Saturday, December 31, 2011

Time flies when you’re keeping resolutions!

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions. For one, I suck at keeping them. Then I feel bad. And no one likes to feel bad. But I also believe that if you really want to change something, why wait until January 1st? Like the saying goes, “No time is better than the present!”

That being said, I do like the symbolism of a new year: a fresh start, a clean slate, and, I suppose, a proverbial fire under your rear if you really need one to get you going.

If ever in the Life of Lauren there was a time for fresh starts and clean slates, it was New Year’s 2011. December 30, 2010 was my official last day as an active duty Air Force officer. Thus, I began 2011 as brand-spanking-new civilian. FREEDOM! No work. No title. No responsibilities. No obligations. (And no house, no concrete plans, no paycheck, eeek!)

I didn’t make any official New Year’s resolutions, but if I had, they could have been these:

1. Figure out what I want to do with my life. While I’m still working out the finer details (like how to make a living . . .), I know with 100% certainty that I want to be a writer. I’d even go so far as to say that I’m supposed to be a writer. If you believe in “finding your calling,” I’ve found mine. A career change is always a leap of faith. But sometimes it’s worth it to follow your passion.

1.5. Get accepted into a grad school program in support of said career choice. Check! (Thanks, Emerson!)

2. Make up for lost time with family. Call me old fashioned, but I’m the kind of person who actually likes my family and enjoys spending time with them. Don’t let the fact that I’ve – twice now – chosen to move to the other side of the country fool you. I really do like them. Maybe even a lot. They have always been my biggest supporters, my confidants, my voices of reason, my shoulders to cry on. I hated the geographic separation from Florida and I hate it from Boston. I hated it most from Afghanistan, where “just a phone call away” didn’t really apply. Sure, we had email (as long as a storm didn’t knock out the connection). Sure, I had cards and pictures taped precariously to the plywood wall above my bed that sometimes unstuck themselves and scattered over me while I was sleeping. Sure, we had static-filled, 12-hour time difference phone calls placed from a crowded office where no conversation was really private. Maybe it was the stress, or the danger, or the sheer distance, but during that year away, I ached for my family in a way I never had before.

So, when my conversion from Air Force officer to grad student included an eight month transitional period, I jumped at the chance to move back home. (Wait, you lived with your parents for eight months?! you ask. By choice?! I did, dear readers. And it was wonderful.) I watched chick flicks with my mom, went house hunting in Boston with my dad, bonded with my beautiful baby nieces who previously had no idea who I was beyond my face in photographs. I stashed all my life’s belongings in my parents’ garage.

And I healed. There’s no Band-Aid like family.

3. Discover who “Civilian Lauren” is. With a massive life change (and no uniform to wear every day, no institutionalized code of conduct, etc.) comes a bit of an identity crisis. Again, I’m still working out the finer details, but this I know:
- Civilian Lauren has bangs. She likes to wear nice, tailored clothing and high heels. Except for sometimes when she just wants to wear pajamas all day.
- She likes to speak her mind, even when people around disagree. If she has a strong opinion about something – and she has quite a few of those, it seems – she’s not afraid to show it.
- She’s feisty, emotional, sometimes irritable (especially when she’s hungry or tired), and a bit moody. But overall, I think she’s pretty cool.
- She’s a veteran. Sometimes she likes to talk about that, sometimes she doesn’t. (It’s a big can of very slippery worms, after all.) But she has accepted it as part of her identity – all the good, bad and ugly parts of it. And she’s proud of it, too.

4. Be thankful. I know it sounds trite, and I won’t get too much into it (you can read more in my other posts), but thankfulness was definitely a theme of 2011. Though they came with a price, with sacrifice and some baggage I still struggle to carry, I’m thankful for the decisions I made to join the military and to go to Afghanistan. I’m thankful for the experiences I’ve had and the worldliness I’ve gained. I’m thankful for the veteran’s organizations and programs that are helping me learn to carry my acquired baggage gracefully.

In a time of financial crisis, foreclosures, unemployment and debt controversy, I’m thankful to be debt-free, that I had the luxury to be able to leave my job and take a leap of faith, that I have the resources to be a homeowner. Sometimes the post-Afghanistan cynic in me tries to convince me otherwise, but in a time of protesting, political/religious/athletic scandals and bad news splashed across every page of the newspaper, I’m thankful that there are still a lot of GOOD people out there; GOOD news and GOOD things about being an American. (And, incidentally, I’m thankful for freedom of speech, freedom to assemble, and freedom of the press. Those are pretty cool, too). And in a time of so many broken, dysfunctional, strained relationships, I am, of course, thankful for my wonderful family and friends.

Huh, maybe I'm better at keeping resolutions than I thought?

Now, looking forward on this eve of another symbolic fresh start, my unofficial non-resolution list-of-things-to-think-about/work-toward-in-2012 is as follows:

1. Have my condo “visitor ready” at all times. a.k.a. be more organized. That’s on my list in some form every year. . . (Reference comment about not keeping resolutions)

2. Work on those finer details from 2011 non-resolution #1. Writing contests and literary journal submissions? Freelancing? A publishing internship? A wealthy benefactor and/or a scratch ticket addiction? We shall see, my friends!

3. Ditto for 2011 non-resolution #3. Namely, I want to learn to manage that irritability and moodiness, balance that cynicism. I want go through that baggage and throw out any bitterness that got stuck between my socks and undies. And I want to keep talking (and writing) about the veteran thing. I think that's important. Plus, most of the time it feels pretty good in the end.

4. Continue to be thankful. ALWAYS!

5. Limit my intake of Twizzlers, chocolate and Cheetos. Seriously. This is just ridiculous.

Cheers to that!

Wishing everyone a blessed 2012! If you’re making New Year’s resolutions, best of luck. (If not, maybe you can help me eat my junk food?)


Friday, December 23, 2011

There's no place like home for the holidays

Earlier this week my mom and I were reminiscing . . . A year ago we were driving across Texas. Like, all of Texas. In one day. We were in the midst of a cross-country trek from Florida to Washington, from my Air Force career to civilian life. On our stopover in Lake Charles, LA we had told my dad, my grandparents, “We’re hoping to make it to El Paso tomorrow.” They told us we probably wouldn’t make it that far. So, of course, we had to.

The next day, our third 16-hour leg in a row, we raced the rain, loopy and exhausted, through Southern California. The next day we peed in a snow bank on the side of I-5 when an accident closed the highway for two-and-a-half hours. But then we were home. We were home for Christmas.

The year before, I was also traveling, but the destination wasn’t nearly as welcoming. I spent Christmas morning at the airport in Frankfurt, Germany en route back from my two weeks of mid-tour deployment leave. Sometime later, I stumbled through the dark to board a bus in Kuwait on what may have still been Christmas, or may have been the 26th, or may have been New Year's for all I knew. Then I was back in Afghanistan.

I love everything about the Christmas season: the music, the lights, the fresh pine tree smell, Gingerbread Lattes at Starbucks. But at its heart – and I think this is why I love the season so much – Christmastime for me has always been about family.

Some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around family Christmas traditions: Meandering down the neon-tinted walkways with my parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins at “Zoolights,” flashing LED critters crisscrossing our path. Laughing as we try to find space on an increasingly overcrowded Christmas tree; a time capsule of ornaments – there’s my Baby’s First Christmas, the snowflake from the year my parents were married, the starfish I picked up for them in Florida. Every year we wonder just how long that Hershey’s Kiss has been in that Reindeer ornament’s pocket. Every year we leave it there. I remember watching A Christmas Carol (always the George C. Scott version!) until I could recite nearly every line. Then there was the time my brother came downstairs to find actual coal in his stocking. My parents exchanged confused glances (“Maybe there really is a Santa?!”) until their gaze settled on the perpetrator, my brother-in-law, who gave himself away with a chuckle. I remember the smell of roast beef wafting through my grandparents’ house, the star of Christmas Eve dinner, and trying desperately to save room for the red and green layered jello waiting in the fridge for dessert. Then, when bellies were full (and pants buttons undone) and empty stockings were re-hung by the chimney with care, I remember reading from “A Cup of Christmas Tea.”

In 2009, from the air over the Middle East, I tried not to think about the fact that those traditions were taking place without me. After all, I had chosen not to go home on leave. The thought of a frenzied, bittersweet not-quite-Christmas was too much to bear. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to leave again. Looking back, I sometimes wonder if I made the right choice. Was it a selfish decision? I missed my twin nieces’ first Christmas. I missed my grandfather’s last Christmas.

But there’s nothing I can do about that now . . . Except never miss another Christmas.

And I don’t plan to. I know I’m lucky to have that option. Not everyone does. I’m thrilled – so thrilled! – that so many of the men and women serving in Iraq will be reunited with their families in time for the holidays. But I also know several military families who will still be celebrating traditions without a parent, child or sibling; or whose traditions will be tainted by loved ones preparing to deploy shortly after Christmas. And like my grandfather’s, there are some voids that will always feel especially empty this time of year. Christmas was his favorite holiday, too.

Last year it hit me that our traditions have changed. Grandpa’s absence was profoundly felt. The twins’ presence took center stage. My siblings and I have moved away, and celebrations rarely take place on the actual holiday anymore; they happen when everyone, or most everyone, can be there. (5th of July, anyone?) But it also hit me – hit me with a force compounded by 24-months without a Christmas gathering – that when it comes down to it, traditions don’t really matter. All the stuff people get into such a stressful tizzy about over the holidays doesn’t matter.

You see, I only vaguely remember the presents I received. I don’t think it was roast, but I really don’t remember what we ate for dinner. I don’t remember how clean or dirty the house was. I don’t remember what anyone wore. I just remember the warmth and love and joy of being together. Of being home. At the risk of sounding cheesy, I really, truly believe that’s what the Christmas spirit is all about – those warm fuzzies.

This year, I want nothing more than warm fuzzies. I want nothing more than to watch the twins faces as they unwrap their gifts (they’re old enough now to enjoy the gifts themselves, not just the wrapping paper!) I want nothing more than to be Auntie “Wowen.” I want nothing more than to see my grandma smile. I want nothing more than to sip from a mug of hot spiced wine while Christmas music plays softly in the background and my family laughs in the foreground.

I wish you all warm fuzzies this holiday season, too. If you’re with family and friends, be thankful, for you are blessed. And for anyone who’s going through a hard time or remembering a loss, may those warm fuzzies soften your burden.

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all!

"But I am sure I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round -- apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that -- as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, 'God bless it!'"
~Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Monday, December 12, 2011

Why didn't I take the blue pill?!

I have a deck of cards filled with “Would you rather…?” scenarios. The cards ask scintillating questions such as, “Would you rather spend a 24-hour period hearing car alarms in your head –OR– the sound of a dentist’s drill?” and “Would you rather write ‘I am an idiot’ 10,000 times without stopping –OR– suck 75 thick milkshakes through a narrow straw without resting (no need to swallow all the shakes)?”

Here’s a question that’s not in the deck: Imagine you have an injury. Would you rather ignore it and let it heal, but be left with a nasty scar that sometimes spasms unexpectedly with sharp pain –OR– pick off the scab every time it forms, making the wound fresh and raw again, occasionally pouring lemon juice or some other stinging substance into the exposed wound; but thus enabling the wound to heal completely (or as completely as possible, with perhaps some light scarring)?

Back in September when I first started grad school, I chose option 2. I turned in my first workshop piece, 10 pages detailing my initial therapy session after I returned from Afghanistan; all my fears, anxieties, and confusions. All my baggage. I had known my classmates for approximately a day. And I showed them my wounds, let them watch as I ripped off the scabs. I might as well have offered them lemon juice.

As if that wasn’t enough, I did it again and again over the next four months, with two more workshop pieces, two papers, and many candid discussions. Because that’s what personal nonfiction writing is all about; turning yourself inside out, exposing your scars and imperfections in a way that’s honest and (hopefully) resonant.

And when it comes down to it, that’s what healing is about too. Then you patch up the wounds and turn yourself right-side-out again and the scars aren’t quite as visible; like the inside stitching along a seam. If, on the other hand, you ignore those wounds, though it may feel better initially, eventually they begin to fester. There’s a word for that . . . oh yeah, its denial. Usually nothing good comes from that.

I was a bit in denial when I first arrived in Boston for grad school. And I was afraid. Afraid of going “back there;” of digging back into that dark part of my life. Afraid of opening myself up, of the negative response I might receive. Thankfully, I received a tremendously positive response. And in submitting that first piece, I started chipping away at a barrier – a barrier I need to get through to heal, and also to be the writer I want to be.

Writing (or talking) about personal stuff is hard. It’s emotionally draining. When I shut my laptop after an evening of writing I feel emptied out; exhausted with the effort of coaxing images from a closed-off corner of my mind, spinning them into words and pushing them from my head through my muscles and bones – with a long layover at my heart – before they finally patter out into my keyboard.

But it’s also strangely therapeutic. To flush out that corner of my mind. To not be in denial. (They say that’s the first step to recovery, right?) When I see the words on the page they seem tangible. Manageable. Not so overwhelming after all.

And perhaps most significantly, people appreciate that honesty.

Because in order to truly connect with someone, you have to make yourself vulnerable, and you have to trust. That’s something on some level I’ve always known, but struggled to accomplish behind adolescent insecurities. And while there’s a trust in the military – an incredible life and death kind of trust – it’s physical more than emotional. It’s an understatement to say that vulnerability isn’t exactly encouraged in the military.

So grad school represented a bit of an aligning of the planets for me – a time when I needed that connection desperately, when I was in a place where it was offered, and when I was finally mature enough to handle it. My classmates and I bonded over our vulnerability. Sometimes we joke that our classroom discussions are like group therapy. When you’re all inside-out together, no one has reason to be ashamed.

As I look back on my first semester of grad school, that’s the most important lesson I’ve learned.

Here’s some other stuff I learned:
- You can walk pretty much anywhere in Boston. It is not recommended to do so wearing heels or Converse tennis shoes.
- The green line is never on time.
- Crosswalks are merely a suggestion.
- On average, it takes approximately five MFA students approximately 10 minutes to figure out how to divide a restaurant bill. We could write you a dissertation on the quality of the food, but don’t ask us to do math . . .
- Cheetos, Twizzlers and chocolate DO NOT constitute a balanced meal. But they really do help me write papers.
- Writers and cats seem to go hand-in-hand. (An informal poll that I just ran in my head shows a disproportionate number of my classmates have cats. But then again I’m not great at math.)

Thanks to my amazing colleagues at Emerson for your honesty, feedback, support and inspiration. I’m looking forward to working with you for the next 83% of the program! (That math is right, trust me).

Oh, in case you’re curious, I would opt for the dentist’s drill and the milkshakes.