A Web of Thoughts

I assumed for years that everyone lives in their heads like I live in mine. I don’t think linearly; I think in weblike thoughts. One thought goes in three directions. And each of those takes three more turns. Sometimes my consciousness stays with one or two while my subconscious continues to build the web. Sometimes I sit still, watching the twists and turns my thoughts take. I marvel at and love the infinite possibilities of thought and idea.

I suppose this is one reason why one of my favorite things to do is just sit and listen to my thoughts. This is also why I have about 20 journals at any given time, in my home, purse, car and office. When a thought comes to me that I want to remember, I write it down wherever space on a page exists.

I was in high school when I started to realize not everyone was like this. I began to understand that my stream of consciousness felt like random, sometimes confusing thoughts to others. I could see how my mind went from thought to thought, with a few (or several) unspoken thoughts in between. It might not have made sense to others but it made perfect sense to me. As an introvert, I often wasn’t eager to put my thought process out there. And so I got used to being labeled as weird.

In my 20’s I became increasingly deliberate about what to share. It was easier to keep my thoughts mostly in my head. I didn’t have to explain. And it felt somehow less painful to assume someone wouldn’t understand than to know that for sure. But in doing so, I spent less time hearing my thoughts. I thought I was listening, but I wasn’t listening very well.

In my 30’s I was ready to find my words. I was increasingly okay with not being understood. I wanted to be my authentic self whether I was likable or not, whether I was acceptable or not. It took time though because years of neglect had dulled my abilities. I had to learn what was truly my voice versus the voices of others playing on auto-repeat in my head.

In my 40’s I perfected my ability to listen and worked on crafting my thoughts into coherent sentences. This was sometimes for the sake of sharing with another. But more importantly it was my process of understanding what I was thinking and feeling. For a linear thinker, this is probably a little more straightforward. But for me, each strand of the web has a purpose of providing stability to the overall structure. Some strands are more important than others, but serves a purpose nonetheless.

A byproduct of hearing my own voice was learning to hear others better. I learned how to distinguish between what someone was communicating and what I wanted to hear or how I was trying to interpret those words. This isn’t always easy, particularly when hurt is involved. But I have developed the tools that improve my ability to do so.

At 50 years old and looking ahead, I wonder what the next decade will bring. I have often thoughtfully assembled the components of my life – responsibilities, relationships, hobbies, etc – to accurately reflect my values and priorities. I have a full life, personally and professionally. But fullness can sometimes become a bit too full. I suspect it is time to prune a bit here and there. I am feeling the need to bring a bit more spaciousness to my life. I want both fullness and depth. The space will create the time to do the work I find most meaningful.

We should all know or seek to learn what we are good at, passionate about, and uniquely gifted in. I believe my way of thinking is part of that. My thought process brings an infrastructure to a space without defining or confining the space. My thought process enables exploration versus explanation. And I absolutely love that about me. I want to use what I have learned, what I love, what is uniquely me.

I may never get paid as a writer. I may never develop an audience. But my writing is about neither of those things. It is the process by which I make sense of my thoughts. I guess what I am now seeing as I step back from this web of thoughts, is that the spaciousness I seek is intended to make room for my writing. I want my writing not to be another thing in my life, but rather the stream which runs through all parts of my life. If just for my benefit, that is okay. My voice is no more important than another. But my voice, my thoughts, my words are uniquely mine.

 

Family

NikLukeLivSix years ago the photo on the left was taken. The two boys are the sons of my best friend, Catherine. The girl is my daughter. Catherine and her boys along with my family and me had increasingly merged. We spent many holidays and birthdays together. She was a surrogate mother to my daughter. Weekly the boys came over for dinner to give her a night to herself and us time alone with the boys. For so long it had been just the three of them most of the time. Together we were building another family. Then Catherine died tragically and unexpectedly.

Her death brought changes and uncertainty. Our kids have their own stories to tell about what that journey has been like. I also have a story to tell. This weekend felt like a much overdue family reunion, bringing back together these three under my roof. They were no longer little chicks. But I wanted to gather them under my wings nonetheless and hold them tight. I chose to do so figuratively rather than literally. I hugged them each when I could without getting too annoying, I hope. And oh, how my heart ached to have Catherine there too.

They indulged my sentimentality by recreating the photograph. When I look at the picture, tears often come. At one point I found myself whispering, “I hope I’ve done alright, Catherine.” I pictured her nodding back with tears in her eyes too. I know for certain that she would be incredibly proud of our kids. I miss my friend, more than words can say.

An interesting paradox exists in my loss of her. There is a deep ache that I guess will always be due to her absence. And there is a joy of having had the time with her I did. Somehow the recreated photograph captures the paradox. I feel healing and pain, joy and sorrow. I sometimes wonder what our lives would be like now. I don’t sugarcoat it. Catherine and I saw things very differently at times. But we had a chemistry I rarely experience in relationships. When things went well, and they often did, it was effortless.

It hasn’t been an easy five years since her death. And I imagine the next five years will have difficulties as well. That seems to be life. But no matter what happens, if it is up to me, the roads taken by the boys will continue to join up, overlap, and travel alongside mine and ours from time to time. What I know from this weekend is that we are connected. We are family.

There was something very right about being together again. As Catherine used to say, “Family isn’t who’s got your blood… it’s who’s got your back.” I’ve got their backs, Catherine. Today and forever.

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Stories

You have a story to tell. You are your story. Do you know your story? Do you share it? Only you can. I hope that you not only own your story, but that you recognize how important your story is.

Sometimes the world sends a message that some stories are more important than others. That is a lie. Sometimes the world says that one can do irreparable damage to his or her story. That too is a lie. As long as we breathe, our stories continue. Each breath is a reminder that our stories are still being written, still being lived out.

Another truth to ponder – your story is sacred because you are sacred. Every day I have the opportunity to hear people’s stories. And more than anything else in my work, I remind people of this truth. You are sacred. Your story is sacred. Sometimes we avoid our story because we feel shame about it. Or we miss the beauty of our story because we compare it to another person’s story.

And in case you didn’t know, there are countless stories in this world to hear and learn from, to be challenged and encouraged by. Listen deeply. Listen empathically. Be curious. Be kind. We need these stories, all of them. Yours and mine. My story isn’t your story and that is a good thing.

Several years ago, my then teenaged son plopped himself in a chair nearby complaining of my decision to not let him go hang out with his friends that evening. He was genuinely annoyed with me. In his story in that moment, he was the protagonist and I was the antagonist. How could I, this big, bad, mean mom ruin his life? I let him go on for awhile. When the complaining showed no signs of slowing, I walked over to interrupt his story with another. I knelt down to be eye level. I gently touched his arm. “Isaac, going hungry is a tragedy. Losing a parent at an early age is a tragedy. Living in a war-torn land is a tragedy. This? My making you stay home tonight? Not a tragedy.”

I said this not to shame him but to broaden his perspective. That is what another story can do. I was challenging his story with another story in hopes that he would see things a little differently. Isaac looked at me, a bit startled at first. He then chuckled and said, “yup.” He jumped up and found something else to do.

Maybe it is because I said what I did without judgment or annoyance. Maybe it is because it was love that fueled my actions. Or maybe I was just lucky. But in that moment I could see recognition on his face of a perspective that changed the story he had been telling himself.

A few years later I was sitting in a room with my fellow seminary classmates. One student shared that he had recently taught his teenaged son to drive. Part of that education included how to be pulled over safely by the police. This man, a black man, one of the kindest, gentlest men I knew, went on to share about his dozen or so experiences of being pulled over by police only to be let go after being cleared for no wrong doing. He talked about the unwritten rules he had been taught to follow that he had to pass on to his son. “Don’t make eye contact.” “Be polite.” “Don’t question.” “Don’t show your agitation, frustration, or anger.” Just to name a few. These rules weren’t for the sake of common courtesy. They were rules for survival.

I pride myself on identifying outcomes. I come up with contingency outcomes and contingency-upon-contingency outcomes. Never once, in all of my worst case scenarios I tried to imagine did I consider that my son, who I had recently taught to drive, might be in harm’s way when in the presence of the police. Not once did I worry for his safety. Maybe if my classmate had simply talked about his experiences, I might have dismissed his story. But there was something undeniably disturbing in the contrast between his son’s “driver’s ed” and my son’s. I heard him. And I was undone.

His story exposed a world I had refused to see up to that point. His story challenged my story in a way that humbled me and tore me open. It was painful and hard to allow his story to coexist with my story. But I knew I had to keep listening. I needed to hear his story and many more stories of people who live in and experience the world differently from me.

I am still listening. I am listening to my story and your story. I look for the ways they beautifully overlap and the ways they uncomfortably bump into each other. I am living and learning through my story and your story.

So, what is your story? Have you told it recently? Do so, and tell it often. Remember to tell the ups and the downs. Share the good and the not-so-good. Celebrate the joys. Mourn the losses. Share your story. Again and again and again. The world needs to hear your story.

Does the Waiting of Advent End on Christmas?

The church historically has celebrated a season called Advent. For most of my life, I thought Advent was simply a month leading up to Christmas with a wreath of candles to light each week. But it turns out that Advent is more than that. It is a month of expectantly waiting, sort of like the woman who is 8 months pregnant and doing that final month countdown.

A lot of emotions and activities make up the four final weeks leading up to the baby’s birth, especially when it is the first child. The month is exciting but it is also nerve-wracking. I remember wondering if I was ready. What kind of mother would I be? Were we financially stable enough? How would our lives change? There was a lot of discomfort in my waiting, in addition to the excitement.

This Christmas I managed to get my shopping done early. I’m not sure how I did it. Thanksgiving weekend arrived, and I decided one quiet evening to organize my list. Next thing I knew I had made a substantial dent in my list. That inspired me to plan a little more, stick with my plan, and voila! Two weeks later my shopping was done and most of my wrapping complete!

I then unexpectedly found my mind stilled somewhat, no longer being bogged down by the usual preparations. While enjoying the space I was inhabiting, my nephew reached out. He was feeling down about the lack of peace in the midst of the season that proclaims “Peace On Earth!” I couldn’t argue with him. He was right. For a couple thousand years we have celebrated the arrival of the Christ child, the event meant to mark the arrival of God With Us. I couldn’t help but wonder… Is God with us?

I went to my bookshelf and found Richard Rohr’s Preparing For Christmas. On the “First Sunday of Advent” Rohr writes that we “live out of a kind of deliberate emptiness” because “perfect fulfillment is always to come, and we do not need to demand it now.” That immediately caught my attention because the general tenor of the christian faith feels like an ultimatum. Each side has the truth and demands obedience to it. Rohr says that the Christian faith, and Advent specifically, is about waiting.

Waiting can be about delaying action. But waiting can also be about readiness for a future purpose, like the 8-month-pregnant woman. The posture of readiness and preparation is what I think Rohr references. Rohr goes on to say that only God can bring perfect fulfillment, Peace On Earth. For those of us who long for that reality, we are to wait by preparing for what we hope will come. And we recognize our limitations in doing so.

Problems emerge when someone determines for others what those preparations are. Imagine if my Christmas preparations were to include telling my family how they could make Christmas perfect. My list would be my view and interpretation of perfection, and admittedly a bit self-serving in that I would gloss over meaningful things that are not necessarily as meaningful for me personally. I suspect we would all end up miserable.

Instead I need to focus on what I can bring to our family’s time together that is meaningful. And I need to give my family space to bring what they feel is meaningful. If one chooses not to prepare? Then so be it. Each of us has a choice when it comes to what we want and if or how we will prepare. And even if we all fully prepare, will it be perfect anyway? No. Because life is not perfect. No family is perfect. No holiday is perfect.

And so a paradox emerges: Christmas can be both wonderful as its meaning is experienced, and imperfect as the full reality has not yet come. Rohr says we are called to full consciousness, and forewarned about the high price of consciousness. In other words, the more good or God or peace we experience, the more aware we will become of the absence of good and peace, and our limitations of experiencing God.

When Christians assume the waiting is over because Christmas has already come, we miss something significant. Actually we might miss the whole kit and caboodle. Consciousness may have begun, but the cost of that consciousness becomes too high. And so we insulate ourselves from what is difficult or those who are suffering. We try to convince ourselves that the waiting has ended, though perhaps secretly, deep within, we know it is still not right.

As my nephew so rightly proclaimed, Peace On Earth has not yet come. And so we wait.

Saturday Mornings

Cooler mornings are beginning to return.

So many mornings are regimented. There are things that must get done.

But today will be different.

With my cup of coffee I head to the porch.

The rocking chair allows me to see both the hummingbirds who will visit the feeder and the squirrels who will play along the base of the trees.

I bring a book. Annie Dillard is my choice today. I drink her words along with my coffee.

My cat joins me, perched on the dry sink to have the same view as mine – hummingbirds and squirrels.

I read as much as I watch.

I drink my coffee.

I sit still and am content.

This is how mornings should be.

This is how to begin the day.

I love Saturday mornings.

 

Empty Nesting

Well, friends, it has been quite a few weeks. We dropped our baby off at college and are settling into a new normal of empty nesting. I remember when we lost our beloved dog of nearly 15 years, I would find myself going to feed her, only to be jolted into the reality that she was no longer with us. I would then tear up and sometimes just weep from the loss. Eerily similar, I get home from work and am about to call up the stairs to tell my daughter I’m home, only to remember she’s not in her room. She’s not in the house. And she won’t be coming home for awhile. But I don’t find myself tearing up, most of the time that is. I find myself feeling grateful for who she is and where she is.

Raising a child these days is no easy task. What they face, what they know, what they see, what they deal with is a lot. Helping a child navigate childhood into adulthood can be overwhelming and hard. Neither do I take for granted the young woman I left at her new college dorm nor all the people it took to help us get her there. I didn’t raise perfect children and I didn’t raise them perfectly. In fact I made lots of mistakes. But I feel proud of the job I did. And I feel proud of the adults my children have become.

In reflecting upon how we got to this place, I have been thinking about what I think I did well, and not so well in my parenting. The efforts I put into being a better parent has made me a better person. There are many things I could share, but I thought I’d focus on just a few.

First, what I think most often got in the way of my being a good parent was my impatience. It was easier just to do something myself. It was easier to pretend I didn’t hear the 15th question. It was easier to redirect for the sake of getting to the point rather than allow them to meander through their thoughts and ideas. I cringe at some of the moments I can recall. Sometimes I would catch my impatience, stop, apologize, and do better. Sometimes I would realize after the fact, go back and apologize. And far too many times I’m sure, I moved on without realizing what I had done and how my impatience must have felt sharp and judgmental. Both of my children are very gracious when I share my regrets and offer an apology. I have definitely improved my patience, but have a looooooooonnng way to go.

What seemed to come naturally for me was to love my kids unconditionally. It has been the most natural relationship I have experienced. And loving them has helped me to love others better. So I can take no credit for this in my parenting. I have heard of others struggling to love their kids unconditionally, often because they have never experienced that kind of love themselves. I am thankful that I could love them unconditionally, meaning it was never their job to love me or care for me. Correction was given for the sake of their learning to be better people, not because they owed me anything or needed to do anything to keep my love. I believe we all need to be loved unconditionally, and the sooner that can be felt, the better.

I think what I did well was decide from very early on that I would know my kids. I don’t just mean superficially. Or know what I want to know or think I know. It has taken time and effort. It requires hearing sometimes what I don’t want to hear or know. It is both humbling and at times frustrating. But this is what allowed me to see them as individuals from the very beginning. Not an extension of me or my husband. Not someone to do what I wish I had done. Not someone who would live into my expectation. Rather to see them as their own entities with their own ideas, dreams, flaws, and needs. This has enabled me to allow them to follow their own paths, and to make their own mistakes.

And it is what has made our empty nesting feel so right. Don’t get me wrong. I miss my kids. When my son came home for my daughter’s graduation, my heart felt like it might burst from joy. I miss my daughter, and I have teared up several times. But my children were never mine to keep. They were mine to raise and then share with the world.

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Mr. Rogers Is My Hero

I will confess that while I grew up with Mr. Rogers, I was more of a Sesame Street fan. Maybe I preferred its pace to the more methodical pace of Mr. Rogers. But this isn’t a comparison of the two. It is merely to point out that it took me almost 50 years to recognize the brilliance and prophetic nature of Fred Rogers.

I took my daughter to see the documentary about Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? I left that experience realizing how hungry I was for kindness, which seems to be in short supply these days. Rogers was a man who lived his convictions beautifully and sacrificially. He respected people and acknowledged their whole selves, which included their thoughts and feelings. He knew their value wasn’t in what they could do or who they had been born to, but simply by being themselves. Fred Rogers embodied the command to love God, and to love neighbor as oneself. And he didn’t ever have to quote scripture to do so.

I have since immersed myself in the theology and philosophy of Fred Rogers. I am finding so much inspiration for my spiritual journey. I see now that it was his simplicity that caused me to miss his depth. I could write about it. Or you could see if for yourselves.

Click here to watch this clip of Mr. Rogers from his television show, introducing Jeff Erlanger to his neighbors. It is long in this day and age of 10 second clips. But I encourage you to watch it in its entirety. And listen to what is shared and explored. Imagine what this meant to Jeff and to the many children (and adults for that matter) who may look different or do things differently, and yet aren’t so different.

Now click here to watch another clip, years and years later, when Mr. Rogers is inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. Watch him climb to get to Jeff. Listen to his words of gratitude. See his face of appreciation and care. You can’t fake that level of love and selflessness. Mr. Rogers was the real deal.

While he received many accolades, Fred Rogers was also often the butt of many jokes. Perhaps it was his singsong voice, his methodical approach, or his childlike enthusiasm that invited these jokes. But when we laugh too quickly, as I believe I used to do, we miss the truth he embodied. And let us note, and be thankful for the fact that he never wavered. I suspect it wasn’t easy. There are glimpses of his doubts and fatigue, when you look closely enough. But he forged ahead anyway. And how wonderful to hear that he did so with his real family in addition to his television family. As I said already, Mr. Rogers was the real deal.

I wish I could say thank you to Mr. Rogers, for his message, his courage, his resilience, his convictions. I am glad so many people over the years did just that. Mr. Rogers, you are my hero.

Milestones

This past week my daughter graduated from high school. I was able to spend time with my adult son and both of my parents in addition to my husband and daughter. I had lots of time with friends too. One of the things that struck me was how many of us had different takes on this milestone’s meaning, what was important or not as important, what to celebrate and might come next.

I got to thinking: Who is right? Should I have been sadder than I felt? Should I have enjoyed the pomp and circumstance more? Was I wrong to relish most the time spent with those I love? What did I miss? What will I think months from now when I look back? The process of exploring my perspective along with the perspective of others is another reminder of how much I value diversity of thought.

We live in a time where most of us find diversity scary. Our ideological differences are at odds with what feels like potential significant changes in outcome. And when we think of those differences in big arenas such as politics or religion, diversity doesn’t seem feasible. One side must be right and the other side must be wrong. One side must be chosen and the other rejected. There will be winners and losers. But the reality is, most of life isn’t spent in a large arena. Most of life is spent doing our jobs, loving our loved ones, talking with our neighbors, spending time with friends, raising kids, taking care of pets, supporting those in need. Most of our time is a collection of small, seemingly insignificant acts, decisions, thoughts and responses each and every day.

I was reminded of this poignantly with the suicide of Anthony Bourdain. He was a man who spent time understanding and learning from others. I admired his approach, which felt both simple and profound.

“We ask very simple questions: What makes you happy? What do you eat? What do you like to cook? And everywhere in the world we go and ask these very simple questions,” [Anthony Bourdain] said, “we tend to get some really astonishing answers.”

His questions allowed anyone to enter into the conversation, regardless of background or experience. That in and of itself is noteworthy. But then, and probably more importantly, he listened. Listening – really listening, deeply hearing, staying curious, open, respectful – is what allows diversity to not only be feasible but rich and rewarding.

And yet Mr. Bourdain failed to find the hope to live one more day. The stories poured in following his death, of how he made people on the margins feel heard and valued. What he was able to do for others, he was unable to receive for himself. I wish his life hadn’t ended with suicide. I wish he could’ve let someone in, really let them in, the way others let him into their lives.

I could mark the milestone of my daughter’s graduation by how the ceremony went, by who came and didn’t come to various events, by the event in and of itself. Or I could commemorate it with the nearly 18 years of life and all of the countless, insignificant decisions that led us to this milestone. All of the good things and all of our failures and everything in between brought us to this place. I had prepared for the milestone as best I could, was present in it to enjoy it as much as I could be, and I learned from others through their thoughts and experiences.

Graduation is a big deal. But when you think about it, isn’t every day a big deal? An important milestone? Each day has value. Life is an ongoing, marathon-style, do-your-best-because-that-is-all-you-can-do kind of experience. Be proud of what you do well. Learn from and let go of what you wish you had done differently. Listen to others. Share with others. Don’t measure your life or worth against another. Instead, celebrate what is worth celebrating and work on what could be better. I’m not suggesting we diminish the value of a milestone but rather we see the countless opportunities in every day to take one step forward, which is in fact a milestone.

This picture was taken right after her graduation ceremony. But honestly, with the exception of her attire, it could have been taken on any given day. And whether graduation ever came or not, that is one of the most important milestones of all.

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Today’s Goal: Underachieve

We live in a competitive culture. And on most days, I love it! You say “A friendly game of Words with Friends?” I say, “Game on!” For me, it is typically not about winning. It is all about the competition. When my kids were young and we would play a game, I would try to come up with a way to handicap myself in order to make it more competitive. They didn’t know what I was doing because it was strictly for my enjoyment. I love a victory, but I have to say I also love a loss, when it was well fought and the match remained competitive to the end.

I love competition so much that I am always seeking opportunities. Can I make the sourpuss barista laugh? Can I find a quicker way to get from point A to point B? How close can I get to spending $50 at the grocery store without going over? Can I diagnose my cat’s ailment before the vet tells me what is wrong? Just thinking of these examples has quickened my heart rate. I LOVE a competition, even if I am the only competitor.

Yet I know that I need to not be competitive from time to time. While competition has its value, it also has a dark side. Winning can easily become the point. And when that occurs, no longer is it about the enjoyment of a competition or the lessons that could be learned. It is solely about beating one’s competitors. And when we find ourselves there, we become masters of justifying our actions for a particular outcome. We not only forget the humanity of others, but we lose our own humanity as well.

I have learned how important it is for this competitor to step out of the competitive ring on a regular basis. I make no apologies for the opportunities I take to sleep in when I am able, to periodically be non-productive, to simply rest even I am not feeling that tired. I remind myself that I do not need to excuse my underachieving days. If I find myself feeling guilty with what I am doing (or not doing), I remind myself that this is not the norm for me. It is on these days I remember some things I may have gotten fuzzy on: I am human. I have limitations. Competition can sometimes counter intimacy. Winning/losing isn’t what defines us; how we “play the game” i.e. live our lives, does.

And so today, I proudly share that it is 5:30pm and I am still in my pajamas. I have less than 1000 steps on my Fitbit. My back is a little sore from spending a lot of time lying in or sitting on my bed.

It has been a good day.

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Hello. My name is Jennifer and I’m a Friendapist.

For years I had the luxury of time. I was raising kids and not working outside of the home. I had flexibility in my schedule and I had a fair amount of free time. Over the course of those 12+ years, I developed the practice of having meaningful one-on-one conversations. I appreciated the depth and the adult connection. I enjoyed the challenge of problem-solving. And the food and coffee that went along with the conversations were icing on the cake. Over the years, I became a friendapist.

Yes, it’s a real thing. There is no formal education required. I didn’t try to do this. It evolved over time. I got better at listening and talking things through. People would call and schedule another coffee to continue the conversation. I had some friends on a monthly rotation, ready to pick up where we left off to discuss what they were struggling with or working through.

I should’ve known this was happening. My husband would say to me, “If you were paid every time you met someone for coffee, we would have our kids’ college education paid for!” But I wasn’t getting paid and those 529’s needed funding somehow. Plus I always intended to go back to work.

And so about 8 years ago I went back to work full-time. Since then I have become increasingly busy professionally. I don’t have the flexibility I used to have or the time I had. But I realized recently that I still was trying to maintain my side gig of friendapist. I was continuing a therapeutic kind of relationship with several people, which is very different from simply being a person’s friend. It’s hard to fully explain, although I imagine the friendapists reading this know exactly what I am talking about.

I think this change will be good for me. My tendency has been to be what others needed me to be, which is what made me a good friendapist. But it’s time for my friendships to be friendships. That means I get to be me, which includes the surly, tired, salty, selfish side of me that is sometimes there. I get to fall apart when I need to. And most importantly, I get to say “No” – “No” when I don’t have the energy to be a listening ear or a theological/philosophical sounding board.

And so the breakup begins. I imagine some relationships will fade while others will take on a new structure beyond the friendapist connection. We’ll have to wait and see. It’s probably going to be hard to do. But it is time.