L.A Strike and the Rest of Us

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I try not to talk about politics on my blog because that’s not why people come here, but politics are actually a big part of who I am, and in this essay I share with you a personal story about my late husband (who had earrings and wore a trenchcoat when I met him) how he got me involved in the fight for public education, and why I will be supporting the Los Angeles teachers tomorrow.

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[I’m going to tie all of this into what I usually write about on here (mortality, getting through a life that doesn’t go as expected, the pile of sludge we have to wade through for as long as we have breath inside of us– you know, all of that depressing stuff I normally ruminate over). Please stick with me for a bit so I can bring you more of the same.]

On Monday, January 14, 2019, UTLA is going on strike after two years of drawn-out and fruitless bargaining with the school district. They want a contract that is fair to both teachers and students.

If you are a union person, hopefully you understand the importance of solidarity with UTLA and their efforts. I’ve heard a few teachers express disinterest (“why should I wear red and attend the walk-in, it doesn’t affect us!”). I’ve also seen special interests like the charter school lobby who want to pretend like they haven’t been spending millions on elections to infiltrate the district in an attempt to decimate public education. There are also comments from people who do not understand the democratic importance of unions and assume this is just about greedy teachers.

But mostly I see an outpouring of support from parents, students, and colleagues across the ation. People are sick of having to grovel to make a living wage that compensates them for their skills and education and experience. People are sick of sending their children to classrooms that have too many kids with too many issues and needs and not enough resources. We all know about these needs. We see the growing poverty in our communities. Mental health issues have skyrocketed. Gun violence is rampant and tensions are high. So why are we having to fight tooth and nail for psychologists and nurses and librarians in our schools?

It’s like we all forget that these children will literally be the adults in the near future.

I am reminded of one of the first distinct memories I have of my late husband. It wasn’t a strike, but it was at a demonstration on the street.

Our department chair told me and the other new guy to be out on the sidewalk in front of the school after the last bell. Both of us newbies had no idea why, but we weren’t going to question it. No making waves. I was grateful for the big girl job with a contract and benefits and was not about to piss off my department chair. I showed up on time to the thing I did not know anything about.

Even though my future husband taught in the classroom next door to mine, he had mostly ignored me since I got hired. We did not know each other and I’m not even sure I knew his name. I remember seeing him on that day with his faux hawk and pierced ears, wearing his black Rick Steve’s backpack, waving a sign and yelling like an enthusiastic activist. It was more of a fleeting notice on my end, as I was too overwhelmed with the newness of the experience and completely clueless about unions and why I was standing out there with my new colleagues who were still strangers to me.

That would all change.

Slowly, I got pulled into this world when I began dating this man with a faux hawk who wore trench coats and Doc Martens and was a bulldog about politics–the man I would eventually marry (and force to remove his earrings).

At first I participated as his sidekick. Precinct walking, but letting him do the talking. Attending rallies and protests, but pushing the baby stroller. Holding down the fort at home while he went to trainings and participated on committees. At some point I realized I did not want to just stay home, and we began trading child coverage duties while the other person could participate in politics. Kenneth opened my eyes to the importance of trying to make a difference, and our family grew around this common theme of getting involved, our children becoming precinct walkers and protesters in the womb.

Kenneth unexpectedly died on a Wednesday morning during springtime, in the middle of a busy week when he had been making daily phone calls for Bernie Sanders and right at the hour when we should have been making breakfast and lunches for our kids before school. Instead I was calling 9-1-1 and then the mortuary. He never knew that our current president had a chance of winning. Sometimes I think it was better that way.

Another election season approached about six months after he passed away, and I found it important to continue my involvement no matter how stressful and logistically difficult it was as a new single mother with a 1-year-old, 3-year-old, and a 6-year-old. I strapped the baby onto my back and we went door-to-door. I found childcare while I attended PAC meetings, and we kept going. Somehow. Part of that motivation came from a compelling desire to keep Kenneth alive by honoring his memory of grit and determination. Part of it was to distract myself and keep busy as a way to manage my overwhelming grief. The other part was because trying to make a difference and working in a group for a shared cause really did make me feel joy during a time when I never thought I could be happy again.

When we work together, support each other, and fight for a common good, it may seem like we are devoting our efforts to helping others– and we are– but make no mistake about the amount of self-care that occurs in the process. Helping others inevitably helps ourselves.

I don’t know if Buddha really said this, but apparently he’s quoted as saying, “If you light a lamp for someone else it will also brighten your path.” Whoever said it, they were right.

Why should we care about this strike in Los Angeles?

Solidarity with the L.A. teachers, yes.

But it is also a statement against the privatization of our public schools by the charter school movement, which spent almost 10 million dollars in a recent LAUSD school board election to hijack the district with an intent to drive it into the ground and open more charter schools.

It is a statement against their investment banker superintendent Austin Beutner, who has a record of being in cahoots with Eli Broad, a “philanthropist” who spends ungodly amounts of money with a goal to convert half the schools in L.A. to charters by 2023. We, the public, will not stand for this privatization. Your false charity will not fool us.

Our public schools are the cornerstone of democracy. It is imperative that we fight to preserve them. They belong to our communities. We went to these schools. They don’t belong to any party or elected official or doofus old man like Eli Broad  who has so much money he thinks he can be our savior and knows what is good for us. Our schools are not for sale, and we can not allow them to be auctioned the highest bidder. Our schools belong to our neighborhoods.

Are they all perfect? Certainly not.

But you have a voice in your public school. There are elected school boards. If you are unhappy, you can speak at school board meetings. You can get an ineffective trustee out of office with the power of the ballot. You have access to numbers and information because of laws about transparency– all things you can not do with charter schools.

Public schools are the most effective way to educate all children across the nation and give them the foundation they need to be able to participate in democracy. Public schools are held accountable by strict regulations and have qualified, credentialed teachers in the classroom that overseen by elected school boards. Future voters need to be able to read and write and do math. They need critical thinking skills. They need to be able to communicate their needs and ideas, and they must understand the ways by which they can enact change through democratic practices. Where else will they learn all of this?

Sure, there may be a small percentage of kids who might need alternative ways to get educated. But for the masses, our public schools are the way to go. Because of human greed and corruption, this is the best system for educating our children. We need the oversight and transparency and the ability to do something about a problem. We need to have a voice in our public schools.

A democracy cannot exist without the participation of the people. Otherwise it’s something else, and we’re just calling it a “democracy” to make everyone feel better. Public schools can not exist without the participation of the people. We are seeing right now that after many years of taking for granted that your neighborhood school would be there forever, that is just no longer the case. We can’t be passive about this anymore.

There are predatory interests lurking around our schools and looking for a way in.

Predator #1: people have figured out that you can try to make money off the kids in schools, and this is where charter schools and voucher programs come in. Yeah, yeah, maybe you can name a charter school that was amazing and honest, but the facts are indisputable at this point about the rest of these schools. The vast majority of charter schools simply do not do better than our public schools, not to mention the widespread corruption we have seen. The original vision of charter schools never materialized. It’s now the wild west with a lot of money to be made and an agenda.

Predator #2: ruling elites. They have nothing to gain by the masses being educated. These are the elites who fund attacks on public schools. They don’t want the masses having critical thinking skills and learning the democratic tactics for getting involved in policy-making. If the masses knew how to advocate for their communities, they might catch on about corporate tax loopholes and all the other ways that the rich get richer, and the poor get poorer. You know what? The “elites” in society do not even send their children to public schools. We haven’t had a president since Jimmy Carter who had the guts to send their children to a public school. Both elite Democrats and elite Republicans alike can afford to send their children to amazing private schools, so they don’t give a crap about your public schools OR your charter schools. It’s just that sometimes the charter schools can be a little pet project to make them feel like they are throwing crumbs at the masses (despite their lack of experience in education), and/or it becomes a way to make more money and pad their gluttonous portfolio of excess.

I write a lot about death and how I’ve processed my feelings and challenges in the aftermath of losing my husband as a 34-year mother of young children. When you lose your partner so early in the family journey, and when you watch your well-planned life fall into a thousand broken pieces of the dreams from yesterday, so much about who you are is forever altered.

As a widow, I became consumed with thoughts about who I would become, riddled with anxiety about the unknown, confused about the purpose of our existence, and not knowing what to do with this life I did not choose. I had done everything I was supposed to do in order to achieve my happily-ever-after, and it wasn’t good enough. I internalized that it meant I wasn’t good enough. I did not deserve the things that everyone else around me got. It felt like a banishment to a hellacious existence of tedious misery.

One lesson I learned through this experience is that in the midst of my pain, I could not retreat. The people around me– neighbors, family, friends, colleagues, even the checker at the grocery store and the secretary at my kid’s school–everyone was a part of my community. Throughout my day, even though grief made me feel isolated and alone, I was never actually alone. I was a part of something bigger than me. I also came to understand that my reason to keep living and moving forward was because of my place in this community. I still had more to do and feel and see and experience. I had more contributions to make. I had an interconnectedness with others that I couldn’t give up on.

We have this one precious, absurd, strange, wonderful chance to be alive. For a reason I attribute to the cosmic roll of the dice, we landed here, at this time, in this moment, and this is what we have to work with. It is our greatest gift and responsibility to do something meaningful with this random stroke of luck that we have to be alive and have consciousness and the ability to be self-reflective.

I want to live as well as I can with whatever years I have left. I watched my husband die, and with the exhale of his last breath I saw all of his hopes and dreams and unfinished goals dissipate into a universe he was no longer physically a part of. But one of my greatest joys during that time was being able to witness over 500 people at his funeral, and all of the ways that people paid tribute to him in the weeks and months and years after his passing because he was the kind of man who cared about others and made a difference in other people’s lives. I believe that our existence continues through the hearts and minds of those who we have influenced in some way. It gives me comfort to know that Kenneth is all over the world in some form, even when his physical form is no longer with us.

I think the purpose of our existence is to live as well as we can day-to-day, and to give back to the world in some way. Maybe that’s being a teacher or a doctor or a firefighter. It could be as a PTA volunteer, or helping out in your child’s classroom. Maybe it’s raising children to become contributing members of society, or the way that you cared for an elderly neighbor. It might be leading a group of Girl Scouts. Perhaps you were a mentor to a younger person. Maybe you recommended a book, or those times you made somebody feel better. There are so many ways, big and small, to make this brutal world a better place. For you. For me. For our neighbors. For our children and grandchildren. For the children in another country. As the legacies of the people who went through so much in their own lives, and directly and indirectly contributed to our world today.

I support the teachers in Los Angeles. I support the students. As a proud product of public schools and as a parent of children in public schools, I support our public schools. Public schools are vital for democracy, and I want so badly to continue believing in the ideal of a government by the people and for the people. That only happens when the people stand for something. In a life that is short and fleeting, being a bystander is your right. Except it’s our interconnectedness that helps us accept how our human suffering is simply the price we pay for being alive, and this is when we understand that it’s all worth it because of the purpose and joy we derive from being a part of something bigger than our own existence.

A Curated Life

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2018 in review, January to December.

 

“Life can only be understood backwards;  but it must be lived forwards.” –Soren Kierkegaard

I think one of the best consequences of experiencing a loss is the way that we grow to value intentionality. When the universe pulls aside the curtain and shows us how brutal and tedious life can be–when you realize it can all be over in the most ordinary second– one finally understands in the clearest and most resonating way how finite time is. Logically we know that being alive comes with an expiration date, but losing someone close to you or having your own brush with death is a tangible way to understand the precarious nature of a human existence. Here one day, gone tomorrow.

Personally, I am much more intentional about how I live because of it. What I want to get out of each day. Who I want to be around. How I want to take care of the things that are important to me. What is important to me. I pay closer attention to what I like, and I tend to notice the smaller details that I would have ignored in my previous life.

Recently I met a friend who I liked more than most people who I encounter. This person was interesting, smart, and very funny. I enjoyed their company, and we had an energy between us that added something special to the daily hum of life. One of those friendships that give you a perpetual stupid grin on your face.

Life lesson #589, when it seems too good to be true, it most likely is.

I made the fatal mistake of getting too close, too fast. When I realized that this person had a penchant for drama and a boatload of issues to deal with, I made a quick decision to return to the safe space inside of my boundaries. It wasn’t that I didn’t like this person, but this quote succinctly summarizes the gut feeling I reacted to:

“As we gain confidence in ourselves, red flags are no longer red flags. They are deal breakers.” – Mandy Hale

Around the same time that this friendship imploded, one of my children had a classmate say something extremely inappropriate to them (like call-CPS-inappropriate). We had to have conversations about the kind of friends we pick, who we should avoid, and the terrible things we might encounter in society. The children and I discussed the importance of a referent group, how our social circles influence us, what boundaries are, and how our boundaries are our best line of defense in a sometimes crappy world.

It might sound mean, but in my limited time and with my scarce energy, there are only so many people I can let inside of my inner circle, closest to my emotionally-scarred heart. I like meeting new people and think it’s important to make connections with lots of diverse humans. However, there are different levels of connections. Most people are going to stay in the acquaintance category because maybe we don’t have a super strong connection. Sometimes it’s just a situation of trying to tolerate each other in an environment where we are forced to coexist, like in the work place, and we attempt to make it as friendly as possible. Often I do not allow a person inside of my inner circle because of their drama and “Pig Pen” dust. I simply can not allow any of that into my precariously pieced together life. I just can’t. I have to pick my close friends wisely. And to be honest, a really close friend has to bring something to the table. Chit-chatting or longevity isn’t enough. We have to have things in common and shared values. There has to be a certain kind of energy between us. Over time we should have built a history of consideration and reciprocity toward each other. There are friendships, and then there are friendships with (platonic) intimacy. There is a difference. I like people who I can learn from. People who can inspire me (and this can be in the way that they garden, their job, the books they read, their open-mindness, compassion, whatever. Inspiration comes from all areas of living and in many different forms).

All of this is part of a curated life. We pick and choose who and what we want inside of our boundaries.

My oldest child is turning 9-years-old and had a slumber party this past weekend. I was pleased that all of his friends were well-mannered. They settled their disagreements amongst each other without needing my interference. They were not rude or mean to each other. The boys were kind and polite to me. I felt validated in the way that I tend to be strict with my kids about how they choose their friends, and it appears my son has done well in choosing his.

I’ve been reading the book “The Curated Closet.” I am still working through it, but so far the experience has involved taking a picture of what I wore for two weeks and making inspiration boards. This was an excellent way of focusing my observing ego squarely on myself with photographic evidence. If only there was such an effective way of capturing the same thing with mood, thoughts, health, etc. Around the same time that I started reading the book, I also listened to the Forever 35 podcast (episode #50) about sustainable style with Natalie Harris. I enjoyed Natalie’s ideas about being mindful regarding how your clothes are made, where they come from, how much you have, etc. Many of us would do the research and spend the time to really plan and decide where to go on a vacation, what car to purchase, or any other big ticket item that we spend money on. But what about all of the micro-expenses that we incur on a daily basis? The food we eat. The crap we overspend on during a trip to Target or Costco. How much we spend during the holidays and birthdays. On so many levels–financial, environmental, or even the clutter in our houses– what we buy matters.

The best part of the curated closet is that all of this bleeds into other domains of your life. Building an intentional life includes everything from what’s in your kitchen drawers, the vacations you go on, what you wear, the people you hang around, how you spend your time, and when you say yes or no.

Saying no is something I am going to work on in 2019. Guarding my boundaries and honoring my authentic self. This may be the #1 secret to a well-curated life: saying no to that which does not serve us.

Intentionality is not solely about the materialistic things in our lives. It also includes managing our emotions. When we have healthy headspace, we have more control over the thoughts and feelings that we allow to take up room in our minds.

Recently someone who suffered a loss asked me for advice about getting through the holidays. I think the best thing you can do for yourself is to plan ahead. Be intentional. What do you want the special days to look like this year? What do you want to do? Who do you want to be around? Create a vision for yourself and execute that plan. Flying by the seat of your pants will have you crashing on the bathroom floor in a puddle of self-pitying tears. I do not recommend it.

The truth is, the rest of the world won’t make your anguish their priority during the holiday season. Everyone else is consumed by their own realities, and yours is probably nothing more than a blip on their radar, if it even registers at all. I know this truth is a harsh one to swallow, but it’s the way life is.

Plan. Pick. Choose. What do I want on my Christmas tree? What do I want to eat? Who do I want to see? What new traditions can I create? All of this is me curating my life. Planning is key. Knowing what you want. Identifying action steps. Putting it in the calendar.

Even though I executed all of these things this year, I was still an emotional mess on Christmas Day. But by December 26th, I was fine again. I think being very intentional in the way that we curate our life–including our emotions–helps us process our feelings more quickly. I was still sad on Christmas because I’m not a feeling-less robot, but I didn’t get stuck there. Those feelings did not consume me, because living a curated life means I get to choose what stays and what doesn’t.

I think about that friend I made and unmade in the span of a couple months. I wish things had been different between us, but I’m not really upset about it either. We have to take chances in life where we see potential, but sometimes those chances lead to dead-ends. That’s okay. You don’t bang your head on the same wall over and over again. You find a new direction and you keep trying. When you are intentional about the way that you live, you can’t let yourself get caught up on one person, one thing, one bad day, one wrong turn, one anything.

Last year I wrote “2018 Intentions” for myself. I had it printed and bound, and I referenced it throughout the year.

I know New Year resolutions get a bad rap, but I am a believer in intentions. I don’t just list goals. I include action steps. I pull out my calendar and plug things into specific dates. I schedule time to reflect on my progress and write out my progress. I revise my intentions. It’s always a work-in-progress, learning experience.

Curating isn’t a one and done deal. The definition of curate is to “select and organize.” One must sift through everything–the good and the bad–and be able to develop an eye to find the keepers. I use the same approach with my habits. I need to be able to identify the things that I do that make me successful, and the ways that I sabotage myself. Then, I need to be intentional about getting rid of the bad habits and cultivating the good ones. It is a process that requires constant recalibration.

And since our brains crave novelty, just when I think I have something that works, I find myself needing to make adjustments. Curating your life is kind of like searching for gemstones amongst a pile of worthless rubble. Or hunting for great finds at garage sales. Or shopping at the mall for a great deal. Or any of the other things that we like to do that requires us to search for the diamond in the rough. There is something innate to us that makes us enjoy a good treasure hunt. Trial and error, patience, and an eye for potential. We just need to apply all of this to the various aspects of our day-to-day lives to help us find the treasure that is our authentic self. 

I made my 2019 Intentions. I am getting fancier with my booklets, and it has become a favorite ritual of mine for welcoming a new year. I closed out 2018 with my final reflection and put those intentions on the shelf with all of my old planners and journals. I look forward to opening it up sometime in the future and marvel at how far I’ve come along. It’s reaffirming to look back and think, wow, look how much I’ve grown.

I think the beginning of a new year is magical. There is so much promise and hope mixed with trepidation and anxiousness about what might transpire in the coming days and weeks and months. Thinking about who I want to be this year, and what I want to do. It’s kind of fun and stressful at the same time. 

2016 was a terrible year for me. My worst nightmare of a year. Horrendous. Unexpectedly losing my husband. A stressful election. I spent the majority of the year numb, submerged in a dark fog (and stuck with a 1-year old, 3-year-old, and 6-year-old on my own).

2017 had a lot of growing pains, but just as I suspected, it was only up from 2016. We rang in the New Year in Japan and spent the summer in Europe. Things hurt, but we were growing into the pain and we were taking time to enjoy life. 

2018 was much better, with all of us settling into the hollowness that 2016 created, and overall getting comfortable with our new normal. The year before had been an adjustment year, and this year was finding our pace, feeling the dust settle and pushing forward as we left behind the emotional baggage of the past. 2018 was the year of re-growth. 

2019.

I have no idea what awaits me. I know that the shoe can drop at any time, which scares the hell of me. I also know that the year might be filled with amazing surprises, and if past trends remain true, I will like myself more this time next year than I do right now. There is so much I can not predict or control. I let those things go. There are also things I can curate to position myself to have the best year that I can possibly have in any circumstance. That’s why I make intentions for the new year. That’s why I’m a list person. A journaler. A picture-taker. That’s why I believe in taking advantage of the choices we can make for ourselves. I want to be fully engaged in every second of time that I have left. Life is too tenuous and fleeting to be a passive bystander. Suck the marrow out of its bones and be present to experience all of it.

I sincerely wish and hope everyone has a happy and healthy New Year, but more importantly, I hope you spend the next year living the journey that is authentically your own. I will be trying to do the same. 

I appreciate that you took the time to read this. It is an honor that you share your time with me. I plan to share much more with you in 2019.

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I will leave you with some of the things I enjoyed this year:

Gratitude app

Getting Things Done with David Allen on Cut the Crap podcast. I also read David Allen’s book, but listening to this podcast helped me figure out his method.

How to Be Happy in the NY Times. Lots of tips packed into this article.

What if you never find the one. I think this article is good for anyone regardless of marital status. It gets you to think about how you would structure your life without basing it on another person, which helps you reflect about whether you are living an authentic life. 

You Need a Budget. A goal of mine for 2019– be better with money.

Favorite Instagram accounts: Mari Andrew, Glennon Doyle, Barb Schmidt, Gary Janetti.

Favorite Podcasts: S Town Podcast. (I was addicted to this one and couldn’t get John out of my head for weeks.) I also liked Forever 35, The Cut the Crap Show, Modern Love, The Chase Jarvis Live Show, Beautiful/Anonymous, The Unmistakable Creative, Tara Brach, and I am on the hunt for more great ones. If you have any suggestions, I would love to add more to my 2019 podcast docket.

Learning more about Buddhism.

An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones. I really liked the twist on what happens to love when you are forced to be separated. I also like reading books written with diverse perspectives.

Spindrift. I never liked sparkling water until I found this. My favorites flavors are lemon and the tea/lemon.

Reaching the point in my life where eye cream is becoming a thing.

Youtube workouts.

I don’t really watch any shows, but I did enjoy The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Doctor Foster this year.

What did you discover and/or enjoy this year? Please share! I am always on the hunt for inspiration. Being a life curator requires finding new material 24/7, and I have an insatiable appetite.

I also had three essays out on different sites:  here, here, and here!

The Holiday Blues

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I could feel something percolating in my body before I was conscious of the shift in my mood. It was in the heaviness of my limbs and the labor of my breath. Then came the familiar spiraling thoughts that spun around and around and around, my mind unspooling into a thousand threads I could not grasp. Anxiety and grief and forlornness swishing together in a depression cocktail.

Like clockwork, it strikes before the holidays. My body knows the calendar before I even think to order Christmas cards. My body can sense the passing of time. It does not let me forget.

For the past three winter seasons since my husband passed away, I get a terrible case of the holiday blues. It manifests itself in a total body reaction.

When a loss is fresh and raw, grief is turbulent. But the passing of time tempers our feelings, and grief settles into an ebb and flow until one day we realize the molten lava of our emotions have hardened into the igneous rock of acceptance. We have the evidence of the fiery times of our past, but it is no longer hot enough to burn us. This is why grief is categorized as a temporary psychological disorder. It doesn’t continue with the same intensity. One day you will wake up with a manageable version that you are able to shove into a compartment of your heart, like a junk drawer for the emotions you don’t want to deal with anymore.

You won’t always have complete control over these feelings though. Sometimes we need to open the junk drawer when it gets too full.

I call it the “grog.” Not the alcohol kind of grog. Grief fog. Grog.

When the grog finds me and I’m stuck in certain feelings, I become resentful about the ways society conditions us to desire placing our lives into nice neat little pre-made boxes that look like everyone else’s. This expectation is more in-your-face during the holidays. Christmas is the best time of the year to remind you just how alone you are in the world. I feel like the Little Match Girl, shivering outside in the cold trying to light a match while everyone else is inside of their warm cozy homes and gathered around a Christmas tree, sipping eggnog and singing songs of Christmas cheer.

Okay, maybe not that dramatic. But you get the point. It’s painful.

The grog came in late October this year, right after my dead husband’s birthday. His birthday marks another year he will not experience. Another year he will not age. Another reminder that his existence is forever frozen in the year 2016. After his birthday, we have Thanksgiving. Then Christmas. New Year’s. Our first child’s birthday. My birthday. The youngest’s birthday. The middle child’s birthday. Kenneth’s deathaversery. Boom, boom, boom. One after the other. It’s all super triggering.

When I was younger and single, I hated having to watch everyone else get proposals and engagement rings on Christmas while I was still relegated to eating at the kid’s table as a single woman not in a relationship. I loathed all of it. Why them, and not me? Why did I have to watch it? I wanted my own happily-ever-after with a cute holiday sweater and a surprise diamond, but all I ever got was another pair of pajamas from my grandma.

Now I do not want the diamond or the man on his knee, but seeing other people celebrate the holidays with their intact families reminds me of the Christmas mornings Kenneth and I watched our children tear through their Santa presents. It reminds me of the year in our first house when we invited everyone on both sides of our families to celebrate. We were proud to finally be the adults hosting a holiday gathering. It was tiring, but so fun. All of us in that tiny house, everyone oblivious to the fact that seven Christmases later, Kenneth would be gone. Christmas reminds me of the year I bought all of the boys (including Kenneth) remote control tanks that shot tiny pellets and could turn into boats. We took them to the lagoon and the guys played for hours.

Christmas reminds me that all of that is now gone.

I’ve gotten good at accepting my reality and avoiding triggers. I am becoming an expert at owning my circumstances, reinventing my life, blah blah blah. But when the grog comes in, the depression makes me lose control over my headspace. Everything I know and understand about staying positive and not giving in to comparison, jealousy, self-pity, anger, and all of the other negative emotions just doesn’t work.

But why? It is supposed to get better over time. I should be used to it by now. It felt stupid to become immobilized by grog when I knew what it was. I expected it to come. I already survived it several times before. Once you know to expect something, how can you be surprised by it? It’s like a movie you’ve seen a zillion times. You have the lines memorized. You know how it will end. The jig is up.

I don’t have a good answer for that, other than I don’t think you ever fully get used to your life not going as planned. It will never feel normal to lose a person close to you. There is an eternal surrealness about it that leaves you grappling with existential thoughts. Was that person real? It feels like an impossibility. Maybe it was a bad dream that you can’t get out of your head. But that never feels right either.

Just when we think we have our acts together, the holidays come and lure us into a trap, promising wonderful times of togetherness, sparkle, gifts, love, and jovial meals at the dinner table. But instead of getting that Hallmark movie happy ending, some of us will go to bed empty-handed, haunted by the ghosts of Christmas past.

There are many reasons why you may go into a holiday season feeling down. It could be the loss of a loved one. Maybe it’s lack of money. A health problem. Memories of a terrible childhood. A broken marriage or relationship. We all have our reasons.

The problem is when we sit around waiting for someone else to fix our feelings. We cling to the fantasy of a savior riding in on a white horse. Fairy godmothers. Magic. Anyone else willing to save the day for us, as long as we don’t have to deal with it.

But life doesn’t work that way.

I’m a big believer in feeling everything. Acknowledging emotions. Being present with the intensity of our pain. I am a hyper-feely person. I try to sit with the pain, but I work very hard not to get stuck in it. I strive to be proactive. Learn from it and move on.

My biggest trick to dealing with grog, and particularly getting through the holidays, is to find things to look forward to in the comings days and months and years. We all need reasons to feel excited and hopeful. It’s the reason Christmas is in December. Historical Jesus was not born in December, but winters are cold and depressing (except in the Southern Hemisphere, lucky bastards). People need something to look forward to. So we get Christmas. Trees. Lights. Food. Presents. Social gatherings. Santa Claus and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. It’s fun. It helps us get through the lack of sunshine and dreariness of the winter season. It breaks up the monotony of the tediousness of living.

I like to do things. This is how I keep my mind occupied and avoid personal pity parties. I create a winter bucket list to do with my kids. We have items on the list such as bake gingerbread men, visit the snow, and read by the fireplace.

I also make a list of intentions for the new year. I write out my goals and list what I want to do, which includes things like taking a meditation class, going to a musical, reading a certain number of books, and even personal goals like “yell less” and “get at least 7 hours of sleep each night.” It’s a great reason to sit down, think about what I enjoy, and then get my calendar out and start planning dates so these intentions don’t just stay on paper, but get scheduled and put into action. By doing this, I am intentionally making time for opportunities to be happy, have fun, and have stimulating experiences that will keep my mind engaged and healthy. It requires me to be self-reflective and hone in on what is important to me. I consciously make decisions about my priorities and how I want to spend my time. All of this has the effect of reminding me that I have so much going on. I have purpose. I have many reasons to wake up in the morning and still be curious about life. Sometimes I need those reminders.

I highly recommend going into the holiday season with a plan. Keep an open mind and have flexible expectations, but don’t leave everything to the wind. Planning and foresight go a long way. You can save yourself a lot of disappointment that you don’t need by being strategic and figuring out your preferences ahead of time, before the grog has you on the bathroom floor crying your eyes out.

Sometimes you have to push yourself. It’s easy to stay home and withdraw into your safe space. I know that socializing always makes me feel better once I am around other people. But when grog is looming over my head, I don’t feel like dealing with anyone. I don’t want to see people, I just want to wallow in my own misery. Sometimes I have to force myself to get out and do it anyway, and when I do, I usually appreciate how my mood improves when I surround myself around cool people.

Changing my scenery is quite effective too. It can be as simple as going for a run or a hike, or even getting out of the house to run an errand. Breaking up the pity party with a change of location. This can help disrupt the negative self-talk looping in your head and gives you a way to re-focus.

Another important strategy I use is to continue creating new traditions. I find that a lot of times we have a propensity to get stuck in the past. We cling to tradition out of familiarity. We start to idolize the past as being the “better times” in our life. The good old days. Creating new traditions, recycling some of the past and incorporating those parts with the present and future, is a great way to reclaim your holidays. They do not belong to the past. There are still good days to come. The holidays are yours to enjoy right now, not a mausoleum to collect the bittersweet memories of yesteryear. There are still so many memories that have yet to be made.

We are now in the thick of the holiday season, and the grog has passed for me. I’ve gotten efficient at processing my feelings before Thanksgiving. I treat my grief like the flu–let it pass through my body and get out of my system. That doesn’t mean I don’t think about sad thoughts from time to time. It’s just that I don’t give them a priority in my life. I don’t let those feeling live rent-free in my head. I would rather focus on the things I look forward to. Things like:

  • Traveling. Dreaming of my next destination. Planning. Scheming.
  • Drinking coffee on my patio.
  • Reading a book that teaches me something new and/or changes my perspective
  • Playing tennis.
  • Binge watching The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel and Fuller House (embarrassing, I know).
  • Daydreaming. I am always daydreaming. Always.
  • The promise of a new journal to write in
  • Listening to jazz music and bossa nova.
  • Discovering a new podcast.
  • Meeting someone whose soul connects to mine (can be platonic).
  • Hiking with my children.
  • Going to a retreat.
  • Taking a road trip.
  • A conversation with a good friend (even better when it is in-person).
  • Finding a song I want to play over and over again.
  • Planting seedlings in my garden.
  • Finding a favorite place to eat udon.
  • Swimming in the Mediterranean.
  • Watching my children perform in their holiday shows.

…and so much more!

Every day that you wake up is a precious gift of time. It is foolish to waste your finite days on what could have, should have, or would have happened.

I am compelled to spend the rest of my time in life doing the things that matter to me. I want to squeeze every bit of opportunity and promise out of each day, savoring them as if they were the last piece of chocolate.

What are you looking forward to? What do you want to do?

That is how I think you attack the holiday blues. You do things. You pursue your passions. You live the life you want to live, not one you get stuck in. You take control. Create. Start new traditions. Be creative. Paint. Go to a concert. Have coffee with a friend. Invite someone over for dinner. Make time to work in your garden. Finish that project you always wanted to do.

Do do do do do do do do do.

You will bust the holiday blues if you go out and do. Be your own personal Santa Claus this year.

The magic is in you.

And know that if this holiday season feels difficult and overwhelming, you are not alone. So many of us carry the invisible scars of our pain and loss. It is a good time to show tenderness toward your fellow human beings, because we all carry burdens that not everyone can see.

***

Our 2018 holiday photo:

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Photo by Jessica Boltman Photography

And if you haven’t checked it out already, the most recent essay I wrote that was published on Tiny Buddha: Your Story Shapes Your Life–and You Can Change it at Any Time. 

Dinner Tables and Gratitude

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The Thanksgiving table has changed considerably in the last two decades. Grandparents have passed. Relatives have become estranged. Children have grown. My husband’s chair is empty. My sister is off at her in-law’s. There are not many of us left.

Sometimes I am sad about these facts. I long to be the child again, playing and peeking in on the adults as they prepared food in the kitchen, asking how much longer it would be until dinner, wanting to fast forward to the pumpkin pie with generous heaps of whipped cream before calories were on my radar. Those were the days when I was surrounded by everyone: grandparents, aunts, uncles, baby cousins, siblings, parents, and sometimes guests. Back then it never occurred to me that anything about that Thanksgiving table would change. You just assumed it would always be that way.

Most of the time I am not sad about the impermanence of a dinner table; I am okay with reality. I’ve changed myself. My grandmother’s Thanksgiving dishes of the past are not something I would want to eat today as a converted vegetarian. Some of those people who used to eat at our table are better off not coming to our gatherings, and I do not miss them. There are some people I would like to see, but don’t for various dumb human reasons. It’s complicated. At any given moment something is changing–we don’t always notice these changes as they transpire. It’s difficult to say whether a person should be sad about not sitting at the dinner table of their childhood when everything about the scene changed, including you.

I did a vegetarian friendsgiving a couple days ago: vegetable pot pie, delicata squash and onions, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin bread pudding with vanilla ice cream. It is nice to pick the people whom you share a connection with, instead of being miserable with obligatory company. It’s nice to still have people who you can enjoy a meal and a conversation with, and who you want to come back again. It is powerful to know that you can build your own tribe.

Still, it’s difficult not to think about the Thanksgivings of the past. Your grandmother standing over the pot of rice. Your husband sitting next to you. The little cousins who once sat in your lap.

Whenever you are feeling despair about everything you have lost over the years, remember to also acknowledge the power and wisdom you have gained.

The people sitting at your table–cherish them. They may not be there next year.

The people who chose not to be there– that’s not your concern. A dinner table is not a prison.

The people who choose to share a meal with you– they are the ones that matter.

And this day? Sure, it’s nice to designate a day to eat and be grateful and share good thoughts with loved ones. But who sits at your dinner table the rest of the year? That matters too.

Next year’s guest list may include faces you can’t even imagine right now. Embrace the curiosity.

Today, I didn’t feel like doing anything. I got the cooking-all-day out of my system. Now I’d like to just rest. Be still. Feel no urge to do anything of importance, other than be with my family. I took the kids to the movie theater and we will have pie with my parents later. Simple and just the way we want it– at least this year. Next year may be different. One can never know.

We went to see Ralph Wrecked the Internet this morning. One of the characters, a girl named Vanellope, finds herself unable to race in a broken game. Despite having complained about how boring her game was and how the same three courses were memorized and too easy for her, she felt despair at the thought of not having a game to play. “Who am I if I am not a racer?” She can’t imagine her life beyond what she already knew, even when that familiar world was not fulfilling for her. Eventually they find themselves in a different place (the internet), and she has the opportunity to join a game that she loves, but she has to leave behind her best friend, Ralph. This new game is not a good fit for Ralph, but it is for her. In the end, she begins a new life in the new game, but also maintains a connection to her old world.

We are constantly doing this– blending old with new. Making choices about what world we belong in and don’t belong in. Adding and subtracting. There are sometimes circumstances beyond our control that force our hand, and then we choose how to respond afterward–or not respond. Everyone fears stepping into territory they do not know. We all fear permanent goodbyes. It is so strange how we tend to stay in an unhappy familiar world, rather than embark on the journey to find a place where we belong because we think it will be too painful.

I have to admit that I bristle when people tell me how much I should feel grateful. It isn’t something I even want to necessarily hear from myself, let alone someone else. My mind immediately goes to the obvious: are you telling me to feel grateful about being a widowed single mother of three who has to spend another holiday without my dead husband? Even though the objection is valid, it is not a thought that will get you anywhere other than stuck in yucky feelings. But getting out of those feelings is not the job for somebody else. It’s your journey, and forcing gratitude can make you resentful.

I think gratitude is important, but not in the cliche way forced upon us. I believe gratitude is remembering all of the positives in our life instead of dwelling on the negatives, which our brains have a natural tendency to do. If life is like the stock market, then we have to assess what our average is, not get stuck on the low numbers, and stay focused on the history and promise of our highs. Gratitude is remembering that we are still able to play in the game of life. We can still invest. At least in this moment, so seize the potential before it dissipates into the forward march of time.

Today, I am grateful for family, friends, health, and all of the opportunities and promise that my indeterminable number of tomorrows still hold for me.

 

Your Voice Matters

Aristotle famously said that “man is by nature a political animal.”

I think most people would cringe at being labeled anything close to political these days. Just look at our voter turnout–people have clearly not made being a participant in a democracy an important part of their identity. Certainly not with the same fervor as how they identify with their favorite sports teams.

Many people see politics as this annoying, faraway thing that looks like a gnarled mess to avoid. We neglect to recognize the politics in our personal lives. Negotiating terms and conditions in our relationships, in the workplace, or perhaps with our neighbors. We don’t think of our communication skills or compromising or building consensus with others as anything particularly political. We all have opinions, and we have something to say about taxes and schools and the pot holes in the roads–yet so many of us will be quick to point out that we don’t like politics.

People don’t vote.

Americans get offended by the concept of “freeloaders.” Anti-immigrant rhetoric grows and spreads with zero-sum mentality: immigrants will come and get free handouts, and somehow we will lose something.

There is the rhetoric of demonzing “welfare moms” and pushing for drug testing because of course the children of addicts should definitely pay for their freeloading and irresponsible parents.

There are the assumptions that raising the minimum wage will give people something they do not deserve or didn’t work hard enough for. We like the idea of a business making more money, but the idea of a worker making more money makes us suspicious. They didn’t work hard enough. They might be freeloading.

Americans believe that freeloading is anti-American. Unpatriotic. The lowest form of low.

Football players get bashed for taking a knee.

Those who oppose reciting the Pledge of Allegiance are shamed for not supporting the military (not sure where the connection happens between the two).

People take their hats off during the National Anthem at a sports game and they get teary eyed over the lyrics, “ o’er the land of the free, and the home of the brave.”

But they don’t like politics.

And they don’t vote.

They don’t consider the idea that by not voting, you aren’t pulling your weight as a participant in a democracy.

You are basically getting your liberties for free. You’re a democracy freeloader if you are eligible to vote and do not.

I think of a classroom. Or any time at work when you’ve done a group project and there were people not helping or equitably contributing. How outraged that made you feel to have to carry “dead weight.” How draining it is to work with freeloaders.

Americans hate freeloaders–at least when others are doing the freeloading.

I know people who vote against welfare and minimum wage increases and demonize homelessness and talk about all the parasitic people in society and their handouts– yet their own children had been the recipients of public assistance.

They don’t see it though. It’s always about the other freeloaders. We use our cognitive dissonance all day long to convince ourselves that it is never about us. It’s always about “them.”

I’m really interested in why Americans so apathetic about democracy.

We say that we love it, and we invade other countries to “spread” it. But when I look at the numbers, I would say we’re fairly indifferent about our freedoms. Or at the very least don’t understand it.

In 2014 (the last midterm election), voter turnout was the lowest since WW2 with just 36.4% of eligible voters coming out. In 2016 during our last presidential election, only 55% of eligible voters cast a ballot, the lowest in 20 years. Voter turnout is considerably less for state and local elections.

What would you think if on the day of the last game during the World Series, or on the day of the Super Bowl, only filled ⅓- ½ of the stadiums were filled? The most important games of the year, half-empty. How would you react to seeing that?

You might have serious concerns about the future of those sports.

But most of the masses don’t bat an eye when only a ⅓ of voting age people participate in choosing our national legislature. You know, picking the people who make the LAWS.

I wonder how many people could tell you the names of the representatives on their local school boards, or who is in the city council, or even knows who represents them in the state legislature.

All of these elected officials are making policies that affect our daily lives, yet they are nameless to a huge portion of the masses.

I’m not an expert on the French Revolution, but I know that people with money weren’t paying taxes. Heavily regressive tax schemes led to an increase in social and economic inequalities. This collided with bad harvests and the deregulation of the grain industry, and as people did not have enough food to eat, it inflamed resentment toward the aristocracy and Catholic clergy. Did you know there was even a women’s March on Versailles in October of 1789, with over 7,000 women showing up? The next few years were a series of political struggles between liberal assemblies and the right-wing. The Jacobins were considered a “radical wing” during this time, because they advocated for a very crazy idea of having a REPUBLIC. Super scandalous.

Does any of this sound familiar? Does it sound far-fetched now that we are talking about it outside of the boring history class you took once-upon-a-time?

But here is the scary thing. Most people during the French Revolution were not inspired by the Enlightenment ideas of the time. Voltaire and Rousseau argued for reason over faith. Locke and Rousseau mapped out social contracts. Montesquieu made the case for separation of powers.

There were were many other major thinkers of the time, but their ideas were not necessarily inspiring to the commoners.

It was the food. Or rather, the lack of food.

Is that what it takes to move humans?

Sports and food?

Do we have to be on the brinks of starvation before we revolt against an oppressive and greedy system that robs us of our humanity and exploits our labor?

I wonder if Americans are passive about our role in democracy because we were excluded from the creation of the much-revered Constitution. The Framers were “well-read, well-bred, and well-fed.” The masses were none of the above.

The Framers would probably laugh at us today. Maybe they were right. Why should they have included us peasants in the formation of a new country when the majority of us wouldn’t even bother to vote.

I often wonder about the future. People. Our communities, my great-great-great grandchildren. I wonder what the world will look like. I hope that we will learn the lessons from the past and fix our mistakes, but I fear we are like hamsters stuck in a neverending wheel, just spinning around and around and around making the same stupid mistakes.

Should we wait for bad harvests to send us scrambling for answers and action?

Should we wait until there isn’t enough bread?

Do we wait until we are killing each other?

Whether you want to admit it or not, we are political animals. You can’t escape a fate that was already determined when you took that first gasp of air outside of your mother’s womb. We live together in this so-called democracy; we were born into this social contract. We have competing interests and wants and needs and somehow we have to reconcile everything in a way that allows us each to live safely while protecting our personal liberties.

Thomas Jefferson said we had a right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

I think we have the right to life, liberty, and protecting that liberty.

Vote.

Vote like your seat at the table depends on it. Vote like your bread depends on it. Vote like your children’s lives depend on it. Vote like your drinking water depends on it. Vote like love depends on it. Vote like your grandmother depends on it. Vote like your dogs and cats depend on it. Vote like your home depends on it.

Vote, vote, vote, vote, vote.

If you can’t vote, march. Protest. Write letters. Go to meetings. Meet like-minded people. Precinct walk. Volunteer for organizations that advocate for causes close to your heart. Volunteer to register voters. Get to know your elected officials. Join campaigns. Find journalism that resonates with you. Share knowledge with respectful dialogue. Mobilize people to support your cause. Actually, even if you can vote, do these things too.

Or just vote.

You’re more likely to vote if you have a plan. If you’re voting tomorrow, when will you go? How will you get there? Do you know where to go?

I think you should treat yourself to something special after you cast that ballot, because you will have contributed to our democracy and that’s worth celebrating. You weren’t a freeloader. You did your part. And when you’ve done your part, you should talk about it. We learn by talking to each other. Storytelling is important. We fight passivity and apathy by looking it right in the face and using our words to spin a new narrative.

A narrative in which the percentage of votes cast in an election is just as impressive as a sold-out Super Bowl game.

It’s that important. We’re that important.

Remind your friends. Drive your grandparents. Ask your colleagues if they voted. Post on social media. Remind your adult children, especially the young adults. Let them know how important their voices are.

Your vote matters.

Thank you in advance for participating. Your investment in our democracy matters.

 

The New from the Old

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photo source

It was dark when we drove away from the penguin parade in Australia. My three children were asleep in the backseat and Maddy sat next to me, navigating alongside of the spotty GPS system that had poor connectivity in the rural countryside. I kept accidentally flicking on the windshield wipers instead of the turn signal whenever I wanted to change lanes, which is what happens when you aren’t used to driving on the opposite side of the road. I felt inept at converting kilometers to miles and slightly terrified about the prospect of a wombat or a kangaroo jumping out into the road.

It is daunting to become a beginner again in the simple tasks of life–like driving–especially on a different continent. The mistakes you make. The stress and frustrations and worries. The second-guessing you do and the humbling experience of messing up, over and over again.

But there was also something a little exciting about it too. Kind of a reminder that there are still many aspects of life that haven’t been explored or experienced. There is more to learn. More surprises. Life can be eternally stimulating and adventurous and challenging, even when life is also disappointing and tedious and soul-achingly sad. Somebody like me needed those reminders.

We were an odd bunch, the five of us.

Me, a 36-year-old white woman.

My three children, half-Japanese, young, spirited.

Maddy, a redheaded 19-year-old, my late husband’s former student.

Maddy babysits the children. They hold her hand and like to crawl onto her lap as if they have always known her. She knows what they like and how to put the littlest one, Peter Jack, to sleep when he is restless and rowdy. She knows that Eloise likes to be read to and enjoys having her nails painted. Maddy treats Ethan to bagels whenever she picks him up from school. We lack a word in our language to describe somebody who is family in all ways except blood. Whatever the word would be, that is what Maddy is to us.

During our drive back to Melbourne, Maddy and I debriefed our day. We had just seen the world’s smallest penguins on St. Phillip’s Island. We braved the chill of Antarctic winds on the first day of the Australian winter as we waited for sundown, our eyes transfixed on the ocean where thousands of penguins swam in from each night on their way home to their burrows. The penguins waddled past us in small groups, their beady eyes darting around with vigilance. We witnessed the song and dance of their mating rituals, heard the chorus of their social noises that intensified as the night grew later, and smelled their distinct odor that reminded us we were in their territory. A few hours later, when there were no more penguins returning from the ocean, we got up to leave, and on our way out we noticed a clear black sky glittering with a million bright stars–a novelty for a bunch of city folks.

Earlier in the day we pet a koala and played with kangaroos. We ate potato leek soup and grilled sourdough bread and enjoyed views of the bay. Cape Barren geese ambled by our dinner table and my children played near the fence that surrounded a cow pasture. The kids were happy and content despite everything that had happened to us.

I was checking off items on my personal bucket list. Living life by my terms again.

But despite the euphoria, it could only ever be “almost perfect.” I could only ever be almost happy. No matter how sated I felt, there would also be a tinge of sadness. A niggle of guilt. It lurked even in the best of circumstances. When one is sentenced to a lifetime of grief, their happiness comes with the anchor of remembering who is not there. Although you learn to live with it and manage to forge more happiness and create new memories, the void remains. You simply learn how to use the empty space.

We would not have known Maddy if my husband hadn’t unexpectedly passed away on that fateful April morning, and if she had not been a student in his anthropology class, or if she hadn’t meekly offered her babysitting services in the early days of my grief. It took one cosmic roll of the dice to change the trajectory of our lives. If one thing had been different, we would not have been there, in that car, in a country 8,000 miles away from home. We would not even really know each other.

A week after the penguins, we walked through intermittent rain in Sydney looking for an opal gallery at the request of my gem-obsessed 8-year-old son. He wanted to see Nessie, whoever and whatever that was. Ethan is just like his father with his enthusiasm, database of knowledge, and the articulate way that he can explain facts with a mature vocabulary. Even the way he looks in his glasses reminds me of my late husband. Ethan is a part of Kenneth that has not been taken away from me yet, and sometimes I feel as if I am constantly holding my breath, not wanting to disrupt the universe’s equilibrium.

We ascended the escalator to the second floor and entered the open floor plan: fake dinosaur exhibits to the left, and to the right there were glass-covered display cases filled with opals for sale.

“It’s here, it’s here!” Ethan squealed from the place where he ran ahead. “Nessie!”

I expected something impressive and big, perhaps attached to a piece of gold jewelry, but instead we stared at a fossilized dinosaur. We had just seen dinosaurs in the Melbourne Museum, so I was a bit confused about why this was a big deal to my son. My youngest two children pressed their fingers against the glass, trying to figure it out too.

“This isn’t a giant opal,” I said.

Ethan turned to me and rolled his eyes. “Don’t you know how opal is made?” He proceeded to mansplain.

Fifty percent of Nessie–who happened to be a nearly intact fossilized plesiosaur–was opalized. That’s what made Nessie rare and priceless. Opals are formed when a mixture of silica and water settle into the fissures created by a dinosaur’s decomposing bones.

I leaned toward the glass and noticed the rainbow-colored opals where there was once bones. I tried to imagine the opals forming over the span of millions of years.

“It’s mostly silica, Mom,” Ethan said. “Silica. Not too much water. Silica.”

But I was interested in something else.

I continued to listen to his explanations, dutifully snapping photos of him as he inspected the exhibits. I tried to look interested in his hobby, much in the same way I once faked interest in his father’s coin collection.

We are an odd bunch.

I thought about Ethan’s beloved opals. Those precious gems formed in the space where death carved out the living. Something beautiful that filled a void.

That was us.

The odd bunch, formed in the fissures of what used to exist of our family. Something new and different and valuable; beauty that would not be here without loss. Proof that not everything is over in death. Life can still be worth living.

After the Australia trip, I went to dinner with an old friend. This friend had seen me through my rebellious teen years. She witnessed bad relationship choices in early adulthood, and also watched me blossom into a wife and mother. She was at my husband’s funeral and saw my debut as a young widow. Now she has seen me struggle to make sense of a new reality as I attempted to rebuild my life.

“Do you think Kenneth still exists?” my friend asked. “Or do you think he’s completely gone?”

My friend is Christian. I am Buddhist. We both know that we do not agree with each other about what happens after death, but that didn’t matter in this conversation. We were talking about something different. Not about what we could or could not see, and certainly not about our beliefs. This was about feelings. One, in particular.

Love.

“I think his energy still exists,” I said. I felt certain that the love we shared had not disappeared. It simply changed.

Sometimes I wonder if Kenneth gave Maddy to us. It felt too coincidental that she came into our lives just as he left, that we knew her through his loss, and that part of the bond our odd bunch shared was a mutual love for him. Perhaps it was fate that put her in our path at the right time, just when we needed her. Everything aligned even as our world fell apart.

I know that Kenneth’s love still exists. My husband was a teacher, and I have seen the torch of his love carried in the eyes and hearts of his former students. The love is found in his family and friends. Acquaintances who had been touched by a conversation. People who he helped. Neighbors. Those who knew him from afar. Maddy. The kids. Me. The way each of us continues to love others, paying forward a love that has traces of his existence in it.

That love has been re-shaped, reconfigured, and transferred into the space in-between what was and what exists right now. This transmuted love is the glue that holds our odd bunch together. We are proof that love transcends everything, and that beautiful things can be born out of loss. Love is what gives us hope; love is the strength and courage we need to move forward even in the worst of times. Love is the bridge between the old and the new.

A Relationship with Solitude

“Belonging so fully to yourself that you’re willing to stand alone is a wilderness–an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. The wilderness can often feel unholy because we can’t control it, or what people think about our choice of whether to venture into that vastness or not. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.” – Brené Brown

Every day during the week when I pick-up my children from their respective childcare providers and/or schools, we have a routine of debriefing our days together. “Good” or “bad” or any  one-word summary is unacceptable.

Sometimes I have to provide sentence starters to spur conversation, but most of the time my children want to start with their social activities. No matter how many times I try to steer the conversation back to what they learned in class (I can’t help it, it’s the teacher in me!), the backbone of their days is unequivocally their social lives.

They usually share about who they played with, who didn’t play with them, and the details of what they did with their friends on the playground. “We went hunting for gems,” or “We pretended to be unicorn-cats,” or how they didn’t want to play handball but their best friend didn’t want to play dinosaurs.

We talk about peer pressure and also about reaching consensus. I tell them about crab mentality, and how we humans also have a tendency to pull each other down to the detriment of all. Sometimes the kids will come home and report that they dealt with the “crabs” today.

At first glance you might think this is the banal chatter of children–innocuous and insignificant in the grand scheme of the daily hum of our lives, especially in a world where more important things are constantly shoving their way into our priorities.

But play time is extremely significant in the development of a child. What does life matter if we do not know what to do with ourselves, how to live with others, the joys of being curious, and how to share knowledge? I can see why the playground is the most important part of their day.

The playground is where children learn how to form human relationships. It is where they are exploring their own preferences and interests, and it is also where they learn to be alone.

I like to run during my lunch time, and my route takes me past my kids’ school just in time to sometimes spot my oldest on the playground. Six weeks ago I was doing my usual run when I happened to see him sitting alone on the field. My first reaction was to leap over the fence and scoop him up into my arms and be his best friend forever so he never has to be alone.

I didn’t actually do that though.

I kept going, knowing that my job was to let him figure it out. I ran back to work with a heavy heart, and I thought about him for the rest of the day. Was he sad? Did he find someone to play with? Does he do that every day? Is there something wrong with him? Do I have to talk to someone? Have I failed him as a parent?

I can’t stand when my kids tell me stories about how they had nobody to play with, or the stories of kids being mean to them, or seeing them alone or in any kind of pain–physical or mental. It hurts me. As parents, our first inclination is to want to take the pain away from our children. We want to fix them with our TLC, wrap them up with our easy solutions and turn them loose into the world as images of our perfect expectations.

It doesn’t work that way, of course.

I know I have to be a witness –not always a fixer– to the natural growing pains of them figuring out interpersonal skills. No matter how many kisses on the forehead, no matter how many pep talks about their value independent of others, no matter how many analogies I use involving crabs– I know that ultimately I have to let my kids understand how to be alone. I can not sit next to them for everything.

They need to learn what to do with their solitude.

Most importantly, my children have to learn how to not fear being alone. They even have to learn to calibrate when it is time to invoke solitude.

I want them to know that being alone is not necessarily bad.

My own experience in youth involved many awkward, terrible, and stressful trials and tribulations of learning what to do with myself around other people. It also involved learning how to live with myself.

I started junior high school not knowing anyone. The kids from my elementary school went to a different junior high, and I was left to my own devices at a new campus trying to figure out where to sit and who to talk to–not an easy feat as an introverted shy girl. I found a place under a tree where I would eat my peanut butter and jelly sandwich during lunch time and read a book, hoping desperately that nobody would notice me. Sitting by yourself was social suicide at that age.

Eventually there was a group of geeky girls who had braces and heavy backpacks like I did. My solitude must have made them uncomfortable because they kept asking me to join them, even when I turned them down a few times. I couldn’t hide with my book anymore; I eventually agreed. I am still friends with some of those girls to this day.

The thing is, I had friends in my classes. I wasn’t a total social outcast. There was Melissa, the girl with the wispy bangs and the powder compact always in her back pocket. She lived near me and asked if I wanted to walk to school with her. At first I liked the idea. I knew that if I walked with her, we would get closer. I would have a friend in my pocket, and everyone wants a friend in their pocket. There was something alluring about Melissa too. She appeared to take care of herself; there never seemed to be any adults around in her life. Maybe I too could wear shirts that showed my midriff and have my bra straps slipping down my shoulders like she did (totally cool in the 90s!). Melissa seemed to have reached womanhood when I still felt like a child.

I could have had lunch with her, but something didn’t feel right. Besides, my mom vetoed the idea of me walking to school, and then I got switched into honors classes. That was basically the end of my budding friendship with Melissa.

I did a little bit of snooping online and recently found her. She looks older than my mother and appears to have had a rough life, including addiction and early pregnancies. On some level I knew she was going at a faster speed than the dorky 7th grader that I was, even back then when I couldn’t articulate it as a young girl.

There were others too that I was casually friends with in those precarious days of junior high, when I was trying to figure out where I belonged and what to do with my awkward self. I think about how my life could have gone in any direction depending on which friendships I nurtured. If I had made different decisions about who to hang out with at lunch. Who I could have or would have walked home with, or if I hadn’t had the guts to sit alone under that tree until I figured out where the right place would be for me.

I try to remember that wisdom as an adult, but of course it is difficult.

We don’t know what to do with our solitude–we assume it is a sign of weakness and sadness. We want to fix it. We want to run away from it.

Instead, we should be leaning into it. Our solitude is like an empty room that opens up to us– a refuge from the chaos in which we easily get lost in. It is a place to rest. Gather our thoughts. Strategize. Figure out our next steps.

I re-encountered issues with solitude when I became a widow in 2016. After nearly 10 years of being with my late husband, I had grown used to having somebody with me. I was living with my best friend. We worked together. We parented together. We carpooled together. We went grocery shopping together and cooked dinner together. I was never alone.

And then he unexpectedly died, and I never felt more abandoned in my life. It was a tremendous shock to my system.

At night, when the kids were in bed and my house became quiet, I could feel the empty space squeezing my fragile existence out of the room. The empty chairs. Empty bed. No Netflix playing. No husband standing over the juicer, listening to self-help audios or his favorite 80’s songs as he juiced vegetables and fruits, and me yelling from the bedroom to “turn that shit down” while I tried to sleep.

It was extraordinarily difficult to reconcile.

At work I felt a deep loneliness at lunch time, sitting by myself in my classroom when I would have been sitting with him. All of our habits and routines felt scrambled. I didn’t know what to do with myself–how to be present with my solitude.

It was worse than 12-year-old me who ate alone under the tree, because teenage Teresa had never become codependent with a partner. She never knew what it was like to have to compromise on everything. To share a bed. To swap cars depending on carpool schedules. She didn’t know what it was like to have somebody to sit next to at events, who would give me his jacket when I was cold, or to go to the movies with me and the way he would frequently tell me how beautiful he thought I was.

One of the first thoughts I had after being told that my husband was dead was—I’m single now?

Isn’t that a selfish thought? My husband was dead in the hospital room and my mind wandered to my marital status. I literally ran through what I tried to remember from our wedding vows. ‘Til death do us part. The contract was fulfilled. I was a free agent.

Terrifying and mind-blowing when you are not expecting it.

Single= alone.

Being alone = sad (in our society).

At first, it felt like a horror story I couldn’t wrap my mind around. I had escaped being a sad single woman with a doting husband and three kids, but now like in a game my piece was plucked off the board and placed back on the start square.

I wore my wedding ring for a few months after his death until I could no longer take the identity crisis anymore. People still called me Mrs. Shimogawa, and in some ways I still felt like I had a husband still lurking somewhere in the universe. But I was most definitely single.

Society perpetuates this myth that we need another person to feel complete. I certainly felt terrible anxiety about being single–this time as a single mother.

We plan to be with other people. We don’t plan to be alone.

I lived alone before I met my late husband. I had traveled alone. I saw a Depeche Mode concert in Rome alone. I did my grocery shopping alone every single week. Being alone wasn’t a new concept to me.

But there I was, grappling with how to be alone again.

There are many anxieties that I think a widow feels, and being alone is certainly one of them. Every person has a different experience, but solitude is inescapable when you experience going to bed one night with your partner, and then waking up the next day without them.

Widowhood was a feeling that I had been exiled to the faraway land of loneliness from which I would never return. Like most people, I had gotten too comfortable in life and neglected to consider any other narrative for myself. I guess you could say it was a bit of an existential crisis. Who was I, if not a wife and a mother?

I had to spend over a year trying to remember who I used to be before I became a wife and mother. We often forget who we were independent from our relationships.

The interesting thing is if you can deconstruct the end of a relationship–no matter how it ended–you eventually admit to yourself that it wasn’t all unicorns and rainbows. Maybe you can be honest and say there were times you even felt alone back then–despite having a person there.

There are pros and cons to everything, and that includes being alone.

Yet we demonize the option of solitude.

Most of us are terrible at intentionally creating solitude in our lives. We are constantly surrounded by other people–our partners, children, colleagues, friends, family, etc.

We become resentful and stressed when we haven’t had time alone, but we can’t figure out the source of our anxiety. It’s like we are suffocating to death and have no clue who is holding the pillow over our faces. We don’t know what sucked the air out of the room. We just get angry and frustrated and absorb toxicity that gnaws away at our insides, but rarely do we seek the solution.

What I understood about my solitude was similar to what I felt as the junior high student sitting alone under the tree: I had to learn to sit with it. There would be no running away.

It was okay to feel uncomfortable with being alone, especially with others watching, but it was important to be able to persevere through those difficult feelings.

It was imperative for me to not allow my solitude to morph into loneliness.

Solitude is not necessarily loneliness.

Lonely= lacking friends.

Solitude = being alone.

We become irrational when we are lonely. Desperate. We make bad choices. We get careless with our thoughts and decision-making. We jump into the wrong relationships.

But solitude is an opportunity to be present. It allows you to pause. Process and think, being careful about the next right move.

My immediate reaction to being single again was to feel like I needed to hurry up and fill that void. Find someone else. But where to start? I definitely didn’t want to settle for just anything.

The beauty of where I am at this point in my life is that I am at an age with enough experience to realize that the void has to be filled differently than with just another relationship.

The void that I felt was something deeper than the absence of someone in my life. It had been around even before my marriage.

The void was my inability to be with myself. To sit with my solitude. To be enough for myself.

It was me reaching for external sources of validation. It was me not knowing who I was outside of a relationship, or independent of a relationship, or aside from anything other than what was already inside of me.

This void tortured me for a solid year after my husband’s death. Perhaps the void inside of us never goes away. We probably just learn how to live with it. But I like to think that it starts with re-learning who you are.

I addressed my feelings by asking myself questions.

What can I do as a single woman that I was (for whatever reason) not able to do in my marriage? What do I want to do right now? What am I curious about? What interests me? What excites me?
What feels like enchantment?

At first you will think it is a betrayal to your previous life, but in fact it is really just your consolation prize. Just you trying to keep living as best as you can.

You have to let go of the picture etched into your mind about what your life should have been.

That chapter has ended.

You must loosen your grip on those past expectations and let them go like balloons slipping out of your fingers. Watch those expectations float away. You don’t owe them anything. Find new ones. Rinse and repeat this process until you die.

Once you have reconciled the harsh reality of those expectations never materializing, then you implement the things you answered from those questions–the things in life that you now can do but never would have been able to in your previous life.

You don’t rush into anything.

You take time to sit with your solitude.

Think about everything.

There is no right or wrong. You can sit under a tree and read a book by yourself. You can marry someone tomorrow. You can be single forever. It doesn’t matter.

The only thing that matters is that you are not afraid to be alone.

Apparently the Dalai Lama said that it is important to spend time alone every day. It is in that quiet space that you remember who you are. It is a way of centering oneself, a connection back to your authentic self away from the noise of the rest of the world.

In that space, you remember who you always were.

Is it scary? Yes.

Do you have a lot of unanswered questions? Yes.

Does it always feel good? No.

But you do it anyway, because you get one shot at living a fulfilling and adventurous life that is true to who you are.

You can have that life.

It doesn’t require anyone’s participation other than your own.

Tom Petty said it even better than I can:

“You belong among the wildflowers
You belong in a boat out at sea
Sail away, kill off the hours
You belong somewhere you feel free”