Monday, January 17, 2011

January 17, 2011 ~ Day 39
What's Inside?

I hope I won't sound judgmental when I confess that a lot of times, things look better from the outside.

Houses, for example. We've been doing a lot of serious house hunting lately and I can think of five homes off-hand that sounded a lot nicer from their description and pictures than they turned out to be in person. 'Spacious' turns out to mean the size of a shoebox; 'charming' equates to damp and moldy. "Ocean view" means a thin line of blue on the horizon from the window in the upstairs bathroom. The house that is newly painted on the outside turns out to have termites and problems with the electrical system.

I reflected on this for a while today after spending three more unproductive hours searching for the perfect house for my family. Looking deeper to find the truth about a person or situation is actually a crucial concept that I want to teach my children, especially if we are moving into a wealthy community where many of their classmates are likely to have expensive toys, designer clothing, ample money for extracurricular activities including sports and language lessons, and multiple family vacations around the world each year. My children could easily develop the sense that life is better with an iPad and a birthday trip to Paris... I want to teach them how to sense if a family is honorable and compassionate, and how to find a true friend.

I guess what I'm saying is, I want to show them how to look beneath the surface.

A lot of things in life look better from the outside than they truly are. Relationships, for example. Marriages always seem perfect to me from the outside, probably because I am both an optimist AND a romantic. I am typically shocked when any of the couples we know break up or get divorced. "They seemed so happy," I will kvetch to my husband. "Honestly, is *anyone* safe from splitting up in this day and age?"

Usually though I'll later find out through the grapevine (or perhaps over a glass of the crushed-fermented-aged fruit of several grapevines!) that the couple in question had experienced infidelity or endless fighting or, worse, a total evaporation of love... and I learn yet again that what looked ideal from the outside actually had a lot of cracks and fissures just waiting for an earthquake.

One great example of something that I thought would be heavenly but which actually turned out to be disastrous was my college education. In a nutshell, my parents mortgaged their home and postponed their retirement so that I could benefit from what we all assumed would be a superior education at the fancy big-name university that I attended in the '90s. I remember the end of my senior year of high school, after I had been offered and accepted admission, daydreaming about how great it was going to be at this school. I imagined that it would be socially and academically stimulating, full of freedom and choice, exciting and leading toward a perfect future.

In my vision, all of the college boys were intelligent, handsome and honorable; all of the girls were friendly, loyal and outgoing. The food must surely be delicious, since the dorm menu was so extremely expensive. The dorms themselves would be clean and private - after all, living in the dorm cost more than renting an apartment in the local community.

What a joke! Not that I'm still bitter, but it became evident fairly quickly to my parents and me that we were paying for the name and prestige of the university rather than high quality education, accommodations or meals. Many of my classes were huge sections with 600 students or more, where my only point of contact would be a graduate student TA who cared more about their own research than my ability to learn.

I was honestly surprised at how much trouble I had meeting friends who were similar to me in either upbringing or values. My freshman roommates were each quite wonderful but beyond that, I spent a lot of my four years searching for kindred spirits and feeling forlorn. I will freely admit though that I did not take advantage of all of the incredible academic opportunities available on campus, something I very much regret in hindsight.

My childhood friends - also away at college - were always surprised to hear how disconnected I felt from my university, how ardently I missed our hometown. "It's like a hollow crystal ball," I tried to explain to them, "It looks shiny and sparkly from the outside but for me, there is only emptiness."

Other examples of things that appeared glorious but turned out to be rotten: interning for Conde Nast publications in NYC, working at a high-end law firm, dating a variety of handsome/athletic men who were more in love with themselves than me, owning our first home, the experience of pregnancy, living in a 2200 sq ft home. (Too much space, too much cleaning!!!)

Is perfection really so great? It's easy to mistrust anything that seems too perfect, and mothers often bond deeply over the confidential sharing of flawed reality. When I see my friends taking expert care of their good looking and healthy children, I often feel a surge of self-doubt and jealousy which distances me from sharing the details of my own well intentioned parenting failures. Over the years I've developed a healthy sense of self-deprecation about parenting; teasing about my own weaknesses as a mother actually makes them easier to bear.

That said, I feel incredible closeness to any mother who shares her personal struggles openly. Somehow knowing that ours is not the only family where laundry piles up, parents bicker over the household budget and children watch the dreaded television while their mother cooks dinner every night... it helps to know that many other women are like me and that we are all in this noble struggle together.

Parenthood is one of those murky grey areas where it seemed much simpler from the outside than it really is BUT it still manages to be even more rewarding and fulfilling than I ever anticipated. My husband and I often muse that if we had known just how hard it was going to be or how much it would change us, our dreams, our friendships and even our time with each other, we might not have done it quite so fast. Yet, we wouldn't trade our little children for all of the treasure in the world. (They ARE our treasure.)

There is an important flip side to this realization that many things in life are not as polished, comfortable, loving or solid as they seem.

The flip side is that many things turn out to be much, much better than they appeared from the outside.

My husband and I once rented a house for two years that was totally nondescript from the outside. An olive green colored stucco with high bushes and a lawn often full of weeds in front, it didn't look like much to speak of. Yet when you entered the home you were immediately greeted by gorgeous hardwood floors, intriguing arched doorways, brightly colored walls and French doors leading onto an incredible wooden deck that overlooked an even more incredible, vast back yard with a fountain, a lawn, a vegetable garden and a stunning panoramic view into the canyon below. There was even a guest cottage in the back with its own bathroom, tiled floor and lovely view.

No-one would EVER have guessed from the outside that our little home was so amazing. I loved this about our place. It was our own secret treasure, a place adored by us but coveted by none.

Here is another, more important example. My husband and I did not fall in love at first sight. In fact, we knew each other for nine months before we went on our first date. Neither of us saw the other from across a crowded room for the first time and thought, "Wow, that's THE ONE!" I know it happens for lots of people, but that just isn't the way it happened for us.

Instead, we had a complicated beginning where we slowly became friends while watching each other go on dates and hook up with other people. We spent long hours talking, debating, listening to music and sometimes going out in groups together. We went on a score of "friend dates" with each other, eating dinner and watching movies side by side. Each of us experienced jealousy at different points while watching each other flirting with or desiring other people. We even had a significant falling out once.

Somehow though, as the months passed, it began to dawn on both of us that there was something deeper there between us that seemed more vital and exciting than the connection we were making with the other people we'd been dating. The realization struck us at different times that we were falling for each other. After several fits and starts, with the encouragement of two of our closest friends, we finally managed to kiss one night after a BBQ. The rest, as they say, was history. We went on our first "real" date a few days later and have been together ever since.

The moral here kids (for someday, our kids will read these words), is that sometimes it takes getting to know the inside of a person or situation to understand just how amazing he/she/it really is.

No matter how you look at it then, it's rarely wise to make snap judgments. The situation that looked dreamy-fantastic at first blush might turn out to be a total nightmare. That scruffy looking eccentric musician with holes in his pants and stains on his old band T-shirt might just turn out to be the love of your life!

By investing the time and patience to learn things from the inside you may find yourself blessed both with clear vision AND something that sparkles from within.

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