Friday, July 31, 2015


This week was our second-to-last ceramics class of the session. My sibs and I have quite a lot of clay left, a few unfired pieces, and hardly anything glazed (with the exception of Asha, of course, who already has a handful of beautiful, interesting items). We started to feel the pressure.

I spent most of the class bopping around from table to wheel to the waxing and glazing area, bopping past Maria who was doing mostly the same thing. When we found ourselves in the same place there was a lot of "I don't really know what I'm doing..." and "uhh..." and "I feel like I should have this more under wraps."

And then, of course, suddenly -- it was the last half-hour of the second-to-last class and I had barely done anything. I had allowed myself to become paralyzed by uncertainty, and missed out on some potentially valuable time. I'm also pretty certain something awful will happen to my last-minute haphazardly glazed test tiles and experimental pieces. But no sense in worrying about them now.

* * * * *
This isn't a phenomenon that's isolated to ceramics. I do the same thing at work, when I have an unfamiliar task in front of me; the same thing at a networking event when I don't know who to talk to or what to say; the same thing at dinnertime, when I am making a new recipe and feel myself starting to get hungry; the same thing in relationships when I start to reach a turning point or uncharted territory; the same thing now that I'm planning a wedding and have no idea how to talk to a band or an equipment rental company or a caterer.

And yet I consider myself a fearless adventurer. I have done incredible and incredibly stupid things, whether because I couldn't pass it up or to prove a point or just to say I've done it. I have accomplished so many things I'm proud of and crossed into uncharted relationship territory over and over again and whipped up some deliciously interesting dishes and cocktails. How do I get from Point A to Point B? How can I justify my Fearless Adventurer status while being regularly paralyzed by uncertainty and fear?

* * * * *
I suppose there's always the whole "Courage isn't the absence of fear" thing. And there's Chris, a Guiding Angel, who used to do things in spite of his fear. I can find my motivation for every situation, prove to myself and whoever else that I can do it, and I will. And there's just procrastinating until I can't put it off any more.

Fear is a built-in self-defense mechanism, so as long as we are alive we can't really get away from it. We gradually get comfortable with things that used to be unfamiliar, the things that used to scare us. And then a new unfamiliar thing swoops in to take its place. Every next day and next moment is bursting with uncertainty, but every next day and next moment is going to come no matter what we do and we will do with it what we do. For me, I have to allow myself those moments of hesitation, because for every hesitant moment I have another moment where I sally forth into the mental fog. There is no sense in kicking myself for wasting time because I didn't know what to do. All I can do is shrug it off and put another finger down in the next game of "Never-Have-I-Ever."

Maybe someday my kids, or at least my nieces and nephews and mentees, will look at me and marvel that I always seem to know what I am doing; that I'm not afraid of anything (I'm even working on not freaking out in the presence of bees!)

Fooled ya.

Friday, July 17, 2015

psyching myself in

Last summer at a writers' conference I happened to meet two missionary kids, a brother and sister who grew up in Grenada.

M., the sister, and I have kept in touch and started a Meetup group for third culture kids in the area. We had our first meeting last Thursday and it wasn't super well-attended but we had one new person that none of us personally invited! I consider that a success.

I'm not usually the first person to show up anywhere, but that's one of the things I'm working on... Even if it means setting a start time half and hour beforehand and being 20 minutes late. (Which is what happened last Thursday.) All that to say, I found myself at the coffee shop alone when the only person I didn't know on the RSVP list showed up.

I used to feel like I was an extrovert; in college, I was engaging, and I could hold a conversation with anybody -- I could hold court. Since moving here and starting my job, I've felt a bit out of my depth. I'm the quiet one again, like I was in elementary school. And lately, I've been feeling pretty stressed out when there's pressure to start conversations with people I don't know very well, or at all.

But in this case, when the only person on the RSVP list I didn't know showed up, I started asking questions and getting to know him, and it was great. I felt, if not entirely comfortable, as though I had something to offer that was of value.

* * * * *
This brings me to a few points:
  1. J is always telling me he doesn't get why I'm so self-conscious talking about my personal history and my travels -- 'where I'm from.' I just don't ever want to be that person who talks and talks and talks about all the cool places I've visited, all the while stomping down the people around me. But sometimes it turns into me devaluing my experiences and/or psyching myself out about having a conversation with anyone.
  2. Psyching myself out is a very real stumbling block. Most of the time I don't even catch myself doing it, but one of my colleagues once said something about 'listening to the words as they're coming out of my mouth' and I realize I am guilty of doing that: worrying so much about my phrasings and nuances that I lose touch with the actual conversation I'm having and my core message.

Step one is always recognizing the problem. Once I realized I psyched myself out, I put a little bit of energy into psyching myself back in. Focus on listening to the other side of the conversation, not what's coming out of my mouth. Find a core commonality, even if it's something as simple as standing in the same square yard of space. In the case of the TCK group, it's the shared difficulty in answering the question, "Where are you from?"

It's not easy, but I'm learning to 'turn it on' when I need to be engaging, and to push my insecurities to the side. I might not say it right 100% of the time, but who does? We're all human -- and I'm beginning to realize that most people, no matter how old they are, or how apparently charismatic, have some insecurity about starting a conversation with an unknown person, or about holding court in a crowd. Our success at doing so has something to do with training, little to do with personality, but mostly to do with giving it a shot in the first place.

Friday, July 10, 2015

feeding the multitudes

These days, as my first post-college cohort of married friends and same-aged cousins is beginning to have their babies and post about it on Facebook, I find myself feeling ill-prepared to have children.

That's not quite the right way to say it; I mean, I definitely want kids at some point... And I don't even think I'd be an awful parent at this point in my life, theoretically. It's just that it feels like enough work keeping my own head above water to imagine being responsible for another tiny little life. And what if I have twins?! (It's on both sides of the family...)

I have to give my mom props here. As I mentioned a few weeks ago, I've been taking a ceramics class with my siblings this summer. (We just started spinning on the wheel this week and I'm in love -- but that's a story for another day.) Because I live less than 10 minutes away from the studio, everybody gathers at our place on Tuesday evenings around 5:30 to eat and drive to class together.

And usually, on Tuesdays, J has bro night -- also at our place. Which means there are 6 hungry young adults hanging in my living room, hot and ravenous, half an hour after I get home from work. And four of us have to eat and wash our plates and leave the house 45 minutes later.

You probably see where I'm going with this, but let me break it down.

Week One:
I forget this is happening and text Jason before leaving the office: "Just remembered my sibs are coming for dinner tonight and we have ceramics at 6:30..."

So I rush in from work, throw together a cold quinoa salad which we eat hot because there isn't time for it to cool, and J graciously grills a few extra burgers to share with my siblings. (And by a few extra, I mean ten.) We also split three fresh ears of corn between the six of us. We are 5 minutes late to our first class, and I have a pile of dirty plates to wash when I get home three hours later.

Week Two:
I give Jason a little more warning this time, and ask nicely; so he (again, graciously) makes three extra pounds of grilled chicken, and grills up the last of our potatoes and a sad pile of waning wax beans (i.e. the only thing grillable in our crisper). I'm sure the boys are still hungry, but my hands are tied.

Week Three:
Asha texts me in the afternoon asking if we can have pizza for dinner. I breathe a sigh of relief and reply, "Done. That's exactly what I was thinking for tonight."

I order two large pizzas online before leaving work, and pick them up on my way home. (I beat most of the people back to my house that night...)

When J and I order pizza, we spend about $13 and eat it for breakfast AND lunch the next day. I spent more than twice that much on pizza that night, and it was gone within 20 minutes.

Week Four:
Monday night, 9:30 p.m. J and I are on our way home from eating dinner at my parents' house. I remember, in exhausted desperation, that we have to somehow feed 6 people in less than 24 hours, and the only thing in the fridge is Guinness and hard-boiled eggs.

I wake up early on Tuesday and -- on a whim -- take chicken thighs out of the freezer, chop up some potatoes and dump it all into a slow cooker with a can of diced tomatoes and a bunch of herbs.

I put on rice when I got home, and it all turns out pretty well. I feel like I nailed it for the first time since ceramics started -- and everyone washes their own plates.

And then when I open the tupperware of leftovers at lunch the next day, it's all potatoes. The chicken got completely polished off the night before.

* * * * *
I don't want it to sound like I'm complaining; like most of my life's struggles, I'm looking at this as an exercise. And it's such good exercise that I have to give my mom mad props for feeding us breakfast, lunch and dinner when we were little (four little kids under the age of 6) and, when we got older, coming home from work and making dinner every day and half the time eating only what was left on our plates. And not only that, but a good percent of the time, everything got ready at more or less the same time. It's not as easy as moms make it look.

I am enjoying this exercise while it lasts, and it's already made me stronger -- but I will be glad to get back to my regular struggles of worrying about what the two of us will eat every night of the week (except the two nights where our moms still feed us), plus leftovers for lunch. And for the time being, I'm happy not trying to feed a small, brand-new human (or two or three) who will probably refuse to eat and/or will throw most of the food at me. I'm sure I'll be delighted about it someday, but right now I've got enough on my plate.

This Friday evening, it's a G+T, a pickle, a chocolate chip oatmeal cookie and a PB&J. And Jason made the sandwich for me.

Saturday, July 4, 2015

doing 'nothing'

Our beginning-of-the-week conversations for the first few months consisted of, "What did you do this weekend?" "Nothing." "Really? Nothing?" *Shrug* Before we started exchanging books, hanging out first once a week, then twice, then three or four times and texting in between.

Three and a half years later, people are asking us, "What are you guys doing for the Fourth?" And we say, "Nothing."

It's been nonstop for months now, the days and weeks and weekends jam-packed with meetings and hanging out and appointments and checking things off the list. I like that, to an extent; but a three-day weekend with no obligations is a rainbow unicorn in my version of adulthood, at least.

Last week I wrote, but my heart wasn't in it. And then Friday evening came around, and our fridge was fresh out of food and we had company coming from out of town. So I decided not to post. I stressed about it for an hour or so, and realized I wasn't being present, and that's the important thing; so I gave myself a get-out-of-jail free card and forgot about it. This is part of being gracious toward myself.

It's about what's important. Celebrating means different things to different people, and has meant different things to me at different points in my life. Some people like spending holidays in the world's most famous celebration spots, packed up against strangers like the contents of a massive sushi roll. Those people probably think of strangers as future friends.

I am working on priorities. It's hard for an overcommitter like me to stay committed to everything, and I'm working on whittling down my commitments, whittling down my priorities and using the important things as a flowchart to decide whether I can take anything else on or not. I'm reading lots of LinkedIn articles about it and testing out methods of keeping my life in order. My biggest central goal right now is finding zen in the rhythm of my life, even when it's crazy and too full of good things. Rolling with it.

But my top priority is clear: my relationships with good people - maintaining them, and, more importantly, enjoying them.

Last week, when I really thought about it, between my commitment to blogging and my commitment to hosting, the choice was pretty clear. Today, I am taking a much-needed breather, starting my day with good food and a long conversation, just J and me, with good food and drinks sprinkled throughout. This relationship takes precedence, the health of our relationship and taking time to check in and recalibrate, and while we're at it, putting some care into our mental health.

This is a bit of an oversimplification, but so far my big lesson for summer 2015 is prioritizing, and using that hierarchy to make decisions about what I'm committing to.

With that in mind, I'm signing off. Happy Fourth (though I hope you all are celebrating with your friends and families, dear readers, and won't see this until the day is over). Until I write again...

Friday, June 19, 2015

the mission: ceramics 101

"Are you the Swansons?" - our ceramics teacher as we rolled into class 5 minutes late. (Not bad...) "Are you a band? You sound like a band."

Now that's a new one. But it's particularly funny right now since our running joke for the summer is that we're going to start a family a cappella group a la Von Trapp Family Singers. We opted not to share that joke with out new classmates and teacher; best not to get their hopes up.

"Trapp Family Singers 1941" by Trapp Family Singers
Metropolitan Music Bureau, New York. Photo by Larry Gordon.
We went around the room and introduced ourselves: the high school English teacher trying ceramics out for fun; three women who took the class before and got addicted; Thom, doing this to hang out with the siblings; me, who made some pinch pots back in first grade and hung out with potters in college; Maria, the music person whose idea it was to take the class in the first place ("so when we all hate it we know who to blame!"); and Asha, who of course got the hang of the clay long before the rest of us could even put two pinch pots together and keep them inflated.

By the end of the three hours, Asha had a lion head ready to be fired; Maria made an abstract "war bird"; I had a lumpy eggplant that stands on end and Thomas created and collapsed a pineapple. ("I don't really need a bunch of clay pineapples collecting dust.") After 8 weeks, we're all hoping to have a mug to show for ourselves.

This is what my siblings and I do for fun. The other day J and I showed up for dinner and my dad was tiling the upstairs bathroom, Asha was picking up rocks from the creek to line flower beds, Maria was stitching a T-shirt quilt and Thomas had plans for his latest project laid out in graph paper all over the living room. "Now you know why I get so irritated when the TV's on all the time," I said to J.

One summer, we scripted, set, and produced an adventure movie filmed across four cities in Northern India. The final product was 20 minutes long, with complicated character relationships and a cast of six.

my inspiration: pottery from friends
I value that creative outlet, and the creative community in growing up that way. It's a hunger I carry with me everywhere I go, even now... Even though I dedicate so little time to creative endeavors these days. I envy people who do art professionally, like my full-time writer friends here in Delaware and my college friends now doing MFAs, publishing chapbooks, selling handmade jewelry or bowls or clothes in towns around the country. I envy people who have the energy after work to do anything more than throw together a (roughly) balanced dinner and maybe a fancy cocktail - my art of choice these days.

I caught up with a friend last week who just left her job in preparation for moving and starting grad school over the next few months. She said, "Now that I'm not working, the TV is hardly ever on. I just find a lot of other things to do."

Out of desperation, I added that it serves its purpose; it's an easy way to get a story fix at the end of a full day.

As a kid, I watched only PBS until I aged out around 10. Sesame Street taught me how to read, and Wishbone taught me how to love it; Mr. Rogers taught me imagination. When we had filled our TV quota for the day, we would run downstairs and build a "magic Barney bag" full of scavenged craft materials, or put on a sock puppet show, or set up our own mini-Olympics in the living room. We built tiny towns of mud-and-twig huts in the backyard, elaborate Lego cities for our plastic animal figurines, box and blanket forts for ourselves. Whatever we saw on TV, we replicated in real life. After a movie, when the credit music came on, we all leaped up from the couch and started dancing. When I read a great book, I started writing what I hoped would turn into a great book.

That is the luxury of childhood, and now I see it as such. When I have kids, I hope I can pass that on to them... but in the meantime I'm on a mission to find creativity in the adult world.

Readers: let me know where you all find your creativity, and how you make time and space for it!

Friday, June 12, 2015

hashtag learning (when to stop)

the hashtags of my life lately
The last few weeks have been a bit insane, with work (where we have a couple of big projects coming to fruition and lots of development going on), volunteer responsibilities, wedding planning, social commitments, conferences, big news events, and all the other extracurricular projects I've created for myself.

I'm getting a lot out of this laundry list, but am I getting maxed out a little? How much does input feed overload take away from my takeaway? And how do I put on the brakes when most things "can't wait," and I'm trying to establish my place in the world? (Not sure why I even bother, when that place is only going to change every other year, if not more often...)

I think the answer is: You just put on the brakes; there is no "try." It's like saying, "Excuse me, would you mind please turning this gigantic noisy machine off?" when nobody can hear you and you pretty much have to just walk right up to it and firmly push the EMERGENCY STOP button.

So (hopefully) that's one lesson learned. Or lesson in progress, anyway. I have a feeling that one is going to take some work.

But I'm pulling lots of other things, too, out of the chaos. Here are a few of them:
#IWSTEM panel, May 28
  1. I am an introvert (or at least much more so than I thought I was). I need to spend some quality solo-time before and after big networking events or presentations, otherwise I get super exhausted, super fast.

  2. It's okay to feel like an impostor. One of the extremely poised and successful women on an Inspiring Women in STEM panel shared this with us: "I have a hard time sometimes, and I feel like I shouldn't be, and like I can't be open about that." Afterward I thanked her for sharing that, because I often feel like I should be handling things a lot more seamlessly, and she said, "Do you ever feel like an impostor?" And I said, "YESSSSS!" And she said, "That's totally normal." Score!

  3. If I want to talk to someone, I have to reach out. Don't wait. If I have a few minutes, and I'm thinking about somebody or have something to talk about, I just pick up the phone. Even 10 or 15 minutes is enough to keep a long-distance relationship going.

  4. Focus on what's most important. For example, if I'm stressed out about wedding planning, I try to take a step back and remember why we're doing it: We're getting married to each other, and we want to share the day with people we love. It takes two seconds to think this and it puts everything back into perspective.

  5. Also, share those priorities and values. I've been sharing that central piece with people in conversations, and I've been pleasantly surprised at how it shifts the focus of the conversation. Our culture tends to focus on the wedding more than the actual marriage, but when I introduce marriage into the conversation in that way it opens the floor for other people to share their own deeper thoughts and experiences.

    This approach also keeps me focused and accountable in other projects, and makes tough decisions suddenly become clear. Putting together a group for young third culture kids around Delaware and want to set the precedent for low-key, open conversation? Choose a venue that is quiet and open enough for easy talking.

  6. State my position openly, and if I am confused or ambivalent about something, say that too. A lot of times what I'm not sure about gets worked out as I'm saying it; if not, someone else can usually offer something to help clear it up. If I know what I think (or if it really doesn't matter between choice A or choice B) it keeps things moving and positions me as a person of action. And then when something comes up that I can't figure out, the rest of the group has no problem chipping in because they know exactly where I stand.
I've also learned some other interesting factoids, such as:

  • There is simulation technology being developed for nursing and medical students to practice procedures (surgical and otherwise) on theater students, so that they can get real-life feedback in a much lower-stakes environment. (From #TechTrendsDE, an event in downtown Wilmington that felt like stepping into Silicon Valley.)
  • Childhood trauma is a major contributing factor to incarceration in adulthood, and housing access is one of the biggest barriers to successful reentry. #DCHJwomen
  • I have learned a lot about my extended family, and about family dynamics in general, through planning our huge 5-year reunion to be held this summer. #arvidclara15
  • There are 22 St. Olaf graduates currently living in the state of Delaware. #UmYaYa!

And lots of other things.

I don't see that slowing down anytime soon, and I have to admit I don't hate it.

Friday, June 5, 2015

we need each other

My family had two cats.

The first one, Stella, is the softest kitty you ever saw, with the sweetest, tiniest meow you ever heard -- but her personality is anything but soft and sweet. She's cranky and standoffish, and if you're lucky you can pet her once before she strikes with claws and teeth. She became part of the family the day after my first "date" with J; when asked about the beginning of our relationship, he always brings up the photo I sent him when I came home from work to find her there after picking her out at the shelter. She was about 6 months old, one of the youngest (and most vocal) cats in the social cat cage.

The second one, Furrgus, came to us as a tiny black ball of fur, his eyes barely open. He was found in a gutter and lived in our guest bedroom for 6 weeks in quarantine until he could safely come out and meet Stella. He was goofy and rambunctious from Day One, always sneaking out between our feet, climbing our pant legs, and tripping over himself. He's also fearless; while Stella would shoot off at the slightest noise or disturbance, Furrg chased the vacuum cleaner, the ceiling fan and the buzz saw.

Later we came to the conclusion that he was also deaf, because have you ever met a cat you could sneak up on?! We kept him inside for a long time, knowing that he wouldn't blink at a passing car or the other gigantic cats on the block (with whom Stella gets into regular altercations) or the neighborhood's crew of bored teenagers. But eventually his cabin fever was getting everyone down, so we let him out.

And he was so happy! He and Stella started getting along better; he cuddled more, slept more, cried less. He would just sit, for hours, watching us work outside, or having staring contests with Stella's arch-enemy cat from next door. His reflexes got sharper, and he mellowed out, became more affectionate.

And then on Saturday, my dad called to tell me he'd been hit by a car and died.


I can't say we didn't all see it coming. We knew he was too full of life to be the kind of cat who lived to a ripe old age of 20, when he would quietly fade away with 8 lives still intact. At two, he'd already burned through his backup lives, and it wasn't slowing him down a bit!

But I didn't see it coming this particular Saturday; I hadn't planned for it. And I didn't expect to mourn so deeply and immediately. My hurt usually soaks in slowly, over time, so I can deal with it when the time of action is over. Besides that, I'm used to being the Leaver, not the Left-Behind. We've had pets before, but we always moved (to a different country) before we had to make any tough decisions -- and have been miraculously spared a sad event like this one 'til now.

Furrgus was the kind of pet that teaches you how to be comfortable in your own skin, reminds you not to take yourself too seriously, encourages you to stay curious. He schooled us in living on the regular.

And, in a sense, he schooled us in death too. He went quickly, sleeping. And then he gathered us together -- even Stella.

Sharing grief is a powerful thing. It's critical: the element of touch; the way different people in the group trade off the caretaker role; the sharing of stories, that laughing-with-tears-streaming-down-your-face -- you can't do that by yourself so well. And two cups of tea, shared, taste so much better than one.


What I am left with is this: We Need Each Other.

We all need a Furrgus... or a few Furrguses. (My other "Furrguses" include my friend Chris Lund, my Grammi, Morrie Schwartz...) And we all need people to be around when tough times strike.

There is a lot to cry about in our world: layoffs and breakups and failed tests and pitch after pitch that falls flat.
Delaware (and the rest of the nation) is mourning our well-loved former AG, Beau Biden. The collective pain is palpable here in Wilmington.
People in cities across the country mourn the violence that named Wilmington Murder Capital of the USA last year, and has recently brought Baltimore to a 40-year high in shooting deaths, and strikes almost every city and town in its own way.
There are sunken boats and plane crashes and bombings and wars and extreme weather events.
And although the hype has subsided, the world has been mourning the 9,000+ dead in Nepal's series of earthquakes last month, and the many others affected still by the stricken infrastructure and loss of family, community, and home.

We have our personal tragedies, and our shared tragedies. Our mourning filters through every aspect of our lives, and adds a gritty complexity and weight to our days. And it intensifies our humanity, which seeks company and community. We teach each other and catch each other and do our best to salve the pain of others and to keep on. It's why we Walk for the Cure and donate or volunteer for relief efforts and community services and clean-up crews. It's why we go to wakes and hold each other while we cry and inevitably stumble over words that we know can never really take the pain away -- because we are human and that's beautiful and we need each other to remind us of what's important and why we even bother slogging through the shit at all. And to remind us to make the most of it, and to do what we can to make the world better, even in very small ways.