Embracing the Lessons of Life’s Valleys

I loathed high school. I maintain that it was the worst, four, consecutive years of my life. I also forged some of the most important friendships during that time with some of the most outrageous memories. College was okay. Most of time I felt bipolar. One minute I was partying like a rock star, and the next I was anxiety-ridden over what I was going to do with the rest of my life. (As if I had to have it all figured out by graduation!) My 20’s were pretty awesome. My then boyfriend (now husband) and I traveled quite a bit. I got to do awesomely adventurous things like swim with sharks, climb giant, fierce mountains and cohabitate with a smelly boy for the first time. In between adventures, I battled depression twice. Thus far, my 30’s have been all about learning how to be a mommy which has been one of my life’s greatest blessings and challenges. So far this decade I’ve only had one identity crisis, but I’m also a thousand times more sure of myself. I think that’s pretty good.

The details of our lives may vary greatly but I’m convinced the patterns are always the same. Unquestionably, there are highs and lows and everything is mixed up into one big beautiful, heart-breaking mess. But there’s a universal rhythm; an elegant, undulating pattern that binds us to the collective experience of life.  The ebb and flow of this ubiquitous current carries all the same joys and pains on its waves as each of us moves through the years and moments of our lives.

Bears hibernate in winter, salmon come back to their birth places to spawn and die every summer, trees drop their leaves in the fall only to birth them again in the spring. Everything that is living has periods of dormancy followed by periods of rebirth in perpetuity, including us. But it’s not just us, it’s every aspect of us that moves in this way; our relationships, emotions, years, days, the beating of our hearts; it all moves in a perpetual expand, contract, up, down, back and forth, rhythm like the two hands of a clock. You can’t avoid the down beats just as you can’t inhabit the up ones forever. You need both beats to create a rhythm because rhythms make songs; beautiful, unique, heart-breaking songs.

Sadness, depression, loneliness, they are down beats and even those came in waves. If you’ve ever felt loss you know what I mean. One minute you’re okay and the next you are lying on the floor in a puddle of tears unable to breathe. After the purging of tears, and heaving of chest, you release the heaviness and are stronger again. You fill up with tears and heaviness again until you need to release it again, and on and on until you are strong enough not to. It’s like climbing mountains. You have to stop and rest many times before you can reach the top.

Those times in my 20’s when I summitted those incredible mountain tops and stood in awe of God’s beauty were some of the most deeply spiritual of my life. Standing there, looking down, reflecting on the difficulty and distance I climbed while taking in the all-encompassing view is a moment when I know who I am and that I’m capable of great things. I also know that had I not stopped to rest, or lay in a puddle of my own tears unable to breathe, I could not have received that moment fully. I would not have been able to breathe in God’s air and know that I am enough had I not choked on my own air in a moment of pain. You can’t have rest and forward progress at the same time, and you can’t have complete joy with knowing complete pain. They are two parts of the rhythm.

They are two halves of us all that make us whole tethered by chords of grace and gratitude.

No one wants to feel horrible. On top of feeling horrible, we often feel guilty about feeling horrible. The more blessed the life, the guiltier we feel. But just as bears NEED to sleep in the winter to survive, we NEED the trough of the waves in our life to empty us out so we can hold greater blessings. We shouldn’t feel guilting about that. It’s a heavy enough load just being sad without adding shame to the pile.

Trust is what we need. Trust that while lying there, face wet, chest- heaving that we are filling up with all the things we’re going to need to crest that next hill. If we can remember that we’re just resting, not quitting, then maybe when we go to start again, the climb will be easier and we’ll climb higher than before until we reach another valley where we need to rest again. If we can have faith in this, then maybe life as a whole starts to look more like a steady, and undulating march onto higher and higher ground.

The valleys, the losses, the grief, the winters, they are necessary. They are not times of purposeless pain but for reflecting and recharging. A time for looking down the mountain on where you’ve been and how far you’ve come because when the time comes again to climb, and the time always comes, you’ll be summitting higher peaks and squinting out onto greater vistas, chest-heaving full of God’s air.

Denali National Park- Alaska 2007

In Memory of the Boys

On August 28th, 1987 I know exactly where I was and what I was doing. I was nine. It was Friday and one of the last days of summer before the first day of 4th grade. That morning I was just another American kid riding my pink, banana-seat bike with streamers on the handle bars and listening to Madonna on cassette tape. By the end of that day, I learned what evil was.

There’s a local news story here in the Northwest Region that has made the national news. It’s not a pleasant one. In fact, it’s one of the most horrible things you can imagine. A man named Josh Powell allegedly killed his two sons in an effort to cover up the alleged murder of their mother.  The story has brought back memories from my childhood that are hard to think about.

When I was nine I lived in an average, middle-class, Midwestern suburb of Kansas City, Missouri. I played softball in the Summers, got poison ivy every year from traipsing through the woods and my best friends lived within walking distance of my front porch. There were oodles of kids in my neighborhood, among them were two brothers. Their names were Jeremy and Eric. Jeremy was 12 and had sandy blonde hair. All the neighborhood girls had a crush on him. Eric was only eight and a year behind me in school. They weren’t my best friends, mostly because they were boys, but on August 28th, 1987 I spent the day with both of them building a go-cart out of scrapped wood. That evening, after the go-cart had been sufficiently tried and failed, Jeremy and Eric’s mother, like so many mothers, stood at the top of the street in a white blouse and called them home for dinner.

On that warm summer night, me, my best friend and some other girls from the neighborhood were playing truth or dare on the front porch. One of the dares involved running into the middle of the street and pulling your shirt above your head. I can’t remember if it was my dare or not, but someone did it. Shortly after, a cavalcade of firetrucks and police cars descended on our street and we thought for sure we were going to jail for indecent exposure. To our shock they passed us by. Instead, they stopped up the street right in front of Jeremy and Eric’s house. The previously dark and relatively quiet night was now ablaze in flashing lights and loud, scary sounds.

We didn’t see or smell fire and they weren’t getting out their hoses. The longer the police officers and fire fighters stayed, the more curious we became. I was a brave little girl and I volunteered to go up the street and eves drop on the adult neighbors gathered on the sidewalks to find out what was happening.

As I stood across the street looking at the house where the boys lived, I glanced down to the police car in front of me. In the backseat, closest to where I was standing sat their mother.  She was wearing the same white blouse from earlier only now it was stained with something dark. Her hands were cuffed behind her back and she leaned sideways, her head on the window looking down. I couldn’t see her eyes, only the side of her face. She was so motionless and seemingly catatonic that I remember thinking she might be dead.

She wasn’t dead, but her sons were. After she called them to dinner she took them to McDonald’s and then to a motel less than a mile from our street. She stabbed them to death with a fishing knife. She had just lost a custody battle with her ex-husband and decided that having them dead was better than having them live with him. I didn’t know her name then, but now I will never forget it, it was Nila Wacaser.

My best friend and I, we went to those boys’ funeral. We planted trees at our school and tied ribbons around them in memory. I honestly don’t know how my nine-year-old brain made sense of that whole thing. Perhaps it is a part of the fabric of my life that has inspired me to want to understand the human condition?

I can only say that as an adult and through my desire to understand why people behave the way they do, I understand mental illness in a whole new way. I know now that people don’t have to be coughing or in the hospital to be considered sick and that just because someone smiles at you from over the fence doesn’t mean they are okay. I know now that mental illness can make people do destructive, incomprehensible, non-sensical things that will make you shake your head in judgement and horror.

Please do not mistake me as carrying water for these people. Calling Josh and Nila “mentally ill” feels like an insult to those who are living with mental illness. What these two people, PARENTS allegedly did to their OWN children and the premeditation involved in these acts goes so far beyond that technical definition of mental illness and yet, it feels like the best words I have to describe it.

Believing that you own your children because you helped give birth to them is mentally ill. Believing that taking another life is better than having your own pride wounded or going to jail, then you are most definitely sick in the head. If you are operating out of a place where your concern for saving face ranks higher than the life of an innocent child, your OWN child at that, then certainly, at the VERY LEAST you are MENTALLY ILL.

The only way I can attempt to make sense of Josh and Nila now is through the prism of my adult view of humanity. I believe that when people buy into their own self-importance, their ego, their pride, their sense of property, ownership and identity as being something other than, and separate from, whatever they call God, (but more importantly of COMPASSION and LOVE); then people can become severely, painfully, often times destructively mentally ill.

Josh and Nila are extreme examples of that kind of illness.

I’m not sure that I truly understand anymore now than I did then what could drive someone to do something like this; not entirely anyway. All I’m saying is that Josh and Nila didn’t know ONE thing about what it means to live and be alive in this world and perhaps its better (for many reasons) that neither of them are anymore.

My heart went out to Jeremy, Eric and their family when I was nine, and my heart goes out to Charlie, Braden and their family now. May all you boys have found the love that you deserved on Earth. Peace be with you now and always.

Song of the Cicada

I am not a bug person. I get squeamish when I see spiders and I’d rather not touch slugs if I can help it. I know spiders and slugs aren’t technically bugs, but whatever, same difference. So, it strikes me as odd that I’m about to write another blog post about a bug. Go where the muse takes you, I guess?

I may not like bugs, but I have always liked the word Cicada. I like way it feels in my mouth all curvy and staccato. I like the way the ‘da’ lingers at the end like a breathy secret. I think it would be a good name for a pet.

Growing up in the Midwest, I liked hearing the songs of the Cicadas when they come out in the warming, late Spingtime. When you hear the Cicadas sing, you are somewhere outside, near trees enjoying something beautiful, hopefully with a cocktail. Cicadas are the serenaders of warm, early summer eves when the collective spirits are high.

Cicadas can be heard every year, but the famous (or infamous) swarms of them don’t arrive but once every 17 years. That is the length of the Magicicada’s life cycle. These swarms, or Broods as they’re called, live underground for 17 years before they emerge. During these 17 years they grow, and when they get too big for their exoskeletons, they molt. This happens several times over their underground lives. When they finally emerge on the 17th year they go through one last molting wherein their wings are fully formed and functional for the first time. From there, they take flight. Within a few weeks they will sing, mate, the females will lay eggs, and they will all die leaving behind trees caked in ghosts of discarded exoskeletons. The eggs that were laid in the trees will hatch and the nymphs, as they’re called, will fall to the ground, burrow in, and start the process all over again. It’s fascinating really.

The last Magicicada emergence of “The Kansan Brood” which is located around my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri was 1998. The next emergence will be in 2015. In 1998 I was my second year of college. I was 20 and in between my first and secondmolting.

Molting, is defined as, “…the manner in which an animal routinely casts off a part of its body (often but not always an outer layer or covering), either at specific times of year, or at specific points in its life cycle.”

In my life cycle I have had very specific times when I underwent profound and excruciating molts. As a teenager, I was painfully lonely. On the surface it looked like I had plenty of friends, but just under that exoskeleton was a raw, tender and scared body. I was afraid because I felt a little different and a maybe a bit crazy, and mostly unlovable in every way. I’m sure that’s a common enough theme in adolescence and it was mine. Through those rough years I molted layers and layers of pride. Underneath all that I found understanding and compassion for people who seem a little different, and maybe a bit crazy, and perhaps, who sometimes feel unloveable, too.

After college, somewhere around 24, I fell into a depression. I didn’t know what I was doing with my life and I longed for a purpose. I felt like I was floundering. During that disorienting time I sloughed off a lot of feelings of worthlessness. Growing underneath that heavy exterior of pain was someone who had talent and work ethic and a fire of an ambition born out of a hundred embers of small successes.

After I got married, when I was 28, I underwent another molt, a deeply personal one. I was selfish and still hanging onto some bitter pride. It took a good long while to outgrow that skin because it had been with me so long. Under those jaded and jagged outer layers I found that there was greater joy in giving, than receiving. I refocused my myopic view of the world to incorporate others into my vision for a good life. I gave up a lot of things I liked, but what I gained was what I needed to grow.

In 2010, there was a big, granddaddy molt. I found myself on the other side of a legal battle with a very large company which I dedicated many years of my life to, and all because I was a women who didn’t act like a woman should. I didn’t even know these layers existed. I was caught by surprise how painful stripping away these layers were because I did not know, and ultimately feared what I might find underneath.  I thought those layers were critical to my internal being. I clung to them like superglue mixed with cement spackled onto my bones as though losing them would kill me. But as nature intended, either I had to let go, or die, and so I molted which sometimes felt like dying. That year I chiseled away heavy coats of ego and self-righteousness and chunks and chunks of unimportant things that I no longer needed in my life.

That process exposed me like never before. I was raw and vulnerable, maybe for the first time in my life. But do you know what else I found? The beginnings of wings.

But wait! I was not done, oh no, not yet. I still had to burrow out and climb that tree and survive one last molt. This proved to be the most difficult phase of the last 17 years of my life. The climb up the tree involved leaving my marriage, which meant reconstructing and reorienting my entire world view which up this point, had been plunged in darkness underground. Never could I have made that climb on shaky legs, had I not gained strength all those years beneath the surface. I know that now. I was always meant to make that climb. And I was always meant to have wings.

And right now, as I write this, I’ve shed that my final layer. I’m standing on the edge of something more beautiful than my lifetime underground could possibly imagine. And I’m getting ready to fly…

… and just when the collective spirits are high and the time is right… I’m also going to sing.

Because after 17 years of growing and molting I know this much… if I am brave enough to let go of the things that no longer serve me, I will always find something more useful underneath. But letting go is the hardest part, and sometimes it feels like ripping off your own skin because it hurts so bad, but what’s waiting for you on the other side is always something better… maybe even wings.

(*You guys, Cicadas are hideously ugly bugs. I mean, really, really creepy in every way. If you don’t believe me, click here. But seriously, you can not UN-SEE that shit so please, click wisely. I picked the prettiest Cicada I could find on the Internet AND it isn’t even a real photo. This little guy is apparently from Thailand. Enjoy.)