To say that 2013 got off on the wrong foot for me is an understatement. To say that it ended on a spectacular high note is also an understatement. A friend of mine sent me a message a few weeks ago telling me that he was expecting a triumphant “end of year” piece on my blog, because things had turned around so dramatically for me. I wanted to oblige him, so for the past week I’ve started and stopped roughly a dozen pieces trying to find the right words, the right tone. Nothing seemed to work, and everything seemed awfully self-serving, boastful even. Then it struck me. At the beginning of the year when things were going so horribly wrong, when I was faced with disappointment after disappointment, writing about it was cathartic and helpful, even offering the opportunity to make a joke or two. And, to be honest, at the time I fully believed that everything that was going wrong, every fractured friendship, every hurdle, was somehow cosmically, karmically justified and it was my job to just get the hell through it all in one piece. Writing helped me do just that.
So why weren’t the words coming to me now? Why couldn’t I find a way to say in a witty and two-adjective-phrases-worthy way, just how content and happy the end of this year has made me feel? For someone like me, bred and firmly rooted in Northern New England sensibilities this feels boastful and arrogant. The setbacks I faced in early 2013 called for action, for a grit-your-teeth-and-just-get-through-it attitude, for sarcasm and self-deprecation. The good fortune of the last few months seemed to call for modesty, humility and some more self-deprecation. I wrote, deleted, started again. Wrote, deleted, started again.
Started again. Start again.
That’s what this year has been all about, starting again. In fact that’s what life is about, starting again. Ten years ago I lept off the cliff and started again as a single mom newly out of the closet. Three years ago I started again when Kelly and I got married. Sometimes we start again, out of necessity because to remain still is to suffocate. Sometimes we start again because we have no choice. Early 2013 remains a six-month blur of slammed doors, angry words, broken friendships, and frustrated tears. An ‘annus horriblus’ as Queen Elizabeth once said, seemed to be in the making. But all those hackeyned sayings about doors opening and closing? Turns out they’re right. Yes, the friendships that had been hurt were ultimately repaired, but in the interim new people had found me and had begun to fill the spaces. Yes there were days I felt terribly alone, and then someone unexpected would turn up asking “how can I help?” Yes, I wondered if anyone would ever cast me again. Then they did. And they did again and again, and again. And I ended 2013 sitting in silent disbelief as I looked back on some of the best if not the best work I’d ever done. Work that had been recognized and appreciated. Work that challenged me and rewarded me in such personal ways that my chest ached from it all. And greeting each opportunity, each new part, each new cast, was as if a beautiful blank book had been given to me to write in and fill the pages with a new story. An opportunity to start again. Not just on stage but in the way I greeted each day, loved my family, connected with friends, and tackled my work. Start again. The very phrase even showed up in as an oft-repeated line by my character in the last show I performed this year. It was as if even my scripts were telling me it was going to be ok. That in fact it was going to be more than ok.
It’s well into the first week of 2014 now. And I can’t help but marvel at the difference between the start of this year and what I was feeling a year ago. Before me lies a whole glorious year, maybe this year I’ll finally get my act together and get rid of that extra weight I carry around. Maybe I won’t. Maybe this year I’ll find some more wonderful shows to perform. And maybe I won’t get cast in anything. Maybe I’ll be diligent about putting more money away in savings. And maybe I’ll squander it on weekend getaways, drinks with friends, family dinners out, and trips to the ice cream stand. Maybe I’ll write my book. And maybe I won’t. But no matter what happens I’ll remember this feeling, this feeling of being totally whole, totally at peace. Proud, satisfied, surrounded by my adorable, supportive and hysterically funny family and friends new and old.
And ready to start again.
Happy New Year.
“You won’t like it…”
“I really want one please, it sounds so good!”
“I just think you’re not going to like it…”
“I think I will!”
My daughter and I are having an intense conversation about the unfortunately named Red Velvet Latte at Dunkin Donuts. She feels this sounds delicious and nothing I can tell her will persuade her that this is actually a coffee drink that will you know, taste like coffee. At 14, Liza is at the stage of liking the idea of coffee, even flirting with drinking coffee by consuming concoctions that may have coffee somewhere far down on the ingredients list but are really closer to hot chocolates or milkshakes. My warnings that this deliciously named Red Velvet Latte will not, in fact, be like drinking a cupcake fall on deaf ears.
The drink is purchased and we pull away from the drive up and head home. The first sip is taken. Silence. I drive. A second sip, a wrinkled face and a slight shudder follow. I drive. Silence. “It has a strong um…aftertaste,” she finally admits. “Like coffee?” I ask? A sigh and silence answers me. Then, an outburst: “This latte is like my life!” she exclaims, “I keep thinking I’m going to like certain things and then when I try them they’re not what I think they’re going to be at all!”
Planted squarely between the safe excitement of middle schoolers entering the teenage years and the effortless sophistication of 16 or 17-year old high schoolers, life as a 14-year old Freshman can seem a minefield of decisions large and small from which language to study to where to sit at lunch. And from the painful decision to say goodbye to ten years of dance study to allow for more time for theater and extracurricular activities to the choice of a homecoming dress. Every option is scrutinized, studied and discussed. All the possible outcomes are weighed and more than a few tears are shed. Everything seems monumental when you’re fourteen, even a red velvet latte.
I continue to drive, wondering if I should say something and risk making the situation worse. It had been a rough week for us in mother-daughter land. My four months of rich acting work (back-to-back shows with two of the best parts I’ve ever played) came to a close and I was left feeling as though I’d had a limb amputated. I missed my rehearsal process, I missed my cast-mates from both shows, I missed my characters, I was restless and grumpy at 7_30 each night, and the coming year loomed in front of me with the near 100% certain knowledge that no acting work was out there for me. (On a tangential note, I’m ready to declare a moratorium on casting notices that only feature parts for 20-30 year olds, but I digress). My family was thrilled that I was “home” and that our lives could return to some semblance of normality, yet I was at odds with everyone and everything. It was not my finest hour, and it was made all the more difficult by a certain 14-year-old’s inability to see that I was, as I reminded her in a fit of pique, “an actual person, with actual feelings.” To say I was testy with her dramatics was an understatement. But since she had to put up with my moods it was only fair I put up with hers.
So, I took a deep breath (when you parent a teenage girl, I highly recommend a cleansing deep breath before saying anything… seriously…anything), and I told her sometimes that’s what happens when we take a chance. Sometimes the latte doesn’t taste good. Sometimes we burn our tongue. And that it doesn’t mean that the latte won’t taste delicious in a few years when her taste buds have acclimated to coffee. (Although between you and me I still have doubts about this whole Red Velvet flavor). Just as toddlers stubbornly insist, “do it myself!” teenagers have to find out for themselves as well what fits them, what suits them, and what challenges them. She took a chance, and while the outcome wasn’t what she had hoped, she still took that risk, the same way she took the risk to run for class office, to audition for a new show, to speak up in class at a time when girls her age fall notoriously silent, to be herself, to be this loud, goofy, slightly klutzy, thoughtful, stubborn, emotional tempest, without sacrificing her self on the altar of teenage conformity. In that stupid Red Velvet Latte I suddenly understood all that she had been feeling, and just as I had implored her to see me as a real person, it was incumbent upon me to do the same.
I thought back to my own Red Velvet Latte moments, the risks that paid off and the ones that didn’t. I thought back to my parents who never said, “don’t bother,” but instead said, “Well, try it and see!” I thought about my wife who pushed and pushed me to audition for a role I was certain I’d never get and who never stopped beaming with delight from the moment I was cast to the moment I took my final bow – even amidst all that she sacrificed so I could shine. And I thought about a line from one of my favorite Sondheim songs, “The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not.” At 14 every choice is fraught with peril and potential. At 47, it’s not much different. But still we choose and still we risk, for the alternative — stasis — is simply unbearable.
We are much alike, my girl and I, full of big feelings, and deep currents of emotion that can cloud our reason and elevate simple things to critical importance. And as we mirror each other, we are often impatient with each other, unwilling to see our similarities even as they stare us in the face. Maybe the next time I find us at odds with each other, clashing over little things and biting back our tears, I’ll take another deep breath and ask her if she wants to take a break and share a latte, and try again.
It’s time. Each holiday season for the past 23 years I’ve wrestled with loss, with absence, with the feeling of someone missing. First my dad, then my sister, then my mom — each gone, each take from me at holiday time. Each leaving a place that never ever seems to be filled. For the past few years Thanksgiving has been a day of quiet reflection, of stillness in a house alone (waiting for Kelly to get home from work and go to a friend’s for dinner), of mentally preparing myself for the onslaught of holiday memories that greet me at every turn each year. Memories of holiday dinners mixed with memories of funerals. Thanksgiving was a day to face the ghosts.
This year I set them free.
This year my day is spent with Liza for the first time in over a decade, an occurrence that has me grinning from ear to ear. She puts up with my spontaneous hugs, I put up with her need to cuddle on the couch and look at the sale papers for Black Friday. We went to Thanksgiving Mass and then returned home to eat Pillsbury Cinnamon Rolls and watch the Macy’s parade… just like I used to with my family growing up. In a few hours Kelly will be home, we’ll gather our contributions to June’s annual Thanksgiving feast and head out to celebrate with dear friends. This year I’m not lonely and I’m not sad.
At Mass this morning I said prayers for my family as I always do and turned to look at Liza. This tall young woman, with lashes so long they touch her glasses frames looked back at me, and my heart caught with an indescribable fullness. Ten years ago I flew to my sister’s funeral on Thanksgiving. Today I see her in my daughter’s eyes and I know as sure as I know my own name it’s time to let her go. To let go of that holiday ache that surrounds her memory and the memories of my parents. It’s time to set the ghosts free.
I do so with the total understanding of how much I have to be thankful for in this life I lead and that it’s time for gratitude for the gifts I have to overshadow the pain of the gifts I’ve lost. For all that fills my life I give thanks. Especially for:
My wife Kelly who loves me, understands me, supports me, stands up for me, cheers for me, cooks for me, holds me, challenges me, teases me, laughs with and at me, shares my heart, my life, my past, and my future.
My daughter Liza who seems taller and more beautiful every day, who rolls her eyes at me, calls out for me, texts me, hugs me, needs me, lets me borrow her perfume, advises me on eye makeup, laughs at and with me, helps me, challenges me, and fills my heart with a pride that bursts out of every fiber of my being.
My best friend Joe, whose morning phone calls light up my day, who shares a history with me that can never be replicated, who is proud of me even as his own accomplishments eclipse any I could hope for, and who always knows the exact right thing to say.
My friend June who has opened her home to us on every holiday, who hosted our wedding, who never ceases to check in, and who is without a doubt, our famiy.
My friends who put up with my sarcasm and snark and who aren’t afraid to call me on the carpet for it. Even at 47, I know there is room to grow and I’m thankful they remind me of that when I need it.
My friends from high school and college who have stayed with me all these years.
My theater family who wrapped me in a web of support and love as I tackled the toughest role of my career, whose belief in me is still astonishing to me, and who give me a sense of home and belonging that humbles me.
For friends who honor me with the gift of their confidences, who reach out for support during their own tough times. For they allow me to carry on my mother’s legacy of one who always had an open door, a ready ear, and a steady shoulder for a friend in need. I don’t know what I did to deserve the trust of so many people but it is a gift and a honor I take seriously.
For my extended family of in-laws who have finally given me that big family I always wanted, and who have welcomed me and Liza with open arms.
For amazing gains for families like mine who are inching ever closer to full equality.
For a new Pope whose humility, straight talk, and open heart has made me feel welcome in my faith for the first time in years.
For my big brother Patrick, who, in his own way, has never stopped looking out for me and who figured out how to text so he could check in with his baby sister now and then.
For the memory of my sister Marie, who taught me about makeup, Danielle Steele novels, White Russians and General Hospital, about how to write a resume, how to flirt, how to be a mom, and how to say goodbye with grace.
For the foundation that Joe and Mary Youngs laid for their three children on an island in Maine, one of love, honesty, service, liberal politics, show tunes, chips and dip, summers at the beach, scrabble games, and thank you notes. A legacy that endures in me and my brother, in Liza, and in my nephews.
This year is different. No tears. No ache. Just peace. The ghosts are gone. It’s time now to make some squash, pack the wine, pick out an outfit and share a dinner of thanks with my friends.. and my family.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone.