The Recital of Life

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Photo Credit: Pixabay 

It was my oldest child’s first piano recital and I had front row seats next to my mom. I didn’t invite my father or sister or sister-in-law or anybody. He just started playing five months ago– how could this turn out? Maybe for the next recital. Or the one after. You know, the one where he’d be really good.

Why was I nervous?

My 9-year-old certainly wasn’t. I kept checking to see if he was okay, and each time he politely stifled the rolling of his eyes.

Fine.

I’m still fine.

Mom, I’m fine.

No trepidation in his brows. No butterflies in his belly. He is just like his late father in that way– sometimes awkward in small groups, but confident and articulate in front of the masses. Self-assured. Fearless.

Nothing like me.

Not having ever been a music person, recitals were new terrain for me. This one seemed well-produced to my amateur eyes: lighting, sound, transitions, professional dress and reminders about theater etiquette (don’t leave early!). An authentic experience to display one’s musical skills.

My son was number 14 in the line-up, and I think I ran out of tears feeling emotional for everyone else’s kid before mine even got to perform. There is something about standing in front of the firing squad of scrutiny– in this case in a theater full of strangers. It’s brave!

As a parent, it is a helpless feeling having to experience that kind of vulnerability through your child. Since it’s not socially acceptable to jump onto the stage with your child, you are relegated to the audience, immobilized by the reality that your child has to take their own chance and you simply have to be a witness to whatever happens.

I kept wondering if my son knew his piece. Whenever I reminded him to practice, he told me he already knew his song. Practice anyway, I’d say. But he ignored my anxiousness, much like his dad would also ignore my fretting. They knew what they were doing. I was overreacting. Of course I was!

That’s who I am. An overreactor. Hypersensitive. Professional fretter. I was the kid who would do her homework, put it carefully in my binder, double-check that everything was there before I went to sleep at night, and then once again before I left for school in the morning. That’s just what I do.

And sometimes I fret for other people too, like the kids on the stage at the recital.

The little musicians came with a range of skills. Some played entire Debussy songs. There were four-year-olds with drumsticks who only knew one repetitive move to play along with a pre-recorded song. There were the kids with violins that made scratchy sounds, and others who struggled to blow into their flutes. There was the kid who could play the guitar, accordion, and saxophone– and he played them all well.

But there was one particular little girl who stood out to me. She was maybe 7 or 8-years old. I noticed her lingering by the curtain. She wore a poofy white dress and matching shoes as if she were the flower girl in a wedding. I kept thinking it would be her turn next, but no. It would be someone else. And then another person. And another. It became clear that she was just scoping out her battlefield, and by the look on her face she was also trying to convince herself to go through with it instead of running into the opposite direction.

When it was finally her turn, the girl tiptoed onto the stage like a skittish animal checking for predators. I thought she might dive right back into the safety of the curtains but there was something resolute in her determination and she kept walking. She gave a quick, almost apologetic bow before taking her seat at the piano.

One might deduce from her trepidation that the little girl would surely mess up, but no. You could tell she was the type of child who practiced and practiced, doing what she was supposed to do and performing well. Probably a model student, the kind who didn’t need her mother to remind her to practice.

When she was done, the girl stood abruptly and glanced anxiously at the audience. She gave another quick bow and then scuttled off the stage in that pretty white cupcake of a dress.

Then there was my son. He strode onto the stage– forgot to bow. Why bow? Those are other people’s details. He played his piece well and appeared to enjoy himself. He could have been playing in our living room, that’s how calm he was. Strode off stage, again forgetting to bow. Who invented bowing anyway? Nah. Done is done. He disappeared behind the curtains, not an ounce of anxiousness in his expression even though he certainly must have remembered that he forgot to bow– twice. After the show, it was like he just did another usual thing instead of completing his first recital.

It’s so interesting, I thought.

Recitals.

Places of vulnerability.

How we respond.

For me, I’ve spent a lifetime trying not to be the little girl in the cupcake dress. But I am that girl: self-doubting, hard-working, always worried about failure. I’ve spent most of my life fretting about details, worrying about not being good enough, reading too much between the lines. Like the little girl, I’ve forced myself out of my comfort zone many times, but it has been a lifetime process of learning how to be okay with being a work-in-progress. I get back up and try again. Again and again and again. But I’m also often beating myself up behind the scenes.

It has taken a lot of time to learn how to manage my fretting, worrying, and second-guessing.

I read the book The Highly Sensitive Person by Dr. Elaine Aron, and when I took the quiz it confirmed that yes, I am a highly sensitive person. You might not know that about me in real life unless you were in my inner circle. That’s because some of us learn ways to hide it. We don’t like to mess up and become more overwhelmed. We don’t want to disturb people. We don’t want to fall short and appear careless or not good enough. We don’t want to be a disappointment. So we fret and fret and fret, and sometimes that nervousness can undermine us.

I think after my husband died, I found myself in a situation where it was increasingly difficult to pretend that everything was okay. My vulnerability was on display for everyone to observe. In many ways I pushed through my unfortunate circumstances and did what a lot of us highly sensitive people do, which is to continue doing what we are supposed to do out of fear of messing up. I’ve always been competent in my career, reliable, punctual, and self-reliant. I’m like that in my personal life too.

But there was no hiding it– I was raw with grief and dripping with pain. I’ve never had to struggle with myself so much. I’ve never had something so horrific happen to me before.

Something inside of me didn’t want to hide what I was going through. I don’t know why, because I have historically been more reserved and shy, but something about waking up one morning to a dead husband strips away your inhibitions and takes your give-a-damn. That’s when I decided to share my experience, even if it meant admitting to others that I wasn’t always doing okay.

We are so conditioned to pretend that our lives are going great. We aren’t supposed to show our “dirty laundry.” Other people don’t want to be around our unhappiness– it’s like a contagious rash to avoid. But the reality is when we pretend life isn’t hard, and when we hide our struggles, we contribute to the socially constructed world of unrealistic expectations about how life is supposed to be. That only leads to more disappointment and pain and increased suffering.

In a world where we are bombarded with curated photos that we run through filters on social media, we rarely get to see what life really looks like for other people, and that can lead us to believe that there is something wrong with us when our own lives do not measure up to the mirage.

I found that the more I was transparent about my own suffering, the less shame I felt. Being vulnerable and revealing my weaknesses wasn’t as scary as it had once felt. The simple act of being vulnerable in front of others– over and over again– was actually helping me to become more resilient. An added bonus was when people started to share with me their experiences. I think one of the biggest breakthroughs when dealing with your own pain is the realization that you aren’t the only one experiencing suffering. Suffering is part of the human experience– it just looks different for everyone and doesn’t happen on the same timeline.

My son can stride onto a stage, but sometimes he can’t introduce himself to the new neighbor across the street.

That’s the thing.

While we are busy comparing and beating ourselves up over our self-perceived inadequacies, we forget that our vulnerabilities and shame and pain come in different forms. But we all have them. There are no exceptions.

Just because we don’t see it doesn’t mean other people aren’t shoving their darkness into the drawers and closets when guests come over.

Being vulnerable is scary. Many of us have built our lives upon a reputation that we stitched together out of the pieces of what we think looks best in front of others. After years and years of doing this, and when other people do it too, we shudder at the thought of jeopardizing the safety of this image.

We don’t want to risk this version of ourselves by letting others see the truth beneath the facade.

And the more we hold our breath–the more we choose not to be honest with ourselves and others–the more we suffer. From the inside-out, like a slow leak that doesn’t present itself until the damage is irreparable.

But humans aren’t irreparable.

The recital was a safe place where we all came together to support the fruit of weekly music lessons. We cheered on our children and other people’s children and gave the kids a place to showcase their learning, even when the music wasn’t always perfect.

Brene Brown said, “That’s what life is about: about daring greatly, about being in the arena.”

It’s not about being fearless.

It’s about having fear and showing up anyway– getting into that scary-as-hell arena and trying. Trying even if you mess up. Trying. Always trying.

Practicing.

Learning.

Making adjustments.

Building resilience.

Getting better each time.

The little girl in the white dress was scared to play the piano in front of an audience, but she did anyway. She put herself in the arena.

The recital made me think about this world that we live in where vulnerability is not socially acceptable. We are afraid of revealing any weaknesses in the workplace out of fear of survival and competition. We hide our true selves from family and friends out of fear of judgement and abandonment.

The truth is we are all still learning. It doesn’t end, no matter how old we are. The messing up doesn’t cease. We are eternal learners until we take our last breath. That doesn’t make us inadequate. That makes us human.

What if we stopped hiding this about ourselves?

If we could take the risk at work to share a personal struggle without fear of reprisal. If we could tell a loved one the truth about ourselves without risking a relationship. If we could stumble and fall and have the space to get back up with loving witnesses to support us on our individual journeys.

If someone is willing to put themselves out there, it seems like the rest of us ought to recognize the bravery in that simple act of showing up, and to do so with less judgement.

What a nicer world it would be if we were a kinder audience to each other’s vulnerabilities.

I know you are probably thinking about that person you know who makes a zillion stupid decisions and brings problems on themselves. I know, I know. I do the same thing.

But what if we observed that person as someone who is still learning? Maybe at a slower rate than you are, but they are still learning. We don’t have to get tangled up in their stupid decisions, but we could also be a kinder witness to their journey. Something closer to the love of a mother watching her child play a screechy violin in a recital.

Loving kindness.

That’s what I want to get better at sharing with others.

That’s the kind of world I want to live in.

 

Me and My Expectations

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The last time I was in Spain was with my boyfriend (the man who would later become my husband). We stayed in Barcelona because he liked the 1994 movie. Somehow we got a hotel in the seedy part of Las Ramblas, where cheap souvenirs were hawked at every turn and our most (un)memorable meal was at a greasy hamburger place that had a fish tank so dirty you couldn’t see if anything was alive in the water. We were frustrated with our food options (sea creatures perched atop piles of rice wasn’t our thing), and I remember a lot of bickering and contempt toward the over-hype of Gaudi’s masterpieces. I suspect we were probably just hangry.

Fast forward to 2019, 11.5 years later.

Me: widowed mother of three, late thirties, going back to Spain with my 20-year-old friend during the month that would have been my tenth wedding anniversary.

I hadn’t traveled unattached and with a friend since I was 22 years old, and being in Europe without my kids or partner made everything feel full-circle. For fun, I sometimes like to contemplate what my past self would have thought about my present self. If I could go back and give a crystal ball to the version of me who was tiredly nursing the baby and chasing after toddlers with unwashed mom hair and bags under her eyes, what would she say?

In a full-circle moment, a part of you thinks: are you kidding me? I get a RE-DO?! What? Really?! And it is great. Even though you don’t look 20-years-old anymore and you have children, your re-do is better because you’ve been around the block a couple times and matured into a wiser and more confident version of yourself. You know exactly what you want. That 20-year-old was always so unsure about her footing in the world, but the 37-year-old has lost her inhibitions. She doesn’t have time to waste and she’s going to have a good time whether she’s in Spain or in some podunk town in the Midwest.

Full-circle also has its moments of mourning the loss of who you used to be. The family unit with the reliable partner, even if that included bickering and socks on the floor. You miss the relentless days and weeks and months of having a sleeping baby on your chest, the smell of milk fermenting on your shirt, and the angst over not being able to go anywhere without packing a giant bag full of crap and lugging heavy strollers out of the back of your minivan. You miss the trips to Costco where you negotiated what to buy with the co-owner of your bank account, and you especially miss falling asleep next to him while watching Netflix.

There is a stark realization that this part of your life is over: the baby years, the husband, the safety net, the effortless way that you did not have to try too hard with somebody else.

You remember the sadness that pulsed through your veins and the agony of having to rebuild a broken life. Those memories are fading; time and mental gymnastics have hardened the pain into scars that now lie dormant beneath new layers of growth.

To get to this point, you had to learn how to reconcile all parts of a human existence. The joy. The sadness. The new and the old and the plans you had for yourself with the unexpected detours and disappointment. The story of your life. Every part of it. This is how we make space for new happiness.

On my recent trip to Spain, we spent most of our time in Seville, where they take long siestas, are prone to burst out into singing traditional flamenco songs with friends at a restaurant, and are known for their colorful buildings and Andalusian patios. We had a vague game plan in mind and an agreement that the pace of this trip would be meandering.

A part of me didn’t know what to expect. I had baggage from the 2007 trip with my late husband. Feelings. Sadness. Joy. Memories. Would it linger like a bad taste in my mouth, or could I forget it? Should I forget it?

I’ve learned to adopt a mantra of “flexible expectations.”

You can plan out your entire life and work hard, only to lose those dreams in a split second. That’s when you learn that the universe doesn’t care about your plans. It might actually even laugh at your plans.

When you accept this truth, you begin to understand that living doesn’t happen in the thoughts swirling around in our heads– living is all about what we do with our right nows. Not the expectations, but the actual doing.

I don’t know what I expected on that trip back in 2007. Maybe I wanted the happily-ever-after relationship with a whimsical, easy vacation in Spain packed with good times and romance– you know, the stuff we gulp from the pop culture fairy tales constantly shoved in our faces. The fantasy would, of course, end with a giant diamond ring in front of the Sagrada Familia and a champagne toast waiting nearby.

In real life, we were in his loathsome studio apartment about a year later when he said to me, “We should get married, huh?”

“Okay.”

“Okay,” he agreed, but he didn’t think to get a ring in advance. I didn’t think to even tell him what I wanted.

When real life inevitably doesn’t match the version of our lives that we concoct in our minds, we often feel that awful, downward spiral of deflated expectations.

He didn’t say the right things.

The food wasn’t what we thought it would be.

I didn’t look very cute in those pictures. Why did I pack those outfits?

The main sites weren’t that great. Did I miss something? Did I really travel 12 hours on an airplane to see this giant wasp nest of a cathedral?

It wasn’t romantic enough.

There was no ring.

We expect a certain euphoria when we leap into the world. We want the romantic, floating-on-air sensation of everything we love in the universe perfectly aligned in one magical moment while nothing else matters.

That did not happen for me in Spain 2007. Instead, I concluded that the food was terrible, Italy was better, and maybe I shouldn’t marry my boyfriend.

But I did anyway– a year and a half later– without a romantic proposal, in a courthouse, and we even took separate “honeymoons.”

Not the fairy tale I imagined.

Nine years later, his unexpected death wasn’t in a million years how I thought our story would end, with me suddenly cast as the 34-year-old widow and single mother to a 1-year-old, 3-year-old, 6-year-old, and of course his life tragically cut short.

But this is how we learn to live– in the right now– floundering in the sludge of the messy middle. We must experience the agony of crushed expectations and a life that did not go as planned before we truly understand what is important.

Take everything about your life that you have ever planned out in your head: conceive baby during ____ month, go on a vacation next year to ____, finish “x” number of projects before the end of summer, and by some miracle your husband will wake up tomorrow and suddenly stop being a slob and acquire the ability to read your mind.

Put all of these plans for your future into a box. A ceramic box.

All of it– including how many more pounds you want to lose by what date, the new friends you’ll start having over for dinner, the promotions you’ll get at work, the way your children should behave, the dates your husband will want to take you on, the money that will appear, the neighbors you’d rather have, how you think your parents should act– just go ahead and put it all into that beautiful, intricately painted rare ceramic box from the 6th century that only an heiress would own but somehow you have.

Go ahead, put it all in there. Anything your heart ever desired.

Once you have a well-rounded repertoire of expectations, you then stand back and watch helplessly as an invisible force swoops into the room and shoves that precious box forcefully onto the ground.

Watch in horror as everything gets smashed to smithereens, all of your hard work and hopes and dreams and expectations breaking into a million shards that scatter in every direction.

Now you can cry about it.

Stare at it in disbelief.

Feel the despair of hopelessness.

Depression.

Anger.

Resentment.

Guilt.

Sadness.

Sit there and wonder who you even are anymore without your beloved expectations. Have your existential crisis.

And then figure out how to piece your life back together.

It won’t look like your former life, but this version of you can still be wonderful. Maybe even better, because you made it, piece-by-piece.

When we arrived in Seville after several hours of travel, it was a short Uber ride to our apartment located in a busy square. It had gotten late enough that the locals were already starting to drink and eat outside. It was loud and warm. A giant Jacaranda tree was in full bloom in front of my bedroom window. I knew I had found my kind of place.

That week we rode bikes. We ate tapas– the good stuff, not the greasy hamburger joint food I had in 2007. We shopped. I thought about my late husband, but I also didn’t think about him. We drank. We drank some more, which one should do when a beer and a glass of wine only costs 3 Euros. We listened to jazz music and ate with the band after their show. We got massages in a 16th century bath house. There was no competition: this trip blew away my 2007 Spain trip without even trying.

After I returned to the States, a few days later I took my children on a roadtrip to Arizona and Utah. First we stopped in Phoenix for a family wedding on my late husband’s side. It was a bit surreal to have jet lag from my single woman trip overseas, to then hanging with my former in-laws without my late husband, while also texting the new guy I had been talking to. An intersection of everything.

We continued on to Arches National Park, which is really like suddenly finding yourself on the moon. This park is known for having the most natural arches clustered in one area in the entire world. If it mesmerizes even my wild 4-year-old, well, that should tell you how captivating these natural monuments are.

It was not lost on me that the beautiful, mystical arches are the product of weather erosion on sandstone.

I mean, that was amazing to me.

65 millions years of rock formation in various stages of erosion.

I’m 37.

Those brilliant red, hulking rocks made me feel like a teeny, tiny insignificant blip in the history of the earth. I may never understand how or why, but I know deep in my bones that I am grateful to be here, right now, pieced back together just the way I am.

The arches are a reminder of impermanence. We are amazed by their fragility and unusual formations, but it feels like sometimes we forget that they will not always be here, or even how they attained their shape and beauty. One day they will crumble into the sand and disappear into the dustbin of history despite the fact that today you had them on your maps and in your sightseeing plans.

We assume invincibility. We cling to the fairy tale idea of everlasting. Love. Rocks. People. Things.

And that’s when we suffer– when we are too attached to those expectations.

Life is constant erosion and regrowth and erosion and regrowth.

It isn’t good or bad.

It isn’t happy or sad.

It’s all of it.

You can be disappointed and still try to make the most out of a situation. You can be happy with a new person or on a different trip to Spain or with a change in circumstances and still have sadness for the parts of your past that will never exist again. It’s healthy to experience a wide range of emotions and feelings.

Let yourself feel everything, but don’t get stuck in a single emotion.

Have expectations, but learn when to let them go.

It’s a life-long struggle, a balancing act in which I am constantly reminding myself not to get too attached to any one version of how things are supposed to be.

The Third Year

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2016: We had a brand new puppy, a 13-month-old, a 3-year-old whose Hello Kitty birthday party was exactly two weeks before, and a 6-year-old in kindergarten who was memorizing sight words and obsessed with hexbugs.

On an ordinary Wednesday morning at the end of April, we were supposed to begin another school day with our assembly line routine of making lunch and breakfast for our large family. My husband would take the kids to daycare while I went to teach zero period, and after school we switched cars and I did the pick-ups while he went home to start the chores. Summer was six weeks away and we had tickets to Paris and Berlin, plans to go on our annual camping trip with our friends, and we spent the night before talking on the patio after the kids went to bed, promising each other to start making time for date nights that we kept putting off.

But that’s not what happened on that ordinary April morning. Instead of making sandwiches and cutting apples and wrangling toddlers into their clothes, I had to call 9-1-1 and watch my husband take his last breath. I followed the ambulance to the ER only to be greeted by a doctor who told me “Nothing we could do,” and then I had to make decisions about the disposal of his body– all before the sun came out.

I remember thinking in the midst of the most agonizing, soul-splitting emotional pain that time would lessen the intensity of what I felt in that moment. That had been true in any of the situations I had ever experienced before with death, loss, disappointment, crushed expectations, or any other feeling– good or bad. Nothing can last forever, at least not in the same form. I remember in the throes of my raw grief knowing in my bones that I had to lean on the truth of impermanence. I had to trust that the suffering would not last. It didn’t seem possible in that moment, but I needed it to be true, otherwise the pain would have killed me.

The days were long in the first year after my late husband’s unexpected death; the experience was out-of-body. I remember experiencing memory loss, disorientation, extreme lows, fear, anxiety, lack of energy, isolation, and just about every negative emotion to the nth degree. I didn’t get my period for several months. I instantly shed almost 20 lbs from no appetite. I dealt with a barrage of conflicting feelings, and I finally knew what depression felt like day-after-day.

The most immediate feeling I had to deal with was loneliness. I had to grapple with the overnight loss of a major fixture in my life– literally. I fell asleep in between sentences exchanged with him in bed, and a few hours later I don’t think he was ever conscious to know that a 9-1-1 operator was leading me through chest compressions in a futile response to an aortic aneurysm.

I learned that our lives can drastically change in the most ordinary second. I also learned that we are never prepared for these moments.

It felt like an exile to a faraway land of misery where I was held hostage with nothing to do except sift through the wreckage of his death. Of course the baby still needed his diaper changed and the kids still need to be fed and taken care of. I had to entertain my misery and the three kids.

My coping mechanism was to pile my plate high with distractions. Work. Kids. Work. Kids. We hardly stayed home on school breaks and I maintained a schedule that was perpetually full. There was always something to do. No time to sit around in that wreckage. Just keep going– and with three kids, a house, dog, career, and the miscellaneous things I am involved in– this was easy to do.

I’ve lived this way for three years.

It worked well during the transition. It got me through the growing pains as I adjusted to my new reality. It helped me cope with the pain and find a place where I could reflect and grow in a way that felt true to the person I wanted to be. It helped me keep the overwhelming grief at bay, or at least keep my head above water.

It’s hard to live with the broken pieces of your crushed expectations. To plan your life and do what you think you’re supposed to do, and to have that not be good enough. It’s difficult to get up and keep moving forward, even when you don’t want to. Especially when you don’t want to. Learning to reconcile a life you did not choose or want and figuring out how to write a new plot line in the story of your life.

2019: my 4-year-old wants to know why Daddy left. I explain to him that it wasn’t a choice, and he asks to watch old videos to confirm that his father was indeed a real person.

“There I am, and there he is,” he says, re-watching the same video over and over again.

My third grader has inherited his father’s terrible eyesight and has just gotten his second pair of glasses. I realized that his father had never even seen him lose a tooth.

Our middle child– the daughter my husband adored– just turned 6. She is sweet and kind and makes friends easily. She does well in school and I’ve never once heard her complain about not having a dad, although I know she must notice the other girls with their fathers. I am sorry that my late husband will never get to watch this precious daughter he used to dream of grow up. I am sorry that she only got three years of him brushing her hair and painting her nails, reading her stories before bed, holding her, watching movies together with her on his lap, and being the doting father that he never hesitated to be.

Once Kenneth told me, “I don’t think I’ll be alive when I have grandkids. That’s too bad. I think I would have liked to know them.”

It makes me sad, because he didn’t live long enough to see any of his children make it past kindergarten, let alone any thoughts of grandkids.

I am not in pain anymore, even when I have to live with these facts and memories and realities that are seared onto my heart. The wounds have hardened into scars that you most likely can not see, but I know where they are. I can trace the jagged edges of these scars with my mind, and they remind me of how far I have come.

When you see me, you probably see the same person you have always known, especially if you knew me as a married woman. I probably don’t look much different.

But I am not the same person anymore.

For everyone else, life moves on. They feel sad about the person who died, but it doesn’t affect their day-to-day functioning. For my family, our circumstances remain the same. I can’t erase the fact that the kids do not have their father around and he’s not helping me with daycare drop-offs and pick-ups. I can’t ignore the fact that I’m more times than not the only single parent in my social circles, even when it doesn’t bother me like it initially did.

Even with my acceptance, the facts are still there. It’s still my reality.

People have seen me smile and show up to work and do what I’m supposed to do, but I suspect they could never guess how many of those days I wanted to die. I found that most people never came close to understanding the depth of my despair, even when most people sympathized with our plight.

You learn quickly that nobody will come to save you. This road– this life– is only for you to navigate. Nobody will swoop in with the answers for you. If you’re waiting for that magical ending and the fairy godmother– just know that you’ll spend the rest of your life waiting. You are the only one who can save yourself.

You either figure out how to maximize the potential of each day, or you drag your miserable self through time and be unhappy. It is most definitely a choice.

Above my sink, I have a little chalkboard that says, “If you want something, you’ll find a way.” I’ve had it there since becoming a widow. I guess it has become my mantra. I look at it every day. I try to live by it.

If the kids are driving me crazy, I try to find ways to make our routines easier.

If I’m not getting enough time for myself, I brainstorm ways I can do better next week.

It’s being strategic with my battlefield. The battle never ends, but I can be smarter about what I do out there. I can work on my survival skills.

I feel like there is always something I can do– in any given circumstances– to make my human experience a little more enjoyable.

I want to maximize my life to its fullest potential and do what I can with what I have.

From your own personal wreckage you can gain newfound clarity.

Each day is a gift. I’m doing what I want. I’m not starving for anything. I am acutely aware of the privilege in which I have been able to experience my grief. Not everyone is so lucky.

I know that tomorrow can be worse. I understand in the worst way that tomorrow is not guaranteed. I do not live a single day without remembering the fragility of life.

I try really hard to focus on each day. To hone in on my priorities and be intentional and grateful for the opportunity to partake in the human experience.

This was not how I used to live. When I think back to who I used to be, I remember a naive person. Entitlement. A propensity to get bogged down in unessential details. Distractions. Misguided conceptions about who I was and what I wanted. Hubris. Embryonic thinking.

Charles Dickens once said, “I have been bent and broken, but– I hope– into a better shape.”

The truth is that I would never want to go back to being that person who I used to be. I genuinely like the person I am today infinitely more– even with the scars. Even with the painful past. Even with the broken heart and scary unknowns about the future. Everything I have experienced has made me who I am today, and I wholeheartedly believe I am a better version of myself. (Apologies to my late husband who got the beta version of me. But in all fairness, I got the beta version of him.)

Koichi Mizushima said, “Right here, right now, you are living a wish fulfilled.”

It’s true. I wanted to be a mother. I wanted to have a career and be independent and write and travel. If I spend time dwelling on what I don’t have, what purpose does that serve? I would waste my time and forget to acknowledge everything I do have– all of those fulfilled wishes.

There are so many more wishes inside of me. I have chosen to spend my energy working toward fulfilling those dreams. It’s all of those big and little things we look forward to that give us a hunger and desire to continue being engaged in this life. When we remember all parts of living– the good, the bad, the ugly, the joy, the sadness, the everything– we remember that it is all worth experiencing. It is all a part of our miraculous journey.

Three years later: do I miss my husband?

Yes and no.

In three years, I have had time to look under every rock– inspect every nook and cranny– of our existence together. I’ve read his journals and my journals and notes scribbled on scrap paper and cleaned out boxes in the garage. I’ve had to make decisions about what to keep and what to throw away. I’ve gone through all the first holidays and special occasions without him, and a second round, and again a third time.

Next month would have been our tenth wedding anniversary. We started dating over 12 years ago. I’ve started to notice the anniversaries of people who married the same year as us. It’s true that I was the last person I would expect to be single at this point in my life. It’s true that sometimes it bothers me, but it’s also true that I am content with where I am.

That is a huge, huge, huge victory in the battle with grief. To be able to say “I am happy where I am” is like arriving to the golden promised land we could never conceptualize in the early stages of our grief.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned about marriage: there is good, there is bad, there is everything in between. Most people just aren’t showing the rest of the world where they are on that spectrum, but there is no way it’s all unicorns and rainbows for them. No way.

I liked being married and I hated being married. I loved my husband and he pissed me off in many ways. I like being single and there are times I don’t like being single. My husband was a great person and he also had character flaws that made him difficult. There are times when I deeply miss him and other times when I like not having to deal with him.

It’s not this or that. It’s both. All of it. I’ve learned to embrace and appreciate the duality of a human existence.

I’ve found myself grow softer through this experience.

I’ve seen myself become stronger.

I’ve beaten myself up over the mistakes I made as a wife and made mental notes so I can do better as a partner.

I’ve learned what I like and what I don’t like. I know what I will put up with and what is unacceptable.

I’m not in a hurry. I have no expectations. I am more willing to see what happens, and I am perfectly fine with what doesn’t happen.

I’ve become comfortable being alone. I have embraced solitude without succumbing to loneliness.

I’ve redefined my boundaries.

I’ve gotten closer to my children.

I make intentional choices that have enabled me to live an authentic life.

I’ve been focusing on my own personal growth.

This is the year that I want to look at the plate I’ve kept piled high and I want to take things off. This is the year that I will protect my energy and be even more strategic about how I use it.

It’s time to stop distracting myself. The pain has subsided; the experiences in the past are part of my DNA and I can’t forget them. But those experiences aren’t driving my decisions anymore.

It’s time be even clearer about what my priorities are, to free up my time, and to continue to explore all of the amazing opportunities I have yet to seize in this strange human experience. There is so much to look forward to– everyday and always. There is only one of me. I only have one precious and fleeting life. I want to make sure I am living every last drop in a way that feels true to myself.

Our pain is a reminder that we have loved and we were loved. The pain also has an amazing ability to enable us to love deeper, harder, more honestly and expansively.

Our love is not a zero-sum game.

The best thing my late husband did for me was to teach me how to love myself. I took his favorite affirmation from his journal, “I am responsible,” and tattooed it on my arm two days before his funeral. I have never once regretted that decision. Those words have been my guiding light. He gave me the tools to survive his untimely passing, and he empowered me to make living well a priority– no matter how brutal this world is. No matter how much we lose. No matter how many things don’t go our way. We always have choice in the way that we react.

I will be forever grateful to him for loving me more than I was ever able to reciprocate. I can only aspire to love others the way he could.

I am nothing but grateful for today, and hopeful for tomorrow.

This is three years later.

***

A Dream Within a Dream

BY EDGAR ALLAN POE

Take this kiss upon the brow!
And, in parting from you now,
Thus much let me avow —
You are not wrong, who deem
That my days have been a dream;
Yet if hope has flown away
In a night, or in a day,
In a vision, or in none,
Is it therefore the less gone?
All that we see or seem
Is but a dream within a dream.

I stand amid the roar
Of a surf-tormented shore,
And I hold within my hand
Grains of the golden sand —
How few! yet how they creep
Through my fingers to the deep,
While I weep — while I weep!
O God! Can I not grasp
Them with a tighter clasp?
O God! can I not save
One from the pitiless wave?
Is all that we see or seem
But a dream within a dream?

I am a Crumpled Paper

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“Be free where you are.” -Thich Nhat Hanh

Have you ever thought about the way we cling to the idea of perfect? A perfect body. Perfect teeth. Perfect home. Perfect marriage. Perfect life.

We want the new car smell to last forever. The wedding party to keep going. Our children to stay tiny and sweet. Our friendships to be eternal. In the midst of the honeymoon stage, we forget that the lust we feel for a person who still has the ability to surprise us is a fleeting experience– vapor in the grand scheme of our lives. Long-lasting relationships are forged somewhere in the middle of the good, bad, and ugly. It does not happen in perfection.

Eventually the new car will get scratched and your kid will spill something in the backseat that will ferment and give off a mysterious odor you’re too tired to track down. Young children who once begged to sleep in your bed at night will grow into teenagers who don’t want to talk to you. Friendships will fade, and the significant other who used to give you the butterflies in your stomach might have become a person you can’t stand.

If you can recognize yourself in any of this, you are not alone.

Several weeks ago we did an exercise during the adult study at my temple. It was specifically about bullying. We were instructed to take a piece of paper and crumple it up, and then unfold it and inspect the damage, reflecting about whether or not we could erase the creases and crumples. We had to apologize to the paper– and mean it. Then, we had to think about whether or not our apology fixed the paper. The answer, of course, was “no.” Even if we were truly remorseful for our actions, there was nothing we could do to erase the scars.

Although the exercise was about bullying, it made me think about how we are all crumpled papers. We each carry around the creases of our past– reminders of the painful experiences and of the people who hurt us throughout our lives. Many of these scars are invisible to others, but they are an integral part of who we are, and we spend our lives trying to reconcile the details of our past.

Despite the fact that we all bear the imperfections and battle scars of being a human being, we are still socially conditioned to believe pristine is better. Perfect is ideal. A clean, crisp white paper is what we want to write on–not a crumpled one. We often assume that everyone else’s papers are perfect, and that only we are flawed. As such, we feel compelled to hide the unsightly parts of who we are. We don’t want other people to see any evidence of our vulnerability. Those scars can often elicit feelings of a deep shame.

This is a huge problem for us human beings. We are programmed by society with unrealistic expectations about the reality of life. We adopt impossible standards to measure our self-worth, and we become unforgiving of human flaws and weaknesses, particularly of our own.

There is a word in Japanese that celebrates imperfections: wabi-sabi. In the Japanese art of kintsugi, gold lacquer is used to glue together the shards of broken pottery. The repaired object is considered beautiful. In the Western world, we probably would have just thrown away a broken ceramic bowl, and we certainly wouldn’t view it as something worth admiring. At its core, the concept of wabi-sabi is about the acceptance of life being impermant. Things will break. We will break. Here today, gone tomorrow. This is the way of the natural world. Our reality. Nothing is supposed to last forever.

You are a crumpled paper. No paper in the history of papers can stay unscathed by time. It is a fruitless battle to try to live life without scars. If you have breath in your lungs and blood pumping through your veins, you will inevitably experience pain.

This is the price we pay for being alive.

We don’t have gold lacquer to use on our wounds like a kintsugi ceramic bowl, but we do have something powerful to use. It’s probably our single most important superpower as human beings– the backbone of our resilience– and a required component of happiness.

This would be our thoughts.

What we think.

Our interpretation.

What we focus on.

Our hopes and dreams and desires.

Beliefs.

The way we internalize what happens to us.

What we do with information.

How we digest life.

Our thoughts are everything, and they can make or break us.

One of the most difficult parts of being alive is dealing with the realities we did not choose. The circumstances we did not ask for. The ones we did not deserve. The problems that arose despite our best efforts. Life that did not go as planned.

The most we can do is to try to make good choices with the information we have in the present moment and do our best. I don’t think that means resigning yourself to a life you don’t want. Rather, it’s about letting go of what can not be changed, and being strategic about what you can change.

Being kind to ourselves, and recognizing when a toxic feeling permeates our consciousness. Letting the negative thoughts pass through us instead of tightening our grip around something we do not want.

Using our energy in a way that allows us to live a life we enjoy, instead of draining ourselves and being miserable.

I often think about this Dalai Lama quote: If there is no solution to the problem then don’t waste time worrying about it. If there is a solution to the problem then don’t waste time worrying about it.

Although there is so much we can’t control in life, we have the ability to choose our reactions to the external stimuli.

We can rein in our negative self-talk.

Be mindful of the ways that we feel sorry for ourselves.

Eliminate how we tell ourselves that we can’t do something. Or that we’re not good enough. Or that we deserved it.

We can use our thoughts to shut out the ways other people and society tell us we aren’t good enough. Or that we can’t. Or shouldn’t.

We can use our thoughts to stop feeling guilty.

The creases and scars will still be there. They always will be– we can’t change what has already happened. But we can choose how we internalize real life, and we can adjust our expectations and perceptions.

“Your happiness depends upon your very own thoughts. Deliberately think thoughts of what you want.” -Rhonda Byrne

Of course, it’s easier said than done. Your thoughts require 24/7 monitoring. The ups and downs are inevitable and normal. It’s kind of like the stock market. There will be highs and lows, but ultimately if your market return over time is strong, then you have a good portfolio. Your lows don’t define you. A strong portfolio can still have bad days.

Recently I saw someone who I hadn’t seen in a while. The person commented on how happy I looked. “Really, you look very happy. It’s in your face,” the person said. This person knew me before my husband died. They also remember me after his death. And then the me right now. Three very different versions of Teresa.

“I don’t know if I’d go that far,” I said in response. That seems to be my knee-jerk, self-deprecating way of reminding myself that I really shouldn’t be happy. Not with my circumstances. Definitely not a person like me.

I have these thoughts even when I know better. I tear myself down even when I am conscious of the fact that I am having negative thoughts that will hurt me. Even when I know what to do. I am armed with tools to stop downward spirals, and yet I still sometimes wander into those negative traps.

I scolded myself in my head. STOP IT, Teresa. You don’t have to meet certain requirements to qualify. You get to choose. You can be whatever you think you are.

I included a recent picture of my family in this essay. Look at us– we are happy. It was a beautiful spring evening, and we had just spent a couple days at a hotel and an amusement park, doing happy family things. We are standing in a field with blooming flowers and fresh air and a sorbet-colored sun setting over the hills with dramatic, romantic natural light.

There was a (long) time when I looked at pictures of our family of four and saw nothing but brokenness. I fixated on the husband and father who was not in the picture. I worried how I would be perceived by the rest of the world as a widowed single mother. I hated that our family didn’t look like other people’s intact families. My mind focused on the million reasons why it was unfair.

But I don’t see those things anymore. Over time, I’ve made a conscious decision not to care about those things.

In that picture, I only see mismatched outfits due to stubborn, happy little kids who aren’t afraid to assert their opinions and authority over decisions related to their bodies. I see that we are healthy and content and taken care of in this life– at least right now.

And that’s all I can worry about: what is happening right now. Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is unknown. But right now, we are happy.

The human experience is a journey. It can not be encapsulated in a single moment. We each have an unknown expiration date looming on the horizon, at which point our journey will come to an end. In our limited time as sentient beings, we might as well make the most out of this opportunity to be alive, despite the creases and crumples– or maybe because of it.

37

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I’ve always had an eye for the good stuff. (Pictured: me reading a Harlequin trashy novel at the age of 1. Upside-down.)

 

I turn 37 in a few hours (Monday). I am usually a person who likes to celebrate a birthday. I enjoy buying my own presents and planning my ideal day, but this year felt different. I don’t know if this marks my arrival to the wasteland of the later years, where it might take a meteor to crash into my consciousness just to be excited about something. For many years I observed the “adults” who did not celebrate their birthdays because it was Just Another Day. But I really hoped I would never be like them. I wanted eternal child-like wonder. The anticipation and excitement for pretty things and cake and people to share in the celebration of me being alive– my one day of everything orbiting around my existence. I swore I would never fall prey to the trappings of adulthood, where everyone gets boring and weathered by time.

And yet here I am, annoyed, bored, and depressed about another year of life. Definitely weathered by time. It feels like my 87th birthday.

I know, I know. 37 is still young. But from where I stand in my over-analyzing world, I’m not 21 anymore, and I am rapidly losing my youth in this brutal and fleeting experience of being a human.

I need to digest my time served and look over the evidence of how I’ve spent the years so far. Am I doing the things I want to do before I die? Is there something I have not figured out yet? What can I still learn? What can I do? How should I change? What am I doing right? What should I focus on? What am I wasting my time on?

The most important question: what will I regret?

I guess I’m very concerned about being a good consumer of the time I have left on Earth.

All of this processing has zapped my desire to do anything special to mark my 37th year of an existence. Instead, I find myself desiring solitude, wanting to retreat to a place of quiet reflection and contemplation as I watch the day pass without any pomp and circumstance.

To be honest, I feel like birthdays come with a lot of pressure. Pressure to have something worthwhile to show for the last year of living. Pressure to be ready to charge into a new year ready to achieve bigger and better things. Pressure to have a great day and savor 24 hours of a day earmarked just for me (and Sally Jesse Raphael, George Harrison, and Renoir). It’s too much pressure. When did I become so squeamish over birthdays?!

Kenneth died two months after I turned 34. I have spent 34, 35, and 36 in an exile of survival marked by bouts of loneliness, stress, sadness, but also happiness and new life experiences and beginnings. It has been both the worst years of my life and some of the best. But I’m not where I expected to be. Your mid-thirties are not to supposed to be spent like an 80-something raising toddlers.

The past week has felt like a cocktail of trepidation and dread with a splash of anxiety. I’d rather dig in my heels and not walk the plank any further, because I know there are shark-infested waters out there and I’m not in a hurry to get any closer to the edge. I’d rather just sit here with my fears and forlornness, mulling over what I have lost, where I am, and what there might be in the years to come.

The steady hand of time pushes us along, with or without our consent. We choose how to fill in the inevitable minutes and seconds. I know I have to choose to make the most out of my time.

But right now I’m busy wallowing in my woes over a life that did not go as planned. Now that I have typed all of this out, it does seem stupid. But I cling to my pity party anyway, at least until I get it out of my system.

This must be why adults ignore their birthdays. If you don’t see it, you can’t be over-the-top depressed about it.

Oh well. If we’re lucky, life goes on.

For my birthday, I’m going to make a ton of doctor appointments and give myself the gift of health. I’m also going to gift myself some time alone, and I’m going to stop being a curmudgeon and indulge in things I enjoy, like some tres leches cake and getting my nails done. Maybe my kids will even remember what day it is. Maybe.

 

 

Desperately Seeking the Bright Side

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Photo by Belle Co on Pexels.com

There are so many reasons to feel disappointed by life. The job you didn’t get. The writing submissions that were rejected. The relationships that didn’t last. Personal failures. Natural disasters. Political shutdowns, bad behavior, a series of unfortunate events.

The list is endless.

Last weekend I felt like an Uber driver as I shuffled the kids between Japanese school and swim lessons and the events we had to attend. At one point in the midst of the hustle, between destination A and B during the second leg of our day, there was a lull in our conversation (AKA the chatter of the three children ceased, maybe thanks to 3.5 hours of school on a Saturday that wore them out). For a few minutes I was alone with my thoughts.

You know what that can mean.

We often have some of our deepest thinking in the car. Movies portray big family moments at the dinner table, but I think they underrepresent the kind of stuff that happens in the car. A therapist who we once worked with for my stepson told us that kids often bring up sensitive topics while the parent is driving. Something about it being a place where the driver is sort of distracted, but everyone is together with minimal other distractions, and somehow this makes the situation feel safer to be vulnerable.

I don’t think I have made any profound declarations in the car, but I do find myself often absorbed in deep thinking, which is why I have a habit of keeping a pen and paper (or napkins, as is often the case) nearby to jot down notes for later reference.

So I was headed to swim lessons, thinking about what we would do for parking if we couldn’t find any, glancing at the clock every couple of seconds to make sure we were on time, anticipating the next event and wondering how realistic a nap would be for the little one once we got home, when all of a sudden a random thought interrupted the logistical details swirling in my head: this year would have been my tenth wedding anniversary.

No context. Just an internal clock whispering to me that May 12th was coming sooner rather than later. We were entering that season.

Then I couldn’t stop fixating on it.

Whenever I am reminded of these triggering dates, my mind cycles through the ways that I will feel pain. Triggers can either be subtle reminders, or they can open floodgates of emotions. In that moment, I wasn’t sure which direction it would go.

So much disappointment and pain. Resentment. Anger. Emptiness.

This one random thought triggered a cascade of negative thoughts. I started to think about how I will have to watch everyone who got married around the same time as us celebrate their tenth anniversaries. How there will be Facebook posts. Anniversary celebrations. Pictures of these other couples at dinner, or maybe on a romantic trip to Hawaii.

But not us.

Not me.

The disappointment feels like heavy anchors pulling me under.

Today I had our annual professional development at work. Twelve years ago I met Kenneth at this PD day, so it came to be a day with sentimental value for us. I was a presenter when he noticed me for the first time. I remember we talked through lunch, both of us forgetting to eat before our next meeting, too enthralled in a discussion about philosophy and poetry and politics. Our souls became intertwined and inseparable on that day–and it was an unexpected magic that just sort of hit me upside the head when I was least expecting it.

And then he died.

This year was the third PD day without him. There was nothing magical that happened. I found the day incredibly disappointing on so many levels. Professionally. Existentially.

And always personally.

These are the dates when Kenneth’s absence feels the heaviest. I ate lunch alone, pausing for a moment to squeeze my eyelids shut in a futile attempt to remember what it was like to have him there. I yearned for the days when he could commiserate with me and reaffirm my efforts, always making me feel like I had at least one person on my side in a world where I often feel like I do not belong.

I can’t help but go back to the same self-pitying conclusion: it’s not fair.

Not fair, not fair, not fair.

It’s such a deep, searing pain that very few people understand. I find that most people think life is fine for me because I can hold everything together and joke and not fall apart in front of them. But rest assured that inside I am so rotted and fatigued by this exile that I often wonder how much longer I will survive.

I know there will always be triggers. I know there will be disappointment. It’s normal, I know. I consider myself a very pragmatic person.

But even a robot like me can’t deny the sensitive spots that hurt to touch, because beneath the surface there are the wounds of the past and I’m a fragile snowflake like every other mortal.

On my good days, I try to leave it at that. Acknowledge a particular feeling (or set of feelings) tied to the trigger, and work to not let them harden me.

But sometimes I just have to fall apart and cry, because it is lonely, soul-draining work to be tougher and more stubborn than our wounds.

I want to resent everyone who has what I don’t have. I want to not have to go to the PD day. I want to skip May 12th and not have to be reminded of my anniversary. I want to close my eyes and wake up to the news that this was all just a bad nightmare and I don’t have to carry this burden anymore.

If only life worked that way.

Instead, I have to choose to stop fighting it. Let go of what I can not control.

The way that I try to avoid getting hardened is to look on the bright side. It’s cliche, but what are the things I can look forward to that I couldn’t do in my past life? What did I learn from not getting what I wanted? What can I turn this pain into?

In the end, I am the only one who gets hurt by going down the forlorn road of “why me?”. Nobody else will lose sleep over it. It is entirely my burden to carry and my exile to fulfill. So why add more pain? There are already too many reasons to hurt. I don’t want another one.

I have big plans for the 10th anniversary I won’t have. I’m going to Spain with 20-year-old Maddy. The last time I traveled as a single woman was a few months before the fateful PD day that changed the rest of my life. Sometimes it feels like I’ve been sent back to the start square in the boardgame of Life, but I try to re-frame it as coming full circle. New chapters. New beginnings. New opportunities.

I mean, if you asked the version of me from three years ago–the woman fully immersed in domesticity, breastfeeding a baby and bickering with her husband over folding the laundry and doing almost nothing for herself– she probably would have been in disbelief that this was how she’d spend her tenth anniversary.

Or maybe not. When we got married, Kenneth and I went on separate trips. We joked it was our “separate honeymoons.” He went to visit a friend in Canada, and I went to visit family in Alabama.

Perhaps we prepare our entire lives for that future moment that rips us in half and we just don’t know it. Maybe that’s how we learn to put ourselves back together.

Who knows. What I do know is that there will be more disappointment. More triggers. Endless pain.

I guess when that happens I will just have to submit more writing. Forge new relationships. Figure out what to do with my career. Seek other opportunities when others do not pan out. Learn. Adjust. Keep going. Turn May 12th into something else.

Maybe Kenneth and I would have gone on a romantic beach vacation for our tenth anniversary. Maybe we would have stayed home and bickered. Who knows.

All I know is that I can either work with reality–make the best out of what I have and find ways to still be happy– or I can wage the insurmountable battle of trying to change the past.

I choose to work with reality.

But not tonight.

Tonight I cry myself to sleep.

Tomorrow I wake up with puffy eyes and squeeze some more hope out of this tattered heart that has been precariously glued back together over and over again.

There has to be a bright side. Somewhere.

 

L.A Strike and the Rest of Us

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would all change.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why should we care about this strike in Los Angeles?

Solidarity with the L.A. teachers, yes.

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

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

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

Are they all perfect? Certainly not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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