On the Corner of Optimistic and Jaded

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Anger was the topic of discussion in adult study at my temple. The timing was excellent because I had been feeling incredibly angry lately. There were many reasons why, and isn’t that how anger works? One thing sets you off, and that makes you irritable about something else, and something else, and so on. Certainly my 4-year-old misbehaving during service that morning didn’t help, but it was much more than that.

My anger came to a boiling point earlier in the week.

The scene: a long day of work, softball practice with my team, cooking dinner, putting kids to bed, and me standing at the kitchen sink at nearly 10PM doing dishes. It was another night where I’d go to bed without doing anything for myself. Another night I’d stay awake doing chores with no father of the children to be found. Another night I’d get to talk to myself or maybe put on a podcast to keep me company. I took a break from the dishes and scrolled through pictures of Kobe and Vanessa and cried, knowing intimately what it was like to suddenly and unexpectedly lose your best friend and partner. Your ally. That person in awe of you no matter what you look like first thing in the morning. The person who knows you better than anyone else. Your rock.

I hated my late husband at that moment, scrolling through my phone, standing over the ominous stack of dirty dishes.

“That’s not fair to be angry at Kenneth,” my friend told me on the phone later in the week. “He’s dead. He didn’t want to be dead.”

I know, I agreed. It doesn’t make logical sense to blame a dead person. I KNOW. But I’m still angry.

When our Reverend brought up anger, I was eager to hear what he had to say so I could get rid of mine. I needed a blueprint for expunging it from my system. Anger was distracting me. I had things to do; I did not need to be preoccupied with negative energy.

I was angry about the dead husband, yes, but it was more than that. Politics. People at work. Too many things on my plate and feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Naughty preschooler. Morning commutes. Sure, all of that.

But more.

A week before, this guy really disappointed me.

It’s already crazy in the wild west of single life, but to be a widow with scars from grief, three young kids, no time, and high expectations for herself, it’s a precarious game with the odds not in my favor.

Speaking of odds.

On Superbowl Sunday I found out from Instagram that this particular guy–who I liked, whose children I loved, and who I told a hundred times before that I wasn’t interested in a casual relationship with– thought it was okay to disappear for a few days, with no future date in the schedule, and let me find out from social media that he had been partying it up in Vegas all weekend.

Yes, I felt ghosted. And very casual. Very, very casual. Less than casual. And after all of the times I made it clear that I wasn’t going to market myself as casual, I felt extremely disrespected.

Was it something I said or did? I always do that to myself. I find a reason why it’s my fault. I wasn’t desirable enough. I wasn’t cool enough. I wasn’t _____ enough.

Jesus Christ, Teresa, I say to myself. You’re almost forty years old and still stuck in this girl thinking.

No, this MAN CHILD has no business interacting with a grown ass woman. This is not how mature adults interact.

Or is it?

If that’s the standard for the modern man, I think I’d rather just stay single.

You know, apps weren’t even a thing when I met my husband 13 years ago. We didn’t do our main communication through texting or social media. I also didn’t have children and I was in my mid-twenties and still optimistic about life with a lot of youth on my side. Times have certainly changed.

Call me crazy, but I felt like finding out on Instagram about a Vegas trip when I was wondering when I would be seeing this person again was kind of a crappy move. And pretty inconsiderate.

I mean, I would tell my dentist about an upcoming Vegas trip. I certainly would tell the person I spent last Saturday night with that I’d be out of town.

You know, that same woman who this unnamed un-gentleman left his kids with numerous times before, who had his children’s art projects on her counter and their socks and clothes at her house from their last playdate.

Did I mention his kids and parents belong to the same temple as us? Or that our kids go to the same daycare and school?

I know I’m a hypersensitive person, but I never thought someone with so few degrees of separation in our lives would make a move like the one made on Superbowl Sunday. If I wanted to find a guy like that who would care so little about me, I could have randomly picked a stranger from a bar and brought him home to meet my kids.

He might as well have put “Teresa, who?” on our kids’ school marque board.

Maybe I’m being too particular about what constitutes a casual relationship and what doesn’t.

But I kind of think I’m right on this one. (I polled a dozen people just in case, and the consensus seems to be that I am not overreacting.)

At any rate, whether I am right or wrong, it still happened. And I still feel this way. And it sucks. (Life lesson number 456481322: don’t shit where you sleep. Certainly don’t shit in the sandbox where your children play.)

It’s so frustrating, guys. I’m still learning. Apparently I have a lot of learning to do. And I need to just let all of this go and meet new people.

But that’s where the dead husband comes in. It makes me feel so angry at Kenneth. I could be in yoga pants right now with unshaven legs wishing my husband would go away instead of wondering if I will ever find another decent partner in my life.

I don’t want to be doing *this*. I didn’t choose this life, and it makes me angry and sad and disappointed. But I also know I can’t change the facts and circumstances, so I don’t want to be angry about it. I want to find a way to be completely happy even if I never meet another suitable partner and have to live the rest of my life by myself. That’s my goal. I want to be happy with my life as it is *right now* instead of worrying about what it doesn’t have.

At adult study, somebody in the class said they thought anger could be an alert system for us to pay attention to, kind of a tool to help us. Our Reverend added that an awareness of our emotions could change behavior, and that feeling angry is a way of thinking. A person in the room suggested passion could help you overcome something.

I just listened and thought about my own feelings.

I felt anger because I know what I want, and being ghosted by a 40-something man who doesn’t know how to communicate is not something I want. I felt anger because I’m frustrated with the lack of quality options I have encountered in the last four years. I’ve had married men approach me. Men too old or too young. Wimpy men. Men who on paper would be great, but their pheromones repulsed me.

We all make decisions about our loneliness. Some of us choose to stay in lonely relationships. Some of us choose to leave. Some of us choose to find people and things to numb the loneliness. Some of us choose to embrace being alone.

I made a choice not to let loneliness guide my decisions. I decided to focus on giving my young children as close to the life they would have had if their father was still here, and so I’m out volunteering at softball practices instead of swiping on dating apps. That’s just the choice I made. I don’t know if it’s the right one. I may regret it. But it’s the decision I made with the information I have right now, and I’ll have to live with the consequences.

And so here I am. Angry. Frustrated. Lonely, Sad. But willing to wait.

I think that’s what we do with our anger. The emotion can tell us that something needs to change. We take action where we can, then we let go of the emotions and live with the outcome– good or bad. That’s all we can do.

The Dalai Lama said, “Forgiving others has an enormously liberating effect. When we dwell on the harm someone has done to us, there is a tendency to become angry and resentful– our peace of mind is destroyed, our sleep is disturbed, and eventually even our physical health is likely to suffer. If we’re able to forgive whoever wronged us, we gain a tremendous feeling of inner confidence and freedom, which allows us to move on.”

He offers a compelling reason why we should let go of anger: to make space for what really matters in our lives– confidence and freedom.

Living the life we want to live.

Making space for our authentic, true life.

In a strange cosmic alignment, my oldest child and I watched A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood as I was mulling over anger and feeling disappointed. The entire movie was based on a true story and talks about feelings, particularly forgiveness. Perfect timing.

Mr. Rogers– even though he didn’t like to be called this– was a freaking saint. He came across as kind of weird, but his willingness to love people was exceptional. He was able to express his feelings and draw out other people’s feelings. He could normalize feelings, especially difficult ones, and break it down to a level that even small children– especially children– could relate to.

My favorite line from the movie: anything human is mentionable, and anything mentionable is manageable.

We all experience feelings in our own unique contexts and variations. But the feelings are the same. Why do we pretend like they don’t exist? We post pictures to social media projecting a perfect life, but beneath the surface we are all broken. It seems like we should be able to relate to each other more, but instead we’re often in conflict, living in silos, suffering from a lack of connection instead of realizing our interconnectedness.

I want to be more like Mr. Rogers: less reactive, softer, kinder, reserving judgment, forgiving.

I mean, the man did have a loyal wife of 50 years by his side. I’d like to see him stay calm with a pile of dishes, kids running around like rabid raccoons, and getting ghosted by a man-child.

But still. I’m foolishly reactive and hot-headed. I’m too guarded and believe stupid things about myself, like I’m unworthy of finding love. I internalize people’s criticism. I find it hard to forgive people who disregard my feelings– and this includes family members and acquaintances.

The movie mentioned that Mr. Rogers felt these things too, but found ways to control his feelings. He had a very structured schedule, waking up early and going to bed at the same time each night. Swam daily. Prayed every morning. Took naps. Maintained the same weight for over thirty years. He seemed to have strong boundaries and principles while still being open to connecting with others who lacked the same discipline and social skills. He had a directness about him without compromising empathy. I got the sense that he knew exactly who he was, what he wanted, and that he did not waver from this vision despite leaving an enormous amount of room in his heart to love others.

Yes to all of this.

I wrote in my last essay about feeling like 2020 was going to be my best year ever, and if it’s not I know I will learn a lot.

Yeah, I’m not feeling super hopeful about the “best year ever” part.

But I know this latest round of disappointment has taught me a lot already and it’s only February. I could talk all day about the red flags I need to be better at spotting, but I can’t worry about the crappiness of other people. I have to focus on knowing my own self-worth and letting everything else go. I can’t control other people, but I can manage my own thoughts and outlook on life. I can focus on my choices, sense of self, and vision for the way I want to live.

It takes me time, but eventually I veer away from jaded and move my emotions back to optimism. I’m still learning. Always learning. But I know I want to choose happiness, and I believe happiness is more of a verb than a noun– made up of tiny choices that we make every single hour of our life– more of an average rather than a sum, and certainly not defined by a single moment.

First Post of the Year

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Happy New Year! We’re almost a full month into 2020 and I am still trying to find my bearings. I feel like I hit the new year running and didn’t stop until I ran smack dab into MLK weekend and caught something that knocked me out for a good week.

Lying in bed for three days doing nothing but try to get through each hour with the least amount of pain does have a way of clearing your mind.

When I emerged from the fog, I felt an odd contentment about everything in my life.

Odd, because this rarely happens.

I’m always stressing out about the next thing. There are always goals to achieve. To do lists for to do lists. I’ve been a rat caught in a wheel since the beginning of my existence.

But something about not being able to get out of bed to do the most mundane things in my house– dishes, laundry, bathe my children– it changes the meaning of everything. The more you can’t do them, the more you want to do them. The more you realize how *lucky* you were to have been able to do them.

And when the only thing you really want in life is to go to the grocery store and make dinner for your kids, you realize your life’s happiness can be boiled down to just a few simple things, and there is something very liberating about that.

I must say it was really good for my mental health. I’m grateful for the reminder and reality check.

Things have been rapidly changing by the day. I ended the most tumultuous decade of my life. The decade I became a mother– 3x. A decade of a lot of gain: selling our first house and buying our second, new friends, lots of travel, experiences and knowledge, personal growth. Also a decade of significant loss: my husband, good friends and mentors, family members, and yes, often my sanity.

I went to a funeral the first day of my 104 degree fever. Death has hardened me, but in other ways softened the core of my being.

That is perhaps my biggest change in the past decade.

I live more intentionally. I make more of an effort to choose happiness. My days are savored. I am more empathetic and sensitive to other people’s suffering. I think I’m more understanding. I live with less expectations and assumptions.

Time continues to change me. Something about this new year and new decade has shifted my perspective.

I don’t know if it was the funeral or the fever or lying in bed for days on end doing nothing but contemplate the ceiling in my bedroom, but I felt kind of like Forest Gump in that scene where he ran and ran and ran for three years, and then one day he just stopped and decided he was tired. It was time to go home.

After Kenneth died, I stayed busy on top of busy on top of busy to numb myself. That was how I coped. Just keep going.

I don’t feel like I need to do that anymore. I’m tired of that stage in my life– the grief, the loss, the holes to fill.

Time to go home, back to myself.

I want to scale back. Simplify. Be still in the moment. Eliminate the unnecessary. Focus on what I really want to do with my limited days.

This month we lost Maddy–Kenneth’s former student– who was our babysitter/redheaded daughter I never had with him. She has started a new chapter in her life, and in her place came Avery, equally kind and nice and competent with my children. The kids already love her, and it amazes me how easily and openly they are ready to love and begin new chapters too. Maddy came into our lives in the tenderest of days after Kenneth passed away, and for 3 full years she was an important part of our family. She still will be, but in the way relationships change and evolve. Time marches on; our lives shift, change, morph into new normals.

Softball and baseball seasons have started. My son’s coach has an older son who used to be in my husband’s class. My husband was so loving to that student, and now my son is being cared for by this father and other kind members of the community. It seems too perfect to be true, like a pay it forward in love.

“Your dad was very kind to people,” I told Ethan. “He really cared about his students.”

Ethan nodded, sure that what I was saying was true. He hears the stories frequently from the former students we bump into at restaurants or the post office or in line at Target– the ones who tell us about how Kenneth used to spend his lunch time teaching them how to write better. So much love has continued beyond the reaches of Kenneth’s mortal life. It hasn’t gotten lost. It’s still here. Right here.

Our caterpillars have turned into cocoons– one of them did not make it.

My three children gathered around the limp, furry body of the dead caterpillar with somber expressions. They wondered aloud about why this one and not the others.

Sometimes we don’t have any answers, I explained. It just is.

Kobe Bryant died and I can’t help but wonder how many of us are actually thinking about our own mortality, maybe feeling like we lost a piece of ourselves. It is a loss of innocence, a reminder that our worst nightmares can indeed come true when we least expect it. I think about his babies who will never remember him. Babies like my babies, who also don’t remember their father.

I visited a school where I worked 16 years ago. I saw someone who I flirted with as a new teacher, and he has changed so much with his dad bod and grey hair. My mind still thinks she is a few years out of high school herself, but there is no mistaking the decades that have passed when I see these people I once knew.

I passed by my colleagues’s classroom the other day. It is the same classroom where my husband used to teach– next door to mine. I no longer see my husband in that room. It’s just a room. I caught a glimpse of a bookcase that used to be in my first classroom at another school, gifted from a mentor who is no longer here. I carried that bookcase from school to school until it landed in my husband’s classroom when I no longer needed it, and there it stayed. My colleague does not know that I see my first classroom in that bookcase. I see the guy with the dad bod and grey hair when he was much younger and came to visit my classroom. I see past students. I see my friend who brought me into this career. I see the storage unit I kept it in after my second year teaching– in between jobs– until finally it came with me to where I am now. It’s not my bookcase anymore, but I thank it for the times we had together.

The kids’ passports expired and I took them to the library, up the stairs, where we waited and filled out paperwork just like I remembered doing six years ago with my husband before our trip to Paris. This time I pass his death certificate across the table to be mailed to the U.S. government, letting them know that I am the only parent now. A lot can happen in six years.

It doesn’t feel happy or sad. It just is.

But we are going somewhere! I am proud of us. We got back up. We kept living and enjoying and soaking up whatever life was gonna offer us. I feel like I can maybe overcome anything now because of it.

Today, I feel content.

Tomorrow, I may be distraught.

Today, I tuck my babies into bed and know where all of my loved ones are.

Tomorrow, there are no guarantees about who will still be with us.

And that’s just the way all of this works.

Life feels like a sandcastle. Beautiful and regal in one moment, washed away and unrecognizable in the next. The wonderful thing is that there is always sand, and we can keep playing and building. We can build better things. We can become better people. Waves come and go. The sun rises and sets. None of it lasts forever. It’s all about what we do with what we have.

For me, 2020 is about being grateful for right now. Living the life I want to live. Making intentional choices. Slowing down.

I feel like it may be my best year yet. But if it isn’t, I know I will learn a lot.

I hope your year is a happy one. I hope you get to learn a lot too. What a gift to be able to be here and watch time unfold.

I am super grateful.

What is This Teaching Me?

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I’ve been uninspired to write lately, partly because I have been swamped with work, single mothering, holidays, and I started my master’s in September…finally. Life is hectic, per the usual. But mostly I think the gears in my head have just been sort of spinning. And spinning. And spinning. Sometimes these gears feel stuck, and even when I know writing can help me get them “unstuck,” I choose to linger a bit longer in the stuckness of it all, trying to understand these complex, shapeshifting things in my head called feelings.

Recently I ordered invitations for my firstborn’s upcoming 10th birthday.

10-years-old.

10 years of being a mother. Holy cow.

I think about how I used to want my own children so very much and it felt like it was never going to happen, and then it happened, and now we’re long past the baby stage. That part of me anticipating motherhood and the newness of being a mother is buried in the past. Time feels like sand slipping through my fingers, impossible to contain, as evidenced by this growing boy I have who is almost as tall as me. I’m on a fast train to middle age.

My son’s birthday triggers a flood of feelings, especially because having him was not what I expected.

I was 29 weeks pregnant when I thought I had the swine flu, went to the emergency room, and three hours later delivered this ugly little old man of a baby who was immediately whisked away. I wouldn’t see him for another eight hours. Doctors would never know why I gave birth prematurely. They had no explanation for me. This is not how it was supposed to happen.

As I was still hooked up to an IV, a NICU lactation nurse showed up with a giant machine and broke the news that this monstrous thing was how I was going to express milk. A 29-weeker wasn’t going to be able to drink, so I’d have to freeze everything. I had just felt the baby’s first kicks a few weeks before this nightmare started and hadn’t even gotten to the part where I contemplated breast pumps. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.

When I went to see my baby for the first time, I had to walk down a long corridor, past all of the rooms of moms with their crying babies, past the nursery with “regular” plump, healthy newborns, all the way to the NICU where they beep you in past double doors and give you a robe to put on and make you scrub your hands raw. Once you are wearing a face mask, a nurse opens the doors for you to enter a dark room full of incubators and flashing lights and a chorus of beeping machines remind you about the precariousness of life for these fragile babies.

My kid was in the corner, his isolette covered with a sky blue blanket that had Santa rubber duckies printed on it. The nurse lifted the blanket as I stood nervously aback, and there he was, hooked up to tubes and wires and wearing the tiniest of diapers. All 2 lbs. 15 oz. of him.

I could not hold him, but I could touch his foot with my finger if I asked permission. It would be another week until they let me hold him for the first time. This is not how it was supposed to happen.

I stayed in the hospital for three days, going up and down the long corridor to deliver milk that it would take 12 attempts to express just a few drops, but I was determined. Becoming a human cow felt like the only thing I could do in that moment other than stare at my alien baby through the plastic walls of his incubator.

On my discharge day, I remember my husband wheeling me to our car, past the gift shop with the “welcome baby” balloons, my arms empty, my deflated belly reminding me of the incomplete experience, and me sobbing inconsolably as we left our baby behind in the NICU. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.

For two months, I went back and forth to the hospital 2-3 times a day to deliver breastmilk and hold the baby against my bare chest for skin-to-skin contact. One of the things I remember was noticing the other new moms interacting with their partners. I would catch a glimpse of the guy’s hand on her shoulder. I overheard the banal conversations between the other couples when we’d be sitting in our babies’ cubicles, a curtain separating us. The difference was that I was alone. Always alone. All of the time. My 6-year-old stepson was living with us and the hospital didn’t allow children inside during flu season, so my husband and I had to take shifts. Other people had normal deliveries and took their babies home right away, but I had to sit in a hospital room with my preemie, asking permission to touch him and not having anybody to hold my hand or rub my shoulders, nobody to chit-chat with during the visits, and nobody to console me when I wept with worry and fear and resentment at the universe for handing me these cards. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.

Yet here we are, ten years later. The worries and pain of the NICU experience are no longer present in my life. My son is smart and funny. He’s a happy kid who hugs me everyday and still sneaks into my room in the middle of the night, and I let him because there was once a time when I had to ask permission to be near him. He has far surpassed what I expected out of a son.

The NICU was important in my life. I didn’t know it then, but I know it in my bones today. It taught me important lessons I needed to know for when I would become a widow years later.

I learned how to be a single mother in the hours and days and months when I sat in the hospital alone.

I learned how to sit with uncertainty and fear.

I had to think about my child first, and not just about how I felt.

I learned that sometimes there are no answers as to why something happens. There is no grievance department for everything that goes wrong in the universe.

I learned I could do hard things.

I realized I could persevere without somebody rubbing my shoulder. Nobody needed to hold my hand. It would be nice, but it won’t make or break me.

I learned that we are stronger than we think we are.

It’s the holidays, which means grief is the uninvited guest at the dinner table. It happens when grief is fresh. It happens years later, even when you think you have compartmentalized and organized all of your pain and neatly tucked it away in a drawer to forget about.

But grief inevitably finds its way back to you. It is a part of you forever, whether you wanted to keep it or not.

It often happens in the most expected, unexpected way. You can be going about your business thinking how great it is to decorate the house and gather with family and friends for holiday cheer, and then all of a sudden you hear about a family going to pick out a Christmas tree and it triggers your mental meltdown. Suddenly you are struck by the reminder that you will never, ever be able to go with the kids and their dad to pick another family tree…ever. 2015 was my last time. Ever. That was it. Done.

It is difficult to reconcile, even almost four years out. Sometimes it doesn’t feel real, like it never actually happened. Life has moved on and reality has changed, making it difficult for me to even retrace my steps back to those distant memories.

But I know it was real. I feel it in the hollowness of my existence– that space inside of me, empty, unresolveable.

That’s how the holiday blues set in.

The tricky part is that in many ways I feel like I’m more heartbroken over the idea of my late husband. Sure, I miss him, but I miss the idea of what we had– the nuclear family. The security of having a partner in my life. The idea of what a happily-ever-after was supposed to look like. Not this. Nobody wishes for this. This isn’t fair.

We mourn a lot of thoughts and expectations.

That Christmas tree story had me wallowing in a lot of sad thoughts. Like, why haven’t I met someone suitable yet? And why did I get stuck with three kids on my own, 24/7, without signing up for it? Why do other people get to go home to their partners and stay married for 50 years? Why does my pain feel so invisible to others? Why, why, why?

There is nothing like the holidays to remind you of your solitude and loneliness. I’m not talking about kids. Yes, I have kids. They are great and they certainly fill my house with noise and neverending action. But it’s an incomplete fairy tale.

I know the big feelings pass. They always do. I have learned how to wait them out, kind of like letting the flu work its way out of my system, and then I feel better and happy and all is right in the world, or at least as much as it can be.

As I cried before Thanksgiving and wondered why me and why us and how did this happen, I tried to pause and ask myself: what is this teaching me?

It’s one of my coping mechanisms that I have worked on. I don’t always have an answer, but for some reason asking myself this question softens the sharp edges of my existence. What is it teaching me?

Maybe I just hate the idea of wasting time and it feels more palatable when I can cling to the faith that this– the good and the bad– has something to teach me. It is weaving itself into the fabric of my being as we speak. There is purpose. It has meaning. Every person and experience and feeling and thought is a part of my existence, and it all makes me stronger and better if I choose to see it that way.

I know that when I am mourning the idea of what I used to have, then it’s just me resisting reality. Ideas and thoughts are not real. They are merely guides, and sometimes they lead us into the wrong direction. We can’t always believe them.

I’m not entirely sure what I am learning right now, but I think it has something to do with understanding that happiness is not found in other people, and that my worthiness is not attached to another person’s existence. I am working on that.

As I write this, I am in full Christmas spirit mode. Lights up. Tree up. House decorated. Cookie making in progress. Friends and family. Holiday blues digested and out of my system for the moment.

I feel happy with the story I am creating right now, on my own, even when it doesn’t always feel complete. But that’s just life, right? Never really complete, until you die.

So we learn to embrace the hollowness, the feelings, the good and the bad, the painful and delightful, and everything that makes our human experience unique and miraculous and also very unremarkable.

The truth is, as different as we are, we really aren’t very different. We’re all variations of the same, and so is our pain.

For those of you feeling the holiday blues like I have been, I see you. I feel you. It’s not easy. Your feelings are valid, and you get to do whatever you want with those feelings. It’s okay to sit with them for a while. But sometimes we have to tell these feelings that they’ve overstayed their welcome if they haven’t moved on. My holiday wish for everyone is that you have the chance to find space for new experiences, new people, new days, new traditions, new opportunities to seek happiness and joy, and also have new opportunities for more heartache– it is the cost of doing business. The business of being alive.

I look at my almost 10-year-old, who I am now raising alone, and I think, “You were so worth it.” Our lives are so worth it. Miraculous and unremarkable, but all of these feelings inside of us make the human experience exceptional and rare. I hope you can embrace it and know you are not alone.

The Waiting

The waiting is the hardest part
Every day you see one more card
You take it on faith, you take it to the heart
The waiting is the hardest part

-Tom Petty

Last Wednesday was my late husband’s birthday. I woke up at 3AM fully alert, my body aware before my brain was cognizant of what day it was. It’s a strange feeling– feeling fine and like everything has moved on and settled into a place of calm and peace, and then the sudden reminder that you haven’t always been fine when those familiar tentacles of grief resurface and come looking for you.

It ended up being a fun day for me. Much thanks to the passing of time and all of the work I have done to accept the unexplainable horrors of a human existence. This was probably the “easiest” October since his passing.

But the next day, I felt a little conflicted.

It’s difficult to reconcile being sad about something, but still feel happy with life as it is right now, even if it isn’t what I envisioned for myself.

This got me thinking. I’ve been pondering the concept of waiting. It reminded me of the Tom Petty song, but it’s more than that. It’s about not being where you want to be and learning how to sit with that feeling. It’s about finding joy even during difficult times.

Maybe it has to do with being alone with yourself. How to be content with the present moment– with who you are right now– even when it is not necessarily your ideal version of yourself.

Mother Teresa said, “Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.”

I think this wisdom comes from the truth that no matter where you are in life– how much money, how many friends, how many material possessions– there will be something more you don’t have. Something more you could have. Something better. If you torture yourself between where you are right now to the point of where you want to be, you will have spent the majority of your life suffering instead of enjoying what you have.

When I was first widowed, the idea of life ever feeling good again didn’t seem real. It’s difficult to conceptualize happiness when you are living in a purgatory, drowning in the throes of the worst pain you’ve ever felt.

In hindsight, I wish I had more guidance in future projection. If I could go back and tell myself that opportunities rejuvenate, shift, twist, and morph into the nooks and crannies of life that is still waiting to be explored and excavated, maybe that could have eased the pain. If I had a looking mirror, I would have showed myself the new people and places and things I would be introduced to that would bring me joy. I would have poured all of the wisdom into my pain-stricken self during those early days of grief– all of that wisdom I clawed my way to learn about suffering being a normal cost of doing business as a human. I would have shown myself that suffering led me to the light and did not keep me in the darkness of my existence.

It’s the waiting that kills me the most. Waiting to figure out what to do with suffering. Waiting to meet that person. Waiting for an opportunity. Waiting for clarity. Waiting for the stars to align.

If you think about the number of highs and lows we have in our lives, in the grand scheme of our lives, they do not make up the majority of our days. I’m talking about those times of extreme pain, and the days of mind-blowing joy.

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We spend the majority of our lives in “the waiting.” Waiting for the next meteor to hit. I live in California– waiting for the next earthquake. Or waiting to get our hands on a precious moment. Victory. Success. Love. Those times of great opportunity falling into our laps.

We are pain-averse; we constantly chase good feelings. If we can’t find it the honest way, we look for ways to expedite good feelings. Pick your poison.

It makes me think about the Mother Teresa quote. Be happy in the moment.

This moment.

Just as you are. Even with the pain. Exactly as you are. No more, no less.

Mathematician Pascal said, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

You have to sit in that room and not sugarcoat your reality. You have to be able to be alone and content even with your current circumstances. I think this requires that you accept life at face value.

Do you ever notice how young children accept life at face value?

They get in trouble, or they fall down and skin their knees. They get that piece of candy or they don’t get that piece of candy. They throw the fit. They move on.

Some kid hits them, maybe they cry, and the next minute they are playing together again.

Children know what it is like to be happy in the moment. They don’t care who their friends are. They can make friends with anyone. They don’t care what they have. They could live in a box. They don’t care how much money their parents have in the bank account, or where they live, they’ll love their parents anyway.

And then we grow older and we lose that ability to be content with what we have. We start reaching for more. We develop an insatiable appetite for more.

While the adults are having anxiety, feeling hopeless, lonely, and experiencing suffering waiting for their next high in life, the children play. They know how to keep moving forward. They don’t know what it is like to say yes to the weight of the world and carry it around on their shoulders. It is simply not an option for them.

Historically I have had the bad habit of torturing myself when I am waiting for something that I want. I let anxiety consume me. I want to speed up time. There are times when hopelessness, despair, and forlornness convince me that I’m not worthy of this thing that I want. It’s a gross rut to be in, and the work to dig yourself out of it feels like an endless loop of chasing your tail.

Recently I’ve been working on being more mindful about “the waiting.” I’ve been trying to find the silver-lining in situations. Every situation has the good and the bad, but it takes reflection and gratitude for me to be able to see both sides of the coin. Honestly, it takes a lot of work. I wish I were like a child with a mind that doesn’t get stuck in what I don’t have, but this is what I have to work with, and it takes effort to keep my constantly spinning brain from overwhelming the rest of myself. I have to pull the reins in on myself every hour. Every day. The rational side of me is constantly keeping my emotional side in check just like the movie Inside Out. I have to remind myself not to be too attached to expectations and outcomes. I am constantly trying to remember impermanence– nothing lasts forever.

But the thing is, I have gotten through the bad experiences 100% of the time. One of the biggest reminders I have to give myself is to simply do what I can in a day, then take a deep breath, step back, and let things fall as they may. I try again the next day. I know some people have a problem with avoidance, but I have a problem with excessive attention to every teeny tiny detail in a way that drives myself crazy interpreting what may or may not be happening. For me, I’ve been trying to do like the children do– play. More play. Doing things that I enjoy. Being very intentional about the things I like, and making sure they get priority in my schedule. This has been part of my reflection efforts.

Whoever you are, and whatever your problems, you can’t practice genuine reflection and gratitude unless you are comfortable being in the room by yourself– without the sound of other people talking, without your own self being consumed with loneliness. The solitude becomes your medicine. In that room, you create a space for personal understanding about yourself and who you truly are.

Every moment, each day, can not feel like the first bite of delectable meal. Whatever your extreme happiness feels like– that can not be experienced on a daily basis. It just can’t. We all know this, yet we chase after it like we can eliminate gravity.

Our monumental task as adults wanting to live as well as we can is to find joy and gratitude wherever we are, with whatever we have.

This doesn’t mean settling.

It means doing what we can and being content, even when we aren’t where we want to be yet. It means being satisfied with the waiting as being a part of our life journey, rather than it being suffering. It isn’t punishment. It is an opportunity.

We need to re-frame it.

If we can turn the waiting around into something meaningful instead of a place to be anxious and resentful about our circumstances, then we can maximize the human experience.

What does the waiting teach us?

For me: to appreciate what I have, to give me the gift of time with myself, to understand my priorities in life, to appreciate joy more deeply, to take pride in my independence, and to truly savor the opportunity to grow in who I am.

Spectacularly Ordinary

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Photo by Mark Neal on Pexels.com

A few weeks ago, I found out that a neighbor from my childhood street (where my parents have lived for the past 40+ years) was found dead.

Not just dead.

Unrecognizably dead.

Melted-into-the-carpet-dead.

As in, nobody-knew-he-was-dead-for-a-week kind of dead.

He was 76-years-old. Six years older than my dad.

I did the math and texted my sister when I realized this neighbor and my father were both younger than we currently are when they bought houses on the same street. My sister and I both agreed that it didn’t seem possible. They had both seemed *so old* since the beginning of time, and certainly *we* were not old. We did not discuss the unnerving awareness about the the way time moves at lightning speed, and how in a blink of an eye we too will reach our own mortality.

To me, my neighbor looked exactly the same in the 37 years that I knew him. Same beard. Same gentle expression. I remember his wife being a raging you-know-what who scowled at us neighborhood children and never once said a kind thing, but he was the opposite. He never raised his voice. He waved when he saw us. He knew our names. I remember the last time I saw him. His wife had been in a nursing home for years and he would sometimes seek company from my father. Loneliness and passivity had permeated his existence. He sat next to my dad on a fold-up chair in my parents’ garage with the same quiet, unremarkable presence that I knew him by. I paused in my haste to say hello, but then I was off to chase after one of my children. The story of my life: racing from one thing to another.

It’s funny how our minds search for the memory of when we last saw somebody alive. The moment is usually unremarkable and ordinary. I am reminded about how those ordinary moments carry hidden weight, and I try to keep that awareness close to my heart in my subsequent days filled with a zillion ordinary moments. Holding that truth feels like trying to keep sand from slipping through my fingers. It’s a drop of water in an ocean versus a drop of water in a barren desert. You don’t know until you are there.

I think loneliness and passivity about living is a death sentence. I fear becoming the kind of person who is resigned with nothing to look forward to. Bad things can and will happen to me, but please, please, please do not put me in a holding cell of time where I wait for the end with no purpose.

A few days after the news of my neighbor’s death, in the throes of my own personal stress and perseveration over the things I can not control in my own life, I scrawled in my journal, “I wonder how long it will take people to notice when I die?”

And then I started to have other questions, like I wonder during which month I will die? And speaking of which, how will I die?

Amin Maalouf wrote, “… we die, just as we were born, at the edge of a road not of our choosing.”

I think about the things I could not control about my entrance into this world: where I was born, my sex, the way I look, who my parents are, economics, all of the experiences and missed opportunities that accumulated– many of which were dependent upon time and place and factors beyond my control.

I know people (some of whom grew up in the same household as me) who can’t let go of these facts.

It’s always the same complaints.

If we only had _____. If ___________ didn’t happen, then _____.

If, if, if!

I try to let these thoughts pass quickly through me since you can never change those facts. Spending too much time on them only leads to personal quicksand– a place to get stuck.

So much about our death is the same as our birth: out of our hands.

How we die.

Where we die.

When we die.

Sure, there are factors we can try to influence, such as our health, but the rest is indeed a road not of our choosing.

I like to think about my options though. The things I can control. That’s the optimistic side of me, or maybe the bossy first child part of my personality asserting her will in this universe.

I want to know: if I can’t choose all of my roads, can I choose how I go down a road?

We’ve all heard the saying “life is a journey.”

Many of us suffer from destination mentality–me included. The “journey” part of living is inconsequential to our social consciousness.

We understand happiness in terms of milestones: graduation, marriage, parenthood, home ownership, retirement, whatever.

The things we check off boxes for.

One destination after the other.

It’s quietly understood that we’re really not supposed to talk about the final destination, until we get “old.” Once we’re old, we run out of destinations, so then we can sit in our recliner chair and wait for someone to call us while we watch bad television and read newspapers and maybe die and not get found for a week.

My problem with destination mentality is that it doesn’t prepare us for the in-betweens. It doesn’t explain the end. It hijacks our real purpose. It seems silly to string together an entire existence out of a few destinations. There has to be more to this journey.

Who we are is developed during those ordinary days and weeks between milestones. This is when the true journey takes place, between the bottom and the top of the mountain, and then back down again. Step-by-step. There is no journey without those steps.

There is a famous quote attributed to the great Michelangelo that says, “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”

People disagree about whether Michelangelo actually said that, but there is a letter he wrote in which he said, “The sculptor arrives at his end by taking away what is superfluous.”

Yes, I think.

Yes to both quotes.

Yes to being able to see something beautiful inside of you that is worth unleashing to the world, and yes to likening your role in life to that of a sculptor, living with intentionality and working bit-by-bit on your own personal masterpiece.

A sculptor.

A life sculptor.

I daydream about my life beginning as a large, hunking block of unremarkable marble. I can choose to die a block of marble, or I can chisel away until I capture the essence of who I’ve always known I am in a way that others can see too.

I feel like milestones and destinations discount the day-to-day effort we have to make to be fully engaged in living. Life isn’t a checklist. There is no cruise control option. This is the chiseling part. The sculpting. We have to continuously make friends– young and old. Living involves keeping an open mind and learning. Trying new things and seeking joy and happiness despite the suffering and pain that are inevitable in a human life. Most importantly, making an ongoing effort to love and help and connect with others. You can choose to be driftwood and get pushed along by time, but chances are high that you’ll end up tangled up in the weeds.

And yet I’m not fully convinced that this neighbor was tangled up in the weeds.

I characterized him as unremarkable and resigned in life, and there is sadness in knowing a human being died alone. But maybe it helps to know that we do not have to live spectacular lives. Maybe we just need to be kind and gentle and avoid disrupting the rotation of the earth.

There is something remarkable about the ordinary.

And if a person was kind and gentle throughout their life, maybe they didn’t do too bad after all.

You Just Need Confidence and Other Lies I’ve Been Told

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Photo by Isandréa Carla on Pexels.com

Throughout my life, I have heard the phrase “you just need to be confident” suggested to me, as if it is so easy to have when you live in a female body.

I’ve tried to pinpoint exactly when I began to hate my appearance, but it could have possibly started with a compliment. I was a sixth grader, awkward with frizzy bangs and mouth full of braces, coming out of my room in my bathing suit for a trip to the beach with family. I remember my aunt looking me up and down, her eyes lingering on my legs, and then she looked at my mom and said something along the lines of “you better watch out.” I remember feeling self-conscious and wanting to put pants on, uneasy about what she meant. It did not feel like a compliment. After all, nobody tells little boys that they have to watch out about their legs.

Maybe I started hating my body when I got my first bra before I started the 7th grade. I was flat as a pancake, but since I had to change in the locker room for PE my mom thought it was appropriate for me to get one. I remember coming home from JC Penneys with my ugly nude colored bra and my mom showing it to my dad, who then declared it was a slingshot. He began a game of pickle with my younger brother, throwing it across the room. I wanted to die. Having to wear a bra felt like an exile from childhood, and even at 12-years-old I knew life on the other side was not going to be all unicorns and rainbows for a female.

But who knows, really. Maybe I started to hate my body when I got my period in the 8th grade and had to sit at a table and guard the towels while everyone else had fun at the local waterpark. It could have been because I was not allowed to wear make-up like all of the cool girls did in junior high. Maybe I started feeling ugly because I couldn’t carry that Covergirl compact in my back pocket and put layers after layers of powder on my face like everyone else.

Whenever it started, and however it started, it began a lifetime of me fixating on everything I hated about my appearance. My abs. My thighs. My short torso. The frizzy hair and boring brown eyes. My toes. My teeth. The Mervins clothes in my closet. The only thing I never hated was my small breasts, because at least then I did not have to worry about men gawking at me.

The irony is that I never wanted to be just a body, yet I pigeonholed myself into an identity with self-worth measured solely by the perceptions about my body.

How does one “get some confidence” in a world that tells women we are too fat and too emotional and too weak and too this and too that?

In a world where women are not always invited to the table nor seen as anything more than desirable or undesirable to men. If I spoke up, I was a bitch. If I didn’t speak up, I was too shy. If I do this or that, will men like me? Because for a woman, we somehow learn by osmosis that men not desiring us is a death sentence, and subconsciously or consciously we seek to maintain our desirability. We women even tear our fellow women down, constantly engaged in subconscious Hunger Games.

Needless to say, I have struggled to find the conventional type of confidence.

Recently I was listening to the adult study at my Buddhist temple and they talked about having confidence in the system, or confidence in your path. It was another way of saying “have faith” without the baggage of the Christian connotation of the word.

It made me think.

I can’t tell you that I have confidence in the way that I look today, right now, here in this moment.

But I do have confidence in how I live my life. I feel I am moving at the right pace for me, doing what I need to do, and headed in an appropriate direction– even when I also feel like I am not exactly where I want to be.

My confidence is in the way that I show up in this world. I believe in working hard. Trying. Trying again. Trying and trying and trying.

I have confidence in my values and goals. There is confidence in my willingness to learn, the openness of my mind, and in the transparency of my vulnerability.

Confidence is tricky when you measure it by specific things, all or nothing. I am confident in certain areas, like my intelligence, career, and the way I can single-handedly run a busy household. I am not confident wearing crop tops, or in my tennis skills, or in my ability to use a round brush and make my hair look good.

But does confidence really have to be defined based on one thing about us, or can it be measured collectively?

I have confidence in knowing that if I watch what I eat and exercise, I will have a healthier body. I may not totally love my abs right now, but I have confidence in the plan I have chosen for myself, which is to join a gym, take a pilates class, regularly run, and watch my calories. I don’t always feel like I’m doing a great job in all areas every day or week or month, but I have faith in the plan and I am mostly satisfied with the average of my efforts.

I’m not going to stand up at temple and proclaim extensive knowledge in Buddhism, in front of people who grew up there, but I have confidence in my plan of attending service each week, raising my children in the organization, and continuing my own education of the practice. I believe in these values and how I spend my time supporting them.

Here is the toughest, toughest one for me.

In my 20s I started to worry that I would never find someone serious to marry. I really wanted kids and a house and the typical domestic fairy tale we are spoon fed at an early age to want. In college, I had my fair share of going out to bars and clubs and frat parties and also the typical banging my head against the wall in complete and utter despair about the universe apparently having nobody, NOBODY available for a person like me.

And then I met my future husband. At work. I literally never paid attention to him when I started the new job in the classroom next door to his. Not even a second glance. One day he lingered after a presentation I gave and that was it– we became instantly inseparable.

You get married, you might have kids, and then life is supposed to be on autopilot for your relationship status. I never thought I’d have to go through the drama of believing the universe was all out of options for me– again. I truly thought I dodged that bullet!

Oh hey, turns out life doesn’t exempt you from ANYTHING.

When my husband unexpectedly died and left me as a 34-year-old widow with three young children, I did what we all do in these terrible, life-shattering situations: I panicked. I delved into toxic self-hate. I writhed on the floor of my rock bottom and convinced myself that I deserved this bad karma. It was probably because of something I did. I was deficient. Nobody would ever want me. I’m damaged goods. I’m loathsome. On and on and on.

If you told me I should have just gotten some confidence, I would have asked if you ever watched your husband’s eyes roll back– and then I would have told you to come back with your advice when you had.

Eventually my feelings began to simmer down. My anger cooled. Slowly. Time always helps.

You see, when we are right in the middle of the boiling point of our feelings, no amount of logic makes sense to us.

Even in my despair, I knew logically that life would get sorted out. Paperwork would get done. My kids would get older. I would feel better. I would move on. Terrible days don’t last forever. I knew what I had to do: put one foot in front of the other. Small steps. One after another. I knew all of that.

But I didn’t want to see it or hear about it.

Just get some confidence!

But, HOW?

Sometimes (okay, a lot of the time) we are battling paralyzing resistance in our bodies and minds.

How do you get confidence when you’re broken on the ground, smashed by life? How do you get confidence when you see everyone else married and you’re the only single parent at an event? How can you be confident when everything you worked for in life gets taken away? Or if you were born into shitty circumstances? How do you feel confident during your lowest lows?

We reach a new level of consciousness when we develop an observing ego that can examine feelings with perspective and objectivity, and in turn help us organize and compartmentalize our feelings. We may not be able to change the intensity of how we feel, but we know what to do. We know when to feel our feelings, how to respond to them, and also when it is time to let them go.

Letting go is important.

We can’t stop feelings. The only thing we can do is identify what they are teaching us and use that knowledge to make us stronger. They aren’t a sign of weakness. They are a sign of living.

When I finally met someone who I really liked this past summer, it was difficult when I had to embrace the realization that the relationship would have to end– no matter how much I wanted it to work, and how much I liked this person. The circumstances were such that it wouldn’t be a healthy situation for any of us. The timing wasn’t right, and I didn’t want to drag it on. I was only able to make this decision with the confidence gained from my personal journey. 20-something me would have kept it lingering. 30-something me had too much invested in her journey and too much faith that she deserved something better.

Experience and confidence did not make me feel any less sad, lonely, depressed, angry, or remorseful about the decision. I felt like garbage for a solid three weeks. But I knew I could survive, because I had already survived three hard years as a widow, and I had faith in my ability to persevere. I knew I could move forward. I knew I would move forward. I trusted that there would be more opportunities. This strength came from surviving my lowest lows.

As a 20-something, I had no confidence in my personal journey. I couldn’t see beyond the immediacy of a particular feeling in a specific moment. I was scared of loss. I was scared of pain. I clung to the notion of a happily-ever-after, all or nothing.

Now I know from experience that pain and loss and joy and happiness are all interconnected. We are meant to embrace it all during this journey called life. The only other option is to resist and have more suffering, and I refuse to accept that.

I have spent a lot of time analyzing who I am. It has helped me embrace what I am not.

I know that I am a highly sensitive person. I am all-in or all-out, but the interim and transitions can be excruciatingly painful for me because of my propensity to feel every little thing and over-analyze situations.

I used to hate myself for being this way. Now I feel like it is one of my greatest assets if strategically harnessed.

I have learned to trust myself. I have faith in my ability to survive. I lean on my track record of surviving 100% of my former problems in life. This journey– on this heavily treaded path– has been forged with my own two feet. Those feet move with a stubborn determination to live well with what I have right now, yet still reaching for better– a balancing act between gratitude and aspiration.

I keep moving. I wallow. I might wallow more than most. But then I make myself get up and move.

This forward motion has saved me.

I may never love my abs, my floundering chess skills, or the fact that I am a 37-year-old widowed single mother who still hasn’t found another suitable partner. HOWEVER, I absolutely know what I bring to the table. I know how I show up to the world. I know what I am working towards.

I have confidence in my journey, even though I do not fully understand it, nor can I fully conceptualize it.

But it’s my journey.

I don’t need permission to be here– the universe gave it to me at my birth.

I have worked on being able to love this journey. The good, the bad, the ugly, the unforeseen, the pleasant discoveries, and even the misdirection and pain. All of it.

Brene Brown said, “You either walk inside your story and own it, or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.”

Either way, we have to choose.

 

Handling Uncertainty

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I wish someone had told me in kindergarten that the key to handling life is found in how we react to uncertainty. How we handle our anxiety about an unknown future.

It would have also been helpful if they taught us that there is no such thing as happily-ever-after, uncertainty will never stop happening, and disappointment and starting over will happen more times than you will ever want.

Maybe that would have been a little heavy for a 5-year-old, but why sugarcoat reality and inflate our expectations?

The more I experience the rougher parts of life, the more I wish I had started building my resilience sooner.

And yet there were unintentional things I did as a child that has helped me with my resilience today. One of those things is journaling.

Recently finding myself wallowing in my own uncertainty, I leaned on my journaling to help reclaim perspective. I was going to write an essay about the topic, but I decided to share the brainstorm I did in my journal, as well as others. This is a tried and true trick I constantly use to pull myself from the “shut down” reaction when something goes wrong in life, to moving myself (sometimes dragging myself) to embracing a strategic approach on my battlefield.

You don’t necessarily need to keep a journal if that’s not your thing, but I like being able to go back and cringe at the thoughts I had ten years ago, or even ten days ago.

I’ll leave you with this: it’s difficult to continue feeling terrible in life when you have a plan.

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I do monthly intentions. I’m not an artist, but I don’t care. I do it anyway! (Unicorn added by my 6-year-old daughter.)

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I love to collect quotes that resonate.

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An example of a brain dump I did in July. It was helpful when in August I took action on the Kyle part of this mind map, and having written it down several weeks before, I knew the feelings did not come out of thin air.

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I learn new ideas and/or ways of thinking about things and write them down.

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In July I decided I wanted new protocol in my day, so this is my AM and PM protocol. Still using it! The “3 frogs” refers to “swallowing the frog.” I pick the 3 most important tasks to do for the day.

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I like to brainstorm with post-its. My daughter likes to help me decorate with stickers, and I have to say there is something happy about using stickers.

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I seriously have to put “watch tv” on my list of things to improve haha. I never take the time to slow down and relax.

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These were just a few ideas that I use on a regular basis. The main thing I’ve learned to accept is that my ideas, lists, goals, areas to improve, focus, etc are constantly evolving. I embrace that. Sometimes I really need to lean on journaling, and other times I do not.

I use the Gratitude app on my phone to list what I am grateful for everyday, but I do try to write about good things in my journal as well. When my husband passed away and I went through his journals and my journals, I realized we both tended to focus a lot on documenting our gripes. I think it’s a natural human tendency. We want to vent. It takes intentionality to pause and review what is good in your life. Since then, I try to also document what is going well.