On donuts, uncontrollable weeping and the treat of falling only to find open arms everywhere

 

If you take time to snap a photo of your donuts before you eat them, you're not doing it right.

If you take time to snap a photo of your donuts before you eat them, you’re not doing it right.

This is a story about donuts.

Yesterday, I spent much of my morning trying really hard to stop crying. Without success. Because, friends, apparently sometimes we just have feelings. And apparently some of these feelings simply have to happen. You’ll know the requisite-expression variety when no amount of stifling works to vanquish them. So, paying heed, I simply sat down and sobbed.

When you have the kinds of feelings I did yesterday, there’s no sense of up or down; it feels like you’re falling. I didn’t know where or how, or even if I would ever land, and it scared me. I’m a happy person, you know? And I hate to brag, but I have an outstanding bag of tricks for managing feelings and navigating difficult experiences. Still, every magic wand I have was powerless against the raw realness of my day. Terrifying.

Of course the loneliness in these moments feels desolate. Undiluted emotion can be alienating—it requires a rare courage to be able to sit with someone while they’re falling apart (see here for a tale about one such person). You have girlfriends, you have a sister, you have plenty of people strong enough to sit with you, but you still feel painfully alone.

Desperate for a break from the fearsome falling, I called Brian. “I just wanted to tune into your energy for a minute,” I said, weeping. I didn’t ask him to come home. In fact, I told him not to and meant it, but 20 minutes later, he walked in the front door full of lightness and compassion. He quietly held me while I soaked his dress shirt with tears and then fell asleep in the afternoon light of our bedroom. When I woke, my feelings were a different color than before. They’d seen the light and had a witness, and it helped.

But this story is about donuts.

Liz is one of my oldest friends and lives just a few miles away, yet we hadn’t spent time together in way too long. So when we found ourselves sitting at the bar of Fat Rice in Logan Square (shout out to the beef heart salad, y’all!), the drinks and the conversation flowing, I could scarcely remember the terror of my emotional vertigo just a few hours earlier.

liz and em

See? Look how happy Liz makes me.

“I almost cancelled tonight,” I confessed. “I had such a weirdly difficult day and I’m exhausted and I didn’t think I’d be any fun for you to be with.”

“I am so glad you didn’t cancel,” she told me. “I would want to be with you however you were.”

Magic words.

We ate, we drank. And then Liz presented me with a glorious white bag.

“Donuts,” she said. “For you.”

She knew I’d been having a lot of feelings lately. And somewhere in the recesses of her memory, she called up the one thing I know to be true in this world: Donuts = happiness.

I don’t talk about donuts a lot—not nearly as much as I talk about bouncy houses. And I don’t recall ever dropping any hints that “you know, if you ever want to cheer me up, go spend too much money on gourmet donuts and bring them to me.” (In case you want to get in on this Chicago-rific donut party, I usually brake for Do-Rite Donuts, and I now know that Stan’s Donuts, too, has magical healing properties.)

I opened the white bag. In it were three of the most beautiful buttermilky, fried-just-so cake donuts in pistachio, vanilla and blueberry. Not only did Liz remember that I love donuts, but also that they darn well better be cake—not yeast—donuts. And that pistachio-flavored treats are my jam.

I started crying. And squealing unintelligibly. And crying more.

What else could I have done? I had to pay heed. And so I ended my day the way I started it. In tears.

A couple of very courageous people showed me they’re in this with me in simple yet profound ways and, as a result, there are a few more things I know to be true: I am seen. I am known. I am valued.

I suppose it doesn’t take an overture to show someone you see and value them. In my case, a little time, open arms and three donuts had an extraordinary impact. And today it has me thinking: “What can I do to show Brian and Liz—and everyone else I love—that I really see them?”

For now, all I can think to do is pray. So today I’m praying this simple prayer for Brian, Liz and for you:

May you see and feel seen, know and be known, love and be loved.

And, as long as I’m talking to God:

May you receive your own version of epicurean cake donuts when you most need them and pay heed to the fullest expression of your feelings when it happens.

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Surprise! This birthday, I got a sea change.

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Birthday dinners are a really big deal in my family. Growing up, we always had the “family birthday” party, in which my sister and I mainlined Shirley Temples during the cocktail hour while the aunts and uncles drank scotch, and then we all sat around a big table to eat. My mom served everyone my favorite meal, which I ordered weeks in advance as part of the anticipation. Grandma Fogel brought the cake, a gorgeous stack of chocolate cake-and-buttercream layers complete with a dollop of her inimitable frosting flung on top for the birthday girl. Grandma Hughey brought the ice cream, meticulously crafted custard-style deliciousness with a vanilla bean galaxy in every scoop and the perfect consistency of a soft-serve machine. Birthday dinners were bliss.

Moving away from my big, beloved extended family meant reinventing my birthday. For the nine years I’ve spent living outside of Kansas City, I’ve always emphasized the importance of my birthday dinner, and a good cake. Under no small pressure of expectation, Brian has brought home some lovely cakes and devised some beautiful birthday dinners. Other years fall into a darker category. Take, for example, age 27, when we lived in Cabo and I willfully prepared a comfort-food birthday meal and baked my own birthday cake—specifically my recently deceased grandma’s recipe. Just before blowing out the candles, I crumbled into pieces upon noticing there were no aunts, moms, grandmas or sisters to slip their wedding rings over my burning candles in the Fogel-women birthday wish fashion. It was just Brian, a couple dogs, the sound of the sea and lonely little me. When I finally regrouped enough to blow out the candles, my eyes were sunken in a moat of mascara, Brian was flummoxed and my slice of cake tasted like sadness. At that time, and for years after, I defined my birthday by a special meal, the presence of adoring friends or family and, yes, bitchin’ cake and ice cream.

It’s hard to tell without a sample size of birthdays to prove it, but I think things are different now.

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Today is my birthday. I did not have a party. I was not physically surrounded by throngs of friends or family (but high fives of thanks to all those wonderfuls who are with me in spirit.) I changed two poopy diapers, did laundry, got shot and eaten by two pretend-gun-wielding “mean turtles” (aka, Charlie and Kip), emptied and loaded the dishwasher and it rained all day. We had big plans for dinner, though, yes we did. Brian left work early only to get stuck in the traffic of a five-car accident on Lake Shore Drive. I was just finishing prep on the boys’ dinner when he walked in, apologetic, expecting an emotional wife and ready to whisk us off to my favorite Thai restaurant. “It’s ok, Babe,” I said. “Let’s just stay home and eat what we have here—we have lots of good food in the fridge. Really.”

Brian knows the phrase “it’s ok” rarely can be taken literally, but I was sincere. He studied my face and smiled. “No way, we’ll order in, then. It’s your birthday.” I insisted we hold off. He did not trust me. I insisted again. He watched me closely for the next 30 minutes. Just to be safe, I deployed my internal observer to sniff out any signs of martyrdom. My day-of-birth without a special dinner and birthday cake? Could it be that I was ok with this?

Admittedly, I’d been celebrated to excess all weekend, but I’m historically (and super embarrassingly) insatiable about these sorts of things. Friday Brian came home with fragrant lilies. Saturday, we went hiking and returned home to have a music-filled dinner, which Brian finished with a cake he couldn’t bear to leave in our fridge one moment longer, so he stuck some candles in it and endearingly looped his ring over a flame. Sunday morning, the boys watched me figure out how to stand-up paddleboard while they played on the beach. And Sunday night we went on a surprise “family date” at a fancy steakhouse. After a thorough search, my internal observer called back, “All clear!”

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Evidently I was feted to capacity, a possibility I didn’t know existed for an affection-loving Leo girl like me, but there I was, declining my favorite meal, cake and candles in favor of putting the kids to bed and facing Brian on the couch just to chat. Turns out, it was a spectacular way to celebrate. In fact, it brought about the delivery of this year’s best birthday gift: a mini transformation.

I heeded my body: “Do you think we could hold off on rich food for a couple days, love?”

I paid attention to my heart: “Ah, do you feel all that love? What a blessed girl you are.”

I listened to my mind: “What a year. A proper birthday meal is rather inconsequential at this point, wouldn’t you say?”

And, eventually, during meditation, I felt my spirit speak, too: “Welcome to a new year, dear one. Endless blessings.”

It might seem precious in the grand scheme—come on, you’re talking about skipping a restaurant meal when people out there have real problems—but this little act of foregoing a special birthday dinner with intention was big for me. Instead of sticking to old patterns once deemed non-negotiable, I carved a new inner way. And, as I understand it, it takes little chisels to attain our highest design.

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Apparently, special occasions merit photo cards at certain restaurants. Considering I’m rarely organized enough to order prints of anything I snap, I appreciate this.

And now, an affirmation from “Spiritual Marriage,” a talk by Brother Anandamoy, one of my favorite monastics.

Divine Sculptor,

Chisel Thou my life

According to Thy highest design.

-Brother Anandamoy