May 13, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Egg Whites

It started with a dull discomfort in my mid-abdomen. Could be anything, I told myself. Until the discomfort turned into sharp pain.

I sat outside the tiny Australian-inspired coffee shop writing in my notebook. Its front wall is a garage door of windows. On nice days, they open the door and the tables and customers spill onto the sidewalk. It was just such a day, and I sipped the best cold brew on the Upper East Side and dug into a turkey wrap. I noticed that the wrap came with mayonnaise, but told myself it would be fine.

Recently diagnosed with an egg white allergy, I was still testing its limits. So far, baked goods were fine. Omelettes? Definitely not. Mayonnaise-based sauces lay somewhere in the nebulous middle. 

After consuming the wrap, I felt the familiar cramping I could finally identify as an allergic reaction to consuming egg whites. I decided to finish what I was working on before heading home to ride it out, until the pain reached a level I hadn’t experienced in this context.

I didn’t fully understand what was happening or why the reaction was so severe. I just knew it hurt more than it should and I needed to do something to make it stop. 

My pain-addled brain concluded that the only solution was to walk to the closest ER. None of my friends had a car, and they all worked normal jobs. As this was the middle of a weekday, they would be tied to their various desks. I thought about taking a cab, but I was not so far gone that I forgot that walking is free. 

I walked the thirteen streets and two avenues (one mile) with the pain level steadily increasing, but still manageable. But upon arriving at New York Pres, I realized I had no idea in which of the monstrous buildings I might locate the ER.

Pain Brain thought, I can just figure it out without looking it up, and I proceeded to spend seven more minutes wandering around the streets of Manhattan looking for an indication as to where the ER might be. 

By the time I walked in, I was doubled over and tears leaked out of my eyes. I waited for the random yahoo in front of me to ask every question under the bless-ed sun about their non-emergency “emergency” before I made it to the check in desk. 

“How may I help you?” the nurse asked.

“I… I’m having… stomach pain… I think… I think it’s… an allergic reaction to eggs… I need… to see someone,” I managed to gasp out. She handed me a clipboard with a form to fill out, and I sat down to wait. 

As I sat in the waiting room at NY Pres, still bent double and crying, I had a passing thought about a friend who was in her final year of P.A. school. Didn't she live somewhere around here?

I texted her to get her opinion, and it turned out she was doing her rotation at the hospital where I was waiting. In fact, she was about to come in for a shift, and would I like for her to come a few minutes early? Yes, yes I did. 

She sat down and asked me some questions. The pain was beginning to ebb a bit, so I asked if I was ok to leave. She said it was my call, but if I went back to see a doctor, they would do imaging, I’d be there for hours, and they wouldn’t be able to do anything for me that some over the counter medicine wouldn’t also do for a lot less money. I told the skeptical lady at the welcome desk that I was feeling better and had decided to leave. 

She raised an eyebrow and said, “Are you sure?” 

“Yeah,” I breathed, smiling to conceal any residual pain. 

“You were crying when you came in. Don’t you think you should see someone?”

“I really am feeling better, so I’m going home.”

My friend told me exactly what to get at the pharmacy and suggested I take the bus instead of walking home. Would I be able to make it home on my own or should she call someone? I said, “No, I’ll be fine.” 

I made it back to my couch without incident, and the medicine took effect right on cue. I sipped a ginger ale, texted my friend to let her know I was feeling better and to thank her, and turned on an episode of Parks and Recreation. As I watched Amy Poehler and the gang work through the minutiae of planning the Harvest Festival, I made a mental note to avoid mayonnaise and all its derivatives moving forward.

April 22, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Email

On an unexceptional Tuesday in November, everything changed. 

The week started like any other that time of year. It was nearly the end of my first full year as a writer. Though the year started with the usual fervor and commitment to 87 unattainable goals, November arrived with only a handful of them met. Stepping into my office and flopping down into the chair, I tried to resist the mental pull of the spiral of overwhelm that inevitably ended in defeatism.

I started my computer, then pulled up Gmail and read through an email from the online writer’s community I joined two months prior. The subject read, “We’re starting a mastermind!” I received the email that weekend, but assumed it was something to do with their conference, which was happening that weekend, I decided it could wait until Monday. 

I opened it and felt the dormant thrill of excitement rekindle as I read through the email. Clicking on the button to learn more, I was whisked to a web page filled with details. I devoured the descriptions of monthly one-on-one coaching calls with the co-founders, all-cohort calls, weekly office hours, and three in-person gatherings. All focused on helping the cohort members make significant progress toward their writing goals in 2020.

Every word echoed a deeply felt need inside of me, missing links I’d been unable to complete on my own. I wanted someone to help me see what was possible for my work, someone who had been in my position or was currently in that position to run ideas by. I craved someone who might notice if I gave up on a project before it had time to take off. I wanted someone I felt entitled to ask for help and guidance. I didn't need someone to do the work for me, just someone to challenge and encourage me in the way only another creative can.

As I reached the bottom of the page, I knew they were building up to the cost. With all they were offering, it had to be steep. I inhaled sharply as I saw both the price and the application deadline-that Saturday. 

Five days to make a monumental decision that would require significant monetary and emotional commitment? Would you also like my social security number while we’re at it? Could I trust these people to follow through on what they were offering? Would I allow myself and my work to be truly seen?

As much as I wanted to click the button to fill out the application and pay my non-refundable application fee, I worried I was getting swept up by my own desperation. I needed time and space to think. I tried to put the offer out of my mind as I thought about completing that week's writing tasks, my upcoming podcast season, and the query letters I’d sent to literary agents. Each reminded me how deeply I wanted what the cohort offered, and that the current trajectory of toiling away on my own was not pointed toward success. I struggled through my immediate tasks before giving in and turning my attention to the mastermind. 

I mentally walked through my options and reflected on where my hesitation came from. Part of me logically deliberated the offer and potential ROI, then considered the business-y variables. But there was also the fearful, self-doubting voice that demanded its day in court. 

I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to measure up to the challenge, that I wasn’t a good enough writer or marketer. I was afraid it was a bad investment. I was afraid that I’d get into this cohort only to find that I didn’t like working with the other masterminders. Cohorts are, I reasoned, dependent on the people in them

The next day, Tuesday, I fought to focus on the day’s tasks, but my brain drifted to the mastermind in my unguarded moments. That evening before shutting down my computer and leaving for the day, I said a tentative yes. I decided to apply. 

I can always decline, I reasoned, and who even says I'll get in? Maybe I would be rejected-I’d get my application fee back and the decision would be made for me. I filled out the application as honestly as possible, put in my credit card info, and hit submit. 

Over the next week, I talked to five confidants: my therapist, my sister, and three friends. Two of those conversations happened on walks, and one perched atop a rock in Central Park. Each helped me move through the pros and cons, and asked what I wanted. They helped me see potential alternatives. 

But, in their wisdom, none of them told me what they thought I should do. None of them would make the decision for me. Even as I hashed and rehashed the variables, I realized I wasn’t just looking for advice. I was hoping to defer responsibility. 

Frustrated by the high quality of my friends, I sat quietly with God, asking for some guidance. I heard a quiet, It’s your decision. What should have been freeing was just maddening. If I couldn’t even cast responsibility on God, I didn’t have a fall guy if things went sideways. Rude. 

One week after submitting my application, I received an email from the co-founders. It took me to a webpage with a video. The first word uttered was my name, “MaaaaaryB!” They each said their lines, obviously scripted but with enough personal details to show they knew who I was and what I was about. They said yes to me. They wanted to help me. 

I knew they also wanted my money, but I started leaning toward trust when I heard them say my name. They didn’t call me “Mary,” as countless other professional acquaintances had in the past.

They made the effort to say the “B.” 

The information below the video stated that I had five days to indicate my acceptance by making my first payment, with the assurance that I could reach out with any questions. Over the course of those days, I privately pondered, and watched my acceptance video at least thrice daily. It was nice to feel wanted, but I was determined not to let it go to my head. 

The day of the deadline, I met a friend for brunch. It was Sunday and our neighborhood go-to spot overflowed with energy as we sat at a hightop table near the door. After catching up on her life and work situation, I burst out the practiced spiel of pros and cons. Each point ended with the same phrase: “I dunno, though.” 

She also did not tell me what I should do, but listened patiently and asked questions. I barely ate as I explained and gesticulated, fretting myself in circles. We paid and parted, me leaning toward saying no and creating an accountability structure of my own. 

I  went about my day wondering why I couldn’t just decide. It should have been straightforward. I wanted and needed accountability and guidance. I knew this could be a game changer for my creative work. And yet, the thought of investing that amount of money in something I wanted sent my brain into a tailspin with only one objective: talking me out of it. It wanted guarantees and assurances. It wanted to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that these people were trustworthy, that they were the ones I should ask for help. 

That night, with the deadline looming, I slumped onto my couch and grabbed my iPad. I opened the web browser to the saved page. I watched the video and nearly chose my payment plan. The familiar reel of questions and “should’s” started. But after ten bless-ed days of spinning my wheels and thinking myself into many-a tension headache, something released in me. 

Bottom-line, I wanted to do it. Maybe it was a mistake, maybe it would be the best decision I ever made. Even if by some happenstance the cohort was made up of garbage humans, the rest of the offerings were well worth the price. I realized that it’s always a gamble when humans are involved. And since I exhausted all avenues of objection and still wanted to go for it, I had my answer. 

I took a deep breath and clicked “Select my payment plan.” When the deed was done, a confirmation page popped up. Animated confetti rained down over the brief welcome message. I hoped to feel relief, thereby confirming that I’d made the right decision. It didn’t come. Excitement came, but clicking the button satiated none of my fears. There was so much I wouldn’t know until I was in it. 

I sat back on my couch. I said a big yes to my creative work, a yes that other people would hold me to when I inevitably questioned the decision and the work. I decided to gamble that these people could be my people. Whether that bet would pay off or not, I’d said yes to the step that seemed best given the information I had in spite of my insecurities. And for the moment, I reflected, that was victory enough.

April 15, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Masterclass

I stood on the stage in front of the renowned German vocal coach and 30 of my new peers and professors in the sweltering performance space. It was early July, and I’d arrived in Austria only five days prior. Two months before that, I walked across a stage and received my Masters of Music in Vocal Performance. And two months before that, I walked into a classroom at a university outside of Atlanta to audition for a six-week opera training program in Austria. 

I arrived three days before the program officially started. The six weeks were littered with a series of masterclasses and performance opportunities, culminating in a final Meistersinger competition. The auditions that would determine in which concerts we would sing occurred within the first three days of the program. Knowing that jetlag adversely affects the voice, I decided to give myself a few days to adjust so that I’d be in tip top shape for the auditions. 

I’d learned a few new pieces for the program, and brought a couple more I wanted to work on with my new teacher. It was my first time choosing and learning songs without the guidance of my voice teacher. But I had a masters, so I figured I was up to the task. For the audition, however, I chose to present pieces I knew inside and out. In the three days I spent acclimating to the new time zone and learning the layout of the city, I focused all of my nervous energy on the auditions.

Orientation day arrived with its flurry of meetings and introductions, tours and information. The program would start in full force on Monday, after the auditions. In the meantime, they had arranged a few opportunities for some lucky singers. One of those was a masterclass with a vocal coach whose resume was enough to make any opera singer gulp nervously. I was in that weird emotional place of confidence from my freshly minted degree and lingering insecurity of being a student. I knew the degree gave me heft, but it was a perception I didn’t feel I totally deserved. 

I walked into the Heim (our dorm building) and inspected the bulletin board on which they posted announcements. My stomach dropped when I saw I’d been put on the list for the masterclass. There was a space next to my name to write which aria I would present. I paused and considered before writing down one of the brand new pieces I’d brought. It was lovely, and it was short, so there’d be plenty of time to work through it. As the masterclass was the next day, I didn’t have time to arrange a rehearsal with the pianist. I shrugged and figured it would be fine. 

Masterclasses are their own special kind of hell for a perfectionist with performance anxiety. One stands before the teacher or coach, sings their piece, then the teacher coaches one through areas of improvement. This would be all well and good if it weren’t for the fact that it occurs in front of an audience. It is sold as an opportunity to learn from a great teacher, and for the audience to learn along with you. For me? It amplified my general insecurity and dialed it up to eleven. I learned, over the course of grad school, that in such situations it is best for me to go first and get it out of the way. Otherwise, I compare myself to all the singers that go before me and work myself into such a state of anxiety that my brain shuts down. 

The hour of the masterclass arrived, and I walked into the small performance space dressed professionally and made up. I grabbed a program and groaned when I saw my name in the middle of the list, just before the break. I sat down and focused on my breathing. At least the seats were mostly empty, I told myself. 

The first four singers worked through their arias, all of which were lengthy and impressive. They were all older than I was, and had come into this program with the intention of meeting agents and taking their singing careers to the next level. The seats had gradually filled with late comers who snuck inside in between singers. 

My hands shaking, I climbed the three stairs onto the stage, handed my music to the pianist, and walked to the center of the stage. I took a deep breath and said, “Hello, My name is MaryB. Safrit, and today I’ll be singing ‘In quelle trine morbide’ from Manon Lescaut.”  

The second I started singing, I realized I had made a colossal mistake in choosing this aria. Having only practiced it a capella, I neglected to make note of the piano part, which didn’t line up with the melody. Except, since I hadn’t practiced, I kept trying to make it line up with the piano part, and the pianist kept trying to play it correctly. I lost track of the rhythm, where I was in the piece, the emotion of the piece. Everything crumbled and my face became a granite sheet of wide-eyed terror. Any shred of confidence I’d managed to cling to evaporated, culminating in the cardinal mistake a classical singer can make-I breathed in the middle of a word. 

The teacher stopped me. Though the piece consisted of a mere two pages of music, basically a jingle in the world of Italian opera, she cut me off. That’s when I knew I was in for it. And the worst part was, I knew I deserved it. I knew I’d made the wrong choice, and now it was time to face the consequences. It was the second day of this program, my first time singing in front of my peers. And I had completely whiffed it. 

The teacher spent the next 10 minutes eviscerating my performance. I didn’t know the rhythm, I wasn’t leading the pianist, my Italian wasn’t pure. But worst of all, “You have no passion. And you will not make it as an opera singer if you have no passion.” 

As I ingested every unfiltered word, I focused every ounce of energy on receiving her feedback graciously. I wouldn’t cry. I wouldn’t argue. I forced my face into a polite smile and swallowed the heat of shame threatening to overtake me. My humiliation was bad enough without adding an inability to receive criticism to the list. She asked me to try again. I began, and this time it was, if possible, even worse. She stopped me again, then told me to sing the last couple lines of the song. I obliged, not completely butchering it and even mustering out a passable sustained high note and some acting. 

When the music ended, there was an excruciating pause. She shook her head, then told me to sit down. It is customary to applaud when a student finishes their time up front. The room was silent as I collected my music and climbed back down the stairs. 

The teacher announced that we’d take a ten minute break before hearing the next singer. Everything in me wanted to leave, lock myself in my dorm room, and try to forget what had just happened. I considered this course of action as I shoved my music back into my bag. The room was not only filled with peers, but the faculty of this program, professional voice teachers and coaches who would hear me sing for my audition the next day. There were few things more unprofessional than showing up unprepared for a masterclass with an esteemed teacher. The only thing worse would have been if I performed in cut-offs and a crop top. 

I decided that I’d lost enough dignity that day without adding “cry baby” to “unprepared” to my list of terrible first impressions. I sat through the remaining singers, some of whom also got stern lectures, but all of whom at least got to finish their arias. Once the masterclass concluded, I did my best to exit at a normal pace and walked back to the Heim. 

I reflected as I lay on the twin bed in my dorm room rethinking my entire life. The worst part of it was that she was right. The opera world was becoming tougher every year as houses closed and opportunities dwindled. If I didn’t have a deep passion for the work, I wouldn’t make it. 

I’d left grad school unsure of what exactly I wanted to do with my degree. Becoming a professional opera singer wasn’t a lifelong dream of mine. But I now had that skill in my tool chest, and there was something comforting about the fact that I was on a designated and respectable path. I stumbled into grad school having never sung an aria, and yet here I was, getting yelled at by a big name vocal coach on a stage in Austria, the birthplace of some of the classical greats. 

I realized that she touched on something in me that day-a belief that lived in my bones and came out in moments like this. At least part of me didn’t believe I had the talent to make it as a singer. And every time I walked onto a stage, I carried that with me. Every song I sang was infused with a need to prove to myself and the audience that I was good and I deserved to call myself a singer. 

Like with any moment awareness, I wasn’t sure where to go from there or how to perform differently. But I knew that I had an audition the next day, and then a few days after that, the classes and performances would start. I reminded myself that I was there to learn, and in that regard the masterclass was a success.

As I prepared a binder for my audition, I made a mental note to figure out who the pianist would be and to find time to practice with them. I texted a couple of friends from grad school, who commiserated, and made the scheduled call to my parents. Once my affairs were in order, I showered and got dressed for that evening’s mixer, met up with my suitemate, and prayed none of the people I spoke to would bring up that day’s masterclass.

We mingled and made friends and for a moment I forgot the humiliation of earlier that day. There were a lot of unknowns about what was to come, but for the moment, learning and living to fight another day was enough.  

April 8, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Singer

I stood outside the door, fifteen minutes early and ambivalent as to my next step. It was my first lesson at this big name studio. Was there a waiting room situation behind the door, or did I risk walking straight into the middle of someone else’s lesson? I received no clues as I pressed my ear to the sound-proofed door. Worried that the rattling could disrupt the artistry unfolding inside, I was too nervous to even check the handle. It was safer to wait in the hallway until the exact moment my lesson was scheduled to begin. 

A month before moving to New York, I was waiting tables in my sleepy seaside hometown. It was towards the end of an unremarkable shift. I had gotten one of the last tables before we stopped seating, two gentlemen around my parents’ age. They were the type of table I dreaded most--chatty. Ok, condescending dudes who said, “Why don’t you get me another beer, sweetheart” were worse. But chatty was up there. 

They each ordered burgers and settled in for a leisurely meal, oblivious to the near empty restaurant around them. Like many of our customers, they were on vacation. Time moves more slowly in Beaufort, even more so for tourists. 

The ordering process was punctuated by personal questions. Who was I? What was I doing in Beaufort? How long had I lived there? Did I like it? Against all odds, I was in a cooperative mood, though I mentally tracked how each exchange would prolong my side work, and thus the hour of my departure. I told them that I’d lived in Beaufort my whole life, but that I was about to move to New York. 

“Oh,” one asked, “for work?”

I replied, “Sort of. You see, I’m a singer, so I’m moving up there to audition and whatnot.”

“A singer?” 

“Yep,” I said, bracing for the inevitable request that I sing for them immediately.

“You know,” he commented, “I know a voice teacher in the city. We went to college together, but we’ve kept in touch. Would you like her contact info?” 

I said that would be great. Most people, upon hearing I was moving to the city, stated some connection or connection of a connection to someone living somewhere in the greater New York area. I  envisioned an older lady ushering hopeful students in and out of her cramped, musty apartment. In my head, she was chain smoking, though this defied all logic

I returned to the kitchen to check on their food and hastily begin transferring the condiments from their current containers to fresh ones. The chef placed their burgers under the heat lamps, and I loaded the plate with the appropriate accoutrements--1 oz ramekin mustard and mayonnaise and a 2 oz ramekin of ketchup. 

When I dropped off their food, the man with the NYC connection said that this teacher was pretty well known, and her studio was probably competitive. He’d be happy to be a reference for me. But in order to do so in good conscience, he’d have to hear me sing a bit. In spite of the fact that I already had a voice teacher lined up a short bus ride outside the city, in spite of the fact that I would rather improvise a song buck naked on the Metropolitan Opera stage than sing at any restaurant job, I said alright. But I’d have to think about what to sing. 

I went back to the kitchen and considered my options. I studied opera, but was also interested in doing musical theater. As I scraped mayonnaise into a clean container,  I chose eight bars each from an aria and a song. After dropping the dirty containers at the dish pit, I walked out to the table. I glanced around before crouching down and singing the opening lines of “Quel guardo il cavaliere” from Don Pasquale, and “Popular” from Wicked as quietly as possible and wishing that Jesus would just take me up to heaven right then and there.  

I sang even as I felt my face reach lobster status and my armpits release a deluge of sweat. I sang because some instinct inside of me, one I had never felt before, said I should make this one exception. As I concluded my uncomfortable serenade, both men applauded. The one other table in the restaurant remained quiet, which induced a brief moment of indignation. 

I allowed a brief smile and a melodramatic bow before pulling out my notepad and asking the man for the teacher’s contact information. I didn’t know if I would ever use it, or if it was even a real email address. I raised my eyebrow as I considered the “” I’d scribbled down. I thanked the man and left to print their separate checks. They each left an average tip. 

After a year of auditions and monthly commutes to New Jersey for voice lessons, I reflected on my situation. I had, by that point, fully transitioned from opera to musical theater. Each presented its own challenges and pressures. With opera, I was doomed to pay my dues until my voice fully matured around 35, and by that I mean pay for auditions for gigs and programs that were at best low-paying and at worst, I had to pay for. With musical theater, it was difficult to even be seen for a ten second cattle call with 200 women auditioning for 2 parts. I had to come to terms with a reality any creative knows well. Talent and time do not guarantee success. 

I began to ask myself how I defined success. When I realized that I might not want to sing the same music eight times a week and give up any semblance of a life outside of the theater, My remaining motivation evaporated. I no longer practiced, because every time I tried the voice of everything I should be doing drowned out any concentration I could muster. I no longer traveled to New Jersey for lessons, nor did I even open the emails detailing upcoming auditions. 

I didn’t sing for seven months. I couldn’t remember the point of it, nor the last time I’d truly enjoyed singing. 

On an unremarkable day, staring guiltily at my piano, I remembered the man and the little slip of paper that was sitting in my wallet. I retrieved it and absentmindedly googled the name of the teacher. My search resulted in pages of articles and videos about this woman, who had worked with some of the biggest names in Broadway and some film. I listened to her describe her background of classical singing and how she came to a similar moment that I had. She developed a holistic method, which she now taught at her studio. 

I opened my laptop and typed an email. After asking a friend to proofread, I hit send. The teacher didn’t respond personally, but the studio manager did, and offered to set me up with one of the other teachers. The main teacher wasn’t accepting new students, as she was personally overseeing the casts of two different Broadway shows. I graciously accepted, and she sent me the details. 

I knocked timidly before entering what turned out to be a waiting room. My teacher walked out of the studio moments later and greeted me warmly. She invited me in and asked me to sit on the couch. “So, what are your goals?” she asked. 

I pondered for a moment. Ten years of doing all the right things and following the prescribed path had only led to burn out. After all this time, what did I want?  

I said, “I’d like to enjoy singing again. I have ten years of study under my belt. I know how to sing. But that whole time, I was always trying to sing like somebody else, like I was imitating what I thought good singing was. Basically, I want to start over and see what my voice actually wants to do.” 

She nodded and said, “Alright, let’s get to work.”

April 3, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Invitation

He’s getting married tomorrow, this guy I liked one time.

I never wanted to be the one he turned to see when waiting anxiously at the altar. I just liked making him laugh. I was never sappy and love-sick, moony or weak-kneed. But we understood each other and at the time that was enough.

It’s been a year since our little chat, when I explained why I needed to take a step back from our friendship. There isn’t a template for that conversation, by the way. In youth group, I never learned how to tell a friend’s significant other that I had feelings for him and our friendship was no longer healthy, and then also know how to talk to her about it or if I even should. 

In a classic, evasive move, we chatted normally for half an hour, and when he said he needed to go, I said, "Cool. Before you go, there was a serious reason I called." I then proceeded to recite the speech I’d been running through all week. We signed off on good terms, though without the intention of resuming a friendship. Or so I thought. 

I received an invitation to their wedding eight months later. Maybe there is a human who could waltz into that situation filled with foppish aplomb, jauntily skipping to her seat with all dignity and presumption. I am not that person.

When I RSVP’d, there was a box to write a message to go along with my response. 150 characters, a blank box and a cursor blinking judgmentally at my rejection of the invitation. How does one communicate such complicated feelings and reasoning in 150 characters? That’s not even a full tweet. Did I go all southern belle on them? “SUPER bummed to miss your big day!! Congrats! I’ll be there in spirit <3.” The obvious subtext being “I am clearly overcompensating because I’m uncomfortable and do not know what to say.” My instinct was to send that Randy Jackson meme which says, "It's a no from me, dog," but there wasn’t an image option. 

I left it blank. 

The eve of the big day, I’m left with recollections of awkward moments, messy feelings, and the back and forth pull of wanting and not wanting. I sit with the memories of two friendships, once vibrant but now broken. I’m turning the scenes over in my head, wondering when the shift happened, and how much of it was my fault. 

I don’t regret my decision to not attend, and I’m not weeping into a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. But oddly enough, seeing the pictures already on social media leading up to the day, my feelings are complicated. I’ve gone from wanting to block them both to feeling an impulse to comment on how amazing the bride’s hair looks, and occasionally pettily holding out likes on Instagram as if they will even notice because, hi, they’re getting married tomorrow.

It is an inconsequential weekend in September, but many of my friends are out of town. I would have to make a concerted effort to find someone to hang out with. Turning my options over in my head, I’m leaning toward isolation. 

I didn’t call it that at first, obviously. I thought, You know, I just really need to make sure I’m taking care of myself spiritually and spending quality time with Jesus. But no matter the purity of my intentions, my day would not live up to any of my optimistic plans for spiritual renewal. I know myself too well. I would do some reading and writing, have pretend arguments with various people, meticulously laying out my point of view, defending my frail dignity to thin air, then end the day writing at my favorite bar, surrounded by people but completely alone.

Letting people see me when I am so emotionally conflicted and unsure sounds like an actual nightmare. By retreating I can pretend that I am running to Jesus, when really I am just folding into myself. 

Pondering my situation, I think about when Jesus was in the garden, sweating out drops like blood. He asked his closest friends to stay up and keep watch with him. They immediately fell asleep… thrice. But still. If Jesus, on the brink of humiliating and excruciating torture and execution, reached out to God and his derpy friends for support, why do I think I am above it?

Mulling it over, I decide that I don’t want to sit and wallow. Texting my work husband from my restaurant days, I ask if he’s tending bar the following night. I envision walking in, him greeting me with a squeal and a “Hey, boo! French 75 with a splash of St. Germaine or an Old Fashioned?”, taking my seat and pulling out my book, my other friends and former colleagues occasionally sneaking over for a hug or a story about a ridiculous guest. We’ll all go to The Old Haunt after they’re cut, and laugh over the pervasive nonsense of the industry. 

I smile to myself as I picture it. Why sit alone overthinking my feelings when I could spend that time with people who have already seen me in innumerable moments of unguarded stress and joy?

My phone buzzes. His message says that yes, of course he’s working. I shoot back, “I’ll see you then!” A tension releases in me with those words, and I let out the breath I didn't know I was holding. At least for the moment, I have this plan. And it's enough.

*Note: Some details have been changed to respect the privacy of certain characters.

March 28, 20202 Comments

The Parable of the Lice, Part 2

After our initial lice party, we realized how woefully unprepared we were to address our problem. A week later, we checked each other again, only to find a thriving colony in most of our tresses. With the exception of the one who didn’t have lice before, in whose hair we found a single louse.

That’s when we went into purge mode. 

Though we lacked a drier, we had the Nicaraguan sun. We sealed most of our clothes, pillows, sleeping bag liners, and towels into black garbage bags and left them in the sun for an entire day. We did not have access to lice shampoo, but we did have mayonnaise. After washing our hair, we slathered it with mayonnaise, thinking the lice and their unborn would suffocate, put grocery bags over our hair and slept on it. The next day we ditched the combs and went straight to using our fingernails. Those sneaky a-holes didn’t know who they were dealing with. 

It dawned on us at this point that our teammate who had never gotten lice dried her hair everyday. Connecting that with the heat used to kill the lice in our clothing and pillows, we realized this was likely why she remained free of this scourge. 

Our actions thinned out the lice population, but one teammate in particular seemed to have caught a particularly pernicious strain of lice. While most of us had lice off and on for the next couple of months, hers were demonic. They traveled with us to the Philippines the next month, where we couldn’t break the language barrier enough to find shampoo. We found mayonnaise, only to realize upon slathering it onto the positive cases' heads that it contained relish. Another delousing train later, most of the team was once again lice-free. Except for the one with demon lice. Those jerks defied any collective wisdom we’d heard about the fiends up to that point. 

After 3 months of periodic positive lice checks, we elevated our game to Olympic level. 

We were in Thailand at this point, in the city of Chiang Mai where we had access to everything we’d missed in the past two months. She washed the medicated shampoo out of her hair, and our teammate (who was a hair stylist in real life) professionally dried and straightened her hair. We then took shifts over the course of the next 14 hours picking each and every louse and egg out of her hair. One teammate was in charge of entertainment and meal breaks. 

Slowly, bug by bug, to use a gross adaptation of that Anne Lamott quote, we searched and picked and went back through and picked some more. The heat of the hair dryer and flat iron had, mercifully, killed the eggs. But they still needed to be pulled from their vice-like grip on their respective strands of hair. 

After that, we were lice free, but cautious. Our lice checks became routine. We knew the hot spots to check first, and were free to suggest and request an inspection. The rhythm of taking a seat and letting a teammate tilt my head this way, then the other, leaning close and picking a bit of lint and inspecting it under her headlamp to be sure it didn’t have legs. Once a week, then once a month, and then when we separated, not at all. 

I told this story to the senior pastor of my church the first and (thus far) only time we had coffee. Why? The world may never know.  I regaled him with the make-shift dryer substitute, the moment we realized the mayonnaise we bought had relish and the final marathon. I paused, then said that if I got lice today, I didn’t know who I would call to pick it out of my hair. I have close friends who would almost certainly oblige, but the idea of admitting I was powerless to address the problem on my own? 

I sat back and wondered who I would call. At that moment, I didn’t have an answer. But I’d ask around. Just in case. 

March 27, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Lice, Part 1

Sage and Amanda crept into the small room filled with bunk beds where I was reading. It was election day, or at least the day we could go to the US Embassy in Managua and vote. “Hey MaryB.,” Amanda said. “Don’t freak out, but we just checked and we both have lice.”

“What,” I replied,  my brain sluggishly processing the words and their corresponding meaning. 

“Lice,” she repeated. “So, we need to check you and figure out where to get shampoo and combs.”

It was month three of our eleven month mission trip. The trip took us to eleven countries in eleven months, where we would partner with local churches and organizations and do whatever they needed.  In my preparation and research, I learned that many teams get lice at some point. In order to minimize this possibility, I walked into my salon and asked Jim to chop off my hair. Ever the preemptive problem-solver, I decided that several inches of hair were a small price to pay for a lice-free eleven months. 

Month two was El Salvador. We spent that month living in an orphanage in a suburb of San Salvador. We taught English, made minor repairs to the homes, and set up fundraising pages so the kids could attend a private school that would set them up well for the rest of their lives. As our team consisted of seven women, we stayed in two rooms tucked away at the end of the hall on the second floor of the girls’ house. While we were there, they had an outbreak of lice. 

We were charged with cleaning the house and the girls of the brutes. Though we had never done it before, the “tias” (house moms) instructed us to strip the beds, gather the dirty laundry, and wash and dry everything. The girls washed their hair with lice shampoo, and we set to work combing and picking. 

A week after our tearful goodbyes, it was not a complete shock to hear we had picked up lice. We went to a pharmacy and bought combs and shampoo. We followed the instructions--wet hair, massage shampoo into hair, let sit for ten minutes, rinse-- then set to doing for each other what we had done for the girls. 

Each head of hair presented different challenges. Sage’s hair was thick and wavy. My hair was the same color as the lice eggs. Abby’s hair was too fine for the combs to work properly. It was meticulous work, as it would only take a few errant lice eggs to make all our efforts fruitless. 

It was a vulnerable position to be in, I realized as I sat picking and being picked. None of us could de-louse ourselves. We were entirely at the mercy of the precision of the teammate combing and searching our hair. My steadfast independence was ripped from my hands by a tiny bug with an impossibly high rate of spawning. 

In all of this, there was one teammate who remained louse-free. How? We were all living in the same house in tight proximity to each other. How had she escaped our shared fate? The answer eluded us as we sat in a gross version of a massage train picking bugs and eggs from each other’s hair. 

After our initial lice party, we realized how woefully unprepared we were to address our problem. A week later, we checked each other again, only to find a thriving colony in most of our tresses. With the exception of the one who didn’t have lice before, in whose hair we found a single louse. 

That’s when we went into purge mode.

To be continued...

March 20, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Clementine

I am drowning in clementines. After the last time I bought them, I swore never again. And yet here we are. 

I wandered through Whole Foods, valiantly trying to stick to my grocery list and not be murdered by the other New Yorkers crowding the undersized aisles whilst I paused to consider the best head of broccoli. I generally get to grocery shop during the day when it’s much less crowded. But alas, time was not on my side that day, so there I was with everyone and their overflowing baskets and their aggression that’s still clinging after a long work day. None of us wanted to be there under these circumstances. We were either too cheap (in spite of shopping at Whole Foods) or too disorganized to have groceries delivered and we were each questioning that decision in every moment. 

These conditions are prime for triggering my anxiety, all but ensuring I will not stick to my list. It was for this reason that, as I passed the bin filled with the inviting, cheerfully orange fruit, conveniently on sale for Prime members, I thought, You know what, I think I will buy these and in no way will that turn out to be a mistake

They stared back at me from my transparent vegetable drawer. I put them in the fridge to help prolong their life, but I don’t know if this was the right decision. Twenty-six small spheres. And I am responsible for eating every single bless-ed one of them before they either dry up or rot. Clementines are a swell fruit, but not five per day for five days kind of swell. They’re best as an occasional sweet treat, a satisfying end to the work of removing the peel. But if it takes two minutes to peel a clementine and meticulously remove all the bitter, white vestiges, that is roughly fifty minutes over the next five days that I will spend in the act of peeling. I did not consider that commitment when I grabbed the net bag that day in the grocery store. 

This quandary plagues me as I contemplate purchasing any fresh food item, how to buy just enough to last, but not so much that I can eat nothing but kale for the next 3-5 business days. Perhaps I am not creative enough with my food preparation. With the clementine example, I suppose I could have put it on a salad or prepared duck l’orange (like I am going to buy and prepare duck to eat by myself). 

I had four friends over for dinner a couple of nights later, and sent three friends home with three each. I love cooking. That night it was a sweet potato, chickpea, and spinach curry over rice. I made the full recipe, only hesitating to ponder if it would be enough. I sort of forgot how much people eat. Five of us partaking in a six to eight serving recipe? How much was a serving size? What if we all happened to be extremely hungry? I shrugged and decided to hope for the best. Following the recipe exactly, I toasted the cumin seeds instead of half-heartedly sprinkling in some powdered cumin. I made the recipe a day early to ensure there would be enough simmering time. They all came over for a “movie night” after three of us had attended the evening service at church, but we never actually got to the movie. We swapped stories and sat around my coffee table, eating the curry as snow and freezing rain came down outside. It turned out there was more than enough; I actually got two more meals out of it. As they walked out the door and said their goodbyes, I passed them each three clementines. Only one of them said, “No, thank you,” showing the impulse control I had not in the store.

I didn’t finish the clementines before they dried up. They seemed to multiply every time I took one. All told, I left five uneaten. If there’s a next time, I suppose I’ll see about sharing the bag better. Perhaps with friends, office-mates, or any of the people experiencing homelessness I pass almost everywhere I go, which is honestly where the excess fruit should have gone to begin with. But I’m still buying more food than I need, which isn’t budget-friendly. I suppose the best solution is to abstain from clementines and hope that someone I visit will be drowning in their own clementines. And then I’ll take a couple off their hands. 

March 11, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Crush

Perhaps some of you were gifted with the social skill known as “flirting.” When the charisma fairy was sprinkling that down the line, she seems to have skipped this slightly feral farm-child. 

Spring semester of my Freshman year, I broke up with my boyfriend of two and a half years. Early fall of my sophomore year, I learned that he was officially dating someone else. This gutted me, and left me more than a little gun shy. Yes, I was sad about the rejection and felt replaced by a new, improved, more Southern Baptist model. But the thing that cast a ripple effect over my dating life for years to come was how completely wrong I had been. I thought that come hell or high water, he and I were destined to be together forever and ever amen. ‘Twasn’t the case. 

Spring of my sophomore year, I had developed what one might call a crush on this guy. We’ll call him Jeremy. He and I had conversed all of once, but he had a quiet confidence that I was drawn to. In spite of my complete lack of trust in my instincts, I reasoned, It couldn’t hurt to get to know him. And so I began strategizing. I knew that Jeremy frequented parties thrown by these four dudes that lived in a house off campus. Therefore, I deduced that my best chance of winning Jeremy over was in the fun, casual atmosphere of one of these gatherings. 

As I pondered the best way to approach Jeremy and win him over with my utter lack of feminine wiles, I considered asking my roommates for support. I did not, however, want to admit to them that I was interested in this guy. Every time I considered being totally honest with them, I got a squirmy feeling in my gut. I worried,What if they think I'm dumb for thinking a guy like that would ever be interested in me? But I still didn't want to walk into this party solo. I told my friends that I felt like it would be a good idea to make some guy friends, and Jeremy just happened to be one of those dudes. This was just accurate enough to get the support I wanted from my friends without the vulnerability of admitting my true motives. Nailed it.

I talked one of my roommates into going to this party with me. The night of the party, we got ready together then walked the ten minutes from our dorm room to this house.

I strode in with my roommate and my carefully crafted I don’t care, but in like a fun way attitude. Though I immediately noticed Jeremy, I did not go over to speak to him. My roommate and I meandered through the party for the better part of an hour. I introduced her to the people I knew, and we danced for a bit. Though I was acutely aware of where Jeremy was at almost any given minute, I wanted my approach to be organic. You know, a natural moment where we happened to catch each other’s eye, then I’d wave and sidle on over there with a casual, “Oh hey, Jeremy, I didn’t know you were here! How’s it going?” 

Around 11pm, my roommate and I decided it was time to leave and go to sleep. All this time, I had played hard to get in the sense of pretending like I had everything better to do than acknowledge Jeremy’s existence. This strategy was so effective that Jeremy seemed to have no idea I was there. He was sitting on the couch, conversing with the girl he came to the party with. I was torn between wanting to talk to him, and wanting to bury myself in a cauldron of Mac N Cheese and never come out. But I knew that if I left without at least making an attempt, I would feel like I’d failed in my mission at that party. In a panicked moment as my roommate and I were about to walk out the front door, I turned around, stared at Jeremy until I caught his eye, waved, then all but sprinted out the door.

As we walked back to our dorm room, I assessed my performance at the party. Why was it that, in spite of my mental preparation and strategizing, I couldn't bring myself to talk to Jeremy? I talked to people all the time. Why was it that my instinct in this situation was to attempt to get his attention by completely ignoring him? In what world would something like that actually work?

I turned these questions over in my mind, berating myself for giving into fear, for being too awkward to know what to do in this social situation, and for all I hadn't done. As I got into bed and waited for my brain to wear itself out, I found myself at an impasse. I wanted to improve in this area, but I didn't want to admit how insecure and inadequate I felt. That day, the latter desire was stronger. As sleep overtook me, I thought, Maybe one day I'll be ready to deal with this. But it wasn't today.

March 4, 2020No Comments

The Parable of the Cyst

I woke suddenly to the sensation of stabbing pain in my abdomen. As I gained consciousness, I blearily checked my phone. Two in the morning. I took a deep breath, then another. Ok, I thought, here we go again.

The semester before I officially started grad school, I was taking some classes at UNC Greensboro, where I would earn my Masters degree a few years later. I came home virtually every weekend to assist leading the Youth Group at my home church. With so much back and forth, things occasionally fell through the cracks. It was generally harmless stuff like forgetting a notebook for class or clean socks. But one week, I forgot to refill my birth control prescription at my hometown pharmacy. I would only be short by a few days, so I figured it was probably fine. I decided that I didn’t need to go through the trouble of getting it filled at a pharmacy in Greensboro. 

I wasn't on birth control for the “fun reason,” as my sexually active friends have put it . I’ve suffered from ovarian cysts since around age fourteen, the pain from which got progressively worse over the years. At eighteen, I had a series of incidents where I vomited twice, and finally passed out on the floor of my bathroom from the pain. After that, I went on birth control to manage the situation. 

It only took two days off the pill for a cyst to develop, jolting me awake with the familiar pain. I stumbled through my ritual--heating pad, Ibuprofen, deep breathing. But after 30 minutes, the pain was not subsiding like it should. I remembered vaguely from my last bout with a bad cyst that persistent pain could mean it had ruptured or become twisted. I could ride it out and hope it wasn’t serious, or I could see a doctor. At 2:30 in the morning, an ER was my only option for medical care.  

If I chose to go to the hospital, I needed to figure out how to get there. I had zero friends at school because I was gone every weekend. It felt dramatic to call an ambulance, and also did not want to pay for an ambulance ride. I knew my parents would help cover the cost if I asked, but it was the principle of the thing that took it off the table. Pain Brain concluded that my best option was to drive myself. So that’s what I did.*

I breathed deeply and gripped my steering wheel with white knuckles as I struggled to abide by the speed limit. It was a ten minute drive to the hospital. The streets were mercifully empty, but every stoplight felt like a personal attack. I parked and stumbled into the ER. I gasped my way through my insurance information and medical history with the triage nurse, tears falling down my cheeks as I fought to keep myself from tearing her head off for making me sit there and talk. 

It was hours before I was seen. By then the pain had ebbed into a dull ache. After the Nurse Practitioner assured me I was in no imminent danger, she suggested I go to the women’s hospital to see a specialist if the cyst didn’t resolve itself. 

I drove home and fell into bed, getting a couple hours of sleep before my class the next day. I called my hometown pharmacy to have my prescription sent to a CVS in Greensboro. As I made my way to class, I nervously hoped that the little pink pill would solve everything. 

2am like clockwork, I was back on the cool floor of my bathroom hoping the ibuprofen would kick in this time. It did not, though I took the maximum allowed amount. Having the previous night as reference, I figured I just had to wait for it to pass in a few hours. If the alternative was paying an astronomical fee to sit in a hospital only to be given the equivalent of a shrugging “sucks to suck,” I turned on some music and focused on my breath. 

The next day I made an appointment at the women’s hospital, and was ushered back within a matter of minutes. The doctor listened to my plight sympathetically and then ran through my options. She suggested my best course was to take two birth control pills for a couple of days until I was caught up on the days I had missed, then offered to give me a shot for the pain. She explained that it would last 24 hours, so I shouldn’t have any trouble that night. 

She was incorrect on that front, but it was at least my last night of the 2-5am pain party. 

I drove back to my hometown a day early that weekend, having scheduled an appointment with my regular doctor. As I drove the four hours on the rural North Carolina interstates and highways, I vaguely considered alternative ways I could have handled the situation. In that moment, I didn’t remember that I had a friend from college, a few family friends, and an uncle who all lived in the area. Would I have called them if I had remembered? Wracked with pain at 2:30 in the morning, I wanted to ask for help from someone. But I didn’t want to wake anyone up or inconvenience them. I also did not want to be seen in that state. As I pulled into the familiar parking lot at my doctor’s office, the possibilities of all I should have done swirled around my head. 

I got out of the car, and made up my mind. The solution that rose to the surface of the flurry of thoughts and fears was elegant in its simplicity. I’d never forget my prescription again. And if I did, I’d take the time to preemptively get it sent to a closer pharmacy. I breathed out, resolved, and walked into the waiting room. 

*This was not a good decision. While it worked out, it was only because my situation was not as dire as I thought. There was, however, a reasonable risk of me passing out or getting in an accident due to impared faculties. If you have a medical emergency, please call 911.

Communicator. Creator. Coach.

© 2020 Mary B Safrit LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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