The Holiday Blues

holiday blues

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:

family photo 2018.jpg

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

JBP_3768.jpg

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

23719262333_e8cf6d97a2_b

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”

Shut Her Up

67753_1487688224707_3832942_n

Hypothetical Conversation inside of chicken’s head: Should I have worn the chicken costume? Maybe I should have chosen something else. I don’t know about this color on me. I think these feathers make me look fat. I better workout more. OMG. I bet people are staring at me. This is stupid. I am so awkward. My brother looks better in his bunny costume. The newspaper took a picture of him! They did not take one of me. I am the world’s biggest loser. Ugh, ugh, ugh!

I had a revelation this past weekend after doing a lot of work on the self, including writing letters to my fears, persistence, courage, my tribe, my future self, etc. I would write these letters, bleeding my heart out onto a page and then have to share it with a stranger. That part was easy. I have shed my inhibitions around people in regards to my vulnerabilities, so I was able to easily say anything with a straight face. But something else bothered me. I just kept thinking, hmmmm. Something feels weird. I kept reviewing my notes, my letters, the writing on the page in front of me, and the conclusions felt the same in my head.

It was starting to appear that each and every one of my problems existed in my head. Like, maybe I was the biggest problem in my life.

That couldn’t be right, I thought. I couldn’t be the problem. I’m awesome. It has got to be another reason. Somebody else is to blame. A person or circumstance or something.

I chewed on it some more. I wrote more letters. Shared more letters. Journaled. I went on solitary hikes and runs and soaked in the hot tub and journaled some more and read deep books about life. I thought some more and more and more. That’s how I operate. I just like to stew in my thoughts. I treat feelings like the flu. Just get it out of your system. Let them work their way out, and then move on.

But I couldn’t shift the growing realization inside of me. The facts (I gravitate toward logic) all pointed in the same direction. The facts were saying that I was my biggest problem in life.

I spent the better portion of my life riddled with consuming self-doubts. Like, all of my life. Not even a portion. All of it. Often those nagging thoughts have been something that served me well–pushing me to do better. Ambition. Persistence. Always wanting something more. But if left unchecked, those same consuming thoughts of not feeling enough can turn into stagnant waste in your brain, festering and holding you back from even better things in life.

I asked myself a few scenarios regarding my self-doubts.

I’ve always thought that I wasn’t skinny enough.

“Okay, Self. You don’t think you’re skinny enough. Has anyone ever told you that? What has the jury said on the matter?”

Hmmm. Well, that’s interesting. No. Nobody has ever told me that. Nobody has ever shamed me for my body (except the usual societal expectations–but never to my face. That’s certainly enough, but no direct comment.)

“Has anyone ever told you that you disgust them with your physical appearance?”

No. (I’d probably kick their ass if they did, which makes me wonder why I cared to begin with. Another hmmmmm.)

In fact, recently I was telling someone about how I should run a marathon so I can lose more weight, and the person looked at me strangely and said, “Why? You look fine.” I remember saying, “Really?!” I had never considered this option. Fine. It’s always “not good enough” in my brain. Fine had never been an option.

Has a guy ever told me, “Sorry, you’re totally not attractive. You have an ugly body.”

No.

But my torso is too short. My thigh gap not big enough. My chest too flat. I will never pull off a super thin frame. And…and…and…

Interesting.

Come to think of it, I have had multiple conversations with men who were unanimous in their opinion that women just don’t know what men like. Meanwhile, we are beating ourselves up for not meeting a standard that may or may not exist with the good men of the world.

Then I moved on to other self-doubts. Not a good enough writer. Not a good enough mother. Not a good enough friend. Not a good enough former wife. Not productive enough. Not motivated enough. Blah blah blah blah blah.

Again, I asked myself to present the evidence. Could I find a jury of people to convict me of my crimes against not being good enough?

Hmmmm. Well, maybe. Of course. The world is full of critics. But nobody that I knew in my social circles.

So, I am just assuming that I know what other people think.

I am wasting my time caring about what I think other people think. This makes me tired just repeating the ridiculousness.

Nobody has actually verified these fears to me. At least not to my face.

In conclusion, I have determined that I am the enemy. The tangled mess in my own head. I have been the cause of all of my problems.

My first reaction to this revelation: OMG. I can totally talk to that Bitch! I can rein her in! She will probably listen to me!

Actually, she’s not known for listening to other people very well. She apparently only listens to herself, so she definitely needs the authority of her own wisdom to step in.

(Also, I know “Bitch” isn’t very feminist, but, at this point in the essay I am not caring what other people think about me, as long as I am not referring to you as one.)

Anyway, how freaking simple, and how freaking hard all at the same time.

But I like a good challenge.

I love that me–a single mother of three little ones and a widow–came out of all of this self-reflection declaring that my only problem in life was myself. Those are some first world problems right there. But somehow, that makes the problem feel more manageable. At least I have theoretical control over what goes on in my head– more control than I have over other people.

And this makes me feel less stressed.

Past experience has taught me that I should enjoy the quiet stillness that I feel right now in my heart and mind, because you never know when the other shoe will drop. And it will drop. But at least I know this is my center–right in my gut–a deep trust in my own self, even when she hasn’t always been right. But that bitch figures things out, and we’ve been together for this long, so I’m going to stay on her side.

I just need to remember that this center is where I can return to even in the most difficult of times.

Hollowness

a_mon_seul_desir_metth122

(pic source)

“Life grows hollow, not from the tedium of the day, but from the hardening of the heart.”
–  Monshu Koshin Ohtani

How to prevent the hollowness of life creeping into our souls; that is the eternal battle for the living.

I am struggling with the hardening of the heart lately. I’ve been in this funk for several weeks. Life feels too overwhelming. I grit my teeth and get through a busy work week, but by Saturday I am weary and often in tears. I feel directionless and on my worst days–hopeless. I am tired and depleted.

If one more person tells me how or why I shouldn’t feel this way, I might explode. Become a widow and single parent to three little ones and hold a full-time job, then come back to me with pearls of wisdom. Until then, it’s just something I need to figure out on my own. I need to bang my head against the wall enough times before I figure it out. Eventually, I will. I hope.

Each morning feels like I am going off to battle, wrangling the kids into the crumb-filled minivan, listening to the kids whine as we go out the door, somebody inevitably will want to go back into the house for some stupid toy they aren’t supposed to bring to school, and when I say no a meltdown will ensue, and I can’t help but feel bitter and angry and resentful that the person I planned a family with is not here to fulfill his part of the parenting obligations. It’s hard to go through the bullshit of parenthood on my own. This is the most tedious, soul-draining work I have ever done. It is isolating and lonely. It is difficult to not feel angry rage over the ways my life has devolved into this game of survival that I have been forced to play.

I’ll be honest. It is extremely difficult to not have your heart get hardened from this experience. No matter how much internal work I do to not get overwhelmed by what the universe has thrown at me, I still get brought down to my knees by the weight of it all.

Sometimes I wonder if I wasn’t meant to be happy. It’s a stupid thought, I know. But still one that runs through my mind. Maybe, for some cosmic reason, I deserve this fate.

I think of my teta (grandmother, in Arabic). I don’t remember her ever being “happy,” unless you consider buying Lotto scratchers and playing bingo with the senior citizens happiness, and of course, watching her firstborn amazing grandchild (me) grow up. But I don’t think so.

At least not in the way that I define happiness. I think happiness is when we pursue an authentic life, and when we do the things that are important to us. The things we are curious about. When we engage in what brings us joy.

I don’t think Teta ever pursued anything for herself. The difficulties in her life seemed to harden her into a state of resignation about her lot in life. She let herself become a conduit for her family’s happiness. She did our laundry. Made us food. Babysat. Worked and scraped and scrimped to get by. She left her family and life behind in Israel to start a new life in the United States. She divorced my grandfather and never had another relationship. I think about how she never had a healthy, fulfilling relationship with a man. Her identity became one mired in sacrifice.

What did Teta want to do with her one wild and precious life?

I’m sad to say that I do not really know, no matter how many times I stretched out on her couch and talked to her, listened to her stories about the other guy she would have rather married (instead of my grandfather), and the stories of struggle. But where was the happiness? What made her heart sing? What would have made her feel whole?

I’m sure members of my family would say: us. We were her happiness!

But can that be true?

I know that as much as I love my children–this was true even before my husband died–being a mother could never be the exclusive source of my happiness. My husband would never be the only source of my happiness. I started the parenthood journey thinking that being a mother and a wife would be the pinnacle of my life’s happiness, but it never was.

They can’t be our happiness, but they certainly can become our happiness blockers. Our children, our partners, our family and friends and colleagues and so forth—they can take our attention away from the things that make us feel whole. It’s not that they purposefully do it to us. Our loved ones don’t intend to sabotage our happiness. Rather, it’s because we let their needs take priority over our own. We choose to devote our energy tending to them and letting our own needs fall by the wayside.

I’ve known this to be true for a long time, and yet I let myself fall down that rabbit hole of self-sacrifice.

I feel unbalanced lately. I feel like my ship has veered off-course, and I am getting dangerously close to lost-at-sea. For the past 29-months of widowhood and single parenthood, I’ve been so busy making sure my kids are happy and healthy and well-adjusted that I seem to have forgotten how to put on my own life vest.

And now I’m floundering in the choppy waters of stress, trying desperately to hold my head above water with each passing day feeling like a losing battle. I’ve lost sight of the things I need for myself.

When you realize just how hollow your insides have become, it is kind of scary. I see visions of my hardened Teta, jaded by her misfortunes in life, sitting on her couch in one of her moods. In hindsight I think she had undiagnosed depression. She often verbalized that she had nothing good to look forward to. Nothing good in life. Everything was unhappy. She became attached to her unhappiness. My teta would cook for us and clean for us and she was my everything, but now that I am a mother, I know there was no way we could have ever been everything to her as a woman. There had to be something more.

I will never know, and neither will she.

As for me, I’ve spent some time sketching out my problems. I would like to say that I have a solution, but I’m okay with not having one at the moment. I want to give myself permission to feel what is out of whack in my life, and to work on addressing those parts of me without necessarily knowing what that will look like. I know that eventually I will figure it out, as long as I know there is a problem and continue to take action.

One thing I have decided is that whatever I am missing, and whatever I end up looking for, none of those things are needed to complete me as a person.

I think of relationships. I used to believe that we looked for “the one” because there was something inside of us that was empty without that person. We needed to find “the one” to complete our being. Mr. and Mrs. as a unit in life. Oneness.

In widowhood, that doesn’t feel true anymore. I can’t rely on somebody else to be the magic bullet solution to my happiness. I can’t wait for someone or something to complete me.

People and things come and go. They change. We change. And besides, I don’t need to be completed. I am already complete, I am just terribly neglected and a little lost right now.

I am looking for what will supplement who I already am as a whole person.

Experiences.

New learning opportunities.

Time and space.

Relationships, platonic or something more.

Hobbies.

Traveling.

Writing.

My children.

Everything in moderation.

Our happiness is not one thing. It isn’t a relationship. It isn’t something we check off a list. Our happiness is more of a tapestry, woven with our own hands, using the infinite and colorful threads of our joy and suffering. Maybe it’s the big picture. Maybe it’s the way that we keep going.

My children can not complete me.

Work can not complete me.

Writing can not complete me.

Men can not complete me.

Friends can not complete me.

A European adventure can not complete me.

They can certainly enhance my human experience, but they will never be the cure to the hollowness I feel inside of me.

That monumental task of filling the empty space is for me to figure out. Or not figure out.

It is my choice.

I suspect it has something to do with my own head space. If I can untangle the loose threads, I might be able to go back to weaving the intricate and beautiful tapestry that I’ve been working on since my birth.

Somehow, I know I will.