The Next Right Thing

This piece began with a journal entry written back in 2013. Our unexpected apartment move late last year inspired me to dig through the piles of old journals I keep packing and unpacking so I could consolidate and transcribe their contents worth saving (my journals tend to be a hodgepodge of grocery lists, to-do lists, recipe ideas, meal plans and actual journal entries). I’ve been filling this story in ever since, with an awareness of how it ends that I didn’t have when I first journaled it.

In the past month since deciding to allow our oldest son to resettle and attend high school in Michigan, our life has been turned a bit upside down. This unexpected twist in our journey has meant we have had to lean a great deal on family and friends as we get situated in our new normal, family in Michigan and friends who have become like family in NYC. This piece feels particularly sweet to me today, because it highlights for me there was a time I couldn’t in my wildest dreams imagine being the recipient of support or encouragement from anyone in NYC, a time I couldn’t imagine being a part of a community. The sweetness comes from the realization that no matter how low and lost and desperate and alone we may feel at points in our lives, those points need only be pit stops along a journey, not our final destination.

Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.

Rilke

A few weeks back we attended my oldest son’s back to school picnic, and I’ll be honest, the thought of attending this picnic tied my stomach up in knots. The experience from our first in the school and in New York City, was laser-etched on my brain, and not in a good way.

I remember walking into a school yard teeming with hundreds of children and adults I had never met, walking by groups of friends hugging and catching up, sharing stories of summer and comparing notes on what teachers they had this year. Because we were entering the school in second grade, this was a crowd that had already gelled; no one was anxious for new friends, everyone was settling into a familiar routine with familiar faces. We knew literally no one; the only family we had connected with in our first few months wasn’t there. My husband was traveling and this scene, a scene that would stress me out even if I knew everyone, was mine to attack on my own, a six-year old and a two-year old in tow.

To make matters even more stressful, this was a dish to pass affair. I needed to figure out what I could make that would ensure my “mostly vegan” family would have something to eat, without being revolting to the rest of my son’s classmates. I put the decision in the hands of my oldest son, my toughest critic.

“What do you want me to make to bring to your picnic?”

Without hesitation he responded, “eggplant lasagna.”

Hmmm, it was actually a pretty good choice; a little time consuming, but something I could make ahead, which was a necessity, because we had to run directly from swim lessons to the picnic. I could throw it in my Pyrex baker with the warming sleeve, pop it in the bottom of the stroller, and we would be good to go. Plus, the flavors were familiar and it was generally kid-friendly, while still enjoyable for adults.

The next day, drenched in sweat and exhausted after an hour of keeping my two-year old contained and away from the pool edge in what might as well have been a steam room during my older son’s swim lesson at the YMCA, wrangling both boys and getting my oldest back into street clothes (hello, trying to dry off and put on underpants and socks when it feels like 1000% humidity), and hustling the 10+ blocks to the school yard in 90 degree heat, with one child in the stroller, loaded down with school bags and change of clothes bags and things to keep the little guy entertained bags, and of course the my trusty Pyrex baker, and the other child standing on a balance board on the back, scooter flung over the top, because he’s too tired and it’s too hot for him to even scoot anymore, we finally made it to the school picnic and approached the table for my son’s class.

It was quickly evident that this was not your typical Midwest school potluck with dishes to pass crafted in home kitchens of working and stay at home moms alike. There was no taco pasta salad, or potato salad, or baked beans, or cole slaw, or napa cabbage salad, or fresh baked brownies or gooey home-made chocolate chip cookies. THERE WERE NO OTHER PYREX BAKERS ON THE TABLE. In the Midwest, the homemade dish to pass was proof you could indeed do it all. It might involve staying up until the wee hours of the morning to get it done, but you got it done. While NYC moms are masochists in many ways, they are generally not masochists when it comes to bringing a dish to pass.  

As I set my steaming casserole dish amongst the boxes of take out pizza and grocery store chicken fingers and sushi and Entenmann’s boxed cookies and doughnut holes and little bites, I couldn’t help but feel even more self-conscious and out of place. Clearly, I had things terribly wrong and was sticking out like a sore thumb, when all I wanted to do was fit in.

Another mother quickly approached, and my heart lifted just a little.

“Did you make that? What is it?” she asked without a trace of a smile.

“It’s eggplant lasagna,” I smiled back, eager for her approval.

“Oh, well I try to bring something the kids will actually eat, rather than try to impress the adults.”

She turned away and I stood there, stunned, wanting to shrink into the pavement, struggling to form words to make a response, any response.

“This is what my son asked me to make,” was all I feebly managed to squeak out in the direction of her back as she ignored me and laughed and chatted with a few other moms who stood nearby.

In that moment I made a choice to avoid parent contact whenever possible at my sons’ schools. I probably should have had thicker skin and also realized that the other mom’s commentary had nothing to do with me and everything to do with her own insecurities. But I wasn’t that emotionally evolved yet, so shutting myself off to future interaction seemed like the best option at the time. I erected a pretty effective wall around us. No one could hurt us if we didn’t let them in. Problem was, there was also no one there to give us an encouraging word, to help lift us up by our bootstraps when we inevitably ran across the person who was having a bad day (or a bad life) and wanted to take it out on us.

We spent the rest of the school year as our own little planet, orbiting just outside the solar system of which we were supposed to be a part. I lingered out of sight in far corners of classrooms and playgrounds and auditoriums, watching and observing and taking it all in, but never engaging, so as not to risk another blow to the body. If possible, my oldest son was even more averse to socializing and the playground scene than me, and his aversion combined with my strategy for dealing left me, and my children, isolated and alone. We kept busy for sure, and I ran us ragged from activity to activity to keep us from realizing just how alone we were. Unfortunately, being busy is not the same as being in community.

By the end of the school year, I was spent and miserable and coming to terms with the reality that continuing to drag my children along the path I was on was not a viable option for anyone. Yet I had no answers, other than I knew I had to find a way to build some friendships and become truly a part of something.

One May afternoon, with my oldest at school and my youngest napping, I collapsed on my bed in tears, my body involuntarily shaking as anxiety coursed through me. These episodes were becoming increasingly frequent and I was terrified. So, I did the only thing that had been getting me through the recent months, I cried out to God in desperate prayer.

God, this isn’t working. I know it isn’t. But I don’t know what to do; or maybe I do know what to do and I’m just scared. Help me be brave. Please show me the next right thing to do; clearly, I can’t do this on my own and I’ve taken us completely off track. Please, please, just tell me what to do. Please.

My body and mind began to calm as I once again placed my burdens on the shoulders of the One more equipped to carry them. It would soon be time for school pickup and it was raining so I grabbed my phone from the nightstand beside me to check for any emails about alternate dismissal arrangements. There was no email from the school, but there was the weekly email blast from the PTA, “REMINDER: PTA OFFICER ELECTIONS ARE THIS THURSDAY!” As I scrolled through the rest of the content, there was a slate of all the officer candidates. Every position was filled with at least one candidate, except one: TREASURER. I stared at that gaping hole and thought, nope, no way. This can’t be the next right thing. I’ve never even been to a PTA meeting.

But you were a CFO. You are more than qualified and capable of doing this. Be brave.

Damn it.

I inhaled a deep breath and clicked on the link to email the nominating committee.

“Hi, I would like to nominate myself for the open Treasurer position.”

Now thankfully, because I came out of left field and had never even attended a PTA meeting, the presumed incoming president did some background finagling and convinced another current board member to run for the Treasurer position, but “would I be willing to serve as her Assistant Treasurer so I could learn the ropes a bit before taking on such a big job?”

Sounds like a great idea.

So I spent a year learning, and working with a woman who was scarier than the one who commented on my eggplant lasagna, and many more nights balled up anxious and crying and praying in the fetal position on my bed because she was so unpredictable; kind and generous in one moment (usually when she wanted something), and biting and inflexible and controlling in all the others. She wasn’t a woman to be crossed.

But in between those moments, I was getting to know to know good people as well, people who welcomed my boys and I in, pulled my oldest onto their baseball team and introduced him to their son; people who offered help and shared perspectives and asked for my help and my perspectives and listened with open hearts and minds when I answered; people who appreciated my penchant for home cooking and vegan treats. Surrounded by all these good people, I began to believe maybe there was a place for us here after all and maybe I did have something to offer. I became less intimidated by the aura of NYC and realized that, in general, people living and working in NYC aren’t any more competent or talented than people doing the same things in the Midwest. They are just a bit more open to risk and have a higher tolerance for noise and smells and living in close quarters and sharing space with millions of other people of diverse backgrounds and cultures and perspectives.      

Five years later, I finally retired from the PTA after serving three years as its Treasurer and two years as one of its Co-Presidents, while also serving as Treasurer for the new PTA at my oldest son’s middle school, which we helped to found along with many families I met through my work with the elementary school PTA. There’s not much of my life here, or my boys’ life here that I can’t trace back in some way, shape or form to that choice to jump in with both feet, terrified, and feeling wholly unprepared, but also trusting that if I wasn’t able to swim, I would be held and carried back up to the surface.

That’s what faith does. It challenges us to be vulnerable and live with open hearts, to live a little risky so we can feel the exhilerating moments that come with seeing and experiencing for the first time, or the spark of energy and emotion lit by a deep soul connection with another person, or the warm embrace of love, even if it comes in the moments when we have to be carried.

Faith heals. But it isn’t a stopping point. Faith will atrophy if it isn’t used. You have to live into faith. Faith isn’t just saying a prayer every day and believing the words in your mind. It’s living them in your heart and out in the world as a beacon to others who are searching. Faith asks you to be uncomfortable over and over and over again. You don’t just get faith one day and your work is finished and your problems are solved. Faith is a daily practice of listening and asking for help and getting back up and trying again, of questioning everything you feel and everything you think you know and acknowledging you don’t have anywhere near all the answers. Faith is a daily practice of shutting down all the doubts you have about yourself, about who your Creator created you to be, before you let them shut you down.

God didn’t magically put that email in my inbox all those years ago, but the faith I had been working on growing in God’s love for me gave me the courage to act on it, the courage to do the next right thing; the courage to do the next right thing gave me and my family new life.

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