Sharing life’s cinnamon rolls

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Are you an innie or an outie?

This is the question a middle-aged woman posed to her friend as they sat down together at a local coffee shop. Noticeably pregnant and well into my third trimester, I couldn’t help buty wonder if she was directing the question toward me, talking about the belly button emerging from under my shirt.

I then noticed the woman point to a freshly baked cinnamon roll sitting on the table in-between them.

“Do you like to eat it from the inside or the outside?”

They were sharing the treat and it was clear from the excited look on the woman’s face that her friend answered with the preferred answer.

“Outside.”

I smiled at their shared logic, and also felt relieved not having to engage awkward dialogue about my bulging abdomen.

The conversation between these two friends reminded me of a quote I have posted in my office as a daily level-setting prompt: “Find yourself in everyone you meet.” I wish I remembered where I heard this for the first time, but regardless of its origin, the statement has continued to impact the way I look at the world. I’ve found that the more we can find ourselves in others, the easier it is to be understanding, kind and empathetic when it seems most difficult.

The two women found themselves in each other, but also celebrated their differences as complements – even if in a very small way.

On a separate occasion, I sat near an elderly couple who were a fine example of teamwork, friendship and love. The two sat close to each other, sharing one cup of coffee with a table full of large books in front of them. The wife read, while he pretended to be engaged in the words she was mumbling. Their actions were the true definition of marriage – laughing together one minute and bickering the next.

He held up a shiny iPhone in his hand with a seemingly defeated look on his face before turning toward his wife and handing her the device.

“It says you go ‘bink bink’ and you’re on your way, but I can’t figure it out.”

photoAfter speaking into the bottom of the phone, the wife stubbornly held up the phone as if trying to take a photo. Her husband held his hand up to stop her and then removed his glasses and smiled. Nothing happened.

The couple continued reading the books in front of them, all with titles aiming to help beginners navigate use of Apple products. Every new “trick” they stumble upon called for a minor celebration.

After burying his nose in a small, white paperback manual the size of a worn-out novel, the husband jumped up excitedly.

“Wallpaper!”

The wife seemed more frustrated than impressed, asking her husband how he found the new tool. He leaned over, taking on the role of teacher, while she eagerly watched him navigate to the wallpaper feature. An earlier scene began to play out again, as the wife snapped a photo of her husband with intentions of using it as ‘wallpaper’ on her new gadget. As the wife fumbled with the phone, her husband stood up and began heading to the restroom – but not without sharing newfound wisdom with his wife.

“Don’t forget wallpaper means it will be behind everything on your phone.”

She rolled her eyes. The two continued to work with their new mobile devices for more than an hour, together celebrating and secretly competing to be the first to find reach a new milestone.

“Oh, look here! I found the messages,” the wife said. The husband was silent and seemed to be avoiding the fact that his wife had beat him at his own game. He decided it was time to leave.

“We need to get going. We’ve been here too long.”

While attempting to navigate chaos during the holidays, we sometimes take for granted those closest to us, forgetting how they reflect a piece of who we are. Finding others as complements is not always easy, but it is necessary. This holiday season; remember to take time to think of how those in your life play a part in making a better you. After all, it doesn’t matter how you choose to consume your cinnamon roll, it’s finding a way to share the frosting that makes experiences most memorable.

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Blowing out quarter-century candles

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Birthdays are a good reminder of time and the realization of how fast hours, days and years pass by without warning. The saying “time flies” is not anything new, but it’s the truth.

I recently celebrated my 25th birthday. During a phone call with my Dad that morning, he made sure to remind me that any day after my birthday would be “sliding down the hill to thirty.” What happened to a fatherly rendition of singing happy birthday in front of a well-lit cake?

You know what though? He’s right. I’m no longer in the twenty fifth year of my life. I’ve shut the door on childhood, teenage rebellion and college living and have entered the next quarter-century of experiences, pitfalls, challenges, friendships and celebrations. As I sat down that evening feeling more exhausted than at any previous birthdays, my mind swirled with memories of the past year.

My daughter and I almost a year ago

Since becoming a parent, I’ve promised myself to jot down stories, frustrations and insightful memories to share with my children when they are older. This was no exception. On the back of my daughter’s daycare newsletter, I began scribbling – in no particular order – the lessons I have learned during the past year leading up to turning twenty-five.

  1. Traveling 13 hours with a tired husband, two dogs and baby to see family, even if in a few hours notice, is well worth the trip.
  2. The southern translation of passing gas is “poot”.
  3. Kickball is more than just a game played in gym class. There are leagues of teams playing eight-week seasons, complete with playoffs and concession stands.
  4. Being a parent is the most rewarding, complicated and fun profession out there.
  5. It is possible to make edible hard-boiled eggs in the oven.
  6. Spending Christmas without family (or snow!) is as difficult as it sounds.
  7. Some farmer’s markets sell “throw away” peaches at a discount; all you have to do is ask.
  8. Potty training is more difficult than it sounds.
  9. Andy Griffith grew up in Mt. Airy, N.C.
  10. Every pregnancy is different.
  11. Contrary to the way I was raised, many children will never known what it’s like to eat food out of your own garden.
  12. Ponytails can be fashionable.
  13. Babies grow way too fast.
  14. Meeting new friends without comparing them to others is impossible.
  15. There are never enough photos.
  16. Growing grass is similar to spending your paycheck on clothes without bringing anything home.
  17. It’s important to donate – anything.
  18. A routine drive to work and daycare can be a good opportunity for a toddler to learn colors of cars.
  19. If accidentally locked in a pantry, my Border Collie will make a mess.
  20. It’s possible to lose sleep excited for someone else.
  21. Two-year olds are smarter than people give them credit for.
  22. My husband needs to throw away fraying shirts he still has from high school.
  23. Waking up thirty minutes early to sit in peace before the day begins makes a world of difference.
  24. There is nothing like Michigan in the Fall.
  25. Strangers will surprise you, in more ways than one.

Reflecting on the last year of life has helped me appreciate the knowledge we learn from each other. I’m ready to start the next quarter-century full of experiences and lessons, but think it’s best I light the candles before cutting into the cake.

There’s a funny thing about aging; finding the hidden benefits

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When a group of women more than twice my age gather in a coffee shop to chat, it’s hard not to listen. It becomes even more important to pay attention when they begin dishing out advice and sharing wisdom about the benefits of aging.

After a round of gossip at the table about who is getting divorced for the second time, the women began talking about updates in their lives while giving and seeking advice from the others about various topics.

“You need to be on the Facebook,” the one said while the others politely smiled. “That is where all of the fun is happening.”

The chattiest of the bunch leaned back in her chair as if feeling defeated and started sharing the struggle she’s having with her teenage daughter.

“The coffee shop down the street is hosting trivia night Friday night. They’re even playing songs from the Beetles and ask guests to request,” she said. “My daughter will be home from college and I’d like to take her, but I know she wouldn’t want anything to do with ‘old people’.”

The women laughed and moved into a discussion about the benefits that come as a result of accumulating years.

“There’s a point you get to when you realize age really doesn’t matter,” one woman said. “I’ve decided to stop counting at 69.”

The conversation continued, with a list of important aging benefits trailing close behind.

  1.  Discounts at grocery stores
  2. Cheap Frosty’s at Wendy’s
  3. Ability to say what you want; and
  4.  An unsaid societal license to use the word “dead” without sounding to harsh, when speaking about those who have passed on before you

The best of the advice, though, was that from the last woman to leave the table.

“These are the perks of getting older. We need to take advantage of them because we’ve earned it!”

Everything but the Kitchen

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I walked up to the big, intimidating brown door, carrying a pan of warm apple crisp dessert as its sticky juices leaked out the sides onto my hands. Christmas music played loudly behind me; young children laughing and skating circles on a small ice rink under bright lights and the moon.

As I approached the building, I noticed something. The window wrapping the front of the door was shattered. The glass was broken, but not enough to cause an opening. 

Gulp. 

There was a part of me wanting to turn around, get back in my car and drive safely home. But, I signed up for this and knew it would be an eye-opening experience. I was right.

After reaching the front door, I peered through the window. A young woman made eye contact and walked over to open the door for me. I smiled, introduced  myself and nervously asked to be directed where I might set down my leaking dish. An older gentleman walked down a hallway towards us and kindly showed me the way. But, moments later I learned I would need to first walk through a large gym before getting to the kitchen.

One big room, 25 mattresses; just as you see in the movies. Every mattress was accompanied by a notebook piece of paper torn from a tablet and taped above each pillow, labeled with a corresponding number. Women of all ages – young, old, crippled, healthy – sat on the mattresses, walked around the room, sang to each other or simply sat at one of the long tables set up nearby.

Bed Time...

As I weaved my way through the mattresses lined up on the tiled floor, I noticed some of the women gathered in a corner of the room. Piquing my interest, I stared long enough to see what they were doing. A volunteer sat in a chair as the women took turns having their fingernails painted.

“You look beautiful,” the volunteer said after finishing painting for one of the women.

I made my way to the kitchen, helped set up a buffet-style table of food and grabbed a cup of coffee.

One of the women quickly ran up to me, eager to hand me a brown paper bag.

“Would you like to read this?” she said, holding up a local newspaper with a square photo of her pictured in black and white on the front page. “One of the stories is about me and the path I’m on to make a better life.”

“Yes, I would love to take a look,” I said, smiling.

“There’s something else in the bag that’s a bit more personal, if you’d like to see,” she said.

Hesitant, I opened the bag and reached in to pick up a yellow piece of fabric.

“Would you like me to take it out of the bag?” I asked, unsure if the item was too personal for the rest in the room to see.

She nodded her head yes.

I picked up and unfolded the item, which I quickly recognized as an extra-large macaroni and cheese colored t-shirt covered in words and images, hand written with a black permanent marker. I fumbled the shirt a bit, so she snatched it out of my hand and held it up for me to see more clearly. The front of the shirt read “We are a family and we still love you”.

I nodded.

Tshirt #1 - Complete

She rotated the shirt, showing me the backside. My stomach dropped as I saw four little faces drawn on the fabric, and above the image, the words “If you love us, why do you make us black and blue?”.

I nodded again, unsure how to respond to a message so clear, yet so disturbingly sad.

She told me she made the t-shirt in therapy as a way to help her cope with life and start on the right path. As she placed the t-shirt back into the bag, a tall authoritative woman walked into the large room and signaled for everyone to gather in the middle of the room.

Without speaking, all of the women and volunteers (including myself) gathered between the mattresses and the tables and held hands. The woman who seemed to have authority began saying a prayer.

“Thank you Lord for bringing us together to a warm place tonight. Please bless this food and show us your grace through fellowship and the meeting of new friends. In God’s name we pray, Amen.”

How cool, I thought.

I, along with four other volunteers, took our position behind the long table with food. The women lined up single file on the other side of the table — plates in hand and manner in tact. We served our homemade chicken pot pie, garden salad and warm apple crisp and they thanked us for each serving.

“This smells so good,” one woman said.

“A home cooked meal is just what I need right now,” another said.

The women ate their meals while sharing fellowship. The dishes were empty, all food gone. I grabbed another cup of coffee and sat down at one of the tables.

What can I possibly say to these women? I’ve never been homeless. And, while I’ve had extensive training and experience working with women involved in domestic violence, I’ve fortunately never had to experience it myself.

“How was the food?” I asked, feeling a little out of place.

All of the women at the table smiled and shook their heads as if approving of the meal.

And then it hit me – I was no different from these women. I am human and so are they. Our experiences should not define our being, who we are or who we hope to be someday.

“How was your day?” I asked the woman sitting next to me.

“Difficult,” she answered, attempting to ignore me.

“Well, it’s good to know you have a full stomach of good food.”

“Well yes, but I’d like my own kitchen and be able to cook for myself again. It’s hard being homeless. It’s heavy on your heart and your mind.”

I didn’t have a response and sat silent for a moment.

“Where are you all from?” I asked, seeking conversation.

One woman grew up in Ohio and another in South Carolina. I shared with these women, while now in North Carolina that I too was an “outsider”. I had recently moved to the state from Michigan less than one year ago with my husband and 15 month-old daughter.

“They were interested to hear more about my little girl and share with me stories about their own children.

“Guess how many children I have,” one of them said. I responded with a confused look and asking, “how many?”.

“Ten,” she answered, lowering her head as if it hurt to talk about them.

“I have four kids,” said the other woman – the one who had shared her personal item with me earlier in the evening.

“But…I haven’t seen them since 1997,” she said. “They are what keeps me going each day. I know I will see them again, but it’s about taking life one step at a time and I’m focusing on that.”

I instantly felt sadness and looked over at the woman next to me who had just shared she is a mother of ten. Tears fell from her eyes as she looked up.

“Thank you for sharing your story,” she said.

“You’re welcome; it’s a way for me to help myself, too. I am amazed when anything I do or say actually means something to another person.”

How true. And while I’m not sure if anything I said that night made a difference to those women, I left with an appreciation for my family, a warm home and for my very own kitchen –  used to make sticky apple crisp for new friends on a Friday night.