When life hands you lemons (and you really like lemons)

fresh cut slice of lemon

Just take the lemon and enjoy it!
Photo credit: Public Domain (via

Someone at work asked the question that elicits a long story full of odd explanations: “How did you and Neal meet?” (It’s a timely question, because we are both celebrating our anniversaries this week.)

There’s the short answer: “We met online.”

But that only tells 1/100 of the fascinating story, so there needs to be more.

The longer answer is interesting and just weird. I used to be a regular blogger, back in the 20-aughts when blogging began and was less commonplace. I read dozens of blogs and, longer story shortened, met Neal in the comment section of one of these blogs. One day, that blog became boring and less interesting, so I dug into the blogroll in the guy’s sidebar and discovered a very interesting blog by some guy who claimed to be a writer.

Wait a minute…this is the guy from the comments! He’s pretty funny and seemed open to feedback on his story, so I commented. And he replied. And I responded. And thus our friendship began.

I say friendship because that’s how it all started–no romantic inclinations or overtures. We began emailing regularly (using weird lines from movies and TV shows as the email subjects) and progressed to calling on the phone. Neal was finishing grad school and right after graduation was dealing with some pretty heavy things (death and disease of family members). We spent a lot of time on the phone to discuss these things and life in general.

We finally decided to meet in person, and my friend Misty warned me that I’d end up pickled in a barrel in Neal’s basement. I was excited about seeing Duluth in person, because I’d heard so much about its wealth of natural beauty. We went up the North Shore to Grand Marais, where it proceeded to rain, causing Neal to worry that I wasn’t enjoying my time on the volcanic rock on the shore of Lake Superior. He was wrong and learned that I love walking in spring rains, in fact I was still in love with spring rains and would often rush out to dance in the first real spring rain each year. (“Real spring rain” means one that smells green and earthwormy and is completely full of all the essential spring smells.)

This meeting was a bit weird for both of us, because I think we were feeling out the boundaries of the friendship. Was there something more there, perhaps? But no. Neither of us felt the other was his/her type, so we moved along and continued the friendship. (To be fair to both of us, we definitely weren’t each other’s idealized physical type.)

We had a blast walking in the rain, strolling along sandy beaches, and just hanging out. We talked about everything: literature, nature, astronomy. It was odd to find someone who understood and also enjoyed the feeling of smallness in a vast universe, who read and could discuss the same things I’d read, who wanted to hike in the rain without talking or stopping–just taking in nature. Odd, but I took it as a sign that I’d found a great friend and we moved along.

We continued to talk on the phone regularly, email less regularly, read each other’s blogs, and visit each other. I was vehemently anti-dating anyway (another, much longer story), so I encouraged Neal when he’d consider dating someone. I’d give him suggestions about getting up his nerve to talk to someone or ask her out, even though he never acted on my suggestions.

Neal was my best friend, so any time the thought crossed my mind, I quickly removed it. I didn’t want to lose such a good friend if a romantic relationship went sour, and these things so often do when romance enters the picture. When offered the choice of losing a good friend while gaining a short-term romance, I firmly chose the friendship each time.

Then one day during a regular phone call, Neal asked a question that surprised me: “Have you ever thought about the two of us dating?”

And my answer frustrated him: “Yes.”

That was all I responded at first, because it was the truth and I didn’t know how to continue the rest of the sentence that should follow. “Yes, but I don’t want to lose my best friend”? “Yes, and I want to see if we can make this work”?

Yes, but…?

Yes, and…?

We started talking about the fact that we both had considered it, but neither of us made a specific move toward “Yes, we should start dating. Now.” It became a weird limbo move as we chatted about our thoughts, but with neither of us making the next move.

Here’s the thing about our phone calls: they often took place fairly late at night. This was still in the stage where I only needed about four hours of sleep a night (believe me, I’m making up for that in my old age), and Neal often had later-morning classes to teach. The talk-around continued for quite a long time, until Neal finally pushed the issue to the forefront.

“So. What do you think about the two of us dating?”

Ah, this was a completely different question, now wasn’t it? And now I had to answer the real question instead of a work-around question he had originally asked. This led to another discussion, because we both had similar fears. Here’s a person that we can and do talk to about anything, so…what if adding the weight of romantic entanglement crushed the friendship? Neither of us wanted that to happen.

But we both realized that any time we worried about something or were really excited about something, we each immediately wanted to tell the other about it. And, really, wasn’t that exactly what people looked for in a spouse? Shouldn’t that be an immense plus, along with the fact that we could and did talk about anything and everything? We decided to take the plunge and hope it worked out.

Obviously, it’s been working out. Twelve-and-a-half years ago, Neal and I started dating (and some friends and family asked, “What took you two so long? We figured it out months ago!”) and then we got married.

But that’s another story for another time, isn’t it?

For now, it’s important to say that Neal is still my best friend. We still talk about anything and everything, without running out of things to discuss in the 11 years that we’ve been married. Whenever something good or bad happens, Neal is still the first person I want to talk to and the first person I turn to for help or consolation or a high-five. I don’t even want to consider where we might be if we’d decided not to chance it, because I can’t imagine being married to anyone other than my favorite person in the entire world.


Distinct Possibilities 2 comments

Photo credit: elviskennedy via / CC BY-NC-ND

I feel a self-divide that is hard to explain to many people, much like Holly Genovese discusses in this article. Coming from a blue-collar background in a rural, poor household, even the decision to go straight to college from high school was different enough to start a schism that has only gotten wider. Both of my parents worked on factory floors until their jobs moved out of the country or the company wanted to hire younger guys at a cheaper price. My dad worked at the same place from March of the year I was born (that December) until just a few weeks before I got married in May of another year: 27 years and two months, he worked there, with differing shifts and on differing lines sometimes, but still always there. We lived anywhere from an hour to 40 minutes from this place, keeping us near family and in the same school district and county my entire life, even though he worked in a different county himself.

My dad got up early when he worked first shift (although he also worked third at times, years I remember not seeing my dad much and only recalling his tired face when I did) and his work ethic lives in me still today. You get up early and you leave early. There’s no excuse for arriving to work late, even a flat tire, so give yourself time to deal with those things on the way. If you arrive early? You just have some quiet time to yourself or to talk with others coming on- or going off-shift. It’s part of the package of keeping a job. Then one day they just lay you off “indefinitely” and you know that it isn’t a layoff like previous ones: this one is permanent, terminology be damned. Younger, cheaper guys are coming in to take your place, and you know it—but what can you do?

My mom went back to work when I was in elementary school, but she worked in closer locations: in the kitchen of a nursing home for a bit until a job at the local factory down the road opened up. It was closer and it paid a bit better, so does it matter which job you like better anyway? I became one of those fabled 80’s and 90’s latchkey kids, along with my older sister. We rode the bus for hours a day, gravel road dust pouring in the small cracks of the partially opened windows. We got to know the bus drivers really well as the last kids off the bus.

But the eye-opening realization for me comes in second grade: Mrs. Reed talks about college, like it’s an option for all of us—like maybe I could actually go. This idea takes ahold in my mind, because I prize reading and learning above all else, even above climbing a tree or rolling down a hill—even at that young age. I know that this is something I want to do, so I somehow get it into my mind that the only way to get to college is to get straight As from then on. My elementary-school-kid mind doesn’t understand what colleges are looking for, only understanding that we can’t pay for it and I need to carry this weight alone.

By the time I do begin to understand, the ideal of perfectionism is already rooted firmly in my mind. No pressure given from my parents or family members: it’s all from me. Even a small homework grade of an A- gives me the sweats, and a B+ might make me cry. My parents don’t get why I’m doing this to myself. By junior high, I know that I have to get a scholarship somewhere, or this whole thing is going to fall apart. By freshman year, I know a few places I’d like to go, but I also understand that they are out of reach. My sophomore year, I realize that public schools aren’t giving out scholarships that I’ll need really, so I start rethinking my plans, start looking at all the options.

I don’t know anything about college planning, and my guidance counselor is a joke. I know I have one shot to take the ACT, because one shot is all we can afford. I don’t know anything about potential fee waivers, because these aren’t explained or talked about. You know what else no one talked about? Application fees and how you can’t actually afford to apply to the places you really want to go, so I look for places that will give waivers if you talk to the visiting counselor. I have already had my sight set on valedictorian from second grade, thinking that this will make some sort of a difference, and this along with the great test score and my 4.0 GPA gives me the option of a couple full-tuition scholarships from small, private schools.

I’m in. I will be the first person in my entire extended family to attend and finish my bachelor’s degree, but the move to another state and the education seems to be another wedge that widens the already-started schism between me and some family members. I’m still me. I still enjoy tractor pulls and dirt-track races and a good dusty, gravel-filled backroads trip to nowhere in particular. I still like to read whatever I can get my hands on (except I can get my hands on a whole lot more now). I’m me, but they only see me rising above myself in a way that I can’t stop and I can’t retract. And I don’t know that I would if I could anyway.

Dessa, a singer and songwriter, gets this dichotomy of self and ambition. In “Fighting Fish,” she sings the following lyrics:

Around here we don’t like talk of big dreams
to stand out is a pride, a conceit
To aim high is to make waves, to split seams
but that’s not what it seems like to me, cause
I wanna try, I wanna risk
I don’t wanna walk, rather swing and miss
I’m not above apologies
but I don’t ask permission
got a lot of imperfections
but I don’t count my ambitions in ‘em

I didn’t come looking for love
I didn’t come to pick a fight
I didn’t come to wave or take pictures
pander to some benefactor, ring on every broken finger
Won’t extend my wings to be clipped
I know the culture here is to stay humble but shit
if we all go round bowed heads, button-lipped
if none of us go for the bell, then who is?

I just finished my master’s degree, and as I debated whether to announce it to family and friends, my dad told me not to. “It’d seem like you’re just trying to brag about it,” he said. I’ll admit it: it hurt to hear that. I wanted to share a success in my life: a goal I’ve had for almost 15 years now finally coming to fruition. My parents have been completely supportive, even if my mom didn’t quite understand what I was doing or why.

It’s hard to explain the feeling that washes over you at that moment, where you are so proud that you finally accomplished something you’ve wanted to do for so long, yet you feel ashamed of wanting it and of striving for it. Even though I don’t want to count my ambitions among my imperfections, I know that some of my family members do. It’s a pull in two different directions that doesn’t make sense to those who haven’t straddled two worlds.

The pull gets stronger, the chasm wider. I have fairly decent health and dental coverage through my husband’s position; my parents can’t afford true health care or even partial dental coverage. Pulling a tooth that needs a root canal is the only option, because the root canal is too costly. Meanwhile, I have terrible teeth (childhood poverty and rural living on well water waving reminder flags) having had my first root canal at age 18 and the second shortly after I married at age 26 along with various and sundry fillings. Seeing other people’s white-picket-fence-rows of stark white, straight teeth is a reminder that braces aren’t commonplace everywhere or for everyone, although people around me often talk as though it were. Hearing people complain about doing without as children and finding out they mean they didn’t always have the latest gaming system as soon as it came out is disorienting still. Adults who complain that the Coach bag they wanted was out of stock, so they had to make do with this other one that wasn’t exactly what they wanted until the other comes in is still foreign to me, even after years of being around it.

When I go home, I feel a sense of belonging that doesn’t quite fill me in other places. Yet at the same time, I feel rough edges that don’t quite fit into the place I left, like I’m a cube being ground into a sphere to fit another space and time. There are gaps and holes around me the whole time. I fall back into speech patterns with my “y’all” and my vowels more drawn out. I am more aware of money, what things cost, how it fits, what my budget allows and how it differs from my parents.

I feel guilty. I want to give something to them, but I know they wouldn’t take it. That intense pride in making do as much as you can, even if it means you might need WIC to round out your kids’ diets when they’re young, it still fills me with a fierce independence that many don’t fully understand (particularly, I think, my in-laws). We make do with what we have. Making do becomes normal again.

But it still lifts my other self’s spirits a bit to hear from my dad’s coworker that he’s been bragging on my accomplishments, my new degree. It helps to hear that he cares enough to pull this accomplishment out and show it off, even if he knows others might not totally get it. It helps a little bit to know that he supports these dreams of mine, even if they are different than the dreams he once had.

But who knows? Maybe he once had these dreams, too, but couldn’t escape the rift—or couldn’t tolerate the thought of trying to. Even today, life is different. I recently worked in a college counseling office, where I saw the world of college search open up to me even broader than before: fee waivers for testing, fee waivers for college applications, summer programs for those whose family incomes don’t quite make the cut. Maybe my dad once had similar dreams, but didn’t have a second-grade teacher who told him it was possible. In the back of my mind, I always think about making the impossible possible and seeing dreams fulfilled, and I wonder more and more as I get older about the dreams deferred in previous generations. Instead of drying up or festering or rotting and stinking or even exploding, maybe, just maybe, it moves down the line to the next generation, planting a seed, just a small kernel of an idea in a young mind until one of our own catches hold of their own dream and rides it until it breaks and becomes instead a distinct possibility.

(If you want to hear the song mentioned above, and you know you do, listen to it below!)