“There’s no room for us,” I hissed into my husband’s ear. We each stood with one snowy boot inside and one outside Broders’ Pasta Bar in South Minneapolis on a Friday evening. “We should’ve made reservations.”
“They don’t take reservations,” he retorted.
We had a split second to decide; winter in Minnesota is a poor time to banter in an open doorway. Should we turn ourselves away and vanish inside the frozen cloak of darkness? Or cross the threshold and melt inside the heated, track-lit, sardine-packed restaurant foyer?
I frowned and estimated: at least an hour wait, plus an hour and a half total drive time, plus an hour and a half for dinner equals four hours, multiply that by $10 dollars/hour for the babysitter, tack on dinner, and we were looking at an indulgent evening. But what instead? Grab a burger from a drive-through window, arrive home before the babysitter can make a dent in our snack supply, veg out in front of late night television?
“We’re here. Let’s just go in,” I said.
We shuffled inside until the heavy door closed behind us.
But my words—there’s no room for us—didn’t convey exactly what I meant. What I meant was, “We don’t belong here.” “Here” referred to the city limits of Minneapolis. “Here” pointed to the pleasing warmth of a youthful, trendy restaurant. Bursting at the seams with unbridled energy and abundant joy, “here” meant the vibrant nucleus of life of which for the past several years I had felt relegated to the perimeter, veiled, nearly numb, hidden inside my makeshift fortress of protection. Community had become a lost memory, connection no longer in reach.
But in hopes of improving my social situation, I had put forth one last attempt, just a couple years earlier.
2010: Minneapolis suburb
It was 9:45 AM. Sipping on peppermint tea, I relaxed in my cozy office chair, drumming my fingers on the cherry wood desk. Three neighborhood women, each walking her dog, slid into view, a view obstructed by the half-open white wood shutters covering my office window. I noted with a half smile that the dogs seemed somehow to resemble their owners (or wait, did the owners resemble their dogs?). But then I grew more curious, and studied the women as they laughed, chatted, and enjoyed one another’s company.
Despite living in reachable walking distance of these women, I could only list basic facts about each one. The doctor, in her early forties, appearing unaware of the admiration pouring from the other two, strode in the center. To one side of her was a woman of about the same age, a ponytailed mother of three who juggled her children’s soccer, hockey and dance activities. On her other side was a younger mom, pretty, smiling but quiet, taking it all in, as if mentally comparing her life with theirs. Or was that me doing the comparing?
As they passed, I decided to face my unmet longing for inclusion. I figured I could fit in—I too owned a dog (did Charlie resemble me, I wondered?), and I too enjoyed a walk on a spring morning. And my husband, having recently seen through my assurances that I was “perfectly happy with a good book,” had been encouraging me to put myself “out there.” After all, we’d lived in that house for a few years already and we still wouldn’t venture to borrow a can of tomato paste from anyone. On the night that we forgot to close the door of our attached garage, no one robbed us blind—but no one called or stopped by to warn us, either. We blamed our isolation on ourselves.
I hatched a plan. I would begin weeding my front yard not in the afternoon as usual, but right about 9:30 the next morning. When the women approached, I would establish eye contact, smile, and offer a kind hello. To appear friendly, but not eager or desperate, the right outfit was critical. Not too fancy, but not frumpy and old either. Perhaps a name brand stitched somewhere visible…but not too visible. Something like the stylish, matching warm-ups the doctor wore…but not too similar either.
“Good for you,” my husband chuckled after hearing my plan. “Now remember, start with the weather. It’s good to start with the weather.”
Start with the weather he suggested, teasing me about my tendency to dive into philosophical and even personal topics with near strangers. Since my husband’s job in the financial services industry demanded social fluency in ways that mine as an independent yoga teacher did not, I tucked his advice behind my ear and studied up on the weekly weather forecast.
I was outside as planned, a trowel in hand, Charlie and his leash parked just inside my front door. Some dirt dug, a lone dandelion picked. Familiar chatter soon spilled from around the corner. I timed my moment, stood up and smiled. “Good morning!”
“Good morning!” they replied. They passed a glance and arrived at an agreement.
“Would you like to join us?” the doctor offered. I agreed with a feigned casualness, and then run-walked inside to grab Charlie.
The walk began with barking and commotion: Charlie wanted to belong, perhaps for the same reasons I did. I hadn’t planned on that. But we soon untangled the leashes and settled into formation. Normally, they walked side-by-side in the street (our subdivision had never splurged on sidewalks), but with four humans and four dogs, Busy Mom ceded to fall back with me.
“So as I was saying,” the doctor turned her chin over her shoulder for the benefit of the back row, “I can’t decide if we should buy a boat or if we should go on vacation.”
“Oh! Definitely the boat I think, you can use that over and over again,” said Busy Mom.
“I don’t know,” offered Other Mom, “a vacation would be so lovely, and so deserved!”
“Well, what do you think?” The doctor indicated me.
“I think it’s wonderful that you have a choice like that while many people are struggling in the market and job situation,” I said supportively.
Silence. Stunned silence.
“Yes well, I still think you should buy the boat,” said Busy Mom.
“Yes, I think that’s what I’ll do,” declared the doctor, bringing the conversation to an awkward but decisive end.
After scolding myself for this first-date faux pas, I put my husband’s advice to work. “So, what do you all plan to do on Thursday when it’s supposed to be so nice out?”
“Um, the usual,” Other Mom replied.
“Yes, me too,” said Busy Mom.
Either my husband’s wheelings and dealings with financial advisors and hours logged rubbing elbows with various managerial types had not taught him how to schmooze suburban women, or my attempt at casualness was not enough to overturn my mistake. Either way, I could feel that crash landing in the thick space that followed.
The women regained their stride while I, counting down the stretched-out blocks until the walk was complete, chose to remain quiet and agreeable.
At 9:45 AM the next day I was inside my office, gazing out half-open white shutters, sipping on peppermint tea, drumming my fingers on the cherry wood desk, watching the three neighborhood women walk by.
When my husband and I married in 1998, we had often chosen to live and work in close proximity to city centers. We joyfully embraced companionship with people of all walks and ages of life, those who we met or engaged with in belly-up bars and dive bars, greasy spoon diners and white-linen restaurants, strobe-lit concerts and moonlit beer festivals.
But once our two daughters grew into their formative school years, we grew up too. We considered ourselves responsible parents—well-trained to exchange, diminish or even relinquish our own happiness for our girls’ happiness and a safe, challenging education. So we acclimated to chain restaurants with no waits, oversized booths, and laminated menus, while drinking the suburbia water which caused us to view vast distances between people, oversized houses, and laminated lives as the norm: shiny and polished on the outside, frozen on the inside, safely shielded from the world’s spills and messes. By the time we realized what had happened, we were nearly an hour away from the heartbeat of Minneapolis, a thousand miles away from our own neighbors, and painfully undergoing our own freeze, shine and polish procedure.
We wondered, of course, if we had done or said something that would account for our exclusion. As most people would, we wandered into past encounters to check if we had offended someone. We thought it might be political—it’s likely that we leaned farther left than anyone else in the area. But engaging with people of diverse opinions had always inspired me, been an uplifting source of joy for me, not a reason for exclusion. We feared it was our pitiful attempts to party late into the next morning at some of the early holiday parties we were invited to. But getting home by 11:00 pm was rebellious enough for us. We wondered if it was because I drove a hatchback, not a family suburban. Or because we never ate McDonald’s. As attentive to my Yoga Sutras as I was to my front yard, my mantra was authenticity or bust, and perhaps I was experiencing the aftermath of the bust. We never did find out.
For a time, we bolstered ourselves by reminding each other that we had done this move not for ourselves, but for the kids. But we learned that social behaviors and tiers, perhaps like athletic talent or math aptitude, can be handed down, parent to child. If exclusion from the neighborhood adults-only parties was a paper cut, watching my youngest daughter stare out the window at the neighborhood kids playing games was a snakebite.
I guess one could call it an awakening, but I’m not referring to the spiritual kind. This was a “what-happened-to-us?” awakening, perhaps like the mid-life crisis commonly associated with people staring into and beyond their forties. We understood that unless we reinvented ourselves we would never belong. We didn’t have the energy to resist this truth any more than we had the desire or know-how to be something we weren’t for an outsider’s chance to fit in.
In the wake of this realization, more clues that my family no longer belonged—if, that is, we ever had—materialized. For example, having grown up in Fargo ND, I received quite a shock of diversity when I enrolled at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. After this, I had vowed to expose my own children to a truer, wider face of the world sooner than later. But we were seemingly sheltering our girls, ages 12 and 10 at the time, in a white, conservative school. I had planned to teach them, for the sake of their own growth, to appreciate and even seek out various opinions, enlightening conversation and liberal arts, believing, like author and spiritual teacher Caroline Myss teaches, that liberal arts are “necessary to fuel the soul.” But liberal arts funding dwindled by the school year. And I wanted to encourage our girls to break down barriers and create, carve and question their unique path through life. But it seemed our girls’ educational and social pathway was dictated more by who one knew, or even by what one wore, than by what one could thoughtfully contribute.
My husband and I finally acknowledged that we needed to return to our alma mater—the University of Diversity—before our girls’ education, both inside and outside of the classroom, flattened their growing curiosity and snuffed out their soul passion. And before we got any more depressed.
We put our three-level home—complete with three bedrooms, two offices, five bathrooms, mahogany wood floors, vaulted ceilings, a modern kitchen and a walk-out basement that we had remodeled less than a year before—on the market for considerably less than we had paid for it five years earlier (thank you, Great Recession). The homes that matched our search criteria in Minneapolis were a third of the size, needed significant upkeep and/or remodeling, and butted up against other homes so tightly one could watch a neighbor sip their morning coffee. Yet there was an intangible but undeniable coziness to the city.
But that January night when the door of Broders’ closed behind us, we had just informed our girls of our upcoming move. We had hoped to tempt them with a fresh and flashy array of school and class choices: foreign languages, dance classes, media arts, and globally-focused curricula. But instead of seeing a promising adventure unfolding, they begged, screamed and cried. They teamed up and informed us through tears that if we didn’t stop this quest to ruin their lives immediately, they would hate us forever. Their despair found us questioning our sanity and digging deep into what it means to love, even what it means to raise children. Doubt and fear, emotions that swept us back to long, hot days and nights bouncing colicky babies, willing, but not able, to do whatever it took to take away the pain, clouded over our view to the future. We rocked back and forth, go or stay, stuck in the moment in a way no yoga teacher would advise.
Broders’ Pasta Bar, not sitting in a much larger footprint than would a suburban three-car garage, was in a neighborhood included in our search area. Thus the patrons in here, we well understood, could one day become our coffee-sipping neighbors. My breath shallow, my eyes darting, I braced myself for a sting of judgment or the snub of disregard that would be the same but different; while I didn’t fit the mold of a suburban woman, I didn’t exude “city-slicker” either. Inside the foyer, its walls a rich, velvety red, its shape and size about that of a front porch, its energy reminiscent of a private party, I waited.
Yet no one looked at us cross-eyed; no one demanded to see our credentials. The conversation did not screech to a halt as it did that one time I dropped an opinion into an all-male conversation at a neighborhood party. Instead, bundled still in winter jackets, laughing, swapping stories, sipping wine, the congenial and diverse crowd of Minnesotans didn’t seem to mind the long wait for dinner, and they didn’t seem to mind us. We belonged—not because we chose the perfect clothing, offered the appropriate opinion, or drove an acceptable car. We belonged because we chose to enter. A simple but potent generosity of precious little space spread and multiplied among friends and strangers like loaves and fishes.
I felt safer than I had in years. I sliced away the boundaries around myself and freed my smile. No matter how private the restaurant tables in the suburbs or how many days could pass before needing to speak to a live human being, I acknowledged that I had been feeling more claustrophobic in the suburbs than I was at that moment—packed, pressed, held, and hemmed in by strangers. For all that I feared we would not belong, the city of Minneapolis swallowed us whole. And in response, after a few deep breaths, my husband and I regained footing inside our wholeness. Our hearts expanded. We abandoned arbitrary distinction between “them” and “us” and joined the “we.” Time shifted from its usual horizontal pattern to a vertical one; the moment became all that mattered but this time, in exactly the way every yoga teacher advises.
I am humbled at how easily even the thinnest ray of kindness and generosity can reinvigorate our joyful, receptive and welcoming nature. No matter how deep our pain, we human beings are resilient creatures. And we have much more in common with pack animals than our egos would like us to believe: a lone wolf cannot survive, not to mention thrive, for long on its own.
And so, like starving wolves, we moved into the welcoming pack. We shifted our cellphones onto vibrate—we could never have heard them ring anyway—slipped them into our back pockets, then shuffled and slid our bodies in the direction the pack led us. Soon enough, we stood before a podium which served as an entry point to the casual-yet-distinct restaurant.
Not more than 20 tables hugged together. The bartenders mixed and poured drinks in an unhurried, expert rhythm. Refurbished steel colanders provided soft illumination. Piano music tinkled overhead. The aroma of marinara sauce and caramelized leeks warmed us and would hold us over until dinner. A young woman greeted us with a genuine smile and bright eyes.
“Two?” she inquired.
“Yes,” I said, returning her smile, “how long is the wait?”
“About an hour,” she replied.
“Fine,” I nodded. “No problem.” I gave her our name and phone number.
Now what? Having reached 14 years of marriage, the unspoken question passed effortlessly between my husband and me. Standing at only 5’3”, I could only generally point towards the door. My husband, claiming only a few extra inches, could not see much either. But even through our obstructed view, our eyes scouted out a window just to our right, one like through which Flo might have shouted “Kiss my grits!” to Mel in the TV sitcom Alice, popular when I was a young girl. But in this case, an energetic woman passed wine and beer through that golden opening to those of us waiting for a table. We grinned like children spotting an ice cream truck.
We mentally set our destination. Like a single-minded organism, the crowd shifted us to the window. My husband purchased two glasses of cabernet, handed one to me which I hugged to my chest. Another bubble opened for us and we slid into it. A kind of euphoria lit up inside me. I buzzed with energy while the clattering of dishes and chattering of friends vibrated like a large djembe inside me, loosening my muscles, kneading my organs, grounding my bones. We, the crowd, the pack, swayed to allow people in and out, striking a pose of inclusion that we all inherently knew, that burst into form from under the twists and bends that likely challenged each of us on other days or in other settings. But not at Broders’; not that night. There was enough room for anyone and everyone, and would be all night long.
Every sip of wine had to be taken cautiously. Every word my husband and I exchanged, nearly shouted. Soon, we stopped trying to converse. But that was fine with us. We had already heard what we were there to hear: there are things worth turning a family’s life upside down to find. In fact, there are things worth even undertaking a blind, widely unadvised, seemingly illogical “reverse” move: companionship, laughter, and unconditional, irrevocable acceptance.
That evening, we carried out enough gnocchi to feed us the next day, but enough confidence and enthusiasm to sustain us over the coming months. Because our evening had offered us a view of an enduring and authentic joy, a view obstructed only by a few showings, a moving van, and some cardboard boxes.