Leaving the Job

In about a month, I’m going to be divorced from my job. In many ways the marriage has been fruitful. We’ve had wonderful children (projects) together; we’ve gone many places; we’ve grown; we’ve pushed each other to grow; and now we’re moving on. We are going our separate ways. We have other loves and other children and other journeys to take. Still, it’s weird. I have mixed emotions.

I find myself moody and at times sad and in need of attention. My friend Rachael said, “That’s good. As it should be.” I remember as a kid going to summer camp or to college and missing my crazy family like crazy. (Work has been like a family to me.) But I assured myself, “It’s okay. It’ be horrible if I was just happy to be rid of them. Just to be free.”

There is a longing for freedom — a desire to speak my truth and not care if my truth jibes with the dogma of the faith-based group. I want to scream from the mountaintops, “I love Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs! I love all religions — no one has a corner on truth. No one of you is more perfect than the rest!” And if I blog about how I love gay marriage I don’t want to fear some stuffy church exec pulling me aside, “You represent the agency so please keep your public opinions to yourself.” (Yes, that kind of thing, on occasion, happens!)

I’ll miss the family dramas. I’ll miss the comedy. I won’t miss the meetings.

I’ll miss my identity as a writer. I always felt I had the best job at the place. There are many writers who want to write full time. And for most of my 20 years with the agency (10, part time and 10, full time) I’ve done it. But writing for work is different than writing for your own passion. And because I’ve given at the office, I don’t always feel like giving out at home.

I gave the best years of my life to that workplace. (I get dramatic. Maybe the best is yet to come?) The agency made me better and I made the agency better.

Still, I feel untethered, unmoored. What am I doing? I need the apron strings of a day job to get by in NYC, especially since I have three kids heading to college within the next six years.

I assure myself I am not alone. I am one of 38 of the 201 full time staff of my agency who accepted this voluntary severance package. That’s about 20 percent of us, who are cut loose and footloose.

I’m starting my own business coaching writers. (Check out my new biz.) I’m freelancing writing and teaching in a couple of afterschool programs. Oh, and I’m going to every single one of my kids’ meets and games in track, swim, basketball, soccer, and gymanstics. I’m going to volunteer with the PTA, go on field trips, and help backstage at the shows.

Here’s the view from the top of my office building.

I’m not going far. I’ll still hang out with my old work friends for lunch, happy hour, maybe even to walk the 19 flights up to the roof, hit up the art opening, visit the ecumenical library, or take my old Pilates class. It is, it turns out, all of these peripheral things that I’ll miss, that I’ve added on to my work life, that have made my life meaningful. It is what I’ve brought with me. And these things, it turns out, I can take away.

I may be getting a divorce from work, but it is an amicable one. We still love each other very much and want only the best for one another.

Why?

One of my daughters asked, “Why did he have to take her?”

The kids’ Sunday School teacher, Joyce Mwanalushi Landu, died suddenly while visiting her family in Zambia a couple of weeks ago. We learned the news last week. And it hit us very hard. I think Joyce was probably near 50 and the cause of death was heart-related.

Joyce was a beautiful, creative, spiritual person.

In a tribute at church yesterday, Laura talked about how Joyce never raised her voice or was physically affectionate or demonstrative, yet the kids were drawn to her and knew they had her respect. And she had theirs.

I believe Joyce truly loved my kids. Losing someone who loves you and whom you love is always crazy. It calls to mind all those people you’ve loved and who’ve died. A death makes you wonder about your own death and what kind of legacy you will leave. I would like to be remembered as someone who loved unconditionally, as Joyce did.

Australian hospice nurse Bronnie Ware, in her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, said that a top common regret from every dying man she tended was “I wish I didn’t work so hard.” I know I work very hard, sometimes too hard. But then, I play hard too. (This book was quoted in that Atlantic article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All)

I understand nothing of God’s plan. Why did Chris have to get Parkinson’s? I am tongue-tied when my kids ask “Why?”

the kids at Rutgers Church during prayer time

All I know is that I have to love the people I’m traveling through life with. I have to make art and love my peeps.

I have to remember:

Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. Perhaps you do carry within you the possibility of creating and forming, as an especially blessed and pure way of living; train yourself for that — but take whatever comes, with great trust, and as long as it comes out of your will, out of some need of your innermost self, then take it upon yourself.  –Rainer Maria Rilke from Letters to a Young Poet (1903)

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Camping on Fire Island

Why can’t life be more like camping?

I took the darlings camping to Fire Island this weekend. We got there via subway, commuter rail, a ferry ride and a long walk.

We left NYC on a crowded, rush-hour Long Island

finding shade

Railroad. Four hours later, we were sitting around a picnic table near our tents, listening to singing birds in a bush and roasting S’mores.

As I pushed our canvas cart through Penn Station, (Deliver me not into Penn Station!) balancing backpack and toppling cooler , one of my darlings said, “You look like a homeless woman.” Knowing Lorenza Andrade Smith who is beautiful, kind and homeless, I took this remark to be a badge of honor.

In my own defense, we used or ate every single thing we brought. Admittedly, the journey to the campsite was not as much fun as the experience at the campsite.

Once there, the best parts were:

  • the empty early morning beach
  • watching my son go for a run on the beach
  • diving into the frigid Atlantic on a steamy day. And once in the wave, having that momentary panic of not knowing which way was up!
  • a cold shower in the communal bathhouse
  • seeing the antlers of a deer emerge under the boardwalk
  • in the shine of our flashlight, catching a glimpse of a fox running from our site
  • on the middle-of-the-night bathroom run, meeting a father and son with lanterns who followed a toad wherever it led
The worst parts were:
  • mosquitoes
  • mosquitoes
  • mosquitoes
My take-aways:
  • Nature is incredible
  • Find shade
  • You don’t need your iPhone to be happy (the kids left their phones at home!)
  • My kids are awesome
  • We need each other
  • We can lean on each other

The whole camping experience had an Outward-Bound bonding experience for the four of us. We were resourceful. Of course, the kids bickered, which usually drives me crazy, but they also engaged in long conversations and activities, such as counting one another’s mosquito bites, which I think, numbered 72. Seriously. (And we were using strong insect repellent!)

As usal, we couldn’t have done it without our friends.

  • The aforementioned Lorenza Andrade Smith who inspired us to camp
  • Our church’s Boy Scout troop and the Scout Mistress Louisa Anderson who lent us the three tents
  • Joanna Parson who encouraged us and was going to join us but instead got theater work and gave us her campsite (So we had bedrooms and a dining room/kitchen)

Maybe life is like camping — a lot of work, a lot of fun, and too much sun.

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International Exchange

My girls from Botswana were so beautiful and so full of joy. The first of my 7 Rules of Living is Pile on the People.

Hosting two 17-year old girls from Southern Africa stay for a week brought us so much laughter. Hosting international students, in our case, amazing musicians, was meaningful on so many levels. We learned about their country, culture, school, and families. We learned about ourselves.

I fancy myself as someone who makes international friends easily. And when I was a kid, I dreamed of having a big, multi-racial, multi-ethnic family. It just feels so right to get to know and love people from other countries.

Growing up in suburban Chicago, we hosted Claudio, (I think he was from Brazil), for a couple of weeks. The Coudal kids (and mom) loved him like crazy. It’s amazing how quickly you can fall in love with people.

“Your kids are so great,” Lolo told me when we were all out to brunch yesterday. Yes, yes, I agree.

But she also said, as my kids were teasing me about my how bad my cooking is, “Girls, you are so mean to your mother. And your mother is so nice.” That made me feel good and bad. Good because, hey, she noticed how exceedingly nice I am, but bad, because my girls do put me down (as only teens and preteens can do). Do my kids tease me too much?

It’s a generational thing, I think — parents today, tolerate our children’s gentle jibing. We are not perfect and we know it and accept it. But throughout the day, I mulled this over. On the sidewalk, I bumped into my neighbor and confided my worry in him. He reported that his daughter puts her mother down too.

I have to think about this a little bit longer. I’ve already called a family meeting for tonite. On the agenda?

1. The kids were great international hosts. Let’s do it again!

2. Respect your mother.

3. Pile on the people!

Shabbat Dinner

We all need a healthy dinner and time to savor it. Family dinner time is a sacred space to sit down together, to chat, to chew, to lean back in your  chair, (even when you’re told not to).

Sure I say all this, but do we do it? Last night, I ordered pork fried rice, chicken with broccoli and spicy dumplings from the Cottage. I grabbed a few bites. Then I yelled, “Chinese food on the kitchen table,” over my shoulder.

I was running out the front door as my three kids ran in. I was going to my non-fiction class. The kids were coming home from math club, play practice and track team. My husband was working. That is how we roll — busy, busy, busy.

I believe in family dinner time. I really do. So we started a Friday night dinner ritual. We’re Christian, but our ritual is based on the Jewish tradition of Shabbat dinner. (Thanks to my friend, Joe Little, who suggested this as we sat on the sidelines of our girls’ Westside basketball league and to my upstairs neighbor Ran, who has invited us to many Friday night Shabbat dinners over the years.)

On Friday nights, we turn off the computer screens and phones, we meet in the kitchen and light a candle or two, we drink grape juice, and someone cracks open the Bible (we use the brilliant translation, The Message by Eugene Peterson).

We usually read one of the Psalms, because they’re poetic, dramatic and understandable. It takes all of ten minutes, but it’s an awesome way to decompress from the week and enter the weekend. And then we have dinner and just hang out.

Last week, after our Shabbat prayer and dinner, we played the card game, Spoons. Then we watched a movie. No biggie, just chilled and relaxed.

We should have Shabbat again tonite, but one of my girls has a statewide math competition, the other is going on a sleepover, and my husband has rehearsal. That just leaves me and my son. It’s fine that it’s just the two of us.

We’ll light a candle, read the Psalms, and savor some left-over Chinese food.

Girls Leadership Institute

Last weekend my twin daughters and I spent the weekend at Grace Church School in the Village for the awesome Girls Leadership Institute.

I was surprised to learn that girls’ friendships are their whole world. Hearing about the scenarios of the other girls reinforced this. In our role playing, there were many examples of small snubs that deeply, deeply hurt — like not being invited to a party. It is tough to be a kid!

One of my takeaways from the weekend was learning four steps to navigate a conflict.

1. Affirm the relationship

2. Use an “I statement”

3. Admit your contribution

4. Solve it together

I am pathologically nice and avoid conflict at all costs. So this was good for me. I realized that I skate over step #1. And #3 too. Somehow I never fail to notice and feel the wrongs done to me, but I may not always see or feel my contribution to a conflict. (Me? Perfect ole me?)

I have to acknowledge that, “In 99% of arguments, both sides somehow contributed to the conflict…” That blew my mind. Everyone is always quick to blame others. But realizing that we each have a role in the conflict may make the solution more accessible.

At times, I felt a little strained in the workshop, because I was the only parent there with twins. The twelve or so other mothers all had just one daughter to intensely talk with or role play with. I was trying, as I always do, to be fair and distribute my attention equally. The facilitators were supportive and sometimes worked with one of the girls one-on-one, but I don’t think they were used to twins with one parent.

All in all, it was a totally excellent weekend. We learned a lot and we are already implementing it around the house (although their big brother is a bit dismissive (maybe he’s a little jealous?)) I think I need to affirm that relationship with my son, maybe even use an ‘I statement,’ admit my contribution, and then we can solve it together. That will be fun.

Forgiving the Bad Apples

We had a class meeting the other night. One parent reported that a few bad apples have spoiled the whole class’s reputation. Several people nodded and one parent said something like, “Yes, if we were rid of those bad apples, everything would be fine.” Most of us nodded. (I didn’t even know the bad apples, but what she said made sense. Like the song goes, “One bad apple don’t spoil the whole bunch, girl.” Oh, wait, one doesn’t spoil the whole bunch! Good to know!)

One woman spoke up, “I think we’re too involved. Let’s let the kids work it out themselves.”

Jones Beach in winter

Another said, “Yes, we should teach our children to be forgiving. We hold our grudges for too long.”

Walking out with these new friends from the meeting, I said to the woman who advocated forgiveness, “What a powerful idea. I forget about forgiveness.”

“Some of my students’ parents still remember when their child was wronged in 1st grade and I teach 8th grade,” said a new friend, a teacher in another school. “We have to let go.”

I’ve thought about this conversation for several days. I wonder if I, like many people, define myself by NOT being one of the bad apples (and certainly none of MY children are rotten!). And I’m not sure I always forgive and forget.

I have always liked being a good apple. And have enjoyed the smug pride of my righteous, responsible and kind nature.

I actually despise bad apples. I detest overly negative people. (Especially since giving up gossip again this Lent!) And yet, I recognize the irony — I am extremely negative about negative people.

I wonder if I might try this new practice of forgiving the bad apples, the good apples, the negative people and even, myself.