Imagine a world without laughter. Smiling and giggling just make us feel good. Even science backs this up. When we laugh, we release endorphins, lower stress levels, increase blood flow throughout the body, strengthen our immune system, and best of all, we get to experience a natural high that sends us to a better place. For the past week, while I nursed my daughter back to health after she had agonizing gum surgery, she and I had to bottle up our laughs to allow the incisions in her mouth to heal––not to mention it hurt like hell. This was no easy feat, particularly because we share a similar sense of humor and know just the right lines to induce the giggles.
The only thing to do to keep her mind off the pain and discomfort was to watch somber and serious television shows. Together, we binged two and a half seasons of The Handmaid’s Tale. Although there’s nothing funny about a dystopian society where women are oppressed and treated like slaves, I had to bite my tongue from making funny jokes referencing the show. Prior to watching it, I had seen two Saturday Night Live skits about The Handmaid’s Tale, which at the time I didn’t understand, but now that I had seen the show, I wanted to watch the skits again with my daughter; however, that wasn’t an option. When it was time to pick another show to watch, we scrolled through a list of rom-coms, but then we remembered that comedy was too risky, so along with everything else humorous, that too was off limits. I wanted to suggest a documentary on slugs or a comparative study about paint drying, but I kept my jokes to myself in case a smile burst forth.
As if it wasn’t bad enough that she was banned from laughter, could barely eat, had difficulty sleeping, looked like a chipmunk with her swollen cheeks, and was in perpetual pain—we were subjected to sobering television. And, as for me, I became her Martha (a reference to The Handmaid’s Tale), slaving to her every need and feeling sympathy pangs for her suffering. I tried to help put her situation into perspective, lecturing her that she was going to be okay, she was going to heal, and thankfully, this wasn’t a life-altering condition. She heard me, but my words didn’t ease her discomfort. Under any other circumstances, when she’s upset about something, I can make her laugh at some point, adding light to whatever teenage drama she is experiencing at the time. Not having the freedom to release a good chuckle made her recovery that much more trying, and it broke my heart that she wore a perpetual pout on her beautiful face, like petals of a flower struggling to bloom.
Without the sweet taste of laughter, life had become bland as we swallowed our grins and giggles, waiting for the day when we could let it all out. Meanwhile, to combat the dismal mood in our home, we looked for joy in other ways. Holding her hand or rubbing her back, I told her how much I loved her. Sitting outside, we admired the mountain scenery, smelled the fresh air, and basked in the warm, summer sun. Even though she couldn’t bite into a sandwich or a chip and was limited to a soft, mushy diet, she could still lick a spoonful of Nutella and a dish of ice cream with salted caramel chocolate fudge. Smiling on the inside, I watched her savor the treats. In time, she will heal, and when she does you better believe that she and I are going to laugh so hard we double over from a stomachache. And when that moment arrives, it will be the most delicious pain we’ve ever felt.
Are some people born luckier than others? Is life a series of chance encounters, or do we have more control over our circumstances than we think? And if so, can we turn our luck around? Recently, I had to ponder these questions after having an experience that most people would probably consider unlucky, but as I reflected on what happened, I also had an opportunity to change how I viewed something that, although somewhat trivial, felt unfortunate in the moment.
The other day, I had to drive my son to lacrosse practice in Denver. With a spring snowstorm blanketing the mountains, it wasn’t an ideal day to drive, so we gave ourselves plenty of time. I drive an electric car, which means I need to stop for about an hour outside of Denver at a charging station by an outlet mall in a small ski town. Despite the bad weather, we were making great time. We got back on the road after charging the car and found the highway closed due to a multi-car crash. We were rerouted along a one-lane, windy, narrow pass and got stuck behind a truck driving ten miles per hour. It was frustrating to say the least, but since there was nothing we could do to help our cause, we chose to look at the bright side. Although it took us double the time to get to Denver, we were safe, and thankfully, we were far from the accident. We later found out that my son’s friend, who was also driving to Denver, left after us, and therefore missed the detour. Was he luckier than us? At first glance, it might appear that way. Or, were we lucky that, even though it took us a long time to get to Denver, we weren’t involved in the crash? The jury is still out on that one.
The following day, we were faced with another major obstacle driving back to Aspen. As usual, we stopped along the way to charge the car, and then we drove through a whiteout in Vail. With only an hour and twenty minutes left in the drive, the last stretch of highway that veers through a canyon had closed. The traffic officer standing in front of the barricade told us that debris had fallen on the road and it could be closed for two days. When I asked him how to get back to Aspen, he told us, with a sucks-for-you grin splashed across his face, there was only one other way to get there, but it would take an extra six hours. To make matters worse, my car would never make it without another charge. My son wanted to cry; I wanted to cry. But what choice did we have? Crying wasn’t going to get us home, so we sucked it up, laughed about our ridiculous luck, and drove all the way back to the charging station to try and come up with a better solution.
To alleviate some of our pain, we stuffed our faces with Chipotle and candy from a nearby 7-11 store. Pigging out didn’t solve our problem, but at least we were able to kill an hour while the car was charging. We looked up an alternative route on Google maps, which seemed much faster than the one the traffic officer had told us about, and we decided to check with the man working in the information booth before getting back on the road. It was a good thing we spoke to him because he informed us that the pass Google maps suggested was closed for the winter, so our only option was the long way––the six-hour route. We were not feeling lucky at that moment, but right before we walked out of the tourist office, another man stepped inside who was also trying to get to Aspen. The traffic app that he was looking at stated that one lane had opened on the highway where the debris had fallen. He said there would probably be a lot of traffic, but it would be much better than driving the roundabout route on backroads, passing herds of cattle. So, we took our chances once again, and this time, luck was on our side. We flew home on the traffic-free highway.
Was our journey back to Aspen another case of bad luck? Well, it definitely seemed that way initially, but instead of getting angry, we chose to deal with it as best we could. I had a lot of time on the drive home to contemplate what had happened to us, and in the big picture––a detour, traffic, extra time on the road—isn’t bad at all. So much worse could have happened. We could have been hit by the boulder that had fallen on the road. We could have been hit by another car. We could have slipped off the icy road and landed in a ditch. Had we been driving in a gas car, we wouldn’t have driven back to the charging station, and most likely, we would have taken the long way home. But none of those bad things happened. Why? Because we were lucky. The man who came into the tourist booth a minute before we left to tell us one lane on the highway had opened also added to our luck.
The lesson in all of this is learning how to handle the shit that comes flying in your direction, especially when it makes you feel unlucky. Maybe luck stems from your attitude and the choices you make about a seemingly bad situation. The next time something unfavorable happens, it’s up to us to decide how we want to deal with it. We can either be the victim of our circumstances, or we can dig deep and become enlightened by them. We can laugh, or we can cry. We can be angry, or we can rise above and focus on what we’re grateful for. And I know, unequivocally, that I have a lot to be thankful for––because I am one of the lucky ones, and if anything, believing that is enough to make me feel better regardless of what happens.
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.