When Life Gets Out of Control

After some informal inquiries with many of my friends and acquaintances it would seem the consensus is… August suuuucked. In a time which is supposed to be of leisure and good weather – and in the past has meant birthdays and anniversaries and vacations for me –  for the first time in my life, I was barely hanging on.

I experienced a mass exodus of people from my life; some were tangential, some close friends, some romantic interests. But each week in August, just like the crashing waves against cliff sides came a fresh, powerful and unstoppable blow of loss. And each week, I sank deeper into the darkest of lonelinesses.

I remember sitting in the sunshine on my back deck – where I have sat in so many moments of pain and joy over the years – and being taken over by a shaking terror. This scared me most of all. I was so utterly confused (a state I do not function in well) and I was so utterly alone (another state I do not function in well) and I was asking, no begging, whomever or whatever listens in times like these… what have I done to deserve this pain?  Where did I go wrong? What is this life for anyway when I have no control over anything?!?

I have a tendency to blame myself when my life isn’t looking the way I think it should. And yes, it’s about control and believing that I am the captain of my ship. While this has its benefits in building the life you want and creating opportunity, it offers no solace when, as they say, shit happens.

Because that’s what August was mostly about… shit. just. happening. And I had little or no control over anything.

We can, however, control how we react – at least that is what I’m told –  and I’m a little ashamed to report that I did not react well a lot of the time. I was petulant, demanding, angry and blaming. I rattled off harsh texts, I wailed in agony and anger, I no longer wanted to care about anything or anyone. I shut myself off. Not my finest moments.

But at the end of the day, or the end of August, I slowly began to find my way back to myself. There were some days when I didn’t leave two rooms of my home. I read, I listened to music, I contemplated and meditated and sank so deep into my core just to get a foothold on one hour of my day. Other days, I went to yoga and made concerted efforts to focus on just one breath at a time. Because I have learned that when life feels like nothing but crashing waves over your head – one deep breath is the only thing to make you believe you’re not drowning. I did a lot of that… breathing and focusing.

If August had me hanging on for dear life, September has been me reconciling the losses and my actions. I realized a few important things about myself, others and this life.

Nothing in this world stays the same; not a rock, not a tree a continent or culture. It sounds a bit trite and obvious to say, but we fight against this idea on a daily basis. The comfy, cozy softness of tradition and continuity is like that warm fire waiting for you when it’s dark and cold and wet. We crave to be engulfed by the knowing and dependable glow of sunshine in August, of our lifelong friends, of the bonds of family and the relaxing familiarity and predictability of routines we know all too well. These are lovely and useful tools for setting the foundations of joy in our lives and helping us to understand what’s truly important.

But people can get really bent out of shape when you suggest a change in the status quo. Change is largely seen as an enemy, a forbearance of awful things to come, a harbinger of uncertainty and unknown entities.

And the comfort of well-worn dirt paths helps us forget that the crashing waves aren’t just there to lull us to sleep; they are powerful enough to reshape the solid ground on which we stand. And just under that surface are undertows at work. And just because we bury ourselves in the things which keep us dry and warm doesn’t mean these other parts of life don’t exist and won’t come to wreak havoc on us one day. Because nothing in this world stays the same, not a rock, not a tree a continent or culture. Not you, not me, not friendships and family. Time runs roughshod over all things both dark and lovely.

And when the waves overtake you, like they did me in August, so much of life becomes the simple act of hanging on, of coping and finding space to take one breath at a time as your head slips below the surface. And I know now that how we behave in these moments does not define us, but it can teach us if we take time to learn, if we refuse to bury our heads in the sand and we continue to assert ourselves as the captains of our ships.

We are simple humans attempting to reconcile a reality which is largely hidden from our understanding. Our simple minds have us clinging to the safety of land and simple ideas and illusions of permanence because the chaos of change is beyond our comprehension and largely, beyond our control. And that feeling can bring on a shaking terror.

But change doesn’t have to be bad. New ideas do not have to be rejected. Boundaries and relationships can be redrawn and it doesn’t spell doom. And judging ourselves too harshly for our humanity is an exercise in futility. It’s like judging a tree for losing its leaves.

It takes time and patience and stillness, but the reshaping of rock from the constant crashing of waves is a beautiful thing.

Reshaping of Rocks

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

Teaching My Child Intuition and Compassion

Yesterday my daughter and I had an exchange that brought me to instant tears. Big, sudden, happy, relieved, awe-inspired tears.

A couple of weeks ago we were in Hawaii. Much of it was a wonderful experience, but there was one particularly poignant and memorable moment with my 4-year-old daughter.

We were standing on a hill just above a short, black, lava rock cliff. The rhythmic crashing and receding of the ocean was soothing and invigorating all at the same time. The sky was filled with cottony clouds and there was a soft breeze lightly swishing my daughters still-wet, short, brown hair in and out of her eyes. She was wearing a hot pink towel dress having just come from the pool. She was skipping along the hillside picking hibiscus flowers and watching the ocean. I reached for my camera, but I forgot it. Instead of snapping pictures, I just stood there, sunglassed, arms folded.

I remember a rush of gratitude washing over me and a sudden, compulsive urge to encapsulate the moment.  I got anxious for my camera because it’s the one thing that helps me remember how to feel. I got anxious, wanting to take a picture. Even though I started out wanting to savor the moment, in my head, I was already regretting something.

Suddenly I noticed there were several Monarch butterflies fluttering about. I’d seen one or two float past our balcony, but now, on this grassy hill next to the shore there were many. They were circling a nearby tree and dancing together on the breeze. Why had I forgot my camera!

“Look Mama! Butterflies. Oh my gosh they are sooo beautiful!” Brooke said pointing up into the air and following their path with her finger.

We watched them. We talked about which ones might be friends, where they lived, and if they were having fun. After the short conversation she began to sing. There were no words, just humming a tune that resembled the flit and flutter of a butterfly’s dance. She was lost in her song and watching the Monarchs. She sang her tune over and over as she danced and followed the paths of the butterflies around the tree.

My eyes filled with tears behind my sunglasses watching her joy. She was so free. So sweet. Filled to the tips of her wet hair with that moment and nothing else. I wanted to be her — little and innocent — lost for minutes at a time in pure joy not caring about memorializing it in digital form.

More than I wanted to be her, I wanted her to STAY that way. I didn’t want to telescope forward in my head and watch her standing there like me, arms crossed, eyes watering, trying to hold on to a moment, already submersed far into regret. I wanted her to always to be dancing and singing an impromptu tune inspired by the beauty of a few butterflies.

My 2-year-old son was running up and down oblivious to the moment. He’s a wild little thing right now; brimming with energy and bursting with love and fury all at the same time. He’s going through a hitting phase. He’s also quite fond of hurling Hotwheels at your head. I have tried all matter of punishment, but he thinks everything I say and do is hilarious. He’s not ready for logic, but my 4-year-old listens to my attempts to curb his violent behavior, and I found myself struggling with the concept of when it’s okay to hit… because sometimes fighting back is necessary.

Sometimes fighting back is the only choice you have to survive. I know that sounds drastic, but I believe anger can be a good thing when channelled properly; particularly when someone is out to hurt you.

Ever since we started watching Disney movies I’ve described the antagonist as “the meanie.” Jafar, Ursula, Gaston, the scary bear in Brave… those are all “the meanies.” We were having a conversation about how we’re never supposed to hit people unless they are “a meanie.”

“But how do we know that someone is a meanie?” Asks the ever inquisitive 4-year-old.

At this point I was stumped because that was a really great question. In real life meanies don’t come with black robes, eight arms and cartoonishly scary eyebrows. Many times, they look like you and me.

Then I remembered something I am trying hard to learn at the age of 35. Something I’d wish I’d known when I was a little girl.

“You listen to your heart, honey.”

“But how do I know what my heart is saying?”

Again, another really great question.

“Well, remember how you felt that day we saw the butterflies? Remember singing and dancing and watching them fly? How did your heart feel?”

“Good! My heart felt good!” She answered immediately.

“Okay, now how does your heart feel when you hear people arguing?”

She turned her head to the side; furrowed her ever inquistive brow. Waited a moment.

“Like something is wrong.” She said.

“Yes. Yes honey. That’s right. To know someone is a meanie, you have to learn to listen to what your heart tells you.”

Fast forward an hour or so and my daughter spies a picture of my husband and I before she was born. Whenever she sees one of these pictures, the ever self-absorbed toddler asks, “Where was I?” My reply is always, “You were with God.”

“Are all babies with God before they are born?”

“Yes.”

“But how can God take care of babies?”

“God can do anything. All things are possible with God.”

“Can God drive a car?”

“Yes, God can probably drive a car.”

“Can I see a picture of a baby with God?”

Okie dokie… Google Search: “Babies in heaven” Viola!

babies in heaven

She studies it closely.

“Can I see a baby in Africa?”

What the…?

Alrighty. Google search: “African babies.”

This one turned up a long stream of pictures of dark-skinned infants. Some looked sick, barely alive. I scrolled quickly clicking on pictures that showed happy babies. Still, I was unable to focus on anything but the images of the malnourished children with swollen bellies and hallow eyes.

“Okay, that’s enough.” I said clicking out of the browser.

“Wait Mama! I want to see more!”

“Well honey, there are some pictures of sick babies I don’t think you should see.”

“But Mama, I want to see them.”

At this point I debated. Should I preserve her idea that all babies are happy little cherubs sitting in the hand of God surrounded by fluffy white clouds? Or should I shatter her innocence?

Just then, something pushed its way to the front of my brain; or perhaps it leaped into my heart. It was a Super Soul Sunday episode with Karen Armstrong, a renowned spiritual teacher and author of the book, “Twelve Steps to Compassion.” She said that compassion is learned not by turning away from another person’s pain while making excuses not to care; but by standing in the pain with them. This lets a person know that you see them, you hear them, they are not forgotten and that they most certainly matter.

“Are you sure you want to see them?”

“Yes.”

“Okay.”

malnourished african baby compassion

She laughed at first. She thought it was a monkey.

I got real quiet and said, “No honey. That’s a baby. He’s sick and he’s probably hurting.”

“But why Mama?”

“Because he doesn’t have enough food. He’s hungry and this makes him very sick.”

She was real quiet for what felt like an eternity. She stared at the picture. Closely scrutinizing.

“Honey, how does that make your heart feel?” I said nervously.

<quiet> Then she lifts her hand to to her chest and says,  “Sad. That makes my heart feel sad.”

Big, fat, uncontrollable tears fell from my eyes. Yes. I thought. She’s got it. She can hear her heart.

“Mommy, can we go get them and bring them back to our house? Because we have a lot of food.”

After I explained the logistics of plane travel and refrigeration I asked if it was okay if we could send them some money so they could buy some food. She said yes.

Meet Catherine M. from Zambia.

Catherine M. of Zambia

Catherine is the 5-year-old girl my daughter and I will be sponsoring all year through SaveTheChildren.org.

Tomorrow, Brooke and I will send Catherine her first email. We will tell her how beautiful she is; hopefully she will know that we see her, that we want to hear from her, and that she certainly, certainly… matters.

This Too Shall Pass

This Too Shall PassI’ve been thinking a lot about time. I suppose fall does that to me. With all the leaves falling and the ground decaying under my feet. It’s Mother Nature’s most in-your-face reminder that time marches on, things change, release, fall away. And I suppose I feel like being grounded too.

I want my feet stuck deep in the mud. Each year the feeling is the same. The ache for grounding, the need for coziness, the desire to cook hearty meals and wear fuzzy socks. I just want to feel warm and safe and stuck into something solid. No more bouncing around like a beach ball on the waves, just stuck flat to the pavement like a wet leaf.

I start looking forward to all the yearly rituals of the holiday season. The Halloween decorations, the Thanksgiving meal, the Christmas, Christmas, Christmas EVERYTHING. These things are my annual touch stones; my measuring sticks of how far we’ve come as a family, how much deeper our roots have burrowed, how much wider our life has become. It’s reassuring and sad in equal measures.

There are these moments when I’m wearing my rain boots, my hood pulled up, my hands shoved deep in my pockets and yet the sun is still shining hard. In those moments I think everything is going to be okay. We are all going to be just fine. I can rest my weary mind for a moment and know that everything will be okay, not perfect, just okay. The okayest. Moments, just minutes at a time when I hear my children laughing or feel them breathing on my neck while rain pelts our windows and I know — there is nothing more I need to do in just that moment.

But those moments fade. The worry returns. And I am bouncing once again on waves of discontent.

Something I read recently by Pema Chondron keeps ringing in my ears. It’s about the “hot loneliness” inside. In Louis CK’s viral video on his rant against cell phones and social media he calls it, “the forever empty… that place where you know it’s all for nothing and you’re all alone.” I’ve been aware of that place lately. That ocean of loneliness inside. I’m feeling its presence more than ever and noticing all the things I do to keep it at bay: social media, the internet, busy-ness, cleaning, eating, obsessing. All this just to look away from the hot loneliness that I know is there rolling inside me. An ocean of forever empty.

I’m trying to sit with that feeling more and more. Breathe through it without feeling sea sick. I can only remind myself of something I have heard my whole life and yet have never really understood until now, “This too shall pass.”

And then all over again I ache for the solid ground. More roots. More boots stuck deep in the mud and my kids racing down the street with red cheeks and buckets shaped like pumpkins. The ritual. The release. The reminders that everything  is alright. Good, even.

Don’t Just Lean In, LEAP IN: Choosing Family or Career

Breastfeeding & RegretLess than a week after I brought my first baby home, after the post-birthing euphoria wore off, after all the relatives had cooed, cuddled, and given back the baby — I fell silently, like a deflating balloon, into a bout of despair.

I had nothing or no one to blame, really, for this free-fall into depression. It wasn’t postpartum (although I’m sure the spiking hormones didn’t help). It wasn’t sleeplessness, (although that wasn’t necessarily a positive either). My sudden drop into sadness was all about me slamming head-long into the realities of my ill-informed decisions.

You see, I decided to breastfeed. Prior to deciding to breastfeed I hadn’t fully realized the consequences of this choice until after my daughter was born and already latching and loving the experience. At that point, it seemed too late to make another choice. That first week post-birth when the realities of this enormous responsibility sank in — the 24/7 on-call body, the milk-management, the constant clock-watching and ounce checking, that f*cking mooing sound of my pump — I was breathlessly overwhelmed. I knew I was in over my head and I doubted every second of everyday if I was up to the task.

A doubt which extended its claws all the way to the first choice I made regarding my child — conception. Why did I do this again?

Before the day my daughter was born I had changed a hand full of diapers and babysat a hand full of children. I had very similar ignorance toward breastfeeding. I had no concept of the reality of breastfeeding or parenting in general, but in theory, it all sounded terrific and doable. But so many things sound good in theory: marriage, scuba diving, shots of tequila… your first tattoo. It looks good on paper, but put to the test of reality, it’s something else entirely.

I saw this intelligent, humorous, thought-provoking play last weekend titled Rapture, Blister, Burn by a gifted playwright named Gina Gionfriddo. It was about so many things but perhaps most prominently, the plight of women and feminism and what all that means in the year 2013. Among Gionfriddo’s topics she so expertly portrayed through Rapture were: generational perspectives on men and women, promiscuity, motherhood, marriage, love, success, betrayal, loss, pornography, reality television and horror films. It was fast-paced and oh, so, funny.

The lead character is Catherine. She’s in her 40’s. She never married or had children but instead, a wildly successful career as a published academic in the area of cinematic theory and feminism. Then there’s her old college roommate, Gwen. Gwen married Catherine’s old college boyfriend, Don. The two of them had two children and still live in their hometown where Don is dean of a small liberal arts college. The last two principal characters  who round out the generational perspectives on feminism are Catherine’s mother, Alice, who has recently suffered a heart attack, and Avery, one of Don’s young, college students.

Catherine has come “home” to take care of her only living parent, her mother. While dealing with feelings of loss and the possibility of becoming an “orphan” she reflects on the choices she’s made in her life. Specifically, the choice to pursue her career and forego a family. She smacks up against all the “what ifs” when she starts to have an affair with her old boyfriend, Gwen’s husband, Don. Gwen, on the other hand, has lived this life of motherhood and marriage and envies Catherine for her choice to pursue a career. Gwen ultimately condones this affair for the offer to move into Catherine’s posh Manhattan apartment and return to school. Catherine and Don will raise the youngest child, while Gwen takes the older one to school in Manhattan.

What’s brilliant about Gionfriddo’s Rapture is that she does not favor one woman’s life decision over another. She outlines the positives and negatives of both paths. She doesn’t even propose that it’s and either/or sum game but rather a mix of personal ideals, socio-economic status,  and cultural-generational perspectives. Complicated and murky and simply brilliant.

I won’t spoil the ending but the dilemma of modern motherhood, the pursuit of a career, and what all that means in terms of feminism and our media-driven society is profoundly dramatized and utterly hysterical. One could draw several “conclusions” from Rapture but the one that spoke most loudly to me was this:

“Have the balls to live with your decision.” 

Because life is a series of choices, one after the next. Many of them are hard and sacrificial, but at some point we all must choose something even if that choice is not to make a choice. But once we do… we must have the nerve to stick to it without regret, or complaint, or lamentation of what might have been. Same goes for those choices that are thrust upon us. If you constantly live in a state of regret over the past, you minimize your potential future.

What’s most important is that we must always walk, run, LEAP head-long into life with passion. But we cannot wear blinders as to where we will land. We have to try hard to fully understand all that we are giving up when we choose one thing over the other, and then make our choices from the most informed position possible.

And then ultimately, when the choice is made…  we don’t look back. We keep walking, running, LEAPING head-long into life because looking back will only slow us down, trip us up.

And that is where my post-birthing bout of despair came from. I didn’t fully understand the commitment of breastfeeding or even motherhood before I ran head-long with passion into this abyss. I smacked up against consequences I wasn’t fully prepared to handle. But here’s the thing…. in my 35 years of life I have found that most of life’s lasting gifts, joys, memories, excitements and opportunities have been things I couldn’t FULLY comprehend until I was already immersed in them, doing them. Often times, after it’s too late to go back — things like breastfeeding, marriage, motherhood and multiple shots of tequila.

Perhaps the reason is that I tend to get paralyzed and anxiety-ridden when there is too much information and at some point, I just have to take that leap of faith.

So here’s what I say: Stay informed. Knowledge and awareness is a bridge to freedom and the antidote to regret. Don’t stick your head in the sand and refuse to acknowledge the consequences of your most important decisions. But for all those consequences that you cannot foresee, or understand, don’t become paralyzed by fear of making the wrong choice. Don’t lean out to stay safe. You must always run head-long into life no matter what. As Joseph Campbell says, have faith that if you leap, the net will appear.

And when you make those important decisions, have the balls to not look back — and even harder — not to shame those who chose the other path. These things will only prevent you from seeing the next LEAP into your life’s greatest moments.

I kept breastfeeding my daughter until she was seven months. That’s when working full-time and traveling was too hard for both of us to manage. But by then I had grown to cherish the bonding moments it gave us. With my second child, I was much more informed of the enormity of the choice and I chose to breastfeed him, too. Now, the memory of sitting in a darkened room nursing my children in the wee hours of the morning are some of the most gratifying, sacred, holy, transcendent moments of my life.

So let your leaps be ones of information AND faith. 

LEAP IN blog post Pinterest

In the Crook of My Right Arm

My son is 22 months and he loves his Mama somethin’ fierce. He is much more attached to me than my daughter was at this age. If he loses track of me in the house I can hear him from the other room saying, “Where’s Mama? Mama!” I always answer back. “I’m right here Buddy!”

When he finds me he climbs on my lap and says, “What doing Mommy?”

His favorite place to fall asleep is in the crook of my right arm. When he wakes up alone in his crib he cries, “Mama! Come get me. Your bed.” He’s my youngest (and probably my last) and of course he gets most of what he wants.

There have been some significant changes in our house in the last couple of weeks and because of it, my anxiety has been on Level Red High Alert. Coinciding with these changes was a rash of attempted child-abductions in Seattle where I live. On three different occasions, three different people tried to snatch a young child in broad daylight. It appears the incidences are unrelated.

But what is related, is that the only time I left my house for a week was for school and gymnastics class. I was so paranoid. For a whole week I wouldn’t even take my eyes off my children in our fenced-in backyard. Then one night, while lying in bed with my son tucked into my right side, I suppressed a panic attack. I looked up the sexual predators in my neighborhood (again). I left the outside lights on all night. I double-checked the window locks and I had to take medication to fall asleep. For a straight week I could not stop thinking about the possibility of my children being abducted.

Eventually, the anxiety abated. I became calm(er) once again. I thought back to the night with my son when I was clearly unhinged and I couldn’t understand how I let my thoughts whip me into such a frenzied state? Normally, I am a rationale person. I know the child abduction statistics. I mean, I don’t even live in Seattle proper.

But this is how anxiety works. Panic attacks are the activation of the body’s most primal fight or flight response. But the reaction is not from actual danger, but a perceived, imagined danger. Danger you fabricate with your thoughts.

I thought about that night a lot – laying next to my son trying mightily to slow my breathing and trembling heart as he slept in the crook of my right arm. Eventually, I uncovered the parallels; the hidden meanings of my fabricated thoughts and my real life, and I came to a conclusion. You see, for a week or so this recent big, family change had me feeling out-of-control, and the more uncertain I am of the future, the easier my anxiety latches onto any reason to illicit a response, in this case, it latched onto the recent attempted child-abductions.

The new, big change in my life is that two weeks ago I reentered the workforce for the first time in almost three years. In fact, as I write this, I am on a plane—my first business trip in as many years.

I’d been thinking about going back to work lately, but I hadn’t planned on doing it this soon. An opportunity presented itself to me out of nowhere and I could NOT say no. It is the “perfect” job for me right now. I get to work from home with flexible hours. I will be able to be there for my kids when they need me. I’ll be doing things I enjoy doing. I get to write and read other people’s writing. I get to use social media and interact with mothers on a daily basis. I get to create and use my business acumen. I get to help people. You.

One of the best parts is that this job found me through this blog. They know that I write openly here and that is not a negative, but a positive.

After weighing all the positives and negatives there was only one answer. I had to take it. More than that, I wanted to take it. But… and there’s always a but.

I know myself well enough to know (or at least figure out) what’s been happening in my mind and body for the last two weeks. I know that when life starts spinning in all directions I get nervous. I start wishing for eyes in the back of my head, more hours to the days, and a crystal ball to tell me what’s going to happen tomorrow. All are impossible things to have, and it makes me start to worry that I’m doing something wrong. Missing some crucial piece of information. That if only I can stay one step ahead, I may never fall.

I want to succeed at work, but I’m not scared of failing either. I’m also not scared of making mistakes or not having this position work out in the long run. I know I will give it my all and that will be good enough, and at this stage, work can’t scare me anymore anyway. Not after what I’ve been through. I’ve got a firm grasp on what’s important every night in the crook of my right arm.

What’s got panic rising in my chest is thinking of that little boy walking around the house crying, “Where’s Mama?” and his Mama is not there to answer him.

My true, repressed fear is that my children will flounder–get metaphorically lost–at least in the short-term. For this reason I have fixated on the near impossibility that they will get really lost. Forever.

I put my career on pause and stayed home for the last three years for a reason. I wanted to be with them when they were babies. I wanted to have that experience with them, for them, because I love them so very much and I never wanted to regret not being there for the most dependent years. It’s not the right decision for everyone but it was the right one for me. It was also an opportunity I was fortunate enough to have, and also one that was handed to me by The Universe due to circumstances beyond my control.

But now my daughter is four and my son is almost two, while they still need me a great deal, The Universe has handed me another sign that it’s time to go. It might just be to my office to do some work for a couple of hours, or away for one night on a business trip, but still, it’s time to go.

But Buddy, don’t you worry because I’ll always be right here. Right here. I promise.

There are Pythons in the Everglades: And Other Things I’ve Learned about Marriage

Recently, my husband and I spent a week on vacation in the furthest, southern, sunny geography in the continental United States; south Florida. We also recently spent several rainy, winter months in counseling in Seattle, Washington. We didn’t choose to go to Florida, and if we didn’t have to, we wouldn’t have chosen to go to counseling. But my husband, the intrepid bread-winner, won this trip to the Sunshine State through his work. It was a rare accomplishment for his large company, and since we were not taking the kids, it was also a rare opportunity for us to spend some extended time alone.

I was mostly excited; only a touch nervous.

Ritz HorseWe started off being utterly spoiled at the Ritz Carlton on Key Biscayne. This was the company portion of the trip. In those four days we took a boat tour around Miami, went to a Heat basketball game (my husband is a huge NBA fan), and took an air boat tour of the Everglades. We ate, drank and slept our fill over four days in luxurious style. Like a relaxing, self-endulgent massage on tense muscles, it was a perfect way to soften us up for the rest of our trip—our personal vacation away from the company people, deeper south in Key West. We left the Ritz, somewhat remorsefully, and made our way, slowly, southward along Hwy 1 where we would spend three days alone.

But before we could get there, we had to drive through the Everglades.

The Everglades is actually not a swamp, but a river. It’s a remarkably lazy one because it moves (slides really) off the edge of Southern Florida at a whiplashing rate of a half mile a day. When it reaches the ocean, the fresh (although muddy) water mixes with the shallow, light blue seas of the Caribbean. If you draw a latitudinal line through the Everglades all the way around the Earth you will not find another geography like it. It is a truly unique ecosystem.

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The Everglades is also a petri dish for wildlife. If, by chance, a new species makes it way to this lazy river, that species proliferates beyond its typical boundaries. It grows larger, more resilient than usual, disturbing all other things and creating chinks in the chain of homeostasis. Apparently geriatrics are not the only population who thrive in Florida.

Like most ecosystems, the Everglades are sensitive to change. The slightest hiccup; the subtraction or addition of a plant or animal can bring sweeping and permanent change to all the parts. Michael+Jackson+snakeThe most publicized, and perhaps most exotic of these invasive species is the Burmese Python. Sometime in the 80s, no doubt a misguided pet owner channeling his inner Michael Jackson, let lose some Burmese Pythons that had grown too big to wrap around their mullets. That mistake resulted in a population of Pythons that are now estimated in the 100s of thousands. These monster-sized snakes are now eating the natural predators at the top of the Everglade food chain, the alligators. In some areas, the Pythons have devoured 90% of the animal life; everything from wrens to deer.

Realizing the potential for destruction of one of the world’s most unique habitats, the government now spends $500 million dollars a year trying to save it. And it’s not just from Pythons; there are trees, snails, mice and yes, men who want to take over this prime real estate.

As we traveled south I thought of those Pythons. People in Florida hate them. They hold contests to see who can kill the most snakes. Once, a tour guide operator even jumped in after a one attempting to wrestle it with his bare hands. He was almost strangled to death in front a group of tourists. Pythons are Everglade Public Enemy #1 but they didn’t really do anything wrong. They are just Pythons being Pythons. But that doesn’t change the fact that they don’t belong there, even if they like the warm weather and plentiful golf courses. It does not change the fact that if left unfettered, they will destroy a good thing.

As I looked out the car window onto the mangroves and saw grass, it hit me. I’ve let loose Pythons in my marriage.

Marriage Pythons are unforgiven deeds. Resentments. Marriage Pythons are deadly and if allowed to grow unfettered, they will proliferate and destroy 90% of all the other pieces that make a marriage unique and beautiful. If you can’t stop the Marriage Pythons, the ecosystem will collapse. Right then I decided to become a Python hunter, but since I’m more a catch and release kind of gal, I’m not killing them. I’m caging them. Studying them.

Now, I see Pythons all the time. I’ve learned how they move, where they hide, what they eat and where they breed. I’m catching them one by one. I’m giving them names, shining a light on them inside their cages and letting your little fingers to tap on the glass. Hopefully, I’m educating a few on the dangers of owning exotic animals, 80s hair and marriage pitfalls.

By the time we reached sunny Key West, I had recommitted myself—not to my husband, but to honing my most valuable Python catching tool: forgiveness. So far, it’s been the hardest thing yet.

But Key West wasn’t the furthest we had to go on this journey south. We went even further. We took a float plane 70 miles south to the most southern and key of all; The Dry Tortugas. This is where a pre Civil War military fort, Fort Jefferson, has been turned into a pristine and magical animal sanctuary and protected state park.

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Fort Jefferson’s history is gruesome; a tropical island of horrors. Slaves built the fort in the early 1800s.  They are called The Dry Tortugas because the island lacks access to fresh water. The fort was designed to sit on top of a massive cistern that would hold fresh rain water. But the engineering was faulty and the massive brick structure collapsed under its weight, cracking the cistern and 087filling the surrounding moat with sewage water. Imagine a moat of standing sewage in tropical heat? During the Civil War prisoners and soldiers in their heavy wool uniforms were forced to stay here. Disease ran rampant. Many tried to escape, and many others died.

Today, the moat is clear blue ocean water. The canons and shackles are rusted relics and the attached land is a rookery for all kinds of beautiful tropical birds. As we walked this empty, ethereal and solemn place, I realized that this was me. I am a fort, on an island, in a shallow sea and if I do not seek peace, I may collapse under my own weight, surrounding myself with sewage water while chained to the wall. I am also beautiful, magical, a sanctuary. I can be deadly. My history; flawed. If I cannot learn to forgive even myself, to turn the page, if I cannot hunt the Pythons inside my head and bring the waters to homeostasis, I might flood my moat and destroy my own habitat.

I came home from Florida changed. But do you know the best part of all? The most heart-clenching truth I found in this most southern, foreign of places? That sometimes is it out of war, that beauty arises. Sanctuaries are found. That love lives on behind high walls and dirty waters.

Practice Does Not Make Perfect

The kids’ toys have invaded every room of my house and it’s making me little crazy. Right now, there are three rooms in desperate need of painting, a brigade of dandelions invading my garden, and stacks of papers that have built up over a dreary, rainy season. I sigh heavily each time I look at them. For the last week I have been slightly obsessed with getting my home organized. Call it Spring cleaning, or whatever, but it has suddenly become of paramount importance that each these issues be rectified and a semblance of order restored to my living space before I can think of doing anything else.

In the last week I have been on a singular mission to create a playroom in a spare bedroom and reclaim my living room as “adult space.” I have made trips to IKEA, Target and Goodwill for donations. I have searched for more than an hour online for the just-so-perfect-paper-organizing-charging-station (which I have yet to find). If I’m being honest, I can think of hardly anything else until this project is complete. I know when I get so focused on one task that there is something larger, deeper at play, and this new zeal for cleaning and purging is no exception.

For four months I have been walking a razor’s edge. I’ve been balancing knives on a high wire and holding my breath 1000 feet under water. I’ve felt the heaviness of the unknown resting on my chest while dragging the past behind me strapped to my neck like a noose. It has been a long, hard winter for all the relationships in my life.

But today, like the tulips and daffodils that are pushing their yellow petals toward the sun from the previously frozen ground (a miracle each time) there has been a transition toward the light in my own life. Some friends have emerged as life preservers. Some family relations have been clarified, deconstructed, ready to build anew, perhaps in a healthier way. Most importantly, my marriage has shifted onto more solid ground and it too is rebuilding with a stronger foundation than ever before. At this moment everything feels like a miracle, from the flowers to my faith.

It’s been awhile since I’ve felt this assured about the future and my sole motivation to organize my home is my way of trying to hold onto that feeling; gain control of it, slap a fresh coat of paint on it and force it to stick around for a while. I believe this much is true.

I have learned a great deal about myself and relationships in the past four months by means of therapy, reading and introspection. In the midst of it, I have swung from one side of the sanity pendulum to the other, sometimes in the very same day. I know more about who I am, a knowledge that came at a high price. I have confronted my anger, my anxiety, my ideas about marriage and family, motherhood and faith. My convictions have never been stronger or more flexible and neither has my body as a direct result of deepening my yoga practice. All of these are good things that have helped me grow, and yet, my compulsions remain.

life is a practiceThis is the lesson standing out to me on this clear, crisp Spring day–that like my yoga practice, life is never mastered. Life is a continuing practice because there is no such thing as perfection. Perfection is an illusion we portray to keep the deeper, larger things at arm’s length; to avoid eye-contact with the ugliness and unexpectedness that lays on the periphery of every thing we hold close.

As deep as my tendencies for obsessions and compulsions run, somewhere else deep, lies the knowledge that there is no promise of ever getting it right, of having it all, of writing the perfect blog post, bending into the epitomous expression of downward dog or even another clear, crisp Spring day.

Even though I want to finish this post so that I can paint trim, I will remind myself in the midst of it that there is no such thing as the just-so-perfect-paper-organizing-charging-station (believed me, I’ve looked) or seemless, knick-free walls that do not hold with them the immediate threat of a toddler’s permanent marker adornments… or relationships without the promise of future disappointments.

My recent quest to organize my house is about me, once again, fighting this reality. In the light of this more hopeful, brighter place in my life, I am already starting to fear of the unknown, the chaotic, the foreboding season I just left, one that I know will come again because… such is life. My need to categorize my papers is me trying to hold onto something instead of slipping into the flow of life, of letting everything be “perfect” the way it is and trusting that everything is already as it should be… a miracle.

But the good news is that life is a practice, and part of that practice is reminding myself again and again that there is no such thing as the perfectly organized playroom and clutterless countertops. They do not exist.

If I have learned anything over the last four months, it is that life is unpredictable and precarious and the only thing we have is the present moment, whatever that beautiful mess might be, and miraculously that it is always enough. I know now that there is no such things as the perfect marriage, the perfect mother, the perfect life… that we are all just practicing at doing our best each day. Something we should learn to be more forgiving with, for, to, of.

I have changed the way I think about these things, and that new thought takes practice too. Instead of saying I am a writer, I say, I practice writing; same goes for yoga. I also practice being wife, a mother and a daughter. I practice patience and gratitude and staying present. Always practicing, never perfecting because I have also learned you can never master anything in life. (Much to my love-of-lists-and-checked-boxes dismay.)

But perhaps with diligence of effort, commitment to the cause, and a willingness to be vulnerable and take risks, I’ll get better at all of them? Maybe?

I don’t believe happiness, serenity and forgiveness comes naturally for anyone. Life is difficult and testing for even the most enlightened and faithful among us. But I believe the more we commit to practicing gratitude, being present, forgiving and loving thy neighbor, the less harsh the winters may seem.

My tendencies are for control and perfection and certainty, but today, on this rainy, shiny, Spring-filled day, with its Chartreuse leaves twisting in the wind and bright tulips unfurling to the sunshine, I know that practice does not make perfect, but I am CERTAIN it will make good enough.

Because there is no such thing as a garden without weeds, relationships without falter, children without messes… and would we ever want it any other way?

A Lingering Vegas Hangover

I went to Vegas with some girlfriends last weekend. The three of us are stay-at-home-moms and each week we meet behind the plexiglass of our 3-year-old daughters’ gymnastics class. A couple of months ago, we decided a Moms Only trip to Vegas was in order. It’s been three years since I spent more than 24 hours away from my children, so I was more than game.

We danced, we drank, we stayed out late and laid by the pool. We ate when, and what we wanted. We got foot massages and I laughed so hard my abdominals still hurt three days later. We put on pretty clothes and spent at least an hour getting ready. I wore heels and Spanx and glittery eye-liner. We went to loud clubs where the music pounded in my chest and it felt good.

Moms in Vegas

We had so much fun that we had TOO much fun. When Monday rolled around and it was time to go home, reality came spinning at me faster than the sevens on those money-sucking slot machines. Ding!

Over those three days I remembered what it was like to take care of only one person… myself. I remembered how electric the nightlife can feel pulsing through my body. I remembered what it was like to sleep until I woke up on my own. I remembered what not having to be anywhere felt like. I remembered the freedom of having choices.

Compared to the rote and often mindless cleaning, cooking, scolding, bickering and cartoon Disney movies of my present-day life, it was like being transported to the Technicolor world of Oz complete with shiny heels, short dresses and good music. I truly hadn’t realized how drastically my life had morphed in ten years until I was suddenly standing in the middle of my 20’s again.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not looking to be single. I’m not even looking for the ability to binge drink and stay up until 3am. Been there, loved it, over it. What I realized is that freedom and choices are in drastic short supply in my life and I had no idea how much I missed them until I had them back for three, short days in Vegas.

When I became a mother almost four years ago, my obligations burst from the asphalt like a flashy hotel on expensive Las Vegas Strip real estate. Subtract a career, add another child and my choices shrank to the size of a perpetually full laundry basket. It took awhile for the shock of my tethered life to sink in, but what other choice is there when you have children? You just do it. All of it. Over the course of four years, this life became quite natural and I hardly remembered anything else. At some point I found it pointless to think about all the things I CANNOT do because that’s just masochistic. But what I hadn’t realized is that because of this lack of freedom and choices, somewhere inside me there was building a low-grade hum of discontent like the buzz of neon lights.

I came home in a funk. My husband was expecting a different result. He thought I’d be rejuvenated–happy! with my three-day vacation. But I wasn’t. I almost wished I hadn’t gone. I wished I hadn’t tasted the freedom because now I’m in withdrawal, and if I learned anything from my 20’s it’s that no matter how good the high… the crash is always worse.

It’s taken me three days to get my head out of the fog and it is only with distance, perspective and a practiced (if not forced) gratitude, that I can remember the point of going to Oz… to find the way back home.

Brooke & Brady Glam

And I brought some glam and shiny shoes back with me.

Let Go And Trust the Direction of the Wind

There are so many lessons to be learned when traveling to foreign countries, in particular, developing countries. I wrote last week about traveling for the first time as the mother of (and with) young children to Nicaragua. I am still here in Nicaragua as I type this and there is still profound perspective around every unbaby-proofed corner.

Nicaraguan Baby

The second lesson that is hitting me hard is this: Let go and go with the wind.

The wind here blows in all directions, sometimes all at once. We were evicted from the place we planned to stay for the duration of our trip partly because of a veracious wind storm that ripped out a couple of window screens. The main reason we were evicted, was because the owner didn’t understand (nor could he tolerate) children. Although for months he led us to believe otherwise. After my daughter wet the bed (which we’d later discover was because of a UTI) along with other realitively minor infractions considering the environment, like not shutting the windows properly to prevent his curtains from be whipped by the wind, he let us know that we were no longer welcome on the 4th day of our 14-day trip. We were understandably upset by this development as my husband spent months planning our trip and corresponding with the owner to insure the safety and proper environment for our young family. Without notice, at 7am one morning, we were suddenly without lodging in a third world country with two small children and lots of luggage.

We railed against the situation and the owner. We vented and called him names and I wrote a review for his place of business and then edited it a dozen times. We were mad for being blind-sided. We were mad because our much-anticipated vacation wasn’t turning out as we’d hoped.

Luckily, there was space available at an excellent resort community that had great amenities including air-conditioning. We didn’t choose this location from the start because on the top of our checklist of accommodations, we wanted a stunning view, immediate beach access and someone to cook most (if not all) of meals. Although this place has a great view, it did not offer the other two things. This ordeal stole an entire day of our vacation by having to relocate and spend time shopping for food and necessities. Not a fun day with two cranky, sweaty, napless toddlers.  To add to the situation, the Nicaraguan woman we hired to help with our children during days up and quit in the middle of our shopping trip because she had problems at home. At some point later this day, I said to my husband in a moment of frustration: “I’m not having fun anymore!”

It was true. I was exhausted. Things weren’t looking good in the near-term future. All I wanted to do was rest and take a break from all the work and worry. In spite this, I picked up my frustrated, disappointed, tired-ass and took my kids to the pool.

Within 10 minutes of being there, I met the owner of the only yoga studio in the small town of San Juan Del Sur, Nicaragua. Within 20 minutes of meeting her, our vacation would turn around significantly. The next morning, I went to my first yoga practice in two weeks at her studio. While there, on my mat, I would hear this lesson with crushing clarity: Let go and trust the wind.

I have said before that yoga is my church. It is where I check-in with myself. It is where I become the best version of me, and it is where I hear God speak, most clearly. As I sat there on my mat waiting to begin, I started to focus on my breath and become present. It was an open-air studio on the second floor and the breeze blew lightly through.

Yoga NicaraguaI lifted my gaze to watch a butterfly struggling against a sheer, black screen. It struggled, fluttering it’s yellow and black wings over and over again into a barrier it could not see. Suddenly, a gust of wind blew it around the screen into the exact direction it wanted to go. In that instant, I knew what I came to Nicaragua to learn more profoundly.

When life isn’t working out the way you planned; when you get kicked out your accommodations (in part because of a wind storm) and then find yourself on the streets of a third world country with two cranky toddlers, four bags of luggage and nowhere to go; trust, and follow the wind. Stop struggling against the Universe, stop arguing with reality, stop putting energy where there are no solutions or peace or love; stop fighting the obstacles in your path. Go with wind and trust that God will be there waiting to lift you around the screens you cannot see, toward the place where the Yoga teacher is waiting; to a better, brighter space where you can fly where you want to go without struggle.

From that moment on, our vacation got better and better. Since we were not beholden to this snake-oil salesman and his place, we were free to move about, wherever.  Because of this, we are now settled into a beautiful place on the most pristine white sand beach in Nicaragua called Coco which is just 45 minutes outside of San Juan Del Sur . Last night, we watched the most dramatic, stunning, outrageous sunset of our lives. Afterward, my little family of four walked on a the soft sand beach laughing, watching tiny crabs scurry about while the horizon over the ocean blazed on in fiery red-orange. My 3-year-old threw her arms out wide and exclaimed, “Everything is so beautiful!”

She was so right. It was beyond beautiful. I wanted to capture it with my new camera but no digital photograph would contain what we were feeling, seeing and experiencing as a family. We were alone, on a remote corner of the world looking into the dying light of day, gazing up at a crisp sliver of a moon and a sky beginning to dust itself with bright, glittering stars. It is a moment my husband and I will never forget and would never have had, had we held on to our disappointments and let that be our guide instead of being, “…Like a feather on the breath of God.’

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Coco Beach Nicaragua

Playa El Coco, Nicaragua, January 2013