New Year Optimism: Happy 2018!

I love New Year’s Day. I wish that I could boil this feeling down into concentrated drops and place one under my tongue every morning, so that each day starts with this page-turning feeling full of possibility and hope and freshness. There’s no reason it shouldn’t. My intention for 2018 is to make that a practice.

2017 was a very difficult year for me, as it was for many people. Beyond the state of the nation and the daily onslaught of horrible news, I went through some personal crap that really hurt me. I became obsessed with those events and the feelings they triggered, my brain repeating and magnifying the pain on a non-stop loop that would literally wake me up at night. That negativity became a sort of involuntary, wordless mantra that crept into all aspects of my life.

The good news is that I’m old enough and self-aware enough to realize that this is not okay and furthermore, this is not ME. I have learned, after years of managing depression, to separate the part of my brain that beats me up from the part that is worth protecting, and I can intervene. (Worth noting: if you cannot see that separation or you can’t muster the will to intervene, that’s when you need professional help.) So I fought it, but it’s been a tough battle that I’ve been fighting for the better part of a year.

Apparently, as every podcast, self-help book and spiritual tradition in the world will tell you, the solution to this swamp of negativity is gratitude. Over the last month, I’ve received that message in a hundred different ways: notice the good. Be grateful. Celebrate what’s right, what’s working, what you have. Direct your focus to the positive things.

So, that’s the plan for 2018: to be more deliberate about noticing the good, being grateful and celebrating. This applies to everything: my job, my home, and especially myself. I want to keep a gratitude journal but I also want to pause several times a day to quickly inventory what’s good in the moment. I want to develop a new pattern in my brain.

In that spirit, I sat down this morning and made a list of good things that happened in the generally craptastic year of 2017.


The Women’s March: I walked in the Women’s March in Orange County last January and it was incredibly uplifting. Throughout all the ugly political news of the year, I could close my eyes and remember what 20,000 people marching in solidarity looks like, and know they are just tiny sliver of people in this world who will stand up for good.

Murphy’s Surgery:  In 2016 I found and fell in love with an injured stray dog who needed an expensive knee surgery. In February 2017 I was able to get him that surgery, thanks to donations from friends and a charitable grant. A couple weeks ago, we watched this little guy running on the beach in blissful abandon: four solid knees and one huge pit bull smile.

Our garden:  My daughter and I removed some ugly old shrubs in our tiny back yard and replaced them with a bed of interesting plants and a raised vegetable garden. Some of our plants were more successful than others, but the process was a pleasure, and we ate food that we grew ourselves, so we’ll call that a win.

Reconnecting with an old friend: This was a twofer. My dear friend from high school, Christina, is also a writing coach and all-around wise woman. We went for years without talking, then years when we’d talk once or twice. In 2017 we began regularly scheduled calls where we’d have a long talk, then do a writing prompt together. From those calls, I got writing practice, some desperately needed human connection and a reminder of who I am from someone who knows me better than almost anyone. (A threefer, I guess.)

New Job: I started a new job in 2017 that pays much better than my old one and offers better opportunity for professional growth. It also brought new friends, a new area of SoCal to explore and an hour-long commute, which seemed like a minus until I started thinking of it like this: each day, my commute affords me a couple hours of solitude in which to listen to audiobooks, music and podcasts…which brings me to…

Podcasts: I found some podcasts that I love. Thank Oprah for Super Soul Conversations which has featured some of my heroes including Elizabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, and my new guy, Shawn Achor, whose book The Happiness Advantage is first on my reading list for 2018.

The Story Intensive: Christina recommended an online writing course called The Story Intensive that I completed in the fall. It was difficult and uncomfortable, and I learned a lot about my writing and myself. I also wound up with new writing friends around the world, a draft of a short story of which I’m fairly proud, and a renewed relationship with writing.

Morro Bay Girls: Out of the blue, I got an invitation to spend the weekend at a beach house in Morro Bay (on the Central California coast) with three cool women, none of whom I knew well (outside of Facebook) before that weekend. Just hanging around those girls in that sleepy, beautiful place was a balm to my heart. We’re having a replay this weekend and I can’t wait.

Last night, I was ranting about what a terrible year it was; how glad I was to see it go…and this morning, after making this list, I realized that there was a lot to be grateful for. I want to notice the good things in real time and not let the pain of life cancel out all the joy. So, more lists, I say! Lists every day! Notice the good things, document them, celebrate them. Train my brain to be constantly on the lookout for what’s positive.

Happy New Year—regardless of what kind of year it turns out to be—let’s be happy in 2018.

Still Beautiful: A Poem for Independence Day

O beautiful, for spacious minds
That think, despite the fear,
Of other views besides their own,
Perspectives far and near!
America, America!
Can we be truly free
Without the good of brotherhood
And rich diversity?

O beautiful, for those who pause
To listen ‘fore they speak
To understand their fellow man
Though some may call them weak.
America, America!
Has greed torn us apart?
Have party lines and dogmas blind
Replaced our human hearts?

O beautiful, for peaceful dreams
That seem so out of reach
When anger and hostility
Pervade our daily speech.
America, America!
Open your eyes and see!
How have we lost, and at what cost
Our common decency?

O beautiful, for patriots wise
In discourse and debate
Through demonstrations, protests, votes
Fight bigotry and hate.
America, America!
Let love and reason be
Our standard guide, in us abide
From sea to shining sea!

O beautiful, for lingering hope
Of future bright and fair
When laws are just and Earth robust:
Clean water, sky and air!
America, America!
May grace indeed we find
And someday rest with none oppressed,
At peace with all mankind!

The Sentimental Crockpot

File Jun 18, 12 26 38 PM

This is my crockpot, circa 1998. Most of my kitchen is stocked with items from 1994, the year I got married. This one is from the year I got divorced. It’s not the most modern slow cooker, and fellow party-goers make jokes about it, despite the exceptionally tasty meatballs I’m usually toting in it. I could get a newer one that would probably work better and be less “retro-chic,” but this one has sentimental value. My dad gave it to me. He’s been gone eleven and a half years now, and few things call him to mind as quickly as this old-school crockpot.

My dad and I didn’t have the warmest relationship. He wanted four kids; I am Kid #5. I have no idea how old I was when my mom told me that, or why she told me, but my revisionist memory makes it seem as if I have always known this.

What I remember most about my dad was him watching TV by himself in the family room. Sometimes he’d shout clear from one end of the house to summon me from my room on the other end, only to ask me to change the channel. He could be gruff, even taciturn. But when he was in a good mood, he was hilarious, telling us funny stories, sometimes pranking us or our mom. He teased a lot, and you couldn’t tell when he was joking. I was the sensitive one who’d get hurt feelings and run crying from the room, which would piss him off. No wonder our relationship was a little strained.

Most of my childhood memories are hazy at best, and few of my dad remain at all. This one, circa 1977ish, sticks: I was sick in bed, in my yellow bedroom where the daisies from the wallpaper marched straight across the curtains. I don’t remember feeling sick, so there’s a high likelihood that I was faking it and my mom put me to bed to call my bluff, but I can’t be certain.

My dad came home and appeared in my doorway. “You’re sick?” he asked. I nodded. He vanished for a few minutes, then returned with a bowl of peanut M&Ms. From the doorway, he flung his hefty frame onto the bed next to me, causing me to bounce on the mattress and the M&Ms to jump from the bowl onto my pillow. “Would some M&Ms make you feel better?”

My dad loved me, and I knew that. But like many fathers of his day, my dad’s chief role in the family was provider. The nurturing, daily kid management, and responsibility for creating happy memories was my mom’s arena, so she got most of the credit and most of the affection.

Take Christmas morning, for example. In our family of six kids, Christmas morning involved a spectacular pile of wrapped gifts under the tree. We’d open our clothes, books, art sets, toys…each receiving a haul of gifts that my mom had shopped for, selected and wrapped. And we’d say, “Thanks, Mom!”

She’d correct us, of course. “Thanks Mom and DAD,” she’d insist. Year after year, she’d have to remind us that the gifts were from both parents. She did the shopping, but his paycheck funded the bounty.

Having lived most of my adult life as a single parent, I now recognize the financial feat required to raise six kids in Southern California.  I remember money being a touchy topic, and I know sometimes my mom had to work miracles with the budget, but we always had what we needed and then some. I think now of all the years my dad went to work each day and came home to a house full of kids who needed shoes, orthodontic treatments, football uniforms, piano lessons, and of course, mountains of groceries. I know he didn’t get to enjoy much of his paychecks. I know how that sacrifice feels, and I appreciate him now in a way that I couldn’t when I was a kid.

I know that sacrifice was an expression of love from a father that didn’t easily express love. The crockpot was another one.

My marriage was rocky from the start. We were twenty-one-year-olds with a one-year-old son, trying to do the right thing by getting married. That struggle is a different story, but suffice it to say that of our four-year marriage, we spent two years in marriage counseling until, on the brink of a nervous breakdown, I finally gave up.

File Jun 18, 12 12 35 PM.jpeg

He gave me away when I got married. Fortunately, he also took me back when I got divorced.

The second-hardest part was telling my parents. Seems like all the bad news I ever delivered to my parents was sitting on that same brown sofa, my dad in his Dad Chair facing the TV. I was crying before I could get the words out. “I’m getting divorced,” I said. “He’s moving out next week.”

“Why isn’t he already out?” he barked. Then, with his usual sensitivity, “Why are you crying?”

I stayed for dinner. My mom served pepper steak. As I piled my plate with steak and peppers and potatoes and salad, I said, “I wish I had time to cook like this.”

“You just put it in the crockpot,” said my Dad, who seldom cooked at all.

“I don’t have a crockpot.” I replied.

The next time I went to my parents’ house was for my birthday dinner. My dad was unusually excited to give me my birthday present: this very crockpot.

My mom told me that it was his idea to buy it for me. Other than the gifts he gave her, and even those he often had help shopping for, this is the only gift I can ever recall that he thought of himself, shopped for himself, and wrapped by himself. And he did that for ME. Kid #5.

I knew he was worried about me, and what my life would be like as a single mom. I knew he was trying to make things easier for me with that thoughtful gift.

My dad softened up as he got older. He and my mom went through some rocky times themselves, and in the process of healing his own marriage, my dad seemed to crack open. He learned to say, “I love you” to us, though it would choke him up to speak the words. He spent less time isolated in front of the TV and became more engaged with friends, church, all of us and his grandkids. I know that my kids remember this happier version of my dad, and I’m so grateful for that.

When he was in his early sixties, a stroke took his balance. Later, a second stroke took his mind and mobility. Two years after that, in 2006, we said goodbye to him, all six of us with my mom together in his hospital room. That memory has not faded at all, but so many others are slipping away.

It’s good to have so many siblings, because they keep different memories. Soon we’ll be old folks who tell the same stories over and over to help us remember. This crockpot story will be one of mine.






Yes, We Do Have Fall in Southern California

I will have Autumn even if I have to make it myself.

I will have Autumn even if I have to make it myself.

People say we don’t have seasons in Southern California. After nearly forty years in Orange County, I disagree.  Sure, if you’re waiting for flaming maple trees and frosty mornings, I suppose you might be disappointed. But I can testify that we do indeed have a fall season, distinct and beautiful in its subtlety.

It was 97 degrees here today, and it still feels like fall to me. You just have to know what to look for.

Fall is in the slant of the light this time of year, the way the sunshine is particularly golden and the shadows particularly long. Fall is the shortening days and the rush to squeeze a walk into the last of the daylight savings twilight.  Fall is thirty-degree temperature swings that bring cool evening breezes and damp, dewy mornings when you can’t decide whether to run the heat or the air during your commute. Fall is the Santa Ana winds threatening in thick, dry breezes that crackle with electricity, then gusting into chaos and returning the smell of wildfires on amber afternoons.

Fall is school kids lingering at bus stops and traffic doubling as colleges return for the semester. Fall is the smell of hot, dry grass, taking me back to my brother’s football practice, triggering a double-edged nostalgia for junior high, with all its painful insecurity and hopeful possibility.

Fall is resisting the rush to sweaters and boots and embracing those last hot days in your sandals, though you’re longing for the temperature to drop, knowing that in a few months you’ll miss these sun-drenched days.

Fall is gambling on whether the last heat wave has come and gone, risking that your pumpkins will rot and your mums will wither if you put them on your porch too soon. And then, when you can’t take it anymore, fall is scattering bright autumn leaves that you bought at the craft store, lighting your apple spice candles, hauling out your Halloween trappings, stubbornly cooking chili and baking cookies with the air conditioning on, and making your own cozy season—regardless of the weather.

Butternut squash chili and pumpkin beer taste good no matter how hot it is outside. Really.

Butternut squash chili and pumpkin beer taste good no matter how hot it is outside. Really.