That Time I Analyzed The Shit Out Of My Twenties

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After Commencement, speaking with one of my favorite professors, Dr. Jerry, who once threatened to lock me out of the library. (Age 22)

Dear Abi,

Happy twentieth! This is me, Abi . . . or rather, this is you, Abi, at age thirty. So, yes, this is one of those letters from the future-self to the past-self, and I know you think that’s kind of barfy, but get over it, because I have things to say to you.

The first and most important thing is this: Everything just keeps getting better.

Bam. There you go. Happy birthday.

Of course, I don’t mean everything is a little better every day. Twenty-two is going to kick. Your. Ass. And that will be nothing compared to twenty-five. Twenty-three will be loaded with uncertainty, and twenty-eight is going to start out rough and turn into a glory-fest by the end. You know how life is. It comes in waves. But everything you go through is always building toward a greater Awesome.

So keep that in mind as I say other things in this letter to suggest that the life you have at thirty is not the life you currently think you want.

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As Mabel in Pride’s Crossing. (Age 21)

I caught that. Yes, I did. I saw that flicker of a smile and that tiny, barely-perceptible exhale of relief. Don’t play with me, Wurdeman. I know you’re still intrigued by alternatives. I know the thing you need most in your life right now is permission to be unsure, and I know how unwilling you are to offer yourself that.

You want to know exactly what you want. You want to be the kind of sexy-ass, powerful goddess who heel-clicks her way through life without ever indicating doubt . . . about who she is, about what she deserves, about the correctness of her own understanding.

You have to let that unattainable ideal go. Actually, “ideal” isn’t even the word, because this image doesn’t fit who you are, even the ideal version of who you are. You have it in your head that strength is a matter of what you feel, when actually, it’s a matter of how you handle what you feel. You think you’d be more influential if you were more authoritative and less into relationships. Wrong again. You’ll be surprised how much you can accomplish through empathy and connection. You worry that your introverted nature makes other people perceive you as insecure and weak. Yep. Sure does. But that has less to do with your introversion, and more to do with the way you carry it right now.

The point is, you weren’t built to be a heel-clicker, drawing envy from those around her with her perfect manicure, powerful presence, and sarcastic smiles. No, my dear, you are as soft-hearted, affectionate, and over-thinking as you fear you are, and every minute you spend worrying that those things make you weak is a minute you lose figuring out how to be effective because of those things. By the time you are thirty, you will be a sexy, self-possessed, flat-wearing, non-goddess who knows her own mind, gets things done, and doesn’t let moments of self-doubt defeat her, because she’s totally cool with the fact that she’s human. Does that sound awesome? It should, because it is. Stop wasting time.

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Veiling my College Angie, so she can marry the love of her life. (Age 23)

Learn to use the phrase “I want.” Don’t cringe like that. I’m not telling you to whine or make demands. I’m suggesting that you state your un-hedged preferences out loud from time to time. “I want to go hiking today.” “I want this job.” “I want to date you.” You won’t always get these things, but you’ll be a lot closer than you are when you try to hide your ambitions.

Same deal with “no.” Just a pure, direct “no” without any “maybe later” or “let me think about it.” Seriously with this. No one will be as bothered by hearing your “no” as you are by the idea of saying it. That should tell you something.

And for the love of Nancy, stop thinking about yourself. That is almost always the problem. You feel insecure? Stop thinking about yourself. You feel stuck in a rut? Stop thinking about yourself. You’re inexplicably sad out of nowhere? Stop thinking about yourself. Or go on a Facebook fast. (You’ll know what that means later.) Excessive thinking will bring you down. Doing things will pick you up. Always.

Love your friends. Make an effort to connect with relatives you don’t know that well. Assume strangers are interested in knowing you better, even when the instinct for self-preservation makes you want to assume otherwise. And when you discover that someone doesn’t like you or doesn’t respect you or misunderstands you? Give it time. Some people never come around, and that’s fine, but most people will.

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With my Original Angie and her amazing little girl, reminiscing over the friendship scrapbook I made her for high school graduation. (Age 24, I think)

By the way, when you graduate, you’ll wish you spent a little less time studying, a little less time with Nick, and a little more time with your girlfriends. Obviously, the time you spend with Nick is really important, but the time you spend having a life of your own is important, too. Also—so sorry—Nick is going to be a Facebook friend in a few years. He’s going to be living in Seattle with a beautiful woman who isn’t you, and you are going to think it’s wonderful. You will. So go ahead and take a break from this letter to go put on his blue sweater and cry in a corner, because I know that’s where you are right now. When you’re done, though, I’ll be here, waiting to tell you again that it’s going to be fine. It’s going to be good, actually. It’s going to be wonderful.

You’ll be single at thirty. And you’ll be happy. Not happy because you’re single, but happy because you’re a well-rounded human being who has amazing friends, a supportive family, a career you’re passionate about, a strong grip on your identity, and no maternal longings whatsoever. You’ll have moments of loneliness, but you’ll also have glimpses into painful mother/daughter relationships and discord among siblings and rocky marriages. You’ll see that most people don’t get to have the whole perfect picture, and despite what you usually lack in romance, the amount of love you have in your life is insane.

Now, I know you’ve never really been “out there” in the dating world, so here’s what you can expect:

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Nora’s Grey Gardens Champaign Party. Things . . . happened. (Age 24, 25, something)

As I previously mentioned, it turns out you’re sexy. Granted, this is not an opinion held by men the whole world over, but you’ll find that you don’t care, because you’re not interested in men the whole world over. You care first and foremost about the way you feel in your own body, and you care secondly about the opinion of the one man who holds your interest in a given moment. Some men will be into you, some won’t, and you’ll be perfectly happy with the balance you’ve struck.

Over the course of your twenties, you’ll have plenty of bad dates, and that’s okay, because bad dates are hilarious.

On rare occasions, you’ll fall hard. You’ll get a glimmer of a feeling that you’re on to something real. You’ll hit road blocks, you’ll be forced to examine and question what you really want, you’ll resist letting go like you think your entire life will implode if you can’t make this work, and when it ends, you’ll know that everything is going to be fine, and you’ll feel like everything is broken forever and ever and ever and for all time, world without end, amen.

Then you’ll discover that everybody in your life has your back. You’ll remember how much love you have, how many relationships in your life do work, and you’ll realize you want something like that. Not something perfect, because you’re not an idiot and you know perfection’s not a thing. But you’ll want something that doesn’t require so much fear and uncertainty and breath-holding.

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Solvang trip with Nora and my handsome wooden Viking man (Age 28)

Your taste in men will change, just slightly. You’ll still value kindness and intelligence and humor, but by your late twenties, you’ll know which compromises are possible, and which are not. You’ll understand the difference between a “nice guy” and a kind one. You won’t just search for someone you admire; you’ll also look for a man who expects to learn from you. And one day you’ll wake up and realize that an even temper and a well-adjusted personality aren’t just admirable; they’re also hot. They’re the things that make a heart-thumping, tongue-tied mess of you.

Yes, you’re still single at thirty. But, Little Miss Frustrated-By-Constant-Uncertainty, you know what you want. And because of everything you’ve already been through and the mistakes you’ve already made, you have a fighting chance at being a really good partner for the man you want once the man you want shows up.

In the meantime, keep reading constantly because it fills your soul and makes you a better person. Work your ass off. I say that with some degree of caution, because you shouldn’t work to the detriment of your personal life—you still have to be human at the end of the day, after all. Just never underestimate how much the work you love can fulfill you.

Call your grandma. Write letters to your great aunts. Give blood more often.

Don’t obsess over other people’s progress. Some people are ahead of you. Some people are behind you. This is how everything is always, so stop looking around at everybody else. You did that on the sidewalk once and you ran into a parking sign. It hurt and you looked like an idiot, which is why you should just watch where you’re going.

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Scraping out a coconut in St. Maarten, a few hours before marrying Nora and Andy. (Age 27)

When someone says something about you and that thing has two possible interpretations, choose the positive one. It’s the scarier choice, but it’s 1) likelier and 2) the only choice you stand to gain anything from. Even if you’re wrong, the joke’s not on you; it’s on the person who tried to insult you and failed.

Keep in mind that the way people treat you has as much to do with them as it has to do with you. More, in some cases.

Also keep in mind that this same exact truth applies to the way you treat others.

Love this time in your life. Love it. Don’t try to outrun it, and don’t shame yourself for not being above the mistakes you’re about to make.

I know you. I know this advice is annoying the hell out of you, because you think I forgot what it was to be twenty. You think I’m underestimating you, that I don’t see that you already know all this. You pride yourself on being “wise beyond your years,” because that’s the generous compliment people give you. But here’s the thing:

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With my niece and her ridiculous eyes, just before my brother’s wedding. (Age 26)

“Wise beyond your years” is, in some sense, an impossibility. Wisdom is different from knowledge. It’s a form of understanding that lives under your skin. It’s something we speak of earning because it can only really be attained through experience.

You’re smart, Abigail. You’re going to make mostly good choices. You’re going to make good use of the “pre-wisdom” you currently have. But you’ll also be surprised by some of the stupid decisions you make. You’ll be surprised by your cowardice at times, then by your courage at others. You’ll think you’ve found reasons to second-guess your strength, and then you’ll turn around and prove yourself wrong. Then right again. Then wrong.

You’ll spend late evenings in Due Gatti, drinking coffee and discussing professors and papers and women’s rights with your girlfriends, because that, my dear, is who you are. You’ll say your final goodbye to the supposed love-of-your-life in a gazebo after a wedding, with your hair all up and your long, floral dress on, thinking of how terribly romantic this tearful goodbye would seem if it was a Jane Austen novel and not, you know, the heart-stabbing events of your actual life. You’ll spend a year in a van with strangers, you’ll move to a city that overwhelms you, and you’ll sell your soul for rent money in a seedy casino. You’ll be kissed on rooftops and in libraries. You’ll laugh in wineries and at your best friend’s kitchen table. You’ll cry on the floor of your closet. Oh! At some point, you’ll have a walk-in closet.

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Modeling retro waves for Nora, which she styled while I drank a French 75 and vented some things at her. (Age 29)

You’ll win awards and not win awards. You’ll find your calling and move your furniture and live with strangers you found on the Internet. You’ll belly dance on the Queen Mary and wander bookstores in Solvang and form friendships with your relatives. You’ll host parties and cook turkeys and sing karaoke in your living room, which is crazy, because last you checked, you hated karaoke. You’ll break hearts and have your own heart broken and you’ll feel like the failure is yours in both cases. You’ll realize that’s how everyone feels.

You’ll get wiser, Abi. Because as much as you hate to admit it, there’s plenty of room to get wiser. You’ll get stronger and braver and kinder. And by thirty, you won’t have completely nailed being a person, but you’ll be closer. You’ll also be grateful for the messy decade that came before, and in rare moments, you’ll kind of miss it.

I wouldn’t trade positions with you for anything, because as I said, everything gets better, which means I’m on the good end. But the road here is remarkable and precious and you only get to travel it once.

So happy birthday to you, Abi Wurdeman. And happy twenties.

~Abi

P.S. The pimples are because of the dairy. Everything else is because of the gluten.

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That Time We Made Our Piñata The Best Damn Piñata

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Adolph and me, out for a stroll.

After seven years, I am still not used to the district situation in Los Angeles. There is a district for everything. E-ver-y-thing. When I moved out here, I figured, okay, Fashion District . . . Jewelry District . . . probably some kind of Technology District. Broad strokes, right?

No. Because about once every few months, I’ll hear someone saying something like, “Oh, great, my kid has to make a puppet for school on Monday. Now I have to go to the Googly Eye District on a Saturday. Ugh.”

It’s the magic of major metropolitan life. You can get the specialized version of anything, as long as you’re willing to face a little traffic, deal with some awkward parking, and possibly not speak the same language as the people you’re bargaining with. And if you’re already living in L.A., you’re obviously up for all those things.

This is how Nora and I ended up walking down a city street, brushing our way through the dangling crepe paper of the Buzz Lightyears and Homer Simpsons and giant tequila bottles of the Piñata District.

The selection was almost overwhelming. My expectations were still set to Eureka, Missouri, where you got your piñata at Ben Franklin,* and your choices were The Little Mermaid, a donkey, or a star.

And I was dying for the chance to make that choice when I was a kid! I always dreamed of having a piñata birthday. It combined everything I loved: dizziness, candy, and controlled destruction. It never worked out, though, and it made sense. For one thing, I’m not sure I ever even vocalized my love for piñatas, and for another thing, we didn’t really do big parties in my family. Big parties were expensive, and considering that my parents worked in faith-based professions, we couldn’t run around throwing money at everything. We got to have dance lessons and join baseball leagues. We got to take a family vacation every year. We got to eat food and live in a house and wear clothes. We did not get to rent a table at Chuck E. Cheese and invite thirty of our closest friends.

At the time, I felt victimized by our family budget, but I now realize how ridiculous that was, considering that my birthdays always turned out to be about ten times cooler than Chuck E. Cheese parties. I’d get to have two or three girls over to spend the night, and my mom would come up with some genius way to make it special. She’d have us make hats or set up a photo shoot or supply us with giant pieces of poster board so we could design the set for a play. Then, once the scheduled activities were over, I’d stay up late with my closest friends, first watching a movie, then starting in on a game of Truth Or Dare, where everybody chose truth, because we all just wanted to be “forced” to talk about the boys we liked.

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Me, Nora, and Andy, warming up the photo booth

Yep, those were good birthdays. But when Nora and I sat down to plan our 30th/40th birthday party (we’re ten years and six days apart, so we celebrate together every year) and the idea of a piñata was casually thrown into the mix, I grabbed it and clung to it. This was going to happen. A piñata party was finally going to happen.

I was giddy watching that paper-mache zebra descend as the shop owner finagled it down from its second-level rack. I carried it as we walked back to the car, thrilled to feel its light, hollow body under my arm, imagining the satisfying crack of the bat against its side belly, the explosion of candy.

“It seems like we should name it,” Nora said.

“I was just thinking that. But the hard thing is—“

“We’re going to beat it until it busts open.”

“Right.”

“So we don’t want to name him something that will make him too endearing.”

We maneuvered him into the backseat of my little two-door, then stood back and looked at him.

“Adolph?” Nora suggested.

“Perfect.”

We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping for liquor and discussing how we would fill our zebra. We wanted this piñata to be amazing. We wanted it to be so great that our adult friends wouldn’t be above diving to the floor, scrambling to grab Adolph’s marvelous entrails, instead of casually strolling by, scooting the candy around with their toes to see what’s under the Fun Dip.

I called my brother Phil later that night to ask if he had a bat we could borrow.

“No, you can’t borrow my bat! Are you kidding me? First of all, I don’t know where it is. Secondly, it’s aluminum. You can’t have drunk, blindfolded people swinging around an aluminum bat!”

“Oh, you don’t have a wooden bat?”

“What?! You can’t have drunk, blindfolded people swinging around a wooden bat, either! Go to Target or something and get a wiffle ball bat. Anything heavier than that and you’ll kill someone.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t get a wooden bat!”

“Okay!”

“That’s a terrible idea!”

“Okay! Oh my God. We’ll find something lighter.”

“Asking to borrow my aluminum bat . . . “

“I didn’t know it was aluminum!”

“Even if it wasn’t!”

“OKAY!”

“Okay.”

“We got really cool insides for the piñata, by the way. And we were thinking of getting little bottles of liquor to put in there, too—“

“What? Now you want to have broken glass at this thing?“

“The plastic ones! Some of them are plastic! We’re not sure we’re going to do it, though. I mean, it’s not super expensive, but it’s a little more than we were planning to spend.”

“Just get them! Get them. Listen, if you need a piñata loan, I will cover you. You’ve waited your whole life for this piñata; you make it the best damn piñata it can be. I know you guys want to be responsible. I know you’re all like, “But I was raised by people who work in the church” and Nora’s like, “But I was raised by refugees” and now you’re both just trying to be all conscientious and not blow your money on frivolous things, but this is your thirtieth birthday party, and you have spent your life waiting on this piñata. This is your dream, so make it amazing. Fill it with liquor if that’s what you want. I will loan you—“

“I don’t need a loan—“

“If you do, I will loan you piñata money. Just don’t half-ass this. If you’re going to have a piñata, make it an amazing piñata.”

“This is weirdly one of the most inspiring speeches you’ve ever made.”

“Yeah. Because this is really important.“

“Okay.”

“But don’t use a wooden bat!”

“Oh my God.”

“I’m not kidding. Someone will die.”

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You’ll have to trust me when I say this is a picture of Phil destroying Adolph. It’s blurry, sure, but look how pretty the blue is . . .

I meant it when I said the speech was inspiring. I picked up fifteen tiny bottles from the liquor store on the corner, and on February 8th, I dumped them into my trunk alongside a bag containing new birthday pajamas (oh, yeah, this was a pajama party), a bathing suit, a towel, and a loaf of gluten-free bread, in case I drank too much.

Nora had the brilliant idea of starting our birthday celebration early. I was to come to her place five hours early so we could have time not just to set up, but also to take a long walk together and then hang out in the hot tub with cigars and port.

“Just to take a little pressure off the party,” she said.

This wasn’t just a smart idea; it was a meaningful idea. Over the years, we’d learned that a party is not foolproof. There is always a chance it could be awkward or messy or someone could get too drunk and break something or throw up in a corner of the room and then hide it under a plant. But a long walk? An hour in the hot tub, swapping life philosophies? Long conversations about every damn thing? These things have never, ever failed us.

Nora and I took a long walk across Hansen Dam, catching each other up on our lives, discussing our newest goals, and marveling together that the Pajama Party theme we assumed would be so easy had actually sent so many of our friends into a philosophical crisis over what type of pajama is the right type of pajama to wear to an adult’s birthday party.

After our stroll, we sunk into the hot tub, port and cigars in hand. The cigars were left over from our trip to Solvang a couple years before. We’d picked them up at a tiny smoke shop after I’d confessed to Nora that I’d never smoked a cigar, but I’d always wanted to try it. We smuggled them into our non-smoking hotel room and got a few puffs in before our rule-abiding souls ruined the moment with guilt and worry . . . wondering if the scent would get trapped in the carpet and curtains, if we’d be charged an additional fee, if the next guest would be exceptionally sensitive to cigar smoke and would suffer all through her stay. We packaged up the cigars, aired out the room, and destroyed all the evidence. That evening, we headed down to the hotel hot tub and discussed the paths of our lives.

“What has been your favorite age?” Nora asked.

“This one,” I said.

“Twenty-eight?”

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Henry the Dog in a little silver hat.

I nodded, surprising myself by the answer. Nora and I had been talking about taking a girls’ weekend for years, and I’d finally pushed for this one because now—at twenty-eight—I was in a less-than-comfortable place in my life. I’d just been through a failed relationship with Duc, then a failed rebound, and I really wanted to get away from those things; get a new perspective—a reminder that the world is big and life is actually pretty open.

“I think I’m usually happiest in the year that I’m in,” I said, after considering her question further. “I mean, I’ve felt that way about my adult years, anyway. Some ages have been really rough, but I still usually find I’d rather be where I am than go back in time. I like the way my relationships grow, and I like knowing things I didn’t know before.”

I remembered this conversation now, sitting in Nora’s hot tub two hours before our party, watching the sun set over the valley. I asked myself again, “What has been your favorite age?”

Twenty-nine. Hands down.

Not that twenty-nine was my most jubilant year or my easiest or most successful. But I was braver this year. I was wiser and kinder. There were people in my life who weren’t in it before.

Nora and I agreed that the cigar/port/hot tub occasion called for a deep discussion about what we had learned in our many years, and we shared our insights. Then we hitched our towels around our waists and climbed the hill to her house, where we parted ways to shower and dress. I found her in her bedroom later, and we presented our new birthday pajamas to one another like high school seniors dressing for prom. She gave her input on my choice of hairstyle, and we finally went downstairs to set out the food, hang the streamers left over from our international-themed birthday party (27th/37th), and lay out the props for our homemade photo booth. Nora had converted her garage into a dance floor, complete with seating and a disco ball,** and our guests began to arrive soon after she fired up the music.

The party was everything we could have hoped for. The photo booth was well-used, as were the props and costume pieces*** that became a part of our guests’ pajama party fashions as the night went on. As it turns out, a room full of adults can get psyched about a piñata the way a room full of children can, and after several hearty swings at Adolph (and one accidental swing at my arm—good call on the bat situation, Phil), an embarrassment of fun-size candy bars, chip bags, cotton candy bags, corn nuts, liquor, and self-adhesive mustaches spilled onto the floor. Our friends did not let us down; they were on that mess in an instant.

I talked comedy writing with Jennifer, the brilliant improviser and sketch writer who had recently talked me into entering a storytelling competition. I hunted down Jim to join me for a photo booth picture, and we were surrounded in an instant by three other people grabbing props and striking poses. Our friends Isis and Scott brought each of us this really cool storytelling game, and I danced a bit with Lisa, a hilarious and energetic friend I met through Nora years before, and with Ryan, the guy who’s been my friend ever since I hit on him on MySpace in 2008.

My brother was there, mingling with other writers, making fun of my Muppet-like dance moves, and providing the mighty swing that left Adolph’s body dangling loosely from his head. David didn’t show up until pretty late, but that was easy to forgive, considering the crazy day he’d had—and the fact that he’d still chosen to tack our birthday party on to the end of it. Also, when I got up to get him a drink, I came back to discover him in a cowboy hat and blond mustache.

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Suspect.

“Someone just put this stuff on me.”

“Like, just put a hat and a mustache on you then ran away?”

“Pretty much.”

“Ha! Who?”

He smiled and shook his head. “I know her from your other parties, but I’m not good with names.”****

“So some female.”

“Yes.”

“Came running over here and put some stuff on you and then ran off.”

“That’s what happened.”

A few of us made an attempt to get a karaoke jam going . . . Nora and I sang a duet, David sang his signature “On Bended Knee” (lyrics artfully adjusted to address the fact that he walks with crutches), and then the karaoke part of the evening wound down until there was only a handful of us left having a mellow conversation in the corner of the Novaks’ garage while the disco ball kept spinning, shining its celebratory lights on the zebra remains scattered across the floor.

I camped out on the living room couch that night, because, you know, whiskey. In the morning, Nora and I took down the photo booth, trashed the streamers, and gathered Adolph’s limbs into a black garbage bag. We discussed breakfast, and she dumped sausage, ham, and tamales onto the counter.

“What kind of meat do we want?”

I stared at the selection with a furrowed brow, not wanting to give an honest answer.

“All of them?” Nora asked.

Yes, all of them.

Because if you’re going to have a birthday breakfast, make it the best damn birthday breakfast it can be. If you’ve dreamed all your life of having a piñata, pack it with cotton candy and Jack Daniels. If you’re going to have a party, involve a disco ball, pass out mustaches, and invite people who make your heart feel like a happy, little drunk.

If you’re going to pursue a risky career, Little Twenty-Something Abi Wurdeman, take some big-ass risks. If you’re going to live in Los Angeles, hike those canyons, hang out on the beach, and do your shopping in districts. If you’re going to make friends, seek out hilarious people, kind people, people you admire. If you’re going to love someone, open your terrified heart all the way, and if you’re going to let someone go, loosen your grasp, open your palms, and let it hurt for a minute, because it’s going to.

I loaded the breakfast dishes into the dishwasher as Nora wiped down the counter. She stopped suddenly, cocked her head, and said, “Can I tell you something? This might be weird.”

“I usually like it when you say weird things.”

“You look really good.”

“Is that weird?”

“I mean, not just . . . yes, your whole look and style has improved over the last few years, but you also seem more comfortable. More confident and . . . happier. Like you’re at home in your body and in your surroundings. Thirty is very attractive on you.”

I was surprised by how much this touched me—mostly because anytime I hear the word “improved” in a compliment, the prideball section of my brain wants to respond, “Oh, like you were so great to begin with!” But I suppose one does get wiser with time, and one does learn—and then unlearn, and then learn again—that perfection is not a given. No one expects it from me, and it’s naïve to try to fool anyone. I am going to change, the people I’m closest to are going to witness it, and if the changes I’ve worked hard for—the changes I can feel on the inside—are visible on the outside, that’s actually a major win. In fact:

“I’m not kidding; that’s one of the best compliments you could give me.”

“You’re welcome.”

“I’m actually—I’m tearing up over it. I feel kind of lame about that.”

“Aww.”

“This is pretty dorky, but I think I need to give you a hug now.”

I did hug her, and it was dorky, as was the nerderrific sense of joy swelling inside me as I drove out of the mountains of Sylmar and back home.

Thirty was only four days away. And I already knew it was going to be my favorite age.

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Year of the Disco Zebra

*Ben Franklin is a chain located primarily in the Midwest, I think. It sells basic craft supplies, basic party supplies, penny candy, and those black-and-white posters of little kids dressed as adults and holding hands. I owned one from age eleven until age fourteen. I feel I can tell you these things, now that it’s post #29 and we’ve been through so much together.

**”The box says not to look directly at the light because it could burn your retinas. Should I put up a sign or something?” I’m pretty sure my answer was, “Nah, don’t worry about it.” Not sure why. Sorry about that, Friends.

***Including Ella’s red gloves. I think she would have approved of their use.

****I’ve got $20 on Lisa.

That Time I Thanksgivinged Up Some Friends

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Who: Dorothy Met: 2011 How: Craigslist What’s so great about her: She doesn’t judge me when I invite her on a 1 a.m. McFlurry run.

Thanksgiving, Guys. Thanksgiving.

Seriously, it’s the best holiday. I know this for a fact. I know it in my heart . . . you know, in my gut . . . the same way I know that California is home and that the fork is a boy* and that Neil Patrick Harris isn’t really gay; he’s just afraid of how much he loves me.**

But if you need reasons more concrete than my gut, I offer you this:

Thanksgiving is a holiday where all your favorite people get together to eat amazing food. It’s a less-hyped holiday than Christmas, so there’s less pressure to feel profound things and make lasting memories. The gifts exchanged are gifts of service—making food, setting tables, clearing dishes, supporting one another when everyone wants to let the dishes get crusty overnight. And—now that we’ve grown up as a nation and have decided to scoff at the “Pilgrim/Native American Unity” theme—Thanksgiving is all about gratitude. It’s all about looking at your life and deciding to see that you’re actually doing all right after all.

What’s more, Thanksgiving is pretty inconsistent year-to-year. At least in my family. Christmas always had a routine, but Thanksgiving could be anything.

Just the five of us at home in Eureka.

Joining in with all those second and third cousins at Aunt Liz’s Thanksgiving bash.

Making the trek out to Knoxville to catch up with my mom’s side of the family, secretly delighting every time one of her brothers called her “Marijane” in that sweet, Tennessee drawl.

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Name: David Met: 2012 How: Austin Film Festival What’s so great about him: He just compared me to Leslie Knope, like, eight minutes ago.

Because I grew up knowing Thanksgiving as a “Just go with it” kind of holiday, I’ve always been good about, you know, just going with it. As opposed to Christmas, the holiday that once had my poor niece calling me to say, “Grandma is having me do the Advent calendar this year, but I know it has to be done a certain way and it’s really important to you and only you know how to do it, so can you help me?”

“Aww, sure, Megan, but it’s not . . . I mean it doesn’t have to be done the way I do it. The Advent calendar is your own personal interpretation.”

“I just, I don’t want to get it wrong. Maybe, you can just give me some guidelines, and then if I get it wrong, you can fix it when you get here?”

“Okay, I know I can be intense about this, but you know what? I’m passing the torch. I’m letting it go. This is your thing now. Just follow your instincts.”

“I don’t have any instincts . . . about Advent calendars.”

Which was fair, because really, it’s just shoving felt nativity characters into numbered pockets.

But I have always acted like the Advent calendar . . . and chocolate covered cherries and singing “Stille Nacht” on Christmas Eve . . . was a really big deal. When something turns into an annual ritual, I get it in my head that those rituals are sacred. The lack of tradition at Thanksgiving is liberating. It’s hard to be disappointed by the holiday as long as I’m with people I love.

For my first Thanksgiving in L.A., Phil and I had neither the money nor energy nor company for a huge Thanksgiving feast, so we grabbed turkey sandwiches at Subway and came back to the duplex to get into the holiday spirit with It’s A Wonderful Life, then destroy the holiday spirit with Heart of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, the documentary about what a dark, miserable mess shooting Apocalypse Now turned out to be.

The month after Phil and Stacey met, we had a tiny, three-person Thanksgiving. My future sister-in-law and I each made half the meal, then tried to set up an awkward system of TV trays alongside my little IKEA table to hold all the dishes. We ate and drank wine and played games, then distributed the leftovers the way sisters-in-law do—each giving each other the lion’s share of what we had made.

I had a couple friend Thanksgivings, my favorite of which was a shindig at Nora’s that ended in abdominally agonizing, breath-sucking laughter, thanks to a series of impromptu drawing games. Also, there was a group photo shoot with prompts like, “Look like you’re farting at the exact moment you’re seeing your baby for the first time.”

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Who: Nora Met: 2007 How: Scene Study Group (Craigslist) What’s so great about her: There’s actually a whole post about this, but to sum up: She taught me how to make shrinky-dinks.

I have almost never had a Thanksgiving I didn’t love.

This last Thanksgiving started a day early. That was because my roommate, Dorothy, works on Thursday nights. She’s a surgical assistant who performs emergency C-sections. No big.

When she mentioned her disappointment over having to miss the holiday altogether, my reaction was along the lines of, “Wednesday party here! Wednesday Thanksgiving! Here! Let’s do it!” My enthusiasm was due in part to the fact that I don’t believe anyone should ever have to miss Thanksgiving, and then also because my twenties have revealed an interesting fact about myself: I love to entertain.

Now, when I say, “entertain,” I don’t mean decorate and figure out place settings and plan dishes. I’m a little awkward with all of that stuff. And it was for this reason that I never expected to be a big party-thrower.

The first time I co-hosted a party, it was Nora’s and my birthday party . . . my twenty-fourth and her thirty-fourth. She invited about thirty people. I invited three. Three people. And of those three, two came. I mean, if you look at the percentages, I had a pretty good turn out. But I wasn’t looking at the percentages. I was looking at the fact that I had been in Los Angeles for almost a year, and I only had three friends I felt comfortable inviting to a party.

The next time Nora proposed a party, I was excictant, which is a word I just invented to express being excited about something you are also reluctant to do. I loved parties, but just thinking about my personal guest list made me feel like I was failing at people. I had more than three friends to invite this time, but it was still less than ten. All year long, I felt fine about my social life, but come birthday party time, when my friends turned into numbers, I suddenly felt like the village hermit. Why did I have so few friends?

Two reasons.

One: I was never comfortable reaching out to casual acquaintances. They barely knew me; who was I to assume they wanted to drive out to my house and sit on my furniture and play games I liked to play? If I invited them, would they feel like they had to come?

Over time, I’ve chilled the hell out about this, largely because I’m trying to succeed in an industry where you can’t get anywhere without building relationships. Also, by now, I’ve learned that reaching out to new friends is something that intimidates almost everyone, at least a little. I know very few people who are running around assuming everybody else wants to be their friend. Adulthood just means learning to say, “I’d love to have you over for dinner!” with a tone of confidence, even while most of us still have a little “butonlyifyouwanttoit’sokayifyoudon’t” going on on the inside.

The second reason for my low friend count was this: Things that matter take time. They just do. If I were built for quantity, maybe I’d have had fifty friends to invite to my twenty-fourth birthday party. But my instinct is for quality, and Quality means wondering at twenty-four if I’m doing it wrong . . .

. . . and realizing at twenty-nine how damned much I have to be grateful for.

Because Dorothy and I had limited space (and no interest in cooking for an army), we kept our Wednesgiving guest lists intimate—meaning we each invited about ten or fifteen people. And because no one has anything else going on the night before Thanksgiving, almost every single one of them RSVPed “yes.”

Dorothy and I spent the day cooking, taking turns with the little stove and the little counter in our little kitchen. She handled the centerpieces and lighting and decorations, and I printed up “I’m thankful for” cards for our guests to fill out . . . an idea that was also hers, because, as I mentioned, I’m not great at planning the party itself. I’m happy to be a workhorse, but when an event presents itself, I’m not the one bristling with the thrill of creating an atmosphere. I’m bristling with the anticipation of sharing my home with the people I love . . . having them walk through my space and sit in my chairs and fill the whole joint with their laughter.

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Who: Jim Met: 2008? 2009? 10? Dammit. How: Nora’s parties What’s so great about him: His Facebook posts have made him one of my comedy writing role models.

And fill it they did. Our little place was jam-packed with about twenty-five people . . . surrounding our table, squeezing on to sofas, crowding the kitchen. A few friends brought dishes to add the mix, and miraculously, we had no trouble feeding the masses. Our apartment vibrated with conversation and laughter. Dorothy’s friends mingled with mine, people swapped recipes, everyone took a turn at jumping up to refill someone’s wine or track down another fork. We filled out our “I’m thankful for” cards, and though mine was mostly a joke due to wine consumption and the fact that I spilled something on it, the answer I gave at Nora’s Thanksgiving dinner the next day was a better reflection of how I felt at Wednesgiving.

“I’m thankful for community. I used to think it was really important to prove that I didn’t need anybody else, but I’m starting to understand that—no matter how much I do for myself—every good thing that happens to me, personally and professionally, can be traced back to a support system. It’s not even always that people help me out; it’s also that they acknowledge my talents and give me purpose by letting me look out for them.”

It was funny at twenty-nine to remember how I worried at twenty-three that I might not have what it takes to build a new community in adulthood. I was worrying for the same reason I worry when Christmas plans change—I was expecting new friendships to come with certain rituals, and without the rituals, I wondered if this wasn’t the real thing. Shouldn’t there be full weekends and coffee dates and instant connections?

No, sweet, stupid child. Because building a community is like planning Thanksgiving. You invite people into your world, and then you just go with it. Some years it will be awkward, some years it will be amazing, some years you’ll wonder why the hell you wanted this person in your life, some years you’ll be unable to remember what it was like to have a life before them. You’ll have Subway sandwich years and karaoke party years, and all of it matters. Don’t overthink it, don’t force it, and don’t rush it; just keep that heart open and let people fall in.

Before you know it, you’ll be waving goodbye to your last guest and newest friend, closing the door behind him, and turning back to see a sink full of dirty dishes, a loose stack of handwritten gratitude, and half-drunk bottles of wine.

And you’ll know that the city that once intimidated the shit out of you is now officially your home.

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There is a debate over whether my “I’m thankful for” is disgusting or funny. I can see both. I can easily see both. It was just green bean casserole, though. Uneaten, non-regurgitated.

*I once told my mom that when I was little, I used to make up stories in my head about the silverware at the dinner table.

“The spoon is a girl—she’s smart and sweet and pretty—and she’s dating the knife. But the knife is kind of arrogant. He’s always picking on the fork, who’s just like this really nice, shy guy who’s in love with the spoon, but he won’t tell her because he respects her relationship. And the spoon doesn’t realize how terrible the knife is, because he’s always really nice around her.”

“What?”

“Does this sound crazy?”

“Only the part about the fork. You’re right about the knife and the spoon, but, Miss Abigail, the fork is the aunt.”

“No! What?”

“The fork is the spoon’s spinster aunt. Has been ever since I was a little girl.”

“Are you kidding me?”

“I don’t know how any daughter of mine could look at a fork and see a boy.”

My father was present for this conversation, seemed mildly distraught that it was happening, but still continues to love us both to this day.

**Kidding. My original crush was on Doogie, anyway . . . Barney kind of cancelled that out for me. Neil can stay where he is, all adorable and happy. 

That Time We Won An Award From The Plaid Button-Up Nation

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Now taking bets on how long it will be before I’m unable to remember what the hell this means or why I took this picture.

“There’s barbecue sauce in here!” I said, sifting through the items that had been clinking around at the bottom of my Austin Film Festival tote bag. “And a Stella Artois glass. And vodka!”

Phil glanced up from the festival program he was flipping through. “What, seriously?”

As the waiter refilled our water glasses, I pulled a CD out of the bag and showed it to my brother.

“Local music.”

“That’s awesome!”

“And there’s . . . what is this? Some kind of Netflix card. Oh! A year of free streaming! And a coupon for a restaur—“

“I found us.”

He handed me the program, opened to the page listing contest finalists.

“Modern Family: Earthquake Party” by Abi Wurdeman and Phil Wurdeman

Shit was real.

Phil and I had made it to the final round of the 2012 Austin Film Festival’s Sitcom Spec Competition. It was a pretty exciting accomplishment, not just because AFF’s writing contest is highly regarded, but also because it’s a competition linked to a film festival and a writing conference . . . meaning we’d get to spend about a week networking while wearing badges that declared we were Finalists. We wouldn’t even have to try to find a graceful way to mention our recent success; it would be right there on lanyards around our necks. We also had access to exclusive panels, roundtables, and parties. There would be so many opportunities at this thing! So many, many, many opportunities! So . . . very many . . . opportunities.

Frankly, it was almost overwhelming.

Phil and I went to great lengths to make sure we were ready to make the most of the conference—from revamping our business cards to determining the best possible phrasing when answering questions like, “What are you working on?” and “What is your script about?” We planned what we would ask during roundtable discussions, and we researched and quizzed each other on the panelists that would be attending. I even got a French manicure, because even this sloppy broad has a go-to fashion move that makes me feel like I’ve got my shit together, even if I’m not sure I do.

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Yes, I did. I posed my swag for a photo shoot. There was vodka and barbecue sauce in there, Guys! You would have done the same thing!

Yes, I certainly was giddy sifting through the goods in our festival gift bag, and I was even giddier to put that hard-earned Producer’s Badge around my neck, but all giddiness aside, Team Wurdeman had their game faces on.

. . . just like all the other Semifinalists and Finalists who crowded the “How To Make The Most Of Your Festival Experience” panel the following day.

I’m inclined to suspect I was not the only young writer hoping to learn who to approach, how to approach them, and how to leave Austin with a new manager, new agent, and, like, eight meetings set up for next week. It turns out, there weren’t a lot of secrets to approaching the panelists and judges. Just the basics. Be polite. Don’t ask them for anything. Absolutely do not hand them a script; it will only make them hate you. The most repeated tip, however, was: “By all means, approach the panelists. Schmooze with the reps. Just know that the most important connections you make this week will be with the writers on your level.”

While this wasn’t the advice anyone was hoping for, it did make sense. No matter who you’re reaching out to, it takes time–years, usually–for a relationship to turn into a career opportunity. So we might as well build relationships with the people we can easily connect with–people who are also looking to build a network and break in together, rather than focusing exclusively on forcing relationships with people who already have peers and assistants and mentees and gifted nephews to look out for. There’s never any harm in placing yourself on the Big Dogs’ radar—in fact, it’s a really good call if you know how to do it gracefully and respectfully. But the panelists were absolutely right: you stand to lose a lot if you neglect your peers because you’re trying to be discovered by someone “bigger.”

I expected to feel relieved at this advice. It should have taken the pressure off. We could leave here without signing with a rep and still know that we made the most of the opportunity. Our main responsibility was to connect with other baby writers.

Other baby writers who probably went to film school. And probably already all knew each other. And probably all had the same types of internships while I was following the acting path in central Illinois, highlighting the works of Stanislavsky and exploring the function of the clown nose as the most basic form of mask.*

I had been nervous about AFF not just because of all the showrunners and reps that would be in attendance, but also because I’d never been so deeply immersed in Screenwriter World before.

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~Alec Berg

Sure, I had writer friends. I had Industry friends, and I’d attended my fair share of networking events and seminars. But I’d never been around this many film and television writers at once . . . never spent so much time with them, in such close quarters, with so many opportunities to mingle and bond. Writing is, by nature, an isolating craft. So, while I’d already confirmed for myself that in terms of skill, passion, and drive, I belonged in this industry, I still hadn’t had the opportunity to properly answer the much more personal question:

Did I belong in this community?

I admit I was slightly intimidated. But this was an opportunity, damnit, and I didn’t stock up on business cards, assemble an “AFF Plan” binder, and pay someone twenty-five dollars to paint white lines on my fingernails for nothing.**

Team Wurdeman went to every event possible. We mingled with the people sitting next to us at panels, we inserted ourselves into jovial-looking conversations at happy hour, we reviewed business cards at the end of the day so we could staple them into a notebook and scribble reminders about who these people were. It didn’t take long at all to figure out that these were my people. This was my community. I was surrounded by some of the kindest, funniest folks I had ever met—people who shared my passions and understood me. I suddenly felt like I’d just been wandering the earth all these years, looking for home, and BAM! Here it was—a nation of plaid button-up shirts, jokey tees, and Tina Fey glasses.

And one of the most wonderful and remarkable things about writers is how astoundingly supportive they are of one another—even the dry, sarcastic ones—despite the highly competitive nature of the Industry. By the time we walked into the Awards Luncheon on the last day of the conference, we had several new friends crossing their fingers for us just because they really liked us as people . . . and because they hadn’t met the other finalists, whom they also would have loved.

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A photo of the Awards Luncheon table settings . . . which I stole from Radcliff’s Facebook about fourteen seconds after he friended me.

The Awards Luncheon was one of the absolute greatest moments of my entire existence, by the way. For one thing, we won . . . though I wasn’t entirely convinced of it at first. Being the Queen of Weird Fears, I had been harboring a quiet concern that, at the moment the winner of the Austin Film Festival’s Comedy Spec Teleplay Competition was announced, something would snap in my brain, and I’d hear our names instead of the one that was actually spoken. I’d walk to the stage in a fog of delusion, unable to hear my brother calling me back to my seat, and end up meeting the real winner at the podium, where I’d mistake her for staff, thank her, shake her hand, and hip-nudge her out of the way so I could make my acceptance speech.

So when I heard our names, I glanced at Phil before I stood, just to make sure I hadn’t lost my mind. He smiled back in confirmation.

It’s funny how the best moments of your life can turn into mist before you’re even through them. By the time we returned to our seats, I’d already forgotten half the things I’d said in our acceptance speech. And I’d passed the whole experience of the speech in a sort of blind delirium, failing to see—as Phil later pointed out—that Eric Roth was beaming at us through the whole thing.

Eric Friggin’ Roth, guys.

Eric Roth is one of our all-time greatest heroes—for all his work, but most notably for Forrest Gump. Phil and I have both watched that movie more times than we can count. When we lived together, Phil recited Forrest Gump quotes like pre-teen girls sing Taylor Swift songs.*** We know that movie backwards and forwards, and somehow, it’s still hilarious and soul-squeezing every time we watch it.

Forrest Gump taught us countless things about comedy, about heart, about illuminating common experiences in the context of an exceptional story. Eric Roth’s work had offered so us so much guidance and inspiration, and here he was, watching us accept our first major writing victory. A moment later, he’d accept an award of his own—a Bronze Typewriter, just like ours—and give a remarkable speech that would be met with tears and a standing ovation. Chris Carter would do the same, and Frank Darabont would accept his trophy, marveling at how “fucking cool” the thing was. (I know, Frank Darabont! I know!)****

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Giving a speech, forgetting every last word of it.

I felt so perfectly small that day. The good kind of small, I mean. Standing Beside The Ocean small. Edge Of The Grand Cayon small. The kind of small you feel when you’re overcome with wonder for the things that surround you . . . a feeling that was made all the more thrilling by the realization that these giants were the giants of our field . . . that we were in this room with them because we belonged there, even if we had many miles to travel to get where they were.

And it wasn’t just Roth and Carter and Darabont I stood in awe of. I found myself deeply admiring my fellow baby writers—the people I’d been getting drinks with and having lunch with, whose journeys and ambitions I now knew, now appreciated, and was suddenly learning from. I realized that there really were no powerless writers at AFF, because a writing career is a beast. It takes nerve, patience, and hard work. Whether they were there by way of the competition or because they knew a good investment when they saw one, every writer was there because they had the courage to plant their flag in a wild and overgrown field and announce without blushing that they knew they belonged there.

I met a fellow winner, David Radcliff,***** at a cocktail party following the Awards Luncheon. Because of the joy fog I was in that day, I recall almost nothing about that conversation; just that when Phil asked me to identify the business card later that evening, I had retained enough information to say, “Oh, that’s the Dexter guy; the guy who won with the Dexter script. He’s really nice. We need to keep in touch with him.”

A couple weeks after we returned from Austin, we got lunch with the Dexter guy, and before long, the three of us were celebrating birthdays, new apartments, Wednesgivings,****** and the joy of karaoke together. We’ve swapped scripts, compared strategies, and cheered each other on. And last Fall, Phil and I joined the WGA by way of a project David had recommended us for. Nobody is hooking anybody else up with a breakthrough job, of course, because none of us is in a position to do that. But there’s a lot to be said for breaking in side-by-side, for having another peer to admire and learn from, to affectionately envy and eagerly promote, to help you put things back into perspective when you try to apply the “setback” label to something that’s only a natural part of the process.

David is the AFF contact we’ve grown closest to, but he’s certainly not the only one we’ve eagerly kept in touch with. And I remember flipping through those stapled business cards on the last night in our hotel, telling Phil I’d be psyched to work with any of those people.

That sense of community is the AFF gift that keeps on giving. Don’t get me wrong; winning was huge, too. Winning AFF gave us the perfect query letter subject line, got us several requests to see our script, and ultimately led to an introduction to a kick-ass manager who is now our kick-ass manager. But that sense of community sticks with me and guides me even now, as we’re taking meetings with the people who can open those heavy doors, because I’m able to walk into a room knowing that the powerful professionals interviewing us are writers. They come from the Plaid Button-Up Nation. They’re my people.

And my people are in this together.

Scratch what I said before. Writing is not an isolating craft. It’s an independent craft performed inside an active community of kind, funny, somewhat obsessive dorks.

And if that’s not my home, then Friends, I’m afraid I must not have one.

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~Phil Rosenthal

*Again, Theater Major, not mental patient. Though I’ll admit the line is thin.

**Manicures are weird and unnecessary. And yet.

***Then he got bored with that and started doing impressions of celebrities doing impressions of Forrest Gump. And when he got bored with that, he did impressions of celebrities doing impressions of other celebrities doing impressions of Forrest Gump. It was as confusing and disturbing as it sounds, but still. You have not lived–not really–until you’ve heard Phil Wurdeman as Sean Connery doing an impression of Christopher Walken in the role of Forrest Gump.

****Eric Roth: Distinguished Screenwriter Award, Chris Carter: Outstanding Television Writer Award, Frank Darabont: Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award

*****One-Hour Spec Winner for Dexter, “The Second Coming.” I made the mistake of reading it over brunch. I can never eat and read at the same time, so it’s always a showdown between how good the food is and how good the script is. I had ordered my favorite omelette at one of my favorite brunch places, and I still ended up eating it cold. 

******The often-overlooked holiday that comes the day before Thanksgiving.

That Time I Road Tripped Through History

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The town my family founded as observed from my Aunt Liz’s side yard. My favorite cemetery in the world is on the far right, at the end of the road. If anyone tries to tell you Missouri isn’t beautiful, you just go right on ahead and spit in their eye.

My mother* has been on my case about interviewing my grandma and great aunts since I was ten years old. Seriously, it’s like every day with this woman. “You want to get the stories while you still can.” “I think it’ll be a really special memory for you.” “I wish I’d asked more questions before the older generations passed in my family.”

To be honest, though, my mother was on my case about this because—as I’ve said before—she knows me very, very well. She knew how much that family history would mean to me, she knew how much I’d love both the stories and the time spent with the women who preceded me, and she knew that although these women seem immortal, they probably actually are not. That last truth was the one that hit me when I realized that my eighty-nine-year-old grandma was the youngest living woman of her generation.

You see, it wasn’t that I hadn’t wanted to do the interviews. It was just that I was clinging to the fantasy of it. I’d do them someday when I could afford to take a full week off of work. We’d take our time, playing dominoes and taking walks through the Missouri countryside between interviews. They’d guide me down dusty roads, showing me the vacant lot where the old schoolhouse once stood.

But at twenty-eight, I had to admit that the dream interview conditions were not coming my way anytime soon. So I made some calls and arranged a whirlwind weekend road trip through my family history . . . a weekend that I would spend hacking and sneezing due to a raging cold I was trying to pretend I didn’t have, while my mother/navigator/back-up note-taker would do her own hacking and sneezing because of autumn allergies. I’d also spend the weekend shackled to my phone like some jerk lawyer character in a kid’s movie, because this was the week the Austin Film Festival was supposed to call and tell me if Phil’s and my script advanced to the final round of the script competition.

No, the conditions were not ideal. But if anything was ever worth driving across Missouri with a splitting headache and constant irritation about travelling outside the coverage area, a weekend spent with these ladies was it.

Aunt Naomi

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Naomi with the photo of the ladies she trained with, back in her riveting days.

Aunt Naomi is the youngest of my paternal grandpa’s seven siblings—and the only one still with us. Her older sister Ruby was her best friend and roommate for most of her life, as Ruby’s husband died in World War II shortly after they married, and Naomi never married at all.

Aunt Ruby passed away in 2010 during a family trip to Minnesota, and I was afraid the loss of her would be devastating for Naomi, who’d never really had to live without her. Naomi seemed to adjust gracefully, though, thanks to the strong Wurdeman constitution, and her very close friend, Mary.

Mary is a short, chatty, opinionated, deceptively stern-voiced woman whom I have grown to love partly because of her devotion to my aunt and partly because she’s just so damned charming in all her unexpected sweetness. She attended my cousin Emily’s funeral a month before I made my trip out for the interviews, and it was there that she let me know she was helping Naomi prepare.

“It turns out Reader’s Digest had an article this month on how to get interviewed. Thought that was perfect timing, so I read it so I could help Naomi get ready. I told her, ‘The first thing they ask you, it says, is “What’s your name?” So be ready for that.’ And they ask you to spell it, too. I told her about that. They have to ask you to spell it, because sometimes the last names—you know, ‘Wurdeman’ isn’t a name a lot of people know how to spell. But then, I guess you know how to spell it. So you probably won’t ask her that.”

I was pretty sure Naomi could handle these hard-hitting questions, but I loved Mary for considering this venture a big enough deal to prepare for, and actually, I did send a “prep letter” of my own out to all three interviewees a couple weeks before my trip. I didn’t ask for anything major—I just wanted to explain why their stories were so important to me and to let them know that while I did have a million questions of my own, it was also important to me to hear the stories they wanted me to know about . . . the stories that meant something to them. I also told them there was no need to go digging through their personal archives, but that if they had any photos or mementos lying around that they thought might be of interest, I’d love to see them.

Naomi greeted me with a photocopied picture of herself as a child, standing among her parents and seven siblings. Then, she handed me what has now become one of my most prized possessions:

Four pages torn from a letter-sized AAL** notepad, on which she’d written everything she could think to say about her life. Four pages, front and back, top to bottom. And sure enough, the first line of the whole story is, “My name is Naomi Marie Wurdeman.”***

Now, for someone like me, who never shuts up about her life and is at this very moment struggling to write about one single weekend in less than 45,000 words, eight pages is not that much. But as regular readers might recall, Naomi does not write. She’s not really that into words. Aunt Ruby used to write the letters enclosed in Christmas cards, and the first holiday card I got from Naomi after Ruby passed read, “Hope you are doing well in California. I’m going to have the carpets cleaned on Tuesday. Love, Aunt Naomi.”

And that meant a lot to me, because I knew she was stepping out of her natural realm to connect with me across the miles.

So you can imagine what a big, fat deal it was to me that this woman had sat down to hand write eight pages because I had explained how much her life story would mean to me. Call me weak, but I’m tearing up right now thinking about it.

We all sat at Naomi’s kitchen table, and I set up my laptop to record the conversation while my mom took back-up notes by hand. I asked Naomi about her family, about her childhood on a struggling, Depression Era farm, about World War II. When we got to the part about her riveting years, she brought out Show Me, Rosie!, a book about Missouri riveters that profiled the two youngest Wurdeman sisters.

Then I asked about Uncle Vic’s death in France. She told me the first sign was when his letters stopped coming.

“Of course, there were a lot of reasons he might not have been able to write,” she said. “But then all Ruby’s own letters came back to her one day in one bundle. That’s when you know.”

She went on to describe what could only be considered an unthinkable nightmare to those of us who grew up in an age of instant information—the fact that they had to live in the limbo of suspicion for a few weeks before the military contacted them.

“And then when they tried to reach Ruby, she wasn’t home. Well, they can’t leave a message about something like that. So she kept getting these hints that her husband was dead without any official word. She finally got someone on the phone, though, and they told her.”

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Show Me, Rosie! That’s Ruby on the left, Naomi on the right.

It was hard having her brothers at war, too, Naomi said, but she admitted it without any hint of drama. My other interviewees would speak of the war the same way. “You worry. Sure you do. But you keep doing what you can at home and pray that everybody comes home safe.”

I pressed on about the war and her career and whether anyone ever gave her any trouble for not marrying. The first time I’d asked about her life had been on that road trip to Minnesota, when she initially seemed confused by my interest. Now that she’d had time to adjust and prepare, I got to watch her own her history—I got to hear the stories she was prepared to tell, in a tone that betrayed the slightest hint of pride—at least to the degree that a Greatest Generation Wurdeman woman would allow herself to take pride in having lived her life the way she should. I loved the way she chuckled over the stories she told, the sweet smile she smiled when she posed for a picture with the photo of her riveter class, the fact that she’d thoughtfully let me know when we were getting into territory she’d addressed in her eight pages, just so I could pick a new topic and cover more ground.

It was hard to close up shop at five o’clock, but my aunt had a party to get to, and I had Grandma waiting for me. I quickly had my mom take a photo of me and Aunt Naomi, then I hugged her goodbye, downed another dose of DayQuil, and called OnStar for directions to my grandma’s house.

Grandma Ruth

Every time I visit my grandma, I discover one new trait that makes me say, “Ohhhh, that’s where it comes from.” She started with giving me her name (my middle name is Ruth), and then she just kept going from there. Her love of writing. Her strong opinions. Her tendency to analyze the living hell out of everything, especially her own actions. I got all of that.

I didn’t interview her at all that first night in Kansas City, because she, my mom, and I had plans to have dinner with my Aunt Deb and Uncle Wayne. Their daughter Jeni came over, too, along with her husband and a few of their boys. We had a really fun game night, and I got to watch my cousin contend with her strong-willed son as Aunt Deb smirked from the other side of the room.

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Game night! This is one of my all-time favorite pictures of Grandma, because I don’t know what she was ACTUALLY doing, but it really looks like she’s threatening my cousin-in-law, Andy, while everybody awkwardly looks away.

“You know where he got that attitude, don’t you?” my aunt asked.

“Oh, I know,” Jeni said. “And we all know where I got mine.”

Heritage in action.

That evening, Grandma handed me the One Thing she’d pulled aside to share with me. It was a three-ring binder containing short essays she’d written about her life.

“It was for a class I took several years ago,” she said. “I don’t know that they’re all that good, but I wanted to just try and get some of the stories down.”

She and my mom went to bed, and I flipped through the pages, wishing she had a clearer understanding of how great her talent was. Her stories were funny, vivid, well-structured, and written in a manner that completely betrayed her love of words.

I understood, though. I was my grandmother’s granddaughter, both in her love of writing and in her impulse to undersell her abilities and remind the whole free world that she knows she’s not perfect. I understood what it was like to want to back away from the possibilities before anyone catches you eying them and puts you in your place.

The differences between our instincts were small, but the differences between our worlds were huge. Grandma grew up on a farm in Missouri, in a generation where you didn’t waste everybody’s time on high-falutin’ fantasies; you did your work, you took care of your family, you appreciated the opportunity to serve God and country.

I grew up in a time and place where I had the luxury of dreaming my ass off and not feeling too guilty about it, and then I had the added bonus of entering adulthood among peers (my brother, especially) who were huge advocates of shooting high and seeing what came of it.

I closed the binder after reading about how Grandma accidentally mistook melted lye soap for custard when making a dessert, and I went to bed, wondering what it would take to get that stubborn, self-doubting woman to write more stories like this one.

Aunt Liz

The next morning, Grandma, Mom, and I hit the road for Aunt Liz’s house.

Aunt Liz is Grandma’s older sister, and she still lives in the farmhouse their father built—the farmhouse both girls were literally born in. Liz is a creature of tradition and has a talent for making things last, so that old house is an impeccable museum in its own way.

The whole town is a study in family history, actually. Our ancestors settled that little, German farm community in central Missouri, and in fact, the very road Aunt Liz lives on bears her last name. From her house, you can see the old cemetery—one of my favorite places in the world—where many of our relatives are buried, including the town founders who take up a corner with a great pillar of a tombstone inscribed in German. When I was a child, I wanted to be buried there. Then I developed an irrational fear of being buried alive, followed by a realization that nobody needs to take up that much space when they’re dead, and now I just want some of my ashes to be sprinkled there. And some in Elbow Lake. And then I want someone to use one of those giant game show spinners to determine what to do with the rest of me.****

DSCF2402Anyway, the point is, I love my aunt and grandma’s hometown, and even more than that, I love the old house. It’s this insanely beautiful white house with a well-kept garden outside, a water pump and cellar, creaky steep stairs that lead up to the “kid’s rooms,” a sun porch, and a stove that Aunt Liz purchased immediately after the war—that’s World War II, I’m talking about—and it’s in better condition than the stove that came new with the apartment I just moved into eleven months ago. Because Aunt Liz is amazing.

Aunt Liz is a borderline mythological being in our family. At this moment in time, she is ninety-three years old, and she is still living alone in that farmhouse. She is still making business decisions about which local farmers she’s going to rent what portion of her land to. She’s still tending her own garden, and when we drove in that weekend, she told us about how she’d just finished making eleven gallons of applesauce. “It’s normally not that much,” she said, “but after I harvested my own apples, I had to harvest the apples for the woman down the road, because she’s an invalid now and I’d just hate to see those apples go to waste.”

Aunt Liz is probably both faster and stronger than I am. She gets traditional old lady injuries, but when she had a fall that broke her rib, it was because she fell off a ladder while picking apples.

She once dislocated her shoulder because she snagged it on a tree while mowing her lawn.

One year, she sent my Aunt Diane a birthday card a day late and apologized for her tardiness; she’d discovered a squirrel running loose in her cellar, traced the problem to a hole in the wall, and had to crawl under the porch to patch the hole. As you can imagine, that ate up her whole afternoon. A few months after sending that card, Liz turned ninety.

What I’m trying to say is, when Aunt Liz says “Jump,” Chuck Norris gets the yips.

Liz and Grandma are very different women, just as they were very different children—Lizzie always running around the farm, mending fences and wrangling cattle, while Ruth managed her way through more domestic chores and snuck off at the first opportunity to find a floor to lie on and a book to read. But their differences seem to gel them, and I’ve found that every time the sisters are together, they talk late into the night, and then they’re the first ones up in the morning, joined again over coffee and comfortable conversation at the kitchen table

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Left to right: Aunt Liz, the sparkling 1940s stove, Grandma

When we arrived at Aunt Liz’s house, she brought us inside for a “little lunch,” which she sheepishly warned us wasn’t much. (Two meat dishes, green beans, applesauce, potato casserole, Jell-O salad, bread with her famous pear honey, and then a three-layer chocolate pie for dessert.) Afterwards, Grandma packaged the leftovers while Liz washed the dishes and mom and I dried. The bleached white dishtowel I held had been patched in two places, and I wondered how old it was. “Decades,” my mother would speculate later. It reminded me of when I was a little girl and I left my favorite sock behind after a trip to the old farmhouse. It was my favorite sock because of the giant hole; I loved the novelty feeling the floor against my heel while the rest of my foot was encased in cotton. I had assumed it was gone forever, because a sock isn’t something worth keeping or returning. But no, Aunt Liz mailed it to us a week later, and I’ll be damned if that sock didn’t come back to me darned. That woman will not let a thing go to waste.

Aside from the headache and coughing and mucus, the hours that followed were absolute heaven for me. The ladies told me about their chores growing up, about their brother and sister who had both since passed, and about their father, who filled the family dinner hour with non-stop discussion (in German) about his two favorite topics: religion and ghosts.

And I found pieces of myself in these ladies and their pasts.

I learned that, like me, Aunt Liz spent her young adulthood as a housekeeper/caretaker for a family with young children—slowly growing attached to the family and the little girls she looked after.

My grandma talked about her first date a fellow who went by “Tubby”—a guy she wasn’t particularly interested in, but no one had asked her before, so she figured, well, what the heck. (I know how that goes, Ruth.) And then she went on to talk about her on again/off again relationship with Al Wurdeman, his aggravating reluctance to commit (been there), and the real truth that she was paradoxically afraid of the very commitment she wanted (a theme so significant in my twenties that I wrote about it on this blog).

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The controversial pin cushion

Liz brought out the items she’d set aside to share with me: a photocopy of the family genealogy (she’d taken the role of family historian upon herself) and a pin cushion.

Yep, a pin cushion.

Of all the things in her museum of a house—the countless heirlooms and photographs and the spinning wheel that came over on a ship from Germany one hundred fifty years ago—the item she chose to show me was a little, shoe-shaped pin cushion she’d won at a the fair downtown when she was a child.

“I saw this game I wanted to play—you know, a carnival game—and so I paid to play it, and I won. My prize was this pin cushion. And I was just so proud. It was the first time I’d ever won anything. So I came home and told everyone about it . . . I was just real excited . . . and my father got so angry.”

“Angry?”

“Oh, he was furious with me! Because I had been gambling.”

Gambling?

“Oh, yes. He thought what I’d done was just despicable.”

“And did that sully it for you?” my grandma asked.

“Oh, no, not at all.” Aunt Liz smiled at the shoe in her hand, and it wasn’t hard to imagine the little girl who first held it. “I was always just real proud of my prize.”

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Liz and her trophy

Later, I’d post the story and photo of Aunt Liz’s pin cushion on Facebook, and my cousin Jeni would comment on how much of herself she could see in this story—the stubborn will, the refusal to let anyone else tell her how to feel. It was the very thing she and Aunt Deb had discussed at our family game night: Aunt Liz’s spirit maintained through four generations, all the way down to Jeni’s son.

It was late when we got to bed that night, and in the morning, there were no more interviews; just four ladies drinking coffee, enjoying one another’s company, and then eventually digging through closets, because, now that the wheels of memory were turning, Grandma kept wondering, “Do you still have that old ________?”

As a final “thank you,” I took them out to eat at a little restaurant nearby, then I drove Grandma back to KC, and drove back to St. Louis from there, discussing the events of the weekend with my mom and then shutting up so she could read to me, because my mom is an exceptionally supportive copilot.

Mj Wurdeman

I was really grateful that my mom came along for the trip. Not just because of her copiloting skills or her note taking, but because she’s one of my favorite people in the world to be around, and because I’m still enjoying the novelty of feeling like my mom and I are on the same team—as two adults—sharing opinions and ideas and offering support. I loved talking things over with her on the drive, I loved having her input as she interrupted the interviews every now and then with questions I was glad she’d thought of, and I loved our last evening together before I went home, as we sat in her living room, drinking tea and rehashing the weekend.

I was feeling reflective and sentimental after the time I spent exploring my family history and discovering pieces of my own identity within it, so I steered the conversation with a host of questions about heritage. Who did she think I took after most? What about Phil? What about the traits Adam (my adopted brother) seemed to pick up through environment, and how much of it did she think was intentional emulation and how much was accidental? Did she think my dad took more after Grandma or Grandpa?

And what about her? What were her parents like? And who did she take after? Did she see any of her mother and father in me?

“I see a mix of things in you, Abigail,” she said, “but one thing that is definitely not from my side is your emotional expressiveness. That’s just not stuff Marshes talk about.”

I laughed, remembering how she once told me she liked my dad so much because “he’s not one of these people who has to talk about feelings all the time.”

“That’s who I am, though,” I said.

“It’s different when it’s your daughter. And even with you, you’re not . . . dramatic. You don’t create reasons to be emotional. You’re just open about what you feel.” Then she added, “Now that you’re an adult, I mean. You cried so much when you were little! I was worried for a while that there was something wrong with you. But then I figured out it was just you—that was just how you handled things. So I kept telling the guys, ‘You can’t let it freak you out. You just have to let her do it, and then she’ll be fine.’”

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With my sweet and tolerant mom. I’d love to tell you when and where but she has absolutely no idea.

That’s the miracle of my mother: she understands me without understanding me. I later asked her why—if she claims not to know how to talk about feelings—she is always the person I can most count on to understand where I’m coming from. Her answer? “I understand the language; I just can’t speak it.”

I embarked on this trip looking for . . . I don’t know. Good stories, I suppose. A link to the past. Quality time with women I loved and admired. And probably also a desire to find more explanation for who I am, now that I had reached a point in my life where I not only had a firm grasp on my identity, but had also learned to be proud of the whole package and stop wishing I was more like somebody else.

I left with a new awareness of not only the many commonalities linking each generation to the next, but also of how each person’s unique combination of characteristics plays an important role in creating a complete family picture. And if you’re one of the lucky ones, you end up in the type of family where people love you even a little bit more for the parts of you they can’t easily connect with . . . a family where you can trust that your grand-niece knows your two-sentence Christmas card is a testament to your affection for her, or that your family recognizes what a blessing your stubborn devotion to the old homestead is, or that your parents and siblings will love you for the fact that you’re a sub-par cook and a reluctant farmhand, because they admire your unique imagination and giant, open heart.

When I was younger, I used to paint the women of my grandmother’s generation with one, strong, resilient brush. I wanted to be solid and wise, like all of them. I wanted to emulate their loyalty, humor, and strong sense of personal responsibility. I drove away from them that September seeing that each woman embodied those qualities in her own, unique way, and this made me admire them more. It wasn’t that they were born mighty, it was that they chose to achieve mightiness through the talents they naturally had.

Except Aunt Liz. Aunt Liz was actually born mighty, swinging a lasso and saying she heard somebody had a bull needed wranglin’. Or so the legend goes.

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Ruth Caroline and Abigail Ruth

 

*Yeah, she’s in this one, too. She’s an interesting person; what do you want from me? 

**Aid Association for Lutherans–because this family is so Lutheran it’s unbelievable.

***Actually really helpful, because I didn’t know her middle name. So my thanks to Mary for the good advice.

****I would like “Prince Edward Island,” “Descanso Gardens,” and “Randomly Selected Sandwich” to be options on the spinner.

That Time We Celebrated My Cousin With Tears And Margaritas

 

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“Emily was born with a special ability to love, and those whose lives she touched have been truly blessed.”*

I think I was around six or seven when I figured out that pity wasn’t a good thing, and I shared my discovery with a friend one day with all the confidence and authority of a great child sage, wise beyond her years.

 “Pity is insulting,” I said, “because it means you think someone else’s life is sadder than yours. I think it’s mean to pity people . . . unless someone really does have the hardest life, like my cousin Emmy.”

My mom was on top of that. I honestly didn’t even know where the woman came from; she was just suddenly in front of me. My mother, who usually approached my youthful ignorance gently and methodically from side angles, now stood before me like a pillar of granite authority, wearing an expression that wasn’t exactly cold, but was serious and unflinching enough to tell me that I was to take the words that followed and make a permanent place for them in the foundation of my being—make them a part of everything I would be from this point forward.

“We do not pity Emily, Abi. Emily is fine. I know it’s hard for you to imagine she’d be happy with her life, because you’re used to being able to do a lot of things that she can’t do. But everyone has different challenges, even people like you and me who have no disabilities. Haven’t you noticed that Emily smiles and laughs all the time?”

I felt like an idiot. Witnessed it? Yes. Noticed it? No.

My mom’s face softened a little and some of that signature Mj Wurdeman gentleness crept back into her voice as she dispensed the nugget of insight that probably ranks among my top ten most important life lessons.

“If you think you need to pity Emmy, it’s because you’re looking at her circumstances instead of at her. You can’t really know how someone is doing if you don’t look at the person.”

This advice stung, because it felt so glaringly obvious, I couldn’t believe I didn’t already know it. And yet, I’ve forgotten it several times since—zeroing in on someone’s successes or weaknesses or fedora ownership and assuming one single situation tells me everything I need to know about their total emotional state.

In Emily’s case, it was a collection of physical challenges I was focusing on. Emmy was born with microcephaly, a rare neurological condition that can result (in cases like my cousin’s) in developmental delays and mental retardation. Before my mom redirected my attention to Emily The Person, I saw my cousin struggle with basic motor skills, walk on unsteady legs, and express herself through nonverbal sounds and pointing. Everything looked so damn hard.

And I’m sure some of it was. I witnessed the occasional frustration in her voice—sometimes even tears—when she desperately tried to communicate an opinion or need and the rest of us kept guessing wrong. But more often than not, watching Emily The Person proved to me that she wasn’t in a constant state of angst. I only assumed she was, because I couldn’t imagine having to adapt if I woke up the next morning with the same set of disabilities. But for Emmy, it wasn’t a question of adapting. This life was the only life she’d known, and though her method of turning pages looked painstaking to me—the time it took to get the right grip and the occasional tear of the paper—the look on her face told me she wasn’t distraught by her unique effort; she was just interested to see the outfits on the next page.

Emily loved fashion. She loved pretty clothes and pretty nail polish and dancing and parties. She loved being around people and smiled her giant, beautiful smile through every family meal. She was energetic and driven—a fact she demonstrated early, taking her first solo steps on her second birthday in open defiance of the doctors’ claim that she’d never walk at all.

Emmy was possibly the brightest light in our family—the quickest to give love and the one most open to receiving it.** And in this family, that’s saying something.

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Bright, wide smile.

Emily passed away on August 19, 2012. She was thirty-two, and I was twenty-eight. I found out when I woke the next morning and saw the news on Facebook, posted in a beautiful tribute by her older sister, Jeni. I called my dad, who had been holding off on contacting his California kids until he was sure we’d be awake. He told me her body had just given out after an ongoing struggle with cancer and the continued effort to adapt to treatments.

“Her little body just couldn’t handle it,” he said. “But they were able to see it coming, so when she passed, she was surrounded by the people she loved most. Her parents were there, of course, and Jeni and Grandma.”

He promised to let me know when concrete plans were set for the visitation and funeral so I could book a flight to Missouri, and I hung up the phone, feeling as though I had to reorient myself to the world. The thing about losing Emily was that I always knew it was coming. She wasn’t physically built for a long life, and in fact, she lived about a decade longer than my Aunt Debi had been told to expect. But it had been twenty-some-odd years since I’d learned to judge Emmy’s wellbeing by her character, and in that time, I’d gotten used to thinking of her first and foremost as a warm and powerful beam of light. It’s natural to feel disoriented for a moment when the light changes.

I obviously was not the only person to feel this way. The visitation saw a steady stream of friends and family, teachers and classmates, coworkers of her mom and sister’s, fellow congregants . . . her manicurist, who sent bottles of bright nail polish tucked in among the leaves of a large floral arrangement. I settled in with my family in the first few pews, watching a slideshow of Emily’s life and seeing my cousin’s glorious time on Earth all over again.

I learned things I hadn’t known—like the fact that she’d been voted Prom Queen in her school and that she’d won titles such as “Fashion Diva,” “Miss Pretty,” and “Biggest Flirt” at her summer camp. I recalled memories I’d forgotten . . . like those vacations I’d spent with Grandma and Grandpa in Kansas City, when Emily would spend her after-school afternoons at their house until her mom got off work. We’d do puzzles together, play Connect 4 together, look through the Sears catalogue together, Emily smiling in indulgent response to all my chatter and pointing occasionally in girlish excitement to a picture she liked.

I thought about the parts of Emily’s life I hadn’t ever fully considered—like her relationship with my grandpa, who was ten years older than Grandma and therefore retired earlier, making him the go-to guardian during work hours. In my childhood, I never realized how huge Grandpa and Emmy were in one another’s lives, but thanks to a conversation with my Uncle Chuck a couple years before, I now knew how much joy they’d brought one another, how our late Grandpa Wurdeman doted on her and argued with her and greeted her every afternoon with a bowl of popcorn. Their reunion became a valued point of conversation both during the visitation and during the funeral sermon the following day.

I thought about her sister and her mother, the women who knew her best, who had shared home and history with her, who had taught her everything she knew—from walking to Connect 4 to the names of her cats.

And I thought of Uncle Wayne, her step-father, technically, but her actual father by way of any definition that matters. He settled in beside me about halfway through the visitation and told me about the myriad attractions in the Greater Los Angeles area with wet eyes and a level of detail that suggested he might be looking to distract himself for a little while. Or that he might be a sweet, soft-spoken man who knows a whole lot about everything, which is also true. Either way.

Wayne got a significant shout-out in the pastor’s message during the funeral for stepping in and happily raising someone else’s special needs child, but I listened to the tribute knowing that Emily stopped being “someone else’s child” well before the marriage certificate was signed. Caring for someone with Emily’s needs is no small effort, and no one would deny that Wayne is a saint, but his care for Emily was not proof of that. His care for her . . . his devotion to her, his love for her, the pride he so obviously took in being her father . . . it was proof of who Emily was. It was proof that loving her and admiring her were simply the natural results of knowing her.

After the funeral, Debi and Wayne invited everyone back to their home for margaritas in honor of Emmy’s love of parties and the fact that while we were mourning a loss, we were also celebrating a life. Aunt Deb did indeed serve margaritas (she’s where Emily got her party spirit, after all), and we all broke into the condolence casseroles friends had sent. Eventually a pool tournament broke out downstairs, and I made the rounds, catching up with aunts and uncles and cousins, and learning more about Jeni’s job working with children with special needs—a job loaded with challenges*** but one that also seemed to help her feel connected to her little sister.

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My beautiful cousins, Jeni and Emmy.

To be honest, much of the funeral after-party is a blur to me now, and I think that’s pretty typical of any occasion where you’re already juggling loss and celebration and then your aunt throws tequila into the mix. But what I do remember is how it really did have the tone of a party—a genuine celebration, like a little pep rally that enabled friends, family, and people who had never met before to unite on Team Emily.

I’m going to level with you, Readers: I’m a little afraid to write the conclusion to this post. I have a special pet peeve for those stories about people with disabilities that you get through email forwards or Facebook posts with captions like, “Get your hankies ready!” You know, the stories that start with someone reaching out to a mentally challenged teenager or something and end with this emotional “twist” in which the kid with the disability is the one who does the real teaching or healing or whatever the goal is. I usually don’t like these stories, because they tend to be condescending, and because it bothers me that I’m supposed to be touched to discover that a few physical or mental impairments don’t render a human being entirely incapable of contributing something to the world.

I started this story by saying that I once pitied Emily. I end it now not by saying, “TWIST! It turns out even people with physical challenges can have a good life!” but by saying I only pitied her because I was a dumb ass. I mean, I was a child, so the dumb-assery kind of came with the territory, but the point remains the same. The beauty of Emily’s life was only a revelation to me because I was looking at one small part of it. As my mother pointed out, I wasn’t looking at the person . . . and really, I wasn’t even looking at the entirety of her circumstances.

I didn’t consider the fact that she was popular among her peers or the fact that every single person she knew recognized her as a source of joy—so much so that our grandpa—and then eventually her father—would count himself blessed to spend his early retirement years caring for her. I didn’t consider all the beautiful, fun, messy memories she made with her sister and mother. All her greatest passions—fashion and beauty, food and family, cats, cats, and cats—were entirely accessible to her. And though she only learned to speak a handful of words in her lifetime, most of them were the names of the people and pets who stood at the center of her world. Her life was designed by love, and she was more than capable of returning the favor. Not everyone has that gift.

Sometimes our challenges are great, sometimes they’re tiny, and to some degree, we all have limitations, visible or not. The big questions in the end are “Did you give the best of what you had?” and “Did you accept the best that others offered you?” Emily did both, constantly, like she was President of Being Awesome at Life, and that’s why her thirty-two years are something to envy and her legacy is something to admire.

And for the record, that’s not a twist. It’s just how Emmy’s story goes.

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A barista mis-heard my name and made a mistake that brightened my day and reminded me what life is for.

*Absolute truth from the bulletin for Emily’s funeral.

**Cousin Jenny is an extremely close second.

***Jeni is amazing, by the way. She is a smart, bold, hot-headed, tender-hearted woman whose entire life’s work–from personal life to professional life–has been about supporting and bringing out the best in others. And she’s really, really good at it.

That Time I Tried To Say Things About Love

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As I was saying about the sunburn . . .

Every now and then, one is asked for the sort of favor that makes one feel at once both deeply appreciated and slightly panicked. It might be something like, “Would you raise my kid if I die?” Or, “Do you mind if I make you my emergency contact?

Or, as was the case one afternoon while Nora and I sat on a blanket eating spring rolls and sipping Definitely-Not-Disguised-Chardonnay in a public park: “Will you officiate our wedding?”

Nora asked the question shyly and padded it with a surprising amount of, “I know it’s a lot to ask. If it’s too much, that’s fine. You can say no. We’ll understand. It’s okay.”

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Drinking drinks at a little place that sells drinks in St. Maarten. I think I stole this picture from Nora’s sister-in-law.

 

I was so honored to have been asked, I couldn’t even deal, and initially, I couldn’t imagine why she would think it was such a burden. Writing about feelings is kind of my thing. Saying words I wrote out loud—yeah, I’m way into that, too. And to center all this around one of my closest friends, a couple I love, and the beginning of a new era in their relationship? Oh my gosh, Nora, what a nightmare! Kill me now! . . .

. . . is what I said sarcastically in my head at that moment, then sincerely in my head a couple months later when I sat at my desk, typing this:

“Today, Nora and Andy join–”

No. Delete.

“Nora and Andy, your love–”

Ew. Already, ew. Delete.

“We are gathered here today–”

Nope. Too traditional. But we are gathered, and it is today. Shouldn’t I address that?

“I now pronounce you: Off The Market! Ha!”

What? No. What’s wrong with me?

I did this same exercise over the next few months on my couch, in my car, in bed, on a train, and on a bench tucked away in a shadowy corner of Descanso Gardens, hoping the blooming camellias would inspire some romantic musings.

It turns out, it’s really friggin’ hard to sum up someone else’s love, declare a destiny for it, and then plan to read it with any confidence in front of them and those who know them best. It’s even more overwhelming when you’re doing this while never having actually neared such a landmark yourself. Did I have any right to define Nora and Andy’s love? Did I have anything legitimately wise to say about marriage?

About thirty drafts later, I came up with something usable . . . something that at least felt vaguely insightful without putting on airs. And thank God for that, because in the days leading up to their St. Maarten wedding—those three days I spent exploring the Caribbean with Nora and Andy’s family members and closest friends—everyone who was about to hear me rattle off my “profound wisdom” about love watched as I fell head over heels for a guy eighteen years older than me. Who lived nine hundred miles away. And who, P.S., was also the bride’s brother.

I first met Duc (pronounced “Duke”) at Princess Juliana Airport, where I introduced myself as, “I’m Abi, but don’t shake my hand; I couldn’t figure out how to work the hand dryer in the bathroom.” He was kind and energetic, taking up my carry-on and leading the way to the rental car as his father asked me polite questions in deeply accented English. On our drive to pick up Nora and Andy at the hotel they’d been staying at, I sat in the backseat and asked Duc about his work and motorcycle racing, then happily listened as the two men fell into conversation in their native Vietnamese, Duc thoughtfully throwing a paraphrased translation my way from time to time. I didn’t mind not understanding; I was enjoying the sound. Vietnamese sounded to me like water bubbling over rocks in a shallow creek bed—an observation I’d share with Duc a month later.

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Duc, washed up after a shipwreck during his trip to visit me in L.A.

 

Vietnamese?” he’d ask. Then, “No. I think you’re biased because of me.”

I don’t think so, though I suppose it was possible, because even though it was an observation I’d made only twenty minutes into our acquaintance, I was already super into him at Minute One. I honestly, truly did my best to not be stupid about it. Really. But when I first saw him in the airport—when his father said, “That’s my son over there” and I looked to see Duc smiling warmly and waving at me from the rental desk—I felt something shift inside. Like my heart had been dislocated all this time and it suddenly slipped into place. Yeah. It was that idiotic.

My entire trip to St. Maarten was not marked by this embarrassing, lightning-strike crush. I had the great honor of being included with the bride and groom’s family for the full week, staying alongside them in a gorgeous villa with an infinity pool and sharing a room with Andy’s grandmother.* I got to go snorkeling for the first time, watch dolphins, wander the Sunday market with Nora, share in an amazing French dinner, break my personal record for grossest, most painful sunburn ever, and, oh yeah, officiate my best friend’s wedding beside a sparkling blue pool while the sun set behind us.**

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On the catamaran on snorkeling day, inventing a dance where Nora and I dance with our hands in the pockets of that dress I’m pretty sure Shirley designed. If you live in the Chicago area, check out Wolfbait and B-Girls–it’s a shop owned by Shirley, and it has many of her own designs, as well as clothes and jewelry made by other local designers. It’s all really unique and really beautiful. Also, I’m pretty sure I stole this picture from Shirley.

 

It’s just that, while those very natural magical moments were happening, I was also feeling a lot of things that made me feel . . . childish. Irrational. Fourteen.

Like the pride I felt that first night when—after watching Duc and me make plans for a grocery run–Andy’s mom asked me if I had met Nora through her brother, and I got to tell her, “Oh, actually, Duc and I just met two hours ago, at the airport.”***

Or like the strong sensation I had later that evening of being completely at home beside him, standing with him at the counter of the villa’s open-air kitchen, slicing zuccini and passing them off to him to season for dinner, while warm rain pattered against the patio floor nearby.

Then there was the juvenile sense of loss I felt when we all went out to dinner and he and I sat at different tables. And then the nervous thrill that shot through me when he touched my shoulder, and I turned to find him behind me, bringing me a bite of the dessert that was circulating because he wanted to make sure I didn’t miss it. I sat out by the pool that night after everyone had gone to bed, willing the night air to breathe a little sense into me. No such luck.

I could point to specific, meaningful things that I liked about him. I admired his generosity and intelligence, his off-beat sense of humor and his curiosity. But my crush—especially the intensity of my crush and the fact that it began before I knew anything about him—felt way out of line. When he walked me to my room after the post-wedding pool party and I realized he was going in for the kiss, the words, “Oh, thank God” escaped my lips before he even got to them. It was that much of a relief to know that, if I was out of line, at least I wasn’t there alone.

I kept Duc up late on our last night in St. Maarten, shamelessly expressing my confusing devastation over the inevitable end of our “relationship.” When I woke the next morning, my eyes crusty and my heart heavy, Duc and his family were already in the sky, headed back to Portland on an early morning flight. As I lay in bed with my eyes closed, I heard the sliding glass door of our bedroom open and felt the warmth of the light as Andy’s grandma parted the curtains. I stirred, and she offered me a chipper “Good morning!”

“There’s a little love note for you out there,” she said. “Right outside our door.”

I tried to be cool. “Oh?”

“Go look!”

“Love note” was hyperbolic to say the least, but I had no complaints. There on our porch, pinned underneath a rock that you know came with me when I left the island, was a napkin where my would-be boyfriend had written his phone number, email address, and the words, “See you later, Abi! –Duc.”

I didn’t now what his intentions were, and frankly, I didn’t know what mine were. I didn’t know if I felt the things I felt because of the island, because I was regressing in romantic maturity, or because this was the Real Deal and my gut was letting me know about it. There was a time I definitely would have called “bullshit” on that last theory. But by the time a person is twenty-seven, she knows the Real Deal shows up in many different forms.

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Portlanding my brains out on a visit to Portland to see Duc.

 

In fact, as all single women over the age of twenty-five know, when one of your friends gets married, there is about a six-to-twelve-month period during which that friend is an indisputable expert on the Real Deal. They know for certain that you find it when you’re not looking for it, because that’s what happened to them. (Some friends have to be lovingly reminded that they were actually on like three different dating sites when they met The One.) They also know for certain that, if it’s real, you’ll know immediately. Or you’ll know in a month. Or you can’t possibly know until you’ve faced tragedy together. Or until you’ve lived together. Or until you’ve broken up once and found yourselves drawn back into one another’s arms.

You know why defining Nora and Andy’s relationship was so hard—why I spent so many hours writing and scrapping, rewriting and rescrapping? Because Love is a giant, complex beast. Love is the feelings you feel, but it’s also the choices you make, the commitments you choose, the lifestyle you seek. Only some of love is universal. The rest comes down to who you are and the way you’re built to connect.

I emailed Duc when I got back from the island. He emailed me back. Then we spent seven hours talking on the phone, and then—having secured Nora’s careful blessing—spent a few months dating long-distance. It was an intense, complicated, fast-burning relationship with many obvious pitfalls, so it’s hard to pinpoint where things fell apart. But it’s my suspicion that the beginning of the end came with the realization that—although we had fun together, admired one another, and found each other attractive—we were looking for very different varieties of love.

To some degree, that’s why all relationships end, and that’s why there’s plenty to gain by investigating a powerful feeling, even if it turns out to not be the Real Deal. Every relationship I’ve had has taught me a little more about what I’m looking for. And my relationship with Duc was the Master Class. Dating him brought on a tsunami of self-examination, and even though I spent that first post-break-up month curling up on the floor to cry during writing sessions**** and blasting Adele during my daily commute, I did so with the final, full understanding that when you’re choosing a partner, you’re choosing a life. You’re agreeing to be loved and understood a certain way.

When the End came, I told my friends and family, secretly dreading the inevitable “What did you expect?” and “Oh, it didn’t work out with the forty-five-year-old in Portland? Do tell.” Of course, no one responded that way, because the people in my life are amazing, and though they have tons of advice on what love looks like, they never fault me for pursuing a possibility. No one can tell me with absolute certainty how I’m going to find or recognize the Real Deal, because it’s not a uniform experience. Phil and Stacey’s love story is a shock of lightning: immediate feelings, complete absence of doubt, a series of events that make a person want to believe in fate and soul mates. College Angie started dating Graham in high school, and that relationship had a quiet, natural build to a lifelong commitment. Andy and Nora met at a party—two people, joined together by a love of good time—and then they went along where the adventure took them, eventually moving in together, then deciding after five years to keep the fun going by throwing a little marriage into the mix.

As I look back on the words I spoke at Nora’s wedding, I realize most of them couldn’t be reused for anyone else’s nuptials. Not all of the Love Beast’s flailing limbs are perceived and embraced the same way. Only the fundamental things are universal. Things like:

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Nora, looking a little like she’s questioning her choice of officiant.

 

“Two entirely independent people—two people who have known success and joy on their own, who have conquered fears and met challenges through their own power—stand before us and tell us that the beautiful worlds they’ve created independently can’t compare to the world they’re creating together.” 

That was the only sentence I kept from my writing session in Descanso Gardens. I wrote that sentence knowing that that’s what I wanted. That’s what we all want–those of us who are talking about actual love and not just romances. We want our world to be better because we brought someone else in to share it with us. We want partnerships that enable us to build on ourselves, to contribute something good to each other, to our families, to our communities.

I’m not interested in trivializing the way I felt about Duc when I first waved at him from across a tiny, Caribbean airport. But I also look back knowing that, while my heart most certainly was guiding me to a place I needed to be for my own personal growth, this man was never going to be the guy to help me build the life that mattered to me. Nor could I never be that person for him.

When I was eighteen, I fell in love with a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, though it wasn’t a quote I fully appreciated until after the brief Era of Duc.

“Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”

Yes. That. Give me that.

That is what I want.

 

 

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Passive-aggressive brag about where I got to stay.

 

 

*The room had its own bathroom, but the bathroom had no doors. Most suspenseful poops of my life. “She’s gone! Let’s do this! Go! Go! Go!”

**I also got to deliver the worst wedding toast in the history of wedding toasts. Nora wasn’t planning for toasts, so I used up everything I had in the ceremony. Then everyone was like, “What about the toasts? We’re drinking champaign; shouldn’t there be a toast?” So I was asked to do a toast. I did a lot of rambling that I have graciously forgotten, but I’m not even kidding: my toast ended with the words, “May you have all the children you want, but not so many that you can’t love them all.” What does that even mean? Can somebody explain me to me?

 ***I might have felt weird about this, were it not for the fact that she hadn’t actually seen in me interact with Nora yet, because Nora was running around, getting things settled.

****Phil came into our first writing session the night after Duc and I broke up saying he knew I wasn’t ready to write and he wasn’t planning on it; he just thought I could use the company. I insisted I most certainly could write, then ten minutes in, I crawled to the floor, curled up, and said, “I just need to be down here for a minute.”

“I know. Take your time.”

“Just, like two minutes, and then I’ll be good.”

“Stay there for twenty, if you want.”

“No, this is ridiculous. I have to get it together. I could never do this in a writers’ room.”

“Oh, I’ll kill you if you do this in a writers’ room. But the nice thing is, you’re not in one now. You’re in your own home and you can do that whenever you want.”

“Phil?”

“What’s up?”

“I hate everything.”

“Yeah.”

“Everything in the world. All of it. So much.”

I did get off the floor eventually. And when I did, we finished the script that won at Austin and got us our manager. Take that, Heartache.