“I’ll Have The Spaghetti And Goosebumps, Please!”

spaghetti and meatballs

My travel woes have become legendary.  I get that, once in a while, everyone who travels with any degree of frequency has experienced a hiccup or two – an unexpected mechanical or weather-related delay, a carry-on bag you were certain would fit in the overhead compartment above seat 42B that wouldn’t cooperate, a three year-old in the seat behind you with titanium vocal cords capable of screaming for an entire cross country flight – even an occasional cancellation or lost piece of luggage when you could least afford it.  But, I take travel issues to a whole new level and somehow manage to “elevate my game” seemingly with each new trip.  A few examples should suffice to illustrate the point.  I once arrived for and boarded a 5:30 a.m. flight only to learn that the overnight crew had “forgotten” to fuel the aircraft for our trip to LA! Then there was the time when, needing to make a tight connection, I and my fellow travelers on what was to be the originating flight were advised by gate agents that the jetway being used to deplane the aircraft we were to board had jammed 3 feet short of the exit door, making it impossible for those on board to get off!  Or the time when, moments before we were to push back from a gate, the pilot embarrassingly announced that the caterers had mistakenly taken all the food and drinks off the aircraft and were nowhere to be found!  Still not convinced that I’m the Joe Btfsplk of travel?  Imagine being at a nice resort and having the desk clerk accidentally grant you early check-in privileges to a room that already was occupied! Fortunately, the 5″ stiletto heels and lingerie strewn across the room that greeted me when I opened the door immediately alerted me to the error in time to make a hasty exit before its occupant(s) got out of the shower. Suffice it to say, friends, family, and business colleagues demand to know my travel itinerary well in advance of trips so they can be certain to make alternate arrangements.

A few years ago, however, I outdid myself.  I was covering a deposition at Christmas time for my partner, who had a last minute scheduling conflict.  The deposition was being held at a hotel in a VERY remote part of Florida and was supposed to last the entire week.  In fact, my office had reserved a room at the deposition site with a Friday checkout anticipating that schedule.  But late Wednesday, the group I was with expressed certainty that we would finish a day early (i.e., on Thursday).  So, in an effort to avoid a bill for an unused extra night, I checked out of the hotel early that morning only to discover several hours later that the deposition would not conclude until Friday after all, due to an unexpected shift in the witness’ health. “Well, that’s inconvenient, but no big deal,” I thought to myself, as I headed to the front desk to rebook my room only to learn that, in the intervening four hours, this hotel – located in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE – was SOLD OUT for the night! After several emails, my assistant advised that she had found a hotel 18 miles away that had a room. What neither of us realized at the time was that it was located in an area that was EVEN MORE REMOTE than its predecessor. Ordinarily, I wouldn’t have minded a change of scenery, but after four long, contentious days on the road, I was hoping for a much shorter commute and a good meal. You can then imagine my surprise (and frustration) to be told by the front desk at check-in that, aside from a Waffle House less than a block away, the nearest restaurants with any name recognition were those found near the hotel I’d just left – 18 miles away. Disheartened, I headed to my room to unload my stuff and make a quick call to my office to get caught up on the day’s events – convinced that, when I was done, I’d be heading back to restaurants I’d already eaten at the three nights before and whose food and service I’d found less than inspiring.

It was then that I remembered seeing a roadside billboard for a local Italian place about 5 miles down the road, a place I’d passed a short while later, but dismissed as a possibility based on its side-street location and appearance.  When I shared my day with my legal assistant, she was adamant that I give the Italian spot a try, “You’ve got nothing to lose,” she insisted, “and, who knows, you might just run into some friendly people.”  I took her advice and headed out.  She was right!  As I walked through the door of the quaint, beautifully Christmas-decorated neighborhood restaurant, I was greeted by the friendliest hostess you’d ever want to meet as if I was a longtime favorite customer.  She escorted me to a seat at the small bar just steps away from a large manger scene that illuminated the front of the restaurant and introduced me to one of two bartenders, who, it would turn out, couldn’t possibly have been any nicer, more attentive or more engaging. I went with my go-to dish – spaghetti and meatballs – which just happened to be the “Thursday Night Special” and the three of us spent the next hour and a half exchanging stories.  I told them about the series of events that had brought me to their doorstep and had to smile when one of them, a spunky young woman, whose effortless sense of humor and engaging personality reminded me of my daughter, cast her gaze to the manger and with a wry smile asked rhetorically, “Oh, so you’re here because there was no room at the inn?!?” They, in turn, shared stories about the restaurant – how it had burned to the ground a few years earlier and only recently re-opened after the owner had generously taken financial care of the entire staff during the rebuilding – and pieces of themselves.  One is a working mom of three, including a recently born little girl – the other, aptly described above, was playful and a bit on the eccentric side. The food was amazing, but it was the connection made between three complete strangers, under the most unlikely of circumstances and in the most unlikely of places that took me by complete surprise and warmed my heart. Still, it was what happened next that took my breath away.

Moments after the check arrived, I shared that, while I was a lawyer, writing is my real passion. “I wrote a book,” I blurted out – not entirely sure why. “I don’t know if I have a copy in the car, but if I do I’d like to give it to you as a gift for being so kind.  I set the check down with my credit card and headed to the car.  Buried in the back of the trunk, I found a copy of “Dear Ashley” I didn’t think I had, hurried back to the restaurant, and presented it to the mother of three.  Soon my other new friend and several curious servers gathered to look on. One by one, they smiled broadly at the cover photo and commented on how “priceless” the picture is. Then, with the exception of mom, they all returned to work.  “It’s not just for people who have daughters,” I volunteered as I focused on signing the check and, at her request, the title page of the book. “It’s also for people who are daughters.” “Oh, and one more thing,” I continued, sliding the signed check in her direction.  “It’s not really a light-hearted read.  You see, several years ago, our daughter nearly died battling an eating disorder.  Her courage is what inspired me to write it.”  Suddenly, her eyes became soft.  She leaned in, reached across the bar, placed her hand on mine, and said quietly so as not to be overheard, “Don, God brought you here tonight. This book is going to save the life of someone in this restaurant. Thank you.” And with those words still hanging in the air, she turned, put the book in a safe place next to the register, and walked away.  I paused for a moment reflecting on just how many things had to go “wrong” at the same time to create a moment so “right”.  As I, too, turned to leave, with goosebumps racing up my arms and tears welling up in my eyes, I passed the manger and smiled – suddenly grateful for another day of deposition, a random rebooking, a billboard, my legal assistant’s insistence, a buried copy of my book – and that “inexplicably” there was no room at the inn.

“Oh, We’re Not Doing THAT Here . . .”


Recently, one of my favorite people on the planet, Glennon Doyle Melton appeared on Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Sunday” to promote her new (and might I add exceptional) book, Love Warrior.  During the interview, Glennon recalls showing up at a play group shortly after the birth of her third child and being asked by one of the other moms, “How does it feel to be a stay-at-home mom of three kids?” Glennon remembers thinking, “Awesome, we’re actually going to talk about how we feel” and then proceeding to enthusiastically share a metaphor she’d been developing to describe the experience. “You know how there are two kinds of volcanos,” she exclaimed. “The first is an active volcano and the second is a dormant one. The dormant one looks calm on the outside, but on the inside it’s bubbling with boiling hot lava that at any moment could just explode and kill everything in the vicinity! That’s how I feel as a stay-at-home mom – ALL DAY!” “It was a perfect metaphor,” Glennon recalls. But suddenly there was complete silence in the room and wide-eyed stares of disbelief among her fellow moms and she thought to herself, “Oh, we’re not doing THAT here.” So she immediately said, “What I really meant is that I love every minute of it! I hate it when they sleep. I just stare at them. And, I think if there is one word that would describe how I feel as a stay-at-home mom it would be ‘fulfilled’.  And then we ended the moment and I thought, ‘Well, we’re not going to be honest at play dates. That’s a shame’.”

It is a shame and yet, as the humor of Glennon’s story-telling wore off, I realized how infrequent it is that any of us are afforded an opportunity to fully and honestly unpack our hearts, that, while we all profess to want others to “be honest with us” – whether we’re the boss in the boardroom, the teacher in the classroom, a lover in the bedroom, the judge in a courtroom, a preacher in the sanctuary, a classmate in the lunchroom, a sibling in a chatroom, or a friend across the table at a local coffee shop – our spoken and unspoken reactions to truth, not unlike the crickets and ashen faces that greeted Glennon’s, tell a very different, often truth-stifling story.  Don’t get me wrong.  None of us struggle to embrace truth when what’s being dispensed is the ego-stroking, joy-producing variety, let alone truth that mirrors our idea of how whatever’s being spoken about (e.g., politics, child-rearing practices, lifestyle choices, relationships, etc.) “should” look. It’s the truth that’s just a little too honest, too real, too thought-provoking – that is soul-bearingly raw, that makes us uncomfortable, challenges our beliefs, casts a light on things about us that we’d rather not spend too much (okay, any!) time dwelling on – that makes most of us want to run and hide.  I know, because I’m no stranger to wanting to stay on the platform when that line of the Truth Train is pulling out of the station.

But, why is that?  Why are we so afraid to be honest with one another?  Why can’t we accept the fact that others’ truth (and the feelings attached to it) are just as real as our own – and not only provide a safe space for it to be spoken, but validated?  Why, instead, are we so quick to take another’s truth, especially when it pertains to the way our behaviors or words have affected them, so personally?  Why in the face of such truths do so many adults react like the moms in Glennon’s play group or, worse yet, like children who’ve been caught doing something they shouldn’t be?  Why do we grow angry, rush to disavow responsibility, slam things, storm out of the room?  Why, rather than listen with gratitude when entrusted with a glimpse into another’s soul, even one belonging to a loved one, is our first instinct upon hearing their truth to shut down, strike back, become defensive or, even more hurtfully, seek to prove that the truth-teller is anything but? Why, when confronted with another’s truth, do we often try to shift the focus, if not the blame for the underlying act or omission, by reaching into the past for a truth of our own that we can wield as a both a sword and a shield?  Why do we repeatedly play the shame, guilt or “you’re breaking my heart” card?  Why is it so easy for us to be dismissive of someone else’s truth, while simultaneously insisting that they not only listen to, but embrace ours as their own?

I confess I don’t fully understand the “whys” of it all.  In fact, truth be told, I’ve been as guilty as the next person of engaging in many of the behaviors described above.  But, I’ve also been on the receiving end of them enough times to know that much of the way we deal with the truth (or don’t deal with it as the case may be) is terribly unhealthy and, at times, profoundly hurtful.  I get that truth has weight and because it does it’s sometimes difficult for the recipient to saddle up next to it and share the load.  But, what’s the alternative? To ask wannabe truth-tellers to bear the full weight of their truth alone?  I also get that truth takes time – time to share and time to sit with.  But, is there really a way to better spend our time than searching for or in the presence of the truth? It goes without saying that it’d be a lot easier on all of us if everyone really was as “fine” as they say they are and pretend to be.  But the reality is there are lots of folks who are not fine at all, whose world is falling apart around them, who continue to feast on their truth out of fear that if they speak and stand in it instead they will be judged, shamed, misunderstood, disrespected or, worse yet, met by indifference or rejected.  And so they suffer in silence – and we and the chorus of life of which all of us are meant to be a part suffer for lack of their voice and their truth.

We need to do better and we can, but it will require INTENTION (and patience) on the part of the teller and the listener, because feeling sufficiently “safe” to speak your truth – at any age – is an acquired skill and it takes practice.  I believe the family dinner table is a good place to start and that a dear friend (Carolyn Costin) offers a simple strategy to light the way.  She calls the exercise Heart Talks.  Here’s how it works: Find a heart-shaped piece of glass (like the one pictured above) and place it in the center of the table. When a member of the family wants to share a piece of their truth (big or small), they simply take the heart in hand.  As a sign of respect for the heart-holder and their voice, the others at the table become silent and listen attentively until the speaker finishes what he or she has to say.  The speaker then has the choice to invite others to comment on what they’ve shared or simply thank those present for listening and allowing them to speak their truth (Yes, dads, sometimes they just want you to listen!).  The heart is then returned to the center of the table.  NOTE: There’s no obligation to speak, nor any limits on the number of times or length of time a heart-holder can speak – just a space where truth can be spoken, rather than swallowed as it too often is, and will be respected.   By the way, expect some awkwardness at first, but, over time, the rewards will be great.

And here’s the good news: The heart is portable!  It fits neatly into a purse, shirt pocket, lunchbox, backpack or suitcase and is ideal for road trips, field trips, date nights, coffee outings – yes, even play dates!  Heck, if you really want to live a little, bring it to work! And, oh, be sure to let me know how it goes.  (P.S. There’s a reason it’s made of glass).