Day 19 – The family that you make

There was a time in my life when I avoided people, relationships of just about any kind. I’m an introvert by nature, but this was different. I didn’t trust people, and I was filled with so much self-loathing and self-doubt that I believed it was easier to just keep everyone at arm’s distance than to risk getting close and getting hurt.

During my years in therapy, one of the biggest challenges was for me to trust people, to let them in, because I had trouble matching up what other people saw in me with what I saw in myself. I had to spend a lot of time building up my own self-image, learn to love myself and let other people love me. One of the results was that I started to view relationships and human connection differently.

Letting people in. Trusting them. Connecting. Building relationships. Loving other humans. These things can be hard, but they are so worth it. They’re vital. They’re the reason we’re all bumping around on this blue-green planet in the first place. And the really beautiful thing that happens when you connect with other people is that just being in their presence, hearing their voices, spending an evening together sharing a meal sparks immeasurable joy.

Family is not bound by blood. Family is the people you choose to surround yourself with, the people you love and invest your time in. Stevie and I have loved ones spread all over the country–from New York to Arizona to Colorado and Washington state–and we do what we can to connect. We don’t do as much as we would like to, or have nearly enough time with all the people who mean the world to us. But sometimes there are moments like tonight, when we get a chance to spend an evening with some really beautiful souls. My home was full of love tonight, and my heart is too.

Day 2 – Letter to Dr. Nakhai

One down, fifty-one to go.

I decided to send the first letter to a woman who has been on my mind a lot lately because it’s been too long since I’ve seen her and I’ve been missing her like crazy. My college English professor, advisor, mentor, and friend–Dr. Mandana Nakhai.

Last May, I found out she was being honored for her long career as she prepared to take a short sabbatical. Upon her return, she would be diving into her next adventure as inaugural Thomas Green Chair Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Fellows Program. I wrote a little something in her honor. It certainly doesn’t express my deep admiration and respect of this incredible woman, but it’s something.

Enjoy.

I met Dr. Nakhai one cold day in February in the middle of Schoenfeld Gym. I was more than 1,500 miles from home and she was, by far, the most poised and elegant woman I’d ever met. She was dressed in a flawlessly tailored wine-colored suit, complete with a jewel-toned scarf, matching stiletto heels, and delicate gold brooch. She stood maybe 5-feet tall (even in heels), yet her regal presence filled every inch of that crowded room. 

From that very first moment, I was in awe of her. 

I’d spent weeks practicing a formal introduction. I wanted to make a good impression visiting the colleges on my short list. But Dr. Nakhai didn’t need the introduction. As soon as I said my name, she smiled and squeezed my hand and told me how much she’d enjoyed reading the portfolio I’d submitted. She fixed those warm brown eyes on mine and for the next ten minutes she made me feel like the most important person in the world.

Being a student in Dr. Nakhai’s classes always meant that you were going to spend the semester experiencing a healthy mix of excitement and fear. Her love of literature and writing is infectious, and the deep discussions of the significance of the canary in A Jury of Her Peers or the archetypal images in Huckleberry Finn set my mind ablaze. I’d find myself re-reading passages and scribbling notes in the margins of all my books as I eagerly awaited the next class session.

Until, inevitably, the semester would catch up with me, and I’d have one of those weeks where I spent too much time hanging out with friends in the Quad or playing video games and I’d sit in class silently praying that she wouldn’t call on me until I had a chance to at least skim through the assigned reading or maybe piggyback off someone else’s answers to cover the fact that I was ridiculously ill-prepared.

Some weeks I wasn’t the only culprit, but there’s no fooling Mandana Nakhai. Not even five minutes into class and she would notice that the pauses were too lengthy and the answers too vague and her voice would ratchet up an octave as she attempted to jar the room full of rapt undergraduates from our panic-stricken stupor. 

“Claaaaaaas! Are you awake?! Are you alive?! Did you just eat lunch?! Open your Harbraaaace!”

I visited Dr. Nakhai’s office hours like it was my job—sometimes with questions, sometimes carrying the umpteenth draft of a paper I wanted to get more feedback on, sometimes to nag her about spending far too many hours in her office trying like hell to cultivate the young minds in her care. 

But mostly, I just wanted more time. 

I loved the melodic lilt of her voice, the way her accent rolled words exotically off her tongue. I loved circling back on interrupted class discussions and hearing her thoughts on everything from feminist theory and fashion to politics and pop culture. I loved listening to her stories, how she once sewed her sleeping nanny’s nightgown to the bedsheets as a joke and how she felt the day she moved across the ocean to her new home. 

I even loved it when she called me on my bullshit, and insisted I own up to my mistakes.

If she is guilty of anything in this life, it’s that she cares too much and gives everything she has without asking for a whole lot in return.

It’s not uncommon to catch her in her office at odd hours, and I made a habit of knocking on her door or dialing her extension from the nearest callbox whenever I saw her office light burning far too late in the evening. I learned that first summer I spent on campus that popsicles are one of the more effective ways to lure her out for a short break and a breath of fresh air. Somehow she can’t seem to ignore the pleas of a persistent college student standing outside her window hollering at her to “Hurry please and get out here before these things melt!”

Dr. Nakhai made education her life and invested the last 31 years at Concordia because she loves learning and she loves students (even the troublemakers like me). She knows that knowledge is one of the greatest gifts we can give, both to ourselves and to others. And even if she always seems to set the bar so high that you’ll be running and jumping and stretching yourself farther than you ever dreamed you could to reach it, you can be sure she’ll be standing there in the front row cheering the loudest when you finally catch hold and pull yourself up.

She’s made of silk and fire and diamonds and steel. And she’s got the sort of quiet strength and unyielding tenacity that can move mountains, if she truly believes they’re worth moving.

I’m a better scholar because she is my teacher, and I’m a better person because she is my friend. I wouldn’t be where I am—I wouldn’t be here at all—without her.

And wherever this new adventure leads, I have no doubts that it will be absolutely fabulous.

Project Life 365 – Day 121 – You Today

As you have probably deduced by the lack of regular posting lately, life around here has shifted into high gear. I gotta say, it’s been one helluva ride.

Yet, unlike other frantic-paced times in my life when everything was spinning out of control and I was doing everything I could just to hold on, this time I feel more like I’m standing comfortably in the eye of the hurricane. I can feel myself being pushed along by the momentum, and yet somehow I am completely unfazed and unharmed by the storm.

It’s funny how the day-to-day chaos of life seems so much more manageable once you find your balance.

The more time I spend here on this earth, the more I realize that is what life is really all about–finding your balance. See, I believe that we are all here for a reason. I believe we were put on this earth to learn, to teach, to connect with our fellow human beings, and to do the absolute best we can with the life and the circumstances we’ve been given. We all have so much to offer…if we can just get out of our own damn way.

There are so many things in this world that can hold us back, so many obstacles we encounter. Yet, the biggest, the one that is always the hardest to overcome, is ourselves. The human mind, with all its capacity for brilliance and innovation, also has the ability to cripple us with fear. It has a way of holding onto negativity, focusing too much attention on trivial things, and trapping us in sluggish, complacent mediocrity.

Just think of what we could do, all the things we could accomplish, if we could just find a way to silence that negative, nay-saying voice in our heads that tells us we’re not good enough, not smart enough, not thin enough, not creative enough, not athletic enough, not pretty enough, not artistic enough. On and on and on and on.

Aren’t you getting dizzy?

I’m not perfect. Nowhere near. But if there’s one thing I think I do have going for me, it’s the fact that I have finally found my balance. I’m finally in a place where I can see the bigger picture, where I can look out with keen perspective and make some sort of sense of the chaos.

It wasn’t easy getting here. It wasn’t easy climbing out of the rut I’d spent so much time burying (and barricading) myself in. It took a whole lot of work, a whole lot of soul searching, a whole lot of time and honesty and honestly letting go. It took a conscious decision to be more mindful, to focus on the myriad of blessings that always accompany the hardships. It took a conscious decision to start living in the present moment instead of allowing myself to be completely consumed and preoccupied by what has been and what has yet to be. It took almost dying for me to finally start living, really living, not just walking around on auto-pilot and going through the motions. It took a whole lot of pain and hardship and misery for me to finally begin to understand (and really appreciate) joy.

Life is a two-way street. And it’s up to you to decide which direction you will go.

I’ve always believed that there are situations in life that you are supposed to experience, lessons in life you are supposed to learn, and people in life you’re meant to connect with on a deeper level. Somehow, some way, things happen the way they are supposed to. The universe has a way of nudging us in the direction we need to go, if we are mindful enough to look around and see the signs.

The truth is, we are and always will be our own biggest critics and oftentimes our own worst enemies. But when you’re finally able to strip away all the nagging negativity and the penny ante bullshit, what you’re left with is a deep, unwavering, undeniable and absolute knowing that you are doing exactly what you were born on this earth to do, and that alone can drive and fulfill you in a way that very few people are able to understand.

What we do need at times, though, (to borrow a term from the show LOST) is a “constant”. We need something to tether us, to center us, something that can remind us to pause in the midst of the chaos and just breathe. Sure, we have friends and loved ones who can do that, and our kiddos are really great at getting our attention and redirecting it to the the little things in life that are really the most important. But sometimes when we’re feeling a little lost and overwhelmed and it’s three in the morning and it’s been a long crazy week and that annoying little negative tape starts playing over and over in our heads, making us question ourselves, our work, and our decisions, we need something that can cut through the fog and remind us of what we already know–that this is real, and it’s awesome, and that we’re here to enjoy the ride.

So, here I am today, content in the knowledge that I am exactly where I am supposed to be, surrounded by the people and the things that I love most. I’m tapped in, tethered, connected to something that is so much bigger than myself.

Good and bad, ups and downs, plans and surprises–bring it on. I’m here to enjoy the ride.

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