Do you know what you need?

The theme of this post might be a continuation of – or perhaps a contradiction to – my last post: “Why do we need love?”

I’ve found that with age and experience comes the importance of knowing what we need. It extends beyond just relationships or our search for a partner.  We try to seek out experiences that fill us, connect us with this world, and bring us closer to the life we want to lead.

But most of the time, we don’t consciously know what we need. It’s difficult to articulate a wish list that doesn’t sound silly or material, i.e. “I need a bigger apartment,” or “I need a boyfriend,” or “I want to quit my job and travel the world.”

We make the mistake of thinking we need “things,” or stop-gap measures like a break from our jobs, or the perfect relationship, to make us feel whole.

Before I was married, when my ex-husband and I met, there were three things I thought I wanted: A husband. A house. And to make it in the movie business.

Eventually, I got (and then lost) all three. And since then I’ve asked myself, did I really want these things? Well, maybe I wanted them, but did I truly need them? And is that why they felt off to me, as if I was wearing the wrong clothes?

I came out to East Hampton this weekend to stay with some people I know, and some people I don’t. I wanted a break from the chaos and claustrophobia of the city.  When I was told I would have my own room due to last minute cancellations, I had a momentary self-pity bang of “I wish I had a boyfriend to share it with.” Or even a close girlfriend to bring (most of my oldest friends live in LA.) I realize this might seem frivolous and ungrateful, but I felt anxious. Probably because romantic getaway cues were abundant and underscored my singleness.

But I forced myself to remember that being on my own is a good thing. It allows for spontaneity, new experiences and friendships, and if I’m lucky, creative growth too (blog material included).

And then I got a Facebook message from a woman I’ve never met. A mutual friend told her that I would be out here, and so we made plans to meet. It so happens that she is divorced and currently single too. Even more serendipitously (although the advertising world is small), one of the women at the house happened to know her too, so we all decided to go out together.

I must have forgotten that there is no better cure for the “I’m alone” blues than having meaningful conversations (and cocktails of course) with strong, free spirited women. Especially the kind that have endured (and learned from) similar experiences as you have. And a gorgeous summer night helps too.

On our drive back to the house around midnight, my friend made a sudden turn down a different street. When I looked up, I realized we were at the beach. I can’t remember whether I took my shoes off before I got out of the car, but with my long sun dress tucked into my underwear (it was dark), I found myself running to the shore line. I put my feet in the water and looked up at the starlit sky. And then a strange thing happened. 

I’m not a big Yoga fan (I pull muscles I didn’t know exist), but I’ve heard of women (the men probably don’t admit it) who after connecting with a core part of themselves, are overcome by tears.

I didn’t have to go into child’s pose in the sand to experience that kind of profound release. I just stood in the water with my hand on my chest and my head tilted to the sky, my ears filled with the rush of the crashing waves coming at me, and discovered that thing I had been needing.

Serenity? The force of nature? Awe of the expansive universe? The paradox of life like the rage then calm of the ocean? Whatever it was – because it felt too great to articulate – was all around me.  Or, maybe, I was a part of it.

I awoke the next morning feeling lighter. And more centered. The anxiety and misdirected energy that had filled me at the start of the weekend banished.

It dawned on me that what I believed I had needed – a romantic weekend or the comfort of an old friend – wasn’t what I needed at all.  And since I was unable to see it (although in hindsight subconsciously I must have been seeking it), the universe revealed it for me.

All I had to do was give us both permission.

Family vacations. It's all relative.

Is our maternal instinct, or desire to parent, really innate? Or is it a function of societal pressure and our immediate environment? I guess, what I’m wondering, is everything, including what we think we want, all relative?

In January, I was fortunate enough to go on a family trip with my parents, two sisters, and their awesome kids (five nieces and one nephew) to the island of Turks and Caicos.  Since my parents aren’t getting any younger, they decided that nothing could be better than having the whole family together for a week, away from everything. I had been unable to partake in previous trips, for various reasons, but mostly because my separation from my husband had thrown me into a me-centric place, and the thought of taking time off from the new life that I was trying to build to go on a time out with my family, where everything had stayed the same, was not appealing. I get along great with my family most of the time, but getting along wasn’t a priority for me back then, moving on was. And I sensed that being around my family, where nothing ever seems to change, where progress seems organic and doesn’t require a herculean effort, would be too painful for me, because it served as a nagging reminder of what I no longer had (and who I no longer was).  Not to mention that there is something about being around people whose incessant concern over your well being only makes you feel worse.  It forces a glaring spotlight onto what is wrong. And, if you’re Jewish like me, you have to answer a lot of questions (evasion is not an option). So the thought of choosing to go away with my family to an island (with no Blackberry service aka contact with my best girlfriends) on a vacation, was like choosing to jump out of a burning airplane (metaphor for bad marriage, yes) onto an island populated by wild boars. 

To my surprise, no one was offended. They understood. I seemed to have pocketed a divorce “get out of jail free card” without an expiration date (at least until I get married again).  Although this wasn’t entirely true. Sometimes my choices upset my mother. She once let it slip that she “wished she had done with me like Moses in the basket.” She was referring to the abandonment of baby Moses by his mother down the Nile River. I tried not to be offended by it. I rationalized it by saying that my mother simply “didn’t know what to do with me.” She felt bereft of the tools to help me. Come to think of it, my mom has a lot of baskets strewn about the house, filled with flowers, or blankets (no people).

But this time, I wanted to go. I had gotten closer to and more comfortable with my family. And with myself. But I didn’t decide until the last minute, a good eight months after the hotel and airfares had been booked. My parents were excited by my willingness to attend, but the problem was everything was too expensive. “You don’t want us or yourself to spend that much money on this, do you? We’ll make it up to you another way,” my mother said. I got upset. I felt uninvited. Not to mention that I wanted to go for all the right reasons. Mature ones. I wasn’t looking for some time in the sun paid for by mom and dad, like we do when we’re 16. I was yearning to spend time with my nieces who love me and give me special hairdos that take me days to untangle.

I told my mom the truth. I felt as if she had thrown me into the basket again, the picnic kind with a lid. It worked magically. I had no idea I’d inherited my parent’s talent for employing guilt to achieve the desired effect, but in this case, I was glad I did.

It was eighty degrees every day, and the resort was beautiful. Because I had arrived late, I got my own room (everyone else had adjoining ones so that they could all be together…eat together…wake up together…isn’t that what families who love each other do?) I was used to being the odd man out, so it was fine. Besides, I was hungry for some space, some alone time. This was right after my boyfriend and I had broken up, and I needed to process what it meant. Not to mention that my mother was itching to monitor my meals like she always did. So I was grateful to have my own space to retreat to.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was grieving yet another loss. A break up with a serious boyfriend, when you’re in your mid-thirties, also means confronting that you’ve postponed having a family to an unspecified date (for me it did anyway).

And there were kids everywhere. The resort we were staying at was a Jewish “Sandals” resort, full of young parents and their screaming kids. I was assuredly the only single person for miles and miles of lush beach. And the more screaming and crying I heard, the happier I was about it.  Unfortunately, my sister’s husband had to leave in the middle for a funeral, leaving her to look after her three kids (one is a baby) without his help. It was not easy, and surely not a vacation.

As the days wore on, my sadness over my situation lifted. I wondered if this trip was more than just some R&R with my family, but a sign, once again reinforcing my decisions, telling me, “Enjoy your solitude and your lack of obligations. Enjoy not having children, Cougel, because once you do, there’s no such thing as a vacation.” I felt young and free. My five-year-old niece confirmed this.  As she shoved the eighth bobby pin into my scalp, she said, “You’re not old! You’re not even married!” 

By the end of the week, tan and healed and reveling in my lack of attachments, I flew back with my mother, my sister and her three girls. The rest of my family flew separately (my family never flies on one plane). Watching my sister walk up and down the aisle with her crying baby and trying to appease the other two, while I was seated away from them in the emergency aisle (poor man’s first class) made me sympathize with her.

But I didn’t want to be her. Again it made me wonder, was it really worth it?  Did my immersion in all the things I thought I wanted, serve to dissuade me from wanting them?

At baggage claim, my sister told me that her husband had just landed too. He coordinated his return flight from the funeral so that he could land in JFK when his family did.

When we emerged from customs and the doors opened revealing the crowd of people waiting in arrivals, my brother-in-law stepped forward from the crowd, arms outstretched, his face eager.  My two nieces (seven and five) spotted him and screamed out his name, “Abba!” (“Dad” in Hebrew. Not the band. Otherwise I’d be the one screaming) and started running towards him. Then the baby, ensconced in her carriage, threw her fists up in the air and mimicked her older sisters, “Abba! Abba! Abba!”

Needless to say, watching them all embrace, the girls climbing on him, his eyes wet with tears of joy, struck me with emotional force.  They were all going home together in their car (no matter that it’s jammed with car seats and cracker crumbs).  And I was going to get into a cab, alone.

And then it dawned on me: “So this is what it’s all for.” All the screaming, the sleep and self time deprivation, didn’t matter in the end.  Because it’s all worth it.