Breathe

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(Editors Note: This appeared originally as a blog in Skirt Charleston magazine)

The symbol for oxygen is O2.

I like to think of it as “Oh, to…” as in, “Oh, to be able to stop and take a breath!”

It sounds ridiculous to forget to breathe. You don’t have to think about it. Breathing is just natural.

But sometimes, I need to remind myself.

There was always a moment, when I got home from work, that my daughter would want to launch into the rapid-fire recap of her day. From an early age, I taught her…just wait.

Let Mama breathe.

Give Mama that bubble of time, just five or maybe 10 minutes, when I could shuck the stress from the day like an ugly snakeskin. Silence. Breathe. Let my chest rise as I pull in air. Loudly exhale out, letting the shoulders sink.

And then, the “How was your day” could start.

This is the reason you put on your own oxygen mask before turning to your child in the next airplane seat. Because you have to be able to breathe if you want to have anything at all to give someone who depends on you.

The day could be full of the slings and arrows of nasty clients, jealous coworkers, kamikaze commuters. And the nights could be off-the-rails races to fit in dinner, bath, storytime, dogwalking, meaningful conversation, and the occasional – okay, more than occasional – glass of wine.

But for just a few minutes, I could breathe. In. Out.

Later in life, I attended a challenge course. We had to climb a 30-foot telephone pole, stand atop a platform at the top that was no bigger than a personal pan pizza, and then leap into space.

Of course, the whole time, we were harnessed in, safety lines monitored by the seasoned challenge leaders.

But it didn’t feel safe. Once you crested the telephone pole, there was no place to put your hands. You had to stand, 30 feet up and balance on a pole that – how did I not notice this before? – swayed ever so slightly in the wind.

From below, came encouragement from the rest of the class.

“You can do it!”

And then, the leader, well-versed in the sudden cowardice and panic I felt: “Breathe, Helen! Slow breaths, now! Just breathe.”

Just breathe. In. Out.

Not quite bravery as I sucked air like a starving man, but at least the panic receded.

I looked around at the beautiful sage-green mountains, laid out before me. I pushed down on my trembling thighs and straightened from the frightened crouch. Slowly, but I straightened until I was standing.

And I breathed. In. Out.

Oh, yeah. Now I remember. Breathe.

 

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Missing the Gold

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When I let my mind wander, I’m a crappy mom. Ask my daughter.

Now, to be fair, my daughter was a prattler. Driving along with her in the car seat in back was like being bathed in word vomit. She would tell herself stories, she would make up songs, she would report on every day’s events at the molecular level, and sometimes, she would ask questions that she already knew the answer to, just to make noise.

As a busy single mother, I learned to tune most out, my mind a sieve that sifted for only the nuggets of gold amidst all the verbiage. Sometimes, I would miss the gold.

Like the time she was sick and the nurse mentioned pneumonia as one possibility. It seemed a fairly remote possibility, so I immediately discounted it, which is why I wasn’t paying attention when she asked, “Mama, is pneumonia serious?”

“Oh yes,” I responded, probably thinking about what to make for dinner. “People used to die from it.”

It was the unaccustomed silence from the back seat that finally got my attention. A tiny little hiccupping sob. Oh.

“No, sweetie, you’ll be fine…”

But even that pales for my daughter in comparison to the time I told her she had an ugly smile.

For the second semester in a row, she had come home with a terrible school photo. My daughter was a cute little girl, but somehow she got it into her head that smiling for a photo meant grimacing and baring her teeth.

When she bemoaned her bad picture with the usual excess of words, I said absently, “You just have to stop smiling like that. It’s not cute at all.”

Again, silence. But I didn’t pick up on this one, didn’t pick up on what she needed me to say, and it wasn’t until later that I heard her crying in her room because her mother had told her she had an ugly smile. Not what I’d said exactly, and certainly not what I’d meant, but she brings it up to this day, and she’s 26.

And today, I still try to listen to what my very verbal daughter does not say…that’s where the gold is and that’s when I can redeem myself for the crappy mom times.

Panning for Gold

Eccentric

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“When I am an old woman I shall wear purple

With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.”

From “Warning,” a poem by Jenny Joseph

“If you’re trying for eccentric, you’re well on your way,” my husband says, when I tell him I may just use a parasol today, a funky electric blue umbrella I bought in China to keep the glaring sun off in the Forbidden City.

What he sees as eccentric I see as practical. The sun is out and I am walking quite a distance, but rain is forecast. I want to protect my skin, but I know a heavy rain will ruin most of my hats. So, a parasol seems the perfect solution. At the last minute, reluctantly, I stow the parasol on the off chance that the Charleston Fashion Police are patrolling.

For a minute, I forgot Iris Apfel.

I have always adored Iris Apfel, the 94-year-old style icon who dresses like nobody else. I’ve never met her, but I feel like she’s a friend.

“If you put something together and it doesn’t look so good, the fashion police are not going to come take you away,” Iris has said. “And if they do, you might have some fun in jail.”

I have had many style ideals, whether or not I actually achieved them. Hot and sexy when I was younger, professional but still sexy when I was in my 30s. Classy when I was in my 40s. And now, in retirement? I think I’m heading for eccentric. I’m transitioning from Hot Mama to Earth Mother. My shoes are flat so I can walk. My purses are small and cross-body so I can have my hands free for coffee or dogwalking. And my hats are big. Bright color makes me happy. I dress not for my husband, not for other women, but at long last, for me.

“When you don’t dress like everyone else, you don’t have to think like everyone else,” Iris says.

Iris would have worn the parasol.

Iris Apfel A

 

 

5 WAYS TO KNOW IT’S TIME TO FIRE A FRIEND

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Sometimes, you just have to let a person go. It happens all the time in the corporate world and the metrics are fairly clear: the person didn’t make the sales goals, never showed up on time, stole money.

But it’s much harder to know when to let a friend or lover go. We want to hold on and make it work, against all odds.

When is it time to move on?

  1. You spend a lot of time making excuses for their behavior

Maybe they’re just always like that when they’re drunk. Maybe they’re mean to waiters. If you spend a lot of time explaining that he or she has a good side, too, it’s time to move on.

  1. You can’t get them to see you for who you are now, instead of the tubby/goofy screwup you used to be.

You’ve spent a long time improving yourself, and your new friends know you as a fairly competent person. That’s why it’s so hard when an old friend downplays your every achievement by reminding you that you’re still that same fat, clumsy screwup you always were. There’s having friends who ground you, and having friends who bury you. Move on from the latter.

  1. You know every detail of their dramas but they know nothing of yours.

Every friend goes through hard times and needs support. But when the whole friendship is an endless loop of her troubles and she never asks about your life, there’s an imbalance. When you’re tempted to put the phone down while they ramble on and on about their sad little lives without stopping for breath, it’s time to move on.

  1. You need a drink or a nap to recover from time spent with them.

Some friends are exhausting, and not in a good way. They’re like emotional vampires and you need recuperation after every visit. Let them go.

  1. You hate yourself, just a little, for the person you are with them.

Some friends or lovers are just a whole lot of fun. But maybe they’re catty bitches, inviting you to snark along. Or maybe they’re always filling your glass a little too much. Whatever the reason, you leave them and feel like you’ve failed yourself somehow. Time to move on.

It’s understandable that we feel loyal, or we want to fix someone. But sometimes, you just have to tell a loved one that it’s just not working. And, unless there’s a divorce in the mix, there will be no severance package because, don’t worry, this is no wrongful termination.

Firing a Friend

Busting 6 Relationship Myths

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(note: This blog was previously published on CharlestonGrit.com)

The Internet is glad to give you the recipe for the perfect relationship: a drip of that, a dollop of this, and true love forever.

But, like the best recipes, the ingredients will vary by what’s at hand, and vary by personal taste.

I can’t tell you what makes the perfect relationship, but I can tell you what relationship truisms you can freely ignore:

Myth #1:

Don’t go to bed angry.

Sometimes the mad is so big it goes past bedtime. And sometimes you’re so exhausted that you want to shriek like a teakettle. Go to bed. Exhaustion isn’t going to make you less angry, it’s just going to make you more irrational. It’s more important not to go to bed apathetic. Because anger is a kind of passion, but apathy? It’s just the death of passion. And you may find that, during the night, your body has wound its way around your mate and your body forgives before your mind catches up.

Myth #2

Learn to share your lover’s hobbies.

I love to dance. My husband thinks the three minutes a song lasts is two and a half too long to be on the dance floor. My husband loves tennis. I tried tennis, but our opponents would always send the ball flying at me, the weak link, and my husband would wind up watching me blow the game. The only time I won a game for us was when I smashed the ball into an opponent’s eye, and that was a complete accident. I no longer play tennis.

Myth #3

Never go on separate vacations. Vacations together can be blissful. Long, sexy mornings with nowhere to go, dinners by candlelight with the time to laugh. And shared memories after you get back home. But don’t discount vacations without your love, experiences where you get back in touch with who you are at your core, and memories you get to recount fresh to your beloved, who has give you a chance to miss him.

Myth #4

You Should Share Your Feelings

You don’t want to be the Sphinx, but sharing your every emotion can be exhausting. Does your lover really need to ride the highs and lows of your PMS? Here’s the deal. You are responsible for your own emotions. It’s okay to give your lover fair warning that he should steer clear of you on a blue day, but your lover is not your therapist and you should never get the two confused.

Myth #5

If You’re Having Sex More or Less Than the National Average, Something’s Wrong

Okay, let’s get honest here. The surveys lie. Nobody admits their real number of sexual contacts per week. And, even if they are being honest, what does that have to do with you? You need to communicate with your lover and compromise. The truth is, you are going to have sex more than one of you is interested in and less than one of you wants. Get over it.

 Myth #6

If He (or She) Loves You, They Will Memorize What Turns You On

Bullshit. If you were a robot, maybe the same routine would turn you on every time, but you’re a person. Maybe one day, you want something rough and fast and another, you’re feeling fragile and want to be treated like a delicate flower. If your lover has telepathic powers, more power to you. But most men and women need a little gentle coaching about what it is you need, and you certainly deserve to have what you need, so talk about it!

 Bonus Myth:

A Good Relationship Fixes Everything

heart on windowSure, someday your prince or princess will come. But you’re gonna be the same old schlub you’ve always been. And the funny thing is we tend to pick people who push our buttons. They’re dead ringers for our critical fathers, or shrewish mothers, and they will never, never be perfect. So, until you’ve got a pretty solid relationship with yourself, no relationship is going to be a panacea.

MANNING UP ABOUT TIGHTY WHITIES

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They say the clothes make the man. But apparently they can unmake him too.

Because recently, a politician in Ottawa let his underwear stop him from doing his job.

Now, as women, we’re used to persevering through wardrobe malfunctions.

But this politician told his fellow legislators that he had to miss a vote because he had bought cheap underwear that wound up being too small and he wasn’t able to sit still for very long.

You can’t make these things up. I had no idea I could blame my underwear for underachievement.

So, if one can blame one’s undergarments, then here is my list:

I would have been President by now, but that one pair of panties gave me a wedgie and the press misunderstood my corrective actions. The campaign went downhill after that.

I would have been a rock star, but the corset I wore one time prevented my ribs from expanding and I couldn’t hit a note. I was asked never to sing where anyone could hear me.

I would have been a hard-bodied goddess, but the sports bra gave me a uniboob and I never entered a gym again.

It all sounds rather silly, doesn’t it? And it is. Because, given how many really uncomfortable items of clothing women have worn in the name of beauty, it makes it really hard to have sympathy for a male politician whose whities were a little too tighty.

Underachieving in underwear

Underachieving in underwear

When Your Kid Brings A Lover Home for the Holidays

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If you have a child who lives in a different city and you host holiday celebrations, eventually you will have to face the day when they bring home someone with whom they’ll blithely assume they can share a bed. Under your roof.

Here are the polite fictions that will help you through the ordeal.

 FIVE POLITE FICTIONS FOR WHEN YOUR CHILD

BRINGS HOME A LOVER

  1. Don’t talk about religion or politics. Or their jobs. Or their families. In fact, best not to bring up anything personal unless they do so first. You may be dying to find out how this young person who looks homeless plans to make a living, but you must at all costs pretend that unshaven is a look that works for them. That goes for male or female.
  2. Offer alcohol if they are of age, but pretend not to notice the amount they drink, even if you have to send someone out for another couple of bottles of wine so you don’t run out. Later, when your child has returned to wherever they live, you can always ask idly, “So was he nervous, or does he always take his wine intravenously?”
  3. Pretend you are not noticing every time they turn up their nose at some dish you slaved over because they don’t like it or their ethics won’t allow it. Slapping them with the pate is always a bad idea.
  4. Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answer to. And if you do, pretend to believe the lie. Questions like, “You guys aren’t going to have sex while you’re here, right?”
  5. Turn the music on really loud when they retire for the night. Or when you do. No parent should have to hear the bedsprings squeak in the childhood room and wonder whether their child’s “friend” is just a restless sleeper.

darlingbedaring holidays