Naturally, as my daughter is finishing her junior year in high school, college talk has been dominating much of the conversation in our house, which of course, brings me back to my own college experience, nearly one quarter of a century ago. I know I sound ancient, and even though my memory of much of it has been skewed over time, I still consider those four years to be one of my biggest metamorphoses.
As I reflect on my college days, there are certain things I wish I could do over, if only I had a crystal ball and knew where my life would take me. I remember having to choose a major, even though I had no idea what I wanted to do after graduation. Having been interested in politics, I chose political science, an area of study that did nothing for me as far as pursuing a career. At seventeen, my daughter is expected to get a sense of what she wants to focus on when she gets to college, but does she really know? The idea is to pick a good liberal arts school, and from there, she can figure out what she wants to major in. But again, will she ever really know? I didn’t. Like me, so many people who thought they knew what they wanted in college ended up in jobs totally unrelated to their majors. If you’re one of the lucky ones who knew exactly what you wanted to study and have used what you learned from your undergraduate degree to help your career, then kudos to you––I’m jealous.
I think Israel does this college thing right. Following high school graduation, there is a mandatory draft into the military for eighteen-year-olds. After serving their country for a few years, these young men and women sometimes wait another year or two before applying to college. By then, their brains are fully developed, and they might be better equipped at choosing a course of study that will serve them well in their future careers. What if, instead of sending American students into the armed forces after high school, they head to a community service program similar to the Peace Corps, where they are assigned a station somewhere in the United States or abroad to help communities in need? This type of learning would be invaluable, giving young adults an opportunity to gain firsthand knowledge about human nature, cultural differences, education, the environment, agriculture, and so much more. Upon completing their two- to four-year assignments, these twenty-year-olds might have a better sense of themselves and what kind of career they might want to pursue. From there, they can apply to college, which would hopefully serve as a stepping stone to what they want to do after earning their degree. Instead of rushing to college after high school, with all the mental and financial stress that goes with it before and after, my radical proposal would give students an opportunity to grow as people, connect with the world around them, become more compassionate along the way, and then use that to propel them into their next phase of life.
I know I sound idealistic, and some may think even ridiculously unrealistic, but as I reflect on what I gained most from college, it had more to do with the person I became rather than the subjects I studied. I spent those four years as an undergraduate questioning life, who I was, my greater purpose, what I liked, and who I wanted to be. Even though contemplating the meaning of life was never answered, it was the act of questioning, experimenting, occasionally pushing the limits, and the philosophical discussions I had with my friends that led me to a better understanding of myself. At twenty-one, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science, but more importantly, I left school sure of myself and more comfortable in my skin than I was when I started.
To this day, two of my college roommates are like sisters to me. Together, we grew up during those four years, and like clay, we softly molded into our future selves, while leaving plenty of room to manipulate our sculpted persona through the years. I am blessed––not everyone remains this close to their college friends so many years later. Unfortunately, since we live in different parts of the country, we don’t get to see each other as often as we’d like, but thankfully, distance has not impacted our friendship. We’ve stood by each other through every major milestone––marriages, childbirths, and family deaths, offering advice during difficult times and cheering for our children’s successes––and we’ll continue to remain in those same roles until the end.
So, wherever my daughter ends up in college, and whatever she decides to study, whether, or not it helps her in her chosen career is irrelevant. In the grand scheme of things, those friendships that I made in college laid the foundation for all my future relationships, teaching me the importance of rooting for the people you care about, always having their backs, accepting and embracing their differences, loving them for who they are, and allowing their individuality to complement who they are. If there’s one thing I would like to be remembered for when my time on Earth has expired, it will have nothing to do with what I studied in college or the careers I’ve had, but rather, it will be that I led an abundant life, filled with long-lasting, beautiful, and loving connections.
I recently came back from touring colleges with my daughter. In two months, she’ll be finishing her junior year in high school, and then she’ll have one more year left before heading off to college. Meanwhile, my son is going to high school next year, and I know those four years are going to accelerate faster than I’d like them to. Each moment in time reminds me of an ice cube, and the more I try to savor and hold on, the quicker it melts.
As my children get ready for the next stages in their lives, I’ve begun to think about mine. For the last seventeen years, I have devoted myself to my family—the anchor, the sounding board, the glue—I’ve held our unit together with love and support. Change is inevitable. And this one is going to be a big one for me as I approach empty-nesthood. The closer I get, the more I’ve been thinking about my own purpose and who I came here to be. I have served many roles throughout my forty-six years of life: student, daughter, sister, friend, wife, mother, teacher, author, etc. And each role has collectively shaped who I am and helped me realize life’s true meaning. It’s about relationships and connections, like imaginary yarn weaving humanity together; without it, the fabric of my world would fall apart.
When my family and I first decided to move from New Jersey to Aspen nine years ago, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to say goodbye to my friends, who were like sisters to me, and start over in a community where I didn’t know a soul. Admittedly, I was depressed for the first few months, questioning my decision to uproot my family and relocate across the country. Eventually, I did make new friends through my kids’ school and through friends of friends. For example, a series of odd coincidences led me to a woman named Heather, who moved to Aspen a year after me and is now one of my closest friends. Prior to her move, Heather’s mother and my mother-in-law met in Florida and passed along each other’s contact information. Then, our sisters-in-law, both of whom live in Los Angeles and are good friends, also put us in touch. My best friend in Ohio knew Heather’s other sister-in-law, and they, too, connected us. It wasn’t until Heather and I met for the first time that we realized how strange it was that we knew so many people in common, all of whom, separately, introduced us. Three sets of women in three different states went out of their way to bring Heather and me together.
Close to a decade later, part of the reason why I’m so happy in Aspen is because I have these wonderful relationships. The other day, another good friend decided that she and her family are going to move to Puerto Rico. After swallowing the sad news that she would be leaving, I called an old friend who had moved there a few years ago and introduced them. Hopefully, their friendship will blossom, and my Aspen friend will have an easier time meeting new people when she gets settled.
Networking goes hand in hand with connections. Along with helping me make friends, it is also one of the most valuable tools for business relationships. A while ago, I sat next to a woman on an airplane. She and I talked nonstop for the entire three-and-half hour flight. When the plane landed, we said goodbye and exchanged numbers. For the past few weeks, my daughter has been actively seeking an internship in NYC this summer. To help her find one, I reached out to some of my friends and asked them to pass along her resume. Suddenly it dawned on me that the woman I had met on the airplane worked in marketing and fashion, so I sent her a message to see if she or someone she knows could help my daughter. She graciously offered to hire her—proving the extraordinary power of networking.
I’m still not sure where I’ll be or what I’ll be doing when my kids are out of the house. But what I do know is the importance and value of meeting new people, forming bonds, and socializing. Relationships are everything and will carry us through life. Sometimes they will be difficult and may not be mutually beneficial, but hopefully, the good ones will guide us to the next opportunity, to a beautiful friendship, or open the door to a new experience. So, as I turn the page to another chapter of life, I will keep my arms wide open and welcome the amazing people I meet along the way, because, after all, I am who I am in relation to the vast network of human connection surrounding my world.
As parents, we are intricately tied to our children’s emotions, riding the waves right along with them. We want everything to work out in their favor. We want them to feel good about themselves. We want their dreams to manifest. But as adults, with much more life experience, we know that’s not how life works. Life sometimes punches us in the gut. And when our children are suffering, we suffer too.
Many years ago, I read an article in the New York Times about twenty-year-olds who were depressed, despite having grown up in seemingly perfect families. At first, the therapist was perplexed, wondering what had gone wrong. After all, they had supportive and loving parents and were financially well-off. If the child didn’t do well in math, they got tutors. If the child needed extra conditioning sessions in sports, they worked with a personal coach. The parents had done their best to fix their children’s mistakes, paving the road to ensure a smooth journey. What the therapist soon discovered was that these helicopter parents, in their attempts to protect their kids from failure and rejection, deprived their offspring of one of the most important ingredients to success: resilience.
Recently, things did not work out in my seventeen-year-old daughter’s favor when she found out that she didn’t make the high school sports team she had been working so hard for. The week-long tryouts were intense and created a lot of stress in our house. I gave many pep talks and tried to encourage her not to waste her time worrying about the outcome. On the dreaded day, moments before she heard the disappointing news, I was pacing around my house, trembling in fear and praying for her. When I finally got the call, her voice on the other end of the phone was hysterical, and my heart fell to the floor. Knowing how important it was for me to be strong for her, I had to do some soul searching myself, so that I could lift her spirits and help her rise above her circumstances.
My daughter had an important decision to make. One, as a junior, she could play on the JV team with the other underclassmen, work her ass off both on and off the field, and ultimately prove to her coach and herself that she could excel and become a dominant player. Two, she could quit and devote her energy to activities that make her feel good. Coaches and teachers play powerful positions in the lives of children. With one word, they can make or break a kid. This coach destroyed my child’s self-esteem, and so, my daughter decided that it was time to move on from playing her favorite sport. I told her that I support whatever decision she makes. Right now, as I write this post, the wound is still fresh and raw, even though I know that time will heal it.
The question remains, will the scar hold her back or propel her forward? How do we teach our children to believe in themselves when external forces are telling them the opposite? This is probably the greatest test of all: learning how to be resilient and bounce back after failure and rejection. Everyone is going to face rejection at some point. It’s part of life. For those young adults written about in the New York Times article, it seems their parents had failed them by not allowing their kids the opportunity to build their resilience muscles. Nothing feels worse than failing, but on the same note, finding success after you’ve been kicked to the ground is the greatest gift of all. If life is a game, we’re all going to lose at some point, but the true winners keep playing. That doesn’t mean you need to continue playing the same game where you previously felt rejection. Find a new game––if that’s what fuels you. Most of all, define yourself by your own set of standards, not the standards set by others. We are the creators of our lives, not the victims of our circumstances. So I will tell my daughter to get back out there on the field of life and be a creator––and work toward becoming the best version of herself. Victory comes to those who love themselves first, those who move through life with compassion, and those who rewrite their stories as many times as it takes to become the person they came here to be. Instead of being angry at the coach who, metaphorically speaking, slapped my daughter across the face, I will thank her (in my mind, of course) for the lesson, the lesson that I am confident she will one day triumph over.
Want to know what Aspen locals like to brag about? It’s the common denominator that sets us apart from the visitors, and to some extent the part-time residents. It’s our favorite response when a tourist asks where we live. We simply state, “We live here,” with a sense of pride bubbling from our chests.
The reactions are often priceless. “You live here? Like all year long?” they ask, wide-eyed.
“Yep, we sure do. Our kids go to school here.”
In lieu of sounding too obnoxious or boastful, we try to keep the next line to ourselves: That’s right, my friend, your vacation is our life!
Don’t get me wrong. Our lives are far from perfect. We stress about the usual stuff: money, relationships, health, work, our kids, etc. But the best remedy to clear our clogged minds and help us reset to our natural state of peace is to get outside, preferably with some local friends, and let the mountains heal us. It’s the greatest medicine of all time, and it’s in our backyards.
Similar to the popular children’s book, The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein, the majestic landscape that surrounds us gifts us with an endless source of entertainment and pleasure. And our mountains want us to be happy, encouraging us to climb up and down them, enjoy their beauty, take photos, gaze meditatively, and just be—in the moment. Since life is about give and take, in return we need to treat our land with respect and reverence by doing our share to protect our environment: lowering our carbon footprint, recycling, buying local food, remembering to bring our reusable bags to the market, saving our electricity, and so much more.
Sometimes life makes us feel like we’re spinning on a hamster wheel, heading nowhere. Many of us are on a perpetual quest of acquisition, sucked in by our consumer culture, always wanting more. If we pay careful attention to the mountains, we’ll learn to grasp their wisdom and understand our own greater purpose. Always still, they absorb mother nature’s flow as snow blankets them and then melts; rain pours down and saturates; droughts stifle and choke; winds blow fast and furious; and the sun shines brilliantly. Through it all, the mountains remain steadfast and quiet, allowing the cycles to pass. Consciously and subconsciously, we locals understand this. Like a magnet, the mountains are ultimately what attracted us here, and when we play on them, we can hear them whispering to our souls.
It doesn’t matter whether you live in a studio apartment or a 20,000-square-foot mansion on Red Mountain, when a local gets outdoors, we’re all one. We’re the same. We’re striving to be enriched by the abundant, natural beauty that surrounds us. When our time on Earth expires, or when it gets close, our material items won’t serve us much good, but our memories, our experiences, our relationships are what will give us true meaning. Here in Aspen, that’s how we roll.
Yesterday, to celebrate a friend’s birthday, a group of us got together and hiked Highland’s Bowl, a boot-packed ridge that leads to an over 12,000-foot peak of stunning panoramic vistas, with our skis strapped to our backs. While trekking up there, we fought through a ferocious windstorm. Upon reaching the summit, we high-fived each other and took selfies, and then we skied down, carving through knee-deep fresh powder to Cloud 9 restaurant, where we made toasts with glasses of champagne and danced on tables surrounded by tourists. We giggled all the way home. In the end, this is what life’s about. So, you bet we have a right to brag. We live here––all year long.
I’ve never been a cat person. It’s not that I dislike them in any way, but since I considered myself a dog lover, cats were never on my radar––until recently—when a cat came into my life.
A few months ago, my husband adopted a cat from a nearby shelter for his business. His job was to kill the mice and other unwanted critters. Each day, my husband, who, like me, was also indifferent toward felines, would come home and tell the kids and me stories about his four-legged worker. He felt a strange connection to the timid, little animal, who most likely had been living on the streets before he was rescued. It took time for the cat to adjust to the other employees and feel comfortable in his new setting. Presumably, he had spent the first four years of his life devoid of human touch. Once he acclimated to his surroundings, he grew less fearful and more affectionate toward people.
Something was tugging at my husband’s heart, and he felt sorry for his animal employee when he left him alone in the office, so he decided to bring him home to meet our family. At the time, our dog Otis was alive, and of course, our friendly canine welcomed this foreign creature onto his turf. The cat, on the other hand, was not a fan of Otis. He would hiss at him whenever he got close and then run off and hide.
It took the cat well over a month to get used to the kids and me. With every passing day, he would come out of hiding and inch his way toward us, allowing us to pet him on his terms—only. He watched us with a wary eye, studying our moves and making sure we weren’t going to harm him. He also studied how we interacted with Otis, as we cuddled and showered him with love and affection. Then, one day, the cat made his way toward our big, fluffy dog to get a closer look. Realizing that the dog was a kind animal and had no intention of mauling him, he eventually befriended Otis.
I now understand where the term copycat comes from, because the cat liked to copy some of the dog’s mannerisms, mimicking how he would lie down, sprawling his hind legs or front paws. Slowly but surely, the cat started to sleep next to Otis. Jealous that Otis went outside, the cat wanted to follow suit. So we let him. Living in the mountains, we were concerned that he would get eaten by a wild animal. Thankfully, the guy has nine lives, and he always shows up at our front door, asking to come back inside when he’s ready. There were days when he would accompany Otis and me on our walks around the block. A few months living in our home, and we officially had a cat.
The hardest part about our new family member was accepting that we had become cat people. Giving him a name meant there was no turning back; we were keeping him indefinitely. We also couldn’t agree on a name, so we just called him Cat. (By the way, as I write this post, Cat is curled up on my lap, deliciously snoozing on my belly.) No offense to all the cat lovers out there, but sadly, there are a lot of cat haters in the world. Soon after Cat moved in, I discovered that people were prejudiced toward these adorable pets. Friends mocked us, some even jokingly threatened not to come over anymore. My own mother cringes at the thought of a cat. What’s wrong with these ignorant and closed-minded people? They like dogs, but they despise cats. The only logical explanation I can think of is that they don’t know cats, or they want cats to act like dogs. But they’re nothing like dogs. Otis, the Aspen ambassador, would excitedly greet everyone who came toward him. Not the cat. When he meets a new face, he beelines for a hiding spot, and he has rules that we need to follow. For example, cuddling is only allowed when he’s in the mood, and if you need to get up in the middle of a cuddle session, don’t expect to resume the position when you return. Now that I’ve gotten to know him, I have a better sense of how he communicates, and I respect his rules.
As a spiritual person, I always try to understand the greater meaning as to why we attract certain experiences into our lives. For a while, I questioned why Cat had joined our family. Having recently lost Otis, I am far from ready to get another dog. Desperate for animal love, I looked to the cat to console me while I was in mourning. Much to my dismay, I discovered that wasn’t his style. He comes to me when I least expect it, when I’m not needy. I get it. I, too, can’t stand needy people. I find them irritating. To earn Cat’s love, we were forced to be patient, not to ask, but to be open to receiving. As soon as we did what was expected of us, he sauntered onto our laps—and stole our hearts. To all the cat haters out there: I am no longer ashamed to tell the world that I am now a cat person, and I LOVE MY CAT!