Making connections

I think this is my biggest problem as an author, blogger, person in general: I struggle to make connections with people. Once I make a connection, it’s there for a long time, thankfully. I have a handful of really close friends I’ve managed to make and hang onto over the years. But there’s so much going on in my head when I first meet someone (face to face or virtually) that I basically set myself up to fail at making a genuine connection.

The desire is there. So what’s the problem?

Well, first off, I’m an introvert. My ideal day off is staying home and reading, writing, painting Dungeons and Dragons miniatures, playing video games, or watching some TV show, all while sitting next to my husband. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we don’t. Sometimes we run errands together or work around the house, and end up having a good time. But mostly, it’s in the quiet moments of simply being together that rejuvenates my soul, makes me take a big contented sigh and smile. Ninety percent of the time, I’m okay with this type of day or weekend. And then there is the ten percent of the time when I crave something different.

I get these spurts of adventurous cravings where I want to go try a new activity or do something I haven’t done in a really long time (like Escape a Room, go rock climbing, go hiking, drive out to the lake, go to the zoo, go to an amusement park, go mini-golfing, go swimming, go to a new restaurant, watch a comedian live, watch a play or a musical, drive until I run out of road). And I want to do these things with other people.

There’s something appealing about the idea of calling up my friends, being surrounded by a group of people I care about and am comfortable around, and striking out together. Going out on the town, hanging out somewhere public, goofing off, taking pictures, making memories. TV shows and books with large casts of lovable characters who treat each other like family (despite the fact that none of them are actually related) are my favorite. I love the interactions between everyone, the different relationships and personalities, how their strengths and weaknesses play off each other.

 

The closest thing I ever came to having something like that was when I was in high school. My cousin and her then-boyfriend, now-husband started a youth group at their church, located a town over from where I lived. There were ten to twelve of us at any given meeting, ranging from sixteen to twenty years old. I was the youngest and the outlier at fourteen, but I was “mature for my age.” Plus, my older brother and sister were kind enough to let their kid sister tag along. Some of us were related but distantly, while others were just friends. We’d get together for a time of Bible study but then we’d go on to do other things like play board games, go bowling, go to the movies, or to go to the county fair (when it was in town). I was even more shy back then than I am now so I didn’t participate very much, but I loved it. Simply being there, witnessing deep moments, listening to hilarious conversations, being included…it made my teenage years bearable. Then, of course, we all grew up and moved away or got married and the group was disbanded.

But I haven’t forgotten that group or the memories we made together.

Life is different in big city Phoenix, Arizona than it was in little town El Centro, California. (“Where is that?” you might ask, to which I would answer, “Exactly.”) As I mentioned earlier, I have a small group of friends I’m close to and hang out with as time allows but I’ve never managed to put them all together in the same room. I’ve never managed to recreate what I had with that youth group from my high school days. And maybe that’s a good thing. These friends aren’t the friends I had back then. I might have some unrealistic expectations for them, for people in general. And, as I also said earlier, most of the time I’m perfectly fine with hanging out with two to three people at a time and just doing what we always do.

The desire to be a part of a larger group of people still crops up when I least expect it. But I’ve never liked meeting new people. I hate small talk and I think strangers can pick up on that subconsciously.

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People generally ask about work, school, and family when they first meet me. Those conversations usually go something like this:

I’m a receptionist at my church. I’m currently finishing up a Creative Writing Program…Why? Oh, I’m an author. No, I haven’t written anything you’ve heard of, just a young adult romance novel called I Dare You to Love Me and a new adult paranormal fantasy about werewolves called In the Dark. No, that last one is not like Twilight. I have a new adult epic fantasy coming out in April called Asta and the Barbarians. Yes, that is interesting, thanks for saying so. What types of books do I like reading? Fantasy mostly. Books like Marissa Meyer’s Lunar Chronicles series and Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series and…Oh, you’ve never heard of them? Well, they’re great. You should try reading them sometime! Yeah, those are basically my two past times. I’m kind of boring. *insert nervous laughter here* I’m currently married, have been for two years and nine months. No kids yet, soon though, maybe. I have a dog and a fat cat that I adore. They’re basically my children. What about you? Uh-huh…Oh, I see. That’s so cool! Yeah, I’ve always wondered about *insert career or job or major here.* What can you tell me about that? Ahh…

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Once we’ve exhausted these routes, the awkward silence descends. I flounder for other questions to ask or things to mention (the weather, the event we’re at, the location), all the while smiling and hoping they don’t notice how terrified and small I feel, or how boring I sound to myself. After that, it’s been my experience, they come up with a polite way to excuse themselves and then I’m left standing there alone, feeling like an idiot, psychoanalyzing every word that was said and whether it was positively received or whether I could’ve done something differently.

My sister, who is more extroverted than I am, once told me to simply talk about myself, maybe even make fun of myself a little. “It will help you loosen up,” she said. “And usually hearing about someone else will prompt a stranger to talk about themselves. Then the conversation gets going naturally.” Thing is, I hate talking about myself. I hate being in the spotlight. I’d rather talk about anything other than myself. I think about the friends I currently have, wondering what I did that could’ve made them stick around and whether I could do that again when trying to make new friends.

Honestly, I think I just got lucky with those guys…

It’s slightly different meeting people online, but not by much. Scrolling through my Facebook or Twitter news feeds, I click incessantly, liking or loving or laughing at posts. Then people post questions about writing, publishing, marketing, blogging. I’m tempted to answer but, what knowledge could I possibly share? I’m still learning! Reading other people’s blog posts is fun. Most of the time I just have to say, “Great piece!” or “I agree!” with two to three sentences on why that is. Some people respond with more than a “Thank you!” but not very many. And how do you continue a conversation that way without coming off as sketchy or weird?

Uuuuuuuuugggggggghhhhhhh.

When did making friends become so complicated? My first day of third grade there was a little girl sitting next to me who was crying because she didn’t want her mother to leave her. I was terrified too. Second grade had been hard enough; I wasn’t looking forward to third. I felt a connection to that girl. I was a little embarrassed for her to be honest, but I could understand how she was feeling. I don’t remember the conversation that followed, but I remember that her tears prompted me to talk to her. And we were friends from that day until sophomore year of high school.

I guess the moral of that story is don’t try, right? It’ll come naturally. Follow Kyoko Honda’s advice from Fruit Baskets.

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But sometimes that backfires and I end up pushing someone away with a careless word or phrase that wasn’t even intended to be offensive. So it’s kind of hard no to be paranoid.

How do the extroverts do it? No, seriously, how do you guys do it? I could use some tips here. I think it would help me become better at small talk.

A lesson on pride

“Adventure is out there,” my husband said Saturday morning, holding his fist out so that I could bump it with my own.

Despite his knee injury, my husband is going hunting next weekend. I’ve tried talking him out of it but to no avail. He’s been planning this trip with his cousin for months and nothing is going to keep him from going. (Unless, by some miracle, his surgery is scheduled before Friday). So Saturday was his prep day. He hobbled around the house, gathering all the supplies he would need on his trip. (“Babe, could you look for my brown and blue boots? I can’t find them anywhere.” “Have you checked the box labeled shoes in the guest room’s closet, love?” “What box?” “Never mind. I’ll go look…You mean these?” “Yeah! Where’d you find them?” “In the box labeled shoes in the guest room’s closet.” Lol.)

Next order of business was getting his rifle sighted in. Instead of paying to go to the shooting range, my husband figured we’d be able to find a secluded spot in the mountains somewhere to shoot for free. So we loaded the truck with his rifle, some targets, shooting earmuffs, and ammunition. After a pit stop at Sonic for Limeades, we turned up Pandora and then hit the road.

“It’s been a while since we’ve been on an adventure,” he said with a grin full of child-like excitement.

Three hours, three “No Target Shooting” signs, and a half a tank of gas later and the  excitement was replaced by annoyance.

“Sloppy shooters ruin it for everyone,” my husband grumbled as we pulled into the shooting range. “They take their old TVs and refrigerators and shoot them up in the wilderness, and then leave the pieces out there for rangers and boarder patrolmen to find. Maybe if they cleaned up after themselves, we wouldn’t have “No Shooting” signs all over the place.”

By happy coincidence, the shooting range was offering to sight in rifles for the upcoming hunting season. My husband had the opportunity to sit with two old timers who knew a heck of a lot more about guns than he did. They had a great conversation about hunting, gun cleaning and assembly.

“I thought they were going to be jerks at first,” he told me as we drove home about an hour later. “The guy told me I had the wrong set up for hunting, talked to me like I didn’t know anything. Turns out, I don’t know anything.” He chuckled. “It didn’t feel to good but I’m thankful we ended up at the shooting range. It was totally a God-thing. He knew I needed to talk to those old guys and get a pride check.”

“Well, hey,” I said, “at least you learned something new.”

“Yeah, but still…my ego’s bruised.”

I laughed. “Oh, I understand. Take it from someone who lives with you, a guy with much knowledge about things I can’t even begin to understand; it’s not easy to just smile and say, ‘Thank you. I didn’t know that.’ But it beats staying upset about it. Be humble, babe. Have a teachable spirit. You learned something new today and are better for it. Now you can pass on that new knowledge to someone else.”

It’s true that when we first got married, I’d get upset whenever he proved to be better at something or know more about something or have a better way of doing something than I did. He’d beat me at cards, prove one of my facts wrong, show me a quicker way to get to work in the morning so that I could avoid traffic, all with a good attitude and good intentions. I’d sit there simmering silently, feeling like a dumb loser, until I could let it go. It took time and God gently tapping on my heart, reminding me that I once admired this man for his skills and his knowledge. If I let my jealousy and inadequate feelings get the better of me, it would poison our marriage. So I worked on praising my husband instead of looking down on myself whenever he proved to be more knowledgeable than me.

I feel I’ve become a better person and a better wife for taking on this new attitude. On Saturday I was able to pass that little lesson on to my husband. It’s amazing how that works. We might not have had that conversation at all if it weren’t for those “No Target Shooting” signs, so I’m thankful for them.

Family

It’s strange, isn’t it? How time and circumstances and distance can change friendships you once thought would last forever? You still love these people, you still care about what happens to them, but when you’re together…you can’t seem to find a common ground.

I used to be so close to my dad’s family. We lived in Mexico until I was eight, within walking distance of cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Even after we moved, we didn’t go very far; we crossed the border, drove for half an hour, and chose a house in that little town. We returned to my grandparents’ house monthly for family lunches, sometimes to celebrate someone’s birthday, sometimes for mother’s or father’s day, sometimes just because. And I always looked forward to it. Nana made fresh rice, beans, and tortillas. My uncles made carne asada or pollo asado (like carne asada only with chicken). My aunts brought cakes, sodas, and macaroni salad. We congregated around the table and in the adjoining living room to eat and to talk over the soccer game that always seemed to be playing on the TV.

Then my three younger cousins and I would run outside to play. We invented games and went on adventures, dared each other to try new things. Occasionally, we went back inside to watch the guys playing their video games, or we’d go into one of the guest rooms and play cards. If it rained, we’d play in the mud. If it was hot, we put on our bathing suits and assaulted each other with the hose. If it was cold, we’d bundle up real tight and chase each other until we were warm. We climbed trees, scraped our knees, ran through my tata’s field, rolled down dirt hills, rode our bikes along the canal. As we got older, we spent more and more time inside, playing card games, giving each other make overs, talking about life and boys, watching movies, hanging out around the kitchen table and listening to our mother’s talk.

The three of them made trips to my house too, for slumber parties during the summer. (This was after my sister and I were given our separate rooms.) I would blast my Christian rock music and we would dance or jump on the bed or throw pillows at each other. We’d stay up talking through the night, all four of us squished together on my bed because we couldn’t bear the thought of sleeping separately. We’d spend hours on the Slip-n-Slide in the backyard, and then wash up and play with my Barbies. Sometimes my sister would play dress up with us. We’d use sheets, rubber bands, and clips to create unique, old fashioned dresses. We’d adorn ourselves with clip-on jewelry and pretend to be princesses.

And then I started high school. I hung out with my sister, my big brother, and my older cousins more and more. I started dating and then had my heart broken for the first time. I went through a phase of depression, where the only thing I really wanted was to be older and wiser. I talked less and spent more time daydreaming about my stories, my music, my plans for the future. They ran in different crowds than I did, had mutual friends they wanted to talk about that I’d never met. They had church events and other family events they attended together that I couldn’t. Slowly but surely, this gap began to form between me and my three younger cousins. Then I graduated and moved to Arizona. I still visited home from time to time. I returned to my grandparents’ house for New Years or Christmas, glad to be among my family again. But each year my Spanish was a bit more rusty, my anecdotes a bit more awkward, and our conversations a bit more forced. I wanted to be around them. I cared about their lives and the things they were going through. I wanted to connect.

Why was it so hard?

We had something to talk about when I was getting serious with my then-boyfriend now-husband. My cousins wanted to know how we met and what our plans were. When we were engaged and planning our wedding, I had details to share. They all came, of course. They had to drive six hours one way to be there, but they were there. In the whirlwind that was our wedding reception, I got to give quick hugs and kisses. Then it was off to start married life. I’ve brought my husband for New Years these past two years. He doesn’t speak Spanish so I have to stick with him and be his interpreter. My three younger cousins shy away from him. I can’t blame them; he’s handsome and foreign. That can be intimidating.

I keep tabs on my dad’s family through Facebook and Instagram. My three younger cousins especially. They post pictures and short anecdotes that I like or comment on. We always wish each other happy birthday, sending our love and blessings. The cousin closest to me in age is going to university. The second oldest is so social; she’s always posting pictures of her and her friends going to youth group or camps or conferences. The youngest graduated from high school this year. I want to tell them how proud I am of their accomplishments, how great it is to see them flourish. I want to tell them that I still remember our adventures with fondness. I loved being their leader, despite the fact that I was responsible when one of them got hurt playing one of my ridiculous games. They weren’t just family, they were friends. And I miss them.

Most of the time, it’s easy to get caught up in my life here. I’m working, I’m going to school, I’m learning new things about marriage and being a wife, I’m writing, I’m hanging out with friends, and growing. But every day I go onto Facebook or Instagram and there they are. I can’t help but wonder: Will we ever be as close as we once were? Do they think about me? Do they remember?

Only one way to find out, right?

Adulting

The baby shower was going to start in twenty minutes and I didn’t have anything to wrap my present with. I had some tape, a bow, a lot of colored tissue paper, and a plethora of “Merry Christmas” gift bags, and that was pretty much it. I’d just been to the grocery store that morning and had remembered to snatch a card, but somehow I’d forgotten to get a gift bag. Fortunately, my sister-in-law (who was driving us both to this event) graciously offered to stop by the 99 cent store on the corner. I hopped out of the car, ran in, snatched the biggest baby gift bag I could find, and zipped into the check out line. Once outside, I stood at the curb and waited for my sister-in-law to come around the parking lot. I hurried up to her car when she was near enough, tucking a stray curl behind my ear.

That’s when I caught my reflection in the passenger’s side window.

I don’t see myself as an adult. I may be twenty-two years old but, physically, I’ve looked exactly the same since I was fifteen. I’ve had my own car, my own apartment, my own bills, and my own job ever since I was nineteen. I’ll be celebrating two years of marriage this May. I live in a four bedroom, two bathroom rental house with a husband, a very old, very fat tabby cat, and a hyperactive miniature Australian shepherd who can’t produce tears. (We still don’t know why. She was very sick with an unknown illness for the first six months of her life and we’re thinking all the different medications we had to give her might have damaged her tear-ducts somehow, but we can’t prove that. We should really get her to a dog eye specialist but we don’t have that kind of money, so we have to resort to giving her eye drops three to four times a day. Yes, we love this dog.) I plan meals and manage finances while balancing 30 hours a week at the office and 9 credit hours per semester.

I have goals for the future which involve finishing school, becoming a published, well-known author, and helping my husband the police officer raise our four kids. It all sounds very adultly, right? And yet, I still see myself as that fifteen-year-old girl who thought Twilight was the greatest love story ever told and didn’t know anything about the real world.

So when I looked into that car window and saw a young lady, all dolled up and ready to attend a baby shower, I blinked in surprise. Because, for a second there, I actually looked like an adult.

My husband believes we never really grow up. We might physically change and become more responsible as life demands, but that little kid lives on inside of us. Sometimes its voice is loud and its influence is strong, while at other times we can suppress it more successfully. With all the “adulting” memes out there, I think he might be right. I find that I feel the youngest when I’m geeking out about Star Wars or when I’m daydreaming about The Magical World of Harry Potter theme park or when I’m listening to the kind of emo music I used to listen to as a teenager or when I visit my old haunts in Mexico. That little kid inside me sure loves to throw a fit when the alarm goes off at 7 a.m. But then there’s the voice of reason, the voice of the Adult, reminding me of all the things I have to get done and how much work will pile up if I listen to the Kid and simply pull the covers over my head.

If I take a good look at the choices I’ve made throughout my life, I can honestly say that I’ve listened to the Adult more often than I’ve listened to the Kid. My husband often has to tell me when it’s time to relax or take a break or set the schedule aside and just hang out. Indulge the Kid. So why don’t I feel like an Adult more often?

Good question…

I think it’s because of the conviction that I don’t know anything. All right, that’s not entirely true. I’ve been in college for three years and have worked for three different establishments, and have read more books than I can count. After all that, I should know something, but every day I encounter new things. Every day it seems I come across an article, a person, a conversation heard in passing, or an event that reminds me of just how much I still have to learn about life, love, politics, insurance, government, taxes, credit, education, literature, creative writing, finance, morality, the Bible, my family members and friends, even my husband. There are still topics I don’t understand. There’s still stuff in this world that I haven’t discovered yet. It leaves me feeling like a child who’s still figuring it all out.

Sometimes I have to wonder: will I ever feel like an adult? Will I ever feel like I’ve got this life thing figured out? A part of me would like to have the answers to everything. It might make life simpler. But another part of me hopes that I won’t ever reach that point. Because what is someone supposed to do after they’ve discovered everything there is to know? Maybe that’s why it’s so important the keep that little kid around. After all, without it’s sense of wonder, humility, and discovery, how are we supposed to grow?