To Kelly and Jackie: You Are the Lucky Ones

I have watched for years as a Facebook acquaintance grappled with the loss of her sister from cancer. First, it was news of bad tests. Then, it was the hope of remission. Then, more bad tests. Then, less hope. Then, it was only a matter of time. A couple of weeks ago her sister died. This weekend, she was buried.

Kelly is her name. She is vibrant and blonde and in her late 30s. Her sister who died is Jackie, a strong-looking brunette not much older. I do not know Kelly well, and I’m positive I never met Jackie, but I feel a great amount of love for their family. She has exposed so much of her pain on such a public forum full of people like me, acquaintances, that I admire her vulnerability.

She has written what amounts to love letters to her sister. Open, honest, BRAVE, heart-wrenching love letters accompanied by touching, ordinary pictures which could fill anyone’s photo albums. I have poured over those pictures. I have noticed the particular curves of their smiles. The familiar, not at all awkward touches between them, the laughter I can almost hear. Kelly and Jackie I don’t have those kinds of pictures of my sister in my photo albums. My sister and I are what you’d call “estranged.” I have not spoken to her in a few years, but that was no great loss as I never had a meaningful relationship with her in all my life. Like kerosene and flame, we never mixed well.

I am the younger one, like Kelly. But where Kelly and her sister grew up in love my sister and I grew up in something else. My sister dislikes my existence for whatever reason. My presence was nearly always met with rolled eyes, a disgusted face and harsh words. I can only assume that the kind of person I represent, sets her off. We are so diametrically different. Honestly, I’m not sure anymore what it is about me, but she never liked it. Any of it. And I am not faultless, I am a hard person to love. And after 37 years of fights, I am numb.

So, there you have it. Two people who have difficulties expressing love, or being loved, and who grew up competing for the love and attention of our parents are now real and virtual strangers. She has me blocked on Facebook.

My sister has always kept a journal. She has stacks and stacks of them and I used to read them when I was younger. I knew it was wrong, but I just wanted to know more about this stranger with whom I shared a bathroom and a bloodline, and so I read them secretly. About a year ago I was visiting my parent’s with my children. My son, only two at the time, pulled a cheap lock off a small box that was sitting in the hallway by her old bedroom; left over stuff from when she moved out. I opened the box and neatly arranged inside were rows and rows of her journals. I pulled one out and flipped to a random page.  “You know who is coming in town again. I can’t stand her. I will probably just leave and not come home until she leaves.” I shut the journal. I didn’t need to read more.

So I watch Kelly go through this unspeakable pain and it tugs at my deep wounds. While I know she’s hurting more than a status update can convey, I want her to know how lucky she is. Her sister is gone, but she had one for a while who loved her, and whom she loved madly, deeply, without refrain, and to me… she is the lucky one. She posted something today about how Monday morning everyone will go back to their “normal” lives but she won’t. She will still be feeling the sister-shaped void of Jackie.

Well Kelly, you’re not alone. No one gets to go back to normal. We all carry the pain of the loss of people we love, or should love, or never got a chance to love.

In the study of mind-body connection they say that emotional pain is sometimes trapped in your hips. You do “hip-openers” in yoga to release these things from your body. My sister is in my hips. So are parts of my mother and certainly my ex-husband. As much as I try to open them sometimes, they just won’t stretch in all the ways I’d like. No, there’s no going back to “normal.”

This past year, the first in many, my sister sent me a Christmas present. It was a lovely box of beautiful smelling things. She also sent me the first birthday card in years. It was only slightly sentimental, but I know it was as far as she could go. I have yet to thank her. I’ve kept her address next to my computer, but for some reason, I have not sent that note. Afraid, I guess – the loss in my life feels too great sometimes to open it up to more.

But today, I donate what I can to help Jackie’s family recover from the cost of caring for her all these years of her terminal illness. It’s the least I can do for the Brave Love Kelly has allowed me to witness so freely. And I will donate under the name of my sister. As a thank you. And in an effort to release the uncomfortable ache in my hips, and maybe, just maybe work my way into a new normal.

No Kelly, no one can go back. But we can go on. And maybe we can work our way a little more open if we try.

Jackie and family

If you’d like to donate to help Jackie’s husband and her two small children cover the costs of caring for Jackie, here is the link. http://www.gofundme.com/jackiesmith-malena

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A Sorta Movie Review of “Home”: May Be Spoilers

Today was a bad day. The last few days I’ve been having an email battle with my ex over (what else?) money. It’s ALWAYS about money. My ex makes more money than 99% of Americans and he will dicker with me over $90 for our daughter’s gymnastics. It’s exhausting, and honestly, makes me so angry I can’t think, or should I say, I can’t NOT think. And so with all this thinking, I had a pretty bad day.

I got behind on work while I fixated on the issue of money this morning. As if the email battle wasn’t enough, I talked to mortgage lenders about my impending home refinance. So far, my mortgage will be going UP at least $200 a month. Then, I read articles about cutting the food budget. After that, I came thisclose to dismissing my attorney because I just CANNOT pay one more ginormous bill. Then, because I hate myself, I emailed my accountant to get an update on my taxes which promises a hefty bill in one week due to being self-employed. By the end of this, I wanted to run away. Very literally just put on my running shoes and keep going… forever. (If my ex is reading this he’s doing it with a smile in his face.)

Even though my work went unfinished, I still had to pick up my preschooler by 1pm. He always bring a smile to my face. However, in light of the unfinished work, he played on his iPad until I got a handle on my work. Then, I managed to collect all the used batteries and CFL light bulbs from my house and take them to a hazardous waste collection at Home Depot. I HAD to. I knew it was probably going to be the most productive thing I’d do all day.

Then, I picked up my Kindergartener from the bus. Another smile in my life. And when we got home all she wanted to do was play Minecraft on her iPad, and I had no energy to fight her, so I didn’t. And I got to finish more work.

Then, I made dinner. I say I “made” dinner, but what I really did was will myself to assemble food onto a plate and not cry into it. After that, I needed a change of scenery, but I didn’t want to spend any money, so I talked the kids into seeing a movie with me at a junky theater where I still had a gift card. And when your dates are 3 feet tall or shorter, your options are limited. We saw Disney’s new Pixar movie, “Home.”

Chances are, with a Pixar kid-flick you’re going to get some sort of deep, uplifting message wrapped up in a cute, funny narrative. It was just what I needed and “Home” did not disappoint.

Home3Basically, adorably squishy aliens called “Boov” invade Earth and evacuate all the humans to Humanville which resides in Australia. One, feisty little girl named “Tip” was left behind in New York City while her single mother was taken in the original round-up. At the same time, there is a misfit Boov named “O” who is running from all the other Boovs because he’s done yet another “bad” thing. He accidentally sent a party Evite “reply all” to the whole universe, which in 48 hours will reach their enemy, the Gorg, and alert them to their new planetarian home, which the Gorg will promptly destroy. Calamity ensues.

The Boovs are hopelessly clueless to human nature. By invading the planet, they think they’re doing humans a favor. The Boov do not have friends or families. They look out for only themselves. They do not engage in laughter or dancing or “fun,” and they can’t understand why humans do. Their most redeeming quality, so they believe, is that they are masters at running away and averting danger. Today, I was a Boov.

Tip and O cross paths and Tip convinces O to help her find her mom. This is when the journey and trials begins. At first they are not friends, O is selfish, and just wants to avoid being “eliminated,” while Tip is angry at the Boov for taking her mom. But trial after trial, trust is built between them. Tip teaches O how to be brave and how not to be selfish. Then, there is one poignant montage where they tell each other their fears. Both of them are the same: loneliness. Perhaps loneliness is an organic, not just human affliction? Anywho, just after this montage it shows O lovingly taking care of Tip while she sleeps because now he understands — now, he has a real friend.

Damn. Isn’t that just how this world works? It isn’t until you are brave enough to be vulnerable that you earn real friends? I have not been brave Home2lately. I’ve been pushing people away. Some days, it feels easier to be alone rather than love one more person who can hurt you.

So, Tip eventually finds her mom in a series of scenes which are set to emotional music and the tears flowed down my face like rain as my 3 year old twirled my hair in his fingers on my lap. God, I have never known the meaning or power of love until I had kids. Mother-Love brings me to my emotional knees every time… even in animated Pixar.

Well, O is eventually redeemed and proved the hero when he discovers what their enemy, the Gorg really want from the Boov. It turns out that the Boov’s fearful leader, Captain Smek, ran cowardly away from a meeting with the last remaining Gorg many years ago.  In running away, he inadvertently stole the next generation of Gorg which resided in a nondescript rock; a rock which Captain Smek festooned to a talisman and called it the shusher because he hit Boovs over the head with it and said “shush.”

As it turns out, all along the Gorg never wanted to destroy the Boov, they just wanted a rock that contained the next generation of Gorg. In other words, the Gorg’s entire family.

When O explains this to Tip, he repeats a phrase he said to her in the beginning when he was trying to understand her emotions. He couldn’t understand why she was so angry even though she cried like she was sad. He coined the phrase, sad-mad. And as it turns out, the Gorg was just sad-mad, too.

Sad-mad. That’s me. That’s who I’ve been my whole life. I’m a nondescript rock on the outside, bubbling with life you can’t see on the inside. Instead of opening myself up and showing the world all my great stuff, I harden walls and get mad. I push people away, sometimes hitting them over the head saying “shush” until I’m this lonely, lonely thing. If you read this blog, you might disagree with me considering the amount of vulnerability I display here. But this is the only place I do it. To a computer screen. To (mostly) faceless people. If you meet me in in real life and mention my writing I will immediately and expertly change the subject. This public, digital forum is strangely too personal for real life.

The sad-mad

Anyway, being called out by a Pixar movie put me in a state. I was not sad-mad, I was just sad. I came home and put my kids to bed. I lay with my son first. My thoughts went elsewhere, to scary things, and I struggled to bring them back to his eyelashes. How they blinked slowly. How they half-way opened, then shut, then opened again. I began to cry. I put my head close to his and whispered, “I love you.” He wrapped his arm around my head and said, “me too.” Then one of my tears dropped into his ear and he said, “gross mom!” and put a blanket over his ear to protect it. I laughed because it was funny and ironic.

Then, I lay with my daughter and we talked about sad-mad. She asked me if I’ve ever been sad-mad. Usually, I gloss over the truth about her dad and me because I want to protect her, but inspired by the message of being vulnerable I said yes, I have. She asked me when, and I told her the truth. I was sad-mad over the fact that daddy and I couldn’t stay together. Suddenly, her body tightened and she put her hand to her face. I could tell she was touching her eye. My daughter is stoic. She rarely cries. I felt her face, it was dry. She said, “I’m not crying, Mom. My eyes just watered a little bit.”

My heart shattered into a million pieces right then and there. She hides her tears but I KNOW, because I’m her mother, that our volatile divorce weighs heavy on her little 5 year old heart. Then I told her that it’s okay to cry. That I cry about it sometimes, and it’s okay. I told her I wished she cried more just to let it all out. She asked me why I was crying, because by this time, I was holding back sobs, something I never do in front of them – my sadness is an unfair burden. I told her it was for the same reasons her eyes watered. And that it was okay. I was okay. She was okay. And everyone was going to be okay. We talked about a few other things about her daddy and me, and she seemed relieved. Then she said, “Okay, what now?” as if she was ready to move on to the next subject which might delay her bedtime. And I laughed because how funny and ironic.

She’s right. Okay, what now?

How to Love Someone Who Hates You

The latest venom my ex husband spat via email was, “I won’t be wasting another minute of my life trying to explain something to you.” This came after I asked simple and reasonable questions regarding the split of our financial lives. You see, he’s a financial advisor. This is his area of expertise, and, foolishly or faithfully, I let him have control over it since before we were even married. Money has always been high on the list of things he loves.

And so here I am at 37 and I haven’t done my own taxes for 12 years. I didn’t even know how much money we had, or where it was located, until I decided I needed to leave this marriage. I have always respected money, but it was never on the list of things I loved.

And now, after orders have been handed down by a judge proceeding a lengthy and costly trial, we are finally separating the last part of our entangled, paper lives. Logically, there are things I still need to know, details to sort out, and just like everything else up to this point, he refuses to be a catalyst for moving forward, still stuck in a need to punish, to hate, to impose revenge.

And yet, he’s the father of the two people I love most in this world, and he will be until the day I die. They love him, and so, I too must find a way not to hate him.

The only way I know how to do this is to remind myself of his humanity. Some days, when the venom flows and my daughter tells me that she no longer wants a kitten because daddy says I won’t take care of it, the effort it takes to remind myself of his humanity feels like slogging through quicksand. Even so, I take a deep breath and force myself to honor and respect this person who does not respect me, who, I have no doubt would smile upon learning I had a terminal illness and find joy in any misfortune which might befall me.

This is the most challenging thing I have ever had to do.  It stretches my capacity for compassion and then forces me to stretch further, deeper, down to the bottom of everything I have until some days, I am all but empty.

It requires a daily practice of remembering over and over and over that he is simply, a human being. He is fallible. He is blinded in so many ways – just like we all are from time to time – to what really matters in this life. And that is another thing I must practice daily; reminding myself over and over what really matters in this life.Picture saved with settings embedded.

And so I have come to realize that his hatred of me, is actually a blessing. I get to remember over and over what I love, what deserves my love, and the power that love contains. 

These children, they taught me what love is and what it is not. The love I feel for them, it humbles me, it reduces me to my elements. It feels like those pictures you see of galaxies far, far away; unimaginably expansive, mystically beautiful, mysteriously familiar. This love is elegantly simple, and intricately layered, and has no comprehensible outer edge. It contains all the elements of the universe.

It is a the strongest thing I know and it is what I’ve come to understand as the most important thing in this life. And the truth is, just like the stars it has immense power.  It will give you strength to do the unimaginable. It will even make you to pray for your enemies. And so I do. And so I do.

On Choosing to Live with Ghosts

Today has been about pictures and ghosts because my house is haunted.

My Kindergartener has one of those “About Me” posters due in school in a month. Normally, I am a professional procrastinator with a black belt in inventing distractions. Something like this wouldn’t get my attention until the evening before it’s due. But I can’t afford that luxury anymore. It’s one of the many luxuries I gave up when I left my husband. In my new reality, I know that I have two more weekends with my daughter until it’s due, and that means, I have to gather supplies (poster board), find pictures (spend an hour looking through files on my compter), order said pictures (through Costco) and afix these to her poster while coaxing her into writing sentences about them… in Spanish. It’s going to take a little forethought and planning. This also means I have to look through pictures of her father. Happy pictures of before. Oh look, there we are on the beach! On vacation! In the backyard! What a great day that was! Remember!?!?!

Although it was a little torturous, I wouldn’t dare leave him out of her poster about her. 

I selected one. While I was at it, I decided I might as well fill that multi-picture frame collage that used to house our wedding photos. It’s been sitting empty on my wall, like a hallow reminder of this past year. So I selected a whole stack of great pictures of me and the kids from the past year. The beach! Vacation! The backyard! What a great day that was! Remember?!?! And then a few more, for a few more empty frames.

After procuring these pictures at Costco… on a Saturday… with two kids in tow… because clearly I hate myself and put very little value on my sanity… I came home and started taking the frames apart, replacing older pictures with new. I have this habit of leaving old pictures in the frames behind newer ones. I’d done a pretty thorough sweep of “our” pictures many, many months ago, but in this process, I found a picture of us. We were smiling, a beach in the background. A ghost.

This house is full of them. It’s haunted from the concrete slab up into the rafters, which is probably why he doesn’t want it. Call me crazy (you wouldn’t be the first) but I do. Yes, I want to live with these sad, haunting apparitions, and let me tell you, they linger E.V.E.R.Y.W.H.E.R.E. They’re scattered about in the corners of closets disguised as dusty, ancient, random man-detritus; a belt, a lone shoe, a tie clip. They are in some trees he planted still thriving in the yard. On the top shelf in the garage, behind the coolers.

Along with these sad, melancholy ghosts are also these increbibly bright spaces. The space in the living room where my daughter took her first steps often pulses with the softest light. The spot in the driveway where my son learned to ride his bike is forever in sunshine even in the dead of winter. The electric magesty of the other tree where we hang our peanut butter bird feeders and homemade bird houses leaves me breathless. And there’s this warm glow that comes from the front doors of the neighbors who are friends and the friends who are neighbors. But my favorite bright space is the flattened and stained carpet where my children run their paths through the only house they’ve ever known, the house where they were born. These paths have this beautiful, lusterous sheen, which might actually be apple juice, but it’s still so, so lovely when the sun hits it just right.

Sometimes I envy his new digs; the top floor, spacious, two-bedroom, corner condo with a view of the pool.  I don’t actually know what it looks like inside, because he won’t allow me in the building, but I’m fairly certain there are no ghosts living there. He is the type of person who doesn’t look back and has no desire to do so. I assume it’s because of the sadness that arises when you do. And for this, I also feel sorry for him.

Because I choose to live with ghosts, because I survive with them, too.

Because life is a messy mix of the joy and the pain. There can’t be one, without the other. There is no definition of light that does not include the dark. And somewhere deep in my knowing I’ve learned that there is no gratitude without ungratefulness, no love without loss, no future without the past. Most important, I know that I could never know where I’m headed without remembering where I’ve been. And where I’ve been, is right here the whole time.

So I learn to live, and maybe even love, or at the very least appreciate, these ghosts.

And plus, there’s this thing about ghosts and pictures… over time, the light… it fades them.

The Shower on New Year’s Eve That Washed Away Everything

My oldest is 5 years old, so that means I haven’t celebrated New Year’s Eve in any significant way for six, pregnant, breastfeeding, infant, toddler, kid years. But this New Year’s Eve, I was lacking all of these things because the kids left for their father’s at 4pm not to return for another day. I started the evening with a long overdue shower.

I’ve been in a bad place for a while, maybe two months in all. Divorce mediation was in October. Most of November was trial prep, and there was a TON of exhausting, tedious prep accompanied by ginormous checks that needed writing. My attorney wheeled all 7 of the 3 inch binders to court on a small dolly and I now join the millions of American’s in credit card debt. Then, there was a three-day trial in December. (Did I mention that only 5% of divorces make it to trial? because that’s a statistic that I’m sitting on the wrong side of). Then, I spent 6 days without my babies before Christmas and then celebrated (RE: cried, wallowed, white-knuckled through) my first Christmas as a divorcee. And finally, there will be one last day of trial in January because hell hath no fury like a financial expert who’s asked to part from money.

But it was New Year’s Eve. The night when we get to wash away all that dirty mess of the past and celebrate the possibilities that come with a shiny New Year. I love it. I’ve always loved New Years. I love that for ONCE I get to be okay with the idea of change. That it’s perfectly okay and encouraged! to party into the wee hours of the morning sipping champagne and acting like a fool all in the name of letting go and embracing the possibility of a brighter tomorrow.  At least for one, boozy night we can clink glasses and agree that change is good! even if we all go back to clinging to our pasts and the familiar routines the very next day. It’s liberating and I love it so.

So while I was taking this shower, I thought about these things. Then, I thought about the last time I celebrated New Year’s Eve in a significant way. It was 2008. We were in Costa Rica. We were supposed to attend a party on the rooftop of our small hotel but the utilities system of this Costa Rican beach town was taxed too heavy for the second night in a row, and because there was no electricity, there was no party. My husband and I sat on a darkened rooftop, alone, overlooking a darkened town and listened to the revelers in far off places. We watched the fireworks and all we had to eat was one apple. I thought about that trip. One of our many trips to tropical places. I thought about the night before New Year’s when we had dinner in town, and when the lights went out, we went to the beach and stood by strangers at a bon fire. Drunk, I ran into the ocean with a skirt on holding it up above the waves. I still swear a crab bit my toe in the dark. I thought about what a good time we had together.

Until that moment I hadn’t allowed myself to think about anything good we had. I’ve had so many feelings toward my ex in the past few years, and love was way far down on the list, but standing in this warm shower on New Year’s Eve I allowed myself to feel this emotion. Before I even knew what I’d done I looked up and I said out loud, “Holy shit. I used to love him,” as if this idea was the most foreign thought I’d ever come up with in my whole life. The very next moment I felt my entire body exhale. It was as if every cell let go of whatever it was holding onto and whooshed down the drain. It was visceral, and real and I’d never felt anything like it in my life.

I loved him. I loved him. I loved him. Under all this self-righteous anger and disappointment and white-hot fury of the past year, there was this deep ocean of sadness that came riding in on the tiny pieces of my broken heart. All this time I had not allowed myself to feel my own broken heart.

After my body released, I nearly fell over right there from that tidal wave of grief. It came at me from every direction, all at once. I put my hand against the wall to steady myself from the sudden piercing pain I felt of allowing myself to feel my broken heart. I cried for two days, and went unshowered for two days, afraid of the ghost which found me in there.

NYE Blog PostI didn’t go out on New Year’s. After that shower, I stayed in. I ate a peanut butter, banana and honey sandwich at midnight with a bottle of bubbly I found in the downstairs closet left over from the days when we were together. I watched Netflix. I let off a white Chinese lantern I’d saved from the Fourth of July. And I did it alone. It was painful, and beautiful, and cathartic and it made me ache all over. I had finally let the sadness in, and it cleansed and suffocated me all at the same time. Because I did love him.

What came as more of a shock, was after this moment, I started to believe not only that I could forgive him, but that I already had forgiven him. Along with the gut-twisting, rush of sadness, there came a deep vessel overflowing with forgiveness.

Forgiveness for him being a flawed, imperfect man, because that’s all he is — that’s all we all are. Forgiveness for all the wrong he’d done and all the apologies he never gave, and never would. Forgiveness for all the anger and accusations he tossed so lightly in my direction over the course of a year. Forgiveness for his lack of respect, for not loving me, or not being capable of vulnerability or handling mine with care. I even felt like I’d forgiven his parents for abandoning me in this city where I moved to be near them, where they were my only family for eight years. I felt I’d forgiven them for saying and writing horrible things about me to the professionals thinking they are defending their son without a thought toward what they were doing to their grandchildren’s mother. Forgiven all of them for not ever seeing me, really seeing me after all these years.

And the forgiveness train didn’t stop there. Because I acknowledged and forgave him for being a flawed and broken man, I forgave myself, too, for the very same thing. For all the times I couldn’t just let it go and forgive sooner. For all the times I had to make my point again and again and again. For all the times I shut down out of sheer exhaustion from feeling like was never heard. For not allowing them to see me, really see me after all these years.NYE Blog Post II

All of this happened because I allowed myself to let go of the anger and feel the sadness that comes when we hone in on the Painful Truth with a capital P and T. And the Painful Truth of this matter is…  I loved him, and he broke my heart, and it is the saddest story of my life.

And even though much of what he’s done is not okay, and never will be okay… I’m going to be okay. The past is gone, today is a brand new shiny day, and even if it’s not great… it’s still going to be okay.

((Raises martini glass)) To possibilities. If only for a little while, I will embrace change like an old, kind lover; letting go of the past, appreciating what I have right in front of me, and looking forward to a bright, bright tomorrow. Cheers.

The Hero’s Journey: You Will Survive

The Hero's JourneyI open this page a lot. I write some words. I erase them. I try again. I close the page.

When I first filed for divorce about a year ago I was still taking night classes at The University of Washington. It was my last semester of my two-year certificate program. I pulled my professor aside and told him what I was going through, and that I may not be able to complete the weekly assignments. He said something that stuck with me, “Don’t worry. The writing will come back. Just keep showing up and coming to class, the writing will come back in time.” 

It’s not that I have nothing to say. Actually, I have SO MUCH to say. I just can’t find the right words to say it right now. I have been disconnected from that part of me that knows how to express what’s deep, that part that can sort out the pieces of truth lying in weight on my heart, that thing that spins sadness into meaning.

Did you know that only 5% of divorces make it all the way to trial? So, chances are, if you’re getting a divorce, you’re going to “settle” before you see the inside of a courtroom. Both parties are going to put the hurt and anger aside, perhaps agree to disagree, and make plans for the next phase of life; hopefully putting the children’s needs first.

Not in my case. Nope. No such luck. And I have a lot to say about accepting your circumstances.

The last two months I’ve been through mediation, trial prep, and yes, a three-day trial. I’ve sat next to a judge for several hours and plead my case under oath and threat of perjury. I’ve spent thousands of dollars, and countless hours in preparation and hand-wringing. It has been other-wordly. It has taken a deep reserve of strength I did not know I possessed. And I have a lot to say about strength.

I never wanted to be in this position. In fact, I tried really, really hard not to get to this point. I tried to compromise. I tried to look the other direction as someone stole from me and my children. I tried to get along for the greater good. But each time I gave a mile, they wanted a hundred more. And part of the reason I filed for divorce was because I was determined NOT to be bullied into one more wrong decision. So, I ended up in court. And I have a lot to say about forgiveness.

The claims I’ve had to fight are nothing short of outrageous; from abuse, to mental-illness, to alcoholism, to neglect. Everything has been thrown against my wall to see what sticks. So far, none of it has… because none of it is true. This is what happens when you divorce a bully. It’s the same variety you see on the playground; angry, insecure, unable to process their emotions by any other means than abuse. And I have a lot to say about standing up for yourself.

But all of these things are precisely the reason why I can’t write. Each time I open this page, I start to write something meaningful, and a few paragraphs in, I drop into the overwhelming injustice and fear. My ability to see the bigger picture is clouded in fear. And I have a lot to say about fear.

But at the end of the day, it’s not about me. It’s not about every slight or allegation tossed my way. It’s about something bigger. It’s about the human condition. It’s about what it takes to overcome life’s seemingly insurmountable obstacles. And that is the lesson in all this mess. And I have a lot to say about that.

Because life isn’t about what happens to you. It’s about how you rise to the occasion. It’s about how much grace, how much faith, how much perseverance and the unfathomable strength of the human spirit to overcome what’s been laid upon its doorstep. Because we are no victims of this world. We are witnesses. And we need to stay aware, awake, and determined to stand inside the fire, be burned, and live to tell the story. And I have a lot to say about stories. 

I’ve grieved buckets over this loss in my life. I’ve grieved oceans for the loss in my children’s lives. I have disconnected from my tether to this world, and I have lived so that I can tell you what it feels like to come back from there. And the lessons are the ones you’ve seen a hundred times in what Joseph Campbell laid out as… THE HERO’S JOURNEY.

1. Every one of us will pass through a door. Many of us will be pushed, some of us will choose, but we will all pass through this door. The door is labeled, “The Path of No Return.”  It is a one-way trip. Once you step passed the threshold, there is no going back. The life you knew is gone and the one before you is unknown. Beyond the door is solid black. You cannot see an inch in front of your face. There is no sound, no smell, no way of knowing what lies beyond. This is your own, personal, hero’s journey. Don’t think for a moment it isn’t.

2. If you are not pushed through, the first thing you must do is choose to pass. But before you do, muster up as much faith as you can. It may not be a lot, but you’ll be surprised how little you need. Faith will be your only armor, your only ally. It will be the drop of water in a desert, and the crumb of food which will sustain you for days. Pack it in whatever you can find; a pocket, a purse, a knapsack on a stick. You will need nothing, BUT this going forward. Don’t worry about how much you have. Faith is like marshmallow, it expands the more you use it.

3. No matter what (and I can’t stress this enough) you must pass through this door. If you were pushed, this is not your choice, but accept it as though it were. It will be one of the hardest steps you take in your life, and if you only have to do it once, count yourself as one of the blessed. But you must pass. You can’t say no to this journey. The life behind you has already changed, and the only way to grow into yourself is to walk through this black hole and into the unknown. Walk slowly.

4. It’s okay to be afraid. If you’re not afraid, you’re not doing it right. Gather your loved ones. It is now that you will find out who these people are. Hint: Sometimes they’re not who you think. 

5. Then begins the gauntlet. It feels like one of those pitched black, rollercoaster tunnels at an amusement park that goes on for days; it’s chaotic, unsteady, frightening, nausiating. In fact, you will probably throw up a few times. You’ll feel like you’re falling forever and there will be no guarantee of safe landing. Just breathe. That’s your only job right now.

6. Then you will fail. Miserably. And it will hurt. A lot. But know that this is part of the journey, and wrong turns in the dark are a part of the deal. Keep moving.

7. You may drink a fifth of vodka, smoke a pack of cigarettes, go on a bender in Vegas or yell at your mother… ask for forgiveness as soon as possible. Most importantly, forgive yourself. You will need to do this a lot. You should try to get used to it. (Ask me how I know.)

8. Test your faith. Submerge it in water for three days, hold it up to flames, put it in the dryer on high heat. All it will do is get stronger but you won’t know this until you test it. This is a good thing, a hard thing, but a good thing.

9. Then keep moving. Keep trying. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING IS TRYING. Again. And again. And again. 

10. You’ll make progress. It will feel like moving a mountain with a teaspoon. But keep moving. Keep breathing. Keep trying.

11. Then one day, probably when you least expect it, there will be  pin-prick of light in the blackness. This light is the “other” side. It will always come no matter how much you think it won’t. It’s called hope.

12. Right about now you will feel accustomed to the dark, but you’re not, don’t let the dark fool you. You were never meant to live there, you’ve just forgotten about the light. It’s okay, that’s what the faith was for, pull a little from your pocket and forgive yourself for doubting. Keep moving.

13. When you see the light expand from a tiny dot, into a ray of sunshine, now is the time pause, look behind you, take stock of all the stumbles. Then turn around and face the light again. Pull out a little faith for sustenance on the last stretch. Keep moving.

14. There will be no ticker-tape parade or crape paper finish line to burst through. You will not win a medal for surviving. Stepping into the light is more like a gradual stroll. One day, you’ll turn around, and that darkness will seem a hundred miles away. Now is the time to stop moving. Stand still. Empty your pockets and marvel at all the things found in the darkness – self-worth, perseverance, real relationships, insurmountable faith – turn these things over in your hands like precious gems. Hold them close. Know that they are yours and no one can ever take them away. Be proud. Be humbled. Say thank you.

15. Now you’re ready to tell anyone who will listen about your story. Tell them it was painful and scary and you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy. Then tell them you lived. And they will too.

That is the message I keep trying to tell. That is the message I will probably tell for the rest of my life. Stay tuned. These precious gems have so much to say.

My Forgotten Lover – New York City

Her triage of artfully arranged photos – a sepia-toned antique truck, a fox in a suit, a black and white close up of a sheaf of wheat –they mock me from the wall of her adorable Brooklyn apartment. Those pictures, along with her library of literary hardcovers and her collection of vintage vinyls propped up against an old turntable—they bludgeon me with the same silent message – take a good look, this is the road you did not take. On a recent business trip, as I walked with my old, high school friend and her friends down the quaint back streets of her Brooklyn neighborhood, she passionately pointed out interesting details of the houses, the restaurants, the architecture and history. Her and her friends laughed as they told stories about the places they’d been together, the good times they had in this bar or that pub. They knew the best places to eat, the unique cocktail to order, the salad to die for. It was hard to push down my jealousy.

Fifteen years ago, in my early 20s I wanted to move to New York sight unseen. I was drawn to the city like a misfit to the circus. At the end of my senior year of college in 2000, still living in my Midwest hometown, I told my then-boyfriend I was applying for an internship at CBS in New York after graduation. We had the same major and he thought applying was a good idea too. He got it. I didn’t. Asshole. But I went to New York that year anyway for work, and afterward, I was equal parts swooning with desire and shaking in my pumps, painfully, literally because New York has the hardest streets in the known universe and you will walk for miles. I knew nothing about these things.

New York was exactly what I’d expected and so much more. I fell widly in love. Each time I visited I’d walk for blocks and imagine which part of the city I’d live in. I’d look in the windows of apartments and thumb through For Rent flyers. I’d eaves drop on conversations on the subway and scan job sites for postings. But I never allowed myself to seriously consider taking that leap; a naive 23-year-old, I was much too scared to fall. Loving New York City was like having a crush on a hot guy who’s out of your league. The longing can be excruciating. Eventually, I picked apart and highlighted the negatives – too expensive, too crowded, too impersonal, too dangerous – convincing myself that NYC wasn’t really what I wanted after all just to spare myself the agony of ultimate rejection. I reasoned that I had a foolish girl’s heartache and I should wise up and be more practical. Moving to New York was a dumb idea.

Like that too hot guy, I forgot about New York. In the decade since I’d last stepped foot in the city, I’ve gotten married, sued a company, lost a career, had two babies, two homes, lived in two other cities, built a second career, became a writer, and now, trying to start over after leaving an abusive marriage. My friend from high school has lived in New York City since the year I decided to give up on living in New York City. In the last 15 years, she built a successful career, a network of interesting friends, has a passport stamped on every page, and is truly happy. She goes to bed every night snuggled up to my old crush. Listening to her stories about her 15 years in the city it was clear that NYC had become her lover too, and they were very intimate, and I was very jealous.

Over the two days with her I’d been transported into some modern-day version of It’s a Wonderful Life where I was being smacked in the face with the alternative version of a life I did not choose; a life I could have lived if only I hadn’t been so fucking afraid of my goddamn shadow. If only I hadn’t been a bundle of insecurity and a needy little thing trying hard not to fall in love with a lover who had the power to shatter me into a million pieces. Maybe I too would be living in an ecclectically decorated Brooklyn apartment, and “leaf peeping” while antiquing in Connecticut on the weekends, and taking bi-annual trips to China on business?  Maybe I wouldn’t be going through a nasty divorce or be a single mom? Maybe I wouldn’t have learned the hard way that a broken heart isn’t the worst thing, but a heart you don’t follow is.

New York is Everyone's LoverAs we walked down the streets of Brooklyn after having a fabulous dinner and drinks with her friends, I told her about all the ways I loved her life. She put her arm in my arm. We were tipsy and wobbly from the cocktails. She admitted that she loved her life too. She also admitted that there was something missing. Then, her and her friend told me how difficult and daunting it was for people to meet one another in a city like New York. How impossible and improbably it can feel to find a single, similar fish, in a deep, deep sea with 13 million aquatic varieties. I hadn’t realized it, but I’d spent the entire night with three, attractive, intelligent, late-30’s women who had all been forever single. As it turns out, New York is everyone’s lover, and the prospect of having another, well, sometimes isn’t as enticing.

As I walked through the city alone the next day I thought about these lives; hers, mine, and the one I didn’t choose. I was on a break from the conference I was attending, and I wanted to walk. When I came to an intersection, I simply chose the direction that gave me the ‘go’ signal. I did this for an hour while thinking about life and the paths we take and why. I can’t say there was closure, or zero regret, or a feeling of acceptance or relief. I only realized that you take the path you’re brave enough to follow at the time. Maybe it’s as simple as the one that’s giving you a ‘go’ signal. And if you can find joy along the way, you’re doing alright. If you can look back and say I did the best I could, and if you can look forward and say I’ll try my best tomorrow, then that’s all that matters regardless of zip code, relationship status, or how many artfully arranged photos you have on your walls. Because I don’t think it’s about the walls, or their location, but about the people you invite inside them and the love that remains when everything else is gone.

Take the path you're brave enough to take

But I still really liked the one of the fox in a suit.  

The Push

I have a thing for bald eagles. My affection began on a cold March morning on the island of Kodiak, Alaska. I was working. I’d just gotten off a small plane from Anchorage and I was driving to a small local hospital for a surgical case. As I drove my rental car in the icy, early dawn, down a narrow, two-lane road dug into the mountain side, I saw a few bald eagles fly in front of me. I followed their path up the mountain where they perched on a bare tree. As my eyes focused, I realized there were hundreds of eagles perched in the trees. When I looked back down the mountain toward the shore, I saw a cannery where even more bald eagles were swarming like the seagulls do on the shores of the city I call home. The surprise of seeing so many of these relatively rare birds swooping and flying above made me giddy with laughter. I couldn’t stop smiling. I was positively awe-struck.

There’s a bald eagle who regularly sits like a sentinel on a street light over the one of the long floating bridges in Seattle. I saw him there often the last two years on my way to writing class at the University of Washington. I named him George. George became my talisman. As I began to cross the bridge each week I’d say, “okay, if I see George today then what I’m feeling is right, and if I don’t see George, then what I’m feeling is horse shit.” There’s a 50/50 chance I’m going to see George.

Eagles have no real predators. They’re at the top of their food chain. They are powerful, graceful, majestic, stoic animals. They represent freedom; the very reason they are our nation’s symbol. In the winters, and during migrations, eagles are solitary animals. But in the spring, when it’s time to mate, they return to the same nest, the same mate, year after year. They are monogamous. The dads even stick around to co-parent the babies.  Mama eagle and daddy eagle share the duties of feeding and defending the nest for about six weeks, that’s when they literally push their babies out. Six weeks, then push. I would be the world’s best mother if it only took six weeks to raise babies with equal help from their father AND I got winters off. Seriously. Best. Eagle Mom. Ever.

But the hardest part about being an eagle mama would be the push. Imagine. You’re perched on a cliff side or the top of the tallest tree – you have your two, skinny babes who you’ve basically just given birth to and kept alive for six weeks –  and they’ve never spread their wings, not even once. Yet, you must hurl them from the nest and hope they fly. Now, imagine you’re the baby eagle. You’ve never flown, and suddenly, your loving mother picks you up with her massive claws and tosses you overboard, six, seven, eight stories from the ground with nothing but air and faith to hold you up. Pretty harsh.

As a mother of a newly minted Kindergartener and 1st time pre-schooler, I have done some pushing. Each time I have to let go, I hold my breath and pray. I wonder if mama eagles feel the same way? But if I’m honest, at the same time – in the wild, chaos of a messy divorce – I feel like the child who is falling. Many days I feel like I’m descending with nothing but air and faith to make me believe I have wings.

I suppose eagles would never really know the majesty and privilege of being an eagle until they discover their wings… I suppose my babies won’t either… and neither will I… and maybe none of us ever would. It’s only learning to use our wings that allows us to know the freedom of flying.

But oh, The Push. It is the most agonizing thing, and yet, at the very same time… it feels like the greatest act of love. As if maybe there’s balance in this messy, messed up mess. Like the ecstasy of flying BEGINS with the fear of falling, and the hardest things in life contain the GREATEST amounts of love.

Will we ever stop being pushed from our safe homes and off the cliffs of life? If we’re never forced to rely on faith, will we stop being faithful? Will we forget we’re eagles if we don’t use our wings? Is that the point of it all? Learning to fly and then teaching others how to fly, too?

Tell me George. Is what I’m feeling right?

Bald Eagle Wisdom

Letting Go of the Shoulds and the Coulds

I didn’t think I was going to cry that much. I thought I’d be stoic and happy and excited, mostly, but I guess sometimes I don’t know my own heart.

I started to tear up as we got in the car to drive to the bus stop. I saw the neighbors outside. Their son is the same age as my daughter, and although he’s going to a different school, he’s also starting Kindergarten today. A threesome, they were taking the obligatory “first day of school” photo. The dad was dancing  trying to make his son smile. The mom was making sure his hair was fixed and his sign was straight. They both got a chance to take a picture (that wasn’t a selfie) with their son. I choked back a knot in my throat as I pulled away.

Then we got to the bus stop. Some other neighbors were there, a foursome, mom, dad, little brother and their daughter who is going into Kindergarten at my daughter’s school. They chatted, played man-to-man while I worked a zone defense with my two. I took a few selfies, only one turned out.

Then I watched her step onto the bus and the tears came hot and fast. He should be here, I thought. He shouldn’t miss this. But he did. Because that’s one of the punishments the ex doles out for divorcing him — refusing to be anywhere I am even if it’s a birthday party, a dance recital or the first day of Kindergarten.

I got in the car and drove to her school to meet the bus. I wanted to be there when she got off to show her where to find her classroom. I wanted to deposit her safely at the door; see her walk in for the first time. As I drove I silently shook my shoulders and stifled my sobs so my son wouldn’t hear me from the back seat. When I parked, I quickly texted him a picture of her going off to school. I have to try, right?

As I pulled up, the school walkway was full of moms and dads, grandmas and grandpas all saying goodbye, wishing the little ones a good day, giving kisses and hugs and taking more pictures. You’d think there were a bunch of rock stars walking into the building with as many cell phones were in the air. I guess there were.

He shouldn’t be missing this, I thought again. How can his hatred overshadow this? I tried to get angry but I couldn’t. I was just overwhelmingly sad. I hurt for her. But of course she wasn’t fazed, or at least it never shows. In 8 months she’s gotten used to the idea that mommy and daddy never talk, and are never in the same place at the same time. She knows this is how it is, and isn’t yet aware that this isn’t how it should be. She doesn’t know that these two adults, her parents, should be able to set aside the hurt and the anger and come together for her sake. She doesn’t know these things yet.Yet.

I don’t get to pick her up from the bus when she arrives home from her first day of Kindergarten. I won’t get to give her a hug and ask her all about her day because it’s her dad’s night. I’m going to try to call later, but there’s no guarantee he’ll answer his phone or respond to my text. This is another punishment he doles out for divorcing him; refusing to let me speak to our children when they are with him.

As I pulled away from her school the tears came still, but they were more in resignation than sadness. Because in her 5-year-old-wisdom I realized she’s right. No matter how much I wish things could be different, they aren’t. Know matter how much I KNOW they should be different, they probably never will be. Because this is how it is, and there is a certain amount of freedom in letting go of the shoulds and the coulds. Maybe she knows that already and it’s ME who is the one who doesn’t know yet. Yet.

As I flipped through the pictures I took of her first day of Kindergarten, I uploaded a few to Facebook and Instagram. Then, as I often do, I lingered over a few and studied her face; the moment she saw the bus coming, the moment her brother pushed me out of the way to give her a kiss and she lifted him from the ground, the moment she walked down the hall and didn’t turn back…

1st day of Kindergarden

The more I looked, the more I wanted to cry. But then I noticed something truly astonishing… I’m an editor by profession and I spelled Kindergarten wrong.

kindergarden

Then I laughed myself silly. I laughed so hard I cried for a whole other reason.

Oh life with your irony and pain and constant changing of the rules. Thank you for reminding me not to take myself too seriously. Seriously. I needed that. 

Have fun at school, sweetie. I know you’re going to come home and teach me so much more than you already have… and I can’t wait.

XOXOXO,

Mom

P.S. This is how your brother feels about you going to Kindergarten… or garden… or whatever… at least I tried!

Brother with sign

P.S.S. Nothing’s perfect, but we do have to try. 

Love you,

Mom

 

 

 

Like a Feather: My Life’s Lesson Right Now

The last “big” purchase I made on our joint credit card, before we went our separate ways, was a black, thigh-length, down-filled, winter coat. Although it was January, it was already on sale, and I bought it from fancy-schmancy Nordstrom for $150.

I needed a new coat. The one I had been wearing for a couple of years was from Costco. It was white and had gotten dingy. One of the pockets was ripped and every time I put my hand inside, I felt the inner-lining. The zipper was starting to go too.

I splurged on my new coat and I loved it. It was light-weight, but warm, and could even smoosh up into a small ball inside a built-in pouch for travelling… or clubbing, whichever.

All through the rest of last winter, in some of my darkest  moments of separating from my husband, this black coat was my cloak; my warm, full-coverage hiding place with deep pockets and a high collar. But there was one tiny issue. Every now and again, while driving or sitting in writing class and staring off into the ether, a tiny feather would float past my face.

Sometime in February, my 2-year-old son crawled on top of the counter and knocked off a glass ornament which shattered into a million pieces.  This ornament was filled with soft, speckled, brown feathers. It was symbolic to me. Every time I saw it, it reminded me of a phrase –– a saying which encapsulates how I want to live in this world: “Like a feather on the breath of God.”

Like a feather on the breath of God, Hildegard Bingen

So all throughout the cold, dark winter I kept seeing feathers float past me at random moments for one of these two reasons. And wouldn’t you know, as soon as summer came, and the coat was packed, the doors flung open, my daughter started a “feather collection” from ones she’d find in the yard or on walks. Now, whenever she finds a feather she puts it in a yellow bucket for safe keeping. My son finds feathers too. He holds them up to his big sister and says, “Brookie, I found another feather for your collection.”

This morning, as I sat on my front porch and drank my coffee, I talked with my children about love. I don’t remember how the conversation began, but I remember telling my daughter how very loved she was by everyone — me, her daddy, her grandparents, her brother.  And she asked, “And God?” And I said, yes, especially God. He loves you most of all. Then she turns to me, in her infinite 5-year-old wisdom, and says, “Why isn’t God a she?”

Touche, darling, touche.

So I said, “OF COURSE God’s a SHE!”  I told her God is a he and a she, but if she wanted to call God “she,” then I would too. Done. Henceforth in our house God shall now be a “she.”

Just then my son looks above my head and yells… “Look Mommy, it’s a feather coming down!” And sure enough, right behind me, there it came floating — as light as could be.

My daughter jumped up the steps behind me and caught it in mid-air. “A bird must have just flown by and dropped it!” So excited to have seen a feather falling from the sky.

So I said, “Yes, and she was beautiful, and must love us so much she wanted us to have one of her feathers.”

I was thinking that feather was from God. And that it was a sign, like all the other feathers over the past seven months. And suddenly that moment became one of those moments. Moments when you stop, and pay close attention to everything around you, take in every detail, memorize every sense, and then lock it away in your memory bank to unfurl on cold, winter days.

And so I looked at my babies, really looked at them. I studied them like I would a fine painting in the Louvre. Their lightened, summer hair falling everywhere; the way my daughter constantly sweeps her’s out of her face with her right hand; their smooth, soft, tanned cheek bones; a new, tiny freckle on my daughter’s nose and all 20 of those tiny dirt-filled fingernails. Those smiles, oh, those little teeth hurt me so deep. It all made me want to cry. And so I did. And I told my sweet little girl that I was so happy I was going to cry. Then she put her hands over my eyes and said in the most cheerful voice something I said to her on a rough night a few days back when she was feeling sad, “Let those eyes cry. Let the tears come, Mama. You’ll feel better when you do.” She is a special one, this girl.

I’m going through the toughest trial of my life thus far, and yet, I am being reminded all the time that it won’t last forever. The pain will rise and flow and fall and rise again on a burst of unseen air, and then it will disappear into the atmosphere again. It will move through time and space as unpredictable as the wind, and yet, if I can stay soft and light, I will not fall, and I will not break.

This is not at all what I want to do most of the time. What I want to do is go all Mama Bear, claws out, teeth bared. What I want to do is yell at God for how utterly ridiculous and unfair this life can be, and ask how HOW! could anyone behave this way?!?

But God knows all this already, and she is telling me what I must do in spite of what I want to do. She whispers to me softly, like breath, that this too shall pass. She’s telling me that the sooner I learn to trust and let go, to float and fall and rise again… the better off we’ll all be.

image