. I think most women browbeat their men with persistent nagging to settle down and procreate, and the men do their best to avoid these discussions. In a refreshing and somewhat startling role-reversal, it is Ramón who often brings up these fairly sensitive domestic topics. His matter-of-fact way of interjecting them into our exchanges puts me at ease. As a result I generally feel comfortable telling him about my dreams and aspirations without fear of ridicule or avoidance on his part. In the last six weeks we have shared many of our considerations for our future together.

Over dinner one evening, Ramón casually asked me how many children I wanted to have. I answered, but was so surprised by the inquiry that I don’t think I posed the question back to him. The query came during a conversation about parenting, during which I asserted, “I think I’d be a good mother,” to which Ramón replied, “I wouldn’t be with you if I didn’t agree.” This was not a conversation I would have expected to have with a man who’d only that morning called himself my boyfriend for the first time, but I guess at thirty, with one child and one divorce under our respective belts, these sorts of things can be discussed matter-of-factly. Heck, the on-line dating services ask these sorts of questions, why shouldn’t the actual guy you are dating?

With the “number of children” question out there to break the ice, our discussions continue to share our visions of our shared future. I mentioned at one point that I wasn’t sure what I would do in December when my lease expired, whether I would want or be able to afford to continue living in my Inwood apartment. Ramón replied “Assuming we are still together when your lease comes up in December, I doubt I would be happy if we didn't move in together.”

We’ve even discussed what our wedding would be like. I think Ramón is in a way grateful to potentially marry a girl who has already had her dream wedding as he doesn’t seem to be one who would make a big fuss about that sort of thing. During a discussion in that vein, I quipped, “We could just walk down to the courthouse on our lunch break one day and get hitched.” True to the nature of our relationship, he responded “I was just thinking that.”

Other topical issues pop into our conversations: the use of diamonds in engagement rings, the option to terminate a fetus known to have Downs Syndrome, the idea that baby food should be homemade rather than from a jar, an individual’s right to bear arms. I think we listen to each other’s opinions knowing that the answers are more than just political but also personal. Because the conversations are started casually they are easily revisited, even if they didn’t result in us completely seeing eye-to-eye the first time around. And even if I disagree with Ramón on a topic, I definitely enjoy hearing his arguments because they are always well thought out and clearly articulated.

The crazy thing is, after three years together, I don’t think James could have articulated my stance on any of these issues. In fact, I sometimes wonder what the hell we talked about for all that time. Because of his overbearing nature, I often felt too intimidated to bring up anything of a delicate nature. And goodness knows he never bothered to ask.

In relationships past, I would normally fret for hours or even days over how best to ask the guy’s feelings on an issue, big or small, or how to tell him my own. I would become overwrought trying to build up my courage and then blindside the poor fellow with whatever it is that was weighing on my mind. With tensions thus raised on both sides, the likelihood of an argument increased dramatically.

To avoid these face-to-face conflicts (and not just in my romantic relationships), I often prefer to address my concerns in writing. The advent of word processing, e-mail, on-line chatting and text messaging has created forums far less formal than the pen-and-paper days of yore. Electronic messages can be conveyed casually, yet precisely. Often when I am angry or hurt, I feel like a frustrated child, unsure what exactly it is that is making me unhappy. I just know I am upset. Typing out and editing a letter helps me sort through my feelings (much like writing in this blog does) and ensures that I say what I mean rather than simply say something mean. Perhaps writing as a means of conflict resolution (or outright conflict avoidance) is a crutch propping up my awkward nerdiness, but it is one I value nonetheless.

My relationship with James had no written component (aside from mundane text messages about what was for dinner or when I would be home from work). Over the course of our entire relationship he sent me exactly thirteen e-mails. Most of these contained material he would normally have texted, but as I had a penchant for leaving my phone charger at home I was often rendered unable to receive texts. The very first e-mail he sent me said simply, “There, I've sent you an e-mail. Now hopefully we can a cyber couple, and go on AIM dates and play online games together when we should be working.” His opinion of e-communication was pretty clear (and frankly downright mocking), which left only our flawed verbal communication.

As nerdy as it may seem, I cherish the e-mails, texts, Facebook messages, YouTube forwards and yes, even the occasional hand-written note, which Ramón and I exchange. A simple “Thinking of you!” beamed up to a satellite and back down to the earth only a block away from the message’s origin gratifies me as either sender or recipient. On days that we can’t meet for a post-market close coffee, in Ramón’s words, these “nuggets of intraday joy … add a bounce to my step.”

I have used e-mail to ask Ramón questions that were overlooked during a tête-à-tête but later still piqued my curiosity. My nonchalant questions are met with nonchalant answers. In another example, Ramón e-mailed me one day to air a concern that was “not a big thing, small enough that I didn't want it to consume any face time together and small enough that I felt comfortable emailing about it instead of [discussing it in] an in-person conversation.” (Of course his comment was in response to a misinterpreted, poorly worded text message I had sent, so the lesson here is clearly that electronic communications lack the nuance and inflection of their verbal counterpart). Yet clearing up that misunderstanding meant that when we met up later that day, we spent the entire time enjoying each other’s company and not working out some conflict. So, despite the possible pitfalls, I value our e-lationship.

Despite our open channels of communication, Ramón has, on a few occasions, seen my unfortunate tendency to dramatize the raising of concerns. Recently I sent him a long e-mail outlining a concern I had that I feared would be a deal-breaker for him. I had spent far too long lost in my own head running over how to present it to him and what his possible responses would be. I spent hours crafting a letter to him, pasted it in to an e-mail, and clicked send. I waited nervously for his response, and when it came I was overwhelmed by the kind, calm and rational response. His reassuring reply (and I quote verbatim) included the following words of support, “Calm the f@$k down. I'm not going anywhere! We'll figure it out together ... I love you!” After breathing a huge sigh of relief, I thanked any deity who was listening that this man was in my life.

And securely in my life, he is. We are becoming more entwined with each passing day. Last weekend I met his nine year old daughter. Yes, this is the same daughter who I was told “would never meet a woman I was seeing until a ring was on her finger.” But given the fact that I have been spending time around his apartment, Ramón decided it was in everyone’s best interest if I was at least introduced to her as his “friend from the dorm at college.” I enjoyed meeting her over lunch and a couple games of “Go,” followed by ice cream. She is a thin, pretty girl, who is intelligent with a shy giggle. Upon meeting her I immediately thought of my young cousin Sierra, and making that connection left me much more at ease.

I had met Ramón’s baby mama in passing one day, and just last night Ramón and I met up with her for a little while. She is very laid back and quick to laugh, and in no way seems threatened by my presence. Next week Ramón’s parents will be in town, and he is arranging for the four of us to go to dinner. Getting to know the people in Ramón’s life is helping me understand how he lives it. He’s asked me to keep the specifics of his family life private, but I think I can say that it has taken me some getting used to, as his arrangement is not the typical “dad gets the kid on the weekends” type of deal.

Not only am I becoming immersed in Ramón’s family life, but I have welcomed him into mine. In early May I invited Ramón to go home to Chicago with me for the Fourth of July holiday. I am optimistic about our future together so felt comfortable planning for an event that was two months away when we’d only been together for one month. I am excited for our trip, but he is understandably nervous to have to follow in James' disappointing footsteps.

Our Fourth of July trip will be a pretty emotional and hectic weekend. Not only am I bringing Ramón with me, but my brother is bringing his girlfriend of over a year home for the first time. My maternal grandma will be up from Florida and will also be staying with my parents. Family from Texas is flying in to celebrate the holiday with my dad’s side of the family. Plus, my paternal grandmother is trying to convince my Great Aunt Mindy and her husband Jumpin’ Jack Flash to fly in from Vermont for the holiday. It’s been so long since I’ve seen Mindy and Jack that they never even met James!

In addition to the family events, my brother and I have decided to host a pool party at my parents’ house on third. We have invited all our local friends – from grade school through high school, and in my case the handful of college friends who landed in Chicago after graduation. Many of my childhood friends I have not seen since I was fourteen, but we have gotten back in touch through the wonderful world of Facebook. It would be such a blast to see some of them again. Many of the visiting family members will also be invited, including my aunt Crystal and the cousin we had lunch with at Christmas (along with my cousin’s mother, whom I have not seen since she divorced my mom’s now-estranged brother some fifteen years ago).

I am looking forward to being surrounded by all these friends and family. I know if I were alone that weekend, I would likely spend it on my sofa in tear-soaked flannel pajamas, as though I were some Yankee Bridget Jones. My faithful readers will recall that the upcoming Independence Day (ha!) weekend will mark one year since James told me he was leaving me. One year! Part of me can’t believe it’s been that long, since I have come so far and am so happy, and yet part of me feels like the wound is still fresh. No one is more aware of this dichotomy than Ramón, and I often wish I hadn’t been hurt the way I was, if only for his sake. Yet whether it passed quickly or arduously, one year seems significant. I hope that when that day passes I will be able to let my relationship with James go once and for all. At this point I think I have learned all I can from it, and to dwell on it only prevents my current relationship from developing organically.

I know that, as Leona Lewis sings, “it will all get better in time,” and each milestone I have passed in the last year has helped me take one more step towards happiness and success. I am so glad that those steps forward now lead me into Ramón's waiting arms. I am thrilled to bring him home this year not only to introduce him to my family and show him where I grew up, but to create some joyful new Fourth of July memories with him and to feel some fireworks under the fireworks.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Chapter 11: Caring for Crystal

One of the main reasons I hesitated to tell my parents about James leaving me (aside from the large wedding bill they’d fronted mere months earlier) was my concern for how my mom’s nerves would handle the news. She had a dream in January of 2008 that James and I were getting a divorce, and at the time I reassured her that everything was going well with us. I think her dream was prompted by the fact that her youngest brother was separating from his wife and her older sister Crystal was beginning the process of divorcing her husband. I was to become the final piece to fulfill the prophecy that “bad things happen in threes,” and I was not sure she could bear it.

Once the truth inevitably came out, Crystal and I began commiserating on our parallel yet distinct situations. While I was about to turn thirty and had been with my husband for less than a year when he left, Crystal was about to turn sixty and had been married to her second husband Bert for thirty years. Divorce can be terribly isolating, and knowing someone else was in same situation (even if she was twice my age and had been married as long as I’d been alive) was a kinship we both understood and valued. Once our respective papers were signed (and we were both surprised at how easy that step in the transition was), we were not just a niece and an aunt, but two single women setting out on a new adventure, not really sure how we arrived at that trailhead in the first place.

Growing up, I’d always enjoyed hanging out with my aunt Crystal. She is a an extremely passionate person, whether it was about her sewing, her giraffe collection, building her backyard Koi pond, decorating for the holidays, entertaining her grandchildren or off-roading in her Jeep. Crystal has a laugh that is boisterous and loud, the kind that would be easily recognizable on a laugh track, were she sitting in a sit-com audience. After her parents moved to Florida, she was usually the one to host family gatherings and grew into a second-generation matriarch of the clan. Crystal moved up to Wisconsin with her husband to be closer to her grandchildren after they were born, so my visits home to Chicago included precious little time catching up with her.

Because I had not seen much of her in recent years, when my mom told me that Crystal and Bert were having marital troubles, it came as a shock to me. I knew Bert had been dealing with some health problems, but I didn’t realize the extent to which they affected his personality. After a heart attack many years ago, Bert’s company essentially forced him in to retirement. Bert did little to fill his newfound free time, and over the years became a slovenly couch potato who would go for days without bathing or getting dressed.

This behavior, coupled with his increasing confusion (bordering on dementia) accentuated the wide difference in their ages. Crystal, through a combination of clean living and hair dye, looks (and acts) much younger than her nearly-sixty years. Over time she began to resent the fact that he had essentially checked out whilst she wanted to remain an active participant in all life had to offer.

Crystal would work long hours to support them, and upon returning home would find that Bert had done nothing to contribute, such as chores or projects around the house or even preparing her a simple meal to come home to. No matter how many hours she picked up at her job, it never seemed to be enough to cover their cost of living, especially when compounded by Bert’s medical bills.

Not willing to throw in the towel on a life they had spent thirty years building, the two tried couples counseling for a grueling three years. Whether it was senility or just stereotypical maleness, Bert couldn’t seem to comprehend Crystal’s unhappiness and made no effort to change his ways. Crystal had finally had enough and decided that divorce was the only solution to alleviate her misery.

Eventually they sold their house and Crystal traded in her beloved home with its pond for a two-bedroom apartment. Because she was downsizing, she sold most of her possessions (as I did when I moved), forcing her to take a hard look at what was important. One thing she rediscovered was music. Much as I rediscovered writing after I started “getting my fragments back,” Crystal realized she had found so little joy at home towards the end of her marriage that she had stopped playing the stereo all together. In her new bachelorette pad, her Mac sits on the desk in the kitchen, a constant stream of music filling the air.

She set up the second bedroom as a guest room so her grandchildren could visit, but the children’s parents were those of Bert’s offspring from his first marriage and Crystal’s step-children did not take too kindly to the divorce. They perceived that she had abandoned their ailing father when she had vowed thirty years earlier to be with him “in sickness and in health.” Crystal was barred from seeing her grandchildren, a blow I think she took harder than separating from her husband.

Bert moved in with one of his children, and even after the split she continued to care for him, taking him to the doctor and such. Slowly, she cut the apron strings and began to move on in earnest.

While I was in Chicago for Christmas in 2008, my mom and I drove my younger cousin out to Crystal’s new apartment to have lunch and catch up. I can’t think of the last time I laughed that hard, even going back before James and I split up. All four of us had tears streaming down our faces, and Crystal’s laugh was as riotous as it had ever been.

Crystal spent the entire afternoon regaling us with stories of her single life. After her divorce papers were signed, she joined an online dating service and had begun meeting men from throughout her metropolitan area. To keep them all sorted in her mind she would print out their profiles and jot down details she learned about them in their online and telephone conversations. This dossier of eligible bachelors ranged from young professionals to older bikers and everything in between. None of them resembled Bert in any way.

Crystal re-entered the dating scene after thirty years with as much passion as she had for any other project in her life. This, in her own words, rendered her a “slut.” She told us of the many strange dates she’d been on and the nights she spent bouncing around the city, laughing with one man or another. I had begun meeting guys by this point too, and Crystal encouraged me to follow her “slutty” example. To be sitting around a kitchen table with my aunt, mom and my twenty-one year old cousin where the word “slut” was tossed about with abandon was what had us in stitches. (This newfound vulgarity was at times a bit awkward for the younger two at the table. We were raised in a family of WASPs, after all!)

Around the time of our lunch, Crystal had been devoting the most attention to one man (who happened also to be named James), a distinguished, older, black gentleman. Crystal enjoyed his companionship, but was also pleased to rediscover her carnal side after so many years of being turned off by her mate. She e-mailed me after I returned to New York to fill me in on her adventures following our lunch, and her message pretty much sums up how she felt about her new beau.

Crystal wrote, “Slut life is fine here! I called to cancel my hair appointment the other day because James spent the night. My hairdresser said today that is the first time she had heard ‘something big came up’ as an excuse to change an appointment. ‘Forty-two years,’ she said, ‘and never that excuse.’ At my age ya gotta get what ya can, right?”

Crystal was open about her newfound romance, sharing her happiness with everyone from the customers at her store to her own mother. My Gram was of course a bit surprised that her daughter would be dating someone who was not white, but when emailed a picture was quick to comment on how handsome James was. My aunt knew my cousin has a propensity for dating black guys, and over lunch Crystal caused her young niece to blush fiercely when asked if the adage “once you go black, you never go back” was actually true. (My cousin did not respond.)

Crystal continued to see her James for a while, but their relationship was primarily confined to the bedroom, and she didn’t see how it would fare in the real world. He would often travel for work, and while Crystal had no reason to believe otherwise, she often wondered if James was honoring their tenuous commitment. Everyone has a deal-breaker when it comes to relationships, and for Crystal it is lying. She never caught him in a lie, but the unease she felt and his lack of effort to allay her fears was enough to warrant ending their fling.

She wrote me, “I think about how I have always believed that any relationship – to survive, grow, change, enhance – requires work. And that's what I did in my marriage. I always worked at it, and when Bert stopped working is when things fell apart. I want it all. I want to work at it all.”

Crystal and I would talk on the phone or email, and I often felt as though I were coaching her through her relationship ups and downs as I would a girlfriend. I would send her quotes that seemed pertinent to our conversations or relate stories from my own dating experiences. Towards the end of her relationship with James, Crystal received an enigmatic email from him. She forwarded it to me, adding simply, “I need a manual after thirty years!” I replied with the Amazon link to the book “He’s Just Not That into You.”

During one of our conversations we discussed the effort we’d been putting in to meet men. I had begun my writing project with the hopes of improving who I am as a person, and shared with her one of my favorite odes to singletons, from the exceptional Ms. Gloria Steinem: “There are many more people trying to meet the right person than to become the right person.” We both knew that without love for one’s self, it is impossible to share love with someone else.

In that regard, Crystal was struggling to figure out who she was in her new life, just as I was. She wrote me “I have lost my identity. I was a wife (no longer), a mother (no longer needed), a gardener (no longer), a Jeeper (no longer financially possible), and a grandmother (on their terms). These things defined who I was. They were my passions. And within the space of a couple months I lost them all. So I have to reinvent myself.”

One step Crystal has taken that I hope to explore soon was with her spirituality. She grew so depressed at the prospect of her first Christmas truly alone that she began seeking answers in uncharted territory. Crystal, a vocal atheist, began going to church. I could see how she ended up there. On one particularly dark day, shortly after I found out about my husband’s mistress, I was walking the streets of New York and thought to myself, “If I pass a church, I am going to go in. It will be a sign.” I didn’t happen to pass a church that day, but Crystal must have felt the same sort of tug.

I can understand how she found religion at this point in her life. Divorce throws everything in to question, and you want to find answers. You want to believe that even though you may no longer matter to that one person you were so devoted to, you still matter. You want to believe that there is a plan and that everything really does happen for a reason. Frankly, you just want to believe because hope seems so much more appealing than the hopelessness that threatens to take over after a divorce. Religion can provide that something to believe in.

I have been putting off my own deep spiritual soul searching because I don’t know that I can buy into the dogma of organized religion or even that I believe there is a man up in the sky controlling things on I. I was watching The Tyra Banks show one day (I know, I know), and she had on as a guest the woman who inspired the main character on the television show Medium. During the interview, the psychic said that if prayer is the way to ask God a question, meditation is the way God answers. I think my road to spiritual enlightenment may come through these channels rather than inside the four walls of a church. But for Crystal, the sermons she hears speak directly to her situation and her epiphany is helping her past her post-divorce depression.

Having her first post-divorce foray into romance under her belt, and well on the way to reclaiming her happiness and reinventing herself in her new life, Crystal ventured back out into the dating world. Right around the time that I initially started dating Ramón in February, Crystal met Chuck online. Their connection was instant and intense, and she was immediately more at ease with him that she’d been with her James.

Our two relationships seemed to run a somewhat parallel course at first, and Crystal and I would discuss our happiness as well as the bumps in the road. For me it was more of a bottomless pit than a pot hole when Ramón called things off between us in March. However, Crystal was able to work out her difficulties with Chuck through honest communication, no matter how brutal the truth was.

She emailed me, saying, “It's amazing to me (and maybe to him) that two people who know how they feel about each other and really want to be with each other (and have voiced this to each other) cannot just find happiness. I guess we both have baggage, and I just never thought of it as baggage. But if the communication stays open I think we'll be okay.”

Chuck (who, incidentally, rendered the answer to my aunt’s query a definitive, “No, you don’t go back.”) declared his love for her after just a month together, and she found herself falling for him too. Chuck introduced Crystal to his teenaged son, who immediately warmed up to my charismatic aunt. The couple spent an increasing amount of time together, yet one major issue hung over Crystal’s head.

My aunt, who is still recovering from the financial strain of caring for her ailing ex-husband, realized she could no longer afford her new apartment. She was faced with the choice of moving to Kentucky to live with her brother or seeing if Chuck was amenable to her moving in with him. There are three primary variables that can change in life: where you live, what you do and who you are with. If she moved to Kentucky, all three of those variables would be altered, with the one known being where she would be living. If Crystal moved in with Chuck, her location would not change greatly and she could theoretically keep her job. Plus she would not have to cut short her burgeoning romance.

Crystal was relieved when Chuck invited her to stay with him. The thought of losing her far outweighed the risks associated with welcoming her into his home. That security meant she could remain close to the majority of her friends and family, including her dear grandchildren, who live in the area. With geography and relationship status settled, Crystal set out to find (and secured) a job much closer to Chuck’s home. Crystal just recently moved many of her possessions in with Chuck. She must be happy and busy getting settled in, as I have not received any analytical emails from her since the decision was made. Their arrangement is for now on a bit of a trial basis. Most of her things went into storage and she knows that if things turn sour with Chuck she can always fall back on her idea of moving to Kentucky.

I know that our family must look at Crystal as foolhardy, but I understand where she is coming from. My renewed relationship with Ramón is turning out to be the same sort passionate, open and committed relationship she is experiencing with Chuck. At the end of the day, the people who love us just want us to be happy. I think Crystal and I have evidenced to our friends and family that we are rushing in not as fools but as experienced, optimistic romantics who have found something worth dealing with any snags that surface along the way.

Sometimes circumstances dictate that you must make tough decisions that would have otherwise been deferred, and you can only hope that your heart and your gut help you make the right choice. Whereas the tables turned when my idolized aunt turned to me as a sounding board, they have now turned back as I watch her life change. I hope for her continuing successes to be a portent of my own to come