Go, go, go. As wonderful as the holiday season is, it moves at a frantic pace. Parties, dinners, gatherings, shopping, grooming, on top of all the usual weekly must-do’s. This week we had six straight days of evening events, all important and great but all that make walking up the stairs to to this house despite the work it still needs and the furniture it’s missing and the little mouse we just cannot get rid of soothing to my soul. There really is no place like home.
After having almost no contact with my dad for 10 years, he sent me a text one day asking to talk. That night several years ago, I put on my running shoes. It was already dark. It was a damp, foggy night. I started running. And then I called him. I jogged all over the city for well over an hour. I was guarded. The history was long and complicated. Though I felt maybe I could have some conversation with him after all these years, there was no way I was just going to spill my guts. Where do you even start trying to explain your life now to a person whose memories of you stopped a decade ago. So I mostly listened. There was no earth shattering news, nothing in particular he needed to talk to me about. As we wrapped up the conversation he said “Your dad loves you Katie” and without a thought I just said “Love you too.”
As soon as I hung up the phone I wondered whether that was the truth or a lie. Had I just said I love you too because that’s what you say when someone says it to you first? Or was there something about the relationship between parent and child that just supersedes logic. It’s like some inescapable and unexplainable truth. Even if you despise your parents you love them. One thing was sure: hearing those words from him didn’t bring me any kind of comfort. I believe they were entirely sincere, but it didn’t stir my heart. It was just another thing he said.
On the other hand, memories of my grandfather (pictured above) are only positive. He was a very good man. He and my grandma raised five kids in the small town he grew up in. He fought in World War II and then was a mailman. He was active in the church and seemed to know everyone in town. He walked every day until he couldn’t anymore. He taught me how to twiddle my thumbs and run the Dustbuster. He never yelled and always had a twinkle in his eye. Banter was his specialty. Playful teasing about anything and everything was the norm. “I’ve gotta give you a little crap” he’d say. He loved when you’d give it right back. But he was not affectionate. Hugs seemed to make him uncomfortable so he preferred the spaghetti handshake. He never said I love you. I lived in another state the last years of his life. When I learned he was in his last days I called to talk but really had just one goal in mind. Our conversation was short, probably just a little about what was new with me, but at the end I was very deliberate in saying “Ok Grandpa, we’ll talk later. I love you.” “Ok, talk to you soon,” he replied. I smiled and shook my head as I hung up the phone. He didn’t have the words, but he asked my mom to be sure I was the one who spoke at his funeral.
Growing up, my idea of romantic love came from what I saw in movies. My mom and I watched a lot of chick flicks and she loved Turner Classic Movies. I was raised on Doris Day and Rock Hudson movies. There were also the contemporary classics. Basically every Meg Ryan and Sandra Bullock movie from the 90’s. The torture of unrequited love. The way people always bumped into their soulmate through some serendipitous twist of fate. The way the couple always seemed to hate each other before they realized they loved each other. Men courting women. Women being aloof and standoffish. But always, always the way they always lived happily ever after in the end.
I was never the person who thought life was going to be a fairytale. I certainly was never a princess so the idea of a prince charming was never part of the equation either. I related more to Claire Danes in My So-Called Life, the one season cult classic, about angsty Angela trying to figure out where she fit but lusting after Jordan Catalano (Jared Leto) and being constantly tormented by the way his mixed messages keep her on the hook. So heart wrenching. So reflective of my own teenage heartache. So awkward, so wishing I could wear a flannel tied around my waist so uncaringly, SO wishing I’d be in the middle of a dance floor dancing to Haddaway’s “What is Love”, and so wanting to be liked by a boy. I had desperate crushes and plenty of guy friends but was basically the same person in a younger body which was a *little* too intense for a teenage boy. In middle school I was overweight and awkward and was teased a lot. In high school I couldn’t be cool around older guys for the life of me. I was focused on doing all the sports and activities. I had pretty strong ideas about the way the world worked and spoke up about them all. My junior prom date ditched me ensuring one of my teenage nightmares came true. I didn’t have my first real boyfriend until I was a senior in high school. I married him when I was 19. We divorced when I was 23.
**If you haven’t read the previous installment of my four week Advent series, please catch up HERE**
The second week of Advent another purple candle joins Hope and represents Love. I have a complicated relationship with that word. Love. You can feel it without being able to say the words. You can say the words without feeling it. There’s just one word to describe the love you have for your family and your partner and your friends and your job and everything you own. I wish that in English we had nuanced words to describe love like they have in other languages.
Forelsket – Norwegian
That overwhelming euphoric feeling you experience when you’re falling in love with someone. This is the word to describe that giddy feeling when we haven’t reached the point of “I love you,” but are past the initial crush phase. The way I felt about the first man who seemed to like me just as I was. He was 20. I was 17 years old doing a summer exchange in Italy.
Koi No Yokan – Japanese
The sudden knowledge upon meeting someone that the two of you are destined to fall in love. The way I felt when I saw the man who would become my (now) husband when I saw his picture on Match.com
Gigil – Filipino
The urge to pinch or squeeze something that is irresistibly cute. The way I felt about a law school classmate of mine who I just adored but knew I’d never date.
La douleur exquise – French
The heartbreaking pain of wanting someone you can’t have. The feeling I tried to ignore for years in the relationship with the man I thought I would marry.
Ya’aburnee – Arabic
This phrase translates to “you bury me.” This is the hope that the person you love will outlive you so you can spare the pain of living without them. The way I feel about my sister. I truly do not know what I would do if I had to navigate life without her.
Queesting – Dutch
When you invite someone into your bed for some pillow talk. A man whose kindness and closeness was what I needed most when I was at a low point.
L’esprit de escalier – French
The inescapable feeling you get when you leave a conversation then think about all the things you should have said. The end of my first marriage.
Razbliuto – Russian
The sentimental feeling you can often feel towards someone you used to loved but no longer do. Two people who were my closest friends at one time.
Sobremesa – Spanish
The conversation at the table that continues after a meal is over. The food, the drinks and the laughter can make for great memories. The reason our favorite thing is to host dinner parties.
Ilunga – Bantu
A person who is willing to forgive abuse the first time; tolerate it the second time, but never a third time. This is from a language spoken in a region of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It may be one of the hardest words to translate because it has so many layered meanings. This one little word touches on patience, forgiveness and breaking points. It describes a person who will forgive someone for the first offense against them, tolerate it a second time, but will not forgive them for a third time.
Maybe this is the one that best captures it. That feeling I get when my dad says “I love you.”
Complicated, complicated, it all gets complicated, but among different cultures, religious traditions, and literature over decades there is one common theme: love and hate cannot exist in the same space.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.
For as ilunga implies love doesn’t come without pain. Sometimes we are the ones in pain and sometimes we are the ones causing it. The only way this love thing works is to forgive. Others. And ourselves. To be forgiven by others. And maybe we get to that “third time,” the breaking point where the relationship needs to be broken. But even then, letting go with love rather than hate is the thing we do for our own heart. It seems as complicated as it gets, love in ALL these forms makes the soul richer. Love is always worth it. Whether it is easy or hard, life will always be better in the light of love.
Look, I’m not some kind of winter freak. Quite the opposite. Despite living in Wisconsin driving in the snow still makes me nervous and I hate being cold. “Winter” makes me think of leaky boots and cold toes. Shoveling my car out of a street parking spot and getting a push from a neighbor. Sliding through intersections praying no one is coming the other direction. It’s also the only season that can be described as magical. Or enchanting. Winter Wonderland isn’t just a polite alliteration, it’s really true. White fluffy snow covering everything around you. Watching puffy white flakes fall dreamily in front of the street lights. The silence of winter interrupted only by the scrunch of snow under your feet. The diamond sparkle of snow in the sunlight. The feeling of that cool blast on your hot skin as you woosh down a mountain on skis. The fluffy featherlight feel of the snow all around as you move your arms and legs wildly out and in to make a snow angel. The grace of a single perfect patterned snowflake perched on your friend’s eyelash. The perfect heat of the mug of hot chocolate that warms pink chilly hands. But snow covered trees are maybe my favorite. We drove through the mountains of Oregon this weekend. The scenery, everyone’s old fashioned big-bulbed rainbow Christmas lights, the cozy diners there like an old friend, the wool and the fuzzy hats. All the reasons that snow is warming my soul this week.
My mom went all out for Christmas decorating at our house. Practically every horizontal surface had fiberglass angel hair covering small twinkle lights with the nativity and snowmen and other Christmas figurines. Sparkly snowflakes hung in the picture window framed by more twinkle lights. Vases would be filled with special holiday silk flowers and shiny beads and, of course, even more twinkle lights. Every light fixture in the house could be off and there was this softly colored glow that felt warm and special.
Keeping the Christ in Christmas was always very important to her. We attended church every Sunday so it was easy to incorporate the traditions we saw there into our home. Every year one of the earliest signs of Christmas, often even before the tree or the twinkle lights, was the Advent wreath on our kitchen table. Four Sundays before Christmas the church put up their huge Advent wreath, three purple candles and a pink candle in a wreath of evergreens, and we put out our Advent wreath at home, the four colored candles often left over from year to year in a modest and very used brass candle circle. The first week just one purple candle was lit. The second week a second purple candle was lit. The third week the pink candle was added and the fourth week the fourth and final purple. Every night at dinner the candle(s) would be lit.
Similarly, at the beginning of the month a colorful poster board Advent calendar would be nailed into the wood panel wall behind our kitchen table. Our parents had to be at work very early in the morning so it was usually quite a chore to get us out of bed and down to breakfast. But during Advent, my sister and I took turns opening the tiny numbered doors each day. The years we had an Advent calendar with little chocolates behind the numbered doors were the best, but even when there was no chocolate there was a teeny tiny picture that got better and better as the days counted down.
If someone had quizzed us about what Advent was or why we had these traditions, I suppose I would have said something like “it’s the countdown to Baby Jesus being born.” Obviously, I know now that the tradition and symbolism go much deeper than that. I fell away from the church before taking care to learn the deeper meanings and since my beliefs are different now, I won’t even try to talk intelligently about what those meanings are. Generally, Advent is a time of preparation and planning but patience for the goodness to come.
So much of what I love about Christmas is about the traditions, the things you do every single year. When I started attending a Unitarian Universalist church, a place that does not have a single doctrinal (i.e. biblical) foundation and openly welcomes atheists I just assumed that many of the traditions I became accustomed to in that were based in my church would never be a part of my adult life. Color me surprised to listen to a sermon last December all about the tradition of the Advent wreath and the importance of incorporating this, or something like it, into your family’s rituals.
December is the darkest month and as Christians are waiting for the birth of God’s s-o-n, those who are not of this faith are waiting in anticipation for the s-u-n to come back. The candles can symbolize light triumphing over darkness. They can also symbolize the cardinal directions or the elements of earth, air, fire, and water all acting in tandem with each other to create balance in our world. In the Christian tradition, the candles represent: Hope, Love, Joy and Peace. Focusing on one of these each week serves as a check in an often ties into a gratitude practice and that’s what I am going to do to honor the Advent tradition this year.
Week 1: Hope. Hope is a funny thing. I am notoriously impatient so hope has always felt more like dark desperate terror-filled demands than some magical beacon of light out there in the distance somewhere. My sense is that the only difference between desperation and hope is the fear of powerlessness. Hope is something you want or a vision you have that you aspire to, though you are perfectly happy with what you have now and would be happy even if that vision never comes to be. Desperation is the fear that you won’t reach that vision, and that life will be somehow less than because of it. I have lived my life largely in desperation. The things I do, I do because I don’t know or don’t like what life looks like if I don’t.
What’s the antidote? Acceptance I suppose. Accepting one’s powerlessness. Giving up control. I’ve written how 2018 has been a difficult year, and it has. Dealing with the hope, and then the expectation, of having a baby. There was a turning point midway through the year. I’d picked a fight with Noel for not doing everything I thought he could do to pull his weight. I realized immediately after that this exact fight was precisely what I had always said in my mind I wouldn’t let happen. I’m not the person who wants a child for having a child’s sake: I want a child that is the product of a strong, loving, healthy relationship. We had to do things differently. We are still figuring out that balance of trying but not trying and all the while not losing the essence of what makes us us. I feel better than I’ve felt in a long time. Things feel easier. The things I need to do to try for baby are the things I don’t mind doing that are now just part of the routine. Physically and mentally I feel great. Acupuncture, herbs, whole foods, more sleep, less stress, more restorative activity, it’s all working to keep me feeling strong and fit. And most of all, I don’t feel alone in this. I have a partner and people who care about me who have been wonderful. So, yes, I want the vision of my future to come true but that can’t be all of my hope. My hope must rest in the refuge of all that is good now.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing.
Whisper of running streams, and winter lightning.
The wild thyme unseen and the wild strawberry,
The laughter in the garden, echoed ecstasy
Not lost, but requiring, pointing to the agony
Of death and birth.
-T.S. Eliot, Wait Without Hope
I will not see this month of darkness and waiting as something to merely get through. I will accept the darkness and fight against my impatience to accept this time of rest and introspection. Without winter’s blustery cold, the warmth of the summer sun would not feel so sweet. Perhaps the hope I’ve place in my vision of the future falls woefully short of what is really meant to be. Afterall, Adventus means arrival.
Santa Claus is coming to town. Try thousands of Santa Clauses coming to town.
Years ago, I was doing errands one Saturday sitting at a traffic light when I see about ten Santas on bicycles ride past. I started laughing and waving. My whole day was made.
Fast forward to my second date with Noel. “Have you ever heard of Santa Rampage?” he asks. No. He went to on explain that it’s the second best day of the year (Riverwest 24 is #1, duh). The first Saturday of December, Santas from all corners of the city descend upon Lake Front Brewery to kick off a bar crawl that ends at Kochanski’s with a polka band, shotskis, and enough Christmas spirit to put even the bah-humbugiest among us in a jolly mood for weeks.
So, a couple months into dating, Santa Rampage became our official “coming out.” I got to meet lots of Noel’s bike industry friends for the first time and our photos were the first to make us Facebook official. Riding behind him on that tandem listening him yell “ho ho ho!” from his belly plasters a smile on my face that makes my cheeks hurt.
And yeah, it’s really fun to dress up and bike around with Christmas music blaring and stuff, but the thing that makes this day so great is seeing how happy it makes others. People come out of their houses. Grown ups alone in their cars go crazy honking the horn and waving like children. Kids with their faces pressed against car windows. Seeing all these Santas on bikes just brings out something pure in people and it feels like it really matters, like this is changing their day, maybe even their whole holiday season. It’s delightful. That’s really the only word for it and that’s why it deserves recognition this week.
The only time people can swear in court without the judge getting mad is in treatment court when people say they got a case of the fuck its. The fuck its usually explain a relapse on drugs or alcohol. I am a firm believer that most of the bad choices in life are preceded with a conscious or unconscious “fuck it.”
A few months ago I needed to see a different acupuncturist while Jodie was out of town. Lucky for me, she was a “specialist” in using Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) to help women get pregnant. I happened to start seeing her when my attitude was at a low point. I sent her an email the night before on of my appointments. I said the f-word. Not at her, just like “I wanna say fuck it!” She responded by asking if I wanted to cancel my appointment. I think I wanted attention. And some consoling. I think I could have handled this better.
Just the day before, a client of mine got a serious case of the fuck-its. I gave him a case update that included the fact the DA was still seeking jail time. “Why am I doing all of this then? Why did I get a good job? Why did I get into treatment? Why am I going to those meetings? Why did I get back in my daughter’s life? It’s all going to be taken away from me if I go to jail.” “Because they are the right thing to do,” I told him. “Because it matters.” Sometimes these conversations don’t go this well. Frequently I am the bearer of bad news and clients take out their anger and frustration on me. I am the reason they are going to jail. I don’t understand, I could never understand. I’m not doing my job. I don’t care. It’s the worst. It makes me want to scream at them “That’s not true!” along with the laundry list of things I’ve done for them or the evidence that I really really DO care. I think I’ve even done that a couple times. It didn’t help.
It comes with the territory. I am the only person who will speak for them. I am the only person on their side who has the ability to do anything to make this situation less bad. I am the one person in this process filled with stress, confusion, and unfairness that they get to talk to. Sometimes they want answers. Most of the time they want to be heard. Many don’t have the words or the emotional intelligence to communicate fear, so they communicate anger. I get that. I’ve done that!
That new acupuncturist promised she gets great results. People are “very satisfied” when they work with her. She made us keep a food log. Praised our efforts in all the things we’ve been doing to try to conceive. Reassured us. But things felt like they went backwards. And I blamed her. “Why should I listen to her?” I asked Noel. I actively didn’t meditate just because she told me I should.
It’s self preservation. You just start preparing for the worst when you feel pretty done with hoping for the best.
Around this same time I read the book Evicted by Matthew Desmond. It looks at the role eviction plays in the cycle of poverty and happens to be set in Milwaukee. It completely changed the way I understand the bigger picture that many of my clients are facing on a daily basis. It describes the squalor many people live in: some because of greedy landlords who know they are in a power position, and some of their own making. This is something I’ve never understood. Even if you’re poor, why not treat what you do have with respect? Why are the poor neighborhoods so full of trash? Why not keep their apartments tidy even if they are in disrepair? Why not dress as well as you can for court, even if it’s modest?
“Substandard housing was a blow to your psychological health: not only because things like dampness, mold, and overcrowding could bring about depression but also because of what living in awful conditions told you about yourself. It was once said that the poor are ‘constantly exposed to evidence of their own irrelevance. Especially for poor African America families – who lived in neighborhoods with rates of violence and concentrated poverty so extreme that even the worst white neighborhoods bear little resemblance – living in degrading housing in dangerous neighborhoods sent a clear message about where the wider society thought they belonged.” ~ Evicted, Matthew Desmond
Even before reading this book I was aware that generational poverty in America is often traced back to the lack of affordable housing. For many, a meager house is all they have to pass along to their kin at death. Where many of white families got government assistance or GI loans after World War II, systematic racism meant that most veterans of color were not given the same opportunity. Middle class white families were encouraged to take advantage of new, suburban housing, but government policies meant that people of color were literally forced into certain areas of the city where they rented rather than owned property.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying being frustrated with some new acupuncturist compares to poverty and jail. First world problems right? My point is about ease with which even someone who is dealing with first world problems can get to the fuck-its. To think about the opportunities and privilege I have and still get to the point that I’m ready to self sabotage, that’s a reality check. The common thread is hopelessness. Hopelessness is a product of feeling helpless, my situation is not my choice. The reaction to this helplessness is to act out and blame or to turn inward and self destruct. In either case, it’s bad and leads people to make reckless and harmful choices.
Late this summer a friend asked me to attend an event for an organization that she is on the board of. I said yes without knowing a thing about the event or the organization. I arrived at at address near Marquette University in an area of town that I typically have no reason to be. There was a huge coach bus outside. Women started to arrive, most of them white and all of them looking very professional. As we boarded the bus we were handed a neat little folder with fliers and brochures strategically placed inside. The bus was full of women in Tory Burch flats and designer handbags. A video started to play to tell us about ACTS Housing.
ACTS Housing helps people determine whether they are financially ready to purchase their first house. If not, they help folks create a long term plan for saving, debt reduction, or credit building. Once people are financially ready (for many that takes years!), the organization works with licensed real estate agents to show people primarily foreclosed homes in the central city. ACTS then works with families to identify a budget for rehabing these homes. For families who cannot obtain financing through a bank, ACTS can help. Families often contribute a lot of sweat equity and are entirely responsible for finding and hiring any needed contractors. The result, a home of your own. ACTS stats show that most families remain in this home well past the required years. In fact, many ACTS families seek homes on blocks where other ACTS families already reside, transforming formerly vacant and boarded up streets into a strong network of cared-for houses and supportive neighbors.
This. This was real change in our city. Since 1995 ACTS Housing has helped over 2,400 families find homes. This bus tour was to see a before and after. We went to a home in an area of town that I definitely had never been. This luxury bus pulls up in front of a home that the city is trying to sell for around $30,000. These women, who I learned were financial planners, lawyers (at big firms), accountants, business owners…are offered masks as we file off the air conditioned bus and tentatively walk into a house that is filthy and falling apart. Some rooms are badly damaged. Others are full of abandoned things. A little girl’s middle school photo is tacked onto a bedroom wall as if they left in such a hurry they forgot it. As we are walking through this house, a man off the street just walked in smoking a blunt to take a look around. It was…memorable to say the least.
We get back on the bus and start driving through the neighborhoods again. As we do, I see people getting home from work in scrubs or UPS uniforms. An older man with a broom and a shovel sweeping the sidewalk. A tiny fenced in yard just full of colorful blooming flowers. These neighborhoods with street names I only associate with the shootings on local news, they seem to be filled with people. People who cared. People who were doing the best they could.
We stopped in front of a house where a woman and some children in their teens and early 20’s was waiting on the porch. She was beaming. Out of the bus and into the home she proudly showed us. “These cabinets are all new.” “All the wiring in that bathroom was redone.” “This woodwork is original and we restored it.” The home was modest, but well lived in and obviously loved. She made it a point to thank each one of us as we walked out into the yard and gathered for a farewell. “What do you like most about your house?” The woman got tears in her eyes. “I’m so proud that my children have a place they aren’t embarrassed to bring their friends and that some day when I’m dead and gone I’ll be able to leave them something.” We were all wiping away tears as we got back on the bus.
What most impressed me most about ACTS Housing, was learning that over 90% of these families remain current on their mortgage. Not only does that show that the process works, but shows the pride that homeownership creates. To be seen. To be valued. To create the possibility that poverty in this family will end. To give hope where decent, hardworking people thought there was none. That is the power to create real change. I see the spectrum of the fuck its on a daily basis. From the societal to the self-imposed, the problems people face create so much destruction. I am so proud that Milwaukee has an organization that is building up people and building up our community. That is why on this #GivingTuesday, I ask that if you haven’t read Evicted you pick up a copy immediately and that you join me in making a donation to support ACTS Housing. Why? Because it’s the right thing to do. Because it matters.
My Grandpa Rohrer and my mom have birthdays a day apart and often one fell on Thanksgiving. My grandpa always wanted pumpkin and pecan pie with “the real stuff.” That’s what he called actual whipped cream. My grandpa was also a diabetic. When he ate rich and sugary food brow below his receding hairline would start to glisten and within minutes the whole top of his head would get sweaty.
Pumpkin pie is just the most comforting food. It’s a once a year literal slice of tradition and warmth. I fully intended to feed my soul with this Thanksgiving staple yesterday…except, despite a number of culinary masterpieces, pumpkin pie didn’t make it to our family meal.
So…perhaps it’s more appropriate that today’s Soul Food Friday is dedicated to the delectable delight that the skeleton crew at work partakes in the day AFTER Thanksgiving. The panza rotta. Google panza rotta and the first thing that pops up, Jimmy’s Grotto in Waukesha, Wisconsin. Urban dictionary panza rotta: “i ate a ponza rotta from jimmys grotto and it was awesome!” It must be legit right? I’m here to tell you, it sure is. This is a deep fried pizza pocket from the hole in the walliest of hole in the wall restaurants. This is a once a year tradition because the place fills up so you have to be real patient, especially with a group, but also because our hearts and stomachs can only take this beating annually.
There are two options after Thanksgiving’s gluttonous excess, feel shame, count those calories in your head, eat only soup for the next few days…or just lean into it. I choose to give myself a break and just let things go one more day. I enjoy every single bite of that fried pocket of heaven and for this, the panza rotta is worthy of Soul Food Friday.