My Mother’s Sisters

It’s obvious to anyone who knows me or reads this blog that I will go on and on for days if you let me about sisters. And sisterhood. And the way that sisters, both biological and chosen, make my life better. And make the world better. And make everything, everywhere better.

My own sister is, undoubtedly, one of the most influential people in my life. Our relationship might seem confusing to an outsider who doesn’t understand sisters in general or us specifically, because we aren’t all that similar and yet we are very much the same and we are madly in love and often in conflict. Regardless of that kind of confusion, our mother, the mother of my sisterhood, taught us from the day Alley was born that we are meant to get along and cling to each other. And any ideas we have to the contrary are misguided. She didn’t teach this to us subtly, she said it outright. “A sister is the best kind of friend you can have.” “Don’t take your sister for granted.” Or more pragmatically: “Your dad and I will die and you two will be all you have.” Period. She is not one to mince words.

When we fought (fight), she feels physically ill. I can see it on her face. She pretends that it makes her mad,  but I can see now, with the wisdom of age and as the mother of two growing sisters, that it actually makes her sad. Very sad. When I was younger and felt so entitled to my angst, this annoyed me. Can’t this woman even let me have my ANGST!? Now that I am older my angst is what annoys me and when we fight and make her sad I feel her sadness. And say I’m sorry. Because I am.

My mom wasn’t just pulling her sisterhood advice from thin air or parotting a parenting book, she was telling us her life experience. My mom is one of 3 girls (who followed one boy), a little sister the day she was born and a big sister later. Both my aunts played a large role in our lives when we were growing up, but I had the self-centered view of a child and saw them only as MY aunts. The aunt that always made me macaroni and cheese, the aunt that had a gnome garden, the aunt that taught me so much about the love of a mother, the aunt that showed me where my bitchy streak comes from. The aunt that extolled the virtues of short, practical hair. The aunt that extolled the virtues of flashy, impractical costume jewelry. I saw them as they related to me, but I didn’t have the perspective then to see them as my mother’s sisters.

My perspective started to change once I entered adulthood and my mom began to feel more comfortable showing me the real versions of her relationships. Or maybe I just became more able to see it? Either way. Her sisterhood became a more complete, three dimensional picture.

She talked more openly about an annoying conflict with a friend or an uncomfortable conversation with her sister. She let me in, bit by bit as I became able to understand and as I myself encountered more complicated issues in my own relationships, the real and messy nature of unconditional love. She helped me see that unconditional love actually does have conditions. Sisterhood love is unending, but not uncomplicated. And that’s when I realized (duh) that her relationships with her sisters began not at my birth (!?) but at hers. Serious Oprah-aha moment.

A few years ago, my mom’s older sister got sick. Cancer. And the prognosis was not the worst. And I felt pain as a niece, to be sure, but more pain as a daughter seeing her mother in pain. As an adult, in sharp contrast to the way I saw them as a child, the situation seemed almost nothing to do with me and all to do with them. My aunt and her fear of being alone. My mom and her fear of losing her sister. She and her younger sister pulled together, in the sisterly way, and cared for their older sister. They went to support her when things were hopeful. They, and my uncle, made a trip together when things went bad. And they were there with their sister as she died. Three sisters were two, and their pain was palpable. Their pain was over not only the loss of one of them, but their sorrow was caused by the pain in life their sister had endured. By the injustice of cancer. By the betrayal of loved ones. By that unbearable feeling that you could have should have might have been able to do more.denise

I never fully understood the relationships my mom had with her sisters. That they loved each other was clear. But as we all know by now that doesn’t make things simple. As a child, I felt confused by the way they could be so close and yet stand to be so far apart geographically. As an adult, I understood that distance is often inevitable, but I felt confused about the way the dynamic worked. Maybe my life of one sister was simpler than a life lived with two. Between my sister and I there was a straight line of communication. Between those three there was a triangle. I didn’t have enough experience to decode their encrypted language.

Last year my mother’s younger sister got sick. Or, perhaps more accurately, we found out she was sick. I suspect she knew for a while. Or at least had a sense. But she was still recovering from the previous years. She had lost her son. Then her older sister. And perhaps the symptoms she felt seemed just like symptoms of that grief. Anyone would understand. But eventually it turned out to be cancer. Aggressive.

For our entire family this news seemed like a nightmare too cruel to be true. I was worried and felt homesick and felt guilty and felt confused. I made calls and sent flowers and kept hope. I wasn’t there to keep vigil over my aunt, but my uncle and other loved ones did that so well. I decided for my part I’d keep vigil over my mother. And watch her, however helplessly, to make sure she was ok. If there is such a thing in such times. And my mother, for the most part, wasn’t ok.

My mom is by no means a cold person but she isn’t exactly a fountain of emotional openness pouring forth. I have a tendency for drama and weeping when pushed to the brink so I often felt confused in the way my mom could express herself. She could say things like about loss and death and sadness and pain in the same tone she could say ‘The weather is cold today.’ As a child I think I thought this was something broken inside her, but now I see she was protecting us from seeing her in pain. Because really, it’s very painful. And the only thing worse to think of than the pain of that kind of loss is to see your children experiencing it as well. A mother’s curse is to spend life wanting to prevent the unpreventable moments of her child’s pain. She knew, as we all know, that we can’t be kept from all sadness but she didn’t want HER sadness to add to our own. I get it now. I get it.doreen

The months since she lost her second sister have been hard for her. Because there is a lot of joy to be had, a new baby arrive, another on the way, a happy family, our health, the sun every day, the lake we live beside, the love we share as a nuclear and extended family. But that joy isn’t enough, cannot be enough, to erase the truth of her loss. Her sisterhood is broken, irreparably. The group of people who knew her from the very start, an important cohort no matter how close or far you are from them, is that much smaller. The keepers of childhood memories and family secrets and painful pasts have slipped away.

And life goes on.  And we keep moving. But something has changed in a permanent way.

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Professional Me :: I Knew Then What I Need Now

Most of my education and professional life has been about momentum. I always loved school, and excelled easily, and hopped happily from one step to the next. Out of high school to college. From college to grad school. Hop hop from one thing to the next because they made sense. They were in the right order. Other people were doing it.

Looking back I can see that I truly never did pause to reflect on whether a less logical or obvious step would make sense or to analyze why I felt so driven to keeping moving without pause for planning purposes. I suspect I was doing this intentionally, as I’m famous for avoiding difficult and confusing situations that might make me feel feelings. But at the end of it I found myself very educated and in some ways well prepared for a career as a social worker. That I didn’t actually want.

The years after I finished my MSW were spent working in that field off and on and making that discovery. A rather painful, quite expensive thing to conclude. At first I only admitted that I may have taken an unneeded detour through grad school quietly to my closest friends. I wasn’t embarrassed, exactly, just a little bit meek to speak the truth. But after a while it became undeniable. And now here I am, telling my mom and the 10 other people that read this.

The next step after admitting you are on the wrong path is figuring out where to go next. But I spent a great deal of time avoiding that step. The all-encompassing nature of motherhood worked as an excuse for a while. And the nomadic, sporadic nature of Dave’s job has let me have a standard reply when it comes to “why I don’t have a ‘normal’ job.” But these are both just procrastination, because as much as I love our gypsy life and my role as a mother, I also always knew I would feel the need to flex a different muscle. To hone other skills. To carve out a little part of our life that belonged only to me.

When I was job-searching back in 2008, eventually finding the job in social work that taught me so much about the world and showed me clearly that I wasn’t meant to be a social worker, I wrote a post about my lack of professional passion and my as of yet absent baby fever.

Considering that over 6 years have passed, we’ve added two children and countless life lessons, I am struck by how what I wrote about myself then still stands true about me now

About my professional goals I said:

The time and resources invested in my education are still serving me well, and I’m proud of my accomplishments. But I don’t feel the need for a career to supplement my identity. I want a job that I love. I’d like to find a field I can excel within. I want to take pride in my work, but I never want a job that takes over my life. I want to feel satisfied with my role as a person, but I don’t think my occupation has to be the only way to find that satisfaction.

And guessing at my parenting style I accurately predicted:

I don’t want cartoonish drawings of my family made into decals for the windows of my SUV. I will love my kids, I will change my ways, but I know myself (and the mother from whom I was born) to realize that motherhood for me will not mean a cracked-out, Kathy Lee-esque enthusiasm for all things widdle-baby or mommy-wommy.

And so here I am, as comfortable as one can ever be with the title ‘Mother’ and all the mysterious, powerful and very exhausting things that conveys. And the little voice in my head that suggests I have more to give and that I don’t have to give it in a cubicle at a social service agency. I found a job online, using my known and loved interwebbing skills to help clients with various projects. And I enjoyed it. It was an outlet of sorts, an experience to be sure, some education as most things tend to be. But it was also a little vapid. Fairly random. A bit meaningless. And while I know I may not cut it among the ranks of other MSWs, the heart for helping that drove me to that work in the first place can’t be ignored.

Luck and a savvy friend dropped another opportunity in my lap just as I was ready to leave my first post-child professional endeavor. And I got it and took it and went with it and I enjoy it. I continue to learn more, feel my confidence grow, make new connections with helping professionals, and enjoy a life outside my girls that helps contribute to our family’s financial security.

I found that I used our travels and then my kids as the excuse as to why I didn’t have a ‘regular’ job. But now I can cut through the noise and tell you honestly it’s because I don’t WANT one. I want something different, less stifling and more creative. Perhaps also less stable and less secure. But I want work that fits the life I want, not the other way around. I don’t have to look to the future to explain it, I can just ask 2008-me how she would say it.

And what I have decided is that I don’t have to meet the expectations of my friends, family, society, or Utopian feminist fantasies. I have hopes for the future, plans to execute, places to go…I want to be happy, safe, fulfilled. I want to be well-rounded, well-read, well-travelled. I want to spread myself thin enough that I can cover all kinds of interests, thin enough that light shines through, thin enough that I can still fit in my wedding dress someday in the distant future. And mostly, I want to be able to say all this without shame or fear of eye-rolling, without hesitation and concern for the disappointment of others. I want to say it and have my loved ones know that I am not judging them…and hope that this makes them feel free enough not to judge me. It’s hokey, it’s idealistic, and probably overly simplistic. Exactly the way I want it.

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What Is Gained From The Mommy Wars

I’m kind of over it with the term Mommy Wars. And the idea of it. And the way it dismisses all discussions that include conflicting opinions into the same category as your cousin’s sister’s friend calling you a bitch on Facebook. Not. The. Same. Thing.

It’s probably true that many people in our culture, in the world, are taught overtly and covertly to avoid conflict. Maybe in the Midwest it’s an even stronger message to never, if you can avoid it, offend someone. At least not to their face. But it’s particularly true for women. That we are taught to be peacemakers not muck rakers. And even those of us raised by strong women who can’t help but rake some muck have this tiny voice inside our mind saying ‘be a nice girl! be a good girl!’

When you add parenting or motherhood into that cultural cauldron all bets are off. Nice girls get mad and good girls get upset. Because we all have a lot of feelings about our children, more feelings than we have ever felt or knew existed. And it’s hard not to get emotional about that. Because the whole thing is emotional. And it’s hard not to come across as angry or defensive when you are emotional. Even if you feelings are valid, even if you are more enthusiastic than angry. And then of course some people, mothers or otherwise, are assholes. All these things together mean: Mommy Wars. Apparently.

I’m about the 220 millionth woman to suspect that this entire term and cultural phenomenon is little more than an extension of the ‘women are catty’ troupe. The idea that any disagreement between women is a trivial, nasty, mean-spirited fight between girls. Limp wrists slapping at faces and hair pulling followed by tears. Girl fight. Girl stuff. Girls are catty, right?

But the truth is that I have many female friends, many of whom I disagree with on many things, parenting and otherwise. And when we disagree it’s actually an interesting, mutually respective, discourse between women. And sure we sometimes roll our eyes at each other or interrupt or use profanity (ok that’s mostly me), but oh well. And even when it gets heated, which it does sometimes because LANE CANNOT CONTROL HER FEELINGS, it is ok. Because we’re adults. With brains. And we love each other. So we can survive it.

It’s hard though. Because parenting is a really loaded experience. We all have a lot invested in this, and it’s hard. So hard. And even the most secure adult human being has moments during parenting where they say WHAT AM I DOING AM I DOING IT WRONG OH MY GOD I RUINED IT! So if you get caught in a disagreement during that moment, it might not be the high minded discussion you want it to be and it might turn into a terse exchange that involves a middle finger. No one is perfect.

But in the meantime, despite the tough moments and awkward conversations, I want us to embrace the chance to realize that parenting in general and motherhood for women is a deep, complicated, intense conversation worthy of discussions that people of our intellect are capable of even in a sleep deprived state. We were interesting before, we argued about things before, we still can. We still should.

Repeat after me:

Disagreement is not disrespect. Conflict is a part of life. Parenting is not off limits.

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On A Walk: Nikko Botanical Garden

It seems like when you say ‘Japan’ immediately people imagine Tokyo. Cities and lights and sushi and karaoke bars. But so much of Japan, and all of the area around Nikko, is very wild. Jungles and mountains and rivers and green everywhere. And seeing as I’m city-averse it’s the right corner of Japan for me. It’s quite lovely. And muggy. But mostly very lovely.DSC_1443 DSC_1447 DSC_1448

There’s something that feels perfectly right about a little girl running wild in the woods. Free to be dirty and to be fast and to be loud. It’s totally aligned with the purpose of childhood. DSC_1449 DSC_1450

Little O, sweet baby sister, always just fine to be along for the ride.DSC_1451 DSC_1453 DSC_1455

She held a piece of paper that she had marked with stamps earlier and used it as a map. She consulted it with the utmost seriousness. We followed along. DSC_1456 DSC_1457

In a place that looks so beautiful even to the jaded eyes of adults, the tired eyes of parents, imagine how amazing it must look to the open, hungry eyes of a 3.5 year old. She was in awe. In fact she is almost always in some state of awe. It’s the best thing about her.DSC_1459 DSC_1463 DSC_1469 DSC_1470

Our seriously low peanut butter situation right now is mitigated by the environs. For now.DSC_1471 DSC_1472

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Filtered Or Not

I’ve heard the argument, in various forms, that social media, blogs and our now prolific online presences in general lead people to feel unhappy. Studies have shown this. We see people’s lives only as they want to show them. They filter the information and often times literally filter the pictures. We put a nostalgic tint over our breakfast and take the extra off our thighs. Why? Why do we all do this when we all know we are doing it? Just like anything I guess, because we can.

I’m actually not advocating the dissolution of Instagram or the boycott of Facebook. I love social media. Love it. I love the connection and the creativity and the information. I’m sad that this kind of sharing can make people sad, and I hope as it continues to evolve there will be some kind of bell curve where people start realizing or remember that we are ALL doing the same thing. I’m not arguing that our love of social media is altogether a bad thing.

What I’m actually saying is enjoy it, visually, and read it, for leisure, and know that just like you are portraying things exactly the way you want to, so is the other person. It is what it is. Use your frontal lobe and  realize that. And as T. Roosevelt said in the way a wise person with a mustache can: Comparison is the thief of joy.

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Not long ago we had our annual family photo shoot. Our very talented very lovely photograph Samantha somehow took an hour of windy weather and 3 year old gone wild into these really lovely pictures of our family. She does this every year for the last 4 years. I love these pictures, LOVE THEM. And I immediately changed my blog header, my profile picture, my desktop background.

These pictures are images of my family that I love to share. Maybe these are the epitome of the filtered nature of our visual self representation. Taken by a professional. In outfits we planned. With mascara on and my hair done and some gorgeous editing. Guilty. As. Charged.

But I love these pictures even though this isn’t how I look on your average Wednesday at 1:15pm. Because it isn’t. I’m not sharing them because I want people to think my life is a touched up photo op. My life isn’t. Your life isn’t. No one’s life is. But damnit can’t I just look cute in some pictures?!

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I recently spent 3 weeks parenting our girls without Dave when he headed to Japan ahead of us. My parents were amazing and helped me so much but at the end of the day no one can replace you partner.

It was hard.

Fun. But hard. Manageable. But hard.

We talked on Skype every day, sometimes twice, and a few times we would take screenshots of each other for fun or for blackmail or whatever. I love the moments of seeing our girls see their dad on the screen, but let’s be honest. If you want to see the anti-Instagram version of yourself, look at a grainy screenshot taken in bad lighting over Skype, caught with your face in a pose you usually try not to capture. Or with your teeth out, as it may be.

Classic parenting face. Capture

 I’m not going to put these on our holiday card anytime soon, but I don’t really mind sharing them either. Because this is how I look sometimes. This is the face my baby makes when she is over me as much as I am over her. It just is what it is.

But are these photos, almost certainly (hopefully?!) worse than the real thing, any more ‘real’ than the shots from our family photo shoot? Probably not. It’s all somewhere in the middle, in the gray, where most truths live. On the day to day I look worse than my professional photos and better than that sweaty Skype shot. Use your imagination.

As fun as it can be to choose and share the versions and visions of yourself that you do over your social networks, at the end of the day it is just an image. A portion. A bit of what you let people know about you. The real me, the middle ground me, isn’t embarrassed of the grainy-screenshot version of herself. And I have no illusions that we are simply and only the uber-smiling perfect family captured in our professional pics. It seems like that should be obvious, but I know with the constant stream of information we see and the control we have over our perception and our obsession with perfection, it probably isn’t.

Neither image is ONLY us, but the beachy, laughing, hair-did shots are the ones that show how I feel about us. I’m as tired as I look in the Skype pic, more tired maybe. So so so tired. But I’m also as happy as I look in the ‘better’ photos. Happier maybe. Very, very happy.
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I Just Want You To Be Happy

I used to be a sort of harsher version of myself. Maybe we all did? I was a lot younger and had seen a lot less and knew virtually nothing and I had these ideas. About what you should do, what we could do, definitely what you shouldn’t do. Always what you shouldn’t do.  The right way, the wrong way. How to be happy, how not to be happy.

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Even when it wasn’t cool anymore to think your parents were the coolest, I still thought mine were. My mom was really good at intimidating people with minute facial expressions and my dad was always smarter than the Jeopardy contestants. Because I also sort of wanted to be cool in my own right, I tried to conceal how fun I thought they were while in the terrifying halls of high school or middle school or whichever windowless nightmare it was. But at home I was always trying to get their approval. And, I should add, always getting it.

They were never stingy with love. Or attention. Or time. Or anything. They listened to our terrible songs and watched our impromptu plays and listened to my lectures about fossils given wearing a t-shirt of people hugging the earth.

But when I asked them what should I be, where should I go to school, what is the best job? They always said ‘whatever makes you happy.’ This was the vague and cryptic kind of answer a neurotic person like me hates. It’s like when I would say ‘do we have enough?’ and I meant STUFF or MONEY or things that keep us safe and they’d say ‘we have enough love which is enough of everything.’ Say what?

Whatever makes you happy was the worst thing you could say to 1998 me. I want answers. I want to make YOU happy mom and dad. There has to be an answer. There is always an answer. When in doubt, choose C? Wasn’t that the rule?

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Eventually I made the choices without them telling me what to do. I chose a school. A dorm. My friends. My major. My man. My plans. I made them all and they listened while I moaned over the wrong ones and patted myself on the back for the right ones. They listened and then probably hung up the phone and laughed and laughed.

Oh our sweet girl, they probably said because they love me so much, there are no right and wrong ones. Just this one then the next one then the next one.

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Now that I have kids I thought maybe this ‘whatever makes you happy’ thing would be one of those instant mantras I’d adopt. But I didn’t. I mean, for the most part  but…let’s not go wild. Whatever makes you happy, but maybe let’s not be a goth ok? And also I don’t really want you to drive a Hummer? But other than those and a few other small very specific stipulations, go nuts.

Maybe all parents have those stipulations deep down, but the line just isn’t the same if you say ‘whatever makes you happy, save for this short list.’ Takes away that ‘cool parent’ feeling you gave yourself by being so permissive, I guess.

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Tonight we went to a local play. The point was to bring attention and funds to the issue of Colony Collapse Disorder. Any kids in the audience dressed as ‘pollinators’ were going to be asked on stage. My girl puts on wings just to go to the mailbox so she was PUMPED about this. And she loves the idea of a stage, and being on it. She hasn’t had much experience performing in a formal sense, but if you count our living room, kitchen, bathroom, her bed, the library, the airport, the sidewalk, and every other place she’s ever been, she’s an old pro.

She sat somewhat patiently through the first act but mostly just couldn’t stop asking. ‘When do I go on the stage?!’ only to be tempered by her realization of the matter at hand. ‘Wait…are all these bees DEAD?’

She was dying for her chance to be up there. She was so excited. I could see it. Truly, really, a sparkle in her eye.

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She followed the directions and went on stage, slowly but confidently. She pollinated some things, and then went and had a seat on the edge of the platform. It was nothing, really. But she was on fire. She was elated. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her feel a feeling like that, and I know I’ve never felt the way that made me feel.

She was BEAMING. I cried. People thought I was crazy.

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I have no idea if she will maintain an interest in theater. Or performing at all. Maybe she will use it as a creative outlet just for fun or maybe she will get a scholarship to an arts school or maybe she will become famous around the world. Or maybe she will never set foot on a stage again.

I don’t care.

I just want her to be happy.

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I Know What You Need

I recently went out to dinner with two of my closest friends. I see them once a year, 50 times a year too few, and during the reunion of our families we made a point to carve out a few hours for ourselves. Just us. To get out as many words as possible without someone interrupting with an issue of potty/booger/sharing/hungry/you name it.

We left 7 of our 8 children, only the newborn got a free pass, with their 3 fathers. We slid into the mini-van and rode to the restaurant with empty carseats and half-empty sippy cups and leftover art projects and our voices filled the space left by the lack of children screaming/singing/crying.

The restaurant was a new, adorable, farm-to-table joint where the water glasses were mason jars and the waiter was straight out of Portlandia and the menu had the word ‘ragout’ on it. The hipsters know how to make a cozy little spot.

The meal was delicious. ‘Tapas’ style local food which consisted mostly of bread and cheese in various forms. There was alcohol to the degree that three nursing mothers can allow for, there was the requisite and delicious dessert.

The restaurant was nice and the food was great, but it wasn’t really the point.

We spent the entire meal talking. Taking turns talking while the others took bites of artisan Brie and passed around a newborn ripe for cuddling. Laughing loudly together while the other patrons wished they were in on the joke. Weeping openly together over the shared pain of loss and the acute ache and agony of motherhood while our waiter tried to think of ways to not feel awkward about us. The best he came up with while watching us wipe away tears was “You probably need something chocolate?” Not bad pal, this will add to your tip.

It’s true that a fancy meal with foods I can’t pronounce, sitting down in a tranquil setting, eating with both hands from dishes that someone else both prepared and will clean up is a luxury for me these days. But the truth is I can be physically nourished just as well eating stray grapes and leftover sandwich crusts and cold spaghetti washed down by cold tea.

What I needed so badly like a B12 booster was the company I had during that meal. The sisterhood, the sounding board for my joys, the company for our misery, the beautiful love. So much love. I need, on fairly regular intervals, to be with people who love me no matter what I say because I can occasionally say some pretty harsh things. People who get me no matter how weird my ideas are and nod through my explanation of why it makes sense to google the endings of movies before watching them. I need face time with people who respect my need to avoid feeling my feelings while still pushing me to cry. In restaurants.

You need this too. You might need this more some days, weeks, months or years than others. You might be a mother, or not. You might have a great family network, or not. You might like artisan cheeses, and if you don’t you are incorrect.

But understand this: no matter your state of mind or your phase of life, your state of being requires this kind of connection. This source of fuel. I know what you need. You need this.

You don’t have to be in a farm-to-table fancy hoo ha place. Meet at a coffee shop. At Arby’s. In the parking lot of a gas station. This is a petty detail.

You don’t need to cry until you laugh, but if you don’t you should try harder. You don’t need to cry in front of strangers, but you probably will if the conversations takes all the right turns. You will feel your feelings and share your fears and sip your drink so slowly. You will drain your stress while filling up your tank and feel simultaneously sad that you can’t do this more often and so very lucky that you can do this at all.

If you don’t have friends who will listen and hear you and not judge or at the very least keep their judgement deeply buried in the name of love, call me. A friend who will laugh at your jokes (you are funny!) and confirm all your doubts (everything is going to be FINE!) and tell you the truth about your thighs (no one cares if they touch…NO ONE!), you must identify this friend right away. If you can’t find them, I’ll do this for you. If you don’t think I’m your type, I’ll find someone who is. Maybe my calling is a sisterhood matchmaker, I’ll make you a match.

I know what you need. You need this.

sistas

 

 

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