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

On Settling My Mind and Letting Things Be

Where have I been? Better question, or maybe a statement, where I have I not been.

I’ve been riding my bike by the ocean. I spent the fourth of July exactly how it should be spent, with friends on a boat. I treated my parents and my brother’s family to a nice vacation in the Cascade mountains. I blew my kids’ mind with a moped ride. I stifled my gag reflex and took a picture with my ex husband at Kindergarten graduation. I watched my son be inspired with his first taste of BMX racing. I went to an ironic art show about penises. I saw the sun set and a full moon rise at the same time while on the Pacific ocean. I smoked cigarettes with a very sad man on his back porch while comparing divorce war stories which were so different and yet eerily similar. I adopted two kittens. I had long, hopeful, but sad phone conversations with a friend in another state from long ago who was in the hospital for six weeks with an infected leg and trying to stay clean off meth. Sadly, he was in so much more pain than physical and he’s lost now. I met some amazing women at a blogging conference across the country and sang Rick Springfield while sober. I’ve carried on a lively texting relationship with a man who lives in a neighboring state who might just be my doppelgänger. We have never met but sometimes he reads my mind and we finish each other’s sentences. Go figure, he’s a writer and editor. You’ve never seen such grammatically correct texting which, by the way, is a turn on. I’ve grown an accidental garden of cucumbers. I took a fiction class and wrote my first short story in a year. I penned an anonymous sex article for an online zine which shall remain nameless. I met another really nice boy who I liked a lot. He wined and dined me with smoked salmon and white wine in plastic stemmed cups on a mountain trail. I lost that boy out of fear – his, not mine. But that’s not to say I haven’t been afraid.Where I've been

My fear, though, is right here on this page. I’ve been writing, but not much publicly. I’m bursting with stories, but I can’t get them out. It’s an achy, itchy sort of pain. I start, stop, then ignore, and live to tell more stories squashing the regret for the ones I neglected to get out which now seem stale.

But I can’t complain. I have no right. My life is pretty good now. Which on one hand, seems strange because the hole left by the explosion of my divorce is still hallowed ground. But it’s no longer smoking. And some things are much harder now. Like bills and missing my children. But overall, I still can’t complain. In fact, often times, I look around and can’t believe how stupidly contented I feel in spite of all that I have survived in the last six years with law suits, career moves, divorce and babies.

There are many reasons I feel content in the aftermath of such destruction, but the one that comes to mind is that I’ve settled my mind. For six years the space between my ears was its own battlefield. A constant stream of impossible choices: stay, go, fight, stand down, run, hide, pull out the big guns. And while in some areas, the battle rages on, I have managed to find peace. And that peace has come not by laying down my arms, but by accepting what has come to be.

Why? That is the question I have asked more times than my self-diagnosed ADD would allow me to count. Why did this happen? Why is this my life when I made so many good choices? Why can some people see themselves clearly and others die in search of? Why is addiction such a bitch? Why is it so damn hard to communicate when there are over a million words in the English language with an infinite amount of combinations? Why is love not enough? Why?

And I suppose the peace I have found is not in the answers to these questions – it is accepting that there are no answers. There has been one phenomenal shift in my life which I may never stop writing about and that is… nothing exists in this world without its opposite. There is no definition of light that doesn’t include dark. There is no truth without the lie. The full moon can rise at the same time the sun sets over the ocean. Both exist even when you can’t see them. Especially when you can’t see them.

And so I live with the hallowed ground and the hostile ex husband and the fear of writing and the contented joy of my wild garden and I let it all just be. I fight when I have to, I sit when I need to, I tend the fire inside which aches and itches and might burst any day. I keep asking questions and practice accepting the lack of answers. And with that, I have built a pretty good life.

So that’s where I’ve been. Living. Not perfectly. Not without mistakes and messes and missing pieces, but just letting it all be.

Also, regarding my absence from this space, a couple of months ago I was rattled by the power of what I do here by a few urgent messages from readers. One message, in particular, which I’ve neglected to answer, but the gist of which was… how? How do you live with the pain and uncertainty? How do you let go? How do you face the unimaginable?

I’m not entirely certain, Andrea, but I’ve come to understand that by expanding my view while narrowing my focus was crucial. I came to a point where I included all possibilities and explanations for the fucked up reasons life is fucked up, and yet, I held fast to my own, core truth. Now, I leave nothing out of the realm of possibility, but accept my own limitations. And I hold on. Often, for dear life. And I breathe. And now I know that one can haul around an excruciating amount of pain when you know that joy is riding shotgun. Nothing exists without its opposite and everything is, as always… temporary. Good luck. 

Yin and yang Kittens

My yin and yang expressed in kittens. (Also known as, Alex, left and Benjamin, right.)

Oprah and Scars and Trust Issues

If you know me in person, you know that Oprah is my spirit animal. Since I was a teenager, growing up in a home where nothing was really talked about, Oprah came on television everyday and talked about everything.  All the things I so desperately wanted to have conversations about, there she was, talking. That dialogue with life changed me. It continues to change me.

I was madly in love with a man my sophomore year in college. I was 20, he was 23.  He was goofy and inordinately tall, 6’8″ next to my 5’5″. I used to climb the furniture to kiss him. He had already graduated from college and was a 5th grade elementary teacher. He took me, a little broken, a little dirty, he dusted me off, and he showed me some things. We were together for an impossibly short 9 months. The one Christmas we spent together he bought me red, plaid pajamas and an unauthorized biography of Oprah. It was 1999.

This man saw me. For a little while anyway, he really saw me. He inspired me to pursue a second major in communications, he convinced me to stand up and have confidence in what I knew to be true about myself. He showed me how deeply flawed even the really good people can be. He taught me that, and then he was gone. I knew he cared for me back then, and in a strange way, I know he still does although we don’t speak. And what all these years have taken away in memory, I remember something about him quite vividly. He had this long worm-like scar that ran down the center of his left knee. It was from surgery to fix what basketball had broken. It was smooth and wrinkled and felt like a silky soft, well, worm. As I ran my finger down it from time to time he’d tell me to stop. It felt weird because the tissue surrounding the scar was numb. He knew I was touching him, but could not necessarily feel me. I loved him so much it took me over a decade, and well into my marriage, before I could bear to part with those thread-bare pajamas.

Right this minute I am crushed by losing someone else I love. He too, has a huge scar. It’s on his right shoulder. While going through the law enforcement academy he was injured in a take-down drill. He had to have surgery to fix what it had broken. After surgery he contracted a major staph infection which ate away at the incision site and left a deep indentation of missing bone and tissue and a pretty big scar. He almost died. This painful tragedy manifested in scar-form was one of my favorite parts of his body. Laying in bed, always, my fingers would work their way toward that scar, sometimes unconsciously. He’d ask me why I did that. “I guess I just like scars.” I’d say. “It means you’ve lived.” He said that was funny – but what I think he meant was ironic – because he said he was self-conscious about that scar. But now it was one of his lover’s most favorite things. Our only Christmas together he bought me a collector’s book which was actually signed by Oprah. But that wasn’t all he gave me. He taught me something, too. In losing him I finally knew how to trust myself.

Because when we met I was very broken, filthy, battered from head to toe. I was in the midst of nasty divorce, and on my way to trial. Snaking your way out of a toxic relationship there are always landmines just in the periphery of where you know you need to go. A lot of my landmines looked like trust-issues. I didn’t just not trust him, I didn’t trust me. How could I ever be sure of any decision I ever made when I’d made so many MAJORLY horrible ones thus far? I played this dance with him for 6 months where I’d push him away, skeptical and crazed with fear, and he’d pull me back just before I jumped. This happened so many times, the pushing, pulling. After 6 months the fulcrum on our relationship tipped. I was the one pulling, and he was the one wanting to jump. Then he did. It all took 9 impossibly short months.

But I saw him. I did. And I think I still do, although, as he fades away his outline gets fuzzier. It’s hard to tell where he ends, and where I have reshaped him in the hazy hindsight of lost love. And now, my only wish is that I taught him something, too. Because I do not want to take more from this life than was so generously given to me in the way of incredible, loving people. I have met so many. I have loved so many even if I didn’t know how to show it, or name it, or trust it.

But I do now. Or at least I’m much closer than before. And even if I never see him again, I know that I am capable of trusting. Because he taught me that, and I will forever be grateful. I’m sure it will take me many years before I bring myself to put that collector’s book away, where it’s not always on my shelf, in my periphery, continuing to remind me to listen to that still, small voice, the one that urges me to keep talking about everything even when I’m afraid. To keep loving the scars more than the memory of the hurt that caused them.

 

Why I Stopped Asking “Why Me?”

Sometimes, I get really bogged down in the why-me’s.

Why did MY marriage fail? statistically speaking, it shouldn’t have happened. We dated 3 years before getting engaged. I didn’t get married until I was 27. I waited to have my first child at 31. We were college educated – had successful careers. All these things statistically point to marriages which have a low probability of divorce. We should have beaten the odds. But we didn’t. We didn’t. We didn’t. I didn’t.

They say the divorce rate hovers around 50%. Well not in my socio-economic world. I have ONE divorced acquaintance and we became acquaintances BECAUSE we’re divorced. It’s a lonely world this upper-middle class divorce thing.

Okay, so my marriage failed. Shit happens. Fine. But then I start in with the why-me’s of having an angry, vindictive ex. I hear stories about ex-husbands who would do ANYTHING to make sure their kids were well cared for either by them, or their mothers. They willfully help with fixing cars, extra-curricular activities, they talk civilly and kindly to their ex-wives, they attend birthday parties and holidays because they understand that he kids come first. Why does my ex not even look at me? Why will he do anything in his power to hurt me? Why did he take me to court and make me spend my savings just to get a basic level of support?

Yes. Why me?

That leads to a lot of self-blame. Because being a victim is not in my DNA.

What fatal flaw did I make? What road sign did I take a left at, when I should have turned right? What is wrong with me?

Truth is, there’s a lot wrong with me. There’s a lot wrong with all of us because we’re human beings and we make a million mistakes a day. There isn’t some pill you can take to stop being human. You can’t medicate or even meditate the condition away. Believe me, I’ve tried.

You can read the rest here on Scary Mommy.

 

 

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

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.

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