Not Belonging Where You Belong: 3-Book Third Thursday

Welcome back to Three-Book Third Thursday! Though I haven’t written a post like this in some time, this series is actually one of my favorite things to write. Entries like this one reflect my life in a more organic, contemplative way than any individual post might. I think that’s because books lie in my mental compost pile, so to speak, after I read them. When the message from one book start to melt together with the ideas in another, and another, it’s time to take that and use it to create a post that no one else would come up with.

Perhaps you can identify with wanting to create something no one else would. Maybe you love books, too. It could be that the title of this post intrigued you. Thank you for reading, no matter your reason for being here.

Today, I’m sharing three books that have typified the feeling of not belonging where you know you are supposed to belong: “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League,” by Jeff Hobbs; “The Reappearing Act: Coming Out as Gay on a College Basketball Team Led by Born-Again Christians,” by Kate Fagan; and “Shame,” by Greg Garrett.

Robert PeaceIn “The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace,” Peace’s Yale roommate Jeff Hobbs explores Peace’s difficult childhood in a poor neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey, his subsequent years studying molecular biology at Yale, and the post-grad years that Peace spent, mostly back in Newark, before his early death. Hobbs writes a nuanced portrait of his friend. Robert Peace is neither idealized for his intelligence and abilities, nor demonized for being unable to slip free from patterns established early in his life.

Instead, Hobbs presents a sympathetic figure in Robert Peace, and walks alongside the reader to learn more about how we identify with the differing groups we all encounter in our own lives. Who, among college-educated adults, cannot recall trying to establish ourselves in a new environment during freshman year? Or trying to reestablish ties with high-school friends on weekends back home? As we move from work to church to kids’ activities to volunteering, don’t we all befriend at least one person along the way whose outlook on life is so different from our own, but whose personality clicks with ours?

Robert Peace, it seems, grew up knowing how to be part of his neighborhood in Newark without denying the fierce intelligence he possessed. At Yale, his intelligence placed him right at home among his fellow students; few at Yale, however, could understand Peace’s challenging background.

The tragedy of Robert Peace’s life, I felt, was not simply his early death, nor his wasted potential. His tragedy played out in this: Robert Peace could never be all of who he was in either of the ends of the spectrum of his life: not in poverty-ridden Newark nor in the more affluent opportunities available to Yale grads. The tragedy of Robert Peace’s life is that he could never find a middle ground.

Reappearing ActKate Fagan, by contrast, yearns desperately for middle ground throughout much of “The Reappearing Act.” As a member of the University of Colorado’s women’s basketball team, Fagan spent her college years trying to be a devoted Christian alongside many of her teammates while also coming to terms with the fact that she is gay. Having come through her college years, Fagan is openly out now, and her recollection of these years of dear friendship, heartrending struggle, and self-doubt bears a distinct slant toward her having experienced that being gay meant that the church – and, by extension, her Christian friends – would shun her.

However, that’s not exactly what I saw as the most important theme to me as a reader. Fagan’s story is unique in its details, but common and accessible in its scope. What I took from this story is that any of us can come to feel isolated in our struggle to pinpoint our identity. Any of us can feel misunderstood by people we love, and who love us. We can make huge mistakes along the way; Fagan describes one weekend when her parents came to visit, and in her pain and confusion, she shuts them out before they can shut her out. Her parents, not knowing of her inner struggle, become understandably hurt and angry. That particular parent-child drama played out for many of us in college, and it didn’t always have to do with sexuality.

Kate Fagan clearly belonged on the University of Colorado’s women’s basketball team. Her skill level had placed her there. Still, even in a group where she had been assured of her place, Fagan came to feel that her belonging rested on not telling much about who she was discovering herself to be.

Reading Fagan’s story brought one thing back into clear focus for me: as a Christian, I need to do my best to be kind, with “difficult” people who don’t tell me their struggles, and with my loved ones when they do. Fagan’s teammates were the only face of Jesus available to her in that moment, and she came away feeling rejected. Do I do any better than that when people open up to me, and again, not just about their sexuality? Truthfully, probably not. And yet, I hope to do better.

ShameDoing better is one of the main themes of “Shame,” a novel by Greg Garrett. Garrett takes us into the life of John Tilden, a small-town farmer and volunteer high-school basket ball coach, who is facing down his past and his future. Tilden, having grown up in the same small town, will always be seen as part of the only state championship basketball team his high school has won.

He will also forever be seen, he feels, as the guy who got a girl pregnant in high school and had to marry her. Unfortunately for Tilden, the girl he impregnated was not the girl he loved. He and his girlfriend had broken up; when she came back to try to work it out, Tilden’s wedding was already a foregone conclusion.

Twenty years later, still married and father of three, Tilden’s almost dormant feelings for his high school sweetheart reemerge as the high school reunion – and a championship team reunion – approach. Through Tilden’s interactions with long-lost teammates, his children, and his wife, we see a life filled with daily triumphs and defeats, intentions and distractions. Tilden’s is a life that seems destined, even to him, to go off into the ditch here in mid-life.

Tilden, farming land his family has farmed for generations, knows about roots. He understands seasons, sowing and reaping, bounty and loss. And yet, despite his understanding of how he fits into a larger picture, he still yearns to break free and try something different, something more congruent with his early dreams for his life. I can understand that disconnect between head knowledge and heart yearning. Who among us hasn’t dealt with an unpleasant reality, be it diapers or bureaucracy or rush hour, and thought, “I am not cut out for this.”?

Garrett’s novel, whose ending I will not spoil for you, gives us insight into a man who, by all outward appearances, fits in better than most people in his small town. Still, he feels trapped by that belonging, which in turn creates a feeling of not belonging as much as others think he does. In the midst of that, one of the most touching aspects of the book for me was the friendship he reestablished with a teammate who had stayed in town, building up twenty years’ worth of being judged by the town for his bad choices. As the friendship flourishes, Tilden realizes that he is not the only one giving support and wise advice. I loved that Tilden was humble enough to see wisdom, no matter where it came from.

After having read these three books this month, I walked away with a keener insight into sense of belonging and place in this world. I think we all desire to feel included, wanted, accepted. On most days, we tend to receive enough affirmation to take up our tasks for the day. What I hope to do going forward is deliberately offer more off that affirmation to the people around me.

When Your Kick-Ass Idea Doesn’t, Actually

A friend wrote recently about her “kick-ass idea” that had not materialized on her blog the way she thought it should. I commiserated with her, having experienced similar feelings. First, there was my Mercy Mondays series, a link-up which I finally stopped hosting because most of the linkers weren’t writing about mercy.

And I also had this in mind: one of my favorite things to write on this blog is Three-Book Third Thursday. It is fascinating to me how books that I read will clump themselves into groups. Sure, there are times when I set out to read about a specific topic, so it comes as no surprise to see recurrent themes. More often, however, I pick up seemingly disparate books within a few weeks of each other and find a common thread running through three or more of them.

When that happens, I write a Three-Book Third Thursday post featuring the three books and the sometimes-surprising common thread. For example, who would have thought that Maziar Bahari’s book about being imprisoned in Iran (now made into the movie, “Rosewater”) would combine with a book about parenting a Down’s Syndrome Child and a book about establishing a global fair-trade business for women? (That post was one of my all-time favorite Three-Book Third Thursdays.)

It may be a sign of my complete disconnect from pop culture that I thought this series would become one of my most popular. In fact, it almost never garnered many views. However, I also made one of my best decisions when I continued writing it after realizing that almost no one else felt strongly about it as I did. I didn’t care if it struck a chord with anyone else; it’s my idea, and I love it.This series is one of the first things that I wrote just for me. Sometimes considering how many followers I have, or don’t, can distract me from being the writer I want to be. Three-Book Third Thursday is pure me.

Tomorrow, look for the first Three-Book Third Thursday in a long, long time. This one fits in nicely with my recent return to blogging. I hope you will like it.

I Sense a Coup in the Works

There’s definitely the hint of a coup in the air around here. Someone who has felt invincible and irreplaceable may need to start shoring up that position, or at the very least, expand others’ roles in order to maintain leadership and relevancy for as long as possible.

Don’t worry, everyone. This has nothing to do with Cuban politics. I’ll state that upfront so that the revolutionary bureaucrat assigned to monitor my blog can relax. Let’s rewind a little so I can explain the situation to you.

One of Ladybug’s favorite things to do is “Ladybug and Mommy Day.” Ladybug is six and has two front teeth missing and one tooth out on the bottom. Her body has gotten taller and more slender lately, but her face is still soft and full. She has dimples; when she smiles these days, she looks like the cutest baby hippopotamus you’ve ever seen.

For the record, when a cute baby hippopotamus wants time alone with you, it is impossible to resist.

Yesterday, we all had Veterans’ Day off, so the latest request for a “Ladybug and Mommy Day” had been put on the schedule. These days require a little more creativity than when we are in the U.S. At home, I instinctively know of several places where we can have inexpensive but memorable time together. When we move to a new country, finding fun things to do with kids almost always boils down to this one thing first: ice cream.

And sure enough, Ladybug wanted to go get ice cream during “Ladybug and Mommy Day.” We were all set. Then, just minutes before we left, Ladybug came to me with a request. “Could we have Girlie Day instead?”

Mm-hm. Girlie Day, as in all the girlies in this house go somewhere together. This, of course, meant that Blossom wanted to come along. Blossom, at ten, feels socially starved in our house. There are not enough playdates in the world to keep my girl satisfied. We try our hardest to balance her need for play time and our friends’ natural desire to spend some time alone as a family on weekends and days off. It’s not easy for Blossom to be cooped up. I’m sympathetic. But in this case, I was also suspicious.

“What do you want, Ladybug?” I asked. “Do you want it to be Girlie Day or Ladybug and Mommy Day? We don’t have time to do both.”

“Well,” she said, “then I think it should be Girlie Day. Blossom will miss us too much.”

“That’s great with me, sweetie. You are sweet to include your sister. But we set this time aside for just us. Are you going to be sad later that we didn’t do that?”

“Oh, no, Mommy. We can have Sissy with us.”

Perfect. We piled into the car for Girlie Day. A few blocks from home, with the music playing and the sun shining, I started to relax. The girls were chattering happily in the backseat.

And that’s when the first rumblings of the coup occurred.

“Girlie Day is the most fun ever!” proclaimed Ladybug.

“Yeah! We are going to have so much fun! What do you and Mommy usually do?”

“We get ice cream. And then we hang out all night, talking and having fun.”

“Cool!”

“Yeah. But now, we can have Girlie Day and it will be even more fun!”

“Yeah!”

“And next time we can just have Sisters Day!”

Awwww, I think. Sisters Day. This is sweet. I love it that they want to spend time together.

Wait, what??

“Great idea! We can do something all by ourselves!” said Blossom. There was a pause, and then, “We may need Mommy to drive us.”

Ladybug said, “She can drive us, and then we’ll ask her to sit at another table.”

Blossom chimed in, “She can bring a book!”

“That will be the most fun day ever! Sisters Day!”

“Yeah!”

So let’s recap, people, with tongue in cheek and a grin in place. On my day off, a day in which I would actually be happiest curling up with a book, I agree to take my youngest out for some one-on-one time and it ends up as a planning session to oust me from future outings except as a chauffeur.

I’m pretty sure that sums up all of motherhood, right there.

But my darling girlies – with whom, by the way, I had an excellent time at Girlie Day – forgot one thing.

We may live in a socialist country, and they may be planning a coup to oust me, but in the end, I’m confident it will not prevail. There won’t be any relegating Mommy to the other side of the room. I’d be willing to stake almost anything on the idea that in the end, capitalism wins out and I keep my seat at the table. You know why?

Mommy always pays for the ice cream.

When, and Maybe Why, the Words Won’t Come

There haven’t been too many times in my life during which I haven’t had a strong opinion and been willing to voice it. Too many times, of course, I voiced it and then, hearing others speak their minds, realized how much I had left unconsidered before taking my stand. Still, assessing an issue and forming a fairly cohesive opinion about it, one I am willing to speak aloud, has never been a problem for me. Until lately.

Throughout high school and college, writing papers likewise never bothered me at all. Sure, the research end was more time-consuming than I necessarily liked, and like many young, self-assured writers, I quoted sources that agreed with my premise and left other sources out of my papers. I didn’t think of that as being closed-minded; it was just being choosy about how many sources one could include in a bibliography. But the writing itself was the best part. I love constructing sentences. Linking ideas with connecting words, making the next idea seem to flow from the first, drawing to a conclusion, and then summarizing, using different words than I’d used before so that the review doesn’t feel stale to the reader? All of that came naturally.

One of my Cuban colleagues is a skilled crocheter, and she recently offered to teach me. I’m only sporadically good at working with my hands, and it takes me longer than most people to acquire a new physical skill. Still, my teacher is patient, telling me I learn quickly, but I need practice to get the rhythm. She tells me that in time, my hands will learn how they are supposed to move, and that my painstaking stitches will come more naturally. That they will flow.

As she reassured me, I thought of how that sounded a lot like writing. I know how to sit down and make the words just appear on a page. It used to puzzle me that other people struggled with writing papers; I tend to assume that everyone else is pretty much like me, and so I thought everyone could do this easily. Honestly, it took years before I realized that writing is one of my gifts. (Whether or not I employ that gift well is for you to decide, reader. But I do it easily and with minimal technical difficulty when it comes to grammar and punctuation, so I count it as a gift.)

Most of us, in our adulthood, know what our gifts are. Maybe it’s photography, or being an excellent host to guests in our home, or mountain climbing, or public speaking. You might have a wonderful singing voice, or a sympathetic ear, or organizational skills that keep life running smoothly. Some people are skillful hairstylists, or insightful lawyers, or loyal community theater boosters. We have interests, we like developing them, and they help make our lives richer. Gifts.

Writing is one of mine. Since I never seemed to have a shortage of opinions, and expressing them in written form came easily, when I started blogging, it felt really good. Speaking my mind and getting responses from people I didn’t even know felt like validation of my gifts. Of me, honestly.

And so I don’t know how to best explain what has happened over the past year. The words just haven’t come. I sit, as I did one morning last week for over an hour, starting to write and then deleting stupid beginning after stupid beginning. Nothing clicks.

I haven’t taken as much time to contemplate this unusual writer’s block as I probably ought. Easy explanations abound: I have an almost full-time job for the first time in over a decade; I still have the more-than full-time job – mother – I always had; I’m living in a country with whom we do not have diplomatic relations and where I know I am almost always being observed or listened to. Time to write, and the freedom to do so, are in scarcer supply for me right now than perhaps ever before.

Still, I feel as if it’s something more. Lately, I just don’t feel as willing to stake my name on any given issue. I feel like most issues are so much more nuanced than I can possibly grasp; how do I plant my flag here, and say, “This. This is what I stand for!”? How do I move forward in a world where everything that has always felt like the air I breathe – that is to say, taken for granted and practically unnoticed except in its absence – now feels like a precious birthright that I sold away for a bowl of soup?

For example, my PawPaw used to sing me a song to which the entire lyrics were, “Such a kind policeman stands/ At the corner every day/ Little children who are lost/ Go to him to find their way.” Policemen are the good guys. They will help you. That is how I grew up.

Here, I meet with people every single workday who cannot fathom the idea that the police are a benign presence. When a police car pulls up outside their homes, trouble is not far away. They are, at the least, being actively surveilled. Worse consequences include being detained, threatened, or beaten.

And guess what? Cuba isn’t the only place that happens. Whatever your personal take on the events recently in Ferguson, Missouri, I think it’s safe to say that a significant segment of the people in that community do not assume police will be on their side to help them.

I can list a number of challenged assumptions in recent years: the Church is a safe place to learn about God and how to live in relation to Him and others; a two-party political system gives us a forum to debate the issues in a substantive way and contributes to the overall checks and balances set forth by the Founding Fathers; everyone has access to the same American Dream, more or less, and it’s up to each of us to determine the path of our own life.

All of those things were true for me growing up. None of them has been true for any of the people I meet in Cuba. And, contradicting my lifelong assumption mentioned above that I am pretty much like everyone else, some of these things have not been true for enough people in the United States that I have to take notice.

I am sitting by, watching powerlessly as the elections take place this week in Texas. I sent off for an absentee ballot back in September. It still hasn’t arrived in our mail shipments. This will be the first time I haven’t voted in a presidential or gubernatorial election since I turned 18.

When I started to complain to one of my Cuban colleagues about not being able to vote, I realized almost as soon as I started talking how spoiled I sounded. I don’t get to vote in this election? Try never having been able to vote in an open election. Never. Try not even actually believing that that will ever come to pass. That’s what flickered in the eyes of my Cuban friend as I spoke. So I consider that, and I think about people in (some of) the United States who feel – whether or not you or I agree with them – that the system is stacked against their being able to vote because they don’t have one of the acceptable forms of picture ID.

How do I say confidently, “If you don’t vote, you can’t complain,” dismissing the voices of the already disenfranchised? Can I stake my name on that? I used to think so. “Get yourself to the voting booth if you want a voice,” I would have said. Now I think maybe it’s not that easy. Staying informed on the issues takes time and money. Time perhaps spent at two jobs to make ends meet. Money that sure as hell isn’t going to the cable company when the electricity is about to get turned off or the car isn’t running. Goodbye, televised debates. Goodbye, convenient Internet access to read up on the issues. Goodbye, transportation to the polling place. Goodbye, voice in government.

Can I say for sure that all these now-challenged assumptions contribute to the writer’s block I’m experiencing? No. I can’t. Perhaps it’s just one of those things that happens from time to time. Maybe it’s a mid-life crisis. Maybe I honestly don’t have time and shouldn’t force it.

But I can’t say the two are not related, either. Sitting down to write about why I can’t write is the first time the words have flowed like this in a long time.

Timing Is Everything

My mother had a number of sayings through which she did her best to impart wisdom to me growing up. “Discretion is the better part of valor.” “A word to the wise is sufficient.” And, while perhaps not as elegantly phrased, still masterful advice: “Timing is everything.”

Had I written this post yesterday, I probably would have been able to number my readers by how many concerned mental-health officials showed up at my office throughout the day. Yesterday, the situation seemed dire.

Though, for the record, mental-health officials in Cuba A) would be incredibly difficult for most of you to contact, B) probably don’t care much about the mental state of an American, and C) couldn’t get past the Marine Security Guard to enter our building.

Honey is traveling this week. He’s been gone for over a week, which has meant two full weekends so far, not to mention the fact that the kiddos are on fall break. Togetherness has been the hallmark of Daddy’s absence. Except when I am at work, some child or another has affixed him- or herself to me throughout every day. This weekend, my favorite moment was when I stretched out on the couch to watch a little TV. Einstein plopped down next to my feet, eventually leaning on the blanket I’d thrown over my legs. Ladybug sidled up and tucked herself into the crook of my elbow. Blossom came in to see where everyone was and claimed the spot behind the bend of my knees, slightly displacing her big brother but unwilling to relinquish being in the middle. We sat there for about 20 minutes before anyone skirmished or lost interest. I loved it.

And yet. This has also been a full 11 days of someone on top of me every single waking moment, and a solid percentage of non-waking moments, too. We are not family bed sleepers. Every kiddo gets a personal bed. This rule has worked well for us. When Daddy travels, though, I swear there must be a subliminal magnet for children emanating from his side of the bed. Of the last 10 nights, 8 of them have found me rolled over upon in the middle of the night by a child I didn’t even realize was in the bed until that moment. It is startling, and sleep is a much more elusive animal once I’ve been startled. Or kicked. Or banished by a rolling child to an area approximately the size of one quarter inch greater than my body.

So by Sunday night, I was living out another of my mother’s famous phrases, rarely but notably employed when I was a child: “I have had it!”

Enough with the toy messes in every single room of this house. Enough with every single light on in this house. Enough with no privacy, no time alone, no sleep. Enough with the bored-kid bickering, or the “just came down from the playdate high” blues. Enough with a new cup of water every single time you people are thirsty. (Really. I washed 16 cups on Saturday alone.)

Let me hasten to add that usually, I find my children delightful. Having more time with them is not a chore, it’s a joy. I would soften that with a sarcastic remark like, “At least in theory,” but I can’t. I really do think they are great people.

Einstein turned 13 not long ago, and despite my serious dread of the teen years, he has flipped me completely. All of a sudden, he seems to have become a companion rather than a child. He’s always impressed others with his conversational abilities; this has not come as a surprise. What has changed is the give-and-take we can have as we discuss things now. Einstein seems willing to listen, not just talk – to engage me in conversation.

Blossom remains a wellspring of crafty ideas, imaginary games, and upbeat chatter. She skillfully bridges the gap between Einstein and Ladybug, able to climb on the roof with her brother, but still willing to play stuffed animals with her sister. I cannot keep track of the quantity of vital interests she has: Legos, reading, dolls, sewing, fencing, reality TV, choreography, creating a video game, and above all, time with her friends and family. Her tender little heart can be disguised by a brusque demeanor at times, but that defense is easily pierced.

Ladybug, at 6, has experienced a sudden onset of a new stage in her life as well. She decided she better learn to read now that everyone else in her class can, and she applies herself with a diligence I’d only previously seen employed in avoidance of learning how to read. She can do more things for herself than any of us had previously made her do; yes, we all coddled her as the baby, but now the baby has her own plans and only takes the coddling in the form of cuddling.

Now, in the course of normal family life, there’s room for me to enjoy these fine qualities and do some course correction on, say, less fine aspects of their behavior. Honey adds a steadiness to our household that we sorely miss when he is away, and he attracts his fair share of the kiddos’ attention. School also provides a valuable routine and social network that generally occupies a huge chunk of their days.

But school is out this week, and so is Daddy, and so we lost our place a bit. And by “we,” I mean unequivocally “they.” The last straw came when they used an object of mine as a blunt force instrument. The object they used was not a hammer. You can imagine the results when the object was used in a hammer-like way.

Sunday night, I cracked. It was too much. I had had it. “It” had been thoroughly had by me. I felt unappreciated, unnoticed and overnoticed at the same time, and taken advantage of. I cried. They cried. I sent them to bed. They, of course, did not stay there. It was not our finest hour.

Honey, bless his heart, chose Sunday night to try to pay me a compliment. He sent me a link to a video in which a woman with a nail in her head complains about her feelings to her boyfriend, who tries to fix the problem by suggesting she remove the nail, only to be told, “It’s not about the nail.” He just needs to listen, he is told. Honey’s point was that he liked having learned to listen to me, not fix me. I, of course, saw the stupid woman with a nail in her head and took great offense at the idea that my problems are stupid and easily fixed, but perpetuated by my own refusal to see the truth clearly.

I may have overreacted slightly to all of this. I may have cried myself to sleep. I may have thought all these years building a family have been for naught if people think of my things as hammers and my problems as nails. I may have decided to become a nun in a silent ecclesiastical order. So yesterday may not have been the best day for me to post. Remember my mother’s advice? “Timing is everything.” (Good one, Mom.)

Today, one day closer to Honey’s return, one day removed from the (fortunately) non-binding middle-of-the-night commitment to vows of silence, poverty, and chastity, I can move through the day with ease again. And I recall with a chuckle the other saying my mother regularly employed as we grew up. Only now can I appreciate the restraint, and wellspring of humor, she must have drawn from for this to be her response to so many of our escapades.

“Help, murder, police! Grandma fell in the grease!”

Find, and Keep, Some “Not The Ones”

If I had just one piece of advice for women in college, it would be this: enjoy how many hundreds of platonic male friendships are available to you. Be sure to choose some guys to be your buddies, and then pay attention to those friendships the way you do to your friendships with your girlfriends. Celebrate their triumphs, listen to their sorrows, laugh together, and above all, welcome their girlfriends into your circle.

These, as it turns out, are the male friendships you will have for a lifetime. These are the easygoing, unself-conscious friendships you make when everyone is looking for a life partner, but no one has found one yet. These are the guys who will like you for yourself, and who you will appreciate for themselves. Men who enter your life at this stage may want to date you, or you may want to date them, but I’m talking about the guys who click with you and become a cross between a brother and a cousin. When a guy like this comes along, take notice. Pay attention. And hold on to these friendships for keeps. I don’t believe in the “When Harry Met Sally” tenet that men and women can never be friends. They can. It’s just that the window of opportunity to form these friendships is fairly short-lived.

I’ve been thinking about dear friends for several weeks, ever since I traveled from Cuba to Alabama and back in three days just to go to a wedding. There was only one person left in the world that I would do such a quick turn-around wedding trip for, the last of the Lee Family, and he got married, and it was a perfect day. His bride has her own version of the Lees. We were all delighted that she embraces us; we promptly began talking up the idea of a weekend retreat for the two groups. There may have even been some good-natured competition over who’s been friends the longest.

But celebrating true love and 20+ years of friendship will get you thinking. The Lees’ friendships gave our lives a richer perspective on the ways of the opposite gender – not the romantic ways, just the everyday life ways. We learned from our boy-Lees what none of the girl-Lees (brotherless, all 3 of us) had had a chance to learn growing up: how to accept and love the fine points, and the quirks, of a guy you would never marry.

In college, since everyone is fair game for a possible romantic entanglement, somehow it takes the awkward edge off of platonic friendships. I know that doesn’t seem to make much sense, but here’s what I mean. If you are still looking for someone to be The One, you are free to hang out with all the great guys who are Not The One, and since they are also looking for The One, they are free to hang out with you. Perhaps from time to time there’s an awkward moment when someone says, “Sooooo… what’s up between you two?” But for the most part, your friendships operate in a zone free of restrictions.

Sure, your close girlfriends are important, and those friendships last a lifetime, too. I would never downplay the importance of my girlfriends (not just the other Lees, but various dear women). They know everything, really beyond everything, and still love me. There’s no replacing them.

Why, then, would my one piece of advice be to find and keep close guy friends?

Here’s why. Once you enter the real adult world, the unspoken rules start to change. People start to get married. They start looking more seriously for a spouse if they have not yet married. More people get married. And then the free, easy platonic friendship zone between men and women starts to close.

Once you promise to have and to hold ’til death do ye part, a subtle shift takes place. Now making friendships with someone of the opposite sex means that your spouse needs to know about the friendship, and preferably even be part of the friendship. I think this is healthy. Certainly if you feel the need to keep the friendship a secret, it may not be just a friendship. Or your marriage may not be based on trust. Either way, secret friendships don’t sit well with me.

Still, when you add a third person to the mix, the dynamic changes. That doesn’t mean the new dynamic is bad, but it is not the same. Now both spouses need to feel that the friendship is valuable and worthwhile. If your friend is also married, then that adds a fourth person to the increasingly complicated situation. Complications are a part of life; I don’t say that we must necessarily avoid them. But it does take the spontaneity out of hanging out with your buddy when you can’t just call and say, “I’m ordering pizza; come over.” Now it’s a double-date to the best pizza place in the city. And that’s if all four of you get along well. If not, sadly, this friendship is not likely to be a long-term one.

Honey and I have been happily married for seventeen years. We trust each other; we each have nights out with our friends. When he’s out, though, he’s with “the guys,” or maybe “the guys and one of their wives.” When I’m out, it’s Girls’ Night Out, or it’s book club. When we go out together, it’s often with couple friends or whole families we get along with. He doesn’t call up a female colleague and go out for a beer. I don’t call a man in our ex-pat community and see if he wants to have dinner. There wouldn’t be anything “wrong” with either of those scenarios. Honey trusts me, and I trust him. But the possible perception of romantic interest is not worth the risk, we find. For us, new friendships with members of the opposite sex are most natural when they are part of a couple we are befriending.

Now, some might say we’re overthinking, or that we’re too rigid. Some might argue that platonic friendships are still possible for married people in their forties. I don’t deny the possibility that in some circumstances, that might be true. For us, though, since we move every couple of years, we don’t have the luxury of being able to let platonic friendships develop slowly over time, deepening naturally and without danger to the marriages involved.

To quote Facebook, “It’s complicated.”

So girls, keep an eye out for some Not The Ones while you’re living it up in your twenties. Grab one and sit together for hours at the top of the campus parking garage with a cold pizza congealing in its box between you. Go kayaking on a river you probably wouldn’t want to fall in. Stop on impulse and test-drive a car you really can’t afford. Ride a bobsled and ask what, specifically, the inherent dangers are before you sign the waiver. Just do it all with a good guy friend. You’ll be so glad you did.

 

 

Converted to Coffee

A long time ago, I promised to tell y’all how I became a coffee drinker, and then I never did.

Growing up, my dad drank coffee, and my mom drank hot tea. I loved smelling the coffee brewing in our house, and as a child, watching it brew in the percolator was fascinating. Do you remember percolators? There was the tiny glass piece in the top (similar to the plastic piece that sits atop the spray bottle of detangler in my bathroom for Ladybug and Blossom) that served as a tube-shaped window to the coffee-brewing process. The water would boil, lurching upward into the top of the percolator, and gurgle! Coffee would fill the glass piece, then recede. I loved that.

But coffee held out its enjoyable brewing process and tantalizing aroma; coffee beckoned, only to bitterly disappoint me, and I mean that in the most literal sense. The bitter taste of coffee did not live up to the anticipation I’d had, visually, audibly, or through its glorious rich smell. I’m sure I struggled through a couple of tastes of coffee, but pretty soon I walked away, with no desire to try again.

Acquired tastes are not really my thing. There are enough things that I like right off the bat that I don’t feel the need to force myself to try to like something I don’t like. I appreciate that nuances of taste exist, that my palate can begin to detect these things in time, that I potentially deny myself the pleasure of enriching my life with the inclusion of a full range of fill-in-the-category (coffee, beer, cigars, what have you). Listen. I get it. I just don’t have time to enrich my life any further. Call me when you’re ready to explore the nuances of chocolate, or cheese, or Sonic ice.

But getting back to coffee, I’ll also confess to a childhood misunderstanding that seems funny now, but just goes to show how children can inadvertently categorize things in an effort to make sense of the world, and how adults cannot possibly anticipate or prevent all the potential misunderstandings out there: watching my parents, I grew up believing that men drink coffee and women drink tea. Once I had tried (and not liked) my daddy’s coffee, well, that just seemed like proof.

And so I became a tea drinker. At Baylor, I was shocked to see so many women partaking of the clearly masculine beverage every morning. (Others may have been shocked that I got all the way to eighteen years of age before questioning an assumption I made during my preschool years.) Over the years, my tea-drinking has aided me greatly in befriending British people. And to this day, I make myself a cup of hot tea every morning.

When I started working, the local staff in out office, a wonderful bunch of people, offered to include me in the morning coffee breaks. I thanked them, but declined. “I don’t drink coffee,” I said, trying not to laugh at the horror on their faces. “I’m a tea drinker,” I added, waving my travel mug at them. They tiptoed away, whispering to themselves. “That’s okay,” I hollered. “I’m used to being an outcast among enthusiasts!”

(No. I didn’t really holler that. But they did kind of whisper about me.)

On my first visit out of the office to a Cuban contact’s home, one of my co-workers accompanied me. Neither Cuban nor American, she was the one in our office who showed me the most about the day-to-day duties of my position. We were greeted warmly by our hosts, and began talking earnestly about the issue at hand. In my focus on being able to follow the rapid Spanish conversation, I didn’t notice the background noises in the kitchen. Until a smiling woman presented me with a choice of tiny steaming cups on a lovely ceramic tray, I didn’t even spare a thought for the source of that familiar and always-pleasant smell.

Time froze. I don’t drink coffee. There are five cups on the tray. We are a group of five. I am new here. Will it be rude to refuse the generosity of people with limited resources? It will.

Smoothly, I thanked our host and picked up the beautiful cup closest to me. Everyone else took one. We drank. I did my best not to pop it back in one bitter shot.

On the way back to the office, my coworker confessed that she’d worried for a moment that she might have to nudge me to take it. We laughed. Back at the office, I made a beeline for the local staff. “Count me in,” I said. “I guess I need to learn to enjoy the nuances of coffee after all.”

Because here in Cuba, what I’m experiencing isn’t just coffee. It’s a welcome, and an acceptance of hospitality. It’s taking a moment together to wait until things cool off just enough to avoid being burned, and it’s enjoying the company of those who are almost burned alongside you. It’s gratitude that, today, we have enough for this to be a luxury, flavored with milk and sugar; it’s remembering the bleak times when this (or a cheaper, imitation blend of soy and who-knows-what, charred in an attempt to taste like this) was breakfast for them. It’s communal sipping from a bitter cup we’ve learned to sweeten.

The subtleties, the richness, the satisfaction that coffee-drinkers promised would be my reward? Yes. They are. My secret is that all those things are mine while I hold the cup and look at the people around me, not when I sip. Five people holding tiny ceramic cups. Colleagues laughing about office craziness. Community activists at a day-long conference. These memories will be all the nuance coffee will ever hold for me. I couldn’t ask it for anything more.