Creating Community

Long ago explorers and settlers left their communities not knowing what they would find. Whether on foot, boat, horse or wagon, they set off with vague stories from those who came before and carried uncertainty along with meager provisions. Some intended to return and others planned a one-way journey to create a new start for themselves and others. I often wonder whether I could push into the unknown like they did; by the time I made a habit of leaving my hometown, I had the benefit of well-paved roads, efficient air travel, and international banking.

The last time I left was the hardest. That time it wasn’t just me it was us and we had built the kind of deep roots that are hard to dig around and even harder to transplant in new soil. We had a nice home in a pleasant neighborhood within easy driving distance of family. Our children, ages 12 and 9, had developed their personalities, friendships and activities. We had shifted into the comfort and confidence of knowing where we liked to go and what we liked to do, individually and as a family. Consequently, my announcement that we were moving so mom could take on a new awesome job didn’t have everyone jumping into the Dodge Caravan with joyous enthusiasm.

If we had been in a real caravan, I’m pretty sure I would have been lost in a tragic and mysterious accident.

But, we persevered. We found a house, enrolled the kids in new schools. Sought out activities and started the difficult process of building our new normal with only our nuclear family as a starter kit. At the time, I was too busy establishing myself in a new job in a new company to actively worry about whether or not our roots were healthy. But, looking back I know when our new community started to feel like home. When it felt like we were in a place where we belonged and could be happy.

Sometime in our first year we were in the mood for middle eastern food. We were still finding our way to anyplace beyond the grocery store and the kids’ schools using Google Maps, so I pulled up this relatively new foodie app called Yelp and searched for “middle eastern” near me. The result showed a place with a five star rating (not a ton of reviews, but the restaurant had just opened) in the community next to ours. We’d never been there, but thought, ‘what the heck it’s only 20 minutes away’, piled the kids into the car and took off.

When we pulled up to the restaurant it was the end space in an unremarkable strip mall that also included a convenience store and an ice cream shop. The parking lot was small and weirdly shaped to fit on the corner. We passed a wondering glance at each other, double checked to make sure the GPS hadn’t failed, and then made a split second decision. We headed in.

I wish I had more crisp, clear memories of that first time. I don’t remember finding our way to a table or navigating the menu. I’ve watched the owners, Mike and Marlene, welcome so many people now I suspect that I am remembering those seatings and not my own. I am certain they told us to take any table that we would like. How they greeted us warmly, answered any questions. They would have come with the bread and sauces in big squeeze bottles without any worry about profit as they relished our enjoyment of the food. They finished our meal by giving us baklava “on the house” — I do remember feeling special for many visits with that kind offer. And, it didn’t make me feel any less special when I realized that all guests get that treatment.

After that first visit, we came back regularly. Once or twice a week someone would ask, “How about Marcos?” and the rest would smile widely and we would all jump into the car. We built our community around that place.

My son would only eat chicken tenders and ranch dressing when we started going there. Slowly, Mike coaxed him into trying Lebanese specialties bit by bit with free samples. First, one link of kafta. Later, a plate of shawerma. Then falafel and bourak. Ask him about the time when he still ate chicken tenders at Papa Marcos and he’ll get somber; he sees that as a deep affront to his great love of middle eastern food, something he deeply regrets.

Every out of town guest would get taken to Papa Marcos. We would take up one of the long tables set up for six or eight and Mike and Marlene would want to know who they are and where they are from. They would recall, when people visited again, how they connected to us and why they mattered. When it was just the four of us again, they would want to know how our family back home was doing, remembering that our people were somewhere else.

We watched their young son Sharbel grow from a toddler to a young boy who would show off his tablet games to our son, just enough older than him to be amused by the conversations and not annoyed. Once I remember that my son thought of a cool Lego set that he had miraculously kept in the box with all the pieces, “Do you think Sharbel would like this?” he asked. It went on the next visit.

Even my husband, notorious for not liking onions or peppers, didn’t have to ask or feel bad for getting his shawerma with “tomato only” or wanting a bucket full of tahini sauce. They always put two bottles at our table and once or twice, they sent us home with a bottle to go with our leftovers because they just knew us and cared.

When we moved home again, after eight years in Illinois, the one thing we agreed we would miss was Papa Marcos. Every middle eastern restaurant we go to is compared to them and they all come up short. “Not as good as Mike’s,” we say. It’s the food, yes, the food is incredibly good. But that wouldn’t, by itself, have helped us shift from visitors to members of a community; they helped us be a part of something bigger when we had left everything we loved behind.

Last week, I found myself on a work trip in Chicago. With a car and one open evening, I drove 45 minutes to see them. Coming in the door I saw Marlene at the counter and Mike heading off to a table. I caught their eyes and we smiled. It was like I’d never left as we fit the exchange of friendship around the bustling needs of a restaurant. Hugs and “how’s the kids” and what is going on in the life flowed as easily and happily as the food coming out of the kitchen and the to-go pick-ups in and out the front door.

Sitting alone in the corner booth I saw a couple in their early twenties come in. I didn’t want to eavesdrop but I heard enough to recognize that they were at Papa Marcos for the first time. Me being me, I poked my head around the booth back and asked, “Did you just find this place?” They shared that they had found them online and the young man noted that pulling up they weren’t quite sure what to expect. Chefs from out of town, they had decided to give it a try, wanting something better than fried food at the amusement park. I smiled. “Good choice.”

There are moments in your life when you don’t realize at the time that everything has changed. You continue on, thinking it was just another day, just another drive, just another “no cook Friday” dinner. It is only looking back that you see it for what it was, a thread so inexplicably woven into your family’s fabric that you can’t imagine what you would look like without it. Would you be the same people? Would your story be the same?

That happened the first time we walked into Papa Marcos Restaurant — and now they’re stuck with us. No take backs.

Middle-Aged Like

I cut myself yesterday morning. It was a quiet Sunday and I had already chopped up potatoes for home fries and scrambled some eggs, the kind of breakfast I can only make on a weekend. Then I remembered the ripe pears in the fridge, grabbed one and set to slicing it up — but I caught my pinkie instead. I yelled a swear word and called for help, looking away as I ran my finger under the water of the faucet. By the time my husband made it the short distance to me, I was already feeling faint and the blood was pounding in my ears making my head feel like it was in a balloon.

This is my kryptonite.

Thankfully, it is not his. He deftly and gently bandaged me up, without judgement or critique. He got me a stool when I stated I needed to sit down and a bit later, when I admitted that I was struggling to sit up, he helped me to the couch and covered me with a blanket. It’s hard for him to understand how incapacitated I get with wounds and blood, but he hates to see me hurting and in pain so he just goes about fixing it the best he can.

In just over six months, I’ll have been married 25 years to this man. And, while I love him as deeply and fully as I love anyone else on this planet, what I’m most grateful for is the fact that I really like him. He is a capable, caring man who can be counted on to do the right thing for the people in his tribe. He grows deep roots that don’t waver when the wind blows. He doesn’t seek out new experiences, but when faced with something new he gives it due consideration, wrestling with new ideas and circumstances as long as it takes until he finds a way to incorporate it into his world view. He takes care of what is his making sure everything works as intended, whether it is a HVAC system or a broken arm.

He is one of the finest men I have ever met and just looking over at him on a random Monday evening is the most comforting thing I know.

You don’t realize in the wooing stage what it means to be with someone for 25 years. You’re wrapped up in assessing the flashy moments — witty conversation over a fancy meal, how they look in a tight pair of jeans, whether the chemistry is world on fire good. Wooing is about passion and the promise of a forever romance for the storybooks.

And yet none of that stuff is what middle-aged like is made of.

No, middle-aged like is the camaraderie built through more than 1,000 trips to the grocery store, arguing over the right ketchup or a deal on chicken breast. It’s how you share cleaning up the messiness of life in the form of diapers, dishes, vomit or dog poop. It’s how you hold the hand of an aging parent or rub the head of a geriatric pet, yelling and crying at each other because it’s just not fair to have to say good-bye. It’s the every day process of figuring out three meals a day and doing endless loads of laundry — wondering the whole time why it is so hard to be an adult and how your parents managed to do it so easily when you’re struggling.

In the day-in day-out course of living, it isn’t surprising that some folks fall out of like with their partners. I consider myself ridiculously fortunate to enjoy the every day moments with someone I would choose again today if given the choice. As we face a time in the not-so-distant future when our kids leave us empty nesters, it feels like we’ll find a way to fill the time. We’ll bum around on random errands, sit out on the boat, share late night talks and Netflix binges. We’ll live a life as boring and as beautiful as a sunrise, together.

And if we’re lucky, really lucky, we’ll find a path through middle-aged like and we’ll end up hand-in-hand, doddering through our old age.

Getting the Jump on Time

I woke up this morning cursing daylight savings time. Now, you may be nodding your head in solidarity — who likes losing an hour of sleep? — but I actually love daylight savings time. For a person like me who loves sunshine and hates mornings the annual “spring forward” is a small price to pay for 239 more hours of enjoyable sunlight. So, it was weird when I woke up this morning and struggled to be excited.

Normally, I spend the Sunday morning after the big shift lazily waking up without an alarm. I open my eyes whenever it feels right and look around at the various clocks throughout my house unconcerned with which ones are right and which ones are wrong. I spend the whole day with chronological near misses, constantly asking, “Is this clock right?” but it actually doesn’t matter. I am weekend calm and the answer really isn’t all that big a deal — we have all day to figure it out.

This morning was different. I’m traveling for a women’s leadership development conference and today’s agenda starts at 7:00am. At last night’s event, the organizers were insistent that individuals should not miss our start time so I came back to my room and developed an elaborate scheme. I was going to ensure that I didn’t screw up by changing my phone from automatic sync to manual sync and I would set it forward before I fell asleep, just like in the olden days.

Take that, I thought. I’ve got this handled.

Well, when my alarm went off on my cell phone at 6:00am on the nose, I saw that the hotel’s alarm clock still showed 5:00am. No worries, that was to be expected because everyone knows that alarm clocks need a human being to update them. But, in an over abundance of caution (and because my Spidey sense was tinging) I thought I better confirm the time using one of a million “what time is it” websites. Site after site stated it was 5:00am, not 6:00am and I sat there befuddled, wondering which data was right.

“Is this clock right?” felt strangely urgent.

So, I jumped out of bed and called the hotel front desk where a nice woman confirmed that I had — in my over-engineered attempt to not screw up and miss my meeting — sprung forward two hours. My smart phone had refused to be dumb and regardless of my attempts to make the change proactively still adjusted to daylight savings at 2:00am as per the careful programming. Sheepishly, I hung up the phone and headed to the shower.

We’ve all been there, faced with a failed plan and stuck not knowing how to move on. If I wanted to, I could whip myself into a frenzy and spend the rest of the day disappointed. I could be angry about technology, frustrated with my plan, or embarrassed by my own incompetence. I could be, but I won’t.

Because in the end, instead of rushing down to the breakfast at 7:00am, I was dressed and ready to go at 6:00am. I pulled my iPad out and wrote this blog post. From one perspective I did lose an hour of sleep, but I gained an hour of reflection. And more importantly I gained another remarkable moment that makes my life not just a series of days, but a series of stories.

And I’ll gladly be sheepish (and sleepy) in exchange for that.

Surviving Midwestern Winter

Someday, spring will come. I feel compelled to remind myself of that as I trudge through the final weeks of our midwestern winter, sitting on my heated seats and wrapped in my massive “blarf” — an accessory that is part blanket, part scarf. Winter is my least favorite season and I haven’t warmed to it over time.

No pun intended.

The certainty of a new spring inspires me. No matter how depressing the graying piles of snow and constant overcast skies can be, I know deep in my heart that brighter days are ahead. Last week, I got out of the office at a decent time and actually pulled into my driveway before the sun set. I smiled, pleasantly surprised by the proof of lengthening days.

It seems odd that I’m still surprised, pleasantly or otherwise, by something as banal as beating a sunset home. After all, I have lived most of my life within the Great Lakes basin, watching the same pattern for nearly 46 years. The dark, cold months of winter finally drag everyone but the skiers, snowmobilers, and ice fishermen into a funk and then one day the college kids are wearing shorts with daffodils popping out of the ground.

Poof, spring.

I love the seasons, love the fact that our oblong orbit around the sun can create a pattern of life that takes me into cold darkness only to bring me out again. It’s like the universe is speaking just to me, “Don’t worry, Mel. Yes, we will make your day-to-day living miserable. Going anywhere will be a pain in the butt and you’ll feel constantly cold. All you will want to do is stay inside next to a roaring fire in your footie pjs under a fuzzy afghan wishing you had been born in Tampa instead of Toledo. But we promise that it will get better. One day, you’ll walk outside and the air won’t hurt your face.”

And sure enough one day I walk into my garage without my coat. Later, I get into my convertible for my commute. Then one weekend we put the boat in the water and the snow is just a fuzzy memory that Facebook will remind me of in the years to come.

I guess I could move somewhere where the seasons are less dramatic. If I really wanted to I could move to a place where the coldest days bring rain and an inch of snow is considered an oddity. A friend from high school moved to New Orleans. Several friends now live in North Carolina. Someone else just took a three-year gig in Fiji. No one is forcing me to stay here, a mere 300-miles northwest of where I was born. But, what would I look forward to? What would I do without a winter to survive?

Winter to me is a metaphor for every low, dark moment of my life. Every time that it feels too dark, too cold, and too exhausting I remember that spring will come. I find a quiet place and think about the way I feel when the grass starts to green up and I can sit out on the deck without a coat. I envision laying in the sun on the back of the boat, eyes closed against the bright until the heat is too much and I move into the slice of shade created by the bimini. I imagine the wind in my hair and tunes loud in my ears as I drive with the top down, mile after glorious mile.

And somehow, no matter how much snow is piling up in my life I know that spring will come.

So, I guess I’ll stay. Midwestern winters may be long and cold and brutal, but the summers are fabulous. I’m not sure I would appreciate just how fabulous if I didn’t have to survive one to get to the other. Philosophers and psychologists can explain it better, but for me it’s simple. Every year I put my blarf away I have another data point that proves without a doubt that I’ll make it.

But please, for the love of all that is good, let spring come soon.

What Experience Teaches Us

When I was 22 years old I went to buy my first car. Actually, I was buying my fiancĂ©e’s car. Actually it wasn’t a car, it was a stripped down Ford Ranger pick-up, silver with a blue pinstripe. We were both so young, kids really. But, months away from getting married we knew it had to be done so we walked into the dealership and did the best we could.

We thought we had negotiated pretty well, navigating good figures for both trade-in and rebates. We felt good about the overall deal until we found ourselves sitting across the desk from the “finance guy”. Then, looking at the paperwork thrust in front of our wide-eyed faces, I saw a number that didn’t make sense. I pointed to the figure and stated confidently that something wasn’t right — that wasn’t what we had agreed.

I still remember the feeling when he laughed.

He calmly and patronizingly told me that I didn’t understand. No, the discount or rebate (I don’t remember which) was there, I just couldn’t see it. It’s a common error that most first time buyers make, he said assuring us that it was there. It was garden variety razzle-dazzle ‘pay no attention to the man behind the curtain’ that I would never fall for now, but that was more than 20 years ago. Then, I was just a young woman figuring out my role in my forever relationship, uncertain in how much was too much. My stomach twisted but I accepted the slick words and let the moment go. My fiancĂ©e signed the papers.

Having lived through that experience, I can empathize with people who find themselves on the wrong side of a scammer. I’m a smart capable person, I have good judgement and confidence in asserting what I believe to be true. And yet, I can think back to that moment where none of that mattered. Someone with more experience and less gumption took advantage of us to make a sale and likely put a few more dollars in his pocket. If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.

Many years later when I was in management at an automotive company I was attending a women’s leadership event and we were talking about the dealership experience. All of the people talking — myself included — had long since moved beyond buying cars as “normal people.” By that time I was eligible for two management lease cars a year, cars that I custom ordered online and picked up in a special employee garage. My car payments were deducted automatically from my paycheck, insurance was included, and maintenance was as simple as showing up 30 minutes early to work and handing over my keys. But, I remembered that young woman and that feeling; I raised my hand and asked whether we could really understand the dealer experience when we no longer purchased cars from dealers.

Every experience that I have gives me another opportunity to put myself in someone else’s shoes. The early married years when we drank Kool-Aid and ate Kraft Mac & Cheese, when a “luxurious” week would be Hamburger Helper and the cheapest pound of ground beef we could find. The time I held my infant son in my arms when the anesthesiologist put him under and he went limp in my arms and I panicked a little, even knowing what was going to happen. The confusion when a group of men in Australia asked me if I owned a gun, the joy each time the nurses placed my new born babies in my arms.

There are so many experiences I will never have, experiences that are missing for me because of the fickleness of my birth. Those limitations make it harder for me to appreciate the unique opportunities and challenges others have faced, my ignorance makes it harder for me to empathize with them. So, I keep my ears open to their stories, whether it is across the lunch table or through a podcast. I try to imagine what it would feel like to believe that my father rejected my kidney because I was gay or to lose my husband to an avalanche and feel responsible.

What if that was me?

Throughout the government shutdown, I have wondered how each person’s lived experience has informed their perception of situation. Have you lived paycheck to paycheck or have you always had access to savings and credit? Have you struggled with child care or do you have a strong support network? Have you been furloughed or laid off or have you had secure income? Have you ever been declared an “essential” employee and had to work regardless of pay?

For my part, I know that I saw the whole thing play out through my filter. One year, as part of a cost savings effort in my public sector job, we all had to take 10 furlough days — unpaid time off. With reasonable financial security at that time, I was able to mostly enjoy the extra time off with my family but I knew others who couldn’t absorb it as easily. Even with decent notice and the ability to space the days out, some people were acutely impacted. And that was about half as long as the federal employees experienced — all at once, unplanned, after the biggest shopping holiday of the year.

I am thankful for each of my experiences, both the good and the bad, because they connect me to my humanity. Talking with others I am reminded that I am not alone, that my experiences may be mine, but they are not only mine. I laugh sometimes when I realize how common my experiences are, like just yesterday when I saw an Old El Paso commercial about two taco shells making sexy talk in front of their teenage daughter. We do that and our daughter responds exactly the same way.

Exactly.

This is the part of each post where I usually bring it all together with some quiptastic turn of phase. I don’t have that tonight. All I know is that I am truly grateful today — and every day — for the variety of experiences that I have been able to have, for the friends that have let me into their lives, and for the strangers that share their experiences through their stories.

Tell me another one.