Day 64 – Real life happens outside the highlight reel

Tonight was a late night at work so I could chat with a group of student leaders about the things we do in my office and all the ways we try to support students on campus. Great group. Great energy. And we ended up having a really great conversation about how we can help students be successful in college and in the world beyond.

As we were wrapping up, one girl asked how to help students who might be struggling but aren’t reaching out for help because they don’t want to admit that college is not turning out the way they thought it would be. And my response was this.

College is hard.

Hell, life is hard.

And everyone struggles at some point. There are always things that challenge us. There will always be obstacles and issues and stumbling blocks. But so often, all we get to see from others is the good moments. What we see is the highlight reel. Those are the moments people post on Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat.

What we need to start sharing and talking about all the moments outside the highlight reel, because that’s where real life happens. The highlight reel is great and fun. It’s filled with the moments that make us feel good. But it’s those in-between moments that are most important because they’re the moments where we’re challenged, the moments where we learn and grow.

I’m certainly guilty of sharing a majority of highlight reel moments on my social media. For a lot of folks it’s the default. You’re so excited for those moments that it’s natural to want to shout them from the rooftops. But if there is one thing this blog and some of my personal writing projects have been good for (my memoir-in-progress and my growing pile of journals and personal essays), it’s diving into a lot of my in-between moments and, quite frankly, some of the most dark and difficult moments of my life. And when I take a step back and look at my life as a whole, it really is those struggles that shaped who I am and who I want to be.

Because nothing that is really worth it is ever easy.

So get comfortable with your struggles. Own your mistakes. And show us more of your in-between moments. Embrace all those things that didn’t make your highlight reel, because that’s where the real magic happens.

Here’s just one of my MANY in-between moments.

This is the last time we attempted to take a Christmas card photo (note how little Henry is, because this was taken THREE YEARS AGO!) Let’s just say everyone’s patience was running thin before Electra pulled too hard on her collar and started hyperventilating.

Good times.

These ended up being “Happy New Year” cards that barely arrived in people’s mailboxes before Valentine’s Day.

Christmas card fail. It’s not the first time and probably won’t be the last. And you know what? I’ve made peace with it. And there’s a whole lot more where that came from:-)

So what about you? What are some of the moments that didn’t make your highlight reel?

Day 60 – Be the person you needed

This week has been a time of deep reflection for me. It happens sometimes, when the universe aligns in a way that demands my attention. And while I tend to keep this blog separate from my work life, sometimes it’s just not possible because so many of the things that I’m passionate about overall–learning, connecting with people, serving and supporting others–are things that I actually get to do as part of my job.

I spend a lot of time wondering how I get to be so lucky.

I know part of the reason I’ve been feeling so nostalgic lately is because Stevie and I have been talking about planning a trip back to New York this summer. Yep, that always gets me, thinking about getting to go to the place that will always feel like home.

But there have been other things the past few weeks too:

  • attending a first-gen book reading where memories of my own early college days came flooding back, and receiving a long, lovely email from Dr. Nakhai as I was walking out of the building and back to my car
  • going to a meeting of the First Gen RSO (student club) I serve as an advisor for and having a great conversation with the attendees about why we all chose to go to college and the different ways our families supported our dreams
  • getting my memoir manuscript back from my friend Tammy with her thoughts and notations jotted all over the pages that smell like campfire smoke from all of the late nights spent reading–the story of my adoption and reunion and the years I spent in college trying to figure out exactly who I was and who I wanted to be

I fell in love with the idea of college in my high school guidance counselor’s office. There were bookshelves filled with college catalogs, and on really slow days when there weren’t a lot of notes to deliver during the period I worked there in the middle of the day, I spent my time thumbing through the books and trying to imagine myself in the pictures taken on beautiful campuses, sitting in the classes that, from the descriptions, sounded a helluva lot more interesting than any classes I’d ever had the chance to take in high school.

I fell in love with college the minute I stepped on campus and walked into my first class. And it wasn’t just because of the class content or the independence of being away from home or the beautiful campus from the bustle and excitement of New York City…it was the people.

I saw a quote floating around that said, “Be who you needed when you were younger.” And it struck me that one of the reasons I love my job so much (working with college students and helping them transition from high school to college, from adolescence to adulthood) is because of the incredible people that I met during this exact time in my own life–the leaders, the mentors, the friends, the people who taught me some of the most difficult lessons in my life, the people who answered my questions and helped me get back up when I stumbled, the people who cared about me and believed in me and pushed me so much farther than I ever thought I could go.

Be who you needed when you were younger.

I was fortunate enough to find all of the people I needed, to still have them in my life today. And one of the reasons that I eventually made my way back to work in higher ed was because I know, without a doubt, I am supposed to take all the love and support I was given and pay it forward. And I feel so incredibly blessed that I get an opportunity to do that every single day.

And I hope you’ll forgive the indulgence because I just have to share…UNL does a really great thing where parents can write in and nominate a faculty or staff member on campus who has made an impact on the lives of their students. I have so many amazing colleagues all across campus who are helping students and changing lives in the way mine was changed and wow, that is such a cool thing! And I was so incredibly humbled to be nominated again this year and to read the comments submitted from the parents.

I can only hope these families know how honored I am to have an opportunity to work with their children and to be the person I needed (and found!) when I was once there too. ❤

 

Day 44 – Fear of success

I was leading a workshop tonight, and at one point the discussion turned to the fact that people can lose motivation and start to procrastinate because they fear success.

That’s the point where most of the students in the room look at me like I’ve lost my damn mind.

Fear of failure? Now that makes sense. Failing sucks. It feels icky. No one likes to miss the mark have have to own up to a mistake. But fear of success? Who the hell would be afraid of being successful? How does that even work?

Trust me, I’ve got this one. And it can honestly feel every bit as icky as failing. See, fearing success comes from those moments when you start strong. You’re feeling good, firing on all cylinders. But then you hit a point where you start wondering if maybe you set that bar a little high. You start to question whether the pace and expectations you’ve set for yourself just might not be sustainable.

It happened to me in college. I hit the ground running when I arrived at Concordia. First semester, 18 credit hours and a 4.0. Second semester, 17 credit hours and a 3.9. I was making new friends. I was accepted into the Honors Program. I got a job tutoring in the Writing Center. I got an essay published in a national magazine. Life was good…but somehow all the great things happening on the outside just didn’t quite match up with the way I felt about myself. I’d always struggled with self-esteem and not quite feeling like I belonged, and soon that Imposter Syndrome started to take over and I suddenly felt like I was trying to maintain my balance on a very wobbly pedestal.

So, I did what any rational person would do when faced with the shame of admitting that they’re not perfect–I started to self-sabotage, because somehow that seemed a helluva lot less difficult than having to let my guard down and let somebody see that I was just a scared kid who couldn’t for the life of me understand what anyone else saw in me. I started withdrawing from classes, watching my grades slowly dip. I made bad decisions. I even got an F in one of my major classes because I didn’t complete the coursework in time after the professor gave me an Incomplete.

It took me a long time (and a whole lot of therapy) to finally reconcile my expectations of myself, to finally begin to understand that I am smart and capable, that I deserve to take pride in my accomplishments because I worked really fucking hard to earn them. I still managed to graduate with Honors, go onto grad school, build a good life and a successful career.

And I am so grateful for every minute of it.

But still, there are days even now (especially now) when my Imposter Syndrome still whispers, persistently, making me question whether I really have what it takes, whether I really belong.

I guess we’re all just works in progress, aren’t we?

Day 10 – Like coming home

I spend a lot of time reflecting on my college days, partly because I spend my days working with college students and partly because I tend to start feeling a little sentimental every time Stevie and I have been away from New York too long and I start itching to spend time with the people I miss every moment of every single day since we left the east coast ten-and-a-half years ago.

It’s hard to explain the connection I feel to this place without sounding overly nostalgic, but I always feel the need to try. I guess that’s just the writer in me–unable to deny that urge to try and put the giant surge of emotions down on paper and arrange the words in a way that might explain the way this place calls to me and why I remain so firmly tethered to the people we met and the connections I made there.

Going to college was my first step (a giant 1,500-mile step) away from my family and out on my own, and with that heady rush of newfound freedom and adventure came an almost paralyzing sense of self-doubt and isolation. Yet the first time I ever stepped foot on Concordia’s campus, I got the distinct feeling that I was coming home.

The families we come from are our default. They teach us how to love, how to fight, how to forgive. They give us our first sense of the world–its beauty and its chaos. The families we leave when we set out on our own will always be with us. They will always be part of us. But it’s the families we create for ourselves that truly reflect who we are and give shape to who we will become. The people we connect with, the people we return to and invest our time in are the people who reflect the very best of who we are, the very best of who we hope to be.

People matter. Connections matter. Kindness matters. Honesty matters. Love matters.

Everything else is just noise.

Henry’s Jet-Set Baptism

I’ve come to believe that life is really about connection. All the working and the saving and the spending and the running from place to place on this little blue-green planet doesn’t matter, not really. The only thing that really matters is connecting with people, loving others, and being loved in return. I still have several close friends from childhood and my middle and high school days, but it wasn’t until those years in New York, until I had been completely broken down and began to build myself back up, that I learned how to open my heart and really let anyone in.

I was just 17 when I arrived to Concordia with just two suitcases and a backpack, both excited and anxious to begin this brand new chapter. I spent the next nine years in New York, and they were some of the best (and the worst) years of my life. I lost myself, and found myself on those crowded city streets. I fell in love there. I learned to love myself there. In so many ways, New York made me whole. And little did I know that the people I would meet there would forever change the course of my life.

I first set foot on the Concordia College New York campus for the first time in the spring of 1998. I was in the final stretch of narrowing down my college choices, and Mom and I decided to fly to New York to visit two schools I’d been accepted to–Sarah Lawrence College and Concordia. At that point, Sarah Lawrence was at the top of my list by mere reputation. I’d spent months poring over the admission materials I’d received, and marveling at how beautiful the campus was, and how much fun it would be to live in an old mansion that had been converted into a residence hall instead of a traditional dorm. For a writer like me, it was something of a dream school. I imagined myself ignited with a creative muse the moment I set foot on campus, and yet I found my heart sinking as Mom and I followed our tour guide, listening as she waxed poetically about the history of the grounds and the old stone buildings. I couldn’t imagine myself sitting in any of the lecture halls or casually strolling across the campus between classes or eating in the dining hall. Somehow, I just didn’t fit.

Just 2.5 miles away, on the other side of the little village of Bronxville, Concordia shone like a beacon. As our taxi driver pulled into the circle drive in front of Feth Hall, I was hit with a feeling of deja vu so strong I had to close my eyes for a moment to stop the world from spinning. We hadn’t even attended the Open House and I already knew I’d come home.

Mom and I spent the night on campus in a room in the lower level of Romoser Hall. With most of the students away on Spring Break, the campus was eerily quiet. We took a cab into the heart of Bronxville and ate dinner in at a little restaurant called Underhill Crossing, marveling at the enormous homes and the quaint main street that looked like something straight out of a movie.

The next morning, we made our way to Schoenfeld Hall where dozens of other prospective students and families were gathering for the Open House. We were greeted immediately by John Bahr, the Dean of Students, and Tom Weede, the Dean of Admissions. I spent a good half-hour talking to Dr. Mandana Nakhai in front of the English Department’s table, entranced by her exotic accent and the fact that she had not only read the portfolio of writing I’d submitted with my application, but that she actually seemed genuinely excited to have me join Concordia’s English program.

Mom and I returned home with our heads spinning, and I couldn’t help but feel like I’d left a very large piece of myself behind. Six months later, I was back. I left everyone and everything I’d ever known to start my new life in New York.

It was the best decision I ever made.

Stevie and I like to tease each other about the way we first met and how long it took us to actually start dating. These days, it’s getting hard to remember what my life was like without him in it. One of the few things that we have ever really disagreed on are the details of our bizarre courtship. We became friends almost instantly since we hung out with the same social circles, yet it took more than five years for us to actually start dating. My mom likes to remind me of the phone conversation just before Christmas break my freshman year, when I told her that I’d met the nicest guy, Steven Romano, and how if he asked me to marry him tomorrow, I’d say yes.

It all reads a bit like a cheap TV sitcom script. Whenever Stevie was single, I was dating someone. When I was single, Stevie was in a relationship. We just couldn’t seem to get the timing right.

There is a photo of me in the yearbook (or rather, a photo of the back of my head), as I turned all the way around in my seat to watch Stevie harass Josh Reiker, a fellow freshman, who was seated behind me in the crowd. I think that photo accurately sums up the five years I knew Stevie before we officially started dating–we were always right there, dancing around each other and having a blast, but we were just a few too many steps apart.

Looking back, I can see that it all happened exactly as it was supposed to. Both of us had a lot of growing up and a lot of healing to do before we could actually be a good fit for one another. We had those five years to stroll around campus discussing everything from movies and music to philosophy and religion. We had five years to have dinner together with our group of friends, five years to spend together at parties and campus events. We had five years to see each other at our best and our worst, to celebrate each other’s highs and offer support during our lows.

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Shortly after I graduated in May 2003, Steven finally asked what I thought about us officially dating. My response was the same as everyone else’s when we announced that were were finally a couple:

“Well, it’s about damn time.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

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Stevie and I left New York in July 2007. We were young (and probably stupid) and looking for a little adventure to start our married life together. We always said we could move anywhere as long as we were near family, and that basically gave us four options–New York, Nebraska, Colorado, and Arizona.

When I was offered a teaching job in Arizona, we thought it might be fun to try something new for awhile, so we packed all of our worldly belongings in a POD and set off on a roadtrip to our new desert home. The Arizona Experiment (as we call it now) lasted just three-and-a-half years. And while a life in the desert wasn’t necessarily a great fit for us, it made us homeowners, dog owners, and parents. And we even got lucky enough to make some really great friends along the way.

In December 2010, Stevie was offered a job at the University of Nebraska and we packed up again (this time with a whole lot more stuff), and transitioned to a new life in Lincoln, where we have been ever since.

It has been eight years since we left, and not a day goes by that we don’t desperately miss New York. For both of us, it still feels like home. And who knows, maybe we’ll even find ourselves settling back East one day permanently. But until then, we will have to settle for whirlwind vacations to visit our family and friends–trips that are too infrequent and rushed and always leave us feeling a strange mix of happy and homesick.

After losing Steven’s mom, Diane, in 2012, and then losing our dear friend John Bahr this August, Stevie and I decided that getting back to visit New York just once every year or two just wasn’t going to cut it anymore. Come hell or high water, even if it meant stretching our budget to the max, we are determined to find ways to reconnect with our loved ones out East more often.

We’d been discussing a jet-set baptism for Henry since before he was even born. Back in 2010, we had a “destination baptism” for Cadence in Glenwood Springs, Colorado where our good friend Money (aka Pastor Scott Geminn) had been called to serve at Holy Cross Lutheran Church. Ater Money was called to serve as Associate Pastor at Village Lutheran Church, directly across the street from the Concordia campus, Steven and I joked that if we had another baby, it would be awesome to have Money baptize the child back at Concordia.

After Henry was born, our first thought was to wait until the summer of 2016 to have him baptized, when I would be traveling to New Jersey for work, and then stay for a vacation and have the little guy christened. But somehow, losing John hit us both harder than we expected. Stevie came home from work one day and asked me what I thought about trying to get to New York for a visit and a baptism before Christmas. I still had a few weeks left on my maternity leave, so we looked at the calendar, called Money to see what he thought and if he had time in his schedule, and I reached out to Concordia’s President, Viji George, to see if it might be possible for us to have Henry baptized in the chapel.

Almost immediately, everything began falling into place, and we took that as a very clear sign that we were supposed to make this trip. We reached out to Chris Foerth and Betty Geiling to ask if they would be Henry’s godparents. And then, in just a week’s time, we booked the chapel, designed/printed/sent out the invitations, booked Burke’s Bar & Restaurant for the after-party, bought plane tickets, and set the wheels in motion for what would be our very first trip as a family of four.

It all seemed just a little surreal, and before we knew it, we were waking up to catch a sunrise flight out of Omaha to bring our children back to the place where it all began…

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Cadence has traveled so much, she’s an old pro when it comes to airplanes, but I have to admit, we were a little nervous about flying with a 9-week-old. Our sweet little Henry was an absolute angel on the plane, sleeping through half the flight, then waking up cheerful and smiling at all the folks seated around us. He fussed for just a few minutes when we began our descent into La Guardia, then fell back asleep before we even landed.

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We arrived to typical fall weather–warm, humid, and rainy. Cadence had high hopes of being able to swim in Pop-Pop’s pool, and our determined little girl even donned her bathing suit and hopped right in as soon as we arrived. She lasted a full two minutes before she finally gave into the cold and admitted defeat, giving us strict instructions that our next visit needed to take place in the summer when it would definitely be warm enough to swim.

We spent the next two days soaking up quality time with Pop-Pop, Keith, John, Michele, TJ, and Tyler, and gorging ourselves on all the NY pizza, egg bagels, and deli sandwiches we could find.

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My parents flew in Thursday night and Stevie picked them up at the airport, and then the six of us were up early Friday morning to head to Westchester.

Stevie, Cadence, Henry, and I dropped our things off at the hotel (Dude, they built a Hyatt in the parking lot of the Cross County Mall!), and then we headed to Concordia to try and catch up with as many people as we could. We dropped in the Admssion Office to visit with Evie Cea nd Tina Osso and Jen Jules. We headed over to the library to harass Gary Gollenberg and Aaron Meyer. We caught up with Amy Heath and Ken Fick and Neil Tarangioli in the lower level of Feth.

We walked around our old campus with our children in the cold and drizzling rain, and everything just felt right with the world. Once again, it felt like we had come home.

We took a short dinner break with my parents and then they settled in for a relaxing evening at the hotel while Stevie and the kiddos and I headed over to Money and Becca’s house to hang out and spend some much needed time with some of our favorite people in the world.

Looking around the room at one point in the evening, I had to pinch myself to make sure it wasn’t all just a beautiful dream.

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Baptism day dawned cool and clear. Hurricane Joaquin, which had been threatening to put a serious damper on our trip, finally made a sharp turn and began to head out to sea. We got a chance to sleep in a bit and have a little breakfast before it was time to check out of the hotel and head to the campus.

Shortly before 1:00, our guests started trickling in. Cadence set herself up in the lobby as the official greeter, welcoming family and friends and culling all the children away to play before the service began. Stevie and I were so afraid that most people might not be able to make it to the  baptism on such short notice, but with the exception of just one or two, almost everyone we invited was able to join  us. We hugged and kissed family we had not seen in years, and marveled at how many of our friends walked through the doors to fill the chapel.

Looking around that room at all the beautiful, smiling faces of the people we love most in the world, I was afraid my heart just might burst.

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After the the ceremony and dozens of photos, we all headed to Burke’s to relax, eat, and enjoy each other’s company. I don’t know how many times I stopped to look around the room and smile as my heart swelled with joy within my chest. And yet, with the joy came a pang of sadness, knowing how much Diane would have loved being there in that room with us and welcoming her youngest grandchild to the world, the sweet little boy we named Henry in honor of Diane’s Uncle Henny whom we all loved and miss so dearly.

Yet even if they couldn’t physically be there in that room, there is not a doubt in our minds that they are with us every day.

All too soon, the party was over and our guests began to say their goodbyes, and all I kept thinking as I hugged everyone was that I wished there was a way I could press pause and make those moments together last forever.


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Stevie and I woke Sunday feeling like we’d been run over by a truck. All the prepping and the planning and the running around and squeezing every last moment of our time together with our friends and family had taken quite a toll. Both our bodies and our hearts were hurting. We spent the rest of our trip close to home, soaking up as much time together with the family as we could and missing everyone we’d already said goodbye to.

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And then, as quickly as it began, it was over. Time to head back home (and back to reality). We arrived early at the airport and made it through La Guardia’s security in record time. We settled in at the gate with our snacks and a new deck of cards to help pass the time. We watched the sun sink below the city skyline as we waited to board.

The plane was half-empty and Henry was already asleep as we found our seats and settled in for the flight home.

As the plane lifted into the air, we craned our necks to see the lights of the city sparkling in the darkness below us. I still remembered the first time I ever marveled at those city lights. It seemed like both yesterday and a lifetime ago. I hugged my sleeping baby to my chest and smiled across the aisle at Stevie and Cadence thinking that this weekend proved once again that I just might be the luckiest girl in the whole world.

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Project Life 365 – Day 29 – Red

There’s no denying my hubby is a sports fiend. Name a sport, and he’ll watch it–anything from football and baseball to golf and bull riding. Now, I’m not saying he’s a huge Nascar or PBR fan by any means, but Steven is the kind of guy who can appreciate just about any sport.

The guy can spend an entire afternoon watching Olympic curling. End of story.

Now, the sports he gets crazy over? Those would be football, baseball, and hockey, with basketball following closely behind. He is a diehard Mets, Jets, Islanders and Knicks fan. He’s a yelling, screaming, jumping, hat-throwing maniac when the big games are on the line, and he admits he always thought he was a crazy sports fanatic…

…until he met me.

Growing up, Steven never paid much attention to college football. Born and raised in New York and an abundance of professional sports teams, college football just never seemed very interesting. He might catch a bowl game now and then, but other than hearing the occasional Notre Dame score, few people in Steven’s little corner of the east coast really care about college football.

I’m pretty sure my football obsession is one of the things that sold Steven on marrying me…well a combination of that, and the fact that I love video games, Twin Peaks, The and the X-Files as much as he does. The first time he ever sat down to watch an entire Husker game with me, listened to my Dad and I analyzing the game on the phone during halftime, and watched me shout at the TV and leap up off the couch to scream and clap and cheer for my team, he couldn’t believe it. Then, when my family flew him to Lincoln to attend a Homecoming game against Missouri, he finally began to understand why we Nebraskans always say that we bleed Husker red.

He also says that marrying a Nebraskan girl is like marrying into the Mafia, so be prepared fellas. If you can’t handle a girl who dresses in red, flies her Husker flag, and can curse worse than a sailor on any given Saturday during college football season, you better just keep lookin’.

And since I couldn’t decide which pic I liked best–Smartassy Steve, Serious Steve, or Smiley Steve–I just used all three. My blog, my rules. 🙂

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