It Is What It Is

We got back a few days ago from Mexico. Reentry is always jarring, especially after a week of lolling on beaches, swimming in 95-degree infinity pools, surfing the right break at La Lancha, whacking tennis balls on an artificial turf-and-sand court, and gorging on fresh mango and just-reeled-in red snapper. Waking this morning to stiff spring winds, grey skies, and an unexpected coating of overnight snow didn’t exactly ease the transition.

One evening after dinner on the porch as the biggest, fattest orange moon rose over Banderas Bay, we got to talking about the saying “it is what it is.” My stepmother, our good friend Philip, and his 26-year-old son, Zander, immediately and unequivocally declared it the most annoying line ever to be uttered. Apparently it’s the new favorite in their neck of the woods, and everyone and anyone in the mid-Atlantic is tossing it off like some super chilled-out wannabe Buddhist. They were clearly agitated just thinking about it. 

“It’s like you go to the 7-11 and the fountain machine runs out of Mountain Dew and the guy behind the counter shrugs and says, ‘It is what it is’!” Zander sneered. “But it isn’t!” It’s a cop-out, my stepmom agreed, a lame excuse. It never just is what it is. You can always do something. 

I’m a habitual optimist and an incurable go-getter, but I didn’t share their outrage. Back when I was working my first job in Manhattan, arranging elaborate book tours for high-maintenance writers, my uber-perfectionist boss Beth used to say, “The things that are in your control better be under control. The things that are beyond your control, don’t worry about.” This came in handy on a myriad of occasions, including escorting a bestselling author to a reading at Barnes & Noble where no one shows up. In other words, bust your ass to do a good job, but then let it go and take them out for a fancy expense-account lunch at Elaine’s instead.

I’ve had to re-learn this lesson a million times since then. A decade later, when I was trying to figure out how to leave a job I used to love at a magazine I would always love, I adopted a more Santa Fe/New Age variation on the same theme: “passionate detachment.” If I knew I’d done my best and had left no stone un-turned, I could let go and wait for what was going to happen, what was meant to happen, happen. Eventually, I got this concept through my thick, stubborn head, and I quit my job. And because I’d stressed out about it for, oh, about 18 months, when I finally left I never looked back. 

village fruit man
These days, I’m partial to the more pared-down version: It is what it is. I like the fact that it’s not blithely optimistic like the other one-liner of late, “it’s all good” (groan). I like the Zen simplicity, the plain-vanilla matter-of-factness. I don’t see it as a license to give up or cop out or flake out, but as a reminder that life can be kind of crazy, there are plenty of things I can’t change, and that rather than drive myself nuts micromanaging every detail, I’m better off, and happier, accepting the situation as it is and moving on. It actually helps me be more intentional and motivated, not less, by freeing me up for whatever’s waiting around the corner. 
full moon over El Anclote

But acceptance is hard work. It takes practice. Most days it’s all I can do not to get gripped by the assorted little train wrecks that threaten to derail me. Most days I want to cling to the tracks with a stranglehold until I figure out how to fix the problem right there and then, instantly and perfectly. It is what it is becomes it is what I want. And now. 

Last week was a good reminder that I have a ways to go. I was crabby for four days before I remembered that beach vacations with tiny chilluns aren’t exactly relaxing. I barely got through the first 50 pages of my book, lounged solo in the sun for a total of 47 minutes, didn’t go for a single run, and hardly cracked my journal. But I did watch as our two-year-old flung herself off the side of the pool, bobbed up with blonde hair slick as a mink’s, and started to swim for the first time. I did sit on the porch each evening watching the mountains turn peachy in the setting sun, and I saw breaking waves glitter silver in the moonlight, like iridescent trout. 

It was what it was, and it was pretty great.  



Yesterday morning I took note to pay homage to the bat. That’s right as I woke to start a fresh week of spring break vacation in Minnesota (where spring still feels two seasons away!) a bat was being euthanized. I felt slight guilt, some shame, and sadness because he was being put down because of his wrong turn, my fear, and our doctor’s logic.

It started Friday night, after dinner, I cleaned the kitchen, Peter read books to the boys when I heard him say in a terse, flat lined voice, “Bat. Bat in the house. There’s a bat in here!” His voice grew in intensity and intonation and I knew it was no book he was reading and yet I had a hard time comprehending that there was an actual bat in our house.
“Take the kids out of here.”
I pulled them into the kitchen. F. dodged under the kitchen table. Peter yells for the broom. I oblige.  As I pass him the broom I see this graceful, wobbly frightened flight of a little brown bat swoop from one corner of our living room to the next and then up the stairs, and see my husband, broom in hand dash up after him. He managed to catch him alive in what the boys call LegoLand, our guest room that has been transformed into a Lego town of their own creation.

Sealed in a ziplock gallon bag we were at a loss as to what to do next with this bat. I love bats in their natural habitat, but I feared this bat in my own natural habitat. If we let him go outside our house chances are he would reenter. While the risk of rabies is low in a bat, it exists. And, they say they can bite you in your sleep without you knowing you’ve been bit-their teeth are so small, and their bite marks nonexistent. This was the freaky part for me. And, while I googled what to do with a bat, the what if he bit one of my boys already thought ran through my head. So I called a girlfriend of mine that works in the Sudan Mines of northern Minnesota. With her help, we decided to bring our bat to the University of Minnesota diagnostic lab for testing. Without this test, our doctor wanted us to go to the ER within four hours of exposure for rabies vaccination—which I hear is a painful series of four shots. No thanks.

My fear led me to lose sleep that night. What if there was another bat in our house? How could I sleep with my boys unprotected from more bats in the other room? What if another came in our home? What if we already had contracted rabies and didn’t know it? My mind raced, I slept little, and my boys slept together in the bottom bunk that night. I knew I needed to release this fear. So I researched what bats symbolize and have decided to take the presence of the bat as a messenger so that his last flight is not in vain, and my fear does not persist but instructs I found this blog the most helpful explanation of what this bat could mean:

Yes those are Batman sheets my boys sleep on, and the irony is not lost on me.
Bats represent: Social relationships, communication, motherhood
It is a symbol of communication. Native Americans observed bats to be highly social creatures with strong family ties. They are nurturing, exhibiting verbal communication, touching, and sensitivity to members of their group. Bats are sensitive to their surroundings and are seen as intuitive, with the ability to see through illusion and discern truth. Devotion of the Bat totem will never fade, encouraging the journey to achieve the highest possible potential from an individual. (Information paraphrased from this page on Animal Totems)
Since bats are the only winged creatures to suckle their young, they are also a symbol of motherhood (and by association… fertility and sexuality… which is also supported by the dwelling in caverns in the “womb” of mother earth.)
Eastern cultures view the bat as a symbol of wealth, longevity, peace, good health and a good death. In China, the symbol for bat is “fu” — which is also the symbol for “good luck.”
So as I prepare for baby 4 to arrive, I take comfort in the bat symbolizing motherhood, rebirth, shedding the old so that the new may emerge, needing it’s night vision in order to see more clearly what awaits me. I thank our bat for his bravery, his visit, and his compassionate understanding of my innate, and short sighted fear—even if I still hope another doesn’t enter.

My Own Private North Dakota

Last week my friend Natalie went to North Dakota. The way she described it, with its Kmart parking lots under four feet of slab ice and oil men with bare ears sticking out of baseball caps and librarians wearing lipstick-pink parkas and frozen flat tundra stretching empty for miles, made it sound like an alternate universe. Or really, a universe within a universe—the Upper Midwest. She was afraid she wouldn’t make it out of the frozen loneliness alive. But she knew if she were asked back, she’d go in a second. It was so alien it was inspiring. 
not exactly North Dakota

I know the feeling. I didn’t leave home last week, but I was in a different world. Alone with my girls, Steve off skiing in B.C., I had no choice but to be absolutely present, stuck to this spot, paying full attention to the minutiae of life with two young girls. Because if I didn’t, who else would? I was the only one in charge. 

It felt like an awesome responsibility. It seemed possible that if I took my eyes off the road for a second, we might swerve into disaster-land. So I locked into life right here at home. All sort of things unfolded that probably happen here and everywhere almost everyday; I’m just too busy or distracted to notice: a two-year old cracks eggs on the counter for French toast, we comb a bird’s nest out of tangled blonde hair, an eight-month old on the brink of crawling worms her way across the floor, dogs bark, a toddler is rapt by a chorus of Staten Island fifth-graders singing Lady Gaga, someone gets a sponge bath in the sink.

Don’t get me wrong: I was no martyr. I squirreled away some time to run, hike, and do a quick yoga class, and I had tons of help from my friends. But I knew my priority was being here with P. and M., and so I had miniscule expectations for everything else: I figured if I had time to do a teensy bit of writing and work and we all made it through without dying, the week would be a huge success. 

I never thought I’d say this, but low expectations just might be the secret to happiness. Even though I was grounded here with my girls while my husband skied fresh knee-deep powder all day every day, I felt strangely liberated. I had no place to go, so I might as well just sink into life where I was. Even when I was rushing through my to-dos, I had this weird sense of balance and focus, of absolute calm despite the terror. It seemed impossible. How could I achieve enlightenment when I was stumbling around on six hours of sleep and had sweet potato in my hair? 

happily scared out of my mind on Half Dome
It reminded me in a weird but pleasing way of being on assignment, of trying to commit every detail and gesture and one-liner to memory, of  immersing myself in a new world with a rare and thrilling focus. I miss those days—scrapping my way up Half Dome in borrowed climbing shoes, sitting on a knobby granite ledge above the Ottawa River while kayakers cartwheeled though a monster rapid and my nose got sunburned. My only job then was to pay attention and let the story unfold—it always did. That's still my job, only now I can slip into a different universe without even leaving home. 

Steve is back, and I'm back to my old tricks: racing mindlessly from one thing to the next, feeling flustered, torn, out of whack. I miss the calm, the way I had no choice but to settle into a deep place and stay there, even when it wasn’t always pretty. “It was my practice,” I told my Zen friend Natalie, even though I’m still not sure what I meant, I know I miss it and need it and, terrifying and tedious as it was at times, I’d go back in a second.


Asking for It

My mother is here, and last night we made sweet potato soup. She has come from Connecticut with my step-dad to take care of us for a few days. My mother has always taken such good care of us. When she’s around, there’s nothing I’d rather be than a daughter, hers. 

What I’ve learned this week while Steve has been away skiing is that of course we can take care of ourselves, but it’s so important to ask for—and receive—help. When we are little, it comes naturally: “My mama, help me,” P will say when she is trying to get her sneakers on the right feet. And, without hesitation, I do. But as we grow, we mistakenly decide that we ought to be able to do everything by ourselves. We're not babies anymore. We are stubborn adolescents and then college graduates, professionals, and eventually mothers ourselves. We are more mothers than daughters, more adults than children. But of course we still need help. We may be capable and independent, but we’re not meant to live our lives in a vacuum.

When P was born my mother came to stay for two weeks. She cooked us meals and polished my grandmother’s tarnished silver and strung up our clothesline and kept me from going out of my mind while we were waiting for the baby to be born. Afterwards, she bought P and me new clothes, bathed her newest granddaughter, and went down to the city records department to chase down her birth certificate. Thinking ahead to her leaving, I started to bawl. My mother patted me on the back and said, “We weren’t meant to do this alone.” She was right, of course. And not just babies—all of life.

Before Steve left last week, he suggested I enlist my friends to come help me put the girls to bed each night. This may have been his guilty conscience talking, but it was good advice. Remembering my mother’s words, I sucked up my pride. It was surprisingly easy. It went like this: I asked for help, and my friends jumped at the chance. Reinforcements arrived each afternoon at 5:30, a blast of sunshine and smiles, to play with P and read to her while I fed M. They built block towers and knocked them over, spoon-fed P avocadoes, and did the dishes while I put M to bed. We bathed M in the kitchen sink, and P in the tub. They cuddled and kissed the girls goodnight. Then we had a glass of wine and listened together as the house grew very quiet and calm. I was not alone, and for that I was so grateful.

Sometimes a snarky voice would drone in my head: You should be able to do this yourself. You’re making such a big deal out of being alone. It’s only 10 days. This was my ego talking, and it wanted to be heard. Desperately. I’d listen and fret and feel like a wuss—but only until another friend arrived at my door. Then it felt so good to have asked for, and receive, help that my ego had nothing left to say. Love always trumps fear when you let it.

Now my mother is here, and we are cooking and feeding babies and doing mundane chores together—nothing I couldn’t do on my own. I all but begged her to come, but it feels so good to have her help. How can you argue with that?



I’ve been trying to find the time to sit down and answer the questions you asked in your last post, Elizabeth, but with Steve away, life has been a bit of a yard sale in our house this week. So here goes:

a few of the things that make Santa Fe home 
How did I know not to move back East once I started having babies? That’s easy. By the time P was born, I’d lived in Santa Fe for 13 years. Even though my family’s not here, it felt like home. Way more home than my mother’s house in Connecticut or my dad’s farm in Virginia. The home where I’d grown up in New Jersey was long since sold; my one set of parents are relentless nomads and real-estate junkies, moving to a new house every few years. The others are nesters: putting down deep roots on a farm that I love but have never lived on full-time. I’m a little bit of both: The wanderer in me came to Santa Fe 16 years ago, knowing no one and having never set foot in the state. It was supposed to only be for the summer, but three months turned into one year and so on and so on. I love the mountains and the shabby adobes and the way the high desert opens up to the west, all the way to the Rio Grande and even farther, on a clear day, to Mount Taylor and north to the purple hump of San Antonio near the Colorado border. I love my friends, many of whom I’ve known since the early days, when we could stay out late drinking margaritas and get up early to ride our mountain bikes. 

There was never really a precise moment when I had to decide, OK, I’m staying. I just stayed. And, even with two young girls, there still hasn’t been a moment. Sure, I sometimes fantasize about leaving—moving to a real mountain town like Telluride or a place with better schools like Bend or some place old and reassuring and familiar, like Vermont, but it’s hard to imagine chucking it all and starting over some place new. So we compromise. We travel. We go home. We spend part of the summer with grandparents in Canada. And when we grumble about the effort and expense it takes to get there and back, I remind myself that we could make a conscious choice and move back to be closer to family. But we’ve built a life here. It’s not perfect, but it’s pretty great, and it comes from the best place of all: love. Go easy on yourself: You chose home, just like I chose home—they just look different. And don’t worry. Santa Fe isn’t going anywhere and neither, for now, are we. 

OK, next….How do I request something from my child when the first request goes unheeded? Hmm, that’s harder. I guess I rephrase with a choice. “You can get your pajamas on now by yourself, or I can help you.” I try to make one choice obviously fun and enticing. “You can jump into your sleep sack or I can put you in it.” Then I throw in a little redirection for good measure: “Show me how a lion would jump into the sleep sack.” That usually works. If it doesn’t, I probably break down and threaten something mildly unpleasant: “If you don’t get into your sleep sack, we won’t have time to read a book.” I let it be known that I don’t want to say the same thing over and over. Distraction works, too: “Maybe you can put some lotion on your belly in the bathroom.” It’s nothing very clever but I found it gets us through the sticky points. For now. 

Confessions of a Tin Man

Well, it’s March in the Southwest, and yesterday afternoon I went running in shorts. Generally speaking, though, spring isn’t a time of ease in Santa Fe: The winds whip, the dust flies, and tumbleweed goes on the offensive. Steve calls it “dirt in your mouth” weather.

I’m not at ease, either. The other night at yoga, I was as creaky as the Tin Man. My old body was gone and I was now in possession of an entirely different one. Everything hurt. The instructor was a substitute, and spoke yoga in a crazy exotic French accent that was almost impossible to understand. I do know she kept talking about our kidneys. As in, “Open through the kidneys. Feel your kidneys. Soften your kidneys.” I don’t know where my kidneys are nor can I feel them, but they seem fraught with danger lately, on account of my dad’s kidney cancer. All the kidney talk made me clench even harder to the stress I’ve been holding for the past few months.

During the 10 weeks my father was sick, I wore my stress like a heavy coat. It draped over every inch of muscle and skin and bone. I swear I could feel it pulsing through my cells and blood. It was everywhere, insidious. My upper back—already sore from nursing baby M—began to hurt so much I was certain I had some rare form of spinal cancer. My wrists ached. The top of my head felt prickly, like I was being scalped. My hair began to shed—I could pull out small handfuls in one sitting. I was pretty sure that I was dying, too.

After each trip home to the East Coast, I’d come back to my husband and daughters and try to wrap my brain around being a daughter and a mother at the same time. I didn’t know how to do both separately, so I multitasked, and took on my dad’s pain as my own. Grief is contagious, and unbearably physical.

Now the grief comes and goes, like swimming through a murky pond. You’re out of the weeds; then you’re back in again. The other night at yoga, I went back into the weeds. When I’m not cloaked head-to-toe in stress, I tend to hoard it in my upper back and shoulders. I know this about myself, but I was still surprised when the simple act of trying to rotate my ears to my shoulders made me dizzy and discombobulated. My neck had rusted shut—how had this happened?

If vulnerability is our greatest strength, how can I use this bottle neck that is my neck—my point of weakness—to morph from a worrier into a warrior? How can I move through the anxiety of fear into the ease of letting go? A friend of mine, when I’d get stuck on something, used to ask, “What does easy look like?” These days, I don’t need easy, but I will happily settle for ease.