Just a Cup

I love coffee. So much. If you asked me to give up either coffee or booze (of any kind) for the rest of my life, I would swear my allegiance to coffee until the day I die. I will drink it hot or cold, black or with excess amounts of milk. No matter what, it’s comforting, and, for me, it’s full of memories. 

I remember how much my mom loved coffee growing up. I remember her robe smelling like coffee on weekend mornings, and her coffee breath as she hugged us goodbye, my sister and I headed off to school while she drove to work. I remember her drinking coffee in the morning, in the evening, warming her hands with it on road trips, trying to put a regular mug of coffee in the car’s cupholder on those mornings we were really in a hurry. I remember coffee ice cream and coffee-flavored yogurt in our fridge. I remember thinking coffee was disgusting, but still being so comforted by the coffee that was always, in one form or another, within reach. 

Through high school, I still thought coffee was like, so gross, even as my friends started drinking it, picking it up black from the gas station on the drive to school or in a fancy concoction from Starbucks on a weekend outing to the mall. I distinctly remember one friend getting a caramel macchiato on every trip to Somerset in Troy when we finally could drive ourselves down I-75 to “the nice mall,” and I even more distinctly remember calling it “rat poison” and turning my nose up at it, complete with dramatic gagging. I’ll admit now that I had more of an intentional contrarian streak in high school than I’m proud of. But still, coffee was a constant, and whether I liked it or not, those associations were burned into my brain. 

Once I got to college, I realized that pulling all-nighters might require caffeine. So I started with Coke, moving over to Diet Coke in an effort to combat the freshman 15 I had gained, despite not drinking at all (I’m only a little embarrassed to admit how much I liked dorm food. Chicken broccoli bake day was the best, and you can’t tell me otherwise.). Then sophomore year, finally living on Central Campus, with access to many more coffee shops, I dared to try a cappuccino from Amir’s in the Michigan Union, and it was like a whole world opened up to me. Not only did I find my new favorite source of caffeine, but I found my new favorite way and place to study and write and think. Even when I moved on to regular coffee, thanks to my realizing how expensive my habit was and admittedly, how many calories lattes and cappuccinos had (even writing this makes me sad for all of the delicious things college me missed because she was too busy counting), my love for the thing and the place did not waver. I drank coffee all day long, trying to sustain the feeling of warmth and heightened presence of mind, not only from the coffee, but from the campus cafes’ buzzing conversations, bustling activity, and soft lighting. 

I would pick up my coffee first thing in the morning on the way to class (in leaner times, drinking the coffee brewed in the dorm cafeteria or sorority house kitchen), sipping to stay warm on icy winter mornings in small seminars and on hot spring days in overly air-conditioned lecture halls. In breaks between classes, I’d make my way back to Starbucks or Espresso Royale on South U, staking my claim on a table by spreading out my coursepacks and notebooks and highlighters. Evening always saw me ready to read and put in my time at my favorite study spots, moving from one to the next if they were too crowded or closing too early. Though I spent my fair share of time at the library, it was never “my place.” Half the time, it felt too social (I dreaded the heavily encouraged Greek system study nights); the rest of the time, too sterile. I never felt fully immersed in what I was reading, never fully inspired to write, like I did when I was camped out at my favorite table at my favorite cafe, wrapping my hands around my cardboard cup of coffee. Cocooned by the indistinct chatter and the din of coffee being made, by the worn tables and the dimmed lamps, I felt safe and warm and inspired. I felt like me. 

After graduating, coffee shops were still my place to retreat and be alone, despite being surrounded by people. When I briefly lived at home, hours were spent at Starbucks, job hunting and wishing I was not in Grand Blanc, that I had it figured out like so many of my friends had right out of school (looking back…lol). When I moved to Chicago, Lincoln Park coffee shops were my place to write blog posts and stay out of the apartment I shared with two (very nice) strangers just a little longer. Once I took a little career detour, coffee shops in the Loop were where I went to fuel up before my very long days as a very underpaid personal trainer, and where I went to decompress, hide out and write, after yet another day of not being able to close a sale on a personal training package I didn’t think someone really needed. 

And when I finally moved to DC eight years ago for grad school, coffee shops were the first places I went to get the lay of the land, to truly make this small big city my home. They are where I studied, where I, again, retreated from roommates who were very nice, but also total strangers. They were where I observed people and where I wrote papers, freelance assignments, blog posts (different blog for a different city, naturally), and just notes and letters to myself. Coffee shops, from big chains to funky local places, helped me find myself again during so many transitions. I felt alone but not lonely, I felt seen but (mostly) unbothered, I felt at home as I was making new places my actual home. 

And while, yes, a lot of this seems tied to having a place to sit alone and think, for me, it truly does come back to coffee. I’ve tried sipping delicious herbal tea on weekend days when I feel too caffeinated from one too many cups at home (a sad byproduct of age and cutting back while pregnant and nursing), but it’s not the same. I find myself doodling a few lines in my journal and heading home, dissatisfied with my mind for stubbornly refusing to think a creative thought. And in my first trimester, I couldn’t stomach coffee, so for 3 months, I walked around feeling sad and uninspired each morning as I drank my iced green tea. Coffee is not a personality trait, but I’m convinced the memories associated with it, and the places I drank (or didn’t drink) it, make up a lot of who I am. 

I mourn so many things as a result of this pandemic (my job (kind of), my son’s wonderful daycare, seeing friends, feeling safe going to farmers’ markets or having wine on a patio), but one thing I miss more than almost anything is my favorite place, which isn’t really one place at all. I miss the feeling of being alone with my thoughts and a pen (or a laptop, as the case may be) and a hot cup of coffee. I miss being surrounded by strangers but totally at ease by myself, staring out the window and playing with words like putty in my mind. I miss sipping that mug of warm, dark comfort and discovering myself over and over again. 

Coffee, to me, will always be a sensation, a place without a place, a moment in time. Of course, it’s also a practical, delicious vehicle for caffeine, but more than that, it brings me back to where I need to be. Even today, as I gulp down my mug of dark roast while trying to get my toddler to not pull on the TV cables or climb on the table, coffee is a deep breath and temporary retreat. No matter what is going on, coffee roots me to this moment and transports me, however briefly, to another. For me, coffee is now, and it’s then. It’s here and somewhere else entirely. It’s home.

The body I need right now

Last night, as I was getting ready for bed, I looked at my legs while I stretched, and I thought, huh, these are just my legs. And I thought about how 15 years ago, I was embarrassed by my legs, thinking they were too big, too bulky, too athletic, despite being told otherwise, honestly, quite often. I remember one friend being surprised I didn’t like my legs, and saying to me while we were at the beach one summer day, “but you have beautiful legs, why would you not like them?” And I just thought, how is that I can look at my legs and shrug now, when years ago, they made me nervous to take off my shorts at the beach?

I am no longer the athletic, small person I was in college. Not even close. Yet I have more acceptance of my body – both what it looks like and what it can do – and that acceptance seems to build with each passing year. But this year has really brought into sharp relief how okay I am with my body. Sometimes neutral, sometime positive, and rarely and naturally the slightest bit negative. Despite having had a child that has widened my hips and dropped my boobs, I look at my body and mostly just shrug. And on occasion, give her a wink when I’m looking strong or feeling particularly saucy in a favorite dress (probably one I am just trying on in the middle of a pandemic to make myself feel some semblance of normal). 

I sometimes wonder if I am accepting of my body because I’ve settled into a good place with it, an equilibrium of sorts. I work out or don’t, eat well or don’t, and I might go up or down 5 lbs, but that’s it, and with no real conscious effort anymore. And when it does change, I am not really pleased or displeased, one way or another. I am not small, but I am not big, I just am. I don’t use either word pejoratively, just as relative descriptors. And that “am,” that equilibrium, has put me in this medium place where I am bigger than my college-aged, compact yet insecure self, but smaller than I was for the majority of my 20s, than before I had my son. And I think, am I ok with my body because I am closer to my former ideal than I was say, five years ago? Or perhaps it’s because I am closer to the very normal body I had before I started thinking about my body so much? Or because I am actually just good with this body? And today’s answer is this: I am ok with today’s body, because it is the body I need right now.

This is the body I need now. It is strong enough to lift my gigantic toddler and soft enough to be a nice place to snuggle while watching Sesame Street. Athletic enough to run a mile or two when I want or need to, but not so obsessed with working out and fine tuning that I have no energy left for creative or emotional pursuits. It can be pushed, but knows to yell out when it’s in pain and needs a break, because now I actually listen to it when it tells me to slow down.

The body I had in college was not the body I needed then. It consumed my thoughts and allowed only so much time for me to not consider what it looked like. It had to work so very hard to be what it was. Conversely, the body I had in my early and mid 20s, after I went on antidepressants and gained a significant amount of weight, partially due to the medication and partially due to unresolved issues I tamped down with food, was not the body I needed then either. It didn’t know how to tell me what it required to function physically and let me function emotionally (and to be fair, I would not have known how to listen even if it had shouted my name).

But since my late 20s, my body has worked with me and for me, it started talking to me again, telling me who and what it needed to be. Maybe it’s the pandemic (I think we could all stand to sympathize with our bodies a little more right now, and at least try to listen to them in this weird time) and all of the uncertainty in the world, or maybe, for me, it’s just age and being tired of fighting with myself and who I am naturally, in body and in mind. But here it is. A body (and a whole self, really) I am still building a relationship with, but a body that is becoming the one I need, more and more every day.

35

I am starting this blog one month and one week after I turned 35. I technically started it earlier in the year, but in my typical perfectionist/procrastinator fashion, revised and rewrote and backed out more times than I can count. But now, here we are. 

I didn’t think 35 would be a big deal, but as it approached, I realized that, to me, it really was. 

I had zero qualms about turning 30. Not because I had everything figured out or knew exactly what I wanted out of life. It was actually quite the opposite, and maybe that was just it. Everything was uncertain, up in the air, wide open. Scary, but freeing. 

My friends who were married with careers were terrified of leaving their 20s. We discussed over drinks, during weekends in our college town, with our coffee at work. Dreading turning 30, lamenting getting older and what that meant for our biological clocks, our careers, our metabolisms, our energy levels, our skin, our tolerance for cheap alcohol. 

But I didn’t feel that way at all.  I was on the edge of the cliff of the previous decade, ready to swan dive into maturity and new possibilities. At 29, I was a grad student without a job lined up yet. I had been dating someone (my now-husband) for a few months, and it seemed to be going well, but wedding bells weren’t ringing just yet. I was going to have a lot of debt from school, and kids were a long way off. I hadn’t really loved most of my 20s (another story for another day), so my 30s felt like a fresh start, a time to really become who I wanted to be. I had time, I told myself. We all did. 

But 35. Oh, 35 felt different. I’ve always been a late bloomer, and I now found myself where many of my friends had been at 30. I’m married, with a career and a kid and a house. I have really enjoyed my 30s for the most part, and now they’re halfway over? How could that be? I love my life, but sometimes I found myself looking around and wondering how I had gotten here. I felt lost and like I was running out of time – but for what I didn’t know.

I know that this existential crisis was (probably) not just about turning 35, but 35 really kicked it into high gear. I had always told myself I would make my way back to being creative, to writing, to something mission-driven, but I was working in health communications and PR, where the most writing I did was in responding to the 200-plus emails I received a day. Where I was so anxious and exhausted by day’s end that I could barely write a half page in my journal, let alone take on a creative project for myself. Where I felt all of my energy went to appeasing difficult clients and taking care of our toddler son. I was starting to feel stuck – after job hopping throughout my young adulthood, I finally had a career, but I was scared that if I kept going down this path, I might not be able to turn around. 

So, in the middle of a pandemic, four days after my 35th birthday, following countless breakdowns and weeks of crying (trying to split childcare with my husband while working 50-hour weeks was going great), along with many hours spent agonizing over it with my husband, friends, and family, I gave my two weeks notice. I had (and have) no plan, other than taking time to hang out with our son (and not just plopping-him-in-front-of-a-TV time so that I could attempt to work – thanks, COVID!) and figure out what I felt a little more called to do. While we are not a household that can exist on one income long-term (hello, living in DC and loads of student loan debt), I do realize that it’s a huge privilege that I can take this break at all, and I want to make the most of it. I want to actually feel like my taking a breather was not in vain, that I can find work I can see myself doing long-term, that 35 is not the dead end, the wall, the point of no return I felt it was. 

So here I am starting something new, giving myself a project and a means to thinking through my life and the world around me that isn’t just my hastily scribbled-in journal. An outlet to learn new skills and revive some old ones, to take my notes on what I observe, and turn them into something a little more cohesive while I figure out my next move as a new-ish 35 year old.