Three-Letter Word

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The other day I was driving to pick up my curbside order of groceries and it hit me that I was doing okay being a homebody in quarantine. Our weeks are centered around this home, where we have learned the best sunny spots at random times during the day, enjoy the company of our pandemic cats, the backyard trampoline is recess for the kids, and my exotic escape is a turquoise café table on the side of the house with potted plants to make me feel like I’m in Spain. A typical outing for us is a walk around the neighborhood, where we look for bugs, play a game of spot-a-cat (one point for each cat you see first), and keep track of holiday decorations, of which we have already gone through Easter, 4th of July, Halloween, and soon to be ending Christmas. Recently, I really put my children over the edge with a thrilling trip to play in tide pools, socially distanced, masked up. Petting sea anemone was like hitting the jackpot for my youngest child, who has now spent almost 20% of his life in the middle of a global pandemic.

In our previous life, we were barely home, running around from one obligation to the next. Sometimes the house went weeks without opening the blinds. I liked being busy in that previous life. We were the type to have plans every afternoon and every weekend. Summer vacations were spent going to as many places as we could cram in. I would make bucket lists for each season. Staying busy kept my mind off of the things I didn’t want to think about, the triggers I wanted to ignore. That busyness was my antidote to emptiness.

But in this new normal– one in which none of us could have predicted– the antidote to my emptiness has been stillness. I haven’t been on an airplane in a year and a half which is a record for me. There were no county fairs or trips to amusement parks. No hotel stays or restaurants. There was no need for any bucket lists.

Yet, the stillness has given me space to address my restlessness in ways I had never practiced. I’ve grown comfortable in the life of being a homebody. I have learned to embrace it. When I boil everything down, there are only a few things I really need, and I have it all. That is the kind of perspective you find when you are still. The realization that I don’t need much to be happy.

I also look forward to taking advantage of the airline credit I have. I’ve started dreaming of the udon we’ll eat in Japan and the elephants we’ll see in Thailand. I started doing a little research for the Africa trip I want to take in 2022. The wanderlust I have had since my teenage years still pulses through my veins.

That’s when it hit me. I’m now a homebody and a person with deep wanderlust.

And.

I’m both!

Do you remember Sex and the City, and the way each character was an exaggerated form of one characteristic about a woman? Samantha was confident and sensual. Charlotte was the good girl. Carrie was creative. Miranda was independent and cynical.

When the show was hot, we would all ponder which character we were most like. I was called a Miranda by more than one male in my life, because being an outspoken independent woman is a nail in your coffin . In reality, part of what made the show so appealing was that we could see ourselves in all of those characters, obviously in different proportions. I’m certainly not as bold as Samantha, but I’m not all Charlotte.

We’re Miranda.

And Carrie.

And Samantha.

And Charlotte.

And.

I’m not sure what started this idea that we have to be this or that, but humans seem to be drawn by labels. Maybe it’s an easy way of making sense out of an abundance of information in the world, kind of like picking a political party, your favorite sports team, a religion, or whether you’re going to be an athlete or a nerd at school. But life is more nuanced than that. Why do we label ourselves by these huge umbrellas that maybe don’t completely explain our stories? Why can’t we be an athlete and a nerd? Why do we have to pick one thing that we want to be when we grow up? Why can’t we register with a political party but not blindly follow everything they stand for? To put it in my geeky government teacher terminology, why can’t we pay closer attention to policies and voting records, rather than falling victim to glittering generalities?

I like to be creative like Carrie.

And I like to dress like Charlotte.

And I like to be free like Samantha.

And independent like Miranda.

I want to live in a world where we are free to be “and.” Samantha and Charlotte and Carrie and Miranda. And.

I think this is what makes us authentically human.

The kids and I have gotten into the new Netflix series Selena. When Selena died, I was in junior high. I had never heard of her in my small bubble. I remember waiting for the gates to open at the end of lunch and overhearing a group of Latina students upset about the news of her murder. I concluded that Selena was a Mexican singer who sang Spanish music, and in my bubble, there was no talk about her. No devastation over her loss, because we didn’t even know who she was. She belonged to someone else’s world. It was that black and white for me back then.

But Selena was not just a Mexican singer. She had Mexican heritage, but she was born in Texas and didn’t know how to speak Spanish when she started singing. Selena was a Tejano singer AND an American young woman who listened to Madonna just like every other American girl her age at the time. Selena had emerged as a rising star, but she had once been so poor her family lived in a house with seventeen people. There were so many details and nuances about this person that my little junior high brain couldn’t process. I just threw her name in a box in my head. I didn’t even watch the movie, but I remember when it played at the Buena Park theater, back in the days when we’d call our moms from the payphone after our movie was over.

Recently I’ve spent time watching footage of the news from the mid 90s covering her death. Thanks to technology, I can have a do-over. And thanks to Netflix and the beautiful art of storytelling, I had another chance to be touched by her amazing story.

I love the series because her story is inspiring and hauntingly tragic. We see her family’s hard work over the years. It was a total family operation. I’m incredibly touched by this as a mother, hoping and crossing every finger that I can have that closeness with my own children (maybe with less control issues). But I’ve ended an episode with tears on more than one occasion, in complete disbelief that this family and the world lost something so precious. My kids and I started a family ritual of watching one episode a night over dinner. It gave me the opportunity to talk about hard work and persistence with my kids. We discussed the American dream, and how that doesn’t fit into one box. We talked about impermanence– how it can all be over tomorrow. We talked about parents being too strict, children being too short-sighted, poverty, creativity. We started listening to her songs, Bidi Bidi Bom Bom blaring throughout our house. I think about Selena a lot, how she started, how she ended, how much harder I want to work because her story inspires me so much.

Selena’s song, I Could Fall in Love, came on over the radio as we drove home.

“Who is this?” I asked the kids. I frequently make a game out of guess-who-sings-this-song.

“Madonna?” all three guessed.

“No, but she should have been as big as Madonna.” And then to put it in their own pop culture terms, I added, “She would have been bigger than Taylor Swift.”

I watched an interview with Selena’s sister, Suzette Quintanilla. She talked about people assuming time heals loss. It’s been over 25 years since Selena died. I sympathize, knowing how people assume our little family must have completely moved on after my husband passed away almost five years ago.

Suzette said, “Death is powerful. When you lose a loved one, it leaves you scarred for life. But–but– there is so much beauty also in this ugliness. There’s tons of beauty. There’s her fans, how they love her, how much they care about her, how much joy people have in playing our music. To be able to click on Youtube and she’s there. And I can see her. And I can see her interviews and I can hear her voice. I truly am blessed.”

Sad and joyful.

Blessed and eternal suffering.

I feel like people are constantly looking for signs that you are not sad anymore. I don’t know if it makes them feel better or they think it means we feel better. I’m not sure. I think people are generally uncomfortable with other people’s pain. But I agree with Suzette. You don’t ever get rid of a scar left by death. But that doesn’t mean your life is all sad. You can be sad and still have more joy. You can be sad and still find beauty in how a person and experience made your life better. You can experience loss and still go on to live a full, beautiful life.

It can be scarring and it can spur new growth.

Painful and beautiful.

This is real life. We don’t have to be scared of real life.

We don’t have to be one or the other. I think it’s always “and” if we want to live an honest and authentic life.

At work, or in any organization, I find that there is a compulsion to propagate toxic positivity. Even when we know a situation is marred with problems, we are told we should spin it as an opportunity. We should be positive and encouraging. Put lipstick on a pig. Always look good. Tow the company line.

I resent anyone who wants me to partake in that toxic positivity. Toxic positivity asks people to compromise their feelings and to ignore reality. It asks us to trick people into thinking everything is good, even when it is not.

Toxic negativity is bad too. We all know people who are chronically drowning in their glass-is-half-empty mentality. They want us to commiserate with them and agree that life is terrible, which is just as disingenuous as saying life is all good.

We can be good employees and be realistic about the demands being placed on us.

We can be happy in relationships and still not like everything about it.

We can be thankful and also not like everything about our lives.

We can embrace the fact that life is good and bad.

“And” is remembering the balance in life. It’s an important three-letter word.

I used to think gratitude was a form of toxic positivity. How do you tell someone who lost their job, is dying of cancer, sleeping on the streets or facing some other horrible life curveball, that they should be grateful? I used to think this was an audacious idea.

Over the years I have learned more about gratitude, and this is what I now think it means: the circumstances are never perfect. We’re never going to be always satisfied. It will never be all good. Bad things will happen to us– sometimes these bad things are unfair and undeserved and unexpected. But we’re on this journey anyway. You can dwell in your toxic negativity and make yourself suffer. You can dilute yourself in toxic positivity and make yourself suffer. Or you can take the middle road and try to make the best out of your journey as it is, doing what you can, appreciating what brings you joy. No matter what, you can still be happy. As happy as you want to let yourself be.

That doesn’t mean you like the bad. Or accept the bad. Or want the bad.

That doesn’t mean you stop trying to be better.

I think it means that you find peace with your current reality. It is about seeking that balance in your thoughts so you don’t drown in the negative ones.

One way to do this is by remembering your ands.

Jean-Paul Sartre said, “There may be more beautiful times, but this one is ours.”

And here we are, days away from Christmas in the middle of a pandemic, with so much suffering in the world. I’m trying to remember my “ands” in the midst of a really long, disappointing, stressful year.

This year was terrible, and I’ve learned a lot.

I’m not traveling right now, and I enjoy this season to be still and present with my children.

There are so many ands.

And we are healthy.

And our refrigerator is full of healthy foods.

And we have a warm home.

And I spent lots of time this year with my children.

And I gained clarity about what is important to me.

And I have new appreciation for the things I once complained about.

And there is a vaccine right around the corner for my family.

And we look forward to the new possibilities of tomorrow.

I don’t feel comfortable complaining about ruined holidays and vacations and my life not being “normal” when humans have suffered so much more in history. Whenever I’ve struggled with my own grief, I like to read sad stories. It sounds sadistic, but I’m really not trying to make myself more miserable. Rather, I do this to gain perspective.

I always go back to Anne Frank, because she left behind her written thoughts and stories before she was murdered at an early age. Her writing was filled with hopefulness despite the danger to her family. I remember visiting the famous attic where her family hid for 761 days. No restaurants. No family gatherings. No graduations or friends or competitive sports. Complete lock down. How can one complain that they are bored of Covid-19 when real humans have suffered so much more? There are literally children locked in cages as we speak, who did not choose their fate, and are not celebrating any holidays in the warmth of a home with presents under a tree. Yet here I am, with my children, with food on the table and presents to open on Christmas Day. In these moments of clarity, I realize I need to thank the universe for my good luck instead of getting stuck on what I don’t have.

There’s just this journey– right here, right now. No other guarantees. Our time is right now. Our freedom is in choosing what to do with right now.

I am also inspired by the words of Viktor Frankl, another Holocaust survivor: “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

This sucks, and I’m not going to let it kill me.

This is not where I want to be, and I have hope for better days.

It will not always be this way. This life is an impermanent one; nothing lasts forever.

Victor Hugo said, “even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”

This Christmas, I want to remember my ands.

Glennon Doyle coined the word “brutiful.” Beautiful and brutal.

The year 2020 was brutiful.

Make sure you don’t forget to see both.

And.

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