When I was a little girl, the TV show, All In The Family was a staple at our house. Its broadcast between 1971 - 1979 marked my formative years. Even very early on, I could sense danger in Archie Bunker’s blustering lack of decency within his family and among his neighbors.
I grew up sheltered in a middle class suburb of Boston, both of my parents liberal leaning academics, their political and social views polar opposite to those of the imaginary Bunker household. As I progressed from elementary grades into high school, gaining a wider awareness of the world around me, it was easy to contrast my upbringing with an independent-minded, spirited mother and cerebral, mild-mannered father to Carol O’Connor’s masterful portrayal of the bigoted, misogynist, head of household, Archie Bunker and his slightly daffy wife, Edith, played with such dignity by Jean Stapleton. I can’t stress enough how foreign it was for me to watch Archie’s explosive, disparaging behavior and Edith’s cowering retreats. It shocked me to hear Archie launch into one of his rampages, but underneath it all, I comforted myself that it was just a show and he was just acting. He wasn’t a real person.
Or so I thought.
It didn’t take long once I got to high school before I experienced first hand the sting of male disrespect against women. An A-student, varsity athlete and yearbook editor, I remember how discouraging it felt to find myself struggling to pass AP Physics my senior year. When I asked for extra help from my teacher, who happened to be the head of the science department, I was summarily dismissed, but not before he explained that he didn’t give extra help to girls because we didn’t need to understand science. Yes, I promise you. That really happened.
At the small liberal arts college I attended, male dominated, co-educational Greek houses ruled the social scene. I fell headfirst into first semester rush, naive to the cunning ways of fraternity recruitment. What began as exciting flattery delivered by handsome upperclassmen, eventually devolved into harsh and degrading hazing and other abuses. I arrived on campus my freshman year thinking the world held unlimited choices. By graduation, I had completely lost my inner compass. It would take several more years before I would find solid footing again, both professionally and personally.
Stories like these showcase how my own voice was rendered silent, at different times in my life. I am thankful to have been surrounded by friends and family willing to help me overcome these hurdles and others. But my unpleasant memories resurfaced, in all their angry glory this week with the abrupt dismissal of Senator Elizabeth Warren from the Senate chambers while attempting to read the transcript of Coretta Scott King’s 1986 letter. Warren had been at the podium to thwart Congress' approval of Senator Jefferson Sessions appointment for Attorney General. As I watched Senator Warren’s Facebook Live video, I saw a woman scorned but determined to continue reading Mrs. King’s letter in the Senate hallway.
Here she was, a literal and figurative outsider, fighting for a cause her constituents and she believe in, the rights of blacks and minorities to cast votes freely and without impediment. Due to today's social media savvy culture, Warren's determination led to a new Twitter hashtag #ShePersists that has gone viral since this event took place.
Senator Warren had been banished by an elitist male bastion, the majority of whom were simply tired of hearing her voice. Where does this leave us, we women who have worked so hard to be heard?
Men who buy into the rationale that it’s a woman’s “tone” of voice that matters, more than her words, are missing the point. Women have long been accused of being “shrill,” “high-pitched” or “bitchy” as we try to convey our ideas or share our opinions. All we need to do is think back to our dear, beloved, Edith Bunker. She delivered her lines with that now infamous, teeth-grating, chalkboard-scraping voice but underneath, she had a lot to say.
If only we had chosen to listen.
Many of us can recall exactly where we stood, what we were doing and how we felt the moment we met Grief face to face for the first time. When death takes a young person, one who hadn’t been given the chance to experience a fuller life, our first encounter with Grief may be confusing and especially difficult. Losing a child, a sibling, a peer, a friend, a classmate at the outset of his or her life, on the cusp of a brilliant future is a tragic and inconceivable thing.
I was 18 and a sophomore in college when I first understood how fragile life could be. A young woman I had met in one of my classes, a beautiful girl my age, was killed in a car crash. One day she and I were studying for our exams in the library, and a few days later she was gone. News of her passing hit our school hard and I remember experiencing a series of unwelcome and untethered emotions in the weeks that followed. I had no guideposts for my loss and no idea what to do. Our school tried to help us move through her passing by offering well-meaning, traditional rituals: a memorial service in the college chapel, support staff on-call in the guidance office. But really, none of that made much of an impact on me. I couldn’t get over the sense that she had left too soon, and that I hadn’t had a chance to enjoy being her friend for more time.
One image stays lodged in my memory even today, so many years later. She and I were sitting in her car, very late one night, laughing and talking to let out the stress of a long study session during final exams. It happened to be a cold spring that year and our breath had fogged up the windows of the car to the point where I couldn’t see out into the night. I distinctly remember feeling as if I was in a warm cocoon, safe from everything that was waiting for me outside of that car. I felt protected and liked and happy to have made her acquaintance, even if our common link at that point was only a single shared exam. I felt the promise of a new friendship; a sense of excitement about what was yet to come. Within a week, she would die behind the wheel of that same car.
My son’s voice sounded shaky and strange when he called to tell me that one of his close friends from high school had passed away the other night. Instantly, I recognized Grief’s familiar markings, its sudden arrival without warning or explanation, and knew that it would forever alter my child’s perception of life. I did my best to comfort him with meaningless words. Most likely just hearing my voice was all he needed in that moment. I was grateful that he reached out to me for support and I understood how alone he was, far away at school, disconnected from his high school buddies, trying to make sense out of a senseless situation.
Fortunately, I live without much focus on Grief. It’s tucked back in the recesses of my mind, in stasis mode, not demanding my consideration. I fear its reprisal, and live with the knowledge that it will return with a vengeance some day, perhaps unexpectedly, but for now, I am content for it to remain a distant concept.
I am acutely aware of how many people actively live with Grief, feeling its breath on their faces every minute, carrying its weight on their backs as they soldier through each day. Regardless of whether this is a first meeting or one of many dealings with Grief over a lifetime, I am in awe of these brave survivors. They are the universal mothers, fathers, families, and close friends ravaged beyond repair, perhaps someday learning to understand their loss, but never quite finding peace.
The last light was sinking behind the trees as my daughter and I finished a short walk this afternoon. The air was cold, but not freezing, and I had overdressed in my leggings and heavy parka. Despite her outfit of yoga pants and fleece sweatshirt, my daughter didn’t seem to mind the chilly temperatures, at all.
We both had been feeling a bit melancholy. My older child, her brother, had returned to college for his spring semester earlier that day after spending the past five weeks home on holiday break. I was in the process of mentally kicking myself for all the times I had complained over that same time period — extra trips to the grocery store, piled up dishes in the sink, towels on the bathroom floor and so many loads of laundry, I’d lost count. Now that he was gone, the house was tidy again, yet too quiet. My heart ached for just one more hug, one more dinner together. I had imagined his winter break lasting forever, yet it had flown by, leaving me spinning, my equilibrium a little tilted, wondering how I’d ever get used to him being away again.
This visit had been the first time I’d noticed my kids really connect, as both siblings and friends. They had gone skiing, to the movies a few times, and spent many an evening just hanging out here at the house. They had blended their mutual friends comfortably and I was happy to know that they were prioritizing each other, and really enjoying it. Because of all this, their goodbye this morning was that much more bittersweet.
As we turned the corner to head up the hill to the house, we began to wrap up an easy conversation we’d been having about the second half of her junior year. No surprise, it promised to be very busy: AP tests, classes, college visits, prom and a full schedule of track meets lay before us. She was excited to get her drivers license by the end of the month, a big milestone marking her growing independence. Having been through these stages already with her brother, my current condition was more akin to cautious optimism, compared to the sheer terror I had experienced back when my son started stretching his boundaries. Even though we were diving into deeper and choppier waters, for the second time, I felt pretty confident we’d make it through.
My musings suddenly interrupted, I became aware that my daughter had started running up the hill ahead of me, sprinting the final 50 yards or so to our driveway. Her long blond hair swayed from behind and my heart soared to see the power in her long stride. She turned back for an instant to wave at me, smiling, radiant and so sure of herself.
I finished my walk to the door alone, already experiencing a new, though not unfamiliar ache inside. It wouldn’t be long before she would be leaving, too.
I will perform an annual ritual at our house today. It's not marked on any calendar, but it happens every year around the same time. It’s not an official holiday, or anyone’s birthday, so it doesn’t get the same fanfare as these other milestones, but it still carries with it a great deal of significance. Today is the day I will take down the Christmas tree.
As the resident hausfrau, this job is always left to me since it falls into the category of “cleaning up,” an area that’s typically my domain. I’d prefer not to address the psychology behind my self-title, Queen of Clean. Let’s just say, sometimes you have to bring in the big guns for such an important job.
Dragging a 7-foot tall, natural Balsam fir tree into the living room and watching thousands of its needles fall on my rug over the course of several weeks each winter is all that’s needed to bring out my deepest tidying tendencies, so it makes sense that I take charge of the dismantling myself. Actually I don’t mind at all. What’s makes this job satisfying is that I have the opportunity to handle each and every ornament one more time before I carefully tuck them away in their wrapping for another year, completing the holiday cycle until next December comes.
There are generations of memories tied up in these ornaments, each one representing a different stage in our family’s life. There are our “First Christmas Together” intertwined newlywed hearts, both kids’ “Baby’s First Christmas” photo ornaments, handmade artwork from their preschool and kindergarten years, painted dough Santa’s and reindeer from a variety of craft fairs, and the footballs, trains, turtles, soccer balls, witches and fairy princesses that marked the various stages of our kids’ passions throughout the years. We reserve a special spot high up on the tree for our beloved “It’s A Wonderful Life” ornament, imprinted with the Hollywood images of Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed and the accompanying little bell that rings with nostalgia every time.
I rarely throw an ornament out, instead preferring to give some of them a year or two off periodically, allowing selected baubles to remain safely ensconced in their tissue casings, undisturbed. What makes this process so much fun is the sense of anticipation I feel when I reopen the boxes each year. No matter how many times I might hold a particular artifact up to the light, watching it swirl on its hanger before selecting the right branch, I’m always whisked back to a specific reminiscence. It’s like individual time travels are built into each treasure.
The process of dismantling our holiday centerpiece, while bittersweet, also allows me the metaphorical permission to clean up the prior year’s foibles and follies, leaving me with the extra space I need to explore possibilities for new adventures and future achievements. Once the tree is out of the house, I feel renewed, seeing my way clear to start fresh again, forging ahead towards growth and change.
So, here I sit, glass of wine in hand, contemplating where to start. Empty boxes are strewn around my feet, waiting to be reunited with their sparkly inhabitants. I decide to begin at the top and work my way down methodically, until I reach the less breakable, cat-friendly objects we always leave closest to the floor. Once I am finished with my chore, the ornaments packed, lights unstrung, last needle vacuumed up, and couch returned to its regular position in front of the window, I will settle back and think about where I’ve been and what lies ahead.
So far, my life’s journey has been more curvy than straight. I’ve had my share of detours and dead ends over the years. I’m grateful for the tally of professional and personal milestones I've earned, and excited to be immersed in so many interesting endeavors right now. Yet, despite the optimism I’ve managed to collect, I’m never far from my ubiquitous cache of memories. Every once in a while, I’ll look deep into the bag at one of my previous touch points, hoping to remind myself of how much I’ve accomplished, or to appreciate the people in my life more.
Carrying this metaphorical bundle of recollections feels burdensome at times. It slows me down, forcing me to recalibrate my inner speedometer. Like an older companion who grips my arm to avoid slipping on the ice, thinking about past experiences inspires concurrent sensations of responsibility and irritation.
At an informal reunion with six of my college roommates not long ago, I was reminded of the distinct contrast between my past and present identities. Face to face with those who remembered me as a younger woman, there was no hiding the dents and scratches I wore today. While I’ve been lucky, I’ve not been entirely immune to struggles, disappointments, insecurities or misplaced allegiances.
The four years we spent at the same alma mater included too many hysterical escapades to count, and even inspired a secret lingo coined just for our group. Thrown together haphazardly our freshman year, we have long since developed the most enduring friendships. From our adolescent origins, we have grown into the mothers, wives, daughters, sisters, and friends we are today.
My natural reluctance to revisit the past, and an extra busy week nearly kept me from attending the gathering. Fortunately, I didn’t allow hesitation to overshadow this opportunity to reconnect with my exuberant group of female friends. For most of us, especially those with children at home, coordinating the get-away required tapping into back-up support systems. It’s never easy to set aside family obligations and postpone external distractions to focus on one’s friendships for 24 hours. But it was definitely worth the effort.
Soon after the initial joyful greetings, once we had filled our wine glasses and tucked ourselves around our host’s generously laden table, I realized that we had come together with a singular understanding. We were all eager to shed our protective outer layers, peel back well-worn defensive postures and wipe off the painted masks we wore in our day-to-day lives. We craved the forgiveness and acceptance instilled in the common bonds and unconditional relationships we had forged nearly thirty years before.
One by one, we shared stories that would have seemed implacable to our younger selves. Caring for aging parents, sending children off to college, divorce, family turmoil, new professional endeavors, the ups and downs of long-term marriages and for those of us starting over, the excitement of finding new love - each of these topics had their moment. There was nothing we couldn’t say that evening. We brought our emotions to the table with us. It was a veritable patchwork quilt of truth and laughter, and the closeness I felt to my friends that night fueled my soul. We stayed up too late, none of us wanting the visit to end.
The next morning, the coffee brewed and our conversations continued, but I sensed in the daylight that we had already become more careful with one other, as if an unspoken switch had been pulled telling us to begin to prepare for our re-entry into the outside world. As I watched my friends depart, I felt a sense of melancholy creep up upon me. I knew it was time for me to leave, as well, but I dreaded having to don my own external veneer. Responsibility dropped down upon me again, like a cloud blocking the sun, a stark contrast to the clear sky and unlimited stars of the night before.
In the days that have followed that magical weekend, I’ve found myself more conscious of trying to be grateful, more patient, and a lot more hopeful. It’s as if by receiving the stories of my friends’ life experiences, they have transferred all the lessons that they have learned back to me, like gifts, in return. I know that by permitting myself to return to my younger self for a little while, I have gained a new appreciation for the older person I have become.
My husband is a seafood purveyor, or fishmonger, to use the archaic term. Selling fish is a tough business. Over the past twenty-five years, his wholesale operation in Boston’s seafood district has seen every potential disaster scenario there is. The recent publication of new research that confirms warming ocean temperatures as the likely cause of the reduction of regional cod stocks brings devastating news for our coastal marine habitats and more adversity for the New England fishing industry.
Myths abound when it comes to seafood. Consumers like to believe that their fish is fresh and local, and many times it is. However, the reality of the fishing industry, which operates like a case study in supply and demand economics, is much more global than most people realize. Just like the Web has created a network of worldwide communication channels, so have overnight freight carriers made moving seafood around the planet easier than ever. Shrimp from Mexico, salmon from Chile or Norway, tuna from Asia and lobsters from Maine all appear on your table or at a nearby market the next morning. It’s a colorful and multinational collection of ocean-derived products arriving at the loading dock each day.
Let me set the record straight. My husband is not nor has ever been a fisherman, does not own a fishing boat and does not choose to fish on his time off. Those are three of the most misunderstood elements of his job that we both find ourselves explaining repeatedly. He is usually the most sought-after guest at cocktail parties, more popular than the brain surgeons and rocket scientists. Everyone wants to talk about fish.
Usually the conversation starts like this, “You must eat lobster all the time.”
He’ll admit a little sheepishly, “Actually, we don’t eat much lobster.”
Undeterred, they will push further, “So, do you have to get up really early to start fishing?”
He’ll patiently explain, “I get up early to beat the traffic to Boston, but I don’t do the fishing. I sell the fish.”
Then they usually want to know, “Do you like sushi?”
To which he reluctantly responds, “Actually, I don’t eat raw fish. Ever.”
If they push for a reason, he will say, “Well, you probably don’t want me to explain that. It might ruin your dinner.”
Running a wholesale business of any kind is challenging work, but wholesale seafood is one of the most demanding. Heavy, physical labor involved in the processing, packing and delivery, not to mention the fragile, perishable nature of the product itself make for a multitude of potential pitfalls. It takes patience, high quality control standards, sheer brute strength and a willingness to get elbow deep in fish guts, to succeed.
My husband and I speak often about the uncertain future of the fish industry. So far he has managed to stay afloat, but we’ve had plenty of sleepless nights wondering if he’ll make it through another year. Intellectually, we straddle the large divide that has built up between seafood industry advocates and environmentalists. On the one hand, we recognize and support the idea that it is essential to preserve seafood populations and marine ecosystems for future generations. At the same time, we feel a deep sense of compassion for the financial losses of local fishermen who have been literally crushed by increasing governmental regulations.
Another immediate threat to seafood purveyors takes the form of larger corporations that have started to absorb many of my husband’s competitors, creating a kind of ‘big box store’ effect. In a business where prices are negotiated down to the penny, and profit margins are paper thin, small wholesalers are hard pressed to compete with these bigger operations who can afford to lower prices well below their break-even points. We assert our quiet dissent by choosing not to order seafood at restaurants that buy from the big food service companies.
I’ve never minded washing his smelly clothes, or answering people’s curious questions, but I’ll admit there have been times when the financial pressure has taken its toll on our relationship. We’ve tried our best to prioritize quality time as a family and to maintain our health and well being to counter the stress. Thankfully, our marriage and sanity have both remained intact despite the volatility of this business that threatens to jeopardize our hard won security. I respect my husband and have learned volumes from him about what it takes to be an entrepreneur by watching him succeed in the face of so many obstacles.
Being married to a fish man may not be glamorous, but that’s okay with me. I’ll take haddock over caviar any day. I’m proud to be a fishmonger’s wife.
Author's note: This post was originally published on 11/7/14.
I've been going through a hectic stretch recently with my new business, my son's college search, both kids' sports schedules, not to mention, the necessary day-to-day maintenance that fills my life. Some would say I've been taking a risk by focusing so heavily on external pressures instead of tending to my own internal fires. Sure, long-term it wouldn't be a good idea, but I can't imagine changing my course right now. I'm acutely aware of how fleeting this time is, the year before my oldest leaves for college, and I don't want to miss a minute. It's as if all the years of parenting have led me to this key moment: a launching off point for him, and a letting go point for me.
The other night, while attending an awards ceremony at my son's school, we listened to a young faculty member tell a story about his personal journey. This teacher had worked in the Peace Corps prior to starting his academic career. With posts in war-torn parts of the world, he faced great danger and even spent time in captivity with his fellow volunteers at one point. He credited humor with helping them to survive the ordeal of their imprisonment. "Laughter kept hope alive," he told us. From that dark point, he made a decision to wake up every day, choosing joy.
Here was my wake up call! I asked myself what life would be like if we all chose joy every day? Would our challenges be less strenuous? Would grief feel less intense? Would uncertainty solve itself? Probably not. However, I think choosing joy would give us a leg-up on all of those difficulties, allowing us to start our day with a more positive attitude, in turn, creating good energy that just might sustain us through the inevitable hurdles we will face. Choosing joy isn't a guarantee of happiness, but it could move us towards being more accountable for our personal satisfaction. Instead of blaming the powers of Fate or other unforeseen barriers, we might deliberately choose to take ownership, reject hopelessness and elicit success.
I've always been a person who likes to feel I have a handle on things, to the point where I'm a little uncomfortable with leaving too many details to chance. Organized, yes. Overly precise, sometimes! I haven't met too many people who truly appreciate my preference for order and balance. And I'll admit it does get in the way of spontaneity, at times. But I'm also acutely aware that for some of us, taking control is simply not possible, at least not entirely. I have several friends who are living with cancer. I guarantee if you ask them, they'll say fear and uncertainty are hallmarks of battling their disease. But I'm sure these same brave women would also agree that finding joy in the small moments of their daily lives is essential and empowering to their healing process.
So tomorrow morning, let's give it a try. Let's choose joy. I believe there are unlimited possibilities waiting for us if we do.
Author's note: This post was originally published on 12/14/14.
I am more than just one single story. I am built upon a foundation made up of multiple experiences, feelings, interactions, victories and accomplishments. Each one of my life milestones is a story that contributes to the sum total of me.
And I keep adding new ones every day.
Several years ago, the expression, "a single story," came to my attention thanks to a Ted Talk given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian-born novelist and feminist. At the time, I was in the middle of an identity crisis of sorts, trying to figure out a big career move that I was uncertain about, when my dear friend, Cynthia, asked me to sit with her to watch Ms. Adichie speak. It was transformational, to say the least.
Once the video finished, my friend turned to me and said, "You see, Anne? You are focusing too tightly on this one single story. You bring to this opportunity all of the things you have already done. You are so much more than a singular job title, and your professional options will only expand as you add more experiences to your resume."
I've been grateful to my friend, Cynthia, and to Ms. Adichie ever since then, for helping me put into words what I was afraid to admit to myself. I was hesitant to recognize or place value on earlier life challenges that I had faced and conquered because not all of them fell neatly into the category of what I perceived to be my professional identity. As a result, I had lost sight of the wealth of talents and capabilities I would be able to bring into new situations. Moving beyond the assumption of myself as "a single story" gave me the confidence I needed to step forward into the imperfect future and see what it held for me.
We all have the tendency to define ourselves by our present circumstances, and lose sight of the other stories that we have written or have yet to write in our lives. Mothers, wives, sisters, friends, partners, risk-takers, thinkers and survivors - we wear multiple labels and bear infinite burdens throughout our lives.
Let's each embrace our unique combination of stories and find strength in them as we welcome the start of a New Year.