Red Lipstick, Social Media, and Friendship

 

hello there, friend

I have a friend who wants me to join Voxer. From what I understand, Voxer is a service that allows you to leave a message for someone, like a voicemail, and then when that person wants to, she’ll leave a message back. My friend, who I will call Grace, texts me every so often and asks if I’ll join, and I always say, “Absolutely. I absolutely will.” And then I don’t.

The first time I met Grace, I heard her read from her writing at a performance in Washington DC. I put on a dress, threw my wallet and a book in my purse, and rode the Metro downtown on a day in May when the sun breathes life onto bare arms and flip-flopped feet.

“You might not like me for saying this,” Grace began, “but I’ve been mad at my mom lately.” She spoke quietly, but not hesitantly. She told her story slowly, but she wasn’t afraid. She was carefully unpacking her tale, holding up each detail so everyone could see it.

Grace had on a blue top, and a turquoise necklace that popped against the dark stage. She wore red lipstick – something I’ve always wished I had the nerve to rock – and her hair was in a sort of hipster mohawk. Maybe it was her storytelling, or maybe it was the way she was dressed and how she did her hair and make-up (or a combination of both), but that day I believed that if Grace and I spoke to each other, we would become the best of friends immediately.

After the show, a bunch of us met up with the cast for drinks. The bar was fancy and lively, a beautiful volume of music and continued storytelling. Many of us gathered around those who read, and said, “I love your story. It reminds me of…” I’ve always thought this sort of reciprocity was a wonderful side effect for those who tell stories; stories seem to breathe life into other stories.

I took note of where Grace was all night, hoping that I would get the nerve to tell her how much I loved her story, and also would she be willing to help me pick out a shade of red lipstick? The place was small, and Grace was about ten feet away from me, but I never spoke to her.

Instead, I went home, looked her up on Facebook, and asked her to be my friend. Because that’s how it works on Facebook – you don’t follow people, you request their friendship with the click of a button, and if they accept, you’re friends. Done.

When Grace accepted, I sent her a message telling her how much I loved her writing. I followed her blog, and Grace began reading mine. We left comments on each other’s posts, shared each other’s writing, and soon, we were emailing each other long messages about writing, motherhood, faith, and, yes, what kind of red lipstick is the right shade for a woman in her forties. Grace and I became friends through social media, and while I mock Facebook’s way of connecting people, I can confidently say Grace is my friend. I worry that I’m hurting her feelings because I haven’t joined Voxer.

When she brings it up, she tells me it would be so much easier just to talk about all the things we want to say instead of sitting down and writing. And she has a point. I think about joining Voxer every day when I’m driving home from work to pick up my kids from school. That hour is the most difficult for me, because it is the hour when, despite everything I do to push through it, everything within me – my body, my heart, my soul – begins to acknowledge that I am lonely.  I walk slower, and my workbag feels heavier as I think about which kid needs to go where, what needs to get done when I get home, when to pack lunches and whether outfits are ironed. I feel an ache when I watch mothers pick up their kids together from the school I am leaving, coffee cups in hand and laughing. “It would be so good to have a friend to talk to,” I think, turning on my car. And every day, after that thought, I think of my friend Janel.

Janel and I taught in the same school in Mishawaka, Indiana. She and I could talk for hours. We’d meet sometimes on Saturday mornings and it would be one or two in the afternoon before I got home. In those days (I can’t believe I’m writing, “in those days,” but that’s what they were – days from a different time) our school sold Entertainment books for a fundraiser – those thick books filled with coupons for Blimpie subs and fifty cents off Dairy Queen blizzards. Each year, Janel and I would split one and use as many coupons as we could. It’s how we explored South Bend, Indiana, together and it’s how our friendship was formed.

We sat on the curb of a 7-11, on a break from setting up our classrooms a few days before school started, sipping extra-large Slurpees – mine was a mixture of cherry and Coke flavor, the best. We drank lattes in pint glasses in a place called Molly Maguires, a bar that got into trouble serving underage Notre Damers and turned into a coffee shop, but refused to change the aesthetics, including the pint glasses they now served coffee in. Janel and I had lunch at Heavenly Ham, where old ladies serving us would spread the best, most spicy mustard on our sandwiches, and packed giant, chocolate chip cookies in our box lunches. Once, we took coupons to an Indiana beauty school for a ridiculous rate on a haircut or manicure. We both decided it would be less risky to get a manicure from someone who was learning the trade, and sat next to each other while students slathered hot pink polish on our nails.

I don’t have a clue what Janel and I talked about. It was everything and anything, and I always felt happy and energized after spending time with her. Janel was my first new friend after I’d gotten married, started my first teaching job, and moved to a brand new town. She helped me navigate adulthood.

When she and her husband moved away, Janel and I wrote letters to each other. Once a month for years, I would get a hand-written letter from her, the titles of books she’d read and was recommending to me underlined, and news of what life was like in Kentucky.

And once a month, I wrote back. I’d go to the Hammes Bookstore on Notre Dame’s campus to write to her. It became a ritual. I’d walk passed “The Visitation,” a sculpture by Father Anthony Lauck, C.S.C. where Mary and Elizabeth are embracing each other after learning both of them will soon have babies. It was difficult to tell where one woman ended and another began, and before I entered the bookstore, I would stand for a moment, and look at the two of them. It made me happy looking at this shared joyous moment between girlfriends. I’d smile at Mary and Elizabeth, then I’d open the doors to the bookstore, order a mocha, sit down and take out a stack of stationery. I’d write Janel for hours, well after my mocha cup was empty. I wrote about the church we had both attended, what it was like teaching in public school (I’d left the school where Janel and I first taught), and I told her about books I was reading, also underlining their titles, as good teachers do.

Then Facebook happened.

I’m a fan of Facebook. I’m a fan of Instagram and blogging, too. But their existence has altered how I present myself in real life. I’m not talking about how I look, but more how I use my words. I’m painfully shy, and I worry about saying the right thing when I’m in front of others. Blogging and social media have allowed me the luxury of taking my time to pick the right words to express how I feel, or tell a joke, or describe the slow chirp the crickets make outside my bedroom window in the evening, as though they can’t decide if it’s summer or fall, so they may as well keep singing until they can’t anymore.

But I also understand the habit I’ve fallen into: instead of telling the barista in the coffee house about how perfect the latte he just made for me is, I’ll take a picture of it, post it on Instagram, and tag the coffee house. Instead of getting out of my car at the carpool line to chat with other parents, I text them. Instead of telling Grace at the bar how much I loved her performance that night, and how much I think it helped me with my own storytelling, I do it on Facebook. Talking “IRL” makes me too anxious and perhaps it always has, but I never had the option to do anything else. And while social media allows me a voice, I realize I’ve let it keep me from doing things that are hard. It’s allowed me to define myself by how shy I am. I’m not happy about that. I don’t like being defined by what it is I think I cannot do.

I know Grace well enough to know that she could care less if I’m articulate if I left her a message on Voxer. She could care less if I rambled on and on. If Grace and I had known each other in the late 90s or early 00s, we probably would’ve had a friendship like Janel and I had.

Or maybe not. When I met her, I lived in Maryland, and Grace lived in Virginia. That distance doesn’t seem too far, but throw in DC traffic, and responsibilities of motherhood and work, and the time it would take to “just grab a cup of coffee” is significant. Now that I’m in Michigan, sitting across from one another in a coffee shop or wine bar is impossible.

Grace and I have remained friends because of social media, and because of our writing. I know how much she loves to swim, how she tends to her garden; I even know and care about Grace’s neighbors because of her writing. Grace writes so that it is like I am swimming in the ocean with her, in her backyard digging in the dirt with her, having coffee with the lady across the street in Grace’s kitchen. Every time I read something of hers, I remember the first time I met her. Her words harken back to the slow, steady craftsmanship she used to tell that first story I heard, and I remember why I felt in my bones we would be great friends. Maybe Voxer could be one more way to stay connected, and to learn a little more about Grace.

Besides, I think it’s time I buy some red lipstick. I know just the person to ask.

 

Words by Callie Feyen.

Markers, Mud, and a Messy Life

hello there, friend

“Look! It’s purple!” My daughter climbed onto the couch and waved the marker in front of my face. I eyed the uncapped marker, visions of purple stains on my shirt, the carpet, and the couch flashing through my mind.

“That’s beautiful. Do you like purple?” I reached for the marker, but she snatched it away from my hand, the moist tip coming dangerously close to my oyster-toned couch. Why had I thought oyster was a good color for a couch? I probably should have gone with black.

“Madelyn, we shouldn’t have the marker on the couch without a lid. Let’s go find some paper and –”

But I was too late. As she jumped up excitedly from the couch, the marker grazed the gray-white cushion and left a trail of purple in its wake.

I sighed in exasperation and took the marker away. “This is why we don’t play with markers on the couch,” I said over her frustrated wailing.

I escaped into the kitchen, feeling the tension mount inside at the new mess, my crying child, and the overwhelming sense of suffocation I felt. I took breath after breath, tucking in my own feelings while she cried.

After a minute or two, I returned to the living room with a resolute calm. I pulled her into my lap and I rocked her as her tears slowed. I wanted to lecture her about the proper handling of markers, but I just held her against me instead, putting the anxiety (and the cleaning) aside to deal with later. She snuggled against me and I tried to stay in the moment and not wonder whether dish soap or white vinegar would be the best cleaner for marker stains.

The next morning, the smell of coffee – burnt chocolate, nutty, a pinch of earth – drew me out of bed. I ignored the dishes piled in the sink as I poured the steaming liquid into a mug and carried my cup to the living room.

I settled on the couch, eyeing the purple-marker stain grumpily. I was frustrated by the new addition to my long list of things to clean – the carpet had crumbs, the dust bunnies were gathering in the corners, and the laundry was currently tottering at terrifying heights. The weariness didn’t stop with household chores though. I felt messy all the way to my very bones: from the pills I swallowed in the morning, to the year of marriage counseling, to the social exhaustion I experienced trying to keep it all inside.

How did my life get so messy? I shook aside the internal cry of longing and frustration and cracked open my Bible to the Gospel according to Matthew. Sipping my coffee, I read about how Jesus spent his time with the messy ones: the prostitutes and the tax collectors, the sinners and the sick ones. Yet surprisingly Jesus had no patience for the Pharisees, those people who were so clean and tidy, so completely together, at least on the outside. In fact, Jesus called them whitewashed tombs: clean on the outside, dead on the inside.

The marker stayed on the cushion all day while I tried to clean the house for a playdate. A quick sweep hid the dust bunnies. I put out a healthy snack of hummus and carrots. The light-hearted conversation centered around how much we loved rain and when we would let our daughters read Harry Potter, and never once suggested that I was anxiously awaiting a phone call to set up an appointment with my therapist or that I had almost canceled the playdate when the familiar feeling of hopelessness had come creeping into my day.

That evening I snuggled up with my daughter, exhausted and ready for a break (read: wine and Netflix). I chose her bedtime story at random from the library books strewn across the floor. The book was about a mud fairy named Bloom. I was pretty sure I had my own little mud fairy, her golden-brown head lying against my shoulder, her eyes alight as she exclaimed over the beautiful castle in the story.

Though Bloom had built the glass kingdom, it wasn’t too long before the people in the kingdom grew weary of Bloom because she was quite messy: she had mud in her teeth, left mud tracks everywhere she went, and was frequently noisy. So Bloom left the kingdom, much to the delight of everyone.

But then the glass kingdom began falling into disrepair and the people realized they needed Bloom to use her magic to rebuild the kingdom. They sent kings and queens to request her help and each time she responded by placing a bucket of mud in front of them. Outraged that she withheld her magic and instead offered them mud, they left immediately.

Then one day a serving girl came and asked for Bloom’s help. When Bloom showed her the bucket of mud, she didn’t flinch, but asked questions. Then Bloom showed her how to make bricks out of mud and how to build a house out of bricks. And through the messy process of building mud bricks and houses, the serving girl learned that the magic Bloom offered was the mud. And she could now teach others how to rebuild the kingdom.

I closed the book and kissed Madelyn on the head. Sometimes we need a new story to help us understand an old one. I saw now why Jesus had no room for whitewashed tombs. Because life exists in the mess.

I thought about my own mess. The marker stain, the therapy, the dishes, and the broken heart. But in the midst of all this mess was life. A messy sink meant full bellies. A messy, marker-stained couch meant my daughter was sharing her excitement with me. A messy session with my therapist meant hard-won intimacy with my husband. A messy floor on a playdate meant being real and giving another mom the chance to be the same.

That night I stood for a long time with a wet, soapy sponge in hand, staring at the purple stain. I remembered Madelyn’s excitement at finding her favorite color in a marker, I remembered the mud fairy, I thought about Jesus living right alongside the mud of humanity. And I turned and walked back to the kitchen.

 

Words by Ashly Hilst.

A Simple, Extraordinary Monday

hello there, friend

My alarm goes off and for the first time in months, I don’t hit the snooze button. Fumbling in the semi darkness of the bedroom, I find a sweatshirt and pull it over my head, hurry downstairs, and pour myself a hot cup of coffee. Eager to get going, I slap peanut butter and jelly on some bread. I check the time, and wake my oldest, who promises to wake her siblings.

Coffee in hand, I grab my purse and head to my car. It’s still dark, but light is beginning to hover around the horizon. Everything feels muted and soft, quiet and still. As I drive through town, I think about the conversation I had with my husband several days earlier when he asked me what I wanted to do for my birthday. What I told him then was that I didn’t know.

I tend to have a go-with-the-flow attitude about a lot of things. I’m a peacemaker; I want everyone to be happy and get along. When someone asks me what I’d like to do or where I’d like to go, I generally shrug my shoulders because, the truth is, I often don’t care that much. I’m happy to be with the people I love and the rest of it isn’t as important.

But my husband’s question got me thinking about what I really wanted. If my birthday was on a Monday, then it would be up to me to figure out how to make it special. My family would be at work or school, and I’d have half the day to myself.

What do I want? became the chief question — but out of that sprang others: What do I love to do? What makes me feel alive? What can I do on an ordinary Monday that will fill me with gratitude? What would an almost perfect day look like?

These are the questions that led me to this moment, driving up the long lane of the golf course — the one place in town where I can see the eastern sky, where I can watch the sunrise on the morning of my 46th birthday.

When I reach the parking lot, I am surprised to find many of the parking spaces full of equipment — bulldozers, backhoes, and gravel — and a crew just getting starting work in the early light of dawn. Their safety vests reflect the light from the headlights of my car as I search for a place to park.

A bit disappointed not to have this space to myself, I park in the only spot I can, and hurry out with my coffee and a blanket. I walk around the gravel and orange cones to the small wooden gazebo that overlooks the valley below, and the Catawba Mountains beyond that. I sit down, arranging my Mexican blanket and cup of coffee beside me, then take a deep breath.

I see pink light as it begins to form along the line between the sky and what lies beneath. Above the pink, the sky appears white, then dark blue. As the light continues to spill over the horizon, I notice how each mountain ridge is defined. Fog is filling in the spaces between the ridges.

I hear the crew behind me speaking in Spanish, and I am reminded of the past two summers when I traveled with my family to Central America. I listen for a few minutes, picking out words here and there that I know, the rhythm and intonation in their voices reminding me of this language I love.

As I watch, the fog slides between the ridges and along the valleys. Moments later, the fog begins to obscure the ridges and starts to fill in the valley directly below me. Instead of watching the sun come up over the ridge below, I am watching something else entirely. Fog has engulfed the entire valley, obscuring the sun and is making its way up toward the golf course. Soon there is nothing but fog.

I gather my blanket and now empty cup of coffee and turn towards the car. As I make my way home, I think about how foggy mornings have their own kind of beauty — sometimes haunting, sometimes revealing the world in a whole new way. Instead of color, there are shades of gray. The silhouettes of trees stand out, graceful and dark against a lighter background.

Pondering the questions I had asked myself just a few days before, it occurs to me that what fills me up has nothing to do with things — not gifts or material possessions. None of the ways I wanted to spend this day anything to do with those. I have come to this conclusion time and time again but marvel at the simplicity of it. What fills me up are experiences; what grounds me are relationships

There are a few other things on my list for the day: a good cup of coffee, lunch alone with a cold beer and a plate of nachos, time to read in the sunshine on a warm day, a walk, a conversation with my sister, greeting my kids as they came home from school, tacos from our local taco truck for dinner on the front porch, a bouquet of zinnias, a round of Bananagrams. These are things that could be done any day, but today they are special.

Just like the sun, which rises every single day. Some days we might choose to bear witness to its beauty. A series of decisions just might lead to an ordinary Monday becoming something extraordinary.

 

Words by Beth Lehman. Photograph by Kathryn Abel.